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“And where exactly is home these days?” He sharpened his own demons on the humour, though she discovered it wasn’t exactly painless for her either. It was an honest question. Until yesterday morning she’d assumed he must be in Africa by now, fallen head first into whatever distraction kept him busiest. There was no accusation for the silence; she understood enough from the barrage of drunken messages to realise she didn’t really want to know what he had been doing with his time. But neither was she prepared to let him go again.

The flip of the collar was an unwelcomed revelation, and perhaps an answer in itself, for it wasn’t a circle Jay would find himself in naturally. For now Natalie didn’t want to tug on the thread of another conspiracy though. What she wanted was the calm of safe harbour, just for a moment; to know that a little pressure was not going to capsize this new balance with misunderstanding. Loss tempered every step of the journey, until she finally understood what she was prepared to fight for. Even now she wondered if the lesson had been learned too late.

When Jay stepped back for perusal she obliged. Amusement softened her expression, but her observation was quite thorough; from the bruises on his knuckles to what she thought might be faint patches of blood on his clothes. She could smell soap, and aftershave she realised now wasn’t his, but alcohol still permeated too. Fatigue pinched his face. Had he properly slept? Or just roused from unconsciousness with enough sobriety to realise he was awake? Yet still he’d come here first.

For his irreverent concern in turn she’d still been prepared to toss a flippant answer, but then his hand trailed her cheek, and the words faded into stillness. He rarely touched her like that. They’d shared physical intimacies before. Shared experiences that bound or broke the souls that weathered them. But honest affection had always been unspoken, else sparsely timed in ways she talked herself down from afterwards. She met the gaze honestly in turn.

“No bloody stubs,” she agreed. To say nothing of bruised shins from dodging traffic, but for once she understood what he meant. If she’d thought he’d listen, she’d tell him no bullet was about to take her in the back of the head. Amengual was dead. That threat was over, at least. Instead it was only with a wicked gleam that she added, “Though you know how good my poker face is, so you’re welcome to check for yourself that I’m all in one piece.”

It was her who closed the distance again. Her hand brushed his waist to pull him close enough to whisper into the curve of his ear. She laughed a little, warm and sultry as ocean winds. “Both, Jay.” A welcome tease flashed in pale eyes. Meanwhile her hand found his, fingers laced. She pulled him onwards. “I’m starving.”
Now that was a damn good question.

Jay technically owned the house in Iowa. A long list of unanswered messages left piles of legal stuff he hadn’t dealt with yet. He didn’t care about certificates and death taxes though. If it weren’t for the welfare of the few remaining animals, he’d walk away completely and never look back. Pastor Mason would be gifted Casey and the cattle. After the property was declared legally abandoned, the valuables were likely to be forfeited to the state. And by valuables that meant some land that would go up for auction and a truck that barely turned over.

He had a bunk beneath the Kremlin. A locker full of uniforms and toiletries. Could take her there, but it’d like sneaking a girl into your room after midnight. Totally could get Natalie in, but given the locks on front door, she may not be let out again; Grandpa Patron or not. Which meant home was where he slept last night. And for now, it was some skyscraper in the middle of the city.

“A few of the guys went to Africa. Egypt, I think. I should have gone but was reassigned to a local job last minute. Remember the zombie-rats?” he nodded emphatically. They were hard to forget. One of them scratched the hell out of his face.
“Key word being ‘remember.’ Cause those little fuckers are a memory now. Now I’m on some assignment that I am the last person who should be doing it, but you know, Ascendancy’s orders and all that…” he shrugged. Clearly he was going to go where told. Not like there was another alternative.

His hand fell limp after the graze of her cheek. His arms were lead, but nothing a tired grin couldn’t prop up.

This time, when she showed off the curves of her dress, it was his turn to observe, and he had to actively restrain himself. Actively stop himself slipping his palm onto the low of her back and pulling near. To feel the press of her hip against his. To stop himself digging his fingers through the waves of golden hair. Instead, he nodded with great approval. Pursed his lips into a ‘oh baby’ smirk that quickly untwisted into a humorous grin afterward.

When she closed the sudden distance between them, his heart squeezed tight in his throat. For the briefest moment, he was frozen with wonder of what she would do. The voice in his ear sent chills down his spine. He’d only heard his name pass her lips a few times. Those were usually accompanied by warnings and horror and death and regret.

