Fighting a friggin’ DINOSAUR. What the hell has this life come to? Natalie remembered Spirit Girl and her very odd power, but only vaguely. Enough to know that she existed and hear the occasional outbreak, but nothing in depth. As she lay on her bed, curled up into a small ball and wrapped up in the sleeping bag she uses as a blanket, her brain was still too wired to sleep. Surgery on Elana went fine, but despite knowing that — dammit — Langston’s assessment was right, she still felt guilty about not healing her. The feeling was not unfamiliar, she would just have to relearn to do as her parents had taught her — to judge the situation and use it really only when it needs to be used.
Jared’s invitation to her room was an open one, and Natalie wasn’t surprised when she heard the door open. Though she didn’t look in his direction, she did scoot away from the center of the bed in a silent invitation to join her. She was not coming out of the blankets.
Jared came in and sat down next to Nat where she was curled up on the bed. They had argued earlier, but that didn’t matter in the moment. That was the kind of crap you had to put behind you when the person you loved was hurting.
“How are you, Nat?”
“I’m okay,” she replied quietly. “Just … thinking about what the next insanity will be, I guess.” She turned to look at him, curling up and tucking her hand under her cheek. “Telling them all was about as bad as I expected.”
“You’re still here and alive,” he said tentatively. “I’d consider that a win.”
Natalie laughed quietly, looking up at him. “I’d say that’s a huge win. Ang handled making that announcement beautifully…. and honestly, we couldn’t have orchestrated a better illustration about why it’s in people’s own self-interest to keep us around. So… there’s a lot of positives in that.” She studied him from her prone position. “You’re still welcome to climb in. Just because I was
- maybe am still a little bit — mad at you doesn’t mean we’re over. We’re not 12,” she drily. She paused and added in a vaguely amused tone, “And it doesn’t mean I don’t see the point you were trying to make, even though clearly your Y-chromosome was interfering with your ability to communicate such concerns in adequate fashion.”
Jared wasn’t about to admit that he had been wondering privately whether they actually had somehow orchestrated that attack. He didn’t think so, but it had been awfully convenient. But sometimes coincidence was just that.
He climbed into bed with her, face to face and side by side. He reached out a hand to brush her hair. "Yeah, we’re a long way from being teenagers. On the other hand, I haven’t felt this tangled up since I was 15, desperately trying to figure out whether Susie Gilligan liked me liked me, you know? It’s a good thing, but I might still be cautiously easing my way in sometimes.
Jared also didn’t mention he hadn’t had a serious relationship since he had been made aware of what his powers could do. Hard to date someone when you’re not sure whether they’re making choices of their own free will…
“Glad I’m not the only one tangled up in stuff,” Natalie admitted, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the light touch of his hand in her hair. “Yes, Virginia, Susie like likes you. But it doesn’t mean we won’t yell at each other once in a while.” She shrugged a little bit with a smile. “Or at least… that I’ll yell and you’ll… be you.” It occurred to her she’d never seen him get angry. At least outwardly. “It’s going to take me a little time to get a handle on the power as it’s showing itself, and I don’t really want to rely on that to learn the things that make you angry or make you annoyed or make you want to throw your hands in the air over the fact I’m bugnuts crazy.”
“I’ve just always been outwardly calm, Nat.” He could read in between the lines. “That doesn’t make you bugnuts or me super sane. Would it help if I yelled sometimes? I do get angry.” He smiled briefly before making an exaggerated frowning face. “About all sorts of things.”
She laughed, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. “I know that much. I’ve seen you get quiet mad. It’s usually time to duck and cover. But… you’re even quieter than I remember. Maybe it’s just the being alone for so much. When I first got here, there weren’t but… maybe 40 people. And even that seemed like too much noise to me after weeks and weeks of hearing nothing but birds and wind.”
Jared loved it when she laughed. If the apocalypse had made him calmer, it had made Natalie more serious. Jared couldn’t deny that the apocalypse was serious business, but there had to be room for laughter. So he worked to try and make her laugh when possible.
He nodded to confirm her thoughts before elaborating. “Alone time is a big part of it, but I’m probably being…pulled in.” He pulled his hands tight in to his chest. “What I thought was just a dream to keep me moving suddenly is reality. Cautiously stepping to make sure I don’t knock the whole thing over.”
