Ch6.80 Trust

“He really walloped you a couple times,” Cherry says, half-sympathetic, half-amused as she stands behind Somrak’s chair, running her fingers through his just-rewashed hair with one hand to comb it into some semblance of order, and holding a wet towel wrapped around ice against his cheek and the side of his mouth with the other. “I could totally do you up in braids,” she adds as an aside. “Whaddya think? Like, a half-dozen thin ones startin’ from the front here? Or just one braided ponytail down the back?”

Somrak’s leather-clad shoulders shake in silent laughter. “Can I have ribbons with that?”

“Oh, ye better not let Tulip hear ye say that!” Merri admonishes him as she sets a pint of ale on the table before him. “She’ll turn ye into a special project – ye’ll end up with more ribbons than hair.” She looks around as she sits across from him. “Speakin’ of whom, where’d she go? Ah well…” She turns abruptly to fix Somrak with an inquisitorial gaze, setting elbows on the table, chin on her clasped fists, her fiery curls bouncing and bright green eyes sparkling. “Now then! What was all that about?”

“Oh boy,” Somrak mutters, taking up his beer and raising it to her. “Cheers.” He starts to drink it slowly but without stopping.

Merri rolls her eyes and tilts her head. “Now come on! Mum said ye should explain it us!” When he holds up a finger to indicate Still drinking! she groans and pretends to collapse onto the tabletop.

Cherry insistently squeezes his shoulder, her grip surprisingly strong. “Hey, come on… I don’t like all this secret stuff,” she pleads, sounding just this side of desperate.

Somrak raises the bottom of the glass higher and finishes quickly, then reaches up and takes her hand in his, turning his face to look up at her dark face framed in a halo of ebony curls, her beauty marred by her sincere worry. He sighs and sets down his beer.

“Come on, sit down.” He pats the seat of the chair next to him, and she pulls it out and takes a seat. “I’ll tell you no lies, but I can’t tell you much truth. I’m sorry. This is a case where even most cops can’t be told much.”

Merri leans forward and whispers, “Is it Sky? Has somethin’ happened to him? Only Sage said he was missin’ an’ Mum an’ Dion went out lookin’ for him an’ ever since they’ve been terribly worried an’ closed-mouth.” As she speaks, all pretense of joking disappears and she reaches to put her pale hand atop Cherry’s, which is still holding Somrak’s tightly.

Somrak puts his free hand on both of theirs and takes a breath. “As I told you before, my bosses don’t know I’m here. But there’s others who mustn’t learn I’m here as well. The people who murdered your Corporal Stathos. Sky is with them, and we’re going to bring him home.” As he speaks, he looks from one the the other, his face darkly serious.

Cherry’s eyes shine with forming tears. “Is he hurt?” she whispers.

Somrak shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. But you know he’s strong. And Alma will heal him.”

Cherry and Merri seem to study him, Merri’s nose and cheeks turning pink as she seems to be holding back tears as well. But she takes a deep, shaky breath and, her voice determinedly calm, asks, “Is there anything that we can do? Anything at all?”

“You can keep quiet about it. And you can keep all the Bunnies here, home,” he says, doing his best to project a confidence he doesn’t feel. “It’s very important for us to know you’re safe.”

“We’ll do that,” says Cherry. “But what about Dion? He was actin’ like a crazy guy out there. Yellin’ about lies?”

“Dion…” Somrak sighs. “Dion was poisoned, while trying to find Sky. And…I held back some information a little longer than I should have. That made him very angry, and I don’t blame him for punching me. But I am annoyed about losing that cigar.”

Cherry smacks his shoulder. “Don’t joke. Is Dion gonna be okay?”

A bright, loud voice, high-pitched and childish, pierces the tense, gloomy conversation. “He says he’s fine.” Tulip bounces over from the stairs that lead down to Alma’s sanctum, and plops herself onto Somrak’s lap. “Seems fine. Just taking a bath with Mom.”

“Oh, ye wee scamp!” Merri scolds her, smiling brightly and blinking away her tears. “Sneakin’ around. Tell us all how they are!”

Tulip shrugs. “I didn’t get to hear much before Mom caught me! She’s like, scary good at catching me now. But they were talking fine ‘bout souls and stuff. And they were hugging so I guess they’re fine. I asked if Dion is feeling better and he said he’s feeling great.” She puts her arms around Somrak’s neck. “Mom says to tell you they’ll come upstairs in a bit. So is that why you didn’t punch back? ‘Cause it was your fault Dion got hurt?”

“That’s part of it,” Somrak says, looking into her blue eyes, marveling again at how much she resembles Alma when she was much younger, when Somrak met her the first time. And he does his best to put out of his mind her blithe report of Alma and Dion bathing together and ‘hugging,’ which his idiotic brain tries to turn into something more. “But also…he’s my friend, even if he’s not so sure about that right now. I don’t want to hurt my friends.” Ah, but you’re so good at it, he cannot help but tell himself. Will you be coming back to this place carrying a body? Will it be their beloved Sky? Or Dion? Or worst of all, their mother? How will you live with that? Or will the four of you just disappear and never be heard from again?

“Speak o’ the divvil!” Merri says. “There they are.” Following her gaze, Somrak sees Alma and Dion coming up the stairs, holding hands. Dion is freshly washed and clothed, dressed casually in a simple silk shirt and close-fitting trousers, and Alma looks as if she has had a bath as well, having changed into another sari. She gives Somrak a wary smile, which he returns with as good a facsimile of his devil-may-care, scar-twisted smirk as he can manage, and smiles even more broadly at Dion.

For his part, Dion keeps his expression reserved toward Somrak for the moment, but his face softens as he looks at Cherry. Her black-furred ears are laid back, denting her afro, and Somrak can see that she’s looking at Dion with concern and sorrow.

Alma looks at the gathering and makes a stab at breaking the ice. “Well, this is certainly a happy reception…”

Merri stands. “Oh come in and sit down! Time to mend fences over somethin’ nice to drink.” She moves toward the bar to fetch beverages, while Cherry follows her more slowly. Meanwhile, Tulip slips off Somrak’s lap to dash to Dion for a hug, then she runs off toward the stairs leading to the upper floors. Somrak hears her greet Geryon.

Dion looks at Alma and signals her to sit, while he holds out a hand a hand to stop Cherry. He looks at her uncertainly. After a moment of the two of them looking at each other in silence, Cherry asks him, “What can I get you?”

He tentatively extends an arm and puts it around her shoulders, drawing her close. She seems surprised for a moment, and then with a little whimper she hugs him tightly around the waist. He wraps his other arm around her, bending his head to whisper something to her. Somrak hears, “…should have listened…” and “…sorry…”

Cherry clenches one of her hands into a fist and gives Dion a light, painless punch on the back. Her cheek pressed against his chest, she almost sobs, “You’re darned tootin’ you should’ve.” She leans back slightly and looks up at him, her eyes bright, her face worried, her voice tiny. “Are you ok?”

Dion nods. “I am now.” He looks at Geryon, who, just arriving, glances sideways at him, as if he can’t be bothered with all this emotion.

Cherry give Dion a big, bright smile and pats his chest, then looks at Alma and Geryon. “So what’s everybody drinkin’?”

“Considering my healer would probably disapprove of alcohol right now,” Gwydion says, “what do you have that is mild on an empty stomach?”

Cherry considers. “How about some nice warm milk? Or tea?”

“Tea sounds good. Thank you.” Dion moves to sit down.

“You got it, hon,” Cherry replies, then quickly takes the others’ orders before joining Merri at the bar.

Dion sits with Somrak and Alma, while Geryon steps up onto the nearby sofa, his eagle gaze on the three gods. Dion nods to Somrak. “I see you are almost fully healed.”

Alma, her voice half-amused, half-scolding, says, “I think he’s just dragging it out to keep Cherry and Rosemary treating him like a war hero.” She brushes her fingertips along his face, scents of spring filling the air, and the bruising on Somrak’s face disappears, along with the cut on his lip.

Somrak touches his cheek after Alma’s fleeting touch leaves it warm and whole. “That bruise was getting me a lot of attention. What am I going to do now?” Looking a little more serious, he leans forward, elbows on the table, and asks Dion, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I have been through something I don’t ever want to experience again.” Dion exhales. “I’ll live. But I don’t recommend trying it.”

Merri brings Somrak another ale, while Cherry brings a steaming cup of tea for Dion and of coffee for Alma. Cherry asks, “You guys gonna be okay with each other now, or we gotta set up round two?”

“Oh yes,” Geryon pipes up with his smooth, every-sarcastic voice. “Give us some time to advertise and sell tickets. We’ll make a fortune out of it.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri coos, taking away Somrak’s empty glass. “That was quite the display you two put on. Seems a shame not to let everyone see.”

“Come on, Mer,” Cherry says, “let’s let ‘em talk. We got Bunnies to round up anyway.”

“Indeed, we do,” Merri says, pausing and suddenly giving Alma a kiss on the cheek. The surprised goddess turns to look and sees the fear showing through past the Bunny’s usually cheerful demeanor, but the redhead follows Cherry before Alma can react.

Looking at Somrak, Alma asks, “Just what did you tell them?”

Somrak waits until the two have gone upstairs, calling out for Chime, Tulip, Kori, and Sage, the asks, “They can still hear overhear us, can’t they?”

“Very much so, yes,” Geryon replies. “Their ears are as sharp as my eyes. But…” He closes his eyes, muttering, and stretches his forepaws out before him, flexing them so the toes spread out and the claws extend. Around then the air seems almost to solidify, light bending distorted through a not-quite-perfectly transparent shell around them, and all sound from beyond it deadens. “Not anymore,” he finishes.

