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In Case of Fire, Break Glass (closed)
[[continued from here]]

[Image: orion.jpg] [Image: natalieusa.jpg]

She took the metro. Shifting darkness sketched the corners of the ceiling, flashing lurching lights when they passed the stations. Natalie watched her own reflection in the glass. Her thoughts were surprisingly quiet now she was on the move, and she relented to the moment of empty solace while it lasted. She was not overly familiar with Moscow. Not that it had ever stopped her plunging fearlessly into its shadows. But this part of the city she knew not at all. After a while she pulled out her wallet and worked against the background noise of a few happy drunks. Though before she departed she powered it off and tucked it in an inner pocket of her coat. Less a concern of tracking and more one of interruption. Toma started that game.

He was waiting on the platform. Or so she surmised by the half-wave he offered to beckon her attention. An old-fashioned cigarette sat between forefinger and thumb, wreathing smoke around his face. The shadow of a grey-flecked beard clung to his jaw, and glasses perched a little incongruous on the bridge of his nose. His hair was short and scruffy. She scrutinised him in a way that probably looked haughtily cold, but then she was not entirely certain how firm a trust could be placed on information or a contact provided by her father. From what he’d said on the phone she’d wondered if she might recognise him as a distant face from her childhood. Not that her father’s colleagues had been an abundant presence in the family home, but some had attended the court dates. She didn’t recognise him, though.

“I assume that’s a greeting and not a solicitation,” she said as she approached.

“Huh. You look like him. Little disconcerting, actually. Like father like daughter.”
He chuckled a bit and dropped the cigarette after a final draw, twisting it under his foot. Then he held up his palms as if to prove his lack of threat. “This is a risk for me, but I have somewhere discreet.”

Natalie ran a finger light down the inside of her wrist, not in fear so much as calculation. Behind her the train’s doors sealed, and it began to move on. The platform was deserted, the lights above flickering. For a moment she thought about the darts on the ground after Jay’s capture; could almost hear the eerie clink of the chain fence as she and Cayli had searched that desolation. Remembered too the ghostly carcasses of abandoned carriages under a flashlight’s beam. The trauma surfaced strangely, pulled like sickness in her stomach, but he was only looking at her expectantly. 

After a moment, she followed.
Usually Moscow’s subway stations were almost palatial, with sweeping gold arches and gleaming tiled floors. Their underground hallways were full of beautiful mosaics, statues – even chandeliers – so that it was almost like travelling through various museums; each one unique. But this one verged on decrepit. Shadows clung to the boxy ceiling and it was all grey concrete and strip lighting in a way that reminded her more of London. Spray-painted in blacks and greys at the end of the tunnel loomed the giant, melancholic face of a bearded Russian man. It took her a moment to realise it was of the writer Dostoevsky.

More blunt grey murals followed on pillars and sections of wall. They passed a morbid scene from Crime and Punishment; Raskolnikov featured in eerie black silhouette with the axe raised above a woman’s head, and a corpse of another below. It was undeniably creepy.

Natalie followed him to a service door that opened into a small, darkened office. The key was a swipecard he tucked back into his pocket. Inside it appeared to have long fallen into disuse, the furniture neglected and grimy, the technology on the shelves and small desk at least a decade outdated. “We’re offgrid,” he said. “At least for a little while.” A more thorough explanation followed, more technical than Natalie cared to follow, but she surmised that despite his slightly shabby appearance he was very well connected. Fortunate, since it was connections she had taken this risk for.

He lit another cigarette almost immediately, the scent of it acidic and cloying in the enclosed space. Then he shuffled for a bag he had clearly deposited before her arrival, broke the seal on a box, and produced a scarlet bottle of redbreast.

“Older than you are,” he said with a grin as he unscrewed the lid. “Never risk your life if you can’t toast to it first.”

One of those was at least a few hundred Custody dollars, probably closer to four with that kind of vintage, which didn’t even account for its rarity. Definitely well connected, and probably moneyed too then. Natalie didn’t argue against the glass he pressed into her hand. It was cold in here anyway, bone-numbingly so. The room rattled when a train sped past outside, casting all sorts of strange light on the peeling walls and abandoned filing cabinets.

