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The Height of Rumour
#1
   

Situated at the crest of a skyscraper, the Apex Lounge boasted unrivalled views of the city spread out like a great blanket beyond each of its floor-to-ceiling reinforced glass walls. In the arms of evening the buildings far below sparkled like a kingdom of fallen stars, but it was the man opposite that currently demanded Zhenya’s attention. A glass of vodka floated at the tips of her fingers, the liquid within swirling as she listened to him talk. 

In the chaise opposite, Ephraim was dressed in burgundy and shadows. Tonight his angel’s curls were swept away from his face, though they belied the chiselled features beneath anyway; his had always been a grin more sinful than angelic. He had already inquired over her family with an easy charm that cared little for the answer, and Zhenya was inclined to skirt over those details anyway. She usually kept those delineations quite clear. They had some mild acquaintance, as she did with much of the city’s elite gentry, and occasionally Paragon chose to invite her for a pitch on the practical uses of their augmentations. Pervaya did not generally go in for such enhancements; it fit neither the brand or the ethos. But Zhenya rarely turned down the opportunity to stay current with the shifting trends of technology, particularly the sorts that might be employed by rival firms. Ascendancy’s announcement had rather changed the playing field, after all.

They’d yet to get to the business, of course; the night was young, and though the lounge was abuzz with the clink of crystal glasses, the pop of champagne, and the hum of conversation, it was still the quiet hours before the city roused to its nighttime proclivities. Soft, trance-like music drifted from the oval-shaped bar at the room’s centre; lowlit, and cycling through a flux of colours. She signalled to one of the servers, and received a quick nod of acknowledgement.

Ephraim was talking about the earthquake; most people were. That and the wings of the Custody’s imminent expansion into the untouched treasure of the United States. Tonight, rumour abounded.
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#2
“...so soon after the last time? I was a kid, but I remember it. Momentous year in hindsight, I suppose. They called it an anomaly then, and they say this one was like it in scale. That pushes the science out by, oh, around 10,000 years.” He gestured with his glass as he spoke, the vintage timepiece on his wrist catching sparkles in the light. She couldn’t quite catch glimpse enough to hazard a guess at the age, but it was quite beautiful. 

A pleasant smile curved her lips, amused. He was always so earnest, and she mostly found it charming. Certainly there were duller jewels in her social circle. “I didn’t take you for a conspiracist, Ephraim.” 

“Conspiracist?” He laughed. “No, of course not. But I do believe in being prepared. We must consider the world we’ll bequeath to our children, no?” His eyes glinted over the rim of his glass, but when he lowered it empty to the table his smile was all charm. The server Zhenya had signalled promptly arrived to top the vodka afresh, though he barely broke stride in the conversation. Her warm gaze offered the thanks in his stead. “And thus a rather inelegant bridge to business. Early, I know. Forgive me, there’s a reason.” He held up a finger, shot a quick grin, and scooped up his drink. “Something of a preface, if you’re willing to indulge?”

She laughed, clinking his glass with a wink. “Always.”

“The world changes, and those such as you and I change with it. I was there that night -- the fundraiser, you recall? And I saw…” His brows rose, and her head tilted into the pause. She knew some of the story, of course, and plenty of the rumours, though she had not been there. Not something they ought discuss in public at any rate. “Well. Aside from that, I saw the Rods of Dominion. At least one of them ex-military.” He smiled, and let the inference hang, given the staple of Pervaya’s operators. She waited for him to continue. “You’re in the business of protecting people, Zhenya, so I know you appreciate the quandary. At such a crossroads I believe we can be of use to each other.”

She’d heard this before, or pretty variations, and despite Ephraim’s affability he was not given to futility. He had something new to offer, clearly, and by the gleam of him he really did fancy his chances of a deal this time. For now he waved it away, though. “Details later, of course. The night is young. That’s the preface over with -- well, but to tell you I have a new acquisition.” He paused, grinned. Associate, that is. Fresh to the fair city and the way we do business. I believe you’ll find his skillset interesting. He should arrive shortly.”

