CHRISTMAS IN HELL
BABY’S FIRST CHRISTMAS
—– Christmas in Hell —–
Clarice ran along the snow covered pathway toward the entrance of the caves where she had been sleeping lately. She stopped when she got there and turned to look back outside. She stared in wonder at the white snowflakes as they drifted down from the sky. Even with the main chimney of the Portland Core as the backdrop it made a beautiful scene, the snow was almost heavy enough to darken the glow from the ever burning furnaces. She held out a pink skinned hand and let a few snowflakes settle on it, watching as they slowly melted. Taking one last look at the winter vista she turned around and went inside.
As she made her way through the tunnels under the Portland Core she rubbed her bare arms, feeling the warmth returning to them as she made her way deeper into the caves that served as living quarters for the workers here. The snow had soaked through the rough work boots and clothes she was wearing and her purple hair was plastered to her young face. She glanced back at the now distant entrance and shivered. Not from the cold, she was warming up nicely now.
Her shiver was for the quickly fading daylight. That meant he would be coming soon. She hurried deeper into the caves.
As she came closer to the nook where she slept most nights she saw someone running toward her. It was Molly, one of the other mutant girls that slept in this part of the Core. “Clarice? Is that you?” came her timid voice.
Clarice understood the girl’s hesitance and heard the tint of fear in her voice. You had to be on your guard at all times in this place. “It is me Molly,” she replied. She walked up to the girl and they grasped hands glad to not have bumped into any of the more unpleasant residents in this area of the Core. Or to have bumped into him.
Molly was about a couple of years younger than Clarice, though what exactly either of their ages were she did not know. The last birthday she remembered had been before she was brought here. She remembered eight candles on a cake and the faces of her Mother, Father and brother as they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. It was one of the last memories she had of them before the Miami culling happened, when they had all been killed in front of her.
She had been saved, due to the pink skin and the purple hair and markings on her face that identified her as a mutant. She had been shipped off here to work until her powers manifested. She had no idea what might happen to her then, but she did not want to think about it. By her reckoning she had been working here for two years so she was maybe around ten.
Molly looked around that age but Clarice had no way to be sure. She had known the girl for nearly a year now, had helped her settle into the harsh life at the core. Someone had done it for her so she felt it was only fair to return the favour.
“Is it cold outside, you looked soaked?” asked Molly. Clarice nodded and pulled the girls arm, dragging them further into the caves. “I got us some food, managed to swipe some extra from the kitchens at rations. The guard didn’t see me I was super sneaky…” Molly prattled on as they went.
When Clarice reached the nook where she slept she relaxed a little. She had taken the spot over when its previous occupant, an old human man, had died in the work line. It was comfortable, as dark crevices in a cave go, but its best feature was the acoustics. Clarice could hear anyone approaching this part of the caves from at least a hundred metres away. It was perfect for when he came visiting.
She held up a hand for Molly to be quiet and looked under their blankets for the food the girl had gathered for them. She allowed herself a small smile when she saw the amount they had. They would eat well tonight. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of eating, it had been a couple of days since they had been able to scrounge up more than a few bites. Food was scarce in the Core; it was a constant battle to get some and then to keep what you got.
The two young girls sat in silence for the next few minutes, their concentrations completely on their food. After they had licked up the last crumbs of the stale bread Clarice climbed into their little sleeping chamber, pulling Molly in after her. They wrapped themselves up in blankets and settled down to try and sleep. Clarice knew she would not get more than a couple of hours. She would spend most of the night listening for him.
She felt Molly move around a little getting comfortable. The girl was afraid of the dark and Clarice knew as the last of the evening light faded in the tunnels she would start to whimper until she fell asleep. After a couple of moments Molly stopped moving and sighed.
“What powers do you think you will have when you grow up Clarice?” she asked quietly.
Clarice smiled in the dark, she had been expecting that question, it was one that the two girls asked each other all the time. “I don’t know Molly,” she replied, “I do not know much about powers and what we might be able to do. Sometimes I think I don’t ever want to get them”
Molly was silent for a while before speaking again, “You know they took Santo today?”
