Nic saw Natalie ball her tiny little fists up the very moment that the muscles in her forearm started contracting her fingers. Right around the time he mentioned tossing the bomb.. behind Archie. His brow soared well above its usual position the very instant that he realized who she was. That’s Wonder-Girl! the one that Lizard-Archie was using as a sandal. And therefore she was also the very same one that showed up to the woods in that nice dress. There we go.
And just like that, his paranoia dropped like an anvil and the corners of his lips wobbled into a smile. He felt like a child grinning at a smiling chimpanzee. In an odd way, her little display of hostility had set him at ease. Really, it had done more to draw them closer than she could ever really be expected to understand. In some ways, violence was his mother tongue. After all, he’d been ordered around as a child, his development highly regimented. He may as well have been sucking straight liquid-combat when he had been at his mother’s breast.
As for casual, conversational English, without clear objectives for every conversation, without an eye on the clock at all times. Well, he was still learning. With a body as muscular as his, he had to fight every fiber of his own being just to relax but seeing that girl’s tiny fist, airtight and clenching on to every last modicum of Archie’s honor, presented a clarity that had generally been absent from his life for the longest while. And then, perhaps for the first time ever, it occurred to him that maybe--just maybe--he didn’t have to learn to see the world in a whole new way. Maybe it was okay for him to pick apart everyone’s triggers, to catalogue their microaggressions. Right now, Natalie’s fist read more like a love-letter than a death threat.
"I'm not really sure what happened in the forest either. I've...repressed that memory and don't really want to bring it back right now, if that's okay."
Nic heard her loud and clear. The courteous thing to do would be to not press the issue, to bite his tongue, to table his curiosity and accept that to get an answer he’d have to infringe on her comfort. It seemed pretty obvious that the right thing to do was to respect her privacy but, the more he thought about it, it felt like it had been a really long time since he had gone out of his way to do the right thing. What was going a little longer going to hurt? After all, having spent years in therapy, years reenacting training routines, years seeing so much blood on hands that looked very much like his own, he had learned patience. Someday soon, he’d be squeaky clean.
And as much as he wanted to say “yes”, to say that it was okay, he really wasn’t sure that it was. After all, he had been arrested twice now. People kept getting hurt. They kept getting hurt. He thought about Lynn, he’d caught a glimpse of her secondhand from some random student he didn’t know. She looked absolutely terrible. So maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do but he felt both that he needed an explanation and that one was, in fact, owed to him. It didn’t seem fair that he had to stay in the dark on the subject because she was uncomfortable.
But he had only ever gotten so much practice fighting for what he actually believed in.
“Oh yeah,” Nic grinned. “I understand. Don’t worry about it. I know it can be hard sometimes. Just thinking about it made me think of a list of things I’d rather not think about,” he said, truthfully. Bridgette Munroe, Dad, God, Uncle Derek, Guantanamo Bay & his sobriety all came to mind alarmingly quickly. “Aaaaaaand now I’m thinking about them.”
"I'm… I'm not doing great, actually,” Eli said, causing his antennae to perk right up, like the ears of a cat. “I'm finding it hard to bounce back from this one, to be honest. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way right now. I think I just need a bit more time to recover."
Nic felt a salty tear surge through his eye, and he felt his lower lip punch the roof of his mouth as his face, still swallowed by his palm, contorted into an ugly-cry, spurred by just the thought of her suffering. But that, that kind of extreme sympathy, he understood, ran contrary to everything he had worked to achieve. So he did his best to widen his nostrils, so she couldn’t hear the mucus that had suddenly filled his nasal cavities, and he swiped away the tears that had impaled his eye socket as best he could within a single swift motion before offering her a consolatory smile.
"Well, that's what you have your friends for," Natalie offered, "and this meeting will probably help with that. Trust me, I know from experience that right now you need your friends the most. I shut you all out and I still regret it."
He had no idea what Natalie was talking about. He had no idea what it felt like to have people to shut out. After he was done toddling, the role that his nuclear family played was largely born more of economic convenience than emotional nourishment, though he could think of several instances that would speak to the contrary. They all felt like exceptions. He never had friends, not real friends. Not people that would fight to protect him. Back when he was a ward of the state, several of the other boys always said that it was extremely important that they stick together. Nic believed them, so he beat their bullies back. But when Nic was harrassed, his so-called friends had run away, leaving him to fend for himself. Now, he fended for himself quite well, horrifyingly well even, but that wasn’t the point.
Hearing Natalie’s speech, he felt his throat start to close as the tears came surging back to his eyes, though he fought to hold them back, to keep his poker face. And as much as he hoped that they stayed focused on anything but him, he knew that he needed an excuse at the ready. He needed a damned excuse. From the confines of his mind, he howled at the sky, begging for a lie but none came. Only three disgustingly honest, pathetic, sad words came.
I want friends. So, he yawned and took a deep breath, working that consoling smile back onto his face as his brain suddenly started to throb and his antennae shriveled and bobbed.
“I am so sorry to hear that,” he said, slowly, purposefully and with a deliberate meaning. “You’re totally right, getting better definitely takes time, but sometimes if you don’t put anything else towards getting better, it’ll take more time than you really have. That said, if there’s ever anything I can do for you, kill a rat,” he paused to try to think of any other skills he had. He couldn’t bake, he couldn’t sew and he couldn’t sing. For a moment, all he could think of continuing the sentence with was other small creatures he could kill, “or, like, open a jar, just say the word. I’d hate to see you struggle when you don’t have to. I won’t pretend that there’s much reason for you to really believe me much or, really, remember for that matter. But that’s okay. It’s totally okay if you forget. But it is true. I do my best to be there for everyone and everyone,” he paused, smirking, “includes you.”