The day has been long, with the settling down of all the Bunnies into their assigned rooms, the oooh’s and aaaah’s of finding the brand new clothes and the inevitable fashion show in the hallway that followed and the wanting to explore the house and start work in the garden and the other dozen things that come with being along for a vacation with six other people, all under the age of thirty. Granted that, for a human, thirty years of age seem to be looked upon as the beginning of the dreaded, steep downhill slope toward senility but to a hundred-fifty-year-old goddess with a life expectancy of quite a few millennia, even the energy of two twenty-four-year-old Bunnies is just a little too much to handle, let alone that of four more who are even younger.
So it is no surprise that, not long after dinner, Alma cannot really stay up anymore. And neither can Gwydion, reeling as he is from seeing the house for the first time since his childhood and then finding his own former bedroom in the afternoon, the one Alma had kept him out of before. The poor thing had stayed kneeling in the middle of the room for at least an hour, surrounded by walls lovingly painted with scenes of knights and dragons and leaping sheep and even a large, cartoonish gryphon by the head of the bed. Just kneeling, his shoulders slumped, looking around like a pilgrim arrived at the temple of his god, worshipping at the altar of Memory, letting the full weight of all he has lost, all that has been taken away from him fill his mind and his heart with sorrow and, Alma suspects, a strange kind of relief. How many times must he have wondered if he was ever loved, ever truly desired by his parents? How can a child grow happily in that uncertainty, deprived of a fitting surrogate to provide the love and compassion that all beings require to grow? Math, she has come to see, has no notion of how to be comforting or kind, choosing instead to buy affection with gifts and luxurious activities. None of which can comfort a child awakened from a nightmare or mourning the loss of his parents.
The last few hours have already shown her more of Gwydion’s reasons for becoming a playboy than most of the time spent with him at Math’s house, awaiting the Council’s verdict. So much grief…and she is already tired of it, of carrying it in her heart and sharing in his pain. How can he possibly live and smile day after day after so many years of living with it?
And yet, she is happy to share in his grief and does so willingly, knowing herself privileged for having the chance to do so. It is just that…it all takes its toll and she is exhausted now. She just wants to lie down, curl up in a ball and sleep.
So she excuses herself from the family evening spent by the fireplace and Gwydion follows her example. And, much to their surprise, so do the Bunnies and, of course, Geryon. They insist on turning in against Alma’s assurance that even the younger ones are free to stay up a bit longer. And soon, all are standing in the hallway that leads to the various bedrooms, saying their goodnights.
“The chocolate an’ berries were divine!” Rosemary says in her usually joyful tones as she embraces Alma. “And wasn’t the singing fun?”
Alma can’t help but smile at it. “Considering you were doing most of it, I’m sure you enjoyed it twice as much as everyone else.” She kisses the top of Rosemary’s head. “Good night, dear.”
The Bunny releases Alma and moves to embrace Gwydion, who is just managing to pry Tulip’s iron-grip arms from his neck. As Rosemary moves, Cherry takes her place hugging Alma, clinging to the goddess in obvious need of physical reassurance. Alma holds her back closely, stroking her daughter’s dark-furred ears.
After a moment, Cherry looks up at Alma and asks, “It’s going to be all right, ain’t it?”
Alma nods, seeing in Cherry’s eyes a glint of real fear that it is not. “It will. We’ll make it so,” she promises, as much to the Bunny as to herself. “Are you enjoying this place?”
Cherry smiles a little and nods. “It’s a good place to just chill out. But…” Her voice trails off, the smile gives way to concern. “Just a week, right?”
The question brings a hint of relief to Alma. Safer and more luxurious than Three Rats as it is, the estate carries a heavy emotional load that manages to be just as exhausting as daily station life in the Fourth Ring ward that has become their home. She doesn’t quite know how she would manage things if her children decided they would much rather stay here.
“Just a week, then we go back,” Alma assures Cherry. “Just to breathe a little bit of lighter air.”
“Worried about the bar?” Sage asks, approaching to embrace both Alma and his sister.
“We got regulars!” Cherry points out, cheek pressed against Alma’s chest. “They’re gonna be really put out if we stay away too long.” She sighs. “This is good, though. Gotta bring May here, sometime. And Sky too.”
