No Easy Answers

From the Story Arc: One Bottle of Stoli

Next Story in the Arc: In Vodka Veritas by Seraphic Flame (Wednesday, December 27, 2006)

(posted Tuesday, December 26, 2006)

Sofia had been right.

It got worse. It kept getting worse. Now Bella couldn’t even listen to music anymore without crying. Opera? Forget it; the comic operas made her angry, and the tragic… Classical music? The good stuff all made her cry, and certain pieces, like Valse Triste, put her in a fetal curl. Totally forget popular stuff. Even if it wasn’t something she or Zach or both had loved and listened to, the best was either happy, which made her angry that anyone could be happy, or sad, which….

New Age had worked for a while, until she began tearing up every time a minor phrase was played.

Silence was too hard to bear. She was reduced to playing “environmental” disks of thunderstorms and seashores.

With music as a refuge gone, she had no more refuges, no more ways to lose herself.

All she could think of was to find some way to anchor herself again. Otherwise…

So. Face one half of the most persistent source of agony. Try and…try and get herself through this. Rebuild connections. Find some way of handling this.

She picked up her comm, and hit John Murdock’s private freq. “Hey Johnny, got a proposition for you.”

“Uh oh,” he replied promptly. “If there's a rank higher than Commissar, I refuse to take it.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” she told him, staring at the wall opposite her office. “You, me, and a bottle of Stoli. Your place, or mine?”

His reply was immediate. “Save the Stoli. I'll grab some Tscharodei from the house bar. We'll head to my place. Shiny?”

She checked patrol status. The apartment was empty. The kids and Sera were all out on patrols. “Shiny,” she replied. “See you there in fifteen.” She was just doing make-work anyway. She’d already put in so many hours at the ER that the physicians there were eyeing her with faint frowns, and taking her aside to tell her she was working too hard. No one wanted her on patrols, and how could she blame them? She was the skeleton at the feast, even silent behind her Berkut helmet, her mere presence quelled jokes, suppressed casual conversation. She tidied her desk, toggled herself as “off-duty,” and headed out the door.

Apartment 2120…across the hall from her own 2119. It might as well have been on another planet; the welcome, the tranquility penetrated even to her. Johnny hailed her from the kitchen as soon as she opened the door. “Over here, Commissar Kiddo. Pull up a seat.”

She poked her head in. “Got that bottle?”

He pulled it out from under the counter. “You doubted me?” he asked, brandishing it.

She shook her head. “Not at all,” she replied, grabbing two clean shot glasses from the cabinet. “Let's take it somewhere more comfortable.”

He gestured with his free hand. “Lead the way.”

Most people chose “Sera’s Garden” as a place to settle down in, the set of huge planters that included entire trees that John had created for his love when they first moved into this place. But that…that was too much Sera’s place. And Bella didn’t want tranquility. She chose the more formal living room area by the front door, the place where Johnny and Sera brought strangers that they weren’t sure of yet. She set down the glasses and slumped next to him on the couch.

“So, what's the word?” John asked, pouring two stout glasses of vodka, and handing Bella hers.

She was too exhausted for anything but truth. And besides, she wanted to set the tone of candor for this little experiment. “You want the honest truth? A dirt-nap with Baby Jesus is looking more attractive all the time.”

His brow furrowed as he sipped from his glass. She downed hers in a single gulp, concentrating on the burn.

“Take it easy, kiddo. Talk to me,” he said, carefully.

She let her shields down deliberately for just a moment, to give him a glimpse of her bleak interior landscape, before snapping them back up again. “It's....hard,” she said, simply, as he refilled her glass.

“It ought to be. What you two had doesn't come around often,” he said, finally. “I got a feelin' y'just didn't come 'ere to tell me you were hurtin', kiddo. That much is plain, even without bein' an empath or a startling genius like myself.”

“I need...I need something to remind me of why I have to be here,” she replied, staring at the glass in her hand, before emptying it again. “Here's my proposition.”

“I'm listenin'. I warn you, though; I'm a married man,” he responded, trying to ease the atmosphere a little.

“I...I need to figure out my connections again,” she said, trying to feel her way through words. “Take you. I need to "get" Johnny Murdock again. Right now.... right now, you're mostly the guy that should be dead, that came back for Sera.”

…and I won’t get that second chance…and I don’t want to start hating you for it. I need to understand…

He regarded her through lowered eyelids, brow furrowed with thought. “Zach...was your filter, the thing which you viewed everything else through. The person. With him gone, y'need perspective again.”

