Alma sits at her desk with the very few charred bits and pieces that are left of the bomb, examining them, scanning them with the senses that make her kind unique among gods. A quick dip in her pool and some bathing under Starfax’s rejuvenating light have done wonders in the way of refreshing the goddess and eliminating the unpleasant odors of bloody corpses. And the lovely scent of soap on her clean, flowing dress helps in keeping terrible memories at bay.
These bomb fragments, however, are trying her patience. For all her efforts, she has managed to learn close to nothing about the bomb or its maker, find no clue or evidence of where to look next. She fights a sudden, angry urge to swipe these useless pieces of trash off her desk and into the metal bin by her left.
Currently lying belly-up on Gwydion’s desk, his feathered arms under his head, one leg crossed over the other and idly kicking the air, Nekh snaps his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
Forget it. I know those things and they’re good! he says for the twentieth time. Not even you stand a chance against them.
Sick and tired of him, Alma picks up a distorted piece of what looks like the lid to a cheap metallic hard-candy box, probably used to store the explosive component of the bomb, and brings her hand back to throw it at the offending hallucination. She is nearly caught in the act of attacking an empty desk by the figure that looms by the door.
“Still working?” Gwydion asks in tired tones.
Nekh shoots up to look at the newcomer. Oh, great! The genius has arrived! Now you don’t have to be incompetent all by yourself.
Knowing all too well that confessing to being haunted by the Archon would just be adding lunacy to the long tab that she has been running with her fellow Dei’s patience, Alma sighs and nods her head in response.
“I keep trying to find some piece of information in this bomb,” she says, returning the would-be projectile to its place among its silent fellows. “Alas, I am failing miserably. And you? Shouldn’t you be resting in case something happens during your shift?”
“I thought I’d rest here,” Gwydion replies, taking the short steps that separate the door from her desk. “I will have to be on call, anyway. And besides, my room is being haunted.”
Alma can’t help but glance at Nekh.
It wasn’t me! the vulture-headed former Archon cries.
“It would not happen to be by someone who could enlighten us as to where to look for answers, would it?” Alma enquires, half joking.
Gwydion shakes his head as he sits on the chair that plaintiffs usually use when being interviewed. “I am afraid not. There is a gryphon in my room… And two Bunnies.”
Alma smiles at the mental image of her two older children cuddling with Geryon’s massive figure. She carefully avoids any thoughts that include anything more than cuddling.
“Mine has a wounded assassin. And maybe some Bunnies escaped from the bar as well,” she guesses.
Filthy creatures, Nekh mutters. You need a better pest repellent. How about creating a man-sized fox?
As difficult as it is becoming as exhaustion settles in again, Alma makes a point of ignoring him.
Gwydion, in the meantime, looks at her in amused perplexity. “They haven’t quite taken to sleeping in their own rooms yet, I see.”
Alma nods at first but then shakes her head. The concept of privacy is at best unstable to her Bunnies. They may burrow in their rooms and request their space but the next five minutes may find them all invading her room and her bed for the simple fact that they crave her company. Of course the pool and the large, comfortable bed aid tremendously in making her room a favorite Bunny hideout.
Tonight, however, they would be using it for the safety it provides, the knowledge ingrained in them that the goddess’ sanctum is protected against most threats and infused with the peace and hospitality that makes them feel as if cradled in their creator’s arms.
“It was a traumatic night for all,” she explains, rising from her chair. “And they can sleep in my room whenever they fancy. Do you wish me to leave so you can rest?”
“That is the last thing I would want you to do,” Gwydion says with the mellow tones of a well-rehearsed line. His expression becomes serious for a moment. “I am staying in Three Rats. I have given this great thought.”
Suddenly sitting comfortably in Alma’s chair, Nekh snorts. Apparently not enough or you’d be running up the mountain right now.
Alma, however, feels her chest grow wider with relief. She walks around her desk until she comes to stand in front of Gwydion. Her eyes look into his questioningly, wondering about the strength of his resolve. She truly would not have blamed him for leaving. Faced with that possibility, she might have left too.