He sat back, watching her reaction for hints of the hook catching interest. Zhenya was voracious in business, but rarely cold. He was being purposefully vague, but she found little irritation in it; she was a social creature, and had not accepted tonight’s invitation with any real expectation of a serious outcome. She laughed instead, looking past the inferences of Pervaya’s precariousness in a world where channelers existed. She took no offence. Ephraim had never met John White, one such soul she would not hesitate to entrust with her own life, or the one more precious, despite that he was just a man. “Ah, I see,” she said. “Did you at least warn him to expect a Russian welcome?” She pressed her own glass to her lips, dark eyes sweeping the bar to seek out the mystery.
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#3
After the system completed its processing, the young woman entered a series of commands that issued him the requisite credentials. “You’ll find Mister Haart in Apex Lounge. Top floor,” she said, tucking hair behind her ear and flashing long eyelashes upward. Seven accepted the encryption, a temporary infrared tattoo of sorts that shone only for the appropriate scanners. To the naked eye, the shape was invisible. All it would take was a wave of the hand to part to elevator doors. They didn’t let just any riff raff in off the street, it seemed.

“Thank you my dear,” he said with a smile, leaving behind the digital thumbprint of a wallet number, for business purposes of course.

The elevator flew like the engine of a jet into the sky. When he emerged, gone was the sterile lobby of a busy city building. He was deposited into a world of shadows, sex, and luxury. The maître d’ greeted him by name. “Mister Seven, your party is this way,” he said with the stretch of arm.

“No Mister. Just Seven,” he corrected. The host did not seem bothered by the identity, although he promptly apologized. Unusual creatures found themselves in the peak of Moscow sky clubs. Seven fit right in.

He recognized Ephraim on sight, precisely on time, a habit that was extremely important to him. A woman was in his company. A beautiful woman to match a beautiful man. Upon being presented by his escort, he took it upon himself to step forward, hold his eye contact, and announce himself with a solid handshake. “Mister Haart,” he said. Ephraim was dressed stylishly with a gleam in his eyes that Seven liked almost immediately and easily matched mood for positive mood. Next, he turned to his female companion wherein the ritual was repeated almost identically. He wasn't expecting additional members at this party.

“Ma’am. It is my pleasure,” he added with a lingering smile that suggested he may kiss her on the cheek if she was receptive to the custom. “Seven,” he said, taking a comfortable seat for himself among their circle.
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#4
Ephraim made no attempt to disguise the hint of a triumphant smile, even tipping his glass in a not-so-subtle salute, and though she narrowed her eyes at him it was only in tease. She was always polite when she listened to his pitches for augmentations, but he’d discovered a long time ago that her demurity was not to be mistaken for softness. Of course, the brashness of Paragon’s Build a Better You slogan did not deny her acceptance of the fact they also manufactured the very height of landwarrior tech, among other resources Pervaya made ample use of -- their business relationship in that regard was good. But Ephraim had always pushed for more, and she more than suspected the reason why. The world did change, and though peace prospered within the Custody’s borders, so too did the hints of its divisions.

Paragon had technology, but what Ephraim wanted was access to soldiers. And Pervaya Liniya was the best private security firm in DI; ex-military exclusively.

You protect people, he had told her only moments before; and it was true, Pervaya had never dabbled in property or possessions. For her father that had simply made business sense, a strong and undeniable brand upon which to raise an empire, but for Zhenya it was a deeper ethos. She imagined it was why Ephraim had primed her with talk of natural disasters and the burden for future generations, understanding it to be the cause upon which she would lay her sword. Honestly, she commended the shrewdness. For this time he did not present her with the cold face of technology, so that she might smile and suggest he forward the proposal to her office for consideration. He presented her with the face of a man, which was infinitely more tempting.

Ephraim stood languidly, clearly a little perturbed at having to rise. “Ephraim is preferable,” he said. “And this is Zhenya Disir, of Pervaya Liniya Security.”

Curiosity marked Zhenya’s own inspection. The importance she poured into her own aesthetic habitually bled into her judgement of others, and her gaze catalogued all the little nuances of him effortlessly as she watched him shake Ephraim’s hand. Tall, and well-dressed, and very easy on the eye. He seemed familiar in a way she could not quite place, and she was usually good with faces, yet she certainly did not know the name -- though absence of a surname did not help. A naturally warm smile marked her own greeting as she took his hand, and her other rested briefly on his arm when she leaned in to accept the kiss. He was smooth and flawlessly confident in manner, but she did not think he had been expecting her presence at all. She refrained from the urge to plant an accusing eye on their host, whom she suspected was feeling rather smug with himself.

“Like the number,” Ephraim chimed in, amused, as he sat back into the comfortable cushions. He stretched his glass up above his head, clinking the ice to claim the attention of the bar, and impatiently indicated the addition to their party. “Sit, be welcome, make merry. It’s not the office, and thank god for that. In Russia it’s ill conceived to do business with a man you don’t know, and you can’t know a man until you’ve been gloriously drunk with him.” He offered a sinful grin, not even a little contrite.

