Season of Snow Pt 3

From the Story Arc: Phoenyx Ascendant

Previous Story in the Arc: Season of Snow Pt 2 by John Murdock (Thursday, December 29, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Season of Snow Pt 4 by John Murdock (Monday, January 23, 2006)

(posted Sunday, January 01, 2006)

The peace was too good to last.

The next morning, the morning of Christmas Eve, they were bickering again.

It began when Shuma rose practically with the dawn and kept trying to get Ratt up as well. Ratt, who was decidedly not a morning person, kept burying himself deeper in the blankets, and Shuma kept using her powers to lift them just enough to let cold drafts sneak in under them.

Things went rapidly downhill from there. Shuma decided to up her arsenal. Whistling quietly, she put on her heavy coat, laced her boots, and marched purposefully to the door.

"Shuma? Where are you going?" John said inquisitively.

"Shuma need snow!" she answered cheerfully, and reached for the doorknob.

John and Sera exchanged a look, first puzzled, then alarmed. "Shuma--no!" Sera exclaimed.

About half a second too late.

Still whistling, Shuma opened the door, gestured, and a thick blanket of new fallen snow came hurtling into the cabin. There was almost an audible screech as it halted in midair, and plopped unceremoniously down on the unsuspecting Ratt.

There was a very audible screech as Ratt levitated out of bed, despite the fact that his powers did not include levitation. Ratt glanced around wildly before focusing on his tormentor. He dove at Shuma, narrowly missing her.

"Oh good, Ratt is awake." Shuma murmured. "Is good, Ratt can is helping Shuma with breakfast!"

"Shuma can clean up the mess she just made in the loft by herself," Sera said with uncharacteristic severity.

Shuma pouted. "No Boinger Jr.?"

"No powers, not for the rest of the trip," John said while standing, arms crossed. "Neither one of ya."

Shuma nodded glumly, and looked down at Ratt, who was still seething. "Shuma is liking her eggs over easy." Muttering, she went off to find a shovel. And a mop.

"Shuma will be getting whatever is in the MRE like the rest of us," Sera murmured. She was repressing a laugh. If her borrowed memories of other families were to be trusted, and she rather thought they were...this was entirely typical sibling behavior.

And of course, Ratt could not possibly let this insult pass, even though Shuma was paying for her prank already. Ratt prepared the MREs for the family while Shuma finished sweeping out the snow she had brought in. Everyone was sitting at the small table in the corner, with Ratt serving. Laying down Shuma's plate last, he had the faintest trace of a smile on his lips. "Breakfast served."

Shuma gave him an odd look, her eyes appearing almost sleepy. She looked down at her plate, then at Ratt, then back again. She smirked.

"Oh, this is too much for Shuma!" she exclaimed. "Shuma trade with you!"

And before Ratt could respond, she exchanged their plates.

Ratt sat down nonchalantly, chin raised slightly. "Fine by me, sis. I'm hungry anyways." He dug into the meal, shoveling the eggs and dehydrated bacon down. Chomping merrily, he looked expectantly over to Shuma.

Shuma paused, looking slightly annoyed, and shrugged. Bending over her plate, she began to eat, when--

"AIYAH!" she screamed, spitting the eggs back onto the plate. She dove for her coffee mug, and screamed again. She leaped from the table, and ran outside to stuff her mouth with snow.

John gave Ratt a stern look. "Well?"

Ratt tried his best to look innocent. "Wha'?" He met John's gaze for a moment, then finally rolled his eyes. "Alrigh', jes a li’l bi' of sugar in 'er eggs."


"And salt in her coffee. Bu' Shuma started it!"

Sera was torn between laughing and wanting to bang both their heads together repeatedly. If this was how mothers often felt--and her memories assured her it was--no wonder her siblings often suggested they should be awarded "wings" long before the posthumous state.

John looked away from Ratt to Sera briefly, then called out for Shuma to come back inside. She sat down at the table, a gaze that could crack a diamond fixed on Ratt. "Y'alright, Shuma?"

"Shuma fine," she said through clenched teeth.

"Good. Here's what it's gonna be, folks. Y'all are family, now. Friends. We're gonna act like it, or at least try an' treat each other with some manner of respect." He sighed, leaning back in his chair. "Now, since y'both have enough excess energy to devote it to makin' each other miserable, we'll just have to change this situation. Finish up breakfast; Shuma, y'can have mine. We'll be goin' out after you both are finished." John stood up, placing a hand on Sera's shoulder before going upstairs.

Sera throttled down her amusement enough to allow an expression of disappointment to settle over her features. She picked up Shuma's plate and cup, and brought back a fresh mug of coffee and some jelly-spread toast.

Shuma looked over at Ratt's plate, and down at John's. "Ratt have more eggs than Shuma," she muttered, and began to eat.

