Season of Snow Pt 4

From the Story Arc: Phoenyx Ascendant

Previous Story in the Arc: Season of Snow Pt 3 by Sister Shuma (Sunday, January 01, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Bearer Of Bad News by Dr. Bella Dawn Parker (Friday, January 27, 2006)

(posted Monday, January 23, 2006)

Sera brought them soup--she could heat that--and hot chocolate--she could certainly heat that--and otherwise left them alone. Finally, after an hour or more of quiet murmuring, the lamps up in the loft were turned out, and there was only silence. It felt like exhausted, rather than "bad" silence.

"This has the feeling of--what is the phrase you use, love?--opening a can of bait," she whispered to John.

John turned over onto his side to look at Sera. "Close enough." He'd meant for this trip to be quiet, relaxing, a time for all of them to take a break from "hero" work. Things don't always turn out the way ya plan for 'em to. "Are they both gonna be alright for the evenin'?"

"You know, I think they will. This is something old, with Shuma. A trauma from long before she came here. It won't be settled in a day, but a day won't make a great deal of difference either. Let them nap, and when I wake them for dinner, we can see how they both feel."

John scratched the stubble that was forming on his chin, propping his head up on an elbow. "I really hope Shuma can find her way through whatever nastiness she remembered out there. We've seen 'er in some pretty bad scraps, and she'd bounce back skippin' merrily. After that wolf, though..." John let the sentence trail off, looking out the frosted window behind Sera.

"Something about that wolf..." Sera sighed, and nestled against John's side. It was odd, how the curves of both of them just exactly fit, as if they really were physically two halves of a greater whole. "It will wait," she murmured sleepily. "Love, what is it about this place that makes one so good-tired? I feel as if I had just run a dozen successful missions."

John smiled, pulling his wife just a bit closer. "The air, probably. But, me being biased, I'd say the company." He kissed the top of her head, settling unto his back. "'bout later tonight, I have most of the stuff already laid out. Just a matter of set up. After dinner, y'think?"

She gave that serious thought. It had been a hard morning. But Shuma was resilient. She bounced back from amazing trauma quickly. "I do. I'll go out and do my part before dinner, before they wake up." Not that she wanted to. She really wanted to just lie here sleepily, in the one place, the still, tranquil center of rest--John's arms. However...

However sooner or later something would come along to disturb them; hunger if nothing else. So, yes, she would take care of her part and enjoy doing it.

Just as she would enjoy the moment now.

Even without their connection, John could read Sera as easily as any book, and sensed her mild trepidation at having to leave their bed. Still smiling, he whispered, "Later. Dinner is still plenty far off." He pulled up the covers and closed his eyes, taking in every moment.

Ratt was not complaining about the food.

In fact, Ratt was quietly eating every bite, pausing between them to glance at Shuma.

Shuma was thoughtfully working her way through her MRE. She didn't look as traumatized as she had been this morning. In fact, she looked fairly normal, if you didn't know that her "normal" was a state of bubbly exuberance that would make a kitten look staid and sedate.

"Well," Sera said, as she cleared the trays away, "There is something to be said for MREs. Cleanup is certainly easy."

"Just make sure it all gets in the trash. Pack it in, pack it out and that sort've thing." John stood up from the table, finished pouch in hand. "I'm gonna head out, find some more firewood to get us through the evenin'. Anyone need anythin' while I'm out? Pizza, soda, a warm bath?"

Sera pursed her lips. "You know...I have seen articles in Mother Earth News--one can make a wood-fired hot-tub..."

John smirked, disposing of his trash. "Write Santa a note. It's Christmas Eve, after all." He grabbed his customary red scarf from a hook near the door, bundling up. Ready, he waved to everyone before heading out to do his work.

Sera kept the other two busy tidying up after dinner. It took less time that she had thought before she heard John's call in her mind.

