Heroes Fail

Episode 30
Tac-Nuke of Truth

After a couple days of downtime, we find that Ang is still emotionally feeling pretty darn good but physically she’s suffering from the excessive amount of healing done to her. With no pathway for her power to follow, neither eyes nor blades, it is building up within her and causing her migraines. These are expected to get worse with time, although Ang has made a point to downplay the situation.

Ida visits Langston as he’s recovering from injuries sustained during the battle, and he basically dumps a Tac-Nuke of Truth on her, giving her the full rundown on what’s been going on with the re-emergence of Powers, his theory that all the survivors are potentially latents, and anything else he feels will generally bring her into alignment with his point-of-view …. whatever that actually is.

A team meeting is held in the sickbay not too long after that, which is when Langston informs the rest of the group about what Ida knows. It also comes out at this point that Maddy’s power has been turned on for a lot longer than anyone really knew. An argument ensues about Maddy keeping that kind of secret, being as all her excuses on why she didn’t speak up sound remarkably like the exact same problems that Natalie’s been having — Langston is peeved, Ang is hurt, Nat and Melody are definitely perturbed. Sandra eggs on the situation internally, though the rest of the group still has no idea that she exists and that Maddy is being somewhat held hostage by the AI. The ultimate decision of the team at the meeting is that hiding the re-emergence of Powers cannot continue, and if we’re going to get ahead of it, we need to do it on our own timetable. The group decides it’s time to take it to the council.

Melody goes to pay a visit to Toby to check up on him because he did NOT show up to the massive battle and finds out that Toby’s been doing both some power exploration as well as other kinds of exploring. He informs Mel that he’s located his father — that Melody didn’t kill him, but that Ryan has been transformed into coral and at the present time seems to be thriving. But he is out of reach of Toby for now.

The council meets up with a couple of things on their agenda, one of which is deciding what to do about the refugees that are still being housed pending decision. But the team requests time to speak on a topic unrelated, it is granted to them. At which point, Ang very baldly tells the council flat out, “There are active Powers in Refuge Point.” The coucil members erupt into loud chatter — Santae’s knowledge is called into question, and he takes some heat for keeping quiet on it. Ang lets them blow off the initial head of steam but doesn’t let them get lost in outrage. Instead, she calmly brings the discussion back to the facts — She lists the preternatural threats that we already know we’re facing, as well as reminding the council what was being done to Kofi and the children. She lays it all out with the spin that by HAVING Powers here in Refuge Point, our own people are safer than anywhere else, because we can’t be the only place where this is happening. Why would we even assume we are? It stands to reason that while we’re the biggest confluence of prior Powers that we know about, there have to be others out there in smaller communities, and if we’re erupting, it’s likely they are as well. So sooner or later, we will likely be threatened by someone who wants to use their Power to take over Refuge Point.

Langston is queried for additional information and explains that the old methods of classification are not going to work right now. The dangers primarily exist in what we don’t know about the way Powers will now erupt and work. He likens the situation to a new form of heroin on the market, a metaphor that Natalie can distinctly feel makes the council very uncomfortable though she can’t really pinpoint why or exactly what about it is a problem. It also comes out that at least one of the active Powers in Refuge Point — any of whom at this time we refuse to name — was NOT a Power prior to D-Day. And we also have no way to really assess whether all survivors might, in fact, have a latent gene. Ang uses the story of Rhiannon and her defeat as an example of what could happen and what just a few active Powers can do for Refuge Point to keep it safe, and the gamble pays off. The council determines that Ang and Santae are going to be delegated to make the integration of the Powers and the knowledge that they exist a smooth transition — and they are given the authority to handle it any way they deem necessary to keep the peace.

Following that part of the council meeting, the rest of the team leaves. Ang remains and the council decides that this group of refugees will be allowed to stay, but that we will need to come up with some kind of process by which we deal with any further people seeking a place to stay. Refuge Point cannot handle more than it’s already got — in point of fact, this could tip it over the edge. But they can’t in good conscience send a bunch of kids out into the coming winter and still look at themselves in the mirror, so we’re all going to tighten our belts and deal with it. Nearly lost amid the resettling of the newcomers, the leader of the refugees is spotted having a rather intent discussion with Mary Fran, who she seems to know better than one might assume, and the possibility of yet another mole or traitor floats on the periphery.

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Forging Connections

Being back in Refuge Point is both easier and harder for Natalie. The heightened emotions of the battle at Candle House were gone, but the wariness of her friends toward her and the emotions within her own head that she’s finally identified as not being hers but yet not able to get them under control as yet are both conspiring to make her need an anchor. And although part of her is pulling to go find Charlie—because he never gives her emotions a problem—the part of her that wants to work things out with Jared is telling her that if she makes that choice, she may forever damage the relationship she wants to build. So instead… she hesitantly seeks out Jared with a quiet knock at his quarters.

When he allowed her entry, she looked up at him. “I’m sorry” were the first words out of her mouth. She didn’t give him a chance to respond at first, her words tumbling over themselves as if she were afraid she wouldn’t say them at all if she didn’t hurry. "I didn’t know what she meant by healing her too far, and I’m sorry I’ve been reacting to you like I have. There’s a big jumble of stuff in my head right now, and I’m sorry I keep flinching from you—I know you’d never raise a hand to me. One of the things tied up in knots in my head is how I feel about you… how scared I am that what you’re offering is going to destroy what little peace I’ve managed to cobble together. My power is so friggin’ invasive right now, I don’t even know what parts of this are me and what parts are you! Because I can feel how you love me but I can also feel regret and fear you’re keeping back—and I can’t tell why or what it’s from, so all I can figure out is that you’re scared. And all I can assume is that it’s of me.”

Jared had learned a lot of things in two years by himself, but one of the most valuable (he thought) was patience. Or more precisely, Jared learned not to be afraid of silence. Before Destruction Day, modern life meant almost never being truly alone. Sure, you could be in your house by yourself and technically be alone. But your neighbor was thirty steps away. Your friends? Ten minutes. Hop in a car and you were thirty minutes away from a city’s worth of people. No, pre-Destruction Day, you were never really technically alone and Jared never really know any other way of living. But going cross country, there had been weeks where he hadn’t seen another living soul. And since Jared wasn’t the kind of person to have a conversation with himself, he adapted to the silence. Learned not to rush through words. Nobody was going to mistake him for a monk on a vow of silence. But he had come out the other side a better listener.

