Sky holds his office door open for Alma, saying, “Please, sit down, Sergeant. Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you. That... would help, yes,” she says, rubbing her temple. “Is this about Mayumi coming into the station unaccompanied, sir? I apologize for that. It will not happen again.”
“No...no that’s quite all right. She didn’t cause any trouble. In fact...” He pauses, allowing the ritual of making tea to cover for his desire to order his thoughts. “In fact, I’m very glad she did so. It gave me a chance to speak with her, and...well as soon as I did, I realized what an idiot I had been.”
He hands the steaming cup of tea to her – straight, no lemon or sugar or milk – and speaks simply. “Sergeant Alma...yesterday I...I was a fool.”
Alma fixes him with her gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment before she speaks. He wonders if she is going to dash the tea in his face, but she sets it without drinking on his desk beside her and breathes deeply before saying, “You mean when you broke every rule of protocol, when you refused to let me release the Bunnies in private, a moment I have long awaited, or when you dashed out as if they were frightening and terrible creatures...” She tilts her head slightly. “Sir?”
Sky endures her listing of his sins. Her words are like knives, but he barely manages not to flinch. He speaks quietly but firmly. “All of those. I am sorry. I cannot offer any excuse.” He sits in the chair opposite her, the chair for guests. He looks down for a moment, then looks at her again. “But...you’ve seen the Anubi?” His voice is softer. “Those jackal-headed laborers that are used in some wards around the City?”
“Yes, I have. They were...created by one of my clan members. Before my time. They are the reason the laws restricting the creation of new life forms were introduced.” A barely detectable hint of shame creeps into her voice.
Sky nods. “Yes, I know. Well...then you know what they are like. Not even as self-aware or capable of true thought as an animal. They are essentially living automatons, slaves if such creatures can be called slaves. I...I have met many such creatures. I have arrested, or attempted to have charged, gods who have created them. And...I have seen much worse.” He pauses, intending to say more, but she rises from her chair and cuts him off.
“Amazing how people just assume things...” Alma starts pacing around, not looking at him, her voice rising in volume. “Everything must fall under a label before being judged, as if a name was everything standing between gods and humans, and beasts... and devils.” He feels a flash of dread at that word, but immediately forgets it as he notices how she is becoming more pale, as if she is using up her last reserves of strength in her anger. “Do you think anyone ever bothered to take a single look at the Bunnies? No! As soon as they were found, my little ones were deemed aberrations and I’ve had to keep them hidden and contained since the day they were created, away from everything and everyone in this world.” She sighs and shakes her head slowly, steadying herself with a hand on the back of her chair. “Even me...”
“Sergeant...you’re right. You, and they, were wronged. Terribly wronged.” He shakes his head. “And most recently by me. I don’t blame you a bit for despising me. But please, sit–”
“Look,”she interrupts him again, focusing her ice-cold angry gaze on a point just beyond his eyes. Her voice is leveled and low, but not any less disturbing for it. “I don’t know who you are trying to be and what you are trying to accomplish with this, but I do know that you must have stepped on some very expensive shoes to get yourself thrown into this rat trap. And if you did so...” She shakes her head slowly. “Then maybe you shouldn’t be throwing accusations at the other prisoners of this... purgatory. At least that much was expected of you.”
He nods, and stands. “You’re right.” She pauses and looks at him, and he shrugs and holds out his hands. “Well, what else can I say? You’re right. Look, I know I was a fool. And I can’t guarantee I won’t be one again. I was blinded by my experiences, yes, but prejudice is no excuse. And I won’t ask for your forgiveness, because I know I haven’t done a single thing to earn it. Not yet...but Alma – I’m sorry, Sergeant – please sit. You look completely worn out. Please...” He gestures toward the chair, his expression full of concern.
She looks at him, as if confused. Then she shakes her head and whispers, “Doesn’t matter.” As she moves to sit, she winces and raises her right hand to her temple again. Her foot catches on the chair leg and she begins to stumble, but Sky grasps her by the left elbow and hand. She reflexively grips his hand. He gently guides her to sit, then lets go. He hands her her nearly forgotten cup of tea, which she takes with subtly shaking hands to drink. Sky steps back and sits.
