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Somehow, the revelation didn’t surprise her. She filed the piece into place, swallowing the sigh that wanted to inflate her lungs with frustration.

“Then that’s where we start.”

It became a game of waiting.

The disapproving faces of Cayli’s parents hovered from time to time, caught in peripheral glances like passing ghosts. Meal times were tense and civil while everyone played their assigned role without complaint, as though nothing in the household was amiss. No one asked where Jay was, an oddity that curled uneasy suspicion into Natalie’s stomach as the time passed. They change the subject, Cay admitted when she asked about her parent’s silence. But for now there was little Natalie could do but let the storm brew, and hope they could find adequate shelter when it finally broke.

Experimentation filled their time, usually on the grounds where it felt less obtrusive. Despite the threat of sedation it was still Cayli’s best shot at self-protection, and the power also held a charm that sometimes softened the edges of Natalie’s fears, or at least provided a focus beyond the cage of them. Cayli veered from being an impressively diligent student to the most easily distracted. She asked lots of questions about Jay’s life in Africa, though Natalie couldn’t always answer them. Sometimes she shared stories of her own, of the big brother she knew before the marines. Natalie tried not to let those saturate too far, the easy smirks and sharpness of her humour fading beneath a still mask. If Cay noticed her reticence, she never said.

“Cayli, sweetie?” It was past noon when Cay’s mother’s pale face searched out her daughter, an unusual interruption. The girl’s brows rose, but she bounded diligently to her feet when asked to follow. The house was all shadows after the brightness of day. Cayli skipped blithely through the kitchen and into the room her mother led. Natalie followed, jaw tight. Unease prickled her skin, sensing the formless threat of a trap.

Cayli stiffened when she saw the doctor. 

Diaz smiled graciously as he stood from the armchair. Dark hair slicked away from his kind face, but it was the case at his feet that Natalie stared at. Cold flooded her limbs, muscles corded tight. Her gaze rose to his face.

“Cayli. I’m glad we finally found you.”

“But I was discharged. I’m better.” Cayli shot a worried look at Natalie before her mother swept close, gripping her daughter’s hands in both her own. Darkness still swept the hollows beneath her eyes, as if sleep were a distant enemy, but there was earnestness in her soft voice. “Cayli, baby, your brother threatened Doctor Diaz at the hospital. They had no choice but to let you go. He’s--”

“I’m afraid your brother is very sick, Cayli,” Diaz interjected calmly. “What I suspect to be a serious psychosis has made him believe some terrible things. I’m sorry we were unable to protect you at the hospital, but we could not risk the safety of our other patients should we refuse your brother’s request.”

“He’s not the Jay we knew, Cay, but with treatment he will get better. He’s in the best place now.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her daughter’s ear. Tears brushed the woman’s eyes, an overwhelming faith that daggered Natalie’s stomach for how misguided it was. Whatever Jay’s conflicts with his parents, they loved him fiercely in their own way. Light. She glanced at Cayli’s expression, recognising the wielding of the true weapon as it hit its mark. No armies descended, no hidden assassins, like Jensen had feared.

Her jaw hardened as she pushed herself forward, weaponless. The gift floated close, like the promise of fortification, but there were no soldiers here, and no battle that could be fought so bluntly. Diaz’s gaze shifted, a small furrow at his brow, like he had not realised she was there. No true authority bolstered the stubborn set of her expression, but it did not stop the certainty with which she spoke. She stood her ground even as it crumbled beneath her.

“Jay Carpenter belongs to the Custody now. You cannot hold him.”

“Jay Carpenter remains a US citizen,” he answered blandly.

“Perhaps that’s a conversation you would prefer to have with Ascendancy?”

“I’m Cayli’s doctor, Ms Northbrook. Her safety is my priority here. I am not at liberty to discuss the other matter with you.”

Just enough to dangle the bait. A small smile fluttered his lips as the victory settled assured. Cayli would go, Natalie knew it. The moment her mother admitted knowledge of where he was held, those sisterly bonds would pull her onwards whatever the cost. The past days’ silence finally made sense, a glass tower of promises to a family so desperate for the foundations of normality they would rather believe their son insane. The walls Jay guarded were too high, the secrets he kept nothing but knives to gut him. Nausea gripped. Words were a useless shield.

