After their return from the trip to Guardians Tower, Natalie had a lot to think about. Not only was the place inhabited by an AI with an agenda, it was potentially a weapon in and of itself. And she had an inkling that if they didn’t change their tune with the thing and at least attempt to keep a good alliance, things were going to go from dicey to deadly. And although tactical thinking wasn’t her forte, she was pretty sure Ang was already in the process of strategizing for the worst case. Or at least she sure as hell hoped so.
Meanwhile, Natalie had her own internal issues to deal with. Langston’s revelation that her power was not only on but constantly on and in use was …. overwhelming. Terrifying. And she certainly wasn’t feeling nearly as sanguine about the possibilities as she’d tried to appear. But she kept the information to herself, struggling to come to terms with it before sharing it with the man who lay curled around her in the bed. She couldn’t shut her brain off, stop worrying through the possibilities. Could she keep up this subconscious healing for nine months? Was it physically even possible, given the rationing that would be coming? Even now, she could feel the dread in the pit of her stomach.
Well, it might be morning sickness, she acknowledged silently. Whoever coined THAT term should be shot. It was never in the morning for her — usually mid afternoon or late evening. Sometimes the middle of the night when, like now, she couldn’t get the hamsters in her brain to stop their frantic running. She swallowed hard and burrowed a little deeper into Jared’s side.
Jared slowly drifted into consciousness. She must not be sleeping well. Jared was generally a deep sleeper. He would’ve thought all that time in the wild would’ve beaten that out of him, but instead it had only really made it a little stronger. These days it took Natalie tossing and turning to get him up in the middle of the night… and sometimes not even then.
His voice still gravelly from sleep, Jared said, “You okay, babe?”
She hadn’t meant to wake him — she’d learned over the past weeks that his instinct in sleep was to simply wrap his arm around her without waking when she moved, and that comfort was all she’d been seeking. Or at least she thought it was … but the truth of the matter was probably both more and less complicated than that. She took responsibility for so many things… this one she didn’t want to have to carry alone. She didn’t want to have to be strong. But would his reaction compound hers?
“I have to tell you something,” she whispered in the darkness. “But if I say it out loud, it becomes real.”
“It’s already real, living in your thoughts.” Jared wasn’t completely coherent yet. That statement may have made more sense in my head than out loud. “So go ahead and say it. I’m right here to help.”
She had no real idea how to explain it. “Langston was able to use the scanners at the Tower,” she finally began in a low voice. “He’s not exactly sure why…. but my power has …” Natalie struggled with how to describe it. “For lack of a better way to put it, my power has wrapped itself around the embryo, and it is apparently constantly on.” She was in some way gratified that her tone was calm and stable in the dark despite the unexpected trickle of silent tears that came out of nowhere.
“There’s a lot of good in that, right?” Jared’s tone had that question your first take element that he sometimes used. “What scares you?” He wanted to hear that from her point of view.
Natalie said quietly, “If I’m healing it, there’s something wrong with it. Wrong enough that my power didn’t simply fix it but is continually fixing it.” She swallowed hard. “We’ve got Twisted food supplies, we’ve been exposed to God only knows what kind of viruses, and our bodies are full of nanobots. Langston… seems to think that if my power stops, the probability is that it won’t survive. Which also opens up the possibility that maybe other people here in Refuge Point have gotten pregnant in the past two years. And that none of them survived.”
She hesitated and reached up to wipe her face, not sure she could push more words past the emotion clogging her throat.
“Won’t lie to you, Nat. When you lay it out like that, it sounds scary. But I also hear a lot of ifs, probables and possibles there too.” Which wasn’t surprising to Jared. Langston would never say something was a surety unless it had gone through all the proper research.
He cupped his hand against Nat’s cheek, letting the warmth of it spread across the coolness of her face. “If it was me, I’d say figure out which things we can control and then focus on them. But more important isn’t what I want, but what you need.” He moved his hand to rub her arm in reassurance. “What can I help with?”
“You’re not going to like my answer,” Natalie informed him in a soft tone. Her body had gone a little stiff at the words what you need, though the reason perhaps wasn’t clear until now. “I want too many conflicting things from you on this.”
Well… at least she could identify that much. But Natalie was hard-pressed to be amused at her own confusion just now.
“I want you to not make out like my feelings in any of this are the only important ones. Stop pushing off telling me what you want or what you think and focusing just on me — because frankly, it makes me feel like you’re more interested in being my shrink than my lover and the father of this child, assuming I can even keep it alive all nine months.” Despite being aware that she was probably being a bit irrational, the dam was now broken — it could be a little bit hormonal too, after all.
