Revelations

From the Story Arc: Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Previous Story in the Arc: Shadows by Victoria Victrix (Monday, June 20, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: On The Same Page by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

(posted Saturday, January 10, 2009)

Blaze Phoenyx was climbing through security levels like his namesake. Vickie was frankly amazed. The boy acted as if he was driven, but by what?

Still, he was a damage dealer, which was what she needed, and when she saw him on patrol she had no compunction about calling him.

He was late, of course. She sat around waitng for him patiently until he finally showed.

He came swarming up in squid form, which she had no trouble with. And then [i]spronged[/i] himself quickly into human. "Oh. There y'are," he said. "Sorry 'bout that. Had to help out some Khalfani. Another alien, it'd
seem My sincerest apologies." He favored her with a roguish grin.

She snorted. He seemed up for some teasing. "Apologies! Like you mean it! Ha! You just wait, one of these days you'll be all alone....."

He suddenly stopped smiling. "I am."

Ah crap. "....ah...." she said seriously, quietly. "You're not, you know. You're not alone. Everyone that ever knew you is ready and willing to lend a hand. Some of us....more than others," she added, thinking about Bella and poor Flame. "Some of us would give more than you might believe to help you."

He sighed. "I guess you're right. Fell right in with you CCCP folk...but I don't know...somethin' feels wrong to me."

Silence. She broke it. "Hey--talk to me."

He regarded her solemnly. "I know...that's part of what feels wrong, I think. I mean---it's absolutely awesome that you're all so willin' to help me an' such...but I don't know...feels undeserved, or somethin'...I dunno."

Oh boy. It really was a complete reboot from six years ago. Damn it. Poor Flame. "Hmm. Been watching those disks Bell left you?"

He stirred restlessly. "Some. Haven't finished. Haven't been able to stay home more than a couple of hours... Guess you could say I have the itch."

Odd that. Of course, he'd been rather that way before, but not to such and extent. "How come? Itch to do what?"

She didn't remember Johnny as being that resteless. But clearly he was. "Get back out on the streets. I used to be a soldier, y'know. Conflict is what I know. This hero thing is great, but it's still completely new for me. I'm kinda out of my element here."

She clearly remembered his moment of epiphany when she and Big Red had taken him along on one of her mishes; how clearing out that CoT nest had shown him what being a hero was all about. "Talk to me. Articulate these problems of yours," she repeated.

He gave her a lopsided grin. "Thought I was."

She snorted, and sat down on the coping of a wall. "Out of your element how? Lost in time? Missing something?"

[i]Please let it be "missing something"--missing Flame.[/i]

He was definitely uneasy. "That too. But lady, I'm a soldier. I've been a soldier since I graduated highschool. It's all I've ever known, and now I get ripped straight out of it. I don't know what's happend to my squad, my troop. Hell, I don't know where my family is. Six years...it's a lifetime when you actually think about it."

So was this really only disorientation? Well...the old Army standby of "It's easier to apologize than get permission" was going to come in hand here. That and her own inherent sneakiness. "That it is.....hmmm. Lemme ask you somthing. You want help hunting or would you rather talk about this? Cause....I have some resources. Like, five minutes on my computer I can find your family and what happened between you and them...The folks are Feds," she added.

Of course, this was only partly true. She already had all of this. But no point in telling him that.

He sighed. "Let's do some work first. Later, we'll get into my life---my past."

She got to her feet. "Thank you for helping a poor neglected controller out of single digit hell. She checked over the mission list and saw...oh joy. Arrest ten Vahzilock. "Have I mentioned I hate Vahz?"

He shrugged. "Forget about it. Teamin' up with folks makes everyone stronger. 'specially me. Weird thing 'bout bein' an alien; different heroes make me stronger in different ways. Well, you're the leader, leader. Lead on."

She cued up the mission. "Oh and by the way, Mr Babe Magnet?" She glanced over and saw both his eyebrows rise. Heh. "Don't bother flirting with me, I'm taken." She grinned. "Oh don't pretend you haven't noticed!"

He shrugged. "I noticed. That's why I left you and Mr. Djinni to be on your own. And I figured I'd let you pick what you were ready for."

Oh, really? It was her turn to raise an eyebrow. "I meant that you hadn't noticed that most of the women in the CCCP would like to 'get to know the new you.'"

