Ch6.45 Trust

The bar is filled with music. Most of the people who can sing (and definitely all the ones who can’t) have joined in Kyri’s musical challenge and are happily singing holiday tunes of all sorts and origins, from the sweet and soft Hail the Lord of Heavens kind of tune that some more monotheistic wards tend to favor to a couple of songs that Breowan has brought into the ensemble, reminiscent of a cat being shaved with barbed wire.

Alma, on the other hand, is struggling to keep up with the rest of the partiers. Her family has never been one to sing much about things like the Year’s End (or any other thing, truth be told) and the quarter of a century she has spent outside the walls of her father’s estate has lead to so much moving around from ward to ward as Sergeants and Inspectors strove to make her some other station’s problem that she has somehow managed to bypass Year’s End celebrations in most of them. So she does not know the lyrics or melody to most of the songs being sung which has her mostly humming to the tunes and being content with watching the others having fun and laughing at her younger Bunnies’ attempts at learning the lyrics to all of these new songs in record time.

“Hey, Mom!” Tulip’s sudden, loud voice in her ear makes Alma jump in her chair. The young Bunny is still trying to master her inside voice but, apparently, not trying too hard. Still, Alma refrains from scolding her, not wanting to sour the party for anyone. She looks quizzically at Tulip, who is holding a sheet of paper, one of the many she has been handing around, and looking somewhere between confused and concerned. “Where’s Uncle Som? I wanna show him the drawing I made of Uncle Sky.”

“Well, he was just here a few minutes ago…” The question makes Alma look around the room. Where is Somrak? She had left him attacking the food trays and half expected that he would be sharing a drink with Sky by now. But Sky is happily talking and exchanging sweet caresses with Mayumi by the bar and Somrak is nowhere to be seen. An instinctive feeling in her chest has her looking toward the door that leads to the breezeway. “He may have gone out for a moment. Let me go check.”

“I’ll go!” Tulip volunteers immediately.

But Alma manages to grab her by the wrist before the Bunny dashes off. “Tulip, no,” she says quietly but firmly. “Let me, yes? Uncle Somrak might want to be alone.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop slightly in disappointment with a hint of worry. “Is he…all right?”

Alma struggles to answer the simple question without lying. Somrak is wounded in more ways than one, and their short conversation before had left her heart heavy with concern for the rogue fire god. But she does not want Tulip to worry. Considering how Bunny psyche tends to handle such situations, Somrak might find himself at the bottom of an overwhelming, long-eared pile of affection instead of enjoying the quiet solitude that she suspects he is craving right now. “He will be. Don’t worry about that. I will be right back.”

She rises from her chair and crosses the room toward the door, glancing behind her to make sure that Tulip won’t follow. She sees the Bunny looking at her uncertainly but nonetheless taking the chair that Alma was occupying before and joining again in Kyri’s musical merrymaking.

She steps outside. To the right of her, Somrak is leaning against the wall of the bar, weight on one leg, the other crossing at the ankle. A fine cigar is hanging loosely from his fingers, a long stream of aromatic smoke slithering slowly from his lips. The back of his head resting against the wall, he has his eyes raised to the strip of night sky framed by the tops of the station and the bar. The sun has set quickly since the fire god’s arrival at the party. The sound of the door closing behind her makes his eyes swivel in her direction. He lowers his head slowly, lazily turning it to look at Alma. The nightly shadows heighten his gaunt appearance, darkening the edges of his bruises, sinking his eyes deeper into their sockets. He looks surprised and uncomfortable at first, perhaps not expecting that his absence would be noted, but then his gaze softens and the smoke-filled breath he had been holding is gently released in a more relaxed acknowledgment of her presence.

Alma stands by the now closed door, looking at him, uncertain of what to do or say. She is torn between wanting him to exorcise whatever demons are haunting him tonight and leaving him alone with his thoughts. Who is she to impose her presence in his life? What does she know of him, who is she to him that she can possibly claim the right to intervene? Maybe she should just let Sky talk to his old partner and deal with things in whatever way has worked for them in so many decades.

And yet…yet she feels the calling to reach out to him, a palpable need to say something, whatever it is, to drive his pain away, if only for a moment. The way he held her when he arrived, when she said those silly little words “Welcome home”, not even knowing why she was saying them to someone like him… She felt his heart begin to pound against her chest then and she can almost feel the same strangled sensation now as he looks at her. If he rejects her help, sends her away without so much as an explanation, that will be his right. But it is her hope that he won’t.

His eyes are becoming worried now. She realizes how long it has been that they have both been silently gazing at each other. What to say? “Needed some fresh air?”

Fresh air? With that cigar puffing ash into his lungs? her conniving thoughts betray her. Good thing that gods are not prone to disease.

She admonishes herself for the thought immediately. It is a sad truth that even with Nekh gone from her mind, the echoes of his caustic presence still taint her thoughts. But Somrak seems to share in her mind’s humor.

He raises the cigar, a smirk dancing on his lips. “Yeah, but… This somehow found me instead.”

He turns the unburning end of it in her direction, in a silent offering, but Alma is not a big fan of such things, preferring water pipes herself if smoking is of the essence, and so she just waves her hand in a gentle no.

“Thank you. I favor other bad habits.”

She takes a couple of steps towards him and leans against the wall just by his left. The silence that falls between them is crammed with unspoken words but it somehow feels comfortable enough that she can relax in his company. She breathes deeply, her eyes closed, letting the vibrant agitation that has surrounded this whole day flow out of her, driven away by the cool night air. She turns her head upward, to look at the stars. Somewhere among them, godly horses gallop through the endless Void, looking down on the celebrating Insula. Will Arion be watching his children, even if he has failed to keep his promise to meet them?

For a moment, she is barely aware of Somrak still leaning against the wall by her side, of how he casually extinguishes his cigar by putting his index finger on its smoldering tip before slipping it back into the silver case that Sky gave him, and tucking the whole thing away in a jacket pocket.

He does not press for a conversation but Alma cannot help herself from saying what she has not dared confess to anyone yet. “Twenty-four years…” Her own voice sounds old and tired to her. “I have waited twenty-four years for this day. And I have spent most of it trying to convince myself that it is real. A part of me just wants to run away before it all comes tumbling down to rubble.”

She can see him studying her face through the corner of her eye. “You run away, and it’s guaranteed to turn to rubble.”

She nods, chuckling quietly, bitterly. “I know. I am still here, aren’t I?” She turns her head to face him. “It is just that some days, I get tired of fighting. And others…” she turns to glance at the door. “I remember what I’m fighting for. And on days like this…”

Words evade her. What can she say? That she is scared? That all of this feels too good to be true, to be hers? That for all her outward strength, she is still a terrified young girl with a couple of newborn babies in her arms and the world spinning under her feet?

And why tell him this? Why not Sky or Gwydion? Why even say it? Just admitting to it feels like such a betrayal to the family she has worked so hard on protecting, on bringing together. It shames her to feel this way. To be frightened of her own happiness when so many people would steal and kill for a single, remote shot at it.

A gentle touch to her hand makes her turn her eyes to him again. His fingers are wrapping around hers, squeezing them softly. His eyes close for a second, betraying the pain that his shattered arm causes him. When he opens them again, she sees it. His pain. Not the pain in his body but the one that torments his soul. For that moment that the eyelids take to rise fully, his defenses fail him and the turmoil in his mind flares like a comet’s tail.

And even though he remains silent, she cannot resist the urge to detach herself from the wall and stand closer, in front of him, her right hand still in his, but the left stroking the marks of newly-healed cuts on his face, the bruises that mar his handsome features. “What have they done to you, Somrak?” Her voice is very soft, almost a whisper. As if anything above that could scare him away. “There is so much pain, so much anguish in you.”

Somrak’s eyes are on her face, half shut at her touch. Her question makes him sigh, draw a shuddery breath. “I had to kill someone.” He looks down as if he cannot bear to look at her. “Someone I knew. Someone on my team.”

Alma tries to keep any accusation away from her voice as she asks, “Why?”

He shakes his head. “That…is classified. But.” He shrugs. “She betrayed us. Murdered her partner, who trusted her so much that she tried to give her a chance.” Another sigh. “Even so, I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been trying to kill your aunt.”

Alma tries to wrap her head around the concept of being desperate or foolish enough to attack the Fencer. By Guardia standards, that is the very definition of suicide by cop. “If she did that then you must know…the Fencer would have not let her live anyway.” She tries to bring some light into both their moods. “Did my aunt like the tiger?”

The flash of grief that crosses Somrak’s face immediately makes her regret that question. “Yeah. She loves the tiger. Named him Khun. Gets all gooey over him and then looks at me like she’s going to kill me if I ever tell anyone.”

Alma cannot help but chuckle. “Ah, yes…Welcome to life with Varah.” The joke makes him snort, which brings a smile to her face. She releases her right hand from his gentle grip to wrap both arms around him, closely though minding his wounds, and presses her forehead against his. “It will be all right. Maybe not perfect, maybe not good. But it will be all right. Yes?”

His forehead rests on hers fully, as if he is too tired to keep his head hanging straight. “I don’t expect perfection. I don’t expect good, either, except in moments. But yes,” his right hand reaches up to stroke her hair, cup the back of her head. They stand quietly, noses touching, sharing in each other’s breath. He feels pleasantly warm against her as the scent of his skin, of the tobacco he usually smokes, creeps into her senses, stroking nerves, ancient, primal parts of her brain. And for some reason, it makes her feel safe. Cared for. The fear of upcoming misery in her heart settles for a moment.

She understands all at once why Sky finds this kind of thing so sacred and intimate. “It’s over now,” she whispers to Somrak, almost unthinkingly. “You are home.”

His frame shakes with a half-choked breath. “I don’t know…how to be home, Alma.”

“You’re not the only one,” she concedes. “I’m…we’re all still learning. All I know is that there’s warmth and safety and always someone to make me believe that it can be all right. And I don’t have to run anymore.” It is almost painful but she forces herself to pull away just enough that she can look at him. “Do you not want that for yourself?”

He looks back at her, all the pain in the world seemingly pouring into those deep, black eyes. “I do. I just…”

She can almost see his thoughts engraved in his expression. His mind is torn by the concept of someone like him being permanently bound to a station. Stifling a sigh, she touches two fingers to his chin, to hold his head up before he can hang it down. Her eyes lock on his in what she hopes shows sincerity, not aggression. “You don’t have to stay here. Home is people, Somrak. Just…don’t let go of us. And you’ll always have us to come home to.”

He holds her gaze, questioning, doubting. She knows that look well. It is the look of someone who has learned to believe that he is not entitled to bliss and who is just now struggling to hope that maybe, this time, if only just this once…he could be wrong. His left hand rises toward her cheek. As his fingertips graze her skin, the smallest of flinches betrays his pain at raising his injured arm that high.

Alma takes his hand and brings it lower before moving her own to his left upper arm. For as much as she has been trying to let him regain his mental strength and decide himself when to be healed, she can no longer pretend to ignore how bad his injuries are.

“May I?” she asks softly.

He nods, looking almost frightened at the prospect of a healing. That makes her hesitate for a moment. Healing is as painful and uncomfortable as it is pleasurable. Anyone who has ever been injured knows that. The pain, the itching, the sting of exposed flesh, the pulling of scars. And then the absence of pain, the relief as the body becomes whole again. But all those sensations are drawn out, taking days, months, years to show and resolve themselves, allowing the body time to adapt and become almost numb to them. A magical healing is a brutal fast-forwarding of all those events, speeding them along, reducing days to minutes and giving the body no chance to be even fully aware of all that is going on.

A poorly-skilled healer can cause so much pain that healing quickly becomes a nightmare compared to a natural mend. There has to be balance between pain and pleasure, to numb discomfort with relief. And though good healers cannot eliminate pain altogether, they can leave such a blissful aftertaste to their actions that the memory of pain is completely erased, exhilaration left in its place. Alma knows that, after years of experience and care, her skill in healing has reached that plateau.

So why is he so worried? Has she not healed and left him elated before?

“I will take it gently,” she reassures him.

