Red Saviour's Christmas To-Do List

From the Story Arc: Red Saviour: The Revolution Within

Previous Story in the Arc: Demotion by Red Saviour (Thursday, December 02, 2004)

(posted Saturday, December 25, 2004)

1. Find old uniform for funeral

She could no longer put a finger through the bullet holes in the uniform. The Icon tailors wielded their sharp needles with skill, patching the Kevlar weave so that she had to turn the uniform inside out to see where the holes had been. Turned out, it was a map of her most harrowing experiences in Paragon City.

These I survived, she thought, where poor comrade Red Gears did not.

She had but an hour before his funeral. The whole of the CCCP and Red Brigade would be there. Fei Li, the People’s Blade, would wear white, as was Chinese custom. The rest of them, their official uniforms, black leather and Kevlar, with bold red and yellow stars. She insisted that they all shine the uniforms until they caught the light like chrome. Her eulogy would be brief, out of respect to his family, who did not appear to support his decision to enlist in the fight against crime. They were wealthy Russian-Americans, making noises about Marx but delighting in the economic opportunities afforded to the aggressive in this lopsided country. Their son, the doctor. Every American parent’s dream. Now dead, caught by an Outcast’s bullet while playing hero.

Red Gears, she thought: what kind of name was that, anyway? Some American idiom she had never heard? The man had infuriated her when he insisted on psychoanalyzing her over a comm. line when he had first signed on to the team. Fei Li had taken it upon herself – as she usually did – to hire him as a team medic while Soviette was on sabbatical. The more doctors, the merrier, the General had said. With the kind of regret only death can bring, she remembered threatening the man herself, after he pompously informed her that she had an anger management problem, and needed counseling. So American. Everything that didn’t fit into a Disney movie must be counseled away. She wondered if he’d ever read a single sentence of Russian literature.

Why did she want to wear her old uniform to Red Gears’ funeral, instead of the regulation one? It was as much to honor him as to insult Moscow, who would be watching through their spy satellites. This red and teal outfit represented the old Red Saviour, the one who had won over the hearts of Russians with brave kicks and punches in the faces of the criminals who flourished in Perestroika. The Red Saviour they hated, the woman who commanded more respect than they in their pressed suits and backroom power brokering. If she ran for president, she’d be their boss within a week. The Russian people held her close to their hearts as they never would their stony-faced leaders.

And so, comrade Red Gears, you get the true Red Saviour today, not the apparat of the Kremlin. It is the least I can do.

She pulled a black overcoat on, gathered her index cards with her brief speech scratched in Cyrillic and English scrawl, and left her apartment. Mosca would be waiting for her at the headquarters, to accompany her to the funeral.

2. Bicker with Moscow

Mosca’s expression was as grim as she expected. He sat in a chair against the wall of her office, thumbing through a sheaf of papers. He was a man of great passion, she knew all too well, and the death of a comrade, no matter how remote to him, inspired great depths of anguish. She loved him all the more for it; he could make up for her hard heart.

“Darlink, I am here. Izvinit, for so late.”

“There is plenty of time still,” he murmured, not taking his eyes from the papers. “Perhaps you should see these first, no?”

The papers were from a bundle sent by the Kremlin. Orders, she assumed, but when she flipped past the first few cover sheets, she found full color laserprints of satellite photos. Of her, in costume, on the streets of Paragon City.

The timestamp placed the photos at weeks after her demotion.

“First, perhaps you are offering an explanation to me, Natya? Then we figure out what to tell your bosses.”

She dropped each one on the table as she view it: fighting with Carnival of Shadows women, resplendent in their festively menacing costumes; fighting Malta shock troops; picking on a large group of Hellions just for fun in Perez Park.

“Santi,” she said with a sigh. “Is true, I am violating orders. So what? Moscow is stupid, narrow-minded. Many lives I have saved by ignoring their foolish grudge.”

“That is not the point. You told me you were here, or on errands buying office supplies. You were lying to me.”

“Nyet! Just…delaying the truth. Until…”

“Until Moscow changed their minds? Forgot why they grounded you?”

