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Pass the Mic
Ivan was in a good place. Nah. He was in a great place. Excited even. Yeah, he wanted to start practicing. Like big time. For the first time in he didn't know how long, he had hope. Like real hope.

His heart twisted, not in pain. More like..he didn't know. Happiness. He could almost feel Zara falling asleep next to him as he read to her. He imagined feeling Danya's back against his chest, him holding her close.

Like he'd been waiting all this time for his real life to begin. Freedom was out there.

"I owe you Nox. More than you can imagine."

The poor man looked broken. Even as he had channeled and taught, there was little fire. And Ivan felt for the guy. He knew the look.

They didn't say much until they were sitting against the wall of Cafe MIO in the plush chairs. Back to the wall, right? Always paranoid. But maybe cuz it was also nice to check out the local talent. Well, before, anyway. And he did have eyes.

Nox needed a drink. He could tell. Hopefully, one of the servers would take their order soon. Let Nox open up.
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Pan, the hostess of Cafe MIO, took the two men along a corridor and down into the main area of the bar. 

She looked around at the girls waiting on the plush couches. Three or four of her regulars were here already.

The air smelled of quality spice from the burners, and the music was provided by the song birds fluttering and trilling in their delicate, suspended cages. Cafe MIO was several streets removed from the common drinking dens and rowdy clubs where men lost their pay. It was demure and exclusive, catering for the well-moneyed.

Three games were in progress around the broad, lacquer-work tables arranged around the couches. Attentive girls in short dresses drifted about with trays of drinks.

Pan frowned as she took them to the bar. Pretty much everyone she saw through the door was in trouble, even that trouble was just an over-fondness for drink, or cards. She always felt sorry for the punters who came along with desperate dreams of turning a little into a lot. It never happened.

She always felt sorry for the men, like two nice-looking men before her, who seemed honest and good hearted, but who were about to ruin their good characters forever. Pan left them seated in plush seats against the wall, and went away through a curtain into the private rooms.

The new girl Sara was watching the bar area on a monitor. She seemed in a particularly good mood.

“What’s up with this one, Pan?” Sara asked, gesturing at the screen image of Nox. “He’s got a face (and a fidget) I quite like. Can I keep these two company?”

“Oh, he’s a proper gentleman, and as charming with the ladies as any. You can take him for practice. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that.”

“I’ll take this one,” the girl said, nodding. She was good looking, with the dark hair and pale skin of the Russians. She’d only been with them two nights, on probation still, and she hadn’t hosted a customer yet.

Pan shrugged her delicate, lace covered shoulders. She wanted to send somebody with a bit more experience, but this seemed too good a chance for a new girl to miss out on. No, let’s give Sara a chance.

“Off you go, then.”

The new girl got up. She smiled, checked her reflection in the mirror, straightened her red silk dress, and headed for the exit.

“Just remember.” Pan called after Sara. The new girl stopped and looked back.

“Try not to screw it up, Sara."

The new girl smiled. “I’ll try my best.”

“We should get a drink,” Sara said.

The men looked up.

“Or are you here to play?” she asked, sitting down in the plush seat next to Nox, and draping the skirts of her red silk dress over her legs elegantly.


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Ivan's idea of a good time seemed to be a completely Russian thing to do. He'd been to Cafe MIO one other time. A good memory of lost friends floated to his mind. The fateful night Bas met Alex who turned out to be Aria's fucking sister. The three of them had had a good time messing with Pytor's tormentors. It had been all around good day. It brought a recently rare smile to Nox's lips as he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt down and ran his fingers through his hair.

He hadn't worn the dark eye liner from the previous excursion. While he liked the look, he missed Aurora when he looked at himself in the mirror so it wasn't something he wanted to do on the regular. You are so stupid little brother." The voice in his head made him smile too.

The hostess lead them to a table that Ivan requested - their backs to the wall. It suited Nox just fine, but this wasn't a club, or a bar, more a gentleman's club. It still didn't make him comfortable. The plush seats and the leather. The cigar smoke hovering in the air. The soft noise of the games being played. It wasn't the place for a fight - though it had seen a few. Gambling always brought with it fights - and so did alcohol. So many fights - Nox remembered the fights of his youth more and more these days. Nox never wondered why he'd chosen to forget all the shit his father had put him through.

