A couple days after the meeting in Natalie’s room that we’ll flashback on during Thursday’s game:
Given the fact that their visitor is restricted from most areas, Natalie does find time to herself. But much of her free time she sought out the man who was once both her partner and apparently her babysitter. On some level, that still rankled a bit… but it’s not as if she could refute the idea that maybe she needed a keeper sometimes when it came to healing.
When she met up with him after her chores, she studied him for a long moment. There’s been much to think about the past couple of days and she’s been conspicuously silent on her thoughts about everything aside from the conversation in his quarters that first night. Lacking the ability to really go hiking, which is what she used to do when she needed to think or to talk to him, she instead asked quietly, “Walk with me for a while?”
It had been an interesting couple days, if occasionally boring at times. Not that it was unexpected. Getting put on a shelf while decisions got made in a community was pretty standard. At least in most of the communities Jared had been in. The former Guardians, Natalie especially, had taken turns where possible to babysit him, a situation he found quite ironic indeed. But perhaps just the appropriate amount of karma, he thought. But getting up and walking around was exactly what the doctor ordered, only made better that it was Nat he was getting to do it with.
“Of course,” Jared said as he stood up. “Be good to stretch my legs some.” The two of them had reached a level of detente, which all things considered? He was okay with it. He kept turning over in his head the decision to keep his last secret secret. That couldn’t be helping ease things in, but the reveal might be oh-so-much worse. And so it went, back and forth in his head.
Natalie’s hands are shoved into the back pockets of her worn jeans as they walk the length of the mall and back. Bonus to their location: makeshift indoor walking track! Her demeanor was pensive, but she seemed at ease with him, at least. “I’ve been thinking a lot the last couple of days. Did I mention I have about a million questions?” she asked, offering him a sideways smile before her lips made that small moue of self-deprecation.
The attempt at small talk wasa little flat, but she doggedly kept it up for a full lap of their living spaces. Then finally, she leaned against a railing on the wall in a secluded spot and looked up at him. “I’m scared,” she stated baldly. “The idea of having anyone from whatever passes for a government coming here is quite literally giving me panic attacks. And it’s stupid. But… I don’t trust the military to be the people in charge as we rebuild this world. Especially someone who is running some secret base where they were keeping tabs and probably experimenting on Powers … Do you honestly not think that they’re going to want to experiment on us and see if they can… I don’t, reactivate us or something? What better than having us back as weapons again?”
Jared nodded. “I do understand, Nat. I disagree with some of it, but I understand. I honestly think the focus is not about Powers as weapons, but instead what the weapons are against Powers.” He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “What is being built by everyone, both the military and in communities like yours….it’s fragile. What happens if…if powers activate again out of control?” He had almost said “if we”. Dangerous territory he was flirting with. “You can understand why there might be a focus on defense.”
He continued on quickly. “But I also understand why Powers might want to avoid the government…the military.” More than you realize. “If you turn down my offer, then nothing changes. Do you trust that I’m not going to railroad into going to Montana? Hell, I’ve never been able to railroad you into anything you didn’t want to. Why would that change now?” He grinned ruefully.
She listened carefully to what he said… and although perhaps she felt a little guilty about it, she listened just as carefully to what he didn’t say. “It is fragile. Jared, we did exactly what everyone was afraid of. We broke the world. We killed…. a huge percentage of the population. BEFORE D-Day, the focus was probably on ’let’s make sure if one of them ever goes crazy, we have some way to contain it or kill them’ or whatever… now? In this bold new world that we, the supposed heroes, helped create? Everything is going to be about power – with a small ‘p’ — and who has ability to control the resources.” There was a moment’s pause when she admitted, “It’s not like we haven’t considered the idea of what happens if we reactivate and are out of control. It’s something Langston is even now studying…. I just… what happens if whoever happens to be in power decides that we, the former Powers who broke the world, deserve to be executed for it?”
Natalie shrugged a little. “In the dark moments, even I think we deserve that.” Glancing around at the common areas that were in view, she considered. “And now knowing what I know about your former job and what you’ve said…. I don’t think you’d railroad, but you’ve not exactly been above manhandling me to a ‘safer’ place at times. So…. yes, I guess I am a little concerned about the choices and possibilities that you’ve brought with you. There’s a huge part of you that I never even knew existed, so I don’t know what to expect.”
