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Risky Business
[[Continued from Sanctuary]]

He offered no argument and asked no questions, though the pause did suggest some internal deliberation measured the decision first. Natalie made no guesses as to the colour of his conscience. Whatever meagre ties remained between he and Jay, and whatever Jensen had said to convince him, Axel certainly owed nothing to her. He proved indifference time and again with the world shifted perilous for those around him. Bringing him was a risk, but a calculated one, and not necessarily because she expected a favourable outcome. Desperation had that effect, and she was fatalistic with such things when the need arose. Her father cautioned her to choose allies with care. He did not caution her to wise decisions.

Natalie sent a brief message to Jensen before she slid into the driver’s seat. The Carpenters have been granted asylum by the Custody. Take the chance if you get it. An unlikely salvage now, but better that he knew of the lifeline anyway. Frustration simmered, stamped down before the panic took root. The engine purred. She checked the rearview as they set off, but no one appeared to follow. Maybe the agents had never picked up the trail from the casino. She supposed it didn’t matter now.

The journey wasn't long. Laurie hadn’t exactly picked the most discreet place to meet. After parking up, the street Natalie led to was touristy and busy, teeming with flashy bars and restaurants. The dichotomy tightened her stomach, like the mere witness of something so blithe and careless was a betrayal. She felt herself slipping but forced her step into the restaurant instead. A Mexican place. Within, a brief glance at the bar revealed a familiar flash of red.

@"Jensen James" for the text message
@"Lawrence Monday" for the thread
[Image: axel-1.jpg]
Axel Miller

Talk about cutting the tension with a knife.

Natalie didn’t like him. Well, he didn’t fault her too much. But she’d never seen him at his best. A glorified mall cop wasn’t exactly putting his skills to best use. And you know, selling people out tended to be taken poorly. Axel could give two shits about Natalie’s admiration. If he cared about that, he’d never joined the military in the first place. His parents practically disowned him for the choice.

He was uncharacteristically quiet, though. Granted, the many crossings and double-crossings and triple-crossings was cracking his mind like an egg. Problem with lying to everyone was keeping up with the most current story of the moment. Maybe he should just let someone shoot Jessika in the head tonight and get out of all this? It would rid him of one annoying problem but leave him a bigger one. Escaping thumbs of governments and cartels took more than one well-placed bullet implied.

They rolled into Margarita Mile, the downtown touristy district of Dallas so named for the numerous Mexican restaurants, bars, and food trucks each renowned for their own version of a margarita. He stepped from the car, gaze studying those present with one calculating sweep, and followed her inside. “Custody girls don’t get a lot of good Mexican, eh?” he said playfully. He understood very little about the person they were meeting, nor did he ask.

Seated at the bar, a long glance licked the redhead up and down. A smirk twisted his lips. Maybe this wasn’t going to be such a bad plan after all.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Xander tapped her on the shoulder when he spotted Natalie crossing the restaurant. Lawrence swiveled in the seat, immediately struck by the grim aura nipping at their heels. She'd seen Natalie at tough times. Witnessing the way they all clawed their way across Freetown, basically by their fingernails, Natalie was always a pillar of defiant determination. She'd also seen the ethereal beauty that swept the halls of the Kremlin; both women were haunted by different terrors. Yet today, Natalie was neither. She was gaunt and drawn, a hallow shell. Lawrence and Xander exchanged worried glances just before they arrived.

She snatched the stem of a cactus-themed margarita glass and led them toward a high-top table fit for a foursome. Xander snagged his coke, while technically over 21, he got smashed just sniffing tequila. On the way, she touched Natalie on the arm, “Are you okay, hon?” like the intimate gesture might reveal some private emotion normally kept buried deep down.

Of course, her gaze floated toward the handsome features that followed behind Natalie like some kind of third-wheel that was clearly uncomfortable, yet somehow hovering near enough to not be excluded. A wide smile split her lips as she stretched out a hand, “Hi there. I’m Lawrence,” she said in greeting, sliding close enough to clasp fingers and drape her spare hand across his wrist.
The irreverence of Axel’s humour was something she might have appreciated under different circumstances. Her lips titled into a grim smirk, though she said nothing in return. Laurie stood to meet them, novelty glass twirling in hand, and yet the warmth of her presence was like a familiar pillar of strength. Natalie had never liked journalists, but despite that unswaying prejudice, in the grit and ash of a battlefield Lawrence was one such person she would choose to have at her side; a strange feeling, and rooted in nothing more tangible than their shared experiences in Africa, but no less true. It was not a faith that soothed her fears, but one that at least assured a clawed step in the right direction.

The concern did not pull much from her still expression, though inwardly a note of surprise rippled at the touch and the words. She could not afford to lean on the kindness, nor let it erode the illusion of strength keeping her upright. Nothing emanated from Laurie that suggested the same sisterhood she felt with Cayli, and yet something stirred all the same. She smirked like she would brush it off, but it was stark honestly that left emotionless from her lips, like that much was owed. “No.”