“I want you emotionally invested in this bullshit… which is totally not fair because at the same time, if I can’t keep up this healing, it’s just going to die anyway and I really don’t want you to have to feel that and deal with me on top of it.” She pushed upright on her arms to look down at him, though she couldn’t see him in the dark. “I damn well want to stop feeling like you’re tiptoeing around me — you’re too supportive!” And yes, she could totally hear the irrationality now…
Jared remembering reading somewhere that nobody knew how to press your buttons more than the people who loved you. That was getting proven true in real time.
“What do I want?” Jared asked, a bit of growl in his voice. “I want you to stop fucking spinning out of control anytime you get a new piece of info. Maybe that’s what your power DOES with a baby. You haven’t been pregnant before. How would you know? But yet you jump straight to the worst possible outcome right off the bat. How the hell else am I supposed to react that?”
He took a couple deep breaths to try and calm down. He didn’t think he had been leaning over backwards. He just didn’t want to be acting like his opinion was the important one.
The tone was actually a comforting one. How many times in their relationship had he growled at her for something similar — usually over healing too many people at once. Or jumping feet-first into a situation. “_Thank you_,” Natalie breathed in relief. She settled lower, resting on her elbow and propping her head on her hand. “I get tired of you being nice to me,” she informed him. “I don’t need kid gloves. I have always done exactly what I’m doing now — plan for the worst case. Christ, WHY do you think I worked at FEMA??? It channeled that need. But I don’t need you babying me. I need you to be YOU.”
She paused. “And I have no idea whether this will be normal for my body — it does scare the shit out of me. And I am worried about what it means… and my empathy is not going to be a plus for this, because your emotions especially are going to be ones I can sense. So being careful with me and suppressing your own reactions is just going to make me cry more.”
HAD he been treating her with kid gloves? Did he think she was some sort of hothouse flower?
When he started replaying all their conversations, he could see the pattern. But the more Jared thought about it, the more he came to a different conclusion. It wasn’t Nat he was treating as fragile, it was the relationship. That despite having at least one conversation about specifically that. Damn, Jared, get your shit together, he scolded himself. He didn’t trust himself to do things right, it seemed. He just needed to treat this like anything else new he would do – step forward with the best of knowledge and intentions and understand there were going to be fucking mistakes. But none of those mistakes would kill this thing the two of them had. In fact, putting the relationship behind a steel wall to keep it safe would do more to destroy it than anything else he could do. When you think you’re playing above your level, you tense up and make it true.
“Alright, so let’s start figuring out what we can control. Gotta start somewhere.” Jared paused for a minute and then followed up with a simple, “And I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Natalie replied. Her tone was soft. “Looking back, you’ve always been my touchstone — the one I could count on to be not just the shoulder to lean on when I needed comfort when something went wrong but the one I could trust to give me swift kick in the ass when I was getting too lost in the power. I need you to keep just being the person you’ve always been. Even when… maybe especially when… we both know I’m being irrational.” She grinned a little in the dark, reaching up again to wipe her cheek. The tears had at least stopped for now. She laid all the way back down, resting her head on the pillow where she could nuzzle into the curve of his neck. “I don’t think there’s anything at all I can control in this — whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I’ll just keep doing what Nona and Langston tell me, I guess.”
“I call bullshit on whatever happens, happens.” Jared said it with a smile. “Lots of things you can control or work on controlling. Maybe with your power always on, we can get some ideas about what’s happening. Find ways to be proactive.”
It wasn’t always possible (or good, even) to be in control all the time. But in Jared’s mind, there might be nothing worse than conceding to the idea that you didn’t have any control in your own life.
“Well, let me rephrase that, then,” Nat conceded with a faint smile in the dark. “Obviously I’m going to do all the right things that I can do — eat when those bossy types tell me to, et cetera. Take care of myself. Maybe even be a little more careful on Expedition.” Tongue firmly lodged in cheek. “But I just meant that … I don’t honestly think there’s a lot that I can do besides just keep on doing the normal ‘right’ things. And I’m reasonably sure that even if I didn’t want him to, Langston is going to be all over the figuring out what my power is actually doing in there.”
Jared still disagreed but he knew instinctively when he could push and when he couldn’t. This was a couldn’t. So he changed direction.
“So are we having this baby out of wedlock?” There’s something we can control, he thought amusedly.
Talk about a change in direction! Natalie was caught flat-footed with the query. If he could see her face, he’d probably have roared with laughter at the rather comical expression of Great Big Anime Eyes. She pushed upright and reached over for the small LED light, tapping it on so she could see him.
