I'm With a Crowd But So Alone

From the Story Arc: The Death of CCCP

Previous Story in the Arc: City By Night by Belladonna Aura (Monday, May 16, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Can't Help Falling in Love With You by Belladonna Aura (Thursday, May 19, 2005)

(posted Monday, May 16, 2005)

Natalya arrived at the table. Bella admired the graceful way she slid in next to Mosca, rubbing her hip against his. Some women are born with it, Bella thought. If Natalya had been born blue and radioactive like me, she'd still be every man's dream girl. I'll never be that confident or strong.

"Are these boys giving you wery hard time, sestra?" Natalya couldn't resist a first bite at the caviar either.

"Oh, no. We were talking about Vegas."

Natalya shrugged. The gesture was so endearing Mosca slipped an arm around her right away. "Is no worse than Paragon City. Quieter, even despite our recent adventure. Bah! Too much talking, too little drinking! More vodka over here. You! Waiter!"

A grim-faced waiter approached them. "Yes?"

"We are getting thirsty again. Bring us Kristal vodka, two bottles. Is on our tab." She waved a negligent hand at him.

Without acknowledging the request, he turned his back and wandered off. Bella was stunned.

"Wow, there goes his tip. What's with this place? The only person smiling is the manager."

Natalya barked a laugh. "Is how waiters are in Russia. Rude, somber, aloof. I am becoming homesick."

"I don't think I'd enjoy that."

"Fight is here in America, sestra. You are nyet needed in Russia." The vodka arrived in an iced bucket. The rude waiter poured glasses and slammed them down in front of the group. Without taking the empties away he left. Natalya and Romanov snickered.

"Spanish restaurants are much nicer," Mosca muttered. Bella had to agree.

With two bottles of authentic Russian vodka at their table, the drinking began in earnest. They had consumed enough food throughout the day to mix with the vodka and produce a cozy buzz, which suited the intimate VIP area perfectly. Natalya and Romanov talked about Moscow politics, dropping gutteral names replete with political meanings she would never learn. She studied the posters within view. In the presence of her new Russian friends, the propaganda took on a naïve charm. Factories turned into playgrounds, collective farms danced with workers' hymns. Only when she noticed Josef Stalin declaring the Fourth and Final Year of the Five Year Plan was she reminded of the horrors authoritarianism had exacted on the Russian people. Were they sustained by the same idealism that made Natalya a hero to her people?

The vodka flowed like water. In fact, they had no water at the table. Evidently the Russians considered it a sign of weakness to rehydrate while drinking good vodka. They worked through the two bottles faster than Bella expected, and ordered two more from the rude waiter. He was cute in a dour way, she decided. He had strong looking arms.

Natalya told the story of how she and Mosca met. He chipped in with his perspective, and the tale turned into a duel between the two of them over who was more captivated by the other. It was impossibly romantic: the stern Commissar and the charming Spaniard, thrown together by fate as a leadership crisis gripped the CCCP. Bella nearly teared up when Mosca described how he sang to Natalya on an island off Talos, a romantic Spanish song that he claimed was a worker's anthem. Then she quit CCCP in a rage, and he embarked on a campaign to restore her faith in herself and her role in the organization. The Five Day Plan, they called it, causing Bella to glance at the Stalinist poster in the corner. They slept, they ate, she went to a decadent spa, he dragged her to an ugly amusement park. By the end of the Five Day Plan, she returned to CCCP and they became lovers.

"It's like American movie," Romanov chortled. "I need popcorn!" They all laughed but for Bella. She managed a smile as she studied the light coruscating in the bottom of her glass. Vodka is so clear, she thought. Clearer than water.

"Comrades, I must empty myself before I drink more. Bella, you are coming with me to powdering room." It was a question framed like an order. Even in a casual environment, she fell easily into Commissar mode.

Surprisingly, Natalya took her by the hand and walked her to the ladies' room. A lavish antechamber with a couch (who sits next to the bathroom? Bella wondered) and paintings. The bathroom itself, while stark and Russian, was the size of a small bar itself.

Natalya left her at the sink and made for a stall. Bella checked her hair and lipstick - a blue girl didn't find too many kinds of makeup useable. She blew her nose on the complimentary Kleenex. At least this was one place where American habits intruded. Grampa had told her about a trip he'd made to the Soviet Union and how the toilet paper had chunks of wood in it.

"You did nyet like our story?" Natalya washed her hands in the elegant brushed steel sink.

"I did, I did. It was really romantic. Should I believe it?"