He blushed. Well, well, well. " Oh. That. Er, well...I dunno. Been a bit preoccupied, I guess."

Could he really be that oblivious? It was possible.

"As for what I'm ready for...." She hesitated. "My problem is not experience.. I f-d up bigtime. I got limitors on my powers and now I have to earn my way back."

That threw him for a loop. "I don't understand...?"

Interesting. "Let's rephrase. I did something so royally stupid that I nearly started a war and destroyed my own body and got busted back to PFC for it." He had already seen her hand; he knew the rest of her was like that. Now he had the explanation for it.

His expression softened. "I'm sorry."

She gave him a wry look. "Well you know, I'm getting a second chance at not being stupid. It just gets frustrating. So. Let's kick some Vahz butt."

He grinned, now back on comfortable ground. "Right."

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

One task down, and many more to come. And---the contact was at Steel Canyon. Lovely. Suicide for a single-digit to run. What sadistic sonuvabitch planned that? "Damn I wish I could fly again," she said nhappily.

Blaze hovered next to her in squid form. ""

She sighed. "Yepper."

He clicked his manibles. ""

She sighed again. "Yeah. Was my second favorite thing to do."

He considered this, and did not ask what the first one was. ""

She had to laugh at that. "Hon, I used to have stranger things than you over for High Tea."

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Chalk up another one for the good guys. That was two assignments done in a fraction of the time it usually took her to do one.

"" said Blaze, as she sat down on a stone planter on the middle of the atrium of the abandoned office building the Hellions had taken over.

"Thanks.....used to be a CO of sorts," she replied, catching her breath. "Knight-Mage of Elfhame Silverthorn."

The squid nodded. ""

It was easier talking about it now, now that she wasn't just hiding from her own past. "Well before I messed up, I had the command of up to five "troupes," which are basically squad-size groups. Usually though I just
ran with my own. Two humans, two elves, and little old me."

The squid waved his tentacles thoughtfully. ""

She snorted. "My ass. ANy officer worth anything knows it's the Sarge that gets things done."

Blaze managed the approximation of a shrug. ""

She favored him with a lopsided grin. She had never had illusions about what an officer was really for. "We're just there for crowd control and making a nice shiny target." She whistled and waved. "See, we have
the fancy hats. Concentrate fire on the officer, and the guys doing the real work can take 'em out around the edges. Officer just has to look pretty and lock down mobs. Don't tell most of them that though....they don't get it."

He laughed. ""

She stood up, feeling creaky. "Let's go back over to my place and get a cuppa."

They were close enough to the tram that it wasn't any big deal to get there---other than the fact that she had to run, as usual. Dear goddess, she wanted to be able to fly---

He beat her there, of course, and was waiting at the door when she got there, looking like a guy waiting for a date. She wondered if he realized that Flame's apartment was scarcely twenty feet away. Not that Flame was in it---she was out faceplanting herself some more, as if by enduring enough physical pain she could numb some of the emotional pain.

She unlocked the door and he took a seat on the couch---right where Johnny Murdock had, the last time he'd been here. "What's your poison?" she asked, making for the coffee-pot.

"Tea, actually. Any oolong...by any chance?"

Well. Interesting. She chuckled and opened one of the cupboards to reveal nothing but tea.

He smiled. "Well...cool."

She grinned. "Magicians tend to keep a lot of this stuff on hand; you can tell a magician, nine times out of ten, by the amount and varieties of teas and herbal teas we have in our cupboards. And since I don't cook so that you'd notice, I have room. Pick something."

He surveyed the bewildering variety and said, "Uh...just plain ol' oolong'll do."

Besides having a Mister Coffee and a cappuchino-maker, she had a Mister Tea. Why not? The only other cooking implement she used regularly was a microwave. "This is a change from the old you," she commented. "JM drank black coffee."

"Oh...yeah?" he said, as she rummaged him out a nice oolong, got herself a Madagascar Vanilla, and made tea for both of them. "Eh...sorry. I still get a bit weirded out talkin' 'bout my 'old' self."

"Gotta face it," she said forthrightly. "You're walking around with a face people knew and loved."

He looked uneasy. "I know...."

"Short of moving out of town...." She looked at him sharply. He was ready. No doubt. Absolutely no doubt.

