The First Age

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Mik laughed. "Yeah, I'll tell ya. Hurt like a motherfucker. Not because of the placement. The guy had a heavy hand. And wanted it done all in one sitting. 10 hours, man....shit, my back was hamburger by the end, even with the oxy and vodka. Last time I went with him." His voice dropped a bit lower as he chuckled. "Good thing I had a....friend help to keep it moisturized while it healed. Not easy to reach your own back." Well, more like a couple of friends, actually, Sif, her with the soft small hands, and Viktor, with their meaty paws. A good memory- pain and pleasure. He'd liked that.

Before he could say more the lights dimmed and the show began and Mik's focus was drawn. The girls were hawt, of course. Not that the Kallisti wasn't gonna have the cream of the crop in that department. Still, it wasn't like Mik really understood all the imagery and whatnot. Interpretive dance, or whatever you wanted to call it, wasn't something he was really in to. Kallisti was fun for the tease and the promise. Hahaha! Dumbass. Call it what it was. The best place in Moscow to get a case of blue balls. Cuz it wasn't like you could head into the VIP room and unload with whatever hottie happened to be on stage or running around serving or pretending to be into you.

But he wasn't always about the finish. He liked a chase. And he liked flirting. And often it might go nowhere. And sometimes...well...he did alright for himself.

The guy who came out grabbed his attention. It was a bit dark, so he didn't get to see the eyes, which were his favorite to check out first. But no, his attention was grabbed all the same. Lithe and masculine but with a feminine grace. He couldn't help that his heart raced a bit. Now he was someone to watch!

And there was something else, something that split his face into a grin. Threads of the power were flowing from him around the stage, so many of them in intricate patterns. And it was odd. The sense of...danger he felt from another man's power only made the him hotter. He was magnetic. Mik tried to focus on the weaves but his eyes kept being drawn to the guy.

When it ended, it was as if a balloon popped, and Mik was suddenly able to hear the applause of the audience. Things felt a little more lifeless now. And the guy...well. Yeah, still attractive, but something was missing now. Like the lights had been shut off. He could hear the Lady laughing at him. You dumb-fuck, Mik! Don't you get it? she was saying to him. And despite the loss he laughed along with her. Like he didn't know that the world could change in the blink of an eye. That was fucking joke, after all!

He took a sip of his vodka and was about to say something to Lime Tattoo when someone came up to him. Mik laughed out loud. Scarface was there, shit eating grin on his face! Mik met his grin with a laugh of his own. "Well of course, bro. Like we wouldn't take the opportunity to check out hot men and women every chance we get!" He looked over at Lime Tattoo and waggled an eyebrow and winked at him flirtatiously. "This guy knows." He raised his drink in salute to both of them. "Nostrovia!"
Andre laughed, “kept it moisturized while you healed, huh?” he mumbled, eyes roaming the length of the man’s back. Amused by the imagery, the American dumped the liquor to the back of his throat in one, heavy swallow. He was a hefty man. Thick and muscular. He could hold quite a lot of liquor before showing signs of intoxication. Public drunkenness wasn’t befitting a detective, but they weren’t in Bronzeville – whitewashed Moscow cityscape aside.

Another eastern man joined the bar, clapping the Russian on the shoulder like old friends. That one carried himself like he knew what he was doing. Andre spotted it almost as easily as people tailed him a cop. The other guy was strong enough to handle himself, but it was the man with the scars that he would watch closely. Just in case. Moscow was suppose to be dangerous after all. Hell, so far, Chicago made Moscow look like puppy-town.

Nostrovia, they declared, cheering and toasting. The spirits tugged at Andre, and he lifted a newly deposited (long-stem martini) glass on high, “No-stup-ia” he mangled, laughing at himself.
He hated fucking Americans with those shit-eating grins and redneck pussy accents. Ryker turned to the man in green, staring flatly at the poor imitation of a proper toast. It was easy to dismiss him, but Mikhail was giving him the long-eye, which meant either the kid had poor taste or it was a shitty first-impression. Given he was in a good enough of a mood, he was inclined to give the idiot a second chance. The flimsy stemware in his hand did not help the impression of stupid, but to each their own.

Hand on his thigh, he let his knees fall open as he laid back against the rail. "You two shared the awkward exchange of names yet? Or still calling each other cute nicknames?"

This was sure to be a hell of a night.
Mik barked a laugh at Scarface's comment. grin on his face, he answered. "Oh, he's playing hard to get right now. I'm tempted to go see if the blue haired cat girl over there-" he jerked his head off in the direction of her- "might be in more of mood to play. Could probably fish out a ball of yarn from somewhere. Or... " and then he laughed as touched his lighter sitting on the bar next to his drink, seized the power and wove a few threads of fire and earth to make the appearance of a burning threads- "..or something. Give her a pole to climb and everything."