Sera watched carefully as John fastened the snowshoes on his own feet, and copied what he was doing. Shuma and Ratt, however, stared at the snowshoes as if at some sort of arcane implement from a Circle altar.

"Since we have a bit of a ban on powers," John explained, "We'll have to rely on a bit more of a mundane way to get 'round out here. 'sides, it'll be good exercise for y'all. Anyone need help gettin' 'em strapped on?"

"Daddy is joking, right?" Shuma asked. She stared at the snowshoes some more. "Shuma look like she is needing exercise?"

"Don't worry, Shuma. You're fine. Just think of this as an...educational exercise." John grinned, pulling up his customary red scarf. As soon as everyone was ready, he started out, showing them how to lift their legs high to clear the snow. Early on, everyone was stumbling some, including John. But, with a little practice, the foursome was able to move around ably enough. During breaks ---because it actually was exercise, moving around with the shoes strapped on--- John would point out some bit of wildlife or other wilderness feature and talk a bit about it, expending his knowledge of the outdoors.

"And you two fireballs," John said warningly. "Don't even think about usin' that power. There's about ten years of deadwood heaped up under these trees, an' it's been a dry year. On top'a that, you light up, you're liable to bring a couple tons of snow down on us from all the branches above."

Linked as they were, Sera knew where all this knowledge had come from, and when. And at what cost of loneliness. Those had been dark years for her John, and yet--yet they had made him into the person she had fallen irrevocably in love with.

The looks they shared, the love, was unfortunately lost on the children.

"Wha' the 'ell is the point o' dis?" Ratt muttered, breathing heavily and struggling to keep up.

"They is teaching us stuff," Shuma whispered glumly. "Is making them feeling like parents."

Sera smothered a smile. Her hearing was very good.

"I'm gettin' pretty damn tired've bein' taught stuff," Ratt said wearily. "Seems like every time somebody thinks I ain't got 'nuff t'do they're tryin' t'teach me somethin'."

Shuma grinned. "Shuma is understanding. That was Shuma, when she was little."

Ratt shot her an amused look.

"Littler," Shuma added.

"Oh yeah? Seems like the Prof was sayin' somethin' about you not keepin' up with me an' wonderin' if you oughta be dropped down a grade."

"Stupid classes," Shuma snorted with a grimace. "Shuma no learning that stuff, when Shuma small. Master teaching Shuma other things."

"Like what?" Ratt grinned.

"How to kill," Shuma answered grimly.

"Then mebbe you oughta be learnin' why not to," Ratt responded sharply, as Sera winced.

Shuma didn't answer, and pulled a bit ahead of Ratt. He charged after her.

If it's a race she wants...

But when he caught up, he noticed she was determined not to look at him.

"Hey! Hey Shuma, what..."

He pulled at her arm, and for a moment, noticed her eyes had turned very, very red. She pulled away again, sniffling.

"Shuma, what, I'm sorry! What?"

Shuma came to a halt, and stifled a few sobs, and straightened up.

"Is okie dokie," she sniffed. "Shuma okie dokie."

Ratt looked her full in the face, and bit his lip. "I'm sorry, okay? Whatever it was, I'm sorry."

Finally, she turned to him, her eyes still red, and gave a short, apologetic laugh. "Shuma is being silly, aiyah... what a silly girl Shuma is."

"Nah," Ratt said. "Well, yeah. But silly ain't bad. Y'know?"

Shuma's lips parted, as if to speak, but slammed shut again. She just nodded. "Daddy and Sera is far ahead now, we is needing catch up."

"Yah," Ratt whispered. "Le's go."

They had broken through the trees into a clearing--where, of course, the snow had piled high and drifted. Soft and powdery, it was heavy, heavy going in the snowshoes, and hardest on Shuma who was half the size of Ratt, at best. Her lighter weight was no help when having to lift each snow-shoed foot in an exaggerated motion. Grunting, she gave up, and began to hover over the drift.

"Pop! Shuma's cheatin' again!" Ratt could not resist the opportunity when it was shoved up his nose like that.

Shuma whirled on Ratt, in annoyance but also fighting back laughter. "You little rat!"

"I'm not little!" Ratt answered, automatically.

"You is so little!"

"I'm taller than you are!"

"So? Shuma is..."

Shuma never got a chance to finish that statement.

The thing about thick forest is, it's very deceptive. Some sounds can echo for miles, but others can be muffled, and you don't know what is coming until it's right on top of you. The latter was the case now.

The only warning that any of them had that things were about to get very chaotic was when two deer exploded through the underbrush and into the clearing. One, a buck, kept right on going after literally vaulting over the teenagers. But the other, bleeding and limping, could not follow. He whirled to make a stand, and in that kind of unnatural clarity that comes in moments of danger, both of them could see the grey hairs peppering his muzzle.

