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Late-night assignment
The insinuation of a faux pas made him chuckle. “There are worse things to be compared to than a prince,” he replied, letting his interpretation of the metaphor hang on the air. He was content to watch her mannerisms and posture while she spoke. The depths of her eyes were flared to discs in the low light, though he had to assume some of their aura was from amazement. He was always curious to how people behaved in the intimacy of the Ascendancy’s presence and had experienced the full breadth of reactions over the decades. He noticed that she did not partake of the golden liquid. He wondered if she simply disliked champagne or was withholding out of some desire to exude polite restraint. Noémi was an enigma in that regard, an interesting mystery. Her awe seemed genuine, though. Perhaps she was nervous. It wouldn’t be the first time.

But then his name passed her lips without hesitation and a surprising sense of electricity sparked his skin in response. Evelyn had whispered the same like it had been a secret she was sworn to keep. Such was the reverence of most women over the years. When in the throes of passion, some might bite their lip rather than cry out his name like some unholy blasphemy. Upon reflection, if he bothered with the time to take it, he was never quite sure how that made him feel. Godly he supposed and moved on with his day. Women didn’t take up a lot of residence in his mind. Running the world, defending himself against the Atharim, and wielding the power of the universe were much higher priorities. Eventually the day would come when he crossed paths with someone beautiful and interesting, and the curiosity would begin anew. Noémi struck both chords and more, he realized, but there was something else he couldn’t quite describe. For the Ascendancy who had entire Custodies devoted to crafting his public persona, protecting his privacy was an obsession. Within his inner circle, none truly knew his nature. What could be a greater invasion of privacy than whispering his name into the curve of his ear? Yet the thrill of that moment was tantalizing. Still, he didn’t think it was irreverence that gave Noemi such freedoms but something far different. He realized he was comfortable in her presence, although he couldn’t say why. Her description of their surroundings aligned with the assumption that he was absent from the moniker of Ascendancy. Just when he was following her logic, she pivoted again, speaking to offices and divinity as if they were the only obvious reality.

His amusement was palpable, but no more irreverent than Noemi’s. Where she teased, Nikolai was more than willing to be the object of her flirting. “I’m glad to have given you some surprise,” he said, probing the curve of her eyes, daring the thoughts swirling behind to be revealed. “To be honest, I am curious if anyone sees what I see when I behold all this,” he said with a vague gesture.

Although he didn’t elaborate on what that was.

Nikolai’s posture shifted then. Where before he was withdrawn, he leaned with greater intimacy. The light waves of her perfume tugged the senses. “Why did you take a job here?” he asked, but despite the appearance of changing of subject, there was a suggestion in his tone that may as well have asked if she had wanted to be nearer him.
Noémi’s lips parted, but either she chose not to share her response, else she was content upon the waves of his distraction: to give full attention instead to the manner in which he leaned closer. His intensity should have been overwhelming; it dominated her senses, but it felt like being alive after an aeon’s slumber.

“You are interviewing me,” she teased. The slim stem of the champagne flute twisted lightly in her grasp. She did not mind the tirade of questions; whatever he sought from her, she could not imagine not giving it willingly. But if this moment was all she could ever have of him, and that seemed realistic no matter how her soul protested, she did not wish it to pass entirely to his mercy: to become a forgettable face in a sea of them, blurred by time and distance the moment his eye wandered anew. She wanted to know something of him, as well as be known in return.

Noémi placed her glass carefully down, still untouched, and slipped gracefully from her seat to join him instead.

“May I?”

She sought out his gaze as she reached for the flute in his grasp; paused as though she truly was seeking permission, or perhaps to delay the intimate brush of her fingertips against his. The proximity was more intoxicating than the alcohol could ever have been, and the heady rush of it surprised her, especially when she realised that by now he must be aware of his scent imbued on her skin. It was an innocent touch, as innocent as a handshake in a crowded room, but it was powerful too. She had never experienced anything quite like it.

“Tell me what you would truly like to drink,” she coaxed, amused. He had not taken so much as a sip, and while she was sure the champagne must cost more than several months worth of rent on her apartment, it was clearly a part of the smoke and mirrors glamour. Noémi was not so naive as to think a drink was the real pretext of this meeting, of course, and perhaps he would do no more than brush her observation off, but she desired something more real, something more intimate, something more true. If he would allow it, she would pluck the glass from his hand, and lean to place it alongside its companion.

“In a way it was part of a promise,” she said thoughtfully, in answer to the question he had asked. “One I made a very long time ago. There is no one to hold me to it any longer, but I feel it around me still. The strongest of love is like that, no?” Sorrow swept its subtle touch into her expression; a deep and abiding loss, its edges long since softened by acceptance. Noémi was a woman of composure, but she was not without feeling, and nor did she try to be. She would not easily speak of her childhood privations; she wanted neither his pity, his indifference, nor to remind him of the vast ocean that separated their lives. For she had come to Moscow to build the life she had always promised to her maman. She took the job anyone would have taken, to pull themselves from the downtrodden gutter.

But as she spoke the words she wondered if they ran deeper, like echoes in the bottom of her melancholy soul layered the meaning. Wondered too if such things really did transcend the veil of death. Close enough to see the constellation of colour in his pale eyes; close enough, even, to feel the faint stirrings of his breath on her skin, it was easy to believe in the bindings of fate. It captivated her, and she let it, because such moments were to be lived in fully.

If he remembered anything after, she did not wish for it to be for beauty; she wished to leave as indelible a mark as he had already left on her. To haunt as sure as she knew she would be haunted. “What do you see?” 

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