Heroes Fail

New Ways of Seeing

Getting out of Refuge Point wasn’t a problem for them. It was finding a place near enough to be safe and still secluded enough that the Watch on the roof couldn’t see them that was more challenging. As they walked, Natalie offered, “Are you mad?” She’d been very quiet since ‘borrowing’ life force from the group, perhaps not sure what to say to anyone. “I wouldn’t blame you if you were. I just… would rather lay it out on the table, so that if you’re mad, we can deal with it.”

Ang thought for a bit. The way she saw it, she’d been sacrificing things for the Guardians ever since D Day. She didn’t let that sacrifice make her bitter, but as time had gone on, the sacrifices went from the level of swallowing her pride, to standing up for a villain, to taking on responsibility of all of the Powers during the Exodus. Now she was in a political position and trying to keep all of their secrets safe, but the most important ones weren’t making it to her ears. She couldn’t protect what she didn’t know about. She’d negotiated to keep Nat’s newly powered existence a secret in a desperate trade with Santae … what would that end up costing her? Have I finally become bitter? Am I an ass for being so? she thought.

Finally, she responded. “There’s no way I can be mad at you for exploding with power, especially power that you haven’t trained in, and haven’t needed to restrict, ever. It’s like when I was training Will, and the pain from his tumor flared, and all of a sudden we were invisible for a week. But, Nat, I can’t protect us if I don’t know what’s going on. I know I’m not the most approachable. You’ve come to me now, and that’s what really matters.”

“I’m less worried about the exploding over a power I didn’t know I had — in terms of you being mad — than about the idea that I’ve been keeping quiet about the extent that it’s gotten to. I’ve been giving Langston updates here and there, but it’s not a constant kind of thing. And I hate feeling as if I’m obsessing over it, frankly.” Natalie shoved her hand through her hair. “The only times I seem to be able to access the healing ability is under high-stress conditions. Most times, I can’t even feel that the ability is actually there, so I keep thinking ‘oh, maybe whatever happened is reversing itself.’”

“Am I mad? No. Was I mad? Yeah, I was. What changed? You’ve taken responsibility and are getting trained. Moreseo, you picked me, which means you’re willing to put up with the physical punishment I tend to dish out to trainees,” Ang said.

She turned to face Nat. “Want to make me mad again? Clam up, skip a detail, hide something,” she said, with a finger in Nat’s face. “You ready?” She smiled devilishly.

“Not even a little, I’m pretty sure,” Nat replied ruefully. She could remember some of the stories about Ang’s training regimens. Being in shape enough to be on the Expedition teams was probably not the ‘ready’ that the other woman had in mind. “I promise no skipping details going forward, though. Where do we start?”

Ang led Nat to a section of large plant growth over a bus stop, a perfect place to be out of sight of the Refuge Point guards.
She pointed to the bench and had Nat sit down.

“Today, we’re going to begin training you to align to something that, as far as I know, you’ve never tried to focus on before.” Ang said as she unrolled the bed sheet wrapped package she’d had strapped to her back. Inside, she revealed a chipped, rough sword. “This is from one of the cultists we encountered at the Angels’ hideout. It only has one purpose – to deliver pain and suffering. Today, we’re beginning with a meditation session where you think about how what you did and how what this sword has done are the same, and how they are different.” Ang said, as if she were simply a college professor assigning some homework. “Don’t worry, we’ll get to the physical training soon enough.”

Ang turned her back to Nat for a bit. She thought back to her first Power training after the incident where she went too far. They’d built the machines that would tunnel the force out of her spine and into her hands, where two hilts stood ready to channel her energy. At first, she didn’t want to do any of it. Her pride has been destroyed for her failure. Her eyes had been destroyed by her desperation. And now she was being trained by a villain, no less. How could she ever consider herself whole again? What was she going to become now? And then her thoughts flashed forward to the incessant training, the pain of the wooden swords when she failed to block them, and the lack of emotional support of any stripe – just a year of self-hatred and loathing of her teacher, with nothing to reflect back to her. Was using this technique going to make her as bad as him? Was she already as bad as him? Would it work without the emotional distance? Her breakthrough had been when she’d finally started aiming herself at doing him real damage, when she embraced the need to hurt. Would Nat get there, too? What would be the cost of all of this?

