It had been four days since the last mission. Four days since I had been tortured by that fear-crazed maniac scarecrow. Four days of utter exhaustion…
“Panther, I don’t mean to be rude, but you look like absolute crap,” Nightwing called as I slouched into the room. Much as I hated to admit it he spoke the truth; the bags under my eyes were deep as the ocean, my face ashen, and my eyes red and bloodshot. Every muscle was stiff, sore, and slow to react to the simplest command.
“I’m fine, Nightwing,” I grumbled. It was actually more of a growl, come to think of it. The former Boy-Wonder walked lightly over to me from his post at the computer bank.
“No, P, you’re not. You’re absolutely exhausted,” He put a hand lightly on my shoulder, eyes brimming with concern behind his mask. “You should get some sleep,” The sound of the word sent a tremor of through me; I wasn’t tired enough to not react. I brushed him off sharply, spinning around with a wild look in my eye. He stumbled back, startled.
“I’m fine!” I growled forcefully, stalking past him into the kitchen, fast as my muscles would allow. M’gann looked up from her attempt at an omelet on the stove, but my signature glare sent her straight back to her cooking. Conner didn’t turn around, but the slight motion of his head told me he heard my approach. He said nothing as I sat down; not that I was expecting him to, of course. A shy, sweet, half-kryptonian clone wasn’t exactly the most outgoing of people; small wonder silent-boy was one of my favorite team members. Glad of the lack of noise, I leaned back against the cushy backrest, shutting my eyes.
Automatically my mind began to link the energy portals in my body and go into Sa’lear, or harmonious meditation, as I normally would in lieu of sleep. Unfortunately, instead of blissful peace and rejuvenation, fireworks exploded behind my eyes as I tried to control the flow of energy in my body. Clutching my head I doubled over, barely catching an outcry of pain on my lips. I gritted my teeth as the sparks behind my eyes began to blossom into a full-blown fire spreading through my body. Every heartbeat sent a web of acid through every vein; I could feel the energy crackling under my skin. A small grunt must have escaped my lips, or perhaps my sharp inhale was louder than I meant it to be; either way it was enough for Conner. He immediately reached for my shoulder, look of concern on his face. Cursing on the inside, I pushed his hand away and shook my head, still trying to keep the wildfire at bay but not wanting to say anything as not to alert M’gann. He pulled his hand back slowly, the concern now mixed with confusion as he glanced from me back to M’gann.
A final burst of pain wracked my body before the fire began to ebb. I realized I’d been holding my breath and let the air out slowly as though chasing out the pain in a single gust of wind. The sparks in my head were replaced by a single thought: Get out of there. Get as far as you can from the team, and from Nightwing. That, and a strong desire to punch something. I shot up to my feet trying to keep the room in focus as it blurred and spun around me. A shake of my head and I was off to the door, ready to clear my head with some fresh air (and punching trees). Nothing can stop me now, I thought, satisfied.
A loud beeping announced the presence of Batman on the main screens in the cave. Except that, I thought exasperatedly, spinning back around to assemble with the rest of the team in the cavern. Batman was supposedly briefing us on a gang jewel thieves in some Dragon-forsaken place, but to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention; I was more focused on staying upright and warding off the pain from my still sparking teiq’ana. Through the haze, I noticed Superboy whispering to Nightwing while both shooting concerned glances in my direction. Great, the thought flew through my mind, more of my least favorite emotion.
Nightwing stood by what he had said earlier: Panther looked she had been dragged through a mile of mud by a train engine. Now, Conner was telling him about her episode in the kitchen just now; how she had been having some kind of migraine. Nightwing shot another pitiful look at the Jade Warrior. She was staring at the image of Batman on the screen as though entranced by it; her eyes were distant, glazed over with pain and exhaustion. He shook his head, turning back to the briefing. Panther had been getting progressively worse since he had found her chained in that warehouse, flooded with Scarecrow’s fear gas. He had done every test he knew how to do to scan for the chemical in her system, but he’d found nothing. Still, he knew something was wrong with her. What really worried him the most, though, was the look in her eye when he suggested she get some sleep. It was something he’d never seen from her before; something he could barely identify on her face. Fear. He realized, dread pooling even faster in his stomach.
Jade Panther was undoubtedly the bravest person he had ever met. She could face down an army of rubies without losing her cool, and he’d seen her free-fall sixty stories before shooting a grapnel. He couldn’t even fathom how an innocent word like ‘sleep’ had caused such a reaction. He was still pondering this when Batman’s image disappeared from the screens. He shook himself back into the moment, sizing up the situation. The rest of the Team was turning to Aqualad, as he was the one to assign squads and attack plans. The Atlantean himself was looking at Panther with the same skepticism Nightwing was harboring. Before he could second-guess himself, Nightwing stepped forward, trying to save Aqualad from a tough decision, and unforgiving assailant.
