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Like Father Like Daughter
[Image: natalieav.png] [Image: Alistairgrey-Edited.jpg]
Natalie and Alistair 

Entry was a blur Natalie paid scant attention to. Her silence became a fortress as she passed through security, building layers of armour for the trial to come. They led her to a non-descript meeting room in the prison, where he was already waiting.

Alistair Grey looked old. He looked tired

Natalie stared a long time in silence across the table. The severe lines of his face did not break with whatever emotion he might feel inside, if any. His hands were laced, but he was sat back comfortably in his chair. He did not speak. Neither did she. Not for a long time, despite how the clock on the wall marched an insistent tick towards the time allotted. 

A thousand things she might say. A thousand things she did not.

"You could have helped. She died,” were the eventual words to cut the silence. Her expression blanked entirely, and for once she found effort in it. The grief feathered in her chest like a monster unfurling, and then squeezed everything unbearably tight. For the loss of Cayli after all they had fought and succeeded in protecting her from, and for everything that had unravelled since. 

“No, Natalie, I could not,” he said smoothly, not missing a beat. He was undeterred by her coolness, nor by the faint betrayal of emotions she felt stirring behind her mask. Her grief was neatly hidden, but she knew he of all people would spy it in her; the tells of devastation, a cut that exposed bone. “You were sent protection, and you chose to squander it. Your friend tried to barter with me, like I was the enemy and not your damn father. I told you to pick good allies, and it seems that fell on utterly deaf ears.” The words were enunciated and crisp but for the bite of emphasis. The cold of his pale gaze was utterly unwavering; unnerving, even though she knew how often her own mirrored it. He paused, intent on his silent dissection of her, until he finally added: “But perhaps if you had just spoken to me.”

And there it was.

It stung.

Because she’d known all along what he fucking wanted.

She did not say that Jay had thrown the device in a lake, or that she had been glad to see it sink. But she had realised the mistake even then. While trapped at Jensen's estate she had reached out to Alvis to ask him to bridge their contact, but perhaps the man had finally spurned her pleas. Her father had certainly never contacted her afterwards. She should have done more. Light why didn't she do more? It all happened so fast at the end; fast as the bullet that took Cayli in the back of the skull when they were finally running. And perhaps her father could have done nothing to help despite the impression of salvation he would allow her to believe. They would never know though; what difference it might have made.

She finally looked down at her hands, like the weight might break her. 

Five years. Five fucking years.

Recent memory nauseated. The heat of the stranger’s touch on her body in the underground club, drowning in the rolling beat of music -- seeking the shape of any oblivion she could, and waking up strapped down for her sins. The same mistake made again when she downed the shots at the casino bar, chased by the bloodied ghosts of Africa, but perhaps more so by her glimpse of Jay curled into Anna Marie. She’d been going to tell him about the documents; about her father’s reach, and the possibility of his help despite the way the sacrifice to her pride twisted in her stomach. Instead she threw herself to recklessness and spite, wounded by how alone he had made her feel.  

It had been Jay himself who pulled her back from that edge, depositing her safely in her room in a hideously drunken state before she managed any more self-inflicted damage. The irony of course, realised in the coldness of full reflection, that like a self-fulfilling prophecy he had left her to battle those demons on her own anyway; pushed her away at her very weakest and with perhaps the deepest hurt she could contemplate at the time. And it had severed that last chance to lean on her father’s aid in the process.

Because of her frailty.

Even the next day she could have found him; demanded the wallet, and rectified the damage. So removed from the moment now, she wondered savagely why she hadn’t. Not that she’d known of Jay’s own bargaining at the time, but she’d fitted enough of the pieces together to guess at his stupidity. Only she’d needed time, and space, to nurse that old pain. The flare of the unhealed wound proved too miserably deep; the sense of that vast void, and no one in it, too unquantifiable.

Would Cayli still be alive if she'd confronted Jay at the time? Taken the wallet and made the fucking call?

There wouldn't ever be an answer to that. But she'd have to live with the question.