"Mostly. Was a lot of worry and crying that we did nyet include in telling." Natalya refreshed her lipstick. It was a strangely feminine gesture for the warrior, and she knew it. "Is rare I am out for so much social time. This is nicest part of vacation."

"Compared to what?" Bella smirked at her.

"Ha! True. Well, you heal our wounds tonight. You are drunk yet?"

Bella searched for a good answer. She'd been metabolizing the vodka as it went down. Despite how these people had embraced her, she didn't feel comfortable losing control around them yet.

"A little," she said. "I've been drinking slowly. You guys are the pros."

"Hor...rosho," Natalya managed, interjecting with a burp. "Drinking is being serious business. It requires self-knowledge and confidence."

"I suppose," Bella said, studying her hands.

"We are in bathroom now," Natalya said. "You can speak openly. What's wrong?"

"I'm fine," she protested. "But, well, your story put me in a mood. Romantic stuff does that to me."

The tall Russian woman leaned against the counter. "Go on, I listen."

Bella took a deep breath. Did she want to admit this to someone she'd only known for a few days? The kiss from Josh came to mind again.

"You two are so beautiful. I mean," she said, holding up her hands at Natalya's grin, "like movie stars or something. That story about how you met should be a movie for real, like Cestimir said. I'd go! You're so lucky."

Natalya took a towel to wipe her hands. "I feel lucky, and I know what you mean."

Bella took a deep breath, and admitted out loud what she had been telling herself. "Nothing like that can happen to me. I'm too different."

Throwing the towel away with force, Natalya shook her head. "Why? Because you are blue? Is twenty-first century, comrade. Mutants are not viewed as monsters anymore. Your skin makes you different, but in very beautiful way."

The tears poked at Bella's eyes again. "Thanks. That is really sweet. But not everyone feels the same."

"It doesn't matter. Only one person has to feel the same. That is your Mosca, this one who discovers a blue girl is one he wants." Natalya pointed a slender finger at Bella's chest. "It is hearts that know this. Your brain will think many things, about politics or other stupid things, but truth is in there, waiting for its own revolution."

Bella felt a grin force her mouth open. "You don't stray far from Marxism, do you?"

"Nyet! Has many uses."

"There's more to it, though. I'm radioactive." She spread her hands wide. "I'm like a nuclear reactor on two feet."

"So? I am Russian. We know our radiation, trust me."

Bella's chest tightened. She'd never had this conversation before; it was a topic more intimate that she'd shared with anyone. But she couldn't stop now.

"I mean...this is so weird...What I mean is that my body emits radiation. If I were to...take a lover, he'd be risking cancer. From me."

Natalya's mouth opened in an oval of comprehension. She put a hand over it. "Oh, Govno. You mean, having sex is..."

"Cancerous," Bella finished. "My doctor hasn't been so specific, but she made it pretty clear that the radiation level inside my body is phenomenal. Something about my skin prevents it from leaking out, but when she gives me tests she wears lead gloves. And it's a good thing I can heal myself because if they ever had to operate on me they'd have to rent a rad-lab and do it with waldoes."

Natalya pulled her into a hug. "Poor malchik," she said. "I didn't know. Izvinit, izvinit."

Bella guessed that meant sorry. "It's okay," she said, but returned the hug. The touch of another person was so rare in her life, she realized. She didn't want the hug to end. Bella turned her head so that her radioactive tears wouldn't wet Natalya's shirt. They held each other for minutes. Bella could feel the muscles under Natalya's skin, muscles as strong as steel, yet yielding under pressure. It was like being hugged by a tiger.

Natalya let her go with a little chuckle. "Don't worry about me. When you work for CCCP, you get more than fair share of rads. Sometimes I am thinking Chernobyl has furnished half of CCCP comrades." She stroked Bella's hair once more. "Perhaps we find you handsome Russian mutant who leaks radiation too, and we get you lead lined sheets for king-sized bed, da?"

She burst into laughter at Bella's blue blush. "Oh, is settled. I am finding you sexy walking reactor. You just stick with CCCP."

"Me? In CCCP?" Bella couldn't believe her ears.

"Oh...nyet, was not what I meant. But now that you are mentioning, is wery appealing idea. We always need combat medics in field."

Suddenly, Bella wanted very much to be accepted by this woman's organization. She hadn't thought of it at all now, but the prospect of going back to Paragon City and patrolling alone struck her as depressing.

"I don't want to impose. I mean, don't make an exception just for me. I know you have rules about ideology..."

"I am Commissar!" Natalya jabbed a thumb into her chest. "I make rules. You haven't guessed yet? And I make exception for you because you are exceptional person. Besides, your heart is in right place."