And yet, this spoiled First Ringer keeps surprising her, much to her gratitude. Regardless of his wandering habits, he is competent in his job, trustworthy in times of need. He is also at the center of her emotional turmoil. For as much as she hates to admit it, his presence soothes her. She would understand, but not be pleased to see him go. And then again, why would he stay?
“What is there to gain from doing so, Gwydion?” she queries, leaning against the edge of her desk.
“Do you wish me gone before you fall permanently under my charms?” the god replies playfully.
Alma chuckles at his lack of shame. “Or you under mine?” She resumes her serious tone. “The truth, Gwydion, please. You know I like you better without the masks.”
As if he’d quit them for you… Nekh taunts her.
Gwydion takes a moment to reply. His gaze wanders to a far corner of the room, his fingers run idly over his badge, currently pinned to his jacket. He seems to struggle with the prospect of admitting to some uncomfortable truth out loud.
“Sometimes a mask is all there is,” he says with a sad smile before asking, “What is it like?”
Alma’s eyes widen in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Gwydion tilts his head, places his elbow on the chair arm, rests his chin on his knuckles.“What is it like, to be born with a purpose, a calling, a place in the great scheme of things that always defines you, always tells you who you are, no matter where you go or what you do?”
Alma cannot help but snort. Her calling is, after all, more a product of her upbringing than of any instinctive urge. She could very well live a fulfilled life even if she were somehow impeded from collecting souls. “I may not be the best person to answer that question, Gwydion.”
“You are the only one of us with divine duties beyond the Guardia,” the god insists. “Badge or no badge, no matter where you go, you are a death goddess.”
Alma tilts her head, still failing to see where he is going with this. Still, she plays along. “Am I? Or am I a life goddess? Or both? Or none? Regardless of what you may think, I am really a failure as a death goddess. Weak, they say, tainted. And too…transcendental to be accepted as a life goddess.” She lowers her gaze to the floor, tasting the bitter, poisonous words as they roll out of the hiddenmost depths of her mind and down her tongue. “To either side of the family tree, I am but the crippled half of something that could otherwise be great.”
And you agree with them, don’t you? Nekh accuses. Aren’t you pathetic?
“Tell that to the souls you saved today or the kids sleeping soundly in the bar,” Gwydion states, jerking his head at the door. “Or even the Bunnies we keep risking our lives to save.”
He looks away from her, seemingly trying to convince his lips to utter some unspeakable secret. “I don’t have one,” he barely more than mutters.
“What don’t you have?” Alma asks, feeling much like a blind person trying to learn how to coordinate colors.
Gwydion’s discomfort and frustration are palpable. “A sphere. A calling. You have your duties, Sky has his freedom and rebellion. And all I have is magic.
He snorts derisively, trapped in his own self-loathing. “Magic…” he grumbles, slapping his thigh with an open hand. “Magic is the prerogative of any god! I just happen to be better than most at learning new spells. And even humans can cast those.”
“No human I have ever met could banish a demon on his first try,” Alma offers in the sweet tones of one who wants to change someone’s mind without knowing what they need to hear.
Unable to stay put any longer, Gwydion rises from his chair to pace as he confides in her, “And still… I have no real purpose in this world as a god. What have I achieved in a century and a half of existence that could even compare to what I’ve done and seen in our short weeks here? In this broken, disheveled ward, a single act of ours is a miracle, even if it is just a stupid spell. Where I come from, it is mundane, meaningless if only because everything is so easy that nothing is worth anything. Not even people. Not even me…” He shakes his head. “And I needed a friend to point it all out to me.”
“You will never climb in the ranks here,” Alma reminds him. “Math’s daring and charming nephew may very well be forgotten among the venerated court of the First Ring.
All those young gullible girls that won’t have a chance to get under you, Nekh sneers.
Just as Alma is about to think something nasty at the vulture-headed apparition, Gwydion shoots yet another difficult question at her. “Do you miss the Second Ring?”
