The First Age

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Zhenya Disir
CEO of Pervaya Liniya Security

Description: Zhenya is a deeply ambitious woman who chases the things she desires with unrivalled tenacity. She has a ruthless business aptitude and a hunger for power, but not without heart. She believes in the greater good, and will make sacrifices in its pursuit (though not necessarily of her own). She is a natural leader and not particularly enamoured of being told what to do, for she is long used to being in charge. Her tastes run to the fine things in life; she dresses meticulously and at great expense, and likewise is used to luxury in her surroundings. She is something of a social butterfly and usually to be found in the company of others, a frequenter of Moscow’s elite nightlife hotspots, and often found wining and dining the company’s most prodigious clients. Despite an aura of demurity, she can be surprisingly bold, but is possessed generally of good humour. 

Zhenya is dark-eyed and dark-haired. Her Chinese ancestry is quite apparent in her appearance, taking after her mother, and she is fluent in the language. She is above average tall, and slender but shapely. She wears a wedding band.

Bio in brief: A baby born of indiscretion, plucked from foreign shores to the household of her ex-military father when she was a child. She is markedly different from her fair-haired siblings, a point of inflicted cruelty growing up, and perhaps in part responsible for the care she takes over her appearance as an adult.

She grew Sick at eighteen, surviving via the ingenuity, connections, and deep pockets of her father. Her study of the female power has been an incremental and thorough endeavour since, kept secret of necessity until recently. Ever the devoted daughter she has meanwhile become an intrinsic asset to the running of the family security business, Pervaya Liniya, having recently taken the mantle of CEO.

Pervaya Liniya Security

Pervaya protects people, not things or property, and has a well-earned reputation for being the best private security firm one can hire.

They are publicly known to employ ex-military exclusively, predominately of countries that have fallen under CCD influence, and some of their members are known in the right circles to have particularly interesting skill blocks. They currently have around only thirty operators, valuing quality over quantity, for they only employ the best. In addition to a whole host of support personnel and office staff, they make liberal use of the very best lawyers the Dominance has to offer. This alongside its very influential clientele base allows the employees of Pervaya to shirk the law quite blatantly at times. They have a reputation for being proactive rather than reactive in order to provide the very best service.

Known operatives: John White


The last vestiges of fever still burned her lungs with every breath as she sat at the table, hands folded against its top, waiting patiently for the door to finally open. Zhenya counted those breaths with morbid determination, fierce enough to look death in its eye, yet still enough afraid of its sting to feel its promise flush her cold. Eighteen was too young, and yet still older than the age of most girls stolen by the Sickness. She’d thought herself immune. Protected by her family’s wealth, perhaps. But even her father could not protect her from this.

A knock sounded. She lifted her chin as the door swept open. The man who entered cast a scowled glance at the uniformed attendant who escorted him in and, after a brief nod, closed the door on his heels. They were alone but for the glittering eyes of the security cameras.

“Your father is very rich,” he said blandly. No smile lifted his lips. He was tall; made seemingly moreso, perhaps, by the gauntness that hollowed out the space beneath his cheekbones. His amber eyes took in their surroundings; the walls of books and polished dark furniture; the arching windows and manicured gardens beyond. Or perhaps he was only looking for the video feeds nestled unobtrusively around them; he must know they were there, given where he was. She studied him in turn. She had expected someone old, if only out of some false equivalency for wisdom, but he was not.

“Then I suppose it would be prudent of you not to disappoint him,” she said.

He only grunted an answer, pulling up his shirtsleeves roughly. The skin beneath was tan, and one forearm bore a tattoo of dark symbols. Leather bracelets wound his wrist, knotted with what looked like archaic talismans. Her father must be desperate if he had turned to mysticism. She glanced briefly at one of the cameras, trying not to frown; trying not to let that fear squeeze its grip tighter, either. She didn't like the thought of desperate.

“It’s not an illness,” he said. An accent lyricised his words, though she couldn't place it; didn’t care, honestly, because her heart was beating so very hard, and she still felt insufferably hot. “Do you know that?"

"My name is Zhenya," she said, indicating for him to take a seat. "And if you are going to do me the favour of trying to save my life, I would at least know your name first."

His fingers flexed, rolled into a fist. While she watched that gesture warily, he grabbed the back of a chair with his other hand, and sat opposite. She had suspected annoyance earlier, but nothing like that rested in his features now. He seemed mostly pensive, and watching her in a way that made her want to adjust herself self-consciously. It was the first day in almost a week she’d even had the strength to rise from her bed, and the slash of her dark hair did not make the frame for a pretty picture.

"Your skin is flush,” he pointed out coolly. “The fever has not passed. How much time do you think you have to waste on pleasantries?"

The admonishment from a stranger (and quite possibly a poor stranger too, to look at him) corded her spine with indignation. She supposed it was better than just feeling afraid, though it was not a tone in which she was accustomed to being addressed. Her eyes flashed, but she swallowed it down in pursuit of politeness, sighing quietly instead. "You said it is not an illness. I’ve seen doctors. Plenty of them, actually. So what do you believe it is?"

After a moment of uncomfortable quiet he made a low hum of flat disappointment, and presently folded his arms, pressing his weight back into the neck of the chair. He seemed to be considering, as if some test had been metered out and failed. "Alvis is what you can call me," he said eventually. "And it is not a case of belief. I was Sick once too."