Alma nods at him. “Thank you, Geryon.”

“Yes,” says Dion, his voice dry, “thank you for assuming you should be included.”

Geryon fluffs the feathers on his head. “Oh, like you can afford not to include me at this point. I am, after all, your walking conscience.”

“That explains a lot,” Dion mutters.

Somrak listening to the exchange, weighing the ramifications. “It’s up to you two. But Geryon, if you’re included, some of what you learn could get you in trouble. We’re talking state secrets here.”

The gryphon rolls his eyes. “Please, unless I’m to be turned into anything in the class of sardine or below, I really couldn’t care less. And unless you forget, the first time we met, these two had just sent an Archon to the angels, so to speak.”

“And you’d just stood between that Archon and some Bunnies,” Somrak reminds him. He looks at Alma and Dion. “I’m all right with it if you are.”

The lovers look at each other, then Alma says to Somrak, “We have news.”

“Yes, about Sky and his captor.” Catching Geryon’s expression, Dion quickly explains, “The truth is, Sky was captured a few days ago by the necromancer we have been tracking. He is alive and still on the Insula. Well, in a pocket universe. He is being tortured but holding on with the help of a friend of Alma’s.” He glances at her as if checking that the word ‘friend,’ which Somrak notes he fractionally paused before using, is correct.

His eyes round, Geryon says, “Well, no wonder you have all been so strange, lately.”

Somrak leans forward. “How do you know all this, Dion?”

Alma replies instead. “Arion… Void Rider. Former Archon, god of…Reality, really. The father of my children. He can travel in the Dreamworld.”

“And he walked into my dream,” Dion says, “when I was fighting off the poison.”

Somrak drops his eyes, thinking it over. “If he’s still being tortured, that confirms the idea that this is being done to lure Alma into a rescue attempt.”

Dion nods. “Perhaps, yes. Sky sent us a message, saying it was a trap, yes. And that his captor’s name is Nua. To look for her in the records of the Necromancer War, about two hundred years ago.”

Somrak looks up at the mention of two centuries. Coincidence?

Alma pulls her Death Clan logbook from, apparently, nowhere, and opens it. “Let us see what we can find.” She looks at intently, clearly reading, but to Somrak’s surreptitious glance the pages look blank, except perhaps for the barest blur of lines of writing, indicative of a spell to protect the information from unapproved eyes. “Ah, here she is. I knew the name seemed familiar. Nua was a famous necromancer. She was actually credited with starting the war in the first place. Not the sharpest blade in the armory but vicious, relentless. She stole the original formula for the Soul Bombs and shared it with other necromancers, sowing great chaos. She used them to kill rival necromancers and in the tumult over…” She pauses a moment. “Over forty death gods perished.” She shudders and Dion places a hand on her arm. Somrak had not been in Three Rats when the Whisper assassinated one of its own arrested members to prevent him from revealing their secret to the Guardia, an event which killed Corporal Stathos and another prisoner, shredding their souls and nearly killing Alma as well, as those damaged, maddened souls attacked her.

But he had read the report with a horrified anger. Though he had long ago abandoned his own clan, he still carried with him the indelible mark of the attitudes they tried to inculcate in him: to regard the undead, and by extension necromancers, as abominations, cancers in the body of the universe that had to be purified with flame. He had, indeed, been raised to be a sort of warrior-priest, a god in the service of greater gods, a weapon to be wielded against such monstrosity. It does not escape his sense of irony that he has ended up doing exactly that in the Commander’s service, minus the hypocritical dogma and familial abuse that prompted him to leave home.

Somrak says, “She considers the Death Clan her enemy, then. But how has she survived two centuries only to surface now in Three Rats?”

Alma keeps reading. “Well, she didn’t. She was killed, two centuries ago. The investigators found her posed as if she were sleeping. A merciful kill, it seemed, quick and painless. Her soul was gone, doubtlessly claimed by Hell. My aunt was in charge of the investigation, along with two unnamed specialists in demons and Hell. One of them claimed a devil had been at the scene, summoned by Nua herself.” Somrak sits up straight, the blood draining from his face but at the same time thinking, Of course. “Only a piece of the contract was found. Half a name. ‘Azza–’.” Alma looks alarmed as she breaks off.

Somrak and Alma share a shocked look as they both understand. Then Somrak looks at Dion, then at Geryon. To the gryphon, he says, “You’d better be sure you’re in all the way, or walk away now.”

Grimly, Geryon says, “For some reason, I fear my mind has already reached the conclusion you are about to confirm. Allow me.” He turns to Dion and demands, “Are you insane? In what Hellish reality does this sound like a good idea?”

“I know,” Dion sighs. “It doesn’t. Probably because it isn’t. But whether or not I should turn my back on someone who has been nothing less than a friend, I still can’t afford to leave this Nua character running loose. You’ve seen what she did just to send a message.”

Somrak says darkly, “This isn’t just about Alma then. She’s getting back at Sky. And if we’re captured, she’ll use us to torture him further.”

Dion asks, “Can we be sure it was Sky who killed her before?”

Alma and Somrak nod together. Alma says, “When he took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies, Sky confessed to me that his real name was Azzageddi and made me promise I would keep it to myself. I didn’t make much of it, at the time. I had too many problems to focus on it and it’s not unheard of, anyway, gods using false names to stay free from certain contracts. But the name fits, doesn’t it?

“He was taking a real risk sharing that,” Somrak says, shaking his head. “If you’d ever studied demonology, you’d have been suspicious at the sound of it. He put himself completely into your hands.”

Her voice slow, Alma says, “The truth is, the Vow he took more or less ensures he cannot hurt me, no matter what is done to him. But you two…” She looks at Gwydion and Somrak.

“Sky will resist,” Somrak insists. “He’s being tortured by a necromancer who played at being amateur devil-summoner and got herself killed, and another sorcerer, Nekh’s lieutenant, who is still mortal for all his ability. Sky’s been through worse. Still…” He says to Dion, “It’s good that you know his true name. It’ll help if some binding needs to be broken.”

Dion nods as he absorbs this, then asks Alma, “You said you found out where he’s being held?”

“Lucky Pete gave us a location,” she replies. “We will have to find the entrance to the pocket ourselves, but it is our best bet so far.”

“This is of course provided they haven’t moved the entrance,” Somrak cautions, hating to be the killjoy. “But I think they want us to find them. Or at least they want Alma. Anybody else is a bonus. They just don’t want to make it too obvious that they’re letting us find them. If they made it too hard, they know we’d have to contact the Commander.”

Geryon asks the obvious question, “And just why exactly aren’t we contacting the Commander?”

Somrak hesitates only a moment. After all, the gryphon already knows the Sky is a devil, that his true name is Azzageddi – it’s pointless to hold anything back now. “Sky knows a lot of secrets. And being born one of the Enemy, if it ever got out that the Guardia has been employing him for decades, with the approval of the Council, they would send in the Sikari and just kill everyone involved, Sky included.”

“Lovely,” Geryon mutters. “So you are planning on invading the enemy’s lair with an army of…” He looks around the table, “three?”

“Three,” Somrak confirms. “No mortals coming along. No offense.”

Geryon laughs as if Somrak had just told the most delicious joke. “Oh, you certainly didn’t expect me to volunteer, did you?”

Somrak’s mouth twitches at the corner. “Well after the way you threw yourself at that Archon…”

“Oh, I learned my lesson there, I assure you,” Geryon says, pointing with one paw at Somrak’s chest as if he’d be poking it if the sofa were only a little closer. Then he pauses and asks, “So who should I notify, when you three disappear without a trace into the deepest, darkest pits of Hell?”

Dion sighs, “Geryon…”

The gryphon stands up on all fours, glaring at Gwydion. “Oh, shut up! This is insane, and you know it! Heroic deeds, blazing glory – who will pick up the pieces you are leaving behind to go save your friend?” He shifts his gaze to Alma. “Who will comfort and protect your Bunnies? Or tell your families what happened? Hmm?”

Alma and Gwydion find themselves unable to reply, or even to meet the fierce eagle gaze.

The magical dome around them is temporarily superfluous, as all within fall silent. After several pregnant seconds pass, Somrak gravely says, “I would not blame anyone in the slightest for staying here. My intention was to go in alone, anyway. But after all you did…” He nods at Dion’s arm, where the poison was injected by Saira’s informant. “I realized I couldn’t just ditch the two of you without giving you a chance. That’s when I accepted I’d have to tell you what Sky is. But Geryon is right. You have people here who need you.”

Alma’s voice is low but clear and firm. “How would I tell my children that I let their Uncle Sky die? Or tell my clan that I let Nua run loose? No, I cannot back away.”

“My family is either dead or here,” Gwydion says. “And part of that family is being tortured in some pocket universe, somewhere. I’m in.” He looks to Geryon. “All I ask of you, my friend, is that if something happens, you get the Bunnies into my room, erase the door, and open a new one somewhere else, somewhere safe. And then… I can’t ask for anything beyond that.”

Alma stands and walks to Geryon, crouching so that her eyes are on a level with his. She looks into his eyes, imploring. “If you get them to my mother, I’m sure she’ll care for them. Please, Geryon. Even if you don’t understand, pretend you do and keep my children safe. I beg you.”

Geryon pulls his head back, blinking, his beak slightly open, looking stunned. He shakes his head, ruffling his feathers. “Oh, quit the dramatics, my lady. Of course I will look after them.” He sounds quite affected by her plea, and by the responsibility thrust on him.

The goddess puts her arms around his neck and presses her cheek to his. “Thank you.”

