From the Story Arc: Three Days In December

Previous Story in the Arc: Goodbye by Belladonna Aura (Friday, December 15, 2006)

(posted Tuesday, January 02, 2007)

((Co-written with Bestial Boy/Andrew Wein))

The Rikti Crash Site was one of Sera's favored hunting grounds. The troops there, intent on keeping the Rikti confined to the zone, were terribly beleaguered. Crey agents swarmed the place, looking for tech to loot. There was no law; heroes were the only check on keeping the Rikti from breaking through the gate and into Crey's Folly. When Sera passed the medbay on the way to the porters, Bella knew where she was going.

Bella's shoulders were as tense as steel cable from bending over paperwork...and from keeping her shields as hard as walls. Sera regarded her friend and sister-in-soul with mild, compassionate eyes. "You need to hit something," she said. "And I work better with a healer. Come with me. John and Thanh Ha can handle the routine for a few hours."

Bella bit her lip until it bled. Yes, she needed to hit something. But being so near to Sera was a torment. She couldn't hide anything from Sera, not even the fact that...
It had been a plasma bomb that had taken Zach from her. The Rikti were the masters of plasma tech. If they had such a weapon, they would deploy it in the Crash Site, wouldn't they? And if Bella was just a few moments too slow with her stuns...

It wouldn't be suicide. It would be a terrible accident. Or...not so terrible.

"I have never seen a plasma bomb in the Site," Sera said gently. "But you still need to hit something. Come with me."

After a long, long moment, Bella nodded, and the two of them stepped into the 'porter.
They didn't say much aloud; a word here, a word there; the unspoken dialogue between them, the concord, made them work together as smoothly and seamlessly as Sera and Johnny did, or the three of them together. But Bella didn't want Johnny here; it was hard enough having just Sera alone, or Johnny alone with her. To see the two of them working together, to feel their unity...she'd have probably thrown herself on the blades of the Rikti just so the physical pain would overwhelm the emotional pain.

As it was, she was as much aggressor as healer; granted, that was partly her normal mode of work,, she was reckless, reckless at least, of her own safety. She caught Sera's concern more than once, felt the angel suddenly change her own course to intercept some devastating blow heading for Bella. She was glad of the helmet of her medic armor; it kept Sera from seeing her expression, her unshed tears, and her shields were tight enough to keep the angel from really sensing most of what she felt. Not that Sera couldn't guess, but a guess wasn't knowledge.

She and Zach had fought Rikti together only a few times, and never here. Zach couldn't stand "the damned space monkeys" and wasn't shy about letting people know it. At least there was that...the Crash site was not a reminder as well.

So she concentrated on weakening, stunning, blasting them with her controlled bursts of radiation, and keeping Sera healed. She couldn't hate these Rikti, not knowing what she did now...well, except that somewhere in here might be a way to get to the Rikti home dimension, as Hero One and his team had. Once it had been her fervent, passionate desire to take the war the Rikti had begun back to their home ground. Now....

Oh yes. She would do that, if she got the chance. And seal the Portal behind her and know that when she finally fell, as Hero One had fallen...

That was what she imagined, as she and Sera took on group after group of the creatures; that she was there, and there was no way to get back; that she no longer had to think about anything other than taking as many of the things with her when she fell as she could.

"Bella, stop," Sera said at last, when they had finished taking down a group of twenty, and shut down a Portal. Sera was panting, fatigue making her droop. "Even I need a rest."

Now guilt washed over her as she checked her HUD and discovered that Sera really was running near to exhaustion. The energy that had fueled her ran out at the same moment, and guilt at driving her friend so hard made her bite her lip again. "Oh, Sera, I'm--" she began.

And then, from behind her, a voice. A deep, rueful tenor. "Um, hey babycakes, I guess I'm gonna be a little late..."

Pain blinded her, a stab straight to her heart, and she whirled, ready to kill whoever it was that was playing so cruel a joke on her.
But it wasn't a joke.

At first, all she could see was smoke rising from a crater, a typical sight in this devastated warzone. But as she gazed at the smoke, she saw a faintly glowing, entirely transparent figure standing before her. The so-familiar CCCP uniform, the unruly hair, the wonderful green eyes, the green face wearing an expression that was hard to describe, as if he was trying to smile and make a joke when he didn't in the least feel like either. It was him. Or rather...

She'd seen spirits often enough, the Ghost Ship, Croatoa, and Soviet Wing...

