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.

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Ch6.42 Trust

It is one of those warm, sunny days when working seems like a sin and staying inside is a veritable attempt to destroy one’s joie de vivre. The river and pools at the base of the waterfall at the Oracle’s grotto bring a pleasant freshness to the little patch of grass-green land bathed the afternoon sun.

The picnic has entered that lazy phase of all get-togethers when people settle into small groups or even alone to enjoy a swim in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall from which a swift, young river rushes toward Rio Novo, the patch of rock and pebble-filled bank crawling with little freshwater crabs that Sage and Aliyah are trying to teach Chime and Tulip how to catch, the tree-lined sloping hill where May, Kumiko, Ewá and Cherry are sitting, sunbathing and exchanging the occasional piece of conversation. At the top of the hill, on a ridge, by a flat rock that overlooks the pool, Pak and Nevieve are speaking with a nonchalance that hints at many years of shared experiences. And on the rock, Sky is preparing to dive into the water. A short, running jump is enough to see the god falling clear into the pool, with a couple of somersaults and a flawless entry that would look suspiciously like showing off if anyone but Dion were paying attention to Sky.

But the only other people in the pool are Kori and his apparently new best friend, Max, both of them too entertained in a little splash war to see Sky diving and surfacing, moving through the water with remarkable grace for his size, just the upper half of his head visible and looking at the two boys like a sea lion seeing a pair of fat, juicy fish. Dion senses the god’s magical influence blooming as a pair of waves rises gently to lift Kori and Max, gently moving them in a circle so that the boys orbit each other. Confused at first but quickly accepting and laughing of the harmless prank, the boys continue their splash fight from atop the magical waves, cajoling each other and making Dion chuckle at some of their more outrageous words of challenge.

“Now, look at ye, all alone in the corner,” Merri’s voice chimes by his right ear.

He turns away from the splash fest to look at her. “Ah, but now I’m not alone anymore,” he replies with a smile. “And I couldn’t possibly ask for better company.”

The Bunny, sporting a flattering green plaid-patterned swimsuit, with a low back and a single shoulder strap, that sets off her red hair and her shiny emerald eyes, giggles at the shameless flirtation. “I ken very well what kind of company ye’d prefer to be havin’.”

For all of Dion’s fame as a conquistador, he has never actually tried to lure any of the Bunnies to his bed. Not only would that be extremely bad for his short-term health and long-term survival, considering who their mother is, but, he must admit, the Bunnies did not feel quite like…people to him when he first met them. They were fascinating, obviously pleasant to look at but just animalistic enough that sleeping with them would equate, in his own mind, with bestiality, a venue of sex that Dion has never been interested in exploring. But as their personalities blossomed, so did Dion’s fascination and empathy. By the time the whole prophecy situation came to be, Dion was already convinced of their value as sentient beings and of the blind cruelty in destroying them. Since then, he has often surprised himself with how much he has come to care for them all and how attentively he finds himself keeping track of their different wants and likes. In just a few months, they have become more of a family to him than he has ever found with his Uncle Math.

Yet even if Dion were not to be involved with their lovely and loving mother, he simply does not see himself pursuing any of them. Cherry and Merri feel no inhibition in flirting with him but, for some reason, their flirting has never carried a promise of anything more, especially where the magic god is concerned. Perhaps they sensed from early on the attraction that Dion and Alma had at first dismissed? Mayumi has been distant, formal, and until recently has always looked at him with a coolness that invited little affection. Tulip…there’s an exception. Dion would not so much have to try to bring her into his bed but to keep her out of it. Her insistence on capturing his attention is annoying. Dion has always been an only child but he has seen the little sisters of some of his friends behave in that fashion with their older brothers. Of course, little sisters don’t usually try to slip into bed with their older brothers…

A sudden choked scream from Merri awakes Dion from his wonderings. He barely sees her stumble back and away from him before a wall of water hits him full force, making him gasp for breath. He closes his eyes and grips the bank’s grassy edge in a desperate, reflexive attempt to stay afloat and not be dragged by the receding wave. Around him, the world gasps and falls silent. It takes Dion almost a full minute to recover enough from his body’s panic at nearly drowning.

Silence gives way to laughter. Dion looks up to see Merri laughing, snorting like an asthmatic walrus at his drenched face, his usually carefully groomed hair plastered against his skull. She points a finger at a point behind him and he turns to see Kori and Max laughing so hard they have to hold onto a rock to stay afloat. Not far away from them, Sky is looking at Dion with an apologetic grin that is dangerously tilting toward a laugh.

The Inspector stands, suddenly only chest-deep in the water, and starts to call out, “Sor–”

But he interrupts himself with his own laughter at the disheveled look on Dion’s face and any apologies he might have been planning to make are drowned amidst the mockery. Dion narrows his eyes at him, a dangerous grin on his face. He is nowhere near used to being the court jester, especially at the expense of looking like he was just licked by a rabid cow.

You do realize what this means, Inspector… he thinks as his mind bends around a family of spells he has not cast in a while.

Summoning and manipulating the elements was never his main interest at the Academy of Magic but illusion, transformation and translocation, by far his favorites, can have a surprising number of applications. The last few months of breaking into gang hideouts and capturing lawless divines have proved so beyond any doubt. And Dion has always had a very pliable, creative mind when it comes to magic…

His eyes flash golden as he makes a slithering gesture with his arm. Not all magic needs words. The water’s surface ripples, bulging and bending into a slender, cylindrical shape that glides elegantly and silently in Sky’s direction. By the time the god of rebellion notices it, a large, serpentine head is already rising out of the water, towering over him, opening massive watery jaws in a silent hiss. Clear eyes like air bubbles flash as the beast strikes, quick as lightning, and swallows the god. The water-snake’s transparent body offers a warped view of Sky travelling down its faux intestine, bound under water. Satisfied with his revenge, Dion dismisses the snake with a wave of his hand and casually combs his hair with his fingers to give it some sort of style before turning back to Merri, who is now gasping and giggling for a completely different reason.

“Now, where were we?” he asks.

But Merri is suddenly not laughing anymore. “I don’t think ye want t’be lookin’ away so soon, dear!”

She points beyond Dion again, making him turn in that direction. Sky is rising from the water, his eyes closed, his shoulders hunched. He snorts a mist of water droplets and opens his eyes, which are glowing with an ominous blue-green light.

He straightens and stretches out his arms, making the water around him rise and fall in a perfect circle, in a foretelling exhibition of power.

He gives Dion a challenging smile, waggles his eyebrows, and announces, “It’s on…”

Behind the magic god, Merri squeaks and scrambles to her feet, rushing to go and enjoy the grass over by Cherry, where the chances of major aquatic phenomena are much lower and where Sage, Chime, Tulip and Aliyah have joined May and the others, all of them now very keen on watching the goings-on in the pool, while avoiding the water altogether. Kori and Max have already climbed out of the water and onto the safety of the rocks, where a gap between two boulders offers a comfortable splash-free place to watch the fight that is about to happen. Up on the slope, Pak has stopped talking to the Oracle and is now watching the two quarrelling gods with interest, evaluating the unconventional battle.

Dion is barely aware of all this, his eyes focused on Sky, his thoughts already revolving around defense and counterattack. “Why, Inspector,” he says with a grin, his body straightening in anticipation. “Let’s see what you have.”

Sky straightens and stretches out his arms, and swiftly assumes a combat stance, his right hand forward and open, his left hand back and closed into a fist. And as he does so, the water bursts away from him in a shockwave. Sky moves his hands in a swirling gesture, and the water that blasted away from him turns into a vortex that spins in place, faster and faster, until he thrusts both palms toward Dion, sending a waterspout twisting at the god of magic.

A heartbeat, two, and the waterspout has reached Dion. He raises his arms in reflex, summoning a protective wall of water to rise between him and the spout. But that does little to stop and nothing much to delay the whirling mass of water that hits the wall and defeats its inertia, making it twist and bulge dangerously toward the god. With a whispered command, he conjures the water to solidify, pursing his lips at how long the liquid swirling liquid resists his influence. Still, it obeys. Wall and waterspout solidify in a gelatinous watery sculpture on the surface of the pool, just a finger’s length from him. He looks at it curiously and pokes the squishy thing with a finger.

Hmm… Isn’t that interesting?

