I was standing on the edge of a cliff, a storm-tossed black sea and boiling gray sky spread before me uninterrupted to the horizon. Peals of thunder rumbled across the water, and jagged fingers of lightening occasionally leapt down to join sea and sky. Far below me, waves crashed fiercely against the cliff walls, kicking spray up so high that the wind could carry it all the way up and fling the tiny droplets against my skin, causing me to shiver.
Everything about the ocean before me was chaotic, uncertain, and dangerous, and I cognitively understood that it would be nothing less than lunacy to go out there in that dangerous vastness. But for some reason I felt a strange pull, an intense urge to rush forward and dive off the cliff into the sea. I felt a profound yearning to swim its depths, discover its mysteries, and conquer this great unknown. It was a desire that defied all logic. Which was why I stood rooted on the cliff, not letting myself act on it.
Confused, I turned and saw behind me that the land was my home of Themyscira, somehow lit gold and radiant by a sun that didn't shine on the sea. I wondered to myself where my mother was, and she was suddenly before me, ageless as ever and exuding an unnatural serenity as she gazed into my eyes. I thought I should go to her, and yet I felt the sea calling, insisting that this adventure must not wait. So there I stood, unable to move in either direction. My mother only smiled, seeming perfectly aware of my internal plight.
"You're not sure where you should be right now," she said solemnly, and as my brow furrowed I found that I had no voice with which to answer her. Unconsciously I turned to look out at the sea again, wondering if there was anything to be gained from stepping out of the familiar warmth into the darkness and turmoil. Wondering if it was worth it. Wondering if I would just be alone.
And suddenly, he was in front of me, at the cliff's edge also looking out over the sea. He turned and held out his hand to me, the thunderheads flashing behind him as his bright gaze caught mine. I'll go with you, his eyes told me, but I stood rooted to the spot, wordlessly communicating my fear.
He only smiled, letting his hand slowly fall to his side. "It isn't like you to be afraid, Diana," he said with a twist of irony in his voice, and abruptly turned and stepped out into thin air…and fell.
Startled, I rushed to the edge to lean over and saw that he had not flown away- he had plunged all the way down to the water and was now paddling among the storm tossed waves, alive and exhilarated. He looked up at me, eyes glittering, and when he spoke, his voice was not at all dimmed by the noise of the waves.
"The first step is the scariest, Diana. But it's also the most important one." From the sea, he reached up towards me. "Jump." It was not a command. It was an earnest plea.
The weight of the decision settled upon me like a leaden garment. I somehow knew within me that diving off this cliff was an irrevocable decision. There would be no coming back once I left. What was the wiser choice? Uncertain adventure? Or the safety of what I had always known? Danger, fear, and thrill? Or protection, confidence, and familiarity?
Over my inner turmoil, the sea called my name…he called my name…
"Is it worth it?" My question as I turned to my mother was sincere. "What if I choose wrongly and cannot come back?"
She smiled, and her voice was calm as she answered. "You have already chosen, Diana. Now go."
With dramatic intention, she flung her arm through the air, sending a gust of wind against me that made me step back for balance…and step over the edge.
I was falling, trying to fly but feeling I could not…falling supine to the sky where I saw her leaning over the cliff's edge to watch my descent, her form growing smaller by the second as I fell…
"Is it worth it Diana?" Her voice rang from the cliff top, a genuine question in her tone. "You tell me."
By chance, my body turned in the air and I then saw the sea rushing up to meet me, and in the final breath I saw him, heard him call my name once again, saw him reach out as if to catch me…
I struck the water and everything shattered.
My limbs jerked instinctively as I awoke suddenly, a sharp return to reality. I blinked slowly, the fog quickly dissipating from my head, the shapes around me sliding into focus. I was in my room at the Watchtower.
I was laid out on my bed, on top of my covers but with a quilt draped across my body. As I started to move to sit up, I realized that one of my hands was caught inside something warm. And when I turned to look, I was for some reason unsurprised to see Kal sitting in a chair by my bed. His head was propped up on his other hand, his elbow braced carefully on the arm of the chair, but by the slump in his shoulders I could tell that he was fast asleep, dead to the world. My hand was completely encased in his, but I tugged it gently free without managing to wake him and pushed the blanket off me.