“Five years. Five years when I needed you. I hated you for that.” Her voice was raw, but inflectionless. A vicious kind of truth, and she wanted to hurt him with it, but he did not flinch.

Instead he only looked at her levelly, and without regret. He leaned in, pressed his elbows on the table between them.

“When Nikolai Brandon revealed himself to the world, we already knew what it is you are, Natalie. How could we not? I knew too that Edward would want you registered and safe in the Custody's palm. It's sound politicking, and he is ever the politician. But I had hoped to speak with you before you made that decision. I'd rather you out of Moscow altogether. But your mother thinks you’re safest here. I wish you had come to me when I asked you to.”

The words chafed, and anger was easier to bear than the reopening of such ancient scars. Easier too than guilt. She felt it simmer like acid in her gut. “Then that's the only reason you contacted me in Africa.”

He didn’t deny it. She swallowed the sharp pain, surprised he could even make her feel it given there was nothing surprising in his words.

“Whatever you choose to think of me, I left you to make your own decisions. You would have tied the guilt of my imprisonment like an anchor to your feet,” he said.

Natalie had railed her entire life against the kind of pedestals she knew her father refused to place her on; the only one who didn’t at the time, and earning her love all the more fiercely for it. If her spine was forged from adamantine, it was because he raised her to that strength. No kind hands cupped skinned knees when they were growing up; rather, Alistair had been the sort of father to stand impatiently back, waiting for his children to pick themselves up and get back on the bike. Isobel had always been a little afraid, wide-eyed and unsure of this man who was so utterly unmoved by a child's tears. But for Natalie it had been a challenge. It had been trust.

Until he broke it.

Belligerence rose in her like fire, burning the back of her throat and arming her for a war she would never win against him. Because he simply did not care. His love had always been a capricious beast, not warm and deep-rooted like their mother's, but angular and sharp -- and all the more valued for its rarity. If it bit her at times she had never had cause to ever doubt it, not until he snapped the cord and sent her free-wheeling into darkness. Why shouldn’t he have expected her to want to protect him, whatever sins the Custody jailed him for? Or fall alongside, if she could not. That was love.

She did not want an apology, but no contrition softened his words. There was no silent beg for her to understand that he had needed to wield such hurt in order to protect. She understood his reasons, but she would never forgive him for them.

Her hands tightened. Her nails dug into her palms as she scraped her chair back.

“Natalie, why do you think I urged you to choose your friends wisely. You let that loyalty become such a heavy burden.”

And god but she hated that he knew her so well; hated that he of all people retained the ability to read her plainly, when any other might see only the cold emptiness of her shell. For once it was her eyes that tore away for reprieve, unaccustomed to the exposure. He was right.

I can’t do this without you

The words that sealed a bond soon after tossed into the test of flames, to be forged molten in fire and blood, or to break. The memories skated against her, running ghostly fingers over the frayed edges of her soul. She wanted to close her eyes against it, but didn’t. “I know,” she said eventually. Pale eyes met pale eyes. An acknowledgement sank there that twitched his lips with a frown, the first measure of his own discomfort.

He did not ask what she might mean. What she might have done.

“You think I stopped loving you,” he said instead. Surprise or irritation, for once she could not tell, or did not wish to.

“I can’t forgive you. Don’t ask me to,” she snapped.

“And do you suppose I stopped loving your mother too? Your sisters?”

“I only got in the fucking car to ask you for the information you promised. Jay met the terms. And I’m here now. That’s what you wanted, whatever you told him.”

He was finally riled, but he took a moment to recompose at the sharpness of her demand. Her muscles ached with the tightness with which she held herself, still on the verge of standing from her chair; caught between the desire to walk away, and the stubborn tenacity to get what she fucking came for. Not a reunion. Not explanations for the chasm grown of their long silence, or any of the wounds inflicted, intentionally or otherwise. She told herself she didn’t care. It was a lie. But all she wanted from him now was information.