It’s the end of the world. Probably past time you just said it to her. Didn’t speak well to his decisiveness that it took the apocalypse to make him spit out, but Jared was willing to live with that.
“Nat, I….”_ Damn it, Jared, get your shit together._ She had that way of disarming him that no one else did. Something about the sheer presence of her. Before D-Day, people probably attributed that to her power. But here it was still. He gathered himself again.
“I may have started as your handler because the government sent me. But well before it all went to hell, it had stopped being about them and you. More about me and you.”
Blowing out a slow breath, Natalie offers an almost-shy flash of a grin. “Well…. I guess that answers one of the million questions I wanted to ask,” she confessed. “Being an assignment to you makes me want to hit something. It felt like our whole partnership, our friendship was a lie. I don’t know how to … BE more than that right yet, but the relief that about drowned me when I saw your face tells me that I’d like to work it out.” Clearing her throat, she said, “I went to the offices. I saw… Jim and Grace and Ben. They were the only ones I could identify.” Her eyes flickered away from him in an automatic gesture to hide her emotions some. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done… walking into the FEMA offices that day knowing there would be bodies.
Jared felt his body relax in relief before it tightened back up in anger.
“Shit. That couldn’t have been easy.” He shook his head in frustration. “I mean, I figured when they weren’t here that odds weren’t great, but still… Jim and I shared a beer every few weeks. He had kids.” Jared slammed his fist against the wall in frustration. “Every body is one more reason to find that asshole Metamorph and put him through the wringer.”
Natalie nodded slightly at his words about Jim. “I still, after two years, can’t quite grasp the magnitude of what happened,” she commented, her head dropping back against the wall as they talked. She’s relaxed into a pose he’s seen many times, leaned back on her hands against the wall with her ankles crossed. “On the one hand… I wish I knew what I’d done, but on the other…?” She shook her head. “I think if I knew how many people I hurt, I might just crawl into a hole and never come out again. The guilt is already overwhelming.”
With a heavy sigh, Natalie chose to not bring up the idea that if he wants in on taking down Metamorph he should stick around. Instead, she asked quietly, “Can you tell me anything about those couple of weeks that I’m missing? What was happening here in St. Louis? I mean… obviously there was fighting.” She grimaces at the understatement. “Did you see any of the other Guardians who hadn’t gone to DC?”
Lucky for him, Jared had been thinking about answering this question for about oh… a year and a half. He knew that it was going to come up. It wasn’t exactly a lie. Everything he was saying was true… just fudging the details some..
“St. Louis was hit by it about 5 hours after the shit in DC went down. Fast acting virus spread by flying Powers? In some ways we were just as blindsided as you were. The panic had already started even before. The scenes on TV were just nuts.”
The next part was true. It had happened right before he passed out. He hated remembering it. Sometimes wished he had blacked out about thirty minutes earlier. “I had to shoot The Torch right in the head, Nat. I was gathering things, trying to keep people calm. Mary was near frantic. Her son lived in DC after all.” She had been prepping to drive to DC. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep, Jared wondered if her son had made it. Beaten the odds. Because Mary sure hadn’t.
“The Torch flew straight into the building, full flames and all, setting ablaze half the loose paperwork that nobody was giving a shit about. He came right up in front of Mary and set her on fire, Nat. I still hear the screams sometimes. If he had been in his right mind… well, he wouldn’t have done it in the first place. But if he had been, I never would have been able to shoot him. Would’ve melted my gun, melted the bullet, whatever. But he never even saw me and I headshot the guy that I had played poker with three weeks before. That was when I confirmed what I had already known. It was time to get out.”
And that was where things diverged from the truth somewhat. In that moment, he had thought about getting out. But not because he was scared for his own life. He was scared of what the hell he was going to do to everyone else. He did at least manage to grab his bag and get out about 400 yards out of the building itself before he blacked out. Jared hoped against all hope that he hadn’t walked right back into the building. That it wasn’t him responsible for the bodies that Nat found. There were times when not knowing was better than knowing. Finding out that you might have been the biggest natural disaster that FEMA office ever dealt with? Jared would take not knowing every day of the week.
