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Post by Kuroe »

Another Christmas day over. Another year whittling away into its last hours.

With soft, furtive, catlike steps, the siblings silently snuck into the mansion's veranda, cloaked in the shade of the darkened halls. It's almost two hours past bedtime for the two girls, and they were fully aware of the earful they'd be getting from Mamachka on the unfortunate event that they were caught, but as always, the childish thrill of doing something they were not supposed to intoxicated them beyond reasoning.

Besides, it would be all worth it, anyway--the stars are beautiful at this time of night.

"Come, come, Natasha!" said little Sofiya, tugging impatiently at her twin's sleeve as she led the way through the lightless corridor and into the veranda, "I'm sure you'll like it!"

Natalya nodded, trying to rub off the sleepy heaviness that has begun to settle like sand on her eyes, and yawned. "But aren't you tired yet, Sonechka? I'm really, really sleepy already..."

Sofiya shook her head emphatically. Of course not! If anything, she'd begun to feel even more energetic, more alive. They had a lot of guests and friends over today for Christmas and for their birthday party, and the whole house was so noisy and rowdy and messy for the whole duration of it, that it had leached away what enjoyment she could've derived from the occasion. Now that the house was empty and quiet and peaceful again, it finally felt once more like her home.

"It's really beautiful out here, I tell you!"

The sky tonight was a lustrous, sable expanse, with nothing but the faintest slivers of cloud festooning it and the moon floating high upon it like a jewel, exuding a soft, almost ghostly golden light. As their eyes adjusted to the chilly darkness, hundreds, then thousands, then millions of stars begun to flicker into existence, dotting the skyscape like sand on a beach.

Perfect. It's absolutely perfect.

This sky was one of the many things Sofiya would always look forward to whenever their family would visit her Dedushka's dacha here in the countryside. All her life, the Volkovs had lived in busy, cosmopolitan St. Petersburg--where all the dazzling and strobing of billboards and cars and semaphores would drown out the sky in an impregnable veil of artificial light--and as a result never quite got the opportunity to try stargazing there. Here in the unperturbed serenity of the woods, though, the unmasked firmament takes on a more vivid, more fluid, almost dreamlike form, like a big, beautiful cosmic tapestry.

Sofiya sat on one of the chairs, with Natalya taking the other one across from her. The latter girl's eyes widened as she took in the sight--so wide in her utter enthrallment that Sofiya could've sworn she saw a glimpse of the sky reflected in them for a moment. Just the reaction she wanted to see.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Sofiya smirked triumphantly, "This is my Christmas AND birthday gift to you!"

"Oh! Really? It's so pretty, Sonechka! It's like something out of a movie!"

"Isn't it? We wouldn't have been able to see it at home. The city lights would've ruined it."

"It's like someone threw sugar and the sky and now it's so twinkly and nice."

"Right, right. Hmmm... hey, Natasha! Quick, can you name a constellation you see right here?"

Perhaps not really all that surprisingly, a sheepish, baffled look is all that Natalya gave in return. "A... constellation?"

"You don't know what a constellation is? It's these groups of stars in the sky that look like they form a picture of something. You know, like the Connect-the-Dot books we have? I've been reading up on them in the library lately."

Interest--and perhaps pride in the fact that she understood what her sister was talking about--brightened Natalya's face. "There are things like that? Will you show me? You will, will you? Please! Please show me these... 'conlestations', Sonechka!"

Sofiya victoriously folded her arms over her chest and grinned as if Natalya had just asked her to save her life. "Alright! Let's see," she said, tapping her finger on her chin in quiet deliberation as she scanned the sky for one, then pointing at a certain cluster she found, "You see those? That's Orion, if I remember correctly."

"Hm? Where? What's an Orion, Sonechka?"

"Look over there. That's him. If you look at it, it's like a man drawing his bow, right? That's what the Greeks thought, at least. According to the stories, Orion was a really skilled hunter, so great that he impressed and befriended the goddess of the moon, who didn't usually like men. He was the first guy she ever allowed to accompany her on her nightly hunts, and together they made a really wonderful team. All seemed well at first, but in the end, the god of the Sun got really jealous and tricked the Moon into killing him.

