From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Desperado by John Murdock (Tuesday, April 24, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: The Conquered by Seraphym (Sunday, April 29, 2007)

(posted Sunday, April 29, 2007)

Brevis ipsa vita est sed malis fit longior. "Our life is short but is made longer by misfortunes."

Belladonna Aura didn't even look at the paper John handed to her. She knew what it was. She would have known even if she weren't a telempath. John's public email was open to all the Commissars, and all the Commissars knew now what Garvey had told him.

She didn't want to believe it...but it was hard to come up with any reasons for hope. As for John....

Physically, psychologically, emotionally, he was completely broken. How could he not be? And all she could do, all anyone could do, was let him crawl off and...hope, somehow, that he could heal from this. He didn't want, and wouldn't take, pity. He didn't want to hear how anyone else had been through this. No one else had ever been through this, not in her experience. Not even the deep love she and Zach had shared could come close to the two-souls-made-one of John and Sera--perhaps he might have held if the children had not been torn from him too, but now...now he had nothing. Everything that gave him stability, everything that had any real meaning for him had been taken. There was a hole in her heart and soul. John's heart and soul had been ripped into shreds and scattered on the wind.

So perhaps the only thing she could do was this: give him something he had to come back to. Orders and duty. He would not accept her compassion, he could not accept what little comfort she could give him. If anything would hold him in this life, it might only be that knowledge that others refused to let him go, that he had a job he still had to do.

"You know I won't accept this," she said, quietly. "None of us will. You can hand in your resignation a million times and we still won't accept it. CCCP needs you, John Murdock, and we are not going to permit you to desert us."

Petrograd stood quietly, and nodded once. For once, the faceless armor was a good thing. No one could read him, least of all John.

The small Vietnamese woman sat quietly at the desk, eyes passing over the paper repeatedly, letting the words on the page sink in, to be sure that she fully understood. She let the other two speak their minds, listening intently as she read. Setting the paper on the table, she delicately rested her hands on the note. Slowly, quietly, an inky substance oozed from her hands, turning the paper utterly black while she waited for her turn to speak.

Holding aloft the paper, her normally soft features hardened like stone. "I'm sorry, John ban," she said, voice cold as steel. "I don't have any information left on the page here."

Slowly, she stood, pulling herself up as deliberately as possible. "To be perfect honest," she began, eyes narrowing, "I am personally insulted that you would consider this. It is not because it is an affront to me, or the CCCP, but is instead an affront to Sera ban. And your children." Her face contorted into a near sneer as she spoke. "Do you remember how much your children wanted to be heroes? How they desperately wanted to make you proud?" Taking the blackened paper in her hand, she bunched it up and tossed it at John's feet. "If they were to see this, they would be made ill."

"When Zach died, I kept working," Bella pointed out. "I never stopped, not even when the rest of you thought I should. We as Commissars have duties that require us to set aside any personal losses for the greater good." She hated saying that. Frankly, it wasn't true, not entirely. But if they let him resign, she knew what he would do. He would crawl off somewhere and die. And if Sera was, by some miracle, still alive somewhere, then she would die, and without her, the kids would surely die.

He looked like a dog that has been beaten nearly to death and sees no rescue. And she didn't want to raise the stick to him. No more did Thanh Ha or Ivan. But he had been rejecting every offer of consolation, pity, comfort--there wasn't anything left to try and get him back with. Sera...whether she was gone forever or not...Bella could not see a way she could come back, because if she could have, she would have by now. There was only one of the Murdocks left to save, and whatever it took to save him, she would do.

Even if he hated her for it.

"We are here for you, tovarisch," said Petrograd, his voice a smooth bedrock over the twists and turns in his mind. "We ask no more than the same."