Which was why when Nat came to him, spewing words like a Shakespearean garden hose, he didn’t try to interrupt or stop her. He just let her talk, taking it all in. When she was done, Jared just said, “Apology accepted but unnecessary.” Which was true. It had sucked in the moment, no lie, but once they had figured out what had happened, they wasn’t any point in stewing about it. “But damn, woman,” he continued on, smiling to soften the blow, “we have got to figure out how to make this work for you.”

Left unsaid was the continuation of that sentence in Jared’s head. Because I don’t think we can work until you do.

He’d avoided the main thrust of her rush of words. “You. Are. Afraid.” Natalie’s tone was certain and her eyes were steady on him. “Is it of me?” His answer was more important to her than she’d really realized until he evaded it.

“What kind of fool would I be if I wasn’t afraid, Natalie Tessier?” Those dark eyes stayed focused on hers, inviting her scrutiny. “I’ve abandoned my connection to my country. I’ve chosen a community that hasn’t necessarily chosen me… that is afraid of what I represented. And the woman I love… well, she’s rightfully not certain how she feels about me and is going through some crazy shit that I feel inadequate to help her with. So yeah, damn right I’m afraid, Nat.”

Jared paused for a minute and could see her getting ready to respond, so he held up a hand so he could finish the thought. “Am I afraid you’ll hurt people you don’t want to hurt? Sure. Am I afraid that the people of this town might hurt you? Yeah, absolutely. Am I afraid that your inability to get your empathy under control is going to kill this relationship before it gets off the ground? That’s what scares me the most. You hurting me physically? Doesn’t even make the top 20.” A small smile peeked out from the side of his mouth. “Ask me about elk sometime.” Number 11.

A lump formed in her throat at his first words, despair written across her face. She couldn’t have opened her mouth to respond if she’d wanted to when he paused a moment, tears were choking her. But her chin came up—she was made of stern stuff, damn it—and she was about to nod and simply leave until he started speaking again.

The wave of relief she felt was nearly crippling. Blowing out a slow breath, Natalie fought the overwhelming urge to cry. The emotional damage that she absorbed was making it very difficult to control her emotions still, although at least she could now (mostly) identify which were hers and which had belonged to Ang when se focused on it—it was a step in the right direction. “Okay.” Swallowing hard, she nodded, her voice was strained from the fight to retain control of the maelstrom she was dealing with. “Okay,” she said again, more quietly still.

The long moment of silence wasn’t peaceful; there was an intensity to it as she searched his face for something that maybe she couldn’t even identify. “Kiss me?” she finally asked in a whisper.

Jared didn’t say anything in response. He just leaned forward and, putting his hand on the back of her head, gently brought her in for a long, deep kiss. The emotions that had been hanging off their every word bled into the kiss, giving it a scary but good intensity that Jared had never really experienced before.

Their bodies touched only in a few places—his hand on the back of her head, her palm resting on his chest above his heart, their mouths lingering and retreating only to come back together with a deeper connection each time.

Peace.

Strength.

Safety.

For the first time in several days, Natalie could feel her Self instead of the confused tangle of what she’d taken from Ang. The rush of complex emotions that she felt for this man swept through her like oil over troubled waters, smoothing down the rough edges of the panic and fear and paranoia that she has been struggling with. In the wake of that sensation, Natalie found and grounded herself in her affection and desire for the man in her arms.

As they slowly pulled away to breathe, her forehead rested against his and she met his eyes with a clear gaze and a sense of wonder. The moment of clarity had come as a surprise; the connection she felt wasn’t simply physical or emotional, and for a moment she worried that she’d unconsciously forged something else without permission yet again. But … it didn’t quite have that feel either. She couldn’t help the soft laugh as she murmured, “Well… hello.”

“Hi there yourself.” Jared had never been an technical empathic (although he suspected he might have had a small amount) but there was no way to do his job without learning how to read people the old fashioned way. All the signs suggested she had reached some calm…more than just calm, honestly. Even breathing, tone of voice, and relaxed muscles were the obvious ones. But she was also blinking less and her body wasn’t doing the almost unnoticeable microflutter that came when she was under stress that he could only sense while in physical contact.

So kissing her helped? He’d throw himself on that sword.

Searching his face, Natalie was surprised to realize that she felt…. okay. Not totally in control but not out of it either. And for this moment, she was at peace. Maddy’s description of what her empathy did wasn’t really helping, but kissing Jared had helped. Why?

Her free hand came up and stroked softly across his cheek, feeling against her fingertips the bristle of the light beard he was wearing. She felt her way through the thoughts barreling through her mind at the same time, sifting through the emotions, and realized, Because they’re mine. Because I only feel those toward him, not the same as Charlie. Deeper?

The realization lit up her features with a small smile. She could use that. Each emotion that she felt toward the Guardians and others in Refuge Point was unique, some stronger than others. She just had to learn to use those as her anchor, shoring her up until she learned the right way to build her internal walls.

Biting her lip with a sudden rather shy expression that she couldn’t help, Natalie cleared her throat. “Uhm, is it going to get weird if I tell you …. that you just gave me the key to how to manage the problem?” Her fingers toyed with the front of his shirt even as her other hand continued to lightly stroke the side of his jaw as if fascinated by the texture of his beard.

Jared put his fingers over top her hand on his face. “I like the feel of your fingers there, Nat,” he said as he slowly stroked the back of her hand. “That makes weird pretty tolerable. So tell me what you figured out and if it will involve more kisses like that one.”

Natalie laughed just a little, her mood lighter than it had been in several days. “Well…. I hope it does,” she admitted quietly, not removing her fingers from his face. “I realized in the middle of that kiss—yeah, totally unromantic, I know—that … I could feel me. My emotions, not the rest of them. Like… sort of in a bubble. It’s not quite like that… because now that I’m not focused on the kiss, I can feel the rest of it kind of rushing around me. But… what I feel for you is identifiably mine. So nothing else intruded.”

