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Duality
#1
[Continued from Saving Jay].


Natalie’s look may as well have been a mirage. A trick of the imagination. A sure sign of insanity. Yet she didn’t run. Neither did he. Not yet; anyway. Now, yes. 

He grabbed her hand, one last glimpse at Cayli behind, and ripped his own heart from his chest. He ran like his feet might dig craters into the ground. The rifle was strapped to his back, but ammunition was low. Spent far too easily. He steadied it with one hand, and with the other, pulled Natalie along by sheer will to cling to something and not lose her along the way; she was fading as much as he before Jensen’s attention. It was likely to be the last time he would see Cayli, but the ripped veil between life and death didn’t make him want to claw his own eyes out. It was something else that turned his stomach to lead. 

They had to flee.

Scorching Texas heat crunched shards of grass beneath their feet. Fences were no barricade. The houses were boarded up or those within huddled in fright. Nobody impeded their path. He yanked whatever clothing floated in the wind from clothes lines in one yard. On another street, he checked every car they passed along the way. Until something of interest among his rusted fenders caught his sight. He couldn’t hot-wire the heavy-computer-based engines of newer cars. But an old-fashioned, 40-year-old pickup was another story.

The butt of the rifle smashed the driver’s side window, carefully avoiding spitting glass into the passenger seat. A slide under the dashboard and the diesel-engine roared to life a minute later. The shocks to his fingers didn’t even make him flinch. Not after the attentions of the past few days. Probably never make him flinch again.

The clothes were balled up and stuffed away. He’d change later. Priority was escape. No matter what, getting involved with the police was the last thing they wanted. The truck didn't even have a/c, but it was a beast. Fine with him.

They ran dangerously low on gas along the interstate headed south and were forced to stop at a gas station/bar/strip-club.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#2
His hand wrapped hers and pulled, and with it the tug of another strange memory plucked the edges of her tired mind, quickly dispelled when all her energy funneled into keeping her feet.

She was quiet in the truck, purely exhausted as much as anything else, but small talk was rarely her custom at the best of times. Words now were utterly trite; condolences, sympathies, apologies, comfort: all too meagre a salve to offer for such a gaping wound. Jay focused on the road, caged behind the new scars on his skin. Eventually she assumed he would want to know how they had come to be at the facility; of the days following his capture, of her failure to drag Cayli out of the country and into the relative safety of the Custody, despite her promise. By now the sanctuary Marcus provided was probably finalised, their flights arranged, asylum assured. All too late.

And all because she had refused to leave Jay behind.

Hindsight twisted like a knife, offering a litany of mistakes and blame, and yet it was a decision she could not regret. Nor one she expected to be forgiven for once he understood how she had stalled.

So for now she was content with silence.

She unwound the passenger side window to baking heat, one more discomfort atop a mountain of them, but all of it unimportant. Smoke still clung like a fine miasma, clogging up her lungs, itching at her skin. Strange that the dark stain of a stranger’s blood soaked into her jeans bothered her less than the memories conjured by that smell. Beyond the scenery blurred, and she watched it numbly. The drown of the engine lulled, but she fought sleep like her fingers clawed at the lip of hell. Her mind ticked slowly instead, tallying the facts and burying the emotions alongside.

By the time they came to a halt, she had no answers.

Ahead gaudy lights flashed the seediest of titillation, sparking some grim amusement for the blackest of juxtapositions. But it was the promise of oblivion, curling like the beckon of a tempting finger, that captured her attention. Forgetting seemed a perfect remedy about then, but it hadn’t exactly ended well last time. She hooked her elbows over the open window to watch Jay pump the gas, assessing the colour of his mood. Their lives never seemed to run through simple channels, but the last few days made even Africa’s scars seem pale in comparison.
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#3
It wasn’t like he had a wallet in his back pocket to pay for fuel. Natalie’s benevolence continued to be the hand that fed them. Literally. He hated the weakness, but he could only steal when the opportunity presented itself. Strange how easy that was. He’d kill Cayli if he’d caught her doing something that stupid. Guess it didn’t matter now. Given she was already dead. He tugged the shirt over his head after the pump finished its business. Shit but gas was expensive. Almost $200 just to top it off, but it was likely to be worse where they were headed. They’d reach the border by sunrise at this pace. The shirt smelled good, though. Like a meadow. The lure of the bar was hard to ignore, but instead, he headed toward the shop for whatever was available to eat. Maybe wash his hands in the bathroom. Shit, he needed a dunk in a horse trough. Surprisingly, he’d looked worse though. Just couldn’t remember last time when.

