A door creaks open and in walks a pair who might be seen by those unfamiliar with them as opposites in nearly every way. One is tall and ethereal, so pale as to seem almost ghostly, her long snowy hair flowing in waves over her shoulders and down her back, her arctic-blue eyes capable of hypnotizing or terrifying depending on her mood. Unless she is purposefully suppressing her divine aura, any citizen of the Urbis Caelestis will recognize her instantly as a goddess, and even if she were to encounter some visitor who has stumbled by chance through a crack in the walls between worlds, the new arrival would be agape at her breath-stopping, immortal perfection.
Her companion, standing beside her and appraising the dusty room, is shorter and darker, her jet-black kinky hair forming a halo around a face that is a study in browns: soft fawn skin that looks warm to the touch, large darkly mischievous eyes that shine like highly polished gemstones of hazel shot through with red and gold striations, and tempting full lips that look as if kissed they might taste of chocolate. It is a face that would not stop breath but rather quicken it, cause a heart to race rather than skip a beat in awe. Her mortal body appears fuller and more voluptuous than goddess’, but only because she lacks so much stature, the tips of her midnight-furred Bunny ears barely topping the shoulders of the alabaster deity.
Yet a closer, deeper look will reveal similarities beyond the way both are, at the moment, dressed for menial labor, in simple clothes and aprons, bearing buckets and cleaning rags and gloves. Despite the goddess’ initially cool and forbidding appearance, a warmth shines through in her smile that matches that of the mortal, as does a lurking potential for mischief. Those whose perceptive vision have taken them this far will find themselves only mildly surprised to learn that these two are mother and daughter, though the taller looks barely older than her child.
Cherry, the Bunny, sets down her bucket with a slosh of water spilling over the side and onto the floor. “Well will you look at this place! Used to be full of old boxes, and now it’s almost ready for paintin’. Geryon’s gonna love it. Especially that balcony, now we got the railing removed.”
Alma places her bucket on the floor more carefully and walks across the room to the wide glass-paned doors, working the rusty latch. “I could change it a bit more. Unh! Add some greenery, some space.” The recalcitrant latch comes free and she begins to fold the doors open. “Are you sure you want it as is?”
“Way you explained it, makin’ a room bigger on the inside than out sucks away your whatchacallit-mana stuff. Your god-juice.” Cherry laughs. “You got enough of that goin’ on with your room, don’tcha?” She goes to help Alma with the doors as fresh air begins to flow into the room. “Cleanin’ these windows is one of the first things we need to do. But hey, you sure you wanna help with this kinda thing?” She looks up at Alma, reaching up to touch a slight shadow under the goddess’ eye. “You’re lookin’ tired. You need more rest.”
“I’ll be fine,” Alma says with a smile, tenderly cupping her child’s face. “Especially now that Sky is back, I can resume my usual schedule. Rest more. Be with you more.”
Cherry smiles broadly, her eyes almost squeezed shut in pleasure. “That’s good to hear.” She looks around. “Naw, all this place needs is a little more elbow grease. And some paint. But first we gotta get it squeaky clean. Then Geryon can have his own place.”
“Hmm.” Alma begins to clean the filthy window panes. “Are you and Rosemary finding your room a bit too small to share?”
“Oh it wouldn’t matter if we had ten times as much space. Our place is ours. Cuddly Birdy-Kitty’s welcome to stay over now and then, but we ain’t keepin’ his toothbrush in the bathroom.” She giggles. “Not that he has a toothbrush. Or teeth. And not that we have our own bathroom.” The Bunnies’ rooms are all on the floor above the bar, in rooms that were used as storage and were considered for use as temporary sleeping quarters for constables. Only a small dressing room and its attached shower are still communal, however, and even there the Bunnies mostly prefer the far more luxurious bath in Alma’s magical garden-filled room in the basement. “But you know what I mean. Merri and I love him to bits, but he ain’t movin’ in.”
Alma chuckles almost inaudibly. “And what’s next after these windows?”
“I figure let’s tackle the baseboards. So much dust…” Cherry pauses, opening her mouth and shutting her eyes, then sneezes. “Dang! Speakin’ of dust. But this won’t take long with two.”
“Baseboards it is,” Alma says cheerfully. “This is still so much better than paperwork…”
Cherry laughs. “Guess you ain’t got as much now Sky’s back. And Mister Smokin-Hot Trouble-on-Two-Legs is gone.”
A single laugh bursts from Alma’s lips. “What does that mean?”
“Well…” Cherry pauses in polishing a pane of glass. “I got the impression – surely mistaken – that he was havin’ a little bit of trouble fittin’ into the way things’re supposed to be done round these parts.”
