Ch6.59 Trust

Feeling utterly defeated and hating himself for all he has said and thought, Dion slowly walks to his room. As Alma’s words echo in his mind, he activates the magical door that leads into his sanctum and enters.

Where were you? Where were you when I was calling for you in my sickbed?

He stands unseeing for a moment. She was ill, then. Must still be. She did not look at all in good health. But she didn’t tell him, not a word about what is going on with her. He made her angry, hurt her feelings and now he must pay for it with the torment of worry and ignorance.

If you knew the first thing about me, you’d know that the last thing I want is a harem!

If you knew the first thing about me…

Did he get her so wrong? Was he so wrong to think that when she proposed their arrangement, when she offered him the possibility of being with others? Her ease with her children’s views of love, physical and otherwise, the way she believes that all things must die, eventually. Even love. Even pain…

He leans slightly back. Feeling the door behind him, the portal now deactivated, he slides down until he is sitting on the floor, knees bent, mind rushing in circles and standing completely still at once. He cannot even feel pain at the moment. He feels nothing, a void of emotion that not even copious amounts of drink would be able to reproduce. The gods know he has tried that before. But even that void feels terribly wrong. Cold. He feels so cold inside himself. Like a part of him has just left with her, out that barroom door.

…I care about you more.

Gods… What has he done?!

From the general direction of his bed, comes a sigh. A familiar voice mutters, “Dion, Dion, Dion, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”

Dion raises his head just enough to make out the sphinx-like form of Geryon lying on his bed, then lowers it again, shaking it. He cannot will himself to say anything. Every word he has spoken so far has turned out to be the wrong one.

“Cherry told me what happened,” Geryon goes on, lowering his head until his beak perches at the edge of the bed. “I was waiting for you but I guess I should have known you would be stupid enough to go straight to her instead of dropping by here first.”

…I did nothing wrong…

“What in Hell is wrong with me?” Dion mumbles. “I just…”

“You just…” Geryon echoes. He stretches lazily and snorts. “You just.” In his smaller form, he manages not to make the bed creak as he rolls over to lie belly up, looking upside down at Dion. “You just fought with your girlfriend out of jealousy, didn’t you? Of all things, Dion, I never expected you to be the jealous type, considering what you’ve done to so many happily-engaged couples. But then Tulip tells you she saw a kiss and you just go off like the world’s about to explode.”

You want the truth? I care about him.

“But she does want him! She admits it!” Dion cries, bringing his fists down on his knees with force. Even the pain of that blow is nothing compared with the turmoil rising within him. He puts his hands over his ears, trying to silence the memories of her anger, the echoes of her voice. It doesn’t work. “I know… She wasn’t with him. I don’t even know what she was doing, but she wasn’t with him.”

Geryon rolls to lie on his side, face to the opposite wall, tail slowly flicking up and down. “That would have been a neat trick, having a third sphere awaken in her and still make it to a date.” He turns his head to look at Dion. “That’s what happened, by the way. She collapsed and her family did not allow her to leave any earlier. Came back well into the evening, in her creepy brother’s arms, I’ve been told.” He exhales deeply, his eyes softening with sympathy. “You’ve really done it this time, my friend.”

Dion looks down, away from Geryon’s empathy. He does not deserve it. He does not deserve anything. Not after what he did to someone so precious to him. He wanted her so much, all to himself. Every touch, every kiss, every night spent holding her against him, matching his breathing to her lazy heartbeat. All he can feel now is how much he desperately misses her, how much he wants her back. But she will not come back, not if she has a drop of intelligence in her.

“I’ve ruined it. Destroyed it.” He breathes a shuddering sigh. “She’s not going to want to see me again. And I don’t blame her.”

“She’s angry,” Geryon says, standing up on the bed, beak pointed at Dion like a dog pointing out a grouse. “As she should be! Demons, Dion, I was there, looking down from my new room’s window! I watched the whole thing. I would have told you. I would have warned you if your sweet little death goddess happened to be making a mockery out of you.” He turns to jump off the foot of the bed. “But, nooo, all she cared about was hurting your feelings, not that that gained her any sympathy. You were all too quick to suspect her, weren’t you? Tell me, what is so different between what she did and what you do whenever some shorter skirt catches your eye?”

The words make Dion jerk his head up to attention. “Wait…you watched… You mean you watched Alma and Somrak? And you didn’t tell me?!”

“And what would you have done, had I told you, pray tell?” Geryon says, walking toward the god, his smooth tones cutting like a blade through Dion’s momentary anger. “Yes, I saw him kiss her and I saw her try to end it once and twice and then stop him finally, right after the door closed behind Tulip. Well, behind someone, I couldn’t see it from the angle of my balcony but I guess it must have been Tulip.” His beak hovers close to Dion’s face as he adds the rest of his words to the god’s torment. “I watched your girlfriend tell him about you and how wonderful it was to allow you, of all people, closer to her than anyone since the Bunnies were created. How much she did not want to hurt you. Would you have listened to that, had I told you about the kiss?”

No… Dion admits only to himself. I wouldn’t.

“She tried to end it?” He holds on to that detail as if it mattered. “Was he…forcing her to kiss him?”

Geryon snorts and turns, whipping Dion’s knees with his tails. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says as he turns again and sits on his hind limbs to groom the feathers on one wing. “Anyone trying that would find themselves waking up in the spectral realms. Like you said, she is attracted to him. They seem to connect at some level. They both sounded miserable.” He shrugs, looking at the god. “How should I know? All I know is that she said ‘no’, that you would not be able to accept something like that, and he left.”

Dion sighs and hangs his head. “Well he has her now. He will. Or Sky. They’ll probably treat her better than I have.”

Geryon throws his head back in a show of irritation. “Oh, quit the act, Dion! She’s yours. Probably already praying you’ll come crawling back so she can stop crying.” He narrows his eyes at Dion. “And you will. Face it, you are in love with her. You love her so much that you cannot stand the thought of her walking away so you tried to push her away instead. And now you are miserable because you just found out it hurts just as much. It is only a matter of time before you are sprawled at her feet and begging for her forgiveness.”

Dion doesn’t even raise his head. He would be at her feet now if he could, if the things he said and thought and did could be somehow taken back and forgotten. But… they can’t. “I don’t…deserve forgiveness.”

“No, you don’t,” Geryon concedes, voice dry of emotion. “You’re a miserable little wretch who just tossed the best thing he’s ever had out the window because deep down inside you are just an insecure adolescent who does not know how to handle love. Is that what you want me to say?” He rises again to swipe a heavy paw against Dion’s head. “Is that what you want to think for the rest of your stay here until you run back to your Uncle’s estate like the scared little child you are?” He places his paw on the god’s chest and leans in to hiss his words at Dion’s face. “You don’t deserve her forgiveness but fortunately for you she loves you. And love makes people blind and stupid. Doesn’t it?”

“I can’t rely on that,” Dion weakly argues. “But…I can’t stay away either. Maybe I can find a way to make it up to her.”

Geryon looks into Dion’s eyes in silence for a long time. He sighs. “Well, that’s a start, I guess,” the gryphon pats the god’s knee. “Now, let me out. I’m tired of watching you feel sorry for yourself.”

Dion grimaces, for the moment forgetting that he is blocking the door with his body. “Since when do I need to let you out? Are you a housecat?” He sighs and reaches out to touch Geryon’s head. “Thank you, my friend. I don’t deserve you, either. But I am glad you are here.”

“Sure, sure,” Geryon mutters, allowing the touch but shaking it off after a breath. “Now, move away from the door, before I have to walk over you to leave.”

Finally realizing what Geryon means, the god scooches away just enough to allow the gryphon through. As the portal that leads into the bar reopens, however, Geryon stops and looks back to Dion.

“Remember, every moment you spend too busy wallowing in self-pity is motivation for her to find comfort elsewhere. Pride is seldom a good friend in these things.” He shakes his head. “I truly had hopes for this one, my friend. She makes you smile.”

And with that, he leaves.

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Ch6.57 Trust

Dion walks slowly through the streets of Three Rats. He has been walking for hours, hardly noticing the portals, all the way from the First Ring, where Niruí’s lunar barge left him, early in the morning, at his request. He would have returned sooner, had the moon goddess not insisted on setting sail and showing him the wonders of the Insula as seen from above. He had not enjoyed it. None of it.

What a dreadful night… What a waste. Not by Niruí’s fault, quite the contrary. She had proven to be just as charming and welcoming as Dion remembered, showering him in her undivided attention, sharing with him food and drink made to please the most demanding of palates. He had not tasted anything like it since abandoning the First Ring. The lavishness, the exquisite attention to detail, the comfort of Niruí’s barge. Not having to worry about pleasing a larger crowd’s eyes, she had appeared before him dressed just enough to look naked, offering him a night of excess and physical pleasure. She had even put her gorgeous high priestesses at his disposal, inviting them to join in the gathering. She told him she knew of his fame and skill and put him to the test, forcing every little trick, every failproof movement out of him. And he had risen to the challenge, filled the night sky with her moans her pleasure, her cries of ecstasy, her endless pleas for more. He had entertained her and her priestesses, whose sighs and gasps had filled Niruí with wild, animalistic excitement.

They praised him and fed him and filled his cup with Ambrosia, bathed him and with him in moonlight.

