Tea for Two

(posted Tuesday, May 30, 2006)

Nataliya unlocked her dorm room and slipped inside, away from the noisome crowd of the student body. She set her duffle bag down by the dresser and took a moment to sit on the bed. As much as the Michaels' home had welcomed her and despite the number of friends amongst her comrades, it was good for the soul to have a place where one could have a private moment. For Nataliya, this was that place.

The young mutant stood up after a few moments and cleared off the top of the dresser. She was to have a guest today, and wanted everything to be just right. Nataliya had spent the morning scouring the Russian markets in Skyway for all the equipment she needed, and had tucked it all away into her duffel.

On top lay the Lomonosov porcelain cups and saucers, carefully wrapped in lint-free cloth. Nataliya unwrapped the china and placed them on the table in the center of the room. Throwing the towel over her shoulder, she started humming softly and removed more items from her bag for the table; napkins were laid down next to the saucers, and teaspoons on top of them. The sitechko for filtering the tea leaves was placed in its holder and joined a jar of honey and one of marmalade in the center, along with a half-pint bottle of Stolichnaya courtesy of her uncle.

Beside the Lomonosov chinaware, the real find had been the Romanov samovar. Nataliya set the chrome autobrewer on the dresser, admiring the sturdy craftsmanship of the piece. Electric, of course, saying as how a charcoal-burning samovar was not only a large amount of work but also against every fire code the University had in place. Nataliya took two liter bottles of water and emptied them into the boiling chamber. She put the chainik back on top, and the samovar was ready to be plugged in the moment her guest arrived.

Then there was the tea itself. The Russian girl pulled out the metal tin of black Georgian tea and pried off the lid. Nataliya inhaled the rich aroma of the dark Kolkhida leaves and closed her eyes, memories of her grandmother going through this very ritual day after day. It was just one step closer to being home. She placed the tin on the dresser and stepped back to survey the results.

Nataliya smiled and nodded, satisfied that everything was ready. The young mutant walked over to the stereo and glanced down the rack of CDs for the first one that struck her fancy. Nataliya slipped the disc into the compartment and pressed the button, and Sergei Taneyev's Orestia softly filled the room. Nataliya sank into her chair and relaxed once more, waiting for her guest to arrive.

Nicholai smiled at himself in the mirror of his quarters in the CCCP base. Once again, his hair was perfect. Not a thing ever needed to be done to it. It just was .... perfect. He looked at the leggings and boots that belonged to his father, the Original Russian Battler. He had taken to wearing them more and more often, not because he liked to be an exhibitionist (which he didn't) but as a way to honor the man that had raised him, trained him, and grounded him when times were tough. He had spent a lot of his time recently in more trouble himself than those citizens that he had saved from trouble, and it felt good to be back to what could only be called normal. At least normal for a "Hero of the City". Now he can concentrate on his extended family. The first on his list was his adopted nemnoga sestra. Nataliya reminded him so much of his own Illyana, still over in Siberia with his family, that it was natural for him to act and feel like the "overly protective" big brat, or brother. He decided that his own "off-duty" uniform would work for this visit. He pulled on the Muscle shirt and left for Nataliya's dormitory.

It was a nice spring day, and he enjoyed the sunshine. He decided that to rush to Nataliya's dorm would only add to a feeling of "getting it over with", and Nicholai didn't want to do that. He wanted to enjoy Nataliya's company, and get to know her, like he knew his own Illyana. He let his thoughts wander as he got onto and eventually off of the transit system, and walked to the university dormitories. He thought idly, "I am needink to return video player to Sam at some point."

Walking up to the door he knocked a quick rhythm and waited for Nataliya to open and invite him in.

The door opened and the blonde teenager positively beamed to see Nicholai. " Boidite, bolshoi brat, boidite,," Nataliya bade the man to enter, holding the door wide. "Is good of you to come."

"Is pleasure of mine, Nemnoga sestra", Nicholai said returning the smile. "Have brought flowers to brighten room." He held a bouquet of assorted flowers to the teen Russian. "Although, comrade Chug was thinkink they were for his lunch."

This won a giggle from Nataliya, taking the bouquet and breathing in the scent. "They are lovely, Nicholai," she said, looking around the room for something to put them in. An empty glass would do for now, and she quickly fetched one from the cupboard. Filling the glass with the remaining water, the flowers took up center stage on the table. Satisfied, Nataliya went to the samovar and plugged it in. "Please, sit," she said, "Tea will be ready shortly."

"Has been lonk time since havink good Russian Tea", he said while he sat down in the chair. "You are lookink like you are finally moved in. Have you begun classes as of yet?"