“Bah!” She threw the rest of the photos down. “Why can you nyet support me? You know this is my life they try to take away.” Her face was hot with anger, her eyes becoming damp.

Mosca stood and crossed the room to take her in an embrace. “Si, si, this I am knowing. But you just give them more ammunition to use in shooting you down. If you fight a guerilla war, you are fighting from the shadows, not on top of the capitol building.”

“Miss Power? You are wanting me to make silly disguise again?”

“That is one approach. There are others, like asking your father to help lobby for clemency. Or other supporters in Moscow.”

Natalya sat on the desk, holding his hands. “I have few supporters in positions that matter. Is people that love me, nyet apparatchik.”

“The people, they are the ones you fight for, si? Then perhaps apparatchik are now in the way. Have you considered leaving CCCP?”

“I have done it,” she said. “When I was crazed from Nazi brainwashing, and paranoid for revenging. Nyet, this is my child, this CCCP. I cannot walk away and see what else Moscow does to ruin.”

Mosca leaned in and gave her a tender kiss. “Mi corazon, I think you may know the answer already. It is not your problem alone, but everyone’s problem.” He pulled her to her feet. “Now, my brave Natya, we go to bury our friend Red Gears. You must be strong for the others, especially the young ones who are frightened.”

“Again you are right. I should put you in charge, nyet?”

“Nyet!” He laughed. “I have lead men before, it is something I did not care for at all. I would rather find the true leaders and provide them with support.” He pinched her backside, eliciting a yelp. “Especially the very charming leaders.”

“Svinya,” she said, screwing up her face to hide her grin.

3. The Funeral

It was as uncomfortable as she expected, giving the eulogy for a fallen comrade she’d never liked. His parents’ faces were ashen as she spoke, keeping her voice neutral. Most CCCP and Red Brigadiers kept respectful expressions; a few wiped tears from their eyes. Those new to law enforcement grappled with the shock of mortality; what happened to Red Gears could have befallen them. For it to fall on Christmas was callous timing indeed.

Afterwards, she exchanged some vaguely comforting remarks with the parents. They were devastated by the loss, and it made her uncomfortable. I am much better at dealing in pain than the aftermath for the survivors, she thought. Those Nazis I killed…they must have had parents such as these, questioning where they went wrong with bringing up the children. For a moment, Red Saviour felt as though she had killed Red Gears herself. It was inevitable, she wanted to blurt out. I have to render judgment and excoriation. It is my duty. Why can’t you see this?

Mosca led her away as tears formed in her eyes. “It is all right, mi corazon. He is in a better place now, si?”

He didn’t know what it was that truly troubled her, but she was grateful for his comforting words nevertheless.

“We take the day off,” he said. “Spend some quiet time, perhaps in a nice cantina. It is Christmas, a time of rest.”

“For you, perhaps. I have an appointment,” she sniffled.

“I will come with you then.”

“Nyet,” she said, shaking her head. “Is special Christmas present to myself. And to CCCP.”

Mosca gave her a perplexed look, and shrugged. He knew that she could not always discuss her job with him, a lowly soldier. “As you wish. I look forward to seeing it. Meanwhile, I take other comrades to cantina and toast memory of our fallen friend.” With a peck on the cheek, he made to move off to where most of their comrades gathered, heads down.

“Wait, darlink,” she said. He stopped and raised an eyebrow. “I love you.”

“And you, always, center of my world.” Mosca’s smile prodded her heart. “Never doubt that.”

She smiled, hoping it wasn’t as sad a smile as she felt.

4. Meet General Postaski

Natalya straightened her miniskirt, checked her hair and makeup in the reflection of a tinted car window. She had picked up this revealing outfit, and her other tools for her meeting, at the apartment, before hailing a cab. The cab driver nodded laciviously to her request: Little Moscow, the small neighborhood favored by Russian immigrants, and a club named Krasnij Vorona, the Red Raven.

The red awning and small, Cyrillic lettering gave little encouragement to casual passersby. Krasnij Vorona was a club you attended only if you knew what you wanted, and were willing to pay for it. There were many good Russian girls eager to accept that payment.