She nodded. “He was my anchor too. Right now....right now, Johnny, you're what Sera got, that I never will.”

She could tell he was being very careful in his tone and pacing. “An' me bein' around is a constant reminder. Right?”

Again, she nodded. “I'm jealous, I'm envious, and sometimes I'm so angry....I mean, I know why her and not me but...” her voice trailed off, husky with grief. “...it's not fair.”

He put his free hand over hers, and comfort as well as warmth radiated from the touch on her icy-cold hand. “Life ain't. We do what we can to put some justice into life, but the sum equation is nonsensical, kiddo.”

She hung her head so that he would not see her eyes. She was not going to cry in front of anyone anymore. “Remind me who my best bud Johnny is. Let me ask questions for as long as the bottle lasts, and answer me true.”

He looked warily at the bottle, then nodded. “Alright. I'll bite.”

She continued with the carrot. “When the bottle's gone you can ask anything of me you want, any question, any favor.”

“I'm gonna hold ya to that, y'know.” His tone was dead serious.

“I expect you to,” she said, looking at her empty glass.

He sipped at his own vodka, then set his glass down to refill hers. “Just don't drown yerself.”

She took a deep breath. “Tell me about young Johnny Murdock. God knows you didn't spring forth fully grown from the brow of Ayn Rand.” Of all she knew about him, it was what he had been before coming to CCCP that she knew the least. But “the child is the father to the man,” and whatever he was now was part of what he had been.

“Huh. Well, lemme see. The usual? Folks, hometown, upbringing, that sorta thing?” He seemed surprised by the question.

She nodded.

He stared thoughtfully at the wall. “Grew up in a shit-kicker town called Norton, in Virginia. I was an only kid, with Ma and Pa raising me as best they could. We never had a lotta money, but we had enough. Dad was always away on a tour, as the military was his career an' labor of love. Ma worked alternately as a nurse and a waitress.”

“Was he hard on you?” she asked. “A lot of military fathers are.”

He shook his head. “He was strict, but not like you'd think. There was a military 'tone' to our family; hell, we were a military family. I got steeped in the 'tradition' of it. Y'know, ‘your grandfather, your great grandfather, and your father’ sort of deal. I did this an' that while I was growing up; one of the big things Dad an' I liked to do was go campin' whenever he was on leave. That was our big thing, along with some huntin' in the season.”

She was starting to see the shape of it, the mold that had made him. “That something you wanted? Or something you felt you had to do because it was expected?”

“What, join a branch of the armed service?”

She wondered about that, because John Murdock, anarchist, didn’t seem like the kind of guy that would have gone along with what was expected….but Blaze Phoenyx? Oh yes.
“Yeah>’

He shrugged. “Well...shit. It was expected of me. My ol' man never went to college, so he figured it was real important that I go into the military so that I could get to college. Plus, I had bought into it all a bit. I wanted to do my folks proud, an' service was part of that.”

“Where's the poetry-lover fit into all of that?” she wanted to know.

He grinned, reminiscently. “Well, that was my mother's influence. I was partially home-schooled, y'know, back 'fore it was 'in vogue'. She'd get me all of the good stuff, big name authors an' the like, an' we'd race to see who could finish what novel first. Dad read like a machine, too, but he was away too much to take part in it with us.” Then he shrugged. “I just grew up readin', an' was taught to love to read.”

She probed a little further. “You, and your folks...tight?”

He nodded. “We were. They were plenty proud when I made it through Basic, became a Ranger, an' moved on from there. Kept in contact with 'em durin' my tours, an' stayed with them at the family house when I was back on leave. Never really had a place of my own, aside from lodgings on base an' occasionally an apartment.”

So far…something of the ‘dumb grunt’ he pretended to be. Or rather…sans all the reading, the kind of background a ‘dumb grunt’ would have. But that deep and abiding love he had for Sera…that came from the parents. They sounded like her own. “Girls?”

He chuckled. “Shit, Bella. Tryin' to make me blush? High-and-tight haircut, uniform, badass Ranger? Gettin' drunk an' chasin' fillies was an approved SOP while away on leave.”

“But no one special.” Now she was going to hit him with the hard ones. Because…he’d gone through this. He had lost…lost a great love. Not the great love, as it had turned out, but…he didn’t know that then. He still didn’t know that when he had first turned to her as his ear and shoulder, so loaded with grief and guilt that Sera, though she knew she needed to help him, could not come near him. What had kept him standing? What well of strength had kept him going for years after such a loss? She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice as she asked, “So....what was it that made her so special? The one you fell for in the Program?”

