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One breathless step forward was disbelief. The second was a profound dream. But no disturbance would he allow to shatter their suspension of reality. He’d grip it tight even if Natalie pulled him asunder. He would follow.

So he did.

His chest pounded with hope, for her and for the hope of her. Finally, he let his hands roam unrestrained: her back, her waist, her hips, her legs. Everything previously forbidden from even imagining. He buried himself in mounds of golden hair, inhaling her neck, tipping her chin this way and that. In return, the walls around his heart crumbled. All the things he wanted with Anna Marie but couldn’t give. All the connection with Axel or Nox but couldn’t sustain. Light but she was what he never knew he always wanted. He’d not let her go.

He would follow her. And he did.

He nestled himself around her with protective closeness, and when he let himself behold the line of her jaw and the curve of her chest, he knew he’d weather any of the storms they were about to face, even if only to keep her warm.

He guided and let himself be guided through the intoxication of finally. Of light. And love. And hope. Until never wanting it to end.
Only darkness shows you the light.

The soft rise and fall of Jay’s chest beneath her cheek suggested he might have fallen asleep some time later, but she didn’t tilt her chin up to check. The deep rhythm of his heart was one she didn’t want to soon forget, and such peace was a hard won luxury for her. Natalie was blunt with difficult truths, but less so with the vulnerable ones; those she even protected from herself, and this was one of them. It felt all the more fragile for its self-recognition. She’d never been the chaste sort, at least not before she’d met Aaron. But it had never felt like this.

She had little intention of allowing herself to drift off in the lingering warmth of tousled blankets, to let the seconds slip away from her despite the pleasant lull in her limbs, but she did let herself relax against him. The gift had left her now, and only a pleasant lethargy remained. Her fingers traced an idle pattern against his skin, light as breath so as not to disturb. She felt … well, she put no name to the emotions, lest they shatter the moment she put hope in them. Lessons like that left scars.

The harsh buzz of her phone was the intrusion to finally break the quiet melody. She didn’t shift immediately, though it robbed a little from the moment. Armour would rebuild when her senses returned, and it made her reluctant to acknowledge. But it might be her father finally returning that call. Or Marcus. Or worse. The world wouldn’t wait for them, after all, and she was not convinced Jay really appreciated all of the ways in which they were trapped by bad choices, despite what he’d said. 

The fresh bruises in her side gave a twinge as she moved, easily enough ignored, and her gaze swept the dereliction around them with fresh eyes, brows half raised in mild surprise as she leaned over him to reach for her phone on the side. Mussed hair tumbled down her shoulders. The sly curve of her lips suggested she was not ignorant of her shifting body or the perch of her hand, and there was a warmth in her pale gaze that might easily become rekindled. A deferred promise, for when her palm closed on the tech her expression abruptly flattened to its familiar mask. The tension softened into relief once she glanced at the screen though, the bubble protecting them from reality as yet unscathed by whatever she had anticipated. 

She paused a moment longer before she sank back in a quiet cast of contemplation. Then she passed the phone to Jay. A curious glance absorbed his reaction before she pressed her cheek against the cap of his shoulder. The kitten in Laurene’s photo message had grown considerably from the small ginger scrap swept from the battlefield. The cat was perched alert upon Ekene’s shoulder, one paw braced against the boy’s grinning cheek while the other swatted blurrily at something out of frame. The boy was caught amidst a laugh, but it was the renewed light in his eyes that struck her quiet.

She didn’t smile. Africa was a strange mix of pain and beauty to behold these days, wounds ill-healed yet stitched with fresh hope. Not everything in Sierra Leone had burned, and Natalie protected those fragile new shoots as vehemently as she denied their existence. It was a significant glimpse into her interior life and the things she held dear, not offered meekly but unusual all the same. After her rather unceremonious breakdown at the casino she’d intended to bury all evidence of those lingering burdens; the guilt, mostly. The weakness, certainly. 

