Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

From the Story Arc: There's No Place Like Home

Previous Story in the Arc: A Tale From The Cyrpt by Soviet Winter (Wednesday, May 18, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Trials by Althea Nagy (Saturday, June 04, 2005)

(posted Saturday, May 21, 2005)

Thea's head was buzzing with menus and recipes as she skipped up the steps into the boarding house and let herself inside.

Her landlady was waiting for her.

"Did you invite 'em like I told you to, child?" Missus Dales arched a white eyebrow at her new lodger. "You better have, or you're gonna have some explainin' to do."

Thea laughed. She felt positively giddy; this was the first time she actually felt happy since arriving in Paragon City. "Da! I invited Bestial Boy, and Untermensch, and John Murdock, and t'ey all said yes! Bestial Boy---"

"That's the green boy, right? The one all that makes all the wisecracks?" Missus Dales was not a gossip so much as an inveterate soaker-up of gossip. There wasn't much about any of her lodgers that she didn't know, though she kept most of it to herself.

"Da." She nodded. "I vas afraid uff him at first, but he is so nice---like big brother. He said he is 'sucker for fried food'---I vas thinking my fish cutlets or your vonderful chicken---"

"Why not both?" Missus Dales asked. "You capes have pretty hearty appetites, so why don't we both make dinner? That way everybody gets somethin' they like. There's room in the kitchen for us both, honey-chile."

Well, that was true enough; back in the day, as Missus Dales would say, she had run a "full service" boarding house, three meals a day, and two to three people sharing a room. She had a huge kitchen that would not have been out-of-place in a small restaurant.

"Tell you what, honey---why don't you invite all your Commissars for dinner. We can fit ten around the big table easy enough." The elderly black woman smiled at Thea's startled look. "Honey-chile, it's no secret to me that these people scare you half to death. But this here is your home, and I would bet you my last bottom dollar that there is none of them can cook as well as you, so that’ll be one thing that you can do that they can’t. Besides, there is no better place to get people to relax and act like human beings like being around the dinner table. They'll see you where you're comfortable, and you'll see them where they're not bein' Commissars."

Thea thought about this for a moment, biting her lower lip. "Vell, Untermensch is Commissar, and Bestial Boy. I haf not seen Commissar Mojiotok; I could leave him inwitation, but I do not think he vill see it, or if he sees it, he vill be able to come. But John Murdock vill come, he iss not Commissar, but he is werry high security level. Commissar Fei Li and her vife Qing---ve cannot leave Qing---"

That last cause a slightly raised eyebrow, but also an understanding smile, which relieved Thea.


"Which leaves that woman who makes you go so white you're transparent, honey. The gal that showed up here to make sure I was running a proper house for her little recruit." Missus Dales sounded more amused than annoyed. "That'd be Red Saviour. You had best make her an invitation, honey, or she'll think pretty badly of you."

The trouble was, Red Saviour was the last person that Thea wanted to invite. Still. Missus Dales was right. She gritted her teeth, but agreed. But she was going to deliver the invitation in her own way...and if she was lucky the Commissar wouldn't see it until it was too late to accept it.

#

Commissar Bestial Boy---"Call me Zach"---was the first to arrive, and he brought an enormous bunch of flowers for Missus Dale, and proceeded to flirt with her. The incorrigible old woman flirted right back, which took all of the focus off Thea, and let her lose some of her pre-dinner jitters. Commissar Untermensch arrived at the same time as John Murdock; John was an absolute gallant with Missus Dales, and gruff Untermensch displayed some urbane manners that rather surprised Thea. As she had expected, her invitation to the unseen Mojiotok had resulted in a note left for her, "Regretfully, Comrade, must decline." Fei Li had accepted gravely, but when she arrived with Qing her spirits seemed a bit higher and far more relaxed, and they were possibly the prettiest couple Thea had ever seen together,

The invitation to Red Saviour had been slipped onto the Commissar's desk when she was out, and included (on Commie Cowgirl's advice) her lover Mosca. There had been no response, and by the time everyone else had arrived, Thea was breathing a sigh of relief.

The menu was going to be two entirely different meals, one absolutely Russian, and one quintessential Soul Food.

From Thea: Beet Salad, Mushrooms Stewed in Cream (since there hadn't been a Russian born that wasn't a mushroom addict), Breaded Cauliflower, Fish Cutlets, and for dessert, Khvorost, a kind of fried cookie that melted in the mouth.

From Missus Dales: Cole Slaw, Collard greens, Black-eyed peas, Fried Chicken, and for dessert, Sweet Potato Pie.

"We're not so different, my people and yours," Missus Dales was explaining to Untermensch as she commandeered him and Zach to help carry the enormous platters of food to the table---for Missus Dales insisted that this was going to be a casual, "family style" meal. "We make the best of the cheapest food there is going, until people turn around and call it a cuisine."

"Da," Untermensch nodded, as he eyed Thea's contributions appreciatively, in a way that made her flush a pale pink with pleasure. "Poor people create the best food."