*Come on out, love, it's ready.*

"John needs some help; I think he wants to bring all of the wood inside on one trip," she told them. Shuma sighed, and Ratt made a face, but neither objected. But as she led them further and further from the house under a sky spangled with the most brilliant of stars, she could sense growing puzzlement from both of them.

Then, through the thick undergrowth, the warm light of the bonfire John had built beckoned them forward. At this point, surely both Ratt and Shuma realized that this was not the "wood gathering" they thought it was.

They pushed through the last of the trees into the clearing, and there it was.

Beside the warm and welcoming bonfire, four logs set on end as seats, and a tin pitcher of hot chocolate warming next to it. And standing just inside the circle of firelight, but not so near that the fire would harm it, the Christmas tree.

But this was a tree with a difference. A living, and very imperfect tree, lightly dusted with real snow, with real icicles hanging from the tips of the branches, icicles that Sera had carefully formed by melting the original snow-load and allowing the water to freeze again. And lit by John's three energy-manifestations, the "photon-seekers," nestled next to the trunk. Decorated with strung berries and seed-stuffed cones for the birds, that John had bought along with their supplies. Crowned with a tiny angel with a crooked halo and an impish grin, made of sugar, that no doubt some raccoon would find and crunch up with great relish.

John looked up from stoking the fire, spying his family. His family. It had been years since he had seen his own parents, both long dead now. Spending those first few years after his escape on the run, he'd never had time to connect with anyone; no friendships that couldn't serve some other purpose, no relations without clauses. But John had everything he'd been missing; people, family to be close to and to love. To be loved by. Joy spread across his face as he beckoned everyone to their seats.

"Y'all just got here in time. Hot chocolate is perfectly heated right now." Not bothering to let the smile fall from his face, John kissed Sera in passing as he went about pouring everyone a generous cup of hot chocolate.

Sera sighed and lightly brushed his cheek with the back of her hand, sharing everything she felt with him and him alone. Family. What a wonderful, blessed creation. Even when her family was driving her mad. Perhaps then, most of all, for it was the love under it all that kept her from incinerating them.

John exuded happiness; this was the perfect moment, every bit of it. Passing Ratt and Shuma their cups, he nodded towards the lit tree. "I think y'all may wanna check under the tree. Might find something that interests ya." Ratt and Shuma looked at each other for barely a second before jumping up to find what was waiting for them.

Beneath the tree, the presents Sera and John had smuggled here. Books of poetry and fantasy for Ratt, a hardened iPod loaded with music for Shuma.

"Love? Can you come here for a moment?" John turned from the two siblings showing off their gifts to one another, fishing in a vest pocket.

Sera was already thrusting her own hand in a pocket. An impish smile crossed her face as she handed him something...very small. A flat package that barely covered the palm of his hand.

He opened it. It was a tiny, leather-bound book. Opening it, the first words he saw, handwritten in exquisitely tiny, if a trifle peculiar, calligraphy were:

Selected poems of Dylan Thomas, for my love.

The entire book, easy to slip into a pocket, was hand-calligraphed, the letters as small as 10-point type.

John marveled at the book, looking up at Sera. He finished removing his own parcel from his vest pocket, barely controlled laughter threatening to bubble to the surface. "Love, I think we know each other a bit too well." He handed her a slightly thicker book, also leather-bound. The title read, "Collected Works of British Poets of the 20th Century." There was a slip of paper---a bookmark---protruding from the middle of the book. Cracking open the volume, she could see that it marked their poem, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion". Written in John's customarily sloppy shorthand was a short message:

"For the one who's enriched everything for me, the love of my life."

They looked into each others' eyes, and laughed. Sera stood on tiptoe and kissed his nose above the scarf. "Thank you for not handwriting mine. I will be able to read it." But what he felt gave the lie to the flippant words; love so intense it was almost an aura, glowing in the dark.

John leaned in close, reaching to hold Sera's hands. "This is the happiest I've been in all of my life, Love. It truly is."

*Then that is the best present you could have given me,* came the whisper of Kheld-like thought in his mind.