This was why she had told him that she would be straight with him---and why she had made the point of not being where Flame could find her and extract the promise to not tell him about his past so far as the angel was concerned. "Talk to me. I'll tell you anything you want to know that I know or can find out."

He cradled the mug of tea in both hands. He closed his eyes, and sighed. "Guess I'll start off where I left off. My squad...what happened to them? Last folks I saw before I woke up here..."

She grimaced. "It was not pretty. I'll warn you if things are gonna be ugly, you decide if you want to hear about it. This's ugly."

He looked her straight in the eyes. Definitely ready. "Just tell me straight. I'll---I'll manage."

She nodded. "Wiped," she said shortly. "Ambush."

He sat there, listening quietly, staring into his tea mug.

"You were the only survivor," she added. "Pretty much got left for dead and picked up by the rescue unit sent in after you."

Silence for a moment. "How?" he asked.

Although she knew more, she also knew to leave it for now. "One of those things, I guess."

He contemplated the non-answer. "What next? Where'd I go from there?"

She decided on a bit of half-truth, in no small part because her information was so scanty. "Well....seems you weren't just a 'guy.' You had some metahuman genes; that's why you hung on a little longer. So you joined up with some black ops program, they put some implants in you and started training you." It had been very difficult to get that much, even with information from John Murdock himself. "Now at this point I hit
firewalls and ice, so if you wan't more detail I have to dig it out. All I know for sure is that something went wrong in there and you were the only survivor."

Finally someone was telling him the answers to his questions. He wasn't sure he liked them, but she could tell that at least he appreciated getting them "I--I understand...What 'bout my folks?"

Poor guy. Johnny'd had years to come to terms with all of this; Blaze was getting all of it in an infodump.

"Well, they're both gone..... The Rikti got your father, cancer got your mom."

Now this was a shock, and it rocked him. He seized on the one most understandable to a soldier: an enemy.

Something you could fight. "Rikti? Those are the same ones that started some kind of war?"

"Yep," she said.

He sat, silent. Her words filled the silence between them. Surely he had seen this on his DVDs, but he was hearing it from a live person now. "Basically these ships showed up over most of the cities of Earth one day,

but there were a BUNCH of them here in Paragon. These ugly suckers beamed down and basically seemed to just be standing around. What we didn't know was that they were establishing beachheads. And when they were ready, BAM. Been to Boomtown yet?"

That seemed to wake him up a little. "Yeah...Boomtown...figured it had been hit by the war...."

She nodded. "Yep." She decided to give him a little example of why he should not be feeling entirely sorry for himself. "Guy Bella knows named Kuo---his dad was a cop--doing evac out of the tram station there, right up until the station got plastered. Never found anything of him but about half of his badge." She took a sip of her own tea. "Mind you, I have all this at second hand; I wasn't there either. I was Underhill and they wouldn't let any of us out until it was all over."

Lots of people had a lot of reasons to hate the Rikti. He would have to get used to the fact that he was only one.

"After that you kind of knocked around the world, ended up here, started doing the hero thing," she continued, as he nodded, still silent. "Got into Anarchy as a philosophy that appealed to you."

That finally extracted some words from him. "Anarchy? Like, no government, that sort of thing?"

She tried to remember what Johnny had said. He'd been kind of passionate about it. "Ah kind of. More or less Personal Freedom combined with Personal Responsibility taken as far as it can go. Never appealed to me so that's as much as I know."

Once again, he proved to her that he was not---quite---the same mane. "I've read some 'bout it....Enrico Malatesta, that sort of thing. Thought it was a bit idealistic..."

She shrugged. "You're in a city of heroes. Where else does idealism fit in?" she asked logically.

He looked as if that had never occurred to him. "Guess you're right..."

Now they were getting very, very close to the heart of the matter. "Anyway, one day you ran into CCCP and they appealed to you. Guess you got tired of being a lone wolf. Checked 'em out, joined up. And that's where you started reconnecting with the rest of the human race....with a little special help......"

She allowed her voice to trail off. Here was where her experience as a writer, with pacing and impact, was going to pay off big dividends. Or so she hoped.

He looked up for the first time since she had begun speaking. "What do you mean?"

She sucked on her lower lip. "Seems that our group in general and you and a couple of others in particular.....got some guidance. Someone to help you over the rough patches, psychologically and emotionally speaking...."