Zhenya allowed herself to feel the pendulum of relief as it swung back in her favour. A survivor? She’d forgive the abrasiveness, then. “Then you really can help?”

"Think back, to something strange, perhaps last week or the week before. Something you cannot explain. Think of how you felt in that moment. Think of the kernel of fire inside your chest. It's burning you up right now, but only until you learn how to control it."

She blinked at him, confused. Alvis leaned forward.

"It feels like rage and hunger, and to survive this you must conquer it. A difficult feat. No wonder so many of you die."

"Us," she said flatly. "Are you implying..?" She felt herself bristle; that he would assume such an infantile reason for the shocking death rate in young women, leaving boys that same age remarkably untouched. That he would accuse weakness of an entire sex before accepting the cruel and indiscriminate hand of disease. She sat back, pulling her hands off the table.

Only belatedly did it occur to her he was trying to goad her; only later did she recall the ghost of his faint smile.

Alvis laid his own arms out, both of them. One palm clenched to white knuckles and face down, the other flat and open. For a moment she thought he was going to encourage her palm in his; to guide her through whatever must come next, but then the air above his hand began to shimmer and split. It folded out of itself and upon its surface a luminescence began to revolve, until it formed a flowing sphere. Colours shifted like the shadows of night and day upon the canvas of the earth.

Surprise softened her mouth into an o.

She searched his face for lunacy, for some hint of a charlatan's grin or manic fervour, but those placid eyes were mild and unimpressed with his own tricks. "You look like a fish. I hope that means you are thinking, Miss Disir."

Her expression shuttered, insulted. She took in another hot breath, and perhaps it really was the searing brand of fever’s touch, but she did as bid -- cast her mind back, sought something inwards, craving the discovery of anything beyond the future promised, no matter how absurd it sounded. Her father declared cold coin was the only god they ought pray to, but if she might have begged for saviour then it would have been to anyone who’d listen.

"It will try to overwhelm you, and you must fight it."

His words continued; instructions she barely heard as time counted down to failure.

It felt like fire all right.

She made a sound when it finally surrounded her; immense and unknowable, and recoiling from her touch. Something so vast could not be contained; not without smashing the vessel of her body to jagged shards. Fiercely determined, recklessly desperate, she tried anyway; which was when it began to burn. Panicked now, Zhenya pulled sharply away from it. She wasn't quite sure when she pitched from the chair, but now it was strands of plush carpet clenched between her fingers. Her ears were roaring like the rush of the river still threatened to pull her under. Tears streamed over the curve of her clammy cheeks. She could barely breathe.

Hands cradled her shoulders, lifting her up, and raised words flew like missiles above her head. Dazed, she dabbed gently at the bloody trickle from her nose. Realised her hands were still trembling. Personnel swarmed the room like bees roused from a kicked nest, dressed in the grey uniforms of her father’s private detail. Alvis stood amongst them, chair upturned, arguing against the men trying to push him from the room. His brows slashed low over his eyes, but he did not look at her.

“Miss Disir?” Arms ushered her up, but the wobbly stems of her legs folded beneath her. Did they think he had hurt her? "I will die anyway," she said to the guard distractedly. Where was her father? She pushed away from her capture. The memory of power was like a heartbeat tuned to her own, and she would not allow it to vanish now. “He did not hurt me. Release him, please. He will stay."

The illness passed once more, and by the next morning the colour had returned to her cheeks.

Alvis had taken up residence in the library of their first meeting. He muttered harshly to himself in the musical tones of some other language, peppered with words she did recognise, like fish and fowl. A dozen holoscreens curved around the workspace he had cleared for himself, pasting a pale glow against his face. She watched him quietly for a moment from the threshold. He was the bridge to a secret she had never hoped to discover in herself. China was no friend of the Custody, and at times her childhood had been sharply cruel because of it. The face beheld in her reflection weighted her with shame for many years before she began to learn its other gift; that dual-edged blade of beauty. But she wanted more.

“I have never studied a woman before,” he said, gaze pressing up once to acknowledge her existence before returning to his screens. It might have been an apology, but if so it was a poor one.

“That simply can’t be true,” she said, amused by the vexed way his lips pursed at the insinuation. Her smile was not shy, and there were no blushes spared despite his response. She laughed. “Fortunately, I believe I understand what you mean.”

The details on his identity were surprisingly sparse. There was simply no chance her father had forgone a background check before allowing him onto the property, but he was cagey with the details, and her own investigations illuminated little. Even the recordings from yesterday had been erased from the security stores, and though father assured her this was for her own protection, she was not convinced by the explanation.

"Why would my father enlist the aid of an art dealer? Who are you really?

She found she was not surprised when he ignored her question entirely. “The data is sparse. Mostly it is only a pattern of death certificates, and those that survive have good reason to remain hidden. I have my own data, but clearly my method did not agree with you. I imagine it’s in both our interests that I don’t succeed in killing you next time. Until then your presence is not required.”

“The fever has gone,” she said. The door clicked quietly shut as she leaned her weight on it.

“Then we are fortunate enough to have been given some more time, and not enough of it for you to squander with stupid questions.”