A pretty slip of a girl in a red dress and high heels came towards them and sat down next to him. Nox gave her a once over obviously checking out her assets with an amused smile. "I think I'll just have a drink. Nevskoe Original in a bottle, if you don't mind, Duckling." He'd had the same drink when he'd come here last. And he had it at nearly all the highly Russian bars he came to. Which was not usual. Sage and Christian kept the fridge stocked with his favorite there was no need to come out to drink when staying home suited him fine these days. But it had been a while since he'd been out. "I'm not a gambling man. I'd rather spend my leisure time with more adventurous activities." Nox winked at her then looked over at Ivan. "What'll you have?" He didn't say he was buying though he would pay for the first, but only because he intended it to be his only.
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“Charming choice! Let’s a good time,” she said. “We’ll have a drink, and then perhaps another.” She made a two-fingered gesture at the bartender. “Vodka,” she smiled.

“Do you drink vodka? That’s hard stuff,” Sara asked Ivan.

She leaned close to Nox, and sniffed him.

“You’re not from around here at all, are you?” she whispered into his ear. “What’s your name, stranger?”

The girl in the red dress stood at Nox’s side, draping an over-familiar arm across his shoulder. She saw Pan signal from the curtain.

“Of course, let me get the drinks,” she said, and left the table.

The new girl came back, and put Nox’s beer on the table beside his wrist. She also placed two small glasses of iordanov vodka in front of them.

“All done,” she whispered in his ear. She looked at his companion. “What’s his name?" she asked.

Ivan put one foot up on the table as the girl came over. He have her a wide toothy grin, blue eyes flashing. Dark. Yeah, he had a type. No question there. Zoya. Alex. Danya and this girl- Sara- both had that non-European look he found so attractive, dark brows drawn over eyes as black as night.

Careful there, boyo. Yeah yeah. He knew. For one she was a hired gun. Stunning enough to fog your wits and make you spend more than you should, always just hinting they might be into you, but mostly not. Mostly. Sometimes they really were. People were people after all. And that could be fun. But you still played the odds.

And there was Danya. No, there had been nothing promised when he saw her last. That had been about healing, about hope, about new beginnings. And a hard truths. So no, Danya had not said she was waiting for him. But the memory of them, sitting at the table....damn but it just about broke his heart at how beautiful it was. And he knew her well enough. She was not that much of a mystery. He saw the wistfulness in her eyes. He had to believe it. But Zara first. She had changed, in that way. Someone else first.

Life was out there. The life he wanted. And he was gonna get it. Period.

So yeah, be friendly. Be amiable. And help his friend.

"Heya Sara. Ivan. Yeah, vodka is my go to," he said as he leaned over and poured into the two glasses. After a moment, he glanced at her. Petite thing. Maybe a bit too much. He always poured for himself, sometimes not realizing. He smiled at her with wink at Nox. "Sorry. Not trying to get you to dance on the table or anything. Though if you did, it might help my boy out a bit."

And then he leaned back pulling on his drink, feeling the cold liquid pour down his throat. It'd been a while. Like seriously. "I'm up for a game."
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Long after the last of the clock towers in the oligarchy, and away down the hill below in the sprawl of greater Moscow, had finished chiming the hour, the men and women in Cafe MIO clinked glasses.

“Nox, hm? Well, I’m Sara,” she laughed. “Just asking what they tell me to ask. It’s a pain, I know."

Sara pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows at Ivan, who saved her the trouble of pouring. Or asking him to gamble. Shapely, muscular, winking Ivan.

Sara shook her head sweetly at Ivan’s suggestion.

“I’m beginning to like you,” chuckled the girl in red, stroking Ivan’s ear. He'd knocked one back already. No way she’d dance on the tables; gross.

"Let me guess. Nox is your terrible, superior officer who you’re indebted to. And he’s brought you here tonight, because you’re such a butter-wouldn’t-melt innocent that you’ll take the house. You’re his secret weapon,” she teased, pouring out one more glass for Ivan, but not herself.

Sara glanced sideways at Ivan as she refilled his drink. Ivan was a few years younger than Nox, and a few centimeters taller, and he was good-looking, well-made, but... She stared up at him.

Sara narrowed her eyes to peer harder.

It’s hard to tell in this light, but the flesh of his hands, on the palm and on the back, look bruised. His face— it’s blemished. A little scarred. I can’t be sure, but I’d wager he’d eventually have grafting done to conceal or remove some scars. The chances are, this man was beaten. Quite possibly tortured. The hands are telling. He’s not hiding his scars. It’s not about concealment.

Sara shrugged a no-matter, and decided against asking, right away at least, why they were drinking here.

Cafe MIO was a nice place. Tasteful. They’ve got a pattern on the carpet that’s not the consequence of vomit. That’s rare, for drinking / gaming standards.

The truth was, she’d gravitated into their company easily enough. Nox was affable, a witty conversationalist, and expressed an attitude towards gambling that Sara found appealing, but she had no idea of Nox’s background, career, or attachment, and as she sipped her drink, she realized that was unusual.

