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Despite the cabin crowded with people and tension, Jensen found they’d journeyed several hundred miles the next time he opened his eyes. He was squished against Jay’s mom and the door, her head lobbled on his shoulder. Somehow, he managed to shift her to Cayli on the other side, tap Jay on the shoulder, and offer to drive. He expected that Jay would need a few rounds of insisting, but surprisingly, the soldier pulled over right then and there and they traded places. A glance in the rearview mirror a few minutes later showed Jay passed out in the exact same position Jensen once occupied. Even his mom was back to resting on her son’s shoulder. Jensen smiled to himself and manned the helm the remaining 175 miles to Dallas.

It was a little after sunrise when he happily pulled into a road-side donut shop for breakfast and coffee. The others stretched and disappeared inside for breaks and refreshing. Jensen sent Jessika a message that they would be there within a half-hour. A massive southern-style breakfast awaited their arrival, and Jensen opted to only eat two donuts and save room because the egg casserole, candied bacon, and Belgium Waffles were going to be worth the sacrifice. It may even put a smile on Jay’s face.

The interstate around Dallas put something of a somber mood on Jensen despite his earlier excitement. He gripped the steering wheel like it was the only thing keeping him in the car, but for every flutter of nerves another fluttered his heart. He was home. The flatness of the horizon was familiar, the glow of a low-hanging sun was warming, and the peaks of urban architecture alongside the highways looked the same. The glowing signs of fast-food restaurants were never so comforting as they were then.

Finally, the signs for Preston Hollow began to show. The off-ramp that he chose delved into a neighborhood distinctly cleaner than those previously passed. Old trees stood high casting coveted-shade on sharply manicured lawns. The majority that they passed were currently being frosted with a spray of landscaping sprinklers. Curbs and flower-beds were tended by tanned workers wearing uniforms designating them as belonging somewhere that many would likely take a second glance otherwise. No school buses parked on the corners, here, children were navigated to school by drivers, nannies, or stay-at-home moms: if they went at all. Home-schooling with private tutors was popular these days.

Amid everything, it was the homes, so stately and flawless, that immediately drew the eye. Some may call them mansions, but Jensen wasn’t particularly fond of the word. It was simply home. A beautiful monument that filled a man with pride. It should, anyway, except that he abandoned his completely years ago to slink off in shame.

It was for the people in the car that he returned, he told himself as the vehicle entered a circular drive before the home that was his and Jessika’s. His eyes were drawn to the windows of his childrens’ bedrooms, the cobblestone driveway where he bounced basketballs with them, the wooden rockers that he sometimes drank tea in the evenings and watched the sunset. With a deep breath, he exited, but before he could even round climb a single step, the massive double-story door swung on easy hinges, and the most beautiful woman in the world emerged.

Jessika Thrice, Governor of Texas, Jensen’s high-school sweetheart and the mother of his children, was a ray of sunshine in an apocalyptic world. With bright blonde hair teased high and bouncing wide curls on red-dressed shoulders, her bright lips parted and welcomes and love poured out. A southern hostess to her dying day, she would mother her guests as though they were her own spoiled children. Jensen stood back and let her dote upon the others, but it was the door that he watched in case two small faces appeared.

[Image: HuntersCreek-810x430.png]
Jay had the remarkable ability to sleep anywhere.
Maybe it was the travel playing schools all over the state. Learn to sleep on a bus at 5 AM or you don’t play with the team. Jay always played. By the time he made it through basic, he was a master at sleeping on demand – not to mention staying awake. Nobody was a Raider who couldn’t endure a little sleep deprivation. So driving most of the way to Texas all night long? Not a big deal. Fly across the world and spend most of the journey researching obsessively about the enemy that was Zacarias Amengual? Not a big deal. Channeling himself sick? Bah. Survivable. The worst part about the last 24 hours was the fact that he still never ate any of that fucking steak! Suffice to say, when Jensen offered to take over, he didn’t put up any kind of a fight. When next he knew the vehicle’s velocity slowed significantly, it was like he sensed the change’s disturbance and he was awake before they ever hit the off-ramp. At the pit stop, he downed half a dozen donuts like they were crack. The good kind too, with the jelly in the middle. 

