She slept for a long time. 8 weeks into this pregnancy, Natalie is learning some things that no one can really prepare you for — they tell you you’re going to feel tired. They don’t tell you that you’re going to be so tired that literally all you really WANT to do is curl up and sleep all the damn time. Even now, Natalie feels drained and weary, though how much of that is just being pregnant and how much of is that her healing power is constantly running and food is short is really anyone’s guess. She’s not skimping, taking the protein bars being shoved at her at every turn by everyone on the team and by Jared, but even with that going on, she is still feeling lightheaded at times and exhausted constantly. It’s not something she’s advertising — her family cannot give up much more than they already do or THEY won’t be getting enough to eat.
That’s a worry for another day. Today’s worry is to see if she can locate Wolf before he spots Cult members heading toward Refuge Point and kills them. If she can. Trudging through the snow outside, Natalie makes her way toward the old den near the arch where she first met Wolf. It’s slow going, and she glances sideways at Jared as they go. “I’m not sure how feral he’s going to be, if we can even find him. But … I need you to trust me and not intervene unless you absolutely have to.”
Jared nodded. “I trust you, Nat.” Suppressing his innate need to protect the mother of his child wouldn’t be easy, but Nat had been taking care of herself long before he came around. He’d be happier if he understood the relationship between Wolf and Natalie or even exactly what or who Wolf was these days. From what he understood, the two of them had a strange, complicated friendship to start with. Now with Wolf gone feral and the Cult referring to him as Fenrir, Jared felt like he didn’t have any idea what was going to happen. And he hated being unprepared.
Even before her empathy had kicked in at the levels she now… well, enjoyed was not quite the right word. But even before they worked the way they currently worked, she would have known that he was irked. Now with her sense of him so completely ingrained and as natural to her as breathing, Natalie couldn’t help the faint grin she quirked in the cold, bright sunshine. Slanting him another look, she shook her head in amusement. “You know… I don’t think I ever quite realized just how much of a control freak you are. You hide it really well.”
“Would you say that I keep it…” he paused for dramatic effect, “under control?” Jared smirked at Natalie a little bit before answering her seriously. “I don’t know if I’d call myself a freak, but I admit to prefer driving the car over sitting in the back seat.” These days, of course, the car was flaming and barreling out of control down a narrow mountain path, but that didn’t change where he wanted to be sitting while it happened.
He looked up at the Arch, glistening with ice in the cold winter air. “I don’t suppose you could at least tell me what your plan is?”
She chuckled at his pun, but was more serious when answering the question. “I would if I had one,” she confessed somewhat ruefully. “All I can do right now with him is follow my instincts and trust his.” Natalie paused, remembering back to her first meeting with Wolf. Knowing what she knows of him now, so much back then makes more sense than it used to.
“I didn’t know when we first met — which was in the FEMA offices, by the way — that he wasn’t human-born,” she told him as they trudged. The Arch was actually very beautiful. “But looking back, I’ve always sort of instinctively acted with pack dynamics in mind. Mrs. was alpha female. But she’s gone. Wolf’s pack was small – just Mrs., me, and to some degree the others on the team and in Refuge Point. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to find him. I’m not 100 percent sure that the pack dynamics will hold since he’s gone lone wolf on us. But when we lost Mrs., I read up as much as I could on wolf packs so I could at least try to help him in the ways he would understand and respond best to.I’m hoping that submission and scent — especially pregnant scent — will bring him far enough back to human to hear me.”
The green of Gateway Park was now covered in snow but it looked to Jared’s eyes that at least the river hadn’t frozen. They would know they were in deep shit if that happened. That gleaming white surface made it easier to see contrasting colors, which is probably the only reason he saw anything in the first place. Even that wasn’t much, just an impression of something gray and brown to their right, a little beyond the pond on the right side of the park. Unlike the river, the pond had frozen over, but it wasn’t likely to be solid enough to cross. They’d have to walk around. He pointed in the general direction of where he had seen him. “I hope you’re right, Nat, because I think I saw him over that way.”
Natalie stopped walking, her eyes shifting in the direction Jared pointed, and she pursed her lips. Then putting her two fingers in her mouth, she cut loose with the loud whistle that groups would use for search and rescue — which was something Wolf had also heard before. And then she called out for him. “Wolf! I need you… if you can hear me, it’s important!”