It transpired that Kristof DeGarmo was a former employee of Orion Pharmaceuticals, and a whistleblower surviving (and apparently thriving) incognito. He explained it all in rote form, like the words had long been rehearsed in his head. His employment predated Orion’s latest ventures, of course, but it seemed the company had a long list of unethical and exploitative measures in its history -- and the unerring ability to make those charges, and those who levied them, disappear. Her memory skirted around what she had seen at the school; all the silent, empty faces of those children. But she reared back completely before she could replay the sharp cracks of the endless gunshots. Instead she shot the whiskey back; the entire dram. It slid down smooth, no burn.

“You said you knew my father. He got you out, then?”

She could feel him watching her. He leaned against the desk by now, cigarette in one hand, whiskey in the other, the glass balanced on his thigh. “Not quite,” he said. Then, after a moment in which she only watched him silently in return, he added, “Ah, you really don’t know. It wasn’t your father who saved me, it was your mother. They wanted to extradite me. She arranged the lawyers pro bono. Handled everything.”

“Then why are you still hiding?” she asked, gesturing at their dire surroundings with a dismissive sweep of her palm.

But Kristof only laughed. “Easier to beat the system in a place like this, Natalie.” He gestured around them too, but it seemed more like a toast, the amber liquid swirling in his glass. He propped the spectacles back up his nose with a grin. Amusement crimped his expression, though he quickly grew more serious. “What I can offer is an escape. From Moscow, from the Custody itself, should you ever need it. That’s what I owe your father.” He drew on the cigarette, tapped ash carelessly by his feet. Another train clattered past, vibrating everything inside with a low hum.

“In case of fire, break glass,” she murmured. She considered that quietly for a while. Her father had never been one for overbearing protection, which meant even he considered this dangerous – else her mother exerted an influence Natalie had largely been unaware of. Given her peripheral involvement here, Natalie considered it for the first time. She thought of the FBI agents then, and something cold tightened in her stomach. She had assumed how and why they were there at the time, of course she had, but now she paused to consider it they were really not Alistair Grey’s style at all. After all, who had been the parent to marshal the Legionnaires in an extravagant extraction when Sierra Leone fell to civil unrest? The implications made her feel sick. Her skin prickled with the sensation.

Kristof didn’t stop her swiping the bottle from beside him. Half of her wanted to swig it straight, to dampen thought and memory before either had the chance to clutch her too tightly in its vise. But the bathroom floor of the casino was not so very far away from her thoughts, and she only poured herself another measure. Afterwards she paced, found herself facing the tinted window onto the tracks outside. It was thick with grime, not even the distortion of a reflection glimmering back. She pressed the glass into her chest, pensive.

“And if I don’t want to escape. If I want information. How do I go about that?”

“Depends what kind of information,” he replied carefully. “And what you have to offer in exchange.”

She wasn’t sure she’d ever forget the scalding, breath-stealing heat of the flames when they had taken her dad’s office. Strangely there hadn’t been fear at the time, just a desperate resolution to protect alongside a euphoria she now realised had been her first touch of the power. Her fear of fires hadn’t come until much later. The hospital. The school. The motel room. Yet she’d never forgotten what was on those papers as they blackened and burned beneath her fingertips. She’d never spoken of it either, and she was not about to start now with a stranger.

He seemed to guess something of her thoughts anyway.

“You should know there is no proof to be found. Just data and a long list of casualties, one of which is your own father. No one can win against a regime like this. Against a man like that. You’d be stupid to try.”

‘A hundred suspicions don't make a proof’,” she agreed. A Dostoevky quote, actually. She smirked, glanced over her shoulder. “But do you suppose he even has a conscience?”

Kristof frowned. If he recognised the literary reference, he gave no sign.

