Heroes Fail

Marry in Haste

Will she be repenting at leisure?

Natalie had warned him that they would talk. She waited, patiently, for two days after the hangover passed before she brought up any semblance of the conversation, though. And as they spent a snowy afternoon on kitchen detail, she finally brought their casual conversation around to it. “You know…. I have a lot of questions,” she said as she wiped the dish in her hands clean.

“I can’t really imagine what it must have been like for you with a manipulation power. You had to have been terrified. I kind of thought there was a whole side of you I didn’t really know when the Homeland agent stuff came out, but… that particular power has to be a huge part of you, Jared. I’d really like to know … so many things. How you dealt with it. How you figured it out. Were you a lab rat for them?” Had he been a pawn as well as their spy in the Powered group? His feelings were real… she could tell that easily enough. And probably anything he had told her about his childhood or soldier days… but he’d often deflected personal questions, even before D-Day. She looked at him. “Looking back, knowing about it now, some things make a lot more sense.”

Her tone was gentle as she sought to learn about this man she’s decided to live out her life with, seeking a deeper connection than just their apparently superficial friendship. “I get why you didn’t want me to know. But now… I kind of feel like I don’t really know you at all. And I’d like to.”

“You know, when I first found out, I thought I was out of a job.” Who knew, he thought sarcastically, that being a mind manipulator raised your value in the eyes of the government?

Jared paused. “Most people come into their powers when they’re young. Or younger anyway. Not me. My boss told me.” He did a pretty good Director Glenn imitation, not that Nat ever knew him.

‘Agent Norris, you convinced someone on our side they were a terrorist from sheer force of mental will. You’re a Power, whether you believe it or not.’

He shook his head. “And that was the last normal interaction I had with people until they assigned me to you. I mean, I trained, I learned control… but it’s always in the back of your mind. Did I make them do that?” A small half smile crossed his face. “But I could never make you do anything you didn’t damn well want to, Natalie Tessier.”

Natalie couldn’t help the faint grin that quirked her lips, amusement at the chagrin in his tone fluttering through her. “That first rescue. The hike up into the mountains? I wondered why you were so shocked that I wasn’t willing to just wait like you told me to,” she said as she started laughing. “I remember thinking you were awfully bossy and awfully cocksure about me doing exactly what I was told, and you looked so surprised when I didn’t, I remember thinking Jesus, does everyone he knows kowtow to him? Ffft. Screw that.

Her eyes on him were intent, though. “It must have been really hard to feel certain of anyone or anything,” she observed.

“Yes,” he replied, the single word conveying whole swaths of emotion. “So much of the early stuff was just not knowing… influencing people without realizing. Making them change their lives to fit yours. Training helps to control but it doesn’t give you back what you lost, you know?” He hadn’t loved Cindy, not really. Or maybe he had. That was the other thing that was hard to explain. Someone doing what you want them to do can look like love. If you’re not familiar with the real thing.

“Then I was assigned to you. And that changed everything.”

Tilting her head as she absorbed the gut-punch of his roiling emotional state, Natalie was quiet for a long moment. As she set the clean dish down, she leaned back and rested her hands near her hips on the countertop. She would circle back around to that last comment in a second. First she wanted to be clear that she understood. “So you could… essentially force thoughts into people’s heads? Make them do anything you want?” There was no judgment in her tone, merely curiosity as she processed the information.

Jared shook his head slightly, “No. Well, yes, but no. There’s more nuance to it than that.” He picked up a fork from the sink, not really intending to clean it, but more to give his hands something to do, somewhere to focus his eyes while he thought. He was still ashamed of having kept it a secret from her – he wasn’t quite ready to look her directly in the eyes. Secrets had just been a part of his life for so long.

“It’s funny, in a way.” His thumb poked one of the fork tines. “Your new power and my old one had stuff in common.”

Poke. A slightly harder stab of his thumb.

“They both relate to emotion and desire. The more I wanted something, the more likely it was that I could make them want it too.”

Poke. If the fork was actually sharp, he might have a hole in his thumb.

“So not about putting direct thoughts in someone’s head, but about ideas and concepts. I couldn’t guarantee that someone would do something exactly the way I wanted. Just that they would want to do it very badly.”

Jared dropped the fork in the mostly empty sink with a clatter.