He looked as if he was bracing himself. "You're bein' vague, kiddo...just lay it out for me. I don't think things could get much worse..."

She smiled, a little sadly. "Well, it's not worse, it's better, it's just.....also a matter of belief. Not everyone believes that we had an angel with us. A no shit, no kidding, angel."

"Flame?" he asked.

She nodded. "Yep. Some of us....well, we were *so* bad off she could't get near us---telempath, you see---so she was training Bell as her---apprentice---and Bella would get us over the initial hump to where she could actually approach us. But when people were ready---she'd start talking to 'em. Help 'em out, because according to her, they were important to the overall scheme of things. You were one of 'em. Mind you---that doesn't mean you are ever going to be in a position to Save The World single-handed. More like---saving it in crucial little bits at a time."

He looked at her, his expression subdued, his mug forgotten in his hands. "Don't worry. I don't have any 'delusions of grandeur' yet."

She took a deep breath and flexed shoulders stiff with tension. She hoped to hell that when Big Red found out what she was doing he wouldn't be angry with her. But someone had to tell him.... "As I understand it, our group got tagged 'cause when it comes to doing that, we walk the walk. Even the Commisar goes out before mishes to patrol around here and wipe gangs for a while. Soviette and Bell go out and heal people in the projects, and when some grifting sanitation crew 'forgets' to pick up the garbage we take Chug arount to eat it. So I guess we'd earned a little extra help with our problems."

Time to give him a moment to recover from this part of the infodump. She plucked his mug from nerveless fingers. "I'll brew more tea."

He got up and paced while she did just that. and finally sat down on the couch again, accepting the new mug from her. "I get most of this second hand through Bell, just so you know," she pointed out, sitting down next to him. "According to Bell there are a couple of reason why she came here. The first and most important is that the spirits that have never been incarnate were---losing touch---with mortals. Compassion was becoming
an abstract thing for them, leaving them open to anger and pride, which is what creates the Fallen. So there was a recruitment drive for volunteers to become partially incarnate, exerience mortality and feed it all back
to their siblings as direct experience."

"Ok," he said. She couldn't tell how much of this he believed or didn't believe. She hoped it was most of it. Because in order to understand what Flame had given up for him---

She leaned back and looked up at the line where the wall met the ceiling. "Flame's been studying humans since the beginning and put up her hand. Next reason is that CCCP seems to be a kind of nexus for crucial activity, and she was posted here with us in order to.....hmm....I guess the thing is, make sure people who could be pivot points stayed on the Light side of the balance sheet. She did that by counseling people and basically giving them a little sanity back and some hope, or by putting someone in their path that could do that.....and I have my suspicions that this is why I met Big Red...."

She had suspected Bella to be responsible for that chance meeting. Now she wasn't so sure. Not after all that had happened between them. The Angels of Fire and Love, after all.....

"Lastly she acted as a guardian for a few of our innocents, like Thea," she concluded. "And that's what I've been told. For the people she counseled, when they came to a moment of acceptance, she could---do things for them. Mostly an experience, which seems to have been different for everyone and since I never had one-----?"

She wished now that she had...but Flame had run out of time. "Guess you'd have to talk to someone who had. So that was our angel." She sighed with regret. "Glad we hd her for a little while, anyway."

At that point she noticed he had gone off into some kind of a trance, and waved her hand in front of his eyes.

"Hello? Anybody home?"

He snapped back into himself. "Sorry...I was kinda thinkin' 'bout somethin..."

Hmm. "I was saying, that was our angel and I'm glad we had her for a little while, anyway."

He looked only slightly puzzled---and a little wary. "You said 'had'. She seems really down, sayin' she's lost her family...."

Now for the bomb. "She gave up being an angel," Vickie said flatly.

He looked troubled. Well he was about to be a lot more than just troubled. "Why? It seems to be tearin' her up..."

"According to her the universe is goverened by Free Will and free choice," she replied and finished off her tea. "So if you think about it, miracles aren't really compatible with that. The loophole that allows them is something she called the "Law of Equivalent Excahnge"---to get a miracle you have to give up something equally miraculous." Here it comes, Blaze. I hope you're ready. "She gave up being an angel....to pay for a miracle."

He shook his head in disbelief. "What was the miracle?"

Time for the first warning. "Are you *sure* you want to know?" she asked.

He looked at her, his expression neutral. "Do I?"