“Dig too deep and all you’ll discover is a grave,” he assured. “But more to the point, you father is fucking vicious when he’s pissed, so please grant me the great favour of steering clear of that particular venture. You know as well as he did that your suspicions are correct. That has to be enough for you. It has to be enough for all of us.”

She took a sip from her glass. The flavour lingered this time, decadently fruity, and with the easiest finish. Natalie savoured it for a moment in silence. She wasn’t looking for proof; Kristof had mistaken her there. Neither did she care for punishment. But there was a yawning chasm in her chest, and the jagged edge of rebellion was the quickest thing to shove inside it. When she examined herself otherwise, all she felt were sharp edges. Dissatisfaction. Anger. She’d run to the ends of the earth, run from the Custody itself, and still ended up back where she started. The peace never lasted. If she found somewhere to belong, it slipped inevitably through her fingers soon after. If she trusted, she learned to regret it.

In the Kremlin Brandon had almost offered her something she could believe in, but he’d yanked it away just as quickly, and burned her fingers on the loyalty she might have otherwise given. Forgiveness was not a virtue Natalie had in great supply.

The school would be part of it. Evelyn taught her the benefits of being well-loved, and she knew the woman would approve of the virtuous venture when she told her about it. Not that Natalie’s intentions weren’t well meant with its founding. In fact it made her think of Cayli every time she pictured it. But those were privacies that would never make it to the public sphere, and there were only two people who'd ever even know what it meant. As far as the world was concerned the school would be an epithet of Evelyn’s presence within the Custody. As would Natalie herself, in the other woman’s absence. A thorn to bury in Brandon’s side, if necessary. For as Jay had told her at the height of her drunken stupor, she would be what she needed to be. The advice steeled her cold now, though. What she needed to be and what she wanted to be were not necessarily the same thing.

She’d always detested the binds of having a public life; always protected her privacy fiercely, else rebelled against the way the paparazzi painted every intimacy of her life in shades of rumour and drama. Not that she’d warned Adrian, but the worst dregs of the media delighted over Custody royalty like they were actual royalty. Fighting it tore her own reputation to shreds in the process, while her family tried desperately to protect her – and themselves – from the cut of her recklessness. That was years past though. Deciding to embrace it now felt more like a chain around her throat than the heft of a reluctant weapon in her grip. Sacrifice or weapon, she ultimately wasn’t sure it made much difference though. This time she’d use it either way.

Because Natalie wanted truth. She wanted to one day look Nikolai Brandon in the eye and have him understand she knew. Even as she would never raise a hand against him. Not while Jay was his.

She sighed, closed her eyes.

“I know what I want,” she said. “Tell me what you want in exchange.”
[Image: nataliengsq.jpg]   [Image: toma3.jpg]
Natalie & "Toma"

After returning Adrian to his hotel, Nhysa did not find herself surprised to discover Natalie was emphatically not where she was supposed to be.

The signal had been dead for a while now. Given the less than salubrious neighbourhood, she had ditched the luxury car in favour of something more in keeping with the local flavours. The engine idled beneath the dulcet tones of some rather existential death metal, and the debris of a quick and largely unsatisfying meal littered around her lap. Nhysa buzzed through screens on her wallet while she sucked on the straw of her smoothie. Adrian had also claimed to value information, a sentiment of which she naturally approved. She’d performed all the rudimentary searches whilst they were still talking in the club of course (as she had on all the members of that little bar-side coterie, beyond the one who drew a blank). Who Adrian was, what he did for a living, his known associates. What manner of man he was she not interested to discover, for ultimately she did not care who Natalie decided to fuck, but while she was waiting she did skim for any red flags that might make her job more difficult. Nothing jumped immediately out, until eventually she grew bored. On the surface at least, Adrian Kane was quite dull and repetitive. As much as the sad sparks that had fallen limp from his fingertips.

Eventually the tracker signal flared back to life, meaning Natalie had finally switched her wallet back on, and Nhysa sat back in her seat to wait, fingers drumming the steering wheel. Her shadow billowed curiously in the footwell, lured by the shift in her attention.