He nods again and straightens, resting his hands on her back. Again, she presses her forehead against his, her eyes flaring the reddish-gold glimmer of her life sphere, scents of spring and of cool nights invading the air as she calls upon her healing power. Her magic begins to pour into him, slowly, scouting out what is broken, torn and bruised, what is misplaced and healing in the wrong position. Her senses know him well by now, the memory of his previous healing still fresh in Alma’s mind. She reminds herself to leave his facial scar in place but everything else, all the marks of horrible aggression, of crushed bone and cut skin and bruised internal organs are flagged to disappear.

Her energy courses through him, renewing fractures to shift bone fragments into their proper positions, stretching tendons and nerves to pull them back into their natural grooves, rechanneling the blood vessels that had been grown to replace ones that had been destroyed. His hands grip her tightly, breath shuddering at the pain that she cannot avoid causing him. But pain is not all he feels. At each necessary aggression, she responds by urging his body to produce substances that induce pleasure. She uses the relief of tension on previously distended tendons and tissues no longer being compressed by bone fragments, the local cooling as inflammation is reduced and cancelled. She overwhelms his brain with signals from all over his body to distract it from the pain.

He raises his head to the sky, eyes transfixed, mouth gaping open as his breath catches in his lungs. Soon, it is done. His hands release her and he falls against the wall, leaning his weight against it, breathing heavily, shaking. He looks at her, eyes wide and searing, paralyzing her with their intensity. She wonders if her skills have failed her this time.

And suddenly, his hand is cupping her cheek, the other pressing the small of her back, pulling her toward him. His lips are pressed against hers. She stiffens, surprised at the sudden kiss, at the hunger with which he tries to compel her to join him. She takes his invitation. His need, the dark mood of their conversation, the lightheadedness of the deep healing…she kisses him back with the passion of her own fears. She cannot resist this rogue, this daredevil who toys with his own demise, whose mere existence taunts her very essence, who offers himself to her and begs her to take him with a kiss that threatens to consume her.

It is frightening and exhilarating and all she wants is more of it. She wants to hold on to him and heal the wounds in his soul. Show him that he is not alone in the dark. But something inside her is screaming in alarm, begging her to stop. The part of her that is always watching is begging her to pay attention, to see that this is not right. That Somrak is not acting like himself. Is he just kissing her because of the healing? Is she taking advantage of him?

She tries to pull away, managing just enough breath to call his name. “Somrak…”

“Shhh…” his lips cover hers again.

“Somrak…” she breathes amidst kisses.

Oh gods, he is not making this any easier on her. She has to pry herself from the exquisite warmth of his mouth. “You’re not…” she fights for breath, “thinking straight.”

His eyes are glazed, as if he has a fever. And considering how hot his body feels against hers, he just might. “Like I care.”

He kisses her with renewed passion. She can taste his anguish mixed in with the smoky aroma of his tongue as it strokes hers, sparking bolts of pleasure that course through her, shutting down her better sense. She feels the world twirl around her with dizzying speed. And then she feels the solidity of a wall pressed against her back, the fit frame of his body pressed to her front, pinning her in place. His hands are on her sides now, strong and hungry, pulling, always pulling her to him. Her own hands are on his back, relishing in the feel of his muscles, of how his body craves for her and offers itself to her touch. His heart pounds strong, leaping deerlike against her chest as if trying to invade it.

Memories of such desperate need awaken the darkness in her. She feels the shadows in her own soul creep forth, stretching to merge with his, luring him further into her hold, enveloping them both in their cloak. He is a daredevil and she is death incarnate. And she will devour him whole for toying with her and making her want him so badly. He cannot escape and neither can she.

A faint sound of wood knocking softly against wood rings in her ears with the intensity of a whole building crumbling to the ground. It is like ice cold water poured down her spine. The bar door. Must have been.

Her eyes shoot open, the blackness in them winking out of existence. What is she doing? This… No, this is not how things are done. This is not who she is.

She pulls away, what little she can pull away considering he has her trapped against the wall, and touches her fingers to his lips to stop his next kiss. “Wait. Please,” she nearly begs. She is lightheaded, fighting for breath. Her body feels weak under her weight.

He pauses and opens his eyes, looking at her as if he is just waking up from a fugue, just now realizing the world exists outside of the two of them. He looks shocked to see the wall behind her. He must not have realized before, how in his need, he reversed their positions to stop her from pulling away.

Trembling, he forces himself to loosen his hold on her, to pull himself away just enough to give her room to stand straight. His hands move to her shoulders and stay there, his craving for her touch not entirely sated. He looks at her in confusion.

She looks at him, her fingers gently grazing the skin on his chin and throat as they travel to rest on his collarbone. Though she is fighting the impulse to kiss him again, she feels their moment of passion already fading away. Her thoughts have settled back into their axis. What her inner self had been trying so desperately to tell her before becomes clear in her mind.

“You’re not thinking straight, dear,” she says. “And I don’t want to wrong you.”

“Wrong me?” He shakes his head as if to clear it, blinking in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, for one, taking advantage of a patient,” she says with a meaningful look at his left arm. “And second…” She exhales deeply, knowing that she has to tell him about Gwydion. “There is someone else.”

He seems even more confused for a moment, looking at her, then shaking his head. Eventually, confusion fades, replaced by…guilt? regret? He meets her eyes again. “Dion?”

His voice is weak, almost fearful. “Yes,” she confirms with a nod. “We keep it secret and non-exclusive but…we have been together since our return from the First Ring.”

Probably the worst kept secret in all of Three Rats, considering how many people know about it by now, she cannot help but muse.

He drops his head so that his chin nearly touches his chest. A single almost-silent bark of laughter shakes him for an instant. “I…have been blind. I saw it and discounted it.” He shakes his head, muttering, “Amazing what desire can do.”

His words have her intrigued. It is not surprising that Somrak would have missed it. He had only spent a week in Three Rats and it is not like anyone would have said anything. So… “What did you see?”

“When Dion confronted me over Rio Novo,” Somrak explains. “We…well we had a very brief ‘who’s the bigger dog’ moment.”

“Oh gods,” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes at what might be coming next.

“I’m afraid your desk may have been slightly scorched,” Somrak says with a sly grin that still manages to be somewhat apologetic.

“Somrak!” she hisses, lightly smacking his shoulder.

He breathes a soft chuckle. “Dion repaired it. But I noticed he was very careful not to repair anything that had been there before. All the little marks and dings that made it your desk.”

Which would explain why she did not notice anything different with her desk other than it being extremely and unusually clean.

“I just thought he was an obsessive perfectionist at the time,” Somrak notes with a shrug. “You know…wizards.”

“He does that sometimes, when he thinks no one is paying attention,” Alma says, incapable of keeping her affection for Gwydion away from her voice. “These incredibly sweet things that you wouldn’t notice unless you know what to look for.”

The way Somrak’s expression softens and saddens, makes her cheeks flush with remorse at the her own words. It is never pleasant to hear from the lips of someone you want for yourself that he or she loves another. And though Alma is free to accept Somrak’s affections, though their kiss was not wrong or unwanted, she knows that she must let him down.

“I care for you, Somrak,” she says, looking into his eyes, hoping he will believe her. “But everything is so recent, so fragile. And even if keeping you would not be cheating Gwydion, it would hurt him. And I would not be able to stand that.”

She lowers her gaze to her hand, resting on his chest. “It has taken me over two decades to remember…how good it feels to allow someone so close to me. To give myself in return.” She touches his face and looks into his eyes again. “I don’t want to cheat you. I’m sorry.”

Emotions play over his face: denial, shame, humor, pain, anger, all momentarily surfacing and fading. In the end, what is left is a small smile over a mask of deep regret. “You don’t need to apologize. I blinded myself.”

His hands briefly squeeze her shoulders before he lets go of her. He holds up his fully healed left hand, flexes his fingers, looking at it, then at her. He seems about to say something but the words die before they exit his throat. After a couple of heartbeats, he says, “Alma…I have nothing but gratitude for you.”

“I don’t want to be the one who drives you away,” she breathes, surprising herself with how broken her voice sounds.

He touches her cheek, smiling sadly as his fingers stroke it. “I’m ready to return whenever you need me.” A pause as he raises two fingers before her but not so close that the flame that erupts from them can harm her face. In its wake, a small white card bearing a single, mystical glyph flashes into existence. “If you ever need me to come back, burn this. Write a message on it if you have one for me, but message or not, I will come running.”

She raises a hand. Her fingers wrap around his and the card. Her lips curl into a smile. Somehow, this small gift is so much more meaningful than the daggers or the shirt. For as much as those reminded her of the complicity of shared jokes, this little card is a promise and an assurance that he will not vanish from her life.

“How long do the rules say I should wait before I call?” she can’t help but jest.

He shakes his head, rolling his eyes slightly at the obvious joke. “Keep that for a rainy day, sweetheart,” he replies, prompting a chuckle from her. “Or for when you find that necromancer. I want to be there when that happens. In the meantime…take care of Sky. You’re good for him.”

A sudden impulse has her wrapping her arms around him tightly, her forehead pressed against his. “Take care of yourself. And remember to come home. Every once in awhile. Please?”

He nods, his eyes closed, arms holding her closely to him. “I promise.” His voice is rough with emotion. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he loosens his embrace, moving his hands to touch her upper arms and very lightly push her away. He straightens, takes a deep breath, and smiles. “There’s some presents for the Bunnies under the tree. Only Tulip got hers so far. And, uh…” He reaches into the ever-present satchel that he didn’t bother to put down since his arrival, to remove a small, engraved wooden charm hanging from a satin ribbon and hand it to Alma. “This is for Saira. I’m going to…”

A jerk of his hand indicates that he is leaving. Alma does not even bother trying to keep the sadness and guilt to see him leaving so soon and because of her, away from her face. Still, she nods and lets him go, saying, “I understand.”

“Hey…” He smiles encouragingly at her, reaching to stroke her hair. “No being sad for the New Sun. It’s bad luck.”

She smiles weakly back at him. “It’s the Year’s End for me. Tomorrow, all that is dead will be gone for good to give way to new life.” She sighs and shakes her head, keeping her fatalistic thoughts to herself. “Stay safe, Somrak. And tell your go-to healer to come see me for a few lessons in doing his job right.”

Somrak smirks at that. “Now that I would like to see.”

The smirk fades and he stands looking at her in silence. For just a fraction of an instant, she can see his pain again, loss stealing across his features. And then he is turning away and walking down the breezeway and turning the corner without even a look back at her.

Alma watches him go with a heavy heart, saddened and worried and remorseful. Finally, he disappears from sight and she sighs her acceptance of what must be. She could not have handled this any other way, even though she wishes she could. She walks to the door that leads into the bar, breathes deeply, puts on her mask of all is well, and returns to the party.

Ch6.44 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

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

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

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

“You came! You came!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WHAT??”

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

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

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

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.31 Trust

Morning on the streets around Three Rats Station is often a time of peace. Crime and accident most often find their expression in the depths of the night, when overindulgence in alcohol and other drugs anaesthetize the wiser angels of the mind and set free their inner demons. It is in the night that the sneak-thief, the assassin, the gang out for vengeance are most likely to conduct their sociopathic pursuits. Crime and ‘hey, watch this’ foolishness can occur at any time, but those most likely to commit such acts are more probably to be found peacefully asleep in the early hours after sunrise, soon to be waking and feeling the effects of the previous night’s imprudence.

Thus Corporal Cala Lamore finds it her favorite time to be on-shift. Her promotion has brought with it a considerable increase in paperwork and meetings, but under Sergeant Machado and ultimately Inspector Tuma-Sukai, the meetings are at least productive and usually brief. There has been a spike in late-night emergencies during Sergeant Alma’s temporary leadership, but Cala is not one to lay blame. She rather finds herself identifying with the immortal sergeant who has suddenly found herself thrust into a position of greater responsibility. That she has not handled it perfectly is only to be expected, but Sergeant Alma’s character has shown through in the way she has managed those momentary fumbles.