Many times, Natalya had considered shutting the club down. She had gone so far as to have the Paragon City District Attorney look into the club’s owners, but what he found infuriated her: they had enough legal protections that they’d never spend a day behind bars. The worst that would happen is that the club would spring back up elsewhere.

After a brief and brutal visit, she had convinced the operators not to employ underage girls, and not to sell drugs in the back rooms, under pain of her own swift and final justice. The rest, the prostitution, the underworld deal making, she would tolerate until there was a way to put it to rest forever. Their fear also gave her a worthwhile contact in the dark underbelly of Little Moscow.

The doorman didn’t recognize her, dressed as a cheap floozy. He let her in with a smirk. She sidled up to the bar and ordered a vodka straight. Sipping it, she surveyed the dimly lit room. Mid-afternoon was hardly a peak hour, yet there were eight girls in attendence on the floor, shuffling to the DJ’s most cheesy Eurodance groove. Lights in the ceiling lit a mirrored ball, splashing specks of light across the floor and the dancing prostitutes. Another made colorful shapes on the walls. Three more were on the fritz.

To the left of the dance floor, another bar, more old world in appearance with its dark filigreed wood and mirrors, held dour old men. Small time hoods, she noted, past their prime.

A young girl walked out of the bathroom and took a seat at a table near the floor. Anyone who didn’t know her would mistake her for thirteen; Natalya knew she was twenty-one. Anya, the world weary girl-child, right on schedule.

“Zadrastvuitye, and welcome to Krasnij Vorona, Miss…” A deep Russian voice spoke from her right. She turned and smiled at the manager.

“Spasitel,” she said with a wicked grin. Saviour. His eyes went wide with shock.

“Govno,” he breathed. “You again. Why do you torment us so? Shouldn’t you be fighting zombies, or giant robots? We’ve kept our part of bargain, comrade Spasitel.”

“I’m not your comrade,” she said, keeping her smile. “And as far as I know, you have stayed only mildly dirty, so I do not feed you your ribcage today.” She elbowed him. “Do I nyet look pretty today?”

“A vision,” he muttered.

“Oh, spasibo. Now, I will require Anya’s services later. I trust you will waive her fee.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I hadn’t heard that you’d developed a taste for young girls. What are you up to?”

She laughed. “None of your business, if you are smart. Ah…my friend has arrived.” Her voice grew serious. “I need your backroom, the one with bedroom attached.”

“It’s occupied.”

“It won’t be in thirty seconds. Move.”

The fat manager glared at her, and hurried off. Red Saviour opened her arms in a wide welcoming gesture. “General Postaski! I am being so glad you make it!”

General Postaski peered through the darkness to see who spoke to him. He was a massive man, with a square jaw and beady eyes. Put an assault rifle in his hands and he’d actually be threatening, she thought. Even unarmed, which he probably is not, he will be a handful.

She waved him over before he could holler at her over the music. He came to the bar with a dubious expression.

“Comrade Saviour, you are looking very different today,” he said in Russian. “And what is this place? I am reminded of early days as Private in Red Army.”

“I wanted our meeting to be as discreet as possible,” she said. “There is no need to advertise that we have met.”

“As you wish,” he said, squaring his shoulders. The man reeked of self-importance. “The October Guard has nothing to hide.” She caught his gaze wandering down to her cleavage and tight dress. “Unlike CCCP.”

“We will discuss that. First, we drink.” She flipped two fingers at the bartender. Two more vodkas appeared. They held up their glasses.

“To victory,” she said.

“To victory,” he agreed. “Is exactly what I am thinking.” They downed the imported vodka in one gulp.

“So,” Natalya said, leaning against the bar to show off what her dress revealed, “tell me about October Guard. It sounds very interesting.”

“Do nyet toy with me.” He gave her a look as stiff as their drinks. “You have dishonored CCCP with foolish prancings and incompetence. The Motherland is ready for someone with discipline, wherewithal and lack of distractions to end the menace of the 5th Column. Not to mention the Czarist, who is building strength as we speak.” The bartender passed over two more vodka glasses. He took his and sipped. “You have failed to adhere to Soviet ideals, failed to exhibit initiative, and failed to achieve victory, which you so blithely toast.”