Dion chuckles at his friend’s stammered inability to reply to that, and Somrak imagines he can almost see the gryphon blushing through his feathers. What Geryon said about family continues to spin in Somrak’s mind, for he has been thinking along the same lines of late. What family has he had, since he fled that of his birth? He fell in with a gang as bad or perhaps even worse than the Whisper, and then was rescued by the Commander, and given the chance to redeem himself. Since then, the off-blues, the unnamed ‘special missions’ department within the Guardia, has been his family, but it’s been a highly dysfunctional one. Only a few days ago, one whom he had trusted with his life had turned out to be an agent of Hell, a spy, and he had had to kill her. And for decades the colleague he was closest to, Sky, was also the person he was supposed to kill at any sign of unreliability.

Dion is right. This is family, here. It is Dion’s and Alma’s and Geryon’s and the Bunnies’. And it is Sky’s. But is it Somrak’s. Can it really be? Surely it’s too early to tell, whatever they might say. But Somrak knows one thing. He wants it. Badly.

Out loud, he says, to Alma and Dion, “The truth is, I wouldn’t have a chance without your help. Sky wouldn’t have a chance. But if I thought we still didn’t have a chance together, I wouldn’t bring you into it. We do have a shot at getting him out. But just in case, I’ll prepare a message for the Commander. If we don’t return after a full day, Geryon, or if you’re attacked here, simply burn the message. He’ll receive it.”

Geryon, a wizard familiar with such things, nods grimly.

“Oh, and you’ll be better off pretending you have no idea who or what this Azzageddi is, or that Tuma-Sukai is anything other than a big lovable lug,” Somrak adds. He nods to Dion and Alma. “That goes for the two of you as well.”

Dion says, “Arion said Sky is close to giving out, so we should move as quickly as possible.”

“Yes,” Alma agrees. “The more we delay, the more he’ll suffer. We should fetch our equipment.” She stands, as does Gwydion.

But Somrak holds up a hand. “Wait. Dion, you are still recovering from being poisoned. And you,” he continues, looking at Alma, “have barely slept in days, and you’re still suffering from a mana hangover after healing him. And somebody punched me in the mouth, I think. If we go in with anything less than our best condition, we are putting the mission at risk.”

Alma looks at Dion, who looks uncertainly back at her. “But…Sky…” she murmurs.

Geryon sighs and hops off the sofa to stand between them. “As much as it pains me to say it, Scarface does have a point. Both of you are too weak to be of any use at the moment. And if this necromancer is truly trying to lure you in, she will be in no hurry to kill Sky.”

The two look at one another again, and Gwydion finally sags his shoulders and admits, “I suppose you’re right.”

“Rest,” insists Somrak. “After you’ve had a good meal. But before that, let’s go over the information again I got day before yesterday. With what we know now, it might shed some more light on the other gang members. Geryon, could you drop the silence shield so we can order something to eat?”

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Ch6.79 Trust

“He lied to us,” Gwydion protests, rubbing the soap over his left arm with the hint of violence and frustration that his angry words carry with them. “He’s lucky I am not fit enough to give him a proper beating.”

He has his back turned to Alma as he stands on the ledge that runs along the inner wall of her pool. The lukewarm water reaches as high as his biceps, the rest of his well-sculpted body, motive of many an adolescent dream and female sigh, immersed in what should be a pleasant, relaxing bath to rid him from the mud covering his body but is currently failing to be either of the former two. The magic god is still reeling from the news about Sky’s true nature and Somrak’s deception to make use of their skills and extract information from them. Well, at least the mud is mostly gone, after having for a few moments polluted the waters of Alma’s pool. Thankfully, the constant drainage and input of new water from the fountain have easily resolved that issue.

Alma, kneeling at the edge of the pool, her fingers massaging the more stubborn remains of the slimy mixture of dirt and water off his scalp as she washes his silky, black hair for the second time, exhales deeply, mentally cursing her head for still aching, Somrak for being a fool, Sky for having been taken, the necromancer for having taken Sky, the whole male gender for thinking with everything but their heads, and the world in general for constantly making her life difficult. She tries to bring Gwydion to calm down for about the tenth time since bringing him back to her room. He is still weak, after all, and she is worried about his condition.

“I know he lied and I am angry at him as well. But there will be a better time to settle this, when we can reduce him to minced meat. Besides…” She fills a small bowl with water and, covering his forehead with one hand, rinses his hair with the other. “He does have a point. It is not the type of secret one reveals in a light heart. Imagine holding onto a secret like that, a person’s life depending on your good judgment.”

Much to her relief, Gwydion stops abusing the soap against his own skin and lowers his arms, breathing deeply before replying in a soft mutter, “He still used us.”

He leans his head forward a little as her fingers run through the short hairs at the back of his neck and she rubs the base of his skull with her thumbs, slowly and expertly, coaxing a purring moan of pleasure from his lips. She takes the soap from his hand and uses it to lather his shoulders, his now mostly mud-free chest, grinning with satisfaction when he leans his head back against her knees, eyes closed and mouth smiling softly at the rhythmic, massaging movements of her hand over his skin, erasing the external traces of his ichor-induced illness.

“That’s it,” she whispers, her chin resting on the top of his head, the fingers of her left hand resting gently against his throat, hair falling freely to frame the limits of his face and graze the skin of his arms. “Relax now. Doesn’t that feel better than being angry? Though I cannot say if it feels better than frolicking in the mud with a fire god.”

Gwydion chuckles, his upper body jostling gently in the water. “Well, I can and I must say this feels a lot more pleasant.”

He tilts his head back a little further, his eyes looking into hers, and Alma can almost swear they look just a little paler now than they did before he was poisoned. He raises an arm to stroke a lock of her hair, his expression darkening with sadness for a moment. “It feels like something I don’t deserve.”

His voice is quiet but heavy with sorrow and regret. It brings back the sting of their argument, of the pain that opened the rift between them that has tormented the last three days of Alma’s life. She is tired of being sad, of being angry, of being bruised and disappointed. One of her closest friends has been kidnapped, which probably would not have happened had he not lied to her, while another of her friends has lied to her in an attempt to save him, and now the fear of losing both pains her. Still, she has been lied to before and betrayed before and feared for her life before. She could have numbed herself to emotion and fear and gone through this whole crisis fueled almost exclusively by anger.

But to be without Gwydion, her lover. More than her lover, her partner, her equal, the person into whom she has learned to trust her safety, her wellbeing, her happiness, her heart… To be without the piece of her that he has become, that is a pain she finds impossible to ignore. For all her anger, all her hurt, she cannot avoid caring for him, thinking of him, feeling his physical and emotional distance as a sharp, burning anguish. And to see him poisoned, feverish, fighting for his life and yet desperate, desperate to tell her how much she means to him. The words that broke through her pride and pain. How can she go another moment without him by her side?

She reaches for his hand and brings it to her cheek, tilting her head against his fingers, which cup her face and warm her skin with their touch. Her eyes lock on his, losing focus of his material body, gazing into the vibrant, bright network of light that is his soul, as naked before her gaze as his skin is. If using her soul-sight to scry the world for the souls of dead and living was a work of effort before, now it is looking at the material plane that she finds difficult and even strenuous at times. And with her headache still bothering her, though easier to tolerate since Somrak’s nerve-pressure healing (which she has tried and rather depressingly failed to duplicate) and quickly becoming less of a problem now that she is back in her peaceful sanctum, with its finely tuned energies and Starfax’s healing presence, strain is the last thing she needs. Her eyes see a mishmash of energy and matter, an entrancing, fascinating, confusing puzzle of superimposed images that she has been learning to interpret and make the best of.

And oh, how beautiful he looks, traced in snaking, coiling, racing paths of light, continuously contorting and expanding like an explosion of energy trapped in its material vessel, collapsing and erupting again and again, powerful, impatient, begging to be released. Each of the eight layers of his godly soul is a living picture of his essence.

She feels his fingertips stroking her cheek and slowly forces her eyes to see into the material plane again. His eyes gaze lovingly into hers, that gaze that always betrays his affection, that never fails to make her heart skip a beat. She smiles at him, stroking his raised arm, watching his lips curl happily at the sight of her smile.

She holds his arm gently, by the wrist, and pulls it away from her face to stroke the inner contours of his elbow. She can’t help but grimace at the sight of the blackened, spidery mark left around the point of entry of the demonic poison, well-defined but tortuous, almost like a sigil of some sort.

“It seems I didn’t manage to erase all traces of the poison,” she notes.

Gwydion turns his head to look at the mark but simply shrugs at its presence. “If that is my only scar, I will be luckier than most.”

Alma nods, her right hand reaching behind him to stroke his right ear and make sure no mud is left there. “That you will. Demon ichor is so dangerous to our kind, even more than to humans. And with the reaction you had to it, I was truly fearing for your life.”

“It was strange,” Gwydion looks absently into the distance, opening and closing his hand as if to test it. “And it hurt. As if acid was flowing through my veins and breaking through all my defenses. And…something in me…it was like something was waking up. Something big and angry and dangerous. And I was frightened to be so helpless against it. I was…I was burning up.” He looks at her. “But then I felt you inside me. Your healing. Washed over me, put out the flames. And it was like you could go anywhere and see everything – the poison opened all the doors. And then you put it to sleep, that thing inside me. Did you feel that? Did it hurt you?”

She smiles sadly at his musings, wondering if he is still suffering from some mild fever. “My power does not allow me to know any secrets of yours beyond the makings of your body and soul, dear. Your mind, your heart, your fears and desires are your own. And I can sense power in you, I see the impatience and unruliness of your soul. But I can’t yet tell if it has shifted.” She shakes her head. “You were so weak. You are still weak.”

