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[[continued from Da Capo]]

A hint of laughter. “Don’t forget: you followed me.”

Natalie claimed to hate the game and play only by her own rules, but she still played. Adrian claimed patience. Not a man for undue risk or rashness. That was useful to know, but not necessarily what she had been looking for. She could not sway him with the recklessness of her cause, nor entice him with insinuations of power (and nor would she have been content with the latter; this wasn’t about power). Desire was easy to manipulate; everyone had a price they paid willingly for the things they most wanted – Natalie included, of course. Moving people into advantageous places was helpful, and often it was easy, but it was also a soul-destroying sort of tiring. She’d treated Evelyn like a piece on a gameboard, but what she’d truly wanted at the time was an ally.

Time forged that, and little else. But the foundations had to be laid somehow. He didn’t salivate at the thought of Brandon’s praise, or wasn’t willing to admit to it anyway. Since it was hardly a question she could ask outright, that would have to be enough.

“You’re right, I do.” She shrugged, and ignored the apology offered. She didn’t ever speak of her father, and she wasn’t about to start with a stranger. Even Jay didn’t know the half of it, and she was uncomfortable enough with what even he had seen of that particular demon. Adrian wasn’t actually asking though; or, at least, she did not think he truly cared for gossip half a decade old. Natalie’s expression had retreated into habitual stillness, second-nature reflex by now whenever it came up, but otherwise she might have smiled slyly at the tactic. She was too jaded to consider the chivalry truthful, even if it was.

“Some wrongs can’t be forgiven,” she agreed. Natalie’s was an enduring loyalty, more enduring than was probably good for her, but when betrayal severed those ties, they were severed forever. Her reply held a note of that truth, in warning or acknowledgement. She didn’t know what caused him to turn away from his family, after all, and she would not ask now, though she did drop her gaze to the ring for half a moment. He was seeking commonality not sharing secrets. “Perhaps we have something in common after all.”

By now darkness had plunged outside the car, the lights of civilisation dotted fewer. A rougher road began to grind under the car’s wheels, until it finally pulled to a stop. Little could be seen out of the windows anymore, just the reflection of their own faces.
Amusement and intrigue bid Adrian followed Natalie, but there was something else that drew his interest. It was like a shape on the edge of his vision he couldn’t quite behold. A word caught on the tongue he couldn’t quite say. It irked down deep, this not knowing. Not so infuriating as the obfuscation of his identity. Of where he came from. He idly twisted the ring on his finger like it meant something. Though deep down he knew it didn’t.

For all Adrian’s charm, he did not respond right away to Natalie but for a nod of the head. Some wrongs cannot be righted. Nor should they. Instead, he watched his own reflection grow clearer in the glass. City left behind, only a distant flicker of light and hum of engine spoke to civilization.

“I always enjoyed the country,” Adrian said some time later. It was a pull he’d not noticed until staying so long in Moscow. He journeyed beyond the city borders when he could, but respite was always mixed with business. He could consider Natalie among such business again.

Maybe it was from the freedom of concrete confinement. Maybe it was peering into emptiness and knowing its vulnerability and vastness.

When the car halted, he considered checking the wallet maps to discern their destination, but that would take away all the fun. He stepped from the car without waiting on the driver to power down the engines, eager for the reveal.

They were on the grounds of an estate in general disrepair. Looked like a good investment opportunity. Curiosity bloomed as Adrian searched the sights for clues.
He was out before the engine died, much to Natalie’s quiet amusement. She glanced at the driver’s mirror before she clicked her own door open, intending to suggest the woman stay put, though since Toma didn’t answer to her it was probably pointless. Outside it was cool, but only in a way that made her content to be free of the city’s cloy. It was also dark, just the car’s beams casting illumination on the property up ahead: vast, but old, and not well kept. Natalie watched Adrian for a moment, mostly because she was gratified by the curiosity – and that it was in the right place.

“I don’t suppose you know what I’ve been doing since I left London.” Maybe, and maybe not. Her flight was scandal at the time, declared self-imposed exile or familial punishment by the newsfeeds, but half a decade later was a long time to retain knowledge about a stranger. Her work in Africa had been centred at a women’s refuge to begin with, at least until a reckless risk forced her to move on. Then the school after that. She didn’t dwell too long on the tight squeeze in her chest. His answer didn’t matter; what he knew about her or didn’t.

