Forever Friend

From the Story Arc: Two For The Show

Previous Story in the Arc: Futures by Astra Kyne Murdock (Sunday, March 19, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: The Law of Unintended Consequences by Astra Kyne Murdock (Saturday, August 12, 2006)

(posted Wednesday, March 29, 2006)

Deciding to find a Kheldian friend was not the end of her use of fire. Far from it. Practice was practice, and anyway, it was fun. Or it was fun right up to the point where all her energy ran out and she found herself sitting down hard. Then, the tired feeling wasn't good. And she wondered...why?

It wasn't just tired. It was kind of a sick feeling. It went away pretty fast, though.

And you didn't just go up to your father and say, "Daddy, what did it feel like when you started to die?"

Besides, it wasn't going to be a problem for too long. And besides that, the Elven Healers would keep her and Aedan both all fixed up.

Aedan still had his doubts, though. What would happen if she were caught? Would Sunstorm even talk to her? What if he said , "No"? He shook his head, whispering from his bed in their shared room. "Are you really sure you want to go through this? We've never really been Topside on our own before, besides." He propped himself up on an elbow, looking across the room at Astra.

"Besides what?"

He shook his head. "What if something happens to you before you even get there? Atlas Park isn't all that safe, even with all the heroes." Aedan shrugged. "It's not like I care what happens, though. It's just that Mom and Dad would kill me if you ended up in the hospital." He smirked a little, trying to inject a little levity to hide his concern for her. This could end up being a really smart move, or one that they all would regret for a long time.

"I'm sure," she said firmly. "Who's the one you keep calling 'ninja girl', cause I can sneak up on you?"

He waved his hand dismissively. "I'm just looking out for my own hide here, sis. Are you sure that you have everything planned out right? All the stuff you need together?"

"I’ve got the passkey to our Gate here. I have the one that keys to Atlas Park. I swiped that from JJ; he thinks he lost it in the woods. I have the map of Atlas Park." She took a deep breath. "And I have that comm that Daddy smashed the other day. I had one of the Elves that's good at making things go back the way they were look at it and fix it. If I get into trouble and holler over the comm, I bet I can get some help."

Aedan nodded, but he still wasn't quite satisfied. This was major. "Just remember, if anything bad happens, run to Aunt Bella's apartment building. Mom and Dad have their apartment there, too." He bit his lip. "When do you think you'll go?"

"Soon. Has to be when Mom and Dad are Topside." Another thing; that would give her a measure of safety. If she had to call for help....likely she would get Mom and Dad.

"Well," he said, sitting up, "just be careful. I'm serious, Astra. It'd be kind of boring around here without ya."

Astra did indeed have a Plan.

Part one. Making sure that she and Aedan were going to be left alone. That was easy. Part two. Making sure the snoopy little "guardians" were busy elsewhere. Watching someone else.

Watching Aedan.

That was easy too. She had him start a fire. A big fire.

First thing Aedan did was to gather some branches and logs from around the cabin, even using some of the cut wood that they kept on hand for cooking. Then he made a bon fire; the family did it often enough, whenever they would have visitors or wanted to relax out and away from the cabin. It wouldn't seem all that suspicious, and he could easily explain that things got out of control.

The wood stack was built just as Dad had showed him, with plenty of spots for air to get in and help fuel the fire. Aedan concentrated for a moment, building up energy in the tips of his fingers. He willed a jet of flame to fly straight into the heart of the wood, setting it ablaze in a few scarce seconds. He produced another jet of flame, tracing it from the fire to a tree outside of the stone fire ring. In minutes, a small section of forest was burning. Aedan stood near the lake, covered in ash and smiling. That ought to raise some pulses.

Astra felt the guardians all converging on Aedan and the fire, and ran for the Gate, not looking back. They'd had mishaps before, and the guardians had always sorted things out. Besides, she had the feeling that Aedan could stop fire as well as start it, if he put his mind to it.

At the end of the path through the woods was the rustic structure that led from their home to the big Key Gate. It looked kind of like an oversized gazebo made of unpainted and well-weathered wood. She held up the first key--it looked like nothing more than a bit of bone with some runes inked on it--as she ran through the wooden arches.

She closed her eyes as she did so. She didn't like the look of things as she Gated. It made her insides quiver.

Between one step and the next, she felt the shiver of power, and the foot that was in the air came down on stone instead of wood.

