Ch6.41 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

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

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

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

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

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

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

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

Ch6.40 Trust

“All right, that should take care of your gift problems,” Lyria announces cheerfully.

“Yes, and of the carpeting problems I did not know I had,” Alma notes, looking down at her bedroom floor.

Where there once was good, solid stone, now there is fresh green grass just tall enough to make a soft, fluffy mat that covers most of the floor. The scent of it must have captured Lexie’s attention, because she has woken up from her daily nineteen hours of sleep and is now trying to stretch herself all the way down to the floor without actually leaving the safety and warmth of the bed covers. Both forepaws on the edge of the bed, the cat sniffs suspiciously at this strange, new green thing that was definitely not there this morning. Hopefully she will not interpret this as an extension to her personal little litter box.

“Well, you needed some way to practice, did you not?” Lyria counters. She takes a deep whiff at the certainly fresher, greener scent in the room. “Oh, that smells wonderful! All that vibrant new life! Ah… Bare stone floors are a thing of mausoleums, if you ask me.”

Alma chuckles and grazes her sole of her bare foot against the grass. The sensation she gets is that of walking barefoot in a lawn, without the unsavory effects of getting one’s feet covered in dirt or rubbed against slithery creatures. Maintaining it will be a slight extra drain on Alma’s mana reserves, but not so very much. In fact, Lyria’s little lesson has been mostly about teaching the young goddess how to use her life sphere more efficiently, spending less mana to achieve the same results. And some of the things Lyria has shown her… Alma had never even considered such things were available to her, let alone attempted them herself. There will be hours of practice to follow up with it, that is certain.

“It is…strange. But not at all unpleasant,” she concedes. “If the Bunnies like it, I just might keep it.”

Lyria’s face lights up at the mention of the Bunnies. “Oh yes! Time to go see my grandchildren!” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have another project to keep me stuffed away in here?”

Poor little Lyria… Alma thinks as she chuckles. “But I thought you were too busy with the Dawning to stay for long, Mother,” she notes in sweet tones, a grin blossoming on her lips at Lyria’s obvious look of irritation. “Come, let us go see what your grandchildren are up to.”

A short pause to put her shoes on (Alma had discarded them at Lyria’s command) and the young goddess guides her mother to the door. As soon as they open it, they hear a commotion of voices from above. Cherry’s voice…and Rosemary’s as well. Alma and Lyria exchange a confused glance and swiftly climb the stairs, past the bar and straight to the first floor. Whatever is happening, it is happening in one of the Bunnies’ bedrooms. They can hear Tulip’s voice now, annoyed and whining. Cherry’s and Rosemary’s are distorted with laughter.

What on the Insula is going on?

The goddesses arrive in Tulip’s room just as the youngest of the Bunnies is darting out the door. Her head turned back to glare at her siblings, caught between laughter and cries of “Aww, is nae so bad!”, Tulip nearly rams into Alma as she stomps her way down the hall.

“Careful, little one!” Alma exclaims, gently holding Tulip by the shoulders. “What is going on here?”

“Oh, you gotta see this!” Cherry cries, looming by Tulip’s bedroom door. “Look at her face!”

Alma looks down at Tulip. “What is wrong with your face, dear?”

But Tulip just lowers her head further and looks away, seemingly hiding her visage from Alma’s sight. With a confused look at Lyria, the goddess kneels and cups the Bunny’s cheek with her hand, gently bringing Tulip’s face up toward her mother’s. The sight is something between shocking and hilarious. Tulip’s face is covered in makeup of all types and colors, everything spread and blended so chaotically that the Bunny looks like a canvas for an abstract piece of art. Dark rouge is spread along her pale forehead, eyeshadow is smeared in various shades across her eyelids and the bridge of her nose. Bright red lipstick is pretty much everywhere. There is even some makeup on her ears!

Surprise quickly gives way to an almost overwhelming urge to laugh. It takes all the self-control in Alma’s body to keep her amusement down to a smile. “Oh Tulip…”

She tips Tulip’s chin up so that Lyria can see what is going on. A soft gasp and almost immediate giggling fill the hallway.

“I just wanted to see if it’d make me look better!” Tulip protests, frowning and nearly crying, her hands clenched in fists, her long ears plastered back in anger at being laughed at.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s soft, white hair to soothe her. “Well, you may have overdone it just a little bit. Where did you get all that makeup, anyway?”

Tulip looks down, ears drooping, shoulders hanging low, all of the anger gone from her frame and replaced by a different type of nervousness. This is clearly an uncomfortable question and Alma already suspects the answer. Even if she does not wear makeup with any level of frequency, the goddess has always somehow felt an urge to keep a box of it close. Just a silly instinct, as if it were almost expected of her to do so. Tulip must have taken it. She could have kept it for months before Alma eventually found it missing.

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

Alma cannot help but smile and wrap her arms around the Bunny, careful to keep all of that makeup away from her clothing. “You could have just asked me, little one. Now, why don’t you go wash your face and I will show you how to do it, if you like?”

She feels Tulip’s hug tighten around her before the Bunny releases her and steps back. A quick kiss from Lyria to Tulip’s forehead and the young Bunny dashes off happily toward the bathroom. Cherry and Rosemary are just now moving closer, having witnessed the exchange from Tulip’s bedroom. Eyes held down, ears at half perk, they look abashed before the goddesses, probably as much from witnessing Tulip’s anger and hurt feelings as from the scolding look Alma is giving them both. The oldest of her Bunnies can be rather childish in some respects. This is one of those times that puts forward so clearly the fact that, albeit being twenty-four years in age, the twins have only been awake to rationality for half of that time. They are grown-up children. And children can be so cruel…

“You two…” Alma whispers, shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t be too harsh on them,” Lyria intervenes. “It’s clear they already feel bad enough about it.”

The older goddess opens her arms to her granddaughters and the Bunnies rush to hug her tightly in a double-sided embrace that brings a warm, contented smile to Lyria’s face.

“Why don’t the three of us go downstairs and you can meet us there when little Tulip is done washing?” she asks.

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

Cherry and Rosemary do not follow Lyria right away but pause to hug Alma. She holds them tightly. “Silly Bunnies” she whispers. “Go on, now.”