The shame rolling off him was hard for her; Natalie couldn’t help the tears that welled up in her eyes. But she let him talk, letting him tell her what he needed to say in his own way. “That must have played hell with your relationships,” she offered softly. Bringing up one hand to wipe her tears, she tried not to let him see how deeply affected she was by his emotional state. “You said meeting me… being assigned to me… changed everything. Just because I was immune to you?”

That made it sound like he was going to fall head over heels for the first person he ran into that was immune. But he nodded and said, “That let me be open in a way that I hadn’t been in a very long time. There was a reason that being alone cross-country wasn’t unusual for me. It was just a return to the way I had used to live my life. Not interacting unless necessary. Not letting people see me unless necessary. Before you, and by extension the Guardians, there wasn’t a lot of point in it.“ She had been like opening a door that had been closed for a long while.

“The more time I spent with you, the deeper and deeper I fell for you, the more I felt like the me that I had been, once upon a time.”

“The lure of being able to just be yourself and not worry about whether I was acting some way just because you wanted me to,” Natalie murmured with a slow nod. She could understand that. And she couldn’t help the rueful smile when she reached out to run her fingertips down his scruff. “Well… I guess you can’t really manipulate someone who already did all his falling,” she teased a bit. “Nice to know you understand why I was worried about the idea that I might be doing something to you. Although from everything we can tell, I’m a receiving empath, not a broadcasting one. Thank any deity you choose to believe in.” An eyeroll accompanied that, although the effect was muted by the fact that she still has silent tears streaking her face that she couldn’t seem to make stop.

“I don’t care that you were a Power. I’m a teeny little bit hurt that you were afraid to tell me about it, but I understand it. I’ll be worried now that I’m going to wind up reactivating you, but… we’ll cross that bridge when it floods out on us.” Nat sighed softly. “That being said… don’t you think you’re a more valuable asset to your general than you’ve really let on? I mean… he sent you out with comms gear that you let us destroy. You don’t think he’s going to come looking for you? Especially if any of his own pet Powers have managed to reactivate for some reason?”

Jared stepped a little closer, reaching out his hand to wipe a tear away with his thumb. “Hell, Nat, I hate making you cry.” He gave her a kiss on the forehead and then a soft one on the lips.

Once the instinctive need to comfort Nat had settled (he was still her guard, it seemed, for lots of things), he turned his thoughts back to the last question, the one that he had been trying to avoid thinking about. Mostly because he didn’t like the answers that kept coming up.

“I’m hoping that Gen. Mercator has more things to worry about than one single ex-Power, “ he said quietly. “They hadn’t figured out how to activate dormant powers, and I can’t imagine that they have jumped that gap during the apocalypse. He said he was sending out other people to different parts of the country. He would have had to have suspected that not everyone would survive that trip. He might think I’m dead.” Jared wished he could make himself believe that, like turning his former powers on himself.

“Well, then you’ll just have to stop feeling so ashamed… because I’m pretty sure these are your tears I’m crying, not mine,” Natalie informed him with a soft smile as she returned the gentle kiss and rested her forehead against his.

As he turned his serious regard to her other questions, though, she could sense both how much he wanted to believe and how much he worried. “He might,” she agreed mildly. “Or…. it could be that if he knew a large number of the Project New Guardians labs, he may have one of them that he’s reestablished or never lost contact with who has figured out by sheer accident that it’s possible. Like with Gigantor. There’s no more ‘classified’ here… the only people you’re on board to protect are your own.” With a soft sigh she pulled back and looked up to meet his eyes. “You need to read at least Langston if not all the rest of us into exactly what you know about it all. Because no matter what you did, babe… I have a feeling there’s going to come a moment where the only thing saving our asses is that we know what’s coming, we know you and your role in all of it well enough to trust absolutely that you’ll choose us, and there’s nothing that can be held over your head when they come. I don’t want anyone to have leverage on you.”

“I’ve told Langston what I know, pretty much. They used me to make sure everyone was on the same page, to make sure there weren’t leaks. But I didn’t really have a lot of deep information about any one particular part. I’m not sure how much they trusted me, if I’m being frank. Like anyone who knew what I could do, I think they wondered if I wasn’t manipulating them.”

