by not jenny. A Babylon 5 fic. Set in an AU S.3. Written for Mosca's Free Verse Challenge; title from Pushkin, meaning "coldness, boredom, & granite." Quotes intersperced throughout the story from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Muchos gracias (and muchos nachos) to Leea and Lin, for comments & critisicm.
"Happiness does not sound
like a siren, or a car's skid,
or a mosquito's buzz,
but is the quiet squeak of an open door
with him against the moonlight"
"But this dream weighed on her like a nightmare, and she woke from it filled with horror."
"Endings are never as happy as we'd like, vodka and revenge are dishes best served cold, and romance can only lead to someone jumping in front of a moving train: these are the three things Russians know better than anyone else on earth. My name is Commander Susan Andreyevna Ivanova, and I shall be your tour guide this evening. Please be sure to check any unfounded optimism at the door."
(He watches her. She pretends she does not notice.)
Morning. Her wake-up call its normal cheery self. (Morning. Afternoon. Night. Who can tell, in space?) She is not a morning person, and it is far too early for philosophy. Things are, or they are not; everything else is merely exposition.
However, in the spirit of storytelling, the details are as follows: she is in the shower, and the water is getting cold. Her comm. signals from the other room.
She shuts off the tap, "respond. Audio only."
She moans. Marcus is too much for her to handle, most mornings, even as an empty voice over Babcom. Before coffee (or caf or whatever godawful substitute they've dredged up at the moment), at any rate; before the world ceases to be half-asleep blurry and faded.
"Marcus, what is it you want at this insanely early hour? And why can't it wait until after breakfast?"
"Good, you're awake, then." His voice is far too cheery. "Cole out."
"Marcus? Marcus Cole, what in the hell are you up to?"
Silence. She dries off, begins to pace as she dresses. (One, two, three, underwear.) Contemplates running off to some uninhabited planet in the middle of nowhere (raz, dva,tri, bra); just her, a lifetime supply of vodka, and a coffee plant. (One, two, three, blouse.) Yanks her hair into a tight plait as she begins her preparations for the day ahead.
Which is when the door chimes. ("Predictable," she thinks. "Also irritating and annoying and most definitely Marcus Cole.")
"Enter." It's not as if she has a choice, not really, in the matter. The lifetime supply of vodka begins to look particularly appealing.
"Commander Ivanova," he smiles, walking sideways through the door, "I bring an offering to the Russian Goddess of Kindness and Breakfast Foods." The smell of eggs and sausage follow him into the room.
"Okay, Cole, what do you want?"
Contrary to popular belief, she stopped believing in "happily ever after" long before her mother's death. Long before Ganya. (Long before Malcolm, before Talia, before all of this.) Long before she first read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin; long before she learned the irrefutable fact that true love is only ever punished, not rewarded.
She was five. He was twelve. It was cold, though not yet winter. There was frost lining the morning grass. Her mother's voice insistent in her head, "tell no one." He held her hands above her head; she closed her eyes against the sun.
They moved the next day. The day after that. She was soon sent abroad.
(This is not that story, but forewarned is forearmed, or so they say, and she is nothing if not the consummate soldier. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Remember: history, if allowed, will always repeat itself.)
The captain used to offer her orange juice all the time. A true Russian would have said yes and made screwdrivers; she just thought he was nuts. Insane. When Marcus begins to pour her a glass, though, she reaches for her Stolichnaya. No time like the present. And, besides, she is off-duty today; there is nothing better for her to do.
("Always remember," her professors would say, "nature abhors a vacuum." So does an Ivanova. An Ivanov. So does she. She drinks her screwdriver and finishes her eggs.)
She hates free time. Distinctly recalls something about the Devil and idle hands.
"I have a," Marcus pauses, searching for the right word, "proposition for you."
Later, she will blame the captain for forcing her to use her accrued time. For ignoring her protests and arguments and insisting that she take a day off. At the moment, however, all she can think is, "ah ha! Something for me to do."
She leans forward, "let's hear it."
Marcus is the most persistent suitor she's ever had; this is not, in her opinion, a compliment. He climbs under her skin, joking and earnest, and refuses to vacate the premises when she serves him notice of eviction.
He is steadfast, honest, and true; she is constant, honourable, and just. Theirs should be a match made in heaven; it is, of course, not. Nothing is ever as simple as it should be.