“But I feel different, better now,” he insists. “I feel like I’ve grown – no, that’s not the word. I spread out…into myself. It’s like a part of me was empty and now I’m whole for the first time.” His voice is full of wonder. “Something is happening to me. I’m not certain what. But all these encounters with demons are awaking something new inside me.”

“A sphere, maybe?” Alma suggests, considering his words. “In my family’s records there are mentions of gods with such abilities. Could it be you just took longer finding your sphere? If it has something to do with demons, it would make sense for it to have lain dormant this long.”

“It could be, yes,” Gwydion agrees with a nod. “But I am not sure yet whether having a new sphere awaken now will be help or hindrance in our mission. Not that we have a choice but to forge ahead.”

Alma nods, looking down at the intricate, filigree web of light that lines the contours of each of the thousands of blades of grass that cover the floor of her room. “Yes, I know the feeling,” she breathes.

After all, isn’t she still learning to live with this new sphere of hers and worrying about what it might bring? His hand covers hers and she looks up to see him now facing her, looking at her in concern. She smiles, leaning down to kiss his forehead. Her hand repositions to hold his and the tips of her fingers brush against the metal clasp of his bracelet. She looks down at his arm to see it, realizing for the first time that she has not seen him without it since the very day she summoned it to existence, around his wrist. “You are still wearing this.”

“It never occurred to me to take it off,” he says. “It’s the dearest gift I have received in decades. It reminded me of you when the pain was at its worst. And that helped.”

He says it plainly, softly, almost shyly, without a hint of charm or flirtation. Gwydion without his masks, without his ruses. Just him, looking at her as if struggling for what to do or say next. She rests her forehead against his, cupping his face in her hands, breathing in his breath, the simple scent of him. How she loves to see this side of him, the insecure him, the vulnerable him, hidden to all but her. Like a shared secret. She kisses the tip of his nose, gazing into his eyes and smiling at him. He smiles in return but looks confused when she rises and walks away from him.

“What – Alma?” he calls after her.

“Just a moment,” she replies, moving toward the little table where she keeps her hairbrush and scent bottles. She has very much stopped wearing most of them since moving here with the Bunnies – with the exception of the one Gwydion gave her – but she does not have the heart to throw them away. On the table, there is also a black lacquer box finely decorated with a motif of phoenixes in flight, its smooth surface handpainted with the beautiful old letters of Low Ancient Urbian of the Fifteenth Dynasty and High Archaic Insul, spells of warding woven into a famous story about a girl with a magical box given to her by the gods. Alma’s jewelry box. She starts rummaging inside it. “I have it here somewhere…”

Like many magical storage items, the box is bigger on the inside than on the outside and Alma is soon cursing under her breath that she cannot find what she is looking for. It is much to her surprise that she feels cold arms wrapping around her from behind, slowly, almost hesitantly. And wet, as wet as her back is suddenly feeling. She stiffens only for a fraction of a second before relaxing and leaning back against Gwydion, smiling as his embrace tightens around her, feeling a familiar, blissful thump in her chest at this sorely missed caress. Her search forgotten for the moment, she puts an arm over one of his, her hand over his fingers.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers, nuzzling her hair.

“I’m just looking for something to show you,” she explains, tilting her head invitingly. “You should be enjoying your bath.”

“I felt lonely all of a sudden.” He kisses her neck, then her shoulder, slowly, lips lingering on her skin. She closes her eyes in pleasure. “You could keep me company since you’re already wet. There’s bound to be some mud on you.”

The comment makes her chuckle. “And whose fault is that?” She turns in his arms, draping hers around his neck. “You have no shame.”

His face darkens with sorrow at her words. “I do. And I am ashamed. Terribly ashamed.” He holds her tightly, fiercely as if she might change her mind and leave him at any moment. His body shakes against hers and his voice carries an edge of anguish and tears as he says into her ear, cheek pressed against hers, “I was such a fool, darling. I thought… I thought I could never keep you happy, that at some point I would make a mistake or stop being interesting and that you would find someone else who could be more what you wanted and make you happy. And when I saw him, the way you two connected, I thought that had already happened. I ended up pushing you away, convincing myself I was right.”

She holds him tightly in return, stroking his hair comfortingly. All she wants is to forget their fight, now, let go of that grief. Be happy again with him. “You should really stop thinking so poorly of yourself, my love.” She pulls away just enough to look into his eyes with a sad smile, her hands tapping his chest in light scolding. “And get it into your head that you are what I want. Even when you are not making me happy…”

He returns her smile, stroking her cheek, shaking his head. “I thought that if I went back to my old routine, I’d be safe from the pain. To think I almost…” He sighs – just a sharp, sudden exhalation – and rests his forehead against hers. “‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t sound like quite enough.”

“No…” Alma concedes. “But it’s a start.”

She pulls away and leans in to touch her lips to his. Softly at first, as if this were the very first, the original, fearful and timid kiss, the opening line to romance between two people. The kiss they had never had. And he is for a moment that tremulous lover, hesitant and unsure of himself. But his lips know hers and they have been yearning for her, she can tell, tasting, caressing, opening in invitation, hungry now, parched and lonely, in need of her comfort, burning and delighting in the coolness of her kiss.

“Alma…” he breathes into her parted lips, fingers rushing through her hair, cupping her head, pulling her closer.

Her reply is drowned in a whimper, smothered by the next kiss. And oh, it is a wonderful, breathtaking kiss. His mouth moves with tender intensity, restless and thrilling, brilliant and fervent, in perfect synchrony with her own. Passionate, devoted, sincere and unreserved, the whole of him surrendered in each kiss. She pulls him to her and herself against him, surrendering too and forgetting. Forgetting about arguments and departed children and kidnappings and demons and necromancers, about space, about time. She loses track of everything. Minutes or hours, anything short of forever is too little time to stay like this, holding him and held by him, sating their shared need. But forever is too long a time, even to a god.

They break away, struggling for breath. She feels lightheaded, her mind in a merry haze, her back complaining mildly of the pressure with which his clenched hands are pressing against her, slightly pinching her flesh. She ignores it, nuzzling his cheek, feeling the fast, thumping reverberations of his heartbeat slowly quietening against her body, her own chest returning to its infrequent, cadent rises and falls. Bliss.

She strokes his back, grimacing at how cold his now mostly dry skin feels to her touch. “Ugh… All right, you are freezing cold.” She pulls away from him and taps his chest in a light scolding. “Back into the water you go. I’ll join you in a moment.”

He holds on to her a bit longer, looking as if he will refuse to abide. But he obeys, kissing her cheek before walking away, toward the pool. Alma turns once more to her search into the jewelry box, stealing a lustful glance at his naked form as he climbs down the steps near the alcove that lead him into the water.

Finally, she finds what she was looking for. She holds her prize up in triumph, smiling to have found it. A bracelet made of intertwined strands of strong but flexible plants, bending like reeds on a riverbank but curling tendrils around each other in a chaotic weaving of a living, cured fabric, stained in deep browns and midnight blacks. And intricately braided into it, the elegant, flowing form of a bird in flight, the phoenix that is her Clan symbol trapped in the reeds and vines, the long feathers of its tail decorated in tiny sapphire-blue jewels. It looks just as beautiful as she remembered it.

“Here it is!” she exclaims, moving to the edge of the pool, where Gwydion is waiting for her. “My mother made this one for me decades ago.”

She hands him the bracelet and then starts undoing the buttons of her blouse, the clasp which holds it around her neck. Her muddy shoes have long been discarded and set aside for cleaning and her skirt is soon falling to the floor and being picked up and placed in a basket for later washing. Through the corner of her eye, she catches him enjoying the show of her undressing as he twirls the bracelet in his fingers, glancing at the piece of jewelry but sparing most of his attention to her progressively more exposed skin.

“It certainly held nicely through the years for something organic,” he notes.

“Well, if I did it correctly, yours will too,” Alma replies, now entering the water.

He puts an arm around her as soon as she is within reach, pulling her closer until they stand embraced again, her bare chest against his, her toes resting on the ledge between his feet. His eyes look into hers as his hands stroke her shoulders, travel down the shallow groove over her spine.

“The last time we were like this, we had quite an audience,” he says quietly, conversationally as her hands stroke his chest.

It takes her a moment to realize what he is talking about and she chuckles at the memory of her sunny day as an otter goddess. “Well, you weren’t naked then…”

That earns her a laugh, light and warm. Music to her ears. “I was very close to it!” He quiets, stroking her cheek. “And all I could think of was how badly I wanted to kiss you.”

Which he does. And though it is not half as desperate and consuming as the one from before, it is a comfortable, loving kiss, filled with quiet longing. It is a testament to his weakened state that having her pressed against him does not elicit more than mild arousal.

“I should have kissed you,” he whispers once it is over.

Alma smiles at the thought. “I wish you had. But then, everyone would have known about us. I thought this was supposed to be a secret.”

Gwydion shakes his head, one hand idly playing with a lock of her hair. “We made it a secret so we could end it at any time. When it wasn’t anything serious. But that has changed, hasn’t it?” He looks questioningly into her eyes and she nods her reply. He smiles. “It’s been serious for so long. I can’t bear the thought of losing you, I could barely go three days without you. I’m yours. I don’t care who knows.”

A soft kiss and Alma whispers to him, grinning, “No more secrets.”

His face lights up with a smile. “Good.”

She gasps as, with a quick movement of his hands on her hips, he suddenly pushes her off the ledge and spins her in his hold until she is facing away from him, her back pressed against his front, her feet no longer propped on the stone. She laughs at the antics, holding on to one of his arms.

“And what was that for?” she asks.

His wet hand brushes her hair away from her neck, making her shiver at the humid touch. She can hear the smile in his voice as he breathes in her ear, “Time for your bath.”

