Ch6.41 Trust

The first day of Year’s End, and the Sun overhead seems well aware of it. The Urbis is awash with clashing traditions, but most of them agree that this day, the first of five, is a day for eating outdoors. Perhaps somewhere over the Insula, storm gods are mischievously ruining someone’s fun, but here in Three Rats they have stayed away, and today’s Sun seems determined to make the residents know that She is there with them.

She? Mayumi pushes her hair back from where it has fallen across her face and wipes the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Everyone around here thinks of the Sun as male, and it’s true, the greater portion of those gods are. But where she grew up, in a quiet dream-district that had once been part of a land called Nihon, the Sun was worshipped as female. Mayumi, her knowledge of the nature of the Urbis Caelestis limited to little more than the people and the handful of gods of her ward, had not even realized that there was an entire clan of sun gods until her recent arrival in the waking world, suddenly finding herself in daily contact with people from very different cultures and beliefs and levels of knowledge about the nature of this bizarre mountain-universe. The fact that many of those people are members of her own family left her for some time even more off-balance, but she has, after many difficulties, come to a degree of peace with it.

And just in time to upend it all by leaving. As she unpacks the wicker basket filled with delicious rye sandwiches, empanadas of various kinds, still-warm potatoes wrapped in foil, fat triangles of onigiri riceballs, deep-fried acarajé, bowls filled with cut-up chunks of fruit, savory vada donuts, and more, she pauses to watch Kori and Chime kicking around a worn-out ball with their bare feet, Merri dashing between them to intercept and giving them a surprisingly good run for their money. Sky arrives through a magical portal that has been set up, wearing dark-green shorts and a flowery shirt, bearing with ease two huge watermelons, one on each shoulder. He smiles at her and she returns it, but that only provides a contrast to the melancholy she feels at the thought she will soon be leaving all this for six-tenths of a year, in pursuit of a dream of becoming Guardia.

Then as she watches the ball shoots right between Sky’s legs, closely pursued by Merri, Kori, and Chime. Sky spins like a drunk trying to dance, actually going up on one leg as Chime dashes beneath him. Mayumi bursts into laughter as the tall god barely recovers enough so as not to drop a melon.

“I have a feeling we could feed a small army with all we’ve brought.” Mayumi turns to look at Alma, bent to help her unpack the food and lay it out on a sheet. The goddess grins at her, with a brief glance toward Sky. “I’ll take care of this, Mayumi. It looks like Sky needs some help.”

Mayumi looks gratefully into her mother’s eyes. She knows what Alma is doing. Despite the goddess’ misgivings about her mortal child being involved with an immortal, she wants Mayumi’s happiness, and the Bunny doesn’t have much time before she leaves. Still, she hesitates until Alma insists. “Go on!” With a smile, Mayumi obeys.

“Need some help?” she asks Sky as she approaches.

The tall god looks happy to see her. “Just trying to figure out where’s best to put these. In the water?”

Mayumi nods. “If we put them there,” she says, pointing to the edge of the falls, where two rocks create a miniature pool big enough for the two melons, “they won’t float off and they will be cool until we’re ready to smash them.”

He follows her toward the waterfall. “Smash them? Not slice them up?”

“Oh we can slice them,” she says. “But when I was a child, we always took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to hit the watermelon with a stick to break it open.”

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

“It is a little messy,” she agrees. She pulls her lightweight dress off over her head, folding it simply and setting it on the grass. The grey bathing outfit she is wearing underneath is not the one Cherry picked out for her. That one was tiny and…well she was going to keep it for some other time, when it is just family. Though as Cherry reasonably pointed out, why bother wearing anything at all in that case? But no, today she has on a more reasonable swimsuit, with a top more like a jogging bra and a bottom that provides a bit more coverage than the strings-and-a-scrap-of-cloth that Cherry favored.

She steps into the pool and reaches up to take the melon. Sky looks doubtful – each melon is almost as long as her torso – but he slips the first one off his shoulder and, bending to the side, lets her take it. Something about the way their muscles connect makes Bunnies stronger than humans of a similar size would be, especially in the legs, and while she does grunt with the effort, she manages to lower the melon safely into the water. The next one is easier, as Sky can use both hands.

As he helps her out of the water, her ears catch Cherry’s arrival through the portal, the Bunny complaining about the weight of the cooler full of beer and ice she is carrying. But Cherry is the strongest of them all, and isn’t really having trouble.

Suddenly a webbed hand grasps her ankle from beneath. A moment of childhood fear about the kappa, a carnivorous water spirit like a cross between a turtle and a duck, flashes through her, but surely the Oracle would not let such a creature live in her waters. Resisting the urge to kick, she looks back and sees a familiar face rising from the water.

“Boo!” Doria, half-naiad priestess of the Oracle, laughs and releases Mayumi’s leg.

“Priestess!” Mayumi is delighted to see her. Doria had been briefly a guest in Alma’s living quarters, back when all the Bunnies lived there together.

“Please, May – call me Doria. Hello, Inspector!” She smiles flirtatiously at Sky.

“A pleasure to see you again, Doria.” Sky’s voice is warm. “Is the Oracle joining us?”

“Of course she is.” A penetrating voice unfamiliar to Mayumi, bearing echoes of centuries that make the light fur on Mayumi’s forearms stand on end, emerges through the falls. A tall otherworldly figure follows it, her eyes white but not seeming the least bit blind, her skin showing fine iridescent scales at the curve of her jawline and on her temples, blue-green hair falling down past her shoulders and concealing her breasts. A diaphanous, scaly wrap skirt hanging loosely on her hips is her only clothing, aside from jewelry of gold and gems on her forearms and throat. “It seems we are late already.”

“The Oracle, late?” Doria asks with mock astonishment as she smoothly mounts the shore. “Impossible!”

“Oracle…” Sky’s voice is filled with respect. “Thank you for letting us hold our picnic here.”

“Oh, Tuma-Sukai,” she says with a laugh. “After what you did for me, and this ward? I owe you far more. And who is this?”

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

Mayumi bows. “It is an honor to meet you,” she says humbly. She has heard that this is one of the most ancient goddesses still active on the Insula. Although she had heard that the Oracle took the form of a fish-tailed siren.

The Oracle must have caught Mayumi looking at her legs. Or perhaps Mayumi’s thoughts are easily snatched from the air by such a powerful goddess. In an amused voice, the Oracle says, “Taking on more form than one is not a rare ability for such as we.” It takes a moment for Mayumi to realize that the Oracle is speaking to her in the language of her childhood, with an easy fluency and a somewhat archaic dialect.

Sumimasen,” Mayumi says with a bow to apologize, though exactly for what she was not entirely sure. It’s just…how she was raised. When in doubt, apologize. Cherry makes fun of her for it, but Merri thinks it’s sweet. Mayumi herself sometimes finds it annoying, how easily she does it.

“Such a polite young woman,” a creaking, sardonic voice calls out. She turns and sees a face she has noticed on the streets of Three Rats more than once, but she has never done more than nod to this wizened, scraggle-bearded elder. She has noticed, however, that he resembles less a native son of Three Rats – as variegated as the residents of Three Rats are – and more a wise man straight from the ancient scrolls of her own ward.

He is approaching in the company of Alma, and shadowing them is a young woman who does not look happy to be there. She certainly looks like she could have grown up with Mayumi. Indeed, they are roughly the same age, though the woman is taller and lacks Mayumi’s non-human ears and tail. But the face is similar, and the woman is looking toward Mayumi with a similar curiosity.

Sky turns and says with a moderate bow, “Master Pak, welcome.”

Alma introduces the Oracle and Doria. Before she can introduce Mayumi, Pak interrupts her. “Ah, who does not know of Nevieve, the Oracle? It is a privilege to meet you.” He bows to her, but Mayumi cannot shake the feeling that his amused tone speaks of a shared joke between Pak and the Oracle, as if they have really known each other for quite some time.

She feels a cool hand on her shoulder. The Oracle says, “I might well say the same of you, Pak. But let me introduce my new-met acquaintance, Mayumi, who I believe will soon be a student at your old Academy.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. How does she know…? She dismisses the thought. Of course the Oracle knows. Mayumi bows and expresses her sense of honor at meeting a Guardia Academy instructor.

Pak smiles and then looks annoyed at Alma and Sky. “Why did you not tell me you had a recruit for the Academy? I could have trained her. Well, this is Kumiko. The Sergeant and the Inspector have already met her at my home. I believe she and Miss Mayumi speak the same tongue. Perhaps they would enjoy conversing in their native language.”

And with that the gods begin talking about the current state of affairs in Three Rats – though is Pak a god? It is hard to tell. Mayumi is tempted to stay nearby to listen in, but she can tell when the mortals are being dismissed. It is annoying but…Pak is right. She and Sky speak her language together sometimes, but he is rusty and inelegant, though his mistakes are often hilarious. It would be nice to talk with another native speaker.

She and Kumiko go off a little way, and Mayumi bows and introduces herself politely, to which Kumiko gives the correct response, her voice low. “Have you met any of the others?” Mayumi asks. When Kumiko shakes her head, Mayumi takes her toward the sheet of food. “How long have you been in Three Rats?”

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

She seems uncomfortable, her words blunt, so Mayumi does not press for more information in that direction, instead opening the cooler. “Like something to drink? A beer?”

Kumiko looks at her quizzically. “You’re old enough to drink beer?” She has a rough way of speaking that makes Mayumi think she grew up in more difficult circumstances than herself. Her accent, too, is different from Mayumi’s. She adds ‘sa’ to the ends of sentences, something Mayumi has never heard before. A dialect of some kind.

“I’m not a child. Just shorter than most humans. Here.” She hands Kumiko a bottle after lifting the cap off with an opener, and opens one for herself. “Kanpai.

Kumiko raises her bottle in salute. “Kanpai.” As she takes a drink, Kori and Max, a human boy Mayumi knows from helping out at the orphanage, go running past them both, laughing, and leap into the water, making huge splashes. Ewá Nanã, smiling in the way she only smiles around the children under her protection, watches as she walks past Mayumi to go speak with the other gods nearer the falls. Merri and Cherry are prying Tulip away from Dion, who seems to want to join Alma, and getting her to join them in swimming. Sage and Aliyah are off to one side, kicking around Kori’s football and taunting each other.

Mayumi’s ears twitch back toward the waterfall. She turns her head a little to glance that way while sipping her beer. “Nothing better for a child who has grown too fast than a child who is yet to grow,” she hears Alma say. The goddess has left the little knot of immortals and is talking with Ewá Nanã, the two of them watching Kori and Max splashing around. “You look happier yourself,” Alma says to the tall lawyer-turned-foster-parent.

“I am,” Ewá replies. “But tired. I am glad we could place all the children with families just for a day or two of the New Year, and I’ve already heard that two will not be leaving those homes to return to us. Well, the family who had agreed to take in Max changed their minds… He has had a difficult time.”

“It cannot be easy at times, to be looking after so many children. But what you are doing is important.”

Ewá looks at Alma with a small smile. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But at moments like this,” She looks back to see Max and Kori clambering out of the water and joining in on Aliyah and Sage’s game of ball, “it is the most satisfying.”

Alma squeezes Ewá’s hand. “I must return to the station now. We can’t leave it without a Dei presence for too long. But please enjoy yourself, and I will be back in a couple of hours.”

As Alma breaks away to walk toward the portal, the Bunny sees past Alma’s shoulder. Ewá is watching the goddess, knowing Alma can’t see her. Not aware she is being observed, Ewá gives a little sigh of longing and a rueful shake of her head. Oh… thinks Mayumi. Well. She manages to keep her giggle internal as she turns back to Kumiko. “Like to swim?” she asks.

Kumiko looks at Mayumi’s swimsuit. “Didn’t bring anything to wear.” She has on a loose blouse and a pair of shorts.

“We could go back to the station and get you something,” Mayumi suggests. “Merri has something that might–”

“No. I don’t want to swim.” Kumiko pauses for a moment and adds, “Pardon me,” though it does little to soften the abruptness.

“That’s all right.” Mayumi’s voice is a little smaller. But she feels a kinship with Kumiko that goes beyond language. The woman’s discomfort and resentment at having to be here reminds Mayumi of how she felt for weeks after waking in Three Rats – a feeling that has never entirely disappeared, though the love of those here have made it less painful. If that kinship will ever be more than a feeling… “Kumiko-san, this is the first time I’ve met anyone in this world who speaks my language as a native. Please…where do you come from?”

Kumiko looks at her as if evaluating, measuring. Mayumi wonders if she will measure up. But before Kumiko can decide how to answer, if at all, the gods from near the falls are returning. Gwydion says, “Excuse me, May,” as he reaches past her to fish two beers from the cooler, handing one to Sky and the other to Pak.

“Oh!” Mayumi grabs the bottle opener and hands it to him, then gets two more beers, giving one to Dion. The Sergeant tips it towards her in thanks as he, Sky, and Pak walk off, continuing to talk.

She offers the other to the Oracle – Nevieve? – who wraps her hand around Mayumi’s on the bottle. The Bunny feels a mild jolt, like a buzz passing through the goddess into her. She looks up to see the Oracle’s eyes glowing white.

Doria sees this and chuckles. “It’s normal to ask the Oracle a question, after giving her a gift.”

Mayumi cannot look away from Nevieve’s captivating eyes. They seem to fill her whole world, and she cannot think about what she wants to ask. So she simply asks without thought.

“Will I be with my family, after the Academy?”

As she hears her own words, she realizes that they spring from her fear that she will be assigned far away. But Three Rats needs Guardia, desperately, and the Guardia command usually honor requests to be stationed at hard-luck assignments like Three Rats, where nobody but a local would ask to be assigned.

