Crossroads

From the Story Arc: Phoenyx Ascendant

Previous Story in the Arc: Bearer Of Bad News Pt 2 by Seraphic Flame (Friday, February 03, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Complications by Seraphic Flame (Tuesday, March 14, 2006)

(posted Friday, February 10, 2006)

So. Here they were. Three couples; one married, two not. All of them here to discuss a subject, a problem, that was not only heartbreaking to the couple immediately involved, but had some...interesting...ramifications for the other two.

Vickie and Bella exchanged a glance--one that their respective partners did not even seem to notice. But both of them knew that this subject might well put pressure on Red and Zach that neither woman wanted them to feel. Nevertheless, these two were also Sera and Johnny's closest friends. Zach was their Commissar. They had to be here.

So an unspoken agreement passed between Bella and Vickie, Let's get through this now. We'll deal with the awkwardness later.

Sera and John sat so close to one another that you couldn't have inserted a sheet of paper between them, with their hands clasped together. Finally Sera looked up, and sighed.

"We have--a problem--John and I," she said, quietly. "We had hoped--" her voice faltered, then she continued on. "We had hoped for children of our own. Besides Ratt and Shuma. But--" Her voice faltered again, and Bella quickly picked up the thread as Sera's eyes dropped to her hand clasped in John's.

Quickly Bella described how she had gotten wind of this and run full genetic tests on John. What the results were. What the options, as she saw them, were. And through this all, Vickie watched Sera grow paler and paler...more and more drained and defeated looking. She hadn't looked like this since the days when Johnny was Blaze Phoenyx, with no recollection of the previous ten years of his life.

Zach shifted in his seat. Battle strategies, combat techniques, he felt comfortable discussing those topics. But what could he say on the subject of love, family, or children? He cared very deeply for his friends, and the pain emanating from Sera and John was virtually palpable to Zach. But all he knew about love and family had been taught to him fairly recently in his life. As he watched Bella, and he listened to her explain the situation, he thanked his lucky stars he'd found such a teacher.

When Bella finished her explanation, she looked at John, who cleared his throat awkwardly. "The problem with these solutions, comrades, is that they just don't seem like solutions to me," he began.

"The first option, like Bella said, is gene therapy. Sera an' I've already agreed that it isn't an option. It'd be like robbing our children of their potential, their birthright, 'fore they're even born." He shook his head, sighing. "Just wouldn't be right, having a kid growing up with two capes for parents, only to wonder why he's ‘different’ from 'em. The other option...the one that worked for me. A Kheldian fusion...I was able to make the choice, willfully, with full knowledge of what that choice meant. Everythin' I would gain an' everythin' I would give up. But our children...they wouldn't have time to become old enough for that choice to fully register with them, for the implications to sink in. There's a lot of risk in bein' a Kheldian, and I---we just couldn't put that on our child. Besides, actually finding a Kheldian willing to merge is hard enough. There might be thousands of unbonded Khelds runnin' around Earth at any given point, but it's still somethin' special to get one to fuse. I was lucky as all hell to...well, to know Home World, an' for him to be in the condition he was in." The last statement hushed John, seeming to force him inward on himself. It wasn't an easy thing for him to reconcile, what had happened to Home World so that John could live.

Vickie licked her lips. "So. Now we get to me. Another...option. Bella thought, well, maybe magic might do the trick where science can't. Elven magic, specifically. That maybe the elves--we didn't have a lot of time to ask them when you were sick, John, but this is proactive rather than reactive. So this time I went to some of the very old Elven mages, the ones it's kind of hard for a mortal to talk to. Hell, it's kind of hard for most Elves to get to talk to them. But I'm not walking wounded anymore. I'm--capable." She glanced at Red, and saw his eyes smile. Encouraged, she continued. "So I just spent the last several days Underhill working my way up the ladder. And there--is a way. Not a fusion. Not removing the kids' powers. And not making them live Underhill for the rest of their natural lives. And--" now she gave Sera a look full of compassion. "Not having to give up the idea of having your own kids. A fifth option. You want the good part or the bad part first?"

