From the Story Arc: Grim's Gamble

Previous Story in the Arc: Head Games by Victoria Victrix (Wednesday, November 22, 2006)

(posted Thursday, December 07, 2006)

The apartment was far too quiet. Despite the best efforts of friends, family, and friends who were almost family, Aedan and Astra were...

"Depressed" was too mild a word for it. The aura of failure hung about the place to the point where even the lights seemed dim. John knew that Sera had been wracking her brain trying to think of something to lift them out of it, but so far, there had been no result.

It made him angry and desperate all at the same time. Angry that anything, anyone should have done this to his kids. Desperate to find a way to help them. And there was despair of his own there, a despair that he would never see them happy again. His kids were broken, and he didn't know how to fix things.

He sat up in bed, swinging his legs over the side. Sera was still sleeping, albeit fitfully. I've gotta do something. He'd made inquiries with all of the right people, trying to get any information he could on Garvey and the people he was working with. Up to this point, his contacts had been silent. Any confrontation he'd engaged had been short-lived and fruitless; Garvey himself remained hidden, seemingly untouchable in the Isles.

John felt exposed, and hated that feeling almost as much as he hated the pain wracking his family. There had to be some way to help them, some way to save them. He sighed, ruffling his hair as he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His thoughts drifted to the past; everything he'd gone through, every challenge and trial he'd faced. All of the pain, and the eventual victories. Somehow, he'd made it this far; with the help of his family, his new-found friends and allies...he'd survived, and even thrived. He'd regained part of himself that he thought lost, years ago...

Garvey. It started with him. He'd taken so much from John, and was still trying for more. Bad enough that he had stolen John's life, family ties, friends, almost his soul. It made John nearly insane to think that he was taking those things from John's kids.

He had thought that Garvey had died in the blast that had destroyed the Program's facility, but even when he'd been sure Garvey was gone that didn't end Garvey's influence. Those years on the run, scrounging and scraping day to day. John hadn't even been able to see or speak to his folks before they died in the War, for fear of whatever backlash might happen upon them. It had been dark days back then, and even when he came to Paragon. Despite all of that, he'd been able to find peace...with Sera and the CCCP, and the RPC as a whole. That first trip into the Heart of All Time...

John felt another twinge, something just beyond his grasp, and then---That's it! John mentally lunged, trying to reach out for whatever was at the very back of his mind. And he could almost hear Kyria's voice, the enigmatic thing she had said to him a few days ago. "What you intend to do, do quickly, for the children’s' sake."

He strained at the thought...what had triggered it? He dove into the memory of how it felt when he first entered the Heart, trying to relive it. Pushing everything inside of himself towards it. Sera was so much better at this than he was. She kept calling him the path but he never could...see...

Except, suddenly...he could. It was dim, like a point of light on the horizon, but he knew that's where he had to go. He folded his thoughts and emotions into himself, surging towards the distant point. What did Sera "look" like when she did this? Like an arrow. He made himself into an arrow. "Zenned" himself to the target. That was all he let himself think about. His consciousness faded out of the world at large; he only became aware of his goal. The target, the path, the Heart of All Time....

He found the target sooner than he had anticipated. Suddenly....he hit it. He struck a barrier; it resisted a moment, then gave way with a sense of shock. He was consumed in brilliance, and felt his entire being as it pulsed in time with the slow heartbeat of all existance.

With a gasp, Sera found herself pulled out of uneasy sleep, and with no transition at all...she that place she called Home. She reached out for the dear, familiar, other half of her...and there he was.

Astra and Kyne had been trying to read a book, but the words kept blurring as Astra wiped away tears. Sun Kai, Mandy, Aunt Vickie...they all kept trying to tell her that trying was enough. But how could it be enough? How could anyone live with the blood of innocent children on their hands? She had put the book down for a moment to reach for a tissue, when--

They weren't there anymore. They were somewhere else. Somewhere...bright. Somewhere...good. She flailed for a moment, as Kyne held very, very still, and then she felt Kyne's shock of recognition. She "looked" to her right, and sensed that Aedan and K'takei ---both interposed over the other to the point where it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended--- were there as well, awed into a consuming silence.

And to her left....that was surely JJ. So full of wonder that he wasn't even thinking at the moment.

Then something horrible sent terrible fear racing through her. The end of the Narnia books...was exactly like this.

Were they all dead? Had a bomb gone off in the apartment? Or a plane crashed into the building? She was almost frozen with the terror of the thought, but slowly recognized that she still could "feel" herself in the world. < Mommy? > she thought, timidly, afraid to break the "silence" that wasn't silence at all, but a background of...well, it was to music what a minnow was to a whale. < Daddy? What--where-- >

But it was Kyne who answered. < The Heart of All Time, kidlet. Your folks...interviewed me here. Back when you brought me back home with you-- >

Her mother and father had told her about, if that was what you could call something that was really everywhere and nowhere. But they'd never brought any of the kids here except Ratt, and that only once. Astra barely had time to register the brightness, the music, the sense of wonderful things around her.