“Do you think I would be wasting my time here if it were all a lie? Do I look crazy too?”

“You’re Custody, dear,” said Jay’s mother sharply, as though it amounted to the same thing. Her gaze skirted. She never really looked at Natalie properly. Jay’s father loomed behind, arms folded across his chest. The lines on his face seemed more deep set. “This is family business,” he agreed. “I’d rather not end this with nastiness, but you’ve no reason to be here now. You should have gone back to the Custody when Caroline asked you the first time.”

Cayli’s mother cupped her daughter’s cheeks, urging her attention away from the brewing argument. “Sweetie, I know you say you feel better, but let the doctor run his tests. We’ll know for sure, then, that the kind Pastor worked his miracle. And when this is all over we can go home. All of us, Cay, I promise.”

“Okay, mom.” The girl’s arms folded around her mother’s neck, face buried in the silvered gold of her hair. An anguished cry left the woman’s lips as she squeezed tight, like a lifetime’s worry finally began to ease its talons on her heart. Cay brushed a hand over her own face when she leaned back. Determination held her expression rigid, but Natalie read the tells. Exactly the recklessness she had been warned against. Exactly the recklessness that would get her killed

Natalie’s heart hammered. Desperation cinched a band of steel around her chest as she felt the control slipping. The power flooded in, knowing Cayli would feel it. Zacariás’s dulcet warnings haunted, branding panic she could not ignore.

She couldn’t let Cayli go. 

So much unease.  Jensen paced every room he occupied for the entire morning. Axel went his own way. Natalie and Cayli sequestered themselves with such intimate privacy that Jensen was uncomfortable interrupting them. He passed by silently once in a while, catching snippets of conversation accidentally, but enough to scratch at silent curiosities. He really knew quite little about Natalie herself, having shamefully focused so much on Jay, himself, and his own problems. He passed on wordlessly and attempted to fill the time elsewhere. Jessika was gone for the day. The news spoke endlessly about the governor’s impending speech; he couldn’t get ahold of her. She was either too busy or she was ignoring him. Both were plausible.  

He was flipping news stations when Axel escorted someone inside. Jensen hurried to intercept, but Caroline popped out of no where. She greeted the guest like it was her own home, shaking hands with a friendly, welcoming voice. Jensen peered from behind, uncomfortable with this odd position of being a guest in his own home despite the denial of divorce. Charles joined her soon after, before Caroline split away to find Cayli.

Jensen was gifted with the recognition of faces. He once met a cousin of a parishioner who was in the hospital after having a baby, only to encounter the same cousin in the grocery store two months later. She was so surprised he remembered her that she ended up agreeing to come to the church just because she thought Jensen cared so much.

He had little direct interaction with the doctor in that Iowa hospital, but he would never forget the man’s face. He nodded respectfully when he realized Jensen was there, but mostly waited with a serene patience that Jensen found unsettling.

Cayli was white as a ghost when she realized who came calling.

Natalie was horrified.

Jensen could do nothing but listen, dumbfounded to the accusations hurled amongst them all. The doctor was so convincing, that Jensen found himself doubtful. Was it possible? Jay’s behavior was erratic and impulsive. He drank a lot of alcohol, not that Jensen judged, but it was a startling amount. Wars and violence changed people. Sometimes good men came home unhinged. It was a real thing.

But was that their current reality?

It was impossible. Cayli had nothing to heal. She never had the cancer. Axel admitted to the conspiracy. Jessika and Zacarías were in some sort of nefarious partnership. Jay really was in danger.

“No,” Natalie said, or better yet, commanded.

But Cayli agreed? Jensen blinked, uncertain. He’d tear his robes in the streets if he could act out the torment that wracked his soul.

The battle lines were drawn: the Carpenters on one side, Natalie on the other, and Jensen occupying neutral ground between them both.

