Safe Within You

From the Story Arc: Goodbye

(posted Thursday, December 06, 2012)

SAFE WITHIN YOU

Safe Within You, The Video Please watch in HD and full screen if you can.


King’s Row was empty. The CCCP HQ was emptier still; there was literally no one there but Bella, who sat at her laptop in her office, typing. Typing, and shivering.

There was no one left in the building now, and it had been emptying since the world had learned that…pretty soon, there would be no world.

December first. It would all end the first second of December first.

Three months ago, everyone learned that the world would end. Not with a titanic battle, like she had fought before, but in nothingness. There would be no survivors. There would not even be a universe. Even Mender Silos, that ultimate plotter Lord Nemesis, was taken by surprise.

The revelation had hit every hero, villain and Praetorian at the same moment. And there was no discounting it. It was as if some faceless, heartless CEO had handed out a spiritual pinkslip to everyone, not only in this reality, but to every reality to which Primal Earth had a connection.

There was no doubt. You just knew, deep inside, a fact, just like the sun coming up was a fact, that Mender Silos was really a future version of Lord Nemesis was a fact, like Hellions would steal purses was a fact. Every oracle, every mystic Bella had consulted had said the same thing. This is the end.

They’d had three months of warning, and people had all reacted differently, depending on who they were. Some lived in denial, or in hope of a sudden reprieve. There had been a rush on Portal Corps, as people sought places to escape to, only to arrive there and still have the same certainty in their gut—this is the end. Then the Portal Corps personnel themselves vanished. That was when people started playing Portal Roulette, hoping to escape by finding some place you could reach by Portal that wasn’t going to snuff out with the rest.

Spin the dial, step through…and wind up…where? Deep space? An airless moon? Some place where you would end up wishing you had been erased after all? It seemed worth the risk to some.

Her Russians, her CCCP though…mostly gone. Back to Russia for some of them, but she suspected, given to bleak despair as Russians were, they’d ended themselves on their own terms rather than wait for an ending. Going somewhere the hospital teleporters didn’t reach, drinking themselves to death, or going out as Zach had gone, in a battle against stupid odds. Because there were plenty of those, as bad people took advantage of the situation, or reacted to it with a despair as deep as any Russian’s.

So far as she knew, the only people left in CCCP HQ were the Murdocks, Vickie, and the ‘bots. Even Thea and Berkut had vanished somewhere. Even Chug, dear, faithful Chug…had gone off to the park, curled up under his favorite tree…and just…stopped. Now he looked like any other huge boulder, of which there were so very many.

"...I've been writing to you every night since you've been gone, Zach. I suppose some people would think it's insane, but there are times when I'm certain you are somehow reading these things. I'm scared, baby. I'm scared. And so alone..."

She had stayed on, clinging to duty, as she had clung to it for the last five years since Zach had died. Duty to her comrades was, really, the only thing that had kept her going these five—almost six—long years. Now, duty was habit, and she might as well cling to it there, too.

As the hospital personnel vanished, she reprogrammed the porters to send people who still had their mediporter tags here, instead. There hadn’t been the rush of injured she had expected. Probably people were, like her Russians, removing their tags and going out in a last defiant gesture against the night.

She had just moved in here. The HQ had been turned into a sanctuary against every sort of emergency after the second Rikti Invasion—stocked with everything that could possibly be needed, rations to last six months with the full Duty Roster standing watch. With just the handful left, well…

Some took refuge in religion; churches were still full, around the clock.

But there were also riots, and looting, and worse, as despair joined evil in a last orgy of hate-fueled violence. But the CCCP HQ defenses had been built by Petrograd, and were run by the ‘bots, who didn’t sleep. She was safe here, or would be, until the end.

The sound of her typing on the keyboard was the only thing in the office. Too soft a sound to obscure the memories that engulfed her.

The first time she’d ever seen Zach, he had holding open the door of the most beat-to-death panel van she’d ever seen, waiting for her to jump in. She had been new to the city, and a friend of her parents had written her a letter introducing her to Red Saviour, the Commissar of the CCCP. Zach and Untermensch had come to the airport to pick her up, with Madame Molotov riding proverbial shotgun.

She only had eyes for Zach. He was the first “mutant of color”—green—besides herself that she had ever seen. But it wasn’t the color of his skin that had drawn her. That grin…those mischievous eyes, behind his little domino mask…that cute little soul-patch on his chin…it might not have been love at first sight, but it had certainly been infatuation.

