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Pancakes
#1
[[Continued from Don't Belong Here, at Almaz]]

His head was pounding. A groan, and Jay snatched a pillow to smother his own face. The room couldn’t be dark enough, he thought, wincing at the curtains. There was some button somewhere that shadowed the glass behind them, but fuck if he knew where to find it. So he buried his face in the pillow and drifted. The next time he opened his eyes, the wish had come true. It was coffin-dark. A good solid coffin like the kind his brothers and sisters were shipped home in. Sealed up. Peaceful.

He waved his arm over the side-table. The clink of bottles sang their song in return. Eventually, he found one that sounded duller than the rest and put it to his lips. A tangy liquid passed his tongue. The fuck? he pulled it back to study the label. The hell did this come from? He hadn’t tasted Pimm’s since he was a teenager. Got wasted on it at 16 at a barn party. It looked like blood when it came back up, he remembered. Freaked a lot of them out at first.

So at some point in the last, uhh, however long it had been, he found a bottle of Pimm’s? After some flopping to the edge of the mattress, he stared, realizing all the empty bottles were from the same fruity-based gin. Now that, uhh, one way to party, he supposed, and pinched his eyes shut, trying to remember.

He remembered lots of spinning. After leaving Almaz, every time he closed his eyes, it felt like riding a tilt-a-whirl while tripping on PCP. Which meant he kept his eyes open and fixed dead ahead. On whatever. Seven tried to make him go to a doctor. But that was definitely passed over in exchange for finding a real strip-club. Then the awkward conversation about which gender of dancers he preferred. Meaning, there were plenty of guys who pulled off some looks better than others. Including Seven. He vaguely remembered them talking about shirts? Not quite what exactly. But it had been fascinating and hilarious at the time. But he opted for the regular old fashioned traditional type of strip club. Pretty sure. And rolling to the side, he realized why. There it was, a bit of black lace left on a pillow. Caught? Bought? Definitely something. Had the girl that wore it been there? Or did he just come away with a trophy? Creepy.

He looked down at himself then. Yep. Buck ass naked. Seemed about right. Not so much as a sheet in sight. Kicked off or tore off, he wasn’t sure. But the only thing that was sore was his head. So most likely had been the girl. He grumbled and sat up, rubbing his scalp. Not like it was the first time there were holes punched through bad memories. Unlikely to be the last. Probably didn’t do anything weird. Just normal stuff. Right?

The door was shut. The window dark. Not from the button but because it was fucking night. Probably not the same night, he assumed, and padded away to find the bathroom. The second he flipped on the light, he regretted it. But the mirror powered up enough to display the date and reflect a piss-poor image of a man back at him.

He stared at the display. Two days. It’d been two days since stirring out of the coma of the last binger. He’d gone downstairs for food. Met a Viking dude. Pounded his fist on Nox’s face at Almaz. At least his hand didn’t hurt anymore. Naked girls. Actually, he rather wished he remembered more of the naked girls. Then… nothing. Except apparently Pimm’s. Where the hell did the Pimm’s come from?

He powered up the shower and gave up trying to remember.

The wallet was on the floor, kicked almost under the furniture. He regretted bending down to get it. The spinning wanted to return, and he opted to fall into a chair to hold him while scanning it for evidence of his life the past few days.

There were pictures. Ones that probably felt steamy hot at the time but now made him cringe. Seven was in some of them. Two girls he didn’t recognize. Deleted those immediately. The messages weren’t much better.

Then he found one near the bottom of the queue.
”Pancakes” it read. The time stamp from the morning before. A pin on a map.

Goddammit. He opened the thread. Almost not able to look.
A fucking string of incoherent responses. From video loops of funny breakfast moments. To a picture of his bloody hand. To a mention of making Cayli chocolate chip pancakes. That hurt. They scrolled a long time.

He squeezed his eyes shut. The hangover flopping his stomach sick.
I am so sorry. I was fucking drunk out of my mind, he sent the first coherent message in return. I would kill for pancakes right now. Please come. After hitting send, he regretted the particular phrase. Since she’d seen him actually kill people. Probably bad choice of words there.