"Merry Christmas, my loves," Sera said, dissolving her shields to wash them all in happiness.

John was the last one to fall asleep after the campfire under the Christmas tree, and was also the first one to wake up. Years of living on a disciplined schedule had tuned his body to a certain rhythm. He rose silently from bed, ever careful not to wake Sera. After he was done cleaning himself up and attending to his usual morning routine, he slipped back under the blankets, simply watching Sera sleep. It still amazed him with some regularity that he was married to this wonderful creature, and he breathed in moments like these.

Finally, however, it was time for everyone else to awaken. John gently kissed Sera on her forehead before nudging her awake. Once she was, he smiled, kissing her again, before moving upstairs to rouse Shuma and Ratt for breakfast.

No matter what had happened the day before, or what miserable duties awaited them that day, this was always a perfect moment in Sera's day; being awakened with a kiss, and being able to look up into the smiling face of the one she loved more than life...not even the prospect of a PTA or school-board meeting could spoil that.

Christmas Day would be the last of their visit, and Sera woke to John's kiss with a certain amount of both regret and relief. Regret, because--this had been a sanctuary. She loved it here, and was looking forward to returning as soon as possible. But relief because--

Because for as much as she loved it, this place was--primitive. And she was not particularly looking forward to another dinner of MREs, particularly not when this was supposed to be a festive day.

When everyone was awake and the usual chores required by living in a cabin were completed, Sera was about to ask her husband if there was anything that he thought they might do on their last day when--

--there was a knock at the door.

Four sets of eyes flew towards the offending portal, all of them startled.

"What the hell--" John said, and there was a touch of anger as well as alarm in his voice and manner. This was, after all, supposed to be his sanctuary. His hidden place. A place no one was ever supposed to find. The only person who had the vaguest idea where they were was Vickie; John and Sera trusted her implicitly. There was no way she would have told anyone where his family had gone. Still, someone was here that shouldn't be.

He was the first to fully react; he jumped to his feet and strode to the door, yanking it open in a way that suggested he was about to defend his family and territory from whatever fool--or enemy--had found them.

"Merry Christmas, Murdocks," said Victoria Victrix, opening her arms wide. Then she stared at John, as Red Djinni waited patiently behind her. "Um...we're not a boarding party, Comrade. Just Meals On Wheels."

Sera stared at the two newcomers, astonishment mingling with growing amusement. Both of them were done up, "Santa's Helper" style with red, fur-trimmed stocking caps and red clothing. Vickie had gone the whole route, with a red suit that made her look rather like a department-store elf of the tres chic variety. Red, however, had clearly been coerced into this whole business. His sole concession besides the hat was a red vest. And he was wearing his signature red scarf hiding the bottom half of his face.

"Djinni Claus, I presume?" Sera asked, amusement now bubbling up inside her. "Did you bring me the hot tub I asked for?"

"Nope!" Vickie said cheerfully, hefting a bulky bag. "Just Christmas dinner, courtesy of Thea. She knows you can't cook. And she's Russian; plenty of people over there still cook on wood stoves, so all of this is reheatable on what you've got." John stepped aside to allow Red and Vic inside, helping them settle the bundles of food they had brought.

"Thank God! Real food!" Ratt said, with a little too much enthusiasm.

"Is not being polite to Sera and--" Shuma muttered, then paused, and looked up at Vickie and Red. "Is thanking you very much!" she said, much louder. "Is good-good feasting!"

"Come on, Red," Vickie said, looking back over her shoulder and grinning. "It could be worse. I could be forcing you to watch 'It's a Wonderful Life.'"

"Oh, but it is a wonderful life, Vic. Or so you keep telling me, anyway."

Vickie made a face at him. "Good food, good friends, and you aren't being bombarded with 'Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.' How is this bad?"

Red grunted, and tossed the bag of gifts unceremoniously to Shuma. "Here, ya little rugrats, Merry Christmas." He nodded to Sera, and turned to John. "Tell me you've got something to drink in this place."