There was a long silence, nothing but the sound of the wind blowing tufts of loose snow off the ground. Enough time passed that it didn’t look like there was going to be a response. But then at the edge of their vision, Wolf appeared on the other side of the pond. His clothes were rags, what little were left. Wrapped around his upper body was the hide of some animal that neither Natalie or Jared could make out at distance.The sun glinted off a blade of considerable length that he held in his right hand.
“Natalie?” Wolf called out, his voice sounding rusty from disuse, much like he had sounded when Natalie first encountered him. Of course, then, he had never used it before. His voice sounded fragile, like even the single call of her name had cost him pain.
Pulling in a slow breath, Natalie didn’t hesitate to start moving toward the man…. No. The wolf in man’s form. “Yes!” she called back. There were many things she wanted to say, but fewer words were always necessary when dealing with Wolf, and quite honestly, at this moment Natalie wasn’t entirely sure how much he would understand or whether she can even explain what’s happening. Rehearsing how to say what she’d come to say the whole way here still hadn’t prepared her for the sight of Wolf gone nearly entirely feral.
She murmured to Jared as she walked, “He was willing to trust you when he met you. Just don’t startle him, okay?”
Jared just whispered in return, “This is your show, Nat. Just here for if things go sideways.”
There was another long silence as Wolf seemed to take in the response. Then he started trotting at a brisk pace around the north side of the pond. Eventually, he came within about 100 feet before coming to a halt. Now that he was closer, both Natalie and Jared could see how the wild had overtaken him. His beard was a long scraggly white, mixed with scraps of plants and dirt (and was that blood?). He didn’t look like he had bathed in forever and there was a wildness in his eyes, as they shot from point to point quickly. He stood there without making a sound, his attention solely focused on Natalie.
It made her heart ache to see him like this. Natalie had always tried to walk the fine line between treating him as human and not forgetting that he was more wolf than man. Now she held her position for a long moment when he stopped, allowing him the time to test the air between them. Then she moved forward to breach the distance. She didn’t stop until she was within two arm lengths of him, dropping her eyes and shifting her body slightly into a pose that one might take when asking permission to approach. “I need you to do something… that I don’t know if you’ll want to do. But I have to ask it.”
Wolf didn’t protest or make any effort to keep her away as she approached. His breath formed heavy mist in the winter air as he stood silently in front of her, waiting for her to ask.
When he didn’t retreat, Natalie looked up to meet his eyes. “If you’re still hunting down the Cult members, I need you to stop for the next several sunrises. Their pack has had a change in leadership. They want to make peace between their people and ours.”
“Why?” It wasn’t clear exactly what Wolf was asking about and he didn’t seem inclined to clarify. Words hadn’t tumbled from his mouth in mass quantities before the death of Mrs. Wolf, but now each one seemingly had to be pried from him.
Deep pain still bubbled below Wolf’s placid demeanor.
She didn’t stop meeting his gaze, and she moved just enough closer to put herself within reach of him. His pain was a constant rub on her senses and she hurt for him. “Why do they want peace?” Nat asked him quietly, making sure she understands what it is he wishes to know.
“No, Natalie,” he said, his deep voice craggy with pain. “Whyyyyyy?” The last vowel stretched out into a howl as his head tilted up to the sky, a cry out to the world about the unfairness of everything, an asking for an explanation of the unexplainable. As he called out, Natalie was overwhelmed by the sheer depth of the suffering, still as fresh as the moment as when it happened.
Dear God, she had a moment to think as his anguish roared over her. His grief was so raw and her defenses against emotions still so precarious that Natalie couldn’t fend them off. In that instant of crushing pain, she had no ability to fight back and simply crumpled where she stood.
She had no way of knowing how long she might have been blacked out, but when she began to come around, it was with tears streaming down her face before she was even fully aware. “Wolf!” It wasn’t the shout that she might have intended… more a groan or entreaty.
Jared had never done anything in his life as hard as not rushing forward instantly to protect Natalie. In the moment, he felt almost as feral as Wolf looked, a man reverting to the basic instinct to protect what was important. But he managed to restrain himself, to take only the two, slow, cautious steps closer to where Natalie lay in the snow. She’s not physically hurt, he reminded himself. She’s strong and can handle this. If you rush in, Wolf may react and you’ll be sitting in the middle of a true cluster.