He almost hated to see what the rest of the suite looked like. Some time later, towel wrapped around his hips, he hoped some snacks had been left behind with the bottles. And that Natalie would answer fast.

The suite was the same one in Adrian Kane’s hotel. It was shockingly clean. Didn’t look anything like the bedroom. A plate of fruit and pastries waited on a table. Along with a bottle of tylenol and salt tabs. Had housekeeping been in while he was passed out? Also kind of creepy, but whatever. He shrugged and opted to swallow a handful of pills before anything else.

“Feeling better?” a voice asked.

The bottle flew out of his hand like an erupting white volcano. He jumped and turned.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#2
[[continued from here]]

The dulcet tones of strings. The delicate clink of champagne glasses. The murmurings of genteel conversation. Natalie drifted without attaching herself too long to any single company. Zhenya secured her the invitation; there were a lot of important people here tonight, and there was only so much to be learned about the play of Moscow's powers from behind a screen. No one had quite seemed to know who she was, at least until the low buzz of Edward’s granddaughter had circulated, and then the axis of the room changed to include the new piece on the board. Which of the Northbrook sisters is it became the next silent question, but Natalie was content to allow the mystery to percolate. She wanted her name on their lips. She wanted them to claim the victory of discovery.

During the Kremlin’s fundraiser ball she’d still been fighting the tides of grief and horror. Her presence there had been like walking bare feet on glass, a fragile and painful balance, for the exquisite luxury of Moscow’s elite had clashed harshly with her raw memories of Africa. Before that, her mother had occasionally strong-armed her into attending charity events, but those had usually been lubricated with enough alcohol to ensure she did not ask often for Natalie’s company. Whatever duties were instilled in her Northbrook blood, she had spent a lifetime rebelling against the mould they made for her. Tonight was the first time it had ever been a choice.

Smiling was easy, as was charm. If sarcasm cut the sweetness sometimes, few were more than passing perplexed at the way she did it. Probably her appearance helped smooth the errant sharpness of her tongue on those occasions; the cascade of light-gold curls over one shoulder, the smokey haze rimmed around pale eyes. Zhenya, with much sisterly delight for the task, had arranged the dress and jewellery; Natalie had had little need of such finery in Sierra Leone, and the things she had even brought with her to Moscow were minimal. Ethereal, Zhenya had declared. Natalie had only rolled her eyes. But it served a purpose.

She planted gentle seeds among them as she circulated. Spoke equanimously of her time in Africa and what she had been doing there these years; the children she had taught and championed, and the girls of the refuge before that. The foundations laid neatly. If there was much of lingering shadow in Natalie’s past, it was easily outshone in deed – and she knew how to spin a tale to her advantage. The aptitude she discovered for it surprised even her.

Yet by the time the hall was called to find their seats, Natalie was passing bored of the company. She wasn’t drinking tonight. Or not much. Purpose armed her to the goal she had made for herself, but it was a sightless one. The future seemed hazy; something to push towards a step at a time and perhaps never truly reach, let alone enjoy. Even at this first step she realised it would be a task of toleration for her. The public stage drained her behind her carefully demure mask. But though she’d scorn the monotony, she’d also endure it.

Pure chance felt the alert of her wallet vibrate in her purse. A glance at the name pulled her back against the tide in surprise. People drifted past her shoulders as they streamed towards the tables. She was aware that Zhenya, resplendent in deep green tonight, paused her stride to wait. He couldn’t still be drunk, could he? It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility, but it had been more than twenty-four hours since those last inebriated messages had finally petered themselves out. Distracted, she touched Zhenya’s arm and excused herself to the bathroom. The woman’s dark gaze was both curious and thoughtful as she watched Natalie leave, but she didn’t follow.

It was blissfully quiet in the bathroom. Even if it was for the benefit of scrolling more ramblings, she’d probably needed the respite. A breath, a moment. The wallet lingered in her palm a while before she opened and read the message. Expectation did not hold so high a value; it was why she hesitated. As such the apology made her blink in a soft sort of confusion. Of all the things she might have wanted an apology for, the insight into his grief was not one of them.

