September 12, 2022 (DD 912)
Natalie woke in the middle of the night shivering more than usual due to the sheen of sweat that covered her body. She had no way of knowing whether her nightmare was some kind of a memory or merely a product of her own tortured imagination. All she knew was that getting back to sleep wasn’t going to happen. Shoving off the sleeping bag she used as a blanket, she swung her feet to the floor and shoved them into the running shoes next to her bed. Lately it seemed like she was doing more running than sleeping, she thought as she pulled her hair up into a rough ponytail. Setting out, she waved toward the night watch as she began to run, setting a grueling pace around the balcony of the mall area. Lap upon lap she ran, simply waving when the guard shift changed. By the time the sun came up, she at least had some small amount of distance from the images in her head.
Finally slowing down, Natalie found herself in a place she doesn’t often land anymore — Charlie’s quarters. When she first came to Refuge Point, she’d gravitated toward his quiet strength and competence, especially on nights when the horror of what she might have done drove her to desperate and constant motion. He’d given her a safe haven, someone to talk to when the nights were dark, and occasionally someone to just snuggle with when one or both were having a really bad night. And for the first time in nearly a year, she knocked softly on his door.
When it opened, he had the look of having just woken. “Had a feeling I might be seeing you,” he murmured, stepping back to let her in as he scrubbed a hand over his face.
“It’s okay?” she asked uncertainly.
“’Course it is.” Charlie moved to drop onto the couch that sat in his room in front of the useless television, leaving her room to either pace or join him, with his elbow propped on the back and his head on his fist.
Natalie smiled faintly, the shadows in her eyes not dispelled with the expression. She prowled the room like a caged tiger, aware of Charlie’s gaze on her. Agitated, she pulled her ponytail out to run her hands through her tresses while she moved. He didn’t push her to hurry, letting her find words in her own time. “Charlie… I can’t trust my own instincts anymore. And I don’t know what to do.”
He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “You know, I haven’t seen you panic like this since that first month or two. New guy is causing you a lot of stress,” he rumbled. “Why?”
Natalie breathed out a huffed half-laugh and slouched onto the couch next to him, leaning her head back. “Do you ever feel like a situation seems like one coincidence too many?” She hesitated, choosing her words. “I walked into the FEMA offices that I used to work in and … they were all dead. I couldn’t identify more than a few of the bodies, but… it was pretty much the confirmation that everyone I knew was gone. And I’ve slowly been coming to grips with it, just like everyone else. And now this guy, who was someone very special to me, somehow escaped the carnage of the Powered attacks, survived the virus, shows up after two years, confesses that he worked for the government and I was ASSIGNED to him at first, tells me that the only thing he really came back to St. Louis for was me,… and he wants us to trust that this base full of military personnel that also happened to survive is being run by benevolent people.” She paused. “Is it paranoia?”
Charlie reached out to brush his fingers down the recently acquired strand of pure white hair that was stuck to her flushed cheek, moving it off her face. “Maybe,” he agreed in a low voice. “Did you trust him back then? You think he’s lying about what happened?”
She was quiet for a long time. “I just don’t know,” she told him softly. “Something feels off, but I can’t put my finger on it. And not just with him,” she confessed. “Nothing feels right. I’m…. Jared being here makes me feel… threatened in ways that I don’t completely understand. But I’ll tell you in the same breath that I was shocked to realize that I actually feel completely SAFE when he’s around. I mean…. He was my bodyguard. He pulled me out of more scrapes than I can count, made sure I didn’t burn myself out. And he was my friend, too. I trust him with everything that’s in me. I … I can’t even fathom the idea that he is the threat I’m feeling. But the sense is there.”
Interesting, he thought. “Maybe it’s just what he represents,” Charlie rumbled. “You have every reason to be worried that if there is such a thing as a surviving government, the potential exists that someone might decide all of the Powered folks belong in jail. Of course, in this kind of crazy world, who the hell is going to jail anyone?” His tone was reasonable. “So.. feeling like your personal safety might be threatened is not exactly the wrong thing to do. Is he asking you to go there? To take up the job that you used to do?”