He grew very quiet for a few long moments. “To be honest, I can't tell ya. The conditions were so extreme, and our time...together was so damned short...we were two desperate individuals. We clung to each other, tryin' to connect with someone.”

“Tell me about that,” she demanded, quietly.

“Everytin' about the Program was impersonal, y'see. Very little contact outside of the other 'subjects'. Whenever a Doc or technician came to see you, they were like damned robots; no emotion.” It was an ache in him, of an old wound, with the pain of having it reopened….Garvey…

She thought back to what he had told her, how his unit had been ambushed, how he had been the only survivor, or so he had been told, how after that he had found himself in this Program thing. But-- “What drove you into it? It can't have just been the ambush, There has to have been something more than that.”

His brow furrowed again, and he took a very big gulp of his drink, while she polished off half her glass. Anesthetic, for both of them.\

“I didn't know 'bout the ambush beforehand, obviously. I didn’t find out it was a setup until…till Vic told me. I'd heard rumors that some folks were bein' made to sign waivers, but not everyone. Not even folks all from one unit; cherry-pickin', like, from different units and different branches. I got a waiver, and was ordered to sign it. So I did. Just basically said that I wouldn't sue or divulge information 'bout classified materials, that sorta thing.”

She nodded. Vickie had told her something of that at the time, since this was all information that Blaze Phoenyx—the Kheldian fusion he had become after his powers nearly killed him--wouldn’t know, and John hadn’t had. For Blaze, his life, his memories, ended just before that ambush, and began again when he had awakened in Paragon City. John had never known that the ambush that took out his unit was an ambush from their side, designed to separate him from anyone that knew him, had connections to him. Blaze didn’t know his parents had been told he was dead in that ambush. Didn’t know the level of betrayal from the superiors he had trusted….

He spoke slowly. “After the ambush...I woke up in a chopper, headin' away from the rest of my squad. I was 'informed' that I had been 'selected' for 'preferential treatment'. They were real big on euphemisms in the Program. Everything had been cleared through my superiors, they said. When I requested to contact 'em, I was allowed to, an' got the same story. I signed my life away when I signed my enlistment contract; the government would use me as it pleased till my tour of duty was up. Just how it is; some Constitutional rights are suspended when y'sign up. In the beginnin'...I went along with it.” There was a shading of shame in that. “I'm not proud of that, and I certainly wouldn't do it again...but I did go along with it. For a time.”

Maybe it was the shock of losing his friends. Maybe it was just the gradual hardening that happened to some guys when they were in the kind of unit John had been. Maybe both. But she could see that. What did he have to lose? And if at first he was being treated all right…why should he care what happened to a bunch of strangers thrown in with him? “What changed?”

His voice hardened. “They didn't treat us as assets. They treated us like insects, pieces of meat. I saw plenty of folks get ‘removed’ from the Program, an' for almost no rhyme or reason.”

She picked up on that word. “’Removed’. What's that mean?”

He shrugged. “Someone is there one day, an' the next their cell is empty or filled with someone else. That simple. The folks would disappear.”

She stared at her glass. “And you figured, what? They were just discharged?” From callous and burned out to…what he was now. Love and loss had figured into both.

“At first, when things were a bit copasetic, I didn't give a damn. I just wanted to get through the training and be done,” His tone turned bleak. “After the first couple, though, we all caught on. An', shortly after gettin' my augmentations, I got transferred to the 'special' unit.”

She probed deeper. “So why'd you do go along with it after you figured out that the people who were disappearing were being killed? Why didn't you fight them?”
“I didn't. I met 'her', Alyson, in the special unit.” His voice turned husky with emotion. “By then, we all knew what was going on. So, I did my best to fight back. Beatin' the shit outta guards, escape attempts, anythin' y'could think of...even suicide. Problem was--security was a hell of a lot tighter in the special unit. Had to be, since we'd already received our augmentations, an' been flagged as having additional metahuman characteristics. Lots of sapper fields, guards with powered armor, knockout gas before examinations, that sorta thing. Most anythin' we tried got cut short. Once...once Alyson got removed, I went apeshit.” He took a deep breath. “Killed one guard, tried fightin' through every one I encountered.”