But the food had a bitter taste to his lips. The drink left his mouth dry. And he felt soiled rather than clean at the bath, at the way they stroke his body and rubbed against it to tempt him into renewed passion. None of it felt pleasurable. No, all of it had been mechanical, detached, the product of habit and skill, fueled by anger and vengeance. Against love, against women, against…her. Alma had been in his thoughts the whole night, every memory of her, every moment, every word, every touch now sparking regret, now triggering anger, now flooding him with longing, an impulsive desire to go back and be with her.

By the end of the night, he had asked Niruí to dock in the First Ring and let him out there. She had demanded one last thrill for it, whispered an invitation for him to return again next year as her body seized with the first stages of climax. He had waited for her to fall back in bliss and then told her no.

He opens the door to the bar, feeling hollow, feeling guilty. The night spent engaging in seduction, in an empty dance with someone who matters little to him, something he’d once enjoyed but now…now it seems so pointless, was to him more of a torment than a relief. Has he ever even enjoyed, truly enjoyed these single-night affairs? Or were they just a distraction, a mindless pastime to give purpose to his empty hours?

What has he accomplished with going off with Niruí? Nothing. What had felt like revenge when he first grabbed that invitation has not brought him any satisfaction. The whole night, he wanted to be elsewhere, back here, clearing things up with Alma, finding out why she had been delayed. He’d started worrying about her at some point, once the anger subsided. His assumption that she was out with Somrak seems silly now, rushed. Perhaps something has happened. Perhaps he has her all wrong. Can he be sure that what Tulip saw wasn’t a misunderstanding?

How can he justify to her that he wasn’t here, waiting for her to return, for her to join him in a date that he invited her to, in the first place?

He climbs down the stairs to Alma’s room and knocks on her door, not knowing exactly what to expect. Will she be angry? Will she even be in there? He does not even know if she has returned or if she is, like everyone else probably is, at the portal in Little Falls, saying her last goodbyes to Mayumi before the Bunny leaves to the Academy. No one answers his knock and so, just to make sure, he turns the knob and enters. He freezes at what he sees.

On Alma’s bed, Sky is reclining against a pillow, his back against the headboard, his shoeless feet on the mattress. He sits over the covers while Alma lies under them, her head on his lap, her arms around his knees, her eyes closed, apparently asleep. Caught in the act of stroking Alma’s snowy hair away from her face, Sky is looking toward Dion, his face clouded with concern.

Dion is lost for words. Of all the things he could have expected, this loving little scene was surely not one of them. He feels the blood drain away from his face, his stomach grow cold with an icy anger.

“Dion…” Sky whispers as he tries to gently lift Alma’s head and slide out from under it, trying to replace his thigh with a pillow.

Dion swallows and turns to leave, trying to control the rage in his voice. “Don’t bother on my account.”

“Dion wait…” Sky bids him, finally getting up and walking after the magic god. “Come on.”

“I don’t need to wait, I have seen all I needed to see,” Dion hisses even though he stops walking. He shakes his head, wondering how a part of him can still be fighting the evidence and stopping him from darting out the room. “And to think I was actually worried about her…”

“Cherry told me…something,” Sky insists. “It was rushed and confusing. Listen…”

As he reaches out to put his hand on Dion’s shoulder, the magic god turns on his heels and slaps Sky’s hand away with the full force of his anger. Cherry! Cherry has been spreading Dion’s shame around, sharing it with Sky? Oh, how they must have laughed at the turning of tables against him and his seducing ways… “No. Enough!” he cries, waiving care and respect for Alma’s sleep. What sordid act has her so tired at this time of morning, anyway? “If she wants to have a harem like her father does, that’s up to her. Guess that’s the family standard anyway. I hope you and Somrak enjoy sharing in the spoils.”

In his defense, Sky looks sincerely shocked. “Harem? Dion! No…”

But Dion is beyond the point of paying attention to such things. “I turn my back one night and here you are! Are you going to tell me that you haven’t been attracted to her from the very start? Always with your little secrets and pettings? Why, I’m even surprised you bother with May.”

Sky’s expression darkens, his fists clenching in righteous anger. And the way the first swirls of black start crawling up his neck make Dion’s muscles tense as well. “You are misunderstanding things. If you would just listen to me–”

“Sky, stop!”

Sky freezes, stiff. And so does Dion. They both turn their heads slowly to the right, toward Alma’s bed, to where she sits, glaring at them through half-shut eyes. A faint glow to them makes Dion’s heart skip a beat.

“Leave us, please,” she asks in icy tones.

Even though she does not name names, it is clear that she is speaking to Sky. The tall god looks back at her, shoulders slumping slightly, sadness in his eyes, and the way he turns those same sorrowful eyes to Dion curdles the blood in the magic god’s veins. Something is wrong, very wrong. Somehow, Dion feels, he has just lost this argument.

Sky takes a deep breath before saying, “I will be upstairs.”

He moves closer to the bed, picks up his shoes and walks past Dion, his face a sorrowful mask, and exits the room, leaving Dion still frozen in place and staring at Alma’s angry face. Her eyelids have moved slightly up and he can see her eyes better now, the way they glow and shift colors, now greener, now bluer, shimmering with iridescent tones. Her whole aura feels different now, still hers but with a new undertone, an energy he had never sensed in her before. And she looks tired, sickly. Dion feels it again, that dreadful feeling that he has just committed an irreparable error. “You…what happened?” he mumbles, rushing to her side.

“It is a bit late for that, don’t you think?” she asks slowly, voice so cold that it cuts through his skin. She pulls the covers away from her legs. Too late, Dion sees that she is fully dressed underneath them, the cut of her dress having fooled him before. His mouth falls open in helplessness and he jerks forward instinctively as Alma’s legs shake under her as she gets up from the bed, placing a hand on the wall to steady herself. She turns her face away from him to say, “Sky would have told you but you wouldn’t listen to him.”

At her refusal to look at him, Dion lets his arms fall. His mind races as he tries to retrieve the line of his thought. He was angry before but all he is now is shocked and confused. What has he done. How…how did they get to this point where he is the one at fault? “Tulip…” he mumbles, trying to return to anger. “Tulip said she saw you and Somrak in the breezeway. Kissing.”

Alma’s head turns quickly to look at him again and the glare she shoots in his direction makes him wish she hadn’t. “Is that why you weren’t here last night?” Her voice grows louder and angrier as she adds, “Is that why you came in here spewing out those ridiculous accusations? If you knew the first thing about me, Gwydion, you’d know that the last thing I want is a harem! I grew up in a harem! I know better than anyone what it is like! Why would I even want one?!”

At his momentary loss for words, she narrows her strange eyes at him, the lines on her face and the sunken darkness under her eyelids making her look even more intimidating. “Where were you, Gwydion? When I was being brought here and asking for you in my sickness, where were you?”

He closes his eyes and ponders lying but his mind is blank of inspiration for good excuses. “I was angry. And I left with someone else.”

She shakes her head. “Not even a few hours…I am delayed and you–” She looks at him, eyes wide with shock. “Did you…? You thought I was with him? Is that what you thought?”

He looks down at his feet and wishes the floor would open a hole to swallow him whole. Her outrage is sincere, he can tell.

Oh, Dion, you fool… his inner voice scolds him. Apologize. Admit you were wrong. You cannot win.

He should. He should apologize. But…he can’t. “Is it a lie?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper. “What Tulip said she saw?”

“No,” her cool answer makes him look up again. “It’s the truth. She saw us kiss because we kissed. I was healing him and he kissed me. We kissed. So what?!” she exclaims, throwing her arms open in frustration. “How much further than that have you gone with whatever tart you spent last night with?!” She holds a hand up to stop him from answering. Not that he was going to. “Don’t even answer that. I know the answer.”

He does not know what to say anymore. Her admission hurts him but not half as much as the dawning realization that it is not an admission of guilt. She is not guilty of anything. Somrak kissed her and even so, their agreement works both ways. It is he who cannot stand to accept that. And now…

“You want the truth, Gwydion?” Alma goes on. “I care about him. I was worried about him. He was hurt and he was suffering and all I did was add to it because I care about you more.” She points a finger at him in accusation. “I told him ‘no’ and that’s why I didn’t even think of telling you, because I thought our agreement went both ways and even though I did nothing wrong I still did not want to hurt you! But I guess that’s not how things work in your sick little head!”

She hisses the last few words and storms out of the room, leaving Dion standing there, stunned into speechlessness and motionlessness. He stares at nothing, unblinking, unseeing. And when he finally turns to follow her, when he finally rushes up the stairs, a voice in his mind shouting Go! Make it right!, it is too late.

Sky and Alma are just walking toward the door, Sky’s face concerned as he asks “…are you sure? This suspect is in Little Falls.”

“I don’t care,” Alma nearly growls. “Let’s go.”

Sky barely has time to look back at Dion with a mix of exasperation and, strangely, apology before they are out the door. Leaving him all alone with his mistakes.

Ch6.54 Trust

Dion walks briskly back to Three Rats Station. He could have used one of his portal spells to take him directly there, of course. The past few weeks of rushing to and fro all over the ward in search of gang hideouts and multiple interventions in the wake of the whole Dukaine affair have left him with enough knowledge of where most places are relative to the station that he could use such a magical shortcut with the smallest of chances of opening a portal straight into a brick wall. But the walk is good for him. It allows him a little mental distancing from a day of gang fights and bloodbaths and much too much in the way of putting himself between two groups of people keen on poking holes in each other with the various sorts of sharp implements they carry.