A stone dropped in her stomach, but she did not let the disappointment anchor her. Some small hope had blossomed that yesterday’s… experiences, had signalled a harsh and violent cure to her ailment. But she knew the fevers hit in waves, running closer and closer together until... well, she’d seen the newsfeeds, and she knew enough to be terrified. Fortunately, she was no flower to wilt beneath the heat of a little pressure.

“Then what can I do?”

“You can be quiet.”

Ignoring him, Zhenya crossed the distance and pulled herself up onto the table behind his screens, casting her silhouette over the scrawling text and images. She had taken care of her appearance this morning. Ebony hair fell like silk against her slim shoulders, her skin as perfect as warm porcelain. She crossed her legs, and his attention flickered briefly to watch the movement; despite himself, she imagined. Alvis had been clean-shaven yesterday, but pale stubble roughened his cheeks now, and his short-cropped hair looked like he had run frustrated fingers through it several times. Had he worked through the entire night? She leaned forward a little, seeking to capture his attention more thoroughly. Bars of afternoon light from the large windows caught the amber in his eyes and made them luminous. 

“You are a child,” he said eventually, refusing to meet her gaze. It had an edge of warning.

“Hardly.” She rolled her eyes and sliced her hand through his screens, parting them to either side. He couldn’t be more than a decade her senior, and likely less. She was perfectly cognisant of the broadness of him in that chair, and all those sharp lines that did not precisely make him handsome, but certainly made him intriguing. It wasn’t why she courted his attention. Not that it hurt. “Time is a commodity I am apparently short of, so I rather think it is up to me how it’s spent.” A haughty brow rose, but there was a smile on her lips. “And forgive me but I won’t be placing my fate entirely in your hands, Alvis. You seem to be a knight short of his white horse, if you are even a knight at all.”

He leaned back like he was afraid she might sting, rubbing a tired hand over his face. Then he made a grumbling sound in his throat, which she took for concession but was more likely resigned frustration. She smiled at him. “Most people don’t speak to me the way you do, you know. So let me be blunt in return. You are going to tell me everything.”

In those early days, Alvis indulged her curiosity; in fact she suspected he revelled in the horror of it, leaning in with a storyteller’s cant to paint the vivid details of pain, forbearance, and suffering that led him to enlightenment. She found it terrifying and fascinating in equal measures. Moreso when she searched her own depths for that self same light, and comprehended what might await in pursuit of its mastery. She paced a little, arms folded. Her life was one of luxury, but not without discipline. 

“Then… that is what I must do? Fast? Push my body beyond its means?” She worried at her lip as she turned, brow furrowed.   

Alvis sat at the desk, slouched back in his chair, distracted by her pacing. His fist twitched, and for the first time she noticed discomfort grimacing his expression with the movement. “Wisdom demands sacrifice,” he said, looking at her wryly.

She considered it.

“No. No, Alvis, if I had not pulled away from it, it would have killed me.”

“Then perhaps you ought to let me continue searching for some other answer,” he said, gesturing to the screens. “Your time may be short, Miss Disir, and perhaps you do not mind wasting it, but mine is not a commodity to be spent frivolously either. I cannot offer you comfort.”

Zhenya refrained from rolling her eyes as she came to stand behind him. She leaned over his shoulder, arms resting lightly on the back of his chair. A grid of eight holoscreens flickered with search data in front of him. Text scrolled faster than the eye could read, and images bloomed and faded. It didn’t seem to her that he need do much more than wait for the search to flag an article of interest, which certainly did not preclude conversation in the meantime.

“I could try again,” she said doubtfully.

“When I seized upon the power, I expected you to feel something. That is how it has been with the others. But you did not.” He shifted his weight away from her, propping his chin into the palm of his hand, one finger stretched in contemplation astride his lips. “I’d rather not negotiate my failure with your father. We will find another way.”

She made some noncommittal sound of agreement, and found herself looking, not at the screens, but at the dark symbols tattooed crisply on his arm. Alvis’s muscles corded when she reached out, and he glanced up at her frowning, but he seemed too proud to pull away from the touch. The ink was still dark and vivid, though well-healed. They could not be old. She followed the shape of one jagged mark, her eyes narrowed on some faint sense she could not place.

“Have you quite finished?”

The charm of the quiet spell faded at his interruption, but she was in no rush to pull away; rather a slow smile bloomed to her lips, perhaps for the catch she detected in the timbre of his voice. His skin was warm despite his cool manner. So he was a flesh and blood man after all. “What do they mean?”

He paused, thoughtful. “There are theories that tie this power, whatever it truly is, to secrets woven into ancient myth. Unsubstantiated, of course, but compelling nonetheless.”

“And this is what it is for you?” Her thumb traced one that appeared like a slanting F, its branches spread to the sky. That one almost made her shiver.

Silence welled while he carefully considered an answer, or so she imagined to be the case since his arm was still tense. He did not seem to be prolonging the connection anyway; rather, perhaps, he was waiting for her to move away before he spoke. Another still moment passed, him only watching the lay of her hand, and then his wrist flexed. When he opened the fingers of his fist, she saw the flesh of his palm razed red and sore in the jagged shape of a lightning bolt. “The rune eihwaz,” he said. “Wisdom demands sacrifice, like I said.” Then he moved suddenly, dislodging her and pulling his arm firmly free -- and the healing wound from sight. This time she did not press upon his patience. She straightened.

“How do you know all of this?”

