A Blue, Blue Christmas

From the Story Arc: Lovers and Heroes

Previous Story in the Arc: The Big Sandbox by Belladonna Aura (Saturday, January 14, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: And now a word from our sponsor (Part II) by Bestial Boy (Thursday, January 19, 2006)

(posted Tuesday, January 17, 2006)

The condo in Bella’s building that Zach Marlowe had bought was still not ready. So he was still living out of the tiny “by the month” motel room—and spending so much time at Bella’s place that he might just as well have been living there.

Except he didn’t want to live there. Been there, done that, he wanted a place of his own, his very own, someplace—

Someplace you can’t get thrown out of, Zach.

Not that Bella would ever—

But it was a twitch. Irrational, but still a twitch. Didn’t matter if they both had keys to each others’ places, they would each have a place. Of their own. To go to.

It wasn’t as if they were married or anything.

Mind, there was a darn good reason why the condo—ok, be honest, the penthouse—wasn’t ready.

Wiring.

It hadn’t been lived in since the building owner died in the 70s, and the wiring dated back to when the building was new. Back when one outlet to a room was deemed sufficient. Back when the fuses in the fuse box were often replaced with pennies. . . .

So all the wiring was being pulled—carefully, to avoid any damage to the pristine Art Deco plasterwork and paneling—and all new and much better wiring being installed. And Ethernet. And cable. Saviour was going to take one look and have a bolshoi cow.

But then, Zach planned that this place was going to be as much for the CCCP as it was for him. He had fought a losing battle with Natalya on modernizing the CCCP base, so this was his way of compromise (at least she let him install modern medical facilities, thank god). He figured, (since it came fully furnished, and face it, the Art Deco décor harkened back to the glory days of the Soviet Union) that about three quarters of the space was going to become “CCCP AP.” A good place to put visiting officials and politicians. A place for receptions and dinners. Lord only knew you wouldn’t want a visiting ambassador to be offered a cot in the CCCP bunkroom. . . .

Zach shuddered at the thought.

So, here it was Christmas, and he was still homeless. A Hero of the City, and he was living out of a shabby, cheerless motel room, in a place where the only nods to the season were a plastic wreath, a wilting poinsettia, and a string of malfunctioning lights in the lobby. He wasn’t back living on the streets again, but the lack of a “home” hit Bestial Boy hard, for the first time since he was young.

Small wonder he spent so much time at Bella’s place. Not that she seemed to be doing anything particularly festive either. . .

Now, how to account for his feeling of, well, disappointment? It wasn’t as if he had Norman Rockwell perfect memories of his own holidays. His family—

Best not even to think about the so-called “school.”

So the fact that she hadn’t even put up a sprig of mistletoe shouldn’t have bothered him. Yet, somehow, it did. She’d even talked vaguely about making a reservation for somewhere for a Christmas Day buffet, but he’d put his foot down on that one.

“I’m not getting in line with a bunch of strangers to watch them pig out,” he’d said, warningly. “I’d rather go dish up food at the CCCP soup kitchen—“

“Great idea!” she’d enthused, and suddenly there were the plans for Christmas day—dishing out turkey and stuffing to the homeless. Which was a wonderful idea, and very much correct thinking but—

--but it was their first Christmas together. He hadn’t planned on spending it washing dishes.

So he headed off to Bella’s place in a kind of depressed state of mind, Christmas Eve. Maybe he could get her to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or failing that, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”—

She hadn’t done more than open the door to him and give him an enthusiastic kiss when his comm. went off.

“What the—“

Oh hell. Oh hell. It wasn’t just anyone. It was Luminary. You didn’t not answer Luminary. And she wanted to see him in person.

On Christmas Eve.

Oh hell.

“Sorry, baby-cakes,” he said with a weak smile, as she tried to mask her disappointment. “Duty calls—“

She nodded, and managed a wan smile. “I’ll keep the light on and the toddy hot for you, babe,” she replied. And gave him a kiss that almost made him call Luminary back and tell her to find someone else.

And thus began one of the most miserable and frustrating three hours of his entire life.

Hamidon, it seemed, had come up with a DE plague that would gradually turn everyone in the city into Devoured; a retrovirus had been engineered to render it harmless, but for some insane and utterly senseless reason it had to be hand carried to every trainer, every iconic hero, every contact in the city.

By him.

A courier mission. On Christmas Eve.

“Only you, Bestial Boy, are powerful enough to deal with Hamidon’s ambushes, should he discover what we are doing,” Luminary said solemnly. “Each contact will tell you who to go to next—“

And he couldn’t say no. Though in his head, he heard Only you, Bestial Boy, are stupid enough to do this in Christmas Eve. And poor Bella, all alone there in that apartment. . . .