Cala snorts as she remembers the previous morning, and Alma’s silliness. These immortals, these so-called gods – among monotheists like Cala, there is still much disagreement about what they really are: devils, djinn, spirits of temptation sent to test the faith of true believers – have turned out to be far different to work with than Cala had imagined. In the Academy, Popula cadets did not mix with Dei, and since then the rare Dei officers sent from other wards to deal with some problem were all aloof. She cannot say she is truly friends with any of the three here – after all, they are her superior officers, and no matter how much she has grown to like them, she does not believe in blurring those lines – but under them the station has regained the family feeling that it had when it was much smaller up to a few months ago, when they relocated from the old, cramped station near the border with Little Falls, when it was just Corporal Machado in charge, and when Cala and Aliyah and poor Phillipus Stathos and a few others were constables together, before the Dei arrived along with so many new recruits and transfers. She had been afraid that familial feeling, that camaraderie would be lost forever, but it has returned. And with immortals! And not only that, but with Bunnies!

And now, wonder of wonders, Saira, she who Cala had long thought dead, has returned to them. Their friendship had ended years ago, and bridges had been burnt, but the two women have been cautiously, almost unintentionally rebuilding them, a plank here and a nail there, in the time Saira has been staying at the station.

Cala shakes her head at her reverie and returns to planning. With the worst of the gang wars dying down, she has had time to move patrols to parts of the ward that have hardly seen a Guardia presence in months. At the same time, however, she must not allow areas that have seen the worst violence to feel that they are being forgotten by the Guardia. Some there would bemoan that forgetting, while others would celebrate.

With a creak of door hinges, morning sunlight slants across the main room of the station and over Cala’s paper-strewn desk. She looks up to see a statuesque form silhouetted in the doorway. Though the backlighting obscures the visitor’s face, Cala immediately recognizes the outline. Dismissing a momentary stab of unworthy envy at immortals and how they always seem to be as tall, slender, and full-breasted as they desire to be, Cala stands and, doing her best to stop being suddenly conscious of her far more ordinary, mortal shape with its extra pounds that have refused to depart no matter how often she has made it clear to them that they are not welcome, she approaches the reception desk.

“Voice Ewá,” she calls out. “Good morning! And how are the kiddies?”

Ewá Nanã, bearing the title Voice because she speaks in defense of those accused of crimes, is currently taking care of nearly a score of orphans, runaways, and castaways in a house she acquired with the intention of starting a law office. Legal representation is something out of the reach of most in Three Rats, but sorely needed. The more pressing need of children who had been snatched by slavers has diverted her, and Cala, along with Aliyah, and several of the Bunnies, has been lending a hand.

The demi-immortal takes a step closer, but a rope she holds in her hand draws tight, preventing her from moving all the way from the door to the desk. The rope, Cala sees, looks strong, and leads out the door from Ewá’s hand. Whatever it is attached to is out of sight from the reception desk.

“Pardon me, Corporal,” Ewá says, “they are well. But I wonder if anyone has reported a lost cat.”

Cala thinks. “A lost cat?”

“The children didn’t want me to bring the cat here, but…we really cannot afford to feed it.”

“Well, might be a stray but let me – Wally, did anyone report a missing cat?”

Freezing as if he’s been caught in the act of something nefarious, or at least embarrassing, Wallace Longshot, a walking collection of knees and elbows, tall, redhaired, and legendarily clumsy, responds, “Uhm…there’s Mrs Patel’s shorthair.”

“Which one?” Cala asks. “She only owns Urbia shorthair cats.” To Ewá, she continues, “Anyway, could it be that one?”

“I am not much familiar with domestic breeds, but I suspect it is not.” The lead begins to slacken, and Ewá loops the rope around her hand, taking up the slack until a large head with golden eyes looks around the door frame.

“Ya Allah!! Is that a–?” She gulps. “Definitely not an Urbia shorthair. I…I think I’ll call a Dei to take care of your case, if you don’t mind.” She mutters to herself, “They can always heal if they get bitten…”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Through the door, Somrak hears a muffled exchange. Alma’s voice. “Good morning, Corporal.” Finally.

“Good morning, Sergeant!” Ah, that’ll be Lamore. Wonder if she’ll spill the beans?

But the Popula corporal doesn’t say anything more as the slight creak of the stairs signal Alma’s approach. The door handle turns, swinging open, and Alma enters her office and takes a step toward her desk before she stops at the tap of something against her knee. She looks down and her attention is caught by a tail, a tail furred in greyish-blue with white markings, that sleepily curls against her leg. Her eyes follow along it to see, lounging across her sofa, an exotically colored tiger, snoring gently, its forepaws and head on Somrak’s lap where he sits at the far end of the sofa, holding a folder in one hand, the other gently scratching the tiger’s neck.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” he whispers in mock urgency. “This vicious cat has put my leg to sleep!” He smirks at her look of astonishment, but holds in his laughter, not wanting to wake the tiger.

However, Alma barely glances at him. She cannot stop staring at the tiger. She whispers, “Is that–?” She moves closer and kneels by the sofa.

Somrak snorts quietly. “It had better be the same one. If there’s another one wandering around the ward… I didn’t want to wake him up, poor thing, but seriously, I’ve read this same report ten times, and it’s getting a little dull. I can’t reach my desk. Well, your desk.”

Alma starts scratching the sleeping tiger behind the ears. He sees glimmers of green around her hand, and a breeze out of nowhere carries a hint of jasmine and a momentary susurrus of leaves. The tiger opens a lazy eye, the golden eye with its round pupil focusing on her. “Hi,” she says again. “Remember me?” The tiger lifts his head, yawns, and then bumps his forehead against hers. “Oh, you do. Where have you been?”

Watching them, not wanting to move despite his earlier words, Somrak strokes the soft fur on the back of the tiger’s neck. “Don’t suppose you need another cat around the station? Just in case those dwarfs dig up some really big rats?”

“Oh, I’d love to keep him.” The tiger licks the back of her hand with its almost painfully rough tongue. “He’s so gentle. But…I can’t.” She presses her forehead against the tiger’s cheek. “I am so sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Somrak says. “I’ll take him with me. We’ll find someplace for him. Maybe the Commander will fall for him. Or, oh! Mrs Finch! She can feed the more annoying visitors to him.”

Alma laughs. “Well, you can always try my aunt. She loves big cats like these. She’d love you, wouldn’t she?” She buries her face in the softness of the thicker fur around the tiger’s neck, her voice becoming muffled as she talks to the feline. “Of course she would. And then maybe I could visit you. Just don’t let her bite you.”

Somrak opens his mouth, then closes it. “So many things I could say to that. Well, I can make this a peace offering. Might change the nature of the bites… Now…” With a grunt he slips out from under the tiger’s paws, stands and brushes at the shed fur on his trousers. “I wish I could claim that I found him, but one of our local demigods brought him here. It seems Ewá Nanã grew up having jaguars and other jungle creatures all around her as playmates, so she didn’t bat an eyelid when she found this guy in her garden.”

Still dispensing caresses to the tiger, Alma smiles at the name. “Just shows how smart he is, going to her for help. Ewá is far from a defenseless target. She pled my case with the Council. And won.”

“I thought the name seemed familiar,” he says. “And she settled here? Interesting. Well, at least I closed the case of the missing tiger, so my stay here hasn’t been a total loss.”

Alma gets up and looks at him, about to say something, but she stops as she notices something next to the desk, earlier blocked from her vision: his duffel bag. “Somrak…your bag.” She looks at him, a shadow crossing her face. “You’re going now?”

He nods. “My week is up. I have to return to my usual duties. And Sky is awake. He will be back with you later today.”

She tilts her head to the side. “I will miss you.” She laughs as he looks up at her. “Don’t look so surprised. I was about to say that you sound disappointed with your accomplishments here. You shouldn’t be. Your stay here was…a bit bumpy, and please forgive my initial reactions, but I am very glad Sky called you. Even with everything that did not quite work as planned, you helped us get a different grip on the case.” She looks up at the ceiling for a moment, smiling. “And it was fun, playing off-blue.”

“You’re a natural, Alma.” He leans against the desk, crossing his arms and looking down. “I am sorry about last night. I was…angry. At the loss of the lead. The taunting from that…abominable rodent. I have one of those divine-nature things about the undead. I had tunnel vision and didn’t even notice how badly it had affected you.”

Alma’s expression becomes heavier but not angry. She looks away, focusing on the tiger. “You don’t need to explain. Too much has happened in too little time. Since Nekh, I… My mind has not been given a chance to rest, return to its normal axis. I responded disproportionately. Anyway, what is done, is done.”

After a moment, Somrak says, his voice low, “You’ve been under a great deal of stress. On trial for your life, the Bunnies’ lives too, the bomb, now suddenly in command…I haven’t made it any easier. I am sorry for that.”

A moment later he feels her arms around him, embracing him tightly. He hesitates, surprised, and puts his arms around her as well. “You tried to help,” she says. “That is all I would ever hope for coming from a friend. Thank you for coming.”

A friend. Somrak holds her more tightly, feeling her cool body against his, refreshing like a dive into a stream. In the past few days he has experienced more affectionate physical contact – touches on the arm, caresses, hugs – than he normally does in months. It is not something he is accustomed to from growing up. He feels a surge of emotion and to his embarrassment finds he must blink back tears. He realizes his fire-god body temperature must be rising, and he releases her before that becomes uncomfortable. She moves back slightly, sees his expression, and a look of concern comes over her face.

She touches his hair, giving him an encouraging smile. “Feeling better?” she asks.

“Ahem, yes, yes I do.” He smiles weakly. “I could get used to all this hugging.”

Alma laughs softly. “I have to admit, I wasn’t much one for it myself until I got here. But seven very huggable Bunnies make a difference. Them and, well, some friends.”

“Don’t tell me Sky…” He feels shocked when she nods. “Uh…well like I said, I woke him up and got him caught up on what’s happened. He should be back in a couple of hours, after he’s fully awake and recovered from the shock of all I told him.”

Alma nods. “We will be ready to welcome him.” She lays a hand against his cheek. “I am sorry you have to leave. Maybe you would consider coming back?”

“Yes. When I can. You know how the job is.”

“Is Year’s End week a bad time in the off-blue schedule?”

Somrak feels surprised again. “Year’s End? Well, sometimes it is…but I’ll try.” She gives him an insisting look, serious but with an edge of amusement. “I’ll really try!

“I would like a solemn promise, please. Doesn’t have to be the whole week. Even just a day. We will time the gift-giving to accommodate you.”

Somrak takes both her hands in his, looking down, thinking for a moment, then looks her in the face solemnly. “I promise, if it’s at all possible, if I’m not putting a mission at risk, I will attend. But I think it’s best if you hold Gift-Giving on the usual day. I’ll aim for that. I don’t want anyone being inconvenienced if I can’t say until the last minute when I’m coming.”

A sudden memory jolts him, causing Alma to look at him strangely. “I almost forgot to tell you. I, um, well when I was looking into the flames last night…I can sometimes see visions, minor prophecies, in the flames.” He feels embarrassed. True prophecy is a vanishingly rare talent among gods, and even such weak ability as his own is far more fraudulently claimed than real. “I tried to see something to help us. And I did learn something.”

Alma looks at him curiously. “What is it, Somrak?”

“This is, of course, unreliable. But the flames tell me that we will not find this necromancer until after the year has died and been reborn, and after one of those searching has vanished and another returned.”

Alma absorbs this. “Perhaps you are the one who vanishes, and Sky returns.”

Somrak grins. “I was thinking the same thing. All the more reason for me to disappear before Sky gets back.”

“Very well. We will be wait–”

A sudden crash, accompanied by a slight tremor, interrupts her. For a moment the two deities just stare into each other’s eyes. Alma stops breathing, and he sees a flash of terror in her eyes. Oh no, he thinks. The soul bomb…another one?

She turns and rushes to the door. Somrak follows. Distracted by sight, from the corner of his eye, of the tiger climbing off the bed, ears back at the commotion, he almost runs into her when she stops in the doorway. A young male voice shouts from the stairs, “The dwarves! They found a cellar downstairs, below the cells!”