She opened her eyes. Towering over her head was the Key Gate that went to all sorts of places. If you knew the codes. A dome carved out of some white stone, like lace frozen hard, arced over her head. It was held up by four white pillars, with colored stones set into them. And if you knew the code to go somewhere, you pressed it on those stones.,.

But if you didn't know the code, you could get a key. This one was a keychain, an actual souvenir, a clear plastic rectangle with a photo of Atlas Plaza in it. She held it up, closed her eyes, held her breath, and walked out of the Key Gate.

This time took longer. And for a minute she was scared that she'd made a mistake, that it wasn't a Key after all and she was going to float in nothingness forever.

But she didn't. In fact, she jolted down into the grass rather hard, hard enough to rattle her teeth.

Though the noise almost rattled her teeth anyway.

They'd been Topside a couple times already, so she was ready for it, but it was still a bit of a shock. Cars, planes, the tram, even the occasional rocket-pack...and people, people, people.

She crouched down behind the rock that was the physical Gate here, and got her bearings--

--and made sure the comm worked. Just in case.

She looked up at Sunstorm. He looked down at her, aloofly. "Yes," he said, with the faint bored air of someone who has said the same thing over and over. "I am a Kheldian, one of a race of beings..."

She tuned it all out; she'd heard it a dozen times already as bright new heroes came up to stare at Sunstorm in awe and a little trepidation. She waited for him to wind down with the "Move along," part of his speech. And when he was done, she stared up at him and made her eyes big and sad.

"My name is Astra Murdock," she said. "My daddy is John Murdock and my mom is Seraphic Flame."

Sunstorm started so hard that the light from his eyes flared a little. "John Murdock? Blaze Phoenyx? But we thought--"

She set her jaw. "I'm gonna die," she said, "If you don't help me find someone who wants to fuse with me." She stared at Sunstorm with accusation. "You messed up my daddy's fusion."

Unspoken, but implied--Sunstorm and the other Peacebringers owed John Murdock. Owed his family. If they had intervened...much pain and sorrow could have been averted.

Sunstorm stared down at her. Astra had plenty of practice in reading features infused with Kheldian light.

Sunstorm's were painted with guilt. There was a long silence. Then---

"Sit over there, Astra Murdock," he said. "I will see what I can do."

Astra was a little worried about whether or not the Keys would take both her and Kyne through the Gates, but they did. And she arrived back home to find the place--quiet.

::Whatd'ya think, kidlet?:: Kyne asked dubiously. ::We going to be in trouble?::

"Dunno," Astra admitted. "But they can't stop us, can they? We're gonna do this. You're my Forever Friend."

::And you're mine,:: replied the mental voice, warm with affection. ::All right, let's face the music and dance.::

John and Sera sensed Astra as soon as she came across the Gate. There was also something else...someone else. John immediately got to his feet, walking out onto the porch ready to protect his family. A thousand possibilities flew through his mind; Council had found her, or some gangbangers, or...or a Nictus. He scanned the tree-line, locking onto the break where the path emerged. Astra came out first, looking a little apprehensive, as if taking each step was a willed action. But she held her head high, as if, whatever she had done, she was not ashamed of it.

John looked past his daughter, waiting for her "companion" to come into view. John tensed, ready to fly out and do what needed to be done. Then---came the shock. He reached out with his senses, and confirmed it. Astra was being followed by a Kheldian in its natural form. The effect was quite startling, actually; Astra's form silhouetted by the brilliant blue-white light that Kheldians exhibited.

Well...I'll be. He shook his head, leaning on a post under the porch with his arms crossed. This'll be interesting

Astra stole a glance at her mother, and relaxed just a little. Sera's lips curved in a faint smile. No worries there. It was just Daddy she had to convince.

::Go for it, kidlet. I'm with you every step of the way,::

Kyne meant that literally. She and the Kheldian had been so compatible, that Kyne actually fitted right into the back of her mind with no effort, almost as if they were already fused. There had been no question who, of the selection of Khelds that had presented themselves as partners, Astra was going to take.

She took a deep breath. "Daddy, this is Kyne. Sunstorm found her for me. She's my Forever Friend, and we want to fuse."

John looked his daughter and her "friend" up and down. He had been scanning Kyne as soon as she came into range, searching her for intentions and any emotion. So far, he only felt benevolence coming from her. He shook his head. "So, you want to become a Kheldian. A Peacebringer, correct? Knowing the responsibilities and obligations that will become yours? The duty and the danger?" His face was serene, without any trace of disappointment or anger to mar it.