“Not… in so many words,” Natalie admitted. “He actually said he wants to stay here to see… what might be here with me.” She blushed faintly at that, giving him a rueful grin. “Staying long-term seems to be an option, if things worked out.”
Charlie shot her an amused grin. “Ah.”
“Ah?” she demanded in a somewhat truculent tone.
“Ah,” he agreed. “So… threatened physically by the idea that They — the Big Them — might find out that you exist and decide you need to be punished. But also threatened on a more personal level.” Charlie tilted his head. “Because what if you trust him and he betrays that trust the way some folks here did when Geetha was threatened? What if he finds out that your ability is at least sort of back and he turns you over to them? What if you actually let someone close enough to hurt you emotionally?”
Natalie objected. “Hey! I let people close to me! Look at you.”
“Nat,” Charlie pointed out reasonably, “We are friends, yes. We’re even close ones, and I count myself lucky that you talk to me the way you do. If I died tomorrow, you’d grieve. But be honest, with yourself if not with me… it wouldn’t leave some gaping hole in you the way losing my wife left one in me. Or the way losing Mrs. Wolf is killing Wolf. You don’t let ANYONE that close to you. And it sounds like you’re afraid this guy might have that potential.”
She worried the corner of her lip with her teeth as he talked, clearly not enjoying the perception he has. Natalie had come to trust his judgement, though, and she said softly, “And what if he does? If he’s lying to us… to me… Charlie, what happens then? Because the safety of Refuge Point depends on the idea that he’s dealing straight with me.” Looking up to meet his eyes, she added, “And I don’t trust my ability to tell whether he’s lying. He’s very, very good at it.” He lied for years to her and she had no clue at all.
He nodded. “It’s a problem,” Charlie agreed in his low growl. “But number 1, it’s not all on you. Stop taking it all on yourself. Number 2, what’s the alternative, Natalie? I’m sure by now SOMEONE has already suggested you kill him.” His tone held a trace of amusement, but he was also serious about it. He toyed with her hair, stroking soothingly through the strands as he spoke. “Look… we can’t survive in this world if we assume everyone has an agenda. Isolation is good to a point — after all, we can’t sustain a population any bigger, really, than what we have right now. But everyone else in the world is just trying to get along too. We’re all looking for some way to LIVE, not just survive. Maybe you should trust that instinct that says you’re safe with him. You cannot have that strong a positive reaction to someone unless you already know that they’re a good person.”
Leaning her head on his shoulder, Natalie pondered that opinion. “You know,” she murmured as she got comfortable, enjoying the sensation of his fingers in her hair, “He had a lot of secrets back then. None of them seem like bad secrets — just… secrets about his full job description, secrets about his feelings, personal things. We all have that. There are plenty of things I haven’t told him either, and arguably… they’re even a little more explosive.” Like disposing of a body so calmly. Like killing rivals. Like the fact that her powers are actually active. “I really don’t understand why his bother me so much.”
Resting his cheek on her head, he could feel her breathing get slower, her muscles relaxing into sleep. When he was sure she was asleep, Charlie slipped out from under her and tucked her into his couch to sleep for a while. Idly, he thought to be glad he’d had all boys — because wow, girls’ brains worked overtime when it came to overthinking everything.
September 21, 2022 (DD 921)
In the first days following Jared’s arrival, Natalie’s reactions ran the gamut from relief and happiness to hurt at the information that came out to acceptance of that information … it’s been somewhat emotionally exhausting. But by now, with the decision to at least try to sway people to keep the government out of Refuge Point and Jared’s agreement to abide by the decision, whatever it was, she was able to quell the irrational(?) panic that seemed to claw at her. At least, most of the time. Anxiety remained, but it settled to the dull roar that has become the norm since the Guardians returned to Refuge Point.
