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Despite the cabin crowded with people and tension, Jensen found they’d journeyed several hundred miles the next time he opened his eyes. He was squished against Jay’s mom and the door, her head lobbled on his shoulder. Somehow, he managed to shift her to Cayli on the other side, tap Jay on the shoulder, and offer to drive. He expected that Jay would need a few rounds of insisting, but surprisingly, the soldier pulled over right then and there and they traded places. A glance in the rearview mirror a few minutes later showed Jay passed out in the exact same position Jensen once occupied. Even his mom was back to resting on her son’s shoulder. Jensen smiled to himself and manned the helm the remaining 175 miles to Dallas.

It was a little after sunrise when he happily pulled into a road-side donut shop for breakfast and coffee. The others stretched and disappeared inside for breaks and refreshing. Jensen sent Jessika a message that they would be there within a half-hour. A massive southern-style breakfast awaited their arrival, and Jensen opted to only eat two donuts and save room because the egg casserole, candied bacon, and Belgium Waffles were going to be worth the sacrifice. It may even put a smile on Jay’s face.

The interstate around Dallas put something of a somber mood on Jensen despite his earlier excitement. He gripped the steering wheel like it was the only thing keeping him in the car, but for every flutter of nerves another fluttered his heart. He was home. The flatness of the horizon was familiar, the glow of a low-hanging sun was warming, and the peaks of urban architecture alongside the highways looked the same. The glowing signs of fast-food restaurants were never so comforting as they were then.

Finally, the signs for Preston Hollow began to show. The off-ramp that he chose delved into a neighborhood distinctly cleaner than those previously passed. Old trees stood high casting coveted-shade on sharply manicured lawns. The majority that they passed were currently being frosted with a spray of landscaping sprinklers. Curbs and flower-beds were tended by tanned workers wearing uniforms designating them as belonging somewhere that many would likely take a second glance otherwise. No school buses parked on the corners, here, children were navigated to school by drivers, nannies, or stay-at-home moms: if they went at all. Home-schooling with private tutors was popular these days.

Amid everything, it was the homes, so stately and flawless, that immediately drew the eye. Some may call them mansions, but Jensen wasn’t particularly fond of the word. It was simply home. A beautiful monument that filled a man with pride. It should, anyway, except that he abandoned his completely years ago to slink off in shame.

It was for the people in the car that he returned, he told himself as the vehicle entered a circular drive before the home that was his and Jessika’s. His eyes were drawn to the windows of his childrens’ bedrooms, the cobblestone driveway where he bounced basketballs with them, the wooden rockers that he sometimes drank tea in the evenings and watched the sunset. With a deep breath, he exited, but before he could even round climb a single step, the massive double-story door swung on easy hinges, and the most beautiful woman in the world emerged.

Jessika Thrice, Governor of Texas, Jensen’s high-school sweetheart and the mother of his children, was a ray of sunshine in an apocalyptic world. With bright blonde hair teased high and bouncing wide curls on red-dressed shoulders, her bright lips parted and welcomes and love poured out. A southern hostess to her dying day, she would mother her guests as though they were her own spoiled children. Jensen stood back and let her dote upon the others, but it was the door that he watched in case two small faces appeared.

[Image: HuntersCreek-810x430.png]
Jay had the remarkable ability to sleep anywhere.
Maybe it was the travel playing schools all over the state. Learn to sleep on a bus at 5 AM or you don’t play with the team. Jay always played. By the time he made it through basic, he was a master at sleeping on demand – not to mention staying awake. Nobody was a Raider who couldn’t endure a little sleep deprivation. So driving most of the way to Texas all night long? Not a big deal. Fly across the world and spend most of the journey researching obsessively about the enemy that was Zacarias Amengual? Not a big deal. Channeling himself sick? Bah. Survivable. The worst part about the last 24 hours was the fact that he still never ate any of that fucking steak! Suffice to say, when Jensen offered to take over, he didn’t put up any kind of a fight. When next he knew the vehicle’s velocity slowed significantly, it was like he sensed the change’s disturbance and he was awake before they ever hit the off-ramp. At the pit stop, he downed half a dozen donuts like they were crack. The good kind too, with the jelly in the middle. 

Despite Jay’s general worldliness, he’d never been to Texas. Truth be told, he had seen very little of his own country. He wasn’t missing much, he whispered to Cayli when given the chance. She wasn’t exactly amused by the joke, and apparently, Jay was still in her shit-house, but he’d crack that egg eventually.

