Day Four: Full speed ahead for the fourth and final day of the Five Day Plan!

From the Story Arc: A Snake In The Grass

Previous Story in the Arc: Day Three: I Feel Pretty by Red Saviour (Sunday, August 22, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: Day 5: Epilogue by Red Saviour (Monday, August 30, 2004)

(posted Tuesday, August 24, 2004)

Mosca awoke to the sound of shuffling paper.


Opening one eye, he saw a fully dressed Natalya sipping coffee while reading the paperwork she had abandoned days ago. Her jaw was set in a grim line.


She gasped in anger. The sheet she was holding up to the morning light bore four initials that even he recognized: ICBM. Now she knew what had happened to CCCP in her absence.


Now was the time to act. “Ah… buenos dias, mi corazon. You are up so early!”


“Dobraye ootra, moj dorogoj. Is usual time.” She reread ICBM’s first memo and cursed under her breath.


“Not for you now that you are retired. You can sleep in, enjoy yourself. Here.” He snatched the paper out of her hand as if it were a dog’s chew toy. “You need not trouble yourself with these trivialities any more. Today is a day for frivolous joy and loving companionship! I am thinking we can go to the amusement park –“


“What has Sergei done to CCCP?”


“Oh,” he said, tucking the papers into a drawer. “It is not of our concern. He is in charge now that you are retired and the others are in Russia. He is changing things to suit his sense of order. No doubt it will benefit everyone.”


“Stop patronizing me, Santi! Something is very wrong. Those memos were written by a madman, not the kind Sergei that I know. Security breaches? Snipers on rooftops? I am amazed the American army hasn’t arrived in force.”


He shrugged. “I am sure he has worked out the particulars. Ah, but this is idle gossip. Let us speak of more darling matters.” He leaned over and kissed her. “That was your first kiss of the day, my blossom. The woman I love need not worry about anything other than how many kisses she can receive in a day.”


She gave a wan smile. “But…”


“No buts! Let us go to Paragon Family Park straight away, before the lines clog up with children and sweaty parents.” He lifted her to her feet.


“But we need cab again, for more money. We have spent far too much this week. The spa alone –”


“—Was but a pittance, mi querida, a favor from a friend. Besides, the weekly visits are much less expensive. You’ll be a new woman!”


Natalya’s face betrayed her terror. Santiago dragged her out the door. “Come! Our fun awaits us!”


 


Paragon Family Park was a fun-filled fantasyland for kids of all ages, where all your cares melted away and cotton candy was the order of the day. Or so the signs declared. Even in the morning, the concrete walkways radiated a special kind of heat contrived to sell more big gulp cups of five dollar lemonade. The fence around the park was sturdier than the Berlin Wall. It said: you paid to be here and you are not leaving.


There were enough bright lights, colorful rides and dangling toys to keep the children entranced. They dragged their parents from one to another like bees to flower stamen. Santiago did the same, insisting that the next roller coaster was even better than the one they had just waited forty five minutes in line to ride for ninety seconds. After possessing the ability to fly for months now, roller coasters held little fascination for her.


Santiago made sure to direct her attention to every gaudy character, sign and stuffed animal. He made a show of knocking over milk jugs to win a pink teddy bear filled with toxic foam. By lunchtime she had six. When he wasn’t looking she managed to give the largest two away to thrilled children. The looks of greed on their faces made her regret her decision; she had just propagated the consumer culture she reviled.


All morning he would not let go of her arm. When a group of men were in sight he made sure to nuzzle her neck. By lunchtime she couldn’t stand it. She refused his offer to feed her chicken tenders and picked at them herself, glaring at him. Santiago was unfazed. His grin widened the angrier she got.


At last she couldn’t stand it. “Why are you grinning like idiot at me?”


“Because it is my great luck to possess such a lovely and intelligent woman.”


“Pah!” She threw down her remaining tender and pointed at his face. “You do not possess me, Santiago. Get that through Spanish brain pan. This place is disgusting, but you parade me around like teenager on first date.”


“Querida, it is our fun day. Can we not just have fun?” He slurped at his Fanta.


“There is work to do! Did you not read memos? ICBM claims to have nuclear stockpile!”


He shrugged. “Memos were in Russian. I am sure I will receive English translation in a day or two. Besides, it is not your problem.”


“Nyet!”