“Yeah, not long ago, he turned into this massive rock monster,” replied Molly, “He tried to run.”
“Oh,” said Clarice. She knew what that meant, when emergents tried to run, they were either killed or subdued with extreme force.
“He killed a few Infinites first though,” said Molly, “Then they blasted him to pieces”.
“At least he got a few of them,” said Clarice a little sadly.
“I was with him this morning, he was telling me stories,” said Molly. Molly loved stories; she always pestered most of the Core inhabitants for new ones. “He was telling me about what it was like before,” she continued. Blink shifted a little to get more comfortable and waited for Molly to continue. She liked to hear stories from what is used to be like before the whole world went to hell.
“He was telling me about Christmas,” said Molly, “He said it was tomorrow. I don’t think I remember Christmas,” she said.
“I remember,” said Clarice.
“Was it good? Santo said it was a great holiday, and that he used to get presents in the morning. A man called…”
“Santa Claus,” said Clarice her voice heavy with memory.
Molly jumped up in their bed and squeaked with delight, “You do remember! What was it like Clarice, did you ever see him?”
“Nobody saw him Molly,” replied Clarice, “He was magic, no one could catch him, probably not even Apocalypse himself.”
“Woah,” Molly gasped. It was a big statement to utter, and not an altogether safe thing to say. “Is he a mutant like us?”
“I don’t know Molly, maybe. I remember one year, I got a rocking horse, a unicorn one,” said Clarice, memories of her last Christmas coming back to her.
“What’s a unicorn?” interrupted Molly.
“A horse with a horn on its head, its magic,” answered Clarice, not missing a beat, used to Molly’s inquisitive nature. “I sat on it all morning while my mother made dinner for us. Dad rocked me on it for nearly an hour. It was beautiful… I… I can’t remember what I called it now.”
“Do you think Santa is still out there Clarice?”
“I hope so,” she replied, “Anything could exist outside the Core Molly.”
She heard the younger girl sigh and reached down to squeeze her hand. “Do you sometimes wish you could just blink you eyes and the world would be a better place Clarice?”
“All the time Molly, all the time. Now go to sleep, otherwise Santa might not come.”
“I don’t think Santa comes to places like this. Night time only brings the Sugar Man,” whispered Molly.
“Well you won’t know if you don’t go to sleep,” replied Blink just as quietly, brushing sudden tears from her eyes. She felt Molly snuggle up against her and she wrapped her arms around her in a hug.
After a few moments Blink spoke again, “I know what power I want now Molly”
“Yeah, is it super strength like me?”
“No, I want a power that can take us away from here, far far away.”
“That would be nice, I hope you get it,” said Molly.
They were both silent for a while, Clarice turning any memories of Christmas she had over and over in her mind. It was just one more pure thing that was gone from her world now.
Over the next hour Molly fell asleep, her breathing becoming deep and even. Clarice was still wide awake. In the distance she could hear his laughter and her whole body tensed. It drifted to her along the tunnels on the wind, chilling the marrow in her bones. A few minutes later she heard a faint scream and she relaxed. He had found someone else for tonight, she could sleep now.
She sadly thought that was the best Christmas present she could ask for right now.
She felt Molly shift a little against her; the noise must have reached her through her sleep. After a few seconds the younger girl spoke softly, “Merry Christmas Clarice.”
Blink sighed and smiled as Molly drifted back into sleep.
“Merry Christmas Molly.”
—– Baby’s First Christmas —–
Laynia peered out of the kitchen window hoping to catch a glimpse of Piotr returning home. It was late on Christmas Eve but he had promised he would be back. She frowned trying to peer through the snow falling over St. Petersburg but it was so thick she could barely see the far side of the street.
She turned away and went to stoke the fire, and threw on a few more bits of wood. The little apartment she and Piotr lived in was cosy in the winter. She looked at all the photos on the mantle and smiled. Most were of her and Piotr’s families who they would see over the New Year but quite a few were of their other family, the Winter Guard, the premier superhero team of the Soviet Union.
