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He slept most of the flight back to Moscow. He learned early to sleep when the chance came. Because a soldier never knew when another chance for rest may return. Same thing with eating. Stick to the clock. Keep the day regular. Because someday it would all go to hell. Survive. Then get shit back to normal.

Well. Jay survived.
Did that mean shit would go back to normal?

The extraction crew that carried them out of Mexico had indeed been a ZARS squadron. Their point of return was a base in a location Jay was certain to never learn. There wasn’t much to see anyway. They were ushered out of the helicopter, given fresh clothes and offered a chance to clean up. The poking and prodding that came next took the guise of a full physical, but there were scans in the hands of the military docs that he didn’t recognize. There was quite a lot of attention paid to the hair-thin lines that crisscrossed his upper body, but they were reported as scar tissue and that was that. Jensen gave Jay the work over back at Amengual’s, so he otherwise checked all the boxes. He hoped Natalie’s physical would be as unremarkable, but he didn’t ask when they were reunited.

He was relatively quiet. Nobody debriefed him. No reports were filed. He kept looking over his shoulder, expecting some officer to sweep in with questions. In fact, it seemed Scion Marveet was more interesting than a Rod of Dominion. Jay didn’t mind.

They were delivered to a military operated airport near Moscow. The men (excluding Scion) wore polo shirts and khakis pants. Jay kept his shirt taut and tucked as if he was about to be inspected at drill. He smoothed his hair to the side. He needed a cut, badly.
Only darkness shows you the light.

Jensen allowed Jay and Natalie their space. For someone whose livelihood depended on the delivery of monologues, he was awkwardly speechless now. What could he possibly say to offer comfort? He was unworthy of the task, but neither would he abandon the grieving to self-imposed isolation. When the chance came, he laid a hand on dipping shoulders or delivered a bottle of water to an empty tray.

He slept okay on the plane rides other than the bad dreams that followed him through each nap. Once, he woke with a startling cry, and he was so afraid he disturbed the others, that he barely breathed for ten minutes afterward until he was sure the only sound that followed was the hum of jet engines.

He tried to ask about the mysterious benefactor that plucked them from the jungle, but he was only deferred to public information on the internet about Scion Marveet.

By the time he returned to Moscow, he was ready to disembark and stay for good this time.
Natalie was quiet during the journey. She listened to the conversations around her, though little was betrayed in them, nor given the nature of their escort did she much expect it. Scion’s “philanthropy” did not extend to an explanation, and Natalie did not ask. She shunned the complexity of political maneuverings with single-minded obstinacy, cold to the strangers around her in much the manner one might expect of her Northbrook name and the personna attached to it. An easy armour, and not one anyone attempted to breach.

Jay fell into the shell of routine; Natalie recognised its tenets marking the bare motions of survival, and did not disturb the ritual. Sometimes true strength came from a facsimile if the lie was believed long enough. Sometimes pretending alone had to suffice. No one pierced that bubble beyond Jensen. Grief was a disease few wished to touch, and these men were soldiers anyway; and not even ordinary soldiers at that. They were handled with the efficiency of cargo, and processed in much the same way. Fortunately, the only evidence of Natalie’s injury had been discarded the moment she gratefully exchanged her bloodied clothes. Examination passed without comment. 

Bad dreams had trailed her since Africa, but were absent on the final flight east. She’d admitted the burden once to Cayli, but to no one else. If she noticed Jensen’s plight like one might catch a glimpse of a mirror’s reflection, she said nothing of it. It wasn’t like she had advice to offer; it wasn’t like she could help. But she saw it. When she slept herself, it was light against Jay’s shoulder. The rest was deep and dreamless, but offered little refresh upon waking.

When the city eventually began to spread beneath them, she watched from the window. Shrugging off the yoke of duty for the temptation of escape had been the distraction of a dream. Despite that, Natalie had not been certain she would return to Moscow. She’d registered herself as her grandfather had bid, and she considered that a duty completed. She had no ambition for power, though it was not an ordinary life she craved either. Marcus had offered her work with the Consulate. Still an option, she supposed. Yet while the Custody expanded borders, the world still on its fringes fell once more to disaster. It wasn’t compassion that pulled her thoughts to the tsunami, but the sort of oblivion she suspected would be better for her soul than the bottom of a bottle. That had been before Mexico, though. For now she did not think of the future.

“You’d better not disappear on me this time.” 