“I see the chef has outdone himself this morning,” she quipped quietly as she joined him for breakfast. “Who knew such gourmet fare would be your reward for traveling the Midwest for two years?” The smile she shot him held a hint of the imp who delighted in losing her bodyguard — even without knowing that’s what he was!
“Considering some of the things I ate in those two years,” Jared said blasely, “the bar for gourmet food isn’t very high. But this is definitely solid.” He took another bite of the hash browns with peppers taking his time to chew. He had never been one to rush through anything. “Refuge Point needs a chicken flock so we can have omelets.”
He deliberately kept his tone light. Jared had been a little surprised how easily he had fallen back into the habit of watching her — like none of the world destroying craziness had ever happened. And those old habits of watching her told him that his arrival and community chaos it had caused had been hard on her. She had been a tightly wound spring. But this morning, he could see a lot of the tension had been released. Not all. But most.
Natalie wrinkled her nose. Thinking about what she ate on that harrowing trip from San Francisco to St. Louis… thinking about what she’d done to survive that trip… they are not thoughts she dwells on too long. “Chickens would be nice,” she agrees. “If we ever manage to get farther out of town to the more rural areas, we might actually find some wild ones. I don’t know. An expedition like that would take several weeks, I’m pretty sure.” She dug into her own plate of food, eating very deliberately. Like most people, her abject dislike of a particular food — peppers, in this case — has long since been abolished in favor of eating whatever is put in front of her — there might not be more where that came from, after all. As they eat, her eyes drop to her plate and she asks softly, "So…. the council has said you staying at least through the winter is fine. I, uhm… " She glances up at him. “I have to admit, you’ve pretty well rocked the leaking little dinghy that has been my world.”
“More like a catamaran in turbulent waters.” Jared had been in that situation before, literally. Scary but still one of those memories that felt more alive than most. And he told Nat that. “Keeps us on our toes. I admit that I probably would’ve had my feelings hurt if I had zero effect.” He couldn’t decide whether in this metaphor he was the wave or the safe harbor. Or maybe it was both…
That made her grin. Natalie couldn’t help it. “Well, you’ve never had zero effect on my life,” she pointed out. “You’re just usually the one trying to keep me from drowning, not the one gleefully shoving me into the water.” She paused, considering that. “Although admittedly that comparison doesn’t seem quite apt. Maybe it’s more like whenever I headed for deep water, you’re the one who steered the boat around the rocks.” She was quiet for a long moment, pondering that image. In the years they were partners, she realized, that was exactly what he’d done. He’d started off back in Portland occasionally trying to stand in her way… but it hadn’t taken long before he’d given up on that road, she remembered. Instead of fighting her, he’d gone along on the ride and maybe kept her from outright killing herself more than once. Clearing her throat, she brought herself back to the present and asked quietly, “You said you were staying if I’d have you. What happens if things don’t work out the way you’re hoping?”
“I.e., what happens if I don’t get my happily ever after?” Jared had plenty of time to think about that question during the long cross-country journey. He had seen more than his share of the horrific and of the amazing. He had let the twin horses of duty and hope pull him when he couldn’t stir up anything else. And after all of that, he had come to a pretty firm conclusion.
“We’re not guaranteed anything in life, Nat. You know that. And I know that. We see it every day when we look around.” Jared waved an arm in the general direction of main Refuge Point but really aiming at the world as a whole. “Everyone had their plans interrupted. Those that couldn’t adapt died.” It was harsh but true.
He smiled at the woman that he had fallen head over heels for. “If you and I can’t figure it out, then I’ll do what we all do. Adapt. Reevaluate. Maybe I continue to stick around. Maybe I move on. The future, as always, will continue to surprise.” But he wasn’t ready to start thinking about a post-Natalie future yet, he admitted to himself. After all, he had just started thinking about a real future with her in it.
“Happily ever after?” Natalie couldn’t help the soft snort of laughter at that. “Wow… Don’t think I’ve ever been anyone’s happily ever after.” It was…. a bit overwhelming and gave a warm feeling in her stomach at the idea at the same time. She shrugged a little, though. “Okay,” she replied simply. She was okay with seeing where things took them and shot him a shy smile as they ate.