Nataliya sat down as well, giving her guest a quick nod. "Da, da. Since January," she answered, "Have not been spending much time on campus between classes, though. Has been... very busy lately, with other work."

Nicholai smiled, and then put on his best mockBig Brother "Just to be makink sure you are nyet negelctink studies young lady, da?"

"Nyet, bolshoi brat!" replied Nataliya with a gasp of equally sarcastic shock, placing her hand on her chest, "Am good Worker for People! I would be excoriated if not so!"

Nicholai, furrowed his brow, in his best attempt at imitating the look his father used to give him when the topic of studying came up. "It had better be." He said with a low voice. Then, unable to keep the act up any longer, "Is that how a big brother is supposed to behave? Have been practicink." His face turned almost wistful, "Has been too long since I have had a sister around for me to be protective of."

The tinkling laugh won from the remark was genuine enough. Nataliya rose to check on the samovar and patted the large man on the shoulder. "You are good man, Nicholai," she said warmly, "Am very happy that I am having comrades--nyet, druzoi--such as you." She checked the thermometer and saw that the water was almost ready. Nataliya opened the tin of tea, measuring out just the right amount into the chainik waiting atop the samovar. "Honestly, am very flattered you think of me in such way," she said, turning back to her guest, "I can hear the love in your voice, even feel it a little, every time you speak of your sestra."

Nicholai nodded. "Illyana is wery special person to me. Was only one who let me be who I was. And supported me through out my whole youth. Could be explained as bolshoi brat worship, but was nice to havink her around and underfoot. I could always go and talk to her, and she would always listen, although nyet understand always."

Nataliya removed the chainik from its resting place and filled it with the boiling hot water from the spigot below. She placed it back on top of the autobrewer and returned to her seat, giving time for the leaves to settle in the pot and make the zavarka good and strong. "I'm always here to listen, Nicholai," the young mutant said, "Is something I have always done. Is true, not everything can be understood, but is more important that one is heard." Unconsciously, Nataliya adjusted the mouthguard and gazed back at Battler with a hidden smile.

"Da, is with that ability, and your resemblance to Illyana that has helped this adoptive bond form. You are Illyana are so much alike. Same features, same heart, same attitudes. Is refreshink."

Nataliya glanced up at the samovar and then held up a finger, indicating for Nicholai to hold the thought. She took the two cups from the table and placed them on the dresser, removing the samovar from the autobrewer and attaching the sitechko to the spout to catch the stray leaves. Nataliya poured the zavarka with care and skill into each mug, just the right amount to make a good strong tea. She then filled the mugs from the samovar's spigot and returned to the table, placing a mug in front of Nicholai before sitting down again. The aroma from the vividly chestnut-colored liquid began to fill the room, and the Russians inhaled deeply, almost unconsciously. It was an aroma of memories, of home.

Nataliya picked up her teaspoon and dipped it into the honey jar, stirring into the steaming tea. "< I want you to do something for me, big brother, >" she said, switching to their native tongue. "< I would like to know your sister. Tell me of Iliyana. Share with me the memories that you hold. Speak with your heart. >" She set the spoon don on the saucer and reached up for her mouthguard. Nataliya carefully rested it on the table and picked up her tea, blowing on the hot liquid and fixing her gaze on Nicholai. Then she opened her mind as her friend Mari had been teaching her, relaxing and reaching out to harness the feelings emanating forth from the large man.

Nicholai paused for a moment, falling into his native tongue as it was easier to express himself, he began. "< I remember a moment I had with Illyana, when we were younger. She is six years my junior, and would always follow me around. By that time, Fathers injuries had caused him to retire from the wrestling road, and he hadn't quite established himself as a trainer. We had moved back to Siberia, and we were walking the grounds of our new farm. I looked at it as a lot of work. Much too much work for a 12 year old to do on his own. There was clearing of the land, and planting and sowing the ground. There would be building of the barn, and other chores that I was now old enough to do for my father. He was not going to be able to do it himself, so he counted on me to handle the load.

Illyana and I were walking the land, looking at these things to be done. But where I saw work, she saw adventure. Where I saw drudgery, she saw excitement. She exclaimed to me once, 'How can you complain about hunting for buried treasure? You will never know what you can find in the ground.'>" Nicholai chuckled, "" Nicholai's eyes focused on something very far away, tapping into the earth magic that he now used, and smiled. "< It is good to know that she is safe at home. >" Nicholai took a long draw on the tea and savored the flavor of it.

The smile resting on Nataliya's lips grew ever wider as Nicholai recollected. The emotions were strong and heartfelt, easy for even her to pick up on. The mental picture that was forming of this girl so close to his life was clear, almost as though Illyana were her own sister as well. She could see the blonde girl, almost the twin of herself, living, loving and laughing alongside the gentle giant Nicholai. It brought a certain ache to her heart, remembering her own family torn asunder. But the pain was dulled by the reassurance that there were so many in this city of heroes that held her in a special place in their lives--the family she didn't have back home.