Despite Jay’s general worldliness, he’d never been to Texas. Truth be told, he had seen very little of his own country. He wasn’t missing much, he whispered to Cayli when given the chance. She wasn’t exactly amused by the joke, and apparently, Jay was still in her shit-house, but he’d crack that egg eventually.

He actually lowered the window like a tourist and looked out with his own two eyes at the fucking mansion that Jensen called home. The preacher wasn’t lying when he claimed to be loaded. Damn, who knew religion was so lucrative.

He climbed from the vehicle, stomach already rumbling for more donuts, and leered upward. This was not the Texas he imagined, and as he watched the preacher in his supposed element, Jay sought out a glimpse of Natalie. She was an unreadable stone as always, but she had to have thoughts. Jensen didn’t fit in here. That was for sure. The cowboy preacher more altruistic than anyone Jay ever met before felt like a cactus invading a fine English garden.

He rubbed his eyes when Jessika Thrice came out. He’d no idea the governor was so, ahem, not-attractive-at-all, but the way she looked at him made him feel dissected.

Jay thought his own family was dysfunctional? Seems like they were tame compared to this mess.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Gov. Jessika Thrice

Jessika held her breath a moment before pulling the massive doors open in one smooth swing. The car rolled to a stop just as she descended the steps, but the windows were too tinted to make out the faces within. Her heart fluttered despite the seriousness of the situation in a most irritating way. Rather than wring her hands impatiently, she focused on a steady breath and a fixing a warm smile to her lips. Open hearts, big hair and good food were the mainstays of a good Texan hostess, and Governor or otherwise, Jessika was the best.

The guests emerged one at a time, and the weight of her gaze judged each one. An older couple whom she presumed to be Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter knuckled backs and looked like they could use a good cup of coffee. A young girl followed with circles under her eyes and cheeks pale. The little sister, Jessika imagined, the one that needed asylum. Another followed, but this one was a lady rather than a girl despite the flatness of her hair and gauntness of her cheeks. The European aristocrat, Jessika made sure to tilt her chin ever so slightly. The poor thing didn’t look like much of an aristocrat despite the formal finery of her appearance.

The soldier was next. A handsome one to be sure, that given a shave and shower might be enough to make a woman stare. Fit, powerful and dangerous, Jessika had to remind herself that the reason for her fluttering heart was not Jay Carpenter just to peel her eyes off of him. There would be more opportunity to dissect he who might be called a traitor later. Perhaps it was a harsh title, but Jessika was quite liberal with such assignments. Some would call her a traitor as well, the Govenror who sought to splinter Texas from the union. General Lee would be proud.

Finally, her doleful husband rounded the vehicle. Jensen looked like he could use a haircut and a facial, but the intensity of his gaze crushed her heart just like it did in high school. She was a fool for it, given the sham that was their marriage. Anger should flood the soul, not solitude and sadness, but Jensen roused the simple country girl from within when the politician should want to see her squashed.

For now, she was content that her long-lost husband was home.

“Howdy ya'll,” she widened her arms as though to pull all of the group into a motherly embrace.
you must be exhausted with that long drive. Please come inside and find some comfort. Breakfast is on the table and we’ll find all of you a place to fresh up as we fill up those empty bellies,” her drawl was sophisticated, her eyes sparkling. Jessika went to greet each guest in turn, shaking hands and warmly clasping wrists until she was certain each felt at home.

“I am Jessika. Come in, come in.”

She led them into the house as a couple of young men came out to retrieve the various luggages stowed in the vehicle’s trunk.
Hope you can sleep sitting up. He’d grinned around the words, and she’d smirked dryly in response, but it wasn’t discomfort that made the journey a hellish endurance for her. Natalie skimmed in and out of sleep like a drowning soul treading restless waters, trying not to let herself slip under. Not in a car full of strangers. By the time they rolled into Jensen’s driveway she didn’t feel particularly well rested, but since she couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept a full night anyway, she didn’t feel awful either.

Technically she ought to be reminding Jay of Brandon’s terms for agreeing to the leave, but she felt little inclination to do so. His sister was about as safe as she was going to get given the circumstances, but Jay deserved the time to sooth the bridges he burned. Responsibility would sting sooner or later; she was in no rush to hasten its tug back to Custody concerns. Apparently Brandon’s blackmail didn’t hold as much bite as it ought to, else her sense of apathy reached new heights. She didn’t dwell on the distinction.