September 22, 2022 (DD 922)
Given how much he’s in and out right now, Natalie was never quite sure when he’d turn up. But as she pulled a watch shift late in the evening, Wolf came out of the darkness toward the entry to Refuge Point. It made her happy to see him, though his anguish pulled at her nascent empathic sense in a way that made her ache. She’d been hoping he’d appear soon — she’d been planning to leave him a backpack with some of the foods that he doesn’t usually find out on his wanderings near the tree just 20 yards or so from the back wall. Now, however, she’d be able to just give it to him. “I was hoping you’d turn up,” she told him quietly as he reached her. Her eyes skimmed over him, both her gaze and her senses automatically reaching out to see how bad he was physically hurt.
Wolf stopped in front of Natalie. He knew she expected him to say something, maybe to tell her his wounds were fine. The cut and bruises were nothing. But the words were hard to find now. Some day he would come back and not have the words. Or so he hoped. The human world hurt in ways he never thought he could be hurt. But for now, he was still human. So he reached down deep and found where he had buried them.
“Natalie. You should not worry about Wolf.”
“You ask the impossible,” Natalie told him gently. “You are… part of my pack. I can’t stop worrying. Your loss hurts me.” She gestured for him to sit. “Let me wrap the worst of them?” she asked. Caring for him is all she can do to show him her affection.
He simply nodded and sat down cross-legged in front of the tree. His clothes were no longer in good shape, much of them having been torn apart by thorns and other things. Natalie was reasonably she could see a knife slash in his shirt and nearby that what looked to be a weeks old stab wound, crusted over and healed irregularly. His legs were covered with small cuts and bruises from where his jeans had been ripped and torn.
Alcohol wasn’t exactly available, but clean water was. Natalie used her water bottle and scrap piece of linen from a sheet to gently clean up what she could. Time was, she could have cleaned up every one of his injuries in the blink of an eye. But now, his heartache was so deep, it literally was making her rib cage hurt with sympathetic pains. She had to breathe slowly while she cleaned him up, and then she settled back to lean against the tree. “Is it helping?” she asked him quietly. “To attack them?”
“No,” Wolf said simply. He patiently let her clean his wounds. “Nothing helps. But it does not hurt and they are enemies.” And hurting his pack’s enemies was what a wolf should do. And he needed to be a wolf. He looked at her closely, staring for a long minute. “Helping Wolf hurts Natalie.”
Natalie shook her head negatively. “No. Your pain hurts me. Helping you doesn’t hurt me,” she corrected softly. She hesitated, and then admitted, “I am too open to everyone’s pain right now. I used to know how to block it out. I’m having to learn again.” She shot him a small smile. “It doesn’t help that the man who arrived … makes my feelings confused.”
“Mate?” Wolf asked simply.
Well…. that wasn’t what she had expected. “Uhm…. I don’t know,” Natalie admitted. "He wants to be. But… I don’t trust my … " How to explain to a man who began as a wolf. “I can’t read his scent,” she settled on. “There’s too much feeling inside me about him, so I can’t get a clear feel for him.” She hoped that made sense.
Was she asking him to check this man? Human packs were more… complicated. “Can Wolf help?” He just decided to ask rather than guess.
That made Natalie pause — she hadn’t really thought to ask that of Wolf. “Do you … is that something you can do?” she asked. She would have trusted Mrs. Wolf’s reaction to Jared. “It would make me feel a little better,” she admitted. “I trust your sense of people.” He sees through the BS and gets to the heart of people, even in human form.
“Describe.” The single word held weight behind it. If she wanted this, she couldn’t be there. Her scent would only confuse.
How to describe Jared. “There are only two new people in the building,” Natalie finally said. “One has dark hair and he needs to use sticks to help him walk because his leg is broken. The other one is Jared — he is a little taller than Santae and has red hair like Callie, but it’s very short. His face also has reddish hair on it.” Will that do? she wondered. “He spent several years protecting me… I think he can be trusted.”