Natalie watched Ang’s face thoughtfully, listening intently to the instructions. Meditation like this was not something she was very familiar with, and she wasn’t entirely sure what the end goal here was. But she was game to try, trusting that Ang had methods to her madness as any other leader often did. Pulling in a slow breath, she reached out and took the sword, curling into a comfortable sitting position to center herself and set her mind to the task at hand. She put her focus on the sword and worked for long minutes to still her own thoughts and feelings, seeking memories instead of what she’s done and what the sword has likely done. But it wasn’t really the sword that was drawing her focus…

Without volition, her attention was pulled more to the doubt, the worry, the uncertainty that seemed to be coming up. A faint frown furrowed her brows together and Natalie couldn’t seem to push it away, though she continually tried to breathe through the anxiety that spiked as a result of the emotions. I cannot allow this ability to take over. Controlling it is my only option. I could hurt too many people. Look what just happened! I caused damage to everyone around me! Rein it in, damn it.

“Ang…” She paused. “I can’t. What if I accidentally blow up again? What if I drain your health? I wasn’t even touching anyone last time. Maybe this is too dangerous…”

Ang turned around. “Natalie, I didn’t accept you as a pupil without thinking the dangers through. We’re out here with no one but us. If you hurt me, we’re still easily within eyesight of the Point and you can call for help,” Ang said, while thinking, And if I were to die, would the world really be that worse off? Ang shook her head to clear the thought. She’d had it many times when he’d been training her so long ago.

“Let me guide you in the meditation,” Ang said as she walked over to where Nat was sitting.

“Sit cross legged, eyes closed, and place the sword on your lap. Pick up the sword with your hands holding the sword like you’d hold a heavy box. Now, clear your mind, and think about just the sword. Run your hand along the edge of the sword and contemplate its power.” Ang was nearly chanting at this point, using a rhythm that was designed to brush away distractions. She had a moment of inspiration, and while Nat had her eyes closed, Ang pricked her finger on the broken edge of the sword. “Feel the blood running down the sword. Connect to it. It is life, and it can mean death. You can be both, just like it can. You are a sword dripping with blood, Nat. And you are in control of this all. Feel the power of the sword and the power of the blood. Now, in a moment, you are going to release that power within you. Don’t choose what happens, just let it happen and watch it, learn from it, welcome this new part of yourself. Okay, in 3 … 2 …. 1 …”

Ang’s flat palm struck Nat in the chest, right above the heart, with her slightly bleeding hand.

The instructions were easy enough to follow. Seated with the sword in her hands, her eyes closed, Natalie could follow the cadence of Ang’s voice easily. Having the sound to focus on made it easier to block out the emotions that had welled up so powerfully, giving her a place to ground herself. Some things about her ability had definitely changed — Natalie could feel that within herself, though she couldn’t pinpoint what. Feel the bloo… oh shit!

She fought not to open her eyes, but the sensation of pain cuts through the focus on sound like a laser. She knew the instant Ang’s skin parted and she had to fight to keep her focus on the words being spoken. Her chin jerked a little to one side, as if she were looking away from the injury itself, and Nat caught her breath. But though she could sense the injury, it wasn’t like it had been in the past. It was too general, surrounding her with nothing more than the sensation of hurt without giving her a point of origin. And although she could tried to push her power outward, seeking the source of the pain, nothing was happening.

When the bloody hand caught her in the chest, it became a whole different ballgame. Out of her control, instead of a trickle of power, it roared outward to slash both of them — that glow burst forth again too. Tiny injury healed, but the other aches and pains of the day gone too. At least for Ang. The cut appeared on Natalie’s hand, as would be expected of her ability. And shock brought Natalie’s eyes open to look at Ang, terrified she’d done it again. The rush was gone almost as soon as it blew through, and it took a moment for Natalie to be able to focus on Ang’s face.

“I… am pretty sure that’s the exact opposite of what we were aiming at?” she offered in a tone ripe with self-disgust.

Ang had fallen backwards, landing on the ground with her butt. She quickly inspected her finger, and then pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “You don’t do subtle, Nat, and you aren’t about half measures. If I know anything about you, that’s what I’ve learned.

“So, what did you learn? What did you feel? Where were you in control? When did you lose it?”