From Program to prison, then…what the hell had they been thinking? Was that any way to create a cooperative instrument? She knew the end of that part of the story. He’d been subdued, scheduled for execution. Even strapped down to the table. Then….his powers had exploded, uncontrollably, turning the entire place into an inferno, destroying the Facility and everyone—innocent or guilty—in it. He’d lived with that horror, that guilt, for a very long time…taking responsibility for it all on himself.

“Tell me about Ayson,” she said, quietly.

“She was a cadet in the Air Force, got picked up for the Program working on some nowhere airbase in the middle of some god-forsaken country. Not that much in the way of friends, no family,” he said. “Just 'woke up' in her cell, same shtick I was given 'bout the waiver. Since she didn't have family, she didn't need an 'accident' to explain her disappearance.”

She nodded. There would have been a lot of that. “What'd she look like?”

He looked at Bella sideways, in a way that made her wonder if Alyson might have looked a little like her…not blue-skinned and blue-haired of course, but…

His next words, though, disabused her of that notion. “Brunette, about 5'9'', hazel eyes like y'wouldn't believe. She had more freckles on her cheeks than I've ever seen on a person, but in a good way. Smile that would stay with ya for days....an' we didn't get much occasion to smile in there.”

“What got you two connected anyway?” she asked, trying to understand what must have been a world bordering on the psychotic.

“Exercise yard. Everything was indoors and underground, but we had an enlarged 'cell' that we could work out in. Lots of 'high gravity' equipment, heavy weights, that sorta thing. We got three hours a day, all together; figured they could keep better watch that way. We didn't always work out, which didn't seem to bother the technicians none. Just talkin', trying to stay sane. There were eight of us in the special unit.”

“She the only girl?” Bella wondered.

“No, there were others. But everyone, me included, was timid as hell. We'd figured out that we probably weren't walkin' away from any of it. She wasn't, however. Despite it all, she kept her head up, always looked 'em all in the eye. She was the first to actually lash out against any of the guards.” The admiration, the pride, was clear in his voice.

“So, all of you were close to breaking?” she hazarded.

“We were frenzied, just 'bout, in the beginning,” he said. “Once we got transferred to the special unit and figured out we’d just been made lab rats. After that wore off, an' we realized that there was no escapin' or doin' anything meaningful, a lot of 'em got resigned to it.” He emptied his glass.

“Why her and you, though?” Bella persisted. “Chemistry?”

He shrugged. “I guess so. Like I said, she was the only one that had any life in 'er, among us. We got to talkin', after I'd worked up the courage, an' we just....we just kinda hit it off.”

She looked at the bottle, refilled her own glass and his. She had to know. Not about the John of the past, but the one—the one that sat next to her now. “Why, Johnny? Why'd you come back for Sera?” She drank down her vodka at a gulp.

He shook his head. “I got pulled back, Kiddo. Blaze did it, to be honest. I was lost where I was, in the Heart, kinda a limbo. It wasn't bad, but I knew it wasn't where I belonged.”

“And why'd Blaze let you take his place?” she persisted.

“I couldn't tell ya, kiddo,” he replied, sounding as baffled as she was. “Maybe he saw something that I didn't, or knew that Sera wouldn't be...what she needed to be. I can't tell ya, honestly.”

The grief rose up and engulfed her like a tsunami “....why'd They let you?” she asked, tightly…and the glass shattered in her hand. She stared down at the mess, the bits of glass in the carpet, on her leg, in her hand….at the bleeding cuts in her palm…”…oh shit… I’m sorry…”

He cleared away the glass gently, and healed her hand with a tendril of his Kheldian energy. “Kiddo...you're barkin' up the wrong tree for some of these answers. I'm still tryin' to figure some it out, myself. Its-- It's part of somethin' I have to find it. Why I was able to come back is part of somethin' bigger I have to discover. I don't know why.”

His shields slipped, and she got a sense of how profoundly difficult all of this had been for him to talk about.”

She throttled back the anguish. “.....so.....it wasn't just....love. I was afraid....maybe I didn't love him enough....or maybe he didn't...”
“Everyone is loved, kiddo. An' everyone loves,” He sighed. “Doesn't mean we can pull the Ghost act. I don't pretend to understand the Infinite, or even like the concept. I hate hierarchy, as y'well know. But stop with that line of thought. Zach an' you had one of the best things goin' I've ever seen. People...even lovers...still die, though.” He hesitated a moment. “I ever tell ya my favorite poem? By a Welsh, drunken bastard the name of Dylan Thomas?”

