“All right,” says Aliyah, “where the heck is Kori now?”
Mayumi points behind the bar. “He’s on the floor there, Corporal. He’s fallen asleep again.”
Cala, sitting on a chair at one of the tables, shakes her head as she sews, modifying more clothes for bunny tails. “Little dearie seems to spend a lot of time sleeping, doesn’t he?”
Aliyah, in uniform but with her jacket hanging on the back of a chair, goes over to look behind the bar and mutters, “I thought he just ‘woke up’ – learned his name and started talking and stuff. You’d think he’d want to spend more time awake now.” She looks at him, sleeping on the hardwood floor like he’d just passed out there. She sighs. He’s wearing only a pair of shorts – he tends to take his shirt off if the air gets even slightly stuffy – and although he looks no more than seventeen, she can’t help thinking, Why do all these Bunnies have to be so...hot? Light-brown hair, finely chiseled cheekbones, a slender, muscular frame. It’s distracting. I mean, the ears and tail make him look kind of silly, but...rrawr. ‘Course, Sage is even cuter...
Sage, sitting sewing with Cala, says, “He is young and still developing. But he may just be bored...”
Mayumi agrees. “Yes...you know, we really don’t need babysitters...you two must be quite bored too, coming in before your watch begins just to keep an eye on us.”
“Sergeant Alma wants you watched over, you’re gonna get watched over,” says Aliyah. “Besides, I can use the overtime.” She ‘watches over’ Kori for another couple of seconds, sighs again, and returns to the main area of the bar, glancing at Sage and smiling.
The place has certainly changed since a week ago, when it was stuffed with boxes. The boxes are all cleared away now, and she and Cala prevailed upon the other cops to bring in old chairs and tables. Three Rats has a garbage system that essentially amounts to “throw stuff anywhere that you can get away with,” so it wasn’t too hard finding things that had been discarded but were still repairable, or that sometimes didn’t seem to have anything wrong with them at all. Who knows why some people throw perfectly good things away? Of course to Aliyah, daughter of a big family that has always been slipping above and below the gray line that defines poverty in Three Rats – a line that lies much lower than in any Third-Ring neighborhood, but that’s how it goes down here in the Fourth Ring – “perfectly good” is applied much more generously than some people would.
So the “bar,” as everyone has taken to calling it, is now outfitted with a motley selection of furniture, some perfectly fine but for scratches and stains, some rather wobbly and in need of repair. And the idea that the former bar will be one again has taken hold among the minds of the Guardia Popula cops. By now, most of them have come into the building on one pretext or another, and have said hello to one or more of the strange, small people they are all calling “the Bunnies.” Since Cherry and Rosemary don’t seem to talk of much else aside from their plans for the bar, it’s no surprise that the idea that the bar will soon be open for business has become taken as fact.
Cala, another daughter of a large family, for whom the modest pay of a Guardia Popula cop is a major part of the family income, looks around and says, “Speaking of watching over, aren’t we missing a couple of Bunnies?”
Aliyah looks around quickly, her long plait of frizzy hair whipping sinuously in her haste. “Yeah! Where are Cherry and Merri? Weren’t they just here?”
Sage and Mayumi share a nervous look, and Sage stammers, “They...they went...they may have gone to the kitchen to get a glass of water.” His face – deep, chocolatey brown with big, expressive brown eyes, full lips, a face Aliyah thinks of as “beautiful” when she thinks of him, which she does distressingly often – does a poor job at hiding any attempt at dishonesty. The drooping of his long ears also betrays his discomfort.
Delicate-featured Mayumi says, “I’m sure they’re fine...they probably just, um...” But it’s too late. Aliyah, tall and strongly built, and tending, as a cop, to notice when people are trying to head her off from places they don’t want her to go, and then naturally go there, says with a resigned voice, “I’ll go find them.”
Aliyah enters the kitchen – which is also acquiring a collection of old dishes and pots and pans – and finding no one, goes to the bottom of the stairs and looks up curiously. The stairs are narrow and steep, the kind any cop hates: halfway up when some guy steps into view with a crossbow, you’re totally screwed. She grimaces and starts up.