She looked him straight in the eyes. "I'm going to warn you here---one of the Laws that I operate by is 'Be careful what you ask for.' I---*I* think you should know."

He held up a hand to forestall her. "Wait. She said that she might get in trouble, that she might have somethin' bad happen if she told me something...I don't know for sure, but this might be it. Would tellin' me get 'er in trouble?"

So there was concern there---in fact, if she was reading him right, there was a great deal of concern, if she was reading him right. The question was, what kind of concern? Merely friendly? Worse, pitying? Well, it
was getting rather too late to turn back now. Whether or not they would make the same connection a second time was out of her hands. "No. Because she told most people not to tell you, but she didn't get around to me. That was because I was keeping myself conspicuously absent." She raised an eyebrow at him. "You might say that one of my specialties is finding loopholes. Or making them. This time I made [i]myself[/i] into a loophole of sorts."

He listened, his expression a complete deadpan.

"I am an optimistic pessimist," she told him. "I believe that everything will go to hell in a handbasket, but that if you make enough loopholes and fallback plans you can get out of most bad situations." She stopped
being friendly, and regarded him with what her troupe used to call That Look. "So....third time, and in my line of work the third time is binding. [i]Do you still want to know what connection Flame has with you, knowing that the implications for you are serious?"[/i]

There was a long moment, as if he was truly considering every possible ramification. And if that was true, it was the best possible thing he could do. "...yes," he said at last.

She got up. The DVD compiled of the footage captured by all of the cameras and commsets at the Arena and the Plaza that day was already cued up. Bella wasn't the only one with skills; in this case, however, the skills had been purchased. Vickie had had the idea she might need this. The editing was professional and skillful, and caught every word, every moment that counted.

The merging, the sacrifice, and the aftermath at Atlas Plaza was captured in detail that showed every tear on Flame's face, every moment of her pain, the tiniest nuance of her anguish. Even someone who did not know that Flame and John Murdock were lovers would have figured it out within seconds. And then, to see that moment when Michael Azir took her power---her cries of bereavement---even if you did not believe in angels you would have known that she had given up something vital to herself, knew that the blow had struck her to the soul.

This was a moment that Murdock had not himself witnessed.

He watched in silence.

"You can tell me to stop at any point," she said softly.

The footage caught the moment when she arrived, her costume gone from the gold of flame to the red of blood, her eyes become totally human, and stood beind him forlornly waiting for him to notice her, her reaction to his non-recognition, when she ran away in tears. And the last thing she said as she blundered into the sky, vision blurred with tears, "I will love you foever."

He watched it till the end. "Now would be good..."

This was not the moment to let silence linger. "Talk to me. This is supposed to be information, not a guilt-trip. You've got some responsibility to her, but not neccesarily the responsibility to---to force yourself back to her side. [i]She[/i] made her choice freely, knowing what she faced---that after all that, you wouldn't know her anymore."

He sounded stunned. Well, he should be. "She...loved me?"

"More than life," she said, frankly. "Still does, I expect. But that doesn't oblige you to love her back. You aren't the same man. If you were to ask my opinion, I would say that it does obligate you to help her. I
dunno how, but she's in a world of pain and...well the rest of us have run out of ways to try and make it better."

He looked shaken to his soul "She went through all of that...to save me. Because she loved me..."

"Shit, Blaze, what she's done to save you is only just starting," she said wearily. She shook her head. "She's just lost hope completely, and I am damned if I know how to give it back to her."

Now he turned stricken eyes on her. "I...I was gonna try to help her, anyways. She's a good person..." A pause, and he added quietly, "In a bad place..."

She waited. She heard a new resolution in his voice. "now that I know this...I'm not gonna be theatric and pledge my life to her...but if she needs anything, it's hers..." He swallowed. "This is all happenin' very
fast...."

She patted his arm. "I know. You had this stuff dumped on you. Thing is---she won't ask. Partly because it all has to be [i]your[/i] free choice and free will, partly because she doesn't know what she needs." She sighed. "Frankly, neither do the rest of us. We're only human ."

Blaze shook his head. "I...I'll try my best to help her...you know that I get flashes, right? Little twitches, emotion, light, sound, pictures...I don't know..."

