As the group finds their place to hole up for the night, Natalie took the first watch. The raging headache she’s sporting would make it impossible to sleep anyway, but after talking with Melody on the walk there was much on her mind. She hadn’t been exaggerating about the fact that there are times she cannot look herself in the mirror. She didn’t meet Jared’s eyes at any point after giving Langston the go-ahead to kill the rest of the cultists. Her eyes on the darkness outside, she wondered about her conversation with Mel.
“What if my power can now take life? What if instead of giving my own life force, the way I did with Elana, I can also reverse the process and kill people?”
Melody shook her head. “It won’t happen. Your first instinct is still to give your own life healing someone else. It’s just not in you to take their life force, even if your power can do that, to save yourself.”
Was she right, though? Natalie wondered. So much had changed since D-Day. Langston’s droll comment ‘This is what is means to be a hero now’ set poorly in her gut. Where was the line between survival and murder? How many times would she cross it? How would she continue to justify these decisions? She was never a soldier, and despite the horrific things she’s done to survive to this point …. Natalie wasn’t quite sure if surviving was worth it if it meant continuing to be at war. She’d ALWAYS chosen life. Until the past couple of months. And now it seemed she was doomed to continue to decide who died to keep her own people safe. Who the bloody hell was she to make that call?? She wasn’t qualified.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Jared lowered himself to sit next to her, sliding an arm around her shoulder. She wanted to relax into that embrace, but her body wouldn’t cooperate. As the silence spun out for long minutes, Natalie finally said quietly, “I think we need to talk.”
“You know I’m here to listen and offer unsolicited advice.” Jared lightly squeezed Nat’s shoulder, just to reaffirm his presence. “Hopefully in that order.” The real question, of course, was what did they need to talk about? So many choices from all the events that had happened in the last couple of days.
“I’m not the same person you remember,” Natalie said evenly. “I’m sure we’ve both figured out over the course of the past several weeks that there’ve been changes. But…. I had rather hoped that the first expedition you and I ventured on together would be… uneventful.” She trailed off. Slowly she leaned her head sideways onto the shoulder that had been a mainstay of her life anytime she lost patients. “In the past few months, especially, there are times when I don’t even recognize myself. And I’m pretty goddamned sure I didn’t want you to see what you saw today.” Her tone was quiet and grim.
He took a moment to gather his thoughts before responding. “The world has changed and changed everyone with it, Nat. You were a soldier today.” The group as a whole had gotten darker and more brutal than he remembered them being. Jared, in some ways, had irrationally hoped against all hopes that somehow if any of the Guardians survived that…well, they wouldn’t have been changed. But he had known how unlikely that was. So the day’s events had only held the slightest tinge of disappointment for Jared. But still…
“It obviously bothers you. Want to tell me why?”
Natalie was silent for a long time. “Because for just the tiniest little while…. when you looked at me, I could see through your eyes the woman I used to be,” she finally confessed. “I could put at a distance the woman who ordered an enemy dismembered when we were ambushed. I could remember what it was like to help people instead of being willing to have someone killed for being a threat. I am not qualified to make these choices. They make me sick. And for just those quiet moments when we were together, I wasn’t that person anymore.” She breathed out a soft laugh. “When you and Langston were harassing me… it was kind of like old times. I felt…. normal. Just for a minute.” But then she shook her head. “I just wanted you to see that me for a little while longer, I guess, before the rose-colored glasses went away,” she whispered.
Ordered an enemy dismembered? That was definitely a long way from the Natalie who taken on the burns of the Phantasm when the supervillain’s partner turned on him. That Natalie was a healer at her core. But Jared didn’t think that Natalie was gone, confirmed by her turmoil over the day’s events.
“I still see the woman that you used to be, Nat.” Jared ran a hand over her hair. “You’ve just had to bury her deeper, it looks to me.”
“Do you want to get back there? Because if you do, I have some of that unsolicited advice I mentioned earlier.”
She had no idea how he could look at her and still see that person. “Heh,” Natalie grunted softly. “I guess so, sure.” Doesn’t mean she’ll take the advice. But she will at least think about it. “I don’t think that I have the luxury of going back to the way things were… when I wasn’t on the front lines, though,” she admitted somewhat mournfully. “And if you can still see Nightingale, you’re either lying to me or you’re lying to yourself. She would never have been able to let those cultists be killed.”
“I think you’re listening to Langston too much, Nat.” He continued on before Natalie had a chance to respond. “The choices are hard now, but you made the same hard choices before the world ended. You let villains live knowing they might come back to hurt you later. But you did it then because you believed it was the right thing to do.”
