The Longest Night

From the Story Arc: One of Two

Previous Story in the Arc: I Am A Rock by Belladonna Aura (Friday, December 21, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Merry Christmas Commissar by Belladonna Aura (Friday, December 12, 2008)

(posted Tuesday, January 01, 2008)

It was the evening of Christmas Day. The soup kitchen was quiet for the first time since Christmas Eve-day, all the leftovers packed up for Meals on Wheels and taken away. Thea's Christmas feast for the comrades was also reduced to a tidy stack of plastic containers in the fridge. Everyone had gone home, except for Bella. Belladonna Aura could not face the empty apartment tonight. Instead, she sat in her office, idly petting Ivan-the-cat, and wondered if she ought to camp out on the cot behind her desk. She'd done it plenty of times during and since the Rikti came back. Especially now in December.

She sighed. And then as if her sigh had summoned company, sensed someone outside her door. And there was no mistaking that cheerful aura. Byelobog.

"I can feel you lurking outside my door Comrade," she said just loud enough to be heard. "You might as well stop hovering there and come in."

The odd fellow who Vickie and Thea swore was the real Spirit of Spring, and who certainly did not feel entirely human, pushed open her office door and closed it behind him, a bottle held by the neck in one hand. "Spacibo, Commissar. Or is it permitted to call you by your given name?

"Please," she replied. "Bella. Commissar only when I have to be official." She eyed the bottle, remembering that vodka of his that had more of the spiritual than spirit in it. "You think I need some of your medicine, tovarisch?"

She hoped not. Tonight...tonight she had the feeling she would begin drinking and not stop until she hit the bottom of the bottle. And that was...not a good idea. But he shook his head. "Nyet, Bella. This?" he motioned to the bottle with his free hand. "This is not quite what I have offered you in the past."

"Oh?" she replied, dismissing the bottle from her mind. "Well, tovarisch, what have you been up to?"

He nodded with a grin. "Let me see. I have been very, very busy with preparing for spring, so it has been a long time since we have spoken." For a moment she thought she caught the scent of crocus and green leaves, but then it was gone. Of course it was gone. It was December.

December. The month that never ended. "Seems like the dead of winter to me."

He laughed. "But of course it does! Longest night is nothing to sneeze at. But is big secret, yes? Spring always follows winter. My brother, he begins to retreat from the world. now."

She shook her head, contemplating her empty internal landscape. "Not everywhere, tovarisch. Not everywhere." Then she looked up at him again, wearily, for he had not yet taken a seat. "Oh sit down, you make me tired, standing there."

"Very well, Bella," he replied, taking a cushion from her cubby and sitting on the floor with it. "Is another big secret. Longest Night - for some - is never ending. For others, Longest Night is very, very short."

At least there were people out there who were seeing light at the end of the tunnel. And intellectually she knew that. Vic and Red. Sera and JM. Others too. "I'm pleased to hear it."

Once again, he grinned. "You, you have done *my* work these past few weeks, Bella. I feel stronger even on this night."

She acknowledged that with a nod. "I am very pleased to hear that." And she was. Just because she could see no end to the sorrow, why should she trap anyone else in it with her?

He chuckled. "You must know how laughter brings hope? Otherwise, why would you fight to make it so? These American hospitals. It is as if they are custom made for my brother - all darkness and sadness. But with a little gift, the ice of his touch is thawed."

She looked at the floor, not seeing it, but empty chair. An empty bed. "Just because there is ice forever in some places, it doesn't follow that the ones in those places want it to be that way everywhere," she said quietly.

She felt his grin, like sun on her skin that did not touch the cold at her heart. "Is also very true. Maybe even another big secret."

"I suppose it's like being allergic to chocolate. Why would you want to deny someone else that pleasure?" she added, then looked up at him. "And thank you for realizing what we're trying to do."

Byelobog shrugged. "Is all about healing. Spreading light and joy. Even if person is, how you say, terminal, at least the last hours are not bad ones."

It was her turn to shrug a little. "Laughter eases pain too. Releases endorphins, all of that." He knew that of course. Not in those words, but he felt it.