“Definitely,” Alma agrees, even though a treacherous thought in her mind arises to say If we can save him.
“Cherry, stop hogging mom!” Tulip complains. “We wanna hug her goodnight too!”
“Just five more minutes!” Cherry calls out, laughing when Tulip groans with irritation. She releases Alma and, after another smile at her mother, moves to give Gwydion her goodnights.
As soon as Cherry opens the way for Tulip, all three younger Bunnies pile around Alma, hugging her from multiple directions, saying goodnight and stretching to distribute kisses at will. Alma basks in them, her ears barely catching Geryon speaking to Gwydion in a low voice.
“…might make a nice spa-like resort. Tempter nymphs pampering the guests. While the owner obsesses over all the secrets hidden in these various nooks and crannies.”
Gwydion sighs. “I know…. I need to take it slowly. And I am. I promise.”
Freeing herself from Kori, Tulip and Chime, Alma slips her hand into Gwydion’s. “Goodnights have been said. Perhaps it is time for us all to retire?”
With a meaningful look at Alma, that she responds to with a small smile, Geryon agrees. “Yes, indeed.”
It feels almost like a passing of a metaphorical baton, the way he looks at her then glances at Gwydion. The ever-sardonic gryphon seldom shows obvious signs of worry with his closest friend but for those who can read them, such small gestures make evident the concern he feels about someone he has known much better and for much longer than Alma. That he trusts her to look after Gwydion’s well-being is just as important to her – or maybe more – as the quiet feeling of friendship which has been growing between them.
With a final chorus of “Goodnight,” the Bunnies retreat into their respective rooms, Cherry and Rosemary insisting that Geryon join them, something the gryphon does not offer much resistance in obliging to.
Which leaves Alma and Gwydion alone again, facing the prospect of a night spent in the room they now know used to belong to Eidon and Gffleu. Gwydion’s parents.
As they enter the room, Alma reflexively squeezes his hand, feeling him return the gesture with hand that is shaking ever so slightly. They stop just a couple of footsteps beyond the door, looking at the bed, at the tasteful furniture, at the little nook by the window. The air feels heavy with a sort of dreadful sorrow, even to Alma, who has never known the loss of an empty childhood home.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, looking at Gwydion’s pale face, at his haunted eyes.
He keeps staring at the bed as if fearing it will spring to life and attack him. “I think…I don’t know. It’s all too much to process.”
His body stiffens, muscles ready. For a moment, she doesn’t know what he is planning on doing but then he advances toward the bed, hand still firmly holding hers, and sits, looking up at Alma in a silent request for her to join him. She sits by him, offering her other hand for him to hold as well, letting an awkward silence spread between them. What can she say to make him feel better?
She looks down at her leg where her hands are held in his, her fingers slowly stroking his skin. She curses internally at her incompetence in finding something to say. After what feels like a short eternity, he releases one of her hands and drapes his arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. He buries his nose in her hair and she can hear him inhaling deeply, the air leaving his lungs in a long, ragged exhalation.
“You’ve had a long day,” she says and her voice sounds loud and harsh even to her ears. It also sounds like the contest winner of the Useless Things To Say Show.
Still, he replies softly, “And you too, being there for me. I know it wasn’t easy.”
“It’s where I had to be,” she assures him. “And none of it will ever be nearly as hard for me as it is for you.”
“This is a haunted house,” he murmurs. “And it gets to me that I can barely remember what the ghosts look like. Just bits and pieces. A voice here, a vision there. But nothing I can make sense of. I think – I think I remember my father’s voice. And the way my mother held me one time I fell down. Her voice…it’s mixed with yours, sometimes. With other female voices.” He sighs. “It’s all so distant. So broken…”
He looks truly disheartened. Truly lost. She puts both of her arms around him and holds him closely. “I’m not sure this is the best place for us tonight. There are plenty of other rooms. We can prepare one for ourselves in ten minutes.”
He looks around, morose. “If I sleep somewhere, what does that say of how I think of them?” He shakes his head. “Geryon is right. If I could, I’d spend the next few days exploring every little thing, trying to remember my life here. I’d forget about you and the Bunnies and him and–” He looks at her, desperate for an answer. “But I can’t forget about them. I went so long not fighting to know and now that I do, I – I can’t just walk away because it might hurt.”