Then she’d found out he had a girl, he was living with a girl, and, well, she didn’t poach on another gal’s man. She immersed herself in fitting into CCCP Medical under Soviette and Thahn Ha. She applied some of her modern knowledge of computers and communications to the CCCP’s antiquated systems. She thought she had successfully crushed all those feelings down into a box and locked the top on it.

But she hadn’t. And as Zach cheerfully took on the job of being her mentor in the field in CCCP, she couldn’t help but notice that when he was with Carpathia he always looked anxious and a little unhappy. But when he was with her, they were always laughing, no matter how dire the situation was.

I remember every minute with you as if it was yesterday.

Making jokes about the Carnival of Shadows; catcalling Nemesis soldiers…then he decided she was good enough—her!—to take with him on Portal missions to other worlds, where she stuck to him like glue, healing him with a fierce protectiveness that startled him, guarding him as best she could, so he could concentrate on the fighting he did so well.

And then they’d come out of the Portal mission accomplished. And they’d stood there, talking and laughing, oblivious to the Portal techs…and then he’d leaned in…said something she hadn’t caught, because she’d been so breathless, looking deeply into his eyes. And then as if he couldn’t help himself, he kissed her.

And they had promptly been caught in mid-clinch by Carpathia’s best friend, emerging from the same Portal. Like a bad sit-com, or a worse romantic drama.

But that was when she had known there was no way she could lock those feelings down again, and that it wasn’t infatuation after all.

I know when we both realized we were perfect together. It was because we could make each other laugh.

Somehow, with all of the universe seemingly against them, it had worked out. Through a lot of tears, and doubt, grief, and even tragedy…it had worked out. Through her best friend Johnnie Murdock’s near-death, rebirth via Kheldian fusion, and memory loss, it had worked out, as Zach stood by both of them, a pillar of unbreakable strength until Johnnie was himself again.

When her own powers went rogue, through her almost dying, it had worked out. The first thing she had seen when she swam back up into consciousness had been him, looking as if he had been at her side, never leaving it, for a week. It turned out that he had…and that was when he told her he loved her, he was never going to leave her, and she had damn well better never do anything like that again.

After that, they were inseparable. When CCCP ran out of cash, and she got modeling gigs to make ends meet, he’d volunteered and became as much in demand as she was—not that she was surprised. When Red Saviour retired and Untermensch disappeared on some secret project or other, they’d both been promoted to Commissar. They each kept their own apartments—in the same building—but it was rare that either of them was alone in their own spaces. They made love, and fought evil, and went to movies, and saved the world—together, always together. She could hardly count the times they were apart. Her family took him to their hearts as if he had always belonged there; in her family he found the home he’d never had.

He was her star. She was his babycake.

Then, life, and things got…complicated. Not for them—but because of things that happened with other heroes. Legal things. There were some nasty trials, and people started talking about laws to restrict powers. It was obvious someone was going to have to go to Washington to represent them.

And the heroes of Paragon City asked Zach to be that person. Unlike some of the other leaders, he was able to keep his formidable temper in check. His face was already out there, not only as the CCCP Commissar, but as the innocuous model of Green Glow. It was a stealth move on all their parts. No one in politics would ever expect a male model to have the savvy that Zach had. Charisma, yes, savvy, no. They’d try to manipulate him, while he, who had learned literally cut-throat politics at the feet of Soviets who had survived Stalin, would be manipulating them.

He hadn’t wanted to leave her, but she could tell he was excited. Too often, people just saw how he could fight, how he could level just about any foe, and thought of him as a kind of dumb jock. This would be his chance to use his charm and his mind, and how could she have held him back from that? She couldn’t, of course. So off he went.

##

“Hey babycakes,” said Zach softly into Bella’s ear, bringing her all the way to wakefulness. She cuddled a little closer to him, kissed his neck.

“Not time to get up yet,” she murmured.

“You could persuade me.” She opened one eye enough to see his grin.

“Oh, I bet I could, couldn’t I?” If he was going to drop her hints like that, she was going to grab them with both hands and run with them…

So it was some time, and a lot of burned calories later when he purred into her ear again, “Hey, babycakes. This time I really do have to get moving.”

She sighed with regret and unwound herself from Zach and bedclothes. “I’ll make you some breakfast.”

They were in his apartment, not hers. Last night he’d wanted to watch some disaster-laden effects movie on the bigger TV, and there really was no good reason to go back downstairs afterwards. She pulled one of shirts on over her head and padded to the kitchen to whip up a Zach-sized meal. She had no idea where he put it all. It didn’t seem physically possible to her for that much food to fit in a normal-sized stomach.