Natalie snickered. “I used to do subtle just freakin’ fine,” she retorted on a huff of laughter. Shaking her head, she set the sword in her lap and considered. “Okay… I was definitely able to tell when you were cut. The pain sense pretty much cut through everything I was worrying about like a knife through butter. It was brilliant and sharp and just there in my awareness. But I couldn’t find the source of it, which is different. Used to be, I could follow that to the source of pain, but in this case, it was just an all-over sense of pain somewhere very near.” She paused, glancing at the bleeding cut on her own hand and then just shaking it off and putting pressure on it against her leg. “Uhm… Definitely not in control of it. Couldn’t reach for the injury, didn’t feel like I could heal anything. I could only feel it. And then when you touched me, it was like floodgates. Still no control, just the power surging forward to fix everything in its path. I had no control over it at any time.”

“Okay, so your control is just … non-existent,” Ang said as she began to bandage Natalie’s finger. “You say you couldn’t heal anything,but then I touched you. And the power surged out.” Ang began to drift away for a moment, thinking back to her original training. No control whatsoever, straining to create a consistent blast from her eyes. Back then she’d had a machine that could measure and adjust itself, perfectly allowing her to find her own rhythms, fine tuning her power to the levels where she could handle it like breathing. This was not going to be that easy. Then, the voice from those first trainings came back to her, You don’t have to be perfect the first day.

Ang sighed and stood up. “I promise not to surprise you again during our training. I thought that the control was just hiding in there, and something far less traumatic than what you’ve suffered would kick it in. This is just going to be hard work. Here’s what we’re going to do …” Ang began to explain how they were going to give Ang another slight injury and she was going to sprint ahead. Natalie was then going to rely on her pain sense to find her. As she did, she was to push the power as best she could, build it up, and release it when she found Ang.

“Got it?” Ang asked.

Natalie got it. But judging from her expression, she wasn’t quite sure she WANTED it. “Okay. Go,” she told Ang, climbing to her feet from the cross-legged position they’d been sitting in. “I’ve picked up Langston at a good 100 to 150 feet — so if we can re-create that, we can see about extending the distance,” she offered. Langston’s pain was very deep, but Natalie knew what pain was supposed to ‘feel’ like against her senses, so hopefully that part was still active and would jump start her ability to discern other emotions. Or at least interpret what she was sensing as hers or not hers while they retrained her brain.

She handed the sword back to Ang, a wry smile quirking her lips. “Don’t cut too deep, just in case I can’t do anything.” Then she turned her back and walked a little distance away to let Ang pick a direction without her seeing which way.

Ang cut her finger again, winced, and moved further into the urban forest they were in. She moved swiftly and made sure to follow confusing patterns. It was all working out well, her mental map foremost in her mind, when she got to a gap that she would need to grab some vines to cross. Should I take this route or just wait here? she thought. She stopped to breathe for a second, and barely heard the growling above her before it leapt at her.

“Fuck!” she cried out.

Natalie walked just a little distance and had to smile faintly. Her sense of other people’s pain wasn’t constant, but it was still acute and Ang’s second cut drew her attention just as quickly as it had the first time. But she didn’t look around and made a point of counting in her head. It was kind of a twisted game of hide-and-seek. She couldn’t help being mildly amused.

When the time came for her to try to follow those senses, Natalie turned and started in the direction that Ang’s pain pulled her in. It was faint at first — her range wasn’t huge. She found as she moved that her ability did still seem to work almost as a dowsing rod. Although her feet didn’t follow the same path that Ang laid down and it was still a little bit hit-or-miss in terms of her own directionality.

It was the sudden spike of … was that fear? Alarm? — Something distinctly adrenaline-related, for certain — that gave her a brief pinpoint direction, and then disappeared. It was the LACK of sensation that put Nat’s instincts on high alert. After all, with Rhiannon’s crowd running about, Ang could have been ambushed. Using that last spike of emotion as a compass, Natalie raced in that direction, pulling from her belt the pistol that those leaving Refuge Point right now were being required to carry. When she rounded a slab of stone and came face-to-face with a freakin’ PANTHER, it was pure instinct to backpedal real fast, the weapon in her hand coming up. The shots went wide by a huge margin — she was sure she’d hear about THAT later — but it served the purpose of scaring the massive cat away, at least.

With her heart banging in her chest so hard that she thought it might be trying to escape, Natalie paused for a moment to get her bearings and attempt to seek out Ang. The chaos of her own adrenaline-fueled emotions was too much to wade through, and she had to rely on simple logic. If Ang had come across the cat, and it had resulted in a confrontation… well, then Ang would be standing here with new cat-skin coat, quite frankly. So it stood to reason that something far worse had happened, and Natalie moved quietly but with purpose toward the spot the cat had been standing when she first nearly ran over it.