The last-minute shoppers, the carols broadcast in the streets, the heroes jaunting merrily in their snowflake-and-glitter-spewing jetpacks—all of it only served to depress his spirits. It got colder. And damper. And as night fell and the streets grew deserted, even more melancholy. One by one, the Great Heroes thanked him and sent him on. One by one, the minutes ticked past. And his energy began to flag, and he started to long for one of the threatened ambushes, anything to kill the numbing monotony of criss-crossing the city on something any kid in his first cape could have done. . . .

Finally, it was over. Finally, he could comm. to Bella and tell her he was coming in.

The warmth of her voice revived him a little. Enough to put some extra speed into his jumps. Enough to make him forget the cold and the damp.

He put up a hand to knock, and the door opened before he could touch it.

And he was struck, assaulted, bombarded with Christmas.

Lights dazzled his eyes. Cinnamon, peppermint and pine wafted around him. Warmth enveloped him. And as Bella, laughing, seized both his hands and pulled him into a living room that was halfNormal Rockwell painting, half Bing Crosby holiday special, he was assaulted in another way.

“Zachary Marlowe! Finally we meet you!” A silver-haired, slender woman enveloped him in a sandalwood-scented hug, then released him and kissed him as he blushed bright green. “Good heavens, you’re even handsomer in person!”

“Gramma, are you flirting?” Bella laughed, as the woman’s place was taken by an equally silver-haired man, who shook his hand while his eyes twinkled. “Zach—this is—this is my family. Gramma and Grampa Parker, Mom and Dad—we wanted to surprise you—“

Another woman, in whose features Zach could clearly see the delicate outlines of Bella’s interrupted her with a hug of her own. “Meeting the parents is worse than a root canal and we wanted to make it painless,” Bella’s mother whispered into his ear. “And we brought enough good vodka to make sure it is.”

“Ah—horosho!” he stammered, “Ah—“

And somehow—it was painless. In fact, somehow—it was wonderful. They shooed him off to change out of his uniform with a casual ease that made it perfectly clear they saw no reason why he shouldn’t have clothing in their daughter’s closet. They teased and bantered and included him in it, all of them ganging up on Bella to make her blush and her eyes glow more than they normally did. He found himself marveling at how they made him fit in with no apparent effort at all. How Bella was just their little girl, as if blue skin and hair, and glowing eyes, and the ability to knock out two football teams worth of bad guys was of less importance than that her new hairstyle made her look sophisticated. How the fact that her boyfriend had green skin and oozed murk was of less importance than that he loved chicken vindaloo too. It felt like family – and shockingly, that made Zach feel…well, normal



They drank toasts and ate wonderful food that Bella’s grandmother conjured up out of what he had thought was an empty kitchen. And at midnight—

At midnight, they all went out on the balcony; it was a tight fit, but somehow they all made it. The looked up at the stars as church bells across AP rang.

And Bella sang, familiar carols and strange, wonderful foreign carols, while the rest of her family hummed a soft background and she held his hand.

He’d heard her sing before, of course. He knew she’d had offers of a musical scholarship to Julliard, in fact. He loved her voice, everyone loved her voice. But he’d never heard her sound so—

--so happy.

And then, after they all squeezed back through the door and had one more round of spiked hot chocolate, somehow he found himself not just nodding in agreement but looking forward to the next day, when the plan was that Gramma Parker would stay here and cook Christmas dinner while the rest of them went to the CCCP soup kitchen. Found himself grinning as Bella’s father said, rubbing his hands, “Good works, good food and then, buddy, we’re gonna have some football!

Then, suddenly, they were all gone, and he was alone with Bella in the now-quiet apartment.

“Forgive me?” she asked, holding both his hands and gazing into his eyes.

“For what?” he began, then it dawned on him. It must have taken hours, even with five people, to decorate the apartment.

Probably about three hours, in fact.

“You—“

She hung her head. “I conspired with Lumi, yeah. She said she could keep you occupied until I called her to tell her we were ready. But I knew you were nervous about meeting my folks. And—“

She looked up again, eyes searching his face. “I wanted to give you something wonderful for Christmas, something you’d never have thought of. And the most wonderful thing I could think of was my family.”

He held her hands tightly. “They are. They are wonderful,” he said, with feeling. “But they’d have to be, wouldn’t they? They made you.”

She smiled, and her eyes shone with happiness. “They love you, Zach. Just like I knew they would. You’re my star.”

His mind flashed back months, to before she got sick, to a strange little scene they’d played out, in, of all things, a graveyard during a Rikti hunt. How she’d given him a ring, set with polished meteorite her grandfather had found and had made. A ring she said he’d sent to Zach because Zach had made her so happy. She’d first called him “her star” then.

“This—“ He paused for a moment, feeling suddenly choked up. “This has been the best Christmas. Ever. But not—not quite perfect.”

Her smile faded a little. “No?” she faltered.

“No. Just needs one thing, baby-cakes.” He swept her up in his arms and strode purposefully towards the bedroom as she threw her arms around his neck and laughed with delight. “So let’s go take care of that omission, shall we?”