Well, of the bad, the least. Gwydion may still be a heartless womanizer in need of meeting a lady with a couple of lessons to teach him, but his skills in magic prove him worthy of at least some of the air he breathes. The Oracle’s survival of the whole Pearl ordeal is proof enough of that. As for Sky…
What a strange, intricate creature Inspector Tuma-Sukai is. Over-eager in his affections, too willing to share and sacrifice, and yet obviously capable of deceit and betrayal. What he did with Mayumi, keeping the secret of her escapade from the Station, lying to protect her. What Mayumi did… It isn’t the fact that she left against orders that hurts most. It is the knowledge that she can no longer be trusted to be truthful and loyal that keeps stabbing Alma's heart, bringing new depth to a fresh wound each time she is reminded of it.
Keeping the Bunnies. That single offer has held her steady so far, the opportunity to have her children with her, sharing in her life. But they are barely her children. Stranded in stasis, they grew separately from her, developed their own personalities, collected a lifetime of memories. None of them of her. And now they are finally here, finally free to share her days, to get to know her, their mother, their creator. But are they really her children? Deprived of her presence for what was their perceived childhood and early adulthood, can they still be hers? Can she still be their mother, when she is barely more than a stranger to them?
Alma sighs in sheer sorrow. So much done to protect them, so many years of yearning and fearing that they’d be released... And now this ever-haunting possibility that they will be sentenced to utter annihilation gains new strength. Her most earnest desires and greatest fears pressed together and thrown at her, all in the period of a few weeks.
She finds herself standing by the door to the bar, one hand on the knob. She breathes deeply. Memories of all the preparations she has made over the years, all the plans, all the decisions, all the things she knew she must do if and when and where the Bunnies meet their fate flood her mind. For a moment, she tries to convince herself that Sky’s vow is enough to give her hope. The next breath brings in the notion that only a fool would pledge his soul for such a cause.
And then again, isn’t that what she is doing?
Another breath and she opens the door. Inside, Kori and Chime are playing a board game with the youngest of the Bunnies. Unnoticed by the Bunnies, Alma watches the scene for a moment. Still unaware of the world and themselves at the time they were first released, these three became the closest to her. Kori, with his light-brown hair framing fair but pleasant facial features, is now articulate enough to hold a conversation and entice his listener with his kind words, delivered under the steady gaze of those greenish-grey eyes. Chime, barely awakened, still oscillates at times, now fully conscious of himself, now apparently locked in his dreamworld again. Obsessed with music, he seems to fight the calling of reality, to actively ignore it, to be both annoyed and bored by it. Blond with long bangs that fall over his black eyes, his expression is often sullen and bitter when he is awake, a rare event in itself.
They seem to be trying to teach their youngest sibling how to play that board game. It is a relatively modern variation of a very old game, played with colorful tiles representing an item attributable to one of the seven elements: heat, moisture, breath, matter, spark, time, chaos. Combining them results in the creation of all there is and it is the most skilled player, the one who can place all of his tiles on the board in the most complex combinations, who wins the game. They call it Balance now. In the old days, they called it Creation. It wasn’t exactly a game back then.
Alma smiles at the sight of the youngest bunny. Seemingly fascinated by her brothers, she watches them intently as Kori, more than Chime, tries to teach her how to play the game. The latter has pretty much given up on the game altogether. A sign of his age. Fifteen-year-olds can only keep so much focus on things…
But the young bunny has her eyes locked on Kori. With her long white hair and white fur, her intensely blue eyes and pale skin, she is very much a Bunny version of Alma herself when she was 13. Her ears follow the sound of Kori’s voice intently, her eyes darting back and forth to follow the movements of his hands. She keeps sniffing and trying to eat the tiles. Alma’s smile widens.
In a rush of frustrated fury, Chime snatches a tile from the young girls’ hand, startling her. She doesn’t yelp or cry but jumps to her feet in full preparation of flight. Her eyes wide now, her legs slightly flexed and long feet already tense with anticipation, she looks from Chime to Kori without moving her head, her ears stiffly perked and twitching at every sound.
The goddess takes a step forward. Soon, all three Bunnies have their eyes fixed on her. She reaches them after a few steps and the little girl Bunny immediately takes station by Alma, her shoulder touching the goddess’ hip. Alma lays a soft hand on her head, idly stroking her hair, feeling tension dissipate throughout the Bunny’s body. She is still watching her brother intently, though, as if to decide if he would actually attack her or not.
“Maybe you should play a different game, for now,” Alma suggests, bringing the young Bunny to look up into her eyes. “Maybe one with some nice vegetable prizes.”