“5th Column is not small threat,” she said. “Their organization is massive and spread out. We crush one cell, two more appear. I do not see how October Guard is more suited to defeat them.”

“You will see, comrade, and you will be ashamed. Your career is over. Perhaps this,” he indicated her dress, “should be your new outfit.”

She gritted her teeth and forced a smile. “I see you are nyet a diplomat, General.”

“I prefer strategy to etiquette, is true. You were good warrior, once, but you have fallen and refuse to make room for those who can do your job for you.”

“I should be furious,” she said. “I should be breaking your back right now. But there is something about you, General. I cannot put my finger on it.”

“Resolve. Iron will.” He downed his vodka. “I am not a General for nothing, unlike your Chinese friend.”

“Da, she is a problem. She thinks to take over CCCP and pursue her own agenda.” Natalya looked thoughtful. “You’ve been trying to recruit some of my soldiers.”

“Only those with proper zeal and courage. There is much chaff in your organization.”

“I know, I know. It pains me.” Natalya smiled at him. “You don’t think much of me, comrade, but I see in you a kindred spirit.”

Postaski chuckled. “This sounds like wishful thinking, Saviour. You have not achieved a tenth of what I have. You would be lucky to be October Guard’s secretary.”

“Oh, I’d want a much higher rank than that…” Natalya let her voice trail off. “If I were to jump ship and join you.”

“I doubt it. You are part of the problem.”

“And if you’re the solution, why shouldn’t I position myself to retain some power?” She sidled closer to him. “I don’t want to stay aboard a sinking ship, General. If October Guard is the ‘next big thing,’ as the running dogs say, I want to be a part of that.” She shrugged. “If you think CCCP is lost cause.”

“I am surprised to hear you say this. Perhaps you are nyet so foolish after all. Most women benefit from a strong man in charge. I am sure you could contribute quite a bit to my Guard.” He leered at her. “You would be quite a trophy.”

Her foot bumped into his, and she kept it there, against his boot. “I have been told that by many officials. But not by Generals.”

“Is always a first time, Natalya.”

“Hmmm. I am feeling exposed. Perhaps we continue this conversation in more private place.” She indicated the back room with her head. “Many scum here. You would do well to remember faces.”

“Small fry,” he said. “I am not interested in playing cop. I am playing soldier.” He offered Natalya his arm. “Come, my dear.”

Arm in arm, they strolled into the back room. Natalya wobbled as if drunk already. She bumped into the doorframe as they entered the back room. General Postaski chortled. She slid into the large booth and reclined on the cracked cushion.

“I thought you had a boyfriend,” the General said. “What would he say to this meeting?”

“I don’t care,” she said. “He is my toy. I like to collect toys, have you not heard?”

“Huh.” He could not stop staring at her. “You are much friendlier than I expected. I think you want something from me.”

“Of course, General, but I’m willing to pay for it.” She leaned forward. “Power. I don’t want to lose what I’ve got.”

“And what can you offer in return?”

She climbed out of the booth and offered her hand. He took it and she pulled him into a dancer’s embrace, and began to sway to the Eurodisco ballad playing in the main room.

“This is nice, nyet?” she said into his ear. He put his large hands on the small of her back. “You are the kind of man who wants it all: power, glory, women, money.”

“Da,” he grunted.

“You rise to the top, knowing that the power you wield will force people to respect you.” She ran a fingernail along his neck. “Women can’t resist it. You are a trophy too, and whoever you choose gets the highest honor.” This made him chuckle. “Oh, da, I can see how you are.”

“If you are nice enough to me, I can make you Lieutenant right away,” he whispered.

“Really? I hoped you would say that,” she said, finding a pulsing artery on his neck. “It just proves everything I suspected about you.”

With a swift jab, she pushed the tiny needle into the vein and injected amber fluid. He jerked away and slapped a hand to his neck.

“What have you done?” he said, his voice constricted.

“Taken power, comrade idiot,” she said. “Ketamine hydrochloride, the ‘date rape’ drug, as the Amerikantskii call it. In Moscow PD, we found many other uses for it.”