He took another sip, nodding to Lime Tattoo. "Names Mik." He looked back at Scarface, smile on his face. "What brings you here? Don't see any Yakuza around tonight." He laughed, remembering how much fun they had had that night, fireballs flying from his hands in gorgeous explosions of sparks and ash. The Lady had been fun, that night. Maybe tonight would be the same. And he was always on the lookout for fun. Or for information. His stock and trade and alla that. "Haven't heard any rumblings among the families about something going down." He peered into his drink and took another sip, voice casuel. "You out helping the Spider? Don't blame you. Wouldn't mind a little shot at her myself."
It was not the sort of place of which Scion would approve; more akin to the type of haunt frequented by his wastrel son than the refined tastes of high society. Neither was it somewhere Vena would usually have elected to go, and yet the whispered promise of opening night woke a longing long dampened by years of neglect. She went for the dance; still kept an ear to that world, even though she no longer lived and breathed its artistry. In the twinkling blue lights of the theatre, she was not disappointed. The music flushed her skin like the scald of warm beach sand, flickering her tongue with the taste of something ancient. She did not recognise Nox Durante beneath the gold paints and ambient lighting, but a nuance of her senses identified him nonetheless. Surprise tilted her attention before the story swept her away until the final moment.

It was beautiful.

And perhaps over too swiftly, like a morsel rife with the promise of more.

When the curtains swished closed amidst the ripple of applause, she stood. Rumours abounded as to why the club had been closed, fissioning a little fear along her spine as she returned to the bar. The air was cooler beyond, like a gateway from one world to another. She perhaps would have preferred Scion’s protection to the nakedness of her own company, but she doubted he would have understood her desire to attend tonight. Political intrigue kept him busy, and while he might have indulged her fancy, she was not convinced he would have enjoyed the diversion. She could have availed of friends, but tonight was a taste of an old life; one she jealously did not want to share.

It was not her intention to stay beyond the show, but sometimes performers mingled amongst the audience after. Curiosity swept for a glimpse of Nox; she did not forget the bridge of his threads with those of Ascendancy the night they had danced at the fundraiser. Her dark gaze found nothing amongst the crowds before she turned its warmth to the server behind the bar, though. Beauty was a currency likely to see her in good stead in such an establishment, but the refinement of her manners were not demanding. Meanwhile she adjusted to the currents of the new space around her, and the people within it.
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“Where are you staying, ma’am?” asked the driver who the embassy had summoned for Lillian. He looked fresh and eager.  

“Doesn’t matter. Where can you get a drink?”

“A bar?” the driver replied with a little halt in his voice that suggested he thought there might be a trick in the question.

“Where do you get a drink?” Lillian asked.

“The Kalliste, or Cafe Mio the sometimes.”

“Either will be fine,” Lillian smiled. She closed the car door and grinned at the driver encouragingly. As she sat down, she pinched the thighs of her pants to hoist up the slack in the legs. 

“They’re both quite busy.” the driver replied. He seemed uncomfortable. There was a look in his eyes, the way he regarded her, that suggested she was special handling cargo he’d taken notice of.

“Good. I don’t want to go to a bar that isn’t busy.”

“No, I mean they’re full of locals right in the red light district. You people use clubs like the Ritz. Bars reserved for political personnel.”

“My people?” She shook her head like it was all a joke and she didn’t care. The grin didn’t leave her lips.

“Diplomats,” said the driver. “There’s a list of clubs and bars that ambassadors can use, provided you’ve got proper papers.”

Lillian had papers. It was one of the few things she was certain of. Most of everything else was a fuzz. It was hard to peg the time of night. Lillian sat back in the leather seat as the driver turned west onto Metropolitan and accelerated towards the neons structures of the redlight district.

It amused her to think that the driver had precisely fuck-all idea how uninterested she was in drinking with other diplomats. Those approved nightclubs were tourism, dressed up to make peoples feel like they’re visiting somewhere authentic. While they’ll show you things they show everyone. You follow their tours around at the beginning while finding your feet, then you give the guide the slip. That’s how it always worked.

Foreign correspondences and affiliates, sorted by old acquaintance or new loyalties; government employees; locals working the room; selling everything from sources to sex in order to leverage a little advantageous outcome for their organization. It wasn’t that her peers won’t surrender some useful, juicy nugget to her, she just wasn’t that much interested in whole one hand washes the other ecosystem. She’d learn the good stuff by living in it, with real people.

She wobbled her head from side to side.

“No, thanks. Take me to … the Kalliste. Makes a change.”

She was bone light and lagged from too many years riding jets. She’d got the transport down and arrived in good time, but the lag had got her. She was wide awake in the middle of the night, and hungry for something she couldn’t specifically identify. For the moment, she wanted a drink, maybe some variety of baked goods, and twenty minutes by herself in a clean bathroom. She’d need to look refreshed and well equipped.

