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For its quirks, extracurriculars, and of course its reputation, the Bottom of the Cup Cafe was a popular haunt with students. Nesrin sat ensconced at one of the tables in the Amber Room, with a pile of books, a plate of lunch (the food was very good) and an antiquated laptop. A messy bun, glasses, and oversized MSU hoodie made for a nondescript facade as she tapped at the keyboard. Almaz worked fine for most of her needs; putting faces to names on the powermap was useful, as was the unobtrusive observation: alliances, rivalries, reactions to mistakes. To that end she’d also checked out the RLD venues printed on the cards Rev had given her, though of course that required an entirely different persona. The most vital groundwork was completed in dreams though. The recent anomaly there still shivered her spine with discomfort, but she was on a deadline; she didn’t have time for the fear. And she’d soon know if she’d done enough.

By now she’d moved on from the highrise condo, though its owners had made a very generous (and unknowing) donation to the cause in the form of a downpayment on a small apartment in a cheap part of the city. They wouldn’t miss the money and it had made her look less transient on the necessary job application, which didn’t usually matter for more temp work, but in this case she’d needed to fabricate the credential. She could have asked Zar, but she didn't want the connection to his family name. Not for this. Security was tighter given the prospective clientele, though not quite as robust as you might expect; it seemed the obscenely rich didn’t care who poured the drinks, so long as someone did. Even better if that someone smiled and looked pretty while they did it.

She wouldn’t actually be staying at the rented place, of course; she preferred luxury, and why the hell not? Moscow was a new playground, and Nesrin enjoyed the challenges to be had in her unique method of discovery. Last night’s rest spot had boasted impressive views of the skyline, and she’d toasted them with an expensive glass of wine from the bubbles of a hot-tub. No one would know she'd been there. Borrowing was so much more satisfying than owning.

The new job was secure. As she awaited the confirmation to ping through, she sat back with her coffee. An earbud sat in one ear, pumping soft music, but she was actually listening to the conversation between a couple adjacent; a woman with a lyrical accent, and a man with his head in his hands.
Contentment was rare in Noémi, yet even when she had woken alone to warm and mussed sheets it had been an unblemished glow in her chest. The scent of him remained, mingled with the perfume on her skin, like a spectre of his presence and his claiming. The intensity of Nikolai’s passion still left her tingling with its memory, a dark and delicious dream in morning’s light, but it was the intimacy afterwards that left the greatest impression. The timeless cradle of arms and softer, more vulnerable breaths of sleep.

As before, though all his gifts to her would be cherished – a Baccarat rosebud this time, like the tantalising promise of something new to bloom – it was the words penned in his own hand she took most to heart. The reminder of her maman’s advice stirred feeling in her chest, a secret only the two of them might share now she was gone, for Noémi had never shared the sentiment with another soul. But it was the elegant curve of his French that made her smile; to know he had taken the time to remember and translate her words. She wondered if he had recognised the quote as Shakespeare.

Contentment didn’t last, of course, as such things never did, or even could.

Soon on the heels of Nikolai’s gift, reality reasserted itself in the form of an NDA dropped on her doormat. A surprised sort of hurt had rippled through her core before she composed herself anew. She understood the necessity, of course, and she signed it without complaint. Noémi naturally conducted her own life with a mind to preserving her privacy, and her time with Nikolai was precious to her in a way she intended to keep entirely for herself. A contract was no hardship; it was only formalisation. Yet it dulled the edges of her bliss nonetheless; reminded her to be cautious of the heart she already knew she had given away.

The invitation received with the crystal rosebud presented some problems of its own, and had left a knot permanently in her stomach since. Vasiliev was a name with which she had history, and a tarnished one at that. Truly Noémi belonged to none of the worlds in which she’d ever lived, but that particular one she had no desire to reawaken, let alone blur into the life she lived today. It had been more than five years; a long time. Yet she was not sure it had been long enough.

When she had asked Rafael for coffee, it was to broach the delicate subject of a favour – for she certainly could not attend alone and risk that Dima might believe it a divine act of fate. But nor did she desire to bring a date, or anyone that might interpret it as such. In the time she had known Raffe they had never been close, but neither had it ever crossed the boundaries of simple friendship. She trusted him; something she could ultimately say of few of the men who had ever been in her life.

He was unusually quiet today, and not in his usual gentle manner. Raffe did not look ill anymore, not as he had when she last saw him at the church, but he seemed worse somehow, like the vitality had been drained from him despite the way he went through the motions of his usual self. He explained a bad break-up, and did not seem keen to dwell on the details, yet it seemed more than a broken hurt he nursed in his hands when he cradled his head. Noémi did not pry deeper than he allowed, though the concern was writ all over her expression. Loss was something she understood intimately.

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