And then the soap is in his hand and he is lathering up her left arm, gently but thoroughly, the pressure of his upper arms against her shoulders keeping her afloat and held close against him. Once he is satisfied with the cleanliness of her arm, he nudges her to lower it into the water and bring it back out, before moving on to lathering her right arm.

“Will you tell me what happened to you, the day you went to meet your family?” He asks quietly as he strokes her forearm with the soap. “Your eyes, the weakness… I’ve been worried. Geryon could only tell me so much.”

She looks at the fountain on the wall before her, the stone sculpture of a girl from whose hands the water that feeds the pool springs in hushed, tranquil rivulets. Above the hands, a blue-ish orb hovers peacefully, shining with a soft, watery light that reflects against the pale creams and greenish-yellows of the sand and seaweed that decorate its interior. Every now and again, bright, iridescent bursts of color shine from its interior as a school of tiny fish swims within. In her green enclosure, Starfax quietly watches them from amongst the leaves.

“It’s… A bit of a complicated story,” she says, unsure of how to explain it all. “I – The reason no one dies or is born on that particular day is because all death gods and life gods must gather once a year for the Spinning Wheel ceremony. When a soul is harvested, it is not destroyed nor is it reincarnated right away. It lingers in the spectral plane, just slowly decomposing, in a sense. It starts losing its previous identity and reshaping itself into a new soul but that takes quite a long time. We would soon run out of people on the Insula if we merely waited for that to happen. So every year, the Wheel of Souls is spun, accelerating that process, cleansing and reorganizing all the souls collected during that year all at once.”

His hand travels over her belly, rubbing the sensitive skin with soap. She closes her eyes and falls silent for a moment, enjoying the cleansing caress before continuing with her tale. “The Wheel is spun around a divine, living axis. Ever since I can remember, our Spinner, as we call her, has been a Life goddess named Sharia. She is our only Spinner. She is rather old now, too weak to spin the Wheel at first try. The Clan had lately been fearing we’d lose her before finding a suitable replacement. But somehow she knew that I could spin the Wheel too. And that is what happened to me. That new sphere became active and I spun the Wheel. It led to some…” She gestures vaguely at her eyes. “…changes. I don’t really remember any of it clearly but by the end of the ceremony, I was knocked unconscious. Father wanted me to stay at his house and rest but I was worried about Mayumi and…I didn’t want to miss our date. So I asked Melinor to help me pick up Mayumi and he brought us both back here. I don’t remember anything after leaving Father’s estate but I think we arrived home well into the night.”

He does not say anything at that, though a slight stiffening of his body against hers suggests the awakening of a painful memory. She feels him returning the soap to a little dish she had left at the edge of the pool and then hold her closely, in silence. The water is warm against her skin, soothingly warm, and her muscles feel relaxed, comfortable. Even her headache feels like a distant thing. She tilts her head back and to the side, letting it rest against him, her eyes closed to enjoy the moment. Time goes by.

She feels herself surface from a shallow slumber at the feeling of her left arm being gently raised out of the water and held above it, her elbow flexed so her hand hovers before her eyes. He holds the bracelet her mother made for her against her wrist and she closes the clasp with ritualistic care, smiling at the image of their wrists held together side by side, the greens and browns and golds and red of his bracelet matching the brown and black, silver and blue of hers as perfectly as if they had been made at the same time and by the same hands to bind them together. His fingers intertwine with hers and he brings his arm down, dragging hers along to wrap around her waist. Her other hand covers his arm, gently stroking it underwater.

“I know it is a sensitive matter but…whatever happened with this death god and Sky and the love spell. Do you need help?”

He sounds hesitant, as if he cannot bring himself to ask what he truly wants to know. But the concern in his voice is evident.

“No,” Alma shakes her head. She turns to look straight at him, her body once again facing his. “Sky managed to detect and break the spell before it went too far.” She looks away. “I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if–”

She cannot say it. The thought of making love to Sky is too alien to her to even form in her head. It would be like sleeping with one of her brothers.

“Once this is done, we’ll put that bastard out of business,” Gwydion says, matter-of-factly.

She looks back at him, saddening at the memory of some of their previous conversations. “Listen, before – I was angry at the whole thing. I know why and how you use those spells. I never meant to accuse you–”

He touches a finger to her lips. “Shh. It was justified. Besides, it is a good reminder of the dangers of such things. I’m just glad you’re not hurt.” His finger moves to stroke her cheek as he looks into her eyes. “Now, how about these? You were complaining you couldn’t see properly before. What’s wrong?”

Alma breathes deeply before explaining. “These eyes… I can’t stop soul-scrying, for some reason. Thankfully, my soul-sight carries no aftereffects now but it’s difficult focusing on seeing the material body of things. Like, I can see your soul very easily but I have to concentrate to look into your eyes and actually see them. And I see souls everywhere, all the time. Suddenly, everything has a soul. It’s all very distracting.” She sighs in frustration. “They are beautiful things, souls, but it’s confusing, constantly seeing every little one of them superimposed with bodies and even through walls, not being able to focus on just the material plane. Just seeing the food on my plate was difficult at first. Had to learn to see again, in a sense. I’m still learning. It all feels very strange and…” She lowers her gaze, feeling shy and silly to admit it. “I feel a little freakish with these changes. But at least I’m getting better at interpreting what I see now.”

He holds her closer, softly nuzzling her cheek. “You still feel the same to me. Just even more beautiful, if that can be possible.”

She smiles and closes her eyes as he kisses the crease of each of her eyelids, snuggling against him in bliss. When she opens her eyes again, a minute movement of light, just a slightly different, yet familiar color of spectral essence moving among the vibrant lines of the hanging stems and flowers of her living door-screen, catches her attention. She grins, making an educated guess of who it might be.

“Speaking of what I see…What is it, Tulip?” she calls out toward the door.

A tiny Eeep! coming from that general direction lets her know that she was right. Soon, Tulip is emerging from behind the screen. “Uhm… Is Dion feeling better, Mom?”

“I think so,” Alma relies, making a show of looking at the god. “Is he?”

Gwydion chuckles, turning his head to look at the Bunny through the edges of his vision. “Dion is in paradise, little flower.”

That seems to satisfy Tulip, who smiles and relaxes visibly. She moves closer to them. “Uncle Som says he’s not coming down here to get punched again.”

That has them both laughing. Gods, it feels good to laugh…

“Well, Uncle Somrak can wait a while,” Alma tells her. “We will meet him upstairs.”

Ch6.78 Trust

Back in the breezeway between the Burrow and Three Rats Station, Somrak lights a cigarillo off the tip of his finger and savors that first long drag of aromatic vapor, pulling the hot smoke into his mouth, down his throat and deep into his lungs. As he exhales, the familiar pleasant buzz hits. He closes his eyes and leans back against the outside wall of the Bunnies’ bar, smiling slightly, feeling the rough wood on his bare back.

After returning from the business with Lucky Pete, Somrak had become acutely aware of how rank with sweat he’d become that morning, when Saira had tasked him with carrying a comatose and dying Dion halfway across Three Rats. While he knows several utilitarian spells for healing minor wounds, repelling vermin, blocking eavesdropping magic, opening locks, and so on, one thing he has never mastered is magic for sprucing up himself and his clothing in the field. Fortunately Alma was not overly put off by a little body odor earned in the service of saving her sweetheart’s life, which was good because, after telling her Sky’s secret and admitting that he’d been leading her on, planning to take Pete’s information and suicidally go it alone, Somrak had really needed a hug.

He chuckles at the thought. Somrak needed a hug. Sky would get a kick out of that. He takes another drag on the thin cigar, not one of the rare Angelino Golds that Sky had given to him only a few days before. He hasn’t even smoked any since the one he’d had outside the party just a few days ago. Has it been a week? And I was standing right here, this very spot, when Alma came out. The memory of that night has been much in his thoughts ever since.

He sighs, trying to think of something else. His hair, unbound, is clinging to his shoulders and upper back in damp locks, and he is wearing a pair of Popula-blue trousers that Rosemary found in storage while Cherry took his shirt and underclothes away to wash. She had offered to wipe down his leather jacket and pants, but those, fortunately, were enchanted to clean themselves slowly, so he had told her they only needed to be hung up for a little while. Funny how Merri hadn’t been able to find him a shirt when he knew, from staying here before, that that storage room had plenty of shirts. He chuckles again. Silly Bunny.

It’s good to see them again. He’s cautioned them all not to mention he’s here, telling them the partial truth that he’s in trouble with his bosses and he’s not supposed to be coming around. Cherry had looked suspiciously at him, leading him to guess she was thinking he’d somehow heard that Alma and Dion had had a fight. She had also seemed quite sad, though despite that and whatever suspicions she might be harboring, she’d welcomed him and told him they’d have his room ready. Again, he’d told her no need. Conversely, Tulip curling up on his lap was exactly what he needed – just holding a sweet kid like that while she chattered away, asking him about the complex tattoo across the left side of his chest, he could feel the tension leaving. He’ll go back in again soon and ask Cherry what’s wrong. They’re all worried, sensing things aren’t right. It won’t be long before it’s impossible to keep Sky’s absence a secret. Probably already too late.

And then, with a golden flare, an oval portal opens up not ten steps away from him. It’s not Alma’s, Somrak knows that immediately. The goddess uses a different school of magic. This is more the standard sort of portal, popular with wizards of the Academy of Magic and therefore in common usage across the Insula. Somrak tenses – it could be anybody. It could be an attack.