John sat up a little straighter. He'd never been all that knowledgeable about magic or anything arcane, and only had gained a smattering of information in his time as a hero. What he had learned, however, made him extremely wary of anything---or anyone---involved with it. But Vickie...she was a friend, a good friend. John knew that she'd never lead him and Sera astray. "We'll take it all, Vic. Just lay it out for us." He looked over to Sera, still a bundle of nerves; he smiled, doing his best to lend his strength to her. This wasn't going to be easy for either of them.

"Kheldian energy is just--energy. Like magical energy is just energy. It would be different if Johnny's fusion had been a regular fusion, with another personality involved, but it wasn't, all he got was the shell and not the soul. So we can do something with it we couldn't otherwise. We can divide it. Split it right down the middle. Half to Johnny, and half to the child. We can do this right after--ah--" she blushed. "--ah, conception. That's the good part."

She glanced at Sera; for some reason, this wasn't cheering Sera up at all. She swallowed hard, and continued. "Here's the bad part. Nothing in magic is free. Not ever. This is going to cost you. Johnny, it'll cost you half your life. You'll only live about half as long as you will if you don't do this."

Half of his years? Fused as he was and a metahuman to boot, he would naturally live longer than most could ever hope to; cut that in half, and he'd still have a long, full life ahead of him. He just about blurted out that he'd give his energy in a heart beat, but caught himself. He was bonded with Sera, from the moment she had sacrificed her divine connection; when one of them passed on, so would the other. Instantly and painlessly. They were joined, now and forever, and there was nothing that could change that. But this added an element; he couldn't give of his energy so easily, as he would be selling off half of Sera's life as well. John turned in his seat to look Sera in her eyes, opening his connection to her.

*Do you want this, love? Knowing what it will cost both of us?*

*I--I don't know. I--*

Vickie broke in. "OK, that's not all. The Elves want something out of this too. Service."

Bella frowned. "What sort of service?" she asked, looking suspicious.

"Lifelong. Like me. Like Red. They want one of the Murdocks to pledge fealty to High King Oberon as a Knight-Guardian, to defend the Realms and the Elfhames at need, but most importantly, to guard the Gates of Underhill against intruders from the World Above. And they would prefer a child. One they can teach from the beginning. They'll accept one of you two...but they would prefer the child." There, that was the hard part. "And the last is, I have no idea what this is going to be like for you. Given how painful the original fusion was...I'd prepare for the worst if I were you."

Now all eyes turned to Sera. But it was John who spoke first. "My fusion, for the most part, wouldn't have been painful but for a couple of factors. Most fusions, I'm told, are rather pleasant. Mine wasn't, due to my sickness, initially; my body was just too damaged, and it had started hittin' me particularly hard that night. The biggest reason for the pain was---well, there wasn't anything guiding it. Home World was too hurt himself; he gave me his essence before he passed on, and not a moment too soon. If there had been a Kheldian to help the process, then some of the pain might have been mitigated. But what you're talkin' 'bout---actually splitting the essence between two beings---is unheard of, as far as I know. I don't know what it'd feel like, for me or for the child. Our child." And the not knowing was the scariest part, for John.

"This is sounding worse and worse," Red muttered. "The cost is high, you two would be paying with parts of your lives..."

"Last I heard, that's part of what being a parent is, no?" Bella raised a finger. "No matter what happens, once you have kids, your lives change forever." He wasn't sure, but Zach thought he caught a wistful look in Bella's eyes when she talked about having kids. Maybe it was just the emotion of the moment...or maybe it was something else.

"... with no real certainty what the outcome will be," Red continued, wincing at Bella's last point. "And the way this is sounding, no matter how it turns out, you're deciding a lot for your kids right from the get-go. Kids are.. they're..."

His eyes flashed to Vickie for a moment, and he fell silent.

"Kids..." Vickie thought about her own parents and her sister. How Moira and Alex Nagy's lives must have violently, drastically changed to accommodate kids. "You know," she said, slowly, "My own folks had us...and what they went through just to keep us safe, was at least as harrowing as how this sounds. To me, anyway." She met Red's gaze squarely. "Bottom line here is that well, it's not our decision as to whether it's worth it. It's Johnny and Sera's. We can advise them how we'd feel, but in the end, it's just how--"

"No, we can't," Red objected. "We can inform them on the risks, but there's no way I'm coloring one decision against another, not with something like this. This is... too big. They need to know it all, and make up their own minds. You're right about it being their choice. But if you want to know what I would do in this situation..."