Astra nodded, but it was Kyne who answered. ::More than know, John Murdock. I was fused before. I showed her. Shared my memories.::

John nodded, looking down at his feet. He scuffed his boot against the post he was leaning on, mulling over a few things. He looked back over his shoulder to Sera. ::Whaddya think, love?::

::I think she wants and needs this, beloved. I am not sure just why...but there is something deeper working out here.::

He sighed, looking back to his daughter. "Well, kiddo. I really wish you'd talked to us first. Would've taken you to Sunstorm myself. That said," he straightened up, arms folded across his chest. "I'd think it'd be prudent if your mother an' I were able to talk with Kyne a bit. This is your choice, and I don't wanna stop ya. But still, it'd put my mind to ease if we knew your...friend, Kyne, a bit more." He looked to Kyne. "Would you object to that?"

In the light-form, the Kheldian didn't have "eyes"---but Astra looked up at the floating spheroid, and there was the sense of unspoken communication for a brief moment. "I'll go tell Aedan, then, OK?" Astra said, dimpling, and skipped off, for all the world like the eleven-year-old that she was.

::So. What can I tell you?::

"I was thinkin'," John said, stepping forward. "That we'd start with everything." He smiled, looking back again to Sera. "The Heart, love?"

"A fine plan. But..." Now Sera looked a bit nonplussed. "I am uncertain how to proceed with one who is a pure energy form. This...usually takes physical contact."

There was an explosion of sound and light. And instead of the floating spheroid--a thin, tall, frail looking old woman stood before them. She wore a uniform of sorts; gray jacket and pants and beret, and an animal-paw logo over the right breast. "Will this do, Sera Murdock?"

Sera nodded. "Yes. It will do. Let us go somewhere the children know not to interrupt us."

The three of them piled into a rowboat, which John pushed out into the water. After a minute of rowing, they were in the middle of the pond in front of the cabin, anchored in place.

"Ready, love?" John settled down into a kneeling position, relaxing himself so that Sera would have an easier time finding the Path to the Heart.

She nodded, taking John's hand, and the stranger's. The old woman tilted her head to the side. "Zen meditation? I can do that," she said, and far faster than Sera had thought possible, she had synched "breathing" and "heart-rate" to theirs. The stranger didn't have either really, of course, being pure energy in the unfused state. But it was a good thing to have the analogue working. Feeling more secure now, Sera closed her eyes and found her Path through John, drawing the essence of both of them with her.

It was very strange to have not one, but two Kheldian essences following her form of fire down through the layers of consciousness, worlds, and realities. She wondered what John was thinking.

::I'm hopeful, love. This 'Kyne' doesn't seem all that bad so far. But I'm reservin' judgement right now. Kheldians aren't all like Sunstorm, or Homeworld. Or Tutes. This one has fused before, which is good; she's been 'humanized', which helps.:: John kept the conversation restricted to their personal link, not leaving a hint of it for Kyne to pick up on.

Finally, with a sense of pushing through a barrier, they reached the Heart of All Time. The essence that was Kyne stopped abruptly.

::......:: What was "said" was untranslatable, but the sense of it was unexpected awe and wonder. this place?:: Then before they could answer. ::Never mind. It just told me....:: A long pause. A burst of joy, exactly like an explosion. ::No. It did not. Kandy did.:: Another pause. ::She says I should just open my memories to you. Here. They're yours.::

Sera had heard it said that when humans died, their lives flashed before them. This...was several lives flashing before her, for Kyne had been a warrior for the Peacebringers for a very long time.

From the moment she had been old enough to do so, she had served, in both Mefnanim and Kurukut forms, fusing with beings of both species to carry on the fight against the Nictus. Then she had come to Earth, to Paragon City, in the wake of the Council's takeover by Nictus, searching for a human to meld with and carry on that fight.

She had expected to merge with someone young, strong--one of the many heroes that had come to Paragon City. But instead, she was drawn to...

...a nursing home. To the bedside of a very, very old woman. A woman who had been, in polite parlance, a "burlesque queen." In less polite terms, a striptease dancer.