If she’d been kinder to herself she probably would have parted ways at the park, but self-preservation was usually the least of her concerns. Though so many hours pinned amidst the cold silence of Jay’s family drama did little to err her towards feeling social once released from the car’s cage. Her smile was purely perfunctory. Jessika’s slight nod cast her into a role she was happy to accept for the distance it provided. Jay’s family needed the comforts of homely hospitality far more than she did, and she was glad to let them soak up Jessika’s warm welcome.
Jay loitered at the car while the others followed Jessika inside. Keypad opened the rear door. Roaming eyes counted the contents without a thought, calculating the order in which to remove them without sending the entire pile tumbling to the dirt. Given the way it worked out last time that happened, it would be best to avoid a repeat.
"Let me get that for you." A hand inserted in front of his face, but Jay's own clamped down on the wrist before it could do any good. Rotation turned the elbow inward, the attached shoulder pryed against its will. The voice yelped in surprise, and Jay only then realized how young the face cringed in pain really was.

A teenager. He swallowed and let go. The kid, of all of maybe eighteen years, stumbled.
"I'm sorry." Jay said and offered a hand to steady him. A worried glance searched the background, wondering if the others saw (or heard) the inappropriate reaction. Given that he once put a shotgun in the face of a church pastor loading up firewood, it was unlikely his dad would be surprised. Mom and Cayli though, he was certain they were ignorant of the standoff that night in the snow. Jay wanted to keep it that way.

A lick of the lips and he decided to leave the luggage to the kid. "Uh, thanks." A final glance at the bag that held his uniform and he left it behind. "There's weapons under the front seats."'

Rubbing his wrist and painting on a strong face, the kid nodded. "This is Texas, sir. There's weapons under everyone's seat."

Jay laughed.

With a nod, he finally dragged himself inside.

The interior was exactly like the exterior: overwhelmingly large and overdone everything. It was food that curled its finger in the right direction, and Jay was content to follow blindly into Jensen and Jessika's world. So long as there was bacon at the end of the trail. He'd walk into the 7th realm of Naraka if it meant a good breakfast. Morbid, but not untrue.

A flash of light caught his eyes and he blinked. Heat touched his face. Acid on the tongue and dirt ground gritty in his teeth..

But another step and the light faded. A sunbeam pushed through a window high overhead, he realized, creating a bar of yellow that he must have passed through. Dust floated barely seen by the naked eye. Perpetually trapped in a cage invisible.
He knew the feeling.

Breakfast was awkward, and despite how many of them present, the table still held empty chairs. The meals he couldn't even imagine that were once served here, or maybe they still were given this acted as the home of the Governor of the largest state in the Union (Alaska doesn't count).

Jensen was awkwardly uncomfortable in his own home. His parents and sister were exhausted and Cayli looked ready for a shower until she spied a corner of the pool in the back yard. Then she seemed to come back to life. Compared to the winter weather they just left, Texas was the tropics.

Jessika talked but Jay heard none of it. His back ached and he piled too much food in his stomach too fast. When told they could each have their own spare bedroom because Jensen's house had so many fucking bedrooms, Jay finally spoke up.
"Cayli needs to go upstairs; whatever room is closest the interior of the house as possible. Any exterior walls should face the back. I'll take whatever room is nearest the front of the house." Cayli's reaction was blank, but Jay was sure she was annoyed by the over-protective older brother.

The selection seemed well received. Jay glanced at Natalie briefly before he up and left the table, needing to stretch his legs and familiarize himself with what was going to become a fortress in short order. Everyone went their separate ways after that, with Jessika leading, of course.

The Governor wasn't without her own security detail, he soon learned. They had to know he was coming, so nobody jumped him, but it was along the side of the house that he met one of them for the first time. Or - more accurately - they met him.

A tall fence, iron with decorative (yet effective) spikes on the top circled the lot. Despite the tall trees and privacy bushes, this was still the city. Fences defined one property to the adjacent. He was knelt down, one knee in the dirt, yanking on the fence post to define just how secure it was, when an ahem cleared its throat behind him.

Unlike the kid with the luggage, this one kept his distance, fully respectful of the dangers of invading personal space. Jay sighed, ready to explain himself and offer the mutual degrees of respect, yadda yadda, and stood to greet whichever detail drew the short end of the straw to track him down in person.