Natalie likely wanted the same refreshment, and Jay made sure she was settled in whatever she needed before taking off to do his own thing. Inside, he was eyeing rows of incinerated corn dogs rolling endlessly on their sides when the clank of dishes drew his attention toward the attached club. He set aside a candy bar and peered around the corner. It wasn’t the stench of moldy carpet or the flash of neon lights that made him stare. It was the trays of food being delivered to a cowboy in the corner.

He nodded at the nearest worker, “can I get an order to go?” His stomach was a ravine. Jensen might have healed him up, but the cartel didn’t exactly provide room service.

A skinny dark-haired guy in capris and a t-shirt tied into a knot at his hip looked him up and down.“Honey, we ain’t a drive-through. You want food you have to pay for a show.”

Jay stared flatly.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#4
She handed over her phone to pay for the gas, followed by a wry, “try not to throw this one away.” No smile punctuated the sly remark, but he probably had some understanding of her humour by now. The truck door creaked as she heaved it open to slip out, keen for the respite.  A running faucet in a dingy bathroom was a poor substitute for the shower she so desperately wanted, but small comforts might as well be luxuries for the foreseeable. Perhaps the power could have aided a more thorough job, but she held on to her reserves for now, only testing the boundaries of that warm light like she was afraid she might find it barred to her. Pale eyes barely caught on her own reflection. She pulled her thoughts away from straying to another school left in ashes.

Since there was no yelling when she wandered into the shop it seemed safe to assume, with some unspoken relief, that her access to the family finances was still intact -- despite the heavy withdrawal a few days ago. Her mother’s calls remained muted, though she knew well the worry silence would instill; the frantic conversation following her departure from Moscow after the ball’s troubles would not soon be forgotten. But the fact was that the question of her safety now was a burden better left to another time. Natalie preferred not to lie.

Inside, she paused close enough for the faint scent of clean laundry to waft like fresh flowers on a grave, but did not reach out to touch Jay’s arm. How many fractures did it take to break a man? A flinch now would look strange, and she did not know whether the chemicals preventing him from channeling had yet worn off. The flat planes of his expression mirrored a darkness she associated with its use. But so too did grief.

There were probably more pleasant places they could find to stop at on route, but it wouldn’t do them any favours if Jay fainted clean at the wheel, and neither was she keen to test her own stamina through the night by taking the responsibility on her own shoulders. It wasn’t like Natalie was prudish. Sticky carpets and lewd neon lights did little to entice, though. She didn’t really want to see the state of the kitchens. Though given the state of their own appearance it was probably the best camouflage they could hope for. And they needed to eat.

“We had a shitty ride,” she said by way of explanation for the ill reception. Her demeanour softened into a role, sharpening out the edges that might cause a scene they couldn’t afford. She dusted off a small smile but had no need to feign the tiredness. “And I am starving. So I guess we’ll take that table.” It wasn’t strictly true, but she knew Jay would more easily bend to cater to her needs than his own.
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#5
Three empty plates lay abandoned on the table. His stomach was full, but the pit remained. At one point a flash of golden hair struck the corner of his eye, and Jay glanced too fast. The room spun when he realized it was Natalie’s hair, not hers, and not for the first time, Jay questioned every choice he ever made. Scratch that. He regretted every damn choice ever made. This was what each selfish, arrogant step on the road of his life led toward. His jaw tightened from its slack defeat. He never claimed to be a hero. Definitely not time to start now.

The waiter sauntered over, scooping up plates like an expert juggler. 
“Anything else dumplin's?” There was no smile despite the sticky sound of his voice. This was a man accustomed to trashy patrons, and yet found them repulsive. Jay couldn’t imagine why.

He flashed the waiter an extra zero in the line for his tip before quickly deleting it. “Any suggestions where someone can buy a secondhand wallet?” He let his gaze fall heavy upon the waiter’s, who looked between them both curiously. “Maybe…” and Jay tapped out that extra zero while they exchanged information.

