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[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.

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.
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.

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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