He joined her in the kitchen, looking every inch the Washington mover-and-shaker, suit, tie, just…all his style. And he looked like what he was; a cape. He had that air about him. He came up behind her and put both arms around her and she leaned her head back and nuzzled his jawline. “You smell so good,” she sighed. “I never get tired of it. If we could bottle that, men would never be able to pry women off of themselves.”

“But we could never bottle the animal magnetism that goes with it,” he smirked, and she laughed.

“Too true.” She turned in his arms, kissed him thoroughly, and pushed him towards the counter. “Eat. You need to keep up your strength.”

“After a wake up like that? You’d better feed me!”

She watched him as he ate, both of them going over things that needed to get done for CCCP, when suddenly he stopped and put down his fork.

“No modeling jobs?” he asked. “You aren’t doing a gig?”

She half-smiled, ruefully. “Please tell me you won’t miss those if we quit…”

He snorted. “The first time or two was fun, but—“

“I told them we won’t be taking any more,” she said, relieved. “With Saviour being in charge of CCCP’s funding…if it all goes pear-shaped again, I can go back to it, or if there’s a good enough cause to fund, but otherwise…” She sighed. “Well…I don’t get enough time with you, I just got my full unrestricted MD, I’ve got plenty of other things to keep me busy. I don’t want a model shoot to get in the way of being with you or anything else that’s really important. And it always was an uneasy compromise with ‘correct thinking’.”

“Good.” He grinned, and went back to eating. “Besides, we have enough GammaBars and Green Glow to last us twenty lifetimes.” He polished off the last bite and checked his watch. “OK. Got to go. Gremlin’s meeting me there, I’m gonna show him our alleged government at alleged work.”

She stood on tiptoe and wrapped herself around him, kissing him as if she was about to send him into battle. Which she always did, whether it was across a Portal or to get a loaf of bread. “I love you,” she breathed. “Truly, deeply, love you. You’re my star. Knock the stuffing out of them.”

He laughed. “There are times I wish I could. Love you too, babycakes. More than ever.”

And then he was gone.

##

You were so proud of being sent to Washington. If I'd known...I would never have held you back. But I would have gone with you.

She didn’t want those memories…she didn’t…but she couldn’t hold them back, and her heart cried out with the same anguish it had back then—worse, because now she knew what was coming…

##

“Commissar! Come quickly!" The shout from multiple throats jarred Bella out of her paperwork-trance. The tone was urgent...alarmed...

She vaulted over the desk and sprinted for the rec room. A cluster of comrades either back from, or not yet gone out on patrol were clustered around the television monitor. Scrolling across the bottom were the words Breaking News: Carnage in the Capitol.

Accustomed now to taking in battle scenes at a glance, she read it all. The bodies first, the camera kept going back to them. The location--a second headline screamer read CCCP Heroes at Pentagon. Zach and Gremlin...she knew both of them so well she could pick them out at just about any distance.

The opponents--the odds didn't bother her so much as seeing that Zach looked to be evenly matched. She couldn't recall the last time that had happened...Tyrant, maybe? But that was an alternate timeline, not here. This could get very ugly for "collateral damage"...

But Zach would know that. He was such an experienced fighter...he would be thinking of ways to take the fight to an emptier location.

Someone made room for her and she sat down on the edge of the sofa, eyes glued to the set, hands clasped hard, her heart in her mouth.

##

The TV coverage had gone to split-screen; Gremlin in the Potomac, beating down copies of the one that the TV people were calling "Mr. Xerox," Zach at the airport hammering Weaponized. The group in the lounge was remarkably silent; maybe others were cheering as if this was some kind of gladiatorial bout, but the comrades recognized this for the grim fight that it was. There were grunts and exclamations at particularly vicious dirty tricks or hard blows, but that was it.

Bella's gut was clenched, and her nails cutting into her palms. This was agonizing. She wanted to be there, healing Zach, disorienting his opponent, maybe even getting in a radiation-stun so Zach could knock him out. You never knew what kinds of surprises these guys had. They always seemed to have one more dirty trick in reserve.
The orbiting cameras caught every bit of dialogue too. Petrograd hissed when Weaponized called her a bitch and leered about what he was going to do to her; it didn't really register with her. What Weaponized said about her was of no consequence, and Zach was smart enough not to let things like that goad him into being stupid.
Then she saw it, at the same time that the others did. Zach got him. She knew it the instant before the microphones picked up the snap of a broken arm. Now there were cheers—

Until she heard what Weaponized snarled in the next moment.

"If I'm goin', you're comin' along--"

Her heart stopped even as the cheering built.

Involuntarily she reached out to the screen.