That earns her two bright smiles and soon she can hear Lyria chatting happily with the twins as they move downstairs. Done with the herculean task of removing all that makeup from her skin, Tulip eventually joins her mother, and looks at her expectantly. Alma tells her to go fetch the box of makeup. She could have easily gotten it from the little Bunny’s room but a childhood spent in a house where privacy was something that happened to other people has taught her the value in respecting some boundaries. Tulip’s room is meant to be her little haven and, without a proper reason or the Bunny’s approval, invading it would feel a bit like breaking and entering.

Makeup kit safely held in her hands, Tulip follows her mother downstairs, where the lighting is better. Cherry and Rosemary seem to have disappeared into the kitchen. Lyria already sitting on the sofa, apparently caught in the middle of a lively chat with Nataniel, who is sitting with Syron, at a table nearby. Alma catches but the end of that conversation but it seems to be about some sort of plant extract. The way Syron is paying such close attention to it has Alma wondering what exactly the extract is meant to do but she does not get a chance to figure it out. As soon as they notice her presence, goddess and mortals fall silent and turn to look at her.

“Ah, much better!” Lyria cries, putting her hands together. “Ready for your first makeover, Tulip?”

Tulip nods and takes a seat at a table, halfway between the sofa and Nataniel’s table. She opens the makeup box, spreading all the pencils and brushes and the various pull-out drawers of compressed powders and waxy pigments with great care. Then she waits, looking intently at Alma as the goddess picks a chair and brings it closer to the Bunny’s. Cherry and Rosemary choose that moment to leave the kitchen carrying trays with juice glasses and pieces of a delightfully fragrant carrot cake. Tulip’s head shoots to glare at them but Alma gently brings the Bunny’s face to look straight ahead. The older Bunnies serve Nataniel and Syron with soft-spoken words of friendliness and, with glances at Tulip and Alma, sit down by Lyria, one on each side of the goddess and holding a treat for their grandmother.

Alma picks a soft, wide brush from her array of tools and strokes Tulip’s cheeks with it, making the Bunny giggle with its tickling touch. Then she dips it in a faintly tan powder and starts applying it close to Tulip’s jaw, to accentuate her delicate frame, still too round and childlike.

“Tell me, dear, why the sudden urge to experiment with makeup?” the goddess asks, picking a slightly different shade that will go on the cheeks.

“I don’t want to look like a kid, anymore!” Tulip replies with an energy that nearly has her headbutting the brush off Alma’s hand. “I want to be pretty.”

Alma tilts her head at this. At her young age, Tulip is already stunning. Of course, she is a stunning child but her features are all promising of a budding beauty that will probably capture many a man and woman’s fantasies. Almost an exact copy of Alma at the beginning of her transition into adulthood, even prettier for the healthy light and warmth that radiates from a child never burdened with chronic, life-threatening fevers, Tulip has nothing to complain about in the beauty department. “But you are pretty. You are, in fact, quite beautiful.”

Tulip scowls at that. “I’m pretty sure you have to say that, being my mom and all,” she mutters

Lyria’s laughter erupts at the swift response from the Bunny, bringing to Alma’s mind some old conversations from her own childhood, around this same issue. For as much as Alma is aware of her beauty and form now, this was not always the case. Lyria is probably enjoying seeing the proverbial shoe being shoved over the other foot.

With a slight glance at her mother that has both goddesses rolling their eyes and smiling in sympathy with each other, Alma stops applying the powder meant to highlight the softness of Tulip’s forehead. “Don’t scowl, please.” She looks intently at Tulip as she waits patiently for the Bunny to relax her face. “Why would I say it, unless it was true?”

“And it is true, guapa,” Nataniel volunteers.

Tulip turns her head to shower him with a bright smile. The soft-spoken mortal doctor is a favorite among the younger Bunnies, doting on them and spending time showing them some of the more mundane wonders of nature whenever his work-filled schedule allows. Although extremely careful not to step over his limits, Nataniel has thus far revealed a talent for storytelling, using old tales to teach the Bunnies important lessons about life and mindfulness of others. If spoken in the right tone, his words carry the weight of law with them.

So Alma does not take it amiss when Tulip seems to accept his comment so readily after dismissing hers with barely a thought.

“Did you look like me when you were my age?” the Bunny asks, turning back to Alma.

“No, I looked much younger at age 13,” the goddess replies, glancing at Lyria. “Mother?”

“Oh yes. Much, much younger,” Lyria confirms with a nod. “Why, it took her decades to look like you, Tulip.”

Not turning so that Alma can apply the eyeshadow, Tulip nevertheless narrows her eyes, making Alma exhale in mild frustration. “How old were you, then, mom?”

Alma tries to remember exactly how long it has been since she last looked that young. “Hmm… I had probably seen a little over thirty – maybe forty turns of the year by then.”

Tulip’s eyes widen in shock. Alma can barely avoid poking her in the eye with makeup brush. “Forty?! How old are you now?”

“Tulip!!” Cherry cries, fanning her face in simulated shock over a background of Lyria and Rosemary’s laughter. “A proper lady don’t ask those things!”

“It’s fine,” Alma replies, chuckling herself. “I am one hundred fifty-three years old, little one.”

“Wow…” Tulip whispers, making the goddess smear the lipstick she was trying to apply on the Bunny’s lips.

“Tulip…” Alma breathes, licking her thumb to wipe the peachy pigment off her daughter’s cheek.

“Sorry…” Tulip apologizes. “Just, that’s really, really, really old.”

That makes Alma chuckle. She looks at Lyria intently. “I am really, really, really old.”

“Oh, dear me!” Lyria jests, the back of her hand pressed dramatically against her forehead. “I do not dare think how many more reallies I would warrant at my age.”

“Och, but ye two look so young!” Rosemary coos.

“Yeah, how do you manage?” Cherry asks.

Just as Alma is about to answer that, she hears a soft mutter from her left. She looks a question at Nataniel, who very subtly jerks his head in Syron’s direction. The technician-slash-scientist is not even looking at Alma or at any other person in the room, for that matter. His eyes are distant, as if he was thinking about something else and simply happened to react at some word that caught his attention.

“Syron?”

He looks at her, seemingly returning from so faraway place. “Species-linked metabolic divergence.”

Silence spreads around the bar. Six pairs of eyes focus on the man, all probably waiting for him to start to make sense.

Syron rolls his eyes and breathes deeply. The kind yet often cluelessly dangerous genius is used to speaking to audiences that do not understand him.