“Doesn’t matter, anyway,” she says. “We’re all trapped here for the gods know how long! Might as well try to get along.” She drinks her tea, not looking at him until she is finished. When she does, she just studies his face for a time, as if trying to figure him out.
Finally, Sky breaks the silence. “Sergeant, I need to do more than just get along with you. I need your help. As I said before, this is my first time to command a station. But it’s more than that...this is my first time to be assigned to a regular, permanent position at a station, ever. I’ve been in command positions, but not in stations. I’ve been assigned temporarily to stations, as a liaison or advisor for special situations, but always for short durations. All this,” he stands and spreads his hands to take in the entire Guardia station, “is new to me.” He takes her empty cup.
“Why are you telling me this? It doesn’t seem like the thing any intelligent leader would do.”
As he pours her another cup of tea, and one for himself, he half-smiles and says, “I’m telling you because I’m going to need the advice and support of my sergeants. Now I think I’ve managed not to gravely offend two of them, but the one with the most experience in serving in mixed Dei/Popula stations happens to be the one I’ve treated terribly. And...well, I’ve read your record. You’ve had a lot of unflattering reports written about you by your commanding officers. But I know some of those officers you’ve served under – indeed, I’ve served under, or sometimes over, some of them myself, briefly. They’re the kind of deities whose unearned confidence leads them to crush anyone who thinks independently, and certainly anyone who would criticize them.”
He hands her the tea. “I get the feeling I can count on you to tell me when I’m doing something wrong.” He smiles sardonically and sits again. “And as for intelligent leaders...the best ones I’ve worked with haven’t tried to hide their weaknesses from their junior officers. They’ve been willing to listen and to learn, so as to erase those weaknesses.” He holds up his cup and then drinks.
Alma follows his example and drinks too, her hands now appearing a bit steadier than before, even if color hasn’t yet returned to her cheeks. “If you really do want my advice, sir, here it is: an innocent word on your lips may be a terrible one in my ears. Be careful about to whom you reveal information. You do not know me or Gwydion, or Machado, or anyone else in this station for that matter. Trusting us to be loyal to you just because you are our superior officer is not only naïve, it is stupid.”
Sky looks at her sadly. “You’ve really served in some snake pits, haven’t you? Well, you do know better than I...and I know this place is not exactly a utopia.” His voice drops to a dark mutter as he says this, introspectively. Then he looks at her and nods. “Thank you for your advice.”
She pauses before nodding an acknowledgement, then says, “Sir...about schedules and duty assignments...”
“Yes. I’ve put you on the day watch, as I thought that would be the best time for the Bunnies. Um...unless they’re nocturnal...”
The corner of her mouth twitches ever so slightly. “No, they’re not.”
“Oh, good to know. Sergeant, that report I have to write...of course I need to talk with the Bunnies more, get to know them better, see them in action – when they’re ready to assume whatever duties they’re best suited for. I do need something substantive to put in it, but –”
“Ah yes, your report. How could I forget?” Her eyes turn cold once again. “Maybe you should consider including this in it: those Bunnies... they are mine. My children! And all I have.” Her hair begins to ripple from an unseen wind as her divine power rises to the surface. “And if you or anyone lifts a finger against them –”
“Sergeant...calm yourself.” His expression is full of concern, but his voice is implacable. She brings her power back under control, but still looks at him with suspicion. “You have already strained yourself enough. I’ve spoken with Mayumi, and more briefly with the others, and...” he pauses and smiles as his voice fills with warmth, “Well, what you’ve done, Alma, is nothing short of a miracle. They are people. My report, I assure you, will be nothing but glowing. I already know that. But it’s not going to be worth much if all I can write is ‘They are wonderful people. Don’t you dare vote against them, or Alma will kill you.’
“And I appreciate your devotion to them,” he continues. “I am sad to say that they may well need such a fierce protector in the coming weeks.” He pauses, about to reveal his suspicions regarding a conspiracy, then changes his mind. “But while I don’t expect you to trust me yet, I assure you, I am now one of their protectors. I am not going to allow anyone to harm them.”
Alma remains in silence for a while. When she speaks again, her voice denotes nothing but true concern. “Do you really think I need your help, Inspector?”