John had remained silent up to this point, his hands held behind his back and his spine rigid. His face had given the barest notion several times that he wasn't as collected as he seemed. He wasn't looking his best; he had a week's worth of stubble on his chin, his hair was unkempt, his clothes looked as if he had been sleeping in them for a couple days, and his completion was far too pale. He took a number of deep breaths, and then began to speak. " Before I start, lemme say that I have the utmost respect for all of ya. That ought t'go without sayin'. Every one of ya has saved my ass more times than I can count, an' always been there fer me. Your---your efforts," he faltered for a moment, "t'help me get Sera an' the kids back...there's nothin' I can ever do to repay y'all for at least tryin'." His tone changed from being even and respectful to irritated. "T'get to the meat of this, y'all don't know what I've gone through. We've all been through loss, and so on an' so forth; this is different. You know it, an' I know it." John's eyes were glassy, but his gaze still had some steel in it as he turned it to Bella. "I'm not desertin' y'all. Get that straight. I'm just not good to y'all anymore." John straightened up again, composing himself.

"I don't think that you are in any position to be able to tell that, John," Bella replied sternly, trying to get him to look her in the eyes. "It's difficult enough for us as it is. And there is no one else I or Thanh Ha or Petro would care to put in your place." Of them all, she came closest to knowing how he felt. Sera was...a part of her, too. Not the soul-mate, but... "We need four Commissars. Not three, not two, not, god forbid, one. Four."

"This is my choice. It's what I want, an' y'all can't rightly make me do anythin' that I don't want to. Whatever Sera --my wife-- or my children might have wanted, it doesn't matter. They're dead; worse than that, they've been wiped from existence. I've been to the Heart of All Time, an' they're not even there. They're completely gone from me. I did this job for them, continued doin' it for 'em. That reason for me doin' it is gone, now." John looked down in between his feet. His own words were sounding hollow to him, and he absolutely hated that. He knew that he still had a responsibility to the rest of the CCCP, and that there was nothing that would ever change that; it was just one of those immutable affinities, a comradeship that couldn't be broken. But he just couldn't do this, couldn't keep going right now. John looked up again, staring straight ahead. "Fine. I won't resign. I'll take a leave of absence, instead. Y'all can move Official Sun Kai up into my place; he knows the job, an' has been helpin' me organize an' train the SDF since its inception. Agn can take his spot as Official, an' everyone can move up from there."

"We'll move no one. We'll leave it in your name." This time, Bella waited for Social or Petro to respond first to the request for leave. She wasn't sure she wanted to grant him even that much of an opportunity to crawl into a hole.

Petrograd just grunted, then admitted, as if grudgingly, "A leave...is appropriate."

"What would you do with your time?" Thanh Ha said, crossing her arms. "Because, quite frankly, I am worried enough about this action that I cannot be sure that I should let you without asking you check into someplace with medical personnel." The medical officer really didn't think John would be at a point to consider, of all things, suicide, but she still felt he was at risk. Traumatic incidents such as this do things to people. On the other hand, she also didn't want him crawling into a bottle or leaving Paragon in search of some way to escape the pain.

Bella was not in the least sure that John wouldn't find a way to die. Not that he would commit actual suicide...but she read a lot of Kipling, and she was, more and more painfully, reminded of Dick Heldar, the hero of "The Light That Failed"--an artist who lost his sight, then had his only love reject him, and went out, blind, with the rest of the war correspondents into the Sudan, knowing that a blind man had little chance of lasting more than a month out there. And of course, Dick Heldar got a "merciful bullet to the brain," in Kipling's words. It wasn't even an heroic death, although the effort to get to the front had been epic in Heldar's determination. There were so many ways, ways, heroic and not, that John could take to find that bullet. There were things that would, could kill even a Kheldian fusion.

And--Sun Kai? In his place? There could be worse choices but...he would be a disaster. He was too rigid, too regimented, too...uncompromising. Too--too--Chinese. He would, literally, kill someone. Or himself. Or both. And he would drive those who were not like him mad. She could not even imagine, oh, Callignous Storm or Kremlin Gremlin responding to the kind of discipline that Sun Kai would insist on. Actually Gremlin would respond all right, it just wouldn't be printable and it would give Sun Kai a stroke.