Zhenya wondered if he had actually warned the man beforehand of what he might expect tonight. Ephraim could be discourteous with the truth, which might mean he’d led his new “associate” in blind, but might equally mean Seven was not as fresh to Moscow’s proclivities as suggested -- in which case Ephraim was simply trying to nudge her into taking him underwing, in the hope it would sway her towards whatever ends were tonight’s intentions. 

“It’s true,” she said. “It’s the best way to know the truth of a man’s soul, or so they say anyway.” A brow rose playfully, and she laughed like maybe she could offer another opinion on that. Her gaze lingered, still forming her first impression of him. “Your accent, Seven, it’s Swedish?”
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#5
Admittedly, he lingered upon Zhenya as though searching for words stuck on the tip of his tongue. She was a beautiful woman, but strangely, Seven was not particularly attracted to her. There was a sense of familiarity he could not explain. He did not recognize the Security company she represented, so that couldn't be the cause, but he equally liked her. Fortune smiled upon him that night.

“Like the number,” he repeated with jovial acclimation. He was more than willing to participate in local custom, even moreso when the custom involved copious drinking among beautiful people. Such circumstances always led to favorable outcomes.

“Vodka tonic,” he ordered when the chance came. From the choices, he allowed Ephraim to select the maker of the spirit, trusting to his judgement. As they waited, he chose to elaborate. “I typically select gin, but the persuasion to Russian custom is so convincing, I am unable to refuse the temptation,” he laughed. “I will hold you to the promise of glory, Ephriam!” he added with a wink. Zhenya agreed, and while the lilt of her tongue suggested otherwise, he did not overlook a drink in her hand and a flush to her cheek.

He agreed with Zhenya’s guess, but a tease followed on quick wings. “Such as what I am told, Miss Disir. Or is it Mrs?” he gestured at the ring on her hand. “Your guess is correct. I was born and raised in Stockholm eons ago.”

Drinks were promptly delivered, glittering in crystal glasses. He lifted his, perched upon the tips of his fingers, and praised the evening with a toast. “To glory,” he cheered and sampled the diamond liquid. “Your choice was well-selected, Ephraim. Waterfalls and moonbeams, certainly,” he added, skipping a glance at Zhenya. It was fully uncertain whether he was being sarcastic or genuine. By the warmth in his eyes, the latter was more likely.

“And you, Zhenya, you are Russian, yes?” He guessed at her heritage based on ear, rather than the eyes, which may not be trusted too far. Visions were unruly things.
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#6
“With tonic?” Ephraim made a face that suggested ruination, pressing a hand to his chest in mock grief. “Shameful to dilute the elixir of life you know.” But he did as bid, though Zhenya noticed he simply pointed out the top-listed, owing purely to the value of its expense. Not that her opinion had been sought, but she leant across him, resting a consolitary hand on Ephraim’s knee as she spoke quietly with the server hovering by his shoulder. The man’s accent was perfectly neutral, but he was not Russian, and he knew nothing about good vodka. Though he happened to be right about the tonic. Ephraim caught her eye with the gesture, and did not argue, though he did smirk.

“Glory, debauchery, perhaps some light pillage.” He shrugged then at Seven. “All debts shall be paid. You’re in Moscow now, my friend.” His gaze glinted a little, though he presently turned his attention to contemplation of his own glass.

“I wouldn’t make a habit of believing quite all you’re told, particularly in present company,” she added, which Ephraim appeared to find very amusing indeed. The directness of the query to fall swiftly on that observation’s heels pressed her gaze down to the ring in question, a slim band of gold that was somehow simpler than the rest of her appearance suggested to be her favour. She seemed to consider the answer with a momentarily quietness that did not invite further question, though neither did she appear offended that he had asked. There was no grief in it either, just something flat. “Just Zhenya is quite fine,” she said, and considered the matter done. Her gaze did not waver from contact, and her manner remained warm as she moved the topic along. “I had a friend from Sweden.”

The drinks arrived then, and she toyed with the glass, lifting to the toast with an amused smile. His lyrical description seemed somehow encompassing of what she gathered of his nature; charm and effervescence, a man who lived his life sunsoaked. Ephraim laughed and offered a rather more dubious, “If you say so, Seven.”