“If I may, lady,” he starts. “The prevailing theory around that is of species-linked metabolic divergence. It is quite a fascinating comparative work on the life expectancies of different species. Imagine a…” He seems to hesitate for a moment. “A rat! And a man. Anyone will rush to say that the average man lives longer than the average rat. But take that man and that rodent and count the number of times each of their hearts beats in a minute, an hour, a day. Now, multiply it by the number of days their lifetime lasts. You will find that the final number you obtain is similar.” His fingers tap the wooden table, punctuating his words. “Conception, gestation, birth, growth, mating, reproduction, aging and death, they all fit in a rat’s two years just as well as they do in a man’s seventy. So it is my understanding, and that of some esteemed colleagues, that rats don’t live shorter lives. They live faster lives, exhausting themselves in less time than men. The same happens between men and gods, where men are the proverbial rats. Gods only seem to live much longer lives than us, maturing slower, aging slower, effectively living slower.” He looks meaningfully at Alma. “Is this not what happened to you, lady?”

Alma smiles at him. The mortal scientist can barely be bothered to treat anyone by their Guardia rank titles, usually addressing his fellow mortals by their first names. But when it comes to gods, and especially to Alma, the inveterate atheist has always shown a delicate reverence, all the more charming because he barely seems to be aware of it.

Sadly, she cannot confirm his strange theories. “Not entirely so, I’m afraid. Gods age pretty much at their leisure. Some never do. Some are created fully grown. To a god born of gods, age does not necessarily link to maturity or physical appearance. We may age overnight, go from young to wrinkled in minutes.” She turns to face Tulip again. “I looked very much like you for a long time. And younger than I look now until Cherry and Rosemary were born.”

“What happened?” Tulip asks. On the sofa, Cherry and Rosemary are looking expectantly at Alma, hanging from her every word.

The young goddess looks at them, lowering her gaze as she moves from one to the other to avoid locking eyes with Lyria. With a sigh, she replies, “I realized that I was not a child anymore? There was no pregnancy, no time to adapt. Suddenly, I had two babies in my arms, whose safety and well being depended on my being able to take good care of them.” She puts the makeup brush down. “I was forced to grow up, and so I did. My face soon followed my mind in that aspect. In a few months, I was looking years older.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop at the melancholy in Alma’s voice.

Cherry and Rosemary are both holding Lyria but Alma does not look at her mother. Lyria was there, the day Arion left the Insula. She knows better than anyone about the original deals struck to ensure the Bunnies’ safety, about Death’s anger at knowing that his daughter had once again created forbidden life forms. And Alma knows what she will see in her mother’s eyes if she looks that way: empathy, regret, disappointment and a bitter, hardened pride.

The young goddess smiles softly at her youngest child. “I am very glad I grew up. It brought me here.” Her smile widens at the sight of Tulip’s ears slowly perking up. Alma strokes her cheek to remove a little speck of misplaced makeup. “There, all done.”

Tulip’s eyes widen and she rushes to pick up the makeup box so that she can see herself in the mirror. Her jaw drops, making Alma chuckle. “Wow… I look…”

“The way you will look in a few years, most likely,” the goddess completes the sentence. “And those years will pass in the blink of an eye, little Tulip. There is no point in rushing them.”

“But I look…beautiful!” Tulip insists, turning to look at Lyria. “Don’t I?”

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

“Dang, you look gorgeous, girl!” Cherry chimes in.

“Ah, little one, you have always been beautiful!” Lyria exclaims with a giggle at the Bunny’s enthusiasm. “Even without the makeup.”

“Well…” Tulip hesitates, looking at herself in the mirror again.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s hair, wanting to freeze this moment in time, to keep her little Tulip always this age, always this innocent and sweet. And yet, at the same time she is curious to take the rest of the journey with the young Bunny, eager to watch Tulip blossom into her early adulthood. What will that be like? Who will Tulip become? She catches movement at the edge of her sight and looks in the direction of the kitchen to sees Gwydion entering the bar, coming from his room, looking like someone still trying to drown away the sweet sirens of slumber.

“Ask Gwydion if you don’t believe us, little one,” the goddess suggests, jerking her head at him. “I know you treasure his opinion.”

Tulip’s head shoots back to spot Gwydion, nearly turning 180 degrees in the process. The young Bunny dashes off to stand just in front of him, hands clenched behind her back, face looking up at him with intense anticipation. “Hi…”

Gwydion smiles pleasantly at her, although Alma detect some hints of uncertainty in that smile. “Hello, flower.”

“Notice something different?” Tulip asks, standing on tiptoes to bring the god’s attention to her face.

Gwydion’s expression freezes suddenly. Any man who has ever interacted with women for any given amount of time will know and dread moments like this. He looks at her appraisingly for a long time, inspecting her clothing, apparently sniffing the air around her. Alma tries to signal to him but he seems too focused on his inspection to notice her.

Finally, he speaks, “Hmm… is it the hair?”

Alma cringes even before Tulip’s cry pierces through the room. “No! I’m wearing makeup!” Her ears droop in a most heart-wrenching fashion. “You don’t think I look better than before?”

Gwydion glances at Alma, who smiles and shrugs helplessly at him. “I can’t quite tell. You have always looked absolutely stunning.” He recovers with barely a pause. “However…”

“Yes?” Tulip squeaks, beaming at the compliment.

“It is never pleasant to kiss a cheek that tastes of makeup,” Gwydion notes. “You look older than your years. It seems to me that the makeup robs you of that vital part of your natural beauty, your youth.”

“But I look like a kid!” Tulip shrieks, flailing madly.

“No,” the god states firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder and raising her chin with the other, so that the Bunny focuses on him. “You look like a young lady. And soon, you will look like a grown woman and then like an old woman. I would understand it if you tried to look younger then than older now.”

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

“You already know what you will look like,” Gwydion notes in those soft, charming tones of his as he guides the Bunny’s face to look at Alma. “Look at your mother. It will not be long before you look like her without need for any makeup.”

“Yeah, but…How old will you be by then?” Tulip argues meekly.

Gwydion seems to consider this. “Hmm… Not much older than I am now, it seems. A decade, maybe?” He looks at Alma for confirmation and she nods at him. “It may seem like a long time to you but it will go by in an instant to me.”

Tulip looks somewhere between confused and slightly hopeful. “Oh…” She shrugs. “Well, this all seems like too much trouble to put on every day, anyway.”

“Now, there’s a smart girl!” Cherry quips.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t wear any makeup either!” Tulip retorts.