Jared knew that Langston only walked with the angels because it was most convenient for him to do so. “It seems clear to me that you hate the choices you’ve been making, that you think they’re not really choices at all. But I don’t think that’s true.”
Tilting her head slightly, Natalie leaned unconsciously back into the arm around her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that Langston’s general tendencies to be only concerned with what’s best for Langston were easier to ignore when he was a 9 foot tall gorilla and you were surrounded by other heroes.” Having some ideas of the kind of things that Langston was experimenting on (and with), Jared had never really bought into the idea of Langston as a reformed hero. Maybe not a villain…but not a hero. Much like Jared didn’t see himself as a hero either. “His voice is louder now even if his body is smaller. I’ve seen the way your group listens to him. Just because he thinks its prudent to kill defeated enemies doesn’t mean you have to. What makes this somehow different from fighting battles against supervillains?” As Jared said that, the difference came to him in a blast of sudden insight.
“More lives were at stake back then…but those were lives you didn’t know, you didn’t live with day after day.”
Before she could answer, Jared found his own answer. Natalie smiled just a little. “I tried for years to keep my distance when it came to healing. You lectured me constantly,” she said quietly. “It’s impossible to have that level of objectivity when you live in a world where there are only a couple hundred of you. Each life is important — and people who attack you are the enemy. Period. Not because Langston says so, but because they’ve already proven in prior run-ins that they don’t even WANT to just live and let live. So if the choice is us or them…. I’m going to pick us, Jared.”
She paused for a long moment and looked up at him, the conversation with Melody playing through the back of her mind. “As an example, I’ve given you my trust. There are things going on that you don’t know about yet, and I’m not allowed to tell you yet. But if and when you come into the know on them, if it turns out my faith in you is flawed…. I’m willing to walk out into the wilderness and get you as far from them as I can — to live alone with just us or if necessary to kill us both — to keep them safe.”
“It was always us vs them, Natalie. But I didn’t see you cutting the throats of defeated super-villains.” Jared needed her to want to be Nightingale. Because if she could be her own old self, maybe he could be too. “What good to save the world if the cost is our souls?”
“Better our souls than their lives,” Natalie replied softly. Looking up at him, she didn’t know what he saw in her eyes. She couldn’t know what showed there.
Moving through the small group huddled around one of the fires, Natalie greeted people quietly. Her mental headcount was off. She stepped around the group and into one of the alcoves nearby, and when she didn’t locate her quarry there, she moved on. Half an hour later, she headed into Charlie Jenkins’s living space.
“Hey,” she greeted briefly.
“Hey yourself,” he rumbled in return. His heavy jacket was hanging on a rail, evidence that he’d only just come back from an expedition team.
“You been back long?”
“Nope. ’Bout 20 minutes.” Charlie paused, about to take off his boots. Something in her tone stopped him and he looked more closely at her. “Why?”
Natalie hesitated. “Liz,” she said without elaboration. The young woman had given birth just two weeks ago.
Charlie grimaced. “Shit.”
Natalie said quietly, “I haven’t heard the baby crying, either.” It ate at her guts — there was literally nothing any of them could do for Elizabeth or her son. When LIz’s milk came in, her body had begun cannibalizing itself to feed the infant, but neither of them was exactly thriving.
With a heavy sight, Charlie yanked a fleece sweatshirt over his T-shirt. “Let’s go find her,” he said.
Making their rounds through the groups again, Natalie asked a few people if they’d seen Liz or the baby. Most people were vague, a few nodded. One woman,Hannah Abbott, hesitated and then said, “Last night. At the fire pit. But not since.”
“How was she?” Charlie asked.
Hannah paused before answering. “Honestly, Charlie, I don’t know. She was quiet, but I know she’s been exhausted. The baby cries constantly.” She bit her lip. “And now that I say that… the baby was quiet last night.”
Natalie swallowed hard. “Thanks,” she told Hannah. She and Charlie shared a look.
Hours later, a full-blown search was still underway when Natalie and Charlie found her curled up in what had been one of the maintenance halls behind the stores. Liz had made a nest of sorts out of cardboard boxes and her blanket. She and the baby were curled up together, and from the state of the infant’s body it was clear that he’d finally succumbed to starvation. Liz had wrapped herself around her son, slit her wrists, and bled out. She’d had the foresight to make sure her blood wouldn’t damage the blanket so others would be able to still use it when she was gone. It was a pitiful, horrifying sight.
“I don’t like what happened today. I don’t want to be that person. I was never on the front lines, I was never in the combat. I was useless at it. And I still am in far too many ways to count. But it’s part of my responsibility to make sure that those who survived D-Day get to continue surviving. And now, in this time and place, we have no resources to send bad people to jail. Where would we hold them? Who decides how long they get held? Where does the food come from to feed them?”