Somrak sees Alma slump in relief. “I will be right down.” Then she turns to find him just behind her. She puts her cool hand on his cheek again, cupping it, and gives him a quick peck on the other cheek. He feels his skin become suddenly much warmer – he had thought for just a moment she was going to kiss him on the mouth. She pulls back after the kiss with her eyebrows raised at his flash of heat, and says with a smile, “I have to go. Stay safe, yes?”

He tries to cover up his fluster with a smirk. “You sure you don’t need me in case something comes out of this hole the dwarfs have discovered?”

Alma shakes her head. “Silly… I’ll see you again!” Then she turns and rushes down the stairs.

Somrak feels a bump against his thigh. He looks down at the tiger which, after a nudge, is looking up at him expectantly. “Right, time for us to go, friend.” He reaches past the cat to lift his heavy bag and shoulder it. Then he pauses. Ghosting in and ghosting out is his normal mode of operation. Goodbyes make him uncomfortable. Of course he had to let Alma know he was leaving. She was briefly his commanding officer, after all. But he feels bad to leave without word to several others: Dion, Saira, and Cherry and Merri. But the prophecy, tiny though it is, says one must vanish. Better not push it.

He retrieves the rope and loops it around the cat’s head again. “Come on now, no more scaring the locals. Be nice and there’s a juicy steak in it for you.”

Ch6.30 Trust

Timeless darkness, punctuated by flashes, moments, all vague and fleeting in memory. Drifting in and out, dreams and nightmares blooming, fading, falling away to be forgotten. Semiconscious stumbling, eating, then sinking back into a bottomless ocean of slumber. Swimming in the abyssal depths, enormous shapes drifting by. Searching for him. He stays quiet, still, dark.

But now he begins to surface. Utter exhaustion has been sated with days of rest. He longs for the sun. And as he rises…a smell.

Steak?

“Nnggggg?” One eyes opens, then the other. He peels his tongue from the roof of his mouth, smacks his lips. Mouth tastes…soapy?

“It’s alive!” The voice is familiar. Somrak? “Astonishing…I have a plate with six steaks on it already getting cold, you lazy bastard.”

“What…” Turning in bed, mouth flooding with salivation, squinting against the light. “Ugh…you doing here?”

“You called me, remember? Do not call up that which ye cannot put down. First rule of summoning.” Somrak comes into focus. Cooking in the kitchen nook. Wearing a tshirt and leather pants. Grinning.

Is that a flashy bangle on his ponytail? And…a lock of grey hair?

“I mean in my room.” Rubs his eyes. “Why does my mouth taste like soap?”

“Uhhh… Well, I did notice there was no soap in the bath.”

“Damn…not again…” Slowly gets up, walks to the table, scratching his rear. “I could eat an army.” Grabs a sizzling steak from the pile, ignoring the mild sting of pain in his fingers. Notices Somrak is not using the magical heating element built into the kitchen range, but heating the pan with his own flame.

“You know the drill from the last two times,” Somrak says. “Take a steak with you and get in the bath. Then pants. Then more steak.”

Sky mumbles around the rare steak, “Mhn mmm you?”

“Oh…I’m good.” Somrak sounds rather uncertain. “Thank you for asking.”

“Mhhhmmm.” Sky gulps. Soooo good.

“Chew! I am not giving you first aid if you choke!”

“‘m fine…” He starts chewing again, and squints at Som. “Mmmhh nnnrr hair?”

Somrak just stares at him for a moment. “Decades of interpreting Sky-ese and I didn’t catch that one. How do you command a station mumbling like that?”

Sky points to his own hair, then at Somrak’s. “Yoummnnn Mnwetty…An mnnooonn aauughh!” The meat goes down the wrong way. “Ack!” He starts to choke.

Somrak sighs. “Demons and devas…” He stomps over and hits Sky hard on the back.

Sky coughs up and spits out the meat he was choking on, then wheezes, “Thanks. Better get in the bath.”

“Please do! Now what were you saying before you nearly died?”

“Hmm…?” Sky grabs another steak and goes into the bathroom. There is no toilet in there – that is behind its own door, and from the smell coming from under the door, he has some cleanup to do. Half-conscious waste elimination has its effect on aim. Ugh. “Was I saying something?” He takes a bite out of the steak, chews, swallows while fumbling under the sink with his free hand, and finds a new bar of soap. “Oh! What happened to your hair?”

Somrak tosses another steak on the pile, then touches the silvery lock. “Oh that. I don’t know, really. Could’ve been the demon. Or the phoenix. Maybe Alma, as a joke.”

Settling into the tub, its hot, endlessly replenishing water soothing his too-long nearly immobile muscles, Sky opens his eyes wide and wonders if he’s still asleep. “Wha–? Demon? Alma? What did you do?”

Somrak’s amused voice echoes from the kitchen. “Come to think of it, maybe it was Dion. He was throwing around some pretty powerful magic there. Random side effect?”

Sky’s eyes widen. He stands, then staggers, tracking puddles through the main room, heading for the blank space on the wall that holds the currently invisible portal that leads to his office or his false apartment, depending on the gestures he uses to activate it. He is still somehow clutching the steak.

“HEY! Get back in the bath! As tempted as I am to see what happens when you walk into Three Rats Station naked, dripping wet and holding a steak…no, just get back in the bath!”

Pausing, eyes narrowed, Sky asks, “Who are you and where is Somrak?”

“Huh…you’re right.” Somrak laughs. “A week ago I totally would’ve let you do it. But Alma is pretty stressed out right now, so forget it. She doesn’t need this crap.” He points back along the watery track Sky has left. “Bath!”

Sky hesitantly obeys, gnawing on his steak. “Mmhhn Awa stressmmmd?”

“Uh let’s see…She and I and Dion and Fencer went undercover. Man, you should’ve seen that hot little leather number Alma wore as a disguise.” He glances at Sky, who has stopped with a chunk of steak hanging from his dropped jaw. “…anyway. She had to heal me up but good after the fight with a demon…herself too. Then there was the glitter fight with her and the Bunnies. Then the zombie rat…you know what? I’ll save that one for later after you’re really awake. Let’s just start at the beginning. It’s been an eventful week.”

Sky, shaken, a flood of questions logjamming in his brain, gets back in the bath. He swallows down the meat, and one question randomly pokes out from the others. “You met the Bunnies, huh? How they doing?”

“Oh, they’re good. Didn’t talk much with most of them. Tulip’s a…how would you say it? She’s a caution. Yeah, that sounds right. Sage is a nice guy. Merri’s sweet, but I have to admit I made her pretty mad about burning the table.”

“What??”

“Later. Cherry…she’s very protective of Saira, so she and I butted heads, but I think she likes me anyway. Uh, the two younger boys, hardly saw them.”

“Mayumi?” With all these befuddling revelations, Sky finds himself very worried about her.

“Oh, she’s fine. I think. Hardly exchanged a dozen words with her, though. She always seems busy. Serious. Studying and working.”

Sky relaxes in the bath, continuing to feed his famished body, trying to fit the disjointed narrative together.

“All right, from the beginning. So I came at your call,” Somrak continues. “Things started out fine. Met the mysterious Saira. She’s better than she was a week ago, by the way.” Sky can hear him cleaning the pan. As is his habit, Somrak always cleans up after himself, and right away as well.

“Ohmm good.” He narrows his eyes. “You…have orders about her?” He takes another bite.

“I was told to offer her a job. Which she refused. Good thing the old man didn’t have a ‘dispose of her if she refuses’ addendum.”

“Whamm she say?” He can feel the meat stuck between his teeth, prompting a desperate desire for dental floss.

“I bet you can guess. She’s got things to do, people to kill. Doesn’t want anybody telling her to kill someone not on her radar, or not kill somebody in her sights.” Somrak’s voice grows louder as he approaches, appearing in the doorway to the bathroom and leaning against the frame in that casual, Somrak-y way he always does. It’s like how cats have to jump into boxes: if there’s a solid vertical surface nearby, Somrak has to lean against it. “Unlikely she’ll take out anyone we don’t want taken out, so Commander will probably let her continue. Still…that could change.”

“What’d you–” Sky feels himself about to choke again. He gulps, then punches his own chest, prompting a belch like a foghorn. “Sorry – think about her?”

Somrak shrugs. “She’s a psycho, but she’s our kind of psycho. Too bad she’s so fixated. Maybe she’ll come around… Maybe she already has, just isn’t willing to admit it.”

Sky finishes the meat and looks down at the greasy film on the water. Disgusting. He hauls himself out again, sitting on the edge, and starts to fumble for a bottle of shampoo.

“And then what?”

“Hey, shampoo, then conditioner!” Somrak calls out. Sky has to admit, the guy knows how to keep his hair nice. “Anyway, a lot of that with Saira was later, really. Just met her briefly at first. So, uh, Alma shows me around the ward a bit, and…I overheard about a gang around Rio Novo making trouble.” He falls silent.

Eyes shut tight, face covered in suds, Sky sighs. “Crap…how many dead?”

Somrak’s voice is unusually quiet. “None. I was trying to be restrained. Turns out it wasn’t restrained enough, though. Prettyboy…explained things to me.”

“Who’s Prettyboy?” He grabs the simple shower head, attached by a hose to the water pipe which bring in water from…somewhere. Doesn’t do to think too closely about such things. “Is that a parrot or something?”

“That would be Gwydion.” Somrak pauses. “Good man. Fencer dubbed him Prettyboy.”

“Fencer…?! The Fencer was here?” He remembers Somrak mentioning her already now. “Why?”

Somrak laughs as Sky drops the shower head into the bath. “Alma called her in. We’re jumping ahead. So after I got in trouble, Dion mentioned the demon market.”

Sky blindly fishes the shower out of the bath. “Cal mentioned a market before… How did you track it down?”

“The amulet you got off those guys. Turns out it’s a magical map. So Alma agreed, after some consideration that I’m surprised didn’t turn my hair completely white, to let Saira be my guide to the underworld of Three Rats. Better known as just Three Rats.”

“She let you? She let you, an off-blue newcomer, take her patient out into the streets?” Sky can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Alma? My Alma? Is she all right?”

Somrak snorts. “Your Alma, huh? Hey, chicks dig the ponytail, I told you. As for is she all right…” He stops and goes to Sky’s C-shaped sofa, sitting heavily on it. “I hope so.”

Great. “What happened?”

“That’s…getting ahead again. Listen, she did a good job commanding the station. But I am glad you’re awake. She’s, I don’t know, she’s still dealing with killing Nekh or something. Why anybody would be doing anything other than dancing on his grave, I don’t know, but I do recognize that everybody’s not me. As you never hesitate to remind me.”

Sky nods grimly. “She’s a true-blue. And you know death gods aren’t much into killing.” He takes a washcloth, soaps it up, and starts scrubbing. “What about Dion? He helping her?”

“Death gods like to believe they’re not much into killing. Anyway, yeah, Dion’s taking good care of her. Saira and I talked to that Cal guy you mentioned. After that we came up with the undercover operation. I meant it to be just me and Dion at first, but it grew. Alma called Fencer in, joined in herself. We developed a couple of leads, one to the gang with that sorcerer of yours that was assassinated by the soul bomb, the other to the necromancer.” He sighs. “Then both of them got messed up.”

“How?” Sky’s voice is disappointed. How nice it would have been to have woken to news that the necromancer case was all tied up in a little bow.

“Some idiot who groped Alma – did I mention the hot undercover outfit? I should’ve taken pictures. So this moron, after she lets him live, releases a very nasty demon that crashes the whole market. That took down one lead. We had to go after the demon before it burned down the entire ward. Alma and Fencer were pretty impressive. And Dion…did you know he can improvise custom banishment spells for rare uncategorized demons?”

Sky opens his eyes wide, showering off the soap. “Really? He was very good at banishing that Walker Between. Hmm…maybe there’s a sphere there?” He eases back into the bath, the grease and dirt gone now that the old water has cycled away and been replaced.

Somrak picks up a book from the table and leafs through it, a ‘coffee table’ book from Earth, one full of gorgeous photographs and paintings of ocean life. Something that residents of the Insula know very little about, as the ocean surrounding the Celestial Mountain is merely a thin border between the land and the Void. Few are willing to explore. “Commander said something about him having no sphere…weird.” He stops to stare at something in the book that Sky cannot see. “A god who’s gone all this time with no sphere, learning magic to compensate, suddenly developing a sphere. That would be interesting.”