Which whited out in a blinding flash of light.

##

"---absolutely horrifying events here in D.C. today, Karen. Two unidentified metas, signified as Weaponized and 'Mr. Xerox' attacked Pentagon personnel. Two heroes arrived on the scene to control the situation, Coalition of Communist Crusaders for the Proletariat's Commissar Bestial Boy and Kremlin Gremlin. After engaging the rogue metahumans, Kremlin Gremlin was able to subdue his opponent. Tragically, Commissar Zachary "Bestial Boy" Marlowe was killed in the final confrontation between himself and the meta 'Weaponized', when a terrible blast rocked the runways at Washington Dulles International Airport. Longbow liaisons within the capitol have lent their best Psychometricists to determine the cause of the blast; initially, reports are coming in that the blast originated from a plasma bomb of some sort implanted within the last rogue meta. The concussive force combined with the overwhelming heat of the blast was enough to vitrify the crater left after the detonation. Only the most resilient of metahumans could have had a hope to survive such a blast. Today is a day of mourning for our entire nation---"

##

Tears burned down her cheeks as she relived that day. It never got better. She had been able to hold things back when there had been people around her, when there had been duty to perform…but it had never, ever gotten better. Six years, and it still felt as if she had been torn into bits by the same bomb that had killed him. She wished…she wished she had been.

But…that had not been an option.

##

She looked out across another sea of stricken faces, but this time she could give them no song of hope. It wasn’t in her. She had words for them. She didn’t know if they would comfort, but at least they would honor.

She cleared her throat, gently. “Many people in very high places urged me to hold this ceremony in Washington. They had very persuasive arguments; they were going to bestow all manner of honors and name Zachary Marlowe a ‘True American Hero.’ I told them no. Because that would have been wrong, and Zach…Zach would have hated that.

Let me tell you about Zachary Marlowe.

He was given away by his parents to a faceless corporation with a contract to create super-soldiers. He’d made a mistake. His powers had hurt someone. He was just a little boy, and he had no idea that he could do that. He didn’t understand why people were suddenly afraid of him. We’ve all heard that same story too many times; what was different about this one was that this little boy was sent off to become an experiment. That loving, caring, frightened little boy was treated like a lab rat, deliberately kept from human warmth, turned into a feral thing. He escaped from that environment into the streets, where he became an uncommon thug who enjoyed the fear of others, because he had been made to fear so much himself. He preyed on the weak and avoided the strong; made few friends, and none of them for long.

Then, one day, he encountered something he had never seen before. The strong helping the weak, in a very meaningful way. Not just knocking down a purse snatcher, but offering a helping hand. A warm meal, a job, a place to learn, help whenever and wherever it was needed, no questions asked, no payment taken.

He encountered the CCCP.

They—we—gave him what he most craved, most needed. We gave him family. We gave him acceptance. We gave him something to live up to and something to believe in. His home, his heart, were here, with us. He was in Washington for us, and for those like us. His passion was to serve the people. He was given many honors and countless accolades, and he kept them all in a box. He never displayed them. For Zach Marlowe, no badge, no medal, was the equal of one little old lady’s ‘thank you.’

That was Zach Marlowe the hero. Zach Marlowe the man—“ She shook her head. “Was one of the kindest, funniest men I have ever known. He had a heart so big not even what had been done to him as a child could stunt it. He was braver than anyone I have ever known. He never thought of himself as wise, but he was. He always had time for the newest, rawest of his comrades. Most of all, he was passionate. He took big bites of life, and shared what he had gladly, not just material things, but his zest for everything about being alive. He was…our star. Not like a Hollywood star, but the star you look to at night, to show you the way.

For him, the way always led back here, to us, his comrades. That was why I wouldn’t let them have this ceremony any place other than here. His home was here. His home will always be here, with us, in our hearts.”

She stepped down from the podium and went to Chug, who was standing quietly by the memorial stone newly-set into the side of HQ, at the Monument to Fallen Heroes. She handed Chug the Hero of the City badge she had taken from Zach’s medal-case, one of the little name-tags from his uniforms, and his red and gold CCCP Commissar’s insignia. Right now the stone had only Zach’s real name, his hero name, and the dates chiseled into it.

“You remember what we did, right, Chuggie?” she whispered. The paving stones of the garden were now ornamented with discarded bits of insignia where they had practiced an hour or two ago.
Chug nodded solemnly.

“OK. Be very careful. Put the first one right here.” She held her finger beneath the name.
With infinite gentleness, the most powerful member of CCCP pressed the nameplate and the two medals into the stone. The power that could crush anything slowly fused all three into the rock, making them a part of it for all time. Heat came off the stone in waves; heat released as the rock was compressed and almost liquefied.