“Natya! Let Mojiotok take care of it. Or comrade Menace. Or entire group. Your have a new life to live with me. Now, I am not so old-fashioned as to want my woman to stay at home. Perhaps you can get a job teaching children martial arts! That would be good practice.”


“Practice? For what?”


He leaned forward to speak in a soft voice. “For when we are ready to start a family, mi corazon. It is what you want, si?”


“Argh!” She scattered her meal on the ground. Santiago extended a soothing hand but she batted it away. “What is this madness? I am no soccer mom!”


“But my darling,” he said, allowing a little genuine hurt into his voice. “Soccer builds both their little bodies and their social skills. Plus it teaches them the value of teamwork.”


She backed away from the picnic table. “Don’t touch me, svinya! I don’t want your spas, your favors from shady friends. I am not some dumpling to be plucked and eaten.”


He faced her with a grave expression. “Si. You are none of those things.” He produced his comm unit and showed her the CCCP and Red Brigade logos. “You are Red Saviour, Commissar of the Coalition of Communist Crusaders for the Proletariat. You are also Natalya Shostakovich, who has dedicated her life to the glorious struggle of the workers. You could have been rich, querida. Or married some high-ranking party official and spent your days at spas and resort islands. Why did you not take advantage?”


Natalya bit her lip. Around them, families at picnic tables watched their argument.


Santiago raised an eyebrow. “Could it be…you have a sense of duty?”


“Da. But…” She stopped as he pressed the call button on his comm unit. “What are you…”


They heard shouts of surprise down the concourse. From behind a towering statue of a cartoon cat, People’s Blade hurled through the air and landed on the table in front of Natalya. The entire picnic area cried out and scrambled away.


She wore her lacquered leather combat armor, with sharp shoulder pads and leather straps crossing her chest. The armor only just covered her bosom. White canvas wraps protected her forearms and calves. An improbable mini-skirt added a dainty touch that had come from Fei Li herself, not the thousands-year old Chinese warlord that shared her spirit. Jade Emperor’s Whisper, the magic blade that had contained his soul for thousands of years, hung at her side.


She placed her palms together and bowed low. “Commissar Red Saviour, nin hao ma?” Natalya knew enough basic Mandarin to know that Fei Li had used the honorific “nin” for “you.” She had just been addressed as if she were an honored authority over this ancient young woman.


“Zadrastvuitye, Blade Shaui. I am surprised to see you in amusement park.”


“I only come for the stuffed toys. May I sit?” People’s Blade lowered herself onto the picnic bench with such grace that it seemed like tai chi. Natalya shot Mosca a dirty look, to which he responded only with raised eyebrows.


“Is official visit? Or some funny joke on me?” The coldness in her voice nearly misted her breath.


“It is very serious. You have read ICBM’s new orders?”


“Nyet. I have first set, but Mosca wouldn’t let me finish reading them.” He received another dirty look.


People’s Blade became quiet. Natalya knew something was very wrong. “He has labeled you a deserter and issued orders for your execution.”


“Now you are joking to me. Sergei is crazy, but not that crazy.”


“Natalya, I spent an hour convincing him not to conduct a nuclear strike on Moscow and Worker’s Champion using himself as the nuclear warhead. He is mad.”


Natalya puffed out her cheeks. “Ach. Sergei… I cannot believe it. What drove him to this?”


“Fear of Worker’s Champion, loss of guidance, low morale in the troops. He is not a leader, but he undertook the responsibility in the only way he knew how. Fortunately, I was able to get word to Mosca and assigned him to keep you away from CCCP headquarters until Mojiotok and Red Menace returned from Moscow.”


The third look she shot Mosca was withering. “You assigned him?” She stood up. “All this sweet talk, just to keep stupid Missile-Head from taking potshots at me! Bullets would be less painful!”


“Querida, no! It is not what you think!”


Hot tears stung her eyes. “Shut up! Liar! Svinya!” Energy coruscated around her clenched fists.


At once People’s Blade stood face to face with her. “Stand down! Listen for once before blowing up!”


Shocked, Natalya lowered her hands, though sparks fell from her fingertips. She had never heard Fei Li raise her voice in anger before. The darkness faded from Fei Li’s face.


“Dui bu qi, I am sorry. I did not mean to yell.” She took Natalya’s hand, ignoring the sparks. “Let us walk together. Mosca can wait here.”