Of course, this is not all that has been preying on his mind for the past hours but being at the center of a gang battle tends to take up most of one’s available mental space, at least while the rusty blades are swinging. Now that the sounds of fighting and cutting and falling in a pool of blood that should equate to death on any other day are behind him, other worries rise to the spotlight of his mind. Like what condition will Alma be in when she returns from meeting her family? Dion doesn’t know Death personally, nor does he want to, but Alma’s occasional descriptions as well as Sky’s obvious animosity toward the senator leave a less than favorable idea of the head of the Death clan. As for the rest of the family itself, Dion has met only two or three of its members and, truthfully, they mostly sounded pleasant if a bit…disconcerting. Except for the Fencer, of course. The Fencer is mostly just unpleasant to be around of. And still, even she seems to share in the strange duality of the death gods he has met so far, an alien, indescribable charm paired with a very palpable sense of being in imminent danger. Probably the closest one might get to knowing what goes through the head of a mouse caught staring into the eyes of a hungry snake.

Though he feels none of that with Alma. Well, not anymore. Not after all they have been through together. But the charm is still there, he knows, wafting like an enticing scent. He has seen in it in the way others look at her, afraid but wanting, devoted but hesitant. She barely seems to notice it, though, focusing her attentions on him whenever they are not on her family. It is a wonderful thought that in spite of their mutual agreement of non-exclusiveness, she is still just his.

And now they are about to go on a date, the very first for them. Just the two of them, spending time together away from the station, unworried about being suddenly called or having Bunnies prying in and disturbing their peace with comments and opinions and the occasional nudge toward taking the relationship a step further. A night without hiding in their office or in Dion’s room to steal some moments to themselves. Just a simple, relaxing date to make a lasting, perfect little memory on the last day of an absolutely hectic year.

And even if they are long past first impressions, Dion worries about making the occasion a special one. It is their first date, after all. The first in what will hopefully be a long line of dates in delicious courtship. The thought of it leaves him feeling jittery but excited. How does one keep a lover happy for that long? Could he do it, after a life of short-lived affairs? How to keep the memories of past lovers and thoughts of potentially new ones away from the mind? Could he and Alma possibly be satisfied in being together for long?

He shakes his head to dislodge his fears. They have been happily together for weeks now. Keeping things that way should be easy, as should be a simple date. He has been on so many before, hasn’t he? Nothing wrong with one more. And even better if it is with her.

He stops at the entrance to the breezeway and looks at the sky, framed by the two adjacent buildings, bar and station. She should be back by now. The sun is already beginning to set, tinting the sky in bluish-orange.

He opens the door to find the bar pretty much empty at the end of the last day of Triumph Week holidays. Most people will be home with their families, enjoying this time of somewhat mindless celebrations to most mortals. Those who are not home, will either be hiding from the gang skirmish that has (hopefully) just ended, or happily bleeding away in Nate’s clinic as a result of it. The Popula on duty will mostly be there as well, keeping an eye on anyone fit to transfer directly to a jail cell after being patched up. Still, it is somewhat strange to find the bar so empty and quiet. Only Cherry is at the counter, currently busy at polishing the glasses with a dry rag for what is probably the twentieth time, from the bored, absent look on her face. Merri must be out running some errand with her usual bodyguard, Geryon.

Her eyes turn to look in his direction at the sound of the door closing behind him. She smiles to see him but an unhealthy dullness to her cheeks, as well as a shiny, misty film to her eyes tells him that not all is well in Bunnyland. “Well hey there, Sergeant D!” she greets him with strained cheerfulness. “How’s…” Her voice trails off as she sniffs the air in his direction. Her ears tilt back with worry. “Oh hon, you ok? I’m smellin’ blood… You ain’t been hurt, have you?”

Dion chuckles at this, moving closer to lean against the bar top. “Hello, Cherry. It’s none of my blood, I assure you. Just a random assortment of common thug.” He takes a whiff of the scent emanating from his clothing and winces at the absolute reek of sweat and carnage. “Ugh, even I can smell it. This is definitely my least favorite day of the year.”

“Now this here is somethin’, if it ever came up in our dream lives, I just can’t recall,” Cherry notes conversationally, putting away the glass, which is probably much thinner by now, from so much buffing. “People not bein’ able to die sounds real great for about five seconds, then it sounds like Hell.”

“And it is, my dearest Cherry,” Dion assures her. “Hell for Guardia, most definitely, even in the highest circles of the Isle. Some will even pray for death gods not to go on holiday. And speaking of death gods…” He tilts back and looks around the bar, toward the staircase that leads down into Alma’s room, his ears straining to hear the sounds of anyone else moving about in the building. “I trust our own lovely resident goddess has returned by now?”

Cherry makes a show of shaking her head at this, the unruly, curly locks of her black hair bouncing stiffly about at her brisk movements. She sounds annoyed when she replies, “‘Fraid not. She took May out and I got no idea when they’re s’pposed to be back.”

This makes Dion grin. Knowing how nearly impossible it is for the Bunnies to keep secrets from each other, Alma had not revealed to any of them where she was planning to take May. But she had done so to Dion and Sky, procuring their help to find the exact location of this Sawara Ward, where Mayumi’s adoptive father supposedly still lived. It was a secret they had all carefully kept, sharing in the anticipation of knowing how the usually too-controlled and proper Bunny would react. But now that the surprise is already in motion, he can reveal it to Cherry.

“She took May to meet her adoptive father,” he says. “It seems the man truly exists in this world. But they should have returned just before sunset. Hopefully they are not too terribly delayed.”

He fails to keep concern out of his voice but Cherry, her eyes absent again for a moment, barely seems to notice it. “May’s dad is for real? She told me she believed it but…wow.”

She trails off. Deciding that maybe it is best to just leave her to whatever thoughts torment the usually cheerful, dark-skinned Bunny, Dion says, “I’m sure she’ll be enjoying her gift.” He straightens to move toward the kitchen. “Well, shower time for me. I will need to at least not reek of blood for later.”

He stops just at the entrance to the pantry, where the portal to his private rooms is located, feeling mildly nervous to ask, “Did you…get what I asked for?”

That seems to bring Cherry back to the here and now. “Of course!” she exclaims brightly, gesturing toward the kitchen. “Me and Mer got it all fixed up in the kitchen, just waitin’.” She grins mischievously at him, an expression that, even on dark skin and much fuller lips, never fails to remind him of Alma. “So, this date…gonna be in your room, huh? Or hers?”

“Oh, we will be going out, of course.” It is Dion’s turn to grin. “And I will leave it at that. Not looking forward to being interrupted, after all.”

“Ooo, a picnic!” Cherry coos, playfully biting her lip before winking at him. “Well, I can put it in a basket for you while you go get non-reeky. Which I am sure Momma and all the rest of us’ll be grateful for. G’wan, scat!”

Dion chuckles as she gestures to shoo him into his room, promptly following her command. He slowly undresses, relaxing at the lazy task of removing his clothes while enjoying the gentle, solitary silence of his little personal haven. Scented oils of pine, fennel and rosewood burn in a small censer, to which the god has lately added a few drops of lilac, inviting rest and release of everyday stress.

He throws his clothes into a basket for later washing in the magical laundry unit he keeps in the bathroom, frowning at the once again torn pocket on his favorite uniform jacket. One of these days, he just might rip the damned thing off for good.

The bathroom is just at the right temperature, as usual, the water running in the shower at the perfect pressure and warmth to soothe his muscles and hit his spine where the skull meets the neck, radiating a sensation of gentle lightheadedness through his brain. He lets the tepid liquid course freely down his muscular frame, rolling smoothly over fit, well-toned muscle masses and tendon insertions to leave him feeling just as renewed as if he had spent the last few hours sleeping instead of working.

Relaxed, he washes vigorously, straining to rid himself of the clingy smell of blood and impending death. The two sylphids that usually keep this room at its comfortable temperature are already waiting for him by the time he leaves the shower, to fly and rub their incorporeal selves against him, drying him instantly with their warm, airy touch. Insubstantial fingers run through his hair to leave it dry and groomed.

He moves into the main room in search of the right suit for the occasion, enjoying the mild chill of the cooler air on his naked skin as he stops at a little dresser to pick up the bottle of his usual cologne. He hesitates for a moment, over whether he should just go au naturel this once, to please his date. But…old habits die hard. He chooses to don the usual scent, just to be on the safe side.

A few minutes later, he is fully dressed and ready for his date, jacket left behind on this pleasant night, shirt perfectly unbuttoned at the right length to give an air of casual relaxation without looking dishevelled. As he checks the whiteness of his teeth, however, a soft flashing light coming from the corner of the mirror catches his attention. Raising an eyebrow in confusion, he waves a hand to call up his personal calendar, watching intently as a grid appears projected on the mirror’s surface, with dates and annotations regarding appointments and other plans.

The flashing guides him to a note simply marked Niruí. Now where has he heard that name before? Niruí…Niruí… Ah, of course! The moon goddess.

Just a year before the whole Three Rats adventure began – a full year before this day, in fact – he had met Niruí at a Triumph Week celebration party. The moon goddess, someone had told him, lived aboard her moon barge for the whole of the Insular year, and did not visit the Insula proper at any other time than the last night of each year, when her lunar barge docked not far away from the Curia to allow the beautiful Niruí a night of fraternization with her fellow gods.