Jared wasn’t always sure about trusting himself and his powers, so maybe not surprising the government hadn’t completely trusted him either. A fact he was sure hadn’t been improved with the events of D-Day. He was sure there were many people who thought no Power, ex- or otherwise, was to be trusted anymore. And thinking about D-Day reminded him. He had been wondering about something ever since he had come back to St. Louis, but he couldn’t ask when his power was a secret. But now he could ask.

He looked into her eyes and said, “Can I ask you a question? It’s off topic, sort of, but then again, maybe it isn’t.” Jared wasn’t sure he was going to like the answer to the question, but that didn’t really matter. He needed to know.

If she were surprised by his thoughtful consideration of the possibility that his own government and bosses might not have trusted him, it didn’t show. “You can ask me anything,” Natalie told him seriously. “You always could.” And did, if she remembered correctly — some really embarrassing questions had been asked and answered!

“You’ve been back to FEMA, right?” Jared watched the expression on her face. “Do you know what happened there?”

Enlightenment dawned as soon as he asked. “I thought you told me you didn’t want to know that — hypothetically if you’d been a Power,” she reminded him of their earlier conversation about that very thing. She had to think back over what she’d seen the offices, a gruesome task quite honestly. It was late enough in the day that her stomach was potentially going to get involved in this too. Okay, she warned it, knock it off. I refuse to barf if I have to relive what I found to give him a little peace.

Knowing what his Power was let Natalie focus a little bit on what she saw that long ago day with Wolf and later on their raid of the place, understanding what he was looking for — signs of his own involvement. “What happened with Torch was pretty clear to see,” she said slowly, swallowing hard. The burned body and the gunshot one — she hadn’t known who they were, but after he told her the story, she’d figured it out.

“The rest…. when I went down to the staging room, there were half a dozen people in there. It looked to me like they basically stayed at their posts, Jared. A couple people died with heads on their desks,” rather grotesque once they were skeletonized, “and it looked like a few in the lower floor might have been fighting … or hugging.” She shook her head. “As far as I could tell, aside from fire damage and physical damage to the building from whoever threw the tanker truck, it looked to me like all the non-powered personnel stuck to their posts until they keeled over. A lot of people just weren’t there, probably trying to get home to family.”

Jared imagined himself walking through the halls of FEMA, telling people that they needed to stay put, no matter what. In his mind’s eye, he pictured them screaming in terror, unable to move as Torch swooped through, only able to sit on their desk while their friends died. While they starved to death at their post.

He took a deep exhale. “That could have all been me,” Jared said with a surprising amount of calm in his voice. “And yes, I know I said I didn’t want to know. But part of keeping my power secret was not having to face what I might have done. I don’t think I can be honest with everyone if I’m not honest with myself.”

Natalie reached out and said sternly, “And none of that might have been you. Maybe those who didn’t have local family or were single kept to their posts and were overwhelmed by the illness, Jared.” She shook her head. “You yelled at me for wallowing in the ‘what did I do in those times I can’t remember.’ You can’t on the one hand tell me that it wasn’t my fault and then blame yourself for being in the exact same situation.” Her hand, already resting on his cheek, cupped his face and she kept his eyes on hers. “We all did at least one horrific, awful thing. I guarantee you. Maddy killed a bunch of people on a bridge. I did God only knows what, made other people’s injuries worse? Made them SICK? I don’t even know. Melody altered Ryan’s body into coral and he may not be recoverable. Did she melt any people into slag? Probably. We were none of us in control of it, and although we can live with the regret that it happened, we cannot keep living our lives in apology of the fact that we were susceptible and got sick.”

Good Lord. Pot, meet kettle. Natalie was not blind to the irony that she was the one defending him from himself this time. A wry expression creases her face as she twinkles at him. “Heal thyself, not just your wife, mister.”

Keeping his eyes locked on hers, he simply says, “I know. Not going to dwell on it. Just needed to own it before moving on. I still meant what I said the first time. I’ve made my look back. Now I can look forward.” He had long ago accepted that he might end up doing some unpleasant things in favor of a greater cause. It was just harder to accept that he had done a bunch of unpleasant things for no reason whatsoever. But he wasn’t lying to her. He knew they had to move on from it. It just felt very fresh right now, like it had just happened.