Natalie let Axel make his own introductions, disinclined to shadow past decisions with present ones. Expectation was a weight to crush the will to do better, and Laurie could certainly look after herself. Instead she sat at the table procured and retrieved her father’s file from her bag. She pulled out the first page to rest atop the manilla folder, but slid the whole thing across to Laurie once they were all seated.

“A little different from the official account.”

She’d deliberated over sharing the full story, but wanted Axel to wonder at the depth of her reach. Grimmer thoughts flickered, too; that if things went wrong, it was Laurie she wished to have the information to wield as a weapon. Black streaked the redacted details; clearly a copy of some classified file. Given how deeply Natalie suspected the conspiracy ultimately went, it was probably dangerous knowledge to possess -- and offered with a measure of trust but no bargaining strings. She was quiet a moment while she allowed the other woman time to scan enough of it to provide context.

She spoke low. There was not much more she could do to ensure privacy. “Jessika Thrice is hours away from announcing cessation, and Amengual was at the ball in Moscow. The two are in communication, according to Jensen James and Jessika’s head of security.” A gesture indicated Axel. “Jensen told me the governor received support from Orion for her campaign, and this afternoon Diaz came to collect Jay’s sister, insistent that she is still ill. But her Sickness was cured, Laurie. If Amengual gets his hands on her, she’s dead.”

Little changed in the stone of her expression, but her pause then spoke volumes. Her pale gaze caught Laurie’s, silent but for the skitter of old ghosts. She wondered if the woman ever dreamed of that jungle, or of the pounding of children’s footsteps, or the pop of each bullet. Kids who’d been the foundation of Natalie’s life for six months; innocent and eager for life’s bounty no matter their poorly dealt hand. Stolen short. Her jaw hardened, rejecting the memory of powerlessness.

“A few days ago Jay went to meet a cartel contact for information. He never came back. Axel suggests there are limited places capable of holding a channeler, and the means for subduing one are medical. He has to be with Orion. Right now Jensen is with Cayli, and he’ll keep us apprised of where they take her. But we can’t afford to wait for that, and we can’t afford to check all the possible locations they might be holding Jay. My bets are on your school.” She paused again. It was a lot to take in, and she’d barely focused on the bigger picture; one she was sure Laurie would see. Her voice softened. “Zacarías Amegual is dangerous, Laurie. I’m not asking you to put yourself on the line, or Xander. But I need a way in.”
[Image: axel-1.jpg]
Axel Miller

Axel was more than content to let Lawrence grope his forearm. He searched her eyes, green as grass, hair copper and smile broad as the ocean. All that romantic bullshit passed swiftly through his mind. What followed was less than honorable. “Axel,” he said, introducing himself. It was with grumbling reluctance that they moved toward business, and an amused smile glanced at the boy following Lawrence around like a sad puppy.

The few nods in Natalie’s story for the brave and honorable head of security ilicted little more than a tip of the shoulder. He continued to watch their surroundings, half-concerned of anyone that might be eavesdropping and half-watching the nearest exits for a swift getaway.

Eventually, he asked to see a map of the school itself. The location would work, being near enough to the highway for easy routes but far enough from town to avoid undue attention. “It could be it,” he agreed. “But what are you going to do? Knock on the front door and asked to be let inside?” he asked.

A grim line formed his lips thoughtful, arms folded, leaning back on the barstool. His jacket was open at the waist, holsters peeking from beneath the folds. He listened to Natalie’s story faithfully despite the shit grin that tugged his mouth once in a while. Meanwhile, he ached for a cigarette, and a frustrated growl rumbled his chest.

He pushed a frustrated hand through his hair and leaned near enough to glimpse the folder. He spoke quietly for Natalie, “you asked what I wanted,” he said. “I want out. A new life, a new name. My own money. My own fucking island if I can get it. I want to stop looking over my shoulder and fuck whoever I actually want to fuck once in a while,” just on good measure, his gaze flicked quite dishonorably toward Lawrence. “You have pull enough for that. That’s what I want in return for walking into that school and dragging Carp out by his collar,” he said, doubtful the princess of the Custody could actually pull that off.

Irreverent gaze, flat as iron, levelled the women (and the shit-faced intern), “Come on. You both know you can’t do this without me. I’m your best hope unless you want to bet on that spineless preacher,” he said.

A deep breath as he checked the time, “and we have to do it before she takes the stage. I want to be on a private jet bound for anywhere else by sundown.”
Only darkness shows you the light.

Lawrence devoured the information. The paper flit through her fingers with an ever-increasing drop of the jaw. How did Natalie get this information? That’s some legit-shit right there! she thought.

Her mind was blurring the stories together, weaving them among the pre-requisite knowledge of what she already acquired, pitting against the hypotheses formed by myriad accounts gathered over the years. A cartel leader was at the ball in Moscow. The same cartel leader whose brother was killed by American covert operations years ago, now wines and dines with a governor of Texas soon to take power in a state attempting to leave the union? You can’t make this shit up! Laurie’s heart was fluttering with excitement. She was sure the pulse must beat her eyes with hungry passion. She was holding onto a gold mine, here. All she had to do was write it up and put it online. She could scoop everything from government conspiracies to Custody interference in state politics. She could link illegal cartel lords to half a dozen different legit groups, blighting them all in one swoop.