He is relieved when out of the portal steps Gwydion, just as shirtless as Somrak is, his hair similarly damp, but his face pale and his expression wild and pugnacious. He looks this way and that, his gaze locking on Somrak, his jaw clenching and shoulders flexing.

Somrak almost drops his cigarillo. “Dion! Are you–”

Dion moves unsteadily but quickly toward Somrak, but his toe catches on a rock in the bare dirt of the patch of breezeway between the portal and his target. Somrak, who puts his arms out to catch Dion even as he is thinking Is he attacking me? suddenly finds himself staggering backward, not sure what just happened but seeing the familiar flash of light triggered by his occipital lobe making contact with the inside of his skull.

It takes a moment for his head to clear enough for him to realize he’s been punched in the jaw. Though if he hadn’t known it was Dion’s rock-hard fist backed by a powerfully muscled body and countless hours of training in the martial arts, Somrak would have guessed he’d been kicked by a mule.

But stunned as Somrak is, he has been fighting longer than Dion has been alive, and most of it has been outside the training hall. Even as he admonishes himself for his carelessness, his arms are up and blocking Dion’s rapid follow-up blows without any conscious thought, slowly giving ground to give himself time to recover. When his back brushes the wall, he sideslips unconsciously, letting Dion punch the wall hard enough to chip paint off with a boom that echoes through the bar, making the nearby door rattle in its frame. Ending up beside and slightly behind Dion, Somrak grabs his opponent’s wrist, whips it behind Dion’s back, and pushes the god into the wall hard just hard enough to hopefully knocks some sense into him. Somrak elects not to hold into the wrist and twist it into a painful pin, however, instead releasing and dancing back, trying to leave behind that message of what he could have done.

“You sure got up on the wrong side of bed,” Somrak quips, bouncing lightly on the balls of his bare feet, half-closed hands up and ready. He rolls his shoulders, the muscles of his back flaring out like a cobra’s hood.

“Don’t you dare make fun of this!” Dion roars, charging again, whipping punches at Somrak that the smirking, ponytailed god barely manages to parry, blows backed by an unreasoning rage. “You bastard! You lied to us! Used us! For what?”

Dion might have considerably more muscle mass, but Somrak’s body is like a steel spring, compact, light, and despite the amazing speed of Dion’s blows, Somrak is considerably faster. He is tempted, so tempted, to go for it, just put it to the test, fight it out with Dion and see who comes out on top. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Alma – well, not much. Somrak just likes to fight. In their time as off-blue partners, Somrak and Sky had gone one-on-one a half-dozen times. Heck, those fights had brought them closer. Besides, everything goes all black-and-white once the violence starts. There’s no need for moral equivocation or consideration of multiple viewpoints. When some guy is trying to beat you to a pulp, the only thing you need to worry about is doing unto him before he does unto you.

Except…not this time. Dion is flagging. Wherever he got all that energy to cast a portal, come charging through, and start doing his best to turn Somrak’s face into tenderized steak, Dion is running out of that energy fast. He’s already slowing and stumbling. Somrak knows that all he has to do is keep blocking attacks for maybe half a minute longer and Dion will fall flat on his face. No fun beating a guy who can’t possibly win.

And on top of that, what will Alma think if he beats up her guy? And right after she’s healed him, too?

So he stays on defense and replied to Dion’s demand for explanation. “For what? For Sky! For you!” He blocks two more blows, constantly moving off the line-of-attack, forcing Dion to keep shifting his aim and moving his feet.

“You think we’d leave him there?” Dion cries. “Or leave that necromancer loose to attack us again?” One of Dion’s blows almost lands, but it is so weak that Somrak easily wards it off with a sweep of his forearm. Dion shakes his head. “I must have been mentally ill to trust you!” The god drops his fists, head down, breathing heavily and apparently doing all he can just to stay standing.

Somrak stops, lowering his guard halfway. “Dion. I was going to go in alone. I didn’t want to put you and Alma at risk. I… Yes I used you. I needed help with the investigation. But I was planning to ditch you. It just seemed too dangerous.”

Somrak’s conciliatory words seem to rekindle Dion’s fury. His eyes glow with golden light and an aura flares around his head and shoulders, different now, brighter than before, and within it…dragons? “Dangerous? You kept us in the dark! I told you about the devil and you lied to my face! You put us at risk – you!

Somrak feels the ground beneath his feet soften. He tries to spring away but finds himself trapped in sticky, viscous mud that defies gravity, already climbing halfway up his calves to immobilize him. Somrak realizes Dion maneuvered him to stand where there was no grass to make the spell work easier. “Tricky son of a–” Somrak mutters just before Dion’s right fist crashes into his cheek, knocking him off-balance so that his shoulders and the back of his head slam against the wall. The unexpected reversal is so sudden that Somrak’s divine sphere flares to life, his aura a fiery mandala through which a flaming tiger leaps, and when Somrak slaps the wall to push himself back on-balance, he leaves a hand-shaped scorch hot enough to burn through the pain and into the wood.

“Look at me!” Dion roars, throwing another punch that Somrak evades only by bending at the knees and hurling himself below the strike, slipping in the widening patch of mud, a flailing hand grabbing Dion’s pants-leg. Somrak twists as he falls, landing on his back with a splash of muck, only to have his breath knocked out when Dion lands on top of him.

The spell, meant only to momentarily immobilize Somrak, seems to have gone out of control, creating a small pool of now-soupy sludge. The two shirtless gods wrestle, their rugged, sinewy bodies slick with mud. Somrak grabs Dion’s shoulders and manages to roll over on top, but his hand slips. With no shirt, a muddy Dion is almost impossible to hold onto for long, and Dion’s extra mass gives him the advantage in a ground fight. Soon he’s back on top, Somrak beneath trying to wrap his legs around Dion’s waist, arms spread wide with his hands gripping Dion’s wrists just to keep the other god from pounding him. “Come on, Prettyboy,” Somrak grunts. “Lemme buy you a drink and let’s talk this over.”

There is a click and a flash. For a moment Somrak thinks he’s been punched in the head a third time, but all fists are accounted for. He grinds the back of his head deeper into the mud and looks back to see Cherry, upside down from his perspective, grinning, holding a camera and using her thumb to advance the film. She raises it again to her eye and says, “Cheese!” before the camera flashes again.

Somrak begins laughing at the absurdity of it all. Merri is standing next to Cherry, staring at the two wrestling, mud-slick gods, her milky, freckled complexion flushed pink, her emerald eyes wide, pupils dilated, looking like a longtime dream of hers has just been fulfilled. Next to her, Tulip and Chime, still young teenagers, are laughing their heads off, holding onto each other to keep from falling down. And next to them…

Alma is standing with her arms crossed, not looking happy at all.

Somrak stops laughing and had to fight an urge to leap to his feet and salute. Dion, on top of him, growls, “What are you laughing at, you lying sack of…” He trails off as Somrak points, uses one index finger from a gripping hand to point at their audience. Dion freezes, staring at Alma.

Somrak spits to the side, trying to get some mud out of his mouth. “So, uh, I dropped my keys and Dion here was trying to help me find them…”

This is met with stony silence from Alma, who simply continues to glare at Dion.

Cherry looks up at Alma, hesitates a moment, then asks, “You know all them old stories about giant gods wrestlin’ and makin’ mountain ranges and canyons and stuff by accident? Is this the truth behind the myths?”

The corner of Alma’s mouth twitches slightly. “I believe in some of those stories, ‘wrestling’ is a euphemism for something more amorous.”

“Oh goodness, I hope so,” Merri breathes as she puts her hand to her cheek, still looking dreamily at the two gods.

Somrak’s laughter echoes off the walls, and he allows his arms and legs to drop limp into the mire. He’s pretty sure Dion isn’t going to punch him now, and too amused and tired to care if he does.

And Dion does sit back and then rise from his knees, hardly a patch of skin free of the gleaming mud. He flicks some from his fingers and tries to wipe mud from his face, only succeeding in spreading it further. “Just…needed to set something straight.”

“With your fists?” Alma demands. “And what happened to your pants?” There is a gaping, black-edged rent in one leg of Dion’s trousers. Alma takes Dion’s hand and helps him step free of the mud pit, then holds a hand over his thigh. “As I thought, a minor burn. Just what you need, more wounds.” She touches Dion’s leg to heal him.

Getting into a sitting position requires some effort on Somrak’s part. “Oh…sorry. Things got a little hot.”

“I’ll say!” Merri jokes, while Tulip points at the hand-shaped scorch on the wall. “Look! That’s so cool!”

Cherry gasps. “Hey! You coulda set the bar on fire! And what are we gonna do about all this mud? Is it gonna change back?”

“You two will be the death of me,” Alma mutters.

Somrak touches the side of his mouth, checks his fingers, and grins at the sight of blood. He struggles to his feet Then he works on getting out of the mud, trying to smile reassuringly at the Bunnies. Meanwhile, Gwydion says quietly to Alma, “Sorry. I’ll surrender to your care.”

“Oh, now you say that?” Alma snaps at him. “Do you realize how difficult it was to heal you? Is it that amusing to leave me sick with worry?”

Dion looks positively miserable at this. “No. Not amusing at all.” He sways slightly, appearing to suddenly suffer a bout of dizziness.

Somrak moves quickly to catch him, steadying him with hands on Dion’s elbow and shoulder. “Whoa, there.” As Dion looks at Somrak in surprise, the latter asks Alma, “Where do you want him?”

Alma takes Dion’s arm and leads him two steps to the right. “Right here. I’ll see him to a warm bath. You can have the marvelous treat of explaining all this to your audience.” Her expression softens. “Come see me when you’re done and I’ll take care of your bruises.”