He nodded. “Wait here.” And like that, he was up and gone without a single bit of noise. If Natalie didn’t know better, she would’ve thought he had teleported.
Natalie blinked and before she could call him back, he was gone!
It didn’t take Wolf long to find the man she described. He was sitting down on a bench, lost in his thoughts. Wolf walked over to the man he had identified as Jared and tapped him on the shoulder. Jared swung his legs around and said, “Can I help you? Vote is over, so probably best I don’t talk about something that community has voted against.”
Wolf shook his head and said, “Wolf,” as he put his hand out to be shook. He still preferred tail sniffing.
Jared, looking somewhat surprised but game, stood up and shook Wolf’s hand.
Wolf then asked, “Natalie?” He then watched Jared’s expression, not letting go of his hand, still shaking it.
“You know her? I guess everyone does. She and I were friends before Destruction Day, if that’s what you’re asking.” He gave Wolf a long, curious look.
Wolf nodded before letting go his hand and walking away from Jared, leaving the man shaking his head in confusion.
When he got far enough away, he brought the hand he had used to shake right up against his nose, breathing in the smell of the man deeply. Wolf then nodded to himself before heading back to Natalie.
Had Natalie been able to see what happened, she might have laughed herself into the hiccups. Truly, such a scene would have to be bizarre. The expression on Jared’s face would have made stopping the laughter impossible. But instead, she was still sitting against the tree, keeping her vigil as she was supposed to while on the watch shift. When Wolf returned, she looked up at him curiously. Although she hadn’t meant right that second, well… Wolf isn’t much of one for niceties. And she’s curious what he learned.
“Cares for you. Shows in his face and in his smell.” Wolf sniffed his hand again. “But has secret. Won’t hurt Natalie. Wants to be mate. Can trust but be careful.”
Natalie’s brows shot up. Well…. he’s apparently still more lupine than human. Thoughtfully, she nodded. “All right,” finally replied. “Thank you. I feel better.” Wolf’s instincts about people, when he’s chosen to share his insights over the years, have always been spot on. It’s because of him that she had been able to help a few people last winter. “Join me?” she invited. Because she knew he wasn’t staying in the building often, but she had a feeling he might need both undemanding companionship and perhaps the physical contact that she always offers with a hand on him when he sits or naps near her on these dark nights.
Wolf had thought about going back out, but he was suddenly very tired, almost bone weary, the grief weighing him down like stones. He just simply nodded and sat down beside her. Sometimes he wished she was a wolf. It would make it easier to leave humans behind. But she reminded him that they weren’t all bad.
As he settled down next to her and leaned his head back on the tree, Natalie simply laid her hand on his thigh in companionable silence. It was a new dynamic, something she has only done once before, but as he started to drift off, she urged him to curl up and sleep. “I’ll keep watch,” she assured him. And when he did finally lay down and fall asleep, it was with her hand gently stroking through his matted hair. It didn’t seem like nearly enough, but it was the only solace she could offer.
September 28, 2022 (DD 928)
They’re working in the garden, something that he was finally cleared to do, and they had it to themselves for a time. As she dug in the dirt, Natalie seemed… perhaps content wasn’t the right word. But comfortable. Throughout the first hour or two, she chattered about some of the things she’d seen on her way across the country on her way from the West Coast and elicited from him some of the things he saw on his own forays around the Midwest. At one point after they both had talked a little about some of the encampments they had seen that hadn’t made it, Natalie commented, “Those were the hardest ones. Even now, …. the place we retrieved that pilot who’s in the med bay right now? All the people up there were dead of illness.” She grimaced. “We lost about a dozen or so last year, some to illness, but a couple to starvation. I’m hoping this year, since our yields are a little better, that we might be a little better off.”