The path towards the entrance was uneven, a little difficult to navigate at night with only the car’s headlights, so her pace was not hasty. She didn’t reach for his arm, though she walked close enough to be companionable. “It was teaching, mostly. The forgotten kids especially. There are parts of the world still where girls aren’t ever offered an education unless someone fights for it.” A wry smirk caught her lips, likely lost in the shadows. But if she’d leaned into disparaging the Custody before, she held her tongue on it now. For now anyway.

The looming estate was in disrepair because it was all she could afford without relying on family money, and this was not a Northbrook investment. That was an important distinction. Since he doubtless understood that she came from wealth, he might remark on the anomaly, or perhaps just file it away for scrutiny. Added to that the country location, and he might get a sense of her intent. Some of it at least.

She didn’t have the key to hand, but a brief twist of power clicked the lock easily enough to appear as if the door had just been left open. The gift did not leave her veins afterwards, and power-sharpened eyes glanced back at his expression before she slipped inside the large, echoey foyer. The electrics were unsafe, one of a long list of works needing to be done, but the foundations were there. And nothing built loyalty like sharing hard work; that, she was counting on. 

Pale eyes spent a moment in the shadows, then she gestured a hand, and light bloomed from her palm, floated up even when her arm dropped. Natalie hadn’t hidden what she was at the club, and she did not know if he had pieced it together from Zhenya’s conversation, but she wasn’t interested in his reaction. “Most girls die before they ever learn how to do that.”
“Showing off?” he asked. The orb illuminated the surroundings enough to discern some of the environment. Shadows clung to the lofty ceiling above. Outdated stylings adorned the walls. Curtains were heavy with dust.

“Or is that for practical purposes?” he asked, studying the cold light fixtures. If there was a fireplace, she could accomplish so much more, and it irked him to no end that he could not equally add to the contest of power. It wouldn't always be as such. Not if Carpenter finally held up his end of the bargain.

He finished his study of what could be seen, assuming then that the electricity and heat were disconnected. Surely, she did not lack for payment, not someone who dallied elbows with Moscow’s most powerful. Unless she was hiding from them? Remaining in the dark in a more literal sense.

He studied what he could of her expression. It was soft, but serene and impenetrable as a blanket of fog hovering against the grass. Deep, slow breaths kept his chest moving at steady rhythm, but a weight pushed on his soul. After a moment of surprise, the spell fled. Had she done something to him? It occurred in that moment that he may have underestimated a powerful player nesting along the edges of the same game board that he haunted. 
Alone in the country with a power-wielding channeler, Adrian asked, “You didn’t bring me here to kill me, did you?” suddenly wondering what happened to the driver.

But even as he asked, steps carried him closer, unconcerned with the answer. It wasn’t a motion of intimidation but one of invitation. It was obvious they were drawn to one another. She'd brought him here for a reason, and he’d never felt anything like it before. The orb flickered strange shapes across her face, but above all, a pale, blue gaze penetrated. He didn’t like mysteries. 
“Who are you?” he asked, quiet and tempting.
Adrian won a genuine smirk from her; usually, she was the one making such an accusation and not the one being accused, though if he believed a few pretty lights constituted showing off he was sorely mistaken. She offered no correction; that he thought she cared to impress him was no bad thing, and honestly, by the tone he spoke and the curious way it made her feel, she realised with some small modicum of surprise that it might not be so far from the truth. In reality, the display was intended as neither of those things; it seemed he’d not yet pieced together her meaning, though she was quite willing to both forgive and indulge his distraction.

“You know the answer to that,” she teased, though did not specify to which of his questions she meant the answer. Amusement lingered, but she was more aware of him than she had been. He was handsome, and even a few months ago that alone would have been enough to tease herself closer than the distance he already bridged, invitation or no invitation. Natalie wasn’t above using baser manipulation either, if it got her what she wanted. But she’d already discarded the idea of any manipulation at all when it came to Adrian. Given his familial estrangement, she did not think duplicity would be well received, and honesty would be a refreshing change of pace. At least if their goals aligned. She did not want an ally whose perceptions of her had to be constantly managed.

The bloom of a genuine attraction was unexpected, but whatever the betraying rush of heat in her body, for now she was more interested in taking his measure than toying with the sudden realisation. Given the assumptions she had made of his character, she was curious to see if he’d retreat without her encouragement, or take the risk of her rejection by pushing further just to see. The long game of patience was what she expected, though. A challenge, she supposed, and not one she was sure it was wise to make. She was wholly aware of his proximity though.