As he spoke about the Torch, Natalie closed her eyes. Her expression reflected both sympathy and horror when she opened them to look at him again. The confession that he killed one of our own? He did what he had to. “I’m so damn sorry, Jared. I… I can’t even imagine.” She bit her lip and admitted in the privacy of her own mind, at least, that she was kind of glad he hadn’t been in DC with her. He hadn’t had to make that choice about Ryan or Melody or Natalie herself. “From everything I could discover, there was no stopping any of us. Whatever that virus did to us…. I’m so sorry that you had to make that choice. You did the right thing. You did the only thing,” she told him regretfully, reaching out a hand to put it on his forearm. “Melody would give anything right now for someone to have made that choice about her while she fought Falcon. I honestly don’t think she’s ever going to forgive herself.”
He nodded firmly, appreciating the feel of her hand on his arm. Jared hadn’t been sure he’d ever get to feel that again.
“You said Toby made it back. I hadn’t seen him though…? How’s the Tobester holding up? Helping to take care of his mom, I assume.” It sucked for Mel and Jared wouldn’t have deliberately wished for it this way, but Ryan not being around at least made it a little easier on him. Ryan knew what he could do and it would be all out in the open just like that.
“No… you won’t see him for a while, I think,” Natalie answers. “We have relationships with some of the other groups that have survived in St. Louis, one of them has a few kids and have cobbled together a school of sorts. He goes up there some. He’s holding up okay, for the most part. It’s tough on him.” Not exactly the truth, not exactly a lie. But much like she has the sense that maybe he’s not fully answering her questions, it’s hard to fully answer his either. Trust will take time.
“Can you tell me how much of the news you saw? We all woke up scattered to high hell… I was in San Francisco, Ang was overseas somewhere… Can’t remember right now where Mel said she woke up. It took me weeks to get back here; I don’t even know how I initially got out to the West Coast.” It’s not like she can fly, after all.
Jared was a little surprised that Mel had been willing send Toby off, especially after the loss of Ryan. But the end of the world changed everybody he guessed.
The next question he had also prepared for. General Mercator had a lot of the news footage in archive. He didn’t bring it out for most people, but for Jared he did. Probably because he knew that Jared would need cover, would need the details. He wanted to tell Nat that was why he knew Mercator wasn’t going crazy with the Powers… Mercator had know he was a Power and had his chance after D-Day to do whatever he wanted. And what he had done was help Jared, take him into his confidence. If General Mercator was really paranoid obsessive, Jared probably wouldn’t be breathing right now. But instead, he’d fill Nat in to the news that Mercator had filled him in on.
“I saw some,” he said. “I was sick like a dog for a few days. Lucky I survived, I guess. Then I was mostly off the main paths, trying to avoid areas where Powers might end up laying waste. I know that major cities surviving with any architecture or infrastructure left was rare. Los Angeles is a crater. No more big budget disaster films, I guess.International wasn’t any better. Last thing I saw said Japan had been sunk into the ocean, but by that point, it wasn’t news so much as rumor mills, local news anchors or radio operators just spreading what they had heard on the grapevine. I do know one of the Powers nuked the satellites. I don’t think DirectTV is going to provide me with a refund though.”
Laughter was often in short supply, what with surviving the winter being on everyone’s mind along with other things like, oh, the Powered evacuation of Refuge Point. But his comment on not getting a refund made Natalie chuckle. “You should write a strongly worded letter to your Congressman,” she quipped. Shaking her head a bit at the news that he offered, Nat sighed quietly. “Christ, Jared…”
She was quiet for a long time. “You know… as I was falling asleep last night, I was remembering that last hike we took up into the Cascades. The day I had to tell you about my ability?” She looked up at him. “I miss those days. It was so much simpler before we came to St. Louis, you know?”
“That’s the way of life though, isn’t it? Flows in one direction, simple to complex.” Jared’s voice had a tinge of bitterness to it. He really wanted to be sitting on a hilltop, looking over the countryside with Nat’s hand wrapped in his. Not traversing the wilderness, getting alternatively treated as savior or devil. But duty called and Jared had always been there to pick up the line. “Decisions only get harder, never that certainty that you’re doing the right thing. Just having to rely on faith.” He reached out and cupped her cheek in his palm. “Or people.”