This time, he was a living statue peering down into those eyes, and he seriously thought about kissing her then and there, tugging her to the grass and blocking out the world until there was nothing left. Probably not the most practical reaction, but damn, he thought about it anyway.

When she tugged onward, he followed without even a split second of hesitation.
Only darkness shows you the light.

She laughed a little. The offer had admittedly been more suggestive than he took it, though the way he looked at her then curled fire and temptation across her skin in such a way she did not think he had entirely misunderstood. Another time she would have thought nothing of leading him off the path, away from the pools of lights and people. The park was large. It was dark. If it was a little cold too, it wouldn’t matter for long. Sultry consideration lingered, but it was the tired way his hand dropped that tempered her, not any sense of propriety. Because it wasn’t just about the spark and thrill, and it was her heart he pulled at when she saw the edges of the mask slipping.

“I remember,” she agreed, retrieving her purse from the table and passing him the coffee, which still felt warm enough through the cup. Of course she remembered, but little inflected her tone. Scars of a night like that might not heal quickly, but they were as invisible in her as the wounds on her wrist healed by Jensen James. She did not let go of his hand as they walked, though she was not usually the type. Her fingers brushed the edges of his knuckles as the music faded behind them. “Punched them into submission, I suppose.”

He nodded, mocking seriousness. "How else do you smash rat zombies into oblivion?"

"Mmhm," she agreed. She gave him a sly, side-eyed look. But how he'd actually injured his hand wasn’t an answer she was ever going to try and prise from him. She knew enough of how he dealt with pain to recognise how often he siphoned it into something physical. Just as she buried things perilously deep. So she changed the subject instead as they wound through the park’s paths. The tease in her was light and open. “So is irresistible and ripped what you imagine I go for?”

"You went for me, so yeah?" Jay flexed the biceps for her in a muscle-man pose, chin angled proud and high a second before checking to see her reaction.

Natalie was genuinely amused for the assessment, though the resultant laugh was dismissive. She was relieved to hear that he was staying in Moscow, though unlikely to admit it. An assignment he felt ill-suited for did not take great pains to guess, but consideration was set aside. She didn’t really want to think about Adrian. Though if he pulled strings for a Dominion he had more resources than she’d given him credit for, or he’d readily admitted to. The need itself did not surprise her to learn though; at the club, he’d been overly interested in the power.

She continued the conversation; talking of everything and nothing as they walked, faintly surprised with how often he fluttered that warm feeling in her chest. Trees receded. Beyond awareness of the people milling around them she doubted Jay was paying much attention to their path, but she wasn’t leading him deeper into the park. Natalie had no idea precisely where the right food truck was, and had no desire to spend the evening searching it out on the pretext that pancakes were what she really wanted. Jay was dead on his feet and unlikely to admit to it; it cut too close to the reasons he drank himself into oblivion in the first place. When was the last time he’d properly eaten? Let alone slept in something other than unconsciousness. But those were the kind of questions he’d only prevaricate on with a joke. So she’d take the choice away.

By the time the park’s sweeping arched entrance came into view she made an offhand explanation for their direction. She glanced up for the whispered confession, half bit her lip, though the playful tease was blatant. “I skipped out before they served the first course, and pancakes aren’t going to cut it. I guess I’ll just have to owe you. They’re really a breakfast food anyway.”

She smirked; didn’t doubt he’d follow.

He didn't even answer to that. Just swallowed and let himself be pulled onward.

On the subway platform Natalie leaned into him, wallet angled so that he could see the screen overtop her head while she scrolled menus. If anyone stared at the incongruous couple they made, she paid zero attention to it. “You want anything in particular?” She had no preferences, and she’d rather order too much than too little. Natalie didn’t keep food in the apartment beyond necessities, and even then she mostly chose to spend no time there.

"Please god let there be -- yep. That. Bacon cheeseburger. Extra bacon. Extra pickles. No onion. Double fries." He could practically hear his stomach growling just thinking about it.

She laughed a little. Such an American answer.

During the journey she told him about the land she’d bought; the building on it that she planned to refurbish and turn into a school. She was up to her eyes in solicitors at the moment if there was anything he needed, though she did not press heavily on the topic. Her old employers had contacted her about an aid position in Indonesia following the tsunami, but she’d declined the opportunity. The clothes were on account of a networking dinner she’d been glad to leave. Ekene was doing well. So was the kitten. She had numerous pictures of the latter, who was a less scrawny furball now.

Jay stared at the picture of the kitten for a while, lips tugged into half a smirk before the image flipped to Ekene. He'd grown. "Knew that kid was something special."