“Ah,” she murmured. “So… you’re afraid you’re going to wake up.” Natalie pulled in a slow breath. “Me too,” she admitted. “When you laid it all on the table and said you wanted to see if we could have this… it scared me. I was afraid to let you see all the parts of me — I’ve made some really ugly decisions, Jared.” Her eyes never left his face. “Our inner Self is all we really have left to call our own in this world we made. And I’m choosing to share it with you — good, bad, and ugly. So short of you saying to me flat out in words that you’ve changed your mind and it’s not working for you or me finding out that you’re some kind of spy for what passes for a government and that you’ve been lying again … you don’t really have much of a chance of destroying it right now. Knocking it slightly askew? Maybe.” Finding out he’d been a government agent assigned to her? That had been an askew moment. “But I’m willing to stick with it if you are.”
“I’ve pushed my stack all in, Nat. You’ve got me for as long as you’re willing to have me.” Jared was no stranger to having made some ugly decisions. But Nat was someone he was willing to share all that with. Maybe even about his powers. Someday, he thought. Just a little more time to ease in. Another shock to the system so soon and she’ll decide I’m not worth it.
“And btw, I know you weren’t accusing. But I’m not a spy,” he said, a lighthearted tone in his voice. “Unless you think that’s sexy.”
“Spies are always sexy, darling — especially if they’re on your side,” Natalie replied in a teasingly sultry tone. Then she ruined the effect by giggling. “Blah. Today was insane. Climb under this blanket with me and talk to me. I don’t want to think about dinosaurs anymore. Tell me about the other thing you said you would tell me later,” she invited lightly. Her assumption that it wasn’t something serious was obvious.
“Hmmm?” Jared lifted up the blanket and scooted underneath so he and Natalie were cuddled up together. “When did I say that?” There is some obvious confusion in his voice.
“I don’t know,” Natalie replied. “Something occurred to you when I asked if you knew where Spirit Girl or Gigantor were at the end of everything. You said you’d tell me later — it wasn’t something about her or that question.” She shrugged a little and as he curled up into her, she let out a slow breath while her body relaxed into his. She once more had the sense of a safe harbor, the wheels in her brain slowing as she unwound in his arms. “If you can’t remember what that was…. tell me something else. Tell me something wonderful you saw out in the world on your travels,” she requested softly. “And I’ll tell you one of mine.” Just something to take away the strain of fighting dinosaurs and telling the community that there were active Powers and having to do surgery on Elana.
Oh shit, yes. Jared remembered now – he didn’t know where Spirit Queen had been because he had been blacked out. But he couldn’t explain that without explaining that he had powers. And he couldn’t explain that without having to revisit all those dead bodies in the FEMA building. Those dead bodies that had been her friends…his friends. Jared knew in his head that Natalie would understand. But yet every time he thought about telling her, it was like the mental equivalent of running into a concrete wall.
Thankfully, Natalie had given him an out, which he gratefully took. “Something wonderful? I have just the thing. There was a little girl named Rian…” And he told her about Rian and her mother, who had been living in Denver. Rian’s mother spent her time scavenging, building, and creating a safe space for the two of them, a fight against all the ugly forces in this new world. While her mother was the kind of practical necessary for surviving the apocalypse, Rian, at the age of 8, was an artist. Origami art, to be precise. And she worked with the some of the most common and useless pieces of paper in the modern world. “Money,” he said, “she made an origami zoo with money. Birds made of one dollar bills, cats and dogs made of five dollar bills. Hell, she had a whole herd of elephants made with Ben Franklin’s portraits. Their apartment would have been a burglar’s dream pre-Destruction Day. I guess the Denver mint got opened up in the confusion.” Jared smiled at the memory of walking through the apartment, having Rian point out every single animal she had made. Hundreds of thousands of dollars filling every open space. “But post-Destruction Day, it was just turning something useless into something beautiful and amazing.” Rian’s mother had refused the offer from the government and he sometimes wondered how they were doing,
By the time he reached the end of the story, Natalie was laughing. “Jesus… talk about millionaires on paper. It might as well have been Monopoly money.” Her eyes sparkled and Natalie leaned back to look at him. “I had to take the long way from San Francisco. Came across to Reno and then kind of went cross-country north to somewhere north of Salt Lake City — maybe as far as Idaho, hard to tell — to avoid the deserts. Figured I’d be better set for food along the way if I stayed off the interstates. But I had to pretty much stick to the traveled roads coming over the Rockies, so I passed through Denver.”
She paused, thinking back. “By then I was on foot. The motorcycle I’d been using from California broke somewhere on the west side of the Rockies — I didn’t know enough about engines to fix it. It’s really rugged country out there. Coming across that part of Idaho or Wyoming, its stunningly beautiful. There was a guy up there who lived on his ranch. There were half a dozen people who had found their way to him — probably all from within a 20-mile radius. You know — the Montana definition of neighbors. I almost stayed there,” she admitted softly. “It was peaceful. But I figured I had a job to do… so he gave me his truck and a couple of gas cans. I got about as far as Fort Collins before I had to find new wheels.”