The cement slag that littered this part of town had come from a building that Natalie was pretty sure someone like Fissure could cause. Climbing over it, she came to a high point where she needed vines to cross, and out of habit from years of hikers being lost, she looked down. Ang’s crumpled form was a colorful slash across gray concrete. Biting back a yelp of alarm, Natalie shoved her weapon back in her belt and used the vines to clamber down to see the damage.

Not only had Ang hit her head on the way down, a piece of rebar pierced her side, and Natalie wasn’t entirely sure whether it might have punctured a kidney. Or worse. Blowing out a slow breath, her mind running a hundred miles an hour, she checked her friend’s breathing, gently felt for neck injuries. Her hands were on autopilot, but her power wasn’t. It wasn’t even flickering at this moment – which on some level made Natalie mad. The other times someone got hurt, as soon as she touched them, her power had flared completely and wildly out of control. Even Ang’s simple cut on her hand. NOW, when she needed it most, it wasn’t going to cooperate?!

The hell you say.

Natalie took a moment, removed her hands from Ang’s slim form, and sat back on her heels. Centering was what Ang had been trying to teach her. Or re-teach her. Breathe. Feel the earth beneath you, the air around you, the sun warming your skin. Reach inside and find that spark of power that has always been there, ignore the block. But it was hard. She could feel it, simmering deep inside her. It felt different than it did before D-Day, and maybe that was part of the problem — recognizing it. Knowing Ang only had a few minutes if she didn’t do something about the internal bleeding that she could now sense, Natalie fought with her empathy and her healing ability, wrestling with keeping both in her control. A wrong move now, and she could kill Ang. Or worse.

When she thought she had both her power and her fears in hand, Natalie opened her eyes and looked at her friend. “If I activate your powers or something, try not to obliterate me when you wake, will you?” she murmured in a wry tone. Then she slid her hands under Ang’s shirts to place them directly on her skin just below her ribcage, and with every ounce of her being focused on the power she wielded, she began siphoning it directly to the injuries that she could feel clearly against her senses. She reached deep within them both, seeking to repair everything that her power could reach and draw it into herself, but she was also surprised to realize that the FEEL of her healing was different to her. (Dice roll: Success but) In this moment where she actually had control of it, it was familiar, but … Other. It was like the empathy factor was more involved than ever before, and Natalie could sense more of Ang than she’d ever tried.

Ang’s body contorted into an upside down U shape, and she froze at its apex for an instant, like she’d been shocked with paddles in a pre-D-Day hospital. Nearly an instant later, she fell over and onto her side. A few seconds passed, what felt like a short eternity to Natalie, and then Ang opened her eyes and breathed rapidly, almost hyperventilating. She scrambled backward, her left arm wrapped around her belly and exposed side (which was slowly knitting itself), and she held her right hand out, like she was trying to stop someone from approaching.

“Please, Vector, not again … I just can’t control the power! It won’t work like this!” Ang shouted, with a desperate, piteous wail stuck in the back of her throat. “Please, just give me my eyes back!” She winced, like she knew she was going to be struck just for saying the words.

Inside her mind, Ang was reliving a terrible nightmare, and Natalie could feel all of Ang’s emotions – they were a bigger pain than anything her body was suffering.

The sharp pain of the injuries blooming on Natalie’s body, injuries she recognized as stabilized or stabilizing but not fully healed, were no match for the emotional overload. The words Give me my eyes back! registered somewhere in Natalie’s mind — eyes that she had once tried to heal for Ang but was never able — but Natalie could barely breathe through the tsunami of terror that leveled her more effectively than any physical injury she’d ever taken on. Hunched over in an upright fetal position, the wail that was stuck in Ang’s throat came from her own instead. The healer covered her head, the expectation of a blow transmitting clearly.

She couldn’t see, couldn’t process anything around them. Natalie knew only that SOMEONE was coming at them, she was terrified, and someone else was being hurt.

It took everything she had to scramble toward the sound of Ang’s voice blindly, placing her own body as a shield between the other woman and whatever threat was about to hurt them both. The protective action requiring no conscious thought at all, as instinctive to Natalie as breathing, and she rasped painfully, “Run!” as she tried to push Ang the opposite direction of the perceived threat.