At the apartment block they passed biometric security quickly, though Jay earned a couple of scrutinising glances in the foyer. She was on the top floor. The lights synced automatically when the door opened. The apartment itself was sparse of personal touches, and furnished as nondescriptly as if they’d walked into a lavish catalogue. Natalie had done nothing to it, and it showed few signs of her living here at all. She’d never unpacked what little she brought with her from Africa, nor the things her mother had shipped over from France, which were still in boxes along one wall. Only the piano, which had sheet music propped on the stand and an empty coffee cup on top, showed any indication of use. Wide windows twinkled the cityscape below. Natalie glanced up, passing curious for his reaction, but only because beyond Toma he was the only one who’d ever been in here. Then she plucked the front of his shirt with an arched brow. “If that’s blood it can go straight in the washer.”

His grin was an unconvincing half of a wince. "It's... jam?" then he quickly grew concerned. "Just don't lick it.. Probably should wash it anyway." Then his breath quickened and the smile let it all go.

"Don't lick it," she repeated, mock solemnly, like she wanted to get the instruction right. Her lips flickered a wicked smile, and she wasn’t sure for whom the tease was worse as she insisted on slipping the stolen jacket from his shoulders. Her heart beat furiously and unbidden with the hike in his breath. Natalie hadn’t brought him home just to ravish him. Or not entirely anyway; she never professed to being a saint. And she was deadly serious about the washing. But his grin tested every well-intentioned effort at self-control. “The pants too,” she said, hooking her finger through a belt loop.

[[with Jay]]
Despite the tightness gripping his chest, his heart was beating slow and steady. Every inch of him was relaxed yet he swallowed nervously when Natalie hooked a finger in a beltloop that might as well have tugged on his soul. He took a step forward.

Since Mexico there was a hole inside that was just getting bigger and bigger and darker and darker. He’d filled that hole with nothing but alcohol and pain. When numbing didn’t work, hurting so bad that you could think of nothing else did the trick. Staring into her eyes, he thought of the last time he’d stared so deeply into them he wondered if he might actually get lost. They'd been a world away in that crappy hotel. Here, they were surrounded by expense and beauty to such stark contrast, Jay was almost afraid to touch anything. And surrounded by the same, Natalie was as beautiful as he’d ever seen her. With a dress that dripped from her shoulders. Or maybe every time he saw her was the most beautiful she'd ever been. He wasn't sure. 

His hand trailed up her arm, careful of the gown, but it was really her that he didn’t want to damage. 

And surely he would. What could he offer? He couldn’t commit a life that didn’t belong to him. He didn’t even know where he was going tomorrow. Then again, if freedom was an option, would he even take it? He’d turned it down three times before, opting to run back to blood and orders just to escape responsibility for himself. Why? Because he couldn’t trust himself to do the right thing? It was a good lie. One that was on repeat. But the truth was as dark as that hole inside, and it was a truth he didn't want to hear. That this kind of life was easier. It was black and white. Get an order; follow it. Good guys and bad guys. Do the good thing; kill the bad thing. Everything else was shades of gray; and it was too damn hard to figure out which gray was gray-enough; which gray was light-enough.  But there was another truth buried even deeper than that. One he ignored even now. It was exhausting. 

And Jay was tired. He was more tired than he’d ever been in his life. Though as his hand crested Natalie’s shoulder, fingers toying with the strap on that gorgeous dress, he knew he wasn’t that tired. He'd be dead before being that tired. “Sure. But fair warning, I went commando tonight,” he started to grin, but before he could kiss her, the door dinged.

Their food had been delivered.
Only darkness shows you the light.

He followed her through the park like a lost soul seeking the shores of home. Natalie had always taken his reticence for indecision, or perhaps reluctance, particularly after the casino. Yet sometimes he looked at her with such longing it was as if she wasn’t standing right there. His fingers trailed up her arm, barely touching really, but it only sent the shiver of it deeper. She hadn’t lied to Adrian about waiting, and the simplicity of the affection captured her attention entirely, though she didn’t think Jay was even trying to tease. Sensible thoughts dived off a cliff edge about then. Because of the softness in his gaze and the softness in his touch, neither asking a question, yet an answer came anyway like a dizzying rush in her chest.