“I grew up here,” she answered to the second delicate topic stumbled upon in minutes. “My father is, yes. Most would suggest otherwise of me.” Her brows rose, but the smile on her lips was dismissive of what once had stung greatly. It was an old wound, but one she considered herself to have risen quite thoroughly beyond. “Is it just business that brings you to Moscow? What is it that you do?”
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#7
“Here, here!” He added to the toast, greatly appreciating the addition of pillaging. “I will be a proper Viking tonight,” he laughed, although was not particularly keen to speak so freely of debts absolved. Regardless, it was all foolishness and bravado, but why spoil the night with reality and reminders of the past?

He found Zhenya’s connection to another amusing. He was Swedish, and she knew another Swede. Perhaps they were kin from another time? She said they were friends once upon a time. There was a story there, but he did not pull at the thread no matter how tempting. Maybe later if the opportunity arose. Everyone had pasts, but not all wished to delve into memories buried. Seven did not.

Likewise, he was accepting of her heritage, and passed no judgement. He nodded with complete understanding. “I meant no disrespect, Zhenya. Appearances can be deceptive. I know all too well,” he happily dribbled nuggets along the path implied.

“Your friend, Ephriam is to blame,” he dug a trinket out of his pocket, then, and laid it upon the table in the middle of their circle. It was a gold figurine in the shape of a winged boar about the size of a coin. It’s eyes were turquoise. He gestured that each may study it.
“This cute little guy was put up for sale for $4,000,000 CCDs. Circa 2400 BC.”

He was fond of the boar, though he wasn’t sure why.

“Obviously, I’m not carrying around a priceless artifact in my pocket,” he laughed as they picked it up.
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#8
Seven’s manner was infectious, and she laughed. There seemed an edge of calculation to Ephraim’s sharper smile, as though he laid barbs in his words, but she could not see them. Business was rarely smooth sailing, and she did not linger on what she supposed the history between the two men to be. “And which of those do you consider best suited to your personal aptitude, Eph? I might add a few more to the list, but not while I’m still sober.” 

She winked and Ephraim grinned at her, drained his glass, and spread his arms. “I am of course a master of all three, dear Zhenya.” And then raised his hand to once more flag the bar staff, presumably to dispense with civility now introductions had been made, and ask for a bottle to share. Or several, by the satisfied gleam in his eye.

“None was taken,” she told Seven. Had he been closer, she might have touched the curve of his arm to reassure the point, but it was opposite her he sat. Racists and bigots walked all veins of society, but she was no longer a child to take such wounds as a personal fault -- nor find them when they were not there, as she once had. The armour of her skin thickened over the years to shining silver plate, as did her ambitions to forge what the Custody insisted to be her greatest flaw and instead make her greatest weapon. His question had not been any of those things in any case; just honest inquiry, and none could be faulted for that.

She leaned with interest to the produced trinket, and was first to pluck it curious from the table. “So you’ll make me guess?” she teased, just as Ephraim laughed and insisted “Absolutely not guilty” like a reflex.

It was quite charming, and exquisite in detail for so small a thing. Something about it pulled in her chest, softening her smile into fondness, and she found her attention drawn up to Seven, holding on to his gaze a moment like she was not sure which of them was the true puzzle. The passions of another had ignited in her a love of mythology that lasted far beyond the relationship, but this was not of an era she had any real degree of interest in. It looked real enough to her, despite the promise of its deceptive appearance

A whisper of seiðr delved just below the surface upon her next glance down. Given the feelings stirred she had half expected to feel some resonance back, but there was nothing. She ran her thumb over the arc of the boar’s wing, pensive, until the spell was broken by a silent vibration at her wrist. The building issued security measures of its own, and Seven would not have made it beyond the lobby without passing through them, but she preferred her own assurances.

She handed the tiny boar to Ephraim, a little reluctantly. The man gave it barely more than a cursory glance before he chucked it irreverently back to Seven.

“Then your expertise is in forgeries?” Ephraim had promised an interesting skillset, but it did not seem to be of a natural alliance to her work. Truthfully nor did it seem the sort of thing to be of interest to Ephraim, professionally or privately. She had seen the inside of his apartment, and it spared no love for old things, even ones of value. So she found it surprising, but also curious. “How did you know this piece is not what was claimed?”
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#9
Seven hand-waved a mock humility. “Expertise is a matter of judgment,” he took back the trinket, turning it over in his hand. The boar was supposedly ancient Sumerian, and while it was old, it wasn’t that old.
“It was probably sourced by a explorer living in the British-governed Mesopotamia at the turn of the last century, shortly before the Iraqi revolt,” his fingers curled around the boar. The alloy pulled warmth from his skin. “The gold is real enough. I paid $900 in the end,” and he tossed it in the air like dice, snatching it with the opposite hand with a dramatic flourish.