Touch had always enhanced her healing ability and the raw power of the emotion she was getting off him at this moment didn’t merely roll over her so much as it dragged her into its undertow. Her empathy flared, his pain creating in her the need to soothe. And she felt when her healing ability started to kick in. “No. No, no, no. Stop.” She yanked her hand off of his face and backpedaled away from him, one hand instinctively dropped to the not-yet-visible place where their child currently resides to protect it and her face turned a little green around the gills.

“Don’t touch me yet!” she ordered him in an urgent voice when he reached for her. “My power wants to heal you the way I healed Ang. To take away your hurt.”

Jared kept his hands to himself. He pushed that instinctive hurt feeling down deep in himself (she’s not trying to reject you, just protect herself) and worked on his mental techniques. Since he had lost his powers, he hadn’t needed (or so he thought) to be able to suppress desires, suppress emotions like he had before D-Day. If you didn’t want anything or feel anything, it made it easier to make sure that he didn’t influence anyone unintentionally. And going to that cool, calm place had made it easier to deliberately use his power, a thousand-foot flare of desire on an endless plain of nothingness. And now, he needed to use it again to protect the woman he loved. And his baby too, he realized suddenly. He didn’t have to go back to it forever, but just now and again. But even knowing that in his logical brain didn’t prevent his emotions from screaming at him as he locked them behind those steel bars of will for the first time in years.

The sensation of him literally locking down his emotions was actually worse. Natalie couldn’t think when she felt him becoming a sort of blank spot in her senses, and it upset the balance of what she was trying to lock down within herself because her healing power abruptly had nothing to heal. She dropped to her knees and lost what little lunch she’d eaten. Between dry heaves, she gasped, “What did you do? You’re… gone!”

“Just temporarily, Nat. Just some of the Homeland Security training.” He couldn’t decide whether it was good she couldn’t sense him at all. On the one hand, it meant that he was still in practice, no leaks whatsoever. On the other hand, Jared wasn’t sure this was better than before. He let his mind go from the still place and waited to see how she did.

He had never been just a blank to her before. Not like that. Her heaving slowed visibly as he eased whatever he’d been doing and she rested on all fours, trembling at the force of the physical response. Her breath came in gasps for a long moment before slowing to something closer to normal, and when she leaned back to sit on her heels, the hand she raised to wipe at her face (and rub on her pants leg) was shaking.

Looking up at him in shock, she couldn’t gather her wits immediately to say anything. It wasn’t that he was a blank or gone, she realized. “We…. might have a small problem, my sweet,” she husked in a raspy voice. “I don’t think I like it when you cut me off.”

Despite his every desire to go hug and comfort her, Jared kept himself restrained physically, if not emotionally. He didn’t want her to take his emotions, although he figured at this point, all the painful ones had passed, either due to his going to the still place or due to his panic over the reaction she had.

“You going to be okay? And how about little Jared?” Her powers were definitely different, he thought. She hadn’t reacted this way before D-Day.

Natalie blew her breath out slowly and began to climb to her feet. “I think so,” she replied. “We’re still not calling it that,” she added absently. Moving carefully, she walked to the sink to rinse her mouth out before finally walking to him to stand in front of him. As if afraid he’d reject her touch, she reached out to stroke his chest. “You’ve never felt that way to me… not before the nanobots, definitely, and not since you arrived.” She bit her lower lip as she looked up at him. “That’s where we go when we have to kill. And apparently feeling that from you, at least right now, makes me feel sick.”

It was the only explanation she could come up with… because she’s felt that emptiness within herself a few times since Destruction Day too.

“Well, I just can’t call the baby Mystery Fetus, so I default,” Jared said, letting the humor soften the worries he had. If he worried, then Natalie would feel it, and the vicious cycle would start over again.

Had he scared her? “You know I would never hurt you, right?”

“Of course you wouldn’t!” Her retort was so instantaneous and sincere, there could be no doubt that she believed that to the bottom of her toes.

“Don’t overthink it,” Natalie offered about his unspoken-but-felt worries. “Feeling everyone’s painful stuff is something I’m used to — it’s a different kind of pain, but it’s still the same way my power seems to have always worked in a lot of ways. I think that was a combination of the suddenness of your heartache, which made my healing want to suck all the hurt out of you, and then the rather abrupt cessation of all emotions from you. I think it made me dizzy?”

“That’s where we go when we have to kill?” He echoed her statement from earlier. So much that he needed unpacked in that sentence.