Byelobog nodded. "I have spent many hours in the hospital, helping where I can. For some, Spring is welcome gift, even at end. For others, Spring means hope, and life. It is not for me to decide. All I can do is bring Spring." He chuckled. "And make rhyme!"

She wished she could smile. "So you do."

"And so I do." He suddenly grew serious. "Is not special vodka in this bottle, Bella."

"I've already had my allotment of non-special vodka for the day, comrade," she replied, with just a touch of warning.

"Is not vodka at all, tovarisch." His habitual grin was back, but she could still see he was serious.

"Schto?" she replied. He nodded.

"Will you listen to a story?"

Russians and stories went together like vodka and caviar. "Of course."

From the way he settled in, she figured she was in for a long yarn. "The vodka I shared with you was a memory of a vodka from a wondrous marriage celebration. The one called Armaiti in this time can share the details if you like. The land of Rus was golden that year, and she and I met at this marriage. It was a, shall we say, miraculous event." He laughed. "But that is not the story I wish to tell you."

"Tovarisch, you tell tales like a babushka, which is no bad thing," she replied.

His eyes sparkled. "I am honored. And most pleased. There is, in the heart of Rus, a spring. The water that flows from it is always clear, always fresh. The pool it forms is a gathering place, but only a few may find it without struggle."

"The pure of heart, one presumes?" she hazarded.

He laughed. "No, no. I have known of a young woman who was, shall we say, appreciative of the earthy side of life."

She raised an eyebrow. "As Theodore Sturgeon one properly wrote, purity of heart is not they same as purity of body. It is an altogether different sort of innocence."

He grinned at that. "This is true. Her special gift, however, was joy. Her days began and ended in laughter. She made sure that all around her shared in her joy, and for those who would not, she gave them a smile and let them be." He sighed. "She was a most excellent*person. It was my joy to have known her." His grin turned saucy. "But I did not show her the way to the spring. She found that one day all on her own. Past the bushes with their cruel thorns, past the wolves, and past the other guardians of that wonder. It was as if she knew the way." He shrugged, smiling. "And in this, I did not lead her. If I had, she would never have found the pool on her own."

"I trust she was rewarded."

He touched his nose and grinned. "Indeed. Where once she had been joyous, now the merest hint of a smile would light a village square. And it was not a thing for others to be jealous of."

"Of course not, that would be foolish."

"Oho, but some would be jealous of her gift, yes? But even that would melt away when they stood near her." His eyes twinkled. "Is very fine book I have been introduced to in my time here. Is called "Bridge of Birds", and is story of most beautiful woman in Middle Kingdom."

It seemed an age since she had read it. "That is a lovely book," she ventured.

He nodded. "And it is true, why be jealous of a gift given so freely? Some do not understand this, but that is a field for them to plow." He took a deep breath, and suddenly there was a hint of power in his words. "And may their plow never break, and may all the stones be found before the planting."

She blinked a little. "I would say "From your mouth to god's ear," but that would be rather superfuous, wouldn't it?"

He laughed. "Your friend, Petrograd, perhaps would disagree. I know what I know, and I know that I am a little spirit still. But the world listens, Bella, when we speak our heart."

She grimaced. "Petro does not believe in anything he cannot apprehend with his eyes, ears, and reason." She hesitated a moment. She had not shared this cold grief with anyone. Not with Sera, not with Vickie...Sera had the sorrow of little Shuma to bear, and it would have been Red she would rather have talked to than Vic and Red... Perhaps...Byelobog was a stranger, really. Yet he understood what she was doing. Maybe he would understand why, and why she could not share the laughter anymore. "...I miss him. I miss him like I would a miss an eye or an ear or a limb. Part of me is gone and isn't coming back. There is not a second of a day I don't miss him.....and it hurts." Hurt was such an inadequate word. Hurt was such a small thing to dreaming she was in his arms again and waking to find she was not. Hurt did not begin to describe a future in which she was half a thing, one of two, forever.

"There are words I would say, if you would like," he offered.