An unusual idea sparks in his mind. He taps the gelatin wall and it flies off toward Sky, plunging into the water on its way. Soon, the water around Sky is rippling and bulging, and the god is looking wildly around him, trying to figure out what Dion’s counterattack will shape up to be.

A jelly tentacle shoots out of the water. And then another and another. The three of them tower over Sky for half a second and then clash together, squeezing the god in a squishing hug. And then… he is gone. Sucked underwater, Sky disappears, consumed by Dion’s squid-shaped attack.

Silence.

Many of the observers lean forward slightly to try and divine Sky’s shape in the water. Dion chuckles at this. He cancels his spell to allow Sky his return to the surface and a long enough breath to admit defeat. But his victory is short. Suddenly, the water explodes in a massive wave. Something shoots out of it. Laughing like a maniac, Sky appears wrapped in the transparent tentacles of a squid made of water. Dion’s jaw drops for a moment. How can it be? He cancelled his spell!

No time to think. Dion finds his ankles yanked from under him, and he is pulled underwater, remembering at the last moment to take a deep breath and hold it in. His mind works at an incredible pace, trying to make heads or tails of his situation. Of course…Sky must have reproduced his jelly squid, using only water. Dion is fighting the god of rebellion in his own turf, after all. And he seriously needs to rethink his strategy. Pak must already be preparing a sermon on it to use in the next class.

The tentacles flail about, pulling him in all directions, shaking the breath from his lungs. Just as Dion starts going through his sadly very short ‘breathe underwater’ list of spells, he feels himself being pulled, upside down, toward the surface and above it.

Up there, Sky is in waiting, wrapped in the tentacled embrace of a squid even larger than Dion’s, something more like a kraken made purely of liquid. The creature flails around, turning this way and that, looking extremely confused at suddenly finding itself in such a small pool for its size. Caught in the beast’s watery body, schools of fish swim in erratic patterns, desperate to find a way out. And Sky is having the time of his life!

A sudden sound. Like an underwater hiccup. The creature jerks once…and explodes into a billion droplets. Hovering midair for just a fraction of a second, Dion sees Sky flip like a dolphin and dive smoothly into the deepest part of the pool. And then gravity remembers to pull again and Dion finds himself falling and hitting the water surface full force, shoulders first, with a huge, altogether ungraceful splash.

He surfaces almost immediately, rubbing the burning sensation off his shoulder and coughing out what feels like the water equivalent to his full lung capacity. “Well…” he manages not to wheeze, “that was unnecessary.”

Sky is emerging as well, looking honestly concerned at the possibility of Dion being hurt. “Oh, Dion, I’m sorry. Are you all–”

A water dolphin jumps out of the water and slaps Sky in the face with its tail, at Dion’s command. To Hell and its servants if he is going to lose this now! Oh, this picnic is turning out to be a lot more fun than predicted…

The dolphin dives back smoothly only to surface again, head above the water just for long enough to cackle that echolocating call that sounds so much like laughter to human ears. Then, it jumps again gracefully out of the water, shining in the sunlight and causing more than a few mouths to gape at its beauty, before diving again for good.

Dion smirks at his own artistry and focuses on Sky. The Dei Inspector is slumped against the rocky side of the bank, his face frozen for a moment in a stunned expression that makes Dion laugh quietly. He knows Sky is not hurt. The spell was crafted to be harmless. And the way Sky’s expression smoothly turns into a mischievous smile just a few breaths later leaves it clear that the god of rebellion is taking as much pleasure in this impromptu battle of wits as Dion.

His smile boding nothing good, Sky sinks into the pool again, until only the top half of his head is visible above water. Bubbles begin to blow from his mouth.

But nothing happens. The water doesn’t move, the pool gives no sign of disturbance. Dion tilts his head quizzically at Sky. What is he doing?

And that is when he feels a nip on his knee as if a very tiny, toothless mouth were trying to bite him. His hand moves automatically to his leg to scratch it but finds nothing unusual there. Then he feels it again, on his waist, tickling his skin. And another on his arm. And on his leg. And on his chest. And then he is being swarmed, as all the fish of the pool team up to assault him like a school of tickling piranhas, pinching his skin, harmlessly but hilariously until Dion cannot control his laughter. The water around him boils with fish jumping and slithering against each other to reach the god, flopping free of the water momentarily to rub against him. All that is exposed skin is prey to them. They are even trying to squirm into his swim trunks!

Laughing becomes painful. Breathing, nearly impossible. Dion bends himself double, hands clenching his abdomen, face hurting with the pull of laughter. He wheezes, trying to think. Here is a situation where his love spells definitely wouldn’t work. The fish love him too much already.

What eats river fish? What eats river fish?!

A sudden idea and Dion casts a desperate spell at a leaping fish. A golden light surrounds it, making it glow, changing its outline, its shape. And suddenly…the fish is an otter. A very, very confused otter. It lands in the water, in the middle of all the other fish. And the fish go crazy with panic!

Well, some of the fish. Not all of them are that fast on the uptake. So much for natural selection… Dion casts the same spell, again and again, until the tickling is almost gone and most of the fish are either transformed into otters or running away from their new natural predators. The transformed fish, though, are all but happy at their newfound ottery shape. They are actually swimming toward Sky, chattering at him, leaping at him like fish would do, rubbing against him and trying to clamber over him, their minds adapting to their new shape just enough to allow them control over paws instead of fins. It is almost as if they are asking for help (or maybe even complaining) about their new bodies.

Sky laughs, under the most adorable assault imaginable, being tickled to breathlessness by the otters. And now Dion can breathe. The influx of oxygen to his brain sparks a mischievous idea. Transformation is one of his favorites, after all.

He prepares to boost his spell, intent on transforming all the fish that managed to escape his magic before into otters and give Sky a massive dose of his own medicine. Dion raises a hand, summons his power…

A large shape sweeps just above him, throwing him in shadow. A blood-curdling shriek cuts through the air, bounces off the stone walls that line the sides of the pool, sending ice down spines, making people drop to the ground.

Dion plasters himself against the river bank, paralyzed. Caught in mid-cast, his spell shoots uncontrolled from his hand. He curses silently at that as he looks up at the winged, leonine body lazily lowering itself to land on a rock by the water.

“Geryon!” he scolds the gryphon. “What a way to scare everyone!”

“In my defense, it did make for quite the entrance,” Geryon replies nonchalantly, landing softly on the rocky outcrop by Dion’s left.

Around them, the gods and humans are already recovering from the fright but the Bunnies are taking longer, still lying on the ground, their ears plastered back in fear of a threat their bodies know much better than their minds.

Of course… Dion thinks. Rabbits are prey to eagles in nature. Some part of the Bunnies must maintain that instinctive fear.

“You idiot, look at what you did to the Bunnies!” Dion exclaims.

Geryon looks around in what looks like honest surprise. Putting a paw against his heart, he cries, “I would never hurt them! I merely wanted to announce my return from the First Ring in style!”

Dion opens his mouth to growl at him that there are hundreds of other ways to do that but another cry pierces the air.

“Mother!”

It is Merri’s voice. Fear mixed with shock. Dion’s head shoots in her direction to see her running towards where he had set up the portal to the station, May following right behind her. She gasps and stops by a white and blue shape that certainly wasn’t there before.

“Oh, Mother! Are ye…”

And then she starts to laugh, uncontrollably, falling back and clutching her belly against the effort. By her side, May is bending over, reaching out to touch whatever the white thing is.

“Are you all right?” she asks, sounding deeply concerned.

Dion is already running toward her. Merri’s mention of her mother was enough for him to shoot out of the water like a lightning bolt. All he could see from the pond was white against blue. Had Alma somehow been hurt and fallen? Is she all right?

He reaches May to find that the blue shadow on the ground is made of fabric. A dress, one of Alma’s. But instead of the goddess, all he finds is…an otter?

A pure-white otter with cream-colored fur on its belly and blue eyes like sapphires is standing on all fours and looking at him with a dumbfounded expression that would be hilarious if Dion weren’t feeling frozen with sudden fear.

“Alma?” he asks in a voice much smaller than his usual baritone.

The otter’s brows furrow in a way no otter should be able to. It starts screeching a complaint that tingles in Dion’s eardrums and makes May and Merri lower their ears back in agony.

“Eep! High-pitch! High-pitch!” Merri complains.