She did not particularly care where Natalie had gone or what she had been doing. The client asked for feedback on her activities now and then, but Nhysa was usually interpretative in what she chose to share. Natalie was restless as wild horses. If she felt even a whisper of the leash her family aimed about her neck, she would only rebel in ways that her history suggested would make Nhysa’s job more difficult. And, despite late-night sojourns to interesting parts of the city, ultimately Natalie seemed more than capable of looking after herself. Not that the Northbrooks didn’t have good reasons for the assignment. Nhysa had seen the file.

What Nhysa did care about was discerning the trigger, though – and she did suspect there was one for Natalie to have fled so abruptly from her apartment. Fortunately she was good at assessing people. The best death’s were intimate, and where she could Nhysa took great care in tailoring her work to be a fitting celebration of the life to be lost. She liked to understand people, even the heinous ones – and admittedly, in that particular vein of her profession, they usually were. Her approach to bodyguard work was not so dissimilar. In fact the knowing part was usually more important, owing to the fact that someone somewhere decided said life was precious enough to protect. Given the interchangeable nature of either role Nhysa had no preferences in the jobs she took. Dead bodies were usually kind enough to stay where you put them, though.

She watched the woman emerge from the subway station and onto the shadowy street, nose buried in the screen of her wallet. In the washed out glow her expression was as hard as diamond, and famed by all that pale hair she looked positively ethereal. She also looked incendiary angry, though, and Nhysa pondered the rare insight. Natalie was usually as closed off as if she’d been sculpted fresh from ice. Though much like a statue she paused for a long time over whatever it was she was looking at.

After a while Nhysa beeped loudly on the horn, and Natalie visibly flinched. A delicate swirl of power mingled her aura, but went dim just as quickly. A little amused by the reaction, Nhysa leaned over to shove the passenger side door open. Then she discarded the remains of her drink on the backseat, and flicked off the blare of the violent music. Natalie returned the device to her pocket, pulling composure around her like the edges of her coat against the chill, but she did quite obediently get in the car.

“You’re not surprised to see me,” Nhysa said, laughter spilling from her throat like the purr of a cat. In her lap her shadow stirred.

“I expect you to be good at your job,” was the tight reply as Natalie pulled the door behind her. The hint of a smirk hitched her lips, but it smoothed quickly to blandness, like all the feelings within were pulled inward like a riptide. “I’d be disappointed to find otherwise.”

Nhysa only chuckled at that, and pulled them back out into the darkened road. For a while they roared at a swift pace, at least until they hit the congestion of the inner city. Again. Moonlighting as a chauffeur was decidedly not the best part of this job. Nhysa gave an audibly displeased sigh when they became seized in the giant snakes of twinkling traffic. She leaned back and nudged the steering wheel between her knees. They were going that slow. Natalie seemed removed from the boredom, mired entirely in the trap of her own thoughts.

“Dear one, you left him as unravelled as a present on Christmas morning,” she commented after a while of silence. Natalie’s pale stare was turned to watch the smearing lights outside the window. She did not react to the jibe. Nhysa watched her slyly from the corner of her eye. “If you didn’t want to invite him in, you should have just finished up in the back seat. Perhaps you wouldn’t be so snarled up now if you had...”

“I’m so fed up with being lied to, Toma.” The words erupted sharp, out almost before Nhysa had finished speaking. There was a particular edge to the name that suggested it was one such lie, but Nhysa only shrugged the accusation off. Truthfully it didn’t matter what Natalie called her; all the names were fabrications of a moment, even the one she used most often. If Nhysa even had a birth name, she did not know it. And it was clearly not the crux of Natalie’s distress. Her face was unreadable, but her breathing had hitched like the control cost a toll she was not used to paying.

She released her belt and reached for the door. Nhysa let her. Her shadow bristled and swept out after, the vague outline of its catlike body all but disintegrating as it clashed with the city lights. A little curiosity stirred, but it was mostly a motherly fascination that prompted Nhysa to kill the engine and get out too. She left the car. It was borrowed anyway. The driver behind railed on the horn and began yelling when they realised both occupants had abandoned the vehicle in front, but Nhysa only offered a wink and a rude gesture as she turned to follow Natalie’s form weaving through the stationary cars.