Ang didn’t know what was happening. Her thoughts were jumbled. Has someone finally found me? What will he do to us? She moved on all fours backward until she could gain her footing and ran until her hands hit a wall. She turned to face where she’d come from, and slid down, her back against the wall. She whispered to her savior, who she hoped was directly behind her. “Where are we? This isn’t like the room he puts me in …” She didn’t know who her savior was, but she’d been so desperate for one that the dream-like way things were occurring didn’t break her sense of belief. Somehow, the two of them had escaped and were now safe, but for how long?

Natalie, for her part, felt Ang get up and run. The slight distance put between them helped her regain some sense of where and when they are, and she pushed to her feet to limp back to the far wall and slump down nearby. She struggled to breathe. Though she had not fully healed the injuries on Ang’s body, the part that she took on herself was also not exactly fun and games. She had a raging headache and her side was on fire. It was difficult to pierce the veil of fear that still permeated her brain. “We’re okay. No one’s going to hurt you again. I promise,” she gasped softly. “Ang… focus on my voice, okay? We’re just sitting in an old bus stop. There’s no one around but us. We were practicing.” Although husky, Nat tried to keep her tone calm. “Your side should be feeling a lot better pretty soon here.” She could feel how deep the puncture in her own side was, so she figured Ang’s pain should be reasonable… if she could only bring her friend back to the present.

“Do you remember the last time we hid in a foxhole?” Natalie kept rambling, hoping Ang was listening. “That stupid guy Klondike froze your arm. When I got to you, I remember being worried that I wouldn’t be able to help you. And you were all like, ‘quit screwing around, I gotta get back out there’ so I just did it. I also remember how bad the cold burned — God, that sucked. I can’t decide if I hate cold damage more than punctures.” She finally trailed off, clenching her teeth against the pain in her side. “Ang… you listening?”

Ang’s head reeled with confusion. Was this a mind game being played by Vector? He’d never done anything like this. She leapt up, her stance solid; her arms out, expecting a strike from the blind darkness. Nothing came. Her breathing slowed, her pulse lowered, the adrenaline stopped flowing. Ang’s sense of self slowly came back to her, and her arms dropped. Her side’s screaming pain finally registered again, along with the ache on her head.

“Nat?” She asked. She let the pain take over, let her training slip. She turned her head and puked from the pain of it all. “Oh, god,” she said, finally. “Nat, I can’t see again.”

Blowing out a slow breath as Ang seemed to come back to herself, Natalie couldn’t help the grimace at the sound of retching. She perhaps hadn’t helped as much as she’d hoped if Ang was still in that much pain. Again? she thought, with the news about being unable to see. Okay, we’ll deal with that in a minute. “Follow my voice. I’m sitting about 15 feet to your 4 o’clock.” She needed Ang to come sit near her so she could assess the rest of the injuries that Ang still had. “You fell. Do you remember the panther?” At least, that’s what she thought the cat was. “I figured it must have surprised you.”

Ang took five measured steps and stopped. “I’ll lay down again, okay?” she said. Ang laid down, gingerly. “Yeah, I remember the twisted cat. It got the better of me, but I fell … luckily, in regards to the beast trying to eat me, at least.” Natalie could tell that Ang was acting differently. No sarcasm, for one thing.

Ang decided to talk to keep her mind off of Natalile’s ministrations. “Vector was … a taskmaster. He was also a kidnapper and abuser,” Ang confessed. “I’d say our brief time together, training me to get his petty revenge on the Young Bloods, had the biggest impact on who I am today. His brutality was, no, is my brutality. He turned a broken, blind girl into a pointed, determined weapon. It wasn’t just me in that pit. Vector guided that knife across the man’s throat just as much as I did.”

Natalie’s hands were gentle as she checked Ang’s wounds over. As she’d expected, the one on her side was about half knitted, perhaps more. It was the head wound that worried her. She listened intently to Ang’s words, though; they offered an insight into the other woman that Natalie’s never had. “The things you experienced were … to say difficult is to perhaps make it sound too simple.” And she knew Ang didn’t want pity. So instead, she said quietly, “I think you took all of the horrible and made yourself stronger with them. And in some ways, I think it made you the person most capable to manage survival in this place and time. So although I won’t say that there’s a reason for everything or that you should be grateful in any fashion… I will say that you are the leader that I choose to follow, not despite your occasional moments of brutality but because of them. Because you have a clarity of vision about when to use it and when not to that I trust. For whatever that’s worth to you.”