The otter stops and Dion kneels by it, very slowly, feeling a cold dread trickle down his spine. Geryon had made him lose control of his spell and it had shot toward… somewhere to Dion’s right. Had Alma had the terrible luck of exiting the portal just then? All the other fish-otters are the typical ottery brown and grey. Only this one is the same white color as Alma’s silken hair, with eyes that are so much like hers. And, truthfully, the pile of clothes that the creature is still trying to shake off is a dead giveaway.

This is Alma, turned into an otter. She stands on her haunches, head tilted, looking a question at him. He scoops her up in his arms, holding her closely, his heartbeat much slower than usual but pounding in his chest. She looks up at him. Is that fear he sees in her eyes? He has already turned Geryon into a gryphon and failed to turn him back. The thought of doing the same to Alma… His heart sinks.

No, no, don’t think about those things, he scolds himself. Be rational, Gwydion!

Gods are much more resistant to that type of magic than are humans. And besides, the spell is a fairly simple one, the type that only lasts a certain amount of time before normality reclaims its place. Surely none of this will be permanent. Right?

May must catch the fear in his attitude, for she places a hand on his arm and asks, “Is she going to be all right?”

“A moment, please,” he asks.

His eyes flash golden for a moment as he looks at the shape-shifted Alma with magical senses. Much to his relief, he can see the shadows of her true form within the otter body and feel the familiar, gradual weakening of a limited-time spell. He can’t help but smile in relief at that and pet her adorable little head before replying to May.

“She will be just fine,” he reassures her. “The spell doesn’t last very long. No need to cancel it at all. I’ll just let it run its course.”

That has Alma chattering angrily again.

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” he complains. “Yell at Geryon for distracting me and making me lose control of the spell.” He glares at Geryon, lying comfortably upon his rocky perch, head on his forepaws. The gryphon merely smirks at him. “Besides…” he starts stroking Alma’s back. “This new look suits you. Why not enjoy it for a while?”

She frowns at that and digs her nails into his chest. When the god grunts and loosens his hold on her, she starts struggling to free herself from his grip but all she manages to do is turn and hang vertically, head and left forepaw over Dion’s arm, right forelimb caught against his chest, her hind limbs and tail hanging limply in the most perfect illustration of adorable frustration and helplessness that nature has ever seen. She blows out a sigh and lets her head fall on his arm.

Dion chuckles and starts petting her head, tilting her so that May and Merri can pet her too. Then, followed closely by the two Bunnies, he moves closer to the edge of the pool. Sage, Aliyah, Tulip and Chime are already moving closer. Doria, who had left for a moment to attend to some mysterious duty in the grotto, is now back and already in the water, by Sky. The Inspector and his otter fanclub are all watching Dion and his precious cargo. From their rocky hideout, Kori and Max are watching as well.

Dion gently lowers Alma down to the ground. She turns her head left and right to look around the pool and the bank, then stands on her haunches, tilting her head back to look up at him and almost falling on her backside because of it.

He smiles at her encouragingly, speaking to her in a whisper “All is well. You are safe. Enjoy yourself a little.” He strokes the bridge of her nose with a finger. “You need it.”

At a little gesture from Sky, the other otters break away from the god and, swimming and breaching like a school of furry little whales, form a half-circle in the water around the little patch of grass where Alma is now standing. They look up at her eagerly, almost worshipfully, chattering at her in welcome.

She looks intently at the otter army and welcome reception, chattering…something back at them. Then, she drops to all fours and runs around in small circles, almost as if chasing her own tail but keeping her eyes on her furry worshippers. The otters chatter at her and start rolling in the water, over and over again. She stops, starts running in the opposite direction and they roll the other way. She stands and the otters turn belly up. She drops down and they roll belly down. The adorable, little furry spectacle makes everyone laugh and seems to entertain Alma immensely.

She rushes to the water and swims into the middle of her ottery fanclub, diving and rolling and twirling with them, swimming away while they follow her every movement and pirouette in the water, showing off their skills to the exotically furred, blue-eyed otter whose attention they desperately try to capture.

“And thus, a new cult is born,” Geryon announces sarcastically.

Sky’s laughter is loud and hearty at the sight of Alma floating belly up and grooming her cheeks with stubby otter forepaws. Another otter is already trying to groom her underside for her, scratching her and making her leg jerk reflexively. Apart from Ewá, May (who has since returned to her sitting spot on the grassy slope) and the kunoichi Kumiko, the not-so-water-friendly Geryon and the more solemn Pak and Nevieve, everyone is now in the water, laughing at Alma’s dalliances and looking eagerly at the otters as they swirl past them, reaching their hands out to stroke the sleek animals as they zip past. Alma herself guides the other otters towards Bunnies and humans, rubbing against her children, allowing them to hold her as if she were a furry baby and pet her without reserve. They all seem delighted with the experience, stroking her and kissing her and squeezing her in their arms amidst much cooing and banter. The temporary otter goddess looks extremely contented, closing her eyes in deep relaxation. The other otters are enjoying a similar treatment to Alma’s. Everyone seems to have picked one or two of the furry creatures to cuddle, except for Geryon, who seems satisfied in teasing a poor otter into chasing his puffy lion tail, hanging over the water, into exhaustion. Dion himself currently has one docked against him, its furry head placed on his forearm and enjoying some scratching behind the ears.

After quite a bit of struggling, Alma manages to release herself from Tulip’s loving death-grip and swim toward Sky. Three otters, that had been testing the god’s ability to scratch three bodies at once using only two hands, part to let her through, swimming away and into the squeezing arms of the youngest of the Bunnies. Alma lets Sky scoop her into his long arms and stroke her soft, sleek back, stretching to touch her wet nose to his chin. Dion can’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort at the tender look Sky gives her as he leans down to press his cheek against her head. She turns to press her nose against his cheek, then pulls back, chattering at him in what might almost pass for a conversational tone in an otter.

Sky looks as if he’s listening intently to everything she is saying, which causes some laughter from Sage and Cherry, who are following the scene closely.

Suddenly, his face lights up and he nods, rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh of course!”

He moves his arm, making her fall into the crook of it, holding her like a baby while he sloshes to the bank and strides up to the portal to the Three Rats Guardia Station. She lies still, looking up at him, unbothered by all the movement while Sky turns to make a small announcement.

“Alma reminds me of my duties.” He turns toward Dion. “Dion, sorry for that accident but it was a pleasure. Sometime soon we’ll have to have a rematch.” The god of magic chuckles and salutes at him, making Sky smile. “Everyone else, have a good time!”

Then, he shifts Alma to his hands and holds her in front of his face, rubbing the tip of his nose against hers. “And you…” He glances down at her clothes, which are still pooled on the ground, then looks at her again. “Don’t forget where these are when the spell wears off.” He grins and sets her down and waves a goodbye to everyone as he goes through the portal.

Alma stands up to watch him go, but soon she is scurrying over to where May, Kumiko and Ewá are still resisting the appeal of cool water teeming with friendly otters on a warm, sunny day. She climbs over Ewá’s long, shapely legs, poking the demigoddess with her furry head and rubbing her cheek against Ewá’s shoulder. Ewá laughs at the goddess-turned-otter’s shenanigans with a freedom and a contentment that Dion has never really seen in her. In fact, the former Eye of the Council seems to have gained as much in joy as she has gained in work after becoming a part-time Voice of Defense and full-time foster parent.

Alma is now evading Ewá’s attempts to pet her, teasing the demigoddess by running up to her and then running away, toward the pool, only to return again to Ewá’s side.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” Ewá exclaims as she rises and walks over to the edge of the water, where Alma finally allows her to stroke that wet, ottery fur.

As soon as Ewá dives in, the white otter is running again, swift and sure, this time toward Mayumi and Kumiko. She stops just in front of the human girl and stands on her haunches, looking intently, first at Kumiko, then at May. Then, she goes down on all fours again and turns to face the pool before turning to face them again. She runs towards them and scrambles over their legs, much to May’s laughter and Kumiko’s befuddlement, before running away and into the water. A quick dive and she rushes out once more, back to the girls. This time, she runs around them in a circle and stops in front of them to chatter what sounds like a challenge.

Mayumi smiles and nods at her mother before looking at Kumiko. “Come on…”

The girl looks reluctant, but allows herself to be cajoled by May into walking to up the slope, which rises toward the diving rock on the top of the hill. They stand there, looking down at the water. May turns to Kumiko, Kumiko looks back at her. Though Dion cannot see her expression from here, he can tell she does not resist May when she takes her hand. They take a step back, then run and leap together into the water with a loud splash, making people laugh.