It felt a little strange to be sitting still, to not to be waiting for something, to not be preparing to move on. That lack of anticipation…it was like his powers. Became part of him and his everyday so slowly that Jared hadn’t realized how the absence would itch. But doing real work, having his hands dirty in the soil? That comforted and felt real, helped push those absences to the back of his head. Jared pulled himself out of his head as Nat mentioned illness.
“What were they sick with? The people you retrieved the pilot from?” He wasn’t a biologist, by any means. But over the last year and a half, Jared had gained a level of curiosity. He wouldn’t have thought that two years was enough to create this much chaos, but he had seen enough new diseases to know something weird was going on.
“That I can’t say for sure,” Natalie replied, reaching up to rub her forehead with the back of her hand. She left a smear of dirt there just below where the white streak, pulled as it is back into a ponytail, was brutally obvious. Thinking about the question and what they’ve seen so far in the way of illness, she admitted, “Honestly, we didn’t want to stick it out long enough to really take the chance on finding out personally, you know?” She shrugged a little bit. “We just got Eric out and headed back.” It wouldn’t have been what Natalie did two years ago, but then… a great deal has changed since then.
People walked by the garden area, several of them talking together, and Langston limped on by heading somewhere as well. She got a faint, faraway frown, her eyes drawn to the people going by, but she dropped her eyes immediately back to the weeds she was pulling. The expression was fleeting and if he hadn’t been so familiar with it and hadn’t been watching her so closely over the past few days, it probably wouldn’t have registered. But it was similar to how she looked in the old days just before she took off to handle someone’s injury.
The old Natalie, the one he had known, the one that didn’t have a mysterious white streak down her hair? That Natalie would’ve jumped headlong into the mystery of what killed those people, because it might have led to helping her with the next person. Jared would have to physically pull her away from. But D-Day and the loss of her powers had to have changed her. It had changed all of them. So Jared had to remind himself he was working on building a relationship with new Natalie. Old Natalie was dead and buried.
Or was she? The first thought that crossed Jared’s mind was sharp, painful and impossible. She’s got her powers back. Because that look she had just given Langston? That was quintessential healer Natalie. When she felt someone injured and rushed after them heedless of the risk to her, she had always gotten that little frown. It made her cheek crinkle in a cute way he adored. So it was burned into his memory. It was the same frown.
She couldn’t have gotten her powers back. That’s impossible.
But it wasn’t impossible. And it would tie a lot of little things together. First, he now realized the frown in Langston’s direction was not the first time he had caught that particular look from her in Refuge Point. She had looked that way at both Maddy and Langston before and he had written it off as nostalgia, as his brain printing pre-Destruction Day Natalie onto the current version. But now he wondered. And it would explain her vehement reaction to the idea of calling the government in. But if she had them back, why not use them in the community? Something was definitely off.
He could approach it carefully, subtly, dance around the subject. But usually with Natalie, it was better to hit it head on. So Jared lowered his head and charged in. “What was that, Natalie?” He motioned his head in the direction of Langston. “You had the healer’s frown.”
There was a split second where she went still. Where because of his knowledge of her — her body language, her reactions, her expressions, and even her emotions — he might actually be able to see what happens. The millisecond where her hindbrain deems him a threat, and just for that instant he might have the instinct to realize that his life could hang in the balance. But before his brain really has time to process what it saw in that split second and allow his conscious mind to recognize it, it’s gone. The shutters have slammed closed and Natalie is just… Natalie. Her eyes met his, her hands still in the damp earth, and her reply is simple and cautious. “I have a healer’s frown?” Pursing her lips, she shrugged a little. “I haven’t changed all that much, Jared. I still do a lot of healing. It’s just a different kind now… and unfortunately there are some things that I can’t help anymore. I wish I could.”
Jared really wasn’t buying it. It had been an intuitive jump, sure. But he trusted his gut reactions – they had saved him multiple times in the past. And right now, it was telling him that something else was going on with her. But it was also telling him not to push. Besides, he had his own secrets.