His voice shifted slightly into trainer mode. “So how do you take advantage of that? Obviously, I can’t be draped all over you all the time, no matter how appealing that might sound in the moment. So you’ll need to figure out how to apply that on a consistent basis. Learn how to create that fort of emotional sanity and use it as shelter from and vantage on other emotions.”

He then grinned slightly. “If it helps, I’ll volunteer for lots of practice sessions so you can get this right. A sacrifice on my part, to be sure…”

Chuckles bubbled out of her and Natalie’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “Well, far be it for me to keep you from sacrificing for the greater good,” she teased. “Although I shall point out that if you sacrifice too much, I’ll be forced to haul you caveman-style out of whatever you’re doing.” Flashing back on the few occasions when he’s done that to her made her snicker. “Or something.”

But returning to the other question, Natalie looked thoughtful. “There are only a few people here that I feel strongly enough for that I think it would work…. but I do think it might be possible to use my feelings for you, for Mel and Ang and Maddy, for a few people here at Refuge Point like Wolf and Charlie… even Langston, though most of my reactions to him are a little more on the negative side. They might act as a bulwark when I’m not sure which are my emotions and which aren’t—focus on particular moments in time, maybe?” She looked up at him, seeking his thoughts on that methodology.

“You might even try to associate a strong emotion type with each person,” he agreed, “Langston, for example, might be perfect to associate with frustration. Although that might be getting too specific. But yeah, might work, Nat. Specific memories to act as sunglasses for the emotions, letting you view things from a different perspective.”

Natalie nodded a little bit, considering the possibilities. “Positive emotions, I think, are the ones I need—I’m noticing that it’s the negative ones that seem to have the ability to knock me for a loop more.” Similar to the way pain made her react before? The thought passed through her head and surprise flashed across her face for just a moment. I’m still ‘fixing’ things. Okay. How did I block pain out when I needed to?

“Pain used to draw me like a moth to a flame,” she said slowly, literally feeling her way through the thought process. “I’m still a magnet for the negative… because the positive doesn’t need fixing. So ….” Love. Desire. Family. Affection. “I can’t really draw on true happiness because in all honesty I’m not sure I can remember what it feels like.” Her voice trailed off with the admission.

It broke Jared’s heart to hear her say that. So he kissed her again, less about passion and more trying to put in it all of the crazy feelings he felt for this woman who had snuck up on his life. When he let the kiss go, he looked at her and quietly said, “I won’t make promises because you deserve better. Nobody can damn well promise much of anything in this new world of ours. But I can tell you I think happiness is real and the two of us have a chance to reach it.” He ran a finger lovingly across her forehead, pushing her hair out of those beautiful eyes of hers. “So, Nat, willing to take a shot at it with me?”

The kiss this time held that subtle taint of sadness, but Natalie let the tenderness of it, the sweetness, wash through her senses. When he pulled away this time, her eyes opened more slowly and focused on his.

“Yes.”

The answer was devastatingly simple. For the first time since she woke in San Francisco, Natalie dared to think that she was allowed to have something that made her happy. And for the first time since he darkened the doorstep of Refuge Point, she offered him no qualifications, no conditions, no hedging. Just a simple, one-word answer…. everything.

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Empathy and its Vagaries

Friday, 14 Oct 2022
Maddy’s Cubby
Refuge Point

Natalie waits until things have calmed for a couple of days before seeking out Maddie. She knocks lightly and tells her friend quietly, “We need to talk. And … I’m not sure you can help me. But both Ang and Jared think you may be the only person who might be able to.”

Maddy looked up from the task at hand, a simple repair job, and put her tools aside. Wiping her hands on a rag, she rose from her bench. “Sure. But …,” she said, a small frown of puzzlement knitting her brow."What sort of help do you need? I may be good fixing machines, but you know I’m fairly incompetent when it comes to fixing people. So-ooo … "

Incompetent? Like now, right? Idiot.

Taking her cue from her inner critic, Maddy swept a chair clear of pieces and parts and turned it toward Natalie. She smiled at her friend with sincerity and apology in equal measure.

“I’m forgetting my manners. Have a seat, Nat. Of course, I’ll help you. What do you need?”

“A couple of things,” Natalie acknowledged as she settled on the edge of the chair Maddy cleared for her. She had already had a day and a half to figure out how to talk about what she wanted to say, but it still hadn’t helped. She was going to have to play it by ear. “Since my power reawakened, I’ve been having problems with it. You know that. Control is obviously the first and foremost problem—healing people in uncontrolled fashion, even turning on their powers. I’ll get back to that one in a minute. The other problem is that my power is not what it used to be. At best guess, I’m a fully receiving empath now… and I’m wide open, Maddy. All the friction that I was creating? It was because I was reacting to emotions that are not mine. Even now, I’m still reacting to them. The mental defenses that I used to have for blocking out people’s pain are not enough—that was a trickle. This is like a firehose turned on full force with other people’s emotions. And Ang and Jared both figure that you’ve spent most of your Powered life blocking out the mental chatter of machinery, so you may be the only person who teach me how to block out the constant ebb and flow of emotions around me.”

“Whoa. Fire hose? That’s … That’s a lot of water.” Maddy sank slowly onto her cot, shocked at the extent of Natalie’s sensitivity. “I don’t know how you do it. I think I’d go nuts if I had the equivalent force turned on me. Although,” she said, remembering something from a nightmare she’d suffered. “I think … I might have once. But it might have been a dream, something from my imagination.” She shook her head. “That’s not important right now. The important thing is the machines, the tech, the metal … they were the background music to my mind, Natalie. It was always on, always singing to me like a choir or an orchestra. I didn’t so much block it out as I just sort of … surfed it, the way you’d have the radio on in the room while you worked. There were times it would get loud and I would have to concentrate to rise above it. Sometimes I’d have to focus through the music to find a single note or instrument but mostly, though, I didn’t try blocking it out.”

Even as she said it, she couldn’t help wondering at something Natalie had said: I’ll get back to that one in a minute. Did Natalie think she’d turned on Maddy’s powers? Wouldn’t that imply that Natalie had already felt Maddy’s exercise of powers before? If so, how long has been aware of it? How much does she know about Sandra? Can she feel her? Never mind that now. Stay focused.