He actually lowered the window like a tourist and looked out with his own two eyes at the fucking mansion that Jensen called home. The preacher wasn’t lying when he claimed to be loaded. Damn, who knew religion was so lucrative.

He climbed from the vehicle, stomach already rumbling for more donuts, and leered upward. This was not the Texas he imagined, and as he watched the preacher in his supposed element, Jay sought out a glimpse of Natalie. She was an unreadable stone as always, but she had to have thoughts. Jensen didn’t fit in here. That was for sure. The cowboy preacher more altruistic than anyone Jay ever met before felt like a cactus invading a fine English garden.

He rubbed his eyes when Jessika Thrice came out. He’d no idea the governor was so, ahem, not-attractive-at-all, but the way she looked at him made him feel dissected.

Jay thought his own family was dysfunctional? Seems like they were tame compared to this mess.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Gov. Jessika Thrice

Jessika held her breath a moment before pulling the massive doors open in one smooth swing. The car rolled to a stop just as she descended the steps, but the windows were too tinted to make out the faces within. Her heart fluttered despite the seriousness of the situation in a most irritating way. Rather than wring her hands impatiently, she focused on a steady breath and a fixing a warm smile to her lips. Open hearts, big hair and good food were the mainstays of a good Texan hostess, and Governor or otherwise, Jessika was the best.

The guests emerged one at a time, and the weight of her gaze judged each one. An older couple whom she presumed to be Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter knuckled backs and looked like they could use a good cup of coffee. A young girl followed with circles under her eyes and cheeks pale. The little sister, Jessika imagined, the one that needed asylum. Another followed, but this one was a lady rather than a girl despite the flatness of her hair and gauntness of her cheeks. The European aristocrat, Jessika made sure to tilt her chin ever so slightly. The poor thing didn’t look like much of an aristocrat despite the formal finery of her appearance.

The soldier was next. A handsome one to be sure, that given a shave and shower might be enough to make a woman stare. Fit, powerful and dangerous, Jessika had to remind herself that the reason for her fluttering heart was not Jay Carpenter just to peel her eyes off of him. There would be more opportunity to dissect he who might be called a traitor later. Perhaps it was a harsh title, but Jessika was quite liberal with such assignments. Some would call her a traitor as well, the Govenror who sought to splinter Texas from the union. General Lee would be proud.

Finally, her doleful husband rounded the vehicle. Jensen looked like he could use a haircut and a facial, but the intensity of his gaze crushed her heart just like it did in high school. She was a fool for it, given the sham that was their marriage. Anger should flood the soul, not solitude and sadness, but Jensen roused the simple country girl from within when the politician should want to see her squashed.

For now, she was content that her long-lost husband was home.

“Howdy ya'll,” she widened her arms as though to pull all of the group into a motherly embrace.
you must be exhausted with that long drive. Please come inside and find some comfort. Breakfast is on the table and we’ll find all of you a place to fresh up as we fill up those empty bellies,” her drawl was sophisticated, her eyes sparkling. Jessika went to greet each guest in turn, shaking hands and warmly clasping wrists until she was certain each felt at home.

“I am Jessika. Come in, come in.”

She led them into the house as a couple of young men came out to retrieve the various luggages stowed in the vehicle’s trunk.
Hope you can sleep sitting up. He’d grinned around the words, and she’d smirked dryly in response, but it wasn’t discomfort that made the journey a hellish endurance for her. Natalie skimmed in and out of sleep like a drowning soul treading restless waters, trying not to let herself slip under. Not in a car full of strangers. By the time they rolled into Jensen’s driveway she didn’t feel particularly well rested, but since she couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept a full night anyway, she didn’t feel awful either.

Technically she ought to be reminding Jay of Brandon’s terms for agreeing to the leave, but she felt little inclination to do so. His sister was about as safe as she was going to get given the circumstances, but Jay deserved the time to sooth the bridges he burned. Responsibility would sting sooner or later; she was in no rush to hasten its tug back to Custody concerns. Apparently Brandon’s blackmail didn’t hold as much bite as it ought to, else her sense of apathy reached new heights. She didn’t dwell on the distinction.