“Does it look like I need it?” Cherry replies. She immediately adds. “Don’t anybody answer that!”

The room explodes with laughter. In a glance, Alma catches Gwydion looking inquisitively at her and makes a little mental note to reward the god later for his outstanding performance.

Ch6.32 Trust

Alma, Sky, Bunnies, Saira, Gwydion

The late-afternoon sun makes Sky pull his field cap down a little further to keep the light out of his eyes. Motes of dust glimmer in the light. Three Rats is on the morning side of the Insula, and whichever of the great Solar Clan deities who is driving the Sun Chariot today has already begun to go beyond the mountain. Night falls early and lasts long in this part of the Fourth Ring.

But still children play and merchants hawk their wares. Familiar faces greet him, and he pauses to speak to a few of the friendliest. Suspicion of his Guardia jacket – an everyday wool one, not the reinforced leather coat that had served him for years until its destruction in a recent battle – has faded somewhat. Many here may still see the Guardia as merely another gang, but they’ve proven to be the toughest gang, and the most reliable. When the Guardia say they will help, they follow through. When they say they will protect, they do, and ask for nothing in return. Months of holding to that code is beginning, finally, to have its effect.

No more bribes. No more extortion. No more rolling over for the mobs and being their cringing dogs. The Guardia here had been too few in number before, and underfunded at that, ignored by the top brass. Machado, as commanding officer, had done as well as he could, but some of his constables had not, and he had been unable to afford to lose any of them.

Things are different now.

Sky arrives at the front of the station, pausing to look at its façade. A fresh coat of paint would do nicely, tell everyone we’re doing fine, he thinks, and then laughs at himself. Even a week ago – no, two weeks ago, as he’d been asleep for a full week, recovering – such a detail would not have occurred to him. He’d been reeling with exhaustion, having burnt mana to put off sleep for a dangerously long time, happy to have Alma and Dion back to mop up the last of the shard gangs, the shattered remains of the Dukaine mega-gang that had fallen into a civil war upon the death of their leader, the Archon Nekh. Before that he had been for a time the only Dei in Three Rats Station, with little choice but to stay awake to support the Popula cops amid the chaos. And before that… So much had happened, so quickly. The theft of the Pearl. The attempts to murder the Bunnies. And now this necromancer business. He feels ashamed to have left in the middle of that, but there had really been no choice. Fatigue had made him more of a danger than a help.

Time to return to work. He opens the door and steps into the station. His station. Constables look up from what they are doing. A conversation between Patel and the Bunny Sage ceases, and the latter straightens, grinning broadly, and walks swiftly to stand between Sky and the others.

“Inspector, let me be the first to welcome you home,” Sage says, his soft voice filled with a touching joy. “You’re looking well.” Sky looks at the others, who are all smiling as well, murmuring “Good to see you, sir” and “Welcome back, sir.”

“Thank you,” he says to all of them with sincere pleasure. “It’s good to be back.” To Sage he asks, “Who is on command duty?” Ordinarily it would be Alma at this time of day, but the schedule could have been adjusted while he was out.

“Sergeant Alma, sir,” Sage says. They are friends, but like Mayumi, Sage, as a civilian secretary to the station, prefers to keep things formal while on duty, at least in front of the Popula. When Sky glances toward his own office door here on the ground floor, Sage indicates the upper floor with a movement of his chin. “In her office.”

Sky nods his thanks and proceeds to the stairs, noting a yellow rope tied across the door to the stairs leading down to the holding cells. Alma has been the commanding officer, not just for her shift but as a whole, in his absence, and according to Somrak she’s done a good job. Sky has no doubt in that report. But Somrak has also mentioned Alma’s stress, and though not exactly eager to resume the demanding role of leader, Sky does wish to relieve her of this burden as soon as possible.

The door opens before he can knock, and Alma’s smiling face welcomes him. Her delight at seeing him is apparent, but she doesn’t say a word, just grabbing his sleeve and pulling him inside, shoving the door closed, and then tightly clasping her arms around him, her face pressed against his chest. “Welcome back,” she whispers.

Sky puts his long arms around her slender body, kissing the top of her head. “I’m sorry I was gone so long. But I hear things went just perfectly.”

She laughs into his chest, and he laughs with her. She loosens her grip and looks up at him. “If that’s what you heard, someone’s been telling you fables.”

His smile fades. “I hope Somrak didn’t cause any serious problems. If there’s anything that needs taking responsibility for, I will do so.”

Alma pats his broad chest. “Don’t be silly. Everything has been handled and the reports are already sent.” She steps back and gestures toward her desk. “Kept the copies out for you to read later. She is all yours again, Inspector.” She puts her hands behind her back and smiles impishly, as if she is restraining herself from jumping with joy at being free of the burden.

Drily, Sky says, “Oh joy, paperwork.” He looks at Alma and takes her hands. “Thank you, Alma. You kept this place running through some very trying times, Somrak tells me.”

Her gaze falls as her smile vanishes. “I am afraid I didn’t do a very good job. No matter what Somrak may have said, I feel like I may not be a very good choice when it comes to leading a station.” With a tiny sound of anguish, she hugs him again. “I missed you, my friend.”

Sky envelops her in his powerful arms, wrapping her in a cocoon of affection. “I’m back. And Somrak and I have worked with a good many station commanders of a wide range of ability. The best leaders pretty much always have doubts about whether they’re a good choice for the job.”

Alma sighs happily in their embrace. “So…how much did Somrak tell you?”

“Let’s put it this way…I almost choked to death twice.” He feels his chuckling reverberating through her from his chest to his arms.

“Oh…that much, heh?” She giggles, then looks up at him. “Then I guess there isn’t much left to tell. He really tried to behave. Didn’t always succeed but he tried. And I’m glad you have him for a friend.”

Sky smiles sadly and he releases her. “We talked more as I was waking up than we had in the past couple years of working together. He seems…different.” He sniffs the air. “And…has someone been housing a dog in here? Or maybe…a lion?”

“Oh, that was just a tiger we rescued from the demon market. Somrak agreed to take the poor creature as a gift to my aunt. I wanted to keep him but…I have too many pets already.”

Sky can only stare, astonished for the twentieth time today. “Somrak forgot to mention the tiger. Such a minor detail compared to everything else.”

“Oh…” Alma considers. “I believe the tiger arrived here after Somrak was feeding you, if I have it all straight. So he wouldn’t have known about it yet.”