Candace Constance, the erstwhile "Kandy Kane," was dying of heart failure, and knew it. And she wasn't bad with the notion. She'd had a long, full life. She'd seen just about everything there was to see on the North American continent. She'd done just about everything too. She'd sung protest songs with Woody Guthrie. She'd tried to unionize the stripteasers. She'd hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and up to the top of Mount St Hellen's long before it blew. She'd had good lovers and bad. Been poor, and had enough to be generous. There was just one thing she hadn't done. And that was a regret. A deep one. She'd never had powers. Never been able to be a hero. The closest she'd ever come to saving someone was dropping her tip money off at soup kitchens.

And then, as she lay there gasping for breath, something came through her window and talked to her. Only it wasn't an angel.

That "talk" was all in nonverbal form, but the end was clear enough. "You can't save me forever," Kandy told the creature that vibrated with anxiety for her. "But give me one good year. One year, where we can make a difference, and I'll die a happy woman."

They fused.

For the first time, John and Sera felt what it was like to experience a proper, directed fusion.

John coalesced his form, bringing it to Sera's side. ::That was nothing like what happened with me, love. This being knows what it's doing, and has done it before. Besides, she's sassy; not uptight like some Kheldians I've met. I...I'd be willing to allow this to happen, between her and Astra.::

::John, Sera---Kandy says to show you the rest. There isn't much more.::

It was not a total merger, for in the end, Kandy would let Kyne go, But it was more than enough for Kyne to take on a real coloring from Kandy, and absorb most of her personality. The two worked as "The Gray Panther" for exactly a year, two months, and five and a half days before not even Kyne could keep Kandy's ailing heart going. One too many hits from Void Seekers and unbonded Nictus took their toll of both their energies. Kyne had shared some of these memories with Astra...there was a flash of that in passing.

Then Kandy let Kyne go, dying peacefully. Kyne had never expected to "meet" her friend and partner again. But she had. Here. Hence, the explosion of joy.

There was a sense of a sigh. ::Now you know all of me. And I'm sure you have some conditions on this. Or will.::

::There isn't much for us to say about this, I think. You're safe, and we feel that our daughter will be safe with you. If this doesn't turn out for her, she can end the fusion, if that's her desire. But, she's her own person. One thing, however, is might wait, before fusing. She's still just a kid. You have time before you've been unfused for too long, correct?:: John came over their mutual connection as calm, and responsive.

::I've never fused with a young'un before. I'm a bit hesitant on that head myself.:: A pause. ::I'm thinking I have about four of your Earth years before I get into trouble, being unfused. That long enough?::

Emotion and thought passed between John and Sera, through their connection. The decision was almost instantaneous. ::That should be enough time, we think. She'll be prepared, both physically an' mentally by then. We've got a lot to teach her, in-between now an' then, though.::

::I'm--sensing something else...look, John, I'm kind of unusual among Kheldians. I generally don't do full mergers, unless my partner is...not comfortable with sharing headspace. I sense that you're concerned.:: Impression of a smile. ::Don't want to lose Daddy's Little Girl, hmm?::

::Well, no. We don't want to give up who our child is so that she can continue physically. She's her own person, an individual; she can do what she likes, but...we really don't want to lose who she has become.::

::Then she's gonna have a roommate in her head, John. Maybe it's part of being a twin-set, but she hasn't got a problem there. We'll stay Kyne and Astra, and not turn ourselves into---:: sense of a laugh ::Flying Feghoot.:: There was the quick, but unmistakable impression that Kyne/Kandy found the pretentiousness of many fused Kheldians and their "new names" and "new personalities" rather hilarious.

John lent his thoughts to Sera. ::Satisfied, love?::

::I like her. I like her sense of humor. I like that she is experienced and worldly-wise. She will protect Astra from things we as parents cannot. Perhaps not heartache, but certainly she will see to it that Astra does not give her heart to someone who will hurt her. Yes, I am satisfied. More than satisfied.:: Love and a feeling of confidence and surety poured down their connection to him.

::Right.:: He opened himself to connect with Kyne through the Heart. ::We're done here...comrade. We'd like you to be our guest, until it is...well, time. Astra has a lot to learn if she's gonna be a Peacebringer, and if you'd help us teach her, we'd be honored.::

::I'm the one who's being honored. You're trusting me with your baby-girl. That's a lot. You're bringing me into your home and family. That's even more. And...:: a pause ::And Kandy says thanks, too.::

Sera's "smile" infused them all. ::In that case, my family, let's go home and tell Astra the good news.::