Sera blinked at him, and an edge of not-quite-pain filtered across her shields from him...

Ah... Past pain. And edges of other things. Well, if anyone deserved a drink after somehow lofting dinner to the right hand of nowhere, it was Red Djinni. "We're CCCP," she said with a smile. "When have you ever known us not to have a bit of vodka about?"

"I'll have--" Ratt began with enthusiasm.

"Booze is baddy bad for Ratt!" Shuma objected strongly, as Sera dug out the dusty bottle of vodka and handed it to Djinni.

Sera and John took possession of the dinner-bags and began unpacking them, while Ratt hovered nearby trying to snatch bits here and there, and Shuma tried to prevent him.

"I'm hungry now!" Ratt protested, as Shuma slapped his hand away from the miraculously perfect--if cold---turkey.

"You is waiting for everybody!" Shuma insisted. "We is... aiyah!"

Shuma shrieked, as a miniscule jet of flame flashed off to the side. They turned, to see Red covering his mouth apologetically. He had burped fire.

"Sorry," he shrugged, and nodded to Sera. "Strong stuff, darlin'."

"You know, love, with two fire-bombs in the family, and a third visiting, we might want to consider...a stone cabin?"

John took a seat at the table across from Red and Vickie, his fingers steepled and brow furrowed. "Speakin' of'd y'all find this place? I know that Vic knew we were comin' out to Minneapolis, so we'd be in state. But no one knows where this cabin is. This trip is the first time someone other than myself has been out 'ere."

Vickie raised an eyebrow. "You are asking how someone who tracked Thea across Paragon City five times over by a trail of hairs found you? Come on, John, how many Kheld/angelic pairs are there in Minnesota? Magically speaking, you two stand out like candles in a cave."

John turned to speak to Red, his tone serious. "Never let me piss her off and try an' go hiding. I'll just end up tired." He then stuck his tongue out before settling back in his chair, smiling. "Glad y'all did find us, though. MREs are meant to for helpin' ya live, and not much more'n that."

"I will learn from Thea how to cook a little on a wood stove," Sera promised gravely.

She was about to say more when a shout from Ratt warned her that Shuma had more than recovered her spirits and was defending a pan of rolls with a fork.

"Mom!" Ratt wailed. "I'm starvin'!"

"Red!" it was Vickie's turn now to defend the food, as Djinni edged towards the bird with a distinctly predatory look in his eye.

Sera pulled her celestial fire-sword out of the aether with a sudden whoosh rendering them all speechless for a moment.

"I," she said with great dignity, "Am going to follow Thea's very careful instructions. There will be dinner in an hour."

John crossed his arms, faux pouting. "Bit hungry myself, now that y'all mention it."

There were rebellious looks tendered towards her until she added, "And as we are all adults here, we are going to have dessert first. There is pie."

Rebellious looks turned to avid ones.

"Pie..." Djinni said, putting down the bottle from which he was about to pour another shot, and capping it again. "Pie..."

"He has this new mouth, you see," Vickie whispered to Sera. "Tasting...all kind of new and shiny for him."

"What kind of pie?" Djinni continued, ignoring her. Or pretending to. Except that he waggled his eyebrows at her the next moment and murmured loud enough for everyone to hear, "Mouth's good for more than just kissing y'know."

Vickie went beet-red. Sera got the distinct impression that this was a line Djinni had used for--well--something other than eating.

"Thea very generously sent three. Apple, pecan, and pumpkin. Which we will have now, if you can remain above the level of the Neanderthal while I cut it."

John leaned in conspiratorially, pretending to whisper to Red and Ratt. "Y'hear that? Neanderthals. We're movin' up in the world."

"Aye," Red replied. "Usually Vic calls me 'monkey-boy.'"

John chuckled, "Don't worry, I won't ask." He leaned back in his chair to avoid Red's half-hearted swing, putting his hands behind his head as if that's what he had intended to do all along.