“Not many demons around. If that’s his sphere…”

Somrak looks up over the arm of the sofa. “If that’s his sphere, you better watch your step.”

Sky nods, sliding further down in the water, closing his eyes.

“So we fought a demon,” Somrak continues. “Alma got her hands burned, I got corrosive blood all over me. But we won, so who cares?” He smiles. “Alma healed me.”

Sky cannot help but smile as well. “Good, ne?” The memory of being healed by Alma floods back. “Gentle. Like a full-body kiss.”

Somrak nods, quiet for a little while. Then he continues, “So the next morning I come downstairs from the room Cherry and Merri deposited me in, and there’s Alma chasing the little one, Tulip, half naked.”

Sky, eyes still closed, murmurs, “They’re Bunnies, they don’t have hangups about nudity.”

“I’m not talking about Tulip. Alma was half naked. Like, shirt-no-pants.” He pauses to enjoy the look on Sky’s face: eyes wide, jaw open. “Then she blew glitter all over me. I’m still finding glitter behind my ears.”

“Alma? Walking…around…no pants? Glitter?” He thinks for a moment. “Mind spell? Possessed?”

Somrak shakes his head. “I tell you, it’s the ponytail. Anyway,” His smile disappears. “Later on we’re all three sitting around, with Saira, having a drink, going over things, and this–” He almost chokes with disgust. “–undead rat jumps up on the table, croaks out some insults at Alma, and jumps at her face.”

Sky feels the blood rushing out of his face. “She–?”

“Not a scratch.” Somrak’s expression and voice are dark. “Rat had Dion’s tracking spell on it. Necromancer was taunting us, speaking through the rat. Alma…had a bad reaction. Dion helped her. I read the flames. They told me we’ll find the necromancer, just not yet.”

Sky stands and grabs a towel as he steps out of the tub. “You…talk to Alma since then?”

“Not yet. I’ll go there in a few minutes though. Say goodbye, let her know you’re ready for duty. You are ready for duty, right?”

Sky nods. “First day will be rough. But I don’t think I can sleep another day. Especially now.” He walks into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of guava juice, and drinks the entire thing in a few long gulps. “What do you think…about them?”

“About who? And now that you’re clean, it’s pants time. I’ve had just about enough of your bulky nakedness.” Somrak goes to Sky’s closet.

Sky ignores this. “The station? The team? I don’t… My emotions have been running like stampeding horses since I got here. These people…I’ve become attached to them. They’re…family?”

Somrak pulls out a pair of Guardia uniform trousers and tosses them at Sky. “You know how many times a day I heard your name? More than I could count. Half of those Bunnies think of you like you’re their father. Machado hates me, so he’ll be real happy to see you. Dion mentions you like a contrast to reckless me, which is hilarious, oh if he only knew, and Alma…she just wants you there.” He digs through a drawer in the closet, finds carefully rolled underwear and a folded shirt, and tosses those to Sky too. “Get back there soon. You’re needed.”

Too touched for words, Sky dresses in silence. Finally he says, “I will. Do you have to leave?”

“I’m expected back. Had to push to stay this long. If I didn’t know there’s no point in looking for the necro until the time’s right, I’d find a way to stick around, but…maybe if I get back to the Commander soon, I can return here for the takedown.” He gives Sky a serious look. “You’re calling me when it’s time. I want in on the arrest. Or the kill. However it goes.”

Sky nods grimly. “It’s Alma’s case. But unless she says no, I’ll call.” He glances at Somrak sideways. “You didn’t give her a reason to say no, right?”

Somrak seems frustrated. Perhaps angry with himself. “Hope not. We’ll see in a little bit here.”

Sky is tempted to ask but knows that with Somrak, sometimes it is better to be silent. “I’ll get ready.”

Ch6.29 Trust

Darkness falls across the land…and it’s already half an hour late. The nice fellow driving the sun around must have had a few too many to drink this time around. Took his time moving the damned thing across the sky. Which is funny, come to think of it, because no one in their right mind would take twelve hours to drag a massive ball of fire across the heavens. No one even remotely sane would think of strapping it to a wooden chariot either.

Gods…

Daytime would probably last about three seconds if they gave the job to a mortal. And fireproof underwear had better be included in the deal. But darkness is a completely different matter. Darkness is good and steady. No need for a babyfaced god to sprinkle it over the place or for some heavenly lotto to decide who gets to drag it out of storage each day. It falls softly over cities and fields like a mother tucking in her child. In the wake of day, in the wake of light, darkness stretches from every corner, sometimes lazy and yawning, sometimes quick and pouncing. Always reliable. Always lying in waiting in its burrows, awake even during the day. Powerful even under the sun.

Light has to be sparked. But darkness is always there.

Night has fallen on Three Rats. To the untrained eye, of course, this may seem hard to notice. Many alleys in Three Rats see about as much light as a mole rat’s tunnel, after all. But the wider streets and plazas are a good place to start looking for nighttime. For one, they are dark now, sunlight replaced by the dim, buzzing light of the street lamps that spend more time going out than doing their job. Second, they are quiet. Well, quieter. Whoever thought of the expression urban jungle clearly knew what they were talking about. The traffic and babble of daytime have been replaced by hushed and drunken conversations (three words that don’t always fit together in the same sentence) that serve to build up the quiet of night in the same way a few noctivagous rodents, some very unlucky insects and the occasional romantically inclined frog band together to make jungle nights feel slightly less disturbing.

But the third thing about Three Rats nights… that is what makes them different here. Forget the stars and all that crap. Sure, they are pretty and shiny and distant and cold and you can get a great view of them on clear nights like this. But stars are like furniture in a landscape. Only ever miss it when you sit down and your rear end takes a bit longer to hit something solid. No, what makes the night in Three Rats is the breeze. That quiet, odorless breeze that brushes against the skin like lightning going by, that makes the heart rush, the blood pump, the brain think all sorts of crazy and dangerous thoughts. It carries the sounds of distant voices, the taste of different crimes. And on a good night, between all the things it brings, the unmistakable signs…of prey.

But not tonight.

Tonight the breeze wafts gently over the rooftop of the building annex to the Three Rats Guardia Station and curls around the sinuous figures that emerge from inside the building, through the access door. Instinctively silent by virtue of their trades, they cross the flat rooftop (not like there are huge downpours or blizzards on this part of the Insula) in the direction of the chimney. Against the coolness of night, the slightly warm bricks of the kitchen exhaust feel pleasant against their backs as they sit down against it. From here, the never quite sleepy ward sprawls away downslope, with its streetlights and with glimmers that go all the way to the Fifth Ring. On a clear day, the ocean would be visible, way down there. Now there is only blackness.

Somrak uncorks the whisky bottle he swiped from the bar downstairs and holds it up. “What do we do about glasses?”

Two whisky glasses clink in front of him almost immediately. He looks at his drinking buddy for the night with that typical male look of How on the Isle did you manage to hide that on your person? that men everywhere have used at least once when meeting a woman with sticky fingers.

“Here ya go,” Saira offers. “I was gonna swipe some ice but that might not have been a good idea…”

“Oh, this is fine whisky. We can have it neat.” Somrak replies, pouring a couple of fingers worth of the amberine liquid into each glass. Putting the bottle down, he takes his glass and raises it. “Cheers.”

Saira touches her glass to his. “Saúde.”

The first touch of the drink to her tongue is like a hot little wake-up call to her taste buds. She has to admit it, Sky does have good taste in the stuff. Smoky, peaty, with a strange hint of seaweed to it, the liquid sloshes happily against the roof of her mouth, on its way to her throat. Like an old friend come visiting.

If Saira had any of those left. She drinks in silence for a moment and so does Somrak. Truth be told, they hadn’t managed to be completely sneaky about this rooftop drinking thing. Damned Bunnies with their ears and noses had caught the jingle of the bottle or the smell of disturbed dust or something and nearly shut down operation Drunken Rat. But for some miracle or other, Cherry had apparently decided not to be a pain. Saira had caught her whispering a plea to Somrak not to let things get too out of hand. It’s equal parts sweet and unnerving for Saira, a self-made woman who hasn’t known a fixed address for decades and who has survived (and profited from) more gang wars than most high-class thugs can brag about, to be mothered by a Bunny. Times like this, it is even embarrassing, verging on humiliation.

She finds herself holding the glass very tightly between her fingers. A deep breath and she relaxes her grip. This kind of thing could be enough to set off another one of her…episodes. Glancing to her left, at where Somrak sits, she finds the god gazing at the landscape ahead of him, eyes half shut, whisky glass held lightly from a hand perched on his knee.

“Feelin’ better now?” she asks, more out of a need for a distraction than actual curiosity.

He looks at her as if he is just noticing her presence for the first time. The answer takes a while to come. “Mmm, yeah.” He turns his eyes to the greys and blacks of the sleepy ward. “I see why you like it up here.”

“I’d like it better if I didn’t have to worry about crampin’ up and fallin’ but that’s not gonna last long,” Saira replies bitterly. The feeling of entrapment in this cozy little home has been growing quickly in her over these last few days. She dismisses these thoughts and looks into her glass, twirling the whisky inside to release the scent stored in the drink. “You gonna tell me what that was downstairs or you just wanna enjoy the landscape?”

Again, that look like words are only barely registering for Somrak. He tilts his head in confusion, then straightens again. “Oh…you mean the rat and the fire and all that?”

Saira snorts. “Well, sure ain’t talking about glitter and goddesses stroking your hair, am I?” She catches him smiling at that.

Ha! Knew it. And totally oblivious to the fact that she’s taken, too.

She considers telling him about Alma and Dion but decides against it. It’s none of her business. All she’d manage to do is cause pain on an already bad night, anyway. Besides, gods are weird, always running around sleeping with cows and threatening people with long-range weapons until they fall in love. Who knows what kind of agreements they’ll cook up in these situations?

So she just sticks to the rat. “Face it, you went way overboard with the whole table burning thing. Looked possessed or somethin’.”

That one looks like it caught his attention. Somrak hangs his head a little and puffs out his cheeks, which makes him look just ridiculous enough for Saira to want to poke his face and make the air come out. But he releases the air before she gives in to that urge.

“Yeah… A long time ago, before I was born, there was a lot more necromancy going on all over the place,” he explains. “I mean, there’s still a little. There’s certain gods that have licenses to have, like, animated skeleton servants because it’s part of their…thing.” He sneers at this, looking disgusted by it. “But there were mortal wizards doing all sorts of crazy stuff, cultists who thought if you became undead you were immortal. And some of that stuff is infectious. The wards around mine, my homeland, got overrun by all sorts of undead creatures. The survivors vowed eternal enmity. I…because I have the power to burn such…abominations, to just destroy them, I was meant to be a sort of, well…holy figure. I mean, I’m a god so, naturally. But even more so.”

He shrugs, looking at her almost apologetically as if waiting for her to laugh at him. She doesn’t disappoint. “You…a holy man.” She pretends to appraise him, looking him up and down, then chuckles. “Love, you look like the devil come knockin’. Not very good marketing for holiness, if you ask me.”

Somrak smiles and sips his drink. “Anyway I guess the indoctrination didn’t completely fail to stick. Seeing that thing jumping at…” Words die in his throat, his eyes snap shut. He shakes his head, probably trying to dislodge an ugly mental image of rat teeth sinking into pale flesh. He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes again. “Well, let’s just say I want that necromancer more than ever.”

Saira nods, keeping her eyes on the rooftops, glass traveling to her lips almost without her noticing it. “Yeah, I know a thing or two about wanting someone like that. I know how it makes you blind. Of course–” She notices her glass run dry and sets it down by her side before leaning against the chimney. “–that’s not half bad when it’s just you. Keeps stuff in focus. Lets nothin’ distract you.”

Her voice trails off. Her thoughts get jumbled at her own words. They have been doing that lately, usually straight, simple thoughts getting all complicated and sticky like dirt mixed with water. She has been alone for so long… Of course there has been the occasional connection, the acquaintances she keeps and refrains from shooting at on a regular basis. But none of those have been friends as such, none have been companions, gang, family. She doesn’t know what that is like anymore. Really, she has never known. And just like anyone who is denied something like that, she has learned to disdain it.