Dion chuckles and looks at the bank, where Otter Alma is just leaving the water after a quick dive. Her ear twitches and she turns to tilt her head at him, blue eyes flashing briefly. Is that a smile he sees on her fur-lined lips?

And suddenly, she is scurrying up the hill, to where Pak and Nevieve are still sitting. From this far away, Dion can see her stop and stand, her back turned to the magic god, her head tilted at the Oracle and the former Academy instructor. Nevieve laughs immediately and pets her head with two olive-colored fingers.

“Go on, now, firefly,” she says brightly, jerking her head at the pool. “Go play with your friends. I will join you in a moment.”

Alma turns and takes a couple of steps away but then stops and turns back, this time facing Pak. She seems to hesitate for a moment, then moves closer to him and, without warning, starts shaking herself like a dog just out of the rain. Water splashes in all directions, sprinkling the old master, who turns his head and raises his arms to protect himself.

“Gah! You unruly little – Is that a way to treat an old man?!” he scolds her.

Nevieve’s musical, watery laughter chimes loudly by his side. The Oracle looks like she is about to tumble from the convulsive effort of laughing. Dion’s jaw is hanging from its hinges. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed! Showering Pak like that…oh, Alma will be having many a date with the hardwood sword in the upcoming lessons at the master’s dojo. Not that the prank wasn’t well worth it. Dion is still quite cross with Pak regarding the whole Kumiko issue, which could have sent the magic god’s blooming relationship with Alma into an early grave.

But he never would have pulled such a blatant prank on him. He feels sorry for a moment, that Sky cannot be here to see it. He knows the Dei Inspector would have loved to watch the much-feared Pak get showered like that.

Alma is just turning to scurry away but the old instructor is faster, much faster than he looks. He scoops her off her feet and holds her tightly to him with a cry of “Oh, no you don’t! You are going to learn respect for your elders, you insolent child!”

Uh oh…

And then… he runs to the diving stone and jumps off the ridge, cannonballing into the water, still fully dressed, otter held firmly in his arms. Bunnies, humans, divines, gryphon, everyone gets splashed by the massive wave that rises in his wake.

Alma surfaces first, swimming swiftly and diving again, away from the spot where Pak emerges just a few seconds later. On the bank, Nevieve is walking calmly toward the water, still chuckling at Alma and Pak’s quarrels. A couple of otters are already swimming to greet her.

Alma, on her hand, is swimming at full speed toward Dion, diving and pirouetting as she does so, in sheer ottery glee. His former furry companion long gone to find cuddling elsewhere, the god stretches both arms to bring her closer into a light embrace. She places her forepaws on his chest, looking up at him.

“That was…I need to start being more careful when I tell you to have fun,” he whispers, smiling brightly at her.

She rubs her cheek against his chest and rolls onto her back, eyes closed, happily grooming her cheeks. He strokes her belly, glad for having the perfect excuse to be affectionate in public but hesitating in leaning closer to press his forehead against her head or kissing the bridge of her nose. He would love to do it, and even more if she weren’t in this furry form, but too many eyes are watching. He curses their secrecy pact for maybe the fiftieth time since it was struck.

Alma is lying still, looking at his face with a serene, happy expression in those round, shiny blue eyes. He strokes her between the ears, trying very hard to hold back the silly smile he knows is threatening to bloom on his lips.

And suddenly, she is rolling over his arm and diving underwater to disappear for almost a full minute. She returns holding something orange-green in her teeth. Is that a…crab? She has a pebble caught between her forepaws and is just rolling on her back to place the stone on her belly. Then she holds the crab and starts banging it viciously against the stone.

“Oh look! Snack time!” Doria points out, laughing.

The others laugh too, watching in delight as the pale otter breaks the crab’s shell against the pebble and starts biting into the poor creature’s whitish flesh.

“She is starting to act a bit too much like an otter, don’t you think?” Nevieve notes.

“Yes,” Dion agrees. “Need to stop her before she accuses me of ruining her diet. Alma! Come here.”

Alma’s head shoots to look at him and she turns belly down again, crab held between her teeth, to swim toward the magic god. She reaches him and he tries to take the crab from her mouth but before he can grab a hold of it, she is already clutching the shelled morsel between her forepaws and banging the already half-dismembered crab against Dion’s chest as if the god were a giant pebble.

“Ow, Ow, OW!” Dion complains, prompting another round of generalized laughter.

Alma stops banging, rolls belly up and reaches up, offering him the crab. “Uhm… Thank you. But I don’t feel like seafood,” he says, taking the crab away from her and discreetly throwing it toward Geryon, who snatches it from the air with a snap of his beak.

A familiar tingle in the god’s senses makes his brow rise. He looks intently at all the otters in the pool until he sees what he is looking for. One of them is already changing back. The spell has run its course and now all the otters will be fish again.

Except for one. Dion holds Alma closer to him, adjusting his grip so her belly is pressed against his, the underside of her chin on his chest.

“Time to come back to normal,” he tells her.

She looks at him and then closes her eyes. Behind her, all over the pool, the otters are turning back into fish. In Dion’s arms, otter Alma begins to glow, her shape warping, stretching, soft fur replaced with soft skin, sleek lines replaced with pleasant curves. Soon, her beautiful face is raising an eyebrow at the god in mock scolding, her humanoid body pressing tantalizingly against his to hide her nudity.

He grins at her and raises his hands slowly out of the water in a mocking show of decorum meant for their audience. “Like I said, don’t look at me. It was Geryon’s fault.”

She does not say anything but her half-shut eyes speak volumes. Those and her hands on his sides, hidden underwater, nails grazing slowly against his skin, making it shiver with delight. She is just teasing him, he knows, making use of this perfect little excuse to taunt him, a very small punishment for not cancelling the spell earlier.

She grins and, in his mind’s eye, he can see her draping her arms over his shoulders, leaning in to kiss him. He can almost taste her wet lips, hear the mumbling of the people watching them intently muffled by the sweet, exhilarating sensation of her body pressed against his. If she were to kiss him now…oh, that pact would go out the window and into a bottomless pit.

Is she taunting him into doing just that? Right here, in front of everyone?

His heart pounds, hammering against the inside of his chest. Surely, she must feel that. Her hands tighten their grip on him. His are diving slowly underwater. Her eyes are staring into his and he cannot tear himself away from them.

But then, Alma looks away and raises a hand out of the water, with a word of “Thank you.”

Dion looks up, to his right, to find Cherry and Merri there, each holding a piece of moss-green cloth. They must have left the water and fetched Alma’s bikini while Dion was distracted. They smile at him, wink and scamper away. Alma, on the other hand, tilts her head and pulls away from him, swimming closer to the bank and turning her back to the pool to put the bikini on.

Dion chuckles and shakes his head. Fortunately, most of the others are too busy watching what are now very confused fish jumping out of the water and trying to roll on their backs, to notice what is going on with the gods.

Ewá seems to be teaching the others a song of some sort. Dion can only make out about half of the words in the language that about half of the people in Three Rats tend to fall back to after every three or four words in Urbia.

Vem peixe qu’é peixe do rio.
Vem peixe qu’é peixe do mar.
Hoje canta sereia,
Hoje canta Iemanjá.

Already dressed, Alma sits by him. Her hand finds his underwater and he holds it, thrilling at that simple touch.

Sai barco. Sai pescador.
Vai na praia p’a pescar
Tua mãe, tua mãe é onda.
Tua mãe vai-lhe ajudar.

The fish leap higher and higher, the water boiling with them.

Pega ‘ssa pedra branca
Vai no terreiro dançar
Teu pé descalço na areia
Sua onda vai acalmar

And then Doria joins in, much to Ewá’s surprise.

Joga ‘ssa rede ao largo,
Não vai a lugar nenhum,
Que o peixe vem no cabelo
Que é da filha de Olokun.

This time, Nevieve’s voice rises in song, clear and perfect.

No mar tem onda grande,
Se é brava de não voltar,
O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

Ewá and Doria look at each other and smile before echoing in a final chorus,

O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

An explosion of applause fills the pool. Dion catches Max, Ewá’s mortal ward looking at his foster parent with newfound admiration. It is unlikely he will be wanting to leave her care any time soon.

