As they come through, Sky slumps a little and Mayumi is scared for a moment that he might collapse. She wraps an arm around his waist to support him, but he is more than double her mass. She knows there’s no way she’ll keep him from falling if he is inclined to do so. But he catches himself almost immediately and takes a ragged breath.
“How...do you feel?” he asks, intensely, as if it’s the most important question in the world.
Bewildered and very unsettled, she just stares at him for a moment before recovering herself. “Fine! No problems! No lightheadedness or any of those other things. Can I get this blood off me now?”
He nods. She pulls a handkerchief out of her pocket and spits on it, and scrubs her forehead as they walk away from the portal, rubbing away the magical sigil Sky had drawn with his own blood.
Only then does she look around. It is an urban area, tall buildings of concrete and glass, the wide roads filled with self-propelled vehicles, no beasts drawing them. Despite the near-silence of their operation, her sharp ears can detect an electric whine when they accelerate. Inside the vehicles, through the glass, she can see individuals and families sitting together, paying no attention to the road, the cars apparently autonavigating somehow. Electric lights in red, amber, and blue flash unnecessarily, as the cars obey the directives of minds that are centrally located and, she knows from reading about places like this, probably not alive at all.
Thinking machines. She shudders again.
Sky gently directs her toward a café with outdoor tables. He walks heavily and, when they reach a table, sits down hard. He puts a hand to his forehead and pulls a sphere of glass from his jacket. She recognizes it: a mana sphere. He holds it, concentrates, and she sees the liquid inside drain away, Sky somehow absorbing it into himself. She sees his exhaustion fade somewhat.
She sits across from him. “Are you going to be all right?”
He nods. When the server, a stocky young woman with delicate, pale-green skin and short black hair, comes to take their order, Sky asks for coffee, a sandwich, and soup. Mayumi orders the same, except trading the sandwich for a salad, and makes certain there is no meat involved in any of her food. The waitress makes eyes contact with Mayumi and smiles invitingly as she promises a thoroughly vegetarian meal, and when taking away their menus she lets her fingers brush Mayumi’s. Mayumi smiles back, pleasant but neutral. Maybe in other circumstances, she thinks.
When the woman is gone, Mayumi says, “It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.” She feels strange talking to him this way. He is, after all, the commanding officer of her station. Not to mention a god, lifetimes older than her. But she holds onto her earlier rage and lets it carry her through.
Sky nods again, then straightens in his seat. “You were partly right. I needed to know whether or not Bunnies would have any trouble traveling through, or even living in, high- or low-mana areas. But it’s not just some...experiment. It’s important.”
“How so?” she insists.
He looks reluctant. “Alma...is going to kill me for telling you any of this. She should be the one.”
“Don’t!” She slaps the table, then glances around, realizing she’s making a scene. Lowering her voice she hisses, “Don’t hide behind her.”
He looks at her, but then the server is back and setting their order before them. Sky murmurs thanks and Mayumi offers her another polite smile as the young woman uses her pretty green eyes to flirt with the Bunny again. After she moves off, Sky says quietly, “All right. You have to know, after all. And this is the best place to tell you. It’s almost dry of magic. Spells can barely function here. Even the portals have to operate on different, exotic principles. So we can’t be listened in on here, at least not by the people who might have been spying on us with magic in Three Rats. And they haven’t had to time to train technological listening devices on us. They don’t know we’re here yet.”
He allows this to sink in for a moment before continuing. “You – meaning the Bunnies – may need to be moved. On a moment’s notice. No hesitation, no questions asked. You may need to go into hiding.”
Mayumi cannot think of what to say for a moment, but she pushes her shock aside and ignores the no questions asked part. “We’re in danger then. What kind of danger? From whom?”
“There are people who think you...shouldn’t exist. They…” He struggles to say it, looking at her face. “They may order your...deaths. I have vowed to protect you. So has Alma, of course, and Gwydion as well.”
“Who? The Dukaines?” She is surprised at how steady her voice it.
He closes his eyes and takes a breath. Opening them, he whispers, “The Council of Archons.”
Mayumi feels cold, suddenly. The most powerful gods, politically and, in many cases, the most personally powerful as well, able to reshape Reality with ease. Who could defy them? Alma, Gwydion, and Sky? Three minor, young gods? And the price of defiance… “If they want us dead...we’re dead,” she whispers.