It was all she said upon disembarking. A brow rose, though if there was some dryness to her tone her expression was unsmiling. She did not care for formality when it was expected of her. In fact she did not care for expectation at all. She ignored the soldiers as she ignored Scion, and as she might have even ignored Nikolai Brandon himself. Natalie had already presumed this to be the point of divergence, upon which she would be unceremoniously offloaded into her family’s custody. She held Jay in her gaze a long time. He wore his soldier’s mask, and she did not wish to widen the crack of whatever lay beneath. It wasn't how she would have chosen to part, though.

After a time, her gaze slid to Jensen, as though to remind him of the promise he made by the pool. She did not think he would need the nudge, not with the way the burden of worry buckled his shoulders. By then the car had rolled into view, emblazoned with her family’s insignia. Edward Northbrook was unlikely to leave London in order to collect a wayward child. She doubted to see her mother either, though the last they had spoken Eleanor had been in Moscow. Little betrayed the smoothness of her expression beyond the brief pinch of her brow at the figure who actually got out. The blood ran suddenly cool in her veins though. Not fear, but certainly reluctance. She did not enjoy being taken off guard.

“You’re not who I expected.”
On the tarmac, a series of vehicles waited. As soon as Jay’s face broke fresh air, the impending separation slammed him in the gut. Natalie felt it too, and for all Jensen’s chill patience, even the preacher was likely torn up by the inevitable.

Natalie’s demand had the ring of a warning. One that he wouldn’t mind seeing how far she would chase to enact, but he was resigned to whatever came. Nothing. Literally nothing could be worse than what was behind them. What squat on his shoulder. What haunted his mind.
“You can’t get rid of me that easy,” he said, and took the stairs.

The first vehicle released a well-dressed man that Jay guessed to be in his 40’s. Natalie was obviously familiar with him, and by the less than pleased tone to her voice, he guessed there was a connection to her family. Natalie’s father was likely still sitting in prison somewhere pissed off at him. Just another name in a long list people who wanted to slit his throat. Presumably, anyway.

For some reason, Axel came to mind unbidden. The bastard was going to haunt him the rest of his life. He was probably smug in the afterlife, knowing the kind of guilt he riddled on Jay.

The second vehicle opened up to reveal Custody reps. He scratched the back of his neck as the lead came forward.

“Dominion Carpenter?” he asked. Jay nodded.
“If you say so,” he said. He half wondered how the Ascendancy was going to take the news.
“This way,” he gestured.

About then, Scion exited the plane, rounding them all and going to the third car, an upscale town car. He climbed in the back without so much as a second glance.

He turned to Natalie, but he had no idea what to say. I’ll call you? Want to go on a proper date? Kiss goodbye?
Only darkness shows you the light.

The indistinct sketch of a smile was the only response offered to her cold words, and Natalie was left to contemplate her options. She might refuse to go; in fact the hardness of her stare and tilt of her chin almost promised it. Yet Jay still stood at her side, and she was uncertain if he might misconstrue danger if she did, for men pushed to their edges did not always make sane choices. There was no logical reason for her to recoil, or not one that did not make things difficult; the vehicle passed security checks to a military base after all. Instead, she resolved to make the bastard wait. She looked away from him.

Scion already departed around them, and for the first time Natalie considered the cause of his disinterest. The intrigue pulled, though she did not wish it to. It seemed clear then that their collection from Mexico had been an incidental boon to something larger, and perhaps not even confined to the question of a new Dominance’s Patron. He had not mentioned the school, though he must have been aware of its destruction. Investigation had not been among her priorities at the time, but she recalled the strange children now with unease. She thought of Laurie then too. The things she had seen. The documents that had been left with her.

“He didn’t come for us. We were just caught up in something else.” The low words were to neither Jay or Jensen in particular. Warning was on the tip of her tongue, but it would be a waste of her breath. She pulled her thoughts away. Refused to get tangled in it. 

She disliked goodbyes. Kept them quick and heartless, usually -- and all the sharper when she felt such reluctance as she did now. She’d heard Jay, but she was not sure she believed him. The listlessness of his resignation tied knots in her stomach, for she suspected he wouldn’t fight against the next current to sweep him up, wherever it took him. She’d leaned heavily on every available advantage to find him last time, but since then Natalie hadn’t exactly courted the Custody’s favour, let alone Brandon’s. If Jay was interred in the Facility’s tomb once more, he’d be beyond her reach. The prospect cut too close to the bone. History, repeated. She knew what his silence would do to her.

But she wouldn’t let him make promises he couldn’t keep, either.