“Of course not,” she agrees, reaching to stroke his cheek. “But you do need to rest. You are exhausted and in all kinds of pain. You need to rest and recover to be ready to face what might come next. That is what we’re here for.”
Another ragged breath and he presses his forehead against hers. “I’m becoming a whining, pitiful wreck.”
She snorts softly, just a quick exhalation against his lips. “I can handle a little whining.” She pulls away and looks into his eyes. The smile doesn’t come easily to her lips but, for him, she makes the effort. “Let us try something. Forget what your parents would think and don’t worry about me or Geryon or the Bunnies. What do you want to do right now? Where do you want to go?”
He looks confused. “Right now, this very moment?”
“Yes, right now,” she says. “Wherever you want to go, we go. Whatever you want to do, we do. Go out to eat, visit a theater. Get drunk in a bar. Even if you want to go alone.” Though truly, the last thing she wants is to leave him alone.
He smiles a little at her suggestions and thinks it over. “I…I can’t think of anywhere to go. I just want to be with you. Just you and me with no haunting thoughts.”
She looks at him in silence for a moment, trying to decide what to do. She had been counting on him to have an epiphany. But a blur of bluish light filtering through the window catches her eye and she rises, taking his hands and nudging him up. “Come with me.” She looks around and reaches for a blanket left at the foot of the bed.
He rises, his hand pulling a little on hers as he reaches to grab a pillow, that he tucks under one arm as he follows her, unresisting and with a small smile on his lips, down the hallway, down the stairs, across a room and a couple of turns, into the living room. At a last minute thought, she stops, leans down to reach under the table, and removes the blanket she had stored there in the building-block basket before straightening and guiding him outside, to the garden. The night is pleasant, not too warm and not too cold. And perching on a branch, her shimmering blue feathers shining in the moonlight and irradiating a soft glow that covers a little patch of grass, Starfax watches and awaits. In the bushes, not far away, fireflies glimmer faintly and muffled sounds like rustling leaves announce the woodland spirits that are going about their usual nightly business.
Alma smiles at the phoenix and releases Gwydion’s hands, letting the blankets drop at her feet. “I know there are plans to restore this by hand but…” she starts and trails off as she kneels and touches the grass, sending her magic through it.
It is a simple, normally easy spell that shouldn’t take that much out of her. But the way she has been feeling lately, even with the higher levels of freely flowing mana it leaves her even more tired than she already feels. Still, the verdant lawn obeys her call, weeds dwindling until they fade under the grass, night-blooming flowers opening to the moon just a week or two before their season, releasing a pleasant scent. She doesn’t manage (nor does she want) to affect more than the patch of garden bathed in Starfax’s radiance but it is enough for them to have plenty of space.
Alma spreads the blanket she brought from the living room on the lawn, feeling an odd, double-edged sensation of homage and intrusion into Gwydion’s past. She looks at him, waiting for his reaction. He smiles and joins her, laying down the pillow, which is long enough for both of them and then lying down, looking an invitation at her. She grabs the blanket she brought from the bedroom and reclines as well, draping it over them both and resting her head on the pillow. He lies facing her, his fingers caressing her face and her neck down to her shoulders and arms.
“Do you like my idea?” she asks in a whisper.
“I love it,” he replies, looking at her with a sweet melancholy that verges on adoration. She feels her heart thump in her chest at the sight of it and wonders if somehow she can make it so it will always feel that way. “I can breathe better here.”
She snuggles against him, her arm over his side. “Then I’m glad I followed Starfax here.”
He cranes his neck to look at the perching bird, then lies back to look at the stars that slowly dance above them. “She’s a bird with good taste in romantic spots.”
“She has good taste all around,” Alma replies with a soft smile. “She loves you.”
“How can you tell?” Gwydion asks. “She doesn’t exactly…interact with me much.”
Alma looks at him, stroking his back. “This light we are bathed in, it’s her doing. It’s a healing, cleansing light. And she rarely, very rarely gives it to anyone other than me. So I know she likes you. And that she wants you to get better.”
“Can you talk to her? Does she understand you? Maybe telepathically?” he asks, curious.