The girl had demons. Fortunately Nhysa got along very well with those.
[Image: nhysabanner1.jpg]
Once upon a time there was a girl who loved the night, and the night loved her back...
There was a fire inside of her, and it had been there since the day she burned the office; waiting for the spark of something she could never quite quantify: an ignition of kinship, or a quenching to allay the soul. In the absence Natalie discovered time and again, it burned uncontrollably instead; scorching so many of the things she touched to ash. Inertia was like being trapped in those flames all over again. Running from or running to. Was there even a difference?

Her parents had never gotten the divorce they announced to the world. Behind a plethora of news articles and interviews and gossip columns and official statements there was no actual evidence. She’d never looked, had never felt a need, until Kristof DeGarmo’s story about her mother’s help and the debt he owed her father. But she realised now how Eleanor had known too much of what had transpired in America. She’d asked far too few questions about it; like she’d already heard the facts from someone else.

Your mother thinks, Alistair had said at their meeting. Not thought.

She’d never noticed at the time, but now it was the entire roaring rush of her thoughts. All these years it had not been his entire family Alistair Grey cut ruthlessly from his life, and Eleanor had been complicit in the deception. Natalie’s bitter grief was built on a foundation of lies; the biggest wound to her soul, and the one that was still fucking bleeding. Both her parents watched her falling; watched her destroy herself, certain it was the kinder path than the trust of her loyalty. Their betrayal was intentional, and the revelation gutted her. It was not protection.

She wove an angry path through the idling cars, aware it was dangerous and stupid to plunge through inching traffic. Car horns blared. Engines revved and brakes jammed. She didn’t listen to the yelling. Her arms folded tight around her stomach, head down.

You thought I stopped loving you. Stopped loving your mother. He'd sounded affronted. Had she been foolish to believe it? Eleanor banished his name from their house. Her sisters moved on. But Natalie had burned up every relationship she’d ever had demanding too much from it. Waiting for the cracks to split and spread and shatter. Searching for them. Creating them.

A car nearly rammed into her legs. She felt the surprised bruise against her shins as the brakes squealed. Toma yanked her sharply out from further harm, then turned and banged angrily on the bonnet, shouting obscenities at the driver in Russian. Meanwhile Natalie pulled free, or tried to; the woman’s grip was like steel despite her small stature, her fingers digging like razor wire into the curve of Natalie’s arm. She dragged Natalie easily onwards instead.

“I’m not getting back in the fucking car,” she snapped, wrenching back. But Toma only shrugged and released her grip. Surprised and still fighting, Natalie fell back into someone’s wing mirror.

“I would prefer you don’t get squished like roadkill.”

Natalie blinked hard. In the absence of resistance, the fight utterly fled her. The pain left in its wake was somehow worse.

On the other side she ran sobering hands over her face. She pulled her hair from its knot, massaged at her scalp like she could so easily evict the thoughts inside. The pale waves shielded her face when she let them fall. Her arms folded. The stupidity left a tremble in her hands, but it calmed quickly enough now. Her breathing steadied. She searched the glittering traffic but couldn’t even tell from where they’d come.

“What about the car?” she asked.

“Red devils’ll pick it up. Or not. Not my problem anymore. Wasn’t my car anyway.” Toma’s amusement was palpable, and there was a faint flush to her cheeks like she had only found the whole sorry escapade invigorating. Dark eyes watched under the short fringe of her hair, entirely too shrewd.“Who’s lying to you Natalie?”

But the betrayal of Natalie’s emotions tidied neatly away. Punctures left from shock were patched in the work of a moment. It didn’t escape her who exactly asked that question, which accounted for the jaded smirk that plucked her lips in answer. She made a vague gesture with her hand. “Might be easier to list the people being honest.”

Honestly, honesty is overrated.”