Nevieve seems to enter a trance, her eyes glowing brighter. When she speaks, the words carry a deepening of that otherworldly, alien quality than before.

“You will be separated from them, but one will go with you. You will not return home until his child arrives.”

The light fades, and Nevieve blinks her white eyes as if she was unaware of her own prophecy.

Mayumi gapes at her. Then she remembers to breathe. “Ch-child?” It’s not possible. The Bunnies are all infertile, by order of the Council. And…separated? But someone…Sky? Am I going to have a child with him? It is not something she has seriously considered. They haven’t even made love, no more than kissing and cuddling and napping together on his sofa. Cherry and Merri couldn’t believe it when she told them, but going slowly has been a pleasure, infused with frustration though it has been. Agreeing to wait until after her graduation from the Academy – that has been harder. But there is a pleasure in delaying gratification as well. The lip-biting frustration, the restrained passion, has been, in its way, excruciatingly delicious.

She looks for him. There he is, Sky, laughing with Gwydion, practicing some kind of combat block while trying not to spill his beer, while Pak observes. He doesn’t seem to have overheard. Only the Oracle and Doria have heard…and Kumiko. The human woman is looking more uncomfortable than ever, her carefully neutral expression not quite successfully covering up a look of despair at being an unwilling eavesdropper.

The Oracle nods. “A child, yes. I am afraid I know no more than that. There were no details other than what I told you.”

It seems like a boilerplate answer that she has given thousands of times before. She must be used to seekers of prophecy who demand explanations. And so Mayumi holds her tongue, though she feels about to burst with questions, harsh, angry questions. Instead, she chokes out a thank you, then turns and ascends a slope to a ridge that leans almost over the water, little more than a body-length above it.

She sits, putting her forearms on her knees, resting her chin on her arms, staring out over the water where Merri and Cherry and Tulip are playing, but seeing nothing really, her thoughts in turmoil. Just as they escape one prophecy by fulfilling it – “In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon” – now here is another. Granted, it is much smaller. It will not get them executed. Or will it? A chill freezes her heart. A Bunny having a child without the permission of the Council…that could be enough to cause the Archons to vote for extermination. She groans and hangs her head, putting her forehead on her arms.

“Want to finish your beer?” The words are in Japanese. Mayumi lifts her head to see Kumiko, offering a half-finished bottle of beer with her left hand, holding her own in her right. Kumiko makes a subtle gesture, asking for permission to sit. Mayumi nods, and the woman sits beside her, putting a hand slightly behind her on the grass, legs stretched out straight.

They sit in silence for a time, taking the occasional sip. Then out of nowhere Kumiko says, “A Fourth Ring ward, far from here. About a quarter of the way around the Insula, maybe, to windward. My father refused to pay the gangsters.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Baka…” Fool. “They made an example of my family. Only reason I’m alive is I wasn’t home.”

Mayumi stays quiet, listening, watching. Kumiko isn’t looking at her. She takes another drink of beer, draining the bottle. For a moment she looks as if she’s going to throw the bottle, but she drops it next to her, on the grass.

“Then they did it again.” Kumiko’s voice is as neutral as she can make it, but the rage is there, like a roaring blaze hidden on the other side of a locked door. “Here, in Three Rats. Another gang. Killed my friends. Almost killed me.”

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

“I’m going away,” Mayumi says. “In a few days, I’m leaving.”

Kumiko looks at her, her eyebrows slightly raised to ask why Mayumi is mentioning this.

Mayumi shakes her head. “The people here…they care.”

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

Mayumi says nothing to this. She knows that Kumiko knows it is not entirely true. That she is here, sitting with her, gives the lie to it.

She finishes her beer. To Kumiko she asks, “Okawari?” Another? The woman looks a puzzled for a moment. Perhaps they don’t say that where she comes from. But she seems to understand after a second, and she shakes her head. Mayumi nods.

They remain next to each other, listening to the joking and the laughter and the playful screams, around and below their island of now-comfortable silence.

Ch6.32 Trust

Alma, Sky, Bunnies, Saira, Gwydion

The late-afternoon sun makes Sky pull his field cap down a little further to keep the light out of his eyes. Motes of dust glimmer in the light. Three Rats is on the morning side of the Insula, and whichever of the great Solar Clan deities who is driving the Sun Chariot today has already begun to go beyond the mountain. Night falls early and lasts long in this part of the Fourth Ring.

But still children play and merchants hawk their wares. Familiar faces greet him, and he pauses to speak to a few of the friendliest. Suspicion of his Guardia jacket – an everyday wool one, not the reinforced leather coat that had served him for years until its destruction in a recent battle – has faded somewhat. Many here may still see the Guardia as merely another gang, but they’ve proven to be the toughest gang, and the most reliable. When the Guardia say they will help, they follow through. When they say they will protect, they do, and ask for nothing in return. Months of holding to that code is beginning, finally, to have its effect.

No more bribes. No more extortion. No more rolling over for the mobs and being their cringing dogs. The Guardia here had been too few in number before, and underfunded at that, ignored by the top brass. Machado, as commanding officer, had done as well as he could, but some of his constables had not, and he had been unable to afford to lose any of them.

Things are different now.

Sky arrives at the front of the station, pausing to look at its façade. A fresh coat of paint would do nicely, tell everyone we’re doing fine, he thinks, and then laughs at himself. Even a week ago – no, two weeks ago, as he’d been asleep for a full week, recovering – such a detail would not have occurred to him. He’d been reeling with exhaustion, having burnt mana to put off sleep for a dangerously long time, happy to have Alma and Dion back to mop up the last of the shard gangs, the shattered remains of the Dukaine mega-gang that had fallen into a civil war upon the death of their leader, the Archon Nekh. Before that he had been for a time the only Dei in Three Rats Station, with little choice but to stay awake to support the Popula cops amid the chaos. And before that… So much had happened, so quickly. The theft of the Pearl. The attempts to murder the Bunnies. And now this necromancer business. He feels ashamed to have left in the middle of that, but there had really been no choice. Fatigue had made him more of a danger than a help.

Time to return to work. He opens the door and steps into the station. His station. Constables look up from what they are doing. A conversation between Patel and the Bunny Sage ceases, and the latter straightens, grinning broadly, and walks swiftly to stand between Sky and the others.

“Inspector, let me be the first to welcome you home,” Sage says, his soft voice filled with a touching joy. “You’re looking well.” Sky looks at the others, who are all smiling as well, murmuring “Good to see you, sir” and “Welcome back, sir.”

“Thank you,” he says to all of them with sincere pleasure. “It’s good to be back.” To Sage he asks, “Who is on command duty?” Ordinarily it would be Alma at this time of day, but the schedule could have been adjusted while he was out.

“Sergeant Alma, sir,” Sage says. They are friends, but like Mayumi, Sage, as a civilian secretary to the station, prefers to keep things formal while on duty, at least in front of the Popula. When Sky glances toward his own office door here on the ground floor, Sage indicates the upper floor with a movement of his chin. “In her office.”

Sky nods his thanks and proceeds to the stairs, noting a yellow rope tied across the door to the stairs leading down to the holding cells. Alma has been the commanding officer, not just for her shift but as a whole, in his absence, and according to Somrak she’s done a good job. Sky has no doubt in that report. But Somrak has also mentioned Alma’s stress, and though not exactly eager to resume the demanding role of leader, Sky does wish to relieve her of this burden as soon as possible.

The door opens before he can knock, and Alma’s smiling face welcomes him. Her delight at seeing him is apparent, but she doesn’t say a word, just grabbing his sleeve and pulling him inside, shoving the door closed, and then tightly clasping her arms around him, her face pressed against his chest. “Welcome back,” she whispers.

Sky puts his long arms around her slender body, kissing the top of her head. “I’m sorry I was gone so long. But I hear things went just perfectly.”

She laughs into his chest, and he laughs with her. She loosens her grip and looks up at him. “If that’s what you heard, someone’s been telling you fables.”

His smile fades. “I hope Somrak didn’t cause any serious problems. If there’s anything that needs taking responsibility for, I will do so.”

Alma pats his broad chest. “Don’t be silly. Everything has been handled and the reports are already sent.” She steps back and gestures toward her desk. “Kept the copies out for you to read later. She is all yours again, Inspector.” She puts her hands behind her back and smiles impishly, as if she is restraining herself from jumping with joy at being free of the burden.

Drily, Sky says, “Oh joy, paperwork.” He looks at Alma and takes her hands. “Thank you, Alma. You kept this place running through some very trying times, Somrak tells me.”

Her gaze falls as her smile vanishes. “I am afraid I didn’t do a very good job. No matter what Somrak may have said, I feel like I may not be a very good choice when it comes to leading a station.” With a tiny sound of anguish, she hugs him again. “I missed you, my friend.”

Sky envelops her in his powerful arms, wrapping her in a cocoon of affection. “I’m back. And Somrak and I have worked with a good many station commanders of a wide range of ability. The best leaders pretty much always have doubts about whether they’re a good choice for the job.”

Alma sighs happily in their embrace. “So…how much did Somrak tell you?”

“Let’s put it this way…I almost choked to death twice.” He feels his chuckling reverberating through her from his chest to his arms.

“Oh…that much, heh?” She giggles, then looks up at him. “Then I guess there isn’t much left to tell. He really tried to behave. Didn’t always succeed but he tried. And I’m glad you have him for a friend.”

Sky smiles sadly and he releases her. “We talked more as I was waking up than we had in the past couple years of working together. He seems…different.” He sniffs the air. “And…has someone been housing a dog in here? Or maybe…a lion?”

“Oh, that was just a tiger we rescued from the demon market. Somrak agreed to take the poor creature as a gift to my aunt. I wanted to keep him but…I have too many pets already.”

Sky can only stare, astonished for the twentieth time today. “Somrak forgot to mention the tiger. Such a minor detail compared to everything else.”

“Oh…” Alma considers. “I believe the tiger arrived here after Somrak was feeding you, if I have it all straight. So he wouldn’t have known about it yet.”

“I’m almost sorry you didn’t keep it… I wonder what other surprises are still to be found. I see there’s repair work going on downstairs.

Alma blinks before realization dawns. “Oh! Yes…The team repairing the cells has found a cellar. Maybe a sub-basement for storing goods that was sealed away for some reason. The think it may be quite large, but I told them to wait until tomorrow before going in.” She pokes his chest with a finger. “And by the way, you will be dealing with the contractors from now on.”

“Oh dear. Have they been rude?” He sounds like he might possibly become annoyed.

Alma laughs. “Worse. They have been dwarves…or dwarfs. Don’t ask them which one is right.”

Sky’s face lights up. “Oh! The Zwergen! Somrak and I had a fascinating stay in one of their cities once, during a mission. Yes, they can be…argumentative. It’s a cultural thing. Actually sort of hardwired into their language. You see…”

Alma interrupts, “Somrak mentioned it. Maybe you two can compare notes when he visits for the Year’s End celebrations and gift-giving.”

Sky feels surprised yet again. “Somrak is coming for New Year?”

“He promised he would do his best to be present. Although I know how it may not be possible. But if it is, we’ll see him again soon.”

Sky nods slowly. “I think he truly will do his best. Not that I would have believed it before our conversation this morning. But if he can’t…it’ll be because he really can’t.”

“Of course,” Alma says. “After all, the Year’s End will be in just a few days and he just left… But anyway, make sure to remember him during your gift shopping. Even if he can’t make it, we can always compensate later.”

“Gift shopping!” Sky feels almost light-headed. “Gifts… I haven’t bought New Year gifts for so long. Not since Somrak and I got the Commander gag gifts five…no six years ago. And no gifts for probably ten years before that.”

Alma bursts out laughing. “Oh the story of you two must be a rich one… Gift-giving is not really a tradition in my family. Each of us receives only one thing and it is always the same thing. For everyone. Our soul-collection log books. So, this will be new to me too. But the Bunnies want to do it and they will have anything they want for this first Year’s End together.”

Sky says seriously, “That’s right…their first New Year…oof. Pressure. And I’m terrible at choosing presents, too.”

“Well, maybe you can ask Gwydion for help. Which reminds me…He must be at the bar at this time. We should have a little meeting to make sure you’re caught up on everything. And I’m sure he will be happy to see you. Shall we go?”

Sky smiles as Alma takes his arm and he opens the door. “Of course. So who’s been using my office?”

“No one. It is as you left it. We all shared this office. I just told Somrak he could use my desk.” They begin to descend the stairs together.

“Oh you didn’t have to do that. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Sky notices that the main room of the station is empty. Strange.

Alma shakes her head. “It just did not feel right. Move into your office? And for a week? No. We were fine where we were. Whenever my desk was occupied, I just used Gwydion’s. He doesn’t mind my using it.” She squeezes Sky’s arm, smiling. “He was…really supportive during your absence.”

Sky pauses before the door to the breezeway, looking at her. “I am very happy to hear that. You know, Somrak, me, perhaps Dion as well…this place changes people.” He grins at her. “Or maybe it’s just the company we’re keeping.”

Looking please and slightly embarrassed, she replies, “There are good people here. And besides…Bunnies.” She chuckles and opens the door. “They’ll change anyone. Oh, I have had my first lesson with the infamous Master Pak.”

Sky closes his eyes and groans. “Pak… You know those dreams where you find yourself back in the Academy and it’s exams time and you’re late and you can’t find a pencil? Or your pants? I feel like that every time I remember I’ll be training with him again.”

Alma laughs softly. “You see, it is things like that that made me very worried about my first session. But he was…nice. Encouraging. Offered me tea. Very different from my we-don’t-believe-in-dull-practice-weapons training with the Fencer. And just so you can have an idea…this sword is my old practice sword from my times with her.”