And his decision seemed justified. Wolf had made no threatening moves, just crouched down next to Natalie. Jared could see Wolf saying something to her, but he couldn’t quite hear what it was. It’s her show, he reminded himself. Jared just hoped that she could deal with that level of emotion.
As Natalie started to recover, she could hear the low growl of Wolf’s voice, not a whisper as much as an inability to say what needed to be said out loud where the world could hear. “Live…no. Die…no. Help?” The last word came out almost plaintive, a request from someone not used to asking for them.
She wasn’t fully conscious yet, acting entirely on instinct when she reached up and wrapped her arms around Wolf. Natalie’s power has always worked on her instincts to help those who hurt, and when her arms came up it was obvious what was about to happen. The soft golden glow flared to life around the two. But Jared was too far away to stop it.
Much as she did for Ang, Natalie reached instinctively for the source of pain — it didn’t matter to her power that it was emotional instead of physical. The person in her arms was in agony and it could not continue. But something unexpected happened at the same time. Nat’s eyes flew open and she stared blindly at the frigid blue sky. She gasped, her body arching off the wet snowpack beneath her, and her power did something she’s never felt… it shifts in her body. She doesn’t take Wolf’s pain into herself; instead, she could feel it passing through her and down a golden strand of… something. And into the person on the far end.
Jared only had a few seconds to think about he should have been closer, how he knew this was going to happen before Nat activated. But then he felt what she felt, all of Wolf’s pain, the incredible grief weighing on him like a boulder attached to his heart… the rage that was bubbling over, uncontainable and uncontrollable. And something else, something that he hadn’t felt in years. Oh god, she was healing his ability…she was going to turn his fucking power back on!
He shouted at her, “Nat, shut it down! Shut it down now!” But what good would that do? Once she started like this, there was no stopping it, even if she was capable of listening. She wasn’t doing it consciously. The emotional pain kept ramping up, driving him deeper into panic. He could feel that sensation in the back of his head, that twisty, tangling tingling that meant he was connecting to someone else’s mind. He did not want that back. He couldn’t have it back. It would destroy everything that he had gained since Destruction Day. And in a moment of panic and rage, with the power laced in his voice, he roared, “_*STOP!*_”
Where her power had sought him out to keep both her and the child her body harbors safe, his voice brought her fully back to consciousness and forced her to find another way. Natalie’s power shunted into something forceful, physically shoving Wolf from her embrace. She sucked in a breath, shocked at and disoriented, and her scream echoed across the frozen pond as she responded to the order.
Lying there on the wet snow, gasping for breath with wide eyes, Natalie could feel…. What the fuck was her power doing? The glowing golden aura was literally blazing around her, and she could feel… well. She could feel all the emotions that she did siphon off of Wolf; they were still there… but somehow …. Being released instead of drowning her? For now? Natalie had no idea whether that would hold for long and she gasped, “Jared… get him! Both of you…” She rolled to her side with some difficulty to climb to her feet and tried to put distance between herself and both men, watching them worriedly. “Are you okay?”
Jared felt the pain seep out of him. He could feel his own emotions again, not buried under the weight of what Wolf had been feeling. Mostly at the moment, those emotions were panic over what was happening with Natalie. And…relief? That back of the head sensation was gone…really gone. Maybe she hadn’t turned him back on after all.
He took a deep breath and took account of the situation. Wolf was lying prone near the pond’s edge, heaving with giant sobs. But more importantly, Natalie was still fucking glowing, although the intensity was starting to tamp down. But only, he thought, because she’s bloody well doing something impossible. The glow was crackling around her and dissipating into the ground, like electricity sparking off a wire. Had she turned raw emotional energy into actual REAL energy? They would never be able to tell Langston — he’d never let her out of the damn lab. Maybe, he convinced himself, it was just a display, an end result of an unusual situation. That had to be it.
Jared walked over to Nat carefully. “Are you okay,” he asked, “and what the fuck just happened?”
Standing, barely, bent double with her hands braced on her thighs, Natalie looked up at him. “Not … exactly sure,” she admitted between gasps. She felt sick to her stomach and shaky — she’d hit her limit and she knew it. It was obvious in her expression even as she glanced at Wolf. “I can… still feel it, but…. I think he’ll start to recover now.”