He was about Jay's age and size, maybe an inch shorter. A fit, strong physique filled out a suit otherwise dressed down by the open collar at the neck. He carried, of course, and wore similar communications devices to what the Dominions also wore, though a downgraded version. Both of them wore sunglasses, but Jay didn't even flinch to remove his own nor did the security beef.

They didn't need to; Jay would recognize this guy anywhere. Clearly, the former Marine standing in front of him did too.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Jessika's smile sparkled as Jensen hadn't seen in years. Their previous reunion was lackluster despite all the emotion elicited. Jensen's night ended with himself in jail, Jessika worked with Jon Little Bird to solicit his freedom. It worked, but Jessika's responsibilities to Texas pulled her back before they were reunited a second time. All the calls and messages since then couldn't prepare Jensen for this moment, but there was a digging feeling in his spine that said he would be here eventually. There was no delaying the inevitable. 

No offense to Moscow, his surrogate home of the past three years, but breakfast wasn't the same. Not even a McDonalds egg mcmuffin was standardized enough to quell the homesickness tumbling his stomach to knots. This place was comforting. The sunshine and tables, Jessika at the helm, guests filling the walls.

Jay's departure was some kind of silent signal that breakfast was concluded. Understandably, the small talk was minimal, yet Jessika more than made up for the silence. She had the ability to dispel the awkwardness of the situation with a glance, and a swell of pride flushed Jensen's view of his wife. 

His wife. He was still married to her. She hadn't asked for divorce despite the chasm between them. Did the children know their father was here? 

"You must all be in need of rest. Let me show you where you can stay." Jessika stood, hands clasped with statuesque patience. Her hair glinted with strands of gold, red suit warming her skin tone. Heels lifted her height to Jensen's shoulder as he joined her. Somehow, he felt like another guest, and remained quiet as such while she showed off the guest rooms to Jay's parents, Cayli, Natalie, (Jay was gone by then).
"The house is watched closely while I am here. You'll all be quite safe so long as you stay on the grounds. There's a cinema room, rec room, and a little workout room in the pool house." Cayli light up at that. Jensen smiled. When they picked this house to purchase, the pool was the selling factor for Jensen. The boys would love it growing up; and although the architecture didn't suit his style, Jessika liked it. That was good enough for him.

When they were finally alone, Jensen thought his heart might burst from his chest when Jessika's gorgeous smile faded serious as slate. "Come on," she said when she turned back and realized Jensen wasn't following. He sighed and did as she requested until they were secluded within the master suite. When she locked the double doors, Jensen swallowed nervously. 

Jensen jumped to speak first, hoping to thwart the rebuke sure to come.
"Jessika, thank you so much for this. They are --" she cut him off with a glance as cold as ice that pricked Jensen's heart to stillness. 

He turned in a circle. The chair he used to read in the mornings. His and hers closets. He wandered over to his own, pulled the handle and his heart sank when he saw all of his belongings still hanging within exactly as he left them. Rows of suits and glass-enclosed shoes buffed to a shine. Drawers of ties and displayed cufflinks. His hand grazed the silky soft sleeves of button-downs arranged in a rainbow of colors.

When he returned, it was like he crawled out of a hole to face the sun for the first time in hibernation. Instead, it was Jessika, arms crossed, angry as a wet cat. His jaw clenched at that. Brow furrowed. How long was she going to burn him for this? 

Their standoff went on for some minutes. Jensen lost track of the time. 
Finally, Jensen's frustration bubbled out. "I am sorry for the way I handled everything, but I'm not asking your forgiveness." Her exterior was hard as granite. Jensen steeled himself for an explosive reaction. 

Instead, within moments, she closed the distance between them, and he was met with a passionate kiss.
[[An Interlude]]

An awkward breakfast passed. The stilted conversation weighted far heavier than remedial remarks about the weather or Jessika’s beautiful house, but their hostess provided a smooth navigation over those unsettled waters. Natalie nursed a coffee and for the most part tuned out. Her presence was more hindrance than help, and she had never placed much value on small talk. Instead she remembered how Jensen had reacted to the opportunity to return home; how profusely he had thanked Jay. And yet this reunion was strangely perfunctory.

Not that it was any of her business.