Natalie made a noncommittal sound and started walking. She wasn’t even sure where they were. Somewhere beyond the outer circle. In the shadows it all looked the same.

The anger had run itself though. She tested its cold embers, but only felt undeniably weary. She thought about Jay then. The hand held out in a moment of crisis, the one that pulled her into the eye of the storm because he trusted she could handle it. Natalie never trusted words; not even ones that felt heartfelt in a moment. Time and uncertainty checked them time and again for flaws; waited for the cords that bound them to fray and snap. But Jay had both damned and saved her in that one action. It was a poor facsimile she saw in Adrian; she knew that. But it didn’t matter. The damage was already done years ago. She expected the loss. She didn’t know how not to.

“Fuck,” was all she said. Toma laughed, and though it sounded nothing like Cayli’s giggle, for a moment all Natalie could hear was her ‘you sound funny when you swear’ admonishment. It squeezed the bridges of her heart, but it reminded her why she was here too. DeGarmo had said it would take time to gather the intel she asked for, but he’d been pleased with the promise of information she’d provided in turn. When he’d asked her to put in a good word with Alistair, she made it perfectly clear that if he dealt with her it was her alone. Her father owed what she asked for already, and reneged in order to push her onto the gameboard. Well, she was playing now, and she’d pay the price herself.

If there was nothing left but ashes, there was no real choice but to start building.
“I don’t really want to go home,” she admitted after a while. Shadows swathed into the deepness of night, punctured by city lights, but it was the apartment itself that felt like a waiting tomb. Natalie felt expunged of feeling, weary of her own thoughts and the snares and traps within them. But she wouldn’t sleep. For now their steady pace kept the restlessness caged, but she could feel it there, keeping step alongside them. Inside she recalled every time her mother had denigrated her father’s name and then forbidden to hear it in their home at all. Every time she had refused to intercede when Natalie begged her, the unanswered visitation order crumpled in hand; never understanding how the cut could be so clean and so final. How could love exist so strongly one moment, to be swept away like debris in the next?

She was aware of Toma’s shrewd attention dissecting her from the corner of her eye. The woman had ditched the tailored shirt and tie, though she still wore the jacket over her black tank. Darkness clung to the sharp slopes of her cheeks. Her gaze glittered with resolution like twin black jewels.

“Then tonight the city is ours, sweet Natalie.” She grinned.

The evening couldn’t have ended further from its sumptuous beginnings. Manifesto elevated like stars in the firmament, offering the godly heights of possibility. This bar didn’t even appear to have a name outside, though Toma strode confidently through the flyer-pasted door. The light was grungy. Most of the patrons did not look up. Inside it smelled like greasy food and sour vodka, but there was a pool table that Toma commandeered, and Natalie was glad of the distraction and the lack of obvious scrutiny. In contrast to DeGarmo’s smooth vintage, whatever it was the other woman ordered her from the bar burned enough to make her eyes water. “Jesus,” she murmured, stifling a weak cough, but Toma only seemed to find it funny.

She watched her set up the game, leaning on a cue, and found herself thinking about Aaron for the first time in a long time. The self-reflection was maudlin, but her thoughts flattened to the task, mostly because it hurt to do so. The pain of it felt a lot like release. The moment Aaron had admitted he knew who her father was she had pushed him away, refusing the step from intimacy to trust like he’d held out a flaming brand instead of a shoulder to lean on. Love had finite boundaries and Natalie was not prepared to suffer the loss. Betrayal vindicated the choice soon after, or so she chose to believe then. She’d missed him a long time after that, yet she’d never called either. Amidah says you're just as broken as us, Imani had told her once, when they’d escaped the compound at Jasiri; she says it's why you're really here. Natalie had brushed it off. Familial sins seemed a lighter load than the crushing blows those girls had been through. It felt uncomfortably true now, though.

Toma jibed her for being shit at the pool game, until the hooks of her thoughts uncurled the hold. Natalie frowned at the insult, though distraction made it true. Or maybe the numbing embrace of that whiskey.

When they finally returned in the early hours, she slept exhausted.