He had not even set his hooves when the wolf-pack, running silent, plunged through the gap in the undergrowth that the deer had made. One pulled ahead of the rest, barreling into the buck's throat. In less than a second, the entire pack was upon the deer, bringing it to the ground with a final shriek. Blood fountained over the snow from the severed carotid artery, and there was at least one wolf attached to every thrashing limb. Then the buck shuddered, and was still, and at some tiny sound from Shuma, the wolves looked up.

For a moment, there was nothing. Just faint whispers of a breeze, and two astonished children staring down a pack of wolves.

It was a truism that under normal conditions wolves were no threat to humans. But this was winter. The wolves were hungry, a hint of bones under the thick fur. They had half-grown cubs with them. And humans, even cubs...were fellow predators. Competition. The growls started, and each wolf turned to face them, heads low, backs arched, hackles raised. The kids, it seemed, didn't pose a threat. No way were they running from this meal.

On the opposite side of the clearing came a shout. John and Sera burst out from the trees, skidding to a halt, eyes wide, at the spectacle before them.

The pack closed up, protectively, the youngsters in the middle. The threat-level, the tension, had just escalated exponentially. They were flanked. They might be surrounded. The situation, from their perspective, had gone from "defending the kill" to "we've been surrounded." It was no longer a choice of fight or flight in their eyes. Now the only option was to fight.

"Shuma!" John shouted. And that made up the wolves' minds. Most of the adults lunged for the two at the edge of the clearing. Sera responded instinctively, leaping into her place between John and danger. But not invoking her fires. They were still under the snow-laden canopy, standing amid tinder-dry underbrush. To flame on risked starting a forest fire or bringing tons of snow down atop them. John's powers were under no such restrictions, however; he infused his fists with energy, dropping into a defensives stance. He turned his shoulders, taking a step beside Sera to meet the oncoming wolves.

Shuma watched in horror, and her hand shot out in a reflexive motion. Her fingers, like claws, flew together in a tight fist while tendrils of force grappled a cub. Her eyes burned with a brilliant light, as her hand slowly rose up, so did the cub. It yelped in pain, rising helpless from the ground, shaking violently.

Shuma began to cry.

Her grip tightened. There was an enormous sound of cracking bone, and a fountain of blood erupted from the cub's mouth. In shock, her hand flew open, and the cub fell with a soft thud onto bloodied snow. With a low moan, she took a step, then another, then she was racing to the cub's side.

"Shuma, no!" Ratt screamed, as the remaining wolves spun and darted towards her. He launched himself into the air, and sped into them, crashing soundly into one cub, while drawing snarls from another. Tumbling, he brought himself to his feet, while the cubs circled him, moving to flank. He was clear, there was only snow about, and with a small smile he willed the fire forth. The snow melted away, he stood on a now charred patch of earth, and reaching down, his fingers felt into the ground, and emerged with an enormous stone mallet.

Already keyed up to near hysteria, the sight of a human turning into a torch was too much for the wolves. The adults aborted their attack on John and Sera at the first cry of the cub, and now, this--

It was too much.

With an agonized howl, the leader bolted. The rest of the pack followed, leaving behind the dead deer and the dying cub. In a moment, the clearing was silent again.

"I think we're okay," John exhaled. "Shuma, you okay darlin'?" He did a quick check of the area to make sure that none of the wolves had decided to stick around, then slowly walked up to where Shuma had settled.

She was not.

She had knelt down by the wolf she had killed, her face unreadable, but the tears continued to stream down her porcelain-like face. Her hand reached out, and nudged the limp, silent, lifeless wolf. The body gave with her push, and fell back in place. She broke, and began to sob.

"Get up," she said. She demanded. "Get up! Oh please, get up! Getupgetupgetupgetup..."

Ratt stumbled up and over to her. Sera flung herself towards Shuma as well, but stopped just short of the girl. Only once before had Shuma reacted violently to an overture of comfort... Sera sensed many of the same emotions boiling within the girl now. She couldn't, wouldn't dip below that surface, not without Shuma's permission, which obviously was not going to be forthcoming. So she didn't know what the cause of Shuma's distress was, and she sensed that any move she could make might be the wrong one. There was something terrible in Shuma's past...a mystery, a field of emotional landmines. And without a map--Sera was not going to venture. So she paused, poised, and caught Ratt's eye, and mouthed two words.

Hold her.

And Ratt reached out and took her into an awkward embrace.

Shuma held him fast, and buried her face into his chest. He patted her hair, clumsily. Finally, as she continued to cling to him, he looked up.

"Pops?" he said, huskily, "C'n ya get us all home?" John nodded, sighing wearily before concentrating. In a few moments, they were all a-flight.

Or, not quite all. Shuma remained cradled in Ratt's arms, and there she remained until he put her to bed himself, trusting no one, not even his adoptive father, to take over the burden.