She was glad when they all finally dispersed. The last few days had hardly been comfortable living, and though she’d breathed no complaint (seriously, bigger problems) the simple pleasure of being clean was like the offer of water in the desert. Excused to her own devices, it was the first blessed thing she did. The shower stung intentionally just a little too hot for comfort, like it might scour her soul alongside. The quiet times like this were so often when the weight of grief rolled over in her chest like a slumbering beast, but though she felt its stirrings it did not rouse. Her face upturned to the stream of water to drown the burn behind her eyes, until the heaviness shifted to a bearable burden.

When she returned Cayli sprawled out on her bed, hair damp on her shoulders. She was stifling a yawn when her gaze bounced up to the opening door, and a beam replaced it. “Have you SEEN this house. It. Is. Amazing. It has a pool, Natalie, a pool. And bathrooms. Plural! Which -- ha, okay, which is probably pretty normal to you, but you’ll still come out to the poolhouse with me right? Because it’s practically the tropics compared to Iowa so mom can hardly complain I’m gonna catch a chill.”

A little hesitation marked Natalie’s path, her thoughts already revolving carefully around the looming future. Cayli knew as much as Natalie could really teach of the power, and once she left American soil it was unlikely she would ever have cause or opportunity to return. Torn from her home, and hospitalised months before that, it was clear the girl was lonely. It tugged at emotions Natalie did not allow to reach her expression as she perched at the edge of her own bed. Truth was she didn’t want to be a thorn in the side of this family by encouraging a friendship Cayli’s parents found distasteful. They already had enough pulling them apart.

In the end she smirked and gestured the freshly charged wallet in her palm. “I have some work I need to do. Being an ambassador isn’t all ten hour hell-rides and stony breakfast silences.”

Cay laughed. “Why do you think I want some halfway decent company? They’ll get over it. They kinda have to, you know? He’s their son. And they’re not so bad, my mom and dad. I mean this is a shitstorm by any standards, right? But I’m sure the five star luxury will help them get their heads around everything. Pastor Jensen James’s house. I mean really. I think mom’s head might explode.” She grinned. “What kind of work?”

Curiosity lit her up and even Natalie’s iron resolve quietened. She’d planned to keep her distance while the family settled; to spend the time tying up some loose obligations and thinking afresh over the future’s problems. There had to be leverage somewhere. But there was so little she could actually do here to be of use, and soon enough Cay was going to be stuck here alone. Perhaps it was selfish to prolong the tie, but Natalie appreciated the company. Eventually she shrugged and crossed her legs up under her, pushing the wallet wallet out onto the rumpled blankets. A few taps burst a schism of colour and light up into the air between them. Marcus’s programme. A swipe of her finger spun the strands of light curled like ribbons in flight.

“A visual representation of the power. Simplified. It might not look like this to you -- it doesn’t to me. But the basic principles are the same.”

Cayli’s eyes widened for a moment, while Natalie pointed out the distinct threads. Then determination flooded her expression in the same breath as the power. No permission was sought, but Natalie didn’t begrudge the distraction. The gift was probably going to be the best protection Cayli could have once Jay left for Africa, and only practise would secure confidence. For a moment she watched the faint glow against the teenager’s skin, paling a halo around her face; then moved to observe the whips of power curling in imitation of the digital example. Slowly, a wobbling orb of water began to spin itself into existence. Content to leave her to tinker with Marcus’s programme, Natalie’s attention realigned to another, smaller screen.

Her research had understandably faltered, and she’d intended for a more comprehensive first instalment, but days had slipped by now. She was inclined to offer at least something, given her abrupt absence from Moscow. At the very least she wished to impart the steps that had helped pull Cayli back from the cusp. It was important information to share, lest it prove the linchpin in another’s life. Writing it down revealed such simplicity it tugged at the corners of her lips, though. How many had already lost this chance? How many were losing it now, only for lack of a little guidance?

Another message followed for Evelyn; gratitude for the part she had played in granting them leave from the Custody, and assurances that as a result Jay’s sister was alive and blooming. She erred a little heavy on the supposed familial bliss, lest the Congresswoman’s soft heart provide the balm they might need to ease any irritation on Brandon’s part for Jay’s continued absence. There had been no stipulation for time, but she did not doubt he kept tabs on their progress. He would know Cayli had left the hospital.

The third was brief, asking Laurie for a discrete favour. That sent she finally shifted, pressing the palm of her hand against the knot in the back of her neck. The journey’s aches resettled with a little inertia. 