I sat up slowly, aware of the aches in my muscles and the bite of pain in my torso. Looking down, I saw fresh gauze and linen bandages encircling most of my abdomen, even binding my left shoulder. Why? Looking around the room, I saw that the filthy remains of my uniform lying on the dresser, and someone had instead re-dressed me in an old gown I had left here at the Tower on one occasion.
Also on my dresser, a glowing atomic clock informed me that it had been two days since I had last opened my eyes.
The memory of the dream had faded so quickly and reality was crashing in to take its place. Two days? What had I been doing for two days? What had happened since then? And why was I bandaged up and here at the Watchtower?
What was the last thing I could remember?
I slid to the foot of the bed, intending to stand and touch my uniform, try to bring the memory back. But as my feet touched the floor, the chill of the tile sliced into my consciousness, dragging searing clarity with it-and suddenly all the memories were there…
The wavery red haze of a city on fire. The smell of charred flesh and scorched earth. The cries full of pain and fear that carried on every stir of air. The horror of casualties laid in ranks along the road…the children, the destruction, the frantic digging, the unyielding arms dragging me away…
And suddenly it didn't matter that I had now been asleep for days, able to forget the horrors and recover physically. Everything I had felt right up until J'onn had pushed everything but exhaustion from me- all the agony, all the grief, all the anger and pain…it all came flooding back in a crushing wave. I put my face in my hands and tangled my fingers into my hair, my body involuntarily curling into itself like a burning leaf, elbows meeting my knees, chin tucking against my chest.
How can they do this to each other? How can they destroy themselves like this? I just don't understand…
I felt the primeval urge to implode battering against my self control. In every other instance, I had been able to master any pain, any fear, any grief, and overcome it. But now, all of a sudden, the wave was too great, too high, too strong, and I remembered why I had been put under. I could feel the same cracks within me fissuring deeper…my body began to tremor as I fought against it all. I was moments away from disintegrating completely into a mess of grief…
I had forgotten though that I was not alone.
Perhaps I had made a sound, perhaps he had just sensed the emotion radiating from me. Either way, Kal chose that unfortunate moment to suddenly return to consciousness. I heard the catch in his breath as he awoke suddenly, felt his gaze as he looked towards me, and knew what he would do perhaps before he did. I froze still as a stone, hunched over with my face hidden behind my hair and hoped he would leave me alone, inwardly cursing myself for not leaving the room before this had happened. I heard him get to his feet and come to crouch beside me, saw in my mind's eye his hand reaching for my arm before his touch confirmed my prediction.
So predictably present…
"Diana," his voice barely above a whisper. "Are you in pain? Can I get you something for your wounds?" His concern was genuine, and I could feel his expectant gaze as he crouched there waiting on an answer. I didn't trust myself to open my mouth, so I just shook my head slowly, not daring to look at him.
Control, Diana. You must not fall apart. Not in the face of trial or pain. And certainly not in front of him.
He was silent for a long moment, just crouching there with his hand against my skin, and despite my best efforts I couldn't hide from him the muted tremors rippling through my body. It was wishful thinking, but I hoped my silence would drive him away, leaving me in peace until I could get myself under control again.
But of course he was too good of a friend to do that.
Without completely removing his hand from my arm, he turned and seated himself slowly on the foot of the bed next to me. His hand brushed up my arm to rest on the center of my bare back, pressing warmth into my skin. He spoke gently, and I heard his words through the storm in my mind.
"I'm sorry if you were confused when you woke up, but we thought it was better if you recovered away from the warzone-and the medical facilities were at capacity by the time I brought you up here. I'm sorry I had to do that to you-or I guess ask J'onn to do it-put you to sleep, I mean. But you were fighting me so hard that your wounds were tearing even more and I couldn't get you to calm down at all even though you were bleeding so badly…I knew it was the only way I was going to get you to the medics before you did irrevocable damage…"
That's it, Kal, keep talking. Give me time to put myself back together so that I have a voice again when I tell you to leave…but of all things why must you talk about this?