Oh boy… Natalie tilted her head, studying his chest instead of his face. This time she was the one unsure whether she could look him in the eye. “Isn’t it? The Quiet.” She had a name for it. “The place inside where you hide the fragile parts of yourself when you have to kill someone.” Her voice was low and a frisson of panic along her nerve endings gave her a small shiver.

“I think some people don’t have to go there for that,” he said, thinking of a few of the agents he had known during his career. “But yes, I guess that’s a way to think about it. I guess I just never made that connection. It was just where I needed to go to control my power.”

He tilted her head back up so she was looking at him. “We have hard jobs, Nat. We always have. We do what has to be done for the greater good, to protect those we love.” He didn’t ask the question. After all, it wasn’t really important.

Allowing him to tilt her chin up, she met his eyes and waited for the question. Instead he offered nothing more than unquestioning belief in the idea that whatever she’d done, she must have had to. “Like anyone else who has spent time traveling this world, I learned the hard way that it’s a dark place. And sometimes the choices aren’t for the greater good. Sometimes they’re just about survival. Or mercy.” And she’d paid the price for the latter in nearly, very willingly, losing herself to the vast Silence of the Plains states.

He had seen the dark places. Both before D-Day and after. “But there are light places too, Nat. I’m standing in one right now. Next to one right now. Kissing one right now.” And he leaned in for a kiss, a reminder that we survive the dark places so we can emerge out into the light again.

The soft kiss was returned, the reminder appreciated. As she wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her forehead against his jaw, Natalie pulled in a slow breath. “Light places are good,” she agreed. There were storms on the horizon, but for now she figured they could stay there. “Do me a favor, though?” She pulled back a little and looked up with a grin. “We’re gonna call that the Happy Place — cuz I’m pretty sure, for Ang, it is — and don’t go to the Happy Place on me without warning if you can help it. I would far prefer feeling everything out there and continuing to work on my own shielding, which is still just as woeful as ever, than to have the sense that it just gave me. I am finding out that there are significant downsides to full empathy.”

“I can do that.” In fact, he preferred to do that. He didn’t like shutting himself out. Best only in case of avoiding hurting Natalie. And now he knew he just needed to give warning. Another plank in the structure of the relationship they were building. He enjoyed seeing it build out slowly.

But he was going to continue to call it the still place in his head.

Natalie nodded, leaning up to kiss him softly. “C’mon — help me finish the last of these dishes.” The mix of mundane chore and conversation was just another way to keep building that structure. “I have so many questions still… you said your boss told you that you had powers. Was it hard to get them under control? It seems like if it’s tied to desire… it would be really hard to want to do something if every suggestion you made was agreed to.” She paused and grinned at him as she worked on the dishes, teasing, “Don’t worry, you won’t get that here.”

“I took a while to get them under control,” he admitted. “But having all the power and money of the U.S. government dedicated to helping me learn how to use them helped.”

Jared took the dish that Natalie had been washing and gave it a thorough drying with the bright yellow towel with a tomato vine pattern. He was guessing there had been a Bed, Bath, and Beyond somewhere in the mall. Most of the signs had come down or been taken down, but some things just transcended signs.

“Most of the times I used my power before I learned to control were times when I really wanted something to be true. Like how when you sense pain, your power starts flaring. For me, when that unconscious desire became a need… that’s when it would activate. Learning how to produce it on demand was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn.”

Natalie could relate, and she nodded while her hands kept up their rote movements. She found that it helped her think, to be doing this while they talked. “Learning how NOT to do it just whenever someone crosses my path is always my challenge,” she acknowledged. “Even before, I couldn’t just NOT help someone. Now it doesn’t even need to be physical pain. So I have to relearn how to box it in.” She shrugged some, glancing at him. “How badly did you screw up your life before they figured out what was happening? Because I assume that they set you up for some kind of test, what with your boss being the one who told you. Something must have twigged them… but that means you had to have been doing it for some amount of time before they caught it, right?”

He shrugged. “I always assumed they were watching me. Part of the life of working for Homeland Security. And it wasn’t my life that I almost screwed up,” he said with a tinge of regret/guilt. “There was a woman I was living with. Almost made her give up everything she wanted without realizing it.” Jared was thankful he had let Cindy go before too much damage had been done. Of course, he thought cynically, she probably didn’t survive D-Day, so how much harm could he have done? He was usually better than those sort of thoughts, but that was not a time in his life he was particularly proud of.