“One more thing.” He said quickly. Oh, she was going to murder him. He thought, partially joking, partially terrified, “Panther, you’re sitting this one out.” Those words snapped her back into focus faster than any bucket of water ever could. She stepped forward, looking livid, mouth open to make a scathing remark, but he stopped her with a raised hand. “Ah, I don’t want to hear it.” He winced at the heat radiating from her eyes. “I don’t care how fine you say you are, we can all see you are exhausted, and I’m not letting you hurt yourself or put others in jeopardy to try and prove a point.”
She paused, eyes glittering with malice. “Fine, then,” You could almost see the venom hissing through the air. “You all go on. I’ll be here.” She crossed her arms and gave him a sardonic smile.
Nightwing motioned for the others to go and suit up. As soon as the whole team was gone, her smile morphed into the look that she used to inspire fear into the hearts of her enemies. The batglare had nothing on this gaze of pure hate. He could almost feel his soul withering under her gaze. He hastily turned his back and retreated to the armory. He never, ever, wanted to be on the receiving side of that look ever again.
I had seated myself in the monitor chair, glaring at the Team as they entered the bioship. None of them looked at me. Probably better that way, I guess. Nightwing was the last one to enter. Just before he climbed up the ramp he looked at me with such concern brimming in his eyes I had to sigh and turn away, the glare fading slightly from my face. I could tell he wanted to ask me what was wrong, but he held back the emotion, instead simply placing a hand on my arm.
“Just go and get some sleep, okay?” He said softly. I felt the fear flash across my eyes again, wild and crazy. The concern in his voice was almost overwhelming; it took a conscious effort not collapse then and there in his arms. It was almost too much for me, weak as I was. I nodded quickly and spun the chair around, not daring to trust myself to look into his eyes.
He sighed and released me, taking his time as he walked into the ship. All too slowly, they took off. As soon as they were out of sight, I shot out the chair and headed straight for the weight room. They left me behind; fine. That didn’t mean I had to sit around like a lump and wait for their return with cookies and a smile. I kicked open the door, not caring about the dent I made in the metal, and moved over to the bench press, loading up two hundred pounds on each side of the weight. I laid back on the table, grabbing the textured surface of the bar. Teach them to think I’m helpless.
The second the bioship landed back in the cave, Nightwing shot off like a rocket. The entire mission he had been worrying about Panther, fancifully hoping she was resting, but knowing she wouldn’t be. Trying not to run, he made his way to the staircase that led to the living quarters. As he reached the first landing, he heard the distinct squeak of a bar floating up the levels. She didn’t… He thought, heart sinking. He sprinted down the stairs as fast as he had ever run in his life, hoping his ears were lying to him. He reached the room in several seconds, blasting through the door at rocket speed, eyes registering the cracks in the floor where the weight had fallen, various misplaced equipment, and the small figure balancing in a one-handed handstand on the set of uneven bars in the far corner of the room.
Just as he was about to call out, Panther pulled her toes down to her hands, swinging herself under the bar with a the slight squeak of skin on fiberglass. Just before she spun back on top of the bar, she let go, throwing her legs out in front of her, flying in an elegant arc across the room, only to twist mid-air and grab the rings hanging from the ceiling as she flew by. Using her momentum from the flight, she spun around in a series of giants, stopping herself in handstand after a few rotations. Nightwing opened his mouth again, only to close it just as fast in awe.
Panther had spread her arms out until they were perpendicular her body,head pointing towards the floor, holding herself in an inverted iron cross. Face red and strained she began to slowly rotate her body downwards until she was suspended sideways looking down at the floor, arms still out like a cross. Her wrists weren’t twisted back over the rings as most people did when performing a Maltese like this, hers were straight, still perpendicular to the rings. He had to hold back an impressed whistle. Apparently not content with just slightly showing up Nightwing, she continued her rotation after holding the position for a few seconds, lowering herself downwards to pass through a normal iron cross before continuing to lift her body back in front of her.
Nightwing was very close to dropping his jaw in awe. Panther was now holding a reverse maltese; a strength that had only ever been theorized about because no one had ever been strong enough to it. Nightwing was working on his maltese, but he was nowhere near where Panther was. And this is her when she’s exhausted? He thought in disbelief. Hell, not even Batman can do something like that!