And oh, she was beautiful indeed, with her pale, blueish skin and long, smooth hair as dark as night decorated with tiny glittering stars. She appeared before the partiers wearing nothing but a very fine, translucent shawl over her thin body. Dion had immediately sought to capture the gorgeous goddess’ attention, smoothly brushing away the competition of his fellow young gods seeking Niruí’s company on this rare occasion. And he had, in fact, managed to speak to the goddess and exert his charm over her, thrilling to see her grey eyes glimmer in excitement at his soft-spoken flirtation. But Niruí had soon crushed his expectations. Apparently she had already pledged her company for the night to some other young deity, a dainty forest goddess, it seemed, or something else of the sort. But Dion, Niruí had promised, would not be left without his chance to spend a night of pleasure aboard her lunar barge. All he had to do was wait a year, for this very day, to have his date with Niruí.

And look, an invitation has just materialized by his hand, to serve as a portal into the moon goddess’s barge, should he still desire her company tonight. Such a shame that he already has plans elsewhere…

Oh well, no choice but to cancel. Or perhaps ask for another chance at a later date. Either way, attending is unthinkable. He would not trade his time with Alma tonight for ten rides on the moon barge in Niruí’s company.

Still marvelling and chuckling softly at his own change in priorities, Dion steps out into the kitchen to check if his dearest death goddess has arrived yet, to find Tulip sitting at the bar, playing with what looks like a small, white card. Cherry is with her, looking intently at the little card in Tulip’s hand but saying nothing about it for the time being.

As they do not seem to notice him, Dion clears his throat. “And I am–”

Immediately, Tulip’s arms clench around his stomach in an affectionate death grip that martial artists usually take decades to master. “Hi!” she greets him in a voice at least two octaves higher than her usual tone.

Cherry looks at her and then at Dion, snorting quietly at the god’s look of resigned helplessness against the youngest of the Bunnies. “Hey, there he is, smellin’…” She moves closer to him and makes a show of sniffing his scent, standing on tiptoes to reach his collar. “Smellin’ like Dion.”

“Oh, good. That means I managed to get rid of all unpleasant scents,” Dion replies, lips curling in pleasure to match Cherry’s smile. He absentmindedly strokes Tulip’s hair and looks down to take a closer glance at what she is holding. “Hello, little flower. What do you have there?”

“I don’t know,” the young Bunny replies, turning the card in her hands to reveal a few characters in some language unknown to him, drawn in apparently common black ink. “It’s just a blank card with some weird doodles on. Found it on Mom’s desk. I think it’s Som’s.”

“If it’s got squiggles on it, it ain’t blank, sweetie,” Cherry gently corrects her, leaning slightly to take a whiff of the card. “Yeah, that’s definitely Sommy’s. Smells kinda like a campfire,” she says, smiling wistfully at some passing thought.

“Perhaps just something he dropped when he was last here,” Dion suggests, though it sounds meek, even to his ears.

A small, white card with only two or three characters on it is most likely a name card, and if it is, in fact, Somrak’s, that would account for the strangeness of the language. And a name card is not something one just lets drop out of negligence, not in a place where everyone knows one’s name. So why would the fire god have left his card with Alma?

“Maybe it’s a secret message,” Tulip chimes in, squinting intently at the card as if that would force the paper to reveal its secrets. “Maybe… Oh!” she exclaims in sudden excitement. “Maybe it’s a super secret note to tell her to meet him. For a date!” She sighs, holding the card to her chest like it is something precious. “Wouldn’t that be romantic?”

The suggestion sends a chill down Dion’s spine but he says nothing in response. Cherry, on the other hand, merely laughs, failing to notice how he swallows his unease. “Sweetie, you been readin’ way too many of them romance books from that box Ewá rejected for her kiddies.” She shakes her head. “Some people donate the weirdest stuff…”

“But…but…it’s all there!” Tulip insists, hopping up and down in little irritated jumps, her fists clenched in frustration. “You can’t tell me it’s not there, ‘cuz I know! Som likes Mom! And Mom obviously likes Som…” She snorts and rolls her eyes as if this is a well known fact that people keep trying to ignore. “They even kissed and all! Why wouldn’t he wanna see her again?”

The words leave Tulip’s lips as if they meant nothing, swift and simple like the sharpest of blades. They hit Dion like a wall of knives moving against him at full speed, each of them piercing through his ears, headed straight for his heart. He feels it stop in his chest, along with his breathing.

Blood completely drained from his cheeks, he turns to Tulip. “What are you talking about, Tulip?”

Tulip looks up at him wide-eyed and worried, as if he has just spoken in tongues. “At the party. When they went outside. Mom said Som wasn’t feeling too good and I went out to check if she’d made him feel all better yet and they were kissing.” She shrugs before adding, “He looked all better.” She tilts her head at the god of magic, “Did I…say anything wrong? You don’t look so good.”

“It’s… all right, little flower,” Dion replies, feeling his mouth suddenly dry.

“Hon, I bet that wasn’t quite what it looked like…” Cherry notes, watching Dion’s face though ostensibly speaking to Tulip.

“What do you mean?!” Tulip immediately cries. “He was holding her against the wall and he had his mouth on hers and–”

“Hey now!” Cherry cuts her off. “How the heck long were you watchin’ anyhow? Couldn’t’a been more than a second and it’s not–” Her mouth freezes open and silent as she blinks. She focuses on Tulip again. “He was holdin’ her against the wall?”

“He was holding her pretty tight…” Tulip notes, nodding slowly.

Dion listens to them as if standing in a dream. Cherry’s arguing and Tulip’s comment barely register. He stopped paying attention since the words they were kissing dropped into his brain like a lead weight, searing hot and spiked like a hand from Hell crushing his thoughts. A hazy image of a pinkish mouth set against olive skin kissing Alma’s lips begins to form in his mind. He shakes his head to dislodge the repulsive thing before it can become any more solid.

“I think I had better go…elsewhere,” he mumbles, turning to walk back into his room.

He feels something hold him back. Looking down, he sees Cherry’s hand gripping his wrist. “Wait… I…I…” Her shoulders slump and she lets go of him. “I got nothing.”

“Wait, what’s wrong?” Tulip asks as Dion’s hand touches the pantry door to activate his bedroom portal.

“Well…I don’t know!” Cherry cries, throwing her hands up. “I don’t get the whole thing of bein’ mad about stuff like this anyway, but…” She speaks at Dion’s back, since he is already walking into his sanctum. “You know this could be all one big misunderstandin’.”

The portal closes behind him, to the muffled shouts and poundings of the Bunny. “Aaaaugh! Come on! You know Alma wouldn’t sneak off on you! She’s crazy about you! DION! Open the door! Let’s talk!”

No… there is nothing to talk about. He knew it. He knew it! The way Somrak looked at Alma and acted so friendly around her, showering her in compliments, defending her before the Fencer. And the way Alma played along, smiling and running fingers through the fire god’s hair, dismissing Dion’s suspicions as if they were nothing while getting closer and closer to Somrak.

And now the image of those two together, kissing, his scarred, disfigured face pressing lips against her pale skin, holding her slender body against the bar wall, blood- and tobacco-stained hands running over her body as if they had a claim to it while her delicate fingers unbind his ridiculous ponytail to dive into his straight, black hair burns against the inside of Dion’s eyelids, imagination filling in reality’s blank spots, revolting and tormenting.

He stumbles, feeling his legs weak under him, almost falling on his bed when his knees fail. But he shoots up from the covers just as quickly, turning to look at it with renewed horror. His bed, the bed he has shared with her so many times, made into their space of peace and union. Lies… all lies. They had never been alone in that bed, he sees now. Somrak, maybe even Arion had been there with them, holding her as he held her. And he, the charmer, the seducer, had fallen under her spell like so many clueless, too-easy-to-conquer goddesses had fallen under his.

Stupid, stupid, STUPID! How stupid of him to believe her! To believe for a moment in illusions, in lies. LIES! All a lie… Every moment, every secret shared, every caress. Had she lied about the risk of laying with him and creating more Bunnies as bait to keep him interested? Somrak is no less a threat there, after all. No safer a lover. Gods, had Dion not risked his neck, not stayed here, in this dump of a ward, for her?!

He grips the edge of his desk for support, breathing so quickly that he feels lightheaded. His heart lies dead still in his chest, or so it feels like. Some part of him cries out for sense, for reason. Part of him wants to give her the benefit of doubt, to believe in her still, refusing to accept that it could all have been a lie, reminding him of their agreement.

He hears its appeal but it is just too weak. The poisonous touch of betrayal and the roaring flame of anger burn through him with too much heat, too much strength to be denied. This has nothing to do with their agreement. This has nothing to do with finding a lover she can be safely intimate with for a night or two. No… She loves Somrak, is in love with him. And if she is in love with him, she can no longer love Dion.

The invitation resting innocently on his desk catches his eye and he feels something stir in his mind that is more animalistic than divine, a sudden impulse to take Niruí’s call and his revenge with him. He will show her. Yes, he will show Alma! If it is with Somrak that she wants to be, then he will move on before she even returns to Three Rats.

He takes the invitation, a maddened glee making his eyes shine as the portal opens with alluring sound. The portal starts pulling him into it as soon as it forms and he takes a step into it, saying goodbye to juvenile dreams of romance with death goddesses and accepting his solitary, seducing nature once again.

Ch6.53 Trust

The knock on his office door wakes him. Well, rouses him, to be accurate. The Evil Hamster of Pointless Thinking, as Sky had long personified his insomnia, had been running ceaselessly on its Rusty Wheel of Doom, keeping a proper sleep far away.

He sighs heavily and sits up in his bed, fine linen sheets falling away. His pocket-universe home, his sanctum, is in near-total darkness. But the knocking on the door in the next universe over is always loud enough to wake him, as he has made certain it would be. The magic on that door, and on the one to his false apartment as well, is such that he will know if someone is knocking, or trying the knob, or even speaking purposefully toward the door, no matter where he is on the Insula. Except of course for the low-magic wards.