“Well, Pak can take different approaches with different students. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all teacher. And you never know, next time he might be smacking you with a stick. One time–”

Sky opens the door to the bar and freezes at the ragged roar of “SURPRISE!” followed by calls of “Welcome back” and “Yay!” Alma steps away just as a slight body springs at him, squeeing, and he automatically catches Tulip as her arms and legs wrap around him. She plants a big kiss on his cheek and then hugs him tight. “Mmmmmm! You’re here! Do you know what? There was a big rat? And Somrak burnt the table? And I didn’t see it but I heard all about it and oh Somrak had a tiger?”

Sky rides the tide of words. Holding her brings back memories in a sudden flood, of children held, of presents and a tree and family.

“Come on, give the guy a break!” Cherry takes his hand and pulls him into the crowd, looking back at him with a big smile. Still holding Tulip, Sky sees Sage grinning with his arm around Constable – no, once-again Corporal Aliyah Kaur’s waist, apparently seeing this as momentarily off-duty. Merri is pouring drinks under a red paper banner covered in hearts and stars that reads “WELCOME HOME!” and Kori and Chime are helping to serve them out to the Popula constables from the office.

Gwydion negotiates his way through the mob and takes Sky’s hand from Cherry and shakes it. Then, seeing the overwhelmed look on Sky’s face, he lets go Sky’s hand and gives him a warm one-armed man-hug. “Welcome back, my friend. You were missed.”

Stunned, Sky returns Dion’s embrace while still holding Tulip with his other arm, as she chatters to him about this and that, and then Tulip shifts her grip to Dion and kisses the sergeant on the cheek and snuggles against him.

“Welcome back, sir!” Aliyah has approached and, perhaps unable to resist all this affection, she hugs him as well. A beer appears in his hand, given to him by Kori, who grins and darts away, and another hand takes his free one. He looks down to see Mayumi, who had been out of sight before, waiting until the others had their chance perhaps.

Her mouth moves. He cannot hear her above the tumult, but he knows she is saying hello. Her eyes crinkle in sympathy. She reaches up to touch his cheek, to touch the moisture that is spilling over. Oh…they’ve made me cry, he thinks. Mayumi’s nose turns a little pink and her eyes become wet in reaction to his tears, but it passes after a moment. She pulls him away, over to the sofa, where Saira has been sitting through all this, perched on one end. Mayumi sits him down on the other.

Saira raises her glass to him, leaning forward across Mayumi to tap his drink with hers. “I think they just might like you.”

Sky can do nothing but nod, holding Mayumi’s hand, the beer as yet untouched in his other. Merri brings a slice of cake, sees the tears, exclaims, “Oh!” and takes his beer, setting it alongside the cake on a table, twisting her apron around two fingers to pat his face dry with it. “Ye great silly…” the Bunny says, her voice full of affection.

Across the room, Sky sees Alma on the periphery of all this watching him with a small smile. Dion brings her a slice of cake, and though he does not put an arm around her, the way they stand tells anyone who looks that they are a couple.

“Sky?” Mayumi is looking at him, a little worried.

He gives her a watery smile. “I’m all right.” His voice is thick. “I’m home.”

Ch6.26 Trust

Morning falls over Three Rats in layers, like heavy blankets being lifted one after another to expose a sleeping body to the light of day. Of course, this being Three Rats, the sleeping body in question tends to be nursing a hangover after a night of heavy drinking to forget about its unemployment status and the loss of its full food and rent budget for the week, so it tends to be very keen on holding onto the heavy, comfy, grayish linens of night and mutter obscenities while covering its head again and turning to sleep it off a bit longer. If the hangover is bad enough, it might even pull the odd stick with rusty nails and swing it around a bit for emphasis.

Morning may be a self-imposing and cruel little thing but it is by no means stupid and so it knows it’s best to stop hogging all the blankets and leave the whole hot mess for Afternoon to deal with.

Scientists and other skeptical killjoys alike may go through great lengths to refute this explanation as to why morning is always slower to dawn in Three Rats than in the neighboring wards, of course. They may pull photonic interference patterns and magic differential potentials and quantum force-field interactions out of their hats, even (for lack of wanting to know where else these people keep their crazy ideas when they’re not being used). But Three Rats is famous for spitting in the eye of Science and Logic (and any of their brothers, cousins or friends of the family unlucky enough to have stopped by for a visit), and give them a good kicking for ruining its buzz before going back to doing whatever in Hell it pleases, so it’s generally just best to accept things for what they are and not ask too many questions.

Either way, the morning is still a grayish, sad little thing outside the Burrow, the bar out behind Three Rats Station, by the time Saira raises her hands and voice in protest.

“Right, I’m done with this! I’m covered in glitter, there’s glue on my fingers – And why do I even have to be doing this in the first place?”

She drops a paper garland next to the three that Cherry has made in the time Saira has taken to make a mutant twisted version of just one. The writhing, monstrous red-and-purple paper worm sticks to her fingers as she shakes her hands and tries to get rid of it, rustling in what sounds like a derelict, papery cry of Why don’t you love me, Mamma! and she nearly rips it while pulling at the thing with her other hand to free herself.

Cherry can barely keep from laughing at her struggles. It takes her a couple of tries to be able to reply cheerfully, “Hey, this counts as physical therapy! Now hold this end…there! See? Ain’t so bad. Just gotta make four more of those.”

“Four?!” Saira looks at her like a distraught puppy. “Come on, Sunshine, can’t we do with just these four? Like…I’ll split this one in half and we can have two small ones?”

One of Cherry’s ears flops to the side in amusement, and she smiles brightly, all the brighter in contrast to her beautiful dark-brown skin. “I love it when you call me Sunshine.”

Meanwhile, Rosemary chooses this moment to drop off more colored paper. “Oh Saira, this is no’ but the beginnin’! Anyway, after the first one, makin’ the next is so very much easier.”

The look Saira gives her pretty much says she would rather be sentenced to a lifetime of breaking rocks with a rubber pickaxe. Lexie doesn’t help it all. Fascinated by the slithering action of the garland, the cat has already spent ten minutes stalking the elusive paper snake, jumping and pawing at the thing. Pulling sometimes. Heck, even biting! Saira’s garland isn’t just mutated, it’s actually a mutilated victim of feline nature. Here and there, it sports claw marks and tooth marks and spit marks. A few rings lie wrecked on the floor where they gave their lives for the rest of the herd.

Thankfully, Lexie eventually decided she didn’t like the taste of the glue and went to nestle on the sofa and lick the glitter off her brown-grey coat. There will be some very special gifts in the litter tray tonight.

Still, as if that wasn’t enough to add to Saira’s misery, Cala’s voice rises from two tables away, chuckling and echoing in a deep, bodily voice that opera singers would probably kill for. “As I live and breathe, would I ever think I’d see the great Saira making paper garlands…?”

Saira lowers her head, eyes glaring knives and icicles at the woman cop currently sitting surrounded by a sea of paper petals and the flowery decorations she’s been working on. She taps her sticky fingers on the tabletop, daydreaming scenarios of shooting Cala for that remark. Not fatally, mind you, just…maybe a leg? Or a foot? But that would get her into trouble. Arrrgh, she’s going soft, all right!

Aliyah, sitting at another table, her thigh pressed against Sage’s as they cut out shapes from colored paper and her body language trying to hide her pleasure over the Bunny’s closeness with just about as much success as a whale trying to hide behind a toothpick, joins the laugh fest. “Again, you mean! We got her to make, like, almost half of one waaaaaay back when. In the orphanage…”

Saira snatches the glue bottle and hefts it, ready to throw it at the woman’s head. But then, memory hits her.

Wait a minute…

“That wasn’t me, that was Whistle Suzy!” she cries, throwing the bottle anyway for old times’ sake. Aliyah ducks and the bottle hits her shoulder instead, spreading glue all over her uniform.

“Oh, come on! I just cleaned this too!” she complains, rising from her seat.

Sage sighs and patiently rises too, reaching for Aliyah’s hand with a soft offer of “Come on, there’s something in the armory that will clean that right off.”

Saira chuckles and shakes her head at the sight of tall, muscled, huge Aliyah being happily lead out of the bar by the short Bunny that would need a stepladder to stop looking up her nostrils before turning to explain to Cherry, “You see, she had this huge gap between her front teeth and when she talked – What?! That was funny!!” she complains at Cherry’s scolding eyes and crossed arms (tapping foot included).

The bartending Bunny opens her mouth to start her righteous moral tirade but just as the first sounds leave her throat, loud, screeching giggles fill the room followed by something around the lines of,

“Tulip, you brat! I’ll get you for that!”

Tulip, the youngest of the Bunnies at an age of thirteen going on six erupts into the bar from the kitchen, running, hopping and, most of all, laughing like a maniac who has just pulled the pin out of a grenade and refuses to give it back. Behind her comes Alma, racing after the Bunny that looks like a mini, cute version of herself, chasing Tulip around the bar with a big, mischievous smile on her face that seems out of place for being so unusual for the death goddess. Well, not that the fact that she’s currently wearing an old Guardia Academy shirt for a nightgown, her hair clearly just out of a night-long meeting with a pillow and feet bare on the wooden boards, is common for her either. The shirt is not hers, that’s for sure. Manly cut.

Huh…wonder if she remembered she’s about the same height as Dion before putting that on… Saira thinks, tilting her head in amusement at the sight of Alma’s pale legs completely exposed below the shirt that barely covers the soft curves of Alma’s rear.

Ahead of the goddess, Tulip jumps over chairs and tables and counters with practiced ease, shrieking herself to breathlessness as she hides from her mother’s grasp behind anyone she can find. The two are laughing so hard that none of their audience can help but laugh too and soon bellies are hurting and Bunnies are bending double in laughter, making it harder for Tulip to hide behind them.

A shadow catches Saira’s eye, like a change in the color of the air over the staircase that leads to the Bunnies’ rooms upstairs. She glances in that direction to see Somrak climbing down the dark, wooden steps, feet instinctively quiet and light like any killer’s should be. And now he’s nearly at the bottom of the last step and Tulip races past him at full speed and Alma hasn’t seen him yet, too focused on catching Tulip as she is. Saira cringes in anticipation. From her seat, Cala cries out.

“Serg–!”

But it’s too late. Somrak rounds the bottom of the stairs just as Alma is dashing by and catches a chestful of goddess for his stealth. Without thought, his arms surround Alma, catching her full inertia and turning it into a pirouette that could have scored points in a dance contest if they were holding one. Eventually, they come to a halt, looking like the isle’s most confused dancers ever, Alma held firmly in the god’s arms, her knees bent and face looking up at him in surprise, Somrak looking down at her, hands holding her by the back of her shoulders, a look on his face like a heron confronted with a suicidal fish. Silence. Alma’s pale face is already flushing into a pinkish red.

Saira whistles a wolf call and the room explodes into laughter again. Cherry cheers happily amidst body-jerking laughs. Merri is nearly falling off a barstool and Tulip has thrown herself on the floor, flailing in her amusement. Even Cala, usually rather empathetic about these things, has her back arched in uncontrollable, convulsive laughter. Kori, May and Chime peek out of the kitchen in confused surprise but Somrak’s body is shielding their view of Alma and so they just shrug and return to whatever it was they were doing in there.

Somrak glances surreptitiously down at Alma’s bare legs over her shoulders. His hands are gripping her shirt, unconsciously lifting the back of it and giving the whole room a view of the moon in plain morning. She is tugging at the hem of the shirt, more out of discomfort for being laughed at than out of modesty (Saira has never known Alma to worry much about what others might think of her figure) as she slowly extends her legs to full height and relaxes in Somrak’s hold.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stutters, barely audible. “I didn’t see you. I was…” She gestures helplessly to where Tulip is rolling on the floor in in fetal position, bent double with laughter, then sighs. “Never mind… Good morning, how are you feeling?”

Somrak smiles, making a show of keeping his eyes on her face as he replies brightly, “I feel well. Good morning to you!”

And then he bursts into laughter and Alma hides her flushed face against his shoulder and laughs too and everyone is laughing with them now and not just at them. Saira clenches her abdomen, feeling her muscles more taut and toned than she has since the whole demon thing. For a moment, she fears that she might start turning blue, so difficult it is to breathe. But eventually, things grow quiet again and everyone takes a good, long breath.

“Oh dear…I should go get dressed,” Alma says.

“No need to do so on my account…” Somrak offers, grinning like a kid looking at an unwrapped piece of candy. “I’m fine with the local customs.”

“Honey, that ain’t local customs,” Saira calls out. “Local customs, she loses the shirt!”

Alma flushes even further, glaring icicles at the woman. “You are not helping, Saira.”

“Not you, maybe,” Saira jests. “But I was definitely helping him!”

Alma shakes her head, chuckling quietly. Patting Somrak’s chest, she gently pulls away from him. “Anyway…I won’t be long.” She turns to the rest of the room in general. “And then maybe someone can explain to me what is going on here.”

“Oh, we’re makin’ decorations for New Year!” Merri chimes happily. “Y’see, these here paper chains will be goin’ all over the walls, an’–”

“Baby, she needs to go put some pants on,” Cherry interrupts her, with a sympathetic look to Alma.

“I know that!” Merri replies with an everything but subtle wink. “I was just tryin’ to keep ‘er around pantsless for awhile longer.”

The revelation makes Cherry’s mouth curve in an almost perfect circle. “Oh…Oops, sorry!”

Alma looks at the two Bunnies with something between motherly love and friendly irritation that Saira has often seen the goddess dispense her as well. She wonders suddenly if Alma sees her as a human ally or as one more of her mortal kids.

“Nice try,” the goddess says dryly before slowly starting on her way to the staircase that leads to her room, downstairs, her face and front carefully kept turned toward Somrak, hands prudently pulling down the hem of her shirt.