That kind of talk always came out. Men talk about themselves, and looked for points of shared experience. They noted the places, people, and hobbies they had in common. Over the time Sara spent in Nox’s company, Nox had not volunteered anything of the sort, which meant that he was either a remarkably privately person, or he was concealing something.

Sara could see that now, too.

Duckling, eh? You don’t know me at all socially, Sara thought. Where is this going? How much of a chance was it that you suddenly started coming to the club and moving in my circle of working girls? I can almost see through you, Nox...

Sara sat back into the plush cushions.

“Let’s just ease our way into this,” she said. “Cards on the table. I’ve only just been put onto this one, so I’m coming up to speed. I know it’s a little awkward that you and I have never encountered each other here before, but I think that’s why I was assigned to serve you. We’ll get to being a little less formal once we’re known to each other. Is this your first time here, both of you?”

Sara took a sip of her drink and watched the table next to theirs.

The cards were tall and brilliantly colored. They flowed from the dealer’s hands like the punch-tokens from a computing machine. There was a charged atmosphere around the table.

Pan had taught Sara the rudiments of the game, a trick-and-trade variety called Prestupleniye i Nakazaniye, but she was hardly an expert. With each hand, it was a constant struggle to remember the basic combination hierarchy and the correct moments to discard, let alone the tips she’d been given. Certain court cards are magic kickers that could break tied hands.

So much to remember. Sara focused on the chief rules. Make the men bid with a little more vigor. Be aware of just how much they have in their pocket.

“Here’s an idea. Why don’t I get you another beer, Nox and you’ll deploy your secret weapon out to win at the tables when a space opens up? I'll keep you company. How’s that?"

Sara looked up at Nox and smiled as if expecting more.

Nox didn't shake his head at the second drink, but he wouldn't need one, his beer would never empty. That was the joys of being able to magically fill it with water and pretend he was getting drunker. It was an art form he learned when he was younger. Drunk girls liked to think you were drunk as them, and the sober girls liked to pretend right along with you. Though Sara here didn't seem to need to do much pretending.

Her arm slinked around him and Nox felt the familiar warmth of another body next to him. The last had been who.... Jay? That seemed a lifetime ago. Nox offered up his name to the girl. He was hardly a regular. "Only been here one other time." Ivan teased with the dancing on the table. Hardly necessary and not really the place. Not that he'd mind per say. Though his life was getting more and more complicated and strange. Sara was a pretty thing. This wasn't a place to hook up though, neither was Kallisti, same type of place just different agenda.

The woman spoke of secret weapons and Nox just smirked. She had no idea. Not even an inkling of it and he had no intentions of letting her in on it. Bas night have been a guy who liked to fuck after a fight, and use his gifts for other things. Though it wasn't a matter of kiss and tell, every advantage right? Nox thought it cheating. "There is no reason for any of this to be awkward." He grinned at her and held up his beer. "My beer is good though. And I'd love your company." Not that he was trying to get rid of Ivan. Ivan after all was trying to get him a table dance. Ivan had no clue about any of the problems on his mind. Probably never even think of it. Dealing with his feelings for Jay had been one thing. One night stands and still friends - that was kinda unusual for him, but Jay was Jay and Nox wasn't sure what was there... And then Sage... fucking Sage Parker. Why the fuck did all these men have to drop in on him all at the same fucking time.

Nox sighed, probably because he was just not noticing... But he had a pretty girl draped over him and he pushed it all away except the feel of her arm around him and the cool glass against his lips. He wasn't going to be his father. Drinking his misery away wasn't going to happen. Not ever. One beer, he said to himself. "I know you said no dancing on tables." He gave her his best smile and held up a hand. "The floor works for me. Spin you around the dance floor like a pro?" He wasn't a pro, but he had learned from one. More memories...
Ivan laughed at her. "No. Not my first time, gorgeous. But this place has changed. A lot! Might as well be my first time. Wasn't near as classy before. He looked around at the interior. "Definitely no high stakes games." His gaze swung back to her and he took her in. "Or assigned company," he said with a smikw, giving her a frank look that didn't hide his appreciation. She was quite stunning."I think I like the new owners."

Another pull and he leaned back. He was relaxed and he needed to let her and Nox get their flirt on or whatever. It was what he was here for, after all. Wing-man and all that. Course if he had known they'd have someone on them so quickly....well. Not that it wasn't appreciated, but he mighta suggested another place. Less agenda that way. Cuz she had an agenda, as sure as shit. And maybe Nox would've opened up.

Bah. Let the man have his fun. The guy was smart enough, he was sure. Like his little trick with the beer. Ivan filed that away. Definitely showed he was being careful. Clear head.

