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"What the hell is this place? Can't anyone in this group find somewhere normal to hang out?"
Emmett's reaction wasn't all that shocking, given that we were huddled under a gaudy gold marquee on the ass-end of Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn. Two enormous black wrought-iron lampposts flanked the front door, looking as out of place where they stood as the lamppost in Narnia must have. The late March winds kicked up off of Jamaica Bay, chilling us to the bone and making me really sorry I'd listened to Tanya and worn a skirt.
"Well, I'm freezing my non-existent knockers off," Alice announced to all and sundry. "Let's just go in. It'll be good. I know it'll be good."
With that, our party filtered through the revolving door and into the catering hall.
There were twenty-four of us in all, and I knew that Tanya was very touched that all the boys in the bullpen and so much of the staff had braved the Q train to the outer boroughs. Most of them even attempted to dress for the occasion, although this was probably half out of respect for her, and half in the hope that they'd meet some slightly drunk and willing women.
The National was perhaps the most venerated of all the Russian catering halls in Little Odessa. Within its gaudy red walls, punks from Wall Street rubbed shoulders with ageing gangsters from the old country as everyone ate the heaviest food on the planet and danced to everything from folk songs to Luther Vandross covers, courtesy of a house band straight out of "The Wedding Singer". For the purposes of the meal here, chicken fat was available as a condiment on every table, and anything you ordered was merely to line your stomach to receive the obscene amount of vodka you'd throw into it once the meal was over.
The hostess sat us together at a long banquet table near the dance floor, and Alice immediately went completely berserk. "It's ABBA! Listen —Waterloo!" Sure enough, the girl in the silver sequined top at the mic was treating the room to a truly hideous rendition of the song.
Alice bounced right out of her chair and tugged violently on Jasper's reluctant arm. "Come on, let's have a quick dance. It's a perfect way to start the night." He shot her a confused look, and she patiently explained that Waterloo was where the Russians defeated Napoleon. Jasper bit his lip, but couldn't refuse her anything, and so let himself be led out onto the already crowded dance floor.
Edward leaned over to whisper in my ear. "Is it worth telling her that it was the Prussians and not the Russians in that particular fight, or should we just let her have her fun?"
"Let it go. It's Jasper's problem now."
He was making a valiant effort to appear relaxed and casual, but I could feel the tension in his every move, in the way he twitched his arm as it rested on the table next to mine, in the way he stiffened when Tyler slapped his back in too-hearty greeting. Nobody knew how to do this, but everyone was determined to do it all the same.
The first four bottles of vodka hit the table with the appetizers. Wordlessly, Edward grabbed one of the bottles and started loading up the shot glasses, while Peter, who flanked Tanya on her other side, grabbed another and armed the rest of the table.
Some silent conversation passed between Edward and Tanya while the glasses made the rounds, and soon we each had a shot in our hands. Tanya stood to face us; when she finally spoke, her voice was low, but steady, and Edward reached over to hold my hand.
"Za zdorovje! To your health, my friends." She gestured briefly with her glass before draining it in one go, and the rest of us quickly followed suit. The glasses were barely emptied before they were filled once more and she continued.
"My Oleg, he was happy man, you know? He was strong, and brave, and so, so crazy. He drink too much, and he laugh too loud, and people love him because what else do you do with someone so full of life? And he was so full of life. Full of life, and full of bullshit, and full of love for this job he did and for me and for his friends. For strangers. For people who could not speak. He want to speak for them, to show the world how they suffer.
"And so he try to do that. And he believe that if he can show trust, people will trust him, too. I am happy he showed trust. Today, I say goodbye to the hope that this trust save him. I kiss his memory and use my trust to believe he is with God. He would have loved you all. I am sorry you do not have chance to know him.
"He would not want me to be sad. And so for him, I won't be sad. For him, I will smile twice as much, and be twice as happy. Goodbye, my darling. Go and tell your jokes in heaven. To my Oleg!"
"To Oleg," we echoed, and downed our second shots, the alcohol burning its way through the tears in my throat. When the glasses hit the table once more, nobody was quite sure what to do, or where to look, or what to say. Edward's hand never left mine, and I squeezed his to let him know that I was there for him however he needed me to be.
The demented disco party raged on around us for a moment, this time in the form of the bizarre music videos played during the wedding band's break from the stage, while we all sat quietly and waited to see what Tanya might want to do next. She glanced around the table at all of us, and then smiled the biggest, most beautiful smile.
"Enough toasting for now. Later, when I'm drunk, I will tell you funny stories about my Oleg. But now, is a party, just like he wanted. Please—eat, and drink, and dance, and laugh." She tilted her head down and offered a special smile to Peter, who looked up at her with gentle eyes full of understanding and poorly concealed adoration. "Petya, dance with me, pajalusta."
Peter pushed his chair back and rose to stand next to her, and the confident power-player of the news world was nowhere to be found in that moment. Instead, he ducked his chin and handed her his vulnerability, as though it were a cloak she could use to cover her own naked helplessness. "I'm warning you right now. I'm not really much of a dancer. I'll do my best not to cause a pile-up out there."
She hugged him then, and let her hands run up and down his back. "Doesn't matter. We go slow. Slow is nice."
"Yeah. Slow's fine with me. Safer, too." He slipped an arm around her waist in a move that was as much about comfort as it was about possibilities.