“Well, to be fair, fire hose is an exaggeration,” Natalie admitted. “Anyway … my main problem is that I don’t have the skills to determine which emotions are mine and which are external to me. So although I’m definitely understanding the concept of what you’re saying about surfing the external, I need help learning to identify what’s external. Do you think you can help with that?”

“I can’t say for sure, but I’ll try. It’s the least I can do.” One thing Maddy was certain of, it was the shadow of anxiety, fear, and fatigue that seemed to haunt her friend. How could anyone turn their back on that?

“I need to understand how you do it. Do machines sound so very different from humans that it’s easy to keep them separate? Do machines actually have emotions — or at least something that you perceive as emotion?” Natalie was curious about that, though she didn’t quite believe that it was the same thing at all. Still, both of the people who have training experience seem to think that it should be similar.

“They do and they don’t. I mean …,” Maddy paused, trying to explain it. “I can tell the difference because there is a feeling that comes with them that isn’t human. And while I know there is some anthropomorphism at my end when I say that this or that machine is happy or sad, there is also a base level of existence to them that is uniquely theirs that feels … it’s flat but at the same time it’s layered and dimensional, it has a tone but it’s silent, it’s solid but ethereal. I know it’s not making any sense on the surface of it but those contradictions taken as a group create a distinctive feel and sound to them that I don’t think any human has. And, there’s something else.”

Maddy raised her hands, curling her fingers as if holding a large ball. As she spoke, she moved as if to twist the ball in two.

“Ultimately, they and everything else in the universe is made of energy. We’re all just a bunch of atoms with particles spinning in their orbits and we all want to spin in a certain way. The spins have harmonies unique to their elements. No two elements sound exactly alike. Taken as a whole, each has minute differences from chance impurities that gives each harmonic a slightly different blend.” She stopped a beat to let that sink in. “Leave them alone, they all spin and hum right along, but force them where they don’t want to go, they grow dissonant the farther you force them out of tune. The closer to true you push them, the purer and uncluttered the tone. That’s what I hear when I work with them, it’s what I listen for, it’s a vibe I can feel. It tells me what I need to know. I don’t know if people have that same capacity for a unique signature. In theory, they should, because we’re all atoms, man and machine, so we’re all humming. But for some reason, the harmonic by living things isn’t something I can hear. Or if I do, I’m not able to recognize it as such. God, I hope this is making sense to you. It’s really hard to remember what it was like from Before.”

Natalie listened intently, and she was quiet as she thought about those words. Tilting her head slightly, she said, “Well, how has it changed from before to now?” she asked. Perhaps getting back around to that earlier thought.

“Other than being gone?” Maddy couldn’t keep the bitterness from showing a little. “Except for time when I woke up with every car alarm going off, and then it might have been a dream I was dreaming and not them talking to me at all.”

Natalie tilted her head. “We both know your powers have been on. I just don’t know for how long. Did I activate you that last time I healed you, Maddy?” Her eyes were steady on Maddy’s and when she asked the question was watching very closely.

“Is that really a bad thing?” She’s …. Is she … fishing? Oh, God. Does she know? “Have you ever wanted something so much that you could feel it and taste it?” Maddy asked soberly. “Have you ever woken up from dreams so real you can’t decide if you’re awake or still dreaming? Or have a memory so strong that it takes a minute to realize it’s not actually happening?” Maddy’s chin crumpled a second as she hitched a shaky breath. It wasn’t easy to say it, the thought that perhaps her grasp on reality wasn’t quite solid. “When you turned my powers back on, I almost didn’t dare believe it, because I’d spent the past two years begging the Universe to get them back. And sometimes … Natalie, there were times when I thought the Universe answered only to find out it was wishful thinking. Can you imagine how much that hurts?”

Natalie could feel her back teeth grinding at the confirmation (or so she believes) that she reactivated Maddy’s powers. Shit.

“Yes, I think I can,” Nat replied quietly. She looked away from her friend for a long moment, struggling with anguish. How could she risk healing anyone again? Unless Langston could figure out why her healing was activating powers, how could she justify using her abilities except in life and death situations? Heh … for so long I was glad to have them gone. And now, when I get them back, I can’t even use them. Jesus, my karma must suck.

Turning her attention back to Maddy, Natalie said, “So what you’re saying about your empathy is that you can relatively easily discern which emotions are yours and which are machine-based?” It was what she had been expecting to hear, and not helpful to her at all, but she wanted to be certain she was understanding correctly.

“Yeah,” Maddy said slowly, nodding as she developed the idea in her head. “Because in a real way, for me it’s less emotion and more like I can vibrate along with the harmonic. I’m more like a tuning fork and you’re more like a radio. To carry the analogy further, your receiver has become more sensitive and you’ve a lot more channels coming in. Your bandwidth is getting crowded and you’re having trouble with the tuning knob and volume control. So if we look at it that way, maybe I can help, even though I don’t work the same way. Does that make sense?”

Natalie nodded slowly. “That makes some sense, yes.” She was still not entirely sure what she expected Maddy to do — but then again, she wasn’t sure exactly what Ang and Jared expected her to do either. “So… can you give me an idea of how to do this?”

“Well ….” Maddy puffed her cheeks and let out a slow breath. “So, you’re a receiver, yeah? Let’s test the pick-up.” Maddy stood and turned her back to Natalie to avoid giving her any cues. Instead, she spoke to the walls. "What can you pick up from me right now?

Natalie sat, trying to work through the morass of emotions that she was already coping with—both her own and the ones that don’t belong to her. And although Maddy couldn’t see it, she flinched visibly. Scrambling to her feet, Natalie scrambled out of her chair and quickly backed toward the door, her hand out as if to fend off Maddy’s advance. “Nothing,” she blurted hurriedly. “I don’t pick up anything.” Because she wasn’t about to tell her friend that all she could feel in this moment was the terrified certainty that Maddy was about to turn on her. She could feel a rising tide of panic that she wasn’t able to quell. “You’re busy! We’ll do it later!”