“This will be a school, with a little investment from the right places,” she told him instead. 

Nikolai Brandon had spoken to her of noble values once, ones that might have inflamed a heart like Natalie’s (and indeed, she had not forgotten them), but she’d seen little to win loyalty in his actual actions. He promised Evelyn peace while he trained elite soldiers deep beneath the Kremlin’s foundations, and meanwhile children died for want of a little knowledge. And worse. The haunt of America’s facility was not soon to leave her mind.

A channeling school, was what she meant. And a refuge, for those that needed it. It was the least of what she intended, really, but it relied on the veneer at least. To exist within the Custody, and separate from it, should that ever be a need. The government failed in its duty to educate girls dying from the Sickness – hell, it wasn’t doing anything for the young men, either (unless, she thought dryly, they were of some proven use). But there was less she could do about that, and everything she could do about this. Not that it was born from altruism, but for now he could believe whatever he wished of her motivations.
He hadn’t thought that the woman dripping in money loitering around Manifesto would be so charitable. Humbly tending to the forgotten and orphaned on the continent one month and masquerading among the monsters of Moscow the next. Her school idea was a disappointing investment. There would be no return for supervising children except gray hairs and wrinkles. So why bring him here? Why show him the potential?

“It’s a terrible investment,” he said with a sigh. He’d backed off when Natalie hadn’t melted into his arms. There were plenty of beautiful women, and Adrian did not lack for company. Contacts and alliances were more useful than sex in the long-term. His hands slipped into his pockets rather than her back as he roamed idly about.
“A destination hotel would be better. The place has an aura about it. With the right atmosphere, it could be successful.” He owned, flipped and refurbished multiple such institutions within the metropolitan area. His residence was even located in one.

He shrugged, given these were only his musings. “I doubt my opinion will change your intentions, though. So why show me?” he asked, intrigued.
She seemed amused by his pointed assessment. Adrian was right to assume she was stubborn, but he was wrong about her motivations. It was refreshing that he was straight-forward about it, though. If some part of her was disappointed he did not chase a little harder, a bigger part of her was relieved to find the way he approached business was unadorned by the bloated social niceties that made her want to gouge her own eyes out.

“You think there isn’t a price the Custody’s elite would pay to save its daughters?” Given the extremes her own family went to in order to sweep her from harm’s way (and the rumour mill had plenty to say about that) she was surprised he hadn’t considered it. But then, calling it a school was precisely the point; it sounded harmless, and easily dismissable. “You’re right, though; financial profit isn’t the point. But we both know that’s not the most valuable currency in Moscow. I don’t need help to build it, but need and want aren’t the same thing.”

She watched him slipping in and out of the shadows cast by the floating orb above.

“You’ve already had successful hotels, Adrian,” she said. “Another would be forgettable.”

He didn’t want to hear he was ordinary. He didn’t want to hear that this was chance, opportunity, indulgence, whim, though it was all those things. Proving herself reckless would not enamour him to her cause, and any flattery was entirely without foundation. She didn’t know him. “Because you’re the first person I’ve encountered in this bloody political battlefield that didn’t make me want to slit my own wrists just to escape.” She said it with no small sense of sly irreverence, but was surprised to realise she actually meant it.
Adrian’s musings continued as he explored. It was an aimless imagination that considered their surroundings across the scope of restoration all the way to a full gut job. His curiosity for her plan kept the intrigue warm, and he outright laughed at her notion of an elite school. She probably assumed the humor meant he was dismissive of the idea but being that he himself went to great lengths to benefit from such an education, it wasn’t that at all. He could not see present company parading children around like a Victorian headmistress.

Unlike her presumption, Adrian made no move without careful calculation. Every dollar he spent was assigned a purpose, and his time was his most precious possession. Investing either in a school would only be for one reason, and chasing a pretty face was nowhere on that list. He was not that hard up. And currently, that one reason seemed pretty far-fetched.

Her irritated declaration made him smile to himself, though. Leaving the likes of Manifesto, Custody royalty, and the dance of millionaires would make for a welcome respite to those not inclined to the game. If she found him unique and endearing, he had to comment on it.
“Maybe that was my move the whole time? Playing the earnest, straight-forward guy waiting to manipulate you into a deal or the bedroom or whatever else I wanted out of you?” he asked, tone sarcastic verging on playful, but he neither claimed nor denied his intentions.