It actually takes Alma some time in silence to gather her words. Does she miss the Second Ring? Is it even in her thoughts for most of her days or nights? Are the places and faces anything more than memories kept through the years?
“No,” she answers, standing up. “Oh, it had its virtues. Memories and places that have been a constant presence through my lifetime. Comforts I will not find anytime soon in these wards. People I have met. Good people, true and simple, even in the blinding opulence of the Inner Rings. But my existence there…” She shakes her head. “It is difficult to miss a place that I have never belonged to. Have you ever been a stranger in your own home, Gwydion? Merely tolerated in your difference?”
He shrugs and looks at her, sadness pouring into his features. “What home, Alma?”
The full meaning of those simple words sends ice down Alma’s spine. For better or worse, she has had a family, a mother, a father, a multitude of stepmothers, uncles and aunts and brothers to look after her and be with her and be her family, to teach her principle, guide her as she grew. As strange and dysfunctional as it was and is, poisonous even at times, she has had that guiding rod, that map and harbor through life that all families should be.
Even with an influential uncle pampering him, how empty a life can one have, when priceless affection is so easily replaced with expensive gifts? How hollow and weak can a heart become if kindness and empathy are never infused into it?
Oh boo hoo! Poor little Dion is an orphan raised by a wealthy uncle. Woe is he! Nekh chides by Gwydion’s ear, his beaked mouth hiding a spiteful leer. Should have been created as an egg by a one-eyed hermit lost in the middle of the desert to see what’s good for you…
It is Alma’s great relief that Dion cannot hear him. Instead, the young god covers the short distance that separates them and comes to stand by her, gazing into her eyes as if seeking all of her memories of having a home. Although just as tall as she is, he almost seems to loom over her for a moment as the wretched emptiness beyond his pupils seeks ravenously in her for something to be fodder and sustenance to that void in his anguished mind.
“You told me to stay with my family. Where is that, exactly?” he asks slowly, weakly. “What family is it if you know more of them than I?”
“Gwydion…” she whispers, falling into silence as words evade her.
The next second, he is holding her tightly, pressing his lips against hers in a desperate request for her touch. She is quick in her acceptance of him, welcoming silence in the movements of his kiss, relieved by his need of her, refusing to let go of him until he finally breaks the kiss and presses his forehead against hers, eyes closed against the harshness of the world beyond the limits of their embrace.
“I am tired of these difficult days, tired of thinking about the disaster my life has become,” he says among strangled breaths.
Thinking was never really your thing, was it, pretty boy? Nekh snorts, somewhere in the room.
But Alma pays no attention to him. Her full senses are focused on the feverish warmth of the hands that cradle her face, on the trembling of the body that yearns for her touch, on that strangely enticing scent that fills the air around her and blurs her thoughts, on the lips that hover so close to hers as Gwydion whispers,
“I don’t want to think anymore.”
The world falls away. His lips take hers, drinking with thirst from what passion he finds there even before she can react and fully join him. She grips his jacket and pulls him closer, glad for her blank thoughts, for the void in her mind that her body fills with the feeling of him. She barely notices him removing his jacket before her hands find the buttons of his shirt of their own accord. His hands slide down her neck, draw the curve of her shoulders, move down her arms and in their wake, through some unspoken spell, the folds of her dress become undone and fall, gently, to reveal the soft, milky flawlessness of her skin to his touch. The first brush of his fingers against her exposed belly steals her breath. The touch of her breasts against his bare chest steals his.
They break from the kiss, their eyes meet. In the sepulchral silence broken only by their struggled breathing, his trousers hit the floor.
For a moment, she lowers her gaze. Her eyes follow her faintly glowing hands as they stroke his chest, feel the powerful beating of his heart, the sizzling touch of his mana as it surges through the muscular frame of his body. His arms encircle her in return, pulling her close, pressing the small of her back, bringing her hips against his. Her eyes find his again, see the soft catch in his breath that the gentle grazing of her fingernails over his spine causes. Admiring the resolve with which he stands still against her trembling body that the feel of his erection keeps disturbing with lightning and bloodrush, she draws his jawline in small kisses, arouses his sensitive throat with the touch of her lips, the slow, gentle brushing of her tongue that feels like torture to both of them. She can taste his very soul in her mouth.