Alma, not looking at her but smiling, says, “Oh well… It would be asking too much from someone like him to know how to work in a station. His type usually operates alone or in very small teams. Not like our little team, here.”
Cherry nods. “Mm-hmm. Still, he sure did seem to like it here. Or maybe it was a certain someone he liked.” She grins.
Alma looks at her quizzically. “Hmm? Who?”
Cherry stops cleaning and looks at Alma conspiratorially. “Like you don’t…” She cuts off at the honestly confused look on Alma’s face. “Well bless…you don’t! You really don’t, do you?”
“Are we talking about Saira?” Alma looks thoughtful. “He did seem quite interested in her… And then again, they are very much alike.”
Cherry’s mouth opens for a second, then she shuts it and shakes her head while muttering, “And people pray to gods for wisdom.” Louder, she continues, “Girl, you didn’t notice the way that guy was lookin’ at you? Or not lookin’ at you, all on purpose? And the scent of him…woof! Made me quiver.”
Alma seems to be looking inward, as if remembering. “I’m afraid my nose isn’t that sensitive…” She gives her head a quick shake of ‘no’ and says, “He was just…friendly. True, much more than I would have expected from someone like him but…” She smiles a little, her cheeks turning slightly pink. “I didn’t think more of it.”
Cherry looks skeptically at Alma, feeling sure that the goddess is, now at least, protesting too much. “Every time you come into the room when he was there, I’d get a blast of ‘I want that’ offa him so powerful that I was about ready to drag him into bed myself. And I woulda, if it’d been directed at me. And then when you’d speak, blammo, there it was again. How the hey did we get such good noses when yours is missin’ out on so much?”
With a shrug, Alma says, “You must take after your father in that department.” She pauses, thinking. “I guess… I see why Gwydion was so worried about Somrak. Maybe his nose is better. All I could sense was this great loneliness. Constant sorrow even when he is laughing. Just…broken.” The goddess becomes downcast, her sympathy obvious.
Cherry rolls her eyes. “Bad boys and sad boys…I never could resist ‘em either.” She sighs. “For a joker he sure does have a lotta dark goin’ on underneath.”
“Bones of the trade, I guess,” Alma agrees.
Cherry grumbles, “Me and Merri already got Geryon for ‘happy on the outside, sad on the inside’.”
They are both quiet for awhile, cleaning in silence. But after a few minutes, Alma asks, her voice soft, “So…what else does that nose of yours tell you?”
Cherry stays silent, thinking, until she finishes her last windowpane. Then she sets down the rag and looks at Alma. “Y’know, havin’ some sharper senses than y’all, sometimes it’s hard for us to figure out what we’re gettin’ that you guys ain’t gettin’. And then we go too much the other way, like when Tulip was always shoutin’ ‘cause she thought all the ‘small-eared people’ couldn’t hear hardly at all. But, well…I guess we all knew for awhile that you and Dion were a thing. I dunno, maybe even before you two were sure.”
Alma’s smile is small and fragile. “It was that obvious, huh?”
Cherry returns it in half-apology, half-sympathy. “Sorry, sweetie. ‘Course, none of us can keep secrets from each other, either. Sage and Aliyah, May and Sky. Well, not like Sage was tryin’ to keep that a secret. But you know what I mean. It can be annoyin’ for us, too.”
“It is as it is.” Alma takes a deep breath, her reluctance to ask the next question showing. “Anything else I should know about currently wafting scents?”
The look Cherry gives Alma is akin to that of a psychologist to a patient, a hairdresser to a client, a bartender to a customer. “Thing is, it ain’t just Sommie who’s puttin’ out puffs of ‘oh-my-goodness’ when you two are in a room together. You’re kinda doin’ that yourself.”
Alma looks away, the delicate flush of pink returning to her face. “I guess…I hadn’t thought of it that way. Well, I’ll admit he is attractive in more ways than one but… Something in him just makes me want to help. To heal.”
Unable to resist, Cherry takes three steps to Alma and touches her fingers to the goddess’ fine jawline, to encourage her to turn to look into the Bunny’s eyes. “All that and he looks great in leather pants, too, huh?” She giggles softly when Alma smiles sheepishly at that. “You don’t have to worry about why. It happens. Ain’t no need to feel embarrassed or nothin’. Heck, I fall head over heels for, like, at least, uh, twice as many people as I let on. Just ‘cause it’d be borin’ to mention it every dang time.”
Alma’s breath snorts out and she stands, stroking Cherry’s cloud of curls before putting her arms around her daughter’s shoulders. “Well, I think I’ll stick to Gwydion for the time being. We seem to go well together. Unless you’re smelling something strange on him?” The final sentence starts out joking but ends as a half-serious question.