He paused, and turned away. "I just don't know. The pain alone..."

Sera made a small strangled sound. "It--it is not the pain. It is not that--" A slow tear formed and trickled down her cheek. "It is not that--" she glanced at John, a glance so full of both love and pain that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. "To have John--gone--" She gulped and wiped the tear away fiercely. "It does not matter. Where he goes, I follow. It is permitted me now. Nothing will part us, ever again."

Where he goes, I follow? Vickie decided she didn't want to think too hard about that. Though...she knew the feeling. Oh yes. She didn't, did not, want to think about life, living, without Red.

"But it is--" Sera took a deep breath. "Not long ago, something happened. We were in battle against the Carnival of Shadows. There was a Harlequin with a Quantum gun, and she shot me. And--" She shuddered. "John was there. He saw it. I--fell. That never has happened. But more than that, I--I experienced what John must when these foul weapons strike him." Again, tears started. "Now I know how much he shields me from. I felt--as if I had been turned inside out, the skin stripped from me, and I was dipped in brine. It was excruciating. And--" her voice rose to a soft wail. "How can I even think about subjecting a child, our child, to something like this? What mother ever could?"

Zach cleared his throat. "Ahem...listen, I don't know jack about parenting, and I don't pretend to." Zach looked around at his closest companions and friends, "But I do know about being 'subjected' to stuff as a kid. I'll tell you one thing, you are two of the most loving, caring parents a kid could hope for...and that goes a long damn way in my book. Shit happens. Life happens. Kids are made of tougher stuff than you think. What you can give them....what's really important is a family...and that ain't nothing to treat lightly." For a brief second, Zach met eyes with Bella, but the strange look in her eye made him look back at the ground.

Bella blinked back tears for a moment. Happy tears, actually. She wanted to smile, she wanted to laugh, and neither were appropriate right now. Zach had--come home. Nestled into her family like a lost, weary bird come home to a nest. That was so much more than she had ever hoped for. He had a family now. He had her family. And maybe...was it too much to hope for that the two of them could...do something...permanent?

She decided not to think about it. Live in the moment. No pressure.

Vickie cleared her throat awkwardly. "Far be it from me to throw water in the fireplace, but...ok. Let me tell you what it was like growing up as the offspring in a spandex family. More than that, a spook spandex family. I never, ever had a moment past the point when, say, I knew there were no Tooth Fairies, Easter Bunnies or Santa Clauses, when I was not acutely aware of the fact that I was Momma's Little Hostage."

"There's no Santa Claus?" Red asked. "Coulda sworn I've seen a few running around Paragon. And a Health Fairy, next best thing to a Tooth Fairy."

"Don't forget about little green men...." quipped Zach.

Vickie hit Red with a sofa pillow and threw a cracker at Zach. John and Sera both shared a weak smile, thankful for the small touch of levity.

You can't put these two together, Vickie thought. Ever. Unless you want moments of standup interrupting the conference.

"Look," she continued. "I have a serious point to make here, so let me make it. I was educated for as long as I can remember in how to save myself. Because when it came down to cases, I might be the only one who could. And guess what? I did. I had to. I was home eating lunch alone when some goons from some weird santiera cult that my folks were in the process of tracking down broke in and tried to grab me." She closed her eyes a moment, because the memory was one of the most vivid she had of her childhood--a triumph for her, and she had been excited at the time, but it was the sort of "triumph" that would appall most people. Other people might remember their football trophy, or their successful cheerleading tryout as the highpoint of their first year as a teenager. She remembered this. "We're talking real bad magic here, folks. These guys were pretty good and they were vicious. The kind who literally have cauldrons full of baby skulls in their Sanctuaries. But what they weren't expecting was that I'd take the fork I was eating Spaghetti-Os with and pin the hand of one of them to the table, or that I'd pull a thrice-sworn soul-blade out of the air and stab the second one through the eye. But I did, because that is what I had been trained to do, and that is how I spent my childhood. And...I wouldn't want any other kid to have to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of baseball. Especially not my own."