"After realizing what she had done, the horrified and remorseful goddess of the moon honored him by putting him up together with the stars."

"That's... that's sad, Sonechka!"

Sofiya shrugged, amused at her sister's observation. "Many Greek myths were pretty sad, yes."

"Um, I see! Can you show me another one?"

"No problem! There's... hmmm... that's... ah! There! Taurus!"

This constellation was harder to picture in her mind's eye than the first one. The sky maps she read portrayed Taurus as a very deformed, mangled letter "H," and it escaped her mind how those people of old--not just the Greeks, but also the Egyptians for example--were able to somehow think "Hey! This looks like a bull, doesn't it?" But all the same, they did.

"Is there a story behind it too, Sonechka?"

She nodded. "Of course! There are a few, actually. For example, one story say that this bull represents Zeus. Long ago, Zeus, the god of lightning and boss of Olympus, fell in love with this girl named Europa. In order to lure her, Zeus took on the form of a beautiful white bull and carried the girl off across the sea and into Crete, the island where he was born.

"Another one is Io, yet another lover Zeus took. Zeus tried to court her, in a manner of speaking, but when his wife Hera came, he changed her into a heifer so she wouldn't suspect anything. Unfortunately, Hera didn't believe him, and took Io as a gift and had her guarded by a watchman with a hundred eyes. It took the god of thieves to save her from the guy, but Hera still spited the poor girl by sending after a gadfly after her that followed her relentlessly and stung her to madness.

"She'd eventually reach the Nile River and be changed back into a human, but it was nonetheless a really hard ordeal for her throughout."

"This Zeus person has a lot of girlfriends! He's like Uncle Fyodor, isn't he?"

The unexpected remark made Sofiya choke on her spit, and she struggled desperately to stifled a giggle at the aptness of it. Uncle Fyodor was their mom's big brother, a tall, handsome man who worked as an accountant in the twins' father's firm, and who was infamous for practically hitting on every girl within a 10-kilometer radius, and for having an extremely (if somehow justifiably) jealous wife. He was eventually fired from the company when a coworker found him with his pants down in the men's bathroom with not one, but two new female employees.

"Yeah... hee hee... that's one way of putting it, I guess..."

"But it's still quite sad, though. Imagine being those girls, then one day some god takes you somewhere unfamiliar and you can't do anything."

"I see what you mean. What else, what else? Oh, look at this one!"

"What is it, Sonechka?"

Just near Orion, Sofiya recognized another constellation she remembered from the sky maps she read.

"There, you see it? It's Gemini. The twins."

"Oh! Twins! We're twins, Sonechka!"

"... Um, yeah. I do know that much."

"How does that costelation look like twins, though?"

"Um, well, see, they look like two kids holding each other's hands. There, those two stars are Castor and Pollux. They're the twins' heads, and the rest of those stars below them are the body."

Natalya nodded, but her furrowed brow still clearly signified that she still couldn't see it. Not that Sofiya could blame her: ancient people must've been quite profound to have thought up these images in the sky, not to mention base such gorgeous stories around them that would be remembered even now, after thousands of years have passed and the world has changed beyond recognition. That, or they really had too much time on their hands to kill.

After all, that was a magical era where people didn't while away the hours by watching cat videos and crushing virtual candy.

"Those two," said Sofiya, "are Castor and Pollux. They were born twins, but they're from different fathers. Their mother was Leda, but Castor's dad was Tyndareus, a mortal king, and Pollux's is Zeus, who seduced Leda as a beautiful swan--"

"Zeus again?"

"--Yep. Zeus again. They grew up as fine young men, and they went on a lot of adventures together. However, one day, they met these two cattle owners, Lynceus and Idas, and for one reason or another they got into a fight. Idas killed Castor, and in turn, Pollux killed Lynceus. Idas would've attacked Pollux, but Zeus saved his son by killing the former with a thunderbolt.