Somrak chuckles as she suddenly darts downstairs, pretending great interest in Tulip, who has finally managed to return to a standing position and is happily trotting her way to Saira’s side. “Well good morning, Miss!”

Tulip smiles at him, very much pleased with herself. “Hi!” She turns to Saira. “Do I get my treat now?”

Saira chuckles at her and pulls a piece of hard candy, a type of fruit and vegetable drop that Sage usually makes out of sugarcane molasses and fruit or vegetable juice, out of her trouser pocket. She hands it to Tulip with a light tap to the Bunny’s head. “There you go, sugarcube. You’ve earned it. Execution was flawless.” She glances at Somrak with a mischievous grin. “And with a bonus too.”

Tulip smiles as she takes the candy and happily starts munching on it. “It’s a pleasure to do business with you.”

The Bunny turns and walks away, leaving Saira chuckling. Tulip might spend most of her time acting younger than human kids her age but she definitely has an impish streak in her that will leave her mother screaming curses at the gods of puberty in probably not too long a time.

Meanwhile, Somrak steps closer to the woman’s table, watching Tulip disappear into the kitchen before giving Saira an appraising look. “Quite the operation. How are you?”

“Bored, glued, papered, glittered,” Saira replies, raising her uncomfortably sticky, glittery hands. “But otherwise well enough. Definitely not bouncing back from some fun with acid, like Merri said you did last night. You all right under that shirt now?”

Somrak nods, fingering the pale-blue Popula shirt he’s been lent. His throat looks patchy, with some lighter spots where the new skin has been made to grow over the demon-blood-induced wounds. “Other than needing a new jacket. Never gonna be able to get the smell of demon out of my old one.” He shakes his head with an expression of someone mourning over a particularly dear piece of clothing. Of course, considering how good the jacket looked on him, it wouldn’t be too hard to join in his grief. “So what’s going on here?”

Saira looks around the various tables covered in all sorts of paper flowers, garlands, banners and other typical seasonal decorations. If the Bunnies put up half of what they are making, the bar is going to look like something out of a design magazine in full-blown identity crisis.

“Bunnies want to celebrate their first Year Turning together,” she explains, picking up a wad of paper and a pair of scissors to cut out more of the ribbony shapes needed for the garlands. “Mer and Cher are cracking the whip, gonna make it big. And I’ve been enslaved – son of a–” She shoves her cut finger into her mouth and sucks on it, complaining loud enough for Cherry to hear. “This is not physical therapy, this is torture!!”

“Remember, only four more to go!” Cherry cheers her on, getting a tongue stuck out at her in response.

And that is when May returns from the kitchen, carrying a tray of round…ish, pale… cakes? Call it cakes for now – That girl is always coming up with the strangest things to eat – sprinkled in a beige powder that looks suspiciously like dust.

“Tell me how these are,” she says, putting the tray down on one of the few uncluttered tables. “I’m still trying to remember just how to make them…”

“What are those, May?” Cala asks, rising from her chair to take a closer look at the tray. “They look great but I’ve never seen something like that.”

Of course they look great, Cala, you lover of all things sweet.

“The inside is a bean paste, sweet,” Mayumi replies. “Covered in mochi, uh, pounded rice, and then sprinkled with kinako, a bean powder with sugar. But I don’t know if it’s the right kind of beans… It tastes different from my memory but…maybe it still tastes good?”

It probably does taste good because Kori, who is for some reason carrying a large wooden mallet over his shoulder, is already eating the weird-looking things and licking his fingers with little sucking sounds of absolute pleasure. And then again, Bunnies tend to like anything vegetable provided it is not actively trying to eat them at the moment, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to how good the mooch – noch – cakes…things really are.

“Well he likes it…” Cherry snorts, picking up a cake before Kori single-mouthedly drives them to extinction. “Oh hey, that’s nice!”

“Making the mochi was fun!” Kori exclaims, swinging the mallet to demonstrate how it is done. “BAM!”

Well, that explains why it sounded like the kitchen was going through an extreme makeover, Saira thinks.

Even if just a teenager, Kori is definitely the most athletically inclined and already the strongest of the Bunnies. Only him among them would have fun swinging a mallet for countless hours. And eat the full product of his labor in little under five minutes.

“Hey, show me how to make these chain things?” Somrak’s voice cuts into Saira’s reveries as he takes the chair opposite to her.

Saira looks at him like he has just asked her to show him how to reach the moon using a stepladder and two coconut shells but, before she can process the request, a familiar pale shape looms at the top of the stairs.

“Heh, I would but…your girl’s back,” she says, glancing meaningfully in that direction.

Somrak looks confused. “My girl?” He glances over his shoulder to see Alma, now sporting the Guardia-blue sari with silver embellishments she seems to have taken a liking to. He looks back at Saira’s grinning face in mild annoyance.

She pats his cheek in return, cooing at him. “You are sho cuuute!” She chuckles at her own jesting, before turning toward the goddess. “Hey, Alma, you’re not gonna make us cut out paper skulls to decorate or anything, are you? I mean, they’d be cool but I’m not about to get my fingers crooked from handling scissors all day.”

Alma chuckles, stopping by Cala’s table to take a look at all the different, colorful paper flowers. “I have no idea what you are talking about. My family mostly avoids the skull-and-bones cliché. Apart from a few…unsavory elements.” She turns to Cala, already returned to her seat and working her surprisingly delicate fingers away. “These are beautiful.”

In response, Cala offers her a bright-red paper poppy, that Alma sticks behind her ear with a small word of thanks.

Somewhere near the kitchen, May is already dragging Kori back to some radical cooking. “Come on! More rice needs pounding!”

“Sweet!” the Bunny replies, happily hefting the mallet.

“I wanna help too!” Tulip cries, rushing after them.

“Hey, where can we get a tree?” Cherry suddenly asks. “Like a real Christmas tree?”

Alma, who had been chuckling at Kori and Tulip, blinks at the dark-skinned Bunny in what looks like confusion. “What is a Christmas tree?”

“Oh, I know some Christians. Maybe they know,” Cala volunteers.

Alma nods absently as if the word “Christian” explained it all. Of course, gods tend to have a hard time understanding the newfangled monotheistic cults. Well, newfangled by godly standards, anyway. The so-called modern monotheistic religions are somewhere around two thousand years old in the Insula, though some of them will argue that the Insula did not exist before their god created it just because he thought it should exist. Why any god would bother to create a few billion beings just to hear them pray and whine all day is somewhat beyond the reach of Saira’s understanding but maybe even gods get so desperately bored that they’d be willing to do the divine equivalent of shooting their own foot. And probably what befuddles most gods is the intense insistence with which monotheists will deny the existence of the gods they can see walking, flying or fading in and out of sight in the streets every day while praying their hearts out to these higher, illuminated beings that no one can quite prove exist and that many will go to war to defend their take on something as simple as their god’s name or the correct length of his beard. In summary, mortals must seem as outlandish to gods as gods seem weird to mortals.

Thankfully, a great many monotheists have learned to interact without either offending them or allowing their presence to interfere with any ingrained beliefs. Cala, for instance, actually seems to like and get along well with Alma and Sky, while carefully avoiding Dion’s attentions – but that probably has different reasons than mere religious philosophy. Guardia Dei are forbidden from actively seeking worship and none of the gods in the station seem that bothered by people’s beliefs, no matter how unreasonable they sometimes are. Provided it doesn’t hurt anyone, they will let people believe whatever the heck they want, even if Saira has more than once caught them rolling their eyes or smirking at some piece of particularly colorful religious lore.

And, of course, it’s impossible to know everything about every single religion available, so now and again communication can get…interesting between mortals and divines.

“Is all of this for the Year’s End?” Alma asks, looking around. “Is that what you mean by Christmas?”

“Yeah… We thought we’d, like, combine all our different traditions an’ make it our own thing,” Cherry explains to a background sound of muffled hammering and Chime trah-lah-lah-lah-ing from the kitchen.

“Very well…how can I help?” Alma asks.

“Wrappin’ paper!” Merri says brightly. “An’ ribbons! An’ of course presents t’go inside ‘em! We’re goin’ t’be makin’ presents, mostly, as we have no money, but some bright paper would be lovely!”

Alma smiles at her excitement. “Sure, I will find you some. As for presents…I think it is the first Year’s End that will involve gift-giving for me.” She picks up the other end of the paper garland that Saira is currently working on to inspect the woman’s slightly less horribly disfigured second attempt at arts and crafts.

A mischievous thought has Saira tossing the garland into Alma’s hands. “Hey, great idea! Here, you have it!” she says, getting up and walking over to the bar as fast as she can. “Cherry, I’m done! Alma is taking over now!”

“Saira, I have to go to work!” Alma complains behind her.

“Don’t know, don’t care! I’m free! FREE!” Saira cries out, throwing her hands in the air as she dashes to perch on a bar stool.

“Hey! I got somethin’ else for you to do!” Cherry calls out, chasing after her.

In his chair, Somrak smirks and mutters something that has Alma laughing. Saira can see the goddess trying to make heads or tails out of the garland before frowning and looking at her pale fingers in annoyance.

Ah…that’ll be the glitter, Saira thinks with a smirk.

What happens next has the woman’s face freezing in an incredulous grin, her mind working overtime to try and bend around what her eyes are telling her is going on. To her gleeful surprise, she sees Alma’s eyes dart over the table, looking for the source of the glitter, her hand reaching for the little bottle of what could only be described as the shiny, craftsy equivalent of some human venereal diseases. The goddess unscrews the lid to the glitter bottle, looks inside it and then, with a millimetrical glance at Somrak, very intently pours a small mound of the silvery specs on the lid’s inner surface, leans slightly, holds it up to her mouth…

And blows a silver cloud against the left side of Somrak’s face!

Saira feels her body jerk with ill-restrained laughter before she can believe what she’s seeing. In his chair, Somrak is looking up at Alma, his face turned so that the woman can only see the left side of his face, his left eye closed against the starry landscape speckled against the olive sky of his skin. His hand reaches for a bottle of golden glitter. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

He raises the bottle of gold glitter, slowly unscrewing the cap. “Of course, you know what this means…”

Alma is already backing away toward the door, laughing. “Don’t you dare…I have to start my shift.”

Somrak taps a little mound of gold into his palm and stands, a diabolical look on his face. Saira sees Alma glance behind her, toward the door, probably calculating how fast she can escape the bar if she makes a run for it.

“No…No…I will never get it off – No!” Alma suddenly dashes toward the door.

But Somrak is faster. Much, much faster. In the blink of an eye, he is blocking her path and theatrically throwing a fistful of glitter in the air like a fairy sprinkling magic powder on a raggedy maid. Alma stands under a golden cloud, the whole of her glimmering and shimmering as the flecks catch the light, her head hung as she looks down at clothes that will take nothing short of a miracle to get glitter-free again.

“Least you could do was make it silver glitter,” Saira hears her say to the fire god.

“I thought the gold would make a nicer contrast to your hair,” Somrak replies with a smirk, casually smoothing the right side of his own hair with a gold-glittered hand.

Smooth, Ponytail, Saira chuckles quietly. Real smooth. Almost as good as the competition. Speaking of which…

She feels Dion approaching the bar counter, coming from the kitchen. She hasn’t turned to look at him but his footsteps have that poised, self-assured cadence that always gives him away. It always somehow has her expecting to see him in a burgundy-red patterned silk robe and room slippers.

He reaches the bar proper just as Merri cries out her exasperation over the laughter that is again booming across the room. “Och, that glitter is very dear! It’ll be comin’ outta yer paychecks!”

“It’s impossible to sleep here today,” Dion notes in mild annoyance, and Saira turns to see him rubbing his eyes with two fingers of one hand, as if the light was somehow too bright for him. He squints at Alma and Somrak, covered in glitter. “And then again, maybe I’m still dreaming…”

Both gods smile at him, Somrak with a soft, quiet chuckle and Alma, her back now turned to the fire god, with a mixture of amusement and tender gladness at seeing Dion that would probably have left Somrak in a much darker humor, were he able to see it.

Saira catches Alma’s hand subtly touching Somrak’s, grazing the fingers with which he holds the bottle of gold glitter to tease them into releasing it. Her eyes always on Dion, smile levelling into a grin that should be featured in encyclopedias right beside the word naughty, the goddess walks toward the bar. “Oh, we were just decorating for the upcoming holidays.”

“Is that…glitter on your hair?” Dion asks in the same tones with which a deer would turn to a wolf and ask, What is your family doing here?

“Yes,” Alma replies, now standing right in front of him, glitter already flowing into her palm. “Yes, it is.”

Dion’s eyes widen in too-slow realization. “Oh no – oh no, you don’t!”

Ch6.15 Trust

“Seriously? You sure you ain’t cheatin’?” Aliyah looks suspiciously at Saira, where they sit playing cards with Cherry at one of the tables on a slow evening in the Burrow Bar.

“Yeah, I’m startin’ to think the same thing!” Cherry kicks at Saira’s leg under the table, biting her lower lip and grinning.

“Ow! Hey! What are you two looking at me for? I can’t be blamed if you can’t play right!” Saira kicks back, making Cherry yelp and pull her legs up fast enough to slam her knees into the underside of the table.

“Ow!”

“Serves you right, flingin’ about accusations!” Saira says primly, tugging at the flowing sleeves of the black dress. “Besides, there’s a million places for me to hide cards in this frickin’ drapery thing you got me wearing.”

Cherry sticks her tongue out at her. “I gave you a choice! I can’t help it if all your clothes now are hand-me-downs from Alma’s old stuff. At least it’s all black, like you like.”