“I’m almost sorry you didn’t keep it… I wonder what other surprises are still to be found. I see there’s repair work going on downstairs.

Alma blinks before realization dawns. “Oh! Yes…The team repairing the cells has found a cellar. Maybe a sub-basement for storing goods that was sealed away for some reason. The think it may be quite large, but I told them to wait until tomorrow before going in.” She pokes his chest with a finger. “And by the way, you will be dealing with the contractors from now on.”

“Oh dear. Have they been rude?” He sounds like he might possibly become annoyed.

Alma laughs. “Worse. They have been dwarves…or dwarfs. Don’t ask them which one is right.”

Sky’s face lights up. “Oh! The Zwergen! Somrak and I had a fascinating stay in one of their cities once, during a mission. Yes, they can be…argumentative. It’s a cultural thing. Actually sort of hardwired into their language. You see…”

Alma interrupts, “Somrak mentioned it. Maybe you two can compare notes when he visits for the Year’s End celebrations and gift-giving.”

Sky feels surprised yet again. “Somrak is coming for New Year?”

“He promised he would do his best to be present. Although I know how it may not be possible. But if it is, we’ll see him again soon.”

Sky nods slowly. “I think he truly will do his best. Not that I would have believed it before our conversation this morning. But if he can’t…it’ll be because he really can’t.”

“Of course,” Alma says. “After all, the Year’s End will be in just a few days and he just left… But anyway, make sure to remember him during your gift shopping. Even if he can’t make it, we can always compensate later.”

“Gift shopping!” Sky feels almost light-headed. “Gifts… I haven’t bought New Year gifts for so long. Not since Somrak and I got the Commander gag gifts five…no six years ago. And no gifts for probably ten years before that.”

Alma bursts out laughing. “Oh the story of you two must be a rich one… Gift-giving is not really a tradition in my family. Each of us receives only one thing and it is always the same thing. For everyone. Our soul-collection log books. So, this will be new to me too. But the Bunnies want to do it and they will have anything they want for this first Year’s End together.”

Sky says seriously, “That’s right…their first New Year…oof. Pressure. And I’m terrible at choosing presents, too.”

“Well, maybe you can ask Gwydion for help. Which reminds me…He must be at the bar at this time. We should have a little meeting to make sure you’re caught up on everything. And I’m sure he will be happy to see you. Shall we go?”

Sky smiles as Alma takes his arm and he opens the door. “Of course. So who’s been using my office?”

“No one. It is as you left it. We all shared this office. I just told Somrak he could use my desk.” They begin to descend the stairs together.

“Oh you didn’t have to do that. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Sky notices that the main room of the station is empty. Strange.

Alma shakes her head. “It just did not feel right. Move into your office? And for a week? No. We were fine where we were. Whenever my desk was occupied, I just used Gwydion’s. He doesn’t mind my using it.” She squeezes Sky’s arm, smiling. “He was…really supportive during your absence.”

Sky pauses before the door to the breezeway, looking at her. “I am very happy to hear that. You know, Somrak, me, perhaps Dion as well…this place changes people.” He grins at her. “Or maybe it’s just the company we’re keeping.”

Looking please and slightly embarrassed, she replies, “There are good people here. And besides…Bunnies.” She chuckles and opens the door. “They’ll change anyone. Oh, I have had my first lesson with the infamous Master Pak.”

Sky closes his eyes and groans. “Pak… You know those dreams where you find yourself back in the Academy and it’s exams time and you’re late and you can’t find a pencil? Or your pants? I feel like that every time I remember I’ll be training with him again.”

Alma laughs softly. “You see, it is things like that that made me very worried about my first session. But he was…nice. Encouraging. Offered me tea. Very different from my we-don’t-believe-in-dull-practice-weapons training with the Fencer. And just so you can have an idea…this sword is my old practice sword from my times with her.”

“Well, Pak can take different approaches with different students. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all teacher. And you never know, next time he might be smacking you with a stick. One time–”

Sky opens the door to the bar and freezes at the ragged roar of “SURPRISE!” followed by calls of “Welcome back” and “Yay!” Alma steps away just as a slight body springs at him, squeeing, and he automatically catches Tulip as her arms and legs wrap around him. She plants a big kiss on his cheek and then hugs him tight. “Mmmmmm! You’re here! Do you know what? There was a big rat? And Somrak burnt the table? And I didn’t see it but I heard all about it and oh Somrak had a tiger?”

Sky rides the tide of words. Holding her brings back memories in a sudden flood, of children held, of presents and a tree and family.

“Come on, give the guy a break!” Cherry takes his hand and pulls him into the crowd, looking back at him with a big smile. Still holding Tulip, Sky sees Sage grinning with his arm around Constable – no, once-again Corporal Aliyah Kaur’s waist, apparently seeing this as momentarily off-duty. Merri is pouring drinks under a red paper banner covered in hearts and stars that reads “WELCOME HOME!” and Kori and Chime are helping to serve them out to the Popula constables from the office.

Gwydion negotiates his way through the mob and takes Sky’s hand from Cherry and shakes it. Then, seeing the overwhelmed look on Sky’s face, he lets go Sky’s hand and gives him a warm one-armed man-hug. “Welcome back, my friend. You were missed.”

Stunned, Sky returns Dion’s embrace while still holding Tulip with his other arm, as she chatters to him about this and that, and then Tulip shifts her grip to Dion and kisses the sergeant on the cheek and snuggles against him.

“Welcome back, sir!” Aliyah has approached and, perhaps unable to resist all this affection, she hugs him as well. A beer appears in his hand, given to him by Kori, who grins and darts away, and another hand takes his free one. He looks down to see Mayumi, who had been out of sight before, waiting until the others had their chance perhaps.

Her mouth moves. He cannot hear her above the tumult, but he knows she is saying hello. Her eyes crinkle in sympathy. She reaches up to touch his cheek, to touch the moisture that is spilling over. Oh…they’ve made me cry, he thinks. Mayumi’s nose turns a little pink and her eyes become wet in reaction to his tears, but it passes after a moment. She pulls him away, over to the sofa, where Saira has been sitting through all this, perched on one end. Mayumi sits him down on the other.

Saira raises her glass to him, leaning forward across Mayumi to tap his drink with hers. “I think they just might like you.”