His heart ached looking at Natalie. She loved Cayli. She’d do anything to protect the girl. If she could sacrifice so much for a girl she barely knew, Jensen could stand up for justice in his own house. Could they see him shaking? 

He reached out an arm toward Natalie as though to steady the storms on which the boat she rode heaved even as he walked toward Cayli and circled an arm around her shoulders. “If it’s okay with you Caroline,” he shifted the focus of his gaze from Natalie toward the mother whom was ready to do anything she believed right to save her children, “I’d like to accompany Cayli, if she’ll have me,” he smiled calmly at the teenager, hoping she would understand…

… and agree.

Natalie could put up any and all pretense of returning to the Custody. Maybe Jensen was walking into the lion's den himself, but there was no way he would allow Cayli to leave with the doctor alone.
[Image: images-1.jpeg][Image: n-1.jpg]

Doctor Diaz had always been kind to her, and it would be easy to believe the things he said. Jay had been different. Yanking them from their home without explanation, the way he treated Anne Marie at the casino, ignoring Cayli’s texts, the hole he punched in the wall. But she’d heard the things Zacariás Amengual had said to Natalie in the car, too. She trusted her big brother more than anyone on the planet. Whatever anyone believed, and whatever trouble Jay had gotten himself into, Cayli was going to find him.

Days had passed and Axel was still looking for leads. Frustration tore Natalie to distraction when she thought Cay wasn’t paying attention. Jensen floated like a stranger through his own home.

And THIS was an opportunity.

The moment mom spilled that the doctor knew where Jay was, nothing else mattered. The hushed phonecalls and quiet tiptoeing made sense, then. The lack of hysteria at their son’s sudden disappearance. As Cayli wrapped her mom in a hug, her expression resolved into one of determination. The doctor wouldn’t hurt her. He could have done so at the hospital and he hadn’t. Tests would prove she was as well as she felt, and then all she had to do was convince them to let her see her brother. Natalie said the sedatives had to be kept topped up, but he had been a soldier before he’d ever been a channeler. If she could get him free, she knew he could handle the rest.

She could fix this, and Jay could fix the rest.

She squeezed mom tight, felt the tears prick her own eyes. When she drew back it was to Natalie she looked, willing her to understand. The woman’s expression was blank as nighttime, but power lashed around her like a halo, that one word like a declaration of battlelines. Dad’s words echoed. Oh, this could go bad quickly. Cay bit her lip, but knew there was nothing she could say to stop her parents seeing little more than Custody devilry when they looked at her. They wouldn’t let her come even if Cay begged. Probably not even if she told her parents what Natalie had done. Why she was no longer Sick...

The pastor’s arm snaked around her shoulder then, and any lingering doubts were washed away with the strength of his support. Her spirits buoyed suddenly, because it was what they had agreed before, wasn’t it? That Jensen or Natalie would stick around to protect her if she needed it? Jensen had promised his help with such devotion Cayli knew everything was going to work out. Relief swelled. “Please, mom? He can help us pray for Jay.” 

She twisted to seek Natalie’s agreement, but found the woman gone. Her stomach inexplicably sank at the sudden emptiness where she had been standing, but the doctor was already bending to retrieve his case and ushering them out the door.

Everything narrowed to a surprising calm. She only had to get Cayli out of the house and to the airport; hopefully without hurting anyone in the process. They’d waited too long; the gamble was no longer worth the risk, not knowing where Diaz would take her. Manipulation burned Natalie up with denial, a frisson of anger at how easily that trap snapped shut, but no one would listen when the doctor framed things so reasonably. She wouldn’t waste the words, knowing desperation would wilt any power of persuasion. They didn’t see the danger. Explanation could come later, when they were safe.

But Jensen interceded, smoothing the rocky waters with a palm outstretched to hold her back. She felt outcast as the ranks closed without her, even as she understood what he was doing, and why. Failure cracked the promise she had made, and it felt like her chest cleaved in two as control seeped through her fingers. It was the horror of the refinery all over again, and suddenly any sense of calm fled beneath the wave of sheer helplessness. Memory drowned. Natalie had no trust in the kindness of fate, and while she might trust Jensen’s intentions, could he really do what might be necessary? Did he realise the hell he volunteered to step into? Her nails dug hard into her palm as she watched Jay’s mother’s face light with the offer, and Cay’s voice chime agreement.