Aliyah tosses her cards on the table. “Well I better settle up. I gotta go on duty in a minute.”

“All right, sugar,” Cherry says, rubbing one knee. “Let’s go to the bar. You sure you don’t just want me to put that on your tab, hon? She wiped you like a window cleaner.”

“Oh I’m fine,” Aliyah says casually. “I always hold some in reserve.” She pulls out her wallet and looks in with dismay. “Uh…Cher…”

“Put it on your tab, huh?”

With a sheepish smile, Aliyah says, “Yeah… Oh, look who just walked in…”

Cherry is already looking toward the doorway as it swings open. “My, oh my, if it ain’t the god of tight leather himself,” she says quietly for Aliyah’s ears only. Then she calls out to Somrak, “Hi, hon! Fancy somethin’ to drink?”

Somrak looks toward Cherry and smiles, then notices Saira, still lounging at the table. As he walks toward her, he says, “One of those cocktails you made me last time, Cherry. Thanks.”

“Sure thing!” Cherry turns to grab a bottle of bourbon with one hand, a shaker with the other, then leans back to say quietly to Aliyah, “Guess he’s eager for a game himself. Heh.”

Aliyah, smiling as she watches him move, replies, “Dangerous game…like gasoline meetin’, uh,  flamin’ gasoline.”

“Ohhhh yeah, that’d make one heck of a bonfire, those two together.” Cherry adds ice, bourbon, and vermouth to the shaker. “And then again, I wouldn’t mind gettin’ a little scorched myself. I mean, look at them hips.”

Aliyah murmurs, “É…essa brasa é fogo…

“Wazzat? Somethin’ like fire?”

“Means he’s hot like fire,” Aliyah says with a grin as she starts to leave. “A couple’a market girls were calling him that earlier when I was coming into work. Seems they say him yesterday with your mom and wanted to know who he was.”

Cherry chuckles. “Word does get around quickly. Wonder how many people he’s lookin’ to burn…”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Saira is leaning back in her chair, looking into space while splitting the deck of cards with one hand and smoothly sliding the cards back together, interleaving them in a shuffle, then doing it again. She glances up as Somrak’s shadow falls over her. “Huh…you again.”

“Playing solitaire?” the fire gods asks.

“Reading fortunes.” Still using just the one hand, she fans out the deck. “Pick a card. Any card.”

Somrak pulls a chair out and sits, then picks a card at random, not bothering to turn it so he can see it, but just holding it up for Saira’s benefit. The corner of Siara’s mouth creases with a touch of amusement. “Dame of clubs. A lady of authority guides your steps. Pick another.”

Keeping his eyes on hers, Somrak tumbles the card across his fingers, trapping it between pinky and ring fingers while simultaneously pulling another card out and holding it up for Saira to see.

She barely glances at the card before returning her gaze to hold his. “Hmm… a seven… One of the temptations. And red. Love or greed.”

Somrak grunts, then asks, “How would you like to get out of here?”

“That escalated quickly.” She looks at the card more fully. “Diamonds. Well, it’s not love.”

“I need help,” he says. “Looking for a market. One that sells demonic items. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”

Saira snaps the deck closed and sets it down on the table, eyes fixed on it. “Been looking for it myself. Not easy to find, I gather.” She looks up at him again. “Why would you be interested in stuff like that?”

Somrak keeps his gold-flecked black eyes on her face. “Normally I might be interested in trying to track down their sources. But this time I’m more interested in their buyers. One in particular. He set off a bomb in this station. Probably also working with the guy who summoned the demon you fought.”

“I’ve heard about the bomb,” Saira says. “Not really my business. I was out cold at the time. The demon-handler, though…”

“He was a lead. They killed him so the Dei here couldn’t question him. Took out another prisoner and a good Popula officer.”

“I know,” Saira says. “And almost took out a Dei.” She is paying close attention at Somrak’s expression, watching how he seems to be studying her just as carefully. “All that is your business. But there weren’t many Dukaines who could get away with demon summoning. Not if they didn’t work for someone up near the top, someone I’d love to find.” She turns over a card, the ace of spades. “That would make it my business.”

Somrak glances at the card and smiles. “I’ve been rounding up the Dukaine summoners myself. I’d love to have the complete set. The one who turned our lead into a dead end was probably his teacher. And I think he may have been very highly placed indeed.”

Saira takes a deep breath. “A lot of Dukaines have told me things with their last breaths. I know who you’re talking about.” She brings her chair back onto all four legs, then pushes his back as she stands. “I’ll be needing my crossbow.”

Cherry sets Somrak’s drink down on the table. “Crossbow? Hey, what’s goin’ on?”

Saira takes Somrak’s drink and sips it. “Mmm. Just planning some target practice, sunshine.”

Cherry puts her hands on her hips. “Don’t you sunshine me! I can tell when you’re shinin’ me on. And you are not supposed to be drinkin’!”

Saira puts the glass down, looking serious. “They need me to talk to some people. I’m going. That’s all.”

Cherry opens her mouth to say something, but closes it on seeing the expression on Saira’s face. Looking angry, she turns to Somrak. “What the hey are you gettin’ her into, mister?”

Somrak replies calmly, “Cherry, Alma approved it.”

The Bunny glares at him. “I heard the rumors about what happened over in Rio Novo.”

Saira looks impressed. “That was you? Nice!”

Somrak sighs. “That was a mistake.”

“Yeah?” says Cherry, her voice tight, leaning in to put her face close to his. “And what about when you make a mistake and Saira here ends up dead? Huh?”

Saira is on the verge of snapping at the Bunny, cutting her off and telling her to mind her own business, but on impulse she instead puts her arms around Cherry from behind, pulling her close. The Bunny looks surprised for a moment, then lays her dark-brown hands on Saira’s tanned forearms, turning her head to look up at the taller woman. Saira says, “Cherry… I know you worry, but I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself. Besides, I’m all better now. I won’t play hero.”

Cherry sags a little in Saira’s arms. “You’re a big girl who almost fell off the roof a couple days ago. You ain’t all better! Dammit girl… You promise me! You promise me you mean it when you say you ain’t gonna play the hero.”

Saira brings a hand up to Cherry’s face and gives her cheek a stroke, half-smiling. “It’s a promise.” Good thing Aliyah isn’t here to see this, she thinks. Her jaw would be on the floor. She remembers how, not so long ago, she had pointed her crossbow at Aliyah and at Cala, threatening them both with death. How nothing mattered to her but vengeance. How, after all her experiences from her first memories to the murder of her gang by the Dukaines, she had long decided that friendship was a weakness, a deadly weakness. But Aliyah and Cala, and now Alma and Sky, and the Bunnies, most particularly Cherry, were wearing away at that resolve. I am going soft.

“I didn’t spend all that time takin’ care of you just to see you limp on a cold slab, sugar.” Cherry’s voice shakes a little. “Don’t do that to me, y’hear?”

Saira hugs her. “I’ll be fine,” she insists. “Just gonna talk to some people, walk a bit. Get out of the cage, so to speak.”

Cherry closes her eyes and sighs. “Go on, get yer poke.” She squeezes Saira’s hand and then steps away.

Saira lets her go and says to Somrak, “I’ll be just a minute.” She turns to leave, looks down, then turns back. “I can’t go out looking like this! I look like a freakin’ princess!”

Cherry smiles against her will and shakes her head. “All right, Miss Princess Sparkle Bunny. You get your stuff together and I’ll go rustle up Sage. He was adjustin’ another one of Alma’s outfits to fit you. I bet he’s done. I’ll have it here for you by the time you get back.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Cherry watches Saira go, then turns to Somrak, her face serious. “You are taking care of her.”

Somrak nods. “Yes.”

“You are not lettin’ her do anything stupid.”

“No jumping around on rooftops, no walking into the middle of unsavory crowds.”

Cherry gives her best extra-hard glare, then softens. “All right then. I guess she’s gotta get this outta her system, along with the poison.” She picks up the cocktail, takes a big mouthful. “You ain’t stickin’ around long enough to drink this anyhow, and you sure ain’t goin’ out with her after drinkin’ one of these.” She reaches out a hand and lays it on his heart, looking at him with a silent plea. Somrak looks back at her, and she decides he looks like he’s really listened to her, that he means it. Ain’t too many gods who really listen to mortals, she thinks. Somehow we keep gettin’ the good ones.

She pats his chest and then goes off in search of Sage.

Ch6.06 Trust

The tall blueshirt woman drags Jeel into a room on the first floor. She looks tired around the eyes and the way she grabs his arm and pushes him through the door speaks volumes about how she is not in the mood for any funny business but she still smiles at him as if she hasn’t learned any other facial expressions. He has heard of her before. What was her name? Aly-something. Everyone seems to know her, more or less. Neighborhood kid turned Guardia. A real shame with that height and those muscles. Could have made a real nice henchm – henchwoman. Oh well, what is he going to do, anyway? His gang has just been arrested and its members relieved of their elemental slaves. It is not like she is going to just let him go, even if he asks nicely.

She doesn’t tell him much, just to sit down on one of two chairs available and wait for a Sergeant Gwydion, whoever that is. The elementalist does that, waiting for the interrogation he knows must come. He has been arrested several times before, though never in Three Rats. His gang had moved here in the fallout of the Dukaine breakup, thinking Three Rats might be some kind of promised landed for criminal activity. Little did they know that the Guardia here really do take their jobs seriously. In the neighboring wards, like Little Falls, Port Nouvelle, Kaya Kweru, even Konístra, the Guardia have long been subdued, bought or simply chased away. Being interrogated there is just something to pass the time while waiting for either release or a one-week all-inclusive vacation in one of the peripheral prisons. Sure, they are brutal places but with the right contacts and enough things to sell in exchange for luxury and protection, life is not bad at all.

Here, however, things have taken a turn for the worse. No week-long sentences have been issued so far and every gang taken in has simply disappeared from the streets, at least for the time being.

He clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth in mild impatience. There is nothing worse for people used to living with crime than cops getting ideas.

Soon, however, someone arrives. Another blueshirt, of course, this one male, tall, black hair and a set of pearly white teeth that are an invitation for a punch. He is dressed in a snappy royal-blue suit and white shirt with a tie to match, the whole outfit dirty with dust and blood. Ah, yes. That Guardia Dei with all the magic tricks from before. He walks in carrying a folder and a bag, that he places on the table that separates the only two chairs in the room. The god sits with his back to the door, clearly to block any escape attempts.

“Mister…Jeel,” he says, reading from one of the papers inside the folder. He looks at the elementalist. “Is that correct?”

Jeel nods. “Yeah, that’s right.”

The Dei nods back. “I am Sergeant Gwydion. Thank you for agreeing to speak to me.”

He’s smilin’ at me! Jeel thinks in awe. Does this guy think I’m gonna be all buddy-buddy with him?

He even feels slightly offended by this god’s attempt at empathy. That’s the oldest trick in the book and everyone knows it! Criminals are criminals, cops are cops. They don’t mix and they don’t match. Who would even be dumb enough to think otherwise?

“I didn’t have no choice,” he grumbles, already disliking the too-pretty Sergeant, who somehow manages to look all posh even covered in dirt.

Unaware of Jeel’s inner thoughts, Gwydion seems to have just noticed the torn pocket on his expensive suit. He looks down at it, muttering something like “Every damned time,” before returning his attention to Jeel.

“No, you didn’t,” he says. “You are here accused of resorting to demonic magic to enslave elemental beings and use them in the commission of several crimes such as robbery, theft, aggravated assault and trafficking of stolen property.”

“You can’t prove nothin’,” Jeel mutters. He has been through a number of these things. Rule number one: never admit to anything.

The Sergeant reaches for the leather bag by his right. “Yes, I can. With these.” He reaches into the bag and produces one of the wristbands that Jeel and his gang used to sport. “We found them on you and your partners.”

Jeel shrugs, trying to look indifferent in face of the evidence. “So? They’s just jewelry.”

“Enchanted jewelry, yes,” the Sergeant insists. “I took the liberty of examining it before interviewing you and your associates. You see, demonic materials fall under a category of their own in the legal department and this could prove rather unpleasant for you and your friends. Unless…”

Jeel sneers, mostly out of habit. The only thing he understood of the Sergeant’s whole speech was pretty much the last word. “Unless what?”

Gwydion sits back in his chair. “As you may have noticed, our cells need urgent repair and we can’t really keep prisoners in them for too long. So I am offering you the possibility of taking advantage of our poor logistics.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Jeel asks.

“Answer my questions and help me be done with this quickly and I will have your charges reduced to low-level complicity,” Gwydion offers. “You will get a smaller sentence in a better establishment.”

Ha! The deal! Jeel thinks in triumph. Best way to know they’ve got nothin’ on you is when they offer a deal!

“Right,” he answers. “Shove it, blueshirt!”

The answer does not sit too well with the Dei. His eyes flare golden for a moment and he stares at Jeel in a way that makes the man feel very much trapped between a rock and a very large, scaly thing with sharp teeth. What the god says next sounds more like a beastly growl than like the Sergeant’s normal baritone voice. “Mister Jeel, I am tired and overworked and I also seem to remember it was your stone elemental that nearly suffocated my partner. You are very, very lucky that I am willing to offer you this deal. Do not push me into forgetting you still have a handful of rights left.”

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’!” Jeel insists, trying very hard not to look or sound scared. He had never been interrogated by a Dei before.

But he can’t force me to talk… Can he?

Gwydion sighs and lowers his eyes to the table, rubbing them as if he is too tired to keep them open. “Very well, then,” he says, looking at Jeel, voice back to normal, eyes hazel again, smile completely gone from his face. “Normally, I would insist but I admit I really don’t care if you rot in the worst slam I can fit you in, where you can be beaten and used for ritual possession for the rest of your measly days.”