The General staggered back into the booth. His face burned red. He gasped at the air.

“Oh! Did I give you too large a dose? Izvinit! But you are such a big man,” she bent over and waggled a finger, “and I’m just a little girl. So helpless.”

“Traitor,” he gasped.

“Nyet! It is you who try to ruin oldest team of heroes in Soviet Union with your smarmy machinations. Did you really think I’d stand idly by while you destroy the organization my own father put into my care?” She clenched her fists. “I could easily kill you right now, but then again I could do it when you were armed to teeth. You are NOTHING to me.” She spit. “Nothing.”

Red Saviour pulled a modern cell phone from her purse. “But, you are quite well known at the Kremlin. So, I have arranged a little fact-finding mission for you. First, I call front desk.” She dialed a few numbers and put the phone to her ear. “Da. This is Spasitel. Send Anya back now. And a bottle of your best vodka. Oh, and some rope.”

“You’re going to…tie…me up…” The General could barely move.

Red Saviour stood over him with an evil smile. “I’m not…comrade Anya is. And no, she’s not really thirteen, but who will believe you? Pravda?” She showed him her cell phone, with its digital camera lens, and the newspaper Pravda’s number displayed. “But they have pictures of you with this girl young enough to be your daughter. Or, they will, in ten minutes.”

His eyes went wide as he realized what her plan truly was.

“I bought this cell phone yesterday. Was Christmas present to myself.” She snapped a picture of the helpless General. “Best Christmas present ever.”

5. The Orphans

“You did not need to get dressed up, comrade Saviour.” Red Star, dressed in simple civilian clothes of a button down shirt and jeans, looked her up and down as she approached the orphanage entrance. “You are going dancing later?”

She blushed. “Nyet…I mean, da. Dancing with Mosca.” She hadn’t had time to change after framing the General, beating him senseless (an indulgence she now regretted, though it had been immensely gratifying), and depositing his unconscious body in a dumpster. It was cruel, and she reveled in it, in part because of the doubts that weighed on her. Torturing a helpless enemy was a simple release from her complex world.

“You look very lovely, Commissar, if you do not mind me saying.” His voice trailed off, trying not to imply how inappropriately she was dressed.

“Da, spasibo…Um…comrade, perhaps we should be wearing our uniforms? Will it not please the children more?”

“You are right, but there is no time.”

“Nyet! I can move very quickly now, after good training from Kostyak and Violet Gaunt. Is more efficient, I do not waste energy on gaining altitude. Is all speed!” She removed her high heels. “I’ll try with bare feet. I hope streets have no glass.”

“Very well. My uniform is in my locker. The combination is…”

“I already know, comrade. I am Commissar.” She grinned at him, handed him her shoes, and took off down the street. With minute but concentrated blasts of energy from her heels, she could achieve speeds of over one hundred miles per hour on even pavement. She reached CCCP headquarters in less than a minute, retrieved their official uniforms, and sped back.

“Spasibo,” Red Star said. “This will mean so much to the little ones.”

“Da, da,” Red Saviour said. She still resented being promised to these orphans. Christmas was a foolish holiday, and the religious overtones disturbed her. “We go change inside.”

The Director of the orphanage welcomed them. He goggled at Red Saviour in her provocative miniskirt. “We are changing into uniforms,” she assured him. “Good for photos.”

“I see. Well, either way, thank you so much for coming. The children will never forget this.”

Red Star beamed at her. She wanted to smash the self-congratulatory grin off his face with a spin kick.

“Where are the little ones?” Red Star said.

“Our main rec room,” said the Director, pointing down the hall. “They’re decorating the tree.”

Red Saviour rolled her eyes. She’d stumbled into a Norman Rockwell painting. She found the bathroom and changed clothes. Looking at herself in the mirror, she noticed some tiny drops of blood spattered on her forehead. Izvinit, General, she chuckled to herself, and wiped it off, along with the coquettish makeup. She adjusted her hair, and stepped out to let Red Star change.

