Following a soft knock on the door, Merri turns the knob and opens it into the Bunnies’ first home in the waking world, the calm and beautiful sanctum of their mother, Alma. She pokes her head in, red curls brushing the partially opened door beside one russet ear and the doorframe beside the other. Nobody in the bed, which is really what Merri expected, Dion being on duty and the location of the other Bunnies being known to her, but still she cannot help but feel a pang of disappointment. How lovely it would have been had Sky been lying there, recuperating from his mysterious fate in the tender, healing arms of their mother. Sure and it would’ve been an unlikely event, but in a world where even impossible events are a regular occurrence, how can you blame a simple Bunny for hoping for the merely unlikely?
Cherry puts her hands on Merri’s shoulders from behind and rests her chin on top of Merri’s head. The pale redhead grins and twitches her ears so they flick Cherry’s tawny cheeks. Oh, it feels good to smile, just smile, those muscles so unused lately. Merri knows that someday she’ll have a million smile wrinkles, and she doesn’t mind a bit. But these last few days, ever since the end of the Year’s End celebration, really, have been so awfully sorrow-filled. Merri resists the urge to turn and hug Cherry for making her smile, and instead follows where she can feel Cherry’s chin pointing, past the curtain of hanging purple-flowered wisteria vines, past the bed, toward the sound of water sloshing in the fountain pool at the center of the room.
“Yes, my dears?” comes Alma’s voice from that direction. Of course she knows it’s the two of them. She would, wouldn’t she? It’s her home, her sacred sanctum.
The two Bunnies enter, slipping off their shoes, and quickly move to the pool where they have bathed many a time. This was their home. It is still, in a way, their home, even though they have moved out into their own small shared room upstairs. At first, on waking to this world and discovering that their dreams-within-dreams of a family had come true, they had wanted nothing more than to sleep with everyone in the same bed, every night, in communal bliss. But even Bunnies long for a little privacy, a place very slightly separated from others to have some peace and quiet now and again. And that bed certainly was crowded. And, well, Merri and Cherry had lived together just the two of them their whole dream-lives, and as much as they both love Sage and May, the oldest pair of Bunnies would always be most closely attached to each other. Sometimes they just need to be with each other and no one else.
“We dinnae wanna interrupt your bath, Mum,” Merri says as the round the bed and see Alma in the bath, turned toward them, her elbows on the edge of the pool and her long white hair wet against her head and shoulders and floating in the water.
She looks so beautiful yet so tired, Merri thinks. So very sad at all that she’s been through. But still Alma tries to smile and says, with a little chuckle in her voice, “It’d be a rare thing, a bath that doesn’t get interrupted for one reason or another. Come in. Everything all right?”
Cherry says, “Well…we got a question or three.”
They both go to her and sit on the edge of the pool on either side of Alma, letting their legs dangle in the warm water. Merri holds up a pale-blue envelope with the seal of the Guardia Academy printed on it. One end is neatly sliced open. That’s Cherry – she always uses scissors to open envelopes, while Merri just tears the flap open. Cherry is so neat and tidy in some ways, like envelopes and bottles and cocktail utensils, but such a hopeless mess when it comes to folding clothes or even putting dirty ones in the hamper.
Merri can see by her eyes that Alma recognizes from whom the envelope has come. Cherry speaks up. “We gotta write back to May, but…”
“She’s no’ worried yet,” Merri says. She gestures with the envelope. “She sent this express. I dinnae ken why but…she must’a been longing for home. But Sky gave her that magical stationery an’aw, an’ it’s supposed t’be fast, an’ she will’ve nae heard back from him, right? She’s nae worried yet, but it willnae be long. And we got some drawin’s that Tulip did and Grandmama’s present and the like that we can send her, but when it comes time to write…”
“We can’t think of nothin’ to say,” Cherry almost whispers. Merri looks at her with concern.
Their mother takes a deep breath and sinks a little further into the water. The pool is shallow, and they can see her long pale form under the surface, wavering with the ripples, as Alma’s chin comes to rest on her forearms.