Maddy’s ear had been fine tuned to perceive nuances in pitch and yet it didn’t take anything near her level of skill to hear the rising tone in Natalie’s voice. She’s … scared. Why? Maddy pivoted and held her palms up in a clearly non-threatening gesture. “Natalie? It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

Pinned her back to the door frame, her hand still outward. “Don’t come near me. Don’t… just don’t move, please?” It was a visible struggle to not react for Natalie—her eyes on Maddy were dilated and her color was high. The hand she had protectively out in front of her was trembling. Even without an empathic sense, it was easy to tell that she was nearing a full-blown panic attack and that she was fighting it back with everything in her.

“Okay. It’s going to be okay.” Maddy kept her voice low and movements slow, edging to her cot and squeezing herself into the farthest corner of it from her door. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them and made herself as small as possible. Looking at Natalie from under her lashes, she said softly, “You’ve got the floor and a clear way out. I won’t do anything.”

Grateful that even if she didn’t understand why Maddy was giving her room helped Natalie rein it in. For a long moment, she closed her eyes as she rested against the wall by the door, until finally her shaking slowed to a bare minimum. When she opened her eyes, she looked weary. “Well…. that was a little shorter than before, at least,” she observed. “Christ…. I have a new, even deeper respect for Ang and her ability to contain emotions. I’m a friggin’ train wreck right now and I have ZERO idea how to heal what I took from her.”

“Maybe there is no quick fix for it,” Maddy suggested from her corner. “I realize this might not be something you want to hear but maybe we just have to get you through the healing process as if you really are an abuse survivor.” She had almost said victim but changed the word at the last second to reinforce the positive. “As a FEMA agent, you’ve had training to help people in this situation, right?”

“Not this,” Natalie said quietly. “FEMA is about triage, not long-term care. Vector…. damaged Ang in a lot of ways I will never understand, no matter what I’ve healed in her mind. I hope that what I did for her is a positive thing…” She trailed off. “I’m not certain that it is, Maddy. I’m not certain that I haven’t taken something very vital from her even as I healed the damage.”

“So you think by healing her emotional damage, you’ve taken away her … edge? Her ability to disconnect from her feelings and make those hard command-style decisions?” Maddy fell silent and thought about it for a moment. “If you did, then where did those qualities go? To you, maybe? I don’t believe they just disappeared or were destroyed. Maybe they’re still with Ang, but not as a handicap. Perhaps by doing whatever it was you did, you’ve freed her to be the way she would have been had she not been damaged in the first place, but still retaining the memories and the skills she’d formed after she’d escaped Vector.” Maddy uncurled a little, stretching her legs on her cot. She remained in her corner, though, reluctant to disturb Natalie more than she already had. “I don’t know, Nat. I think it’s too early to tell. All we have at the moment is a solid maybe. I think we need more time to figure out.”

Natalie shrugged, calming slowly. “I have no way of knowing…. although, given the way she faded back out of the group and started sniping from behind us the other day, I don’t think so?” She grinned a little at Maddy. “A solid ‘maybe’ seems to be the way my whole life goes right now. But you’ve at least given me a direction to think about working with. So… maybe we can pick up tomorrow? I’m… not sure how I’m going to react if we try again now.”

“Absolutely. Whenever you need me.” Maddy didn’t hesitate in the slightest. As pushy as Sandra had become of late, Maddy wouldn’t let the AI keep her from helping her friend. Natalie was one of the team, a real friend from Before, and one whom Sandra, for all her promises and potential, couldn’t outrank. Maddy was glad to see her friend grow calmer but refrained from making any sudden moves. She could see Natalie was still skittish. “Just ask.”

Although she was hiding it reasonably well — or at least, she thought she was — Natalie was grateful that Maddy’s intuition kept her from moving around. She wasn’t sure what it would take to set her off again, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t be much. Maybe she could sleep tonight… that would help. “Okay… I’ll see you at breakfast, then, and we’ll get started. If that’s okay.”

“Totally okay,” Maddy promised. She kept her hands steady in her lap but smiled warmly, trying to strike just the right amount of reassurance without the strangling weight of obligation. From what little she herself understood about anxiety, Maddy had no wish to add to the pressure she was certain that Natalie already felt. “I’ll see you then.”

View
Glass Half Full

A day after the arrival of Jay Norris:

Finding herself without a shadow for the moment and spotting Maddy sitting alone with the last of her breakfast, Natalie made her way to the other woman’s seat and dropped down next to her. “Hey lady,” she greeted quietly. “How goes the gossip mill on your hall? So far this morning I’ve heard that we’re being invaded, we’re being saved, and speculation about whether the rest of the country is as bad off as we are—after all, there’s still a government.” The latter of which actually concerns her a little, though she’s working not to show that at this moment. For right now, she’s just seeming a bit amused.

Maddy looked up at Natalie’s approach and gave her a little smile. She shifted over to give her friend room to sit. Not that it was actually necessary, as Maddy was on the roof and they had it to themselves, but it was a welcoming gesture that invited her to stay. Tools sat arranged on a shop rag at the foot of some arcane bit of … whatever it was … that Maddy had cobbled together to do whatever it did. It was hard to tell if the young woman was eating before getting to work or after, but perhaps the amount of grime on the woman’s hands (past the half-fingered gloves) suggest she’d taken a break in the middle to eat. Maddy’s goggles were shoved past her forehead, making her dark hair stick out all askew. Maddy squinted against the sun as she answered:

“About what you’d expect. Some are glad to see some of the old world had survived. Others are suspicious it’s a trick. Or a trap. Mostly, they’re stunned. They’d gotten used to certain ideas, ones that made it easier to put what they lost behind them and move on. Seeing him? Hearing what he had to say? Brought it all back. It hurts. Hope has an edge to it, Nat. When it’s sharp enough, it’ll make you bleed.” She looked down and pushed her food around with her spoon. Her voice was soft when she spoke again. “I’m glad he’s survived, Nat. No matter if he’s telling the truth or not, whether he’s hitched his wagon to a falling star or a rising one, I’m glad to see he’s alive. We’ve lost so many. It’s time we got one back.”

Natalie nodded slightly. “Well, speculation is bound to run the gamut… especially since the council hasn’t decided what they’re going to do yet.” She drops to sit next to Maddy and shrugs a little. “It does hurt. It brings up a lot of emotions for everyone.” She smiles a little. “When we went to FEMA and there weren’t the number of bodies I’d expected, I hoped at least a few of them got out. I’m glad he survived too. I wish more of them had.”

