Being back in Refuge Point is both easier and harder for Natalie. The heightened emotions of the battle at Candle House were gone, but the wariness of her friends toward her and the emotions within her own head that she’s finally identified as not being hers but yet not able to get them under control as yet are both conspiring to make her need an anchor. And although part of her is pulling to go find Charlie—because he never gives her emotions a problem—the part of her that wants to work things out with Jared is telling her that if she makes that choice, she may forever damage the relationship she wants to build. So instead… she hesitantly seeks out Jared with a quiet knock at his quarters.
When he allowed her entry, she looked up at him. “I’m sorry” were the first words out of her mouth. She didn’t give him a chance to respond at first, her words tumbling over themselves as if she were afraid she wouldn’t say them at all if she didn’t hurry. "I didn’t know what she meant by healing her too far, and I’m sorry I’ve been reacting to you like I have. There’s a big jumble of stuff in my head right now, and I’m sorry I keep flinching from you—I know you’d never raise a hand to me. One of the things tied up in knots in my head is how I feel about you… how scared I am that what you’re offering is going to destroy what little peace I’ve managed to cobble together. My power is so friggin’ invasive right now, I don’t even know what parts of this are me and what parts are you! Because I can feel how you love me but I can also feel regret and fear you’re keeping back—and I can’t tell why or what it’s from, so all I can figure out is that you’re scared. And all I can assume is that it’s of me.”
Jared had learned a lot of things in two years by himself, but one of the most valuable (he thought) was patience. Or more precisely, Jared learned not to be afraid of silence. Before Destruction Day, modern life meant almost never being truly alone. Sure, you could be in your house by yourself and technically be alone. But your neighbor was thirty steps away. Your friends? Ten minutes. Hop in a car and you were thirty minutes away from a city’s worth of people. No, pre-Destruction Day, you were never really technically alone and Jared never really know any other way of living. But going cross country, there had been weeks where he hadn’t seen another living soul. And since Jared wasn’t the kind of person to have a conversation with himself, he adapted to the silence. Learned not to rush through words. Nobody was going to mistake him for a monk on a vow of silence. But he had come out the other side a better listener.
Which was why when Nat came to him, spewing words like a Shakespearean garden hose, he didn’t try to interrupt or stop her. He just let her talk, taking it all in. When she was done, Jared just said, “Apology accepted but unnecessary.” Which was true. It had sucked in the moment, no lie, but once they had figured out what had happened, they wasn’t any point in stewing about it. “But damn, woman,” he continued on, smiling to soften the blow, “we have got to figure out how to make this work for you.”
Left unsaid was the continuation of that sentence in Jared’s head. Because I don’t think we can work until you do.
He’d avoided the main thrust of her rush of words. “You. Are. Afraid.” Natalie’s tone was certain and her eyes were steady on him. “Is it of me?” His answer was more important to her than she’d really realized until he evaded it.
“What kind of fool would I be if I wasn’t afraid, Natalie Tessier?” Those dark eyes stayed focused on hers, inviting her scrutiny. “I’ve abandoned my connection to my country. I’ve chosen a community that hasn’t necessarily chosen me… that is afraid of what I represented. And the woman I love… well, she’s rightfully not certain how she feels about me and is going through some crazy shit that I feel inadequate to help her with. So yeah, damn right I’m afraid, Nat.”
Jared paused for a minute and could see her getting ready to respond, so he held up a hand so he could finish the thought. “Am I afraid you’ll hurt people you don’t want to hurt? Sure. Am I afraid that the people of this town might hurt you? Yeah, absolutely. Am I afraid that your inability to get your empathy under control is going to kill this relationship before it gets off the ground? That’s what scares me the most. You hurting me physically? Doesn’t even make the top 20.” A small smile peeked out from the side of his mouth. “Ask me about elk sometime.” Number 11.
A lump formed in her throat at his first words, despair written across her face. She couldn’t have opened her mouth to respond if she’d wanted to when he paused a moment, tears were choking her. But her chin came up—she was made of stern stuff, damn it—and she was about to nod and simply leave until he started speaking again.
The wave of relief she felt was nearly crippling. Blowing out a slow breath, Natalie fought the overwhelming urge to cry. The emotional damage that she absorbed was making it very difficult to control her emotions still, although at least she could now (mostly) identify which were hers and which had belonged to Ang when se focused on it—it was a step in the right direction. “Okay.” Swallowing hard, she nodded, her voice was strained from the fight to retain control of the maelstrom she was dealing with. “Okay,” she said again, more quietly still.
The long moment of silence wasn’t peaceful; there was an intensity to it as she searched his face for something that maybe she couldn’t even identify. “Kiss me?” she finally asked in a whisper.
Jared didn’t say anything in response. He just leaned forward and, putting his hand on the back of her head, gently brought her in for a long, deep kiss. The emotions that had been hanging off their every word bled into the kiss, giving it a scary but good intensity that Jared had never really experienced before.
Their bodies touched only in a few places—his hand on the back of her head, her palm resting on his chest above his heart, their mouths lingering and retreating only to come back together with a deeper connection each time.
For the first time in several days, Natalie could feel her Self instead of the confused tangle of what she’d taken from Ang. The rush of complex emotions that she felt for this man swept through her like oil over troubled waters, smoothing down the rough edges of the panic and fear and paranoia that she has been struggling with. In the wake of that sensation, Natalie found and grounded herself in her affection and desire for the man in her arms.