She picked up the frame that held the team photo from this year. She was to one side in her black and silver Darkstar costume beside Piotr. His body was turned at an angle to the camera so only his left side was showing. Even though he had gotten over the loss of one of his arms he was still self conscious about it. Next to him was her twin brother the hero known as Vanguard, Nicolai Petrovna. He was their leader and bar her husband Piotr there was no other man she would follow. Her brother’s best friend Mikhail Uriokovitch was in his human form, opting not to be photographed in his more fierce bear form as the hero Ursa Major. At the other end of the photo from her was the last member of their team and the only non-mutant too, the Crimson Dynamo. Alexander Nevsky was the former protégé of the creator of the Crimson Dynamo suit, Professor Anton Vanko. He was a quiet man and did not share the same camaraderie that the others did. He was even wearing his battle suit for their photo.
She put the photo down and picked up the latest addition to the collection of frames. It contained a photo of what was most important to her. It was her family, Piotr and her newborn baby girl Illyana. She was eleven months old now and was starting to become her own little person. Laynia had already noted some of her husband’s stubbornness in her, though Piotr insisted it was from her.
She set the photo back down and walked to her bedroom door and peeked her head in. Illyana was still fast asleep, her small body and face completely at peace with the world right now. A small brown teddy bear was beside her in her cot, a comedic gift from Mikhail. It was her favourite toy; she would not go to sleep without it. Laynia gently closed the door and went back to the lounge unable to stop smiling. Her new daughter had that affect on her.
Laynia looked at the Christmas tree over in the corner. She had stacked heaps of presents under it, all wrapped brightly. Piotr had only grumbled slightly about them, saying it was too much like the western practises. She had merely mentioned the tale of Babushka, and he had smiled and helped her wrap them.
Just then she heard Illyana wake up and utter a few cries, wanting her Mother. She went into the bedroom and lifted her out of the cot, blankets and all. She carried her through to the living room and sat in the armchair by the tree, making hushing noises to quieten the baby. Illyana settled and Laynia quietly hummed a carol looking at her little face. Illyana stared back with her big wide eyes, making a little half smile every now and then.
“You’re Father is on his way back little snowflake,” Laynia said, “He would not miss our first Christmas together. But until he gets here would you like me to tell you the story of Babushka?” Illyana only gurgled in reply. “I’ll take that as a yes then?” laughed Laynia.
“Once in a small town in the country, there lived a woman called Babushka. Babushka always had work to do sweeping, polishing, dusting and cleaning. But because she worked so much her house was the best kept in the whole village. Her garden was more beautiful and her cooking wonderful. One evening as she was dusting and cleaning, she was so absorbed in her work that she did not notice nor hear all the villagers outside in the square talking about and looking at a bright new star that had appeared in the sky.”
“It was only when one of the village women knocked on her door that she learned of it. She shooed the woman away though, thinking, “All this fuss about a star! I don’t have the time to look at a star; I’m so behind with my work. I must work all night!”
“And so, she missed the star as it shone brightly, high overhead. She also missed the little line of twinkling lights coming down towards the village at dawn nor did she hear the sounds of the pipes and drums. She failed to notice the voices and whispers of the villagers wondering whether the lights were an army or a procession of some sort. And because she did not hear any of this she did not realise when it suddenly went quiet again. Even the footsteps approaching her door were silent to her.”
“It was because of this that she was startled by the sudden loud knocking at her door. “Now what is that?” she wondered, answering the door. Babushka gaped in amazement. There were three kings at her door with one of their servants!
“My masters need a place to rest,” the servant said, “and yours is the best house in the village.”
“You want to stay here?” asked Babushka.
“Yes, it would only be until night falls and the star appears again,” the servant replied.
Babushka gulped, “Come in, then,” she said.
The kings were very pleased when they saw all of the home-baked bread, pies and cakes. She dashed about, serving them, asking lots of questions. “Have you come a long way?”
“A very long way,” sighed one of the Kings.
“Where are you going?”
“We’re following the new star,” said another one.