"'I ask only one thing: I ask the right to hope and suffer as I do now; but if even that is impossible, command me to disappear, and I will do it. You shall not see me if my presence is painful to you.'
'I don't want to drive you away.'"
She waits for a punchline that does not come.
He gives her one of his patented "I'm Marcus Cole and aren't I just the cutest thing" puppy dog looks. She is not amused. Does not smile.
"Marcus, you do realise that this," and here voice hardens, "proposition of yours sounds suspiciously like a date, don't you?"
He grins. "Well, of course it does. If I'm doing it at all right, that is."
("You idiot," she does not say, "you foolish feebleminded self-centred ridiculous clown. What in the world ever gave you the misguided idea that I would ever go out with you?" He would only take it as encouragement. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," he would respond. She bites her tongue.)
There must be something in her eyes, though, because he immediately begins to backtrack. "Not that I would ever presume to ask the great Commander Ivanova on a date, mind you, but that is the appearance we should be striving to maintain when we have dinner tonight at the Fresh Aire."
"When we have dinner tonight? Feeling pretty sure of ourselves, are we, Marcus?"
He at least has the decency to look sheepish before answering. "Well, it is for a good cause, after all, and I've never known you to back down from a challenge."
("Dare." "No." "Double Dare." "No." "Double Dog Dare." He knows her far too well.)
("Fine, what time are we meeting?")
//SUSAN's DAYDREAM, a (SHORT) FILM:
S1. EXT. Station.
A man floats by. It is MARCUS, and he is not wearing an EVA suit.
S2. INT. Station, near an airlock.
A woman smiles. It is IVANOVA. Her comm. signals.
SHERIDAN (V.O.): Ivanova, I just wanted to let you know that we've just come into a unlimited supply of coffee and vodka, the war is over, the Drazi have all committed ritual suicide, and you are always right. Also, you've been promoted; congratulations, Captain.
THE END. ROLL CREDITS.//
He waits a moment. Another. Only when she moves to hit him does he continue.
"You know, this would be far simpler if I'd just thought to bring an instructional chart. I know how fond you are of diagrams, and it would clear things up so easily." He stands up, "perhaps I should just jot over to my quarters for a second and whip one up. It would only take a moment."
"Or not. It was just a thought."
The bottle of vodka sits on her counter, beautiful and glistening in the glow of station lighting. ("Save me," her mind screams, "before I start composing an ode to my bottle of Stoli, half-empty.")
"Just the facts, Marcus. Let's start with what time we're meeting and move on from there."
He sits. "Right, then. Our reservations are for 20:30, so I thought I'd pick you up here around 19:30. That way we could start the evening with a romantic walk through the Zocalo; you know, holding hands, staring moonily into each other's eyes, checking for any suspicious persons, the usual first date things. From there we'd of course move on to the Fresh Aire, have dinner," here his smile widened, if possible, "maybe get to know one another a little better, all the while keeping an eye out for any nefarious doings. After dinner, well, we'll just have to let nature run its course…"
One day, she is going to kill him. It's that simple. (Raz, dva, tri, breathe.)
"Marcus," she says, her grin feral, "don't push it."
"If this were a Russian novel," she sometimes thinks, "I would at least have a glimpse of happiness before my inevitable demise." This is something she envies the Anna Kareninas of the universe. Before tragedy strikes, they will always have their one moment of perfect joy.
She firmly refuses any thought of Marcus when she slips into these moments of melancholy.
(His hair is positively foppish. He smiles too much. He's ridiculous, preposterous, and absolutely insane.)
"'I think,' replied Anna, toying with the glove she had pulled off, 'I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.'"
She changes three times. Not because she particularly cares what Marcus thinks of her appearance, but, rather, because her first three dresses are woefully inadequate. (Rule # 73: When out for the evening, a woman must always look her best; not, as in centuries past, to attract the male of the species, but because she can. This applies especially to women who spend their professional lives in uniform; i.e. Earthforce personnel, doctors, nurses, and especially Susan Ivanova.) The fourth dress, a black silk thing that clings in all the right places, does the job admirably.
She decides to keep her hair tied back. To prove she doesn't care. That this is just a working dinner, that Marcus Cole is no more than a colleague, that they are decidedly "Not Out On A Date" (capital letters intentional, integral, etc.). Five minutes before he's set to arrive, she rips her hair from its tight plait, running her fingers through the tangles.