“You know. I thought about it, and I really doubt you let my mom scare you off.” Natalie’s gaze rose. Cay’s brows were low, attention tight on the flame dancing atop her palm. Though a small smile played around the edges of her mouth. It was probably foolish to split her attention like that, but a glance at the twisting threads revealed them sound enough. “So maybe,” Cay continued, “you should know that Jay was pretty upset when he thought you’d gone.”

“You ought to concentrate, Cay. You like your eyebrows, don’t you?”

Cayli chuckled. The little flame sputtered and flashed, much like the impish gleam in her eye. “I don’t mind. Just saying. So who’s Alistair?”

This time when Natalie’s gaze pressed up it was with pinched brows. It wasn’t like Cay was without resources; even a basic online search would reveal the whole sordid history of Natalie’s family. But there was nothing more than benign curiosity in the question. It still felt like a step from sunlight to shade. “He’s my father,” she said carefully. “Where did you hear that name?”

Cay shrugged. “My brother’s not hot on the subtle. Did you notice? He mumbled something before, right after you’d gone. So I thought you might know.” The girl’s attention shifted to gauge the silence that followed, and as she did the power suddenly fizzled from her. She frowned, equal parts frustrated and disappointed. But her expression quickly resolved to an earnestness as something else apparently occurred to her. “So does this mean you’re not going back to the Custody?” 

“What makes you think that?”

Cayli’s expression flickered; a flash of vulnerability behind the bravado. “That’s why we stopped at the park, right? To convince you to stay. Because it’s what your dad wants?”

It sank in like a shock of frigid water.

Because communication with a convicted terrorist was bad enough. A stupid risk, not to mention a breach of privacy that did not exactly swell Natalie with forgiveness. But she had assumed it had been an act born of anger -- to confront the paperwork Jay had discovered in her bag, the agents sent to her room, his secrets laid bare like so much viscera. She hadn’t dwelt on it; just pressed it to the back of her mind like so many missed phonecalls, the detail obscured by a sheer wall of wilful ignorance. A thing of the past.

But the implications Cayli spilled in innocence chilled Natalie’s expression still. It throbbed like so much shattered glass in her chest before she swept it close and begged that pain to silence. Doubts festered. The ‘I can’t do this without you’ settled somewhere deep suddenly crumbled under scrutiny, and for a moment she felt foolish, so foolish, to have believed him. To have wanted to believe him.

Because it seemed then that Jay had lied. 

In fact the revelation was suddenly stark: he’d needed her to stay to satisfy her father’s whim, and begged her the surest way he knew how. She’d even given him that ammunition. Light, those words by the lake were nothing but a manipulation. It flooded her cold, then parted for anger. Defiance flared, filled her up with the fierce, knee-jerk reaction to storm free of this mess; to shuck loose of the connection that tugged her back and always to him. A destructive flaw. Something broken in her psyche. 

A swipe collapsed the screens in front of her. The breath was tight in her lungs; too tight, as if anything spilled might spark like a dam she couldn't stop.

And then she remembered; the smallest of details, like a ragged pennant on a scarred battlefield. Enough to give brief pause.

Because Jay had thrown the wallet in the lake before he’d spoken. 

Wariness snared the urge to explore the memory further. At the time relief had marked the arc of its flight out of her life, the only thing she really recalled of the action. The why never stirred until now, because like so many thoughts fringing her father, Natalie had chosen not to examine it. Instead she’d allowed herself to assume Jay simply understood; that it was an apology of sorts, or at least an end. And maybe it was, but not for her.

Alistair had to have offered something in exchange, and Jay wasn’t so charmed an actor he could have hidden the granting of such a boon in return. Yet they had no advantages. No answers. And he’d cut the line of communication before he could have known what she would do for certain. But why? The coldest part of her understood what he might have had to gain from her father. The coldest part of her accepted the necessity for any cost.

Her thoughts reared back before any more emotion began to stir.

She cut it down to the facts.

He’d still made a deal in the first place. 

With her damn father.

A deal upon which if he had reneged, Alistair would be unlikely to simply let go. Forgive and forget; not exactly the Grey family motto. She briefly closed her eyes.

Jesus, Jay, what did you do?