Cherry laughs and puts her arms around Alma’s waist. “Oh boy. I am startin’ to think us Bunnies got a responsibility to act like, uh, y’know them kinda priests that some folks think they gotta tell all their secrets to. Which come to think of it would be a great racket…think of all the blackmail potential! Anyway, I don’t think you got anything to worry ‘bout there. Dion’s Dion, so he notices everybody in a skirt and most of the ones in pants. But that don’t mean he’s gonna chase ‘em. He is really wild about you! But, um…” She sighs. “There’s, like, some frustration comin’ offa him? It’s cause you’re worried about goin’ all the way, ain’t it?”
Alma bends down to kiss Cherry’s forehead. “For as much as I love all of you, I cannot risk creating any more Bunnies. The Council would come for me if I did. And for all of you. And if I lay with him, there is a very real possibility that that would happen.” She sighs, holding Cherry closer. “Which, yes, is a terrible source of frustration on both sides. But…he is free to be with others who don’t have to worry about such issues.”
Cherry rests her cheek against Alma’s chest. “Listen, if anything starts seemin’ off, y’know, I’ll tell you.” But she looks up at Alma, on the verge of saying something more.
Alma looks down at her, a look of curiosity stealing over her face. She strokes Cherry’s cheek. “What is it, dear? You look like you are thinking very loud thoughts.”
It takes a moment for Cherry to compose the words she wants to say. “It’s weird… I’m still havin’ trouble gettin’ used to some things, and…” She takes a deep breath. “Look, can I just do this? Probably gonna make you laugh. Ahem.” Embarrassed, she forces herself to gaze into Alma’s eyes. “Mom,” she states. Just that. Then again. “Mom. Mother. Mommy.” The last one comes out at a higher pitch, and she grimaces. “Mama? Meemaw. No that one’s right out. Maw. Mom. Mom…yeah…Mom.”
Where earlier it came out flat, almost unnatural, as something she was unused to, now the word contains the depth of warmth that is so often present behind Cherry’s speech, no matter how cynical or sarcastic it might be on the surface. “Mom…Mom?” In her vision, Alma’s face, the cheeks and now the tip of the nose flushing, begins to waver and blur. “Oh man…Mom…” Cherry presses her face against Alma’s chest as tears start rolling down her cheeks. Into Alma’s apron, she mutters. “Sorry, I’m sorry… I didn’t see the tears coming…”
Alma holds her closely. “You have nothing to be sorry about.” Her voice is thick with emotion. “I am still getting used to it myself. But whatever you feel comfortable calling me, I already love hearing it.”
Cherry sniffles. “I just… I guess I had to figure out what felt right. Little kids don’t have to do that, right? Or maybe they do – they just don’t have to think about it. But wow…didn’t think I’d start bawlin’!” She looks up at Alma. “Sayin’ it wasn’t just sayin’ it, y’know? It was like I was really gettin’ it through my skull that, ‘Holy moly, you’re my Mom!’ And I…I’m a daughter. It feels…really good.”
Looking at her tenderly, Alma says, “I have waited for so long to be free to be your mother… Wondered so often about all of you, how you were doing, would you like me, would you be able to forgive me, would I be – was I being a good mother to you… And now we can figure all those things out together and I can still barely believe it is true.” Abruptly she embraces Cherry tightly. “No lover could ever mean to me as much as you. You will always be more important to me than anyone else.”
Cherry returns that almost desperate clasp, her cheek against Alma’s chest, breathing out and just relaxing against her. “I know anything you did that was hard, you did it so them bastards wouldn’t just kill all of us before we hardly knew we were alive. You did what you had to do, Mom. I’d like to say we don’t need to forgive you, but I guess we do ‘cause it did hurt. But we do forgive, we all do. We have. ‘Cause we understand why it had to be that way. And we all love you, y’know? We really do.”
A drop of liquid falls on top of Cherry’s head, followed by another, and by the slight hitch of Alma’s chest, Cherry can tell her mother is crying. “I know. And that alone makes everything worthwhile.” Alma’s tight hold relaxes, becomes more gentle. “My beautiful daughter…”
Cherry, in a very small voice, says, “Awwww,” and she snuggles against Alma, holding her for a full minute in silence. Then sighs and looks up. “Shoot. We ain’t never gonna finish this cleanin’ job at this rate.”
Alma laughs and releases Cherry, quickly wiping under her eyes with her wrist. “Very well…back to work?” She tries to make her voice normal, but the tears still live in her throat.
“Back to work!” Cherry shouts, making a gesture of cracking a tiny invisible whip at Alma while making a ‘Sh-kow!’ sound.