"Words don't help, I'm afraid," she said apologetically. The therapist had said this might be the case, that there really were people that were heartmates, soulmates, and when one was gone, the other could only ever limp along....

"Is not meant to patch hole in heart, tovarisch. Is meant to share."

It was her turn to hesitate. ".....then say them. Please."

"When I woke from my Slumber, the first word on my lips? Was the name of the woman who found the spring. She found me at the pool, and we became lovers and beloved. It has been centuries, and I still miss her. " He smiled, but a tear rolled down his face. "Is so, when spirit loves."

Despite her determination not to cry, a matching tear crossed her cheek.

"But I have memories of her - the sun in her hair, the laughter in her soul - and those must be enough until my end. For is another big secret, yes? Spring follows Winter, but Winter still comes after Spring. My brother and I, we chase each other like dogs. Sometimes there is joy, sometimes there is pain. Light and Dark." He shrugged. "Is life. And she would soundly thump me on the head if she saw me this melancholy. 'Is Rus, we are always melancholy' I would tell her. And then she would chase my sadness away. So I do as she asked, because she knew the secrets of joy."

"She was a very precious gift indeed then," Bella said softly.

"Oh yes." He tapped the bottle, which rang like a singing stone. "So, can you guess what I have in here?"

"Petro's engine cleaning fluid?" she replied.

He laughed long and hard, as she had hoped he would. "Oh no! Not for all the seeds and all the soil I could want would I touch more than a drop of that again."

"I am not sure what is in that, but it is probably banned by the Geneva Convention."

Byelobog grinned, still laughing. "Is very, very dangerous stuff. He has asked me not to make open flame around him while it is out. Something was said about not wanting to rebuild base again."

"The last person who did had neither eyebrows nor hair for two months."

Until this moment she had not more than glanced at the bottle. Now, as he picked it up with a tiny gesture he directed her attention to it and she could see it was not like any bottle she had ever seen before. It almost looked like it was carved from some kind of gemstone - translucent stone, green in color.

Bella recalled her Russian myth--or rather, her Russian ballet. "Looks like you've been a guest of the Queen of Copper Mountain, tovarisch."

"She and I have spoken, yes. This bottle - and the other six like it - were her gifts to me." He waggled his eyebrows. "Well, it is, how you say, an even exchange. A favor for a favor, yes?"

She nodded.

"But in this bottle is the true wonder. You must understand, Bella, that when I was called here to Paragon, I did not bring anything with me. Material goods are not so important to me. But as I have planted, so too have I searched for things that were once my own."

"Things.....not precious as possessions, but for other reasons?" she hazarded.

He nodded. "And one day, not too long ago, I found my way along a path of brambles and thorns, past wolves and guardians, and down to a pool fed by a spring. There to find the bottles I had filled on the day when my joy was more than doubled."

"A fine thing, I would think, for the memories if nothing else." She really couldn't see where this was going. Then again, what else did she have to do tonight. Ivan-the-cat wasn't going to let her move anyway, he had taken over her lap and was a warm, but very heavy deterrent to going anywhere.

"Oh, the memories were just as sweet as the day we made them. But no, I went to retrieve a bottle for what was in it." He gently shook the bottle and she could hear sloshing.

"Next you will be telling me it is the Water of Life," she said dryly, "And that, my friend, I do not believe in."

"But would you believe in the Water of Joy?" He grinned. "And please, do not make the earthy comments I am sure you could."

Again, she hesitated. And fought down the despair. It had taken her so long to even find just a little pleasure in things. Joy? Not in this lifetime. "I would believe it might be that for some," she temporized/

"If you light a candle, the flame gives off a little light. Put the candle next to a mirror, and it seems as if you now have more light." His eyes sparkled. "Between two mirrors? The light seems even brighter."

She looked away from him, not wanting him to see the bleakness inside her. "I....I fear that the only way I might.....feel true jpy now, would be to forget. And I do not want to forget, not even for a moment." If that was what he was offering her, she wanted no part of it.