I hadn’t noticed. You were so subtle? Whether waffles or pancakes are the superior breakfast choice is an interesting conundrum though. I had no idea you were such a keen philosopher.

The rest she hovered over a moment longer. It wasn’t the phrasing, though it touched a sharp morbidity to her lips. Not that it was funny so much as it was just fucking dark. Instead she paused for the way it fluttered in her chest like a hand held palm-out in honest entreaty. A dangerous temptation; she could almost feel it pull like the beckoning ocean breeze she’d promised him one day. Escape called to her soul like not much else. Though maybe it made a difference who was asking.

She ought not to leave. Zhenya would wonder at her absence if no one else. Connections so newly forged needed to be nurtured carefully, and there was a great deal of work to do.

The pancake place is closed for at least another 8 hours, she told him

Then, finally:

So I’ll meet you here instead.
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#3
There were laws against an owner entering the rooms of hotel patrons uninvited. When Adrian put Jay Carpenter in the suite of his property, it wasn’t a room. The destination was by design.

He waited almost half an hour in that chair. Legs crossed one over the other, the screen of a wallet glowing dim in front of his studious gaze. When the first thuds of noise roused, he powered down the devices and waited. In darkness. In shade. It felt familiar. Sitting in the chair, relaxed and curious. Like witnessing the rise of an ally or equal fall of an enemy. Adrian himself didn’t know. Very intriguing.

Jay stumbled out in a towel. Water padded footsteps along the floor. He didn’t notice the presence of another. Intent on the hangover cure.

Carpenter had caused a stir in the lobby two days prior. Adrian’s mistake that he hadn’t taken the proper precautions. A lesson learned. He went for the medicine first. Probably felt like shit. He looked no better.

“Feeling better?” Adrian asked. Jay jumped out of his skin. Pills flying.

He didn’t rise. No reason to disturb Carpenter. His brows lifted.

“A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. Adrian Kane,” he said with a bow of the head.

Recognition fluttered Carpenter’s gaze. Good.

“Adrian Kane. Started to think you weren’t real.” He frowned at the pills on the floor. But there were enough in the bottle still to swallow.

“I’m real enough,” he said. They stared one another for a few moments. But Jay was the one to break gaze first. The man dropped the salt tablets into a glass of water.  Drank greedily.

Adrian waited for the man to finish the drink. “You need to sober up fast, Carpenter. Because you owe me something. More than what your boss says,” a few commands powered up the previously sleeping device.

Carpenter didn’t seem to care much. Though that would change.

The holo-screen revealed the image of a woman. She was a dark-haired beauty with winged cheeks and sumptuous lips. Carpenter’s expression was blank. This guy was already getting on Adrian’s nerves. Did he have to explain everything?

He sighed. “That’s Yasmine Amengual.”

Jay coughed.

“Amengual?”

“And she’s pissed.”

Jay rubbed his head. Not sure if it was the hangover or what her name resurrection.

“She should be. I dragged that kicking sack of shit of her husband out into the jungle and flayed him alive until he begged for mercy. He called her name right before the end.”

The look Jay gave him chilled to the bone.

“Hm,” Adrian murmured. “She’s looking for you,” he added.

“No shit, Adrian. Everyone is looking for me.” Jay downed the rest of the water like a shot. Easy to imagine him falling down drunk. Not hard to imagine a man capable of dragging a screaming enemy through the jungle. He grumbled something incoherent.
“I’m a shit teacher, Adrian,” he grabbed one of the pastries without much more than a shrug. But there was a moment that gave Adrian pause. Pain. Weakness, more like it. Was Carpenter thinking of the one that taught him? Who was that? Ascendancy?

Adrian watched him devour the delivery from the kitchen. The carbohydrates helped ease the transition. Salt tabs would blunt some of headache, but they’d need a concierge nutritionist to sober him up all the way.