The young girl’s face lights up at the familiar word, like an animal foreseeing a treat in the near future. There is no smile on her lips, but it is there, in her eyes.
“Where are the others, little ones?” the goddess asks the male Bunnies.
“Downstairs,” Kori replies. “They wanted to talk Big Bunny things.”
Chime merely shrugs. “We are not Big Bunnies.”
With a little kiss and a soft caress to each of the three, Alma moves downstairs to her room, where the older Bunnies seem to be arguing.
“No! It’s not like that!” Mayumi insists.
“Oh, darlin’, it’s all right!” Merri says in soothing, ever-so-patronizing way. “We know what it’s like…”
“It’s tooootally natural,” Cherry volunteers from her comfortable seat on the edge of the bed, right by Sage's side. "Not like you’re redefinin’ relationships here…"
“But it’s not like that! Argh!” May cries, hands grabbing the sides of her head in frustration. “You two think you know everything!”
The door opens, bringing immediate silence to the room. Standing with her back to it, May slowly turns her head and then the rest of her body to look at the door. Her nose catches the whiff of perfume first, then her ears recognize the paused, almost imperceptible sound of breathing. Finally, she sees her. Alma...
Cherry and Merri run to her immediately, squeeing in delight as they hug the goddess. Alma smiles at them, stroking their hair with a fleeting, distant look in her eyes.
Finally she nods at Sage and asks, “Am I interrupting anything?”
“Oh! Ye’ve been with Inspector Sky!” Merri quickly deflects, making a big deal of sniffing Alma’s dress and darting a mischievous look and grin at May.
“Yes, I have,” Alma replies, apparently not the least bothered by that remark. “Is that a problem?”
Merri makes her best impression of a truly innocent person. “Goodness me, no! Good to know ye’re talkin’ again…” She sniffs again. “An’ huggin’!”
“Maybe even kissin’...not sure,” Cherry adds, sniffing intently as well.
Alma sighs and disentangles herself from the gossiping pair, heading to her workbench. Mayumi does her best to stand out of her way. She notices how Alma’s eyes seek her for a moment but no emotion comes from them. Though not openly angry or sad, the goddess has nevertheless been distant with her lately, detached even. Whenever her eyes have met her mother’s, Mayumi has seen nothing but indolent questioning. Alma is still trying to decide what to do with her.
“A rather disappointing feature of this world, little ones,” the goddess says as she takes a seat and produces a piece of paper from a pocket. “Is that one cannot go around kissing people indiscriminately–"
“I know, right?” Cherry interrupts her, sounding immensely bewildered.
“Wait, ye can’t?” Merri asks almost simultaneously to her twin, her ears drooping. “How disappointin’!”
Alma smiles as she picks a vial with some strange iridescent powder from a line of similar containers sitting on a shelf. “I’m afraid not. Especially if said people include your commanding officer.”
May’s ears dip at the thought that her actions may have sprouted yet another argument between Alma and Inspector Sky. “Did you...have a good talk?” she half-stutters.
Not turning her head, Alma looks at May through the corner or her eyes. “Yes, we did. Many an issue settled. And new issues arisen.”
Several breaths of air enter and leave her body before Mayumi finds the courage to ask, “How is he?”
“You would do well to ask and find out yourself,” Alma replies, her hands spreading the fine sparkly dust all over that mysterious piece of paper.
Mayumi finds herself looking at her own feet. “I haven’t really talked to him much lately.”
Alma remains silent at this, apparently oblivious of Mayumi’s words as she inspects the paper under a desk light. The silence grows longer and longer until all sounds seem to be engulfed by it and not even the water from the fountain or the breathing of her fellow Bunnies registers with Mayumi. Locked in that moment, the Bunny watches the goddess as one would look at a picture of times long gone: with longing, melancholy and a twinge of fear that memory is all that is left of what once was.
A short eternity goes by before Merri breaks the spell. “Right! That’s it! This has gone on long enough!”
“Yeah, ‘bout time we get this over with!” Cherry echoes her sister’s words. “This here place looks bleaker than a…a…a really really bleak…thing!”
“Oh, Cherry, dear, that was a terrible simile,” Merri notes. “Ye’re usually better at those!”
“Well, I’m sorry but I can’t think of anythin’ bleaker than this,” Cherry states, arms crossing over her chest. “I was gonna go for a graveyard on All Souls Night but I’ve been to some o’ those things and they can be a lotta fun if you’ve got the right kinda booze goin’ on!”
“Cherry…” Sage admonishes softly.