“I thought about stopping sometimes.” There had been that family in Kansas – he had felt at peace with the Anderson clan like no place he had since…before he had arrived here in St. Louis. “But like you, I had a job to do.”
Natalie scooted a little more, settling her head next to his shoulder though not right on it — she didn’t want to pin him down. She could feel the relaxing effect he was having on her, and she didn’t want him to worry about waking her if he chose to get up. “There’s got to be some point out there where we have to look forward… beyond our own survival,” she admitted softly. “I don’t think we will live long enough to see a full-on coming together of people under one umbrella. What do you really think the future will look like?” It was a deeper topic than she’d planned on, but… it was one that she was intensely curious about his perspective on. “Not what you think the General can do, what he may be promising… what do you really think is possible for us to achieve?”
“Big topic, Nat. And you know I tend to be more an on-the-ground rather than a big picture thinker.” Jared paused for a minute to think about it. What did he think they could accomplish? And he guessed that depended on your definition of they and how far ahead was the future, anyway? But he would go with his first instincts, which was probably what Nat was thinking about anyway.
“I think you and I can build ourselves a life. Maybe a family. Refuge Point can be a gathering point, if we work to expand out beyond the walls of the mall. A gateway for other survivors,” he said, thinking of the iconic arch a few blocks to the east.
“That all assumes no powers or limited. If we have a thousand Tobys or a hundred Melodys who aren’t afraid of their power, then there’s no limit, I don’t think. I don’t have the imagination to think that big though,” he admitted. “I’ll just settle for building the post-apocalyptic version of a big medieval city.”
“What do you think we’ll do?” Jared turned the question back around to her.
Natalie was quiet for a long moment, her attention seemingly turned inward. When she answered him, it was with a faint smile. "I think…. that there’s going to come a point where we have to look at a larger structure than we have now. Especially if people keep coming to us — the new refugees “heard” about us. But from where?" She paused, considering. “One of them seems awfully friendly with Mary Fran, which automatically makes me leery and suspicious. But… we’ll see. Personally, though….” She offered him a flirtatious smile from beneath her lashes. “I wouldn’t mind finding a quiet place, going back to kind of the pioneer roots, and just … building small communities. Letting big government and whatever take care of itself in the same ways farmers in the 1850s didn’t really give a damn what was going on back East.”
“There’s a certain appeal to that.” A quiet life, focused on the people around you. But he wondered…
“How much of the appeal is getting to slough off our big responsibilities for smaller ones?”
Was she really that transparent, Natalie wondered. But it didn’t matter. “Most of it, probably,” she agreed. “I don’t want to save the world. I want to keep my own corner of it safe. Regardless of why it happened, I was part of the team at fault for ending the world. I have no business doing anything more than protecting those that I can protect. My mistakes are too huge.”
Oh, Nat. “We’ve all made mistakes, Nat.” Jared leaned over and kissed her. Then he had a how-crazy-is-this chuckle. “In a normal world, we’d all be seeing counselors for PTSD. The Guardians, especially. Not wanting to take on that responsibility again…I think it’s completely understandable.”
Jared just wondered if it was possible to escape it. You don’t search for responsibility, it seeks you out and refuses to let go.
Natalie returned his kiss and then offered him a rueful half-smile in acknowledgement of the fact that a shrink would have been a necessity. “Understandable, yes. Possible?” Natalie shrugged a little. Her responsibility now was just to make sure that as many people as possible continue to survive." So that’s what she’ll do until the day she can’t anymore.
“I don’t think you’ll ever want to stop helping people, Nat.” It was too much in her blood, Jared thought. “But to take us full circle, I’ll be there with you helping people in whatever form you want until you kick me out the door.”
Natalie reached up to cradle his cheek in her hand and rested her forehead briefly against his lips. “I’ve pretty much decided that life’s too short to worry about how fast a relationship moves,” she told him softly. “I want the kind of emotional closeness you’re offering. I will promise you only these things: To share no one else’s bed for as long as we are both committed to this relationship. To talk out whatever problems come our way. And if we mutually decide that it’s over, I will not ever make things hard for you.”
When she looked up at his face, there was something elusive in her expression as she searched his eyes. And then she simply drew him in for a lingering, slow series of kisses that spoke more of love than lust.