“I’m aware of that,” Adrian crossed his arms. Ascendancy sent his best. This didn’t look like the best, but at the moment, it was all he had.

“How did you learn it?” Adrian finally asked.

Jay rounded the kitchen, slumping in the nearest chair. Muffin crumbs fell to his chest as he chewed.

He shrugged. “Here and there, but a friend was the one that got through,” his voice was tight.

“Whatever they did to you, you’ll have to do it to me.”

Jay laughed. “You’re shitting me, Adrian. You really want me to lock you away underground for a few months while we beat you into your senses?”

“Not really.”

“Then you don’t want me to do to you what they did to me.”

Adrian frowned.
“Channelers are crawling Moscow. Meanwhile, I can’t do anything with this power inside. You give that to me and I will give you something in return nobody else in the world can offer.”

Jay laughed. Skeptical. “What’s that?”

“Closure.” He studied Carpenter’s reaction closely.
“Yasmine Amengual wants your head in her Birkin.”

“The hell is a Birkin?”

“it’s a purse,” Adrian rolled his eyes.

“Then just say purse.” Jay snapped. After a moment, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Look. I don’t know if it will work, but I have an idea,” Jay said.

Adrian leaned forward. Willing to do anything.

Anything.
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#4
Last person in the world he expected to squat in the living room was Adrian Kane. How the fuck he got in, Jay would never know. And what the hell happened to Seven? The deleted pictures on his phone told no story.

Little clues to figure out, Jay knew it was a lost cause. Did he even have a way to get ahold of Seven? Other than the name of someone whose entire identity was a number? Pretty sure that was a negative.

The wallet buzzed, and Jay was quick to hold tight on the towel and cross the room.

He held his breath. Couldn’t read it fast enough.

The pancake place is closed for at least another 8 hours.

It was late. Just enough time to give Adrian Kane a taste of what he wanted. Hopefully make him want to run the other way. Eight hours should be enough to scare the shit out of the guy. Make him think twice about what he was asking to learn.

Jay wasn’t lying. He had plenty of ideas. Yasmine Amengual was far from those designs. But she was a problem for another day.

What was staring him square in the face wasn’t exactly the top of his list of priorities. But Adrian had one thing right. Jay was here on orders.

The next message dinged through.

So I’ll meet you here instead.

It wasn’t exactly close. And he had no pants on. Though that wasn’t exactly a problem unless he made it one. But was bound to slow him down.
Be there in an hour.

He turned.
“I’m getting dressed. Come on if you want to keep talking.”

He didn’t have much in the way of belongings. All that shit was back in the Facility. There wasn’t a huge variety to start with. The pants he wore to Almaz was stained with Nox’s blood. They were wadded up in a corner. He picked up the shirt for a sniff. It didn’t look much better. Smelled worse. It would be handy right then to figure out a way to clean a guy’s clothes with this god like magic power. Little good it did him then.

His gaze fell blank upon the closet door. On the other side hung the Dominion’s uniform. Freshly cleaned and pressed. It was a wreck after romping through the tunnels. Saving them. Cleaning the underworld of monsters. And apparently forcing his best friend into ruining his life.

He didn’t even open the closet door.

So bloody pants it was. There were only a few splotches.

He looked up after zipping them up. Adrian had followed, but he hovered at the door looking pretty much anywhere else besides the guy changing clothes in front of him.
“Never been in a locker room before?” Jay smirked, imagining the straight-laced businessman changing out of pads and a muddy jersey.

Adrian didn’t seem like the kind to laugh at good natured joking around. A big guy. Broad at the shoulder. Not quite as tall as Jay himself, but looked like he would have done well as a quarterback. It’d take a hard hit to knock him off that high horse. Suffice to say, asking for the guy’s shirt off his back wouldn’t work.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I have a date,” Jay smirked.

“We have business,” Adrian interjected. There was a frown of disapproval on his lip when Jay modeled the outfit. Though maybe the frown was about him leaving.

An idea hit him.
“Give me your jacket,” he said and walked over basically stripping it off Adrian by the sleeve.