Just the sight of Jared Norris, alive and as well as anyone in this crazy world, brought up so many complicated emotions that Natalie still didn’t know what to feel. Elation that he survived, guilt that others didn’t, suspicion of the upheaval he brings with him, fear of the unknown, worry that we’re being lied to or manipulated, hope that everything he said was trust, doubt that anything he said is true … The list went on and on, and frankly it was just too much to feel all at once. Instead, she blows out a breath and focuses on something else.

“Maddy … the other night when we went up to the plane crash. I … something felt off. Not like I used to be able to feel it, but … are you hurt somewhere? Or … do you feel okay?” Her eyes search Maddy’s face. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to say anything. I mean … if you’re sick or something what the hell am I going to be able to do for it? But … I’m worried about you because what I felt just seemed unusual.”

“No, I’m fine. Not hurt at all,” Maddy said, quick to assure her friend with a hug, and on release her expression was hopeful. “But you’re feeling something? Do you think your power’s coming back and settling in, but just at a lower level? I know you might not be entirely happy to have them back but … Natalie, it’s … it’s part of who you are, so while I know you might not want to think about it, I’m glad you’re getting some of what you lost back.”

Natalie was quiet for a long moment, choosing her words carefully. “Ever since Toby, I’ve … felt something. I don’t know what it is. It’s not like before. It might be just the edge of empathy, it could be a lot of things. Could even be my imagination, maybe.” She pauses. “I don’t think it is, though. And I’m … if Langston is right, that the power is still there and just blocked somehow by the effects of the virus, maybe what happened with Toby kickstarted my brain to rewire a new pathway. I just don’t know.” With a shrug, she asks, “Just… keep it between the group of us, though. Ang and Langston both know I’m getting flashes of some kind. I don’t want that out in the larger population.”

Cutting her eyes to her friend, she grins. “Nice deflection, by the way. You almost got me. Are you really doing okay?”

“Yeah. I am,” Maddy said sincerely. She doesn’t have to know exactly why, does she? “It’s been a rough run but yeah, I think I’m coming out of it okay.” She nodded over her shoulder at her current repair job. “Unlike that poor thing over there, but I’ll get it going in no time. So-ooooo ….,” she drawled and winked. “C’mon, Nat. Dish. How’s Jared?”

How’s Jared? Natalie had no idea exactly how to answer that one with the stew of emotional baggage attached to the man. “He’s okay, I guess. I mean … I feel like I need to walk on eggshells until the council decides what they’re going to do. I don’t want to say too much until we have a feel for which way the wind is blowing. And he’s … hedging, for lack of a better word. There’s a lot more than what he’s saying so far, and I don’t know which side of things we’ll all come out on, you know? He wants to stay, though. At least for a while.”

“I hope he can stay.” Maddy looked off into the middle distance and continued, almost as if to herself. “I’d like to pick his brain as to what the world is like outside our city. Sometimes I feel as if we’ve forgotten to look up at the horizon and dream for bigger things instead of mere survival. I know,” she added, as if anticipating protest. “Survival is necessary and we all have to pitch in and take care of the basics first. But … if you’re always looking down at your feet because you’ve stopped looking up, you’ll eventually lose sight of where you’re going. I’m hoping Jared can … well … show us what the horizon looks like again.”

Natalie considered that viewpoint. What if, instead of being afraid of a militaristic megalomaniac—which, really, she just can’t see Jared working with at all. He’s always been pragmatic and patriotic, but she’s seen him stand up to people who weren’t doing things for the right reasons—maybe she could find the same faith that Maddy was showing in the potential for something more than survival? Slowly she admits, “I don’t know if I can even feel that kind of hope anymore. I don’t see any time in our lifetimes where we’re not going to be hated by at least some large percentage of the survivors. I can’t even begin to comprehend the idea that in our lifetimes we’ll be able to do a lot more than just survive.” Jared’s arrival has literally opened up a whole new world of possibilities… and they are overwhelming. Nat could feel the edges of another panic attack surging to the forefront, her body trembling much as it had in the meeting when she’d blurted ‘I don’t want to go to Montana!’ Sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, she tried to head it off before Maddy could see it.

When she heard that measured breath, Maddy bit her lip. There you go again, scaring the women and children …Damage control. Front and Center. “Hey, sorry. I was just speculating, really. It’s just something I can’t help doing. History’ll say you were right.” So she’s right and we’re all doomed? Oh, like that is going to make her feel better. Idiot! “What I mean is, the times require us to be realistic. Dreamers can come later.”
That wasn’t much better than being doomed, but it wasn’t about how Maddy felt about it. She was more concerned about taking some of the pressure off Natalie, who, she’d seen time and again in the past, tended to take on more than her fair share of it.

Slipping her shaking fingers beneath her thighs so that she’s sitting on them, Natalie forced a small smile. “I’m sure there used to be a song about that,” she teased. “I’m glad that you are one of them. Ever since I woke up out there on the West Coast, I really haven’t even been able to think about a big picture. It’s all we can do to survive the winter in the here and now much less try to figure out how to make something bigger.” She shrugged a bit. “And considering how many people we lost last winter, I’m … really not looking forward to this one.”

“The plant growth, anomalous as it is, will allow us to preserve more than last year.” One of the expeditions had come across a small trove of mason jars and canning supplies, miraculously intact. Maddy had used several of her service hours to help can the garden’s bounty. “We won’t be eating like kings, but at least we’ll be eating.”

Again with the depressing. Maddy. Lighten up! She turned the conversation quickly away from weighty topics to nostalgic memories of favorite foods from before D-Day. When it was her turn, she admitted she missed Mars bars. “You know, the one with the almonds and the nougat that isn’t a Snickers? Because it’s almonds and not peanuts? Perhaps it’s not as long lived as the proverbial Twinkie, but I do keep an eye peeled for Mars bars whenever I’m out there. C’mon, let’s see if anyone needs us inside, before I get it in my head to do a midnight candy run at the 7-Eleven,” she added teasingly, hoping to make Natalie laugh. And with that, they rose in unspoken accord, gathered Maddy’s things, and walked arm in arm inside.