“I call it ‘The Feeling’,” he said, tossing it once more and catching in the other hand. The tosses continued, yellow flashing in ever higher and higher arcs. On the last throw, the trinket caught itself in midair. Seven watched. Life infused with the power seeping through his veins. A special little trick of light flashed the gold like sunshine. The current carried the boar as though its wings really did make it fly. After some rather tiny, albeit adorable, acrobatics, the boar was placed before Zhenya.

“No matter how convincing, some things cannot be hidden. The truth is always buried, but sometimes you must dig very, very deep.” Seven knew the irony that he himself lived in skin that was itself a convincing mask.

He let the power escape as he took a tender sip of his drink, enjoying this striptease of identity. He smiled at Ephriam, "I suppose, my expertise depends on what you want to do with me now that you have me," he let his gaze sink, liquid swirling in his hand.
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#10
The theatrics made Zhenya smile. She presumed they were supposed to, but the curiosity and rapture were both genuine, perhaps swayed by the strange object itself or simply for the hypnotism of the movement. Realisation did not take long to dawn once the boar left his hands and hung pendulous in the air, and her expression drew thoughtful rather than surprised when she understood what he was. Something of his phrasing shivered a little in her bones; his determination on the discovery of truth. She couldn’t say why. She turned her eyes on Ephraim afterwards, though the words were directed at Seven.

“I suspect he will insist it is still too early in the evening for such meaningful talk.” A teasing brow rose, and if she was still playful in her manner, it was also the first suggestion she had any sternness in her. Now that you have me sounded like it might be leverage, and she knew Ephraim well enough to suspect him before she offered him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps her tendencies erred towards a natural protectiveness. Perhaps she just did not like the inference. Seven was practically a stranger after all. She told herself it was simply her own curiosity to also hear the answer.

Ephraim roused, apparently bored by the talk of ancient artifacts. He had clearly known Seven was a channeler, for nothing approaching awe touched his expression. The twitch of his smile was small as he looked to the other man, though it was to Zhenya he shrugged. He sat forward a little, looking at Seven as he contemplated his drink, and grinned a devil’s grin. “Just supposing, Seven, or are you asking?”

“I am asking,” Zhenya interrupted. The words were not spoken forcefully, but they nonetheless expected his attention. She laughed. “For goodness sake, Eph, stop being coy.”

Ephraim suppressed his amusement; enjoying the chase no doubt, and he still made them pause while fresh bottles of vodka and ice were delivered to the table. Zhenya rescued the tiny boar from its perch and the river of icemelt trickling towards it from the buckets. For now she set it on the arm of her chair.

“Three, four hundred years ago, you’d be happily burned at the stake for that,” he said pleasantly to Seven, one idle finger twirling in the air in a facsimile of the boar’s flight. “Even six months ago, you wouldn’t think to do it in public. Now we live in a world where it’s normal, or becoming so. But what if you weren’t using it for cute little tricks, Seven?” He leaned to pour himself another drink, allowing the thought to permeate.

“Right now they don’t even have a name for it. The “feeling” or --” he looked at Zhenya then, rotated his hand to fill the blank space. She did not intrude with her own suggestion. “But we’ve already seen its capabilities. Jeddah. Theo Andlain. Now give it time, learning, research, understanding. What destruction might be wrought once more people grow to the skill of someone like Ascendancy? Five years from now. Ten.” He sat back, vodka in hand. “So tell me, Zhenya Disir of Pervaya Liniya Security, how you will protect people from that in this new era?” He grinned at her, running a finger over his lips.

“We’re a private security firm, not the CDPS,” she said. They’d argued this point several times before in response to previous proposals. Not that she disputed the concern, but he offered no viable solutions either. Not for her. She already employed the very best, and utilised available technology to assist her operators. “And you’re talking about an infinitesimal percentage of the population.”

“I am. But I’m also talking about opportunity. So indulge me, the both of you.” He lounged, comfortable holding court; satisfied with the rich play of his own voice. “You’ve both talents I lack, and I’ve resources, charm, and good looks. What might we build with that?”
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