"Really?" Bella bit her lip unconsciously.

"Da. Really." Natalya offered a hand. "Welcome to CCCP, comrade Belladonna Aura... If you choose to honor us with your company."

"Oh, da! I mean, sure!" She shook the Commissar's hand. The handshake grated her bones together. "Thanks."

"Now, we drink! And no cheating with tricky radiations. I have nyet missed your little glows when you think we are too drunk to see."

Bella blushed again. "I promise. No cheating this time."

"Horosho." She yanked another towel free from the holder. "Let us clean off your face first, so comrade can admire pretty new devushka in CCCP."

The two women returned to their table with conspiratorial smiles. Mosca noticed right away.

"Ay! What have you been up to?" He offered an arm to Natalya, and she curled up against him.

"Nyet, nothing but girl to girl talk with newest member of CCCP."

"Si? Bueno, bueno! This is good news." Trapped by Red Saviour, he reached out a hand to shake Bella's. "So the women's restroom is ideal for recruitment, no? I should spend more time in them, for the good of the team."

Two more bottles of Kristal appeared on the table, and they toasted Bella. She grinned like a fool and wiped her eyes. Natalya and Santiago were sincere in their comradeship towards her. It was as though she had joined a family reunion as an honorary little sister, and she could never be a stranger again. Neither the radiation or her mutant skin put them off; it was part of her, so it was no big deal.

She'd never had that before, not with anybody. Even her own parents didn't have this casual acceptance of it.

Mosca offered her a napkin. "The vodka, it has a sting, si?" He winked at her.

"It sure does," she agreed.

#

The night wore on in a haze of alcohol. Bella felt guilty about using her metabolism altering powers to stay sober. To do so struck her as a rejection of their hospitality, now that they were drinking in honor of her. She sipped at the various flavors of vodka that came to the table, and ate the bread....a lot of bread, to help absorb the alcohol. She did use her powers on Cestimir, to offset the pain in his badly bruised ribs after Natalya's improptu poking game of "where did I hurt you the most?" When she realized she'd exacerbated his injuries, Natalya's foolish smile turned into comic distress. She hugged him and promised to make it up to him...by pouring him another drink.

They took their mink coats into the walk-in cooler, kept at a freezing five below, to sample some of the rarer vodkas. Natalya's eyebrows shot up when she saw the severed bronze head of Lenin on the floor.

"Shto? Is comrade Lenin!" She pointed a wobbly finger. "Why is head on floor?"

"Because, my beautiful Commissarina," Santiago slurred, "he has no body to keep his head up." He lifted his glass to the massive metal head. "Salud, comrade."

"Salud," Natalya said, drinking. Her attention wavered to an obscure brand of vodka she remembered from her Moscow PD days. Bella breathed a sigh of relief.

"My lips are freezing," Natalya announced. "I need warmth again."

"Your wish is my command." Mosca swept her into his arms. Their glasses shattered on the cooler's cement floor. They kissed with passion and tried to retain their balance. Amazingly, they succeeded.

"Wery cold kiss," she said, giggling. "Get me out of freezer, dum dum."

Back at the table, a quiet settled over the group. Bella wasn't sure if she remembered how to sober herself up, or if she wanted to. Cestimir leaned his head back on the couch, eyes opening and closing. Mosca attacked the recently refilled vegetable tray.

"Cestimir," Natalya said. "Don't pass out on us now."

"Nyet. I was just thinking. Is very nice to become drunk with friends, but the hotel room keeps coming back to me. Maybe is because you like to poke my poor ribs." He stretched his arms and winced.

Natalya's smile faded. Clearly, it had not been far from her mind either. "Was close call. In years I have nyet been tested so."

"I can't imagine it," Bella said with a shake of her head. "Focusing your mind on chanting like that, for days. I'd fall over after an hour."

Mosca gave her a fresh glass. She swished the vodka around her mouth before speaking. "At first, mind wandered, and I had to fight to resist Hypno Sister. Was easier, because did not know how long it would go on. Seeing darlink with gun to head almost made me surrender, but I feared what would happen after. Was nothing to stop her from killing any of us. So I stopped thinking."

"It was like a dream to me," Mosca said. "Dream logic, under hypnosis. Killing myself at a moment's notice, it made sense." Cestimir nodded in agreement. "Si? You noticed it too. When Natya, ha, woke us up with her blastings, it was as though I'd fallen out of the bunk in the jungle compound."