The Custody official had instructed Jay onward, but he had not moved. She met the gaze he turned down on her. “Aren’t you going to say something saccharine so I can roll my eyes?” she asked drily. The smirk was faint. Truth was, she didn't want to hear words she would only doubt, but neither did she want to be the one to break away first. A brow rose. “Anything?” She meant it as a cruel tease. His glib tongue was not usually so quiet, and if he had every right as to why, it did not spare him the lash of her humour. Only something in the word itself was like a thumbprint on her heart; enough that the mystery of it passed for a moment like confusion behind her pale eyes. 

She'd meant to be like steel, as much for her own sake as his, but it softened something in her that made it infinitely more difficult to move away. She searched his eyes a moment before there was a glimmer of something in her own, emotion raw, the bare curve of a vexed smile. --sake, Jay,” she breathed. Cayli had once accused expletives of sounding amusing in Natalie’s crisp accent. She’d meant to say fuck, but it almost sounded like light in the low way she’d murmured it as she reached to tip his chin down. She pressed up on her toes to meet his lips like a wave caressed up to a sandy shore. It made no difference to her ardency that they were not alone. She had thought to protect him, once, from making her affection obvious to those who might use it against them. It didn't seem to matter now though, and she was in the mood to give a belligerent finger to a world caged with duty’s bars.
He took her up in his arms despite the sudden surprise. Affection was short lately. Warmth encircled and he lost himself to it until the very last moment. “Anything,” he whispered between her kiss and the parting that split his spirit into pieces.

The space between them was too much. He could still feel the press of her lips. But it was her eyes that held him captive. He stared, afraid to wrench himself away, because that meant it was over. He brushed a lock of hair behind her ear and watched the way his finger trailed down the slope of her neck.

He could feel eyes staring the back of his head, but it was the cough of impatience that made him grumble. “I should go. If I don’t get better socks, I might have to saw off my feet.” His grin was forced, but no less charming.

He didn’t want to watch her leave. He didn’t want to look back. Didn’t want to return. Going back meant that everything that happened was final. Done. Over. Hanging on to even a single thread of the west kept the door to the past open. A door he can’t close.

Somehow, he made into the car without Natalie. The road blurred. Somewhere between the airport and the city center, Jay fell asleep. When he woke, it wasn’t where he expected.
Only darkness shows you the light.

The impatience around them did not rally her to move, nor even acknowledge those who waited. The world might burn to ruin in her peripheral, and she would choose to see nothing else. That one word stuck with her like a thread tied around her heart. Natalie let the moment linger, not accepting it as a promise, but letting its soft wings enfold her all the same.

Finally, she offered half a smirk for the banter.

Inside, though, her heart ached as she watched him go.

“You’re lucky I didn’t make a scene,” she said once in the confines of her own car. “Does my mother know you’re here? I imagine I'm in enough trouble without adding fucking absconding to the list.” Her tone drew blood-letting sharp. Emotions burst to anger with only a little provocation; not at her driver, particularly, but his smirking expression was as good a target as any for her roiling frustration. Natalie boxed the emotions away with a grit of her teeth. She did not watch the other cars pull away through the tinted windows.

He shrugged at her through the rearview mirror. “We’re just going on a detour. No one will even know you were missing.”

[[continued here]]
The highway sped by with a rhythm that reminded Jensen of the Texan great freeways. Squinting, purposefully blurring his sight, the city might pass for Dallas but for the lie revealed in his heart. Dallas was no longer his home. The connection that tethered him was severed. Not even the hope of redemption embodied by the innocence of his children could restore what was broken. The boys were better off believing their father ascended to heaven rather than witness what Jensen would become under their mother’s yoke.

The song playing on the car speakers shifted to something he didn’t recognize. Jensen’s sigh solicited a quick check over the shoulder from the man in the passenger seat up front. The man was older than himself, but strong enough that his muscular frame fit snug within his suit. Sunglasses covered his eyes, but Jensen knew the expression was tight behind them. Any smiles were buried deep, and Jensen was too half-hearted to try to find it.

Beyond the agent that came to collect him from the airport, a map was displayed on the front window screen. The driver swiped through route options, presumably while the auto-pilot navigated the busy highway lanes. From the options, Jensen knew they were more than an hour from the Kremlin. He dismissed the penetrating gaze of the agent, who turned around after confirming their passenger was playing nice. Suddenly jealous of the sunglasses, he lay his forehead on his arm instead. The poor sleep from travel was catching up. Well, he would have an eternity to rest after reaching the Kremlin. Knowing the strict rules that boxed him in before departing to the United States, the Ascendancy was unlikely to declare his freedom anytime soon. He could remain an honored guest at the Kremlin for twenty years just in case someone important needed saved at a moment’s notice. Was that so bad? Or was it a waste of a life?
(Continued at Renewal)
Only darkness shows you the light.


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