"I'm not gonna kill myself." John gave a sad and forced chuckle. "I'm too stubborn. I'll occupy my time the way I see fit, though. I'll do---I'll do what I have to."

"I will give you your leave," she said, slowly, "Only if you give us your word that you will keep the risk to yourself at the same acceptable levels you did a month ago." A month ago. When you had all the world and your family to love and live for. "Two weeks. And I remind you that I only took two days." If he went Underhill, as he might in order to sidestep the "two week" limit, Vickie would see to it he didn't get himself into suicidal positions. She looked to Social and Petro.

A white-covered finger extended from Thanh Ha's hand. "One." Too much could be planned in two weeks. Too much could be planned in a week, but she understood the need to get away from things. "And you must still be checking in with us on a daily basis."

John gritted his teeth, hard. He was still hurting, worse than he ever had before. He'd done exactly what was expected of him, keeping up a strong and united front, keeping his chin up. He just didn't want to have to deal with it anymore, yet they still wanted more of him. It pissed him off to no end, and it felt good to be mad. Better than what he would have been feeling otherwise. So, he hung onto the outrage, but reined it in. He really did have too much respect for them to openly display how angry he was. "Fine. A week," he almost sneered, "an' I'll check in every day. Do we have anythin' else to discuss 'ere?"

Bella shook her head. She had learned a lot since Zach's death; learned how to keep her heart hidden, her thoughts out of her face. At least he was angry instead of drowning in sorrow and loss. At least he looked a little more alive. She hated this. She wanted to cry on his shoulder and let him cry on hers. But he wouldn't, or couldn't, so this was all that was left.

"One last thing," Thanh Ha said, face and tone softening. "Please. Talk to someone."

John's expression cracked, and he forced himself to stare at the space inbetween his feet again. "Not yet." Before anyone could manage to say anything else, he snapped a crisp salute and strode out of the Commissariat's office.

Bella stared after him, and two slow tears formed and spilled down her cheeks, although her expression remained still and Buddha-like in apparent indifference. "I'll be on the roof," she said quietly. "I'll keep my comm on all channels and on." She left in the opposite direction to John's, heading for the stair to the roof-access. She paused at the sound of Thanh Ha's voice and turned back to the other two.

Thanh Ha sat back down in her chair, taking a deep breath and rubbing her face. "I hope things will turn out okay..."

Bella looked over to Petro, his shell as still as ever. The storm within him seemed to be calming... the flashes of anger and and confusion clearing around an eye, a single, misty grey thought, flowing through him with zen-like clarity.

Finally, he turned to the remaining commissars. "Are we really operating under assumption that they are all dead?"

Bella sighed, another tear crawling down her cheek. "I don't know, Petro. I can't 'feel' her, Mandy can't 'hear' them, and John--he would never be acting like this if he had any thread of contact remaining. Garent suggested they might be in some place where--somehow--all contact has been cut off. I..." Another tear. "I keep holding on to something Sera told me. That, because of how he was brought back and again how JJ was cured of John's problems, if one of them was ever to die, the other would at least be given the option to pass too. And John wasn't. But...I...don't know." She bowed her head. "Even I don't see much hope. If we can't find them...there are millions of places they could be. We could search forever and never find them and for John...that's as bad as dead."

Thanh Ha could only shake her head, looking helpless.

Blacks of confusion swept through him, in Bella's eyes, as insubstantial as clouds. He... didn't understand. Bella looked within him, into the grey, and knew: It wasn't faith, it wasn't even hope. Hope is what comes when one doesn't know, a light in the black. Petrograd... shone.

The static-laden intercom in his helmet clicked on, and he hesitated... white shocks passing through him at even voicing something like this.

He did not have to. Bella looked Petro straight in the visor. "If I have to go back to modeling for the wherewithal, if you want to keep searching, you'll have whatever you need to do it."

Half whispering through the helmet, steel hands in the ancient flight-jacket stretched over his armor for comfort, Petrograd murmured in his native tongue,

< They are comrades. We can do nothing less. >