Tilting her cheek into the hand that cradled her face, Natalie looked up at him. The shadows in hers were not there before D-Day; they’d always been clear and trusting. Now she studied his face with questions and worry. The past two years have carved lines of fatigue and weariness that make her look older than her years, and the vivid streak of pure white in her hair that begins just above her left eye and cuts a three-inch-wide swath through her silver-streaked brown waves creates a startling contrast. “If I didn’t have faith that I was here for a reason, Jared, I would have let the officer put me out of my misery in Golden Gate Park the day I woke up and found out what we’d wrought,” she told him with brutal candor. “But trust is a more difficult commodity. On both sides.” Searching his expression, she says with a soft certainty, “And I know you don’t quite trust me yet.” She can feel it in the way he chooses his words, even without the humming along her other senses.
“It changed all of us, Nat. We’re different people than we were before D-Day.” Jared reached up and touched the white streak in her hair to emphasize his point. He wondered if he’d ever get the story behind that.
“You’ve got your secrets and I’ve got mine. But maybe we can agree that we want to get to a place where we don’t have to have them?” But even as he said it, he wondered if it was possible. He wanted it to be. But even before D-Day, there had been secrets. Hell, their entire working relationship had a secret built into its foundation. Maybe that was just how it was going to be.
“Are we really?” Natalie asked quietly. “There was a point not too long ago where I thought I was willing to do anything just to make sure we survived. But as usual when you put us together and one of us has to kick the other in the ass,” her tone is rueful, “Melody reminded me that we’re still the same people we’ve always been at our core.” She watched his eyes trace that white streak. “Everyone has a right to their privacy. To some secrets that are just their own to keep. I do trust that you’ll do what you think is the right thing for everyone. But my trust in people as a whole, especially those who have climbed to the top of their personal corner of the world, is…. let’s call it cautious. In a group like ours, running by council requires a certain amount of trust that the people on that council will speak for all and be fair.” And heaven knows, that trust was abused in the most egregious fashion recently. “The place you’re coming from… I’m pretty sure that’s not how the military works. Why do you trust, after a year and a half, that what you’re out here doing is still the same job?”
“You’re one of the biggest communities I’ve seen, Nat. Traveling the entire Midwest for a year and a half and a few hundred people is the biggest fucking concentration of people I’ve seen. I have to believe its the same job. Otherwise I don’t think we’re going to make it.”
Frustration with the situation came off of him in waves. Nat was right that this was a hell of an irregular situation for the military. Then again, it was a hell of an irregular situation for the whole damn world. “General Mercator did right by me, Nat. I believe he wants to do right by the country. But I wonder the same thing every time I enter a new group of people. Am I doing the right thing?”
Nat was right – life had felt a whole lot simpler a few years ago. But that might as well have been a lifetime now.
The sincerity in his response made her nod. “Well… the council is putting your information out there before the whole group to vote on. I don’t really know what the vote will even decide. I mean… will the ones who vote ‘yes’ want the military to come here? Will they want to go there? Either way, it’s got the potential to destroy the whole place. And I have to admit that neither situation appeals to me. The schism that we’ve been working on in the community is… difficult at best.” Natalie studied him and admitted softly, “As you might expect, there are those who will never accept that it wasn’t exactly our fault, who want to see us pay somehow for all their grief and suffering. And the more people you put in one place, the more you see it. Both the best and worst of people, just like any other site we’ve been to in a catastrophe. We are the last of the Guardians that I know of… and I have to live up to that job.”
“I’m doing my job and you’re doing yours. You were right. Some things have still stayed the same.” He reached out and grabbed her hand. “No matter how you vote, I want to stay through the winter, Nat. If you’ll have me.”
Wrapping her fingers around his, Natalie realized something unexpected. For the first time since D-Day, she actually felt… safe. In a world full of threats at every turn, knowing he was here and had her back in ways that she would never have expected or asked of the surviving Guardians made her feel safe. “I would like that very much.” She wasn’t sure how the others were going to feel about it, not having been more than acquaintances with her partner/bodyguard, but it was a good feeling.