Sky can do nothing but nod, holding Mayumi’s hand, the beer as yet untouched in his other. Merri brings a slice of cake, sees the tears, exclaims, “Oh!” and takes his beer, setting it alongside the cake on a table, twisting her apron around two fingers to pat his face dry with it. “Ye great silly…” the Bunny says, her voice full of affection.

Across the room, Sky sees Alma on the periphery of all this watching him with a small smile. Dion brings her a slice of cake, and though he does not put an arm around her, the way they stand tells anyone who looks that they are a couple.

“Sky?” Mayumi is looking at him, a little worried.

He gives her a watery smile. “I’m all right.” His voice is thick. “I’m home.”

Ch6.26 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Serg–!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.04 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods. “But there are still dangers.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By way of answer, she kisses him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody will come in…probably.

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamscape (part 1)

Her mane billows in an unseen breeze as she gallops through the endless distance. Silver and white glitter on her smooth coat, filling the emptiness around her with the faint glow of her essence. Her long tail whips freely against her rump while she runs, jumps, kicks the air in the simple joy of being free to do as she pleases.

By her side, he gallops, sure and swift, his powerful legs carrying him without effort through the vastness of space. His presence fills her with a sense of safety and inner peace that she has not felt in years. His shiny black coat glistens against the hollow darkness of the Void, the long streaks of white hair among his black mane drawing swift ghosts of light in the air. Confidence and wisdom emanate from every pore on his elegant, majestic form.

She follows his lead, reading the movements of his strong, muscular neck and head to guess his next steps. She veers playfully toward him, letting her shoulder brush against his before running a little further ahead of him. A weak snap of his teeth against her flanks followed by his looming shape moving quickly past her has her neighing in exhilaration.

Their hooves pound the emptiness, raising thunder at each step. It grows louder and louder and louder until it fills her ears, her whole world. She glances behind her…

… and then she sees them. Void Riders. Dozens of them, dark and imposing, of all ages and sizes, running behind her, their hooves ripping pieces of reality from the nothingness of the Void at each vigorous pounding of their hoofed feet.

They are family. Even if they are not her family, they are family. Young foals run up to her, skid and slide, jump and bite the air, playing like the children they are, making her feel welcome among the running crowd. She looks to her right to see him looking at her, his ear turned in her direction announcing his vigilance before he veers to the right and guides the whole group through the dark horizon. They gallop for a long time, amidst stars and moons, suns and comets.

The nothingness breaks. A world takes shape.

The Insula.

Standing on the borders of Reality, they look down at the mountain that rises from the bowels of the Void in crowded circles filled with gods and men and all creatures in between. Below, they look like bugs squiggling through their earthen galleries, flying through the frail strands of being that the Urbis offers. She looks at the streets she used to know, at the world that once seemed so vast and rich before her eyes.

A desperate cry breaks the silence.

She looks to her left and her eyes widen in terror. The magnificent horses struggle and kick, their limbs and necks bound by ropes wrapped so tightly around them that they cut into the skin, burying into the flesh, digging deep to the bone, staining their dark coats with the glistening oily black of their blood. They flail with their necks, throwing their heads back, standing on their hind limbs, their eyes turned with such violence that only the white sclera peek through their eyelids. Pulled in different directions, they fall to the floor, kicking the air, snapping their teeth at the ropes that keep cutting into them, ignoring pain as they flail with their necks, trying desperately to get back on their feet.

The vision paralyses her. All around her, one by one, the Void Riders fall and disappear into the darkness, dragged by the terrible ropes that seem to stretch out of nowhere, pulled by invisible hands.

By her side, a body hits the ground.

Arion. Dead. His lifeless body stares blindly into the darkness as blood drips from his nostrils, clots over the cuts on his skin through which his bones project, his guts slip out of his belly and dry while the sliced arteries on his neck slowly spurt what is left of his blood as his heart beats for the last time.

She takes a few steps back with the shock, her lips trembling with terror. Something inside her breaks. She screams. It comes out as a neigh, primal and guttural, echoing her distress through the Void.

She runs. Through the nothingness she canters without knowing where to go. She has no plans, no destination. Only fear. Only terror. They are dead! All dead, all gone! Arion is gone! What will she do now? What will she do?

The touch of the lasso against her neck makes her skid to a halt. Her thoughts rush to fill the blanks. She must have run right into it. She feels its grip tighten, feels it bite into her flesh. Panic takes over again. Her hooves pound the floor, launch her up on her hind legs, kicking wildly with her hooves until she feels her forelimbs wrapped in the rough, chafing coils of the terrible, mysterious ropes. She fights against them, ignoring the pain, the unyielding cables that keep tightening and cutting into her like blades.

Her tail is snared. She feels the hair being pulled out, the skin burned by the friction of the dragging ropes. For as much as she fights, she can’t keep them from pulling at her, jerking her left and right. Another rope shoots from the darkness to encircle her muzzle, cutting through her lips. She can taste her own blood as it washes over her tongue.

She falls.

The ropes pull her, tear at her muscles, gnaw deep into the bone while she is dragged through the Void, kicking, flailing, screaming in pain and panic at the sight of the decaying corpses of the Void Riders all lined up in two rows like the most horrific of honor guards.

In the distance, other screams pierce the darkness. Horrible screams, frightening screams made all the more blood-curdling for sounding so familiar in her ears. She redoubles her struggles against the ropes. The end of the corpse-strewn avenue seems ever closer as the eerie cables pull her relentlessly but she doesn’t want to go. She doesn’t want to see what lies there.

In her freezing, paralyzed heart, she already knows.

The stench of sulphur and blood fills her nostrils. The ropes bite deeper into her as she thrusts her neck upwards and pulls on the ones that hobble her forelimbs, trying desperately to get back on her feet.

Still, the screams grow louder, nearer. The darkness ignites.

The growling red and orange of the fire pits taint her blood-stained coat, their charring breath burns into her wounds, cauterizing her flesh, stealing her screams.  

From a hook through the throat, the imposing carcass of Arion hangs gutted, his lifeless eyes staring blindly at her as she is dragged past him, gliding over the pool of blood and other bodily fluids oozing from his slit intestines. She closes her eyes, hoping that this is just a dream, a nightmare, anything but real. She tries to wake up, begs for the morning to come.

“Alma…” a voice calls.

She shudders at her name being spoken so softly. Her eyelids lock shut.

“Alma…” the voice insists.

Please, let this be a call to wake up, she prays.