"The doctors said they didn't put any stitches in, since they don't entirely understand your body's capabilities or how it would respond to foreign presence, so they just removed the bullet fragments, cleaned the wounds out completely, and then made sure you stayed still while your body healed on its own. They wouldn't let us move you at all until your blood pressure came back up. They said with the amount of blood you'd lost you must have been bleeding for hours, that you shouldn't have even been able to stand, let alone work on the rescue as fiercely as you were…"
I tried to focus on a conjured image of what it might have looked like for Superman to carry an unconscious Wonder Woman into a makeshift rescue hospital in the middle of a warzone…for some reason the image roused in me more selfish humiliation than amusement. Control…
"They were asking all of the League members what happened, but nobody seems to know anything. None of them saw it happen. In fact, none of them believed you had actually been shot until they saw you with their own eyes."
Oh I bet that was entertaining for everyone… I focused on the flickering of anger in me, trying to fan them into an emotion stronger than the one I was currently fighting, attempting to fight water with fire. Control…
But of course he had to undermine my efforts and douse the flame by asking the inevitable question…
"Diana," he said softly, his voice hardly more than a whisper, tone sincere, "What happened?"
Instead of replying, I just shook my head slowly, not trusting myself to speak. The images flashed in rapid sequence before my eyes- the smoke, the sounds of gunfire everywhere, disarming the soldier, looking up and seeing the child- I shut the thought down as quickly as I could but I felt the storm inside me rage harder.
"It was nothing I wish to remember, Kal," I responded slowly, my voice no more than a trembling breath on my lips, the most I could manage. I twisted handfuls of my dress in my fingers, fighting to still the trembling of my arms. Control…
"I can understand that Diana," he replied gently, "but I'm only asking because I want to help you."
I was silent, letting the betrayed look I shot him be my answer. He pulled his hand away from my back and turned more fully to face me.
"Diana, you were starting to come apart back there. I have never seen you like that. The reason I came and found you in the first place was because one of the medical caravans said someone was throwing debris and nearly took out three of their medivans. You were clearing a building and not even paying attention to where you were sending the pieces of it. Diana, you could have hurt someone with the way you were acting, and you nearly killed yourself by not paying attention to your wounds."
I looked guiltily down at the bandages around my torso, pressing on my abdomen and shoulder where I remembered the bullets…there was a dull ache, but the pain was gone.
"I'm still here, Kal," I reminded him quietly, lifting the edge of the dressing and beginning to unwind the bandage around my shoulder, trying to give myself something physical to focus on.
"You may be sitting here alive, but your mind is a thousand miles away. You're trying to distance yourself from what you feel, but it's just removing you from everything else. Your sense, your logic-"
"I don't make the same mistake twice," I cut in. The last of the bandage came away cleanly, revealing nothing but a fully-formed scar, already fading into the landscape of my shoulder. I touched the mark gently, trying to remember the last time I had received an injury so terrible-
"Diana, saying that what you did back there was a mistake implies that you knew what you were doing and happened to make the wrong choice. What I saw back there-that wasn't you. It was your emotion acting out through you. And this-" He caught my hand from my shoulder, encasing it in his and causing me to finally meet his eyes- "This isn't going to get any better until you face everything that brought you here."
I knew he wasn't talking about the scar, but I never give in easily.
"What exactly are you referring to, Kal?" I twisted the words out of my throat, trying to make it sound like a threat. But his eyes searched mine, full of concern and sincerity, and he went on undeterred.
"Something happened back there that you don't want to remember, but it's eating at you from the inside. You might be able to keep it dormant, lock it away for days, months, maybe even years if you're determined enough-but it will only make it a hundred times more painful when you finally let it out. You're denying yourself a natural reaction and it's tearing you apart from the inside. You could have hurt someone back there- you were so focused on controlling your tears that you forgot everything else…"
I knew it. I looked up into his eyes sharply, jerking my hand out of his.
"It is not in an Amazon to submit to a weakness." My words, finally, had a strong voice to carry them.
He flinched visibly, and I turned stiffly away, daring to try to rise to my feet. The room tilted a little, and I must have swayed visibly on my feet because once again he was there, catching my elbows to steady me. Frustrated, I tried to push him away, but this time his hands turned strong as they clasped my arms and didn't let me run. Just like before. We were nearly eye-level with each other, his hands holding me firmly only a few inches from his body now.
"Would you stop?" I meant the words in so many ways. I looked up at him, feeling my frustration turn to tangible anger like the catching of a flame. I felt the energy trickling back into my veins, the strength returning to my voice and my limbs… "If you keep this up I will tell you to leave-"
"Tell me something, Diana, explain this to me, and I'll leave you alone. Why do you Amazons not cry?" He still did not let go of me, rooting me before him like a prisoner before a judge.