Her voice was small. “What?”
“We don’t have to if you don’t wanna,” he said calmly. “I’m pretty sure Miss Manners didn’t survive D-Day, so we wouldn’t have to read about how improper we were being.”
He looked into her eyes, his face serious. “But I’m not going to love you any less as we move along and I’m pretty sure I love you as much as any one person could love someone else. So I’m guess what I’m saying, Natalie Tessier, is Will you marry me?”
It was so far outside the realm of what she’d been thinking about or even expecting that she didn’t know quite what to say. He could see the uncertainty not only in the way she caught one side of her lower lip between her teeth but in the way she unconsciously curled inward just a little, as if to protect herself. “What if …” No. Stop. You don’t want an answer to that — there aren’t any. Pulling in a slow breath, she looked down at her hands where they plucked at the blanket covering them.
Instead of asking the questions that had no real answers, she thought about all that they’d seen — both apart and together — and all that could be coming. She could imagine a future without him around, sure. She’d lived a past without him just fine. But his arrival, alive and well, had brought a connection that she hadn’t shared even with her best friend. And she’d realized just before she’d gotten pregnant that she was allowed to be happy. He gave her that — the quiet place at the end of the day where she felt … content.
When she looked up at him again, she told him softly, “I have one fear. What if this empathy thing I have going on is somehow making what you feel stronger than it was to start with? I… would never want you to stay if I was influencing you. So … if it turned out that I was, would we… try to work it out?”
“Wow, you didn’t realize how head over heels I was for you well before the nanobots dropped.” Jared smiled to indicate he was teasing her just a little.
“I’ll take my chances,” he said, unconsciously nodding as he said it. “I’m pretty sure you’re not. And I would’ve married you before, anyway. Heck, if you were influencing, maybe I needed the push.” After all, Jared knew a little bit about giving someone that mental push. Days thankfully gone by, he thought.
Natalie laughed softly at his assertion about being head over heels. She studied his face and his listened to his tone, and she listened even more closely to her sense of him — trusting the feelings she felt off other people was harder lately, maybe because she was more aware of it when the emotion didn’t match the words. She couldn’t help the smile that lingered in her face as she looked down again. She wasn’t as certain of them as he seemed to be… but she was certain that she wanted to be. And so she nodded slowly, meeting his eyes a bit shyly. “Then yes.” It wasn’t what she’d really ever expected of life — then again, nor was destroying the world.
He hadn’t been worried…. ok, well, maybe a little. But when she said yes, Jared’s face broke into a big grin. “God, I love you, Nat,” he said before leaning into a big kiss.
When he pulled away, the big grin was still there. “So, where’s the big pile of rings you guys pulled from the mall stores? We got ring shopping to do.”
She squeaked before being tugged down into that somewhat lengthy kiss, relaxing and curling into his taller form as it went on. When they came up for air, she was giggling quietly and at his question she couldn’t help outright laughing. “I have no idea, but it’s not like we won’t have a billion choices,” she pointed out. Reaching up to cradle his scruffy cheek, she told him, “I don’t need rings or anything else. Just… us and the commitment to figure it out, no matter what comes at us. Okay?”
He nodded seriously. “I agree – what we have doesn’t need rings to be strong. We’ll hold tight against the storm and always be there for each other.”
A pause hung in the air before Jared grinned again. “But you’re robbing me of my chance to see you with three rings on all ten fingers, like whatshisname, that stupid ass villain. Ringmaster, that was it!” He smirked. That guy really was an idiot. The Guardians had gotten to make Barnum and Bailey circus references for weeks after they had captured him.
“Okay, you suck,” Natalie informed him on a laugh. Squeezing her eyes tight together to banish that image, giggling insanely at the memory. That guy had been a laughingstock. She told him when she opened her eyes, “KISS. I’ll be happy if we can keep it to relatively simple bands. I don’t really think more is better — just draws attention, you know? Not that diamonds have much value anymore,” she commented.
“No ring, no matter what gem, could be as valuable as you are, Nat,” he said, as he leaned in again to kiss his fiance.
Nose to nose with him, she whispered, “You should have told me ages ago how strong it was.” Her smile was tender. “I love you too.”
It was amazing how much a bout of world destruction increased your courage, Jared thought. Hard to worry about upsetting a delicate balance when the whole damn world had been upset. He didn’t say anything of that though. He just said, “Yeah, I should have. I love you.” And he kissed her again, never wanting to let her go.