She was still groping her way out of the backwash of grief. “No...I mean, I've caught bits of it, echoes in Sera's thoughts, but you never did.”

“It's called, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion.’ One of the best lines of it goes---“ He cleared his throat. “’And though lovers be lost, love shall not.’ What you have for Zach, an' what he had for you, still exists, kiddo. It's as real as air; we can't see air, nor love, but we can see their effects.”

She hung her head as he draped an arm over her shoulder; she was tense, shaking, fighting to keep from breaking down. Another moment of iron will, a long, shuddering breath, and she straightened.

“Things'll get better, kiddo,” he said, ever so gently. “It hurts like hell now, an' it always will. Trust me, I lived through such hurt for a good five or so years. Y'find that, no matter where y'go, no matter how far from home y'are, y'still got 'em with ya. Y'always will have 'em with ya.” He looked at her soberly. “Get what I'm sayin'?”

She closed her eyes. It didn’t help. It wasn’t helping. The pain…And there was one thing about being a doctor, you had so many options…not just pills either. A full 50ccs of ethyl alcohol straight into the veins, a purloined bottle of morphine from the ER, even a syringe full of nothing but air…

Her shields must have slipped, because he pinched her shoulder. “Stop that,” he said sharply. “I’m dead serious. Don't even entertain the thought. You still have folks that y'care for here. If you really care 'bout anyone other than yerself, if you really care for Zach, you'll listen to me.”

She shoved those thoughts to the back of her mind. He was right. She had to find a way through this. She had to. “I'm....trying Johnny. I am.”

“You're still loved, Kiddo. An' y'always will be. Just like y'always will love,” he said, quietly, but with force. “Besides, if you weren't around, who'd drink all of my booze?” He eyed the now-empty bottle. She did, too. She didn’t even feel buzzed, it might just have been water.

“Gremlin. Petro,” she answered. “Bear.”

He pinched her again, lightly. “It was a joke. An' Pavel doesn't drink; he breathes alcohol like fishes breathe with water.”

“True,” she sighed. “So....question, or favor?”

“I'll take a favor,” he said immediately.

“Name it,” she told him. “That’s the bargain.”

“I'll hold it as an ‘IOU’ from ya. That agreeable?” he asked.

She nodded. “Call in the IOU, no questions asked.”

“Now, I've got yer word that, no matter what, you will fulfill this favor? Doesn't matter what it is, or when I ask it; you get it done?”

She nodded.

“Promise?”

She never hesitated. “I swear.”

“That's three times you've promised. I'll letcha know when I intend to collect,” he leaned back a little, kicking his heels up. “Oh, an' for future referrence, I like my Benz in black, if it ain't any trouble.” He nudged her, chuckling slightly.

Pretending to be normal, putting the mask on over the pain, had gotten to be habit by now. It was so much easier on everyone around her. “You forgot to specify what model.”

He waved, vaguely. “Somethin' big, shiny, and gets shitty gas mileage.”

“I'm sure there's something in black over at the Founders Falls junkyard that Petro can fix up,” she said, going along with the pretense.

“You're a saint. I ain't asked for it yet, though.” He gave her a little nod; she checked her group status. Sure enough, Sera and the kids would be getting off patrol, soon. The skeleton at the feast….

“Git, 'fore we string y'up against the walls as decoration.”

She nodded. “Don't worry if you don't hear the door close next door. I'm taking the long way home.”

“Remember, y'owe me, kiddo. Make sure I'm able to collect when I want. Gimme an' Sera a call, soon. We're havin' OS an' Thea over for dinner one of these nights.” He offered it as a gift. She’d rather have drunk lye.

“ ....if you don't mind....I'd rather pass on that,” she said carefully.

He nodded, accepting it. “All the same, give us a call sometime. Y'dig? That's an order, Commissar.”

She sighed. “As if you didn't see enough of me at HQ?”

“What can I say? You're a best bud, an' I intend to keep it that way. Besides, I like havin' ya where I can keep an eye on ya.” He smiled encouragingly at her. Shoo. I'll catch y'soon, Commissar Kiddo.”

She got up, and went to the door, turning just before letting herself out. “Night, Johnny.’

Then she went out…and down to the elevator. A long walk around Atlas Park…and avoiding the moment of joy that always spilled out of the Murdock apartment when everyone got home…

There had been no real answers. Only more questions. But at least…at least there was one more reason not to go gently into that good night.