An ‘unlocked’ wallet would let him log into his accounts without activating the device under his own name. It kept him about as untraceable as a civilian could get on short notice. Message logs were overflowing - hah - shockingly many were from Nox. No time to read them now, though. Priority was to send messages to anyone and everyone who had so much as a rumor about Amengual’s allies in Mexico. He would be short-handed now following the destruction at the laboratories. The man was probably going to beg, borrow and steal the closest helicopter he could find, but even then, when the airspace was controlled by your enemies along the border, he would be hard-pressed to fly through without ironclad deals protecting him from being shot down.

They piled unceremoniously back into the fueled-up truck and continued the journey south with little else said along the way.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#6
Natalie watched the other patrons; the staff; the dancers. Her gaze skipped to the next when each face inevitably slackened to the empty expression of those children. She lounged comfortably enough in her chair, for all appearances at least, but where her hands rested quiet in her lap her nails methodically dug at the ridges where blood still faintly stained, until her skin stung. By the time the server came to collect their plates she roused enough to offer a sardonic smile for his rote performance.

As Jay set to work on the procured wallet, she wondered briefly at adding Ryker to the list of inquiry, but didn’t suggest it. He seemed the type to abandon a sinking ship rather than help bail the water, and she imagined he would find it amusing to watch her beg for his help a second time -- enough that he might at least answer a call. But she had nothing of value to offer him, and she doubted he had any help to give even if he did choose to leave Amengual to rot across the border.

Retribution itself she did not question, its method left in Jay’s hands for now. Instead she thought on Amengual’s apparent involvement with Jessika, discovered right on the cusp of her announcement. And his presence at the fundraiser. It seemed Brandon watched the players with little care for the winner, so long as someone won, but did he really turn a blind eye to the travesty of that school? Her mind buzzed through the grand words he had spoken, of guardianship and purpose; how close she had been to hearing a truth she could follow, and a future she could fight for. Setting her feet on that path had been a thoughtless sacrifice, albeit reluctant. Now the memory sparked with rebellion.

She slid the returned wallet back into her pocket without checking for missed messages. The pin was in that pocket too, a cold reminder of the promise she had made and broken. It was the only identity Jay had left now. No longer a brother or son. A defected American and ostracised legionnaire. She bore witness to the hard forging of a weapon and it did not sit comfortably; less when she considered what might happen, once Amengual was dealt with, if they found themselves on opposite sides in this war.

Back in the truck she was content, for a while, to listen to the engine; a comfort she couldn’t really explain, but eventually she reached to flick on the radio. The station didn’t matter. At some point after that she must have fallen asleep, because when she jolted awake the shadows had receded. The phantom of a dream ran her cold; all she managed was, “I’m going to be sick,” reaching for the door before she was sure he had heard or would slow. Two steps away she retched as the fleeting images faded. Twinges of red announced the beginnings of sunset across the desolate highway, but she did not much glance at it. On her return a swill of water rinsed the sour taste, but she did not climb back in. Her dour expression suggested it was better not to comment. “You should sleep. Let me drive for a bit.”
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#7
It was tempting to retrieve the wallet and skim messages as the road clicked by. Not like he wasn’t already a distracted driver. But there were a lot of them, multiples from Nox. Jay didn’t want to open that can of worms yet, not on the road anyway. When they stopped. Maybe. If he could drum up the courage. What a hypocrite. He could barrel head first into some sick situations, but opening a message? Complete bullshit.

What few trees in Texas that lined the highways thinned to shrubs and finally flattened to scorched grass. Hours rolled by uneventful, and Jay found himself struggling to keep his eyes focused. Taillights ahead blurred to red blobs. The window could roll down no further, despite the air slapping his face, he was about to check the distance to Laredo when Natalie woke like the dead.

He reeled the car aside just in time for her to lunge out. Heart pounding, he just sat there as the door hung open on slack hinges. No judgement from him. Any sane person would be sick with the horrors of the day. Not that was why she was sick. “Probably the food. You should really get a guy to take you to nicer places than that dump.” The humor was a knife at the corner of his lip, tugging the skin upward with morbid assurance. But come on. He had to say something.

He offered her the last of his water. Might as well. He had to piss anyway.

A shrug dismissed her offer. “It’s alright. We’re almost there.” He licked his lips and let her do her own research regarding the definition of 'there'. The last five hours went by in a blur, yet were the longest five hours of his life. The hotel he chose was off the main highway, away from travelers of the more reputable sort. The town itself was one of the most dangerous along the border, notorious for every criminal activity possible, and a heavy site of trafficking of all kinds, but it wasn’t a total shit hole. The hotel wasn’t complete scum. Jay had seen worse, and Natalie deserved better. And a diner was across the street. Can’t ask for much better than that.