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Diana's Scream
A Langston Vignette

The screaming wound slowly upwards, fraying as it reached its apex before abruptly ending in a guttural spasm as the lungs of Subject #37 mercifully collapsed. Preternatural silence rushed in to fill the space as the scream abated. Even the constant rushing of the underground air reclimators faded into the background. For the first time in days, something like peace dwelt in the laboratory. The sudden stillness was as a desperate truce forged by nature to blanket all the pain that had come before. The armistice was finally broken by the sound of violent retching.

“Another failure,” Langston sighed as he recorded the results with a few deft keystrokes from his lithe, hairless hands. “Adjust part seventeen of the procedure by 2.7%. Perhaps the extra protein will help the cells to stabilize and prevent the separation of the dermis. Also, alert janitorial to proceed with level four cleanup in the chamber…” He trailed off and turned as he realized that Minerva had not affirmed any of his directions.

She was buckled against the wall, inelegantly wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She made a sour face and spat into the trashcan again before straightening with aplomb that was only slightly tarnished by furtively toeing the wastebin away. Recovered, she focused her brilliant, bright eyes directly into Langston’s. “This is wrong,” she said as she resumed her argument. “Wrong. These are not animals Langston. These are people, with—”

Langston held up a hand wearily, “Subject #37 was named Diana. She had a daughter, Sabina, who is seven.” He stared unflinchingly into Minerva’s eyes as they welled with tears. “Her husband, parents, and entire extended family were exterminated in the cleanse. I know her name, Minerva. She was of sound mind when she signed the papers. She knew she would die. You knew she would die. Now Sabina will never hunger. You know this, yet you persist with this hopeless argument.”

Minerva wavered in fury, her eyes flashing as Diana’s scream seemed to clamber back out of her mouth. “I am here to try to stop you from playing God! There are other avenues, Langston. I heard the whispers but could not believe them. That you would turn to human subjects so soon. That you would inflict such torture on human flesh…” she finally sputtered out. The fury of Diana’s scream was spent. As before, sadness and disappointment surged in its wake.

For days he had endured being cast the monster by his oldest, dearest friend. Each morning she fitted him with Frankenstein’s mask while she donned the priestly robes of St. Igor and berated him whilst paradoxically assisting with each grisly task. “Enough!” Langston roared, and flung the small tablet across the room, where it slid to a disappointing stop without shattering. “Enough, Minerva. I know your arguments. I have endured them without cessation. We have tried everything else and there is no other choice. Everything else has failed.”

“We could stop trying,” Minerva replied staunchly. “We could decide that this,” she waved her hands at the testing chamber, “That all of this is not worth the cost.”

“Every day,” Langston replied through gritted teeth, “hundreds of Dianas die. They are cleansed because they follow the wrong man in the wrong hat. Their lungs fill with cancer because some rich fool cannot be bothered to stop burning poison. This death,” he shouted, stabbing a finger at the chamber she had so casually waved off, “has meaning. This is a death to end all deaths. I am doing this because there is no other choice. Humanity will end unless I push it to the next stage.”

“The world is changing, Langston. The Guardians—”

“The Guardians!” Lanston sneered. “Oh the mighty Guardians, who cower behind their masks. Which Guardian in particular? Enigma, who could purify all the water in Africa, but instead gallivants around the globe fighting other idiots in pajamas? Or what of the mysterious woman we see on the news, healing those who are harmed when the vaunted Guardians destroy half of New York? Imagine what she could do if she wasn’t cleaning up after their mess? No. I will not leave the fate of humanity to those fools. I will unlock the potential in every Diana. I will let nature run its course.”

“And what will you do when people act as humans do with all this newfound power? What if these unlocked abilities bring about the apocalypse? Are you God, or the Anti-Christ?”

“Perhaps powers will destroy this world,” Langston replied as he bent over to scoop up the undamaged tablet. “The end of the world will come one day, whether I am the cause or not. What I can ensure is that we are strong enough to survive it. I am neither God nor the Anti-Christ. I am the cold hand of nature.”

Her beautiful eyes bored into him with a mixture of horror and sadness that would forever be etched upon his soul. The next morning, she was gone.

View
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.”

View
Episode 29
At What Cost Safety?

After spotting Rhiannon and her hunting party, the former Guardians regroup and keep watch for a day or two while determining what to do. Natalie’s healing of Ang has left both women in a strange state of mind, but a hunting party is organized to go after the Refuge Point traitor. Nat and Jared lead the hunting party to the location of their first encounter, and they track the group north of Refuge Point, but the two trackers are bickering back and forth on the walk in ways that make the rest of the team look askance at them. Several times when Jared raises his voice, Natalie flinches back from him. Ang fades into the background, leaving the noisy group as bait for Rhiannon’s group, since any chance of actually sneaking up on them is completely compromised by the squabble.

It isn’t long before the Guardians are ambushed by Rhiannon’s group, having literally stumbled across their hiding place — Candle House museum. Surrounded by four people with weapons who fade in behind them and several more who are training weapons on them from within the building, the Guardians are told to drop their weapons, but Natalie doesn’t — she seems to be struggling visibly with cornered animal-style response and seems about to open fire.

Maddie silently asks Sandra for her powers back and Sandra obliges, allowing Maddie to stovepipe all the weapons that surround the Guardians without anyone’s knowledge. Ang achieves the high ground and fires at the group of men, but the shots go wrong. Chaos ensues, because at this point Natalie knows there’s a Power active, she’s certain that it’s not ours, and she also has no idea where the weapons fire came from — she opens fire at the group of men. Ang’s second shot takes out the man who was talking to the Guardians. The ambushers’ weapons appear to be non-functional. Langston shouts for Toby to NOT shoot people, believing the boy to be present. Melody takes refuge behind and nearly under a car so as to avoid getting hurt (she doesn’t want Toby swooping in), and Maddie tries to make for cover as well.

Langston tries to get out of the line of fire, but in the midst of the confusion he realizes at the same time Jared does that Natalie is glowing, a sure sign that her ability is rising fast. Langston starts talking, fast, trying to talk her down with a chanting cadence similar to Ang’s. It eases the situation, but it’s very clear that Natalie’s panic attack has not faded as yet. And she has also become aware of another presence nearby — Wolf’s rage is incandescent to her empathic senses. She warns Jared and Langston in a hissing whisper that we NEED to get out of here.