A rather grim silence followed. A silence in which Sera thought of all the horrors that lay out there in wait for a child. Lord Recluse. Circle of Thorns. Vahz. Crey.... She thought about all those evil men, evil creatures, with an eye on her child and her heart sank.

Zach cleared his throat again. "And all I'm saying...for what its worth...is that I would gladly have been run through all the 'training' and 'tests' I went through times ten...if only I knew that my parents gave a crap about me." Zach pointed at Sera and John. "With these two...no kid of theirs could ever doubt that." He paused for a second, then turned away from the group. "But what do I know...you guys need to do what feels right to you."

Bella softly put her hand atop his, and just...sent him love. It seemed the best answer at the moment.

"Look," Red growled, determined to cut to the point. "This is dangerous, the price you two have to pay is almost unimaginable. You're giving up a part of yourselves. You're giving up a part of your kids too, dedicating them from the start to some mystic order of elves. And don't tell me you can predict, even remotely, how this will turn out. What's being proposed here hasn't been tried before, right?"

Vickie nodded somberly. "Roger that. I will be the first to admit that; nothing in magic is safe or certain, it's like Quantum mechanics of the Physics kind. Sooner or later, Heisenberg comes to call. This is completely new. Risky. I trust these mages, but it might not work. Might not work the way they think. Murphy's Law and all that."

"Aye, things can, and usually do, turn on you. Knowing that, the only question is... is it worth it?"

Sera felt as if she was being torn apart and her hand clutched John's. Uncertain magic, an uncertain future, evil forces abounding...weighed against that, was it even right for them to have children?

...the children with John's eyes...the children she ached to see, to know, to love. She felt her eyes burning again and blinked to clear them.

Ah crap.... Vickie sighed. "I...uh...there is one other good thing. I kind of got a promise from my liege. If you were going to do this, it's a package deal. If you want the whole bundle, that is. Raise the kids Underhill in a 'year is as a day' Domain. One year there---but only a day passes up here. Please do not ask me how this works, it just does. Plus there's some playing fast and loose with the Gating in places like this so you can leave there and come back to about the second after you left. Blink in, blink out. Come back up here, keep your mish-work up, come back before anyone notices you're gone down there. Kind of like that gadget in Harry Potter, only you aren't in two places at the same time. It's still a damned dangerous place to live," she cautioned, "But...probably not as dangerous as PC is. And you'll have people whose only business is to keep your kids safe."

"I know this much," John began. "I'm sure as hell not goin' to make my child into any sort of indentured servant. Not anythin' close to it. Y'said that there was a choice, as to which one of us became one of these 'Knights', Vic? I'd give anythin' and everythin' for my family. But---" Sera. Anything that John did would carry over to her. Any sacrifice. And he just couldn't make this decision alone.

Vickie shrugged. "You, Sera, or a kid, and they'd prefer a kid, but this is not like Rumplestiltskin, ok? They train the kid, but ultimately he decides--or, ok she--decides if he or she wants to sign on. I--" She took a deep, deep breath. "I had the same deal through St Rhia's, and damn, I wanted it, I wanted the spurs and the belt and the responsibility from the get-go. A couple of the others who were offered, didn't. So--well, there's that. But someone in the family will have to. You don't go back on bargains with the Elves. It always goes badly when you do."

Red looked down at his belt, his badge of office, and thought of the spurs sitting in his belt pouch. Let's hope it never comes to that then, he thought grimly.

"So, lemme get this straight," John said. "Our child would, if we agreed to this arrangement, receive training as one of these Knights. Then, once old enough, he---or she---would decide whether or not they'd want to take up the obligation? If the answer was 'no', then either Sera or I would have to step in and saddle with it ourselves. Correct?"

"That's it, in a nutshell...now...ok maybe I should make it very clear just what a Knight-Guardian does." Vickie sorted out her thoughts, and continued. "It's not the same as what I am, a Knight-Mage. I'm sworn to a specific Lord. The Guardians are sworn to Underhill. Their primary responsibility is literally to guard the Gates to Underhill. If the Gates are attacked, they defend them. If the Gates are compromised, they hold the Gate until a Great Mage can fix them. And they decide who is and is not allowed to 'come and go and look and know.' What mortals are allowed to cross. What aren't. That's the big thing--see, the Elves have always figured that it's better to have the Guardians of the Gates be half mortals and half Elven, since the mortals are likely to be more open and the Elves the more reactionary. So you get a balance. Oh, and one other thing. If the Realm, the Elfhame, the Guardian is associated with, is under attack, the Guardians have to come defend it. Have to. Only being involved in a similar war-sized conflict is going to get you out of that particular call." She grimaced. "I'm sorry, but 'Synapse has me on a mission right now' is not going to cut it. You drop everything and go."