But the last weeks with these strange people who have taken her in so eagerly, who accept new members into their group so easily, so openly, have dealt a hard blow to her resolve. She finds her own mind fighting to resist the old habit of rejecting bonds that might weigh on her. It’s frustrating. She knows how things go, she knows how it is like for her and people like her. Why on the stupid mountain would she now start thinking that it could ever change?

I’ve gotta get out of here. This place is messing with my head.

Like a sneaky echo of her treacherous thoughts, Somrak speaks softly, looking at her with what better be the empathy of a fellow rogue. “Do you want it always to be just you? Did you ever think about…joining a team again?”

Saira looks at him, wondering where this is going. “That sounds like a neat dream,” she says with a snort. She shakes her head, pushing back all those useless, distracting thoughts back to the deep dark spots where all doubts like to hide. Then, she takes the bottle that has been sitting by his right thigh to fill her glass and get her head to start moving in a straight line again. “No… I been dead since that day the Dukaines came. Dead people don’t dream.”

She takes a sip of the nicely warm drink and focuses her eyes on the rooftop ahead. This conversation is turning out to be a lot more uncomfortable than she imagined at first and she doesn’t want her eyes to betray her turmoiled inner thoughts should Somrak take a closer look. She is pretty sure he can’t read thoughts but faces are something that even mortals can read. Whatever it is he is looking to achieve with this line of conversation, she would rather be in control of what he gets. Through the corner of her eyes, she can see him looking at her for a moment. Then he looks to his side and she hears him refill his glass and very casually moving the bottle to his left, away from her. Had she truly been distracted, she would not have noticed it. She pretends that she didn’t. Somrak is probably just trying not to be too obvious about obeying Cherry’s soft-spoken orders.

“You don’t look dead,” he notes. “But there’s a lot of power in thinking of yourself that way. You can get a lot done. But you’re going to make yourself well and truly dead not much later, following that road.”

Ah… The you’re-throwing-your-life-away sermon. Settle down, find a bloke who doesn’t mind his wife being a heartless killer and raise a bunch of fat kids that are good for nothing except paying taxes and making more fat babies. Isn’t that the meaning of life according to most religions anyway? Honor thy god, make more worshippers to keep him rich and powerful? She has heard this so many times… When you’re a woman refusing to settle for that one-size-fits-all plan, you tend to hear it a number of times, usually as veiled criticism of your chosen lifestyle. How dare you be different from everybody else? It’s not even about wanting something more. Just, how dare you want different? Who are you to redefine happiness? How dare you question the rightness in settling for what no one actually wants in order to be what everyone wants you to be?

Ah, humans… No better than gods, really.

And it is not like gods even care if their worshippers are happy. But they do need them to be alive. Dead people don’t pray, either.

Saira turns her head to look at the fire god sitting by her side, her eyes half shut in humorless retort. “I’m mortal, hon. We’re all born to die, ain’t we?” The way he cringes ever so slightly at that almost makes her laugh. “And anyway, when did this conversation get to be about me?”

Somrak takes a deep breath, the former empathetic look in his eyes being replaced by a more serious, no-nonsense one. “Saira, I’d like you to join my crew. You’d be Guardia, with all the benefits that implies: backup, free healing, police powers. But Guardia with a difference, without some of the disadvantages.” He takes a sip of his whisky. “Many of the usual rules would not apply. You would have a rich array of targets, quite deserving of your expertise. And I’d make sure that you would mainly be sent after Dukaines. There are a great many of them all over the Urbis who need taking care of. More than you could ever track down on your own.”

“How tempting,” she replies dryly at the offer that sounds too good to be true. “What’s the catch?”

Somrak smiles at the question, his scar pulling it slightly off true. Come on, love, there’s always a catch. “The catch. Well, it would be a job. Responsibilities and such. But there would be pay, and a place to live.” He seems to think about it some more before shrugging. “Food’s not too bad.”

Saira snorts at that last bit. But there is something that he left out that she cannot afford to ignore. “And I can’t touch anyone the Guardia thinks is worth more alive than dead.”

Somrak hesitates for a moment, then nods. “There is that. And there’s been times I didn’t like it one bit. But I’m still serving, because I decided it’s worth it.”

Oh, man, this is almost too funny. Is he really trying to recruit her with all these worn-out lines? “Sure!” she exclaims, voice laced with so much irony that it could probably be picked up by a magnet. “Got nothin’ to do with what they’d do to someone like you if you decided to quit all of a sudden. I imagine no one would come lookin’ for you if you were to…” Her fingers flex and stretch like the flaring of an explosion blast. “Disappear?”

“I’ve thought about it. Now and then. But on balance, the things I do are necessary. They help people. They’re not always pleasant. But sometimes…they’re very satisfying.” He looks down and smiles that lukewarm, humorless smile of people coming to terms with a difficult truth. Recruiter or not, he truly seems to believe in what he is telling her. His eyes find hers again. “My Commander asked me to put the question to you, if I felt you would make a good addition to the team. But now that I’ve worked with you, I’d have asked him if I could invite you anyway. I want you on my team. Not just in the division. On my team.”

Saira looks at him, finding it hard to hold his gaze. Her doubts come rushing back. Of all the people she has met since the whole Pearl incident and now, after the demon, Somrak is the only one she has managed to feel a certain kinship towards. Sky is a nice guy but a bit too much of an idealist to her cynical, down-to-earth tastes. Dion is…well, Dion. Saira is still trying to figure out what Alma sees in the uptight, too pretty, always-looking-out-for-a-skirt-he-can-hop-into god of magic, in the first place. And Alma… Alma is a conundrum. The death goddess feels close and far all in one go, motherly and affectionate but distant and transcendent at the same time. It is like they connect on some deep level one minute and then a second later just pull apart for no reason. She can’t avoid caring for the goddess but it is like trying to reach for the moon with a piece of twine.

And the Bunnies…none of them could possibly begin to understand a life like Saira’s. Same thing for the Popula. But this guy, now… This fire god come out of nowhere, with his leathers and his loner ways, he has the best chance of understanding and being understood by Saira. She doesn’t need to learn very much about him to know the truth in that. She can see it, hear it, smell it on him. The emptiness of dark nights and empty days, filled with a purpose that almost no one can understand. Of all of them, Somrak is the last one she would expect to try to save her. Or hobble her. People like Saira can never be fully controlled. Sure, they can be steered but if their leash is too short, they will spend more time chewing on it than biting their intended target.

He knows that. Would he really make the offer if he didn’t know what it really means? What he is asking of her?

Too late, she realizes she has been staring at him through this entire internal ramble and swears. How much has he been able to catch of her digressions? He is looking softly at her again, almost as if she were a wild animal on the verge of dashing off. What has he seen on her face? No point in wondering. Too late to do anything about it. She tears her eyes off of his and points them at the distance and tries to find some way to gain some time. She feels tired. Mellow.

“Still one name on my list, love,” she says, taking a sip of her drink to hide the strain in her voice. “One guy I gotta send to Hell. Either that kills me or…” She exhales deeply at the not-completely-a-lie. “One name on my list.”

Somrak looks at her curiously at that, not even trying to hide the interest in his voice. “You mentioned him before. What’s the name? Who is this target?”

Saira shrugs, secretly grateful that he took the bait for a subject change. “I don’t know his real name. But all the Dukaines I put down knew about this guy. Famous among them, pretty high up in the gang. Called most of the shots, they said. And if they didn’t do what he said… straight to Hell with them. Everyone was afraid of him. Probably called him different names, dependin’, but here every gang member knows about a Mão Esquerda do Diabo.” She moves her glass to her right hand and raises her left, looking at it almost as if doesn’t feel quite like a part of her. “Devil’s Left Hand.”

Somrak glances off to the side as if thinking about it. Silence spreads for a pregnant moment. Then, “I’m heading back to my usual job tomorrow, after I rouse Tuma-Sukai. Figure he’s slept enough by now. And I can’t keep the Commander waiting any longer. I will look into this guy. We may have a cross reference connecting that nickname to a real name. Or another nickname, and that may lead to something. Anyway…I’ll share what I can with you. If you’ll promise to think about my offer. After all,” He sips his drink, “if you take this guy down and discover you’re not dead, you’ll need to figure out what to do next.”

Saira cannot help but chuckle at that. The reason why she has never made plans for the day after she catches that Dukaine bastard is simple enough: she has never planned to survive to see it. Someone like Somrak should know that.

“Confess. You just like my company, isn’ it?” she jests, turning her head to face him. “Other cops like you gettin’ to be too boring?” She looks at him and chuckles again. He actually looks embarrassed, like she just called him on his true intentions. But no, his expression changes quickly to one more serious. She lets her chuckle die off, empties her glass and nods. “I’ll think about it. Put my heart into it just for you, love.” She adds with a wink. “Now, don’t you be greedy! Lemme see that bottle!”

She stretches an arm and leans over him, almost lying on his lap to reach for the bottle he so badly tried to hide. He reacts and tries to fend her off with his right arm, while his left picks the bottle by the neck and stretches to keep it outside Saira’s reach.

“Hey, cut that out!” the god laughs when she nearly falls on his legs. “I’m not a pillow, you know!”

She twists a bit to grab his stretched arm and his bent one, the one pushing her away, hand still clutching his own glass, suddenly presses against her chest. He removes it immediately but the sudden release in pressure throws her off-balance and she falls, unsupported, onto his lap. She tries to use her hands to push herself upright but his body jerks with laughter just as she starts to push against the rooftop. Her hands slip and she falls again with a choked-up cry, making Somrak laugh even harder. She starts laughing too.

It really is a comic situation that would probably raise many questions, Saira lying full-length across Somrak’s lap, her chest caught between his torso and his left thigh, her knees pressing against his side, feet flailing uselessly. Get it on film and add some spanking and they could probably sell it as a really shady movie. But all they do is laugh, heartily and loudly and probably just a tiny bit drunkenly. Well, not drunkenly, they’re not drunk. Just a little buzz, maybe. Buzzily? Buzzily. If that’s not a word, then it should be. They laugh buzzily. For a long time.

Eventually, Saira manages to start breathing right again and tries to get up again. She manages not to fall this time. “Well, that was fun!”

That makes Somrak laugh a bit longer. “Yeah…” He rubs his eyes to clear a little laughter-induced tear and brings the whisky closer. “You really shouldn’t have any more of this. This is your first night drinking again and you’re already falling on me. Not that I’m complaining.” He adds that last bit just a little too fast for comfort and looks a little alarmed at the frown of irritation she is faking. That makes her chuckle which seems to reassure him. “Besides…I promised Cherry I wouldn’t let you have more than one and you’ve already had two.”

“Two?” She waves him off. “Nah, you counted wrong. First one was for practice. Besides, gotta drink to your impendin’ departure before everyone starts gettin’ ready to welcome Sky back from the dead.”

Somrak looks at her pensively for a minute, then tilts his head in agreement. “All right, but let’s let your body process it for a little bit, huh? Even I’m getting a little buzzed.” He holds up his glass to look through the golden-brown liquid. “Drinking Sky’s whisky with a woman while he’s asleep. Not the first time I’ve done that.” He glances at her as he lowers the glass to the floor. “How well do you know him?”

She takes a moment to think about this. How well does she know the guy? Huh…not much, apparently. “Can’t say I know that much. Shot some purple monkeys with him, fought some demons, saved some Bunnies.” She shrugs. “Standard usual, I guess. He’s nice an’ all but he’s usually too busy workin’ to hang out much. Worries too much. Bunnies like him. Cops like him.” Her hands go up in surrender. “Must be a good guy. You’d be better off askin’ Prettyboy. Or Alma. Definitely Alma.”

Somrak nods silently, eyes distant. Gods should be pretty much immune to alcohol but he doesn’t seem to have been kidding about that buzz. Melancholic drunk. Lovely… “She’s mentioned him a couple of times. And I saw the way they talked, before…when they were fighting to save the Bunnies. They’re close.”