But maybe Jay ought to know that not everything they touched turned to ash.

Because a thousand concerns still swarmed the horizon, waiting to swallow the sun and plunge their reality to darkness. If she convinced him to return to the Custody she doubted she would see him again, but at least he would avoid Brandon’s wrath for desertion -- as it might appear by now. She was sure she could smooth those suspicions given the traces of drug in Jay’s system, and Marcus could vouch for it too, if he’d not grown annoyed with her silence by now. The proof was there though, if she could pull all the right strings. And Moscow perhaps held resources they would need.

Persisting here sang a dangerous sort of freedom though.

She did not begrudge Jay his revenge, but its ramifications were utterly unknowable without a more comprehensive picture. Amengual had walked elite circles in Moscow; his death would send political ripples in ways she could not predict. Killing a Custody pawn, particularly a favoured one, would not go down well. But they were already damned, weren’t they?

Morbid humour stirred. A pale leg poked from the frazzled blankets, and her foot brushed the top of his. Not that he’d see it, but a smirk softened her lips; purposely distracting, but he ought to be used to the devilish tease of her by now. What future lay ahead could wait; she refused to be bowed by the weight of it, and she would protect him as long as she could. “What does it feel like for you? The power?” He posed that question to her once, and she’d never asked it in kind.
Even drugged unconscious, Jay wasn’t a heavy sleeper. Okay, maybe when he was beaten to an edge of his life by Placado, he was pretty difficult to rouse. The sleep of the content, however, was just as shallow as ever before. The moment Natalie shifted, awareness descended. Even if he didn’t make much effort to do anything about it. He simply enjoyed the warmth of her back pressed against him. It was with curious acceptance that he took up the screen, wondering who would want to funnel a message through Natalie to get to him. The outcome sparked what was probably the first genuine smile since he actually snagged the yellow beast from the bushes. The boy holding onto the mid-grown kitten was happy that belied all the reasons he had to be miserable. That kitten was his undoing. Jay would have crawled over cut glass to save the creature. A salvation of the innocent. It was the kind of thing a hero would do, and if the kitten was the only thing he could save, then goddammit he was going to save the thing.

His chest sank as he released the phone back to its owner. Natalie lingered close, but Jay said nothing. What do you say to the reminder of guilt tied at their ankles? Better to drift in silence than dredge up the lies they both knew were perched on the tip of his tongue. Her question was a blessed change of topic. He remembered asking similarly of her.
“It’s like sticking your hand into a fire to grab a burning log and pluck it back out. If you’re not fast enough. Focused enough. Or strong enough, then the fire will melt the skin from your bones, and every time you seize it, it could be the last time you do.”

Even then, the power waited on the edge of consciousness. He was thrilled of its return.
“It twists inside you like you burn from within. It sears your bones to ash and fills your mouth with sand. It’s horrible. And its blissful. I want to go back for another log every time. All the logs. I want to bury my head in the sand and drink it all until it chokes me to death.” Just talking about it tensed the muscles in arms that held her. He wanted it now more than before having lived through denial of its pleasure.

“If I lose focus just for a moment, or get distracted, or forget who I am while I use it, then it will obliterate me. Yet every single second is a conscious choice whether I want to let it or not. It’s better than any drug, and pure agony at the same time.”

He put a hand to his forehead, rubbing at the line of hair disheveled by dried out sweat and the pull of her hands. When the power was gone, he was in a state of panic that it would never return. That he’d never know again that sense of balanced on a wire strung between the cliffs. “What I can do with it, I could tear down a building if I wanted… but…” his voice drew to something of awe. Ascendancy’s power was breathtaking compared to his own depths. He was a campfire compared to an eclipse that was a thousand-fold brighter. If that man wanted, he could tear down the world and rebuild it in his image. No wonder the man was worshipped. Jay felt the pull, and such was where he laid his loyalty.