“I know,” she says. “This is not easy. My first impulse is to make certain all my children are together and safe, but I told Mayumi that she would get her shot at becoming Guardia. I’m afraid that if I say anything to make her worry, she will just speed back here as fast as she can. And then, imagine, could she just stay here for a day or two before returning to her studies? No…she would turn her back on the Academy, give up her place there this term in order to stay with her family. I sincerely doubt she would ever get another chance if she did so.”
Merri looks at Cherry. This is something they’ve discussed. “And we do no’ want that.” Her voice is firm.
Cherry’s black-furred ears are already down, one down the back of her neck, the other angled off to the side, both making dents in her loosely curled afro. “I know.” Her voice is subdued. “But everything we think of to tell her is scary and sad! Demons attacked us, and Sky disappeared. And you and Dion and Sommy were hurt. And…” She closes her eyes tightly and whispers, “Saira.”
Alma reaches out and rests a hand on Cherry’s thigh, stroking it. “I know, little one. I don’t want to ask you to lie or keep secrets. But I need you to understand, because Mayumi surely would not, that there is nothing she can do here to change any of those things. The only thing she would achieve by leaving the Academy at this point would be the death of her dream.” Alma sighs. “I will be writing back to her as well. If anyone has to bend the truth here, it will be me. All I ask is that you don’t write anything that might contradict what I will say.”
Cherry takes her mother’s pale hand in her own and holds it. “Guess we oughta let you read ours before we send it.”
“We can write about positive things!” Merri insists. “The lovely garden that Grandmama gave us in the bar. The wine cellar…”
“She already knows about that, baby,” Cherry says, looking at her.
“…right.” Merri’s own ears, normally so perky, fall back. To her mother, she says, “She’ll know we’re holdin’ things back. At least she has nae started askin’ about Sky yet.”
“But she will, if she don’t hear from him,” Cherry says. “Is he gonna be able to write her? And…we don’t really know what’s goin’ on there ourselves.” She sounds as if she’s bursting to ask questions.
Alma looks even more exhausted, and Merri is about to suggest talking about it later, but she herself is dying, dying to know what has happened to their dear, patient, sometimes-grumpy protector, Sky. They’ve hesitated in asking for days now, and the pain of not knowing is becoming agony.
Alma starts slowly. “I can’t really tell you all of it but what I can say is…he has not disappeared. We know where he is. But just like we were wounded, he was too.” She pushes herself up with her hands until her arms are straight, elbows locked, and she’s able to look the both of them intently in the eyes, at the same level, her hair wrapping her shoulders, arms, and upper torso like alabaster seaweed. She looks like a selkie rising from the water that runs in rivulets down her body. “Badly wounded,” she emphasizes. “He is healing but he cannot do that here.”
Suddenly Merri, who has done a better job of holding herself together these past few days so that Cherry, who feels the loss of Saira so keenly, can mourn, feels shaken and weak. The desire to weep rises in her and she can barely fight it down. Sky, wounded. They’ve seen him wounded before, many times. Once it was as if half his face had been shattered and torn, and yet he still was walking around, doing his job, giving them a smile as best he could. He rescued Merri herself once as she was being dragged away from Cherry, screaming, to certain death, and this after he’d been pounded into a pulp of broken bones by a giant. That he is so injured that he’s had to be sent to some sort of god-hospital is horrifying. And so her voice is suddenly smaller and more childish than Cherry’s when she asks, “Can’t we…see him? Can’t we visit him?”
Alma looks at her with compassion and shakes her head. “No,” she says, as if it is breaking her heart to do so. “I’m sorry, little ones. He is healing rather quicker than we first thought but…he’s just not ready yet. He’s not in any immediate danger, though, and we’re hoping for a full recovery. You understand why I can’t go around spreading this or telling Mayumi about it. There is nothing any of us can do to help.”
“Can we send him something?” Cherry asks, sounding stronger, as always stepping up whenever Merri shows weakness, just as Merri does when Cherry needs her to. “To make him feel better?”
Alma smiles, though the sorrow is still very evident in her eyes. “I’m sure he would love that. It will surely drive him to get well sooner. He misses all of you very much.”