She woke to early morning sun bursting through the floor to ceiling windows, and the brash greeting of the indomitable Moscow skyline. She realised blearily that she’d fallen asleep on the sofa rather than her bed, though it was not unusual really. As she pushed herself up and stood her shins smarted a dull reminder of where the car had knocked into her. It was easily ignored, as was the memory of last night's foolishness. She showered. An itinerary for the day marched through her mind as the water scalded just a little too hot. For now yesterday’s revelations were tucked carefully away in favour of focus.

The apartment was not much of a home, and she had no real desire to use it for an office either. Within an hour of waking she was dressed and ready to leave – all but for the faint curl of emotion beginning to form in her chest like the kindling spark of flame. It wasn’t quite indecision, but it was a flicker that momentarily held her back.

Her anger simmered low, not extinguished, but confronting Eleanor now felt like a distraction she couldn’t afford to indulge. In coldness she was not sure if she instead preferred ignorance; to use the same tactics both her parents weaponised against her. Maybe Toma had been right about some kinds of honesty. Railing angrily at her father had only deepened the wound. The past could not be undone; she had no forgiveness to offer.

There was something else, though.

She paused over her wallet, fingers hovering above a particular name. The silence felt a lot like he’d finally let go. Natalie resented the pain it made her feel, honestly. She understood the reasons, in as much as she exonerated the possibilities and yanked herself back from her own precipice in the process. Stubborn pride accounted for the rest. Staying away seemed like a perfectly reasonable guard against the kind of injuries Jay had proved himself more than capable to inflict.

You can’t lose something you don’t have to begin with, Adrian had told her yesterday. It wasn’t the only lure that drew her to him, though his blunt and unfeeling promises had not hurt either. But it had exemplified something for her too. At the time it had felt like a determined shield of self-protection. Now it felt like a recognition of emptiness. Because Natalie had lost. More than she cared to linger over. But Adrian was wrong about the value of his advice, just as Natalie was beginning to realise she had been wrong about the things she was prepared to fight for. Sometimes it was worth having something to lose.


She shoved the wallet into her bag after she hit send, and gathered the rest of her things. Resolved not to look at the screen again.

The coffee shop was too formally luxurious for her tastes, but it was close by, and without a trip on the metro she was not likely to find anything simpler. The furniture was all curly art nouveau inspired, as delicate and insubstantial as the frilly cakes behind glass stands. It all smelled divine, though. In a corner with coffee, Natalie worked on the proposal she planned to present to Zhenya Disir. An invitation had already been forwarded to Pervaya to organise a meeting for earliest convenience. Afterwards she researched the identities of Moscow’s big players; separated them into potential clients, potential allies, and potential obstructions. Learned as much as she could about the political landscape. She drafted a message to Evelyn, who she’d not contacted since they’d been holed up in Jensen’s estate. It was too early to call; in Washington it’d be past midnight now. Her chest tightened to share the news about Cayli. Not the full details, of course. The feeling did not release when she shared plans of honouring her memory too.

Later, a message arrived from Adrian’s office concerning plans to get the building’s structure updated and ready for habitation. She forwarded the building blueprints, signed what she needed to, and stated a desire to meet with the architect. The communications relayed back and forth for a while; Natalie was prompt in reply, splicing her attention between that and other things in the meantime.

The focus came easy when she fell into a rhythm. Yet the time did not seem to pass quickly.

Jay hadn’t shown, which was not unexpected. Her gaze had stopped bouncing up to the door every time the bell rang by now. She swallowed the disappointment.

That was an answer then.

[Image: nat-1.jpg] [Image: zblue2.jpg]
Natalie & Zhenya

That afternoon she met with the CEO of Pervaya Liniya for lunch. Zhenya was resplendent in cobalt, her hair smoothed back into a sleek bun, her makeup minimal and flawless. The power hovered about her aura like sunshine, and she greeted Natalie with such sisterly affection an observer might be forgiven for assuming a long acquaintance between them. Natalie composed herself beneath a modicum of surprise, but she found the affability an easy mask to adopt. Zhenya’s manner was as warm and welcoming as the very epithet of summer.