"Pollux, however, was inconsolable. He begged his father to bring back his brother to life, and offered up half of his immortality just so they could be together again. Zeus obliged, and as a result that two lived happily ever after, jumping back and forth between Olympus and the underworld.

"... However, there's also a version where the deal ended up so that if one goes to Olympus, the other has to the descend to the underworld and vice versa, and as such, the twins never met again."

"Are the Greeks not happy people, Sonechka?" Natalya asked, "These stories are depressing."

Sofiya just laughed it off. "Who knows? But not all of those stories are sad, you know? Perseus there was a hero who managed to save the princess, defeat the villain, and live happily ever after--that's a textbook happy fairy tale right there, if you ask me."

"But sad stories are not fun, Sonechka! They should all be happy ones!"

"Happy... ?"

"Look!" Natalya orders, pointing a resolute finger at Orion, "From now on, that constellation isn't Orion anymore! Orion's story is too sad! We should make them happy constellations! OUR constellations!"

"'Isn't Orion?' But--but what would you have it changed to, then?"

This gave Natalya pause, but only for a second, as she quickly regained her beat, "Do you remember when we accompanied Dedushka to the woods to hunt? I remember that!"

"I do."

"That's when he brought that longbow he inherited from his dad, yes?"

That much she could clearly recall. Their grandfather's a slender, but wiry and spry old man who had never quite lost his adventurous streak even as he hit his seventies and his joints had begun to ache. He would always crow about having descended from Cossacks, and bragged about the swords and other weapons he was bequeathed with by his parents.

During one summer break, for his 71st birthday, he had coaxed the girls' parents into going with him on a hunting trip and bringing Natalya and Sofiya along. As was Natalya's wont, however, she lagged behind and strayed too far off the trail, and the next time they saw her, she's already being chased by a young bear.

"You could've died back there, you know?" said Sofiya.

"But in the end, Dedushka saved me anyway, yes? It's what matters in the end! It was like... 'TCHACK'! And voila, the bear's dead! It must've been difficult to aim that thing, but he did! And that's why it's a happy story!"

"And it was still dumb of you, nonetheless."

They shared a short chuckle.

All their grandfather's bluster about having the blood of Cossacks didn't turn out to be empty talk at all. As easily as if he were just breathing, he nocked an arrow onto the bow and planted it between the bear's eyes and deep into his brain, felling the beast in one swift strike. Sofiya, worried out of her mind and fuming at Natalya's carelessness, was inconsolable and didn't talk to her sister for days afterward.

"The bear steak was delicious, though!" said Natalya, "it's really tender, but the texture is a bit weird."

"A second too late and you might've been the one on the bear's menu. You wouldn't even taste as good."

"What? But I am delicious!"

"So, how about Taurus?"

"Hmm, Taurus, huh?" Natalya sunk into the back of her seat, thinking. "Ah! Well then, let's call it Ivan! Do you remember Ivan?"

"Ivan's... the cow we found in the school yard when we were kids, right?"

Or that's what Natalya insisted on calling the animal, at least. If Sofiya remembered correctly, it was a cow--despite Natalya's stubborn refusal to accept that fact--that somehow wandered into their school and stayed there for at least half the day. It had been raining hard, and the cow was sick, but nevertheless, Natalya stole out of class to accompany it until the rain stopped.

"You were drenched to the bone and burning with fever when we found you. How is that a happy story?"

"Well! If it weren't for me, Ivan would've died before his owner found him, right? He was so sick!"

"I doubt you would've made much of a difference, really."

The cow's owner eventually found it later that day, and was able to nurse the animal back to health, but her heroics cost Natalya three days of school.

"I kept him from being lonely!"

"Both stories you have so far somehow involve you running into trouble one way or another."

"It's just a coincidence, Sonechka! Anyway, can you guess what I have in mind for Gemini?"

"I'm guessing it's something about the two of us?"

Natalya's smile breaks into a horrified grimace, as if Sofiya had just read her mind. "Sonechka, you weren't supposed to answer that!"