But no spirit had ever looked like himself, and yet, so unlike, as Zach Marlowe did. "Zach?" she managed to choke out, started to reach for him, and then pulled her hand back as if burned. "Oh god...Zach?"

She heard Sera move off a little, and take up a guard position. She could not look away from him, her heart turning over and over again, not knowing what to say. "Take me with you!" was one..."Don't leave me!" another. Both impossible. Both what she needed the way she needed to breathe. "...Zach..."

"I know you were afraid to come to me, so...I had to come to you," he replied, and the regret, the grief in his own voice, almost broke her.

"I screwed the pooch babe, big-time." Zach's hangdog body language was obvious, if the body was transparent in the winter light. He kicked the dirt and shook his head, "I can't believe I didn't see it coming, but I sure as hell didn't. I eff'ed up, made a rookie mistake, and it cost me....cost us...everything."

She couldn't let that stand. Especially when it wasn't true. "No, no, babe--" she interrupted, her voice strained with distress, "How the hell could you have known he was a walking bomb? There's no way you could have known that! You did everything right, you got him away from his backup and the civvie targets, you--"

"Listen baby blue, I'm dead now, so at least let me talk!" A smirk grew into a grin across Zach's face. In spite of herself, Bella was surprised into a laugh, through her tears. "I know you may not want to hear this, but ... I ... I need to say this." His arms spread wide, pleadingly. "I'm sorry. This wasn't how the story was supposed to end, not the time or the place neither. I'd say you live and learn...but, well, not always, it seems." Zach tried to laugh it off, but the joke fell flat. "I just wanted you to know," but he stopped, as the look in Bella's eyes told him everything. "Bah, you know already, don't ya?"

She stared at him, aching, knowing she couldn't touch him and dying with the need to feel his arms around her again. He glanced at Sera, and there was an exchange of looks between them; Bella had a momentary, and very uncomfortable thought flash through across her memory. Oh no...

And he read her mind--of course he read her mind--and smirked. "Oh no. No 'Ghost' moments here. God, I hate that movie."

She managed a painful chuckle. "What, you don't want Demi Moore instead of me?"

He gave an exaggerated shudder. "No, it's just that Sera being an Incarnate Angel again, we get to play a little fast and loose with energies. Right, Sera?"

Seraphic Flame nodded, and extended her hand towards him. And...something...began to flow between them. She thinned, and slowly began to grow more transparent--

And he slowly became, before Bella's astonished eyes, more and more solid. Until it was Sera who was the pale apparition, and he who was--

She ran into his arms.

He held her, kissed her, and it was exactly right, he even smelled right, and she began to cry--

She thought she had gotten to the bottom of her sorrow and loss when she had cried on Chug's shoulder. Then again, with Mandy. And yet again, with the Rabinowiches, sitting Shiv'a. But no. No. All that was only layers. This was all of it. This was Bella Dawn, not the Commissar who had to be strong, not the medical officer who knew all about depression, not any of her faces that were really masks over the pain. This was just her, looking back on all the things they'd somehow not done together, the "somedays" that had never come. Looking to Sera with a knife-stab of envy, for Sera had her miracle, had Johnny back when she never should have, and there would be no miracles for an ordinary mortal like her. Looking ahead to the future and seeing nothing but bitter loneliness, nothing but a bleak, colorless existence, of endless nights of staring up at the ceiling and waiting for dawn, of empty beds and empty chairs, of listening to the happiness of others and feeling nothing but a void inside. This was Bella, whose star was gone, whose light had gone out of the world, and who had no more masks between her and the grief, and she wept and trembled in his arms for the pain, the dark, the endless aloneness and the cold isolation, to which she could not see an end.

And he held her close, held her face against his chest, kissed her hair, and whispered. "Let it out, babycakes. Let it out. Take your time. We're not on the clock, here."

Finally she was at the end, for the moment at least. Not because she was exhausted, but because she finally had gotten to the bottom of the sorrow. Now he loosened his arms from around her, took her face in both hands, and kissed her, then looked into her eyes. "I can't come back," he began.

Her eyes swam with tears. "I know--"

"Shh. I'm not done. Hush, empath. I've got something for you."

Carefully, as if he was about to place a delicate part inside a bit of fine machinery, he tilted her face up to his, and kissed her again.