And of course, he did not answer.

seiðr. That was what the Norse called it. She was fond of reading, though usually her predilection was for the realm of trashy romance (her father’s words), not the lofty halls of academia. There was a fire lit beneath her heels now, though, and she had always been voracious in pursuit of her desires. Probably Alvis was glad of those respites from her company. Sometimes he called upon her to perform exercises, but none so direct as that first night. Meanwhile her sense of the power grew, but not her ability to grasp it. At best it slipped away like a coy lover, and at worst the panic of being consumed made her shy of the attempt. Alone she was more curious, drawn like moth to flame, still yet always thwarted by frustration.

As the days began to mount, she wondered at how many she even had left. 

She rose early by habit, and today by some maudlin desire to watch the sun rise. As a child she had sometimes joined her father in the endeavour, relishing those quiet moments of simply being. A decorated war-veteren, it meant something different to him than to her. Today she thought she understood him better.

Ensconced in the plush cushions by her bay window, a blanket wrapped about her shoulders, she drifted with the gold glow on the horizon. A few times she had tried to explain to Alvis why every instinct reared away from forcing control over the seiðr, but he only looked at her with that mild expression of his edged by scorn. It would be nothing short of plunging her hands into the fiery orb of the sun to hasten its arc into the sky. She sighed and let her awareness of it grow. Both poison and cure. If she could not master it, perhaps she ought do no more than surrender. It seemed a better way to go than what she knew waited otherwise.

Tracking dawn’s first breaths, she finally let herself fall.

And felt it surround her like the warmest embrace.

Her eyes widened, hardly daring to exhale lest it slip away. He had told her it was like the heart of a storm, something to fist into control before it swarmed, but he was so terribly wrong; it was the most peace she had ever felt, brimming with power, but with gentle and motherly strength. For a moment she only revelled, eyes closed, half-smiling to herself. Then she stood. She needed to find Alvis.


In her rush she barely acknowledged the usual guard at the door, though the sound of his rote “good morning, Miss Disir,” followed her in. She did not find him among the shelved walls but in the courtyard beyond, sat on a bench facing an arrangement of sculptured flowers. She sat next to him, fingers braced over the edge of the seat, leaning forward to command his attention. “It is not rage and hunger, it is beauty, Alvis. Joy and contentment.” The declaration left her breathless. The world seemed more alive. She felt she could count the lashes rimming his eyes. The colour of them. “There are components to it, within the light itself. Threads that weave like a tapestry.”

A faint smile softened his lips.

“Are you laughing at me?”

The accusation sobred him to his usual grim countenance. He glanced at her finally. There were vaults locked in that mind, and he was stingy to share such treasure. Sometimes when they theorized she caught glimpses; that moment when a spark caught, and he actually took interest in what she said. Mostly, though, it was just that inscrutable look. Half the time she had no clue what he was thinking at all. 

“Of course not. It really is different, then.” He bent to scoop what looked like polished stones from the floor. Zhenya drew her feet back, realising with a frown that they were quite bare. She adjusted the blanket around her shoulders and did not deign to comment on the fact she had come out in her nightclothes. Alvis was very carefully feigning ignorance too. He stood. “Don’t share what you are, Zhenya. Your father will keep you safe from the rest.”

“Then you’re leaving.” Realisation wrenched the seidr from her control, and as the light winked out disappointment flared in its place. Some small part of her had sought to meet him on an equal footing, to prove herself, and she had expected to receive recognition for it. She had made the discovery alone, and between them they might make more. But instead he returned her to her father’s keeping. Keep me safe from what?

“They will seek to study you now if I stay,” he said. He’d hinted at employers before; those beyond her father, like shadows only ever observed in the peripheral. She watched him, expression like steel, back straight and rigid. He slipped the stones in his pocket. “My name is Sören, Zhenya, not Alvis. You will not see me again.”

But on that he was wrong. She would assure it.

Freyja reborn

Freyja was a member of the Vanir tribe of deities, but became an honorary member of the Aesir gods after the Aesir-Vanir War, by way of hostage-exchange alongside her twin, Freyr, with whom she was very close. She is famous for her fondness of love and fine material possessions, and is a goddess of love, fertility, beauty, and gold, but also of war and (peaceful) death. Freyja is the archetype of the völva, a professional practitioner of seiðr, the most organised form of Norse magic. It was she who first brought this art to the gods, and, by extension, to humans as well. Given her expertise in controlling and manipulating the desires, health, and prosperity of others, she’s a being whose knowledge and power are almost without equal.

Freya presides over the afterlife realm of Folkvang. According to one Old Norse poem, she chooses half of the warriors slain in battle to dwell there (the other half collected by Odin, to reside in Valhalla). In some interpretations she is considered the leader of the Valkyrie, for she receives first pick of the dead.

Notably, she was one of the few beings thought to survive Ragnarök, and likely played an important role in shaping the world that came after.

[Image: zhen-past.jpg][Image: soren-av.jpg]


Hundreds of suspended lights filled the high ceiling, hanging like the heavens twinkled upon the grandeur of the gala below, and casting the room into warm twilight. The low sound of conversation hummed around her, accompanied by chiming glasses and the meandering notes of a piano player, its sleepy song slipping through the mingling patrons like a dream. Yulian had deposited her at the bar, then slipped anonymously into the crowd. He didn’t question their journey to London of course; that’s not what she paid him for.