She checked herself in the mirror. Her suit had creases that could draw blood. Her hair was a white lawn, mown short. The overhead lights, unflatteringly hard, glinted off the shiny brooch at her chest. She lit a cigarette and wondered if her driver could smell her smoke through the partition. Fuck him if he could.

The driver took her to the Kalliste. The place made up in business what it lacked in soul, flushed with tasteful lighting, music and fitted with interesting furniture and all kinds of people. There were distinct currents separating the crowd: a mix of artsy and professional.

Lillian prepared and lit a smile, slowly and expertly, like it was a Cuban cigar.

She got to talking to a corporate type at the rail of the bar. The guy was ordering a tray of drinks. It was a co worker’s birthday. As the bartender filled the drinks, a casual question or two got the office worker to admit that the mood was downtrend among Starleigh staff. Development contracts were running over budget or remaining unfulfilled, grants were being cut and the share prices had dipped badly on the market because of public perception.

“My stocks are in the shitter,” he said, “and our reputation is floating right there beside it. The public thinks we’re driving this through corporate greed.”

“That’s not the case here, is it?” she leaned forward slightly. She was curious about Starleigh. There hadn’t been much else to do during her flight. The political, military, and social briefings she studied had run to several hundred thousand words, and had been remarkably informative. They had made it abundantly clear to Lillian just how much stonewalling was going on.

“Anyway, enough about me. What do you do?”

“I’m a diplomat.” She kept her smile alight, tending it to make sure it doesn’t go out. Lillian got her game face on and turned up the charm. “Don’t you think this entire situation is political in nature?”

The man nodded, and folded his mouth down into a shape that indicated he was quite impressed.

When it was her turn to order she asked for a gin and tonic. The bartender was good looking but it was a camera ready attractive. There was no depth to her appeal. It was all cosmetic.

He offered to buy her G&T drink and took her to meet his colleagues. They were a pale bunch who’d plainly spent too much time indoors in the tailored environment of their corporate glass cage. Lillian had never understood that. She looked pale because she spent too much time aboard flights where there was no outside to step into. But if you’ve gone to live and work for a Corp for the rest of your life, why didn’t you go outside more? You might as well be on a jet. You might as well have stayed anywhere.

They wanted to know about her career. She gave them a short but embellished version, romanticizing her own diplomatic cred. They all oohed and ah’d in all the right places, like they knew from bullshit.

Lillian listened to them talk. It was automatic, just warming up her political muscles. They weren’t saying much that was interesting beyond the state of the corporation. They were worried about their futures, about their careers. They were fretting about what the bad press was doing to their stocks and bonuses.

Her drink was crappy but welcome after the flight. She got a little buzz cooking and felt good about herself. She arranged her face so it looked like she was interested. At first she tried to open the birthday boy up a little, but by the 3rd drink he became singularly dull and unforthcoming, and spent most of the time talking to her about import tariffs. She wasn’t that fussed though. She spent her time sipping her drink in an attempt to feel drowsy while trying to listen to the man from Starleigh logistics. The latter was a purely academic exercise. She told herself it was useful training to get herself back into the ring.

She kept an eye on a nearby table where some workers had clustered after their performance. One of the faces looked familiar, like a younger, carefree version of a man she had once known. He was the most able and clued in journalist she’d ever worked with. They’d become friends, but then he started a farm in houston, leaving the political life for good.

Lillian turned the tall glass by the rim with her thumb and fingers like she was cracking a safe.

A third joined the bar. Many more and it was sure to be a rowdy bunch. The bolts around Andre’s professional armor loosened a tad as he was sucked into the revelry. Or perhaps it was the Russian liquor. Andre’s butt puckered a little at mention of the Yakuza. “I thought they were a comic book horde,” he laughed.  The trunk of an arm thrust out, “Andre,” he said, but the other guy was too far to reach so he tossed over a salute. Awkward exchange of names completed.

“Any other secret societies I should know about that’s real in Moscow?”
No less than several times, Ryker found himself laughing among the strange group of men. The American was an imbecile, but Ryker was mostly accustomed to immersion in such company. Mik was more amusing than during their previous encounter. Though the work of the night left Ryker’s edges sharp and eager to slice at distraction, the comparison was not entirely fair; there were no such ulterior motives this evening as that of the business occupied his attention that night. 

Talk of the Yakuza led to revelations about Yun Kao, stirring the pot in Ryker’s mind toward one of mutual goals. “Secret societies are plentiful in Moscow. You’re likely to view representation of no less than six in this very room.” Ryker gestured for Andre’s behalf, including himself in the sweep of his arm. “If you are not affiliated with one yet, Comrade, you will be recruited shortly. A man of your skill may be valuable here.” And he left the intrigue at that.