Her gaze stung, ice pale. She’d never asked Jay what they’d spoken about, exactly. She didn’t want to know. But she knew her father; knew how he’d have latched onto Jay’s desperation at the time, wondering why it was a stranger who called and not his daughter, then deciding what it meant. Knew what he would have promised, and how he might have allowed Jay to dig whatever grave he deemed most appropriate for the exchange. It wasn’t difficult to sketch the broad strokes even without the detail. For every insight Alistair spied into the darknesses of Natalie’s soul, she saw too in her father. He gave Jay rope for hanging, and Jay had swung until he regretted the price. Then he’d turned his back on Alistair, knowing the slight might end up costing him more. For her.

Jay had no family left to protect now, no reason to chase the answers that had once meant so much. Lines between life and death. Hope and despair. No silver linings softened the blow. But Natalie wouldn’t let it lie.

She couldn’t.

“You didn't ring the number I gave you, I take it.”

“It was for Orion pharmaceuticals”, she said, but he just raised a brow like she was wrong.

“I gave you those documents before I ever knew you’d leave for America. Think about that for a moment. What do you suppose it all had in common? Seek out the common thread, and maybe you’ll find the answer on your own. I barely had to dig into the people you keep around you to find the rot. It’s everywhere, and I would make you see it. Natalie, I gave you that information because I wanted you to look beneath the surface. To do it before you chose whose damn side you were on.”

When she said nothing he continued.

“You know the Custody knew about that facility and the children being kept there. Or you suspect it, at least. A location completely outside Brandon’s borders, yet apparently not for much longer.”

He dug at suspicions she buried, and did not wish to confront, especially with him. Natalie refused to be drawn in to Custody affairs and conspiracies, even as each word rang with horrific truth. She slammed a lid against the memories, knowing her father would only continue to pick at the lock. There was intensity to him now. His gaze pinned. The last words were quiet though. “We both know what caused the fire in my office, and we both know why. Is it so unbelievable now, Natalie, with everything else you have learned since?”

The breath was tight in her chest.

But she was thinking then of the dominion pin stitched to the seal of Jay’s soul.

She stood. Jaw tight. Her fist banged once on the door to be let out.
The dissonance jarred. That one smooth step taking her from one world, and into another.

Natalie went through the motions of family reunion like a ship taking on water in fair weather. Alice’s presence in Moscow was a surprise, since she ought to have been in school, though if her gregarious and irreverent teenaged manner flared some sharp pain of memory, it was not unwelcome either. Her mother was unusually quiet, all carefully folded demure edges and tired eyes. The tightness of her embrace burned Natalie’s eyes with heat in the moment she stepped over the threshold. She knew she had been unfair, cruel even, though the sharp fear in Eleanor’s voice the day of the ball never quit its haunt, even as she ignored all those phonecalls. If Natalie did not apologise for it, and a good daughter ought to, neither did she now push the care away.

The invitation to France was not unexpected, nor the warning that her grandfather was furious with the mud spattered against the family name and the deals that had necessitated her extraction from Mexico. Her mother brushed off those political concerns as she usually did when it came to her daughters. A sanitised story was offered, and Eleanor’s face tightened every time that American was mentioned. She asked surprisingly few questions though, at least on things Natalie might have expected her to query, which suggested she had already heard some version of the tale from elsewhere.

“I just want you to be safe,” Eleanor had said, when the final suggestion that Natalie ought to accompany their onward trip to Aubagne was declined. She smoothed the tendrils of hair from Natalie’s face, expression unreadable. 

It transpired that what that meant, was paid protection.

Her first day of freedom she spent arming herself to the new landscape. She searched the newsfeeds and clogs with single-minded tenacity, scouring in particular for evidence of action by the Custody’s Channeling Consulate. Whatever Marcus was doing with the information she and others fed into his app, there was scant public evidence of its benefit. She’d pleaded with Brandon to consider education before war, and he’d nudged her in Evelyn’s direction, but there was precious little to find of the woman now beyond an ardent voice for single world governance. Brandon might have pandered to her dreams of peace with one hand while he trained men for war with the other, but clearly he had finally charmed her into the channel he wished. Given the way Evelyn had looked at him, Natalie did not wonder why. It was the same weapon she’d used to assure Jay’s passage home.