“He’d better get well soon,” Merri says, still shaky but recovering. “We all miss him. And May won’t be happy when she finds out we deceived her, even if it is for her own good.”
Alma nods, her expression serious. “I know. And that is why I will take all the blame there. Just tell her the truth, that you don’t know where he is but I do. And I’ll tell her something to keep her from panicking too much. Can you go that far?”
After a deep breath, Cherry says, “We can… Ain’t gonna be easy. That girl asks questions – she just can’t stop bein’ a cop. But we’ll do our best.”
“We’re older,” Merri insists, though she feels dreadfully uncertain. “We know what’s best for her! She’ll accept it. Eventually.”
Alma smiles again. “Now I’m wishing I had a sister. Anyway, positive things… Well, you can mention your grandmother’s visit and all the gifts she brought for you.”
“We’re sendin’ May’s present to her – oh right, Mer already said that. We were gonna put in a nice bottle of wine too, but that made it too heavy.”
“It would also never reach her,” Alma tells Cherry. “All inbound mail is checked. Things like alcoholic beverages do not make it past inspection.”
“Oh bother,” Merri says. “An’ I was gonna send her some o’them tiny sample bottles o’ Beirão, too! Perhaps we can smuggle them in a loaf o’ bread or somethin’.” She pauses for a moment, choosing her next words carefully. “We…ken there’s things ye cannae tell us. And ye must know too that we’re dying t’learn everything about what’s happened. We’ve nae been askin’ because, well, ye gods’ve been through so much, that’s somethin’ any fool can see. And we ain’t the only ones who’ve lost dear Saira. We ken ye loved her as well. We just…we just want ye to know, we do care. We trust ye to tell us what ye can. We dinnae wanna burden you with questions…”
Cherry breaks in as Merri’s mouth seems like it’s about to charge over a cliff. “She just means we’re ready to listen any time. How are you doin’? And Dion? Y’all been through the ringer.”
“We have,” Alma says, her eyes lowering. Her elbows unlock and she slowly lowers herself back into the pool, her hair spreading out on the water’s surface. “Physically, I am fine. We’re both fine. Mentally…some days are better, some are worse. Mostly, we manage to be all right. Saira’s loss was terrible but…” She looks up at them, only her shoulders above water now, trying to smile but her eyes pleading for understanding from her two oldest children, who are only a fifth her age. “I’m a goddess of life and death, right? I should be good at handling these things.”
They both listen to her, and watch her, and smell her, and they know she’s not handling it as well as she’d like. Cherry pushes off the edge and slips into the pool, her clothes on, and sinks into the water to hug Alma tightly. A moment behind her, Merri does the same, and their mother puts her arms around the two of them and holds them as if this is the best thing that has happened to her all day. Her breath hitches and the two Bunnies tighten their grip a little, but after a moment Alma manages to say, “Thank you. Anyway, I’m feeling much better. And so is Gwydion.”
Still holding her, Merri says, “We know ye cannae just stay home an’ stay safe. We know life ain’t like that for ye. But we need ye, Mum. Be careful as ye can…please?” Cherry just nods against Alma’s bare shoulder in agreement with Merri’s heartfelt plea.
“Whatever it takes to come home to you.” Alma kisses Rosemary’s head, then Cherry’s. “I love you, you know?”
Cherry whispers, “We know. We feel it all the time.” She loosens her grip and looks down at her soaking clothes. “Well, that was silly…” She reaches down and undoes the buttons of her shorts and slips them off underwater. She sniffles and looks back at Alma. “We’re gonna have our family back together again, ain’t we?”
“I am doing all I can to make it happen,” Alma says, sounding as if she is mustering all her reserves of confidence. “And I truly think that we’ll soon be together again, all of us. Getting on each other’s nerves.”
As Cherry lifts her wet t-shirt and gets stuck pulling it over her head, Alma grins and tickles the Bunny’s bare sides, causing Cherry to shriek and fall backwards, splashing. “NO! I’M TOO TICKLISH!”
Laughing loudly, the first real laugh she’s had in oh ever so long, Merri joins in with tickling Cherry, and the resulting splashes arc over their heads and reach all the way to the bed.