Something outside of them...something big, all light and wings, swooped out of the brightest part of the light, somehow wrapped them all up and...then they were....somewhere else.

Like a deep-space star-field...sort of. Only many little points of light that she felt dizzy. All of them, so full of life, it bubbled out of them and it felt like she was floating in a sea of effervescence. Every one of those points of light sang with a song of its own, and she found herself wanting to fly to them, among them, to see and hear what they were like. But she held very still, and waited. Aedan and JJ were there with her, with several presences near them. She recognized her mother, even though Sera didn't quite look like herself, but was a slender figure of light with wings of flame, and beside her was a blur of light almost brilliant enough to outshine the Heart itself---father? Drawn by the twin-bond, the oldest tie she had, she somehow moved closer to Aedan and he to her. A moment later, the two of them were almost as closely knitted together as Sera and John, with Kyne and K'takei linked to each of them with a bond she could actually see.

< This is where you can see all the souls of all beings that have ever lived, > came a quiet voice.

< This is what I needed to show you, all of you, just as Sera had shown me, once. It healed me then, when I thought that nothing could repair the loss I felt. This is where all journeys end, begin, and are renewed. > That was her father...but he sounded so much...bigger than he usually did.

< It is permitted, not that I call the ones you think lost, but that I show you where they are. > said the thing that had scooped them up. < There are no bonds of love tying you to them, only the bonds of your own guilt and perceived failure. But look--you see? There are the ones you saved, going on with their lives. And there, there are the others, going on to their next explorations. They are not gone. They are not lost. Nothing, and no one, is ever lost. There are those, like the Grim Gambol, who have chosen to close themselves off from us, from the Infinite, but we see them still. > Astra felt the deep sadness that this had caused, and the depth of forgiveness that was possible shook her. If they could forgive him--

< You haven't failed anyone, children. Not us, not them, not even yourselves. Your effort to help those that cannot help themselves is enough. Every man can lose the pain of dying, if only they have a victory for mankind. > He paused. < You heard me quote this once before, but it bears repeatin'. 'I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge -- myth is more potent than history -- dreams are more powerful than facts -- hope always triumphs over experience -- laughter is the cure for grief -- love is stronger than death.' >

< But-- > Astra started to protest that these hadn't been men, grown-ups, only children--except that...

They weren't. They were...ageless here. And she and Aedan sensed that even though they knew what had happened, they not only forgave her, they had never seen a reason to have to forgive. If weeping were possible here, she would have. But with relief, not the unendurable grief she had been weighed down beneath. She felt Aedan exhale as he lost that same burden.

< They go on, do you see? Like Kandy did. On more journeys, whatever they choose to do, they go on... > Kyne's voice trailed off, but in awe, not sorrow. Aedan/K'takei clung silently near her. He accepted all of this, and was grateful. He'd shared in her pain, even when she'd tried to close him off from it. It ached to think about, but all that was around them---it was impossible to ignore that there wasn't an end, no matter how it had seemed.

Finally she had to accept it. Aand so it was that at this point her grief and her sorrow were not for the lost children so much as for the loss of her own innocence. Oh she had known that there were real monsters in the world, for a very long time. But she had always believed that it was inevitable that they would be beaten, She had thought that there would always be victory, if she tried hard enough. There would always be a happy ending. If she was just good enough.

But that wasn't possible. And it didn't all rest on her. She let go of that impossible expectation, and it plummeted away from her like a lead weight, even left a kind of hole in her heart behind. She had to accept that she could not save the world. She could only try. She wasn't a little girl anymore; she had to accept her responsibility as an adult woman, as a hero, as a Murdock, and know that her best was enough.

For there was the lesson here; not a happy ending, but that there was no ending. That trying brought light into the darkness. And that failure was not shame, just one more reason to try again, for as long as someone, somewhere, kept trying, there would never be an ending. She felt her twin come to the very same conclusion in that same moment. Healing enveloped them both in its embrace.

Sera felt the twins let go of their pain and accept--everything. And for a moment, she felt something like pain herself. The pain a bird must feel to see her young ones poise on the edge of the nest and prepare to fling themselves out over the world. Yes, even though she herself called to them to take that leap. Her own, but children no longer. And she could call them back and they would come, she could, in fact, protect them from all the pain to come, keep them close-confined and unharmed by the world, perfectly preserved little flowers in amber.

< But you will not. >

Between one moment and the next, she found herself, with John, in the Great Archive. As always, it took the form in which he thought of it, as an enormous library. As always, they looked like their mortal selves here. But with them was that brilliance that she knew as Michael Azir.