“Oh, I heard a thing or two about some epic fights between them,” Saira assures him. Those rumors are a favorite among those Popula who have put some money on a Alma/Sky office romance. “But nothin’ like killin’ Dukaines to bring people together. Why are you asking?”

Again, a pregnant pause. “I’ve worked with him for decades. Longer than you’ve been alive. And he hasn’t had any connection to anyone in that time like he has with the people here. Including me. It’s hard to believe.”

He does not sigh at the end of that comment but he might as well have. His tone is sad, but more than that, like some part of it is glad for his friend but another is – what? remorseful? resentful? “You feelin’ jealous, hon?” Saira ventures in sweet tones that hopefully sound playful. “Gave him your heart and he gave it away?”

Somrak’s lowered head turns to look at her, and that lopsided smile returns. At her shrug and that universal facial expression of Hey! I ain’t judging! he just laughs and shakes his head. “No… It’s just hard to believe it’s the same guy. Then again…maybe he’d think the same of me.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Saira replies with a chuckle. She thinks about what to say next. “They like you here, you know? You’re gonna be missed.”

That doesn’t seem to fall too well with Somrak. “They’re going to miss all the chaos I brought with me,” he says bitterly, looking down. “Sure.”

“No, you idiot,” Saira scolds him softly. Self-loathing annoys her and normally, she would with be a lot less tolerant of it but his tone is broken enough to soften her tone. “They’re gonna miss their friend. You’re family to them.”

He opens his mouth but closes it again, seemingly lost for words. His eyes go forward and down to his glass, where it sits on the floor. He takes it, empties it down his throat and then stares into the empty glass as if he could read the meaning of life in the leftover drops of whisky. Saira looks at him for a minute and lets silence spread. Somrak is clearly fighting some internal problem of his own and she has no place getting in the middle of it. If only she had some whisky to keep her company…

After a while, he blinks and turns his head to look at the bottle. “Well, maybe a little splash to say goodbye for now.”

“Now, you’re talkin’!” Saira exclaims, nearly driving her glass up his nose so he will refill it.

“Hey!” A voice that is too Bunny-like to bode anything good suddenly rips through the night. “You said you’d keep her to one drink!”

Saira can’t help but cringe and Somrak even spills a bit of the whisky with the scare. “Ahh!” he complains, sucking the booze off his fingers so it doesn’t go to waste. “You Bunnies move way too quiet!”

Cherry looks at the two of them with a closed expression that is a scolding all of its own. Balled up hands on her hips, foot tapping the floor, she glares at them for what feels like a really long time. They wait for the mother of all lectures to start at any moment. Any moment now, a scolding that will leave their ears bleeding.

But all the Bunny does is sigh. “Just a splash, okay?”

She takes a couple of steps and sits facing them. A shot glass materializes in her hand out from…somewhere. They look at her, then at each other. Somrak looks a question at Saira, Saira looks a I don’t know at him. And, eventually, they both shrug and the whisky starts pouring again.

Ch6.28 Trust

Gwydion has to run hard to catch up with Alma. He calls out her name more than once, but she does not slow. Fortunately her ghostly white hair nearly glows in the light of three Moon goddesses high above, and even when Alma slips out of sight around a corner, he quickly finds her, at last, collapsed at the edge of a fountain in a square a few blocks from the station.

She is breathing hard, clutching the circular stone bench that circumscribes the fountain itself, knees on the flagstones of the square. Gwydion approaches, kneels, and puts his hands gently on her shoulders.

Alma does not turn to face him. Her voice is broken by tears. “They know my name. This is all my fault. It’s all my fault.”

“What? No…” Dion tries to gently talk her down from her panic. “Alma, your name is well known in Three Rats. Surely they know Sky’s name and mine too. Any low-level gangster does by now. They are just trying to get under your skin.”

“The bomb, Stathos’ family, this rat…” She looks over her shoulder at him. “You heard it. They were going after me. We thought it was against us all but… It all started when I–” She seems to realize her voice has been growing louder, and that the square, not entirely unpopulated, now has several people staring at this odd spectacle. “–when I killed Nekh. This is punishment. I shouldn’t have killed him. I shouldn’t have. The Council should have sent me to rot in Hell.” She curls in on herself, hands covering her ears. “At least it would be better than this.”

Dion holds her closer. “No no no… Hell is not better. The Council decided that your actions were justified. And I would never want you anywhere but with me. Alma, listen, this is not your fault.”

“He haunts me, Gwydion. Nekh. He haunts my mind at all hours, day or night. I can’t sleep, I can’t think. I can’t…” She breaks down in silent tears, her fingers gripping the lapels of his jacket, pulling him closer.

“Shhh, it’s all right.” He struggles to find the right words, knowing she is wracked with guilt, but still not quite believing she did the right thing in killing Nekh, no matter how glad he was at the Council’s decision. “He can’t hurt you. He’s gone and you’re here, with friends, with your family. You know you did what you had to do.” He has struggled over it a great deal, himself. He has come to accept that he both believes what he is telling her, and at the same time believing what she did was wrong. What she had to do was merely the lesser of two possible wrongs. And this guilt, this pain, is the punishment.

Alma nods against his chest. “I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shh. There’s no point in torturing yourself over it. These people are just gangsters who want this ward for themselves. We’ll deal with them like we always have. Now breathe. I’ll keep you safe.”

Alma slowly begins to calm down. “Forgive me. I…I shouldn’t have run away like that. If they were watching, they’ll be laughing about it now. Of how their plan worked.”

“They won’t be laughing for long,” Dion insists. “We shall have the last laugh.”

The goddess lifts her head to nod at him, her eyes red from the tears. “Thank you.” She puts her arms around him, holding him tightly. “You are so gentle,” she whispers.

“Only with you,” he whispers back. He smiles at her wryly, hoping for a smile in return. “Don’t I get a kiss?”

Giving him a small, wan smile, she lays her head on his shoulder. “Yes.”

Dion cups her cheek and raises her head slightly, his eyes closing as he kisses her.

With all his dalliances, the kiss has been one of his favorite moments, a work of art in miniature, a minuet compared to the symphony that is sex. The kiss, ah, now there is intricacy, a conjuration of just the right amounts of delicacy and passion balanced against each other. He is in control and does all he could to leave his companion faint with pleasure, using nothing more than his lips. His kisses, he knows, are memorable.

But with Alma, all that has disappeared. Though the muscle memory is still there, restraint and thought are gone. Each time they kiss, he loses himself in her, as if diving deep, only to resurface, breathless. Faint.

There is applause across the square as some joker cheers them on. “Brava!” The drunken woman’s companions shushes her.

Dion mutters, “Let’s get back home. Where we can have some privacy.”

Alma nods, and allows him to help her to her feet.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ye’re no’ gaenta burn a perfectly good table!” Merri insists to Somrak as he carries the rat-impaled table into the small patch of dirt behind the bar. Sage has been turning the former dumping ground for trash into a garden, and little furrows have just started sprouting green leaves next to the sickly mango tree.

Cherry counters, “Merri, it has undead rat guts all over it!”

“That’s nought but a wee mess. It’ll clean up fine with soap an’ a scrub brush!”

“Zombie rat guts? Uh-uh, no way our customers are eatin’ offa that! I’m with Sommy on this one.”

Somrak sets the table down away from the plants and ends the argument by smashing the table to kindling with one powerful kick. Not looking at the suddenly silent Bunnies, he says, “You choose a replacement. Anything you want. Put it on my tab.” He fishes his dagger out from the wreckage, carefully removes it from the body of the rat, then pulls out a handkerchief from a pocket and wipes the dagger clean.

Then he looks at the dagger and the air fills with the scent of burning and the sound of crackling fire. His hair blows in the wind. The dagger’s blade catches fire briefly, a blue cleansing flame that dies after a moment. He sheathes the dagger, then looks at the remains of the table and the rat corpse, setting them afire, and tosses the handkerchief onto the flames.

He squats, watching the intense blaze, and barely notices Cherry’s receding voice saying, “Man, gods are weird.”

The flames dance and crackle. Like all things in this magical world, they have a spirit. Elementals, gods, muses. Even devils, dragons…even mortals. They are all, at core, the same. Spirits, embodied or not. And fire, fire in its brief life has an eternal perspective. Like still water in a silver bowl under the light of a moon, fire can tell stories of the future and the past, to those attuned to listen.

The flames dance and hiss. Gold and red, sparks and shimmers of heat in the air, devouring wood, oxygen, and corrupted flesh. Somrak listens.

But a voice from behind him, sardonic and tough, interrupts his communion. “You…are an idiot.”

Somrak holds up a hand, silent, staring into the blaze. Saira’s voice, after a pause, invades his reverie again. “Nice day for a barbecue. Rat’s gonna be a bit on the charred side, though.”

Somrak hangs his head, then holds his hands out to the flames as if warming them. The fire rises higher, higher, burning white hot, reducing table and rat to the finest ash, then dying away in moments. He stands and turns to see Saira leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Sorry, were you saying something?” he asks.

Saira grins and shakes her head, like she can’t believe him. “I was asking if you were enjoying yourself.”

“Not really. I was,” he gestures vaguely, “talking with the flames.”

Saira gives him a skeptical look. “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s fun. Got your priorities set straight there and all.” She shakes her head in disgust and turns to leave. “Man, and they say I’m cold.”

Somrak snaps at her, “I was trying to divine some sort of lead to find this necromancer. To do something useful.” He mutters to himself, “Everything I’ve tried to do here has fallen apart.”

Saira turns back at this. “Where’s Alma?” she asks, her voice bereft of emotion.

Confused, Somrak says, “She…went out.”

“Yeah. Wasn’t just your leads that fell apart there, huh? But here you are, burning a table instead of watching out for someone you actually seem to care about. What a hero…”

“I’m trying to help her!” Somrak almost shouts. “This necromancer is going to kill again. And she seems to have a grudge against Alma. You heard what the rat said.”

“And what if Alma ran out that door and into a trap?” She lets that sink in, once again leaning against the wall. “She was out of her mind, I could tell. She’d be a real easy target, lured out like that.” Saira shrugs. “Heck, we may never see her again.”

Som looks shocked. “I…I didn’t think she–” He starts to walk past Saira to reenter the bar, but she puts a hand on his chest to stop him.

“Prettyboy went after her. And I didn’t hear any loud booms or calls for help. They should be fine. And yeah, you didn’t think.” Saira’s dry voice softens slightly. “And you know what? I wouldn’t have either just a few weeks ago. This ain’t the lone life, love. This thing they got here is a freaking family. It’s weird but it kinda works. And if you want in on it – and trust me, you do – you gotta change your game.” She straightens up. “Anyway, I said my piece. You look decent enough to be worth saying it to.” She turns to go back in.

“So all that about her possibly needing help…”

Saira grins. “Got you to listen.”

Somrak pauses, then asks, “Think you can handle a shot of whisky?”

“I can handle two,” Saira says. “Gonna drown your sorrows?”

Somrak shrugs. “Just thought…it’d be nice to talk for awhile longer.”

She appraises him. “Yeah, all right. You can apologize to Mer and Cher for their table while I sneak the bottle out from behind the bar. Let’s go up on the roof. Good view up there.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

A golden portal opens and Alma and Gwydion step out of it into the Burrow’s kitchen, only to hear “GAH!” and the sound of breaking glass as Rosemary drops an empty pint glass she had been putting away.

“Sorry! Sorry…” Alma says as she bends to pick up the bigger shards.

Rosemary launches into a nerve-wracked tirade. “Yeh broke two glasses earlier, then Sommy burnt me table, an’ ‘e says ‘e’s gaenta replace it but it was still a perfectly good table even if it were rescued from a rubbish heap–”

She takes a good look at Alma and stops talking. Whatever she sees in the goddess’ face makes her ears droop and her eyes soften from anxiety to concern. “Oh dear…” The Bunny grabs a bowl and holds it for Alma to drop the glass fragments into, sets it aside, and then embraces her mother.

Alma holds onto Rosemary, laying her cheek against the Bunny’s curly red hair. The warm feeling of connection is doubled when another pair of arms hugs her from behind. Alma feels Cherry put her face against her mother’s back and sigh. Their touch is so reassuring in its sincerity that she finds it impossible to let go of them right now. Or maybe even ever. Maybe they could stay like this until the world stops spinning and starts making sense for once. And that could take a very long time, indeed.