Her fingers idled around the fluted champagne glass in her grip. The barman lingered, and she was too polite to ignore him completely, especially given the endearing flush to his cheeks when he plucked the courage to speak to her, but it was out among the patrons her gaze was periodically pulled, and to one gathering in particular.

Sören was dressed with far more sophistication than she had ever seen him whilst he had lived in her father’s home. The suit stitched something new of him; a blue like night sky, tailored well to his breadth and height. Zhenya had not thought him moneyed back then, but even at this distance she recognised the expense. His blonde hair was slicked back from his face, and his jaw was smooth and stronger than she remembered. He looked like a different man. He looked like a stranger.

She had thought that perhaps he might have noticed her by now, but his mild gaze never slipped across to where she sat, nor appeared to feel the touch of her attention. It disappointed her in those first moments, when she began to realise the way she had always imagined this was simply not going to unfold. But she had not chased the mystery of him for so many years just to let it fall away from her grasp now.

She smiled warmly at her barman before she descended from the stool.

“Gentlemen.” All eyes but Sören’s marked her approach into the heart of them -- she caught clips of conversation about artefacts and exhibits, hushed like an intake of breath -- and he was the very last to turn towards her voice. Recognition punctured his expression, but little else. He politely extricated himself from his gathering, pressed an arm to her elbow, and steered her away.

“You are not welcome here.”

It seemed this new veneer was only skin deep then; he was not so different, and it spurred a wry smirk to her lips. She felt Yulian’s attention hone in on the contact, but lightly gestured a hand to ward him away. The disparity of Sören’s height meant he held her at a ridiculous angle, and though his touch was light as feathers it must appear as if he’d dragged her away like a ruffian.

“You’re causing people to stare,” she said smoothly, and he grunted. His fingers retracted like she’d stung him.

“What do you want, Zhenya?”

"You're not even going to do me the smallest pleasure of looking at least a little surprised to discover I tracked you down?"

He stifled a sigh. She saw it battle in his expression; the annoyance warring with simple dismissal. It frustrated her a great deal, actually, the way his eyes slid over her as though she were oil to his water, never quite settling on her own gaze. She’d spent quite some time on her appearance tonight; the fall of her hair into an artful braid down her back, the curl of her dark lashes, not to mention the sweeping lines of her dress. It was wasted on him.

The silence stretched like he was waiting upon her retreat. His arms had in fact folded, a muscle twitching in his cheek; just like all those times he’d sat and brooded at the holoscreens while he tried to dig out the secrets that would save her life. A smile softened her lips, and on impulse a breath of seiðr caressed beneath his chin, like the curl of a finger. Predictably, that finally snared his attention. 

“We have a dinner reservation,” she told him. “I’ve travelled halfway across the Custody for you, Sören. Answers are the very least you owe me.”

She’d spent a great deal of time in the meticulous planning of this meeting, and she was disappointed with his stoicism. He even sat a little pushed back from the table like he was enduring the time before he may escape her company, his fingers toying with the edges of a napkin. Perhaps he was upset to have missed the auction. Zhenya sipped at her wine and studied him quietly. A tug of the power eventually teased the cloth from his grip, and he looked up at her flatly.

“Did the warnings mean nothing?”

“You already know what I am. And no one is looking.” She placed the glass back on the table between them, running her fingers down the stem. “I’ve had plenty of time to study it since you left, why shouldn’t I use it?”

“Ta sig vatten över huvudet,” he said roughly, knowing she did not speak the language. “Though I suppose it is your head, and no longer any concern of mine.”

“You came to London to help a girl,” she said, undeterred. Her arms folded delicately on the table. “The same way you helped me.”

She waited for him to ask how she knew; certainly it had not been easy, and she imagined fate’s kind hand tipped the balance in the end. Her father probably wouldn’t be amused to know how she had abused Pervaya’s systems and contacts tracing little more than ghosts, but fortunately he did not in fact know. He might find a few less professional favours at his disposal though, the next time he reached for the currency.

Sören looked at her for a long moment, and she was unsure what reaction to expect from him; he guarded his secrets so jealously that perhaps he would be angry she toyed with the lock. Callous as his attitude could be at times, she had never felt the bite of his temper, nor even much evidence that he had one. But all he said was: "I've given her the information she needs to survive."

"Information? You don't think that I am perhaps infinitely more qualified for the job?"

“Go home, Miss Disir.”

She placed her napkin on her plate and stood. Sören’s gaze already discovered interest somewhere else, and perhaps he assumed he had stoked her temper enough that she was storming out, but he was wrong. Zhenya was too driven by her passions to allow so fickle a thing as his infuriating manner to dissuade her, and she would give him no choice but to be swept up in her fearless current. She placed her hand on his wrist, gratified that for the first time that evening he seemed mildly surprised. He watched her grip slip lower to pull his hand into her own.

“What are you doing? People will think--”

“--And that will be so very terrible, I know. Just come on.”

The suite was not quite at the top floor, but it boasted magnificent views. Shadows chased the furnishings for a moment before the room’s sensors picked up their presence, and soft light blossomed within. Sören’s reluctance to be here was quite palpable, and she chose to ignore it as he made himself a gargoyle of the threshold. “You think I’ve been idle for three years, content with the scraps you gave me? Or that not dying from it was the extent of my ambitions?”