Convinced that they are, in fact, fish, the fish seem to relax and dive back into the depths. Chatter and banter return to the pool as the various groups of people resume conversations and start playing games. By Dion’s side, Alma has tilted her head back and is basking in the sunlight, her eyes closed at its warming rays.

Suddenly, a shape shoots out of the water, just past the god. A huge fish, bigger than any of the others and shining with a curious reddish glow, leaps up toward Geryon and slaps the gryphon’s face with its tail before diving back into the water.

“OW!” Geryon complains, shaking his head and turning it toward Dion. “Oh, as if that was necessary!”

“What?! It wasn’t me!” the god exclaims.

A sudden thought makes him look to his right. Alma is still catching the sun with her eyes closed, looking suspiciously innocent. She lets out a small sigh and smiles in satisfaction.

Dion chuckles. It seems that a happy death goddess is just as dangerous as an angry one.

Ch6.41 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

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

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

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

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

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

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

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

Ch6.26 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Serg–!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.04 Trust

“Here are the reports you asked for, Inspector–” Mayumi pauses, wrinkles her nose at the smell of burning paper, and carefully shuts Sky’s office door behind her, then waits quietly as he finishes burning what appears to be a namecard.

Sky drops the last smoldering corner of it into a small stamped-metal ashtray on his desk and smiles tiredly at Mayumi. “Thank you.” He sees the unspoken question in the tilt of her head, one black-furred ear slightly back, and answers, “I was sending a message. I’m not sure it will be answered, but… Anyway, let me check and sign all of these. And then, for the next few days, you’ll be taking them to Alma to sign.”

“Eh?” She approaches his desk and, coming around the side, hands him the file folders.

“She’ll be in charge while I’m away,” he says. His smile fades and he looks quite weary. “I need to rest.”

“Finally! I have been telling you for weeks!” She almost immediately feels embarrassed at her outburst. “I suppose Mother convinced you.” She cannot hide the tiny hesitation before the word “Mother.” Though they are in private, though she knows Sky’s feelings of friendship for Alma are as strong as her own feelings of kinship with her mother, Mayumi still feels uncomfortable with that level of informality during working hours.

“That’s not what convinced me,” he replies, “though it should have. You know I was keeping myself awake before Dion and your mother returned because I was the only Dei here. There was no real choice. But now, even burning through more and more mana each day just to stave off sleep, I’m having moments of dizziness, throbbing headaches…and poor decision making. Mayumi…” He pauses and takes one of her hands in his without looking at her, breathes in, and sighs. “I made a mistake. Alma was injured.”

Mayumi stiffens, feeling her body feel cold and empty for a moment. He must have noticed, for Sky turns to her and takes her other hand as well. “No, no – she’s all right now. She’s healed herself. But…it could have been worse. And it was my fault. So yes, you are right. I need to sleep.”

She relaxes, breathing again, and squeezes his hands. “Yokatta,” she whispers in relief, both at the news that Alma is safe and that Sky is finally going to rest. “Sage was saying you might sleep soon. That it seems like the worst gangs have been rounded up or have moved out.”

He nods. “But there are still dangers.”

“The ones who killed Philippus?” The horrific murders of Corporal Stathos and his family still haunt her dreams. Mayumi had had to read the reports. Twice since, she has woken up nearly hyperventilating, her face wet with tears from dreams of being forced to watch Stathos’ little daughters die slowly, as Stathos’ husband had been forced to before his own agonizing death.

“Yes. And others we know nothing about, I’m sure.” He pulls her a little closer, her legs touching his knees, his face deeply serious. “Mayumi, keep the others close. And you play it cautiously as well. No going out without Guardia escort. And keep an eye out for visitors to the station and the bar. Report anyone suspicious.”

She nods solemnly. “I will.” She slips one hand free and lays it on his cheek. “You look like you’re about to collapse. Let’s get these reports taken care of so you can go to the bar. You have six other admirers to bid oyasumi before you stagger off to bed, Inspector.” She smiles and begins brewing tea.

During the next half hour, they quickly go over the reports and Sky signs off on them. As he puts down the pen and stretches in his chair, she hesitantly asks, “Sky…do you think I could visit you during this break?”

He looks embarrassed. “I’m just going to collapse and sleep for a week. I’ll sort of sleepwalk to eat and…use the toilet and such, but I wouldn’t even know you were there. Or worse, I’d notice and it would break me out of the sleep cycle. Then…I’d have to start over.”

 

“Oh.” Her ears droop. “Well, I know the other Bunnies will miss you. You’ve been our guardian for weeks while Mother was gone. They’ll all want to say goodbye and goodnight.” She glances at the window. “Even though it’s barely midmorning.” She looks back at him, turns his chair slightly to face her, then leans forward, her hands on the arms of his chair. “I’ll miss you, too.”

He smiles, his eyes almost crossing as their noses touch. “Really?”

By way of answer, she kisses him.

They have shared kisses once or twice a day over the past week, since that terrible night the soul bomb took away one of their own. That night had been a series of shocks. Sage had been kidnapped, then Mayumi had foolishly, madly run to the place he was being held, and had to face up to how badly she was losing her grip, how badly she was adjusting to this world she needed to start living in. Then Sky had been nearly killed before her eyes, and she’s witnessed the summoning of a demon, another source of nightmares that were disrupting her own ability to sleep. The relief of Alma and Dion’s return, the rescue of Sage and a group of children – and then the bomb, and the sickening news of Stathos and his family. She had felt shattered, lost, and she had known that Sky would feel the same. And unlike her, he had nobody with whom to share it.

So she gave in to the feelings she had held back from for months now, that had started quite soon after she awoke to this world. So far, it has only been kissing, cuddling, but she doesn’t mind. She loves it, this going slowly. She wants more, of course. He does too, she can tell, but…it is awkward. The power differential: boss and secretary, god and mortal. He is old enough to be her great-great-great-great-grandfather, easily. Maybe even one or two more greats in there.

She doesn’t care. She knows what she wants. Mortal-immortal liaisons are as common as office romances. How else are there so many demigods? It happens. They will find a way to make it work.

He pulls her closer and she climbs onto him, straddling his hips, her knees on his chair seat, her hands cradling his head, his hands on her back. There is no definite break in the kissing until she pulls back, heart pounding.

“This could turn into something more,” she whispers, half warning, half offering. “Before you sleep.”

He just looks at her, the temptation and the need obvious in his expression, in the way he holds her, and in what she can feel stirring below her. She settles more fully onto his lap, pressing herself against him, feeling his body respond, the heat, the growing firmness, and feeling her own body respond as well. “Shall I lock the door?” she whispers, her heart racing faster. She doesn’t even want to do that. She doesn’t want to part from him that long.

Nobody will come in…probably.

Despite his dark skin, she can see the flush. He closes his eyes and hangs his head, and shakes it. “Not yet,” he whispers huskily.

She leans back a little, easing the pressure. Disappointed, but not surprised really. She does not ask why, but he looks up and says to her, “I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Sky, it’s all right.” She strokes his hair, still yet to regain its full, shaggy length since much of it being burnt away in Sage’s rescue.

“There are things we need to talk about first. And I’m…I’m not thinking clearly now.”

Thinking that this sounds a bit ominous, but not wanting to pry when he needs to sleep, she repeats, “Daijōbu desu. Don’t worry. We’ll talk about it when you’re rested.” She climbs off him and holds her hands out to help him up. “Come on. A quick goodbye to the others and then it’s oyasuminasai for you.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“And ye’re sure we cannae come over an’ ‘fluff up yer pillow’ now an’ then, dear?” Merri winks at Sky so comically that no one would think her serious.

“Oh yeah!” Cherry joins in as she sets a small whisky on the bar for Sky. “Me, Merri, and May, oo la la… Sage, you wanna come along?”

Sage smiles tolerantly. “He needs rest, not more exhaustion.”

Cherry giggles, “Oh, and you’d be the one to tire him out, huh?” She turns at a sound to see that Saira is entering the bar from the stairway that leads down to Alma’s room. She’s walking steadily, but Sky notices that she is moving a little more cautiously than she normally would. He also cannot help but notice her uncharacteristic mode of dress, a green saree blouse and matching silk pyjama-like trousers. It suits her remarkably well, and yet it is not something he would ever have imagined her wearing. He assumes it is Alma’s, modified slightly to fit Saira. Though he’s never seen Alma wear green.

