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.”

 

Ch5.50 Shards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, in spit! Nekh mutters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re home…” she whispers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Corporal. Doctor,” she greets them.

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

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

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

“Ma’am?” Cala straightens up slightly.

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

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

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

Ch5.41 Shards

They arrive at the station smiling nervously. The feeling of being back and free of charges is a good one but it competes with all the questions still hanging over their heads. How will the Popula react to them? How will the Bunnies? Will things merely return to what they were before, give or take a massive gang war?

Alma reaches for her badge, safely pinned to her robes at chest height. Her heartbeat, much lower than a human’s even at the most exciting of times, pounds heavily through the silvery metal to pulse against her palm and, somehow, the sensation calms her. By her side, Gwydion looks at the doors of the Three Rats Guardia Station without making any movement to them. She glances at him only to find him glancing back at her, his fixed smile wavering for a moment, letting his own nervousness shine through.

They nod at each other before reaching for the doors, each of them placing a hand on one of the rat-shaped doorknobs (all hail artistic humor) and pulling a door open.

What they see inside leaves them speechless. Popula rush about, carrying weapons and donning the reinforced leather jackets that they normally wear when expecting a confrontation with a hostile crowd. Corporal Lamore seems to be coordinating them, calling out their names and giving them orders to move out to their assigned streets.

Probationary Lance Constable Longshot suddenly darts out of the armory and into Alma’s field of vision like a meerkat on caffeine, holding too many pieces of armor in his scrawny arms, sorting them, handing them around and – Alma cringes – hitting the corner of a desk and falling on his rear end to a shower of falling metal and a symphony of clinks and pangs.

Sitting at the desks the Popula usually occupy, the Bunnies seem to await something nervously, holding each other and looking at the Popula with pleading and fear in their eyes. Alma counts one, two, three, four—

A shadow dashes past her. Turning, she sees Tulip hanging from Gwydion’s neck, her long feet dangling excitedly in the air as she nearly suffocates the god by hugging him so tightly that her cheek is pressed against his. Gwydion looks at Alma, smiles and shrugs slowly, helplessly as he pats Tulip’s back before gently prying her arms from his neck and lowering her to the floor.

“You’re here!” the young Bunny cries, jumping up and down. “You’re finally here and just when we need you!”

The words send ice down Alma’s spine. She looks back at the other Bunnies, who are just now beginning to notice her presence and moving to join her. Five Bunnies… She counts five Bunnies.

“What happened, Corporal?” Alma asks the passing Corporal Lamore. “Why is the station in such chaos?”

“I would like to say I am glad to see you, Sergeant, but…” Cala hesitates. “We have a situation.”

“Where are Mayumi and Sage?” Alma asks, keeping her voice level. “And where is the Inspector?”

“May is with Constable Kaur,” Corporal Lamore replies nervously.

A terrible feeling takes over Alma. She feels the blood flow away from her face, the shadows grow longer and darker around her. “And Sage?”

Cala swallows before answering, making obvious effort to stand firm. “We have had a problem with children going amiss in the ward, lately.”

“I know. Sage?” Alma insists, her eyes wide.

“Has gone missing, Sergeant,” Corporal Lamore states.

Alma’s world shatters. She can barely breathe as the words sink in.

“No, no, no, no…” she mumbles, looking at everything but seeing nothing, her head darting left and right in the violent effort of trying to cope with what she has just been told. One of her worst fears has come true.

Ha! You’re gonna lose a Bunny! Nekh’s voice taunts her. Finally, someone called pest control!

Please, stop, Nekh! she pleads. Not now. Not now…

Shadows gather around her, responding to her desperation. She feels her heart freeze in fear, her usually cool skin grow ice-cold to the touch.

This is a nightmare, her thoughts race. A joke! So much pain to save them from the Council and now some gang takes Sage!

Anger rises within her. How dare they? How dare anyone touch her children and expect to get away with it? How did they even get their hands on Sage?

It was just a matter of time, Alma dear, Nekh goes on. They’re monsters. Someone was bound to see that sooner or later.

Get… out… of… my… HEAD!! Alma roars in thought.

The blue in her eyes turns black as the shadows swirl around her, blowing through her silver-white hair, drawing her contours in a darkness that whispers and howls her pain with a thousand voices.

“Who?” she growls, stomping in Cala’s direction, making the woman flinch, even as she struggles to stay put. “Who did this?”