He came back with two keys, tossing one to Natalie. “If I was making a move on you, it wouldn’t be here.” A grin flickered that didn’t warm the hollow of his eyes. “But thought it would be safest this way. There are two beds. Someone has to keep things wholesome around here.” The door popped open with only minor jiggling at the handle, and despite the musty scent and outdated decor, Jay collapsed on the bed facedown, asleep within seconds.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#8
“I have bad taste. Running joke of my life, actually.” A cutting smirk flashed then died. She wasn’t talking about regret though.

He shrugged away her driving. It hadn’t been an offer, more a selfish desire. Disappointment didn’t brush the mask of her expression, though for a moment she felt the claw of old anxieties. It served her right for allowing herself to fall asleep in the first place, and it wasn’t like those little flashes of vulnerability ever widened into gaping holes. Not ones she couldn't control, at least. Still, she would have appreciated the distraction. After a breath of silence, in which she glanced somewhat pointedly at the barren landscape swallowing the truck in the middle of nowhere, she did get back in.

She hadn’t yet questioned their direction and didn’t start now, however vague the assurance. Maybe it was trust or maybe it was exhaustion, or something even more intrinsic to her nature; a spirit that did not think too grandly before stepping into the dark, whatever pretences she erected for calculation. 

Natalie watched the town rise around them, and made no comment on where he chose to stop. She caught the key and stuffed it in her pocket without studying it. “I’m sure my mother appreciates your concern for my virtue. You must be the only two.” She didn’t refrain from rolling her eyes, and she didn’t smile, though the words had a flavour of her usual humour. 

Once inside she sat on one of the beds, wondering if she had the energy to shower. The dirt bothered her more than the traces of blood, but she had no spare clothes for after. Jay’s breaths already deepened where he lay, and likely the slap of water would not disturb him, but when she rose it was only to flick the lights off. He seemed properly asleep so probably wouldn’t notice if she slipped out. She hated the itch of four walls, especially when they were full of heavy shadows, squeezing all the thoughts in her skull until oblivion seemed the only absolution. There was likely a minifridge but she didn’t seek it out. Wandering about at night was a poor idea. It hadn’t done her any favours in the past.

She pulled the wallet from her pocket but left it on the bed. The window faced nothing interesting, but she leaned against it, watching the skipping shadows without. Her father had never returned the call, and she’d stopped waiting for it now. The messages from her mother she would not read, nor the ones detailing the itinerary for tomorrow’s scheduled flight. She stared at nothing whilst she worked out how long she had before her absence was truly noted in Moscow. Then wondered how much grace Brandon would allow before deciding she had broken with the compact of returning Jay to Custody lands, and what consequences her actions now might assure for her family.

Too late to worry about any of it.

Instead she thought about sitting on that tube, so long ago; about that stone underpass and the hard edge of knives, and her own stupidity caught in the centre of it. But it didn’t seem to temper the desire for freedom. The underground club in Moscow should have offered a more recent memory of reasons to be sensible, but when her fingers traced the healed scars inside her wrists it was to remember the pulse of power that had freed her from the restraint’s grip not the recklessness that landed her there. Just five minutes. Then she would force herself to rest. She had every intention of being up to take the first pass at hot water.
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#9
A yell and Jay bolted up. The room spun shadows that clawed darkness into his chest. The demons hiding in the corners receded, and Jay put his face in his hands. The nightmare wasn’t hard to interpret. The demonic faces had names. Families. Cayli stood at their lead. As though ushering their souls toward heaven, but they dragged her toward the abyss into which Jay hurled them.

His arms curled about himself, knees digging into his chest. The bed may have well been his own funeral pyre, and no ropes were needed to tie him to the licks of fate’s flames. He sat there, unable to move but for the hauntings swirling bats in his mind. Terror froze his limbs. The flames would have been welcome, then. Pain was a welcome trade for paralysis. What have I done, he asked the void, and the faces warped and wove in and out of focus until he began to count each.

One. Two. Three….

Cayli’s limbs hanging in his arms. The doctors’ pleas for mercy echoing in his ears. The digging of knives flaying his arm. The terror of losing his powers. Still gone..

