Sitting Shiv'a

From the Story Arc: Cold Front

Previous Story in the Arc: Brother to Brother by Russian Battler (Friday, December 15, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: First Christmas--Eve by Belladonna Aura (Monday, December 18, 2006)

(posted Sunday, December 17, 2006)


((co-written with Zakat and Zarya))

The taxi deposited Bella at the front entrance of a--by Founders' Falls standards--modest apartment building. She had a gym bag with the clothing her parents had brought to HQ in it. Nightshirt not used, toiletries, far too much clean underwear...all of the black clothing she owned...which wasn't much. Well, not counting the leather, which Zach had...

Her throat closed up again and the directory at the side of the door blurred. She made out the Rabinoviches' name, and pushed the lighted button, making up her mind as she did so that if they'd gone to bed, she'd just find a hotel. Or call Sera. Or--

Anything so that she didn't have to go home to too much silence and a bed suddenly far too big for her.

The voice from the intercom, however, did not sound irritated, sleepy, or as if she had disturbed anything.

"It's Bella," she said, as exhaustion finally caught up with her. "Come metaphorical hat in hand to beg soup and a flat spot on your floor. Petro, Gremlin, and Mandy pledge to eviscerate all of us, if I am not fed and put to some form of bed."

"I'm sure you mean excoriate," the voice replied with no small amount of mirth. This was followed by a loud crashing sound, some static, then an exasperated female voice adding, "Shut up, Alexander! Enter, Bella, the door is open." The buzzer went off, surprisingly quiet in the relative silence that followed the shrieks of a Behemoth outside of the little walled enclosure, and Bella climbed up the stairs.

Sofia held the apartment door open in the dark stairwell, not bothering to find and press the light switch. She had her hair out of the habitual ponytail, and was huddled in a very not-Sofia-like robe. "In you get." Home attire or not, she still sounded her matter-of-fact self as she gave Bella instructions in the line of "drop your bag over there, take off this coat, don't step on the cat, ignore the beaten-up husband."

The bag was dropped--recalling something she thought she remembered, she had changed into civvies at Mandy's place. Black sweater, black jeans, black sneakers. The cat, however, was scooped up. Bella loved cats. She hadn't had one as a kid because her mother was allergic. She hadn't had one as an adult because of the very real possibility that she'd kill it with radiation. And once she and Zach had become an item...her mind sheered away from that. Vickie's Greymalkin was...not a cat. Not really. This was a huge ginger tom, or ex-tom, probably. Cat in arms, fingers already on auto-scratch, she looked around the apartment.

The place was wall-to-wall books, which made her feel right at home. They had it all; fiction of all shapes and sizes, in several languages for Sofia's use, sometimes reduplicated in Russian or English for Alexander. Scientific journals were stuffed haphazardly onto a low shelf, sorted with the convenient notions of 'Physics' and 'Linguistics'. She transferred her gaze to the shelves of philosophy, Judaica and an assortment of theology, economics, general education… They must be a terror in a B. Dalton's.

"Ah," said Sofia with satisfaction. "I see you met Schrödinger--" Of course it would be Schrödinger "--Alexander got him when he was still in hospital. He used to be a scrawny little kitten... The spoilt brat. Both of them, now that I think about it."

"Cats were once worshipped, and they would prefer it if you never forgot that, thank you," Bella replied, absently quoting Greymalkin.

"Yes, well, we all know what our associations from Egypt are. Now, food would be that way. The cat does not go on the table unless he is stuffed with raisins and has an apple in his mouth." She pointed Bella towards the small kitchen. "I will have to scoop some dictionaries off the table. Excuse me..." And she vanished in the doorway.

"One of the benefits of not being religious," Alex began from his spot on the couch, holding a small towel full of ice to his forehead, "is that we can threaten our pets that way. Cats aren't kosher."

"Well, a nice fiesta cat is highly regarded in Mexico," Bella replied. She felt that something like a joke was expected at this point, even if she didn't feel in the least like smiling. The cat craned his neck around to give her one of those "you know I understood that" looks, and she mollified him by finding exactly the right spot under the point of his chin. Then the medic in her took over. "Still having those headaches?" Something had occurred to her. "Back when I was in a hazmat suit, Shyft put something together for me...I wonder if it would do you any good?"

Alex shrugged. "I would say it's worth a try, but you know the inherent risks in mixing medicines." He grimaced, leaning back against the couch and making himself more comfortable.

"Well, it's tech, not medicine. Does something about the rads...I'm pretty vague on the application but..." She deposited Schrödinger on the end of the couch and pulled up her sweater a little, taking out the belly-ring.