Her eyes shoot open. She wails in despair. Above her, dangling from hooks that rip through their chests, the Bunnies dangle, lifeless, cut in unspeakable ways.

Mayumi’s ears are gone and so are her hands. Her liver lies on the floor. Cherry’s tongue hangs from a hole cut in her throat. Sage’s chest is ripped apart, his tender heart revealed through the slits that run between his ribs. Closeby, Tulip’s small, frail body convulses in the last agonies of death.

“Mommy…” she hears her say before the Bunny’s throat is flooded in blood.

Amongst tears, Alma sees him holding a bloody knife, looking blankly at the Bunny’s corpse as he reaches into it and pulls out her still-beating heart.

“Alma…” he says, turning to her.

Gwydion, no! she begs in shock. Please… Why?

“Look at what you’ve made me do, Alma,” he says, his soulless eyes looking down at her as he grins and walks over to her fallen figure.

What have you done, Gwydion? My family! she cries in thought.

Tulip’s heart slips off his fingers, gets squashed under his right foot. “It’s all right, now,” he says. “Now we can be together.”

Gwydion…

The ropes pull at her. To her right, a massive foul black demon covered in red symbols, all wings and horns and claws and teeth, erupts from a fire pit, bellows in rage as he tugs at her bindings.

She looks back at Gwydion. He raises the knife.

“I just have to get you out of that disgusting body.”

She closes her eyes.

Alma and the Bunnies 2

Cherry clears her throat and asks, “Hey, uh…Mom? I got a question… Wait a second… Mama? Mommy? Hey whaddya wanna be called, huh? We ain’t never had anyone to call that before.” At first she sounds as if she is trying to make a joke, but as she trails off, Cherry’s voice becomes small and wistful.

Alma is now barely able to move with Tulip on her right shoulder, Mayumi on her left, and Cherry trapping her left arm against Mayumi’s back. All the Bunnies have their own rooms now, upstairs, but sometimes they just seem to need these moments of closeness, of reconnection,  when they come together and dogpile on her. Or Bunny-pile.

“Whatever you feel comfortable calling me is what you should call me,” she replies. “I will not hold it against you if all you can call me is Alma.”

Sage gently scoops up Tulip and carries her to the foot of the bed. “To me, ‘Mother’ sounds right, but sometimes ‘Mama’ feels right too.”

Ugh, that’s it. I’m going to be sick. Nekh fades away and Alma feels relief as his oppressive presence lifts from her mind for the moment.

Mayumi snuggles in closer. “I was raised to say that sort of thing quite formally.” She chuckles almost silently. “And in front of the Guardia officers, I couldn’t possibly call you even ‘Alma’. It would seem so…disrespectful to call you anything other than ‘Sergeant’ or ‘Ma’am’.”

Alma shakes her head. “I see no disrespect in it. But I do understand. You were going to ask a question, Cherry?”

Cherry looks up in surprise, as if she had completely forgotten this. Then, she seems to remember, “Oh yeah! Before I so rudely interrupted myself! I was gonna ask if you, uh, ever had a relationship gone wrong. Cause it kinda sounded like you were talkin’ from experience before.”

“Oh…” Alma’s voice trails off for a moment. “I… It did not exactly go wrong.” She grimaces. “And then again, I suppose it did. It started like a bedtime fairytale but then…circumstances pulled us apart.”

Cherry releases Mayumi’s hand and strokes Alma’s cheek. “You don’t gotta tell us if you ain’t ready. But now or later, we’re always ready to listen.”

“That’s right,” Rosemary chirps. “We’re bartenders, after all!”

Alma chuckles, and focuses on Mayumi’s brown eyes. “It was a bit like it is with you, dear. I had a strict, protected childhood. He was, and is, much older than I. Everything felt like the answer to a much-repeated prayer. The things I saw and learned from him were so different from what I had been allowed to see before. I often wondered if I didn’t look like a child in his eyes, if my words rang childish in his ears.” She smiles. “But one by one, he dispelled those fears and we were happy.”

Oh, what a happy-ever-after princess you are!

Alma mentally groans at Nekh’s return.

“So how come you guys ain’t together anymore?” Cherry asks.

Oh yes, do tell!

Alma breathes deeply, knowing what direction the conversation is taking and bracing herself for what comes next. Sooner or later, the truth would have had to come out. “Gods have their callings. And he was called away to look after his family. He is a Void Rider, a god of the vast nothingness beyond the Insula. And I… Like many other gods, I cannot survive there.”

Mayumi raises herself up on her elbows, her ears alert, her expression puzzled.

Cherry, her view of Alma blocked, shifts to sit cross-legged, and tilts her head to the side. “Void Rider…what’s that? Sounds kinda cool!”

Alma takes the opportunity to sit up as well, stretching her freed arms above her head. She says to Cherry, “They are gods of creation, of reality. Most of the time, they look like great, majestic horses. There are dozens of them.” She sighs. “He is their leader, so he must stay with them. As I must stay with you.”

Rosemary grins. “A horse, is he?”

Cherry looks Alma up and down with a lazy smile. “My oh my…” she says, while Mayumi simply blinks and blushes. Sage, on the other hand, does not seem surprised at all.

Ignoring Nekh’s derisive laughter, Alma smiles and says, “Some gods can change their shape, Rosemary… When I met him, he looked more…human. Albeit with some unusual characteristics.”

There is a heartbeat of silence before Cherry and Rosemary burst into laughter, Rosemary almost rolling off the edge of the bed, clutching her belly and curling into a fetal position, while Cherry flops onto her back again, head hanging off the upper end of the bed. Sage shakes his head and puts his palm to his face, while Mayumi just giggles quietly. The cat, Lexie, gives Rosemary an annoyed look and moves down to the end of the bed to sit next to Tulip, where she starts cleaning herself.

And you say I have a filthy mind, Nekh mutters. I don’t hold a candle to those two.

Alma blinks before realization dawns, then she chuckles, and the chuckle grows into a laugh. “I suppose I should have phrased that better. I meant his face…”

Rosemary finally stops laughing, and gasping for breath, rolls back to face Alma. “Och, we’re sorry! Our minds’re naturally right dirty.”

Alma shakes her head. “I wonder who you two take after…”

Mayumi sighs. “They’re really not quite as bad as they pretend to be.”

Alma shakes her head. “Moving on… He visited the Insula a few more times after that. But he can never stay long. Our love story has been on hold for a little over a decade, now.