Bella had been giving this a lot of thought ever since she had given Johnny the initial bad news. A lot of thought. So...maybe it was time for the apprentice counselor to step up to the plate.

"Sera," she said, slowly, "OK. This is me. This is one person's opinion. But--I see way, way more of ordinary cits than any of you. Than all of you put together, I'd venture to say. Yes, Zach, even you, even though you started out on the street--you see the High and Mighty in DC who have Secret Service and bodyguards and god knows what all else to watch their backs, and when you aren't with them, you're here, with the CCCP, your fellow heroes. I spend time with makeup and hair people and key grips and best boys and catering. I still patrol KR just like Saviour does, like you do, Zach, but I don't just rescue and move on, I stay to heal and dry tears and listen to people who've been shaken to the core. Out there--" She waved a hand at the window "--out there are millions and millions of people who, in a world where Lord Recluse and Nemesis, DE and CoT, ordinary thugs and rapists and child abductors abound still make the decision to have families. And they have no powers, no real way to protect themselves nor their kids."

She stopped and collected her thoughts again. She shoved her own wants aside; this was about John and Sera, not about her. "And let's take the kids themselves, the ordinary kids. Remember, I was a trained paramedic after high school, an assistant paramedic, kind of an apprentice, in high school. And I used to heal up my friends before that. Kids get hurt. A lot. They break bones, they have illnesses and accidents, sometimes terrible ones, and they die."

She used the "d" word, used it without any shading. "Accident, illness, god help us, the odd murder. Things in the ordinary world kill kids all the time. People who want to have kids have to face that when they decide to raise families. But they do it anyway. And I don't think they do it out of ignorance. They do it out of hope. They endure pain, they endure hardship, they endure things we don't even have to think about to have those kids--because they hope. They hope that they, and we, will make the world better tomorrow than it is today. They hope that their kids, and ours, will do the same. When it all comes down to it, that's what kids are all about. Hope, against despair. Life against death. Joy against pain. You think they don't have equal or worse uncertainties every time some hopeful mother gets pregnant?" She snorted. "I am here to tell you it's worse for them. What happens when one of them has a powered kid? I was one of the lucky ones. Most radiation mutations die before they're three months old. And if the child-to-be is normal, I could still recite a laundry list of things that can go wrong during pregnancy. Pain of childbirth? That's the least of it. You have to be brave. You have to have hope. You have to light that one candle in the dark if you want to express your love and spread it on to another generation. Uncertainty be damned. Make a leap of faith. Faith, hope and love..." She shrugged. "Or...you don't. The choice is yours. I know what mine would be, in your shoes, but I can't make that choice for you."

Zachary winced at those final words. "I know what mine would be..." Did he really know what she wanted in that department? He wasn't much good at reading women, even his lady love, but Bella was wearing her heart on her sleeve right now. A blind man could have read it.

Bella put it all in the look she gave to Sera and John. You want to do this. You need to do this. And by all that is holy, you should do this.

Sera took a long, deep breath. Bella truly had grown up. She had always been wise beyond her years but now...now she had a clarity of vision that astonished Sera.

She had reminded Sera of what she had been. Angel of Fire and Love. Of Hope. If she could muster enough hope and courage to think to redeem one of the Fallen...how could she not do the same to bring a new life into this uncertain world? John was willing, eager. He had the faith, the hope, and the love. Finally, at last, the fear slowly withered and dropped away. She felt herself straighten, felt calm return to her core.

She held tight to John's hand, controlled her own trembling, and turned her gaze on Vickie. And felt John's joy as he realized that she had come to a decision, and what it would be. Joy, and some fear flooded from him now. But hope, mostly, and faith. And love. Love enough to take those chances, make that leap for the future without knowing what would be on the other side. He could do this. Wanted to do this. Needed to do this.