A stray moan of his sees her feet off the floor. Her body laid gently on the couch, she receives him with open arms, embraces him, explores his back with hands that glow brighter as his untamed life force is thrown against her walls at each kiss, overwhelms her senses at each touch. She can feel his hungry senses consuming her, the essence of him melting into her own. Her walls are lowered. Her fingertips dig gently into his skin.
How long has it been since she was last touched like this? Surely since Tulip was created. Tulip…
Oh gods… The Bunnies!
Her eyes shoot open.
“Wait,” she pleads, taking his face in her hands to capture his attention.
Sitting on her desk, feet suddenly hitting the wood with violence as they dangle over the side, Nekh cries, No! I want to see how you do it! I want a Bunny!
“What is wrong?” Gwydion asks, looking at Alma with a mixture of confusion and concern. His tone is gentle and inviting when he adds as he strokes her cheek, “You want this just as much as I do. I can feel it in your touch.”
The goddess closes her eyes, struggling to resist the pent up desire and need that fill her every thought. He does not help at all with his constant caresses, the little kisses that do so well in the way of tempting her to abandon all concerns. He is right. She wants this. Gods, how she wants it!
Pushing him away is physically painful to her. Watching him slowly yield to her efforts, in his eyes the look of someone who fears having done something wrong, she sits by him, gathering her thoughts and her breath, being still while every fiber of her being cries for his touch and her mind is filled with the single, imperative drive to tackle him and find sweet release in his arms. It takes her a moment of silence staring away from him, looking at anything that is not those hazel eyes admiring the pale curves of her slender figure, to reclaim some control over her thoughts.
“You are right, I do want it,” she finally says, looking down at her hands that no longer glow. She looks back at him. “But what I want is of no consequence. Gwydion, I was not teasing you before. This is how the Bunnies were created and the gods know I cannot stop myself from doing it again.”
He looks as if he will fight her, yell at her for cutting their exciting escapade short. For a moment, his leg muscles tense as if ready to march him out of the office and past a slamming door. In the end, he surprises her for the second time tonight. Maybe because of the pleading look in her eyes or perhaps due to sheer curiosity, he merely sits with his back against the arm of the couch and looks at her with what almost feels like genuine care.
“Maybe it is time you let your masks fall as well, Alma,” he nearly whispers with no hint of anger or frustration in his voice. “This is a story in need of being told.”
Yes, do tell your current sweetheart about the guy you’re still in love with, Nekh mocks from his perch.
Alma glares at Nekh for a short instant before giving in to Gwydion’s request. The truth will have to be told sooner or later and although this is not the best of times, perhaps it is as close as they will ever get to the right time.
“Very well,” she concedes, sitting with her back against the opposing couch arm so that she can look into Gwydion’s eyes as she warns him, “Although this is a tale you may not enjoy.”
It is amazing what one will confide in complete strangers. Awful truths, poisonous secrets, haunting thoughts, we tend to dump them easily on the shoulders of those whose face we may never gaze upon again in our lifetime. How remarkable it is to not fear the judgment of one who has no need, reason or calling to like us or otherwise. And yet, how difficult it is to share with the people who love us, whose heart is open to our every word, the deepest and darkest of our thoughts, the most disturbing of our secrets.
Maybe if it was love they shared, the telling of a past love affair would have burned Alma’s tongue or displeased Gwydion’s ears. Maybe if their newfound intimacy had more to it than physical need to silence the chaos of their thoughts, the words would not have come to the goddess’ throat. It is with the cold calm of one who has played and replayed the story of her great love in her head over and over again for the past decades that Alma relays nearly everything having to do with the creation of the Bunnies. How she met Arion, how they fell in love, how many months later, after a night of intense passion she woke up feeling weak and barely able to leave the bed. How she found Cherry and Rosemary, the oldest and first of her Bunnies, sleeping in a little ball of light hovering just over her bed.