“Uh, Panther?” He said tentatively. She didn’t react, still holding the impressive trick. He shouted again, louder.
“Panther!” This got her attention, and she looked over from her hold. Unfortunately, the small movement dislodged her precarious balance, wrenching her shoulder as she tumbled to the ground where she lay unmoving. With a sharp cry, he raced over to her limp form. Just as he reached her, she groaned and sat up shakily.
“Sa’cea.” She moaned. The former Boy Wonder didn’t recognize the word, but he could imagine what it meant. He knelt down next her, muttering her name softly. What came next was a two-minute stream of expletives in various languages; most of them, he figured, were directed towards him. When she finally started slowing down Nightwing gently put his hand her shoulder.
“Panther?” He said tentatively, as though tiptoeing through a minefield. “You OK?” She groaned again, rolling her shoulders and neck before replying.
“Sorry about that. My brain goes on autopilot sometimes.” Her tone was airy, but there was a strain to it.
“And your default is swearing worse than KF?” He tried to match the breeze of her tone.
“So?” Her features twisted into what might have been a grin. Internally Nightwing exhaled in relief. He knew he should get to the more pressing matters, but he had to ask one more question.
“Just out of curiosity, how many languages do speak?” Her grin widened.
“Why do you ask?”
He laughed. “Just now? You swore for two minutes straight and I didn’t hear a single word repeated.”
“Ah. On my own, I’m fluent in about nintey-two, including the tensome Gemenic languages we spoke on O’Kara and there.” Nightwing was impressed. Mostly, he was just glad she was finally making sense again. “With Teiq Vocim though, based on the energy pattern of the words spoken I can translate what’s being said and what I’m saying into any language. So technically I’m fluent in everything.”
“Wow,” He said, having no other words to say.
“You know, expletives actually translate the easiest into other languages; right up there with ‘we come in peace.’” She added, in a rather sarcastic tone. Nightwing snickered.
Panther cracked her neck again then rolled to her feet, moving to climb up the side to grab the rings again. Nightwing saw the smallest flash of pain across her eyes as she grabbed the first rung. The grin on his lips vanished.
“Panther, stop.” She let go of the run, stepping back to face him.
“Why?” She asked, ice in her tone tangibly cold.
“Because, to put it frankly, you’re exhausted, and you’re hurt. Both are only going to get worse if you keep pushing yourself like this.” He used the small window to lunge between her and the ladder.
“I didn’t get to where I am today to stopping every time I got tired or something hurt.” The ice was turning into cold fire. “And if you think you can just waltz in here and tell me I’m not fit to to do my life’s work, then you are sorely mistaken.”
“Panther, what were you even doing down here in the first place?” He asked, concern slipping back into his words, “You know you need to sl-”
“I stand by what I said.” She cut him off sharply, enunciating each word dangerously.
“How long has it been since you’ve slept?” He asked her, matching the danger word for word. She hesitated for a moment. He was about to ask again when she answered.
“Give or take. Sa’learhas been a most faithful companion.” Nightwing was flabbergasted. He barely held himself back from incoherent stammering.
“Then do that Sal-air thing, or meditate or something. Just get some rest!”
“I-” She stopped herself with a sigh. He began to ask what she meant, but she cut him off with a snarl.
Nightwing knew he wasn’t going to win and if he kept fighting, someone was going to explode; figuratively for himself, literally for Energy Manipulator. He’d seen her get that mad before. Not a pretty sight.
“Fine. But I’m not letting you constantly wear yourself out. Take a break, I’ll grab you some water.” She sighed but nodded, sitting back down in a resigned sort of fashion.
Just who does that birdbrain think he is? I thought, screaming inside my mind. He just waltzes in here, ruins the skill I’ve been working towards for years, and then tells me that I can’t do anything? I growled and kicked a stray foam block clear across the room from my seat on the floor. Now I have to sit and rest while Mr. Gallant goes and gets me a glass of water. I can’t say that Nightwing was high on my list of favorite people right then. I heard his distinct footsteps descending the staircase again; his light toe-heel step from years of acrobatics turned his walk into two sharp clicks, as opposed to the heel-toe click-thunk of most people.
He stepped into the room again, carrying a blue flip-top water bottle. He seemed fidgety, but my eyes chose that exact moment to glaze over, leaving everything a little fuzzy, and ruling out close observation of anything. He was about to throw the bottle to me, then thought better and jogged to kneel at my side. He handed me that bottle silently. I took it with a nod.
“You know I could have gotten it myself, right?” I remarked before opening it.
“Yeah, I know.”