And here comes the voice, echoing not in his ears but in his head. “Inspector?” Ah, Aliyah. “Inspector, are you in there?”

That echoing, some side effect of the spell involved, makes Aliyah’s voice sound like it is in a vast empty cavern. Sky always grimaces at what this implies about the architecture of his skull.

At his mental command, a diffuse, indirect light begins to glow from around the edge where the curved, tapa-cloth-lined wall meets the koa-wood ceiling. Here, in this miniature world tailored to his specifications, matched to his mind, the light reveals a circular room, simply appointed, the bed taking up almost all of it, its point of intersection with the larger oval of the main room a doorless opening.

The temperature lowers slightly as he rises and dresses. Lifetimes of soldiering have led him always to leave his clothes at hand, ready to be donned, and he dresses mechanically, without hurry but with swift efficiency, then steps into the main room, a larger oval with shelves and a curved sofa along one side, small kitchen nook on the other, the bedroom doorway at one end of the oval, the door to the bath at the other.

It is quite simple and spare as such dwellings go, but this is suited to Sky’s nature. Books, a few paintings and photographs, wallpaper made from pounded bark and dyed in runic patterns of the island people whose god he had once been, a comfortable bed and bath – it is a retreat from the world, an externalization of himself.

He moves to a spot on the wall which, on laying his palm against it, glows golden, a doorway through which he steps and feels the familiar touch of disorientation as he leaves a sort of womb under his complete control for the much larger pocket universe that is the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heaven. Here, Reality is adjusted to favor gods, but not any specific one, and certainly not himself, a creature who stretches the definition of “god” to the breaking point. And thus this Reality feels much more real to him than the comfort of his sanctum. That retreat is sometimes welcome and even needed, but he truly prefers to spend most of his time grappling against the difficulties of a world not made to suit him.

His long legs only need three steps to stride diagonally across his office to reach the door and open it, to find the worried face of Constable Aliyah, Guardia Popula. She is looking up at him, for he is one of only two people taller than her at this station. Her brown, freckled face brightens slightly at seeing him, taking on a hint of that normally cheerful disposition she radiates.

“Oh thank the – well, you know…you!” she blurts. “I figured you might be sleepin’ in there. I know it ain’t your shift quite yet, but Sergeant Gwydion sent me back to get you.”

Sky moves to his locker and pulls out his New Year present from Alma and Gwydion, the sleek Ballion-mesh-lined jacket, and slips it on, enjoying the perfectly tailored feel of it on his limbs and shoulders. “What’s happened, Aliyah? Death’s Day Off?”

“You know it!” she confirms bitterly. “Big fight over at Rio Novo.”

Sky sighs as he straps on his truncheon and other weapons. “How bad are we talking?”

“Mostly cleanup now,” she says. “A little fighting left, maybe, but they’ve really done a number on each other.”

He decides to leave the crossbow. Obvious ranged weapons can escalate a situation like this, and only mortals are likely to try to take advantage of this day to engage in Death-defying behavior. Gods, even the stupider ones, tend to know better. Mortals unafraid of being turned into a pincushion may still be impressed by a good shaking from an angry deity roaring in their faces.

“You can fill me in on which gangs are involved on our way there. Let’s go, Constable.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Sky suppresses a sigh. He feels the cooling liquid running down his gift from Alma and Dion and dripping onto his Guardia trousers, soaking in. Well, it is inevitable. An armored jacket is fated to become bloodstained. Particularly if it is his.

He moves slowly, balancing the two rival gangsters on his shoulders. They are young and big and strong. One of them is moaning softly for someone named Lisa. The other is worryingly silent. The blood is coming from multiple stab wounds they’d delivered to each other’s torsos. Sky had found them slumped across from each other, muttering threats, lightheaded from blood loss. He’d done his best to stop the flow, using the simple battlefield-healing magic he knows along with mundane first aid, then lifted them and headed for the clinic that is commonly known as “Doc Nate’s.”

Seeing all the beds of the clinic full, he slowly kneels and then lowers them to the floor, Constable Silva moving quickly to help. The moaning gangster continues moaning for Lisa, while the other remains unconscious.

“Sorry about this, Doc,” Sky says as Nataniel approaches to give them a cursory examination.

Nataniel sighs, looking deeply tired. “No hay problema. Just leave them there. I will take care of them when I can.”

“I’ve done what little healing magic I can, stopping bleeding and such. Some of them, it’s just too late. But…today…”

The doctor waves dismissively. “Sí, sí…I know. Nobody dies. Maybe I can save some still. If more don’t pile up. This keeps up like this, I’ll need reinforcements.”

A shadow falls across them as someone stands between them and the fluttering gas wall-lamp. Sky looks up to see Gwydion, and straightens. “Is the fighting as over as it seemed down by the river?”

Dion looks sympathetically at the blood beading on Sky’s jacket. He is, himself, bearing the marks of a sudden arterial spray across his chest and face. Although he has wiped the latter away as well as he could, a missed smear of blood remains on the side of his nose. “I’d think there’s no one left to be fighting at all by now. Both gangs should be missing at least half of their people.” He sighs and shakes his head. “I hate Death’s Day Off. Every year, the same thing. Five calls on all sorts of violence in a single shift.”

Sky nods. “They think it means they can’t be killed. All it means is they can’t be killed today. But when all the blood has run out of your body, there’s no putting it back in. Or unpuncturing all your vitals.”

“What I could do with a proper hospital,” Nataniel mutters. “One genius over there sold both his kidneys to the black market. Thought they would grow back, he said.”

Dion looks across the clinic room, at every bed full, along with most of the floor space, with healthy young men who could have led productive lives. “Maybe we should make explanatory pamphlets or something…” he says in a dry voice.

“We could attach them to the knives they favor,” Sky replies, sighing. “Well, some of them will survive. Doctor, do you need any magical assistance? Though those who have passed the point of death cannot be saved, in my experience.”

Nataniel shakes his head. “Preserve your, eh, magical fuel, Inspector. The Sergeant here has done as much as he can, saving some of these lives. Pero I have to go back to work if any are to survive past tonight.” He mutters, “I swear death gods do this so we’ll pray to them…”

Dion chuckles. “Better than going on strike… Well, I’ll go check to see if any more bodies are dropping.”

“I’ll come with you,” Sky says grimly. “We need to make sure this has stopped.” Together they walk out, the glare of the setting sun making them squint as they trudge back toward the Rio Novo neighborhood.

“Think they really do it for the publicity?” Dion’s voice is low and thoughtful.

“The Death Clan?” Sky shrugs. “Who knows how it started? Now it’s such tradition, I don’t know if they could change it. A billion souls all dreading this day – that’s a lot of belief to overcome.” Not for the first time, he thanks Fate that he has no worshippers. Or very few. Though he does not encourage worship – which would be illegal for him, as Guardia, to do – he does receive prayers now and again. It is a strange feeling, to hear those voices, often too weak to make out, and to feel mana flowing into him from a mortal. And sometimes he thinks there is even a prayer to him from that island where, so very long ago, he was first worshipped as a god. Where he acquired this tall, dark form he has worn ever since.

That had been, as he discovered, a beautiful trap. A god, worshipped by even no more than the inhabitants of a single small valley, can find himself transformed by the worshippers’ expectations and desires. It is how he took on the characteristics of a god, how he became ocean-aspected. His other aspect, that of rebellion, had been much stronger then, not yet crushed beneath the heel of revolutions failed and successful, the successes often more disappointing than the failures. But then, his nature would not allow him to stay with them. He believed the best thing for them was to live on their own, with no gods.

And thus he was not there for them when the foreign ship came, their diseases welcomed with open arms, and soon after, their bullets. It was an error that fills him with guilt even now, nearly two centuries later. He took vengeance on the plunderers, but the damage had been done. The few survivors had, with Sky’s negotiation, been adopted into a village in a neighboring valley.

Dion’s words shake him from his self-recrimination. “Yes. Though, what it is they do that takes all of them coming together for a whole day…” He looks at Sky. “You’ve seen some of the more interesting family members. Even the ones who sound cordial can look a bit… unpleasant. Fodder for the imagination.”

“They are as they are shaped by those who pray to them, or pray to be ignored by them. Fear of death is so powerful, and so they take on frightful forms.” Sky glances at Dion with a smile. “Though not all are frightening.”

Dion snorts. “Even those who are beautiful can be a terror when their tempers are roused.”

“Don’t I know it,” Sky responds dryly, though with affection for the object of their discussion, Sergeant Alma.

“Sky…” Dion’s hesitation prompts Sky to look at him, eyebrows raised. “You worked with the Commander. Did you ever encounter Senator Death?”

Asking after Alma’s father? Sky thinks with surprise that turns to warmth. He really is serious about her. Well, that or very worried. “Only once,” he says aloud. “Decades ago. I was there to escort the Commander, and so I stayed in the background, silent. Death did not deign to notice my presence.”

“What do you think of him?”

Grimly, Sky says, “He’s a Senator. No one reaches those heights without a ruthless nature. He never even visited Alma during her arrest.” He shakes his head as he adds bitterly, “It wouldn’t have been good politics.”

“My uncle is of even higher rank,” Dion points out.