Edward and I watched as she led him onto the crowded dance floor, where they were quickly engulfed by an enthusiastic crowd bopping around to some mash-up of a Russian military choir and a punk-rock quartet performing "Happy Together". Most of the guys quickly abandoned the table to stake out likely female victims in the glittery crowd; Newton displayed unimpeachable manners by insisting a reticent Kathy earn some bruises with him, but she had the tremendous good sense to kick her shoes off before following him out into the fray. It clearly wasn't her first time at a free-for-all outer-borough throwdown.
"Want to sit this one out?" I asked him, and he nodded, reaching over to push a plate of herring in my direction. "Eeew. I'll stick with those potato things, thanks."
He shrugged and placed a piece of the creamy fish on his plate, although he made no move to eat it. We were essentially alone in this busy room for a moment, there by ourselves in a little bubble, and I couldn't draw a true bead on his mood. Not knowing what else to do, I just gave him my company until he decided he needed something else or something more from me.
"She filed the paperwork with the Russian embassy this week," he finally offered. "It should go pretty quickly now, since it's clear his body will never be recovered."
"I can't imagine how difficult it was for her to reach that decision." My heart broke all over again for her, and for the man I loved, and I wished beyond anything that I had the power to at least give them the comfort of some closure, even if that closure meant a proper funeral with a body to cry over.
"No, it's good. It's time. He's not coming back, because nothing on this planet would have kept him away from her for so long, and we both know it. I'm happy for her. He wouldn't have wanted her to live this half-life." He exhaled and picked his head up to look around the room. Even though it was fairly early in the evening, the place was already packed with groups of people celebrating weddings, and promotions, and reunions, and birthdays. Old and young, people filled the space with laughter and whoops of joy and loud, loud conversation.
Edward tapped the table, then grabbed a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. "Let's get drunk, okay? Let's just get a little drunk, and do completely inappropriate things to each other in public." He poured out shots for us, and we clinked our glasses and downed them. After wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he squinted at me. "You know, we met at a memorial service."
"That we did," I agreed. "I like this one better, though."
His eyebrows lifted, and a sarcastic little grunt left his mouth. "Oh yeah? Why's that?"
I fitted myself as closely to his side as I could, and reached up to whisper in his ear. "Because this one's about life. And because at this one, I know you, and I love you, and we share closets and bathrooms and beds and desks now. And because you don't really call me 'Mary' all that much anymore." I kissed his neck and felt him lean into me a little. "Would Oleg have liked me, do you think?"
"Oh, sweetheart." That finally made him smile . "He would have been so completely crazy about you. You have no idea." We polished off another shot, and then he dragged me out onto the dance floor. A trio of huge drag queens wearing white vinyl go-go boots had taken the stage, and they were belting out "I Will Survive" as they hauled giggling elderly women up from the crowd to dance with them.
The hours passed, and we drank and laughed and ate and danced, at first to please Tanya, and then because it's what we all really wanted to do. Everywhere I looked, something completely insane was happening. Predictably, Tyler and Seth had their ties around their foreheads, and they were trying to clear a space on the floor so that they could Gator properly. Rose and Alice had apparently formed some kind of fast friendship out there, and they were screaming song lyrics at each other while Emmett and Jasper made vain attempts to calm them down and redirect the attention toward themselves. Paul had scored a dance with an absolute Amazon, and it was kind of tough to tell which one of them was leading from my vantage point, but he seemed pretty happy all the same. Peter hadn't left Tanya's side the whole night. Her laughter was loud and genuine as she and Edward toasted and told their stories about the man we were there to honor, and we rapidly lost count of the number of vodka bottles we'd emptied.
I was surrounded by colleagues, and friends, and slightly strange, sweaty people I didn't actually know. I was more than a little drunk, and I could no longer feel my feet, and there were two pretty large runs in my pantyhose—probably more than two, but definitely two that I was aware of. Edward made it his mission to spin my head off of my neck by constantly either rubbing up against me, or holding me just so, or whispering things in my ear that no mere mortal woman should ever have to hear unless she had the opportunity to get very naked in a hurry.
Wherever Oleg was, I hoped he was able to see us. I hoped he could see how loved he was, and how missed he was, and how those closest to him chose to celebrate the joy he'd brought them—not with tears and ceremony, but with vodka and loud music. And when Edward kissed me in the middle of all that mayhem, I silently promised Oleg that I would never waste a single minute of the time I was privileged to be alive and with the brave, beautiful, laughing man in front of me.
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A/N - It's been a pleasure to write this for you. Thank you so, so much to everyone who's taken the time to read, and to review, and to recommend the story to others. Thank you for your patience, and for your incredibly kind words, and for sticking with me. Thank you to Tracy, and Sar, and Spangly, Fiz, and Dina, for their eyes and their support.
I'm not leaving the fandom, per se. I'll be around, and will probably contribute the odd short story or one-shot here and there, but I'm going to devote the majority of my energy to writing the novel I originally came here to practice for. The stories I've written here will remain right where they are for the foreseeable future; I have no plans whatsoever to remove them. In the unlikely event that I should need to, I will give you plenty of advance warning.
If you're at all interested in the novel, you can get a sneak peek of it on my blog. I've posted the prologue there— http:/ /iwriteontime. blogspot . com/ (remove extra spaces). The link to the blog is also on my FF author page. I can't guarantee that the prologue will be left up indefinitely, as I intend to query out the story once it's complete. But it's there now, and I'd love it if you wandered over there to share your thoughts about it with me.
I'll see you on the playground. Have a terrific 2012!