The narrow hallway at the top has windows along the left and a door on the right. She is about to knock on the door when she hears a gasp, followed by “OH!” Thinking one of the Bunnies has been hurt, she grabs the handle and flings the door open, stepping in.
Aliyah freezes at what she sees. On the floor is a futon scattered with pillows and blankets, and entangled among the blankets, and among each other, are Merri and Cherry. The former is lying back, her gorgeous red curls spread across a pillow, her brilliant green eyes closed at the moment, her pale, freckled face flushed pink as she calls out, “Oh yes, Cherry, yes YES!”
Meanwhile, the target of these entreaties, her slender form fully exposed, her flawless skin almost as dark as Sage’s, blocks most of Merri’s body from view, but Aliyah can see her mouth kissing Merri’s throat, her hand between Merri’s thighs.
At Aliyah’s shocked gasp, they both startle and scramble to disentwine themselves. They do nothing to cover themselves up, however, still as uninhibited and uncaring at their nudity as they were when Aliyah first made their acquaintance and helped them find clothes.
“What are you two doing??” Aliyah blurts out, and immediately thinks, Well that was a stupid thing to say.
Cherry now next to Rosemary, relaxes and reclines back onto her elbows, and says crossly, “We are tryin’ to have a little privacy, Allie! What are you doing?”
Merri, still breathing hard, says, “Yes, dear – either come in and join us, or go away. Just please close the door.”
Cherry grins, “Yeah, it’s gettin’ drafty in here.”
Aliyah stands, staring, trying to stammer something, anything, out, “Ah, but, but, you –”
From downstairs, Cala’s big voice calls out, “Aliyah? You all right? Did you shout something?”
Aliyah gasps again and turns to yell down the stairs, “I’m fine! Everything’s fine! I-I’ll be down in a minute!” She then steps into the room and closes the door behind her.
Rosemary squeals, “Oh Cherry! She’s staying!” She claps her hands.
Cherry arches an eyebrow. “Well, this should be fun! I’ve never been with a human before...not in the waking world, I mean.”
“Wait!” whispers Aliyah loudly. “I’m not...uh...joining you!”
Merri pouts. “Whyever not? We’ll be gentle!”
Cherry laughs and pats the futon between them. “Yeah, nice and easy.”
“Cala is going to come up those stairs any minute now! Now come on, get dressed, you two!”
“So?” challenges Cherry. “So she’ll see us doin’ what comes naturally? So what?”
“Naturally??” Aliyah nearly screeches. “You two are sisters!” As they look at each other in confusion, she looks at them. They certainly don’t look like sisters. Well, except for the ears. And the tails. And the fur on their shins and forearms and that ruff around their necks. But otherwise they’re like a cool gentle night and a bright beautiful dawn.
Where is all this poetry coming from in my head!? Argh!
Cherry says, “Sure, we’re sisters...kinda. I mean, we were created by Alma at the same time, anyway. So?”
“Well...” Aliyah struggles for words, “people don’t...m-make love to their sisters!”
Cherry holds up a finger. “You mean humans don’t.” She considers. “You know, I’ve never known why, either.”
Aliyah slaps her hand to her forehead. “It...they’d have, like, mutant babies or something!”
Merri laughs. “Well Cherry dear can’t make me pregnant!” She pauses and the color drains from her face. “Wait...she can’t make me pregnant, right?”
Cherry laughs loudly at her lover’s expression, and Aliyah says, “Seriously?? No!! Of course she can’t!”
Merri smacks Cherry on the shoulder. “Don’t you laugh at me! We never had t’know how these things worked in our dream world!” She looks at Aliyah. “Well...if we’re not gonna be poppin’ out wee babes, then what’s the problem?”
“I...I...We’re just not...attracted to our relatives –” Aliyah suddenly remembers her cousin Gurmit “– close relatives...usually.”
The two Bunnies look at each other again and Cherry shrugs. “It’s a human thing, I guess. Maybe there’s even a good reason for it. Look, Allie, we’ll be down soon, OK?”
Merri giggles as she rolls against Cherry and kisses her. “I’m going down now, darlin’.” She begins kissing her way down Cherry’s dark body.