Nine. Ten. Eleven…

When he opened his eyes, the shadows we’re only shadows again. The numbers fell to whispers in the back of his mind. Sounds of a shower sprayed in the background. A small measure that Natalie wasn’t there to see the startling wakeup. Since it was probably not the best time to just jump into the shower with Natalie, he opted to snatch the wallet and check those outstanding messages.

The first picture plucked a grin. Shit, who knew Nox had it in him to be steamy.
The last few days were a blur. Jay fell off the map, no wonder Nox was sending these 411 messages.  The dog. The status-checks. The memes. Yet the subtext of those stand-alone messages crept toward genuine worry.

The last one brought out some blinks. Lost an arm? What. He shot a quick message in response.

Quote:@Nox  You lost an arm? Leave it behind at the coffee house or something? Hope your name and a return address was written on it.

The shower fell quiet about then. He closed the wallet. They’d have to catch up later.

Jay peeled himself from the blankets. The room was depressingly empty. They had no clothes to change into. That’s when it dawned on him. “Shit. My uniform.”
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#10
The worst part of her was desperate to find somewhere to get drunk. Even reflection of her own self-destructive tendencies did little to curb them, and perhaps the only reason she did not heed the call now was asleep in the hotel room. Instead she sought sanctuary in the run-down diner opposite; close enough that it did not feel like a betrayal to leave him there unawares so soon after he had spoken of safety. It seemed a luxury she did not deserve after the horrors of today, but it was a better choice than a seedy bar, and she could not stay in the prison of the room.

It wasn’t busy, but it did echo a stab of memory from days previous, when Cayli had trailed behind. Natalie sat at the counter this time, not a booth. A flicker in her jaw contained the emotion until it stilled. Guilt would not break her, but neither would she relinquish the burden; maybe she welcomed those demons as much as she fled their influence. Either way, they held less power in the harsh yellow light, and she was less likely to crumble in such a spotlight. Peripherally she was aware of a few suspicious glances for an interloper, but most just as quickly looked away.

“Decaff,” she asked the waitress, half grimacing at the request, but there seemed no point aiding her troubles. She did need to sleep eventually.

The murmur of conversation was low. Somewhere distant she could hear barking dogs, and maybe the pop of gunfire. Natalie brushed the pale hair from her face and laid her wallet flat, contemplating its dark screen for a long moment before she began swiping through its most recent images. Cayli had often had her wallet the last few days, while they practised the power and recorded it in Marcus’s app. She had a creative flare for the weaving, but the attention span of a gnat. Like many kids her age she was happy with the camera, and the evidence littered every swipe. The breath was tight in Natalie’s chest, but she made herself look through them. And remember. Pain was only pain until it became numb, and she had never shied away from the responsibility of it.

The coffee cooled before she even realised it was there.

The room was still dark when she returned. She slept a bit, and if her dreams were dark, they were only the dark of old friends. Consciousness seeped in slow, which was about as good as it got these days. Surprisingly her eyes burned more than they had last night, like maybe she’d only reached the cusp of the deep sleep she needed, but she hauled herself up anyway. There was no one to see the grimace; Jay still sounded asleep.

The scald of the shower tethered together enough to make her feel human, even if the water pressure left something to be desired. Her fingers stung where her nails had dug, but she made sure to erase the last traces of blood. Which only left the problem of clothes she had no intention of donning as soiled as they were. Those she looped over an arm. The cover of a towel was perfectly modest so far as she was concerned, if it wasn’t quite the wholesome Jay might prefer. A cloud of steam followed her out on the heel of his words. He was awake, then.

His mother’s gun lay on the bedside table, and beside that was the pin he’d told her to return to Brandon. She gestured his attention to the latter, remembering the promise she had failed to keep, knowing he would too. She watched his expression a moment, tracing the faint remains of new scars, tallying them with the corpse she thought he’d been when she first saw him at the school, but blinked before the anger sparked. Too late to change anything now, and she refused to pause and look back at could have beens, not now. 

“I imagine Jensen will keep the rest safe waiting for you,” she said, sitting on the opposite bed. The clothes she began to lay out, the power blooming within. She doubted he’d stick around for conversation, and presumably he’d appreciate that she had vacated the bathroom for his turn, but she smirked anyway. Her pale gaze absorbed the mussed blankets and his dishevelled clothes; the shadow against his jaw and his tousled hair, like he was the one half naked. “If I were making a move on you, it wouldn’t be here,” she assured, somewhat deadpan.
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