If she’d been kinder to herself she probably would have parted ways at the park, but self-preservation was usually the least of her concerns. Though so many hours pinned amidst the cold silence of Jay’s family drama did little to err her towards feeling social once released from the car’s cage. Her smile was purely perfunctory. Jessika’s slight nod cast her into a role she was happy to accept for the distance it provided. Jay’s family needed the comforts of homely hospitality far more than she did, and she was glad to let them soak up Jessika’s warm welcome.
Jay loitered at the car while the others followed Jessika inside. Keypad opened the rear door. Roaming eyes counted the contents without a thought, calculating the order in which to remove them without sending the entire pile tumbling to the dirt. Given the way it worked out last time that happened, it would be best to avoid a repeat.
"Let me get that for you." A hand inserted in front of his face, but Jay's own clamped down on the wrist before it could do any good. Rotation turned the elbow inward, the attached shoulder pryed against its will. The voice yelped in surprise, and Jay only then realized how young the face cringed in pain really was.

A teenager. He swallowed and let go. The kid, of all of maybe eighteen years, stumbled.
"I'm sorry." Jay said and offered a hand to steady him. A worried glance searched the background, wondering if the others saw (or heard) the inappropriate reaction. Given that he once put a shotgun in the face of a church pastor loading up firewood, it was unlikely his dad would be surprised. Mom and Cayli though, he was certain they were ignorant of the standoff that night in the snow. Jay wanted to keep it that way.

A lick of the lips and he decided to leave the luggage to the kid. "Uh, thanks." A final glance at the bag that held his uniform and he left it behind. "There's weapons under the front seats."'

Rubbing his wrist and painting on a strong face, the kid nodded. "This is Texas, sir. There's weapons under everyone's seat."

Jay laughed.

With a nod, he finally dragged himself inside.

The interior was exactly like the exterior: overwhelmingly large and overdone everything. It was food that curled its finger in the right direction, and Jay was content to follow blindly into Jensen and Jessika's world. So long as there was bacon at the end of the trail. He'd walk into the 7th realm of Naraka if it meant a good breakfast. Morbid, but not untrue.

A flash of light caught his eyes and he blinked. Heat touched his face. Acid on the tongue and dirt ground gritty in his teeth..

But another step and the light faded. A sunbeam pushed through a window high overhead, he realized, creating a bar of yellow that he must have passed through. Dust floated barely seen by the naked eye. Perpetually trapped in a cage invisible.
He knew the feeling.

Breakfast was awkward, and despite how many of them present, the table still held empty chairs. The meals he couldn't even imagine that were once served here, or maybe they still were given this acted as the home of the Governor of the largest state in the Union (Alaska doesn't count).

Jensen was awkwardly uncomfortable in his own home. His parents and sister were exhausted and Cayli looked ready for a shower until she spied a corner of the pool in the back yard. Then she seemed to come back to life. Compared to the winter weather they just left, Texas was the tropics.

Jessika talked but Jay heard none of it. His back ached and he piled too much food in his stomach too fast. When told they could each have their own spare bedroom because Jensen's house had so many fucking bedrooms, Jay finally spoke up.
"Cayli needs to go upstairs; whatever room is closest the interior of the house as possible. Any exterior walls should face the back. I'll take whatever room is nearest the front of the house." Cayli's reaction was blank, but Jay was sure she was annoyed by the over-protective older brother.

The selection seemed well received. Jay glanced at Natalie briefly before he up and left the table, needing to stretch his legs and familiarize himself with what was going to become a fortress in short order. Everyone went their separate ways after that, with Jessika leading, of course.

The Governor wasn't without her own security detail, he soon learned. They had to know he was coming, so nobody jumped him, but it was along the side of the house that he met one of them for the first time. Or - more accurately - they met him.

A tall fence, iron with decorative (yet effective) spikes on the top circled the lot. Despite the tall trees and privacy bushes, this was still the city. Fences defined one property to the adjacent. He was knelt down, one knee in the dirt, yanking on the fence post to define just how secure it was, when an ahem cleared its throat behind him.

Unlike the kid with the luggage, this one kept his distance, fully respectful of the dangers of invading personal space. Jay sighed, ready to explain himself and offer the mutual degrees of respect, yadda yadda, and stood to greet whichever detail drew the short end of the straw to track him down in person.

He was about Jay's age and size, maybe an inch shorter. A fit, strong physique filled out a suit otherwise dressed down by the open collar at the neck. He carried, of course, and wore similar communications devices to what the Dominions also wore, though a downgraded version. Both of them wore sunglasses, but Jay didn't even flinch to remove his own nor did the security beef.

They didn't need to; Jay would recognize this guy anywhere. Clearly, the former Marine standing in front of him did too.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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