“We…we don’t know,” Cala concedes, shaking her head. “Not for sure.”

The shadows around Alma grow to engulf the whole station, extinguishing all light. The shrieks and growls grow louder. All around her, the air crackles with the spectral greenish-blue of lost souls summoned by her rage.

Still the Corporal does not move. What is wrong with her?! How can they not know?! How did anyone get to Sage?! Alma takes one more step towards her to try and shake an answer out of the woman but suddenly finds herself restricted. Powerful arms wrap around her from behind, keeping her from moving. She looks at Cala to find her bathed in a golden light against which Alma’s shadows crash and growl helplessly. Against her, a body shakes ever so subtly while trying hard to hold on to her.

“I couldn’t stop you before but I can stop you now,” Gwydion whispers in Alma’s ear, his voice shaking as much as his arms. “You need to calm down, Alma. We will figure things out. But you are frightening everyone. Even the Bunnies.”

He is right. Everyone in the room is looking at her as if she is about to steal their souls. Her Bunnies look at her with a mix of fear and compassion in their eyes.

A monster, she thinks. Have I become the monster everyone feared they were?

Pretty much, yes, Nekh notes conversationally.

She hangs her head. The shadows around her lose strength and disappear into the warm light of the shielding spell that Gwydion is still projecting in a circle beyond the gods.

“We will find him,” he whispers to her as the last of the howling shadows dies. “We will bring him home.”

She feels him relax and let go of her. His spell breaks into a rain of motes of light, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the room, wishing she could still feel his warmth against her skin. Time seems frozen. The whole station falls silent.

And then five pairs of arms are thrown around her from all directions, holding her tightly. She holds her Bunnies against her, petting their heads reassuringly, whispering apologies for having frightened them.

“Where is Inspector Tuma-Sukai?” she hears Gwydion ask.

“He is out, looking for Sage,” Cala explains. “And we’re getting ready to join in the search. We have a lead.”

“What lead?” Alma asks.

“Geryon managed to scry a warehouse that’s blocking scrying,” Corporal Lamore says, looking somewhat unsure at how that sentence can make any sense. “At the corner of Catinga and Sharva. We believe the gang that has been going around kidnapping children is in there. We just…can’t be sure Sage will be there too.”

“Either way, that is where we are going,” Alma states, letting go of her Bunnies.

“Yes,” Gwydion agrees. “If you give me a few minutes to get familiarized with the map to the area, maybe I can open a portal to a nearby building and save us some time… Although this may take a few tries. I don’t quite know that part of the ward very well and with the anti-scrying spell…”

Take your time, pretty boy, Nekh says. Maybe that’ll give them the time they need to kill him.

A prickly feeling on the back of her neck makes Alma turn to look behind her. She cannot help but smile at what she sees. “That…may not be necessary, Gwydion.”

By the door, two gorgeous horses stand, looking bigger and more majestic than any horse should be, their manes billowing in a ghostly breeze. Although they look somewhat brown in color, their nearly transparent bodies let through blurry images of the furniture beyond them. Even light seems to waver and curve as it bounces against their lustrous coats.

“Wow…what are those?” Kori asks, eyes wide.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Horsies!!” Cherry shrieks, jumping up and down.

“No…they are not just horses,” Gwydion whispers in wonder.

“Well, they sure look like horses t’me,” Rosemary notes. “If not, then what are they?”

The thought hits all minds in the room at once. Family.

Son of a bitch! Void Riders! Nekh swears. Since when can they come to the Isle?

The bigger and more magnificent of the horses, a mare, takes a step forward, rhythmically raising and lowering her head as if nodding a greeting. We cannot stay on the Insula for long, child. We will take you to the little one but we must hurry.

Even if the telepathic message is projected around the room, free for all to ‘hear’, Alma knows who the mare is speaking to. The goddess nods at the Void Riders’ matriarch, Arion’s mother herself. I understand.

Arion is watching… He knows where his child is, has just sent help to save him! Alma finds herself suddenly grinning.

“Alma, what is going on?” Gwydion asks her.

“I will explain everything on the way there,” Alma assures him. “But we need to leave now.”

Diabo da peste, se eu lhes deixo sair assim!” Sergeant Machado yells at them as he walks through the station’s front door. “Dei or no Dei, you are not leaving the station without gearing up!”