In the silence that followed, he let his hand fall aside, limp and carefree in order to study her profile. She was real. Where might they have been if not for powers, politics, wars, and revenge?

“You know I was offered a math scholarship to college. I didn’t go, obviously, to great disappointment of my parents. My mom said I should be one of those hot-shots in a suit on Wall Street, running numbers and crunching stats, making a million dollars a year. God it sounded like purgatory to me.” he laughed sadly. Obviously, things didn’t turn out that way. Then again, maybe he would have met Natalie through the forces of some alternate destiny. “I’m actually pretty damn good at cards if you ever want to play. I can think of a thing of two to bet on.” A roguish grin flashed before sinking lips to hers.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Gentle distraction served its purpose, and she discarded the phone and image without ceremony. Natalie didn’t want to speak about Africa, nor leave the opportunity open to grasp, but the shadow it cast was one that spread its cool wings over them both. Beyond the ghosts in her own skull there was no one else she could share such small happiness with. It did not deserve words, and it certainly wasn’t a pure thing. It was bitter and sharp and the best she could hope for. It was a blade to twist, but also cool hands on a dying brow, and she wasn’t innocent of either the weapon or the salve.

She listened quietly to his description; to its ferocity and vastness, utterly alien to her own experience. His openness soothed her in a way she didn’t pause to examine, the outpouring one she did not choose to interrupt either -- because he rarely spoke so freely. Like black and white. Light they were night and day. Her own gift fluttered like the trail of a slumbering river in comparison, beckoning the slow sink into a realm of light. She wondered briefly about the training Brandon had spoken of then, realigning it with this new context. Something she had probably been aware of for a while now, but had never thought to piece together. 

That the danger was intrinsic, not inflicted. That there was no way to teach this safely.

For a moment she almost asked more. But some secrets did not need to be shared, and she had only wanted to understand something more about him, not to pry deeper than she was welcome. His muscles corded at even the words; she could feel it where he touched her, but she didn’t flinch away even knowing his capabilities. Not because she was safe, but because she was equal.

Eventually he drifted in another direction she was reluctant to go, knowing they were likely to one day find disagreement on its shores. The trail of his words curled into the image of Nikolai Brandon. Or she imagined it did, like the tightening of chains. Jay wouldn’t ever discover her absent of challenge, and she would never apologise for it either, but it was not a battle she had any interest in fighting today. Blind devotion was not in her blood -- ironic when hers was of the Custody’s patronage, and his the convert. But it was not betrayal she contemplated. Rather, her loyalty was laid with the edge of his sword. One of those hard truths, and one she wasn’t wholly convinced wasn’t just plain weakness. It was immutable either way. And easier to face than the reason.

He looked at her like she might evaporate. It was a strange moment of unreality; like being seen truly. Such exposure ought to have made her uncomfortable, but it only made her wonder at the thoughts running through his head. The turn of conversation actually surprised her, enough that her pale eyes turned up to watch his face as he spoke. Stubble sloped his cheeks from the past day’s hard living, as far removed from Wall Street as he might conceivably be. Hands scrubbed a mess of hair. She’d probably played a part in that.

Her head tilted, an indolent smirk lazy on her lips. Not necessarily for the dissonance of two lives split down forking paths. She understood the mantle of disappointment a parent might place on the shoulders of a child, but she also believed in forging the path of one’s own even when it cost. Purgatory was right. She’d escaped her own, and had been better for it, at least for a while. A little melancholy pinched his tone, but he was entitled to that. She was content to listen.

When wicked tease lightened his tone instead, genuine laughter hummed against his kiss. That damn grin lit all sorts of feelings inside, and most of it felt like free falling. She really shouldn’t succumb, but it was a foolishness he tipped her into willingly. A line in the sand, washed clean by the tide. His rakish nature sparked her own like kindling, the repartee natural, like something rediscovered. Her fingers stroked the rough edge of his jaw. “My poker face is pretty good, Jay. Do you think you would win?” 

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