She smiled briefly at him as she passed, eyes coy. Her gown whispered around her, baring fleeting glimpses of her slender legs between the gauzy panels. She might have endeavoured to make herself more comfortable now they were in her own rooms, but perhaps she was too vain to slip free of the heels that would make the fabric pool messily on the ground. It was a beautiful dress.

“Five threads,” she said, sure he must know at least that much from his own studies. For so long as they had worked to free her from the creeping cloy of Sickness, they had never had the chance to discuss the power itself. Not before he left. She shifted the bracelet on her arm; her interface with Pervaya, and specifically Yulian’s protections tonight. An early prototype, it was simple in adornment, though not ugly; just a plain silver band but for a small engraving. He was unlikely to notice the rune she had stolen from his tattoo. In any case it was the small burn against her porcelain skin she showed him. “I learned them all quite thoroughly.” Her brow arched, and she laughed; it was a rich, pleasant sound, effused with her enthusiasm for the task. This light, this seiðr; it invigorated and fascinated her as nothing else had.

“There is nothing I can or will teach you, Zhenya,” he said levelly. “Your journey is wasted.”

“I didn’t come for teaching, you giant bore.” Air pulled at his fingers, the front of his suit jacket, light and teasing. “Must I encourage you the whole way in, Sören?”

By the set of his expression it seemed likely.

She retreated to a dresser, beckoned him with the hook of her actual finger this time as she claimed an object from its surface. It fit comfortable in her palm, a carved box coloured pale, luminous as starlight where it met her grasp. “Let me show you something instead.” 

Her heart beginning to beat a little faster, Zhenya sat on the stuffed couch, back straight and legs crossed, waiting patiently for him to surrender to the lure. The box resonated to her senses, faint as an echo, but perhaps it needed the touch to garner the same from him. She finally patted the space beside her with a warm smile, until curiosity appeared to get the better of him, he unfurled his arms, and somewhat warily did as bid. She watched him the whole way, wondering what thoughts might plague him to cause a frown like that. Admittedly men were not usually so recalcitrant when she invited them to her side.

“Hold this,” she said. She leaned close, her own hand cupping the palm he gingerly held out as she placed the box into his grip. She studied him a moment, but did not expect to see anything shift in his expression, even if he did feel something calling to him. Then she turned her attention back to the fold of their hands. His were strangely cool. “Take hold of your power. Try the strand that feels like wind or air or force, it’s the easiest by far to begin. You used to call it inquiry, I think? I’ll show you as best I can, but I can’t see your threads and you wouldn’t be able to see mine.” She glanced up at his face again, but he was looking at the object now with a curious intensity that sent a thrill through her. The fingers of her other hand trailed the engravings on its closest face. “Push it in here, but gently. Try to follow the flow of it. You’ll feel it if you’re slow.”

Then she waited, a little fluttering in her chest. She didn’t know if it would work the same way for him, after all.

Her hands pulled away, exultant, when she felt the familiar hum of it. Its markings shifted like nothing natural, unfurling somehow, and then the music began to trickle out. Sometimes there was also light, or more hypnotic movement across its surface, depending on the threads used, and how and where. This song was ethereal; wordless, sounding like a blend of strings. Zhenya’s smile was bright as the risen sun for its charm, and for their success.

Förförisk,” breathed Sören, and she didn’t know what the word meant, but she didn’t need to with the way he said it. Pleasure flushed. When she looked up, his eyes were already on her. “I don’t know what it is, or who made it. I’ve never heard that music either. It plays other strange things, and I’ve found not a reference to the pieces. I spent a long time looking for you, you know. Auction houses and galleries. I acquired it along the way. It’s quite beautiful a thing itself, of course, but I felt something from it.” The words spilled, eager to absorb his reaction in turn.

“I have never seen anything quite like it,” he admitted. His throat sounded dry.

He looked back down at it, stood, twisting it over in his hand. The other still fisted at his side, knuckles white. Zhenya rose too, tugged her lip between her teeth as she watched the scholarly concentration of him, revelling in a thirst as powerful as her own. She’d had no one else to share this with. But when she paused him with a touch on his arm, it was to capture the tight ball of his other hand. With gentle persuasion she lifted it and unfurled his fist, running her thumb along the shape of the jagged wound that had been there three years ago; old now, just a pale scar. “You still use the runes?” she asked. He’d never told her, but she’d noticed the gesture occasionally; enough to connect the pieces and wonder. “I don’t think you should need to do this, you know.”

She heard him grumble low in his throat, but he didn’t pull his hand away.

“And how do you know all this?”

A slow smile spread, warming her entire being. 

And of course, she did not answer.

[[Translations, for anyone curious: in the first one he accuses of being in over her head, and in the second it means fascinating/alluring/seductive]]
Not immediately, anyway. 

Satisfaction swelled the moment his amber eyes turned towards her with the need for answers; she enjoyed that brief flame of power, no question. But she was not minded for secrets, and it was his collusion she desired, not his frustration; for what she really wanted was for Sören to look at her and finally see an equal.