So he kept weeding his patch of the garden and said, “Yeah, you do. Cause you care too much.” He smiled at her. “I’ve always thought it was cute though. Part of what makes you attractive. Like that streak of yours. How did you pick that up? I’m sensing a story…”
Natalie continued her work in the dirt as she considered how best to respond. Everything in her trusts this man. Wolf’s instincts seem to reinforce hers on that sense… and the broadcast equipment was destroyed, so far as they knew. She pulled in a deep breath. Without looking at him, feeling more vulnerable than she’s felt with him since the first time she did this, she said in a soft, matter-of-fact tone, “I had a bit of an accident… reactivated in an extremely uncontrolled fashion. And apparently caused myself to age a bit, along with a few other effects.”
And she waited. For what, even she wasn’t entirely sure.
And there it was. Two sentences and a thousand questions he wanted to ask. He didn’t say anything for a minute as he gathered his thoughts. Where the hell to start with a bombshell like that?
He reached out a bit, soil still clinging to his fingers and touched the white streak in her hair in a bit of wonder. “You aged? That wasn’t part of the deal before. Was it?”
She kept studiously at the weeding while he gathered himself. When he reached out to her, her eyes lifted to his face and Natalie slowly shook her head in the negative. “I made her younger. Took some of her age. No. That wasn’t part of the deal before,” she told him baldly. “Obviously that’s the short-short version, but….” She trailed off, her gaze on him watchful as she waited for the next questions.
The next question was obvious. Really, the only thing he could ask next. “Are you still active?”
“Yes.” Bald, to the point, and simple.
Or perhaps not so much so. Natalie gives him a moment to assimilate that before going on. “Not the way I used to be. It’s … changed. Healing doesn’t seem to be all that I can do anymore — and even in the instance where I got this,” she gestures to the streak, “healing doesn’t quite WORK the same. It’s … more.” She hesitated. “They always told me that I was a low-level empath — it’s why I could feel pain and locate it. But … now, sometimes, I can feel other things. I’m usually not sure what they are. So I don’t always trust my read on people anymore.” The confession was clearly hard for her. “It’s why I’m not sure what to do with you. I don’t…. trust my own reaction to you.” She was taking a MASSIVE leap of faith.
That had to be throwing her for a loop, having something so essential to how she pictured herself changed. In some ways, that was harder than just having it taken away. Damn, he so much wanted to ask how she managed it. How she turned the Power back on. It could be a world-changing thing. But asking that straight up had the potential to shut the whole conversation down. Besides, she had said something way more important. I don’t trust my own reaction to you. That was one of the reasons the two of them had always worked well together – they trusted their gut.
“What does your gut say about me, Nat? Be honest, I’m a big boy and I can take it.”
Tilting her head as she looked at him, Natalie smiled a little. “My gut says I should trust you to the ends of the world. But my … sense of you when we talked was that you were holding things back, even when you told me you came here for me,” she told him honestly. “But I’ve got no sense that you’re lying to me, so … I don’t quite know what that means. Of course, I was apparently too stupid to see the obvious when we worked together before.” Her tone was dry. “And we’ve all seen a lot of things that maybe we want to keep inside, and we all have the right to that privacy. I feel like I’m taking a huge risk, trusting you with this much information.” Although if he asked the right questions, the reactivation of Geetha is going to come out anyway.
“Maybe it’s like my sense of you. My brain wants to project who you were, not who you are, and that disconnect creates some weird conflicts.” Destruction Day’s flashbulb created residual images for all of them, it seemed. And she was uncomfortably close when she said he was holding things back. Jared comforted himself by telling himself that he wasn’t really lying, just keeping things hidden. Now’s the time to tell her, his brain screamed, but he hesitated. What difference did it make that he had powers beforehand? They were gone now and didn’t make any difference. Except when she can reactivate them, the inner voice pointed out but he tuned it out.
He knew, sensed really, that Nat was expecting him to ask about how and when she activated. So he swerved in a different direction. A direction he cared more about anyway.
“How are you doing, Nat? None of that could’ve been easy.” Jared knew he hadn’t even known she was alive, so it was stupid that he felt guilty about not being there when she needed him. Gonna feel what you’re going to feel. And he wondered if Nat could sense it off of him now.