Oh please, Nekh whines. Can’t you see he’s just not that into you? If he gave a damn, he wouldn’t stay away.

You sound like you are giving relationship advice now, Alma replies, amused, causing Nekh to groan and make sounds in her head of stomping away and slamming a door. As she feels that oppressive presence disappear again, she thinks to herself, I need to cuddle with my Bunnies more often.

Rosemary sits up. “A little over a decade? As in…thirteen years plus a bit?” She looks at Sage sitting at the end of the bed, blanket-wrapped Tulip curled up next to him. Sage nods at her, a slight smile on his lips.

 

Cherry sits up and looks at a grinning Rosemary, a smiling Sage, at Mayumi with her hand to her mouth, before looking at Alma, who watches and waits for their reactions as the truth dawns on them. “Huh?” Cherry looks at Tulip, who amazingly has slept through all this noise. “Wait, what??”

Sage asks quietly, “Do you mean this god is…our father?”

Alma takes a deep breath. It is time. “Yes. His name is Arion. When he left, Cherry and Rosemary had just been created.”

“But then,” Mayumi asks, “a little later he returned?”

“We were in love,” Alma says. “I love him still.”

Rosemary coos, “Awwww!”

Cherry raises her hand like a student. “So if we’re half horse, how come we got bunny ears instead a’ pony ears? I mean, that just makes zero sense.”

Alma says gently, “You are the result of a mystical process of creation, Cherry. You could just as well have dog tails. He is not your father in the traditional sense of the word, after all.”

Cherry grimaces. “Dog tails! Urgh! I like my Bunny tail!”

Alma shakes her head. “I miss him terribly but we just cannot seem to find a way to be together for longer than a glimpse into each other’s dreams. Loving each other and staying together are two very different things. Especially when gods are concerned.”

Mayumi nods slightly at this, her face thoughtful. Alma looks at her sadly, hoping that she and Sky will find a way.

Sage interrupts her thoughts, speaking up softly. “He came to me in a dream. When I was in the cage. He let me know you all were on your way to help.”

Alma raises her eyebrows in surprise, then smiles. “I am glad he did. And that he sent help so we could arrive quickly. Your father loves you and looks after you just as much as I do. Never doubt that.”

Mayumi hesitantly speaks, “I think…I had some sort of dream about him. But it’s very vague. Perhaps it was nothing. I can’t recall all of it.” For a moment she seems about to say more, but she closes her mouth and shakes her head slightly.

“Huh,” Cherry huffs, crossing her arms. “I don’t remember dreamin’ about him, but I sure would like to.”

Alma strokes the Bunny’s ears, the black fur amazingly soft. “If I see him in my dreams, I will let him know you want to meet him. But I have no way to control when it will happen. I have not dreamt of him since our first night here.”

Rosemary takes the cloth on Saira’s forehead and goes to the pool to wet it. “Well, we’re just happy ye’ve got someone here in the wakin’ world now.”

Cherry giggles and fans herself with her hand. “Yeah, talk about ‘my oh my!’ Hey, does this mean Dion’s off-limits to me and Mer?” She winks at Alma.

Rosemary laughs as she sits on the bed again and puts the cloth on Saira’s forehead. “Aw! Say it ain’t so!”

Alma looks at them, crossing her arms. “I would love to know just what you two are talking about.”

Mayumi looks at them disapprovingly. “They are just teasing, Mother.” Cherry sticks her tongue out at Mayumi.

“I see,” Alma says, choosing her words carefully. “So…you want to know if Gwydion and I… If we are involved romantically.”

Rosemary claps her hands, delighted. “Yes! Yes! Oh ye are, ain’t ye? The way ye look at each other!” She sighs at the romance of it.

Cherry chuckles. “The way you smell like each other.”

Alma rolls her eyes. Bunny noses… “We have been enjoying each other’s company, yes. But I am afraid neither of us is prepared to commit to any more than that.”

Mayumi says, gently, “He has…surprised us.” She smiles.

Sage nods. “Mmm. We really were not sure about him at first.”

“Ah, I always knew he was a good guy!” Cherry exclaims. “He resisted me and Mer, right?”

“Oh yes, he must’ve already had eyes for our dear Mama!” Rosemary agrees.

“Did you ever think that maybe he wasn’t attracted to the two of you?” Mayumi teases.

Cherry snorts. “As if!” and tackles Mayumi, tickling her sides. Mayumi screams quietly, laughing and struggling while Cherry tries to pin her wrists with one hand, breaking one hand free and tickling back. Tulip finally reacts, rolling over and grumbling incoherently at the noise.

Alma watches all this with a sense of amusement and wonder. To think that such a short time ago she was expecting to have her children, her own life, taken away from her. That these silly, wonderful beings could have been snuffed out by the whim of imperious gods who had never met them.

She clears her throat, causing the combatants to look at her, and glances at Tulip. They follow her glance, then look at each other and silently call a truce with a kiss, then lie in each other’s arms while Alma says, “Well, I must admit Gwydion is a scoundrel.” She smiles. “But he is a rather sweet one when he wants to be. We’ll see how it all goes.”

Rosemary asks, “Does this mean we should stop flirtin’ with ’im?”

“No way!” Cherry says, cuddling Mayumi, grinning. “It means we can flirt ten times as much, and he can’t do nothin’ about it!”

Alma chuckles. “Poor Gwydion. Flirt away all you like. But for now… If I don’t get some rest before my nightly harvests, I will be very grumpy later on during my shift.”

Cherry gives Mayumi another kiss, looking into her eyes for a long moment, then sits up. “Nobody wants a grumpy Alma.” She hugs Alma and kisses her as well. “As much as this warm comfy pile o’ Bunnies is temptin’ to stay in, we oughta be up in the bar. These cops are pretty good about servin’ themselves and leavin’ money, but that’s only for bottled beer.”

“Och yes!” Rosemary says. “This is usually a slow night, but still! Sage, would ye mind lookin’ after Saira, love?”

Sage nods, while Alma gently drags Tulip back up near her and lies down. The cat follows the young Bunny and curls up between Alma and Saira, her back pressed against Saira’s thigh.

“Could I stay as well?” Mayumi asks.

“You never need to ask,” Alma says, smiling at them both before closing her eyes. “Good night, little ones.”

Oyasumi…Okaasan,” Mayumi whispers.

Sage echoes her, “Sleep well, Mother.”

But Alma is already asleep.