He was too shocked to really put up much of a protest. Jay shrugged it on. It was too big. The sleeves too long. Smelled like aftershave. Not bad actually. It worked. He tugged at the sleeves until he was comfortable in it. At least it covered up the blood-stains. Mostly.

Adrian just stared like Jay was out of his mind. Probably wasn’t wrong.
“I’ll bring it back,” he said and clapped the man on the shoulder.

He hurried from the hotel. Hailed the first cab he saw and gave the direction.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#5
A message to Zhenya excused her departure. No explanation was offered, though she imagined the woman would grill her when next they met; it seemed a requisite to her idea of friendship, the sisterly spilling of secrets – and certainly she appeared to imagine Natalie had those in abundance. Such habits made Zhenya a horde of useful knowledge when it came to the city’s wealthy and powerful, but Natalie was mindful of the gems mined from her in turn.

She’d presumed Toma to be the next obstacle, but the woman seemed entirely uninterested when the car was summoned to the front of the building early.

“That bad?” she threw over her shoulder as the door was dutifully opened and Natalie slid into the backseat.

“It was fine. I just have somewhere else I need to be.”

Toma watched her in the mirror for a moment longer. Natalie met her night-dark gaze and held it, wondering if she would ask anything more, but though there was an edge of mirth to her sharp features she only started up the engine. Since Toma always seemed on the verge of some quiet amusement  – meaning she knew more than Natalie would rather she did, or that she just found Natalie entirely peculiar – she chose to ignore it. They drove for a while, caught quickly in the snare of Moscow’s busy city centre traffic. Natalie watched the window, pensive. It wasn’t like she didn’t have the time to spend, but while their progress crawled, memories of America naturally began to shift like a sleeping beast in the back of her mind. She wasn’t sure what she was going to find. Last she remembered, the veil had been pulled low over Jay’s eyes.

“I’m taking the metro,” she said eventually. A knowing smirk tilted her lips as she reached for the door, mostly because she knew how little Toma cared for the driving, but also because they both knew it meant Toma could not immediately follow. Fortunately this time Natalie escaped out onto pavement and not into moving cars. She heard Toma laugh and mumble something that sounded an awful lot like bitch as she turned to slam the door closed after her, but this time she let Natalie go.

Much like London, the underground networks were a far faster way to travel than by car. Black and white marble chequered the floors of this station, and the white walls flowed upwards in high domes, their curves decorated with intricate blue and gold reliefs. The line of chandeliers above spun bright with delicate blue glass, like riches discovered at the bottom of the ocean. It was almost palatial if not for the busy mill of ordinary people. It made her aware of the manner of her appearance; the scarlet draping her curves, the height of her expensive heels, though at this time of night there were plenty of people dressed up for the offerings of the city’s splendid nightlife. Still, she considered it might have been wiser to leave the jewellery in the car with Toma.

She used her wallet to plot her journey, until she spilled back above ground. A short walk later and a great, white stone gate marked the entrance to the park. Carefully aimed lights splashed the stone lucent. Moscow was not a city that ever really slept, and people still moved in and out of the stone pillars, though in fewer quantities than might be found in the daytime. Inside the wide paths were beautifully cultivated and lit. Somewhere distant she could hear music, and the shadows of deeper paths veiled laughter and talking. Natalie wandered for a while, guided by the soft glow of her wallet; in search of something particular. Various inlets spilled seating and food. She did pause long enough to purchase two coffees, lured by both the smell and warmth. It was summer, but she hadn’t exactly paused to consider it might be cold. Neither had she considered how hungry she was; she’d left before they’d served the first course.