Numbed, now, by the question of a future hanging like Damocles’ sword, she nursed a coffee and stared out at the city spread below. Her first night back she’d sent Jay a snap from the same window, to allay worries she didn’t even know he’d have of where she’d ended up. At the time it had felt more like sharing the bars of a cage. Moscow had always been that to her; tainted, she supposed, by her father’s incarceration here. The apartment wasn’t exactly home either. Safe, was what she meant. Alive. Surviving.

But if Moscow was a prison, it was also the place she chose to be. Where Jay pledged himself, he bound her too. He was unlikely to renounce the Custody’s claim; he said himself how he needed it, the pin both curse and salvation. She would never ask it of him anyway. And there was an easy answer of course. She could work with the Custody. But she no longer had any desire to. Alistair’s words dug under her skin, as she supposed they were meant to. Unless the Kremlin called, she had little intention of presenting herself. Which meant she needed new allies.
[[Da Capo and Legato precede this post]]

She took a cold shower.

A very cold shower, actually. Afterwards she piled her hair in a knot on top of her head, and shrugged on an old shirt. She sat at the piano bench, one leg folded under her weight. Her fingers idled the keys, seeking the distraction of a cadence to sooth the thoughts from her head. Around her the apartment was sparse as a hotel room. Boxes still sat unpacked in corners, mostly things forwarded from her family’s Aubagne estate in some misguided encouragement for Natalie to make the place a home. She’d only ever arrived with a suitcase all those months ago, one she was still practically living out of since her return from America.

She felt restless still. A little self-inflicted, granted, though it was not just that.

She tried to examine whether she felt guilty, but only discovered numbness. In Adrian she carved out a shallow sanctuary. He was unafraid of wanting her. Natalie hadn’t realised how badly she craved it.

For a while the music built. Power hovered alongside her senses like a question, but she no longer needed the aid, and did not desire the sensitivity. It remained only a soft awareness, like a fog against her contemplations. Jay had laid designs on her heart before she’d even recognised the danger in it. She’d been foolish to take his hand the second time; she knew that, and did not regret it. Her father had not been wrong about the bindings of loyalty; but he saw them as chains, when she knew them for the connections that made life worth living.

Natalie had never checked to see if the message had been read. Silence stung, even though it had been expected. She was fully aware of the ways she let the injury unfairly fester. Jay might be deep in the Facility, cut off. He might be deployed to Africa already for all she knew. Don’t disappear had been her last words to him. If he was gone, she could only presume it was a choice. What right did she have to chase him down, knowing the wounds it would reopen? Perhaps her face would always be tied to the most tragic parts of his past. He’d loved Cayli unconditionally, but he’d never let his little sister in; not in the ways she had been desperate to be close to him. Natalie might fathom a thousand reasons why, but whatever conclusions she drew, she knew she’d felt the cold edge of that same blade time and again.

She felt it now, and she was not sure if it was the flat or the edge.

He’d find himself solace. That was painful to accept, but she would. If she had to. But the shape of Jay’s survival was not something she wanted to contemplate.

The music stilled. The reverberations of the last notes took a while to fade.

The resolution was what left her numb. She wasn’t even sure she had the resources to find him, not with the ruthless way she had used them up the last time, and he knew exactly where she was. The circle tightened. And nothing would be accomplished with inertia. She closed the lid on the piano, felt its weight catch on her fingers. She wasn’t sure how long Toma would be occupied in returning Adrian to wherever home was.

The number had repeated its march across her thoughts so often since her c]]onversation with Alistair that she did not need to retrieve the scrap of paper to key it in her wallet. It barely rang before a recorded voicemail intoned: a name, followed by an out of office instruction that gave no indication of Orion like expected. When the beep for a message came she paused only a moment; motivation pushed her off the cliffedge of caution. Almost as soon as she gave her name – Grey, not Northbrook – the receiver clicked and someone spoke.

Afterwards she grabbed a sheet of music paper, twisted it over to the blank side, and drew a belligerently smiley face for Toma. Then she pulled on a coat and jeans, and slipped out the door.

[continued at In Case of Fire, Break Glass]]

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