"No," she replied, with gentle conviction. "I will not. They will make their choices, as all must make their choices. I will force choice on no one."

< No one? Not even when you know the best path? Not even for your own children, to save them from grief? >

"No," she said. "I will not bind their wings."

< Then, Seraphic Flame, as you have returned to your true nature, > said Michael Azir, in tones that rang like a victory bell, < Take back your own. >

It was not dramatic; it was a whisper, a tug at her shoulders, a rustling of feathers, a presence of bone and muscle where there had been an ache of emptiness for so long she didn't even think about it anymore. And they settled into place, stirring and opening as she stood a little taller against their weight, a joyful tug at the heart as they tugged at her shoulders.


John felt Sera's surge of happiness through their connection, the unmitigated joy of something lost regained. He didn't need to look to know she'd regained her prior nature, her wings being the physical reflection of that. Instead he focused on Azir, the Archangel. "You're the one that led me here, aren't you?"

Azir remained the nebulous form, but there was a sense of a nod. < You and I are linked as Sera and I, John Murdock, > came the grave voice in his mind. < And you know why. Are you ready to remember? >

John visibly tensed, squaring his shoulders. He knew that he wouldn't like the answer, whatever it may be, but...His family was safe, for now. Their wounds had been healed, their confidence restored. Plus, he hadn't made the trip for nothing. "Yeah, I am." John felt Sera bolstering him through their connection, her love for him and joy for her own rediscovery lapping over him like waves.

Light reached for him. Something like a hand of light touched his brow. < Remember, > said Michael Azir.

And John Murdock remembered his death.

Astra and Aedan were deeply asleep for the first time since all this began. JJ--was not. JJ was packing. He had come to them both the moment they had all returned to the here and now, and asked...asked what John and Sera had known, in the hearts, was coming.

He asked their permission to return Underhill, to take up his duties as a Knight-Guardian there. His own epiphany had been quieter, less dramatic than the twins', but it was no less clear. He was needed there. And he fitted there, as he did not fit here. They had all been more and more aware of this, especially of late, but this interior journey had clarified it for him.

Of course, he didn't need their permission; both John and Sera knew of his obligations, and accepted that he had his own path in life. But he had wanted more than permission, he had wanted their blessing, and to know that they would be happy for him to go and assume a place that felt so right for him. Without tears or sadness, John and Sera gave JJ their blessing, with the caveat that he try to visit "every once in awhile." The apartment would always be open to him, naturally, and he'd have full use of their home in Underhill. And they could always visit--would visit--as well. But still, he was leaving. Another change...

John sat heavily down on the couch; Sera curled beside him, sitting sideways, and furling one wing over them both, like a feather blanket. She didn't have to wear them; in fact, mostly, she wouldn't. They could appear and vanish with a thought. But it was knowing she had was a comfort. And she wanted to share that comfort with him.

"So...I suppose y'wanna know what exactly happened, love. Right?"

She nodded. Michael Azir had warded him from her direct experience, and since that moment, he had warded whatever had happened from her thoughts. She had been content to wait. He would tell her, or show her, when he chose.

Evidently he was ready. "It spans back to when we first met, love. You takin' me into the Heart those first few trips...changed somethin', for me. Changed somethin' about me. When it came time for my merger an' your miracle..." He struggled for a moment, his brow furrowing as he fought with himself on whether or not to tell her. Finally he spoke. "I died, love. For a moment only, but I still died. The shock of that is what threw me back to the Heart. It's why I couldn't remember. Wouldn't remember. I went back the time in my life when none of the pain had happened yet...."

"Azir didn't exactly lie, when he carried out the miracle. I was cured, an' my new body---Blaze's body---was created out of Home World's Kheldian essence. I--John Murdock, with all my memories, of you, of--everything--was never meant to come back from the Heart, though. When Blaze an' myself joined finally, it was somethin'...entirely new. I forgot all of this...but Azir has finally let me remember. He also told me that I brought somethin' back, when Blaze an' I joined. An' that's where we are, now." John sat there, staring off into space. He'd taken down his barriers to her, but she could still feel that he was holding something back. Now wasn't the time to push him for it, though.

So instead, she offered him her gift. She opened her heart and soul to him, curled her wing closer around the both of them, and whispered into his ear. "Listen."

Instinctively he knew he was to listen with the inner ear, and not the outer. He closed his eyes, made himself grow still, and listened.

And heard, through her...the Song.

Faint, faint and far off, the merest hint, a whisper of the thing that her Siblings endlessly echoed back to her through him. Faint and far, but it was there. And once again, though faint and far, she could hear it too.

That, more than the wings, told him, told her. She was herself again.

The last thing that Michael Azir had revealed to John was that he must search. No indication of what, or who, or where to begin. search. This is what John held back, and would keep to himself, for now.