"But it's the company that makes it special," said Zach, with a wink in her direction that actually teased a smile out of her.

And that was when there was a knock on the door.

Thea’s heart sank. It could be only one person: Red Saviour. She had almost allowed herself to envision the evening without her stern presence. Thea’s entire body seemed to knot up at that moment.

“I vill get it,” she said with as much hospitable confidence as she could muster. She crossed the room and opened the door.

“Privyet Com…comrade Mosca?”

Mosca grinned in his devilishly handsome way. He was alone, with an armful of vodka and wine bottles precariously balanced. She grabbed the ones in danger of falling.

“Gracias, mi compadre. Please forgive our lateness.” He stepped past her to add the bottles to the cluttered table.

The word “our” caused her teeth to clench. For a blissful moment she believed he’d come alone. The roomful of Russians and Americans greeted him with enthusiasm. Mosca was more than well liked in the organization; in many ways he was the lubrication between CCCP and Red Saviour. To Missus Dales, he performed a bow and kissed her hand. She chuckled at him as if she knew his type right away.

“Natalya is delayed by some business on the street. She will be here in moments. Hola, Qing. Aren’t you a vision of loveliness tonight?” He used his grin again and both Chinese women giggled like schoolgirls.

How badly Thea wanted to fit in with these people! Even People’s Blade, who vacillated between the cold demeanor of a military general (and she had been thousands of years ago, Thea was told) and the sweet nature of a young woman, could relax entirely with the Commissars here and now. Missus Dales had been right; the simple act of sitting down to eat with each other had brought out a side of them she had never seen before. Gruff Untermensch even smiled at Missus Dales! The only smile Thea ever saw on his face before this had a wolfish cruelty, and it usually appeared when his lethal claws were involved.

“Step aside, Comrade Thea.” Red Saviour spoke from behind Thea, who spun in terror. It was a moment of surreal horror: Commissar Saviour, in a sleeveless shirt, held up bare arms covered in blood. Her expression was complacent, as if she’d been washing dishes.

“Please to direct me to bathroom. I stopped to prevent mugging, and became soiled while dispatching svinyas. I do nyet wish to ruin Comrade Dales’ carpet.”

Missus Dales stopped and stared at the sight of blood. Fei Li, standing in the kitchen, seized a paper towel roll. “Do not stain her towels, Natalya. Here.” As if gravity nullified under her feet, Fei Li stepped on the sofa back, touched the coffee table with an outstretched toe, and alighted at Natalya’s side, floating through the air with the grace of a ballet dancer. Her greatest concern was to stop the dripping of the blood – everyone in CCCP assumed that none of it belonged to Natalya.

Like two women powdering their noses, the Commissars of CCCP hustled into Missus Dales’ bathroom. Thea heard the sound of running water and laughter.

“My gracious, ain’t that something,” Missus Dales murmured, and shook her head. “She gonna be all right?”

“Senora Dales, I can assure you that Natya is unscratched.” Mosca took the bottles out of Thea’s hands. “There were only five gang members involved.”

Thea stood there in shock and embarrassment—not only because Red Saviour had arrived at a party literally red-handed, but because it did not seem to occur to her that this was a bad thing--

“Huh. Minds me of the time—well, never mind,” Missus Dales said, and cast a sharp glance at Thea. “Thea, honey, come help me with the tea. Now, who wants sweet-tea and who wants hot tea from that samovar thing?”

Thea still felt paralyzed with an odd sort of shock, but Missus Dales grabbed her elbow and hustled her into the kitchen. “Here,” she said, putting a tray into Thea’s numb hands and starting to load glasses of iced “sweet tea” onto it. “Honey, you don’t live in King’s Row without seeing people come in bloody once a week. Ain’t nothin’ but a thing, baby. Nobody’s harmed but the thugs, in fact, your Commissar just did the neighborhood a favor, and your party’s going just fine. Listen to them out there--”

Shaking off some of her shock, she did listen. What she heard was the sound of normal conversation, normal laughter, the clink of bottles on glasses, and of people helping themselves to food.

“Now you get out there, and tell the Russkis what the Amerikanski food is, and vice versa.”

Somehow she made her feet move, and balanced the tray out the door into the dining room. Red Saviour was clean of blood and taking a seat beside Mosca just as she entered. Zach, who had been watching the door, grinned when she came into sight.

“Yo, Thea, I need to know what this stuff is, ok? Only if there’s something weird in it, don’t tell me.”

That got her temper up a little, and she set her chin as she offered him sweet-tea. “Commissar,” she replied, wrapping a very thin cloak of threadbare dignity about herself, “Is nothing weird in my dishes. That is salad of beets, werry Russian. That is mushroom, cream sauce, also werry Russian. That is most Russian of all, is fish cutlets. Missus Dales tells me is most like Amerikanski salmon cakes or crab cakes.”

“You will be leaving some fish cutlets for your Commissar, Zachary,” Red Saviour said, with a gleam in her eye. “Or you will be pulling back hand with fork in it.”