“Si, si! An excellent idea, General.”


Fei Li and Natalya walked hand-in-hand, as women in China do, into a row of game booths. Hawkers stopped hawking to stare at the petite armored beauty and her companion, who towered a foot above her.


“I am not a deserter, Shuai. Nor are we at war. This is foolish!”


Fei Li squeezed her hand. “Hush. We can speak as sisters now. I am more troubled for Natalya’s pain than Commissar Red Saviour’s. And besides, Mojiotok and Red Menace have returned and ICBM has stepped down.”


“So I am not needed.”


“Please, no more self-pity. It ill-becomes you. I’ve known you for a decade, even before I was an adult. I would not have guessed that my friend could turn into a simpering housewife.”


“So much for sister talk! Why do you not get out sword and take some organs too?”


Fei Li shook her head. “Forgive me for sounding harsh, but much is at stake. I fear you have little time for self-examination. Have you been meditating lately?”


Screams from the Octopus distracted her. “Humph. Nyet, not recently.”


“You will recall I advised you to meditate an hour a night, after your patrol.”


“How can I? Am smothered with paperwork, forms, directives…where are Mojiotok and Red Menace when forms need to be triplicated?”


“This is a procedural matter to be addressed with them, Natalya. You cannot use it as an excuse to reject your obligations.”


Natalya looked as if she were about to explode again, then sighed. “You are right. Again. Is so simple when I talk to you. Why can I not see this in moment?”


“I have certain advantages you lack. You are also a passionate woman with very little patience.” Fei Li’s meaning was clear.


“Santiago.”


“Dui. Comrade Mosca alerted me to your anxiety even before your confrontation with Red Menace. He was deeply concerned. No,” she held up a hand, “do not blame him. His initial reports were respectful. He is wiser than he lets on. You needed an uninvolved party to vent your anger with, and he wanted to provide that for you.”


“He provided more than that. I thought he…I was falling in love with him, Fei Li!”


Fei Li guided her to a bench capped with a cartoon crane. She took both of Natalya’s hands in her own, and looked into her eyes. “I have great difficulty discussing such matters, but I will try, for your sake. I ordered him to resume patrols after you resigned.”


Natalya blinked. “You…but he hasn’t patrolled for days!”


“He disobeyed me, and he said only that you needed him more than Paragon City did.”


“Santi…” She looked back the way they came, lost in thought. “I was too cruel to him. We should go back.” When she looked back at Fei Li, she saw the young warrior was watching her with a strange expression.


“What’s wrong?”


Fei Li did not meet her eyes. “It is nothing.”


“Nyet, is sister talk. Is more to this than scolding selfish Red Saviour. Tell me.”


“I cannot. It is not seemly.”


“Pah!” Natalya turned away from her.


“Natalya, please. Do not embarrass me.”


“If you are wanting me to trust, you must trust me. That makes it simple, nyet?”


“Oh…” Fei Li covered her face.


Natalya put her hand to her mouth in surprise. She recovered quickly and hugged Fei Li to her. “Nyet, izvinit, am sorry. We need not be sharp with each other. Is my fault, I put anger into many conversations.”


Fei Li murmured into Natalya’s shirt, “Now Shen Xue is scolding me for being foolish.”


“He’s speaking to you right now?”


“Dui. I am letting my emotions distract me from my duty, he says.”


“I see.” She stroked the girl’s hair. “What does he think of me?”


“You are a failure in his eyes.”


A failure in the legendary general’s eyes. Natalya often forgot the ancient spirit saw what Fei Li saw, but rarely did she hear his personal opinion. It was too easy to see Fei Li’s face as that of one person, not two.


“I am getting used to hearing that.”


“But he is wrong! I don’t care if…” She gripped Natalya’s shirt as if clinging to a wall. “Laoshi,” she whispered. Teacher. Her breathing came in gasps. Natalya had no idea what to do. She stroked her hair and murmured in Russian.


“Ha…Natalya, he’s very angry now. It’s hard to concentrate. I need a sno-cone.” She pointed at the vendor. “Cherry, xie xie.”


Natalya watched her friend over her shoulder as she went to the sno-cone cart. Fei Li had ducked her head against the backrest of the bench, under the crane’s wing. She muttered in Chinese and shook her head in spastic twitches.


The heavy teenage girl manning the sno-cone indicated Fei Li. “She gonna be okay?”