The Director stood by, nervous and intimidated. Red Star was a giant of a man, literally twice the size of this thin, bearded middle-ager. Natalya wanted to spook the man even more out of spite, but she resisted. It’s not his fault, she reminded herself. He’s a sturdy worker fulfilling a very necessary function. I will play nice.

“I bet you had a busy day,” he said with a slight stammer. “Fighting crime and all.”

“Da, was busy. Sad day, we had funeral for comrade.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I hadn’t heard. He fell…in battle?”

“Ambushed by Outcasts, shot in the head,” she said. The poor man blanched. “Um…I will nyet discuss that with childrens.”

“Thanks,” he said. He loosened his collar. “Ah…I see you brought a bag with you. Presents for the children?”

She remembered her brainstorm earlier that week. “Oh, da! Is very good reading books for them. I autographed them myself.”


Red Star stepped out, resplendent in his bright red uniform. He had left his helmet off. He was as handsome as Statesman, or so she guessed. She wondered if having Statesman’s clone stroll around unmasked jeopardized his secret identity. Who cares, she decided. He is the king of the running dogs. Let him sweat.

The Director led them into the large rec room. Sofas and little tables lined the walls, along with many posters of cartoon characters and biblical quotes. In one corner, a tall Christmas tree shone, draped with white lights and handmade ornaments. Presents lapped against the base of the tree.

Fourteen children, aged five to ten, stood on tip toes to hang their ornaments on the tree. A few shook their presents, trying to determine what they were to receive. These saw the heroes enter the room first. They gasped, and the look of joy on their faces made Natalya’s heart tighten. It was as if she’d just saved them from ritual sacrifice.

“Krasnij Spesitel!” One exclaimed in perfect Russian. They really were from Little Moscow, she decided. “Red Saviour! Red Star!”

The other children turned and squealed in delight. Moving with unnatural speed, they swamped the two and gripped their legs. Red Saviour was reminded of the Rikti invasion, and a roomful of malevolent alien monkeys.
“Children! Let’s be polite! Say hello,” the Director ordered. The older ones disengaged and pulled the younger ones back. They all put their hands behind them and said, almost in unison, “Merry Christmas!” Some giggled.

“Ho ho ho,” Red Star actually said. Natalya winced. “How wonderful to see my brave little friends again.” He knelt and put his immense arms out. The children squealed again and ran to him for a hug that fit six children in at once. He smiled and laughed, and Natalya had to hand it to him: as awkward and stiff as he was with her comrades, these children revealed a very gentle, sincere side. Probably somewhere in Statesman’s DNA, she thought, but nevertheless, I envy his openness.

“Red Saviour,” a little voice said. A small girl with blue eyes stared up at her.

“Da, I am so. You are…?”


“Privyet, Natasha.” She tried to think of what to say to a small child. “Happy Christmas.”

“It’s Merry Christmas, not Happy. Happy is New Year.”

“I am hoping for both.”

“Can you hug me too?” The little girl held out her arms, looking intimidated by the tall, grim Russian woman.

She sighed. “Da, I suppose I can.” She scooped the girl up in her arms, reluctant to go entirely to their level and be swamped. Natasha put her arms around Natalya’s neck. The girl weighed almost nothing.

“Govno! Do they feed you at all?” The Director gave her a pained look. “Izvinit. I am nyet used to children.”

“They just like everyone else, only smaller and needier,” the man replied, smiling. “It doesn’t take much to make them happy. Just talk to her.”

“So, Natasha, what you want for this Christmas?”

“To be like you!” The girl grinned. “I want to fly and beat up bad guys and wear pretty dresses!”

Natalya laughed. “Oh, that is easy part, believe me. And flying, it is not so hard.” She channeled a small amount of mystic energy below her and levitated up a foot. “See?”

Natasha whooped with delight. The other children, crowding around Red Star, fell silent with awe.

“Yay! Go higher!” Natasha yelped.

The look in the Director’s eyes confirmed Natalya’s worst fears: fly one child, you have to fly them all.

Half an hour later, she touched down with the last child. Thankfully, the cold weather prohibited lengthy flights, and she cannily lined the children up before they could get coats on. A quick minute in the air and they were ready for the warmth of home again. Nevertheless, she enjoyed the laughter of the children as she took them high above King’s Row. It was much like her first flight, although she had been brainwashed at the time.