Ugh… I hate it when you get like this, Nekh gags in her thoughts. Your mind tastes like molasses left too long in the sun.

Then go lick something else for a change, Alma replies but even that retort is weak, exhausted. She needs silence. So badly. Just silence. Abandonment. To vanish, yes. Hide away from everything. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

Behind her, Gwydion whispers to the Bunnies, “She just needs to rest.”

Rest… Yes… That would be good too.

Alma feels the two Bunnies nod, and then after a moment of squeezing her tighter, they let her go. And as they do, it is as if Nekh has left with them. Maybe he can sense her weakness, how she is too beyond sense to fight him and squirm under his taunting and give him what he wants: pain. She has none of that left in her right now.

After giving Gwydion a quick double-Bunny squeeze, to which he responds with a smile and an arm to momentarily cuddle each of them, Cherry says, “Now y’all scat. I gotta go make sure Sommy don’t let Saira drink any more o’ that whisky.”

The thought of Saira drinking whisky hits Alma with a strange intensity. Something in her moves, feeble and uncertain. She feels like she should be bothered by the information but it doesn’t move her enough to elicit a response. She decides to file it away for later. Unresisting, she follows the warm, gentle touch of Gwydion’s hands as they guide her to the pantry door, touching it to activate the entrance to his sanctum, before ushering Alma in. She catches him glancing back at Rosemary, and the Bunny’s nod of understanding: that no one, particularly younger Bunnies, will be disturbing them.

As the door closes, Gwydion moves his hands to Alma’s shoulders and she erases what little space was left between then, holding him closely, the need for physical contact unsated since her Bunnies awoke her to it. She sighs in pleasure, head on his shoulder, standing relaxed in the arms that wrap around her like silk spun around a caterpillar. “Thank you. It all seems less dark with you close.”

Gwydion’s voice is gentle against her ear, and she can hear the smile in it, as clear as the curve in his lips as they touch her cheek. “I can draw you a bath, if you like? After all that running, it would help you relax.”

His tone is so soft, so tempting, like a glowing lure in the pitch-black depths. Her mind races to wonderful memories of warm, scented water and a bathtub made for two. She almost says yes. But when she opens her eyes and raises her head to look at Gwydion, she finds her vision blurring, her head shrieking in pain at how intense the soft light in his room suddenly feels. She sighs and shakes her head. “If you don’t mind, I just want to rest for a little while. I feel so tired…and I have harvests to do later.”

Gwydion nods and touches his cheek to hers. If there is disappointment there, he keeps it out of his voice. “Rest it is. I’ll be right here with you until it is time to return to duty.” He releases her, much to her agony at the breaking of the embrace, and leads her to the bed.

Alma lies down on the sheets, not bothering to remove anything but her shoes. She looks at him, waiting for him to join her, anxious to feel him close again, her skin feeling cold where the contact broke off. As soon as he lies down by her side, she slides her way to him and snuggles comfortably against his exquisite solidity, reveling in the texture of his shirt, in that scent of his cologne now mixed with sweat. She holds him and he holds her back, his leg slid between hers to bring her closer to him. In any other occasion, sleep would be the last thing on her mind.

Gwydion kisses her delicate ear and whispers, “You are safe. Nothing will disturb you here, darling. Sleep.”

And that is that. Slumber envelops her like quicksand. Smiling, already half asleep, her lips breathe, “I love you.”

The mind attached to them doesn’t even register the arms that wrap even tighter around Alma just a moment later.

Ch6.27 Trust

“…and Somrak will be trailing me as I make the meeting with Lucky Pete,” Gwydion finishes. “Thank you, Cherry,” he adds as the Bunny bartender sets his brown ale before him. She serves Somrak and Alma too, but pauses a moment to look at Alma questioningly before she puts the last one on the table in front of Saira.

Even as Alma nods, Saira complains, “Oh come on, Cher! She already said it was fine!”

Smiling, Cherry raises the pint glass to Saira in a toast, and places it before her. “To your health, hon.”

“That’s right,” Somrak says, raising his glass as Cherry fades back to the bar. “To your health. We wouldn’t have this lead without you.” His hair, including the single silver-blue lock he received from Starfax, falls over his eye and he uses his free hand to push it out of the way.

Saira sardonically raises her pint in return. “All hail my first ale!” She takes a deep quaff and sighs in contentment. “Ah, the taste of freedom.”

“Easy there now,” Alma cautions her. She feels almost sure Saira’s nerves are nearly back to normal, but she is still proceeding with caution. She wonders about her own nerves. Nekh has been strangely silent since the battle with the demon. After draining her Death sphere, she could no longer hear his voice, but now it has nearly returned to normal. Yet no Nekh. Mentally, she shrugs, and decides to be grateful for small respites.

“I know, I know,” Saira groans, reaching down to scratch Lexie’s back as the cat rubs her face against Saira’s leg. The assassin holds up the glass and looks at the dark contents. “Dang, Cher, this stuff tastes great! Is it just ‘cause I haven’t had a drink in forever?”

Merri answers while Cherry concentrates on adding a precise amount of vermouth to an experimental cocktail. “Breowyn put us onto that one. Called Bellhaven, from Little Falls. The brewer makes rum, too, an’ he ages the beer in oak casks that were used for the rum. Tasty, innit?”

“Hint of rum…no wonder I like it.” Saira takes another drink, only a single mouthful this time, then shoots Somrak a look as he again pushes his hair back behind his ear. “Will you stop doing that to your hair? Man, you look like a total girl.”

“I need a new hair tie,” Somrak mutters. “Always losing those things.” Then he looks at his hand, rolls his eyes, and holds his hand out to the others so they can see a few specks of glitter on his fingers. They laugh, and he says, “I’ve washed my hair twice. Still finding them.”

Sitting beside him, Alma shakes her head. “It’s amazing you can even keep one on for long.” She brushes her fingers through his hair, making Somrak smile like a cat getting its ears rubbed. “With hair so smooth, I’d imagine they would slide off after a few minutes.”

Saira reaches back to her own golden-brown hair and pulls free her hair tie. Shaking her locks loose, she holds out a silvery elastic band with two faceted black stones, onyx, dangling from it. “Here, you can have mine.”

Somrak takes it, looking amused and skeptical. “This seems…flashier than I would have expected you to wear. Those hard cases I usually work with – you’re just trying to get me killed, aren’t you?” Still, he spreads it on his fingers, draws his glossy black hair back with both hands, and twists the tie to make a ponytail. He turns his head to show it off. “There? Am I pretty now?”

Saira chuckles and takes another sip of her beer. “You’re a real prettyboy. Though I gotta say it looks better on white hair.”

Alma says, looking at Saira with fake annoyance, “That would be because it was originally bought to tie white hair.”

“Oh!” Somrak reaches behind his head to remove it. “I shall return it to you, Lady Alma.”

Alma laughs and matches his parody of First Ring dialect. “I bestow this favor upon thee, gallant warrior. May it serve as an amulet of good fortune in thine upcoming battles.”

Somrak smiles, but his voice becomes more serious. “My thanks…I shall keep it in memory of my all-too-brief time here, and my wise and gracious commanding officer.”

He holds Alma’s gaze for a moment, and Alma remembers Somrak’s babbling from when she was healing him. But he glances down, spotting Lexie slithering between his legs, and strokes the cat from head to tail as she moves back toward Saira.

Alma snorts. “Rosemary,” she calls toward the bar, “I think Sergeant Somrak has had more than his share of beer already.”

Somrak swiftly finishes the last gulp in his pint. “Yes, time to switch to whisky. If I know Sky, he has a personal bottle or twelve stowed somewhere. He likes the good stuff, I have to give him that.” And to Saira he says, jerking a thumb at Dion, “And he’s Prettyboy. I’m Ponytail.”

Dion sighs. “Prettyboy and Ponytail. It sounds like an adventure-comedy novel.” Somrak bursts out in laughter, but Gwydion suddenly looks confused, then seems to be experiencing a headache.

Alma, concerned, asks, “Everything all right?”

“I sense…no…” He makes a small mystic gesture with his right hand, then his eyes open wide. “The tracer spell–”

Cherry screams and points just as a fat, filthy creature the size of a large kitten leaps from the windowsill to land, skidding and scrabbling, in the middle of the table, knocking Somrak’s drink off the edge to shatter on the floor in an explosion of glass and foam. They take a moment to realize it is in fact a rat. Its fur is matted and pointing in every direction as if it hasn’t groomed itself in days, and the smell that hits them is that of a rotting corpse.

For a moment everyone freezes, leaning away from the rat as it turns its dull, dead eyes to each of them, as if memorizing their faces. It looks at Alma last, opens its chinless mouth to reveal long incisors, and out of its throat comes a voice.

“Death Clan…” the rat hisses. The voice is human and full of malevolence, one that could never have emerged from a rodent’s mouth.

Then it leaps. Straight at her face.

Alma is unmoving, eyes wide, time slowing. Something slams into her – Gwydion, tackling her, knocking her to out of her seat, but the rat is stopped, a swift shape slamming it to the tabletop, Somrak, a wild look in his eyes, standing over it, hand on the hilt of a dagger, the undead creature struggling where it is pinned to the table, suffering no pain from the blade.

There is a thunk as Somrak’s chair, knocked back as he stood, comes to a stop against the wall. Saira is holding an enraged cat, Lexie, apparently seized mid-pounce by the assassin. There is a moment of silence.

“Are you hurt?” Gwydion’s voice is a whisper in Alma’s ear.

She shakes her head, then convulsively grabs his forearm, holding tightly, and begins to shiver as the rat speaks again, slapping its tail against the table.

“Alma… What if I’d had a soul bomb strapped to me? Think what would have happened, Alma. But that would have been too easy.”

Gwydion raises a hand and begins to whisper a spell, but the rat squeaks and goes limp. Gwydion’s eyes glow golden and he concentrates, but after a moment he curses.

Somrak, hunched over the corpse, still gripping the handle of the blade, asks, “Connection cut?”

Gwydion nods. “Whoever was controlling it…I can’t track her.”

“Then can I burn this cursed thing?” Somrak’s voice is filled with a passionate loathing.

“Wait!” Gwydion helps Alma to her feet, looks at her with concern and makes certain she’s standing steadily, then turns to the rat and carefully teases his fingers at its belly, pulling away a glowing spider-like wraith. “My tracer spell.” His voice is grim.

“They know…” Alma moans, her voice shaking.

Staring at the rat, shoulder bunched, Somrak grinds out, “That merchant is either dead, or he’s been warned off from meeting us. Our only lead…”

Alma’s voice rises. “If it had had a bomb…”

If it had been a bomb, Nekh’s long-silent voice echoes in her mind, all these people you love would have been caught in it, dear Alma.

She takes a step back, looking around at Gwydion, Somrak, Saira with the cat still trying to get at the pinned rat – finally at Rosemary and Cherry where they are holding each other behind the bar. Her children. Her cherished, silly, loving, caring children. She remembers the shredded souls of Corporal Stathos and the prisoners after the first soul bomb was set off in their holding cells. Gibbering, ruined shades, insane, full of an unreasoning hunger for other souls in order to satiate their agony, never to be reincarnated, only to be returned to the Wheel with great effort and peril, and to be lost forever – a merciful annihilation. For these people she loves, for her own daughters to suffer such a fate…

And you couldn’t do a damned thing about it, could you? Useless! Nekh’s voice is gleeful in its taunting.

She cannot breathe. She cannot breathe! She wants to scream but she cannot breathe!

Nekh laughs. Just think about it! How Mayumi and Tulip and Sage and…the other two, whatever their names are – how they would feel, their older siblings stolen from them so horribly. Think about how Sky would feel, coming back to find that. How much would they blame the inadequate Death goddess who was the real target anyway?

Why isn’t everyone screaming?

All. Your. Fault. You broke the rules. Now the criminals don’t hesitate to go after Guardia, and Guardia families.

Without a sound, she flees out the door, into the night.