At least he was finally being open about the blade he was wielding at me. I glared up at him, intending to finish this argument once and for all.
"The Amazons have shed enough fruitless tears for the tragedies of the past. Not a single tear remedied those evils. Therefore, it is not permissible for a woman who calls herself a warrior to ever indulge grief in the place of action."
I held his gaze firmly, daring him to argue with me, daring him to go back on what he had just promised. He was silent for a long moment, still holding me in place before him, and in those beats of stillness I felt the memory come rushing up through time and space to engulf me- the last time I had ever cried in my life…
I could picture the scene, a memory whose shine that time had never dulled in my mind. I was ten years old and had been attacked by a wild panther as I rode my horse alone through the woods one evening on Paradise Island. I had escaped with only a gash on my shoulder from the beast's claws, but it had fatally wounded my horse-my favorite horse- before I was able to drive the cat away. With no weapon to end the creature's suffering and no intention of leaving it to die alone, I stayed by the animal's side for hours until it finally breathed its last, doing anything I could to ease its pain until then.
My mother's personal guard had found me hours later in the woods, mourning over the animal, whose side I refused to leave when they tried to take me home. The General had sent the others back to tell my mother I had been found, then stood beside me as I knelt, crying as I stroked the fallen mare's mane. She touched my shoulder, and when I pushed her hand away she abruptly grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet. I had fought against her but she held my shoulders tightly and gave me a rough shake, her voice cutting sharply through my hysterical protests.
"That's enough, child. You think you know what it is to feel grief? You do not, and, gods willing, you never will. Your mothers, your sisters, we have known grief and suffer for it every day." She intentionally struck one of her Amazon cuffs against the ones on my own wrists, effectively shaming me into silence, although I continued to cry quietly. Her face softened then, and she gently took my face in her hands, forcing me to look at her as she spoke words that would become etched in my mind forevermore.
"We cannot control what happens to us, child. We can only choose how to respond to it. We can control how we let pain affect us, for better or for worse. You are an Amazon, Diana, but more importantly, you are royalty, and you set the standard for your sisters to follow. So you must control your responses to all that assails, and that includes controlling your tears." Her thumbs swept the beads of water from my face, pressed against my lower lids to staunch the flow. Her voice was low and deliberate as she spoke again. "Your tears could not save that animal. And they will not bring her back now. Tears have not healed any wounds or averted any disasters, so you must learn to never indulge your grief in place of action. You are a warrior, not a weeping woman. You have power that the rest of the world knows not. And you must never let that power become diluted with the weakness of tears. Never again, Diana."
And all I could do was nod. "Never again," I repeated.
"Are tears considered weakness even when they are not motivated by self-pity, but by sincere grief over loss?" Kal's voice cut into the memory and dragged me back to the present.
"What do you mean?" I was too lost in the memory to understand his question at first, or to remember that this was one question too many...
"In my experience, tears are an expression of grief, which is the human response to the loss of something we loved dearly," he clarified, still not letting go of my arms.
"I'm not human, nor am I common. I am a warrior and I am royalty and therefore I have to hold myself to a higher standard. I have to control my reactions. You said it yourself- letting that emotion in made me dangerous." Why am I arguing with him about this?
"Yes, it did, but that's because you were channeling it into the wrong thing. You weren't allowing yourself to feel that grief. You were stuck in the anger stage and not allowing the sadness to touch you- so all that emotion had nowhere to go but into that anger. But you won't be able to move on until you let yourself feel the heavier counterpart of grief- the sadness. It's the most fearful thing because it feels like you just plunged into a dark ocean that's deeper than it is wide. Sometimes you feel like you've gone so deep that you can't even see the light of the surface anymore. Sometimes it feels like it's crushing you and you feel like you've forgotten how to breathe."
"You're not doing a good job of convincing me that feeling is the wise thing to do…"
"Then think of it as a challenge, Diana," he says, abruptly letting go of my arms and taking a half-step back. "I dare you to tell me what happened in the warzone, and I dare you to feel let yourself feel it as you remember."