“But where?” she asked. The three kings did not know, but believed that it would lead them to a new-born king, a King of Earth and Heaven.
“Why don’t you come with us?” asked the last King. “You could bring him a gift like we do. I bring gold, and my colleagues bring spices and perfumes.”
“Oh, I’m not sure that he would welcome me,” said Babushka, “and what could I bring for a gift? Toys! I know I could bring a toy. I’ve got a cupboard full of toys,” she said sadly, “My baby son, died when he was small.” All the Kings looked at her sadly.
Laynia paused for a second watching Illyana just as her baby watched her. She had forgotten that part of the story until it had come up again. She had heard this tale hundreds of times over the years but only now could she understand this part of the woman Babushka. She could not even think about losing her daughter without it hurting. “It is a sad tale this little snowflake, but I will continue anyway. I will tell you it every year of your life, for me more than you because every year I will thank God I have you whereas Babushka lost her little baby.”
Illyana gurgled again as Laynia continued her story, One of the Kings stopped Babushka as she went to tidy the kitchen up. “This new king could be your king too. Come with us when the star appears tonight,” he said.
“I’ll think about it,” sighed Babushka.
As the kings slept, Babushka tidied up as quietly as she could. “What a lot of extra work there was!” she thought, “and this new king, what a funny idea, to go off with the kings to find another king.”
Babushka shook herself. There was no time for dreaming, all this washing-up and putting away had to be done. “It was a silly idea,” she thought, “how long would she be away? What would she wear? What about the gift?” She sighed, and tried to stop thinking about it but couldn’t. “There is so much to do. The house will have to be cleaned when they’ve gone. I couldn’t just leave it.”
Suddenly it was night-time again and the new star was back in the sky. “Are you ready, Babushka?” asked one of the Kings.
She thought for a moment and finally made a decision, “I’ll come tomorrow,” Babushka called as they walked out of her door, “I must tidy here first and find a gift”
“The kings went away sadly. Babushka ran back into her house, keen to get on with her work.
Finally, she went to the small cupboard, opened the door and gazed at all the toys. But they were very dusty, unfit for a baby king. They would all need to be cleaned. She cleaned all of the toys until each one shined. Babushka looked through the window dismayed to see it was morning! The star was gone for another day and the kings would have found somewhere else to rest by now. She could easily catch them up, but she felt so tired. She had to sleep. The next thing she knew, she was awake and it was dark outside. She had slept all day! She quickly pulled on her cloak, packed the toys in a basket and ran down the path the kings had taken”.
On her way, everywhere she asked, “Have you seen the kings?”
“Oh yes,” everyone told her, “we saw them. They went that way.” For days Babushka followed the trail of the kings and the villages got bigger and became large towns. But Babushka never stopped. Then she came to a city.
“The palace,” she thought. “That’s where the royal baby would be born.”
“No, there is no royal baby here,” said the palace guard when she asked him.
“What about three kings?” asked Babushka.
“Oh yes, they came here, but they didn’t stay long. They were soon on their journey.”
“But where to?” asked Babushka.
“Bethlehem, that was the place. I don’t imagine why. It’s a very poor place. That’s where they went,” replied the guard. And so Babushka set off towards Bethlehem. It was evening when Babushka arrived and she had been travelling for a long time. She went into the local inn and asked about the kings.
“Oh yes,” said the landlord, “the kings were here two days ago. They were very excited, but they didn’t even stay the night.”
“And what about a baby?” Babushka cried.
“Yes there was,” said the landlord. “The kings asked about a baby, too”. When he saw the disappointment in Babushka’s eyes, he stopped. “If you’d like to see where the baby was,” he said quickly, “it was across the yard there. I couldn’t offer the couple anything better at the time. My inn was really full, so they had to go in the stable”.
Babushka followed him across the yard. “Here’s the stable,” he said and left her alone.
“Babushka?” someone was calling her from the doorway. He looked kindly at her. She wondered if he knew where the family had gone. She knew now that the baby king was the most important thing in the world to her. “They have gone to Egypt, and safety,” he told Babushka. “And the kings have returned to their countries. But one of them told me about you. I am sorry but you are too late. They called the baby Jesus; they said they had found the world’s Saviour.”