Natalie winced. There was a moment where she could almost taste the bitterness on her tongue, it came through so clearly. But she simply shook her head — we all had a right to some amount of bitterness over what could have been. “I’m sorry,” she told him simply. “That had to have killed you, to realize that you’d hurt her like that.” There was no question in her mind that it would have eaten at him — it was who he was. As she handed him the next dish, she asked curiously, “Why did you agree to be assigned to me? I mean… there were surely better things you could have been doing with your talents than babysitting a healer.”

“Baby, you don’t get to argue about that sort of thing. They tell you to go somewhere and you ask how fast. I mean, when they first assigned me to you, I didn’t even know you were a Power, remember? Shimmied down that fucking rope, despite me telling you to wait for the evac and healed that guy enough that you couldn’t climb back up.” That, he thought, had pretty much set the tone for the rest of their working relationship. “At least then I knew why they had assigned me to you. Babysitting some random FEMA member had looked pretty crazy. But jump, how high, etc.”

Natalie snickered. For whatever reason, that moment had stuck in her mind. Kowtow to a bossy guy? The hell you say! “That was …. Kind of funny,” she told him. “When I got down there, he was busted up bad enough that if I hadn’t healed him that much, he’d have died. I’m not even sure how he was still alive when we found him. My head hurt for nearly a whole day after that.”

“You were right. That was usually the case.” He smirked at her as he dried another plate. “Practice for getting married, I guess.”

“Oh, you think so, do you?” Natalie retorted with a grin. She splashed him with dishwater. “Seems to me, you spent most of the time hollering at me for being too careless or too reckless or whatever… when all the time, you were running about NOT being a FEMA guy. With a gun!” She wasn’t upset, though — more amused. The more they talked, the more she realized how much she’d apparently been willfully blind to. “I’m going to hold the fact that you told RYAN before you told me over your head forever, though.”

“RYAN,” he said, doing a fair imitation of Natalie, “had top secret clearance. I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t want to tell Ryan either, but there was no way around it at the time. He couldn’t tell Melody either because of the clearance. He wasn’t real happy about that either.”

Lies within secrets within circles within lies. It wasn’t until he was free of it all that he realized how much weight it had been on him. He never doubted what he was doing or the purpose of it all. But like the proverbial boiling frog, he hadn’t realized how hot the secrets had gotten.

“Ffft,” Natalie dismissed, clearly messing with him. “Well, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. Now you can pretend I have top secret clearance, and when Toby gets him out of the ocean, he’ll be all ‘holy crap, really?!’ - No, I take that back.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “How much you wanna bet she and Ryan had a bet on how long it would take us to figure out we liked each other?”

“Remember that Halloween? He kept asking me when I was going to tell you.” Jared had felt like a stupid teenager. She had a way of doing that to him. He had lived through some things that no person should have to live though. Almost died once. And yet, he had been more nervous than he had ever been, so damn afraid to say anything. Thinking about all that he had potentially missed out almost got him upset. But he was here with her now at the end of the world. That made up for a lot of stumbles in his mind.

Natalie slanted him another grin and passed the last bowl to him to dry. “See?” she opined. “I guess you were too scared and I was too clueless. It took all this to make us think about actually taking the chance.” She shrugged a little. “I’ll be honest, Jared… for a long time, I couldn’t really look at us in that light. Christ… I used to tell you things I was mortified to have anyone know. You saw me concussed and rambling more times than anyone EVER. I kind of figured you knew way too much about me, so obviously you weren’t interested.”

That last statement started him laughing, a rolling laugh of amazement that felt good to get out. “You have no idea how much I wanted to get in your pants, but figured with all that confession, you saw me as that guy friend who was safe. Complicating all that shit was the fact that you were still, technically, my assignment. I didn’t know how my bosses would feel about me stepping out of bounds.”

It was good to hear him laugh like that. “Well… I guess I kind of did. Put you in the friend zone. Not on purpose, but …” Natalie’s eyebrows both went up. “Come on… what woman is going to expect a guy who heard some of that to even remotely be hot and bothered? I swear to God, some of the things I woke up remembering talking about? I wanted to sink through the floor the next day. And I still had to see you and brazen it out, pretend I wasn’t blushing like mad.” She rolled her eyes. “It amuses me to think how frustrated you must have been when you figured out you couldn’t use your power on me — because I think I’d have never gotten anything done!”