Damn him. He knew me well enough to know that Amazon pride also does not permit one to back down from a challenge. And I was certainly not going to concede this rather than prove to him that I could indeed handle what I was insisting I could control. I glowered at him with the most venom I could muster, resisting the urge to strike that concerned look off his face.
"Fine," I muttered. "Where do you want me to start?" I put as much acid into my tone as I could.
He was unfazed. "How about you start there?" His fingers brush the new scar on my shoulder.
"All right. But for Hera's sake, sit down and stop watching me as though I'm a bomb about to detonate. You'll have your story." I pointed to the chair he had pulled to my bedside, and he went placidly to sit in it while I turned slowly towards the window and began to speak.
"You know what the objectives were- achieve a cease-fire and then coordinate negotiations between the two sides for peace, then assist with relief in any way possible. You saw the battle, you know it was nothing extraordinary-lots of guns and grenades…" I fade out, cautiously peeling back the mental curtain concealing the scene from my memory…the sound of artillery fire filling the air, the shouts of the League members as we began to use force to subdue the rebel army. I was trying to not think of the number of victims we had not been in time to save, but instead remember the people we could save by being quick and efficient here.
I gathered a breath and dictated the images flickering through my mind.
"I had just snapped a rifle in half and borne the soldier carrying it to the ground when I looked up and saw a young boy in army fatigues only a few feet away from us. I assumed he was a prisoner of the rebel army-why else would he be in the middle of all this-so I yelled at him to hide until the firing stopped, and went right back to binding the hands of the soldier pinned beneath me. It never once occurred to me that the child was there for any other reason…"
Because that's the only reason he managed it. Had I been expecting it, I certainly could have deflected the bullet with a flick of my wrist. But I had not been expecting the child soldier to raise a loaded rifle and fire at me.
"I felt the pain before I realized that the gunshot had been directed at me," I say, forcing myself to keep talking. I didn't dare look at Kal now-pride and pain kept my eyes directed out the window as I stopped pacing and stood still before the glass. "The bullet went through my shoulder and knocked me backwards, and but I came up with my hands raised to deflect a second shot if there was one. The pain was staggering of course but I forgot it as soon as I saw him holding the rifle in rigid arms. A child had shot me…a child…"
I had heard of child soldiers, stories that wrenched at my heart and always roused righteous anger within me. But never had I seen one with my own eyes. And never, never, had I expected to find myself here, eye to eye with one.
He couldn't have been older than ten. His face was gaunt with hunger, as were most of the other soldiers I had seen, a sign of the hardships affecting everyone in the nation during the most recent drought. He wore clothes that were too big for him and full of holes, and the boots on his feet looked like they had been gleaned from a fallen soldier twice his size. He still had the rifle raised in an attempt to intimidate me, but his eyes bore the unmistakable fear of a child who had been thrust into a situation far beyond his confidences. The look of innocent fear.
The story came out of me faster.
"I yelled at him to put the gun down, but of course he didn't move. We faced off, my open hands still raised against his gun. Talking peace had not worked with this boy's leaders, but I thought perhaps it could work with him, so I kept talking. 'It's all right,' I said in English first, but when he only blinked in response I attempted the limited words I knew in the local dialect of this area. 'It's all right, I'm not here to hurt you, but you must trust me. Don't shoot.' His eyes widened when he heard me speaking his language, his arms going limp with the gun in them, though he kept it pointed at me.
"I approached him slowly, my hands still raised in peace, until I was close enough to place my hand on the end of rifle and push it gently to the side. He was staring transfixedly at me, leg trembling as though he had the urge to run, but I laid my other hand on his shoulder to keep him there. 'You don't have to stay here,' I attempted with a nodding gesture towards the conflict around us, almost certain my words were coming out a jumbled mess, but he seemed to understand me. 'We need peace. You don't have to fight anymore. Are you ready to go home?'"
And then I had to stop talking suddenly, because I couldn't speak anymore. I was right back there in that hazy yellow air, surrounded by the pandemonium of the conflict, but face to face with a child who needed my help. Everything else had faded away as our eyes met, and I was struck dumb by what I saw.
In those eyes I saw not the innocence of childhood, but instead a man who had already lived a hundred lifetimes of pain and suffering. He shouldn't have had this life. He shouldn't have been robbed of his childhood and innocence, psychologically maimed for the rest of his life. And he shouldn't be here, in the middle of a war so violent that the international peacekeepers had been called in. But here he was, alive, and since he had survived so much already, perhaps there was hope for him.