She ran a palm over her face, shifted back into reality to witness the expression on Cay’s face. There was that hopeful look in her eye; the little sister always left behind, always desperately building bridges to Jay’s life. Like his family, like the little sister he moved mountains to save, was not enough. A life worth protecting, its value a sum of parts labelled with familial obligation, but not someone to know. To return to. Cayli had to know better, but Natalie understood that seed of doubt. She’d been the one left behind; knew that sinking weight of a connection so desperately fought for but never won. 

Her anger banked (and oh, she was angry). 

It would take time for Alistair to catch up. She had time to fix this.

“My grandfather is a Patron in the Custody. If I ran away to America I think he and my mother would have something to say, Cay. It’s probably why my father suggested it. Seems we have the dysfunctional family thing in common.”

It wasn’t the answer Cay would want, but there was little point issuing false promise. She still didn’t want to see hint of the inevitable deflation, though. The kid had been incarcerated in a hospital while her life crumbled to ash beyond its walls, then uprooted from the home she had grown up in by the brother she idolised, knowing that in a matter of days it would all be gone again. Being a teenager chafed at the best of times. It was still a stupid idea to step into this breach like she wasn’t going to just be another person who left, but neither could she quite walk away from the need.

“Come on then. Let’s go find this bloody pool.”
[Image: axel-1.jpg]
Axel Miller, The Machete
Former Raider, USMC SOF

Axel fucking Miller, the Machete. The nickname was a joke, originally, after the guy took a bet he couldn’t snap a piece of bamboo in one blow with a machete like some kind of Samurai video. The name stuck.

They stared at each other. For every second that passed, Jay was sure his heart beat loud as gunshots. He rose to his feet, but soon enough, he couldn’t contain a grin from escaping another minute.
He grabbed the former soldier and the two clapped in a firm hug.
It was like clinging to a ghost of the past.
Jesus Christ Hollywood, I thought you were two in the brain and buried in a ditch after Nica.”

Jay grinned and stepped aside, scrubbing a hand through sweaty hair. After Iowa, it was practically hot as those fucking jungles in comparison. “Me too. I’m still looking over my shoulder.”

“And here you are digging in the dirt outside the house of the governor of fucking Texas. Goddammit man, what the hell are you doing here?”

Jay glanced at the house, then back over the fence that was obviously fine and secure as any fence should be under the circumstances.
“It’s the longest story of my life. How’s Morgan?” They’d be married less than a year now. Jay was meant to be a groomsman in the wedding. He called days before, warning he’d be a no-show.

He didn’t take the silence as a good sign. “Eh, I’m sorry man. I liked her.” Axel shrugged, apathetic. Truth be told, Jay was shocked when the man announced an engagement. Morgan was cool, but Axel didn’t seem the type to settle down with anyone. Not surprised it didn’t last.

“I think that’s $500 you owe me?” Maybe it was a sick thing to bet against your friend’s marriage ending early, but how else did someone spice up a wedding. Those things were boring as shit. Besides, wasn’t the groom supposed to bet on eternal bliss?

“Yeah and you can shove it up your ass, Carp.” Axel’s grin was all too familiar. Jay had an eager remark to return, but silence dominated in the end.

“So, you’re with the husband’s group?”

Jay blinked. Jensen. Right. “Yeah. Kind of. Not like that.”

An awkward kind of silence he never recalled looming before filled the intervening moments.
“Then what the hell are you doing in Preston Fucking Hollow?” Genuine curiosity tugged truths from Jay he thought sure were buried far below the surface.

Before he knew it, they were sharing a cigarette, and Jay told Axel everything.

Twenty minutes later, they were sitting in the garage and it was Axel’s turn to blink speechless, look him up and down, and shake his head. “Bull shit.”

Jay swallowed nervously, pulled the paper from his lips and held the spent butt in the air. A moment later, fires engulfed the paper and it incinerated in one quick flash of light.

Axel laughed.

At least it felt good to be accepted. Fires coursed him from inside out, not just from the cigarette. He hated those fuckers, but goddammit he missed them.

“Tell you what, I can help you out.”

Jay frowned. “No you can’t. You’re a gun for hire walking three steps behind..”
Axel grinned, “Behind that sweet little ass?”
“I was going to say Governor Thrice,”
“Sure you were.” Axel swiped his hands on his pants and stood up. “I can help, though. I know a guy. Every time Amengual takes a shit, he knows about it. I think I can get him to talk to you.”