Sky looks at him, his eyes soft. “There are always exceptions,” he says. “Archon Math was instrumental in protecting you, Alma, and her children from an unjust punishment. I will always feel gratitude to him for that.” He does not say, however, that he still believes Math to be as coldly ruthless as Death, probably more so. In Sky’s opinion, Alma was saved because it was useful to Math to do so. But there is no point in telling that to the Archon’s nephew, practically his son. To change the subject, Sky says, “Have you met Alma’s mother?”

“I have.” Dion smiles. “Once, while we were at my uncle’s estate. She came to visit Alma. She was a bit…overwhelming.”

Sky laughs. “Yes, well… She smiled at me, that time, so long ago, when I was in Death’s presence. And then I’ve met her a few times since, here.”

“Here!” Dion sounds shocked. “Oh, she must have come to visit Alma, of course. And I can tell from the warmth in your voice that you like her.”

Sky smiles. “I do. She loves her daughter and her grandchildren – yes, she calls the Bunnies that without reservation. She loves them quite sincerely, and they very much love her in return. And she has shown me great kindness. But…” His voice becomes sad. “I really do think her skills of manipulation may make Death look like an amateur.”

“Really…” Dion mutters. “Why am I not surprised?”

“They are an ancient and ambitious family,” Sky says. “You must know far more about such things than I do.”

Dion nods, silent for the moment.

“Speaking of Alma, instead of her family,” Sky says, “don’t the two of you have an arrangement to meet?”

Again, the god of magic nods. “We do. Which leads me to ask: are you sure you want to switch shifts? Alma told me you were planning on spending Mayumi’s last night here with her.” He looks abashed. “I did not remember it when I asked you for the switch. Forgive me.”

Sky can sense behind the words the question, Why didn’t you mention it? And indeed, why hadn’t he? Is it because he is still confused how to handle this relationship with Mayumi? Because he is holding back, not simply to keep things slow, not simply because of the extreme power imbalance involved in a god/mortal pairing as well as a workplace romance between a chief-of-station and a, for the moment, office worker, not even because Mayumi is his best friend’s daughter? Though all of that is reason enough for holding back, and then some.

No, there is also that fact that so much of what Mayumi – and Alma, and Dion, and everyone – knows of him is a lie. He is no god. Or if he is, he certainly did not begin as one. He is a vile abomination, a product of cruelty and hate, something that no one in their right mind would ever trust. And yet they trust him. They are kind to him. They show him their love.

And it makes him feel ashamed. Whether he is worthy of that trust is less important than the fact that he is lying to them by omission, constantly. He must tell them. And he is terrified to do so.

Certainly he could never dive fully into a relationship with Mayumi without coming clean about what he is. But no matter how much he wishes to, how could her burden her with such a revelation just before she leaves for the Academy? That would be even more unfair than keeping the secret for now, or at least he has convinced himself of that. Can he trust his own judgement there, self-serving as it is? He calls himself a coward every time he thinks of it.

But no. Telling her now would be wrong. She does not need such distractions, and she seems happy to go along with his slow approach, though it is a frustrated sort of happiness. Strange as it may seem, the first person he knows he must tell is Alma. If any of them is capable of forgiving him for what he is, it is her, first and foremost. And with her help, perhaps Gwydion will. Mayumi…that will be for after she graduates.

He brings himself back to the present moment. “Nothing to forgive. Mayumi and I are rather looking forward to just being together tonight, on the job. It’s a busy night, anyway, though things should calm down after midnight. We can just, you know, talk. Relax.”

Dion looks at him and Sky can tell he doesn’t fully buy it, but says, “Very well, then. I will accompany you and make sure this particular crisis is over. And then I’ll head back to the station. Alma and May should be back by now.”

Sky shakes his head. “You should head back now. I think I can handle whomever might still be standing. Neither of these gangs has divine recruits, after all.”

With a chuckle bereft of humor, Dion agrees, “No… They just won’t die. Take care, Sky.”

For just a moment, Sky is tempted to tease Dion, say something silly like, You two be careful now. He quashes the temptation. Dion has lowered his formidable defenses to Sky only recently and, to be sure, very cautiously, ready to slam that door closed in an instant. Jovial teasing on the subject of Alma would be an idiotic move, and truly, it’s not Sky’s style anyway. Instead, he puts a heavy hand on Dion’s shoulder, and says with real warmth, “Have a good night.”

Dion smiles back, then turns to take another street, back toward the station, walking with eager and swift anticipation.

Ch6.47 Trust

Dion stretches in his office chair. The party is over. Granted, some pocket of resistant partiers may still be trying to make it last until dawn back at the bar but, for Dion, duty has called for shorter lasting merrymaking and a much less entertaining return to work. For as much as the past few days have been mostly peaceful (something unusual for a holiday season), the station cannot afford to close and the Dei must keep with their duties alongside the Popula. Differential treatment and greater flexibility in schedules because of their nature is one thing but stretch that line too far and resentment between mortal and god is bound to show.

So, no night off for the magic god. No ending a day of partying and gift-giving on a sweet note of not-exactly-sleeping under satin sheets, closely held by a preferably naked death goddess and collecting the delightful success of his gift from her cool, soft lips. Shame… She is probably on her soul-harvesting rounds right now or maybe she has returned and is resting already. Either way, she’ll be having a better time than he is having at the moment, immersed, for lack of something more exciting, in mind-numbing paperwork.

But there will be other opportunities. For now, his eyes fall on the green and brown bracelet that hugs his wrist. He strokes the golden charm shaped like a sleeping dragon that adorns its intricate, leathery surface with the tip of an index finger, smiling at the detail of it and the attention that Alma obviously pays to things concerning him. And it would take some attention to notice Dion’s love of dragons. Other than a single tapestry hanging on his bedroom wall, he lets almost nothing show of it and of the reasons why he loves them so. That story mostly brought him trouble and heartache anyway, but he cannot avoid looking back in tenderness at his early years and the first great adventure of his godly life. When he was young and witless enough to believe that great acts of valor would win him the heart of one whom everyone said could not care less about him but whose love he craved above all.

Foolish him. On a whim, after hearing her speak of how much she believed that love was conquered and proven by great deeds, he had set out to the wild Dragon Lands, dangerous and teeming with colossal beasts, to tame a dragon for her. It hadn’t worked. But those four months there, equivalent to three decades here – for time runs much slower in the Dragon Lands – had shaped the skinny, insecure boy he was then into the charming, strong, confident adult he is. And they had taught him not to believe in love, not to want it for himself and never again to allow it to make him so weak, so vulnerable to harm.

And maybe because he is now remembering this, as his finger absentmindedly strokes the jeweled spine of the dragon charm, the soft music that rings in his ears is one of flutes and wind-chimes.

Of leaves and branches shaking in the wind. Rushing water. Pouring rain. Fire crackling in a narrow cave.

A memory of a cold, stormy night in the place where dragons roam free…

It had not had gone the way he thought it would. Surely, when one decides to embark on a noble quest for the favor of the fairest lady in the world, there are expectations to be met. One should find loyal companions along the way, learn great secrets of the universe, be trained by mystical masters. Certainly not end up in a damp cave, soaked to the bones and shaking with cold, huddling over a small fire while trying to ignore the stench of the dirty, middle-aged man in clothes that must not have seen any water other than rain for at least a few months, sitting with his back against the wall.

“So let me see if I got this right,” the not too tall, filthy man asked, using long, blackened nails to scratch a thick, curly beard that probably harbors half of the lice population in this place. “This girl…”

“Not just any girl,” Dion cut him off with the still too high-pitched voice of his adolescence. The damned thing was taking too long to change. “She is the most beautiful, amazing–”

It was the man’s turn to interrupt him, waving his hand dismissively as if to cut through Dion’s words. “Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me how great she is already.” He threw another damp stick into the fire and settled down again to clean the dirt under his nails with a nail on the other hand. “Anyway, she won’t give you the time of day and keeps flirting with this other guy so you decided you’d come here and capture a dragon to impress her.”

He hated to hear his tale of love and valor reduced to the man’s blunt words. Sure, Edine was willful as the sun was bright but she was also young, dreamful, beautiful and filled with a sweet inner radiance that would blind the world if only she wouldn’t keep it hidden. They were soulmates, he knew. The constant grimace of boredom and mild disgust on her face was just a mask she put on her full, perfectly drawn lips to hide a quiet, candid soul. Her choice in short, draping dresses that hugged the budding curves of her breasts and the sinuous rises of her hips only to reveal her long, shapely legs and the flawless flatness of her back almost all the way down to the tip of her spine was just a ruse. Her sensuous body was just the armor she chose to distract people from how scared she was, from how much she yearned for a strong presence to stand between her and the world and conquer life and greatness for her, a man to be firm and brave so she could be fragile and docile and innocent, as every woman secretly yearns to be.

And the way she spoke at him, so dry and hostile, telling him to grow up, was but a veiled cry of help, asking him only to grow strong enough to save her from a world of frivolous attachments and arranged marriages. He would grow stronger, yes, and prove his worth. And then she would trust him to hold her in his soon-to-be powerful arms and show her the warmth of true love. She would feel safe enough then to pour out the sweetness she was afraid to show and be all he dreamed she could be to him.

So he truly took it to heart that this grubby, sour man would dare attack his lady, reduce her blonde, green-eyed, gentle grace to the simple, peasant name of girl.

“Do not speak of her like that!” Dion snapped, the veins on his skinny, fair-skinned neck throbbing in anger. “You do not know her like I do. She is confused, that is all.”

“You just said she told you to take a hike, lad,” the man noted conversationally, apparently unmoved by the threat brewing in Dion’s bony, thin frame. “That sure don’t sound like confusion to me.”