Cayli didn’t even look back. It hurt more than she was willing to admit.

And she couldn’t watch them leave.

Resolution already dampened the remnants of fragile emotion. Wounds were cauterized. She knew Jensen would do everything within his power to protect Cayli, even as he trembled stepping up to the challenge. Yet he’d convinced Axel. He’d held people in the palm of his hand once. And he was a channeler. It had to be enough.

Her wallet was buzzing in her pocket, but she was halfway up the stairs before she checked the screen, uncertain who she hoped it would be. Laurie wasted no time sweeping straight into the heart of her discoveries, unsettling the wider picture further and casting longer shadows over everything. Thoughts to parse through later, though. The facility was offgrid. They were running out of options. “I’ve more to share,” she said as she retrieved her bag and slung it over her shoulder. There was nothing to pack. “But not over the phone. Tell me where to find you.”

Afterwards she searched out Axel. She didn’t like him. Probably that was a feeling tied prettily with a mutual bow. But he was a soldier, and Natalie was desperate. He’d been cagey about his motivation, but she suspected he simply had nothing left to lose, a startling accurate reflection of the debris she felt rattling around in her own chest. Cayli’s loss swept the anchor free. There was no one left to protect. “Time to pick a side. You coming or not?” It was nothing so cheerful as redemption she offered, expression sombre. Impatience swept her away almost as soon as her pale stare levelled in his direction. He was free to follow, but she wouldn’t wait.
[Image: axel-1.jpg]
Axel Miller

Axel leaned on a wall while the family drama unfolded. He was mostly there to escort the doctor in and out, sketchy guest from an equally sketchy organization and all. So they wanted to take the girl away. Big deal. So there was an actual bounty on her head. That he hadn’t bagged and tagged the twig of a girl himself was evidence enough that he had something of a soul remaining. Didn’t mean he wouldn’t stand by while others did the deed. So he let the girl into the car. It was on Jay’s head that he didn’t search the interior before departing. It’s not like he called the doctor and told evil corporation where to find the golden child they sought. Sitting back and watching people dig their own graves was one thing, grabbing a shovel was another.

The doctor’s story about this bullshit psychosis raised an eyebrow though. From aside, he laughed. Funniest shit he’d heard all week. Nobody asked him, though. Wasn’t like the mom and dad were even slightly aware that their kid and Axel knew each other. That maybe one might vouch for the other. When they glanced his direction following the outburst of humor, he only nodded in agreement. “Oh yah. That guy is batshit crazy,” he said. Amused, he crossed his arms and waited, forgotten and otherwise overlooked. Typical.

The guests left the property, girl and preacher in tow. Mom and died locked themselves behind closed doors. Custody chick tracked him down. A thoughtful frown dug deep lines, but he didn’t answer right away. If she forged ahead alone, it was certain failure. Axel was okay with that, but he was not okay with losing track of her completely.

He shrugged into his jacket, checked the holsters beneath and gestured she lead the way. He couldn't be gone all day. The governor had her speech, and shit was going to get busy around here after that.
Only darkness shows you the light.

[[Natalie and Axel continued here]]
With Caroline and Charlie’s blessing, Jensen accompanied Cayli. He kept a hand on her shoulder for comfort, but it was unclear whether the gesture was for himself or the teenager. Regardless, disappointment dripped sorrowful upon Axel’s behavior. A prayer for Axel to make the right choice would not be undue, but it was not easy to pray for the man. Instead, at Caroline’s behest, he led the group to ask for strength for Cayli, though he knew the child was not lacking in that department. It felt dirty, but he flicked a glimpse at the doctor while the heads were bowed and eyes closed, and found the man typing a message irreverently through his wallet. First chance he had, he sent one to Natalie as well. I promise I won’t let her out of my sight, it read. Watch close. I’ll tell you where we go. We will need help when we get there.

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