His business with the Northbrooks and their daughter had concluded, and Zhenya could not be too long away from her responsibilities in Moscow. A few scant days passed before he announced his attention to move on. She was afraid he might once again choose to disappear into the ether, and that if he did she might not be able to find him again, forewarned now as he was with how determined her nature could be when her interest caught aflame. He looked at her sometimes with such deep consideration that he must be weighing that balance, but if he refused her details that involved the more shadowy aspects of his life, the lure to her proved too strong to stay away completely.

As the months began to trickle by, Zhenya journeyed to meet him when both their schedules permitted. His travels were extensive across the Custody’s face, and on occasion beyond, though she did not follow him outside its borders. He rarely called, and if he did the conversation was terse and to his own end: questions sprayed like bullets. She preferred to see him in person. 

Their meetings strung together like pearls on a necklace for her; brief moments of Other amidst the pursuits of her ordinary existence, otherwise spent working dutifully towards one day leading the family business.

She discovered an inquisitive charm hid within the shadows of his more stoic nature, and she was emboldened to glimpse it, knowing the gift not something lightly shared with others. He spoke of no family despite her gentle probing, but no man could truly be so rootless -- she found it a particularly haunting sadness, though he seemed quite inured to it by the flat look he gave her when she said as such. Though mostly their research comprised the power, in his lighter moods he quoted of literature and poetry, or spoke of history and mythology, not quite with the energised passions of her own, but more akin to thrusting his arms into the fire to retrieve something of value. It proved a brittle intensity at times, for on occasion his attention would catch the edge of her fond smile and sizzle abruptly to coolness.

Perhaps most surprising to her was that the man liked stories. When she did coax him to share anything real of his life, that was what he wove -- the tallest tales imaginable, and such beautifully eloquent lies as to sear the soul. Though she long suspected that buried within them lay the hidden treasure of truth; a puzzle as fascinating as the music box. Among the myriad pieces he spoke of a mute child who read the wings of birds and divined truth; of a queer young woman who painted new realities into the world with a palette of her own blood; and of forgotten kings and their beautiful princes, sculptured from the ashes of an ancient kingdom.

“And what story do you tell of me?” she would tease, but usually he only grunted that he did not tell such stories to anyone else, for she was the only one foolish enough to listen.

It had been clear from the beginning that her mastery in the intervening years had grown to surpass his own, a disparity that honed his edge to competitiveness until they found more even a footing. Zhenya intuited her discoveries in ways that made him frown and unpick her reasoning with questions whenever she shared anything new, but he was able to unearth the most esoteric knowledge to aid the foundations of their learning, like the entire world around them charmed to his curiosity. How he did that he would never say, and frustrated by the silences such questions engendered she began to choose simply not to ask.

Today the edge of Sören’s mood was like the eerie light of a promised storm, fraught with restlessness. Outside the weather was not much better, though it was a languid rain unencumbered by anything but the sweetness of Spring. Perhaps that was just the essence of Paris; Zhenya’s was a romantic soul, after all, and the Louvre might have been magical with anyone else; or even him, had the frown not been quite so armoured to his face. She slipped her arm through his, unperturbed by his prickly shell. He was well dressed today, perhaps because he was known professionally to the staff here; she understood him to cultivate a plethora of identities, the name he had first given her among them. Not that she particularly minded when he played the vagabond, either. 

Seiðr filled her gently, explored as any other sense amongst the exhibits they passed. Nothing called to her the way the music box did, of course; such a rarity she had never seen before or since. It’s not what she was seeking anyhow; rather, steeped by such rich history she wanted to enjoy it with fullness, discovering deeper than eye alone. Sören remained mostly silent beside her, though occasionally she courted his attention to something or other with a tug of the power, seeking either reaction or interest. It was something of a game, perhaps because she knew her frivolous use of it annoyed him -- yet he indulged without ever reacting in kind, despite that the playfulness was kindly meant.

“Do you think there is a way for us to work together?” she leaned in and asked after some long stretch of quiet, unusual even for him. It was a question she had been running curiously through her mind for a while, though she had planned to have a better understanding of how before she broached it with him. Or at least a suggestion for how they might begin to test the possibility. Offering it out now ought to have sunk deep ripples of interest into his expression, snaring his focus to her upturned gaze. Instead it only skimmed the surface.

“Incompatible streams of power. You feel like a shiver. I am beyond your comprehension.”

“Yes,” she agreed dryly. “It sometimes feels you are.” He glanced at her, brows narrowed, and she pushed on. “Theorise with me, Sören. Like the shape of puzzle pieces. Men and women do work quite well together, sometimes.”

But he was distracted that day. She followed his gaze to the funerary monument currently draining the flame of his attention, and she could not say if it were the piece itself or something else that was clearly bothering him. The effigy of the knight was laid upon a slab borne by a number of dark-robed monks, their faces hidden. The Order of the Golden Fleece. Her gaze skimmed the rest, but such heights of Christian chivalry did not seem the sort of thing to catch his attention. Still, she was surprised when his tense muscles presently extricated from her grip, and he left her standing there.

When she found him again he was sheltering in one of the arches facing the entrance courtyard, watching the snaking lines of people waiting to pass the threshold into the museum. Rain slapped the pavement with ferocious abandon. A cigarette plucked irritably between his fingers and he did not turn towards her presence. Sören rarely smoked -- in fact he insisted it was not his preferred habit, despite the rear of it whenever she knew frustration simmered like poison in his veins. She was not fond of the smell, nor the way it cloyed. Neither did she like this prelude to his mood, for it did not have the usual feel of his vexation. It seemed somehow more potent; enough to quiet her from her usual response of shrugging his tantrums off.

