Using her free hand, Mayumi checks her collar, making certain her outfit, the Guardia Popula sky-blue almost-uniform that Sage made for her, is perfect. The folders in her left arm start to slip and the Bunny whispers a curse as she catches them, then, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly as her adoptive father taught her to when she was nervous, she knocks on Alma’s office door and enters.
Alma, her creator, her mother, is bent over her desk, writing a report. The stress of being in charge during Sky’s absence shows in a tension in her shoulders, a crease on her brow. Mayumi hates to add to that, but brings her the case files. “Today’s updates for the Popula cases, ma’am. Corporal Lamore just closed the Rua Caneca robbery case.”
The sergeant smiles and glances up. “Good news.” Then she seems to notice something amiss. “Mayumi? Is there anything wrong?”
Mayumi almost denies it, almost scurries away, but instead she says, “I, uh…I wanted to talk with you about something.” Oh no. Now there’s no turning back, she thinks.
Alma rises from her chair and walks over to the door to close it. She then invites Mayumi to sit on the sofa, and takes a seat next to her. “What is this about?”
Mayumi sits, eyes downcast, straight-backed but feeling miserable. “I have been thinking this over for some time. And I come very close to abandoning it, again and again. I love being here with my family, coming to finally have a family, and to…” She breaks off, shaking her head. “I’m not explaining well.”
Mayumi feels Alma’s hand take hers. The Bunny folds her fingers around Alma’s, feels the goddess run her thumb over the back of her hand. “I am afraid not,” Alma says. “So why don’t you tell me whatever it is that is troubling you and explain your reasons afterwards?”
With a nod, Mayumi says, “I think the Inspector may have told you that I wish to become Guardia Popula. That I was, in my dream life.” She looks up at Alma, blinking back her eyes’ attempt to betray her with tears. “The application deadline for the next term of the Academy is in two weeks. The Insp– …Sky said that he would request permission for me to apply, but only with your agreement. And now a part of me longs to go, but an equally strong part wants nothing more than to stay here.”
Alma sighs, looking at the window, away from Mayumi, but still holding her hand, more tightly now. “I was afraid this day would come. Mayumi, why do you want to go? You can stay here and be with us without having anything to do with the Academy. Why go there? Why leave?”
“Just staying here, I will be an office worker. There is nothing wrong with that. Except…that’s not me. Mother, I know the feel of the streets. I know what it is to wear that badge. And I feel that call.” She pauses. “But then the thought of leaving for six months… It was hard the first time. In a way it will be easier, as I know what to expect. But to leave all of you. That is far harder.”
With her free hand, Alma takes her badge from where it is pinned to her clothing and, turning Mayumi’s hand over, places it on the Bunny’s palm, covering it with her own hand. “People call this a shield.” She traces the asymmetrical, engraved border of the badge with her index finger. “But it does not protect us from anything. All it does is remind us of a duty to protect others, even when they have committed a crime. This will not protect you here or anywhere. If anything, it will turn you into a target. And I fear for you, going out into the streets wearing this shield that will entice people to attack you. You are mortal, Mayumi. And I cannot stand the thought of being called to collect your soul.”
Mayumi nods slowly, looking at the Dei badge, a unique work of art. “I don’t seek to have a shield. But I feel called to be one. And…I could ignore that. I could stay. I want to stay, with you and with everyone. But that would be giving up on what I am.” She closes her eyes, then looks at Alma again. “If you say no, I will accept that. I will even be relieved. But I ask you to give me your blessing and your leave to become who I am. To join the Academy.”