He was looking to her for answers, and she didn't have any. "No, I didn't know you're getting these---flashes. I don't know what they mean, honestly, or even if they have any meaning at all. All I know for certain is that if you go to her out of a sense that you're *obliged* to love her, or pretend to love her, you'll----you'll screw the whole thing up."

Blaze Phoenyx stood up abruptly. "I'd never do that. I couldn't."

She waved at him, cutting off whatever declaration he was about to make. "Oh, sit down. The one thing this situation does not need is drama. Or should I say, 'more' drama."

He stood there uncertainly. "Some folks in the CCCP, I think New Adam and his wife; they mentioned somethin' 'bout a procedure, somethin' they could do. If my memories aren't permanently lost---"

She regarded him solemnly. "That sonmething you're comfortable with?"

Blaze looked even more uncertain. "I don't know..."

"Then don't commit to it, she said immediately.

The look he turned on her was full of pleading. "I want to remember. I'm more certain of that then ever."

Oh boy. This was getting into dangerous territory. "You aren't going to help her by not being comfortable in your own skin. You are *not* the same man. And there are some things in your memory you might not want to have again."

His tone sharpened. "What do you mean? What don't I want to remember?"

Instead of answering him directly, she gave him the first warning. "'Be careful what you ask for;' I've socked you between the eyes once today."

He shook his head and sat down. "It's too late for that. Don't hold out on me, Victoria...If I'm going to remember, I need to know what I'm tryin' to remember."

"It is my personal opnion you don't need anything else right now," she warned.

But his expression and his tone had firmed. "Please, tell me."

"Second warning: 'Be careful what you ask for,'" she told him. "Third warning pays for all---"

Blaze looked completely determined now. "I know. I'm asking to learn who I was. Good...and bad."

Vickie sighed. Once again, she got up, and went to the safe in the bottom drawer of her desk. She opened it, she took out a file. and handed it to him. He took it, and looked up at her. "This is all of it?"

She nodded. "This is the years I didn't tell you about. The 'program.' What I could get from sources, and something from Bell. A confessional, I expect. I don't know what you told Flame but I expect it was a lot
more. You were a hurting guy at the beginning. At the end, you were a healed guy." She paused. "Um---" she added, "One more thing. It occurs to me you might have left a message for yourself in that aparment
somewhere. You might try and figure out where you would have left it."

He stood up. "I'm...gonna go now. I have some reading to do, it looks like. Vickie--"

She nodded. "Yo."

"I'm sorry. To make ya go through all of this. But thanks. A lot. If ya ever need anythin', kiddo, just ask. Roger?"

"Kiddo." As if she was younger than he. If he only knew.

"Hey", she said, "No worries. Probably ask you to help out here and there."

He nodded and started towards the door, but she wanted to make sure he heard what she had told him. "Yo John?"

"Yeah?" he replied.

"Just keep in mind what I said about obligation," she said, with force. "You've got a responsibility, but not an obligation."

"I know...I've never been one to turn down either," he replied, then saw in her expression that she had more to say. "Yeah?"

"Well--you're dealing with someone who doesn't know how to be human," she reminded him.

Somewhat to her surprise he chuckled weakly. "I've already found that out. Bought her lunch."

She couldn't help it; she'd dealt with nonhumans before, and winced. "Don't tell me. Hadn't eaten. Didn't know she should."

He shrugged. "Yep. Helped sell me a bit more that she isn't from around here. Not completely...but enough."

"Well, maybe you can discharge some of that by showing her things," she pointed out. "Like---I'm not sure she gets the idea that she's supposed to have---clothing. Not that she walks around naked but---she sleeps in that costume."

He chuckled more heartily now. "Yeah...well. I think I'll be talkin' with her a lot...but first, I need to get home. Get all of this worked out."

She nodded. "Yeah. Still. Try teaching her stuff. Show her stuff. Hell, take her to a zoo or a museum. Teach her to cook, how to make Jello and scramble an egg. How to fix a leaky faucet, change a lightbulb, find a phone number, shop for groceries---ah--you get it."

He nodded. "I will. I'll find plenty to do. Ms. Victrix? Thanks again."

"Vic," she corrected. "Or Vickie."

"Sorry---Vic. Thank you."

She smiled, feeling a great kinship with this "new" John. "Two soldiers don't need to be formal," she reminded him. You and I have that in common."

He nodded. "I understand."

She had the feeling he did. She only hoped he understood enough.