And she felt it. Felt the tiny, infinitely bright spark, the concentrated essence of everything that was Zach, warm and alive, flare into being and settle quietly into that aching void in her soul. It was small, so small, nothing like the sense of him that used to be there, waking and sleeping. But now the darkness was not quite so absolute, the cold of loneliness warmed by just a little...and it whispered to her, a little like the Song whispered to Sera, but in his voice, and not the choir of angels. Hang in there, kiddo. I'm still here.

"Better?" he asked.

She nodded, and settled her head against his chest as his arms went around her again. "Better," she whispered. And it was. It wasn't good. It might never be good. But it was better.

"Now I want you to do something for me. When you get back home, I want you to sort through all that stuff in the jimjick box, OK?" The "jimjick box" was where he'd had the habit of tossing all the medals and awards he'd been given over the years. The "Hero of the City" accolade had come in a very unique case and had been easy for her parents to find per her instructions for the memorial, but the rest were all in identical presentation cases. She herself hadn't actually looked through it yet. The thought of doing so now...made her choke up again.

"Come on, babycakes. I need you to do this," he said, pleadingly. "I want you to pick out the right ones for my old pals, okay? Then you can lock the rest up and never look at them again, if that's what you want."

That spark of "presence" warmed her a little more, enough to enable her to swallow down the tears and nod.

He sighed. "I have to go," he said, his voice so sad, so very, very sad. "You know I don't want to."

Her throat closed. "We both know you have to." No miracles for Bella, no resurrection for Zach. She could make this harder on them both than it already was....

"I love you, Zach Marlowe," she said, instead. "Truly, deeply, completely." Slowly, she straightened in his arms, looked up into his face, and laid her hand along his cheek. "You will always be my star."

She couldn't say anything more; if she did, she would break down and weep uncontrollably.

Reluctance in every fiber, he let her go, and slowly backed away from her. With every step he took, he faded a little more, and she knew without looking that Sera took on more and more substance as he lost his. She only had eyes for him, once again biting down the words "Take me with you!" as her gaze remained locked with his. As he faded completely from view, he mouthed words that had no echo in the world of substance and life. She could not hear them, but she knew what they were.

I love you.

Bella sat on the floor of the spare room and opened the large wooden jewelry "casket" with a box of tissues next to her. She had the feeling that she might need more than one box before this was over. Most of the medals came in identical little blue velvet boxes, and she had to actually open them before she knew what was in them. They gave medals for everything here, each one named. After only two, she found the "Slayer" medal...Thea would cherish that. "Solace" for Sera..."Knight Errant" for Red. Surely "Cold Warrior" for Gremlin. "Emancipator" for Johnny....

Then she found a box that was a slightly different color than the others. Must have faded, must be old, she thought, and opened it without thinking.

And dropped it. The box fell into her lap, still open, contents shining up at her.
It wasn't a medal-box. It was a ring-box. In it was a modest, silvery band, with three bright sparks glinting in it. An emerald and a blue sapphire, one on either side of a diamond.

Engagement ring.

With hands that shook so hard she had trouble controlling them, she picked up the box again, tears streaming silently down her cheeks. ...oh Zach...

Hang in there, kiddo. I'm still here.

The tiny spark inside flared a little, and through the tears, brought a tiny smile to lips that had not smiled in far too long.

Zach watched with mingled sadness and satisfaction as Bella took the ring from the box, hands shaking, and slipped it on. That's my girl... he thought.

The presence at Zach's side did not have a head to tilt, as such, but that was the impression it gave. < Well. Are you done here? > it asked.

Zach sighed. "Maybe. I mean, I wasn't done...before..."

< Everyone says that. >

"It just doesn't seem fair."

< Everyone says that, too. >

"To her, not me, you ghostly goofball." Zach amended.

< Ah. > A pause. < If it helps, she can heal now. >

"It helps." He rubbed the back of his neck. It didn't ache with tension, after all, he didn't actually have a neck as such, but old habits... "But I'm still not done."

< Staying here isn't advisable. You're less than a shadow, here. You can't touch her, speak to her, interact with her in any way. You can't help her, no matter what danger she's in. You'll be like the only audience member watching a show, and that will be forever unless you decide to move on. > The disapproval was thick in his escort's voice.

Zach reached out with an insubstantial hand that hovered just short of the tears on Bella's cheek, and a matching tear slowly made its way down his own. "Yeah," he said, slowly. "But what a show it is..."