Somrak smirks as Alma raises the colorful curtain of magical energies that is the portal to her room, but his smile fades as she and Dion disappear and he has to think fast about what he can tell the Bunnies.

“So…looks like I need another shower.”

“Oh, ye’re not trackin’ mud all over our nice clean floors,” Merri scolds him. “Chime, Tulip! We need buckets of water.” The two younger Bunnies dash into the bar.

Somrak’s shoulders slump. “Seriously?”

Cherry points at the fallen half-smoked cigar. “And we ain’t pickin’ that up. You know how bad that smells?” She grins. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll get you rinsed, then you can take another shower and by then your clothes’ll be ready. And we are just itchin’ to hear how you’re gonna explain all about them lies Dion was yellin’ about. Not that it’s any of our business…”

Somrak sighs as Tulip comes running out the door and gleefully hurls a bucketful of cold water on him.

Ch6.56 Trust

This is weird. Like, really weird. Well, I mean, we’ve kind of gotten used to the weirdness by now but still…talk about a story!

First, we were all sleeping. Kind of. We weren’t really sleeping, were we? We were in stasis, whatever that is, because some big grumpy bullies said we are not really living creatures. Well, isn’t that stupid? I feel pretty living! Sure, we don’t look like everyone else and we don’t quite think like anyone else but I’m starting to think that no one looks and thinks like everyone else around here. Or anyone else, for that matter. Some people just like to think they can go around deciding who’s right and who isn’t. Guess that means that everyone’s always wrong unless they agree with the big silly god…archon…thingies way up in the Curia. Anyway…

We were sleeping. I don’t remember the sleeping part. There’s a lot of things I don’t remember. But Cherry and Merri and May and Big Brother Sage all talk about their dream lives. Like how they ran a bar or were in the Guardia or worked at an asylum for kids who lost their moms and dads. I don’t remember any dreams. I asked Kori and Chime once and they don’t remember any dreams either. Maybe because we were all too young to dream? Can you be too young to dream? Do babies dream or is it all just blank when they’re not eating or crying or doing whatever babies do when they’re not eating or crying?

To us it was like… well, being asleep, really. Close your eyes, mind goes black. Until the dreams start. Ours just didn’t. And when we woke up… we didn’t really wake up, either. There’s something else I don’t remember much… Waking up after Mom was told she could let us out of stasis. Do you know when you’re sleeping and something snaps you out of it and suddenly you’re really aware that you’re not sleeping anymore but you can’t quite move yet? And your eyes are still closed so you can’t see but you can hear stuff around you but you keep phasing in and out and in and out so it’s all kind of broken and you’re not sure which bits were real and which weren’t when you finally wake up for good? Well, that’s kind of what it was like. I remember voices sometimes, sometimes coldness or warmth or wetness (guess that’s when someone was giving me a bath). I remember being scared and confused. And sometimes being really safe and comfy, like someone was taking care of me. Mom’s voice…and her scent. Her touch. The other Bunnies too. Other people, like Sky and Dion and Allie and Callie and all. But it was all really fuzzy.

I remember running. Being scared. That’s one of the things I remember most. Being really scared. Lots of noise, people screaming. Dark places. Everything smelling of blood and dead things and scared people. I remember Dion carrying me somewhere. I wasn’t scared then. But then he let go and the screaming started again. Bunny screams so high-pitched and so loud that my ears hurt. Some spooky guy with a funny voice saying mean things about us and trying to hurt Mom and Dion and Geryon.

And then the bad guy was gone. That’s when I woke up. For good. And Dion was there, making sure I was all right. Being all nice and caring and all. He’s such a prince… Sigh…. Aaaaaanyway, things weren’t fuzzy anymore, though they were really, really confusing. Because Mom was on the floor and Sky was suddenly there, hugging her and everyone looked like something bad was about to happen.

And it did. They sent us away, back to our home, but they didn’t let Mom or Dion come back with us. The big bullies again, saying Mom had been bad and Dion had helped. Shows what they know! Mom isn’t bad. She’s…she’s Mom. Sometimes she gets mad but everyone gets mad. So she gets kinda scary when she’s mad, but that’s on account of her being a goddess. Gods are weird. She’s good to us. Reads us stories, teaches us stuff, plays with us sometimes. When she can. She’s been working a lot. But she always makes sure we’re all right. And we can sleep with her whenever we want, too, and go hang out in her room and stuff. She’s our Mom!

But they still made her stay, left us by ourselves. We were very sad. And scared. Mom…she had always been around, you know? One way or another. But suddenly, she wasn’t. We couldn’t go talk to her or see her. All the scents in her room were old. She was still alive but really far away and we didn’t know what to do or when she’d be back and everyone was on edge and fighting… We just… didn’t feel safe anymore. And Mom wasn’t there to tell us it would be all right. Sky tried. He took care of us. He’s nice. We uhm… I guess we could have been nicer. Not give him so much worry. Sneaking away and all. Stupid Chime and May…

But then… Mom came back! That was awesome! Out of the blue, everything got great and perfect and everyone was happy and we could finally be one big happy family. Well, I guess May wasn’t happy. Not for real. She’s leaving, now. Gonna become Guardia again, because that’s what she was in her dream. I think that’s silly. I dreamt I was a big furry sheep jumping over fences once. It was a really nice dream. But I can’t be a sheep! I’m a Bunny! And seriously, dealing with that wool, that must be real hot in the summer and it gets all frizzy and– Sigh… Sorry. I got a bit carried away there. I do that sometimes. Cherry says it’s because I’m still a kid. Yeah, sure Cherry, because you don’t go off on tangents every hour or so… Meanie grownups saying kids are silly just because we’re kids… Who gets to decide, anyway, if you’re all grown up or not? Is there, like, a fairy or something that pops us and waves her wand and says “You are now a grown up. Go and work and do boring stuff and…stuff”?

Where was I? I was going off again, wasn’t I? Sigh… Right, back to what’s going on now. May’s leaving. She says it’s just for a few months but that’s like…forever! Can’t really remember life without May. Then again, can’t really remember life without all my teeth. I hear babies don’t have teeth when they’re born and that little kids lose their too. Must make it hard to eat your veggies, not having any teeth…

We’re all sad she’s going. Even May. I keep asking why she’s going if that makes her so sad but no one gives me a straight answer. They just say I wouldn’t understand. Doesn’t sound like they do either, if you ask me. Not that anyone asks me anything. Mom is sad too but she says we should let May go because it’s what May needs to be happy. Except May isn’t happy, she’s scared. I can smell it on her. And she’s worried too. We’re all worried. Because Mom is sick.

Her big spooky brother brought her home last night and said we need to be real quiet and let her sleep so she’ll get better quick. Well, he didn’t say that to me but that’s what May said he said. Sky’s been taking care of Mom. And May, May’s been helping. But now it’s time for May to go and Mom woke up so Mom wants to walk May to the portal too so she can say goodbye to her, even though we can all tell Mom is still not feeling good.

Mom is a terrible patient, by the way.

“I’m fine, Mayumi,” she says. She is sitting at the edge of her bed and trying to get up but May keeps getting in her way. “I will accompany you to the portal in Little Falls.”

She still looks really tired. Her head is hanging a bit and her eyes aren’t open all the way and her voice is a bit mumbly but she doesn’t sound like she’s too weak to go with us to the portal. She’d probably be all right, I guess. But May is having none of it.

“Mother…I want you there,” May says, kneeling and holding both of Mom’s hands to stop her from getting up. “But I cannot ask you to trudge all the way to the Little Falls portal and then all the way back, when you are, um, doing something with a sphere.”

“It’s shapin’ up to be a real broiler of a day, too!” Merri pipes in, over May’s shoulder.

Merri is standing just behind May. Sky’s standing at the foot of the bed looking all worried and I’m… Well… I should be upstairs with Cherry and Sage and Kor and Chi but I sort of snuck in here when no one was watching and I’ve been hiding behind the hanging screen of pretty flowers that hides the door from the rest of the bedroom. It’s a great hiding spot against Bunny noses, you know. But I’m having trouble avoiding a sneeze.

“I promised your brother I would take care of you,” May insists, glancing at Sky. “Well, Sky promised, but I was there.”

They’re so cute, May and Sky. All trying to be all sneaky and dis-creet and “Oh, we’re too serious to be romantic around people because he’s sort of kind of my boss.” Silly May. Bosses can kiss too. I mean, bosses gotta have kids somehow, right?

Sky looks back at May and nods. That makes Mom frown a bit.

“Melinor worries too much,” Mom says. “I feel much better than yesterday.” She strokes May’s cheek and looks a bit sad. “I won’t be seeing you for the best part of six months. The least you could let me do is walk you to the portal.”

May’s ears droop down and she bites her lip, looking at Mom like someone’s making her pick between carrots and sprouts. “If you go with me, I am going to be terribly worried about you collapsing on your way back. I saw you last night, unconscious, and it was frightening.” She throws her arms around Mom’s waist all of a sudden, and hugs her real tight. “Please, I just want to know you’re well. Please stay and let Sky take care of you until you’ve fully adjusted to…this.”

I can’t really see her face now, because it’s buried in Mom’s dress. Mom holds her back and strokes her hair, smooths the black fur on her ears. Then she sighs. “Very well… Tulip?”

Eeeeep! She’s looking right at me now, through the screen and everything! Everyone looks super surprised to see me get out from behind the flowers and Merri is even giggling a bit about it but Mom is just looking like she knew all along and doesn’t mind.

“Yes, Mom?” I ask.

Her eyes look soooo pretty now. Well, they were pretty before and it kind of stinks that they’re a different color from mine now but the new ones?…super neat. Blues and greens moving about and mixing and twirling like someone dropped two colors of nail polish in a saucer and keeps mixing them with a toothpick. And they glow real soft too, like there’s a teeny tiny lamp inside Mom’s eyes. I wonder if it hurts, getting them like that.