Jared poked her in her side. “Definitely a challenge. You didn’t listen to a word I said, it felt like, and my tool of last resort was basically useless. And all the rest of the damn Guardians were too busy being fucking heroes to notice that you were going way too far or way too fast way too often.” Lucky he had any of his damn hair left at all, considering how much she would stress him out.

She’d listened… she just wasn’t willing to let him dictate her limits for her. “Are you sorry that your power never worked on me?” Natalie asked curiously, folding up the dishcloth and leaving it neatly on the sink while she waited for him to finish the drying. “I mean… there had to be plenty of times when you were cussing at me that you wanted to use it.”

He immediately shook his head. “You were my safe zone, Nat. Sure, I was cussing, but I kind of liked it. Sort of like I want to keep you safe, but I wouldn’t change the way you work because that’s one of the things I love about you. I worried, but a whole different sort of worry than the rest of my life. “

Natalie thought about that and nodded. “I’ll do my level best not to reactivate you, okay?” She looked at him seriously. “Just from the way you talk, the relief that you feel when you’re talking about all this, I understand that you’d rather not have it back. I can’t promise that it won’t happen by accident… but I promise I will fight not to if I ever have to heal you.”

“I’ve lived with it before and I’ll live with it again if I had to.” He had never liked his power but he wasn’t afraid of it the way he had always sensed Melody had been of hers. “I’ve got you to back me up if it happens.” And he casually kissed her on the cheek. They had been married for less than a week, but it felt so damn natural. That thought was strong enough to pop back up again. I’m fucking married! The world was still an amazing place, he thought as a stupid happy grin crossed his face.

The smile Natalie shot him was amused, as if she were mentally shaking her head at the silly expression on his face. “If you get them back and they actually work on me, I won’t give you any girly little slap into next week — I’ll punch you in the nose so hard our grandkids will be flat-faced,” she informed him on a chuckle.

Jared didn’t doubt that in the least bit. “If I get them back, I have a feeling they’ll get put to use in a lot of ways, none of which involve getting your stubborn ass to do what’s best for you.” His tone was joking, but there was a bit of a serious underlay to it. He had been used for most of his Powered life. For good causes to be sure, but he didn’t expect the apocalypse to have changed that any. If he got them back, there would be another cause, another need. And he’d answer the call. Because that’s who he was.

“I don’t care if you use them or if you lie to Mercator when he comes and tell him you haven’t got them so you don’t have to. Whatever you want to do about your powers is up to you. But understand something for me…” Natalie’s tone was serious. “Understand what having me to back you up means. And if that man fucks with you? I can’t promise that I won’t go visit the Quiet to keep him away from you and our child or children.”

“I wasn’t referring to the general, Nat. If I get my powers back, Refuge Point will put me to use. Our new mayor strikes me as practical as they come.”

There was a flash of something through Natalie’s eyes, that same flash that had shown when she’d told him about having someone dismembered for fertilizer. “We’ll see what happens,” she murmured. “I don’t know that I want to trust her yet — Ida’s not a bad person. She’s efficient and smart. But if your general comes knocking, I don’t know that she’d stand behind us. And that makes me leery of her.” She pulled in a breath and her expression cleared. “Let’s go for a walk outside? I could use some fresh air — and even though it’s snowy, it’s not so bad out yet.”

Jared had the feeling it wouldn’t be long before they had enough snow that casual strolls wouldn’t be possible. But they hadn’t gotten there yet. He grabbed her hand and intertwined his fingers with hers. “Let’s go make some people sick with how lovey dovey we are on the way there. Maybe even have some PDA in front of the guards on the way out.”

Rolling her eyes, Natalie held his hand and let him tug her out the door. Although PDAs weren’t her style, the good mood made her laugh. “You just want to show off that you got the girl or something,” she teased. “And I’m a hell of a catch, I tell ya!” One snowman, six snow angels, and a snowball fight later, she kissed him breathless under the clear blue sky in front of everyone who had been drawn into what had turned into an epic snowball fight.

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Malificent Terri

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