He looks at her seriously. “I very much hope not, Sergeant.” He sighs. “For now, your primary duty is to give the Council no excuse for finding against the Bunnies. Prepare them, teach them, so they can be seen at their best. The report...as I said, don’t worry about that. But the Council could send someone around for an inspection, for all I know, so they need to be ready as soon as possible. Please let me know if there is anything you need.”
“I understand,” she says. She looks profoundly tired. “All I need right now is peace...and to be with them.”
“Of course, Sergeant.” He studies her face, concerned. “Could you tell me what’s wrong? If there’s anything I can do...”
“Yesterday was a bit of a strain on my reserves, I’m afraid. Complex magic was never something easy for me.”
“Oh, I see,” Sky says. “Yes, I’ve experienced that myself before.”
Alma rubs her eyes and shakes her head slowly. “I must go. The Bunnies are still not ready to be left alone for long without supervision.” She tries to rise, then sits again. Sky stands and moves next to her chair, ready in case she needs help. She steels herself and stands in one smooth movement. Nothing reveals her exhaustion except her paleness and an almost unnoticeable trembling of her hands.
Sky moves to the door, keeping an eye on her in case she stumbles. Before she reaches it, she lowers her head, seeming to remember something. She looks at him, almost apologetically. “This is probably a terrible time to make requests but... it’s not for myself. Cherry and Rosemary... they would like to restore the bar to its former glory...and use. With them as the proprietors. It would mean the world to them.”
Sky takes a moment to absorb this request, then chuckles. He pauses, then laughs more loudly. As his laughter fades, he sees her face. She is smiling, looking as if she might laugh herself, and that sets him off laughing again. He leans against the door, and feels immense pleasure when he hears Alma’s quiet laughter echoing his own. He looks back at her, seeing her smile, some color coming back into her cheeks. So beautiful, he thinks. Like the sun breaking through a storm.
“A bar? Yes...well...I will have to look into the agreement under which we acquired this land and the buildings...not sure if we’re renting or if we own...anyway, you know, it’s actually not such a bad idea. The cops wouldn’t have to walk far, of course, after having a few drinks, to find a safe place to take a nap.”
“Sure,” Alma replies, her smile tinged with sadness and exhaustion. “They also wouldn’t need to walk far to have a few too many...Thank you, sir. I will be with the Bunnies, should you need me.”
He nods, his own smile taking on the hue of sadness in hers. He opens the door for her. “Go rest now, Sergeant.”
She executes a weak salute, which he returns, then turns and walks across the common office to the door that leads to the former bar. Sky watches until she is gone, worried that she might let her control slip, but though she walks slowly, she walks with perfect confidence and poise.
The remains of his smile fade away as he reflects on his fears of the night before. He knows the report will not be enough, that indeed the Council may not even bother reading it. If he is right that there is some conspiracy afoot, perhaps to use the Bunnies to control Alma and gain some power over the Death Clan, he will need her to trust him, especially if it reaches the point where he is ordered to kill the Bunnies. He knows that he will refuse that order...but better to do everything possible to prevent it from ever being issued.
His mouth twitches again as he reflects on her words. Her defiance, partially misplaced as it is, only serves to make him – a god of rebellion – respect her more, and he’d certainly given her more than enough reason for that defiance. That she would lash out at a superior officer – in private, of course – is indicative not only of the long series of terrible commanding officers she’s served under, but of her bravery. Her assumption of his naïveté is also not entirely unfounded, but his ability to sense chains of loyalty, and of subjugation, allows him some sense of who he can trust, and who not. It’s an ability he keeps to himself. He is not as much an open book as he seems. At least he hopes not.
And on the subject of loyalties...he looks into the office, spotting Sgt. Machado and GC Zeffretti at their desks. Zeffretti is looking at him, but as Sky’s gaze falls on him, the man flinches and attends to some paperwork. Sky looks at Machado. “Sergeant,” he says, causing Machado to look up. “Could I have a word with you?”
As Sky holds the door open for the mortal sergeant to enter his office, he glances back at Zeffretti, who is looking at him again. They lock eyes, and Sky holds Zeffretti’s gaze long enough to make the color drain from the constable’s face. Then he closes the door.