"Just in this instance," Sofia muttered behind their back, coming in from the kitchen carrying about a ton in dictionaries, "your concern is unnecessary. His head hurts by his own fault - or rather, because I hit him. You are summoned to soup. You too," she cast an eloquent glance at her husband that said 'twerp', "if you want it."

"Here," Bella dropped the ring into Sasha's hand. "It's all microcircuits and I don't know quite what all else. I haven't needed it since the treatment that spliced all my genes with the stable version Bella Nova got. Maybe it'll help, or at least give you some ideas." It gave her an odd feeling to part with it. That ring had been the reason she and...

Again, her mind shied away. She headed for the kitchen instead, concentrating with an effort of will on what was around her now, and not anything more recent than ten minutes ago.

"Um, sure, I'll take a look..." Alex pocketed the ring as he got up from the couch, following behind her. "I'm not exactly emitting rads these days, so I'm not sure it'll help me. Else, I'd be in one of those Petro suits." He must have caught a glare from Sofia, though, or perhaps figured it out himself, because he didn't sound nearly as flippant anymore and after a few seconds of awkward silence muttered under his nose; "Just take it as it comes, one minute at a time. After all, days like this prove to you that Einstein was right."

"And not just in physics," Sofia was putting out dishes. She straightened slowly, looking, for a moment, off into one of the corners. "Come sit down, or everything will get cold."

Another exertion of will. Bella clamped her shields down hard. Time was relative, oh yes...it wasn't that she hadn't made the attempt to sleep, these last couple days...but when she'd put her head down and made the attempt, she would be certain she had been staring at the ceiling for at least an hour, only to realize it had been five minutes. Eventually it was just easier to keep going.

She pulled the pill bottle out of her pocket and set it beside the plate. "I am reliably informed that after two of these and twenty minutes, I will become a puddle. So, let me know when you think I've stuffed in enough calories to make you happy, will you? Because that's when I'll take them."

"Ah, good." Sofia nodded. "Wise decision." She plucked the bottle off the table deftly and read the label. Then she uncorked it, and slipped two pills out onto the tabletop. "I'll put it in the fridge, or in the bathroom closet, shall I?"

Bella raised an eyebrow, and pulled something else out of her pocket. The small wad of prescriptions that well-meaning physician friends had pressed on her. "I think they're safe wherever you want to put them, Sophia. I'm not in any hurry to make it a permanent state of sleep. I didn't want to hurt any feelings or...induce any anxiety by not accepting them, but that--" she nodded at the bottle "--is all I have with me, and the couple of samples of anti-anxiety stuff I took before...the ceremony...is the sum total of what I've had." She dropped those in Sophia's hand. "Do with them as you see fit."

"It's not that I think you will immediately proceed to do something foolish... But - and that is the truth - while today you may be too tired, or too drained to want even that, tomorrow they will be a temptation. As I am sure they were before. So, with your permission, I think that these--" she glanced down at the wadded prescriptions "--will make a good memorial candle, hmm?"

Bella nodded. There would not be any more of that sort of thing forthcoming unless she asked for it. And she would make sure...that precautions were in place. Had, actually. Social was her physician-of-record now, and anyone thinking of prescribing anything would find a file note directing them to the little Vietnamese. Sophia was right. This was only the beginning. She couldn't see past it right now. "To quote Red, then, 'Ignition.'" Sofia cupped her hand around the notes, which started smoking, at first lightly, then more and more until they flared into bright orange flames, right there in her hands.

"Eh, not very spicy..." Alex muttered, prodding a drumstick floating in the water and potatoes of the soup. "Sorry you won't find anything daring here, food-wise. Can't escape being Jews." He glanced over at his wife, raising an eyebrow. "What? No microwave? Or matches?"

"For a change. You don't burn paper in the microwave anyway." she reached out and found the saltshaker with one burned hand. "Besides, you are not the only one in the family wiht a sense of style. Add salt and pepper for taste, Bella... and I figure the prescriptions are at their appropriate destination now... wherever that is."

"I'm not exactly a cook. Student food--American students anyway. Chili, spaghetti, breakfast..." Without even thinking about it, Bella reacted automatically, instinctively, to Sophia's burned hand by putting out a pulse of healing. Not the strongest she'd ever done though, not by a long shot, and she was rewarded for the effort with a pulse of headache that said "Enough already."

"Wait..." Alex blinked in-between slurps. "Chili, spaghetti, breakfast? So chili is its own meal?"