As she pushed herself fully upright, she wavered some and braced herself on his arm in an automatic movement. If nothing else, it was clear that she was not afraid of him and whatever he had done in the midst of the giant cluster they’d just been at the epicenter of. “I don’t think I feel so good, though. Can we sit?” She gestured toward Wolf. “I’d like to be able to touch him — I won’t activate again.” She was pretty sure she couldn’t even if she wanted to.
He just nodded and helped her walk over toward where Wolf had been knocked to by the force of Natalie’s ability. As they slowly walked over, he commented, “I thought you were immune.” He should have known that nothing seemed to remain the same these days.
After lowering herself to sit next to the sobbing man where she can stroke his head as she’s often done when he grieved before he left Refuge Point, Natalie was quiet for a long few minutes. When she looked up at Jared, her regret was so deep that she could barely speak past the lump in her throat and she couldn’t stop the tears that trickled from her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to reactivate your powers. I know you didn’t want them back.”
“I don’t think they are, Nat,” he said, a stunned but happy half smile on his face. He knew it wasn’t right to feel happy after the craziness that had just occurred. But he did. “I think I somehow short circuited it.”
Natalie looked confused. “I don’t understand,” she murmured as she continued to stroke Wolf’s matted hair and his shoulders firmly, offering him the only comfort she could as she struggled to make sense of what just happened. “I felt your power. I literally couldn’t disobey you when you told me to stop. And I … honestly can’t believe I didn’t just burn out my brain.”
Jared didn’t know what he believed, but he was indeed happy Natalie hadn’t burned out her brain… or hurt their baby. He tried to explain what happened. “They were on briefly, and then they went away, like your power didn’t have time to finish the job.”
Nodding slowly, Natalie considered what he thought happened. Pulling in a slow breath, she said softly, “Let’s hope that’s the case.” She wasn’t sure she could live with herself if she activated everyone … especially those who don’t want their abilities back.
Wolf’s wracking sobs were breaking her heart and she asked Jared softly, “Can you get the space blanket out of my pack? He’s going to freeze laying here like this, but I don’t think he’s ready to travel yet.” When she finally met Jared’s eyes again, she offered him a watery smile. “And if you don’t mind terribly… I really could use something to eat out of there, too. And a nap. A long one. But I think that part might have to wait.”
“Of course,” he said to all of it. “I won’t be too long.” But he also sensed that she and Wolf needed a couple of moments. He hoped that she could help him get through this. Jared could imagine himself being like that if Natalie died. Especially if he felt like he was at fault. So he understood.
It was one of the things that had drawn Natalie to Jared when they were simply friends — his ability not just to weigh the situation in front of him but to have compassion for the people they helped that was sincere. When he walked the small distance back to where their bags had been set as Wolf approached them, Natalie shifted to lay so that her body curved around Wolf’s shoulders and she could wrap her arms tightly around him. Never mind that she was soaking wet — her thermals would hold up a little longer. Please, God, don’t let me ruin the progress now. Wolf desperately needed bathing and the odor was turning her stomach.
There were no words that would soothe his grief, but she whispered in his ear, “You are not alone. I swear to you. You will be okay.” She wondered if perhaps once they got back Charlie might be able to reach him better than she can — Wolf had always liked the other man. And Charlie to this day missed his wife; Natalie had learned much about her in the nights that she spent with Charlie. If Wolf let him, Charlie’s ability to truly understand might help Wolf heal too. “Your pack still needs you. I need you, my friend. And my cub will need you, too.”
“Cub?” Where everything else seemed to slide past him, that word seemed to stick. “Natalie has cub?”
“Soon,” Natalie told him with a faint, teary smile. “In the spring.” She wasn’t sure if Wolf and Mrs. had ever had cubs before the world went crazy. But his pack ties were strong, and she’d hoped that perhaps something like a new addition might give him new hope for the future too. “Will you come home? The den needs Wolf… and I think perhaps Wolf needs the den, too.”
“Wolf still sad,” he explained, putting a world of emotion into three words. “But Wolf wants to feel happy again now. Wolf will come home.” He wiped some tears from his eyes, like he was surprised to see them there.
“Sadness heals slowly,” Natalie agreed. Her sense of his pain was muted, though she couldn’t tell if that was because her power levels were low or because he really didn’t hurt so much anymore. “Happy takes time.” She moved slowly, hugging him tightly and then drawing away. “Having you home makes me happy. Come on. My mate has some warmer clothing for you. Let’s go home.”