“Okay, fine!” Cherry snaps. “It’s darker than...uh...Sage, here! And that’s sayin’ somethin’! I keep bumping against him in the dark at night!” She grins at him.
“I know,” Sage mutters, frowning. “I have the marks of your big feet to prove it.” Cherry sticks her tongue out at him.
“HEY!” Merri yells. “I cannae believe I’m the one t’ bring us back on topic here! Enough wi’ the flirtin’ – the main issue is Alma an’ May!”
Cherry and Sage look abashed. “Sorry…” they say in unison.
“And why would we be the main issue, dear?” Alma asks in a quiet, serene voice, seemingly oblivious to what is going on.
Merri’s fists shoot to her hips in anger. “The two of ye’ve had a wall o’ ice between ye since that party,” she says leaning forward and stamping her foot. “It’s been long enough. More than long enough! Time fer a thaw!”
“I am sure I don’t understand what you are talking about, Rosemary,” Alma responds, one eyebrow raised in warning.
“Yeah, well, you’re not the only one, then,” Cherry says. “What the hay happened during that party that the two of you’ve been barely even lookin’ at each other since? I mean, May just looks like she’s offendin’ the world for bein’ here and you…” She points an accusing finger at Alma. “You’re hardly ever here anymore.”
“Even when ye are here!” Merri adds.
Alma finally lets go of the piece of paper to look at them. “I find it very difficult to be where I am being lied to. Constantly.” Her eyes narrow. “Or do you by any chance believe that I don’t know of your little love nest upstairs?”
“Oh that?” Merri stutters. “Heh…”
“Have you considered asking to move out?” Alma asks, her voice all the more threatening for its cold serenity. “Before you decided it would just be easier to sneak away each night?”
Both Bunnies look abashed as their self-righteousness gets turned against them.
“But, it’s more excitin’ that way,” Merri whimpers.
“Yeah…” Cherry adds weakly. “It’s been kinda fun doin’ it all sneaky like…”
There is no shame in their voices, Mayumi knows. Only a deep sadness at the sudden realization of the full meaning of their actions.
“Like it doesn’t matter what I will think or feel once I find out?” Alma asks, her voice taking on an edge of anger and grief as she looks at each of her four eldest children. “Do I look that cold and heartless to the lot of you that you can’t even consider what suddenly having four young adults and three children in my care does to me?” She gets up and starts pacing, her voice shaking on the edge of tears. “Twenty-four years… twenty-four years I have waited and kept you safe. For what? My children know nothing of me. Think nothing of me. They are grown and independent and I can’t stop time for them or make it go back. Or even keep them safe…”
As she speaks, Merri and Cherry’s ears droop more and more, and their eyes fill with tears. As she trails off, they start crying. It is Sage who takes a step forward and touches Alma’s trembling hand.
“You may not know our stories,” he says. “But we have felt your love in our dreams. We have known each other’s love all these years.” He squeezes her hand gently. “We will share.”
Sadness and relief dance in Alma’s eyes as she strokes his cheek. “Maybe later we can share.” She sighs again. “Everything dies, little ones. And like all things, anger dies too. I am not angry anymore. But I am indeed disappointed and hurt that your first instincts would be to lie to me.”
“It’s just…” Merri says, wiping tears. “Things weren’t always rosy in the dreamworld.”
Cherri hugs her lover. “Things happened, an’ they weren’t always good things an’ we had to learn...to keep secrets…”
“We’re sorry,” they cry together.
Alma sighs. “I have been trying, little ones, not to intrude into what was obviously your most personal history. I would love to hear it, but how could I ever demand such a thing from you? Love, trust, anything? How could I ever demand anything from you? Other than the truth when you speak to me…”
Sage looks at his sisters intently. “There will be truth from now on.”
Merri and Cherry immediately agree, moving closer to hug Alma, weepin and nodding their acceptance against her.
“Ye can always ask us anythin’...” Merri offers amidst sobs. “Askin’ ain’t the same as demandin’.”
Mayumi remains put, watching. Through her mind runs a sudden memory of words said before.
Just as we fear to hurt others, others may fear to hurt us. Silence can so easily be mistaken for lack of interest…
And then Alma looks up at her, nodding invitingly with a little sad smile on her lips, and all her walls come tumbling down, emotions trampling each other for attention as the dam breaks. Tears begin to fill Mayumi’s eyes as she moves to embrace her mother.
“I never meant to hurt you…” She says, pressing her face against Alma's chest. “I never...thought. I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
Holding her close to her, Alma whispers only, “That makes two of us, little one.”