As they slowly pulled away to breathe, her forehead rested against his and she met his eyes with a clear gaze and a sense of wonder. The moment of clarity had come as a surprise; the connection she felt wasn’t simply physical or emotional, and for a moment she worried that she’d unconsciously forged something else without permission yet again. But … it didn’t quite have that feel either. She couldn’t help the soft laugh as she murmured, “Well… hello.”
“Hi there yourself.” Jared had never been an technical empathic (although he suspected he might have had a small amount) but there was no way to do his job without learning how to read people the old fashioned way. All the signs suggested she had reached some calm…more than just calm, honestly. Even breathing, tone of voice, and relaxed muscles were the obvious ones. But she was also blinking less and her body wasn’t doing the almost unnoticeable microflutter that came when she was under stress that he could only sense while in physical contact.
So kissing her helped? He’d throw himself on that sword.
Searching his face, Natalie was surprised to realize that she felt…. okay. Not totally in control but not out of it either. And for this moment, she was at peace. Maddy’s description of what her empathy did wasn’t really helping, but kissing Jared had helped. Why?
Her free hand came up and stroked softly across his cheek, feeling against her fingertips the bristle of the light beard he was wearing. She felt her way through the thoughts barreling through her mind at the same time, sifting through the emotions, and realized, Because they’re mine. Because I only feel those toward him, not the same as Charlie. Deeper?
The realization lit up her features with a small smile. She could use that. Each emotion that she felt toward the Guardians and others in Refuge Point was unique, some stronger than others. She just had to learn to use those as her anchor, shoring her up until she learned the right way to build her internal walls.
Biting her lip with a sudden rather shy expression that she couldn’t help, Natalie cleared her throat. “Uhm, is it going to get weird if I tell you …. that you just gave me the key to how to manage the problem?” Her fingers toyed with the front of his shirt even as her other hand continued to lightly stroke the side of his jaw as if fascinated by the texture of his beard.
Jared put his fingers over top her hand on his face. “I like the feel of your fingers there, Nat,” he said as he slowly stroked the back of her hand. “That makes weird pretty tolerable. So tell me what you figured out and if it will involve more kisses like that one.”
Natalie laughed just a little, her mood lighter than it had been in several days. “Well…. I hope it does,” she admitted quietly, not removing her fingers from his face. “I realized in the middle of that kiss—yeah, totally unromantic, I know—that … I could feel me. My emotions, not the rest of them. Like… sort of in a bubble. It’s not quite like that… because now that I’m not focused on the kiss, I can feel the rest of it kind of rushing around me. But… what I feel for you is identifiably mine. So nothing else intruded.”
His voice shifted slightly into trainer mode. “So how do you take advantage of that? Obviously, I can’t be draped all over you all the time, no matter how appealing that might sound in the moment. So you’ll need to figure out how to apply that on a consistent basis. Learn how to create that fort of emotional sanity and use it as shelter from and vantage on other emotions.”
He then grinned slightly. “If it helps, I’ll volunteer for lots of practice sessions so you can get this right. A sacrifice on my part, to be sure…”
Chuckles bubbled out of her and Natalie’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “Well, far be it for me to keep you from sacrificing for the greater good,” she teased. “Although I shall point out that if you sacrifice too much, I’ll be forced to haul you caveman-style out of whatever you’re doing.” Flashing back on the few occasions when he’s done that to her made her snicker. “Or something.”
But returning to the other question, Natalie looked thoughtful. “There are only a few people here that I feel strongly enough for that I think it would work…. but I do think it might be possible to use my feelings for you, for Mel and Ang and Maddy, for a few people here at Refuge Point like Wolf and Charlie… even Langston, though most of my reactions to him are a little more on the negative side. They might act as a bulwark when I’m not sure which are my emotions and which aren’t—focus on particular moments in time, maybe?” She looked up at him, seeking his thoughts on that methodology.
“You might even try to associate a strong emotion type with each person,” he agreed, “Langston, for example, might be perfect to associate with frustration. Although that might be getting too specific. But yeah, might work, Nat. Specific memories to act as sunglasses for the emotions, letting you view things from a different perspective.”
Natalie nodded a little bit, considering the possibilities. “Positive emotions, I think, are the ones I need—I’m noticing that it’s the negative ones that seem to have the ability to knock me for a loop more.” Similar to the way pain made her react before? The thought passed through her head and surprise flashed across her face for just a moment. I’m still ‘fixing’ things. Okay. How did I block pain out when I needed to?
“Pain used to draw me like a moth to a flame,” she said slowly, literally feeling her way through the thought process. “I’m still a magnet for the negative… because the positive doesn’t need fixing. So ….” Love. Desire. Family. Affection. “I can’t really draw on true happiness because in all honesty I’m not sure I can remember what it feels like.” Her voice trailed off with the admission.
It broke Jared’s heart to hear her say that. So he kissed her again, less about passion and more trying to put in it all of the crazy feelings he felt for this woman who had snuck up on his life. When he let the kiss go, he looked at her and quietly said, “I won’t make promises because you deserve better. Nobody can damn well promise much of anything in this new world of ours. But I can tell you I think happiness is real and the two of us have a chance to reach it.” He ran a finger lovingly across her forehead, pushing her hair out of those beautiful eyes of hers. “So, Nat, willing to take a shot at it with me?”
The kiss this time held that subtle taint of sadness, but Natalie let the tenderness of it, the sweetness, wash through her senses. When he pulled away this time, her eyes opened more slowly and focused on his.
The answer was devastatingly simple. For the first time since she woke in San Francisco, Natalie dared to think that she was allowed to have something that made her happy. And for the first time since he darkened the doorstep of Refuge Point, she offered him no qualifications, no conditions, no hedging. Just a simple, one-word answer…. everything.