"You've never had my chili. Used to make pots of it for the firehouse. Same for the spaghetti." That was a safe memory. Very safe. Las Vegas FD, paramedic. Before the Rikti came. She sipped the soup carefully, taking small bites. After three days on meal-in-can, real food needed to be introduced gradually. "I was a paramedic right out of high school, and you have to take your turn making meals when you're on duty rotation. You pretty quickly figure out whatever you make is going to have to serve for whenever...and keep well...and stand up to being dumped back in the pot when the call-out hits."

He looked across the table at his wife, questioningly. "I don't remember that part of first aid class. Must be why I never stayed on for my EMT... Can't cook."

"So he can't." Sofia acknowledged darkly. "I saw him burn eggs once. It takes talent. Are you done now, Alexander? Yes? Trot along. We have some girl-talk to do, preferably without your jokes intruding on us every other second."

"Fine, fine..." Alex stood up and took his empty bowl into the kitchen, stopping momentarily to put the chicken bone in Schrödinger’s dish. "I'll just fiddle with this ring thing... Maybe I can combine it with some of the rad-devices you use, Sofia."

"Whatever. Shoo! Shoo!" Undaunted, Alexander rummaged in the fridge, emerging with a hot-dog and two apples, muttering about the lack of good cottage cheese in American and left.

"Now that he finally left us alone," Sofia plopped down in the chair her husband just vacated, "we can actually finish eating in peace. Don't let him fool you, young woman. He is trying very hard to pretend there isn't a bone of seriousness in his body - and usually does a good job of it - but in reality he's not completely inconsiderate. As a matter of fact, it was Alexander who came up with what I want to propose to you before you take these horse-killing pills and go to sleep."

"I was a paramedic," Bella reminded her. "Some people deal with..." Death, she was going to say, and that was when she finally lost it, for the third time that night. Tears fell down into the soup from her bowed head. "Guess...it needed salt..."

Sofia put a hand around her shoulders and squeezed. "I don't know for whose benefit you are pretending," she said in the same matter-of-fact voice, "but you don't precisely fool either of us. You don't need to be our pillar of strength; you don't need to be our authority. We do quite well, as you can see. So... are you going to continue dripping into the soup, or are you going to turn around. This is natural wool."

"...that's...why I'm here," she managed, and leaned her head into Sofia's shoulder. Was this ever going to stop?

"Probably in a few months," Sofia answered the question, even though Bella didn't ask it. "Stock up on Kleenex. I seem to handle disasters by beating something up. Some would say tears are a better way."

"'Rents...put in a...supply." Part of her instructions. "You...you've been close...to this...everything hurts. All the time...and...I get these...I should have been there moments. If I had been there..." She tried to get coherent thoughts through the tears. "...and Sera...seeing her and Johnny...it just...hurts more...when I think it can't...it does."

"Oh yes it does." Sofia muttered darkly. "Just you watch. You know what the doctors say about it getting worse before it gets better? It does, too. You have this seemingly eternal jealousy, when all these happy people walk around, and you have no possible clue what it is they find to be so damned happy about. But - and I hate to resort to clichés - we humans are adaptable things, and given long enough time, a surprising amount of stuff ceases to be raw. God, I hate clichés..." she sighed. "Really, what you need is time to cry yourself hoarse, and get your eyes all puffy, and not play around being other people's support, or even occupy yourself with other things. And not to be left alone."

She nodded, not quite able to get words around the tightness in her chest and throat for the moment.

"Well, as Alexander said earlier tonight, what you need is a jewish Shiv'a. The custom," Sofia's voice was wry, "not the jelly things that run around Bloody Bay. You can stay here as long as you need - provided you can handle my clown husband, or are willing to just tell him off - and welcome to it. Sit around. Cry as much as you want and, most importantly, have someone with you at all times who would not let you forget such trivialities as food and sleep."

"I...I know the custom," she got out, hoarsely.

"So what is the verdict? Or would you rather finish crying and eating first, to ensure we didn't poison you?"

She thought about it. Sofia--and Sasha too, was probably in on this--she was right. Mandy had Harmony to think about. Her parents were grieving themselves, they'd adored Zach. There was no one that she didn't have to put up a front with, or wouldn't be a burden on. She was an emotional sinkhole, but these two were firmly anchored to some pretty solid rock. They wouldn't be going anywhere, no matter what she let out. Mundanely, of course, not telempathically. The shields would stay up. That was not an option; if she didn't keep them up, this entire apartment building might start disgorging people looking for the tops of buildings and very tall bridges.

"I can't...afford seven days," she finally said. "You know that."

"Two... three days?" Sofia coaxed.

"One to sleep. One to cry. After that, we'll see."

"So be it." Sofia sighed and handed Bella a box of tissues. "Finish your soup, take your dose of poison, and we'll put you to sleep."