Maddy sneaks toward the house and gets herself grabbed y Rhiannon’s group. Rhiannon herself starts talking to the group through a bullhorn and Langston engages her in conversation. Eventually the trade is agreed upon that the Guardians will not shoot at Rhiannon’s group and Rhiannon will leave an unconscious Maddie at a place a little distance away so the Guardians can retrieve her when Rhiannon’s group is gone. The Guardians begin to withdraw, and as Rhiannon and her group exit the museum, Wolf explodes onto the scene with the intent to kill the woman who murdered Mrs. Wolf.

The battle begins anew, with Ang taking sniper shots from her position and Jared diving for his weapon to fire at the group as well. Langston scrambles to cover with Melody behind and beneath the car, but at this point Sandra shoves Maddie to wakefulness and Maddie decides to use the CAR as a weapon. Melody manages to roll out of the way, but in doing so she blocks Langston’s escape from beneath and he is run over in slow motion. Rhiannon backpedals from Wolf straight into Natalie, who body checks her forward (failing miserably, getting caught in Wolf’s path and getting sliced by his knife as a result). The heightened emotions all around are pushing Nat’s Power into higher use again and this time Rhiannon spots the glow that surrounds her. It doesn’t matter, though, because Wolf eviscerates the woman even as Jared hauls Nat out of the way. Nat manages to calm him somewhat once Rhiannon is dead, but Wolf seems to be entirely feral and bolts back out into the wild. FInally things begin to calm.

Melody works to stabilize Langston, who has taken Mel’s gun so that Nat can’t get anywhere near him. He doesn’t want her healing ability functioning in his proximity ever. Melody understands and promises she won’t let it happen. Maddie’s Power is now obviously active, but she deflects any questions on that front with the need to get Langston back to Refuge Point. Ang rejoins the Guardians, still seeming quite chipper and happy. And it finally dawns on Nat what may be going on. As the group makes its way back toward Refuge Point, Natalie pulls Jared and Ang — the trainers — to the rear of the group where they can’t be overheard and explains what she believes: that she took on some of Ang’s psychological damage when she healed her two days ago, not merely the physical.

The up side, of course, is that Ang’s eyes are really in great shape, and apparently the Guardians’ leader is … a lot happier? And the questions remain regarding who Rhiannon is in contact with at Refuge Point and what were her reasons for returning to this vicinity at all.

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Episode 28
Rhiannon's Return

Quick summary:

  • Santae and Doctor Nona are still interested in figuring out what Toby can do and how long they can keep him secret. While nobody saw him rescue his mother during the Faith related craziness, rumors still float about something weird having happened. Santae is not convinced the group can keep it secret much longer. He and Ang talk about plans, perhaps how to control the release of the information.
  • Election season is starting – when the Council was first formalized as a ruling body, it was agreed upon that they would be up for election every 2 years on what was Election Day before the apocalypse broke out. Santae is uncertain whether he wants to run for Mayor – it’s been a stressful job and his only real power is the bully pulpit. Ida Carr, who Langston has been having regular conversations with, has expressed interest in running. It is uncertain whether Ang wants to run for her spot or something different or not at all.
  • Sandra is interested in having Maddy get to know Erik Larsen better. As always with Sandra, it seems about 1/5th concern for Maddy and 4/5ths self interest.
  • A large group of mostly women and children arrive via raft down the Mississippi River. Led by Susie Maldonado, they are looking for sanctuary as Refuge Point’s reputation has spread. At least that is what she says, but several of the guardians are not sure she’s telling the truth. They are given food and water and set up outside of the main mall area. While Natalie is helping tend to the children, her newly flaring empathy picks up a familiar feeling from nearby. Investigation leads to find Rhiannon with 4 other people, all armed with handguns headed back to a camp in the area. Nat takes that information back to Ang. The raft folks are brought inside but not completely mingled with the population while Ang gathers the Guardians and guns to go hunting.
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Episode 27
Emotional Upheaval

The group brought back Faith Ortega with them to Refuge Point after their trip to the Southwest and Faith is accepted quickly into the community…perhaps too quickly. She’s already involved with Anthony Austin and the voting process for adding new members to the community was handwaved by the Council. People feel very strongly about Faith very quickly. Nat and Melody are protective. Maddy is lusting after her. Ang is jealous of her. Langston however feels none of that and starts to get concerned that Refuge Point might be in danger from Faith. He starts working on a mist solution to dampen the effect for a short time.

Things escalate quickly as young Zachary Godwin wants to get near Faith but Natalie and Melody keep him at a distance. He leaves and comes back with a gun that he has stolen from the armory. He shoots Natalie and Melody. Anthony runs off with Faith out of Refuge Point and Zachary follows close behind. Langston brings a temporarily cured Ang and Maddy to help but the scene is already chaos. Santae is there and Langston mists him and then asks him to get the rest of Refuge Point down into the steam tunnels where they can be safe out of the way. Dr. Nona is also there trying to work on Natalie and Melody – she’s affected by Faith but her need to save those two overrides the other compelling need for the time being. She stabilizes Melody but is losing Natalie. Natalie slips in the dark of death…until her power goes off and drains life from everyone nearby in order to heal herself.

That power explosion draws in Toby who appears, grabs his mother, and disappears again, much to the surprise of Santae, Dr. Nona, and Jared who had no idea about Toby’s new powered existence. Toby takes Melody to his house made out of a large tree in an unknown location. He heals her and then returns her.

Ang and Santae go up on the roof of the mall looking through binoculars and a rifle scope for Anthony and Faith and Zachary. Ang sees them headed towards Harris Stowe, which would be its own set of problems, especially considering the presence of Kofi there. And that’s when the jealousy kicks back in for Ang. She makes the shot and kills Faith, a potential threat to Refuge Point (and to how she might feel about Maddy?). She makes that shot in a way that makes it look like Zachary shot faith. She then shoots Zachary to complete the story.

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Searching for Nightingale
Jared/Nat RP

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.

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