“With help of your sno-cone, da. Cherry is kind she needs.”


“She’s that Chinese hero, People Blade, right?”


Natalya watched Fei Li pound the bench in sudden anger, splintering the board. “Da. People’s Blade. That is who she is being.”


The girl handed Natalya the treat, already melting in the head. “Tell her she’s doing a good job, then. No charge for the cone.”


“Spasiba” --  she read the girl’s nametag – “Becky. You are good worker.” Becky nodded solemnly.


Fei Li fell silent as Natalya approached. She took the sno-cone eagerly and stuffed half of it into her mouth and swallowed. She tilted her head back and sucked air in through clenched teeth.


“Fei Li, are you all right?”


She nodded. “It is a trick I discovered. Shen Xue cannot abide ice cream headaches. It is useful when I need time alone.”


Natalya sat and put her arms around her again. Fei Li returned the hug. “We don’t have much time before he comes back, and he is quite furious.” She collected her thoughts. “Please listen carefully. I hope I can express this correctly. You are the heart and soul of the CCCP. Whether Shen Xue or anyone thinks you are ineffective, they do not appreciate the balance you bring to leadership. You are not a bureaucrat or a logistician. But on the field of battle, your comrades will look first to you and your example. Do you understand?” She bit off another large portion of the sno-cone while Natalya nodded.


“The loyalty you inspire in your troops is based on love for you and love for what you represent. You cannot walk away from that responsibility once you have agreed to shoulder it. I, too, have agreed to a burden, and I cannot walk away.” Her eyes gave away the double meaning.


“Shen Xue,” Natalya said. “You could release him?”


“Wo bu zhi dao. I do not know. Nor do I know if I should. Who might die because the People’s Blade had sheathed her sword?”


“But to share your mind with another, every moment…it sounds like living hell.”


“He is a very honorable and just person. Much of who I am today, he is responsible for. When I was a child, I was a terror. You would not like that Fei Li. She would have become a murderer, a prostitute. A junkie. The streets of Zhangzhou were ill-suited to childhood.”


“Ah, moj dostopochtennyj sobrat, my honorable friend, it is so great a sacrifice. When does Fei Li find her happiness?” As she said it, she realized why Fei Li had allowed Mosca to stay.


“You knew about Santi and I?”


Fei Li smiled. “I suspected, and when I spoke with him I heard it in his voice. I do not know where Soviet Communism leaves room for love, but I wanted you to have your chance. Even if I lost mine.”


Natalya embraced her and kissed her cheek. “Spasibo, sister! Oh, now I know…I have made your burden worse.” Fei Li laughed, but tears wet her cheeks. “Wait. You lost your chance? It was…It was Comrade Collective Fist, da?”


Fei Li did not speak for a long time. “It was he. I never could tell him. It is so difficult…” She wiped her eyes. “And Shen Xue would not allow it. For me to accept the love of a man is quite problematic.”


“Oh, Fei Li.” Now Natalya teared up. “I am feeling like selfish girl now.”


“Do not. These are confusing feelings for those of us in power. And those of us with power.” She finished off the sno-cone. “But you must be happy with him. It is your chance, and you dishonor me if you do not take it.”


“I will!”


“And I know this: he does not want you to walk away from your duty. You will lose him if you lie to yourself so.”


“Da. This is not wisdom from that old man. It is from Fei Li…” Natalya kissed her friend on the lips. “Who does not give herself proper due.” With damp eyes, they held each others heads and giggled. “Who, for woman with two thousand year old man inside, is still very girly.”


“Aiyah!” Fei Li covered her mouth and giggled more, looking half her twenty one years. Then she stiffened, and her face set in grimmer lines. She stood and her posture was a military one.


“Commissar Red Saviour. This conversation has been very constructive. You are ready to return to duty?”


Natalya hesitated. Was it Shen Xue speaking to her? Or Fei Li and Shen Xue, together as a single mind again?


“Da, I am ready,” she said slowly.


“Hao. Let us gather Mosca and leave this park. You have much reading to do today before the Commissar’s meeting with Mojiotok Senior tomorrow.” People’s Blade put out her hand again. Natalya took it. “Wode hao pengyou, I am very pleased to have you back.” My best friend.


Oblivious to the stares, the two woman walked hand in hand back to where Red Saviour’s lover awaited her.