Jay frowned. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know how Axel had that kind of connection.
“Probably won’t want any more than four or five grand.”

“Five grand?” Jay groaned. Its not like he expected such a cockroach to do anyone a favor, but Jay wasn’t made of cash. He’d spent a lot to get out here then move the family to Dallas. Not to mention most of his paycheck was funneled home anyway. Paying for medical bills for no reason at all.

He’d have to ask Natalie to help. Like hell if he was going to ask the preacher. Somehow, that seemed dirtier than talking to some narco informant.

“Set it up. I’ll get the money.”

Axel nodded. God it was good to see him.
Only darkness shows you the light.

It was the last place Natalie expected to capture a sense of peace. The weeks and months stretched out dark behind her, a thorny briar that for once felt a little distant; like it might one day truly be something that lived in the past. The water was warm where her legs dipped in, jeans tugged up to the knee. Heat beat down like an embrace, drying out Cayli’s grinning splashes. She chattered away about normal things; her school, her family, her friends. Asked questions and ribbed jokes at the stark differences between their lives. Mostly Natalie listened, caught between the lull of the girl’s charm and the stark reminder that soon she would be gone. This sense of comfort was little more than an illusion, if a welcome one.

Suddenly Cayli’s bobbing head tilted. She grinned before her expression fell to mock suspicion, then drifted her way to the edge of the pool, folding her arms against the side. Her brows rose. “You don’t look like you’re here to swim.”
After leaving Axel, Jay hurried inside, eyes on the staircase. It was only a cursory glance at the open space outdoors that he glimpsed golden hair. He watched her a moment, ripples rolling around her feet. She looked warm and relaxed. If he didn’t know better, she’d seem a different person completely. Cayli brought it out in her. An infectious sort of joy. Any teenager might radiate it, but one given a second chance at life? Nobody deserved it more than Cayli. Wondered what they were saying.. He might be able to hear if – No. In the end, he left them with their peace a few moments longer. It’s not like it wouldn’t end soon enough anyway.

A detour through the largest kitchen he'd ever seen, and he found himself at a bar. A few minutes later, he plucked the sunglasses on his nose and appeared from the back door. Warmth radiated from sun-baked stones. The pool a vibrant blue. Given that he only had two hands and they were each occupied holding onto one of those wide-rimmed margarita cups, the third floated on toward Cayli on a tray of the power. Virgin. Of course.

Her comment halted him in his tracks, a curious grin touching his lips, Jay looked down at himself. Jeans worn for more days than he cared to admit, a white under-shirt that probably should go in the trash rather than the laundry. He shrugged and sent Cayli’s drink on to where she was perched in the pool. Despite everything between them, she didn’t turn it down.  

The other he laid at Natalie’s side a moment before joining her. He kept his boots on though. The flagstone was hot as sand under his ass, but it was comforting anyway. Familiar.
He’d love to go swimming.

Don’t know why. But Jay just started talking. He never shared anything about his time in the marines with his family. Let alone anything like this.. Somehow, the moment seemed fitting. Probably that motherfucker Axel’s fault. .. “You know we used to play a game called Underwater Torpedo.” He scratched an ear. “There’s two teams in the pool, five per side” he pointed to each end, “and one torpedo. Object of the game is to score a goal on the opposite team. Torpedo has to stay underwater the entire time. If you’re in possession of the torpedo, you can’t break surface of the water. Not even for air. Or it’s a penalty and goes to the other side. Tackling and blocking are allowed kind of like in football. God that was fun.” The game was really a tactic to develop stamina and strength in their diving. It was the best part of the day for months. While it lasted. At his best, he could hold his breath 131 seconds underwater.

A swirl of the margarita, colder than one would expect from mere ice, sloshed as he took a drink. The James’ had surprisingly good tequila in the bar.

“What can you do? Ever figure out those underwater handstands?” Of course, if Cayli had been paying attention, she’d seemed to be particularly focused on her cup the last few minutes, then she would have noticed the taunt. With some measure of frustration, she put the cup on the side of the pool, spun hard enough to flick a blade of water from her hair, and promptly proceeded to demonstrate just such a feat.

Jay spoke quickly with Natalie. While he could.
“I need five-thousand dollars. Do you think you can get it?”    
Only darkness shows you the light.


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