He gets up and turns toward the door. “Still, I will give you some time to consider this.”

Jeel harrumphs. The crazy mean act was just for show, it seems. This blueshirt is too by-the-book to break a hardened criminal like Jeel, who doesn’t mind a night in jail. The Sergeant opens the door and calls for that Popula to come and get the elementalist.

Aliyah! That’s it! She comes by but there is someone else with her, dressed in Dei-blue as well. Oh…that is the Dei’s partner, the white-haired lady. She is a lot more famous than Sergeant Whatsisname, what with her other job. What was her nickname again? The Blue Lady? Lady Death? Anyway, she fights fiercely and that trick with the plants was great but she is well-known for being…well…nice. Jeel feels less than intimidated by her presence.

That other Sergeant sure looks at her like their partnership involves more than just cop duty. “Back already?” he asks, keeping the door open.

She chuckles. “I was gone for quite awhile. Anyway, the eagle is safely in its nest. Are you done with interrogations?”

Sergeant Gwydion nods, jerking his head at Jeel without looking at the man. “I have offered them a way out and found some interesting things about our elementalists. I was just about to go for round two with them.”

“I can do that if you like,” the goddess offers. “You have a long shift coming in a few hours.”

He looks like he is about to refuse but after a meaningful look at her, he folds like a piece of paper. “Sure, let me just fill you in on what these gentlemen have told me so far.”

The door closes for a few minutes. Jeel can hear whispers beyond it but nothing he can clearly understand. Then, silence. He waits a moment before hearing the doorknob turn and then the door opens to let the lady in. She hasn’t changed clothes since the raid either, still wearing her light pants and Dei-blue shirt. As she turns her back to Jeel and closes the door, the man can see the tears where she got hurt by those flying ceramic shards. There is blood on her shirt but the skin that peeks through the flowy, ripped cloth is perfect and whole.

Yeah… Must be nice bein’ a god. No need for doctors, Jeel thinks.

She walks up to the table and sits down, picking up the folder that Sergeant Gwydion left behind. She sits with her chair slightly sideways so that she is half turned toward the wall on Jeel’s right. Although she does not look directly at the man, he can see her face in clear profile as she studies the paperwork. It’s the kind of face that should be mounted on the wall to be admired by everyone like a statue in a museum. Really beautiful, impossibly beautiful. No human could ever look that beautiful. No mortal woman could ever have hair that falls so perfectly, not even if a dozen different products (and the gods know Upper Ringers like her use far more than a dozen) were involved. No human could have such pale skin without looking – and being – terminally ill instead of angelical.

If any blueshirt is going to smile at him, it should be her. She would look great, smiling at him all friendly-like, maybe even teasing him a bit to try and get what she wants.

He has no such luck, it seems.

“Now let’s see…Mister Jeel, yes?” the goddess asks, still looking at the report.

“I already got that sorted out with the other sergeant,” Jeel replies, trying (and mostly failing) to sound smooth.

The Dei looks at him and smiles lazily. “Humor me.”

Ah…there’s the smile. And boy, does it look good. No wonder her partner is all sweet on her.

“Jeel, that’s me,” the elementalist says.

The goddess nods and puts the folder down. “I am Sergeant Alma. I see you have been less than cooperative with Sergeant Gwydion.”

“Mister Nice-Suit Blueshirt?” Jeel asks with a shrug. “I didn’t tell’im nothin’.”

“I know,” Sergeant Alma replies, propping her right elbow on the table and resting her chin on her hand, looking halfway between amused and bored. Her voice is soft and leveled. “Let me guess, he was quite nice to you and tried to offer you a deal in return for information.”

Jeel snorts. “Yeah, he was all smiley an’ stuff. Said he could reduce” – he tries to mimic the god’s posh tones – my jail time if I squeal. But I ain’t no squealer.” His eyes narrow at the goddess. “Ain’t gonna talk to you either.”

“Of course, you aren’t,” Alma says, looking down at the folder. She removes a paperclip from one of the pages and starts playing with it, making it move between her fingers. She does not look up as she announces, “Well, Mister Jeel, I have good news and bad news. Is there a kind you would prefer first?”

Jeel follows her gaze and watches as the paperclip moves in her hand, now peeking between her thumb and index finger, now poking out between her ring and pinky finger, now vanishing, now appearing again. The movement is almost hypnotic.

“Gimme the good ones,” the man answers.

“Well, the good news are that we have decided to give you a chance to save yourself,” the goddess explains. “The bad news are that your chance walked out that door with Sergeant Gwydion.”

Jeel’s head shoots up in aggravation. “He said he’d give me time to think.”

Sergeant Alma shrugs, impassive. “Like I said, your time was over as soon as he left.”

Jeel snorts. This is all an act. “Lemme guess, he’s the good cop.”

The paperclip stops moving. Alma looks at him sideways, blue eyes grinning as much as her lush lips. “Oh no. We are all good cops here.” She shakes her head. “But I am not half as nice as he is. Nice doesn’t work with your kind.”

Jeel’s eyes narrow at the veiled threat. This goddess is starting to get on his nerves and for all the wrong reasons. “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’! If I squeal, I’m as good as dead.”

Alma merely goes back to playing with the paperclip, this time rolling it on the wooden table with her thumb and forefinger. “There are worse fates than death,” she says after a while.

“Oh, yeah?” Jeel retorts. “You gonna hit me or somethin’, Miss? Gonna slap me in da face?”

She looks at him in shock. “Slap you? No!” she exclaims. She looks down again. “Slapping you would leave a mark.”

The paperclip moves between her fingers continuously, at a rhythm paced by the soft clicking of her fingernails against the wooden tabletop. “And really, the pain would not last,” she adds. “There are much better ways to induce pain without causing too much damage. But of course, that would be torture.”

“Yeah, and that’s illegal,” Jeel notes, entranced by the motions of her long, pale fingers.

Clickity-click….clickity-click….

Her fingernails tap the wood….But, what fingernails?

Jeel’s eyes widen in horror. Her delicate fingernails are gone. It is bare bone that taps against the wood. Her fingers are stripped of flesh, gorgeous hand replaced with lye-white bones.

Clickity-click…clickity-click….

“It is not so much that it is illegal but it is so time consuming,” she says casually as he stares at the paperclip dancing against her skeletal fingers. “And I have reports to write, a station to run. I really would prefer not to have to stay here too long. Unless I really have to.”

The air grows cold. The shadows grow darker.

Clickity-click…clickity-click…

“You can’t do nothin’ to me!” Jeel cries out at the goddess.

He looks at her face, expecting to see an ugly skull looking back at him. But no, the goddess still looks calm and beautiful. And so does her hand, as she raises it to point a finger at Jeel.

“On the contrary. I very much can,” she states, smiling at him. “There is a little loophole in the law, I am sure Sergeant Gwydion told you all about it. If a demon, a demonic item or anything pertaining to Hell is involved in the commission of a felony, or conspiracy to commit a felony, the Guardia Dei are authorized to use extraordinary measures during their investigations, even if mortals are involved.” Her other hand taps one of the wristbands still lying on the table. “You and your friends were using demon magic to enslave earth elementals, Mister Jeel. There is nothing I cannot do to you to make you talk.”

“That’s insane!” Jeel argues, shooting up from his chair and looking for a way out of the room that does not involve running over this crazy goddess. “That’s…that’s…that’s police brutality, that is! Where’s the other cops? I’m bein’ attacked here!”

Alma remains as cool as ever. “Do calm down, Mister Jeel. I haven’t done a single thing to you. Yet.”

“Wouldn’t work even if you did!” Jeel protests as he sits down. “I’d rather die than talk to some blueshirt crazy lady!”

“Are you sure?” the Sergeant asks, serene.

“Yes!” Jeel replies, crossing his arms over his chest.

The goddess opens her hand and a little ornate box, lid topped with an onyx inlay, suddenly appears in her palm. She sets it on the table, in front of him and opens the box to reveal half a dozen spherical pills, each the size of a tiny pearl.

“Please,” she says, gesturing at box and pills, “be my guest.”

“What’s that?” Jeel asks, looking at the pills in suspicion.

Alma looks at him as if his question was completely unexpected. “Poison. Very quick. Nearly painless death.”

Jeel blinks a couple of times while he processes this. “You’re offerin’ a prisoner a way to off himself?”

“Would you like a glass of water with that?” she asks.

“I don’t…” Jeel mumbles.

Alma exhales deeply, like a parent patiently explaining a simple issue to a really stupid kid. “Allow me to explain, Mister Jeel. I am a death goddess. This means that even if you die, I can still interrogate your soul. I really do prefer to talk to souls. They are much more cooperative than living beings. It would surely solve my scheduling problem.”

“You can’t go around offin’ prisoners!” Jeel whimpers. This is not how an interrogation should go in his book.

“Oh, we’d have four of them left, I think we can indulge in losing one or two,” Alma replies, turning her attention to the report on the table. “No one will complain about one less criminal to stuff into an overcrowded prison. Besides, one of your partners is bound to talk once they realize their numbers are thinning.”

In her hand, the paperclip magically turns into a pen that she uses to write something on one of the pages. “There. Prisoner is deceased of sudden, natural causes. At a rather young age too.” She shrugs. “Life in the Fourth Ring, I guess.”

“I ain’t dead!” Jeel cries in desperation. “And I ain’t takin’ your poison, either!”

“And where exactly does that leave us, Mister Jeel?” the goddess asks coldly, not bothering to look at him as her hand removes the pillbox from the table.

Jeel hangs his shoulders in defeat. “Fine, I’ll talk. But I want that other Sergeant here!”

Alma looks at him as she closes the folder. “Like I said.” Her deep blue eyes suddenly turn pitch-black, making the hairs on the back of Jeel’s neck stand up. She blinks and her eyes are blue again. With a sweet smile, she puts the pen down on the report enfolded in yellowish paper labeled with his name. “He is the nice one.”

Jeel looks at the folder and gulps at the paperclip.

Ch6.03 Trust

The moon is still high over the skies of Three Rats. In fact, there should be about five moons visible tonight, each with a different color and phase, each with a different rising and setting time, but they all seem to be nicely aligned with each other to give the illusion of a single, larger moon. A single moon that should not have stayed still in the night sky for the last two hours. Moon gods, as some people will very well know, are particularly enthusiastic lovers of games of chance so it would not be surprising if they had all just parked their assigned moons in the same spot and taken the night off to cheat their way through a few rounds of some strange card game.

The large moon casts its light over Three Rats, competing with the gas lamps to see which can do a worse job of illuminating the sinuous, narrow streets and rundown buildings in this part of the ward. Under the pale, silvery light, each damaged wall, pierced by the occasional, and sometimes not fully planned, window rises like a gravestone engraved with some cryptic, unnatural language.

Ah, the glamorous graveyard shift, Dion thinks shifting his gaze from the sky above to the Sky below. Perfect for anyone who likes moonlit nights, quiet alleys and the eerie feeling of being watched by things with too many legs.

“Situation?” the Inspector inquires.

“Human shard known to use earth related-elementals as enforcers,” Dion answers, using the slang term that he had first heard from Sky, but which had somehow spread to other stations in recent weeks. “Information says five humans, each with a different elemental: Magma, Metal, Dust, Clay, Stone. They have been using this house as a hideout for less than a week so they should still be here.”

The god of magic sighs inwardly. Sky was not expected to be a part of this raid. Dion’s sources had just confirmed the location of this shard when the sergeant gathered Alma and the four Popula he believed he would need for this operation. Sky had been napping in his office sofa at the time and so, in an effort to take some of the load off of his Inspector’s back, Dion had decided together with Alma not to ask him for backup. As soon as the Popula entered the armory to get equipped, however, the feather-light-sleeping Sky had popped out of his office and insisted on tagging along.

In a normal situation, Sky would be off-shift by now, resting during Dion’s graveyard shift and Alma’s day-shift before returning to fulfill his assigned duty. Unfortunately, normal situations are a thing of that wonderful time in the past before Nekh was killed and the Dukaines splintered to give rise to countless gang shards. Since then, the virtual border between Popula and Dei jurisdiction has become practically nonexistent in anything other than paperwork, forcing the gods to intervene in most situations. Dei shifts are now mostly shared, with the gods constantly being called out of their beds – sometimes, office sofas – to provide backup to their fellow Dei in the painstaking, but so far successful, operation of taking down the more powerful and problematic shards.

Sky’s presence at the station has been nearly constant, in spite of his sergeants’ best efforts to convince him to take care of himself and rest. Dion wonders if he has even visited his apartment in the last few days. The god of freedom looks permanently exhausted, struggling for focus and patience. He is a terrible accident waiting to happen, burning mana just to stay awake yet insisting on being present for just one more raid.

Thankfully, it is not solely on him that Dion can look to for support. By his side, Alma is just gathering their latest information, her eyes shining with the divine power of soul-scrying as she peers through the dusty sidewall window of the single-storey building against which the Dei are currently leaning. In an alley nearby, Corporal Lamore, Aliyah Kaur and two more Guardia Probationary Constables are waiting on Dion’s signal.

Dion grimaces at the thought of the two GPCs. Oliveira and Janssen had been fresh out of the Academy when the god’s adventures in Three Rats started. No probe should go through an initiation like this. All he can do is be glad that they have stepped up and risen to the challenge.

“I see five divines, six mortals,” Alma says softly, barely disturbing the night air but derailing Dion’s train of thought completely.

“Are you sure?” he asks her with mild surprise. “Only five mortals have been mentioned by my sources.”

Alma’s eyes flare with her power, burning icy-blue in the darkness as she looks at him. There is no anger in her silent response. It is merely a reminder of how often they have trusted her soul-scrying to prevent unpleasant surprises, in the last few weeks.