She sat back on her heels in the dirt, reaching up to scratch her cheek and leaving another smudge across her face just below her eye this time. Natalie’s words are easier somehow, as if she’s more comfortable giving him this part of herself than answering the more in-depth queries of how and why and when. “It’s not,” she agreed readily. “People know that it’s happened. It happened with someone else not that long ago too, though they’re far more tolerant of mine. But… most of the past two years, we’ve lived in this state of unspoken and constant repentance for what happened. And I can’t keep apologizing, you know? Especially now, with it sort of coming back to life.” She grimaced. “Langston has his theories about what’s going on and what may happen, but … his ability to study it is obviously pretty limited.”
“Everyone knows? And is okay with it?” That was surprising, considering that on his journey, half the people he met would’ve spit on a Power before pulling out the guns.
Natalie hesitated. “No,” she said finally. “A few people know. Only the ones who saw what I did. But they do know that something is going on.” She looked down, absently stroking her thighs with her hands as she kneels in the soil with him. “When the other person activated…. it went badly. Someone was hurt.”
She looked back up at him. “We’d been out on a scouting run, and we got back to find them having had an emergency vote and about to execute her with a bullet to the brain as we arrived. Those of us who used to be Powers…” She trailed off and blew out a breath. “We’d quietly been … making sure that if something bad should happen, we could get out. So we evacuated in a hurry, and we stayed away for a while. We have literally only just returned here to Refuge Point. And the … cease-fire, let’s call it, is pretty fragile.”
She paused and admitted quietly, “It’s why the idea of bringing the government — any government — in here scares the shit out of me, Jared. You and Langston knew some things that were going on that I probably should have known were happening behind the scenes… and maybe I was naive to not have at least suspected it. But now that I do know it? If a group of about 200 people, who’ve LIVED with all of us who are former Powers in close quarters for two years, were scared enough to literally hold a public execution when they found out that someone reactivated… what the hell do you think a military will do?” Even talking about the possibility was a serious impact on her; he could see it in the way she was breathing in quick, shallow breaths.
“A Guardian that activated?” Jared wanted to be shocked by the potential execution, but he couldn’t find it in himself. Honestly, he was impressed they had taken the time to vote. Maybe, he admitted to himself, that’s why he wasn’t saying anything to Nat about the powers he had. Having seen the reactions people had, he enjoyed not having people pay attention to him that way. And, oh yeah, he’d rather not have Nat know that he potentially murdered all their friends and co-workers in FEMA. That might also have some weight in his decision. The less he had to think about it, the better.
“She had been, some of the time.” So yes, someone that the community might have known as a hero. Natalie trailed off, uncertain what to say to him. It was clear that she couldn’t tell how he was reacting; the muscles of her body are taut. In preparation, perhaps, to flee him should it go south.
Jared didn’t say anything at first. He just brushed off his hands and shifted so he was sitting right next to her. Then he just put his arm across her shoulders. “I’m sorry I failed you. I wasn’t here for you when you needed support. But I’m here now for when you do. You don’t have to run.”
Natalie hesitated and then leaned into the arm around her, chuckling quietly. “I had support, Jared. I just didn’t have you. The only reason I’d have to run would be to keep the people of Refuge Point safe.” She looked up at him, her tone light, belying the seriousness of her words. “Besides, I already told the others that you’re not a threat…. and if it turns out I’m wrong, then I volunteered us to disappear into the wilderness.”
She studied his face, intrigued and saddened by the new lines that hard living have carved there. She reached up and brushed her fingertips along his jaw, her eyes flickering up to meet his. “I’d really like to give us a chance … don’t hurt me?” she whispered. She’s taking a chance… she knows she is. But they’ve all been surviving for the last two years… she would really like to LIVE just a little.
“That’s the last thing I want to do, Natalie Tessier. That I swear.” And he leaned in for a gentle kiss to seal the promise.