"Let me take you home," I repeated. "I can fly you there." I hoped this thought would appeal to the child in him who wanted to fly like superheroes could. But it was not enough to counter the damage my other words had done. His eyes flashed, and he struck my hand away from his shoulder.
"Home is gone," he said in a voice that was barely more than a growl, and again, I was unprepared for what happened next.
"Diana?" Kal's voice drifted into the darkness of my mind and called me back. I opened my eyes, not remembering that I had closed them, and saw the moonscape spread before me through the thick bay window. My hands were pressed against the glass, leaving gray outlines of fog when I pulled them away and straightened my back. I turned to face Kal and saw that he had not moved, but he was leaning forward like he wanted to rise and come to me.
"What happened, Diana?" His voice was sincere, and I was unafraid to answer, through I had to force the words out around the lump in my throat.
"I offered to take him home, Kal. And he said, 'Home is gone.' And then I was on the ground."
I blinked, trying to clear my vision, which was starting to go hazy for some reason. The other memories were collapsing on my now-the images of everything that followed. Staggering to my feet and realizing for the first time how young all the soldiers were, and realizing that most of them had probably been abducted as children. A perpetual cycle of sorrow as they went through villages taking more prisoners to turn into more soldiers…And her they were now, destroying cities, attacking a rival group, ripping families apart just as theirs had been.
I was seeing the destruction in the town as the League made its way back in after finally subduing both sides. Hardly a single structure was left standing, the result of rocket launchers and grenades, and it seemed not a living thing had escaped the fires that had followed. Blackened trees collapsed onto scorched earth while injured victims staggered through the haze. Those who had not been able to get out of the way quick enough lay dead where they had fallen. Mothers, elders, fathers…children.
Collateral damage of the greed and violence of the human race.
Following the sound of coughing to the place where a pile of concrete and twisted metal showed that a building had once stood there…calling reassurance to the living persons underneath, working alone to free the trapped civilians.
Child soldiers. Civil war. The death of innocents. Greed the cause of it all…
So much senseless death in so many horrifying ways…Children killed in accidental cross fire, trapped beneath buildings, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Children killed in genocide raids between two warring groups. Killed because they were different. Killed because they were considered sub-human. And then the unluckiest of all- children who were made soldiers themselves and sent to do the killing. Children forced to die a hundred deaths with every murder they were forced to carry out.
"I just don't understand…" I suddenly said out loud, my voice like broken glass, and realized then that I could barely breathe. I kept talking though, gathering gasping breaths around my words, beginning to pace mindlessly around the room… "How? How can these people keep doing this to each other? How can they knowingly kill and maim and destroy their brothers and sisters, just because they feel there is a higher cause?"
The horror of it all was beginning to seep in again, permeating every part of me as the face of each casualty flashed before my eyes, every lifeless body I had laid at the side of the road, every bloodthirsty soldier I had sent away in handcuffs. My hands began to shake, and I balled them into fists again, looking at Kal without seeing him as the words tore from my mouth.
"This will not end. No words I can say, no campaign I could lead- none of it will be enough to keep this from happening somewhere again in the future. They will keep doing this- they've been doing this for thousands of years and what good have any efforts to stop it been? What good have any of us done? I just don't understand…" The last words made no sound, for I could no longer speak, and I blinked hard, trying to blur the images burning before them…
It was then that the tears finally came.
It was so unexpected that for a long moment I just stood there, feeling the tears sliding down my cheeks and trying to convince myself that was what they really were. My hands flew to cover my mouth as I felt my face twist in anguish and heard a whimper escape my lips, the emotion finally breaking through the last of my control. My legs felt weak suddenly, and I felt myself sinking slowly to the ground, one hand reaching out for something, anything to hold onto…and finding his hand suddenly there.
He didn't say a word as I fell into his arms, just caught me securely and sank to the ground with me. I barely noticed as he pulled the quilt from my bed and flung it over my shoulders, wrapping me in its warmth and pulling me gently against him. He didn't say anything as I dissolved into a sobbing mess, the years of controlled pain and anguish finally loosed from within me.