“A hostage, maybe?” Sky ventures. He touches Dion’s shoulder in fraternal encouragement. “Anyway, you have the lead.”

Dion nods, looking at both his fellow Dei. This is his shift, his responsibility. Sky and Alma are there for support and will trust his judgement, proceed as he sees fit. “No deadly force is to be used on the mortals unless absolutely necessary. I will go in first. Alma, your death sphere may not be the best against them.”

Alma nods, her words mirroring Dion’s thoughts. “Observe and adapt. Consider me your shadow.”

Dion turns his attention to Sky. “Based on your abilities, I would be more comfortable if you act as secondary backup on this one, Sky.”

“I’ll fall behind and pick up the rear,” the Inspector replies after a brief hesitation.

Dion looks down for a moment and inhales deeply. This is the last active shard on their very long list of powerful and violent gangs and taking it down will finally give the Dei enough space to breathe and resume some level of normality in their lives. If they fail to capture them tonight, it could be weeks before the gods get some much-needed rest. And Dion could really do with a return to proper Guardia protocol and the regular Popula/Dei boundaries. All these raids, all this work in the shady grey areas of police work make him feel uncomfortable and corrupt.

A gentle, subtle touch of Alma’s hand to the small of his back brings him sweet reassurance. She is here, ready to back him up. After so many raids, there is no one Dion would trust more to watch his back, with only Sky as a close second. The goddess seems almost able to read his mind, adapting swiftly to any changes in gameplan. Probably a result of all the time they have been spending together.

He looks at her, then at Sky. “Last one. Here we go.”

Rounding up the corner toward the front door of the building, he brings forth his favorite scouting spell, extending his hand to receive the light-spawn ferret whose slender head and red eyes immediately turn to await Dion’s orders. With a jerk of his head, the god gives his scout the signal to go into the building. Incorporeal, the spell moves through the simple brick wall and enters the dark room beyond it, giving Dion second-hand vision and hearing within the space he is planning to enter. At this late time of night, the gang members must be sleeping, tucked into the various dark corners of what looks like an old, abandoned bakery lit only by the fire that still burns in the wall-mounted wood-oven and spews its warmth into the room. The previous owner must have passed away or gone bankrupt long before this shard arrived here because the ceilings are covered in countless generations of spiderwebs and even the wooden shelves and boxes look stale and brittle.

As the ferrety scout moves through the room, Dion fails to find any signs of the elementals. He can hear the snoring and mumbling of the mortals but that is about it. Edging towards the door, the god grumbles under his breath. He knows better than to assume his sources were just exaggerating. Besides, didn’t Alma say she could detect five divine souls in there?

Well, I guess I’ll just have to draw them out, he concludes.

With a few brief words, he reshapes his scouting spell. In a matter of seconds, the light-spawn ferret becomes the perfect mirror image of Dion himself. The god peeks in through a filthy window, to see the false image of himself standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by the faint golden glow of his magic. A fleeting image of Alma’s blue eyes shining eerily through another window, pointed straight at him, lets the god know that she can see through his ruse and will not jump into the fray ahead of time.

Clearing his throat, the god shouts, “Guardia Dei, surrender immediately and you will be spared!”

The shout seems to work. Hidden in the shadows, the gang members blink themselves awake and jump to their feet. Dion cannot see them yet but he can hear their feet shuffling as they move slightly closer and then…

Nothing. For a long, breathless moment, there is no sound, no movement. The fake Dion stands, glowing, undisturbed. It is as if the mortals have vanished. Dion waits…and waits…

A sudden word, a strike sends his scout flying against the wall, disintegrating it in a shower of sparkling dust. With well-rehearsed moves, Dion casts a quick spell of dismissal over the Magma elemental that is now glowing red in the center of the old bakery, having been summoned to attack the false Dion. With a terrible shriek, the elemental falls to its knees, bashing its knuckles against the stone floor with fiery violence before melting away into the cracks in the stone.

One done, four to go.

“A trick!” one of the gangsters cries. “It’s a trick!”

As a single man, they start running toward the door, trying to escape before the Guardia can grab them. On the outside, Dion moves quickly to block their exit, standing at the entrance of the room. He cannot let them get away.

He draws his sword, and holds it low, letting the light of his magical blade blind his opponents before he moves in to take the first one down. The man tries to move out of his way, barely managing to evade Dion’s attempt to knock the mortal’s sword out of his hand. The next attack of Dion’s blade slashes through the man’s arm, disabling it. But the man is not alone. Knowing they are fighting no ordinary mortal, the other gang members leave nothing to chance.

Godly senses tell him of a sudden surge in power. Dion turns quickly on his heels to block the vicious attack of the metal elemental with his sword. It is more a reflex than a well-planned move that makes him use his blade. The metal elemental is completely unmoved by the strike of Dion’s sword against its body, its hand already moving to grab the blade and assimilate it. Not half as physically powerful but twice as fast, Dion moves the beautiful blade out of harm’s way and holds a hand out to cast another spell of dismissal.

An odd whooshing sound makes him glance to his left. The world turns grey.

Dion ducks instinctively, waiting to be engulfed by a cloud of dust. A loud grumble washes over him and he looks up just in time to see a green, leafy blanket materialize midair and engulf the dust elemental. The blanket rolls into a ball, growing tiny spring flowers as the elemental trapped inside knocks helplessly against the walls of its flowery prison.

The glint of light on metal catches Dion’s eye. He raises his hand, casting the spell of dismissal just as the metal elemental’s fists begin to fall over the crouching god. Above him, the creature throws its head back and screams with a voice like blades colliding. Dion has to roll on his side to escape being caught under the heavy body of the elemental as it falls, massive and stiff on the hard floor, splashing like quicksilver before disappearing from sight.

Jumping quickly to his feet, Dion sees Alma fighting against two of the mortals. Another lies on the floor already, unconscious but breathing. With a swift, twirling motion, Alma is suddenly standing behind one of the humans, her pale hand driving the pommel of her thin-bladed sword into the back of the man’s head. The mortal falls, wide-eyed and unconscious, to his knees, still clutching the dagger with which he had been trying to cut into Alma’s leather-clad belly.

The goddess turns to take down the fourth mortal but something in the shadows seems to grab hold of her from behind. Alma is lifted by the throat, feet flailing and trying to kick whatever stands behind her, her sword fallen to the floor as the goddess tries to free herself from her attacker. Dion can see the stoney fingers that wrap around Alma’s delicate neck tighten their hold on her. She looks like she may break at any moment.

“Alma!” he calls.

She looks at him, her eyes wide in anger and fear. Dion cannot banish the elemental without risking injuring Alma but she cannot afford to wait much longer. Trusting his instincts, and hoping Alma will trust him as well, Dion kneels and places one hand on the floor. The mortal that Alma was trying to take down looks at him and signals his only remaining friend, lurking somewhere behind and to the left of the god. Dion can only see one of the mortals moving and he hopes the other one is not moving much faster. Closing his eyes, he calls forth his power, shapes his spell.

The floor shakes. The men fall. A gaping fault opens beneath the stone elemental’s right foot, making it lose its balance and loosen its hold on Alma. The goddess breathes in with a loud wheeze before adding her powers to Dion’s. At her command, a summery breeze flows through the room, filling it with the scent of warm earth and ripe fruit. Plants begin to sprout and stretch into sight, between the stones, through the stones, wrapping around the fallen humans to stop them from rising again, breaking through the elemental’s body to shatter it under the insidious, unyielding power of all living things.

Dion carefully avoids the growing roots and stalks as he walks up to the goddess and helps her remove the last fragments of stone that still surround her neck.

“Are you all right?” he asks, grimacing at the sight of the bruises that mar her pale skin, revealed after a vine crushes the last of the stone fingers clutching Alma’s neck.

“Yes, just a bit dizzy,” the goddess replies, leaning down to pick up her sword. “Where is Sky?”

“Sky?” Dion asks in surprise. “I haven’t seen him. Maybe he stayed outside.”

Alma shakes her head. “No, I am sure I saw him come in just after me–”

Her voice trails off, her eyes widen again as she looks over his shoulder, at the other end of the room. “Look out!”

Thunder roars through the bakery. The gods fall to the floor.

Dion looks up, ears ringing, feeling the weight of Alma’s body fallen on his. Before he could react, she had switched places with him, shielding his body with hers. She lies over him now, her hands trapped under his torso. As sound begins to slowly fade back into Dion’s ears, he can hear her groaning softly. His hands move to her back, feeling her clothing strangely wet. Dion brings his fingers closer to his eyes. Blood. She is bleeding.

She is bleeding! Why?

His hands probe her back for answers until his fingers feel the edges of some kind of material buried into her flesh, piercing through the leather of her corset. Careful not to cause any more pain than necessary, Dion removes it from her body, making her groan again.

The god looks at what seems to be just a shard of a bigger item. With a softly rough texture and earthy pale color it almost looks like–

“Pottery?”

His eyes widen at the lighting of the proverbial torch of realization. The clay elemental.

“Everyone all right?” Sky’s voice rings, a bit hoarse as if he is still recovering from the explosion.

Even though being so much closer to the explosion probably stunned him considerably more than the sergeants, the god of rebellion rushes to them, shaking his head to drown out the ringing in his ears. He stumbles closer to where Dion is still lying on the floor, with Alma on top of him, and stops for a moment. His eyes widen in a sudden panic as he kneels by Dion’s side and helps move Alma off of him, carefully laying her unresisting form on the green mat that now covers the stone floor of the bakery.

“The sixth mortal,” she mutters.

Dion exchanges a knowing glance with Sky. “Go, I will take care of her.”

Sky nods, looking grim, hesitating to leave for a moment. “I think I saw a door over there. I’ll be right back.”

“You should go with him,” Alma says in the rigid tones of someone in deep physical discomfort. “I will be along in a moment.”

She grimaces as she tries to reach for another shard sticking out of her back. Dion shifts to his knees and moves closer to her, to inspect the damage.

“Sky can handle a mortal,” he replies, summoning a luminary to aid his vision. “You need help.”

Alma breathes deeply in defeat. “If you could just remove the shards so I can heal my wounds…”

“I can’t reach some of them,” Dion tells her. “I have to remove your corset.”

“Well, that should be no problem to you, then,” the goddess jests, trying to make light of the situation even though her voice betrays her pain. “You’ve had your fair share of practice there.”

“And it will never be enough,” Dion says with a half-grin.

Slowly, gently, he removes her corset and lifts her blouse, scowling at the sight of Alma’s pale, soft skin covered in the blood that oozes from three gashes of different sizes. A fifth wound, the one from which Dion took the first shard, is already closed, no more than a temporary red line smeared with clotting blood.

The god carefully removes the bigger shards first. Her body stiffens, muscles contracting, but she does not complain. Her wounds begin to heal almost immediately after Dion has removed the shard that caused them. As the pain begins to fade, Alma begins to relax.

Sky returns just a few minutes later and kneels immediately by Dion to look at the goddess’ back.

“I found the last one. Handed him over to Lamore,” he says, visibly worried. “What can I do to help?”

Too focused on the sensation caused by the tip of Dion’s knife digging through her flesh to remove the last shard, Alma remains silent but reaches a hand back to touch Sky’s leg.

Sky puts his hand on hers. “I’m sorry.” His voice is thick with regret.

Alma holds his hand and squeezes it as the last shard slides with some resistance out of her torn muscles. She does not speak until it is fully out. “It is nothing much. Will be gone in a minute.”

In effect, her skin immediately begins to close, the edges of her wounds glowing with a faint, reddish-gold light. Soon, the only trace left is the dry blood staining her skin and the fabric of her blouse.

“There, all better,” she says.

Sky releases her hand and stands, ready to help her and Dion up. He looks a decade older than he did before the fight. “I…didn’t expect an explosion.” He shakes his head, opens his mouth to say something else, closes it.

“That must have been some oven to do that to an elemental,” Dion comments as he helps Alma sit up. “Were you hurt by the explosion? You were considerably closer to it than us.”

Sky looks at his forearms. “Just some abrasions…nothing much. Alma…if one of those chunks had hit your head…” He looks ill at the thought.

“We all know the risks we face,” the goddess cuts him off, reaching a hand to Sky. “Help me up, please.”

He does, falling silent again. She takes the opportunity to take his forearms in her hands, healing his abrasions. “Do I need to say what we both know?”

He shakes his head. “I need rest, I know. I just…I knew once I started, I wouldn’t be able to rouse myself for anything for days, maybe a week.

“I have to admit, Sky, that we have been more worried about you than we seem to have been able to convey so far,” Dion says, rising to his feet. “There will always be another shard or another crime but if you don’t rest now, I’m afraid we’ll eventually lose you. If not to an accident, then to simple exhaustion.”

“We have been watching you consume yourself as if there was no tomorrow,” Alma adds, still holding Sky’s arms, squeezing them as if to wake him up from a dream. “I can’t watch it anymore.”

Sky’s hands wrap around Alma’s forearms as he hangs his head and argues weakly, “While you two were gone, it’s how I had to live.” He looks down as if overwhelmed by the memory of those days. “And by the time you got back, the only way to rest was to crash. I had to burn mana to keep going. Things were still too chaotic. All three of us together, we were able to take down all the major shards we know of. Now…I fear I won’t be there when you find that necromancer, Alma.”

Alma lets go of him to poke his chest with an accusing finger as she scolds the inspector. “You need to trust me. Trust us. We don’t work any differently without you looking over our shoulders.” Her hand moves up to stroke his cheek. Her voice becomes soft again. “You have done your part and no one I know would have done it better. But you can’t go on working like this any longer.”