Natalya put her arms around him. "I almost didn't act," she said. "After so long, my world had been reduced to chanting. Fei Li used to try to put me in such a trance state during training, but I could not concentrate on nothing for so long. After day of chanting Manifesto, was all I could think about. Seeing opening for action, I almost resented having to do anything new. Then I saw darlink with clarity...with gun to head...She could have captured me at that moment, if she knew."

She closed her eyes and pushed her head against Santiago. He held her close. "When we were alone again, all I wanted to do was cry and cry. Was big baby, but darlink comforted me. I kept thinking, I nearly lost him."

Cestimir said nothing, but hung his head with them. He, too, must have struggled with the helplessness they both felt. Bella suppressed an urge to hug him too. After a long, heavy silence, Bella spoke. "Have you ever considered retiring?"

"Nyet." Natalya ground her head into Mosca as she shook it in the negative. "Wait, I lie. I have considered, but I cannot retire. The day after I retire, some innocent worker dies because I was nyet there to save him. How can I live with that?"

"It's not much of a life, is it?"

Mosca withdrew his Elvis pamphlets and tossed them on the seat. "It is much like the dilemma comrade Elvis faced. No, I am serious. Before he was a star, he was a man like any other. But after, he was Elvis with capital E. He could never stop, this being of Elvis. It drove him to despair."

"What did he do?" Natalya asked.

"He died on gold toilet seat." He stroked her hair and kissed her head. "But until then, he took what he could from life, and lived up to responsibility of being King."

"Poor comrade Elvis. I like him better now." She spread the pamphlets across the seat like a hand of cards. "I see why Amerikantskii become obsessed with him. Is quintessential story, like Lenin. He had nothing, then everything, then nothing again."

"That's why they love him in Vegas," Bella said.

But Red Saviour's hand had stopped on a pamphlet, and she became silent. Bella saw the pamphlet she found: an Elvis chapel.

"Shto? Darlink, what is this?"

Santiago peered over her shoulder. "Oh, I took it because it had comrade Elvis on it. I did not read it."

"Is sign." She open the garish brochure. "Comrade Elvis would not want us to be parted by svinya crooks. He embraced life, and love."

"Si, TCB. Taking Care of Business. That meant he tended to the important matters of the heart. Was Colonel Tom Parker that took care of real business, that capitalist pig."

"Darlink!" Natalya turned to grab Mosca's shoulders. "We must TCB!"

"Here? In front of..." Mosca looked around. "I didn't know you were into public -"

She rolled her eyes. "Nyet, dumdum. I mean matters of heart. If I lost you to Hypno Sister, I knew my life would end." Her eyes sparkled. "There would be nothing after you."

"Ah. I too, mi corazon. You are not the center of my heart for nothing."

"What if we had never met before then? She would have killed us dead, and never would we be in love." Tears rolled down her face. "Is too empty. I cannot stand thought."

"I am going to the bathroom," Cestimir announced suddenly. "Bella, you come with me?"

Bella startled. "What?"

Cestimir wiggled his eyebrows. "You escort me to bathroom. Now, is good time, da?"

Comprehension dawned. "Oh, sure, I'll, um, show you where they are." She stood and followed him away from the two lovers.

"Izvinit, little sestra, but that was nyet a moment for our eyes." He smiled sadly. "Vodka can open hearts too quickly at times." He guided them to the ice bar. "Ah, poor Natalya. She is three women wrapped in one: a lover, a general, and a ideologue. They all fight for control of her heart."

"You knew her in Moscow?"

He pursed his lips in remembrance. "We were on the force together. I liked her quite a bit. I even hoped to date her, at one point. I am thinking I dodged bullet. She would break me like twig." He signaled to the bartender and asked for water. "America has made me weak. We'll drink water for now."

Bella glanced back at their table. Santiago and Natalya sat facing each other, hands clasped. Their faces nearly touched. At one point Natalya put a hand to Santiago's cheek, and he followed suit. She smiled and choked back a sob, and Bella's heart tightened. She'd seen that expression before in movies. Very, very romantic movies.

The kiss that followed would have ended a box office smash hit.

"Uh, Cestimir. I think they've decided something."

He twisted his head around to see. "They are ready for bed? I thought they were going to strip right in front of us at one point. That part of Natalya I would not have minded."

"No, geez. I mean, I think they've made a big decision." She made an unmistakable motion with her hands. "A Las Vegas style decision."

"Oh. Ohhhhhh," he said, turning to watch them more closely. "Govno, I think you're right. Look at her. She's glowing."

"So to speak. Should we go over there?"

"I think they're coming over here for us. Finish your water, Bella, my friend. The night isn't over yet."