“You’re a good person, Natalya,” Red Star said as they hustled the remaining children back inside.

“Don’t tell anyone,” she said. “And not as good as you might think.” She wondered if she should erase the pictures of the General, or wait until they saw print first. She’d wait, she decided, and even back them up to CD-Rom.

They watched the children open their modest presents: teddy bears, books, and everyone got underwear and socks. Then Natalya brought forth her bag of goodies and gave out her presents to the children: signed copies of the Communist Manifesto. She had wanted to find good Marxist children’s books, but they were virtually non-existent in this country. Never too early to start reading the Manifesto, she decided. The Director looked troubled…perhaps she should have brought one for him, too.

“Now, my little drooks, I will read to you from the Manifesto.” She opened to one of her favorite passages as a child. “A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

Red Star cleared his throat. “Is very nice. Now, who wants to hear a story about comrade Saviour’s adventures fighting crime?”

“I do!” the entire room shouted, including, Natalya suspected, the Director himself.

At Red Star’s prodding, she described tracking down Tsoo, Outcasts, and – to the delight of the children – Rikti. They could not get enough about the alien invaders, and asked many questions: What do they wear? Are they stinky? How big are they? Do they have big teeth? And so on.

6. Dinner with Darlink

The night wore on, and Mosca finally arrived to take Natalya to their own Christmas dinner. He talked with each of the children, charming them silly, as was his way. Natalya admired how effortless it was to him, to speak with these little people, not yet adults. He did not patronize them, but acted as if each of them had something important to say, and he would not be satisfied until he heard it. He will make a good father, she decided, and caught herself. Will? When did I start planning that? I am tired, that is all.

The Director announced it was time to put the children to bed, though his voice betrayed his doubt that they’d sleep any time soon. They took pictures, individual poses and group shots, and finally the heroes made their goodbyes, hugging each child. Natasha held on to Natalya extra long.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” the little girl said. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll come back,” Natalya said, and cursed herself for clumsiness. The girl gripped her tighter.

“Yay! I knew you would. Will you come back tomorrow? I have a kite!”

Mosca grinned at her as she fumbled a reply. “Nyet tomorrow, but soon, I promise. And comrade Red Star will, too, as often as he can.” She grated out the last words to Red Star, who smirked at her in his victory.

“Spasibo,” Natasha said, kissing her on the cheek.

They left together. Red Star shook Natalya’s hand.

“Commissar, I know you are not one to celebrate this holiday, but you have made those children very happy tonight. Thank you.”

“Bah. Was nyet painful, is just some kids. No problem.” She shrugged. “Now…go home, go to base. Mosca and I have evening together.”

“Da. Merry Christmas, comrades.” With a pat on Mosca’s shoulder, he tucked his hands into his pockets and strolled away, whistling “White Christmas.”

Mosca took her arm and they walked back to their apartment. Natalya was silent the whole way back, and Mosca didn’t break the silence, aside from humming “White Christmas,” too, but to a more syncopated beat.

“Malinki is at Fei Li and Qing’s, for their Christmas dinner,” Mosca noted. “We have the place to ourselves, si?” He dimmed the lights and lit candles on the table. “It is our first Christmas together.”

“Da. I change first.” Natalya closed the bedroom door and stripped off the uniform. She regarded the yellow star on the chest, unbent on the sturdy armored outfit. She remembered designing it in Moscow, under scrutiny by the Kremlin’s agents.

Forgoing street clothes, she pulled a robe over her underwear and tied the fluffy belt. The floor was cold but she skipped the slippers and reached for the bedroom door. Suddenly, the day’s events all came to her in a rush: funerals, torture, intrigue and celebration. Her hands had held little girls and broken men’s ribs today…and held the hands of mourning mothers. And fathers.

Natalya curled up on her bed and wept, wishing that life would somehow stop blocking her out. She wanted to rejoin the world, that was awash in yuletide celebration. Mosca, her only true connection to life, hummed in the next room, oblivious to her anguish.

She had never felt more alone.