Natalie sighed softly. “We don’t live in societies anymore. We are starting over. And for a while, I think that we’re going to fall back on afar more tribal set of rules to live by. I don’t know how many people I killed in the Lost Days, Jared. I don’t know what atrocities I’ve committed personally… I’ll answer for them when I die, like everyone else. All I can do right now is protect those I can protect. Protect those who are MINE. With my power reactivating… I will use it the same way I always have – to save anyone I can.”
“That was one of the reasons I brought my offer, Nat. So we could build a place where we could try and have the rule of law, not have to kill our enemies.” But that was history now. As were the Lost Days, where Jared suspected his own list of atrocities was just as high as Nat’s. But the past was the past. No looking back, only moving forward.
Jared smiled softly. “I know it sounds like I’m judging, Nat. But I’m not. I always admired how you always seemed to be thinking about other people. That’s not changed.” It hadn’t…she just had limited her pool of people. “If that’s what you feel has to be done, not what Langston or Ang feels….Just you can’t live forever with that disconnect, Nat. Make the choices and don’t hate yourself for them. You can’t live that way.”
Blowing out a slow breath, Natalie shook her head. “I don’t hate myself for the choices that I’m making…. I can only make the choices I think will keep my people safe. But I can hate the necessity of MAKING that kind of choice. And sometimes I can hate that I’m the one who has to make them. There was a reason I preferred Ang to maintain leadership. I really really don’t WANT to be the person in charge. I don’t mind lending my expertise where it’s useful or offering an opinion when it’s helpful. But choices like this? In the end, I prefer them to be above my pay grade.” She paused and then grinned a little up at him. “Sounds like I really should be welcoming the opportunity to bring the military in here, right? But I don’t welcome that… because the larger the group of people you’re making choices for, the more you need people to enforce the unpopular ones. In a smaller group, it’s about respect cooperation. In a larger one, it tends more to be about force. And I don’t want to be anyone’s enforcer.”
Jared also had a hard time picturing Natalie as anybody’s enforcer. “I want to be part of your life, Nat. So let me know what I can do to support you. And be warned, I’m going to keep pushing back if I think you’re crossing any unnecessary lines.” She could worry about everyone else’s lives. He was going to worry about her soul.
Natalie finally relaxed into curve of his side, letting his body take her weight as she allowed him within her emotional space.“Good,” she told him simply. “Because sometimes Langston makes too much sense. And I know there’s something wrong with his argument, but sometimes I can’t quite see it.”
“Langston sees what’s necessary to be done and has the willingness to do whatever that takes. And that can make a lot of sense in an unforgiving world.” And in some ways, Jared admired him for that pureness of purpose. But in other ways… “But sometimes, we need to do more than just what’s necessary. More than just the bare minimum for survival. If life is just about survival, we’re not grabbing hold of what makes us human.”
Natalie smiled softly. He sounded like Melody. And it was that sense of him that made Natalie trust him with everything in her. Toby, however, was not her secret to share. “It’s nice to have you back. I’d forgotten how it felt to be … protected.” She’d missed knowing that someone was there to have her back unequivocally, even if they didn’t agree with her. “The past couple of months have been …. even harder, if that’s possible, than the first days after D-Day.” And maybe that was why she felt so strongly about him — Refuge Point had begun to feel like home, like she belonged. And then the rug had been pulled out from under all of them. Jared had spent years keeping her safe, not only from others but even from herself when it was necessary. And she couldn’t help being grateful for what small security she suddenly feels knowing someone really cares enough to be there for her.
“I missed protecting you, you know.” Jared wouldn’t say it was like missing a limb or anything over the top like that. But watching her and protecting her had been such a large part of his life for so long. The chaos of the Lost Days and the frantic nature of being ordered back to work by General Alan Mercator had distracted him for a while. But then came traveling across the country. And during those empty spaces, there was so much time to realize how much he had missed her. But now he had found her. And he was going to do his best not to let her slip away from him again.
Natalie laughed quietly. “I’m pretty sure that’s a sign of mental illness,” she teased. “After all, you were charged with babysitting a woman who – if your comments earlier are to be believed – is either stupid or has no sense of self-preservation.” Slanting him a look from under her lashes, almost flirtatious, she murmured, “You had to know I was nuts before you fell in love with me. So clearly your judgement is impaired.”
It was the first time he could remember her specifically acknowledging that he loved her. He smiled a secret little smile. “We can be nuts together.”
Natalie was perhaps a little surprised at that smile. It turned his expression rather impish and … pleased? It made him look just that little bit younger, like before the world ended. She liked it. She leaned up and kissed his jaw softly and the laid her head in the curve of his shoulder to settle in for the rest of her watch.