“If I return with this proof of my valor, she will surely change her mind,” the young god insisted, jutting his chin forward in firm resolve.

That made the square-jawed, primitive-looking man sigh and shake his head. “Look, lad – you have a name?”

That made Dion’s head spin for a bit. Surely he could not risk revealing his true identity, lest this hairy, talking primate know his uncle and send him home before Dion could reach his goal in this place. “Uhh…” he stuttered and cursed himself for it. “Heliwyr. Heliwyr, yes. Heliwyr.”

He liked the name. It was the name of his favorite fiction hero.

The man glanced at him appreciatively as if measuring him for a straightjacket. “I guess lad will have to do.” He muttered. “Draig here. Did you tell anyone you were coming here?”

“Of course!” Dion replied, too, too fast. “Yes… Not as such. I left a note.”

Draig’s fingers traced the ugly vertical scar running over his left eye in what looked like troubled contemplation. “You left your parents a note saying you were coming to the Dragon Lands to tame a dragon for a girl…?”

“My parents are dead,” Dion said, glaring at the man as if he were supposed to know such trivial things. “All I have is an uncle and a mentor. I left them a note.”

Draig snorted derisively. “Oh, I can just see that one. ‘Dear Uncle, I decided to travel to the Dragon Lands to prove my worth to this girl who just told me to go carve a melon with a toothpick’.”

“Look, will you help me or not?” Dion snapped again, feeling miserable and clammy and freezing right down to his bones. “I can always just go back to the Ker-mah, you know?”

“Sure, you can,” Draig replied, visibly unimpressed. “And you can spend the next few months in their bloody company, reading every book in their library and learning everything there is to know about dragons without ever seeing one up close and personal. Isn’t that why you wandered off into the jungle in the middle of a rainstorm?”

“It wasn’t raining then…” Dion mutters.

Draig was right, though, even if Dion would not admit it to save his life. The Ker-mah, gorgeous, charming creatures, bred of god and dragon blood, had received him well and welcomed him into their midst. They had promised to help him in his quest. But after two weeks of nothing to do but read their books and learn the commandments of their culture, Dion had become quite convinced that field experience would not be a thing of the near future. And so, after a very pleasant with the delicately featured head of the order, in her – no, jys – for the Ker-mah had no defined gender, like the dragons from which they descended, hovering instead between male and female, leaning toward one or another at their leisure and need – jys silk-lined chamber smelling of strange scents that made his adolescent mind curl around lustful thoughts and his body tingle in beckoning, slightly embarrassing ways, he had packed his backpack and walked into the night to continue his quest…

Only to end up in this goddamned cave, saved from the pouring wrath of the skies by a man so filthy that water rolled over him as if he wore a waterproof jacket.

Damn all of this to the seventh Hell…

“Look, I could send you out there and let you drown in rainwater or end up in some toothy maw but messing with the Ker-mah’s plans it too entertaining to pass up,” Draig offered, oh-so magnanimously. “So, fine. I’ll teach you to find, capture, tame, heck, even cook any type of dragon you fancy. Fire dragons, water dragons, wind dragons, you name one, I’ll teach. I’m not gonna be fancy about it and you’re gonna have to make yourself useful.”

Dion nodded. “I will do whatever it takes.”

“Good, take those high-class clothes off,” Draig ordered.

“I WON’T DO THAT!” Dion shrieked in shock, wrapping his own arms around his body in demure outrage. Damn the gods of puberty!

“Fine, freeze in those fine, drenched linens,” Draig grunted, rolling his eyes. “See if I care. But try and keep your teeth from chattering too loud while I teach you. I don’t like to have to repeat myself.”

Scowling at the man in deep suspicion, Dion proceeded to unbutton his shirt and lay it carefully over his backpack, welcoming the warmth of the fire on his skin but trying not to look to obvious about it.

Draig merely snorted and threw another stick in the flames. “Now, if you wanna capture a dragon, you gotta learn what goes through their heads.”

Dion nodded, thinking about this. “I see… I must know the dragon.”

“Yes.”

“Learn its habits,” Dion added.

“Aye,” Draig nodded dryly.

“Its weaknesses,” Dion said, feeling like he was getting the hang of things.

“Good, good,” Draig mumbled.

“I must become the dragon!” Dion cried, shooting to his feet in triumph.

“Wha–?!” Draig roared. “Why in the blasted Hells would you do that?!”

This left Dion utterly confused. “Uuh…So I can capture a dragon?”

“And you think you could become one, a bony piece of flesh like you?!” Draig exclaimed, gesturing at Dion’s narrow, half-naked exposed body. “You look like an overpriced canape!”

Dion rolled his eyes and slumped back down to the floor, his legs crossed. “I was speaking metaphorically,” he muttered, propping his cheeks on his closed fists.

Draig snorted again. Dion was beginning to think the man would be doing that a lot. “Ha! Shows what you know. Dragons don’t do metaphors. They don’t do sarcasm either.” He paused in contemplation. “Or baths. Definitely not baths. Moving on… What do you know about dragons?”

Dion considered pointing out Draig’s own lacking hydrophilia but decided against it. “Dragons are noble, highly evolved reptilian creatures of the genus Draconem,” he recited instead, proud at his ability to memorize the information in his uncle’s books.

“Right, nothing then,” Draig replied dryly. “The first thing you need to know about dragons is…they are sadistic, arrogant bastards.”

“Somehow that part of the definition has not yet made it into the books,” Dion muttered, looking despondent at the man’s dismissal of his hard-earned academic knowledge.

Snort and Mutter. That should make for an interesting team.

“Oh, they can be charming, mind you, in the same way a snake can be charming to a mouse,” Draig assured him, looking serious. “They’ll say whatever you want to hear just so they can get what they want from you – that is, if you have anything they want – and they’ll be mighty serious about it too…until they eat you whole.”

“Thankfully, I have never met anyone like that,” Dion noted, feeling slightly disgusted at the thought of acting in such a manner.

“The Bearers are the worst,” Draig continued, apparently oblivious to Dion’s commentary. “Guess, you’d think of them as females. They’re the sneakiest, meanest critters and if you find one, lad, run! Don’t try to catch it, don’t try to tame it, and unless you can talk your way out of it, just run! Personally, I’ve used that piece of advice for all sorts of females but you’re a young lad. You’ll get why soon enough.”

“I’m sure I will…” Dion rolled his eyes at the obvious jab.

“You know, you interrupt too much,” Draig complained with a sneer. “Anyway, if you want to capture dragons and bend’em to your will, you’ll need to attack their weakest spot. Know what that is?”

This made Dion brighten a little. Time to show off his knowledge of dragon lore. “You mean the part of their skull just behind the left ear?”

Draig nodded his head, pondering. “That could work…That could work…You see, the problem is…Not all dragons have ears. Try again.”

“Their eyes?” Dion offered.

“Yeah, ‘cuz those are just protected by bunker-grade eyelids.”

“The center of their chest where a single scale is missing from their armor?” He was sure he had read that somewhere.

“The heck kind of books have you been reading?!” Draig cried out in bewilderment. “Fairytales?!”

“Fine, then!” Dion gave up. “What is their greatest weakness?”

Draig’s yellowing teeth glinted in the flame-light, too sharp and amused for comfort. “Why, lad, their greed….”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Dion blinks at the soft metallic catch of the latch in his office door lock opening as someone turns the old-fashioned spherical brass doorknob. He turns his head to see who it is, his memories quickly fading back into the dark recesses of his mind at the first glimpse of long, white hair. Alma peeks in, looking at him almost apologetically before entering. She looks tired and, most of all, worried, but the smile she gives him is pure warmth. Without the smallest exchange of words, Dion knows that she came to be with him. The thought makes his heart skip a beat.

“Hi,” she half-whispers as she closes the door.

“Hi,” he replies, touching his hand to the wall behind him and murmuring a short sound-proofing spell. “Thought you might be resting by now.”

“Yes, I should…” Alma concedes, taking the few steps needed to cross the room and stand just beside his chair. “But as I was returning from my harvests, I decided that I don’t want to go to bed all by myself.”

Dion snorts at a passing thought. “You won’t be. Saira will be there.”

Alma rolls her eyes but smiles at the joke. “Let me make it clearer.” She touches her hand to his leg in a signal for him to move his left leg enough that she can sit on his thigh, sidesaddle. Their office is so small that his desk barely has enough room between it and the wall to allow for Dion to sit down and rise without advanced contortionism but, still, he manages to humor her and she manages to squeeze herself into the tight space available. Her arms drape over his shoulders as she breathes in his ear, “I don’t want to go to bed without you.”

His lips curl in pleasure at the little kiss she leaves on his earlobe. “Ah… Well, I could recommend the sofa,” he says, reaching up to stroke her cheek. “But this feels much more pleasant. If you can sleep like this.”

Her body shakes with a quiet snort before she straightens to look into his eyes. “I very much doubt your leg would enjoy that.”

“I’m sure I know a spell or two to stop my leg from ruining my fun,” Dion replies almost immediately, making her chuckle at his wit.

She leans to press the bridge of her nose to the side of his face and her arms squeeze him gently. She snuggles close to him, breathing peacefully against his jaw, and he holds her closely as silence spreads between them. He can sense that all is not well with Alma. It hasn’t been, all day. Her stress has been showing in small ways, here and there, even though she has tried to hide it, and the opportunities to sit down and relax, truly relax without party preparations and people hovering around, have not been many. So to feel her tense frame loosen against him and hear her little sigh of bliss is a great relief to him.