Cherry moves swiftly to Saira and falls in with her, hands clasped behind her back but close enough to catch her. Her voice just barely above a whisper, Sky hears Cherry ask, “Doin’ okay, hon?” She’s trying to look casual, but Sky can see the concern on her face.

“I’m fine, sunshine,” Saira murmurs back, trying but failing to sound annoyed. She sits at the bar, leaving an empty seat between herself and Sky, and looks at his tired face. “Man, you look like you’ve been on the run from the cops. What’s everyone gathering around you for?”

Sky raises his glass to her. “Going to take a nap.” He sips, savors the interplay of peaty, oceanic, medicinal, nutty flavors, eyes closed, then opens them again. “For about a week.”

Saira rolls her eyes. “Gods…bunch of weirdoes. Well, having done that myself recently, you might want to have someone come by to change the sheets.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri says. “We’ll come by and ‘change the sheets’!” She uses her fingers to make little quotation marks, a gesture that had started becoming popular in Three Rats recently.

Mayumi shakes her head. “That innuendo doesn’t work at all,” she says, prompting Merri to pout, though she’s laughing again moments later at Kori and Chime trying to see who can win a race around the bar without touching the floor, jumping from table to table. Tulip runs to join them, and Mayumi, Sage, and Merri turn their attention that way.

Sky leans toward Saira. “You look much improved.”

“Well it has been awhile since you last saw me,” she says, her voice heavy with implied criticism. She chuckles at the guilty expression on Sky’s face. “Oh come on, love. I know you have better things to do.”

“Still… That venom really messes up the nervous system.”

“Tell me about it,” Saira grumbles. “I think my left hand is convinced it’s my right foot.” She raises her voice. “Hey, what’s a woman gotta do to get a drink around here?”

Cherry leans on the bar across from her. “Whatcha want, sweetie? And don’t say whisky.”

Saira looks honestly annoyed now. “How come he gets one if I can’t?”

“You know why, hon,” Cherry says gently. “No booze until…”

“Yeah yeah. Guava juice.” She looks at Sky while Cherry pours. “You could at least let me smell it.”

Sky hands the glass to her. “Smell all you want.” He smiles at the long sniff she gives, the pleased smile, the look of temptation as she clearly wishes to gulp it down. His smile fades. “Saira…I’m so sorry.”

She looks at him. “For what? You didn’t sting me. That demon son of a bitch did.” She hands the glass back.

His voice reflects the pain he feels. “Yes, but I put you in that situation. Pressured you into it. I am sorry for that. But if you hadn’t helped, Sage would probably be gone.”

Saira shrugs. “I don’t even remember most of it, anyway.”

“Well you were very brave. And despite having your head rung by that explosion, you took out a large baboon that I believe was some sort of demigod.”

Saira shifts on her barstool so she is leaning back against the bar, and raises her glass of purple-pink juice to him. “Yeah, I’m usually pretty awesome. But I still don’t get why I ended up here.”

Sky looks at her quizzically. “Do you really think we’d discard you? When you’d just saved Sage? Not to mention all those children. I’ll always be grateful to you for that.”

“Really?” Saira’s smile is mischievous. “And what’s in it for me? I mean, gratitude’s great but…”

Sky takes another sip of whisky. “You’ll never pay for your drinks in here, that’s for sure. Once you’re given a clean bill of health, of course.” He glances toward Cherry, to make sure she hears. “It’ll be on my tab.” The Bunny nods, solemnly. “And I’m sure someday you’ll need help again,” he continues. “I’ll be ready to return the favor. But more than that… Friendship?”

Saira snorts. “I don’t have friends, Mister. Friends make you weak. Get you killed.”

Sky looks at Cherry again, whose ears are laid back in sadness at Saira’s words. “I think you’re wrong about not having friends. As for the rest…in some ways you’re right. But only if your goal is to pursue a solitary path of vengeance, with nothing but death in the end.” He pauses. “I hope you will reconsider that. For those who pursue another path, friends lend you their strength.”

Saira chuckles bitterly, but Sky notices that when she places her empty glass on the counter for a refill, she brushes her fingertips gently against Cherry’s forearm when the Bunny reaches to take the glass, as if to apologize for her words. Still, the assassin’s voice is determined. “Sure. As soon as all the Dukaines are dead, I’ll consider retiring.”

“But there are no Dukaines anymore,” Sky says. “There are only shards. And not many of them left.”

“Here in Three Rats, maybe. There’s enough for a lifelong career across the Fourth Ring. And it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, I know them like the back of my hand. The new members, I don’t mind. They’re mostly clueless teenagers. But the original Dukaines, they’re like wasps. They sting without provocation just because they know it won’t kill them.”

“You’ll never live long enough to kill them all,” Sky says sadly. As he speaks, Mayumi returns, putting a hand on his arm. He looks at her concerned face and smiles, then looks back at Saira. “I really should turn in before I find myself unable to walk home. Alma will be busier than usual while I’m gone. I hope it doesn’t inconvenience you.”

Saira drinks more juice. “Nah, I got a good nurse. Even if she is a pest.” She smiles at Cherry to soften her words, and the Bunny sticks her tongue out at her, making Saira snort. “And Alma always comes to bed eventually.” As Sky slowly rises and starts to turn toward the door, Mayumi still holding his arm, Saira drawls, “She’s a nice bedmate, in case you’re wondering. Hardly ever snores.”

Sky smiles and shakes his head, then says, “Goodnight.”

“It’s not even lunchtime,” Saira points out. “Lazy blueshirt.”

Sky chuckles. “Get well soon.” As he walks toward the door, Bunnies giving him hugs and kisses and bidding him to sleep well, he glances back for a moment and sees Saira watching him go, a small smile on her face.

Ch5.56 Shards

As they reenter the station, Alma, Gwydion, and Sky are each pulled in different directions. Sky and Machado take Cala aside to fill her in, interrupting a conversation she was having with the Voice, Ewá Nanã. The former Eye of the Council smoothly switches to Alma. “Sergeant? May I speak with you?”

Alma lightly touches Gwydion’s hand and shares a meaningful glance with him, then lets him go on his way. “Yes, Miss Nanã?”

The Voice pauses a moment, overhearing some of what Sky and Machado are saying. Corporal Cala Lamore clenches her fists, then raises them to her face and whispers a prayer.

Ewá looks again at Alma, sorrow stealing over her reserved features. “I am saddened at your further losses. I wanted you to know that no children or Bunnies have left while you were gone. I was about to return to the bar, but… Well, I have been thinking.”

Well, that’s an ominous start to a conversation… Nekh mutters nastily in her head, sounding very much like an exhausted child throwing a temper tantrum. If she says ‘we have to talk’, I’m getting out of here.

You will already be too late by days, you oversized chicken, Alma retorts, growling in thought.

To Ewá, she says, “Yes, Miss Ewá?”

Alma realizes that she must look truly tired for the demigoddess hesitates. For a moment, she looks almost as if she will drop whatever issue she wishes to discuss but then she plunges on.

“I have rented a house not far from here,” the Voice says. At Alma’s raised eyebrow, she continues, “I did tell you before, I have taken a liking to this ward. As I may have mentioned, my main focus as a Voice has been to represent my clan, but I devote my spare time to speaking for those who cannot afford a Voice in cases of the law. While taking on the unusual role of Observer for the Council, I became aware of how many people here could use someone like me. They need me much more than my clan does.”

“And you are one who is compelled to be useful,” Alma says.

This brings a very slight smile to the reticent face. “I suppose I am.”

Oh, isn’t she the perfect little teacher’s pet? Nekh snears.  

I thought you were leaving, Alma notes with a mental sigh.

I was…but then you said you wanted me to go, Nekh replies in mellow tones.

Alma ignores him while she considers Ewá’s words. “I can sympathize. But this does mean that the manner in which we serve this community will sometimes bring us into conflict.”

Ewá nods. “That is almost certain. I want you to know, then, that I have the highest respect for the work you do and for you, personally. Even if we may sometimes disagree over the guilt of one of my clients.” Her voice carries an almost undetectable flavor of amusement. “But that is not actually what I meant to tell you.”

“Oh?”

I love you! I love you and I want to make Bunnies with you! Leave Dion and Sky and run away with me!

Alma sighs internally and thinks Quiet! at the Archon’s soul.

Blissfully oblivious to the goddess’ internal dialog, Ewá makes her offer. “That house is larger than I will need. You have managed to place some of the children with families, but still you have nearly twenty. Keeping them in the Burrow is only a temporary measure, and you are Guardia, not childcare workers.”