But all that was put on pause when she understood the predicament holding Natalie hostage. The reason she came to Texas in the first place was to help root out the conspiracy linking channeler research to a little girl that needed their help. She’d never met Cayli, but a protective vibe connected her to the innocent kid. Maybe because she herself never had someone to stand up for her like that, or maybe because it was just who she was (she’d never admit it), but Masiaka left its mark. The powerful would not sacrifice children to their own ends ever again, not under her watch.

Axel rubbed Natalie the wrong way. It didn’t take a shrink to see the angst flitting back and forth between them like spitballs shooting across the classroom. He was one of the hottest guys she'd ever seen. Like lip-biting, tongue-twisting, dirty-thoughts kind of hot. Which was saying something; she'd seen Jay shirtless in Africa. So Axel was the governor’s head of security. What was he doing entangled in all this? Even as soon as Laurie questioned it, he provided an answer. Lawrence was content to shrug and look back and forth from one of them to the other. He was clearly more than he let on, but she wasn't sure if the pit bull on their leash was on their side or not. Maybe that made it more exciting?
”I got in once before. The layout is basically like any other school, only the classrooms look like laboratories now. There’s some dormitories, a cafeteria, and bathrooms. Reminds me of a sorority house, anyway,” she looked at Axel, “but with fewer naked people running around.”

She thought back, walking the interior in her mind, “there were offices, storage spaces, and facilities. But I didn’t see anywhere that might hide a guy under torture. If Jay is there, I didn’t—wait a second,” she blinked and looked at Xander, who was inside with her. “Wasn’t there a, um, oh…” her fingers tapped the margarita glass, words stuck on the tip of her tongue. He added in an answer on her behalf,
“A staircase,” he said.
“Yes! There was a staircase, but the school was one story. There must be a basement. It’s worth a shot, but we’ll only get one shot at this. If we’re wrong and he’s not there, we’ll lose the element of surprise. I guarantee they’ll move Jay somewhere else, especially if Cayli is at hand.” She put a finger to her lips, considering their strategy.  Why did Cayli agree to go with the doctor if they were aware of his involvement with Amengual?

The answer came like an epiphany, and she looked at Natalie with fresh respect, “you’re using Cayli as bait.” A hint of pride stirred in her chest. “Here’s what we do, we need to scope out the school and see if Cayli shows up. If she does, we’ll know we’re in the right place. But we will have to act fast. Come on, get in the car. Let’s get on the road while someone gets an update from Jensen on their location.”
“You may think you’re just here to look pretty, Axel,” she said dryly, “but you are in fact here for your expertise. So no, I am not going to fucking knock.”

He leaned in while Laurie eagerly scanned the documents. Frustration lanced the confession he’d denied her before, and she turned to watch his expression. Their situations were vastly different, and yet the squeeze of those bars was a feeling she understood better than she’d like. Perhaps he sold his own soul to reap the mess he found himself presently in, or perhaps circumstance conspired against him; either way, Natalie was not without compassion, even if it rarely showed. Even if it was not particularly well deserved.

“You sound doubtful. I’ll try not to take that as an insult.” His mannerisms alone made the scathe of his opinion quite clear, and he wouldn’t be the first person to write her off based on whatever was gleaned from first impression. She didn’t take his apparent honesty as a sign of trust so much as a sign of desperation, the scales perhaps for now tipped by the files she handed over to Lawrence. She nodded, though assurances were as thin as the ones he provided her. She wouldn’t waste her breath beyond agreement, for she doubted the legacy of her blood meant much to an American. But she would do it. “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

Her attention returned to Laurie, mulling over the information shared. She didn’t know that the school was where they held Jay. She didn’t know if it was where Diaz would take Cayli. But neither was she willing to allow more time to pass for such variables to become more certain. It was a risk, certainly, but she trusted the deep rooted instinct pushing her forward more than she trusted inertia. Though one word did catch sharp on her attention. Bait? Natalie didn’t turn to the irritation of Axel’s grin, sure to be smug at such an accusation. Neither did she correct it. Cayli was using herself as bait, but since Natalie had been unable to stop her it amounted to the same grim responsibility. It flushed her cold, like Jay might somehow sense the betrayal.

She stood, looping the bag over her shoulder. The power fluttered with her heartbeat, a thrumming reminder tainted by every time it had failed her before. The scars on her wrists itched, the beat of hopelessness ignored. “Any security we should know about?” The question was for Laurie, but her gaze flickered briefly to Axel, soliciting some of that best hope advice he was so keen on bragging about. “Jensen will try and get Cayli out of the States if he can, so even if it is the place she might not show. We’ll discuss details on route.”

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