I had forgotten how physically painful it was to weep until that moment. My chest felt like it was being pulled in opposite directions, the muscles in my face tight as I pressed my hands to my cheeks. And still the tears kept coming from somewhere deep within me, a flood whose source I could not find. My breathing became shallow, nearly choking me each time I managed to gasp a breath of air in. And despite my best efforts, I couldn't keep the whimpering shudders from escaping my lips as everything inside me imploded. I think he sensed how frantic I was, because his arms pulled me closer and he put his chin against the top of my head to surround me from all sides, gently holding me against his solid frame.
"Just breathe, Diana, just think of the breath you're taking and nothing else," he said softly against my hair. "Breathe with me." His chest pressed against mine as he inhaled deeply, and despite the shudders still pulsing in my chest I managed to breathe in sync with him. I wasn't sure why it would help until I felt the trembling in my body slowing. "That's it. Just keep breathing," said softly, his hands gently rubbing my back beneath the blanket.
I had never been held like that, not in memory anyway. For a long moment he just held me in silence as I quivered like a leaf, desperately trying to stop my tears, his hands slowly rubbing up and down my back, arms, and shoulders in a way that caused me to relax in spite of myself until my trembling finally ceased. The warmth of his skin was comforting, and I could feel his heartbeat thudding beneath his skin as my ear pressed against his collarbone. Finally, after what felt like hours of me crying against him, when I felt like nothing more than a rag wrung dry, I wiped my eyes with the strap of my dress and dared to glance up at him.
He was looking intently at me, but there was no judgment in his eyes and no pity either. He gently smoothed his thumb across my cheeks as I looked up at him, brushing the last of the tears from my skin.
"These things we call tears, Diana?" he said softly, his blue eyes capturing mine and not letting me look away. "You've been taught that they're a sign of weakness, a sign that you've failed. But all anyone else sees is a sign that you're human. That you lost something you cared about deeply. And that you're willing to let others see that."
I closed my eyes, afraid he was going to trigger another onslaught of tears, and rested my head against his shoulder. I focused on building up the remains of my composure again as he quietly continued speaking over me.
"Greif is a complicated word because it refers to everything that follows a great loss-and I think that's what you're feeling now. At first it's just shock. Disbelief. Horror. Then you find yourself denying it. Wanting to find some way that it can't be true. But inevitably you realize that it is as awful as it seemed, and then you feel anger. Anger at the cause of it all, anger at the people around you for not understanding…and then when you finally let that anger go, you find yourself empty. Broken. Full of sadness that doesn't seem to end for a long time. But it does start to lift, and that's what we call acceptance. It's not pretending like something didn't happen, or that it didn't matter, didn't hurt greatly. It's accepting that life is always going to be different now…but it's going to go on and it can still be life worth living.
"You're feeling grief for this planet, Diana. For these people. Because try as we might, we can't keep them from turning against one another. You're right when you say we just can't prevent this from happening again. We can't change that something in certain people will always be determined to cause conflict, fight each other, knowingly harm and hurt and even kill each other, and lead others to do the same. We can't be everywhere, we can't prevent every conflict, and as much as we wish we could, we will not be able to save every life.
"There will be days when you wonder why you are still doing this. Why you keep giving your time, your strength, your heart to a people who can never really repay you for what you're giving to them. And there are some days that you'll wonder why it still matters. Why you even care about these people that you don't actually belong to, can't truly relate to. But on those days, you have to remind yourself of all those reasons why you started doing this in the first place."
Remind myself why…
My control was returning, but I kept my head ducked as I asked slowly, "Why do we do this, Kal?"
"Why do we protect them? I can't speak for you, but I know for me it's because I've chosen to love them in spite of everything. And real love always demands sacrifice."
His fingers carded through my hair tenderly, untangling the knots and smoothing the curls as the words kept coming out of him and echoing in my ears.
"It is a dangerous thing, Diana, to let yourself care about a people, even more dangerous to care especially for one person. It's putting yourself at risk, and it goes against our survival instinct. It's willingly leaving your heart open to any wound that person, or those people, could purposefully or accidentally inflict. But loving someone like that- that's the only way we get to truly feel what this world has to offer. It's the only way we truly get to live. To venture out into open water, fearfully hoping that that person won't leave us. It's in that adventure that we know we're truly living, as we experience every joy and every hurt. And most of all, this pain I know you're trying not to feel right now…that's how you know you're really alive."