She smoothed a hand across the back of Ang’s head where the lump still swells. “Dr. No is going to have to look at that — I’m worried that the blow is causing the problem with your vision.” And she’s very worried that she wasn’t able to heal it. “I’m afraid to try to heal it again this soon after managing to pull my ability far enough under control to get this far.”

“I think you should know why you were never able to heal my eyes,” Ang said. “I think it’s time to confess.”

“I fought you, Nat. I pushed against you with my total will. I didn’t know why until years later. But I can tell you this – I didn’t feel like I deserved to have my original eyes back. I didn’t feel I deserved to take off those damn arm shield transferers. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be whole again.” Ang blew out a slow breath. The pain was nearly gone at this point.

Natalie was … floored. She blinked several times, her hand going still in Ang’s hair. “Oh, Ang,” she said softly, her tone pained. She didn’t honestly know what else to say. She had thought that the failure was entirely hers — though she’d never run across damage that she couldn’t fix before, she’d thought that perhaps the extent was simply too severe. It had never occurred to her that Ang might in fact be fighting her. She didn’t know how to help heal this. Still reeling from the overwhelming emotional pain that she’d inadvertently shared, she couldn’t find words. But really, in the end, were there any?

Smoothing her hand across Ang’s hair absently, Natalie admitted in a soft voice, “I feel like that a lot right now. As if whatever has happened to give me back the ability to heal isn’t deserved because I was such a horrible steward of the power on D-Day. Having it back means having to step up again.” And stepping back up meant shouldering the responsibilities that she’d realized not that long ago that she’d been glad to be without. But that was pretty much life for you — always kicking you in the ass just when you thought you knew what to expect.

She sighed. “You never deserved to be punished. You never deserved what Vector did. You’ve turned what happened to a better purpose; it would have been easier to let it warp you into a villain. Your resolve and your strength of purpose astounds me, even now.” Natalie smiled just a little. “You are right, you know. You’re not the easiest person to approach. And the leadership role sits heavily on anyone who takes it. But I’ll be here when you need to lean on me, Ang. And I really hope that you’ll choose to take me up on that, whether you think you deserve it or not. So… since you’re feeling in a confessing mood, maybe you should tell me how often your sight is actually on the fritz and how bad it really is.”

“It’s gotten to be about once a day, now. I think the internal batteries are dying. They’re solar powered, did you know that? But the more I work, especially at night, the more often they’re running out of juice. And when we hit winter … I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Sitting in the relative safety of the crevice that Ang managed to fall into, a beam of sun illuminating their spot out of wind at the moment, Natalie thought about Ang’s predicament quietly, her hand still absently stroking through the other woman’s hair as she lay on the ground. “Well, shit,” she murmured finally. “I knew they were solar powered, I just don’t think I ever realized they could give out. You know… solar. I’m assuming you’ve already told Maddie…” Because it would explain why Maddie occasionally disappears to work on something for Ang. She’s the only person that Natalie can think of who even has a chance of stopping what could become a permanent situation.

“What can I do?” she finally asked softly. She didn’t have all the answers. Hell, she probably didn’t even know the right QUESTIONS. And she didn’t want to offer things Ang didn’t want — pity, sadness, whatever. Instead, she offered the only thing she could — to listen to what Ang needs from her and give it to the best of her ability.

“What can be done? We’re battling against decay, entropy, and death in this world,” Ang said. She paused for a long time. “But fatalism can go fuck itself,” she finally quipped. Ang sat up, holding her head in her hands. “I need to get into the light and see if this is the ‘normal’ blindness. If I’m charging at all, I’ll see it in the display.”

Natalie helped Ang move, gingerly, to the light that was filtering through the gap. Ang could feel the warmth on her skin. While she waited, she replied, “I don’t know how to lean on you, Natalie. I just know that we were so close to killing ourselves back with Faith that I know now that I don’t want any more secrets. It’s why I’m not easy to approach – I don’t let anyone in, and I don’t let myself out. The only intimacy I get is in the bedroom, to be honest. Not pillowtalk, just letting myself be vulnerable at all. And even then not always.”

Nat checked Ang’s eyes once they were settled, not seeing anything at first. “Let me know if you see indications of charging. It’s always been hard to tell from the outside. If nothing happens in 15 minutes or so, we’ll walk back and have Nona look at you.” She didn’t want to panic Ang by stating outright that she couldn’t see any signs of the batteries charging.