Vickie, Sera, and Shuma all exchanged The Look. Unchanged since the caves, it was the expression that only women really understood. Men just knew it meant that they had been demoted. Somehow. To what? No telling.

Ah, but they were about to find out.

"Wood," said Sera succinctly. And all three women Looked at all three men.

With a heavy sigh, all three men reached for their coats.

"But not," Sera added, relenting, with a smile, "Before Pie."

A raucous cheer was raised as all three dropped their coats, jockeying in a rough line to be the first for pie. It was all good-natured, and absolutely fitting for all of them.

Pie. Which swiftly vanished. Sera had no intention of telling them about the other three pies still in the bag...Thea was a generous Russian cook...and Thea knew her heroes. And Heroic appetites.

Then wood. And by the time the last of the wood was brought in, dinner, at mid-afternoon. Red drank just a little too much, which annoyed Shuma, until Vickie hit him surreptitiously with one of her spells to clear his head. Sera sensed why...Christmas had never been a happy time for Djinni. Ever. She resolved to make this one different, and passed her impression on to John as she passed him the sweet potatoes.

Taking his cue, John started to relate some of the more embarrassing and comical moments from his career as a hero. In the beginning, most of the stories didn't feature anyone that their little group had met. But, soon, he led in with tales of foibles and goofs made by friends and family alike. He wanted to remind Red of all of his friends, and how everyone was human.

Suddenly Ratt piped up. "No Chrissmuss where I come from. This's aces." The remark was a bit muffled behind Ratt's drumstick, but still clear enough.

Sera nodded. "And you know, every culture that I recall, and not just the ones on this earth, have some sort of celebration at this time in the seasonal cycle..." Her eyes grew shadowed as she gazed into some distant memories. "It is...the darkest, the longest night of the year. It seems that dawn will never come. It is cold; the hours pass, and they pass in the silence of a shroud of ice and snow. Hope is all that stands between hearts and the despair--hope--and the other hearts gathered together to pass the dark hours. For the hours do pass...pass the easier for those who share the fireside...and then comes the dawn. And those same hearts celebrate the turning of the year, and the beginning of winter's death. They celebrate that hope and fellowship have once more triumphed over despair and loneliness..."

"A toast," John said, holding his cup of hot spiced cider aloft as he rose from his seat. "To friends and family, together in all things. To all of us, now an' forever."

This was the moment that Sera had been waiting for. Carefully, because Djinni was rather touchy about such things, she dropped just enough shielding to envelop all of them in a simple, yet complex feeling.

You belong. You are welcome. You are a part of all of us.

John looked around the table at his closest friends and family. Ratt and Shuma were both sleepy with food, as everyone was, but they were also...comfortable. Since this morning, they'd be relatively placid, even helping one another with the few chores that had needed doing. Sera was the center of serenity, emanating calm and well-being to everyone else. One of Red's arms eased around Vickie, and she settled into it.

Red raised his own cup wordlessly, glanced down at it, and became aware that he was relaxed. Or relaxing. And he couldn't chalk that up to vodka, since he hadn't spiked this round.

There were no emergencies, the comm was not going to go off, and nothing...bad...had happened. There had been no screaming fights. No one had run off in tears. No one was ready to fly at the throat of anyone else. No one had gotten obnoxiously drunk. It might not be a Norman Rockwell Christmas--how many of those featured people with fiery or glowing eyes, and power-auras around their hands?--but--

He stopped analyzing his feelings. Vickie was a warm, loving presence at his side. He was with friends who wanted him here. For once, he was going to stop thinking and just--be.

John started the waterfall by downing the rest of his drink, and couldn't help but smile as he did so. His family, extended and otherwise, was with him. Amid the snow, they were the bright point, the warm glow. Tomorrow they would travel back to civilization, and all of its incumbent problems and hassles. But, right now, this minute, he was happy. And his family was happy.

And that's all that mattered.