How strange that this would be so. How alien that a simple hug like this could ever feel to him as precious as a night of lovemaking. More, even, for he and Alma haven’t been allowed that level of intimacy yet. Four months ago, it would have barely registered as a short step to taking a woman to his bed. That he could ever spend all day craving this affectionate, completing touch, knowing that he cannot take it much further into passion is… He has spent decades diving into women’s beds to emerge triumphant but unmoved. Hollow. But…hadn’t life given him such an early warning about the dangers of falling in love? About how deceptive and disappointing it can be?

And yet, here he is, heart overflowing with pleasure and empathy at an innocent touch that just leaves his body wanting. Who would have thought that? Who would have thought that the great, romantic lies of love could come true?

In the quietness of their office, the sound of her deep, slow breathing so close to his ear is hypnotic. He has closed his eyes to enjoy the moment and barely notices the thinning and blurring of his thoughts as he loses track of time and drifts off into shallow sleep.

Some time must have gone by, though, because his leg is tingling with discomfort by the time he feels himself surface from that gentle lull. He forgot to cast that spell. A few light taps to the underside of his thigh produce the expected result: nothing. Still holding him closely, Alma seems to sleep soundly. He does not really want to wake her but his leg is starting to scream obscenities and now it is too late to do anything about it other than moving it to restore proper blood flow. Maybe he can somehow work out the geometry of lifting her in his arms while he raises himself on just one leg?

Fool, he admonishes himself. You have magic, don’t you?

A quick fumble through some dusty pages of his memory and he finds what he was looking for. His thoughts wrap around a levitation spell that encircles Alma and lifts her, still in very much the same position, from her perch on his leg. He rubs his aching limb as he makes sure she does not float up high enough to hit her head on the ceiling.

But something in her must sense the magic because she stirs, her eyes fluttering open in that haziness of waking. She looks around, then down at him, her eyebrows rising in surprise. She rubs her eyes with the back of her hand almost as if she were trying to get them to see straight and visibly stiffens when realization dawns.

“Am I… floating?” she asks in a voice still tinged with sleep.

Dion rises immediately to take her in his arms, cringing ever so slightly when canceling the levitation spell adds half of Alma’s weight to the load that his currently recalcitrant left leg has to bear. “You must have been dreaming very light dreams.”

Alma raises an eyebrow at this as she drapes her arms around his neck. “Your leg fell numb, didn’t it?”

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Dion replies, avoiding a full admission. “But now that you’re awake…sofa?”

She nods. “Yes, please.”

He gently eases her legs to the floor. Carrying her to the sofa would probably be the epitome of romance in this situation but the small office crammed with breakable things sitting on the desks and tables, waiting to be knocked down and shattered into a hundred pieces, is not really all that amenable to epitomes in general. So he lets her walk to the sofa and sit before he sits down by her side and wraps an arm around her shoulders.

She folds her legs up onto the sofa and reclines against him, hugging his chest and making a show of snuggling into perfect comfort. “Hmm…And now I’m not letting you go.”

Dion chuckles, delighted at the choice in words. “I was hoping you would say that.”

She straightens and smiles at him with that enticing look in her eyes that usually precedes a kiss. Her lips make good on that promise, interrupting the conversation with sweet, busy silence. They eventually break away from kissing to settle again into tranquil – if mildly tense with pent-up desire – snuggling.

“The streets were so quiet tonight,” Alma says conversationally as she plays with one of the delicately handcrafted buttons on his shirt. “As if everyone decided to stay inside for once.”

Dion nods. “Strange, isn’t it? I would expect a lot of intoxicated people and rowdy party-goers, like in other wards.”

“Oh, yes,” Alma agrees. “I’ve been through some pretty bad shifts on nights like this. Happy people make for very stupid people too.”

Dion chuckles at this. “I’m willing to bet that tomorrow will not be half as peaceful. If there are bad days to be Guardia, Death’s day off is the worst of them.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Alma replies, her voice suddenly edged with nervousness and sorrow. “I’ve always spent it at Father’s.”

She had told him before that she had decided to attend the ceremony at Death’s estate. The authorization to leave Three Rats for the day had arrived just two days ago and all the arrangements had been made to allow her to spend the day away without much interference on normal station life. But her anxiety at facing off her father’s suggestion that she should stay away this year – later revoked apparently on a sudden, surprise visit from Death himself – has been clearly growing these past few days. Dion has been half expecting the goddess to give up at the last minute.

“It will be all right, Alma,” he states softly, tightening his embrace a little. “Sky and I will stretch our shifts and take care of things here and all you will have to worry about is attending the ceremony and showing that their opinion matters very little to you.” He kisses the top of her head. “We will be here waiting when you return.”

A small whimper escapes her throat as she squeezes him in her arms. “Thank you.”

“Are you still taking May with you tomorrow?” he asks, more to change topics than to know the answer.

“Yes,” Alma says, still fighting the thick layers of emotion in her voice. “Can’t bring her present to the ward yet so I’ll have to take her to it.” She sighs. “Now there is another piece of heartache.”

“Six months go by very quickly,” Dion notes. “And she will be safe. You know that. The Academy is a highly controlled environment.”

“I know…” she concedes. “But I have been without her for so long and now that we have finally found each other and started getting along, she’s leaving. And the other Bunnies are all heartbroken to see her leave.”

He falls silent at that. He cannot understand her pain, not really. Surely if he were to suddenly find out his parents were still alive and nearby, he would not want to leave their side anytime soon but that is a bit of a what if kind of empathy, the only type he can feel in that situation. Or perhaps…if he were to be forced to leave Three Rats and all the people he has met here, all those familiar, friendly faces. Of course, he had never pined for the day he would see them for the first time but to lose them now, even if temporarily, would be painful. And the longer he spends with them, all of them, the more painful it becomes to imagine letting go. His bonds to this station, to the Bunnies, Sky, Alma are like chains attached to his emotions and while he welcomes the sustaining anchor they provide, he is terrified at what having them ripped away one by one might do to a heart not used to loss of any kind.

The thought of it shakes him, making him hold her tighter. Could I even stand it if you left?

“I am not going anywhere, dear,” she says.

The words are like an electric shock. He stiffens immediately, looking at her in surprise. She squirms a bit in his tight embrace to look up at him as she explains, “You were murmuring under your breath. Asking me not to leave.”

“Oh…” He feels his stomach tie in a knot, his cheeks become dangerously warm. He is ashamed of his weakness, of letting her see him so vulnerable to her, so needful of her. To have his own body betray him into such an admission makes him want to…to…leave? Run away from her influence? Destroy what they have so it won’t make him any weaker?

Gods, how can he be so afraid of something he wants so badly?

“You do that sometimes,” she notes quietly as she strokes his chest, making him wonder if she is becoming telepathic. “Murmur sweet things when you are not paying attention to what you’re saying.”

Relief. This time his mouth has not betrayed his thoughts. “When will you be back tomorrow?” he asks to try and change the subject.

“The ceremony should take until noon, then a little mingling, then I have to pick up May, walk back here…” Alma makes some mental calculations. “Around early sunset?”

“Perfect. I’ve spoken to Sky,” Dion tells her. “Asked him to trade shifts tomorrow, so we can spend the evening all by ourselves, enjoying each other’s company. That way, even if the ceremony turns sour, we can always end the day on a high note.”

Alma straightens at this. “Oh…and he agreed? I think he was planning on spending Mayumi’s last night here with her,” she points out.

“I…did not think of that,” Dion admits. “But he immediately said yes and did not seem very bothered by it.”

“Well, then…” She looks haughtily into his eyes, lips barely keeping a grin at bay. “Are you inviting me to a date, Lord Gwydion?”

He chuckles quietly at the ridiculously out-of-place use of the old-fashioned, polished First Ring ways he was brought up on. Still, he joins the game. “Would you deny me, Lady Alma?”

The prim and proper façade falls smoothly into a wide smile. “Never. What will we do, then?”

Dion shakes his head, denying her access to his plans. “Just leave everything to me.” He strokes her cheek. “Think you can rest now?”

“I’ll do my best,” she replies with a mischievous grin.

He finds that strange but still removes his arm from around her shoulders so that she can lie down. Which she instead takes as an invitation to lean in closer for a kiss, putting her hands on his shoulders for support. He accepts it without hesitation, thrilling at it in the usual way, letting the freshness of her mouth drive away his worry. She is like a siren, crawled out of the water to drown him in bliss and those tender lips are her song. How could he not want to keep her?

He casts that levitation spell again to hold her up, making her giggle while he turns and reclines fully along the length of the sofa, and opens his arms to receive her body on top of his.

Comfortably settled into the familiar position, he pretends to scold her, “That was not sleeping.”

“Well, sleep was not coming easily,” she blatantly lies, grinning like a child caught being naughty. “Wasn’t that restful enough for you?”

Dion chuckles at that, reaching a hand to stroke her hair and nudge her closer. “You know what I would be doing if we could.”

“One of these days, we will not be able to restrain ourselves,” Alma notes.

“Maybe it is time we discussed our options,” Dion offers, going through the mental list of spells he has been researching for the occasion.

Her nose stroking his cheek, Alma nods agreement. “Yes…”

“We can do that now,” he says, kissing the lips that hover so close to his.

“Hmm mm….”

Where was he again? Ah…spells. Research.

Just five more minutes, he thinks as they fall once more into a whispered, passionate silence.

Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.