Eventually she came to stand near a pagoda housing a couple playing a violin and cello. A smattering of people sat on surrounding stone benches, lit beneath lights strung between the trees. Servers moved amongst them. The apex of Ludovico Einaudi’s Divenire caught her quite thoroughly. She hadn’t found the promised pancakes yet, though there was a stall somewhere here – or so her wallet told her. It was a large park, stretching all the way to the river. Jay still had plenty of time. She didn’t know from where in the city he was coming.
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#6
There were well-intended designs to stop on the way for clean clothes. Somewhere with shirts on shelves and clean cut people that might take a second glance at his shopping attire. It wasn’t that bad. The shirt was the worst of it. At one point he’d literally crashed Nox to the ground and pummeled him in the face. Those kind of fights usually ended with broken teeth and snapped noses. Those things bled like a son of a bitch. Looked like someone’s throat was sliced open for the red river pouring down your neck. Better than a broken tooth, though, blood dribbling endless out your mouth. Thin out the blood with alcohol and it felt like you’d lose every drop inside.

So it was bad, but not quite that bad. Jay held back some. Though at the time he’d thought he couldn’t swing possibly any harder. But something did hold him back. Otherwise Nox wouldn’t have gotten up.

Which meant that the stains on his shirt was respectable, but he didn’t look like he’d slunk in from the slaughter house. And the shirt was a dark blue. That helped. There was nothing like a crisp, clean white undershirt, but dark colors lasted longer in his line of work.

After sitting in traffic what felt like an eternity, he opted to forego the extra stop. The clothes were good enough. Plus, stealing Adrian’s jacket helped the look. At least, it covered the worst of the mess.

He must have scrubbed his hair ten times. Scratched his throat. At least he’d had the presence of mind to shave down the neck beard following the shower. His shoulders were knots. Probably from passing out face down for a day. Decent of Adrian to arrange the snacks and tablets. The headache was dulled, enough to put out of mind, but Jay wouldn’t turn down another bottle of water. What exactly did Ascendancy want him to do? Teach some guy how to channel like a wizard’s pupil? Wait. Did that mean that Jay was the master wizard and Adrian his idiot apprentice? That wasn’t a half-bad story. Maybe get some robes. Or one of those pointy hats? Jared would be down for that. He grinned to himself. Dude was a huge nerd.

How to even start to teach another guy to channel? It felt like another life when Nox chased him around with fireballs until he defended himself. Honestly, that was the only trick Jay had up his sleeve. Take Adrian somewhere, dump him in danger and pummel him until he reacted. Or died. Jay wasn’t one to ask about Ascendancy’s motives, but why Adrian? How big of a deal would it be if he died while learning to channel? Surely there were others out there stumbling through the power. Why send him? Surely Karim would be the better choice. He grumbled to himself. He'd never understand politicians.

The only other trick was to abduct the businessman, tie a bag over his head and dump him in a dungeon until he could fight his way back out.

Actually. That might work.

Searching out places that might double as a fake dungeon occupied the remainder of the car ride. Dominick may have a few ideas. He sent a few messages asking around. Though probably shouldn't sound completely like a psychopath. 

He was deposited at the edge of the park. The river coursed in the distance. Lights bouncing off its black glassy surface. There were enough people to feel the flow, but not so many as it was crowded. He didn’t know what to expect. So he searched for blonde hair and a look that didn’t tolerate any bullshit. He smirked just thinking about her icy stare and headed out.

Stomach rumbled as he milled through the chaos of scents. Each truck peddled a different cuisine. Everything made his mouth water. But for the knot in his stomach, he might have ordered first. But the intensity of the search was too strong.

And then he saw her. Across flagstones. String lights splashed her skin with flecks of diamonds. He practically had to peel his jaw off the ground. The dress. The heels. The way her hair fell around her neck. He swallowed. Unconcerned that he stared. Music rode on gentle waves. She was struck by it. He understood why.

A slow smile touched his lips after he regained control of his jaw and stealthily retrieved the wallet to send her a cryptic message.

I don’t know if I am going to make it. I have to stop and ask this girl a question.