Well, what was Ivan to do? He looked at the table she pointed life. As it happened, he wasn't a bad card player. His innocent look really did mask things. She was sharp, that one. And he played for money some times. Did alright. Course, a cop's salary wasn't exactly large, by any means. Still, he might go for a few hands. Shadow Nox without messing up his groove.

Guy was a mess that was for sure. A little attention, even if the fake kind, might at least shake something loose. Then maybe the bar next to his apartment. Quiet. Whatever.

He stood, glass in hand at his waist, looking down at her. "You take care of my boy, ok?" There was a playfulness in his tone, but at the same time, he couldn't help the slight bit of warning. Don't mess up my friend. He held her gaze for a moment, grin still there before glancing at Nox. "Have fun, bud. I'm just over there."

He went to the table and took the open seat. A few of the guys looked him oddly, but a girl brought over his chips when he entered his info on the terminal in front of him. Dear god, this place had changed. The girl was another looker. The owners had pull. It wasn't the Kallisti, no. But it definitely wasn't the MIO he remembered.

Girls- bachelorettes at parties, women blowing off steam after work, the 'whooo-hooo' ladies in general- used to frequent the place. And the guys prowling for them. Get a few drinks in them and they really did sometimes jump up on the table with their friends. Just girls having fun.

"Heya fellas." He'd play a few hands only.
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Around them, the music started. Pan was a distant figure in the heart of a packed bar.

“I take care of my charges,” Sara said with a grin, raising her voice to be heard over the band. She patted Nox on the arm.

Ivan and Nox seemed quite satisfied with this compromise. Abruptly, she touched Ivan on the sleeve and nodded toward the table on the far right. “There’s a space open, if you have money in your pocket.” She saw Ivan shouldering his way through the press.

Sara licked her lips with the tip of her tongue as she thought. She looked thoughtfully at the seemingly untouched drink in Nox’s hand. She walked over to him, took back the bottle from his hand, and took a sip.

“This beer,” said Sara, holding up the glass bottle and squinting at it. “It’s not bad."

A smile crossed her face as she gave the beer back to Nox.

She liked Nox already. Sharp to the point of brittle, fast-eyed, confident. A looker too, if you liked neatly pretty boys. His features were elegantly symmetrical. A little beyond a working woman like herself, of course.

“Nice moves! everybody's watching,” she breathed, arms around Nox’s cheek and neck as they waltzed. She raised a hand and gently touched Nox’s face.

“Tell me about you. Besides being sex on legs. Real catnip for us women. Now I know why Ivan asked me to keep an eye on you.”

Sara took Nox's beer and he only hesitated a moment. He wasn't positive but he was pretty sure she thought something was off about the beer. But she couldn't know what? Could she? Before he could wonder more Ivan was off and Sara had him on the dance floor. Or what was their makeshift one anyway. As she'd pulled him towards the location they ended up Nox shed his hoodie on their bench left with his watered down beer. At least that was what was left of it after he'd finished half before filling with water.

She seemed impressed that he could watlz. Though Nox wished he could hear the thoughts of others, he had to look a sight, waltzing with a pretty girl in that velvety red dress, and him in jeans and dark grey t-shirt that read "Powered by Coffee". But it didn't matter, he could tango if she wanted. Or anything else for that matter.

Sara asked Nox a question pulling him from his imminent memories. Sex on legs... Catnip... Nox could only grin at the words she chose. She either wanted a good tip or there was more to it. It didn't matter. Her fingers against his face were only causing mix signals for him. If she weren't sent here, he'd have one of two options - she was into him, or she was a hooker looking for a John. One he'd go with the second was a no since he didn't need to pay for sex. It was easy enough to find. But this woman was working - not a hooker - but not really into him. And Ivan only thought he knew what Nox needed. The man barely even knew what was going on in his life.

But the question made Nox smile - it was a fake smile even as he added the false humor to the truth of his words. It was a joke in a cosmic way, but it was reality. "I'm on the run from a cult that wants to kill me now, taking a few moments to help out Ivan." Among others, but Nox didn't add that. "And dance with pretty girls." Nox took the moment to change up the dance a little pulling Sara closer and dipping her deeper, bringing his lips close to her but not kissing her as he pulled her back up and licked his own lips then spun her twice. He missed dancing. It was always a happy place - even if Aria made fun of it...

And at the thought of his lost friend the shadows of his memories in floated again hiding the light of the moment. Nox absently said, "I might need that second beer after all." He could see the reason his father drowned himself in harder things. But he wasn't his father... and sex was far more fun - if only it were as easy as buying a drink...There was no charm in buying beer, but to seduce a girl... that was different and something far from his head at the moment. Fuck!

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