Are You Lonesome Tonight?

From the Story Arc: The Death of CCCP

Previous Story in the Arc: It's Now or Never by Red Saviour (Sunday, March 20, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: I've Been Blue by Red Saviour (Sunday, March 27, 2005)

(posted Thursday, March 24, 2005)

High above the cooling sidewalks of nighttime Las Vegas, no one could see Bella Dawn Parker’s tears. Her vacation had been going so well. A long flight from the East Coast in a seat comfortable enough to nap in; a first, in all her travels back home. Mom and Dad didn’t grill her about every single detail of her life, despite their usual inability to discard their intelligence community mindset. They hugged, they listened to the superficial stories, they smiled, they sent her on her way to meet up with old friends.

All the old gang wanted to hear stories, and she obliged. Bella’s life in Paragon City was a thrill a minute. On arrival, she had to laugh: finally, a city more screwed up than Lost Wages! Gangs on every corner, zombies in the sewers, robots in the park. It was either a miracle or act of sheer stupidity that the whole city wasn’t walled off and fumigated. With her blue skin and hair – and faint glow in the darkness – Belladonna Aura fit right in to the growing community of superheroes.

She never lacked for friends, despite some lingering questions about her level of radioactivity. The moment she demonstrated how she could direct radiation to accelerate cellular reconstruction, in essence healing at a phenomenal rate, even the most grim bringers of justice lit up with smiles at her arrival. One kook who looked like Darth Vader’s brother – Dark Reaper or something -- even insisted she call him Bill. “My friends call me Bill,” he breathed through his respirator, patting her hand.

Out in the desert, sitting around a bonfire with high school friends (and Sam, who now went by the name Desert Eagle), it sank in at last that she had grown up. The Rikti War made her feel a thousand years old, with scenes of carnage that still woke her at night. Yet renting her own apartment on the other side of the country from her childhood home made her feel like a full-fledged adult.

They noticed, too. “You look very glamorous, Bella,” Josh told her in his quiet voice. The rest of the group were sharing in a story about someone else’s undignified dismissal from a casino waitressing job; she had lost interest.

“Glamorous? Paragon City is a fraction as glamorous as Vegas. It smells horrible, for one thing. They never quite repaired the sewers.”

Josh did not appear to register her words. “Glamorous like, well, real pretty.”

This made her chuckle. “You should see my new outfit. It has cutouts here, here and…”

He held up his hands in a sign of surrender. “Can we, maybe,” he murmured, “go walk?”

She shrugged and made to stand. He offered her a hand. Taking it, she realized it was the first time she’d touched Josh. The two of them strolled back towards the cars parked at the side of the highway.

“So how’s work? That tech firm, right?” The name of the company passed out of her mind every time Josh told her; it was too generic.

“Not bad,” Josh said. “I mostly just surf and do email. Read SlashDot.” He kept his eyes on the ground.

“Sorry I haven’t responded much. I get really busy.” Bella kneaded her hands. “Fighting crime.”

“I know. Remember when you asked me to hack into Crey’s personnel records?”

“Oh, yeah!” She grinned at him. “That blew open the whole case. Everyone was so impressed with me. I should have told them you were a superhero. Captain Hackotron!”

Josh blew air out his lips. “It’s not like I did anything different than I used to do for you guys.”

They reached the cars. The highway stood empty. Dusk had settled in, masking all but the yellow divider lines. The desert had already started to cool off.

“Okay, so, what do you want to tell me?” She put her hands on her hips. “You don’t ‘go walk’ much.”

“Oh, um.” He put a hand through his hair. “I wanted to talk about, well. Shoot.” He faced the car, running a hand across the roof.

“A crime? You have a lead?”

“No, no. It’s just…hard to say. I’m better with chat than talking.” He turned to face her, but still didn’t meet her eyes. “I mean, IM chat. You know.”

Bella rolled her eyes. “Josh, how long have you known me? Just say it.”

“Phew. Okay.” She saw him steel himself. “I really missed you.”

“I missed you, too. Thanks.”

“No, like…I really missed you because I really like you.”

“So do…Oh.” Bella understood why Josh was fumbling with words even more so than normal. “You like me, like me.”

“Yeah. I could never tell you before, and then you left, and I thought about it a lot, and I decided that the next time –“

“Wait, wait.”

“I was always hoping you felt the same way too. You know, about me.” He rushed the last words before she could cut him off again.

“Josh. Josh. That’s so sweet –“ Before she could finish, he lurched forward and kissed her on the lips, mouth slightly open. She was startled enough to let it last for a few seconds before pushing him away.

“Hey!”

Josh stared at the ground again. To kiss her had probably exhausted a full year’s reserve of willpower. Bella stepped away from him, angry and thrilled all at once. His lips had been soft and warm, and a breath stole out of them before she pushed him away. To have someone’s face so close to yours…it was enough to make her tingle.

“It’s okay, but I can’t -- ”

“I don’t mind having a long distance relationship, and we can take our time,” he blurted.

“Damn it, will you listen to me?” She fought down the urge to ask for another kiss, just so she could pay attention this time.

“Of course I will. I…I love you, and I want to listen to everything you want to tell me, ever.”

It sounded rehearsed, but her stomach flip-flopped. Without realizing it, she put her hands over her heart. “You know what my body does. What my powers are.”