Nicholai smiled at Nataliya. "< There is an old custom, if you give, you receive. I told you a story, now it is your turn. >"

Nataliya finished her tea and set the cup down, putting the mouthguard back in place. She stared out the window for a moment, searching her memories for something worth sharing. So much of her life was a tale not worth telling, only because of the suffering involved. There were a few good times to be remembered, and one particular scene came to mind.

"< It was a late December, about five years ago. Mother had finished cooking the night's dinner, putting everything in the oven for later. It was a special night, one that I looked forward to ever since I first raised my voice in song. We gathered with friends and family to go caroling, singing the songs passed down over the generations. It was those times when I was happiest. >

"< My brother Grigory was being his usual energetic self, running around the house and wanting to help out with everything. Of course, he was just being shuffled from one adult to the next to get him out of the way. Such is the energy of youth. As such, Grigory wasn't prepared in the least when we were all ready to head out. The snow had been falling since early morning, and was showing no signs of letting up. I miss that, sometimes. People here complain about the snow and the cold. But it just isn't the same, here. Maybe it's just us. Who knows. >"

Nataliya paused long enough to refill her mug and take a long pull of her tea. She refilled Nicholai's mug as well and sat back down. "< Anyway, it took several minutes to find his mittens, several more to finally find his scarf. There was no trace of his hat or earmuffs. "Grigory," father said sternly, "If you can not find for clothes, you are not coming with us!" This made Grigory pout a little, and I stood there in shock. He had been looking forward to going for so long, and I was not about to leave him out. >

"< So I knelt down and took Grigory by the shoulders. "It's all right, brother," I told him, "We will look one more time, and if we can not find them, you can have my earmuffs. I can survive one night without them." Well, Father wasn't happy about that, but Mother admonished him and he relented. Grigory, bless his heart, said, "It's okay, Tasha. I have you with me. I'll stay close to you and we can keep each other warm." He hugged me then, and I realized how much he loved me, and trusted me. >"

Nataliya quietly filled the cup. There was a part of the story she wasn't telling. That was the night everything had changed. She had held Grigory close, as she had promised, and it had nearly cost him his life. It weighed on her, but it was a burden that she had carried for so long that the weight was familiar. Nataliya set the mug down in front of Nicholai and sat down, returning to the bright smile she had before.

"< Knowing that I had someone like that in my life was the best feeling in the world. Beyond comrades, beyond friends, family. That's what I have missed the most, and am just now starting to find it again. If not for people like Uncle Sasha, Sera, John, Mari and you, I would still be lost to the world, absorbed in myself and mot giving my all for you and everyone in return. You are my family, now. And it warms me more than all the tea in the world ever could. >"

Nicholai looked at Nataliya and nodded slowly. "Is good to be with family in such times as these. With loss of comrades like Soviet Winter, Iron Curtain, Mojiotok, Heavy Brother, Free Radical...." Nicholai paused for a moment as the sheer number of people on the list seems almost endless. He performed his silent litany to those that fell, and then continued, "Is good to know that we are havink each other to depend upon. And that there are others that are joinink our ranks on daily basis."

He was right, Tasha realized. They did depend on one another, and when one fell there were five more to take their place and never forget the sacrifice. Despite any differences in ideals and other ways of thinking, they were there for each other. The recent tragedy was more than enough proof of that.

Nataliya smiled, and made a decision. Nicholai had a strength beyond that of his body, a resilience like few others possessed. Just briefly would do him no harm, she reasoned. Putting down her tea, the Russian girl got up and put her arms around the large man, warmly embracing him. "Spasibo, bolshoi brat. For everything."

Nicholai, briefly taken aback from the direct physical contact with Natasha stiffened, and then embraced his self-adopted nemnoga sestra. "Is what family does for each other." He then noticed no real effects with the contact with Nataliya, other than an odd tingling. "Am thinkink I am more resilient than was understandink. Perhaps connection with earth is stronger with those that we are carink for, da?"

"Perhaps so, Nicholai," replied, Tasha, releasing her hug and returning to her seat with a grin wider than ever. Fixing her fresh tea, she said, "So, tell me of these new comrades. Am having so little chance to meet with new members these days, what with school and all."

The two talked and reminisced over their tea, free for the time being from the cares of the world. Here, in this small space, they were the only ones in the world for a short time. The afternoon wore on and Nicholai and Nataliya, like family, like Russians, laughed and lamented and shared it all.