Sky nods. “I do trust you both. I know you’ll handle things well. I’m just…afraid. It’s not you I don’t trust. It’s those who are still out there. And…the vow I made. How can I fulfill it when I’m unconscious for a week?” He shakes his head in defeat. “But I know you’re right. I cannot continue like this. Not without doing more harm than good. I’m putting myself on leave for a week. I’m sorry that you’ll have to work longer shifts.”

“We’ll manage,” Dion assures him, “and then compensate once you return.”

“Yes. We’ll extend our shifts and I’ll adjust my harvests to make sure we don’t both end up like you,” Alma says, pulling away from Sky. “Even if we are nowhere close to your level of exhaustion, I don’t really fancy the notion of standing here in a week trying to decide if I should sleep for a few days straight.”

With a grim nod, Sky concedes. He puts a hand on Dion’s shoulder, something that the sergeant has learned to see as an act of demure affection. “After we return to the station, I need to put a few things in order, and then I promise, I will go to bed.” His eyes become distant with thought, his mind already drifting. “I’d better go grocery shopping too…”

“At this time of night, Sky?” Dion reminds him with a chuckle. “You’d probably do better gathering food from the bar. I am sure Cherry and Merri would not say no.”

“Of course, you may oppose to living on salads for a week…” Alma notes, grinning.

Sky chuckles. “I’ll figure something out. But last time I did this, I woke up to find I’d sleep-eaten my way through everything edible in my home. Including things I didn’t realize were edible. I’m worried I may end up with fewer pillows.”

Ch5.50 Shards

Alma exits the station into the breezeway, breathing deeply, her mind rushing through the day’s events at the same time a flooding, all-consuming anxiety begins to set in. Finally released to enjoy life (albeit a Three Rats life) with her Bunnies, the cool night feels like the first breath of a brand-new life born from a long, difficult labor. Regardless of all the issues that remain to be settled, such as the Bunnies’ constant disobedience and their predictable, yet frustrating, difficulty at finding the ropes of a family life with the goddess, or Gwydion’s possibly impending departure–

Aaww! Why is it that all your boyfriends keep running for the hills, little Alma?

–or Nekh’s constant, haunting presence, Alma feels truly relaxed and optimistic for once.

Not even you will mar my good mood tonight, you overgrown magpie, she tells the vulture-headed god hitchhiking a ride in her mind.

I can always try… Nekh taunts her, his voice tailored to sound like soft whispers in her ear. Personally, I think it’s adorable that you think everything will magically fix itself just because you’re back. As if your little pets would suddenly start behaving the way you think they should or the playboy will change his ways or your darling Inspector won’t grow tired of your constant secrets and lies like a dog that never challenges its master. Do you really think he’ll never ask for a bone?

Alma shudders unconsciously at the sensation sparked by thoughts of the deceased Archon standing close enough to her to whisper like that.

Still, she defies him. You are right. No one can blame you for trying.

At the end of the breezeway, where the door to the bar stands, a tall shadowy figure, somewhat larger around the waist than the normal human shape would suggest seems to escape the chaos that resounds from within the building. Grinning softly at the tall woman and the much shorter Bunny, his arms around her waist, that her night vision finds in the shadows, Alma steps closer to see them parting, the woman straightening to her full height after having been bending down to kiss the Bunny.

“Making sure you have a statement from one of the victims, Constable?” the goddess speaks softly as she reaches a hand for the doorknob.

Yeah, in spit! Nekh mutters.

Aliyah Kaur’s body stiffens and she gasps in sudden panic, possibly at the memory of the angered goddess conjuring shadows and ghostly things in the warehouse, or at the thought that Alma’s anger may turn against her for catching her kissing Sage.

Sage, however, merely chuckles. Alma can feel him entering the bar just after her to quickly slip his hand into hers. She looks at him as if this is the first time she can truly see him, bask in the delicate lines of his beautifully rounded, dark-brown face as his full lips move to smile warmly at her, in obvious pleasure at the sight of her. Alma finds herself smiling freely, opening her heart to welcome him without fear that he will be taken away. She feels no relief for his return after being kidnapped by the Snatchers. Instead, the emotions flooding her heart wash away the fears of weeks, the anguish of years, and fills with gratitude a soul that so many times doubted her own strength to make it through one more day, to hope for one more day that this moment would come.

She leans down to press her forehead against his for a silent moment, before kissing the bridge of his nose. Slowly, the sheer entropy of nearly thirty children roaming about the room in search of food and water (with the occasional alarmed shout from one of the Popula about there being proper places to urinate and this not being one of them) breaks into their peace and forces them to emerge into the crowd surrounding them.

Just like on her first day here, the bar is once again empty of whatever scattered furniture it had been accumulating. However, this is no longer due to the absence of anyone using the room but instead, due to an overwhelming number of people trying to use it all at once. The furniture must have been moved elsewhere to allow for space to accommodate the warehouse refugees until more permanent arrangements can be made.

Ugh… this is the rat hole you were so eager to return to? Nekh whines. It’s a dump! Mind you, you deserve worse, but it’s not gonna help my eternity if I have to stare at these disgusting happy little faces wallowing around in this pigsty every day.

Well, you could just leave… Alma says softly. I would certainly not hold it against you.

Ah, as if I’d make it that easy for you, tart, Nekh snorts. Besides, wouldn’t you miss me?

Look around… Alma replies, grinning at the thought. No one misses you, Nekh.

Much to her delight, she stops feeling his presence in her mind after that. Alma moves toward the bar, Sage’s hand still nestled in hers, through a throng of filthy, snotty, thin faces, all attached to bodies moved by the driving sting of constant, chronic hunger. The children nearly trample each other in their attempts to grab a plate of the sandwiches that Cherry, Rosemary, Mayumi and Kori busy themselves distributing, making sure that even the younger, smaller infants are fed and trying their best to avoid the older ones from stuffing their pockets with all the sandwiches they can grab or bullying their peers into parting with the precious food. Too used to going hungry for whole days, their first priority usually lying in ensuring the next meal, preferably out of the rain and cold, these children of the streets behave like little more than famished beasts, consuming all they can before the food disappears, even after being assured that another meal will be provided tomorrow. To these young minds that should never worry about the prospect of mortality, who should believe themselves eternal and indestructible, tomorrow is a day to be feared every day.

The thought saddens Alma for an instant before being buried under the joy of seeing her Bunnies, their bright and caring faces contrasting so vividly against the dull-eyed faces of the older homeless teenagers they are working on feeding. The sound of Tulip’s raised voice coming from the kitchen, in an endless scolding of Chime for not working fast enough in making the sandwiches and for putting the lettuce on top of the scrambled eggs instead of the other way around, adds to her joy.

“Awright, ‘nother plate of sandwiches up!” Cherry announces, carrying a fresh plate into the motley crowd. “Who wants – oooookay, that’s another plate of sandwiches gone…” she adds, returning to the kitchen as the plate, ripped from her hands, disappears into the crowd. “Hey! Do not eat that plate! It’ll give you a stomachache!”

“More on the way, dears!” Rosemary assures the children, turning to walk back into the kitchen.

Alma joins them in the kitchen, the only place where some sort of peace can still be found.

“Hello, little ones,” she says with a smile.

Her two oldest Bunnies immediately rush to embrace her tightly, closely followed by Tulip, still wiping her hands on her flowery pink apron, and Kori, who has just stepped in to find his creator, by all accounts his mother, in the room. Alma embraces them, petting their heads, stroking their cheeks, allowing herself to express for once the love she has kept stored in her heart for so many years for this extraordinary family that is finally hers to keep. By the kitchen counter, Chime hesitates, looking ashamed and afraid of being scolded after all the problems that his escapades have caused. But there is just no room in Alma’s mind for anger. Not tonight. She motions him to come closer, thrilled to see him running towards her, nearly tackling her, arms thrown around her neck, feet just grazing Cherry’s face when she moves away just in time to allow her little sibling some space.

“I’m sorry,” he sobs against her chest. “I’m sorry…”

Alma does not speak. Her fingers running through the Bunny’s long blond hair and her arms around his shaking frame are enough to convey her forgiveness. Tomorrow, she may not feel as forgiving. But tomorrow still feels a long way away. Closeby, Mayumi kneels by a small boy, watching the scene while wiping the child’s face, effectively covered in eggs and melted butter after an attempt to eat a large sandwich whole with a single bite. At a subtle nod from Alma, she finishes cleaning him and gives him a smile before rising to her feet and walking toward the kitchen. She moves closer to Alma, looks up at her as the others make room, and then suddenly hugs her very tightly, sighing against her in relief.

“You’re home…” she whispers.

“So it seems,” Alma replies, still cradling Chime in one arm while embracing Mayumi with the other. “This will be home for us for quite awhile.”

Mayumi looks up, looking for an instant like she wants to say something. She seems to decide against it, just smiling and nodding instead.

“I am sorry I had to stay away for so long,” Alma apologizes to her Bunnies as she gently lowers Chime to the floor and nudges him to release her. “And that I had to keep you away. But I am here, now. And maybe we can start over.”

All around her, the Bunnies are blinking tears away. They move closer to her, trying their best to hug her all at once and bury their faces against her. She makes sure to caress them all, leave a soft kiss on the tops of their heads. Her eyes feel wet, at the verge of overflowing but she is not afraid of her tears. For once, she is free to be as vulnerable as she pleases.

“We missed you, Mom,” Tulip whispers, thin arms holding her tightly. “‘s no fun when you’re not here.”

“Well heck…you just did what you had to!” Cherry states with a sniffle, voice slightly muffled from a face still firmly pressed against Alma’s side. “But you’re really back? Is it all over then?”

“Yes, and my sentence is to stay here with all of you and never speak of what happened again,” the goddess replies, petting Cherry’s head. “And your sentence is to stay with me.”

“Well that’s a silly sentence! O’course we’re to stay with ye!” Rosemary chirps brightly. She turns to look at the little girl tugging at her pale green apron. “Och, what is it dear? I’ll get back to makin’ the food. Goodness me, what a madhouse!”

“Can I help?” Alma asks as the Bunnies begin to disperse into numerous activities.

“Sure thing!” Cherry exclaims, already filling water pitchers with freshly squeezed orange juice. “Uh, do we have any more blankets somewhere? These kids’re gonna be stacked like kindlin’ in here…”

“And some of them smell bad,” Kori complains, dragging a heavy box full of mismatched water glasses out of the pantry.

“Oh, the poor wee things do need baths…” Rosemary concedes, slicing a loaf of bread to prepare yet more sandwiches.

“Well, I am sure we can arrange for them to take a shower,” Alma says, turning to Mayumi and Sage, the two Bunnies most used to navigating the hallways of the station. “Mayumi, Sage, why don’t you guide them to the Constables’ washrooms? Meanwhile, I will speak to Corporal Lamore about finding towels and blankets for all of them.”

“Cala’s downstairs!” Cherry announces. “Uh, we let her an’ Doc Nate into your room, to take care of the hottie.”

Alma chuckles and nods at her. “Very well, I will go and talk to her. I need to go check on Saira, anyway. Let me know if there is anything else.”

Consumed by their chores, the Bunnies turn their attention towards the children, leaving the goddess feeling like she is now in their way. Alma leaves the kitchen toward the stairs that lead down into the basement, navigating the sea of proto-adults with some difficulty, stopping every now and again to stroke the cheek of any child who looks at her with pleading, affection-hungry eyes.

Eventually, she reaches her bedroom and enters. The door closes behind her, blocking the sounds of wailing children and the buzzing of hushed voices. Alma breathes deeply to compose herself before speaking to the human corporal and physician, hidden from them between the door and her hanging wisteria privacy screen.

She steps through the hanging flowers to find Nataniel sitting at the edge of the bed and applying some sort of ointment to Saira’s forehead while Cala fetches clean water from Alma’s pool to clean the now much shallower wound on the unconscious woman’s belly. Saira lies on the goddess’ bed, her body mostly limp, legs and arms occasionally contorting as a spasm locks the muscles in deep contraction. Nestled by the woman, the strange cat that Sage has rescued from the old hag in the warehouse lies sleeping, curled in a large ball of fur, snoring lightly, her wounds already healed by the goddess during their return to the station.

Saira’s wounds, however, are far more complex. Alma looks at her in pity, wishing her healing powers were just a little better. The shallow wound on Saira’s abdomen is just a cover for the more serious, hidden damage within that the goddess has not yet been able to repair. Closing the muscle and rushing the skin to start covering the gap was a priority, an attempt to reduce the risk of infection. But Saira’s body, affected as it is by poison and physical damage cannot withstand further healing just yet. Feverish, weak, the woman will need many more healing sessions before she can even be returned to full vigilance. All that Alma can do for now is let her rest.

She catches both Corporal Lamore and Doctor Nataniel looking at her in silence.

Funny… she thinks. For a sanctum, this room surely does welcome many visitors…

“Corporal. Doctor,” she greets them.

“Sergeant,” Corporal Lamore greets, her voice slightly tense.

Hola,” Nataniel greets as well. “I was just applying an ointment to help with the fever for tonight. I will be leaving right away, señora.”

“There is no rush,” Alma replies with a smile. “Corporal.”

“Ma’am?” Cala straightens up slightly.

“I would like to apologize… for my behavior earlier,” Alma says, feeling truly ashamed for having tried to intimidate a fellow officer. “I attacked you out of anger when all you were trying to do was help as much as you could and I am very much ashamed of my actions. I hope you can someday forgive me.”

La moshkelah!” the woman says, waving off Alma’s embarrassment but looking sincerely relieved to be burying that hatchet. “I’d be bellowing threats too if anyone tried to take one of my little sisters.”

By her side, Doctor Nataniel chuckles. “And mind you, diosa, she can be pretty scary too!”