“Ohhh baby...um, Allie, if you’re really not gonna join us – mmm! – and you think Callie shouldn’t see us...ohhh...then maybe you could k-keep her downstairs for a little while...”
Aliyah, nodding, unable to tear her eyes away, fumbles the door open blindly and backs out of the room, then closes it quietly behind her and turns to lean against it. “Oh...my...gods...” she whispers. Still stunned, she then stumbles her way downstairs.
As she re-enters the kitchen, she starts telling herself, Pull yourself together, Aliyah, come on, pull yourself together! But then she nearly trips over Kori, still asleep in the doorway, and she looks down at him, then at Sage and Mayumi, who from their worried expressions know exactly what she just saw upstairs, and then to the two “asleep,” unnamed Bunnies, the dirty-blonde boy of about fifteen, actually asleep on the sofa, and the young girl, barely more than a child, who is now approaching her to enter the kitchen. Aliyah cannot stop the thought, Are they all doing it?? Aghast at the sudden yawning chasm between how she thought of them as innocent children – despite Cherry and Merri looking her age, and Mayumi looking only slightly younger – and the realization that at least some of them are sexually active adults, her knees nearly buckle.
Cala, still sewing with Sage, asks, “So? Where are they?”
Aliyah points vaguely upstairs. “They, uh, they’re um, fine. Very fine.”
“Well, bring them down– Aliyah! You don’t look so good! Are you feeling all right?”
Sage springs to his feet and is at her side in a moment, his arm around her waist, helping her to a chair. Mayumi calls out, “I’ll get her some water!” and takes the hand of the youngest Bunny, leading her into the kitchen. The younger one trips over Kori, who grumbles.
Cala rises to check on Aliyah, then pauses, cocking her head. “Do you hear...music?”
Aliyah, still in a state of mild shock, barely notices this, but she does notice Sage’s hand still holding hers. She looks at the side of his face. He seems to be listening intently, ears perked up. By the Guru, he’s beautiful, she thinks, and feels ashamed at what her father would say about taking the Guru’s name in vain, especially when filled with lustful thoughts. As he listens, he squeezes her hand, perhaps unconsciously, and she squeezes back.
Then she hears the smokey strains of a dark, sad song, and the words become clear for only a moment.
“Maybe once, in my life, I won’t have to pay the price,
I’ll be loved, but still free, still me...”
She recognizes the voice as the goddess Kyri’s and looks around for her, but the song seems somehow to have drifted in from far away. She sees, on the sofa, the young sandy-haired bunny stir and lift his head, clearly hearing the music as well and smiling sleepily at it. Hey, she thinks, he’s smiling! The “sleeping” ones don’t ever seem to smile, or cry, or anything like that. But then he lies back down, curls up, and falls back to sleep and the music fades.
She hears a thump and Kori shouting “Oof! I wake! I wake!” and turns to see the youngest Bunny, carrying a glass of water, has again tripped over the sleeping teen and managed to spill the water all over him. May groans and takes the glass from the girl, then helps Kori up and wipes water off both of them.
Sage smiles at this, then looks at her, then looks down at their clasped hands. She readies herself for him to disengage but, no, he just keeps holding it like it’s the most natural thing in the world. It is she who lets go as Cala comes near and looks pointedly at the two of them.
“Are you all right, Aliyah?” her best friend since childhood asks again. Cala was always bigger and stronger – and that is saying a lot as Aliyah was always a big, tough girl herself. Cala was always Aliyah’s protector and confidant and shoulder to cry on when she’d fought with her parents about religion or school or joining the Guardia, or when things didn’t work out with a guy – Aliyah doesn’t want Cala to know what’s going on in her head right now. She doesn’t even know herself, yet.
“Oh, I’m fine. I, I just felt a little...weird...for a minute there.”
Cala looks skeptical. “Hmm. Well, stay here. I’m going to go round up our lost lambs.”
“Oh, no, Cally, I’ll do it!” Aliyah starts to stand, but Cherry and Merri come in from the kitchen just then, still buttoning up their clothes – different clothes than they were wearing before they disappeared, Aliyah notices – and they laughingly explain that they were just trying on other clothes upstairs.
Aliyah sags in relief, then feels a warm hand take hers again, and she smiles shyly at Sage.