As they sat and Ang offered so much more of herself than she’d ever offered, Natalie was quiet. She let the quiet just play out for a time, comfortable in the silence. Finally, she spoke. “I’m learning that I don’t let very many people in either. I thought I was pretty much an open book, but… someone recently informed me that I am mistaken.” She sounded amused, if weary. The injuries she took from Ang felt like they might be healing within her own body, but it was a slow process even when things worked as they should, and she wasn’t entirely certain they were. Resting here like this in the sun felt good.

“Intimacy is different than sex. So if you’re not even allowing anyone close when you’re in the bedroom together, Ang, you don’t have true intimacy. Keeping people at arm’s length is …. safe. But it’s really lonely.” This was not exactly a conversation Natalie ever thought to have with … well, anyone. But given that she’s having her own crisis of trust, it seemed like perhaps she and Ang had more in common than she’d realized. “I think maybe we all need to be willing to let other people in, and let ourselves out a little more. It’s hard to do. But anything else isn’t really living, it’s just surviving.” She paused and then asked, “What are you so afraid that I’ll see in you? What is it that you think is so bad inside yourself that you think I’ll judge you for it and turn away?”

“You judged me already – that night time rescue mission for the fallen airplane. You know the answer already – I’m hesitating as a leader. I doubt myself, I doubt my ability to keep you all protected. I’m not sure you even want to be as protected as I want to keep you. If it were up to me, we’d still be split off from Refuge Point. When you’re trained to lead people on missions, all you see are missions. And when you’re surrounded by people who don’t want to participate in the mission in the way you want to have it lead – that is, the others at Refuge Point – then you see them as impediments. And when I start seeing people as impediments …”

“Nat,” Ang continued, “I’m not getting any feedback on my eyes. I think I have a concussion, or something. Can you focus on my head?”

Natalie chose her words slowly, feeling her way through them. “That situation was never intended as a judgment of your leadership, Ang,” she said after a long moment of silence. The insight into Ang’s viewpoint gave her a moment of pure clarity and Natalie suddenly found the words she had long wanted to give the other woman.

“The best leaders in the world surround themselves not with yes-men who offer unquestioning obedience but with people who will challenge their decisions constantly. Even when they agree with the decision being made, the best advisors offer the devil’s advocate position when no one else will. Because a leader who truly wants what’s best for everyone under their umbrella needs to hear not just when they’re doing something that is obviously wrong but also when they’re doing something RIGHT. I questioned you that night, yes. Because everything in me pushed toward making that rescue. When you stood your ground and determined that it was best for the entire team to NOT go in there, I may have disagreed and been angry about it, but I would have FOLLOWED that order. Straight into Hell, Ang. I trusted that if my argument was valid, you would weigh it and make the best call you could, balancing between your need to keep us safe and my need to do what I viewed as the right thing. If you had been the one insisting we go, I may not have been the one to call you on it and point out the down sides — that’s usually Langston, because he comes from a viewpoint of semi-enlightened self-interest. But in truth, I think he and I are in many ways the opposite sides of the coin for you. Use us. For exactly that reason. Maybe I’m too much a goody-two-shoes about helping other people. But he isn’t. And between us and Melody and Maddie, we will balance you.”

Without waiting for Ang’s response, perhaps believing that the other woman needed time to think about what was said, Natalie set her hand on her friend’s brow. Swallowing hard, hoping that she finally had the handle on her abilities enough to be able to pull this off, Natalie reached one last time for her power. The new recognition of what her power felt like was a help; it surged through her with a tingling strength, the golden glow building around the women again. Ang’s concussion lessened to a mere headache and the remainder of the piercing injury closed and repaired itself as both relocated to Natalie’s body, leaving the healer feeling sick, very dizzy, and more than a little weak.

Ang reached out to hold Natalie up, and found herself hugging the woman. All of the mental anguish of years of survival burst forth and Ang found herself crying. Eventually, as Natalie came to a bit more, seemingly able to talk again, Ang said, “I will take your offer, Nat. I’ll make sure I listen to all of you and not internalize your disparate opinions as a failure to lead.”

After a moment, Ang wiped the wetness from her cheeks and nose and said, “So, uhm, full disclosure. I’m seeing something new in my HUD. Well, not new, just I haven’t seen it since before Destruction Day. It’s a meter, it monitors how much power I have to flow out to my hilts. I think … I think you healed me a little too much, Nat.”

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Malificent Terri

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