Swiftly he corrected her. "Oh no, Bella, forgive me. I do not mean to ask you to forget. But on a night such as this, perhaps it is good to remember the good things about those we love. And so, if you will join me - and provide glasses - we can toast our beloved ones."

She slowly stood up, and from the back a heavy storage cubby took out out two small cut-crystal goblets. "These were my great great grandmother's." They were, in fact, all that survived the crossing of the Atlantic followed by the trek to Colorado.

He unstoppered the bottle, and gently poured out a measure of perfectly clear water into each goblet. "I am honored, Bella, thank you." He carefully stoppered the bottle again, and put it down beside him, then raised the glass. "To our beloveds."

She touched glasses with him, leaning out over Ivan-the-cat to do so. "To the ones who hold our hearts."

She took a cautious sip....very cautious. She was wary of magic, and to be honest, she was afraid if she ever let go of her tight control, she would never climb out of the abyss she would fall into. But the immediate senssation was only that this was the purest water she had ever tasted. At the second sip, she felt...a loosening. As if there were tight bands around something that were slowly being released inside her. The water touched something inside her, like rain falling on the desert. She was not losing the grief...but somehow, some way, all the good things she recalled were being...polished. Made brighter. Like the Byelobog said, as if the little, little flame had been placed between two mirrors, making it light redoubled. As if the joy she had felt with Zach was just coming back again, growing until it matched the depth of the sorrow.

And she found words slowly trickling out of herself, out of the depth of her memory, and her heart. ".....he was the kindest man I ever knew....."

He sipped his water, and smiled even as he teared up.

"I think he may have been the most innocent too. He told me a little of what was done to him, when he was a child. They tried to make him into some kind of soulless thing. They denied him any sort of human contact except as a specimien to be studied." She shook her head, appalled that anyone could be that cruel. "Yet he managed keep that ability to love. Anyone else would have ended up some sort of monster." She bent her head, and her tears slowly fell into the glass in her hands. Tears for that poor, lonely little boy. Tears for herself. She took another sip of the water without thinking about it. How much Zach had loved, truly loved the comrades of CCCP that had made him welcome and given him a family again! "He really hated the idea of being Commissar. He did it because he wanted to take care of the people who had taken him in and loved him. Oh god knows he had his faults....." she uttered something that in someone else might have been a little laugh. "He could be impatient, and he absolutely hated the idea of anyone thinking he was a wuss. I was the only one who ever got to see him...vulnerable." He would tease her so unmercifully about men in movies crying. "He'd make a joke out of anything, and....well, sometimes that went way too far." Oh, the times she had gotten mad at him and thrown pillows at him, and even cried with rage when he just wouldn't get serious. But then he would see he'd gone to far and he was never, ever too proud not to apologize. "But that was the point really, it wasn't that he didn't care, it was that he cared so much, and he knew if he let it get to him, he'd...he'd go mad and....that would be bad." Oh, it could be very, very bad. She'd seen him angry...and once, she hadn't seen, but she had heard about it after...when he had nearly killed KC...and only Johnny and Sera had kept him from doing just that. "He did know his own strength, and his defense against it getting out of hand was laughter." She felt her throat starting to close. "....and I would give so much to hear that laugh again," she choked out, and took another sip to try and clear her too-tight throat as her eyes burned and stung.

She took tiny sips, silently. He drank about half of his water, slowly, and nodded. The faint scent of flowers in the room changed for just a moment, to the scent of warm pine and crushed blossoms.

"....sometimes I think it's killing me that people have forgotten him."

"People in hospital know his name now," Byelobog said. "But is not people you are thinking of, yes?"

"...da," she said, after a pause. "But then....look at all the statues around here. Those heroes were all household names once. Now? No one remembers them either. Why should I think anything different would happen to any of us?"

Maybe that was the hardest part of all. Zach deserved to be remembered. If anyone did, he did.

"It is curious thing about Americans. They have attention span of mayfly. It comes from being from young country, I think. Not all Americans--"

"Enough," she said, bitterly. "Too many."

"But they are like teenagers. If something does not touch them personally, then it is easier to forget."