“The Burrow?” Alma asks in confusion.

“Oh…yes. Rosemary and Cherry told me tonight that they have finally decided on a name for the bar.” Ewá’s smile is surprisingly affectionate, for the moment that it lasts. “But back to the point: These children can stay with me. My new home can serve as a center for finding them families.”

Alma’s tired mind takes a moment to process the full meaning of the words. “So instead of a law office, it will be an orphanage?”

“Let us say ‘in addition to’ rather than ‘instead of’.” Ewá tilts her head. “You clearly have a great deal of work ahead of you, and I want to see this ward safe and secure as much as you do. Please let me do this for you.”

Alma takes one of Ewá’s hands. The Voice glances at their clasped hands in mild surprise, but again flashes that elusive smile, and gently grips Alma’s hand. On an impulse, surprising herself as much as Ewá, the goddess moves closer and holds her, hands taking the demigoddess’ elbows, cheek resting gently against hers.

“You have already done so much for me,” Alma says, feeling suddenly, overwhelmingly grateful. She has a lot of people to thank and apologize to. “You saved my Bunnies. You saved me, and Gwydion as well. And now you are asking permission to remove a source of worry and distraction from us. Of course you can do this. And I assure you, I will help where I can.”

Ewá’s body at first stiffens at the embrace but then the Voice wraps her arms around Alma, holding her tightly for a moment. She seems to remember herself all of a sudden and releases the goddess, moving away from the embrace sporting a slight blush on her dark cheeks.

Told you… Nekh taunts.

Alma, however, smiles at Ewá. “Can we move them in the morning? I would not want to wake them up at this time of night.”

“Oh, of course. And I am sure you must be tired, Sergeant.”

Alma nods. “Tired and in need of a bath. I bid you goodnight.”

Ewá nods, turning to leave. “Yes. Boa noite.”

Alma exits the station into the breezeway before she can be pulled into any more conversations. She nearly enters the bar, but remembers her own comment about a bath. She desperately wants to hold her Bunnies, but she imagines the smell of blood on her clothes would disturb their sensitive noses. She instead calls upon the portal that leads to her room. Unlike Gwydion’s, hers is no door but merely a circular patch on the ground. She steps onto the spot and forms the correct mental image in her head, and the passage directly to her rooms opens and takes her away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The bar is finally quiet, its gas lamps turned down to tiny glows to provide just enough light that the human children will not panic on waking. Cherry and Merri have disappeared to join poor, exhausted Geryon, to give him some tender care and kisses for once again risking himself to save a Bunny. Mayumi wonders sardonically if the gryphon will even be able to move tomorrow, but then she feels a wave of affection for him. For all his complaining, all his catty comments, he is always ready to help when need is greatest. She does not need to wonder why the two bartenders care for him so.

The human children – those that have not been shared out to nearby families – are sleeping on futons, pillows, rugs, and other makeshift beds across the floor of the bar, and even some donated mattresses. Some are sleeping peacefully, while others whimper as dreams of recent horrors or past abuse afflict them. Kori, who usually seems to need at least fourteen hours of sleep a day, is vigilant, making sure the rescued street kids stay put at least for this one night, and keeping an especially sharp eye on Chime. The slightly younger Bunny, however, seems to have been cured of his wandering ways, though how temporary this cure is remains to be seen. He is keeping watch over the others along with Kori, perhaps too disturbed by recent events to sleep.

The goddess Kyri sits at the bar near a brighter gaslight, drinking coffee and writing music, while Ewá Nanã has stepped across the way to the station to have a word with Cala. In a corner nearby, Aliyah snoozes on a pile of cushions, changed into a men’s Guardia uniform, as none of the spare women’s uniforms will fit her tall, solid frame.

Near her, Sage and Mayumi keep watch as well, dressed in comfortable sleepwear, Sage in soft shirt and shorts, Mayumi in an extra-large men’s undershirt, standard Guardia Popula pale blue, almost knee length on her. Though their encounter with violent demigods and a demon, not to mention the murder of Corporal Stathos, have left them worn out from adrenalin and emotional shock, still they cannot sleep. As the night crawls toward morning, their whispers are too soft to be heard by human ears. No one has told them what has happened with Stathos’ family, and the memory of demonic screaming haunts them. But finally Tulip, the youngest Bunny, sleepily approaches in her beribboned flannel nightgown and snuggles into Sage’s lap, and holding her seems to allow him to let go that tension. As he nods off, Mayumi kisses his forehead and strokes Tulip’s white-furred ears, then begins to step carefully between the sleeping bodies, heading toward the kitchen, desperate for some water.

She is almost there when the breezeway door opens. “Shhh…” Kori hisses softly toward the newcomer. It is Sergeant Gwydion. He nods at Kori and then at Kyri in response to her wave, and makes his way toward the kitchen as well, clearly going for the magical door to his rooms.

Mayumi waits for him, and when he is close enough to hear her whisper, she asks softly, “Luís and the girls?”

Gwydion looks at her, his expression one of mute sorrow. He merely shakes his head, but that is enough. Her ears lie back and she surprises herself by reaching out and grasping his wrist for support. The news is a shock to her, even though she had half expected it. The tears fill her eyes and she looks away, stifling a sob. They’d saved Sage, and no one – no one but the kidnappers – had died. And now tragedy upon tragedy.

She feels a hand on her shoulder. Gwydion looks at her sadly, and without thinking she puts her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly. Though the culture she was raised in is not nearly as physically affectionate as that of Three Rats, she has always felt more of a need for contact than most of the people she grew up around. Perhaps it is something encoded into Bunny behavior. But because of how she was brought up, she has always been the most reserved of the Bunnies. And Gwydion…he is quite reserved himself. She has to admit she had not taken to him at first. She had not trusted him. The way he had tried to seduce Alma had repelled her. How foolish of him, to approach her that way.

Has he changed in his time away? No matter. He had saved them. Risked all for them. His eccentricities mean little in comparison to that. And now he has returned from seeing those girls, whom Philippus had brought to the station once, with whom Mayumi had talked and played as she kept an eye on them for their father – Gwydion has just seen their lifeless bodies. Mayumi prays that it was quick for them, but she knows it most likely was not. So she is glad when Gwydion embraces her as well. She may not have seen their deaths, but she can smell it on him, mixed with his cologne, and she is grieving, too.

She takes a deep breath. She steps back and looks up at him. No words need be said. Shared sorrow is its own language.

She wonders where Alma is. Perhaps she will find her in the station. She longs to speak with her creator, her mother. And Sky as well. He will likely hide away in his pain, she knows. She has seen it more than once in these past weeks. She nods at Gwydion and lets him continue his path, while she deviates from hers, moving toward the breezeway door.

Ch5.54 Shards

Alma stirs in his arms, her eyes flutter open in the dim light of the basement. Like a child awakened in the middle of a pleasant dream, the torture and anguish of moments ago apparently forgotten, she snuggles languorously against him, nuzzling his chest where it meets the shoulder.

“Hmm?” she murmurs.

“Hi…” Gwydion whispers softly, stroking her nose with the tip of his finger.

The sight of a beautiful feminine face waking up is somewhat unusual to him. Decades of cultivating a detached approach to relationships after being badly burnt by his one and only true romantic infatuation have made sure that a “morning after” was something meant only for those silly enough to restrict their desires to a single, often unworthy partner. Goddesses were always, in Dion’s little black book, no more than different tastes of some potentially delicious intoxicant with a tendency to destroy one’s mind and body after chronic, intense exposure.

Still, he must admit that the vision of Alma’s sleepy expression lazily blinking away exhaustion and smiling tiredly at him is a soothing, peaceful elixir abating the memory of the day’s events. He certainly would not mind gazing upon it again, in less stressful times.

“What happened?” she asks, rubbing sleep out of her eyes.

“You nodded off for a moment,” Dion explains. “How are you feeling?”

The question seems to revive in her the memory of her agony. Her expression darkens for a moment, and she sits up straighter, albeit still leaning slightly against Dion’s shoulder.

“Better,” she replies, now fully vigilant. “Enjoying the silence in my head.”

“Good,” Dion says, glancing back behind the pillar against which he leans, at the glimpses of blue and movement by the door of the holding area.