His words burst that captivation into something purely devilish, though, and it sparked in her eyes like the promise of that damnable grin. Don’t lick it?” she repeated, the faint inflection of a question this time, wicked with tease. Laughter followed, sultry, genuine. Her fingers had already wound tighter in his belt loop, a want expressed the moment he stepped closer. She could feel the pull of his waistband from his hips. The promised heat of skin, firing her own pulse. She was in no mood to relinquish, and she ignored the door entirely. There were no bloodied feet to remind them of waiting duty this time. No looming disasters at all beyond the threat of cold food.

The last year had been hard, and this was the only thing to salvage from the wreckage of so much loss. The only thing left to tip the delicate balance between living and existing. Realising shattered the last tenuous vestiges of control, eclipsing the best laid intentions to a single point of need, and a different kind of hunger than the dinging door promised. To want to feel the connection was as real and vital as it felt to her then; the kind she could burn herself again and again trying to capture. Everything else could wait. She kissed him like sea reaching shore, inevitable, the taste of sinful laughter still on her lips, until she was consumed with the intensity of how close he stood, and how much she needed him.
“I take it back. You can lick anything you want.” The words rushed from his lips on wings of a a smile just as they found hers. The first time he kissed her, it was soft and caring. It was being adrift on the peaceful sea and never wanting to find the reality of shore again. He’d been honorable and careful of her signals in return, not because of the formality of the ball, but because he pulled every move he had to impress her. This time, all that shit went straight out the window.

His heart was beating so hard she must have felt it when he pulled her in tight. His hands went straight to her back, up her spine, and tangled through her hair. The scarlet of her dress may have well been his heart bleeding out, and if it was, he would go a happy guy. Instead, he ripped at that zipper as fast as he could, and it still wasn’t fast enough. They moved together as one, though he had no idea where he was going. Hell he would pick her up and use the kitchen counter if he had any semblance of awareness left. But all that cool logic evaporated in the heat between them.  When she helped tug off his shirt, they locked eyes just a fraction of a second before he swallowed back the last tingle of nerves and wrapped his arms around the only thing he cared about left in the world.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Jay pulled her in close, and any tiny chance of untangling long enough to answer the door was long forgotten. Hands ran the length of her spine, twisting into her hair with a voracity that both surprised her and engulfed her in electric desire. The heat and spark between them had never been dim, but it had often been denied. Only it had never occurred to her that any part of him was ever waiting for permission.

The pull at her dress was met with feverish reciprocity. Natalie was aware he was injured; bruises splashed the torso revealed when she tugged free his shirt, yet there was nothing gentle in her ardency. Connection wrought in a glance only fueled the mad rush of her pulse. Frustration and anger broke the dam alongside passion; at him and herself, both. Drunken confessions had once spilled the foolish truth in her heart, and in the ashes of the aftermath she’d told herself it’d been too much to admit to. Now it felt like drowning and living. Kisses so wild they had to breathe together to survive them.

She didn’t know the apartment as well as she should. Truth was she spent as little time here as she could, so when she accidentally stumbled them backwards into a wall, she didn’t pause to reorientate, just guided his hands to lift her hips until they were both gasping. Her arms threaded behind his neck as she unravelled against him. Careful strictures of control eroded to nothing, heart and soul. There was none other with whom she’d take the reckless leap.

Some time later they ended in a tangled heap on the floor, admittedly not far beyond the entryway. Her face pressed into the damp curve of his neck while she caught her breath. “That wasn’t what I intended,” she said eventually. Though when she shifted against him a moment later, lips a breathy secret at his ear, it was with a sly smirk that she clarified, “I at least intended to feed you before I ravished you.”

Her hand propped her head afterwards, hair a dishevelled river of pale gold about her shoulders. She was in no great hurry to relinquish this undignified kingdom of half shed clothes and heat and skin. Her fingers traced the patterns on his chest, a lighter touch this time. He implied it was just part of the job, but a Dominion was precious, and they both knew about Jensen; the Custody would not have discharged him from duty like this. If Jay was injured it was because he plied his pain in physical punishment, and she did not like to see the evidence even if she understood the need.

But those weren’t entirely the thoughts she was indulging now. He left a fluttery feeling in her chest that wasn’t just afterglow; something softer than she was used to indulging the next time she met his eyes. If it made her wary she didn’t deny it either.

“Pretty sure I don’t have a robe to fit you,” she said, amusement suppressing the twitch of a smile. Though the languorous shift of her attention then suggested she was considering that he might not need it yet. She certainly didn’t move away. “I should probably shower. And maybe you could go rescue the food.”

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