“No. There are ways. I am planning an escape route – off-world. They won’t follow you to another world. At least, I don’t think they will.”
“You would go with us?” She was still struggling to process all this.
“If it comes to that, Alma would. I would...try to lead them off the trail. If possible, I would join you later. And Gwydion could stay behind, with no knowledge of where we went so that no one could force him to divulge, and try to work the political levers, get the decision reversed. Perhaps you could come back.”
Little chance of that. “Why?” she asks. “Why do they want us dead?”
“I hope the majority don’t. But you are magical creations. You are...illegal. Alma fought hard to keep you alive, putting you in that dream world. It nearly killed her, I think, to put you away like that. But it was the only way she was allowed to keep you alive. And now the Council is going to make its decision.”
Mayumi looks down at her untouched food and drink. “Who, Sky? Who is supposed to murder us?”
“Please don’t ask me that…” he whispers.
“Is it Alma? Is that how they’ll shatter her? Try to force her to break our necks one by one? Or drown us like kittens?”
“No...no. Even they are not that cruel.” His voice trembles. “It’s me. If they choose against you, they’ll order me to do it.”
She looks at him in silence. My executioner. I held his hand today, thrilled to his touch...thought of kissing him a hundred times. “What will happen...if you refuse?”
“We need to focus on–”
“What will they do to you?” she demands.
“... They will, well, if they catch me…they’ll force me to reveal where you are. So...I have to make sure they don’t catch me. I can’t keep them from prying that information out of my brain. Their magic is far greater than mine.”
“And if you just can’t escape?”
“If it comes to that,” he says, then stops. “I'll just have to make sure they don’t take me,” he mumbles, embarrassed.
He’ll kill himself, she realizes.
“You see why we have to wait to see your father,” he says. “Finding him now would involve him. We have to wait until this is over.” He leans forward and takes her hands. “Mayumi, listen. We’re doing all we can to make sure it doesn't get to that point.”
She looks at his hands on hers, then turns her hands to grip his tightly. “We have to prepare, to assume our deaths will be ordered,” she says. “Teach me the route. And Alma and Sage too.” A thought strikes her. “But if we get separated from Alma, how will we use the portals?”
Sky hands her a small booklet, “Three dozen prepaid tickets, each good for a single jump. It will get all the Bunnies where you need to go, even if you don’t have a god with you.”
She looks at it, surprised. “These tickets are not cheap. This must be six months’ pay for you!”
He nods. “More than that. The government keeps the price high to discourage mortals from travel. But I don’t have much of a social life. I’ve banked most of my pay for forty years. Just keep them close at all times. Give half the tickets to Sage.”
She tucks the booklet into her jacket. “How long do we have?”
His voice edged with false hope, he says, “The report has been submitted. With Alma and Gwydion’s help, it makes a persuasive case. No one whose mind isn’t already made up can reasonably decide against you. We should know any day now.”
She looks at her barely touched food. She has no appetite. Even so, she digs in, concentrating on eating quickly, efficiently. Her father taught her never, ever to waste food. Especially when you might need the energy. She eats it all without looking up, and then sees that Sky has followed her example and cleaned his plates.
“How do you feel?” he asks, looking into her eyes.
She lets that linger for some time, then impulsively reaches across the table and once again strokes his cheek, drawing him toward her. She leans across the table as well, not knowing just what she is about to do, but at the last moment he tilts his head down, so that their noses and foreheads gently press together instead of their lips. He cups her face in his big hands and holds her like that, nose to nose, his fingers in her hair. She can smell his breath, pleasant but for the meat in his sandwich, though that too is somehow right and even comforting.
She strokes her thumb across the slight roughness of stubble on his cheek and turns her head slightly so her cheek rests against his, nuzzling his face with hers, and then slowly, they separate slightly, and look into each other’s eyes.
“What was that?” she asks.
“The hongi. Sharing the breath of life,” he says. “Among the people who once worshipped me, it is done with friends, family.”
He hesitates, then nods.
She smiles, then draws back, straightening her jacket. Sky lets out a ragged breath and pays for the meal, thanking the waitress, who gives Mayumi a playful final glance that seems to say, No chance? Are you sure? Mayumi laughs and thanks her, and they head back toward the small portal station.
Mayumi slips her hand into Sky’s. “So...to answer your question.”
“I feel alive,” Mayumi says. “And I plan to stay that way.”