Alma’s eyes drop to the shield again. “When I joined the Academy…” she snorts at some passing thought. “I joined the Guardia because I felt there was nowhere else to go. Your father had left. Cherry and Rosemary were babies. I had Nekh’s protection to shield me from the Council. And nothing else. My father was far from pleased and he would have nothing to do with the harbingers of doom that the Oracle had foreseen in her prophecy. It was a matter of survival. Your survival. The life I knew in exchange for yours. And it worked. Years later, you are all as safe as I can keep you.” She looks at May. “I am…learning to accept that I cannot keep you safe at all times without locking you in a cage. Whether it be made of metal or emotions, I don’t want you to be imprisoned just so I can sleep soundly at night.” She struggles with the words. “If that is what you wish, Mayumi, you have my blessing. But for all that is sacred, do not let the thing that allowed me to save you be the one that steals you away from me.”
Mayumi puts her free hand over Alma’s and holds it tightly. She cannot speak for a moment, but finally whispers, “I am so sorry. But thank you, thank you. I will be… Not careful, exactly. Being careful would mean choosing another career. But I shall be more intelligent than I have sometimes been recently. I know I have acted wrongly. I am ashamed of that.” She pauses again. “When I went to the Academy, it was because I was raised to go. Ever since I awoke to speech and a sense of self, I had wished to emulate my father, my adoptive father, I mean. It was a desire to serve. To pay back my community, this entire world, our benevolent leaders…” She shakes her head. “I have learned so much in these past months since I have awoken again, here. But there are still people who need protection. Mortals. And the gods cannot protect us all. We mortals have to help ourselves, as well. This,” she hefts the badge, “is beautiful.” She hands it back to Alma. “But I must earn my simple oval one.”
Alma takes the badge back, then pulls Mayumi to her, holding her close, unable to find anything to say. Mayumi lays her head against Alma’s breast, eyes closed, holding her mother and enjoying the calming embrace.
Finally Alma takes a deep breath and releases Mayumi, and says, her voice heavy with emotion that she is trying to chase away, “I think my old books will still be useful. I have them in the bookshelf, in my room. And I will write down some addresses… of places where I know you will be allowed to go and be treated well.”
Mayumi looks up at Alma, grinning eagerly. “Your old books?”
Alma smiles. “And my notebooks as well. Though you may find that quite a lot of idle doodling was involved in most of my classes.”
“Oh, I do that too. It helps me concentrate.” She laughs. “I got in trouble for it once. Professor thought I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Ah yes,” Alma says. “I know what that is like. Unfortunately, I don’t know many Popula professors. But I am sure you will have no difficulty impressing them.” She kisses Mayumi’s forehead, and the Bunny feels it tingling with a warmth that spreads out, a blessing from a goddess of Life as well as Death. “Come to think of it,” Alma continues, “some of the books won’t be very useful for the Popula curriculum.”
“But they will help me understand the duties and concerns of the Guardia Dei,” Mayumi says. “And if I am stationed here, as is my hope, that will be useful in working alongside you and Gwydion and Sky.”
Alma’s features once again become clouded. “I had barely considered that you might be stationed elsewhere.”
“I will request Three Rats,” Mayumi reassures her. “No one requests a place like Three Rats, so they’ll surely agree to it. Besides, won’t they want to get me back here as soon as possible, with the other dangerous, prophecy-cursed Bunnies?” She stretches to kiss Alma’s cheek. “I still hate the idea of leaving…you, the rest of the family, and…others. But knowing that I have your blessing has settled my heart. I am no longer wavering. I know my path and I will follow it. Thank you.” And yet in the back of her mind, a tiny voice of doubt still whispers about how the Council nearly ordered her death, how one of them sent assassins after her and her family, and how Alma defied the law and took the life of that very Archon in order to protect her children. Is this really the law you will swear to uphold?
Alma looks at her sadly, stroking a lock of Mayumi’s hair out of her eyes. “And to think I thought you were going to ask me about a present for Sky,” she murmurs.
“I…wasn’t planning to,” Mayumi says hesitantly, “but now that you mention it…what in the world do you get for a god who already seems to have every material thing he wants?”
“That,” replies Alma, “is a very good question. Shall we brainstorm?”
The Bunny grins.