She tells him of Arion’s departure to look after his own family, threatened with extinction, and to keep their little brood safe, at least for their first years, from the Council’s relentless political games. How each of his infrequent visits to the Insula resulted on another Bunny being created, regardless of all the methods they tried to prevent it from happening.
At each turn in her story, Gwydion listens in silence, speaking only to ask the occasional question here or there. Although his original arousal is gone, it is not replaced with offense or disgust, or even with desire to make fun of the goddess’ belief in such a thing as love. Instead, Alma finds in his eyes the one thing she would not think to see there: pity.
“What a strange case…” he notes at the end of her tale.
Alma nods. “Frustrating, at the least.” She sighs, feeling every bit as broken and pathetic as her unusual condition makes her whenever romantic relationships are involved. “As you can see, Gwydion, regardless of what I want or not, I cannot give in to desire without risking our frail safety from the Council’s attention.”
She rises from her seat, feeling oppressed and uncomfortable in her elegant, statuesque body. Taking a couple of steps so that she stands by Gwydion’s reclining figure, she reaches down to stroke his jaw and pull his chin up so that he looks at her.
“I will leave you to find one who can warm your bedsheets tonight,” she announces.
Just as she moves away to pick up her dress from the floor, five fingers wrap around her wrist. She looks back to find Gwydion looking at her, his hand holding her before she can leave. In his eyes, a simple plight.
“Not tonight,” he asks, pulling her gently down to him. “Don’t leave tonight.”
Alma smiles sadly. Nekh rolls his eyes.
Ugh… This is even more pitiful than I thought. I’m out of here, he states, muttering to himself as he fades away, much to Alma’s relief. Already feeling sick from all the sweetness…
Grateful for the invitation to stay, Alma nods her agreement and joins Gwydion on the couch. Small as it is, the piece of furniture generously donated by Sky cannot hold them lying side by side. It is after some shifting and careful arrangement of various limbs (along with a general agreement that the much lighter goddess should lie on top of the fit yet rather heavier god) that they find themselves lying comfortably, basking in each other’s warmth and chuckling at their newly found clumsiness.
Arousal sparks again. Gwydion strokes her back slowly with one hand, the other running fingers through her hair as he watches with obvious pleasure the shimmering white strands falling over her shoulders.
“There must be a way,” he barely whispers. “This cannot be forbidden.”
“I know of none,” Alma gently replies, tracing the contour of his lips with her fingers. She grins slightly as she jests, in bittersweet tones, “And wouldn’t that make it more trouble than a night with me is worth?”
Gwydion grins back, seemingly unphased at the veiled accusation. A blanket that was considerately left lying over the back of the couch unfolds itself at his command and gently falls over them, to shield them from the cool night air.
“Maybe we can make it more than one night for my efforts,” he suggests.
It is not love, she thinks.
However, she cannot help but feel affection toward the god. All she has learned about him, all he has proved himself to be in the past few weeks, his actions, his words, his relinquishing of his unmoving, perennial façade at her simple request, all have changed her vision of the vain, womanizing spoiled brat she met on her first day in Three Rats.
She finds herself wanting to like him more. Rising slowly on her arms, she offers him a kiss. He accepts it eagerly, joining his lips to hers with passion. Patiently, she breaks from the kiss and shakes her head slowly at him, wondering if this is the first time he has been kissed this way. She touches her lips to his in a second kiss, gentle, slow, warm with something more lasting than arousal. At first, he seems to resist, almost as if confused, but eventually he relaxes, joins her in a long, tranquil union of lips and tongues.
All worries disappear for a moment. She loses track of time altogether.
“And just what was that?” Gwydion asks as she lies down again.
Feeling very tired all of a sudden, Alma snuggles against his chest and smiles.
“That, my dear, is what we’ll have to find out.”