Everyone seemed to find that remark hilarious but Thea, who could only picture the Commissar doing exactly that. And she was horrified to think how Missus Dales might take it, except she turned to find that Missus Dales was laughing right along with the rest.

“This is collards greens, Commissar,” she said to Untermensch, who was eyeing the bowl a little dubiously. “Somet’ink like hot-spinach-salat. Is made with bacon drippings, is werry good, and has much iron. That is the black-eyed peas, only taste most like beans, not peas, also having drippings. Missus Dales’ friend chicken is thousand times better than fast-food, and not having to play ‘guess which part I’m eating--’”

“Oh my GAWD!”

Everyone turned in shock to look at Zach, who was sitting there with a drumstick with one bite taken out of it, and a—look—on his face.

“What?” Thea cried, all shyness forgotten in her fear and shock—was he allergic? Did he find something bad in the chicken—“WHAT?”

Zach chewed and swallowed, and turned towards Missus Dales, a reverent expression on his face. “Ladies and gents, we are in the presence of Iron Chef Chicken, the Chickenmeister, the Ultimate Cluck, She Whose Wishbone We Are Not Worthy to Break.”

Missus Dales demurred, “Oh now, I wouldn’t say all that—“ she replied, shaking her head and suppressing a grin.

“Well I would. This is so good, I’d cry, except I’d get salt on it and unbalance the flavor. Missus Dales, you are a genius. I salute you.” And he did, drumstick in hand, while everyone else laughed.

“I told you vas good,” Thea said softly, feeling absurdly happy now that her fright was over.

“Child, you too are an excellent cook,” Untermensch whispered under the cover of the conversation. “You take me back home with these things. And I do not think Natalya—“

Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the Commisar herself, who fixed Thea across the table with a sharp glance, and said, into a pause in conversation, “And where did you learn to cook like this, Comrade?”

“My Mama,” Thea replied promptly. “My Mama said that everyone should know how to cook, because even in vorst of times, good cook can find job.”

“Shto?” the Commissar murmured, eyes narrowing. “Strange thing for hunter of upyr to say—“

As Thea felt herself pinned by that gaze, like a mouse beneath a hawk, her mind scrambled frantically for an answer and took refuge in the truth. “My Mama,” she said, with emphasis on the second word, “was not hunter of upyr.”

Leaving it to them to conclude that it was her father that had been the vampire-hunter. But she had not lied.

“Ah,” said Red Saviour, and turned her attention, first to the fish cutlets, and then to Missus Dales and her stories of the Civil Rights movement. The Commissar clearly relished these as examples of the inherent flaws in a capitalistic society and expounded on that theme. Thea just found them fascinating and sad, sometimes, as the examples of how much courage perfectly ordinary people had, a courage that outrivaled plenty of heroes.

But the spotlight wasn’t going to be off Thea for the entire meal. Over dessert, the Commissar got that look in her eye again as the conversation, which Thea only realized belatedly had been deftly steered by the Commissar from the facist supports of the anti-rights movement of the Fifties into a comparison with the current Council.

“And you, Thea,” Red Saviour said, with slightly narrowed eyes, “The upyr have been a plague for centuries, nyet? Is this interest of theirs in the Council new, do you think?”

There had been nothing in the family grimoire or history to prepare her for that question, though had she truly been raised by her blood family, it was the sort of thing that would have been trivially easy to answer. She felt her mind go absolutely blank, and her face and hands cold—

“Now, Red, quit spoiling my dinner by bringing work into it!” Bestial Boy waved a Khvorost at her in admonition. “You might thank Thea and Missus Dales for inviting us and cooking this feast up for us, you know!”

Saved! She cast a glance full of thankfulness at the young Commissar and blushed her silly clown-blush at the thanks and compliments, hiding behind her hair when Bestial Boy got too effusive. Even Red Saviour managed to be gracious to Thea, and her compliments to Missus Dales were clearly heartfelt. But she thought she caught a look full of portent passing between Fei Li and the Commissar—

Which was when everyone’s communicators—except Thea’s—went off. Faces turned serious, hands reached for pockets or belts; Bestial Boy was the first to say anything.

“Speak of the devil,” he said, with a grimace. “Who’d have pictured a Council nest there? Well, who’s up for—“

“Do not disturb yourselves,” Fei Li said—in that steely, General’s voice. “It is a small matter. I will deal with it—“ she glanced down at her communicator “—and I see that Thea still has four hours of patrolling to complete today. She can come with me; I will see to it that her powers are adequate.”

Which meant, Thea now knew, some arcane practice called “sidekicking” that somehow inflated those few powers that a low security level hero had to the equivalent of what they would be at some point in the future when he was much higher. The only problem with this was that if the mentor got too far away, the matrix collapsed, leaving a very junior hero alone in an exceedingly hostile environment. A situation that had dropped Thea on more than one occasion….

All her happiness evaporated, but she folded her napkin and pushed away from the table. “Da, Commissar,” she said obediently—

And her heart sank as she saw another of those significant looks pass between Red Saviour and Fei Li.

Something was up. And it did not bode well for Thea.