“Good job, Chuggie,” she said warmly, holding back her tears. Not yet. It wasn’t time to let go yet. Chug held her hand as gently as a child’s as the rest of the ceremony went past her in a blur.

She did not stay for condolences; she left that in the hands of John Murdock, Thanh Ha, and Communard. She had been taking condolences for three days, and however many more people there were who wanted to tell her how sorry they were, there was nothing more to be said, for numbers would not change anything. She had given all the comfort she could, now; the well had run dry. she was spent and empty. Tomorrow the well would fill again, but for tonight there was nothing left to give them but her own pain. She vanished instead into HQ…literally. She’d taken a stealth unit from the armory and switched it on, heading for the roof.

Whether she ever would heal herself…she couldn’t tell right now. She had no experience in this kind of loss. But they must. The sooner, the better. Life would go on, and it would be better going on with them than with them swirling in some stagnant, back-water eddy. There would be joy for them, and yes, more pain, and they would all help each other over the latter and celebrate the former.

And she would go on, too. In pain, or not, she would go on. Removing herself from the world was not an option.

Finally, they were all gone, and the Row was silent.

##

The Row was silent once again.

Life had gone on. No matter how much she wanted to die, she had to live. CCCP needed her. Paragon needed her. There were too many demands on her, and she had stumbled through the first year, faltered through the second, made it through the third, the fourth, the fifth…somehow. She went to sleep at night, every night cuddled up against one of his old shirts, crying herself to sleep as she breathed in the faint scent of him. She cried a lot, but never where anyone could see her. Somehow with a heart so shattered she wondered how it could still function, she made it through, tended her comrades, healed the wounds of heart, body and mind…somehow.

But she had never really laughed again.

And now, a more ominous silence hung over the Row.

You could see it now, the Void, hanging like a great whirlpool in the sky, day and night, growing nearer all the time.

The Void is coming for us all. Somehow the warning made it worse.

Early on, even ordinary people began disappearing, taking matters into their own hands rather than waiting to be swallowed up. The closer the Void got, the emptier Paragon became. The emptier the base—all the bases—became. Really, the only one still functioning in the CCCP’s alliance network was the CCCP base and the attached coffeehouse. All the rest were dark, dead, power cut off.

Besides the Void hanging overhead, there was another phenomena. Shooting stars, the biggest and brightest she’d ever seen.

Only…they weren’t. Meteors, that is.

Montague says that what I thought are shooting stars are the souls of people trying to leave.

The mere thought made her cold and sick.

At least this time of night, the Void was hanging over some other part of the world. The souls weren’t flying frantically past, or if they were, you couldn’t see them. She could go out on the roof and pretend for a moment that—

No. She couldn’t. But her terror wouldn’t let her sit here anymore, surrounded by the reminders of just how alone she was.

She fled to the roof and sat there, empty night sky overhead, empty street below her. Not even clockroaches scuttling around. Even the Clockwork King’s little toys had vanished.

She gave in, and cried. There was no one to see her, after all. There was no one anywhere; friends, enemies, all gone. And I've never been so afraid, and so alone.

Tears burned down her cheeks, and she sobbed helplessly. How did any of this matter? Why had she continued to exist for six lonely years, when it all came to this, vanishing, forgotten, nothing, as the cold, dark Void erased everything she had been, everything he had been, everything they stood for?

What did it matter, when even love was not enough against the Void?

And then…a whisper into the silence. "Don't cry, babycakes. You aren't alone. You've never really been alone."

Her sobs choked off as she leapt to her feet and whirled, heedless of the fact that she was three stories above the ground on a ledge. Because only one person had ever, ever called her “babycakes”…

“Zach?” she called, unable to believe it. “Zach!”

And it was. He was there. Faded, transparent…but still Zach. Smiling at her, that goofy, toothy grin.

"You were right. I never left you." He held out his hand to her as she stood, frozen with shock. "Now it's time."

“Time?” She was still in shock. And she didn’t understand him. “Time for what?”

His grin softened to the most loving expression she had ever seen on his face. "Time for you to come with me, forever.”

And now her feet unfroze from the ledge, and she ran, ran into his open arms, feeling them solidify around her, and hold her, as she put her arms around him.

“I'm safe with you, babycakes, and you're safe with me," he whispered into her hair. “Always loved you. Always will.”

His arms tightened around her, and a great white light grew up around them, and filled her, and all the world went white.

And the roof was empty beneath the stars.