"Sorry! I thought that was too obvious. We've gotten into a whole lot of screwups. Which particular screwup do you want to immortalize in the stars?"

"All of them! You remember that one with the Lenin statue in Moscow? Or the thing we did with Polina's lunch? Or that one when we snuck into Aunt Nadezhda's attic? Those were fun!"

"That's a lot of trouble. Not all of them were pleasant memories, really. At least, not for me. I'm not the world's biggest fan of being bit by a tarantula."

"Still, you were always there with me! You always help me out when I'm in trouble! Like... well..."

The sentence hung orphaned in the air as Natalya faltered on her words, averting her eyes and uneasily shifting in her seat, trying to coax the right words out of her gullet.

"What is it?" Sofiya inquired, jarred by the sudden change in mood.

"I... speaking of which... I wanted to ask... I want to know if..." Natalya paused, twiddling her thumbs to coalesce her thoughts, "if you were the one who told Mamachka and Papachka about my... my... about my condition."

The air felt like it went down a few degrees. So that's what it was about.

Sofiya didn't answer right away, and simply turned her gaze to the night sky, letting a odd, suffocating silence settle like a heavy blanket between them.

The words waiting to be said pooled in her throat. Of course she was the one who told their mother about it--and as far as she knew, she's the only one who could have. It's been two years since, but the sordid image of her sister lying unconscious on the bathroom floor was still burned into her mind, like an indelible scar. During the length of time that has passed since, she had tried so, so hard to put that particular issue--and that unpleasant mental image that inevitably came with it--filed away neatly at the back row of her thoughts, out of sight and out of mind, but subconsciously, she knew full well that one day the questions would come.

"You wouldn't have been committed to therapy otherwise," she muttered, still not meeting her sister's eyes, "You could've--you would've done real damage to yourself."

"But... you promised me you wouldn't tell."

"Even if I kept mum, someone would've noticed eventually. And maybe by then it'll be too late."


Sofiya breathes in as deeply as her lungs would let her, as if to strain those last few words out of her lips.

"... I'm your sister. I would never forgive myself if I just let you be back then."

Natalya kept silent for a few seconds, letting the words sink in slowly.

"I really used to worry you a lot, didn't I, Sonechka?"

"Damn sure you did," she said, almost like a tired whisper to the air, smiling wryly. "You don't know how much I--"

Her voice is silenced by the tiny sound of metal creaking against polished stone, and from the corner of her eye she saw Natalya straightening up from her seat. She turned to her sister, but before she could react Natalya had flung her arms around her.

"Natasha, what are you--"

Natalya brought her mouth so close to Sofiya's ear that her lips grazed it, that her breath blew gently on it, that Sofiya could feel the small smile forming on her face.

"I love you, Sonechka. Thank you so much."

Sofiya had always known her twin was a big cuddle bug, but this gesture still managed to take her by surprise. Perhaps it's the vulnerable softness that had crept into Natalya's tone, perhaps it's the dissonance of her warmth with the chilly quiet of the growing night, perhaps it's the fact that this was the first time she ever hugged her this tightly again after she had gone into therapy, but whatever it is, it dyed her cheeks a faint, but warm tinge of red.

"G-Geez, Natasha..."

Natalya only tightened her hold around her sister without so much a single breath uttered. She merely nestled her head in the hollow of Sofiya's neck, as if putting what she wanted to say in words would've done nothing but an injustice to it.

Sofiya tentatively laid her fingers on Natalya's waist.

"Merry Christmas, and happy birthday to us," she said. She felt Natalya nodding as if to accept the greeting, and with nothing but the immense congregation of stars and constellations above them, she crushed her sister in an equally firm embrace. "I love you too, Natasha."

Far above them, Gemini was still glowing, ever radiant, ever beauteous, like sky-borne crystals. Of course, Sofiya didn't have the vaguest idea of how their story would unfold from here on out, but there's one thing that she knew all too clearly: for Natalya, and for herself, she'll try to make it a happy one. Something, perchance, that would even be deserving of the constellations--their constellations.

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