“Babushka was very sad that she had missed the birth of the baby Jesus and it is said that Babushka is still looking for him and that as she travels around she leaves presents for other babies to make up for not being able to give him one”
Laynia smiled as she finished telling her daughter the folk tale. “You will get many presents this Christmas Illyana; you try to stop your uncles from spoiling you. But you will get one special present, one from Babushka.”
Just then there was a knock at her door and she quickly laid Illyana down on the baby mat on the floor. She answered the door and saw it was Piotr and Alexander. She smiled broadly and hugged Piotr tightly welcoming her husband home. “I am sorry I am late,” he smiled, kissing her before stepping inside.
“S Rozhdestvom!” said Alexander solemnly as he walked in through the door. Even when wishing someone a good Christmas he was stern. At least he was not wearing the armour.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” she replied warmly, though Alexander was often a little cold he was a good man. “Can I get you a hot drink Alex?”
“No I cannot stay long I am afraid,” he said, “I have to be with my parents for the Krestny Khod procession”. Laynia nodded, he was talking about the Orthodox Christian Christmas Ceremony. She herself normally attended but tonight she wanted to be with just her, Piotr and their new baby girl. “I wanted to give you this,” said Alexander holding out a parcel wrapped in brown paper.
Laynia was a little taken back but took the offered gift from the man and smiled. “It is for the little one,” he said, gesturing to where Piotr was picking Illyana up, gently, before sitting down with her cradled in his lap.
Laynia peeled off the wrapping to reveal a small wooden box. When she opened it there was a small, round Christmas bauble inside. She lifted it out and saw that it had been hand painted with stars and snowflakes. In golden writing across the bauble it said, ‘To Illyana Rasputin; on your first Christmas’.
Illyana stared at in, speechless. Piotr walked up and took the bauble from her hand, showing it to Illyana who stared at it with wide eyes. He looked over it for a second and then smiled at Alex, “Thank you friend, it is a wonderful gift. Come let us put it on my wife’s garish western tree.”
Laynia rolled her eyes and laughed at her husband’s jibe but Alexander put his hands up and backed out of the doorway, “That you Piotr, but as I said, my parents are waiting and it would seem you have more visitors. Goodnight and have a good Christmas.”
As he left Laynia saw that who he was talking about, it was her brother Nicolai and their friend Mikhail. She hurried out the door to hug her brother, “I’m so glad you could make it, Illyana needs her Godfather here for her first Christmas”
“I would not have missed it for anything sister,” he replied, hugging her back.
“And you Mikhail,” she said a little more sternly, “No Ursa Major in the house this time, she would not sleep for a week after you frightened her the first time!”
“Of course, of course Laynia, how many times must I apologise,” laughed the man as he walked past her into their house.
“Come inside now Laynia,” he brother said, “I have some news for you.” Laynia frowned and followed her brother back inside, shutting the door from the cold. Piotr was sitting in his favourite armchair with Illyana in his arms. She was laughing as Mikhail pulled faces at her.
“So what is your news brother?” she asked when Nicolai had seated himself.
“I have spoken with Comrade Phobos,” replied Nicolai. Laynia and Colossus stopped and looked at him waiting to see what he would say next. “He has agreed to release Colossus and Darkstar from the Winter Guard and had granted you the requested farmland.”
Laynia could not believe what she was hearing. When Piotr and she had married they had both agreed to remain with the Winter Guard, protecting Russia from super human threats. Not that they had options otherwise but at the time it was what they had wanted anyway. The birth of Illyana had changed all that. Laynia and Piotr now wanted to retire from the team, and raise their family on a small farm. They had applied for this only a few weeks ago and Laynia had not expected such a quick response.
“That is fantastic news brother,” she said, smiling from ear to ear. She went to her husband and picked up her child. Piotr stood and put his remaining arm around her. She looked up and smiled at him, “It is the best Christmas present I could have asked for.”
“I know my darling, I know,” he replied.