(Maybe she cares more than she lets on. Maybe she doesn't. What matters are the facts: one, she lets her hair down, literally and possibly figuratively; two, there's a man at her door; three, they are going to dinner, tonight, at the best restaurant on Babylon 5. The facts can be manipulated in a myriad of ways, each pointing to a different conclusion. So maybe it is the interpretation that matters, most, in the end.)
The door chimes. She calls for him to enter, and he sweeps into the room like a cartoon Don Juan.
"Your chariot awaits, milady." He bows.
She stalks past him, grabbing her bag on the way. "Shut up, Marcus, and let's get this farce over with already."
He looks at her, smiles at the dress. She pretends she does not notice.
She dreams of battles not yet fought; her nights fill with the smoke of wars not yet lost.
She runs battle simulations during REM sleep; they rarely win, and she spends her nights watching, helpless and alone, as her friends all die. One by one by one. Somehow, it is worse that way, with death approaching slowly and inevitably.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, a scream in the back of her throat.
(It is always, still, dark in space. Even in the predictability of midnight.)
During the day, they press their fingers to the stars in an effort to hold up the sky.
"Don't think I didn't see that, Marcus."
His contact slips a data crystal under his napkin sometime between salads and the main course; he tries to surreptitiously slip it into his pocket while she takes a sip of her wine. She notices, of course, and he pretends to be chagrined. They eat. The food is quite good.
The conversation is decidedly less so.
"The point is," and here Marcus returns to an argument started while they were walking through the Zocalo, "that we have the opportunity here to do some good, no matter how ill-conceived many of our strategem seem at the time, and that-"
"Marcus?" her voice is surprisingly (especially to her) soft. She did not mean to sound so interested; it is too late, however, to take it back.
His head snaps toward her, "hmm? I mean, yes?"
"Your food's getting cold."
"Which is, I presume, Ivanova-speak for 'just shut the hell up already'?" But he grins as he says it, pointedly taking a large bite of his noodles. "Yum."
She laughs, "just shut the hell up already, Marcus."
She wonders if, perhaps, he is somehow meant to be the Delenn to her Sheridan. If this has all been prophesied; if, lurking from his place in the distant past, Sinclair (or Valen or whomever he is) has already written down her future. Then she shakes herself. She does not really believe in any of this.
Their coffee is ready. She has creme brulee for dessert, mostly because it gives her an excuse to hit something. (whack, whack, whack) He has a slice of cheesecake drowning in strawberries.
She finds herself enjoying his company. He makes her laugh; she, in turn, finds herself opening up to him. Not too much, of course, not enough to risk losing any more of herself to another person. But, still, she has laughed more in the last few hours than she has in years.
("Which is not as sad as it sounds," she points out to her brain. "It's really not. Not with the universe falling to pieces around us, not with the Shadows and Raiders and…" His finger tracing the back of her hand disrupts her thought processes. Her synapses short circuit.)
"Come to my quarters tonight," she finds herself declaring, "and we'll have a nightcap."
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," repeats on an endless loop in her head. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."
But Marcus only smiles, tracing his finger along her wrist as he stands to walk away. "See you in a bit."
She resolutely does not smile. Much.
Later, sitting together in her quarters, they do not speak. She is drinking vodka, straight and cold and deadly. He is watching her and sticks to water. When his arm slips around her, she doesn't think to shrug it off; she is not drunk, not yet, so it is not the alcohol dictating her behaviour. They do not talk; it has been a long year, and there is no end in sight.
She is thinking about Tolstoy. About the Psi-Corps. About anything but the feel of him, next to her.
("This will all end badly," she reminds herself, "everything does. 'And again hope and despair, alternately chafing the old sores, lacerated the wounds of her tortured and violently fluttering heart.' Oh, yes, this will all end very badly.")
She kisses him; his lips are dry. She buries her face in his neck.
Asks, "have you ever read 'Anna Karenina,' Marcus?"
He nods, yes.
"Then you already know how all of this ends."
*NOTE(s) on the pronunciation of the title: the russian 'h' (as in 'holod') is pronounced like the 'ch' in 'l'chaim;' 'i' is pronounced 'ee' as in 'steel' & NOT 'eye.' and 'a' (as in 'granit') is pronounced like the 'a' in 'father.' just for, you know, those of you who care about such things. so, with ' signifying stress, it's "skookah' cho'luhd ee grahneet'" (or something to that effect, phonetic notation being a bit out of my computer repertoire).
[once more into the fray]