She had never cared what people thought or didn't think about her. "I don't care for me. But's not fair." The last word came out choked, as she tried not to wail. "He...he was such a man."

Byelobog sighed, but smiled. "The, what are they called, metahumans - they may not remember. But the people will remember. And the people, they are important too."

She looked up, and said, fiercely, perhaps more so than she had intended, "The people are more important than anything."
He chuckled. "Without the worker, the factory closes. Without the people, there is no Paragon City. Petrograd would mock me, but the people are the heart and soul of the city. And you have already begun to touch them, to remind them of your beloved."

How many times had Zach not said as much? "Without the will of the people, we're nothing but a bunch of bullies in fancy costumes."

He looked at his own plain shirt and pants, and grinned "Is this 'fancy', Bella?"

She made a face at him. "Oh don't be so mendacious. I've seen you in your uniform you know." Say what you would, the CCCP uniform was damned good looking. And very heroic.

"Yes, I know," he chuckled. "So. You remember the good in your beloved, and you share that with the people. The people will remember him as you do. I can think of no better way to honor him."

She nodded, again feeling something of that tightness easing in her. "I...I think it's something he would have done himself, if he'd been given the time. Kids instinctively loved him, and you would have thought they'd have been terrified of hhim. I mean, green guy, dreads, looks like a troll.... Literally like a troll. It was his smile. Well it wasn't a smile, it was more of a lopsided grin. Goofy. Ingenuous." She started to tear up again. "And god, he was brave. Not stupid brave. Not bravado. More like.....determined brave. Go down fighting brave. Not for stupid reasons but...but because you're all that stands between the bad guys and people who'll get hurt."

And that was why he had died. Because he had gotten between the bad guys and ordinary, non-heroes, who would have gotten hurt. Who were getting hurt. He'd hated the whole politician thing. He'd thrown himself back into the old life every chance he got to get away from Washington. And she could have asked him not to, could have told him to leave the cape at home. Yes, she could have, and he probably would have done it too.

ANd she would have killed something inside him if she had. "I couldn't stand in the way of that."

He smiled.

"I mean....that was what made him, him. And me, me too I guess." A long silence hung between them as she realized she had run out of things to say. She dipped her finger into the water and ran it around the glass so that it sang. Softly. Purely.

"Is good to remember the good things." He got a far-away look. "I have told you of my Sveta, and you have told me of your Zach."

Oh, how that glass sang. It wass just water, and yet... Just water and crystal and even still, it sang She lost herself a little in the sound of the singing glass. They both did.

Finally the slick of water on the rim of the glass dried, and the note died away as her finger stopped moving. Byelobog smiled. "Thank you Bella. When I last had some of this water, the glasses were not so nice."

She looked up. "Great-great-great Meemaw would be very happy."

"Da" He slowly finished his water, savoring it, and then gently set the glass down. She collected both and took them to the little sink in her office, making sure to put a cloth under them.

"So. Is not magic vodka, but is still good, yes?"

"Rather...better than magic vodka," she said, slowly.

He chuckled. "It is good, then." He stretched, standing.

She looked up at him, clear-eyed, "Thank you, tovarisch. That was a very great gift."

He picked up the bottle. "You are most welcome, tovarisch. Consider it a kind of Christmas present. Only without the wrapping paper and the strange snow creatures."

She managed a faint, but real, smile. "You brought my memories back where they belong. It is the best present I have gotten."

He nodded, grinning. "I am glad, then, to have gotten it for you."

"Spasibo, tovarisch," she said, meaning it.

"You are very welcome. Now, I think I shall return to my room and continue my planting. After all, Spring is just around the corner." He grinned at his own joke. "Good night, Bella."

"Goodnight, my good friend," she said, as he let himself out. After a moment, she turned out all but the night-lamp, slipped off her shoes, and climbed into her cot where Ivan again weighted her down, purring like one of those "Magic Fingers" beds in a 50s motel. And without having to put a quarter in him, either. Soothed by the sound and the warmth, she dropped into sleep, to dream herself back in Zach's arms, knowing that when she woke, this time, she would be smiling.