Under more careful scrutiny, they resolve into the looming figure of Corporal Lamore, looking worried and hesitant. She glances at the corpse of Corporal Stathos, her fallen comrade, and then at the Dei, her eyes issuing a silent request to be allowed to begin the painstaking, essential task of removing the bodies and investigating the crime scene.

Dion nods subtly at her. “Do you think you can stand and walk?” he asks of Alma. “The Popula are waiting for us to clear the room.”

Alma looks down at her legs almost as if to confirm they are still there. “I think I can, yes.”

“Slowly, now,” he advises her.

Making sure to keep her supported, even if he is himself beginning to feel his tired body rebel against his command, Dion rises to one knee and then stands. Alma stands too, slightly shakily at first but then seems to finds her balance. With Dion’s arm firmly wrapped around Alma’s back at waist-level and her hand gently holding his, they find their way to the door, where the corporal awaits.

“The room is yours to inspect, Corporal,” Dion tells her. “Thank you for your patience.”

“Don’t mention it. We’ll take care of things from now on,” Cala assures them, her voice kept low in respect for the dead. She spares Alma a sincere, worried look. “Do you need anything, Sergeant?”

Alma smiles weakly at her. “I just need this day to be done.”

Cala moves aside to let them through and they exit the holding area. Alma however, stops in her tracks and turns back for an instant.

“Corporal, whatever pieces you can gather of the bomb, I would like to examine them myself,” she requests.

Cala nods in acquiescence. “I’ll have them be taken to your office.”

“Where’s Inspector Sky?” the goddess asks suddenly.

Corporal Lamore glances subtly and nervously at Dion. He can almost read the thoughts rushing through the woman’s mind. The note Stathos had left, which said no more than “Forgive me. They have my family”, has opened the very real possibility of still more casualties to be dealt with tonight. And after witnessing Alma’s torment, Cala seems to be set on sparing her from further ordeals.

“He’s…gone to check on Stathos’ family,” she replies.

“Ah…” Alma mutters.

“Come on,” Dion speaks before the goddess gets a chance to think twice about it. “Let us get you to your room so you can rest.”

Alma follows his lead silently. At each step she seems surer on her legs, regaining composure as she becomes more confident that her body will hold. They walk by the assembled ranks of the Popula that are now returning to the station, hastily called out of bed to aid in manning the place and investigating the explosion. They look at Alma with concern. Her screams would probably have been heard from the street. Still, she makes a point to put on a sympathetic half smile for them, reassuring the world that she will be all right, without being insensitive to the loss of a fellow Guardia. Even if Stathos had not been one of the officers in her shift, Dion knows they used to chat over the occasional cup of coffee whenever the corporal happened to be at his desk at the moment of Alma’s return from her harvests.

They make their way out to the breezeway, walking slowly toward the bar. From inside, whimpers and cries escape through the wooden door, making the Dei hesitate for a moment. They stand silent, listening.

“The children…” Alma notes. “They must be terrified.”

“We can go elsewhere if you like,” Dion suggests. “There doesn’t seem to be much peace to be found in there.”

Alma seems to consider this for a moment before shaking her head slowly. “No… No mother could ever leave a frightened child without comforting.”

She reaches for the door and opens it. Dion waits for her to go through and after some further hesitation and a soft sigh, enters himself, closing the door behind him. The children are agitated, unable to sleep even if their bedtime is long past. The older ones are sitting against the wall, eyeing the door, the blankets and pillows they were given rolled up, ready to leave at the first opportunity and spend the night in the streets where at least bombs in the next building are not a major concern.

Only a short, curvy figure exuding a faint divine aura seems to stop them. With her fists resting clenched on her hips, foot tapping the floor with a strange, musical rhythm almost as if its owner is only instants away from starring in a song-and-dance scene, she is talking to them with the irritated tones of one who will just not be disobeyed.

“…and if you try to leave again, I’ll bring back the orchestra! And this time, you’ll be singing about rainbows and unicorns!” she states by way of threat.

The older children open their eyes wide, obviously taking the threat seriously. They sit muttering to themselves but making no obvious motion to escape. Dion cannot help but grin. Of all the things he suspected could frighten these rough and tough proto-street-thugs, a song-and-dance routine was not at the top of his list.

Alma walks to the short little goddess, greeting her with a soft, “Thank you, Kyri.”

Meanwhile, Geryon is nowhere to be seen, having already retired, exhausted, into Dion’s room. The Bunnies are attending to the smaller children, who are still too shaken by the scare of the bomb to settle down and sleep, trying to soothe them and get them all to lie down.

A little boy, more frightened than the rest, escapes Kori’s muscular grip and runs toward Alma, hugging her legs in search of solace. Something about the goddess must feel comforting to him, because he simply refuses to let go of her. She strokes his head slowly, her peaceful, cadent touch doing well in the way of soothing the sobbing child.

From his place by the door, her whispered words are barely audible to Dion. “Don’t be scared, little one. No more bad things will happen tonight.”

Still, the child refuses to let go, and still, Alma strokes his hair, holding him with her spare hand, a pale, glimmering pillar in the late-night twilight of dancing shadows produced by the sparse oil lamps mounted on brass rings along the walls. In her calm, unmoving countenance, the tranquil, repeated gestures, in the attention she spares the little boy and only him, she feels unshakeable, the source of an unreal and transcendental safety draped upon the whimpering child like a soft blanket.

Against his progressively weaker sobs, she sends her weak, unsteady, humming voice.

“Rest… now, child…”

The child looks up at her.

“And slip… into dreams,”

The room goes silent. Her voice gains strength.

“Let slumber take you away.

Pale moonlight

Through windows now streams

And with you forever I stay.”

The little boy tugs at her hand and she kneels by him, her eyes still focused on the small child. She holds him to her chest, invites him to lay his head on her lap. A sense of peace and safety spreads over the bar, carried by her voice. And for a moment, nothing else seems to exist but her song.

“To a bed of white blooms

And gardens in Spring

I bring you in peace and let lay.

Your slumbering eyes

That have seen everything

Will see no more today.”

The little boy’s eyes close. Slowly, other children edge closer.

“Sleep, you’re free,

And lay, safe with me.

Your dreams, please, don’t delay.

Now you can rest.

I heed your request

And with you forever I stay.”

“Ha! I knew that girl had a song in her!” Kyri whispers low, soft flutes beginning to play around the small goddess to add body to Alma’s song. “Lovely lullaby too. Bit eerie. Requiem-ny. But pretty.”

Dion glances at the short figure, confused by the music for a minute before remembering the famous musical qualities to Kyri’s magic. And still Alma’s song goes on, washing fear away from the world.

“I bring light in my eyes

Like rogue fireflies

To show the path and the way

To where you will go,

Far from danger and woe.

Not a soul I will leave gone astray.”

A lullaby… Dion thinks, closing his eyes. Death’s daughter’s song is a lullaby.

The serenity that envelops him, the way her voice seems to silence everything around her feels almost like magic. Beautiful as her voice is, Dion finds himself thinking that it is not that which has him entranced. Any voice would do if it carried that same soft touch, like a spoken caress, to the deep dark places of his mind. A mother’s voice… A mother’s song…

Has anyone ever sung like that to me? he wonders.

“Love, be done

With the light of the sun

Now that the stars come to play.

Forget fear tonight,

Hold my hand, take flight

And with you forever I stay.”

And in his mind, summoned by the words, something awakens. Faint and blurry at first, little more than a sensation of having felt like this before. Then the memory comes, hazy, glimpsing, long forgotten. The touch of cradling arms. Coppery hair falling in a veil around him. Pale lips moving in song.

Singing to him.

“At the edge of the dawn,

Where everything sleeps

Holding the seeds of the day,

Hidden deep in your heart

And caught in its keeps.

Rest in peace, I’ll keep bad dreams away.”

A hesitant touch to his shoulder breaks the spell and makes him turn his gaze to the door just in time to catch Voice Ewá stepping into the bar. By Dion’s side, PPC Longshot whispers his apologies along with a message from Sky. The god nods at the man but looks at Alma, still singing peacefully, the children quietly sleeping around her, the Bunnies standing, embracing each other.

“Close your eyes,

There is nothing to see.

Welcome the darkness and may”

She looks at him, smiling as she sings.

Sweetly…

“Dreams come true,”

Softly…

“Your soul’s destiny”

Gently….

“And with you forever I…”

Just for him.

“…stay.”