So did she.

"So tell me, Vickie," she said quietly. "How, and where, do we begin?"




In the World Above, five days had passed. Here, it was five months. This was a strange little Domain, much smaller than a Realm or an Elfhame. It looked like John's private piece of Minnesota forest-land, in an eternal, warm spring. The house, rather like John's cabin, only larger, with more rooms and real bedrooms. A nursery. She had learned to cook on a wood stove after all, though the Elves had made it very, very clear that she was not to do anything of the sort as her time approached. There would be an Elven healer and a human midwife in attendance at the very least...

If all went well now. She had John had spent the last five months in a state of alternating anticipation and apprehension. They had reveled in the peace and quiet, leaving to run patrols in the World Above, and returning to spend weeks in undisturbed happiness. The honeymoon they had never really gotten.

But now...now the time was at hand. She looked up, startled, at the tap on the door; John opened it and looked in. "Time, love."

She nodded, and stood. There was very little to show what she carried within, just a hint of a rounded belly, but she cupped her hands, instinctively, protectively, over it, and followed him out into the yard.

The space in front of the cabin had been transformed.

Four Elven mages, very old, very tall and thin, were spaced evenly around a half-sphere of light, writing diagrams and letters of fire in the air with wands. The surface of the sphere was so covered with these inscriptions, in red and gold, blue and green, that it was not possible to see the interior. The eldest of the mages turned gravely towards them as they approached.

"What--do we need to do?" Sera asked, surprised to hear her voice so steady.

"We will open the door and let you inside. Then stand together. And what will come, will come."

Hardly comforting. But she knew that this was risky and so did he, She took his hand almost compulsively as the elf made a gesture and the light swept aside like curtains, forming a door. For a moment, she hesitated, then at the slight tug on her hand, let him lead her inside.

The light closed in around them. It was bright in here, like being inside a dome of neon. She looked up into his face, searching it anxiously. He smiled, put his arms around her, and began dropping his few barriers.

*Feels more right this way, love.*

She nodded, and stripped away every shred of anything standing between them, slipping into a full empathic meld with him, as the dome of light suddenly brightened and began to close in on them. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest, hearing his heart beat, feeling as he felt his arms around her, her arms around him, the two hearts beating in synchronous time. She braced herself for pain. Surely there would be pain. They had been warned of it again and again.

She felt the magic, the light, touch them, enclosing them in a skin of power and then--

The world went white.

It was not pain.

It was ecstasy.

She knew this moment. She had been there. This was the instant after the creation of the First Universe, the moment after the Big Bang, when everything was possible and there was only the Infinite and the unincarnate spirits that had been created at the moment of Being. There was no pain, no fear, no death, no darkness. There was only light and love and life and joy. Joy in the creation, joy in the potential, joy in the being. The Seraphim began the Song of Creation at that moment, a single, unified note.

And she and John were there, together, at the heart of the Infinite, with nothing between them and the Glory. In the distilled essence of all that was Good.

She felt his energies swirling around them, and he went rigid in her arms. Then as she sensed that amid the flood of joy, she, too, stiffened, and felt hers join his, leaving only enough of her essence to keep her shell standing, breathing, heart beating....

Then, there was no thinking. She sensed two joining, merging, then splitting again, this time into three, all in less time than a single thought. Then being filled again, feeling him return to himself, and the third portion--

--hovered, for a moment, then drifted down and through her, and settled, settled, joining a tiny spark somewhere south of her heart.

The joy faded, leaving behind a warm glow of quiet happiness.

She opened her eyes, feeling a little faint, a little weak, and from the way he sagged against her, he felt the same.

"What--just happened?" he asked, opening his eyes, as the eldest Elven mage approached with a faint smile.

"The spell has succeeded," the mage said. "Not precisely the way we had planned, but your child will have enough of your Kheldian energy to keep him safe and healthy and give him all the powers that you have. And--" He glanced oddly at Sera. "--a little of some sort of other essence as well. Something we could not identify, from his mother."

"His?" she breathed, The mage nodded. She looked up into John's eyes.

He smiled down into hers. "John Jr," he said. "Like I promised."

"Yes." She closed her eyes and laid her head against his chest again, listening to his heart. "As you promised."