Zhenya glanced out, disinclined to get wet by venturing further beyond the scant shelter. She used the power liberally in all aspects of her life, but she did not want to invite undue attention either, and neither of them had something so sensible as an umbrella. “Are you in trouble? Though I’m quite sure you could afford Pervaya’s services on your own, I would arrange it anyhow if you needed it. The warnings did stick, Sören.” She reached to touch his arm, surprised at how vehemently she meant it.

His muscles tightened, which was not an unusual reaction in itself, but she let her hand slip free anyway. Her arms folded against herself instead, though it was not cold.

“Not that kind of trouble, Zhen,” he said eventually. His moods were a slow moving beast. Sometimes it seemed he felt nothing at all, though she knew that was unfair; he took time to process, and such vulnerabilities were never left to another’s witness. Hers included. So it did not surprise her this time when he stubbed his smoke on the wall behind, and stalked out into the rain. This time she did not follow.
Zhenya called for the car to be pulled round. Some short time later, Yulian’s light step approached under the arc of an umbrella, sprightly drops of rain bouncing off like a shower of diamonds. “You are a darling.” She smiled as he swept her underwing, for such comforts were really not in his remit. The thoughtfulness was nothing short of endearing, though.


She shook her head, smile small and stubborn. “I came to see Paris,” she said. “So let us see Paris.”

Alone was not quite how she imagined spending the afternoon in such a place, but Zhenya was content to make the most of it before Pervaya’s duties called her home. The rain did not let up, but it did not diminish the city’s charm, nor its beauty. 

Several small, beautifully wrapped parcels accompanied her return to the hotel suit, deposited carefully onto the coffee table. Zhenya had arranged their accommodations; she usually did, given Sören’s poor taste for comfort and her own preference for beauty. A plush living arrangement joined the doors to their respective rooms, and while she noted his was shut she did not choose to knock. Disappointment threatened to spill for the discovery that he might have in fact left her here altogether, and she was not keen to confirm it. Though soon after she noticed the glass-paneled balcony doors were thrown wide, the gauzy curtains drifting a little in Spring’s fragrant breeze.

Her lips pursed, even as her heart lightened. Still, she might have rolled her eyes for the plaintive way Sören sat out there. In the rain.

She could not see his expression, only the back of his head, and she did not choose to disturb his maudlin brooding by inquiring over the reason. Like as not he would not thank her for it; not her genuine concern, nor the blase way she would address his mope with a coy tease. Rather, upon finishing the unhurried arrangement of gifts she had purchased to take back to Moscow, Zhenya retreated to her own room to both shower and freshen up. She doubted he was unaware she had returned, and when he was ready to speak, she was ready to listen. 

And in the meantime, let him sit like a fool in the rain.

By the time she emerged, hair damp, warm towel in hand, and robed throat to ankle in soft silk, Sören had finally roused. Enthroned in the soft afternoon light leaking past his broad shoulders from outside, he wiped at the damp hair across his forehead and dripped softly over the carpets. A deep frown met her amusement, and she suspected he might presently sweep passed her to sequester himself in the privacy of his own room. Perhaps he would never explain the oddity of his behaviour, and honestly she was unlikely to ask. By now Zhenya had learned well the boundaries of when to push and when to not.

“I don’t think you’re in trouble at all, you know,” she said. A small smile played, not unkind. He did not ever speak of emotions, or a personal life, but she suspected now that it was a burden of that ilk, not a threat to his person as she had initially feared. She tried not to wince as he moved to sit himself on the chaise, soaking the delicate fabric. A knot worked in his jaw, and he said nothing, though it at least looked like he was searching for words. Temperance was not much in his nature. Her head tilted as she came closer. He only watched, silent, then pulled his gaze away.

Zhenya dabbed the towel to his dripping head, perching herself on his lap as she fluffed it around his shoulders. Sören pulled her arm away, frowning. His fingers were cold.

“I can do that myself,” he snapped, finally.

“I do realise that,” she laughed.

Amusement softened her expression into a warm smile. She was about to ask if he planned on releasing her arm when he made a low noise in his throat. It sounded like annoyance, yet his thumb circled softly against her skin, charming her instead with the rare display of his affection. She leaned closer, teasing with a curl of seiðr brushed under his chin. “And what’s this?”

The light in his eyes changed as he met her gaze. Then he bridged the scant distance, lips pressed immeasurably soft like he tested the fit. 

Zhenya’s breath caught, surprise and desire twin treasures in answer to a question she’d never thought he’d think to ask. She did not move. For a moment it seemed he might pull back. His hand travelled from its grip up to cradle her wrist, brushing against her fingers like he planned to set the moment carefully aside, and let go, ignorant or perhaps uncaring of the way she was slowly melting into him. 

But then he exhaled against her with a shiver. His other arm snaked her closer as if a shackle suddenly sprang free of the lock, and then he was kissing her with bone-deep hunger. His embrace was cold from the rain, though his hands warmed quickly from the heat of her skin. A palm splayed against the small of her back as she shifted to draw him closer, his other following the length of her leg as it slipped around his hips. She caressed the curve of his hand, urging the fingers closed until realisation drew a groan.