He cut me off,”’Cause. I didn’t want you to overexert yourself.” He gave me a roguish wink. I responded with a withering glance as I raised the bottle to my lips.
I tasted the tranquilizer immediately. I threw the bottle aside and tried to throw up the liquid I had swallowed. Before I could try, Nightwing grabbed me, one hand over my mouth, the other massaging my throat, forcing me to swallow. I struggled, but my throes became weaker as the drugs took hold. As the last vestiges of consciousness drifted away, I looked into his eyes, making sure he knew this was unforgivable.
Nightwing closed the door gently behind him, though the sleeping Jade inside wouldn’t wake now if he led a parade of elephants through her room. He began the long trudge back to the monitors, still trying not to make a sound in the abandoned cave; M’gann and Conner were out working on a project, the rest of the team had gone home. He knew he was doing the right thing, but he couldn’t stop the guilt from devouring his mind.
The trick had been simple; he just dissolved some of the sleeping pills in the medi-kit into her drink. She had taken the bait more easily than he had expected, but his arm ached from holding her down. Little she may be, but that Jade could pack a wallop when she wanted. Resigned, he sat down in front of the glowing screens, keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity. Monitor duty was going to be especially dull tonight what with the cave being deserted. Joy. He thought sarcastically. He couldn’t say he was excited. Propping his head up on his hands, he settled down to wait.
The cold stone of the wall scraped my back as I struggled fervently against the stocky Ruby holding me there. The rest of my team was either unconscious or cowering in the corner, save one. She was still pinned as I was and fighting just as hard. Unlike me, it seems she’s making progress. The Ruby leading the raid posed in front of where I am being held, watching my struggles with an aire of triumph. Dark malice glittered in her crimson eyes. She was speaking to me, obviously gloating, but I wasn’t not listening. I was too busy wiggling and flailing with my elbows trying to loosen the iron grip that holds me. I managed to hit my captor in the eye with a wild blow; she snarled and slams me into the concrete wall. My vision went blurry, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the other girl break free of her Ruby and sprint towards me. Before she had taken three steps, the Ruby boasting to me spun on her heel and raised her arms. A crimson rope fizzled into existence, ensnaring my friend’s legs and sending her tumbling to the ground.
The leader sneered,”Well, well, look what we have here. A little insurgent trying to free her leader.” My friend tried to stand, but more bonds appeared around her arms and legs, and she fell once more. “What were you planning to do, hmm?” She leaned down, taunting the Jade, her face only inches above her captive’s. My friend glared and spat in her face. The Ruby snarled in surprise and disgust, withdrawing back to her full height. The satisfied look on my friend’s face vanished quickly; I winced as her captor slapped her as hard as she can across the face. The crack of bone on bone rings through the room. The Jade keel over, trying not to let the pain show on her face as her bonds squeeze tighter. I hear several ribs snap.
“You Jades are nothing but pests that need to be stamped out.” The Rubie’s tone carries a severe edge. “Unfortunately,” her voice slows to a drawl,” we have orders not to kill you all...” she pauses dramatically, ”Right now. However, I don’t think the Council will mind if we make a little example, hmm? Scarlet,” One of the younger Rubies looks up, “Will you do the honors?” With a nod and flash of a smile, she starts toward the tressed up Jade.
My eyes widen. I try to yell, but my captor clamps her hand over my mouth. I struggle even harder to get free but to no avail. My friend lies there, struggling madly, her eyes flickering between fear and bravery as Scarlet comes closer, a slight blur and the glint of silver betraying the wickedly sharp dagger in her hand. She raises it above her head, eyes glittering with malice. I open my mouth to scream.
A bloodcurdling scream, likes of which Nightwing had never heard before, rang through the cave, shaking him from his stupor in front of the monitors. He leaped from the chair, instantly alert, trying to pinpoint its location. A second later he realized he didn’t need to: there was no one else in the cave but them. What he didn’t understand was what could possibly cause Panther, bravest and most stoic person alive, let out that expression of pure fear. All thoughts were pushed to the back of his mind as he raced through the cave, desperate to reach the Warrior. His Warrior.
The last echoes of the cry were fading as he reached her door, replaced by wracking sobs echoing along the hallways. He pushed open the door as gently as he had closed it, taking in the sight he had never expected to see: Panther, a broken-down shell of a Warrior, sobbing into her sheets.