“Yeah, it’s cool. You control radiation.”

“No, stupid. I emit radiation, and control it. I am radioactive.”

Josh shrugged. “I don’t mind.”

“You don’t mind cancer?”

He looked her in the eyes. “From what?”

“A kiss. Holding each other. Having…being intimate.”

Josh caught his breath.

“Yes. If we have sex, I would contaminate your…you.” She nodded below his belt. “Did you realize that?”

“Ah, no. Not at all.” He hitched up his belt. “Kisses too?”

“Mouth cancer, just like chewing tobacco.”

“From just one kiss?”

She sighed. “Probably not. But we shouldn’t do that again.”

“Crap.” He walked in a tight circle. “Crap. I’m sorry, Bella. I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine.”

“That sucks for you.” Suddenly he had the luxury to be magnanimous. Even Josh, the hopeless computer nerd, knew he had more of a sex life to look forward to than Bella. “I’m really sorry to hear that.” The straightness of his posture told her he’d already lost all desire for her. “What about…are hugs okay?”

“Hugs…no,” she lied. “Could be bad. I’m going to head out, okay?”

Without waiting for confirmation, she took flight, lighting Josh and the cars with a sickly green glow. Sickly, she thought, like me. I am diseased, even as I cure people.

The flight back to the city took twenty minutes. Wind blew hard on her face; after a time she noticed her cheeks were wet. The feel of Josh’s lips had gone from a memory of her own lips to an abstraction. She was losing it already, the closest she had come to physical affection from a boy. Others she’d warned away, but she would never have expected it from introverted Josh. He caught her by surprise even better than a ninja.

I hate this. Even flying, I hate it. I’d rather have kisses than flying, or healing, or shooting rays at stupid people. I want what Josh has.

She reached the outskirts of town, the residential areas growing new developments like a rash. Somehow, Las Vegas had become the number one destination for those seeking a new life. She hated them, too, with families, mealtimes, weekends, even boredom. Who lied to me, that the life of a hero was exciting? It’s not. It’s a prison.

Underneath, the commercial district had started to glow, with luxury hotels and scattered casinos making the landscape kaleidoscopic. Cars sopped up the streets like sponges, wetting the concrete with headlights. Every night was an event in this town. Bella dipped lower, even as she wanted to lose herself in the sky. No clouds to hide in and soak up the moisture.

Just go ahead and cry, girl, she told herself. Let that explosion happen inside. No one can see you here. You’re just another colored light in Las Vegas.

“God damn it,” she said. “God damn it!” She yelled, and burst into tears. The sobs came in great waves, shaking her slender body. She hovered by the Five Seasons, lit by floodlights in the same blue as her skin. It made her feel even worse, but she didn’t move. She wanted every taunt the universe could throw at her, all at once. Get it over with.

As if in answer, a window shattered. She saw it, fifty feet below her. A large man in a cowboy hat (a Texan, she could tell even at this distance) flew through a window and nearly tipped over the balcony rail. The dull impact reached her ears: broken bones, probably a collarbone.

She was needed, again.

“Fine,” she said under her breath. “I’m a robot. I’ll heal people up. Over and over. That’s what I do, and nothing else.” Her buoyancy decreased and she floated down to the still form.

Despite what the movies want the public to believe, no one passes through a plate glass window unscathed. The man must have been a football player once, but muscle had turned to fat. His cowboy shirt and khakis were covered in his own blood. He sported multiple lacerations on torso, arms and face. One cut came within a centimeter of his eye.

Even so, he was still barely conscious. “Rooskie bitch…” he said, delirious. “Dangerous…gotta…get up…”

Bella crouched at his side, cradling his head. “Stay still, sir. I’ll fix you up.” Focusing on the energy coursing within her, she let it flow out over his form. When she healed with radiation, it felt like mint to her; cool but warm as well. He shuddered and closed his eyes for a moment. The cuts began to close.

Sounds of wood striking flesh reached her ears. She looked into the room, through the broken glass door. The curtains obscured her vision but she could see a man dressed in curious red clothes beating tourists with a chair leg. He cursed in Spanish. At once she thought of the clashes over immigration in the West. At least in Paragon City people didn’t beat each other over jobs.

The Texan had lost enough blood to hold her back, even though she saw a still hand through the crack in the curtains. Healing wounds was one thing; replacing hemoglobin, entirely another.

“You’re an angel,” the man said. “Like the redhead lady.”

“I’m just little old Belladonna Aura,” she told him. “And you need to take it easy next time.”

The man pushed her aside. He levered his massive body up and rushed the doors, crunching broken glass. His cry was inarticulate and furious.

Bella stared at him, dumbfounded. Could he be on cocaine? PCP? Or a rageaholic? The Texan went from near-unconscious to full tilt berserk in three seconds.

When he swept the curtains aside, she saw bodies littering the floor of a hotel room, bloody faces showing the results of a fight with fists and clubs, and interspersed with the remains of a wooden chair. The survivors crowded the door to get out to the hallway, all screaming for blood. The Texan charged them and pushed them through the door as if he’d never quit the football team.

Cursing racist idiots, she knelt by the first victim. She couldn’t give them her full attention, but she could make sure no one died while she was breaking up the fight. Not on her watch.