This sounded familiar. An image of a storm-tossed sea drifted before my closed eyes. The fear and the desire fighting within me as I stood looking out over the unknown…
But was he talking about loving these people, or was he talking about loving-
"There's something critical you have to remember, Diana," his words interrupted my thought. I looked up and met his eyes as he faced me intently, one hand smoothing the hair out of my face. "We might be considered this world's heroes because we have gifts that set us apart from everyone else. But in the end, we're human because we are never completely separate. We will always feel for a people that we don't belong to. And that's what actually makes us heroic. What makes you a wonder."
One word at a time, he was undoing me once more-the lump rising in my throat betrayed any semblance of self control I was attempting. I would probably never again to have the same mastery over my responses, thanks to him. The memory of my mother's words fluttered trough my mind-you have already chosen.
I understood now. Things were never going to be the same because of this.
"I'll never forgive you for this, Kal," I muttered as I ducked my head into his shoulder again, but he only chuckled, as though he understood.
"I think I can live with that, Diana. There are worse things to be hated for."
But he knew I didn't hate him. Because despite my best efforts and fiercest defenses, he had broken through the wall that I had put up to guard myself against the most terrifying thing in the universe, the thing that was also the most worth experiencing. I felt my heart swelling with emotion again, but this time it was filling me up rather than causing everything inside to collapse.
I dared to lift my head again, and he turned to meet my eyes. My hand wove up from beneath the blanket to rest against his cheek, and he leaned forward to rest his forehead against mine. My eyes closed so I thought of nothing but his warmth flowing into me.
So predictably present…so much love…and I am so undeserving. Over and over again I deflected his demonstrations of any kind of love, over and over again I had thrown his well-meant gestures at his feet in defiance. Over and over again, I had insisted I needed nothing from him, nor could he offer me anything worth sacrificing my vary nature for.
Yet in spite of all that, here he was.
By some undeserved grace, fate had not left me to weather this storm, cross this sea, alone. He was here with me in the midst of it all. He had leapt before me and was waiting for me to leap too. And he was promising that somehow this would still turn out all right. He was right here, holding me secure, holding me together.
"I don't deserve you," I whispered from deep within my heart. Because in this moment I knew it was true.
My words triggered something inside him though, and he pulled back slowly to look me in the eyes. There was no anger in his expression, but there was something else strong and burning that pleaded with me to hear what he was about to say as his hand slid up my shoulder to cradle my face.
"Diana…you deserve every good thing this world has to offer you. To live in this world, to give and bleed and sacrifice for it…for that, you deserve every wonderful thing it could give back to you. So don't you ever say you don't deserve happiness. Because it's this world that doesn't deserve something as wonderful as you."
My eyes flooded with tears, so sudden it caused me to gasp. Reflexively my hands flew to my face again, the instinctive urge to hide a shameful reaction still the overriding response, but he caught my hands in his and held them tightly. My eyes pleaded with him, and his plead right back. "Let it go, Diana. I'm right here. Just let go."
I closed my eyes and felt myself on that cliff again- the sky and sea ferocious before me, the deep emotional urge to go, the logical mandate to stay…I see him offer his hand to me one more time, the choice always mine to make. "I'm right here," he says again, his voice speaking in my dream and my reality.
I take his hand and without looking back, we leap.
*Author's Notes: Thanks for all the positive reviews already, but there's nothing like putting your work online to make you realize all the edits you missed…this is the recently-revised version. Please pardon any incorrect tenses or other errors you may have noticed in the earlier version. Also, I realized once it was up that I forgot to give you all my notes.
This one-shot was in the works only for a couple of months, a relatively short time compared to my other fic. I've been working on this one off and on, and at one point it was going to be longer and bookended by Superman's narration of the before and the after. Reading over it this week though, I realized that having his narration in there at all, while giving some insight on how stunning the events were for everyone else, took away from the focus of the story: what is going on in Diana's heart throughout all this. While I saved the bookends for possible future use, I don't feel like they belong here.
The story is written in past tense because it was at first going to be her recollection of these events when reflecting on when their friendship went to a different level, but I abandoned that premise too. Still, you'll notice that the final lines are in the present tense. It felt right, because the idea is that that final decision to leap changed everything that came after it, including the now. Hopefully you picked up on the double metaphor of the sea.
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