He was behind her when she finished checking the message. Didn’t say a word except to smile when she noticed his presence with as much sincerity as could exist inside one man. A hand held out. Palm up. Nobody was dancing to the musicians song, but that didn’t seem to bother him. The question was clear and he held his arm as he held his grin. Waiting. Hoping the risk of looking like an idiot paid off.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#7
Music freed the weight from her soul; a fall and a surrender into something she rarely allowed herself. It was why she'd once used it to ease her learning of the power, for in some ways they felt like the same thing – both vast and incomprehensible and beautiful. The rising melodies unhooked a catch in her chest, and she let the feelings smooth in waves over the knot of weary thoughts within. By now Natalie had set aside the coffees and her purse on one of the tables, though she still stood, like she intended to move on but could not quite tear herself away. Her attention was quiet, expression still. An observer would be hard pressed to guess quite how it affected her.

Most of them, anyway.

Natalie was slow to recognise the buzzing of her wallet, and she almost didn’t finish reading the revealed message, not when the first words doused her with such cold regret over the eagerness of her own foolish hope. It was a need to feel the full cut that forced her to the end, but by then she was aware of the presence behind her. Her stomach fluttered. Actually fluttered. When she turned her pale eyes were sardonically narrowed, but only for the moment it took to absorb his expression and the open hand. Natalie hid joy as assiduously as pain – or any other strong emotion, for that matter. But nothing shielded her then. The glimpse was about as rare as the sun rising in the west; a genuine smile, flared to life in answer to his own, because light that grin – and all the damnable ways it tangled with every part of her soul.

She slid her palm over his without hesitation, a little amused laughter humming low in her throat. A beckon to the bowels of hell, or an invitation to dance like utter fools, it didn’t seem to make much difference to her if the hand offering it was his. There was no wilful tease this time, just the heartworn steps of something timeless. A light tug on her wrist and two steps forward, and Natalie was in another world. Warmth suffused. The cradle of arms felt like a home she had not been looking to find. For once she didn't fight it.

One hand threaded a path upwards, slipped underneath the collar of his jacket to brush his neck. The other fell into the shell of his. Her fingers caressed a light and affectionate welcome, aware of the split skin and healing bruises over his knuckles, but if the touch investigated it was only in acceptance. Her fingers teased and laced together like a promise. They weren’t alone, but they might as well have been for all the attention she paid anything else. She didn’t know what Jay saw when he looked down, but she did not shy away from meeting it.

Had she really been prepared to let him go? Not the shape of him tucked somewhere close. She’d intended to keep him safe even if it was from a distance, and even if he never knew she did it. But the idea of losing this?

Faced with the warm closeness of him, it seemed unfathomable. Yet Natalie was excellent at self-preservation. In his absence she reminded herself often of all the ways he was dangerous, lingering upon all the worst crevices of their past for evidence of how it would end. Love in all its forms had finite boundaries, and she’d cut herself to ribbons learning those edges once. She’d been certain that eventually she’d find them here too. In fact it was a line she sometimes found herself wondering whether they’d crossed already. God knew the last year ought to have broken them.

But it hadn't.

She knew why. Of course she did. Only Natalie was a professed and loyal cynic, and she rarely allowed herself to think about the undeserved peace discovered in a shitty motel room, or of the fantasy they’d woven there. Because it was fantasy. How could it be anything else? Every time she slipped them free from reality’s hold to offer the promise of sanctuary she’d never considered trusting the same comfort for herself.

She thought about it now though; careful of her rushing heart, and enamoured of the moment.

When Jay loosened the grip on his own demons, he was the easiest person she knew to be around. Looking up at him now, she appreciated for perhaps the first time how he settled something vital in her. Natalie never remembered letting him in. His breach of the battlements she kept around herself had been artless, and not always by his design or her invitation. In fact usually not by either. Only the discovery didn't feel like trespass. It felt like something precious.

She could blame the music for the stir in her chest. For the deepness of her breathing. But she knew that wasn’t true. She was quiet while the song continued, existing wholly in the moment he gave them. A smile played softly on the edges of her expression, contained again now like ocean swept sand, but by now he knew the secrets imprinted there. If she could pull at the strings of time and slow its pace, she would have. Fall forever, never land.