“In the first drawer of my desk, there is a small package,” she says, smiling at me like everything’s fine. “Could you get it for me?”

Mom has kind of a workbench-desk thing to the left of the door… no, to the right of the door… Well, I’m facing the door and it’s to my right now, all right? It has three drawers in it and the bottom one is always locked. The second one is boring and the one at the top has all sort of stuff in it like scissors and tape and paperclips and all that. Cherry is always yelling at me for taking stuff out of it and not putting it back. But uhm…Wanna know a secret? Sometimes I do it just to watch Mom run around thinking she’s losing her mind a bit. Ihihihihih. Shhhh…

There’s a package in the drawer now, that I hadn’t seen there before. It’s wrapped in a pretty velvety dark-red paper stamped with some serious-looking symbol in gold ink. It looks like some sort of Year’s End present. “This one?” I ask Mom when I hand it over to her.

“Yes, thank you,” she says to me and I sit down and lean against her as she gives May the present. “Inside there is a wad of portal tickets. Always save one for emergencies but use the rest as you will. I will send or bring more later if you need them. Remember to visit your father as well, yes?”

May lets go of Mom to take the present in both hands. Her ears are drawn back and her chin is starting to shake a bit but she’s holding the package to her chest like it’s the best present she ever got. “Oh Mother… thank you.” She nods quickly. “I will. But I will visit here as well. I promise. When they allow me to, of course.” She rubs an eye to stop from crying. Aawww…poor May. “You know…”

May shakes her head and hugs Mom again. Mom holds her back with a sad little smile.

“I know,” Mom whispers, leaning down to kiss May’s head. “You will do wonderfully, I’m sure. You know all of this already. Just remember to stay focused and don’t let them walk over you. You are my daughter and you will show them just what you are made of.”

May nods, her face against Alma’s shoulder. It’s weird seeing May like that. She’s always so uptight. When she’s not all serious then she’s all mad. But she looks very tiny now. Scared. Just nestled in Mom’s arms like she was having a bad dream and is afraid to sleep alone now.

Behind May, Merri strokes our sister’s hair and looks a little smile at Mom. They look like they’re talking without words, which is actually pretty common between the two of them. After Mom, Merri is oldest in our little family. Maybe that’s why Mom and her seem to understand each other so well.

“I’ll make sure they have a well-armed guard there and back,” Sky chimes in softly.

Mom nods at him, then looks worried. “Isn’t Gwydion in yet? He could accompany them.”

Oh! I know the answer to this one! “He’s probably still out being m–”

But Merri cuts me off with a quick, “Och, he’s still out doin’ something or other. Must’ve gotten caught up in it.”

Weird…Why is Merri lying to Mom? Doesn’t Mom know the Dion is mad at her for kissing Uncle Som? Not that that’s a reason for being mad at anyone. Aren’t we supposed to kiss the people we like? Hmm… Maybe Dion wanted to kiss Som too? Or maybe… Dion wants Mom all to himself? No… He wouldn’t be that selfish. Would he?

Mom looks a bit suspicious. “Strange. We were supposed to…” She sighs.

“I am sure the Bunnies will be well with our best Popula accompanying them,” Sky says.

May lifts her head and rubs her nose with the back side of her wrist. “Maybe the other Bunnies should stay here too–”

“May!” Merri cries out, tapping her foot on the floor. Uh oh… It’s not a good idea, getting Mer mad. “Don’t you be silly, of course we’re comin’ along! This is our ward, an’ we’ll have Aliyah an’ Cala an’ more with us. We’ll be fine!”

Mom nods and sways a bit forward and back. Her eyes close a little like she’s trying to stay awake. “Most of the more troubling gangs have been dealt with. Sky will go with you to make sure.”

“But Sky has promised Melinor to watch over you,” May argues.

“We’ve been goin’ out with Popula protection for weeks now, and nothin’ bad’s happened since that berk Froggy Whatsisname got skewered!” Merri insists too. “This is no different.”

Sky doesn’t look like he’s very sure what to do. “I would feel better if…” He goes quiet because is looking at him and then at Mom in some special way. “But it’s true. The Popula have been doing an excellent job keeping the Bunnies safe.”

“There, it’s settled!” Merri chimes, putting her hands together in victory. “I’ll go gather Cherry and the others.”

She gives May a kiss on the cheek and dashes off upstairs. And suddenly, things go really quiet and awkward. Reeeeally awkward.

Mom puts an arm around me and leans a bit against me. It’s nice when she does that. I give her a hug and she gives me a kiss to the cheek.

“Maybe you should go get ready too, little one,” she whispers softly. “All right?”

I’d rather stay. But Mom is asking nicely. “All right, Mom.”

I give her another tight hug and then I leave. I think I’ll come back later, after we get back from the portal and go cuddle with Mom for a bit. Maybe she’ll feel better then. I knew that gods could get hurt – I mean, Mom and Sky and Dion get hurt all the time, fighting bad guys. Mostly small stuff, nothing like losing arms and having to grow new ones and all – but I didn’t know gods could get sick. It’s scary to think that they can. It’s scary to think that Mom could… Gulp. Die…

Upstairs, everyone is getting ready. Kor and Chi are all groomed and they even have shirts on today. They look bored out of their minds and Kor keeps pawing at his hair and muttering about how Cher used too much cream and how he looks like he got licked by a really big tongue now. I’m not saying he’s right about that but he could definitely be wronger. Chi’s been tying his hair in a ponytail lately. Says it makes him look cool. Yeah…right… like you can be cool in calf-length pants and suspenders.

Merri must have gone out and Big Brother Sage isn’t around either. Cherry is talking with Geryon, by the kitchen. She’s been looking really sad lately, Cher. I think it has to do with Saira going away and taking Lexie with her. And Mom being sick. And that fight with Dion yesterday didn’t help either. I…guess that was a bit my fault. But I didn’t do it on purpose! It’s just…tough to understand non-Bunny people sometimes and know what you can say and what you can’t. To us Bunnies, love is love. The more you give, the more you get. Friends love one another, and families love each other and some people pair up because they love each other too but you can always love more people, right? You don’t stop being able to love other people just because you already love someone. What kind of love is that?

I hope Dion isn’t too mad at me. I love Dion. I wish he wouldn’t be so uptight sometimes but I really, really love him. And I like how he loves Mom and all of us. Gosh, I hope he’s not that mad anymore.

Geryon is whispering something about Dion’s room. I arrived too late to know what exactly they’re going on about.

So I ask them. “What’s up?”

Cherry looks at me like she was sleeping and just woke up. “We ready to head out yet? We don’t want May bein’ late.”

Liar. She doesn’t sound anything like she wants May to be on time to leave.

“Yeah, we’re ready.” I pretend I can’t tell when she’s lying. “May’s just saying bye to Mom and all. What were you talking about?”

Geryon looks uncomfortable at the question and glances a question at Cher. Hmm… Mystery…

“Just makin’ sure Dion’ll have a friend to talk to when he gets back,” Cherry says quickly. Too quickly. “Now go get your hat, sweetie. You know how you burn when the sun’s strong.”

She tries to shoosh me upstairs but something’s fishy here. “I can stay and talk to Dion. Why’s he need a friend?”

“Because friends, my darling Tulip, are a good thing to have,” Ger replies, pushing me gently away with one of his furry paws. He’s in his smaller shape right now but I could still ride him like a pony if I wanted to. “Now, you go be a good Bunny and get your hat.”

Aw man, really? Geryon too? Why does everyone keep hiding stuff from me and being all sneaky like I’m too dumb to notice. Like I ‘wouldn’t understand’. Grr…I’m a kid but I’m not blind! I’m not deaf! I’m not stupid. I notice things. Why do people always assume I wouldn’t understand? They never try to explain in the first place!

“Fine…” I walk away, muttering and dragging my feet. “Don’t tell me… Always treating me like a kid…”

Two strong arms hug me from behind all of a sudden. “Oh sweetie, we’re so happy you are a kid,” Cher says against my ear. She sounds like she’s about to cry. “Won’t you let us have you as a kid for a little while longer? What with May g-goin’…”

She stops talking but hugs me tighter. Real tight. I think I’m going blue in the face. Help!

“Cher… I can’t…breathe…”

Oof! She lets go a bit. “Oops, sorry…” I can feel her hand petting my hair just as I see May coming up the stairs. “Oh, here comes May. Right…” Cher takes a deep, shuddery breath. “Let’s get this parade on the road. Where’s Sage?”

“He’s gettin’ Aliyah and Cala, darlin’,” Merri says from the door.

“Ah! My hat! Be right back!”

My hat! I almost forgot my hat! Can’t go out in the sun without it. I get my scalp all burnt up if I stay out in a strong sun too long. And it hurts! A lot! May says it’s because I’m so pale and my hair is all white, like Mom’s. But Mom never burns in the sun. She doesn’t tan either. Must be great being a goddess, sometimes… Big Brother Sage made me my hat. It’s really pretty and colorful, with flowers and leaves and a wide brim to keep my face in shade too. He even put a blue ribbon, the same color as Mom’s clothes. Dion says it matches my eyes.

By the time I get back downstairs with my hat already on, Sage is peeking in through the door that leads outside. “Our escort is ready. All set to go?”

Cher and May are standing by the bar counter, looking at each other like one of them is never coming back. Of course, that’s not true… Right?

Finally, they hug it out, and Cher breathes deep, takes May’s hand in hers and just real quietly says, “Ready…”

Ch6.54 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.45 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.