“Besides, I don’t select property investments out of a desire to leave a legacy or some bullshit. I make money. That’s it,” he said, crossing his arms while waiting for further explanation or enticement. It was the least she could do.
She laughed a little, mostly to herself, and watched as he perambled the space, moving in and out of the lines of shadow. The twinkling orbs above did not elucidate much of the detail around them, but she made no attempt to make the task easier for him. “Ought I to swoon?” she asked dryly. There was a scathe to her tone; not at the probability he was manipulating her in turn, but at the suggestion that a little earnest simplicity would be the thing to blindside her: like she was some soft-hearted damsel.

“Is that what you have decided my intentions are? That I’m building a legacy?” The curiosity was genuine, but the question posed only idly, his answer presumed. She’d given him no real reason to think otherwise afterall, but Adrian hadn’t earned those answers from her. She considered it, briefly, but she did not think a strike at bloodied honesty would be likely to draw anything else from him now. Natalie might take meaningless risks, but not ones likely to bite her later, as this one surely would. Her motivations were snarled in bitterness. Impotence lit a desire for retribution in her blood. Against who, or what, was still in flux.

She shifted. Her hands laced, a picture of demurity, if not for the tilt of her chin.

“If hard cash is truly the only thing you want from me, then you may submit a quote for the renovations – or whatever other services you might broker – and I will consider it along with the rest. The job will necessitate some speed. There will be some specific requirements.” It was somewhat a bluff; she did not want to rely on family funds, though it would not be difficult; her mother would hardly object to the endeavour, but she might want more involvement than Natalie desired. That could be managed too, if it had to be, but it was stubborn pride more than anything that pushed her to the more difficult path.

Meanwhile Adrian stood with his arms folded, waiting. The challenge scratched at something under the surface, and she was not sure what feeling it disturbed, but his stance demanded a subjugation she was not prepared to give. Did he expect her to beg? She tipped a dismissive shoulder in answer: he had what he wanted, if he wished it. Still, her level gaze did not break away, and her interest had not faded; it wouldn’t, unless he retreated first.

“We can play the game a little longer, I won't object, but I think you are growing bored. I presumed you followed me because I am a Northbrook. Or because I am a Grey. It’s why everyone does, Adrian. Old blood, or tainted blood, both draw sharks.” Her opinions on the reality of that were held behind a carefully neutral expression. “So I am asking: what is it you do want out of me?”
For now, Adrian was still hooked to Natalie’s intrigue, but she was incorrect about his mood. He wasn’t bored. He was on the cusp of deciding whether or not the remainder of their conversation was worth the effort. He’d not wanted to come away from the night empty handed. In Manifesto, he might have left with more than one venture to add to his portfolio. Not that contacts weren’t valuable, and the daughter of the Custody was indeed a prized hub of information for the future. Adrian was willing to walk away with nothing except a future ally, but he preferred more. So what did he want out of this? It certainly wasn’t to be a sub-contractor.

He scrubbed his chin thoughtfully. It was a quick that he hated about himself, feeling like it made him look like an old man. As soon as he realized it, he thrust his hand into one pocket. Truthfully, he didn’t really know what he wanted beyond spending more time with her. There was no doubting that he was attracted to Natalie, but it was more than the enticement of a pretty face. There were plenty of mindless, pretty faces in Manifesto. He was drawn to her. An unaccustomed feeling. One he didn’t really understand, or like, per say. His curiosity over it was enough to justify the night’s dwelling.

Adrian’s approach to the game Natalie referenced was blunter than she probably expected. He wasn’t one to mince words without reason. Then again, his bluntness was always a carefully chosen tactic as well.
“You like me,” he told her. There was a smugness lightening his expression, but the confidence verged on charming more than cockiness.

“I think you wanted to show this to me because you want more than an investor, which you can get from anyone. I think you want someone unafraid to pull the strings of Moscow’s powerful. I am tempted, I admit, but I don’t know to what end,” he said, plainly wanting to know the long-game.

Once more, he approached. If she would but play the card he alluded to wanting, she would probably get the answer she desired. All she had to do was show the hand. There was no hint of the effect a second rejection would cause. He probably didn’t know himself.

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