The restaurant was silver service; not the fuss of something Natalie particularly enjoyed. Great crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings, reflecting the gilt of the tables. Napkins were arranged in artful displays, and flowers decorated centrepieces. The servers all wore impeccable white. Zhenya was polite and amiable with them, which Natalie at least took as a good sign of her temperament. They seemed to dote on her in turn, presenting the recommended wines and dishes like favoured secrets.

The discussion seemed to go well. Natalie used her wallet to hover screens displaying various shots and details of the property between them. The kind of security she desired would come with a hefty price-tag, but as she’d hoped, after the preliminaries Zhenya’s curiosity for the venture ran deeper than pure business. She used the power like second nature the entire time; small flourishes, mostly indistinguishable from good fortune if you could not see the delicate threads as Natalie could. “You may not know, but I have a daughter. She is too young to know for sure if she will be like her mother. But I would have the world prepare for the possibility. Girls should not have to suffer the process as we did, no?”

Zhenya smiled over the edge of her fluted glass, ripe with tease, though she did not choose to dangle the bait long.

“I must confess, Natalie, that we have some passing acquaintance between us. Alvis was remiss to hoard us all away from each other for all these years. I told him so on many occasions. But you know how he is, of course.” She waved a dismissive hand for that last bit and seemed to wait for recognition, but Natalie was wary to give it. The name from someone else's lips took her by surprise. After a moment she allowed the reaction to show, reasoning there was no reason not to. Perhaps it was only a result of the power bridging connections between them, or maybe it was just the geniality of Zhenya herself, but it settled something in her. Until Cayli the power had always been isolating. She’d never considered the obvious possibility that Alvis had helped others.

Zhenya gave a delighted smile. “Oh we must trade stories soon!” she promised, reaching her hand across the table to squeeze Natalie’s hand. The way the light coalesced around her, in accent of her mood, she looked blindingly beautiful. Her laughter chimed like bells.

She leaned back to sip delicately at her champagne, then added, amused, “You are popular today, no?” Curiosity shone her eyes with a sly twinkle then. Her glass twinkled too as she twisted the stem in her fingers.

This morning Natalie had not heard her wallet from where it had been relegated to exile in the bottom of her bag, but she had discovered the litany of messages later. Hope flared and stilled when she began to realise exactly what Jay had been doing with his time. The messages were nonsense, mostly. Video loops. Memes. Incoherent ramblings. Like every thought that entered the orbit of his awareness was suddenly given leave to fly from drunken fingertips. It might have been endearing if she had not also found it distressing. 

Natalie had muted the alerts by now but the phone still lit up at intervals where it lay beside her on the table. She was surprised he had not yet passed out. Though there had been lulls of quiet, so perhaps he had and the alcohol-fuelled bender just recommenced the moment he woke again. By the bruised shot of his hand, the knuckles erupted in bloody volcanoes, she imagined it was not the only vice he indulged. The rest, well, she really didn’t want to know.

She glanced at the latest alert as it pinged and faded from the top of her screen.

Cayli. Chocolate chips.

Her heart squeezed tight.

“If you tell me that is Adrian Kane I shall simply die. The man is an eternal bachelor despite my best efforts.”

Natalie’s pale gaze returned to the moment, the rest of her thoughts compartmentalised away. She smirked for the interested and co-conspiratorial way Zhenya leaned in for the gossip. The woman laced her hands, one perfect brow raised. She’d seen Adrian follow her out of the club, after all. “It’s not,” she assured. Beyond the note from his office, she had not heard from him at all. It did not surprise her. Neither did she discover disappointment in her reaction, or even offence, which she might have been entitled to given the manner of their parting. The ardour cooled. But it was his investment she had sought before the intensity of his passion.

Hm.” Zhenya’s lips twitched in mirth, her eyes narrowed for the mystery, though she did not persist with it. They moved on to speak of other things.

[[continued in Pancakes]]

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