By the end of the night, much more vodka was shared as were future plans for their mutual 8-legged friend’s organization. Ryker departed with feminine company, a flame-haired woman named Yasmeen, and a promise to call the next day.
The bartender—huge, hulking, genial man—shuffled over from his perch, a mug of hot mead in his hands. “Need warming up?” he asked and Lih nodded a smile to the giant man. The bartender passed the mug to Lih who muttered thanks, then knocked it back.

Lih looked across the busy bar to where Ryker and Mik sat in busy conversation, drinking vodka.

Holy f—, he knew that laugh!

For a moment, bright white light and fuzzy red blackness lurched across his augmented vision. A tiny moment of nausea. He blinked. He knew the signs. He’d known them since Boda died. The visual glitches, the nausea, the disturbing taste of metal in his mouth.

After that, if he was lucky, a hot migraine that would burst inside his skull and leave him helpless from pain. If he was unlucky: part of him would feel grateful, a young, eager but small part deep inside, relished the prospect fo building a new name for the CCDPD’s honor roll. But the rest of him was dull, unmotivated, empty.

He was sat on a bar stool, meticulously wiping the sweat off his copper mug. Lih was his usual edgy self—always looking like he was afraid. His mug was sparkling, yet he still worked a cloth on it. A compulsion, as there were horribly scary people like Ryker that Lih didn’t want to look at.

More than anything he felt he was simply going through the motions. He had felt that way since Boda’s death. Dorian wanted him in the tunnels; the Captain promoted Lih to domovoi, making him one of the few officers privy to the truth of monsters; to carry on the CCD’s glory. Such trust, such faith. But Lih was so tired of losing. It didn’t seem like a reward now.

Lih drank his mead and rubbed a gloved hand around his lean jaw. His breathing was slowing now at last, his pulse dropping, the anxiety attack that had seen him gasping a few minutes ago was passing. Or maybe he was just in the eye of that storm.

As Ryker was leaving the bar, Lih’s pulse leapt for a moment. He forced himself to breathe deeply. Through the mouth, slow, deep breathing of the sort he used to steady himself before taking a shot.

He thought about death. He thought he might as well have begged for it, had he not been so scared of it. He had never figured out, though he was spending his nights wondering it, whether he was more afraid of death itself or the fear of death itself. Worse, there had been so many times when he had expected to find out. So many moments caught in death’s cold gaze, snapped at by death’s incisors. The question had been nearly answered so many times.

Now perhaps, he would find out. Here. Death, or the fear of death.

He dropped his gaze and looked about at Ryker’s companions. Though his head was still angled down, now he was gazing curiously at them, smiling grimly. Wondering how they came to be here, with Ryker. Someone important, maybe, he did not know. Mik was a handsome devil, his clean, sleek features decorated by a big smile. A real lady killer. Lih had a bad feeling there was a dangerous steak under Mik’s charm. “Who are you?” He wanted to ask Mik the question he had been dying to get out since overhearing him talking of Yakuza and the Spider to a laughing Ryker.

Lih licked his lips. He sipped some more of his mead before returning to his obsessive polishing.
Mik had a pretty good buzz going by the end of the night. Not enough to slur his words or make him stumble or some shit like that. There was always a sweet spot, the perfect level. Buzzing but alert. Aware. Sometimes created its own problem. Lime shirt- Andre, he had learned- drew his eye. Not that he lingered. Nah. There was lots of eye candy to keep his attention. Cat girl's tattoos called to him too. Spots and lines that seemed to disappear up the inside of her thigh, pretty much a runway telling him he was good enter.

Trouble was, Andre's tattoos did the same thing. He always liked tracing them delicately, as he got to know his partner's body.

Too bad he was taken. Not that Mik cared. He wasn't, after all. Not his concern what someone wanted to get up to. So who knew how things would work out.

Scar face was surprisingly cool. He'd seemed a dick before. Course Ori had been there. And they had both wanted to get into her pants- like real bad. With an ass like that? Was like she had been poured into those jeans. Not that Mik would have minded all of them together. More the merrier, right? Everyone should jump into the hot tub!

Turned out the guy had a pretty wicked sense of humor.

So all in all, a good night. And he guessed the Lady was off somewhere fucking with someone else's life tonight because instead of pulling the rug out from under him like she did that night with the Voodoo queen (FUCK! He had gone from a sure thing with Rowan, to maybe more than one, to zero in less than an hour. Life was like that though. Don't sell the facts before you got 'em, you know? So there he was, instead, going home alone to rub one out. Oh well.) Anyway, where was he? Oh, yeah. Lady off, not fucking with him, and wouldn't you know it, Cat girl was game for a little fun. Not completely what he hoped for. But he did have a bit of fun while he was there.
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