Alma shakes her head. “No telepathy. I talk but she doesn’t use words to answer. I just… I’ve known her for over a century. I look at her and I know from the way she stands, the way she moves, the things she does, what she wants to convey. And even when I talk to her, I think she mostly reads my intentions in my behavior.” She looks down, a little self-conscious. “I like to think of her as my soulmate.”
He caresses her jawline with a finger and nudges her chin up. “It must be wonderful to know someone so closely… I hope someday I can know you that well.”
She closes her eyes, enjoying his touch, her voice catching in her throat when she replies, “I hope so too.”
She hears him inhale deeply. “I…I know we haven’t…ever since what happened…” he trails off, hesitating. “Our intimacy – if…If you don’t… feel ready…”
She opens her eyes and looks at him with sorrow. “I miss you! I miss…us. Before it all happened. The way we could be so comfortable and not be afraid and – And there were no memories of being…” She looks down, tries to catch her breath. “Sometimes I wonder…I look in the mirror and I look for her there. And I know she’s not but it’s the memory of her and… And I wonder if you think the same. When we’re together.”
She cannot bear to look at him but his silence fills the space between them like a brick wall. It’s enough to be an answer in itself. Eventually, he says, “She was wearing your face. It was the only face I ever saw her wear. I don’t think she could have hurt me more, really, no matter how hard she tried. Inhabiting you, telling me that you were gone. That she was going to bind you into your sword…” He looks at her, helpless. “I know how foolish it is. I know she is gone and that this is you. I know it. But that cruel expression won’t stop flitting before me and tainting everything.”
Alma closes her eyes as the words sink in. She can’t blame him. The sword Fencer gave her has been sitting beside her locker in the office she shares with Gwydion ever since that night. She can’t stand the thought of wielding it, scared of the way it seems to hum her name and call for her to wield it. And maybe she is hearing things, but at the same time she can’t bear the idea of disposing of it, feeling an irrational need to keep it close by. And the fears around Nua’s return are the same as his, with the poisonous addition of all the memories the necromancer shared as they battled for Alma’s body. How can they heal from what she’s done? How can anyone be expected to bounce back from that?
“I’m frightened,” she barely more than whispers, her words moist, like her eyes. “I feel vile. Like I recovered my body but it is not mine anymore. Just a tainted, horrible thing capable of… I’m ashamed of it. And I feel so guilty that it was so easy for her to just…” She swallows away tears.
Gwydion’s leg slips between hers and gently pulls her closer as his arms hold her tightly. “Shh… We’ve talked about this. She set the trap. She had everything ready to exploit our weaknesses. It could have been much worse.” He strokes the back of her head as her tears give way to sobs. “I cannot imagine how terrible it is for you. But I understand the sort of pain. Helpless. Robbed of all agency.”
“What if…we can’t heal?” she asks, swallowing tears. “I don’t want to lose you. And I’m doing all I can but I get scared sometimes that it will never go away. That it will kill the way we feel for each other.”
His hand on her cheek makes her open her eyes to look at his searing, determined expression. “We will heal. Whatever it takes, I’m not letting go. There is no one – no one in this world that means even a tenth of what you mean to me.” His face softens, his fingers pet her skin. “I’m scared too. But I know we’ll make it through. I don’t have a choice but to believe that. I can’t lose you. I can’t. You are the core of my family. I didn’t really have a family until your children decided they wanted me in theirs. Until a few other people decided they wanted to be a part of your family. And it’s become a wonderful thing and I can’t lose that. I can’t lose another family, Alma. I can’t be alone again. Hollow. I…” He closes his eyes.
She cups his cheek and speaks as much to him as to herself. “I’m here. I’m here… You won’t lose me.”
He nods. “We need to do something about this. Whatever it is.”
She looks at him through tears and leans closer to kiss the bridge of his nose. “Do you think this healer Somrak spoke of will work?”
He looks back at her. “I think…it’s time to put fear aside and let him try. Whatever it takes to smile with you again and be happy by your side.”
He smiles tentatively, small and wry and she smiles back at him, just as small. “It seems my ingenious plan to get away from ghosts didn’t work after all.”
He touches her temple. “They’re in here. And here.” He touches his own head. “They’re following us around.” He pulls her closer, caring and protective. “But I am with you and I’m not letting go. That’s the most important thing.”
Alma nods, holds him close. “I am not going anywhere.”
She leans her head closer and touches her lips to his under the stars.