“Hey,” she greeted eventually, as around them began a new melody. She was in no great rush to slip away, but the tilt of her smile had recaptured its wicked gleam, and there was a spark of repartee to her gaze. She didn't say the words this time, but she wondered if he might hear them anyway. He really was terribly dramatic. But it had never been an insult.
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#8
Her hand closed around his palm. The fingers danced between his. Where they closed selfishly tight. Music and the memory of her swaying so slowly suddenly blazed his head. Almost like she didn’t even realize what she was doing. He could grasp her wrist and pull her free from the burden of duty and guilt of survival and into arms that would take it all away if he could. What life she lived before all this started? The family left behind. The Red Cross carried her to the needs of a country full of need. But why there? Was Sierra Leone chosen for her or did some design land her in the same part of the world that landed him? The farthest back he knew about Natalie was a fire once escaped. The facts were bullets in a file though. What did she love? What filled those icy eyes with passion and strength? He suddenly felt like he didn’t really know anything about her except that he knew everything about her. What about the song drifting their heads called her away? 

Because she settled against his chest like she was home. A place where Jay sheltered in the shadows waiting above. The brush along his neck broke something free and he fell from the rafters down to where she was just to curl his head to her cheek and feel her breathing. He gripped her tight.

One night in Freetown, in the hours before the extraction mission deployed, he stared at a picture of the woman their squad was sent to retrieve. The file was short on information beyond the basics. And he remembered wondering what she was like. Fast forward and here she was. The scent of her hair pushed into his cheek. Her weight leaned into his chest. Her fingers brushed behind his collar. Light but he’d pull her closer if it was possible.

The first time he saw her, she was held tight in the hold of a Temne rebel. Any normal person would be shaking in their boots, tugging and fighting to escape. Natalie just stared defiant of control and ignoring her fear while four Legionnaires surrounded the captor, barrels aimed and ready. If they hadn’t showed up, he had no doubt now that she would have handled it herself. Probably glare him into retreat. He smirked into the cushion of her hair just to imagine it.

Moments after, fire surged his knee and in one swift motion, a full kitted Legionnare dropped like a bag of wet sand. The kid made quick work of it. Probably would grow up something fierce. Hopefully on the side of the good guys, though. If he was still alive. Surely he was still alive. A thin hope, but one he had to hold. Lots of kids weren’t. Masiaka hovered a building full of ghosts about then. Fighting men rumbling down the road to abandon them to red fates in the jungle. He’d never forget. Follow orders and leave them to it or stay and mount a last defense and die in the process. He couldn’t blame Jacques, who at the time made the hard call Jay never would have been able to make. Remembered doubting the bigger picture. Sick with guilt shoved down until it was forgotten.

So many haunts. Their ghosts followed a gray line into the horizon. Freetown felt like a lifetime ago. Never mind the life he had before. Son, farmer, marine, legionnaire, dominion. He’d lived enough for five lifetimes, and in all of them, he was called back to this one moment. There was only one place the ghosts rested.

Home.

Her.

A pleasant sort of empty followed inside. Like staring into the ocean at night. Endless and beckoning. The music was nice. Something to close your eyes, lay back in the sand and just listen. Drift with the starlight. Sink into warmth. He could see himself getting into dances, but the girl was a perk. Prom had been fun. The slow dances memorable. But unlike a gymnasium packed with kids and a radio blaring hits, he was pretty sure the symphony the musicians spun kept the music going just for the two of them. Or else the time stretched endless as that black horizon and they did in fact drift through it. A million miles from anyone. From anywhere. He didn’t think his heart could beat so slow. The body sway so light.

He only roused from the dream when she shifted. Didn’t pull away thankfully. But that wicked smile beckoned upward, full of promise to retaliate with such heat he could only hope to be its target. His heart might have stopped right then and he’d not care a single bit.

“Hey,” he mirrored. There was originally a plan to spin her out, stretch their arms to the brink of release and pull her back. Do one of those dips. But he couldn’t bring himself to let go of that connection.

“Dramatic?” This time he said it and didn’t disagree. Her sharp smile sparked a defenseless half-grin in return. Then again, he didn’t want to win this match.

“Staying out of trouble?” he smirked. In that dress, she had to be anything but.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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