I heard the door open, but I couldn’t react. My eyes burned with tears, It was all too much. He tread gently across my room, and I felt the mattress lean as he sat at my side. I couldn’t bear to look at him. I had always been always taught I would be stronger if I faced everything alone. Now, I couldn't bring myself to accept comfort. Whether I wanted it or not though, Nightwing’s arm snaked around my shoulders, pulling me close to his side. I should have pushed him away, but part of me wanted to stay in the warm embrace. I had never let that side win before, but at that moment, I did the unthinkable: I gave in.
The hot tears soaked into his shoulder, flowing faster and harder than before. One of his hands slowly stroked my hair, the other grasped my shoulder and held it tight. After a few minutes I managed to speak, voice still cracked and breaking.
“I can’t do it, Nightwing.”
“Do what?” He murmured gently into my ear, words soft and soothing.
“Rest. Meditate. Sleep. I just-” My voice cracked again, sending me into another round of sobbing.
“The nightmares.” My voice shook uncontrollably, “They’re back now. Scarec-c-row ruined my v-vocim, and he did s-something to my mind.” I sobbed, “Now, every time I c-close my eyes, they’re waiting for me. I have to w-watch myself lose control and kill you all, and watch them all die. Over and over again. Lynx, Falcon, Dragon, all my sisters; Thorn!” I collapsed on his shoulder, my sobs subsided. My shoulders still shook, but my eyes had no more tears to shed.
“Oh, Panther.” His arms closed around me in a vice-like grip, crushing me against his supple stomach. I had never realized how much the action served to calm me. All too soon, he pulled out of the embrace, arms still around my shoulders. Beneath the mask, his orbs of ice blue seemed to melt under the heat of my own tear-filled jades. Before I knew what I was doing, my lips found his.
He pulled me closer as we kissed, warm hands caressing my neck. His lips were rough but enticing; I could taste salt from my tears mingling in our embrace. I pulled back slowly, savoring the warm feeling of his mouth on mine. With a final caress of my face, Nightwing stood slowly, pushing me down to my back again and pulled the blanket over me. He brushed another kiss onto my forehead, warmth from his touch spreading throughout my entire being.
“I’ll be right here if you need me. Nothing can hurt you here,” He said, voice tender and intimate. Another gentle straightening of the blanket and tender caress of my hair, and he began to move towards the door.
“Wait!” I cried, lunging toward him, barely catching myself in my desperation. My eyes gave away my fear. “I...I” My voice broke. “I don’t want to be alone,” I choked out. His face softened. He walked back over to the bed, sitting down as he took my hand.
“Of course. I’ll be right here.” I smiled faintly, taking a slow breath to calm myself. I gave his hand a gentle squeeze, smiling as returned the gesture. I settled back into the blanket and closed my eyes. As soon as the light faded, I saw my own worst nightmare replayed again in front of my eyes: Scarlet about to plunge a knife into my best friend’s heart as I watched pinned to the wall by another Ruby. Thorn! I screamed in head. I sat up with a screech, eyes flying open.
“It’s all my fault,” I whispered, before I collapsed back onto my knees, curling into a ball, dry sobs wracking my body.
Nightwing was immediately there, speaking calmly, squeezing my hand. I looked at him, feeling the stinging of fresh tears well up in my eyes. I was about to speak, but he laid a hand over my mouth. Again, he pushed me back down into the pillows. Leaning closer to me he pulled the blanket up and shimmied underneath it, pulling me close to him.
Lying on my right side, I fit neatly into the curve of his body, feeling every toned muscle under his uniform. I snuggled closer against him, head just under his chin. My eyes closed again, but every muscle in my body was tense and alert. Nightwing must have been able to feel it, for one arm snaked over my shoulders, grabbing my hand; I pulled it close to my chest, clutching it like a lifeline. His other hand snuck up the open back of my uniform, thumb rubbing small circles on my spine, not hesitating even as he rubbed over the cruel scars that had been carved there. I had never been so close to another person before, and no one had ever touched the scars that marked me as a Mi’ara da Vocim. The motion was relaxing, I could feel each muscle in my body loosen as he continued up and down my spine. For the first time in four years, I sunk into a peaceful sleep. Just as my mind succumbed to the darkness, I felt his lips brush my cheek.
Nightwing flinched at the sun beams streaming into his eyes from the window on the opposite wall. Wait a minute, my window isn't across from my bed, He thought, confused, trying to make sense of where he was. With a groan, his eyes flickered open. The sleeping Jade next to him didn’t stir. He looked at her affectionately, realizing she still had his hand in a viselike grip. He had lost circulation hours ago. With a quick peck to her cheek, he snuggled back into the blanket, pulling the slumbering Warrior closer to him. Batman wouldn’t begrudge them five more minutes.