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Something sweet and innocent that was actually quite sinister and haunting. Passion mixed with despair. Sorrow and fury. Playful plucking that rises into complicated elegance and speeds past what the mind can track and so instead leaves it numb to everything.

Numb to everything but the music.

His wrists were light and loose. Shoulders fluid and elbows open. One does not play the majestic instrument that was a piano with only their fingers. They play with their entire body. They make love to the music; he commands and manipulates it. His torso sways to the rhythm. The rise and fall of a pedal forced all the notes to echo and overlap long after a key was struck; much as a crying throat beneath one's shoe. He stretches his arms wide, owning every harmonic, and sometimes, purposefully clashing them together in stretches of sound to rival the purity of demons' song. He manipulates every aspect of the performance, designing a melody that left his audience in oblivion.

Dane quickly glanced at the woman cozy on the bench next to him. Behind the frame, the black lacquer of a grand piano stretched before them both. The chair he'd occupied for forty-five delightful minutes remained empty nearby. Cigar long cold of its smoldering and half a glass of port likewise remained abandoned alongside. The piano lid was held at a sharp angle, casting the music toward the bowl of the room where warm wooden walls were stained with its timbre like an old sponge. But every stroke of the key resonated deeper than walls and chairs. It touched a chord in the soul, if such a thing existed, and wrapped his new pianist friend with a warm blanket of melodic trust in her partner.

She smiled invitingly in response to his and without missing a beat of their duet. The sheen of her black hair fell slick as a mop of wet blood down the pale flesh of her shoulders where her dress pooled at the small of her back. Every time she touched the pedal, a cord of muscle burst from the side of her calf in the sensual line of her stake of a stiletto.

When he first entered the gentlemen's bar at the Ritz Carlton, the room was yet unfilled for the evening but for a few solitary figures drowning their sorrows in expensive alcohol. It had been the backdrop of elegant instrumentation that drew him on in, and the slender shape of the exotic princess lost to the world in which she created that sealed the imagery in his mind.

A knowing smile eased him into the deep comforts of a chair, and soon, Dane had crossed one leg over the other and watched her with glowing captivation. Never once did he look elsewhere. Not when a round of crude patrons slammed their conversation at the edge of his periphery. Not when the bar back shattered a glass. Only her. This lovely orchid, unique and special. Soon, she began to play for him, sneaking quick glances above the resonating strings, and silently, she flirted, tilting her cheek one way or another, petting the keys with the pads of her fingers, or tucking one ankle behind another when she realized his eyes had fallen.

She didn't skirt away when he leaned in from behind her. The scent of her shampoo curled pleasantly in his nostrils, and wisps of hair tickled his cheek. For some minutes, he did not sit, but instead reached around the width of her back, and eased into higher treble octaves; easing into her trust that he would not ruin the song, but rather, enhance what she could not do alone. She played along, enjoying the enchantment of their silent game. When he finally slid on the bench, she made room, though the sides of their thighs barely pressed together, he knew she was unafraid of his proximity.

Perfect. That was the point. Whether playing a symphony or playing a game. A master manipulated the art of the unexpected. Sweet and sinister; elegant and savage. And his lovely new friend would not expect what was to come from so graceful an artist. Indeed, Dane was an artist. And she would be his art.

When he peeled her wrist from the keys, the music stopped and was replaced with the dull ache of petty conversations all around. He watched her eyes while he kissed the back of her hand. Her pupils dilated, and her breath came shallow. "Thank you for the duet,"
he said softly. A lovely, lovely thing she was.

He laid her hand in her lap and excused himself, leaving her with the ghostly promise of what had yet to come. She resumed playing as he walked away, not to look back. Not for many hours would he look back.

He abandoned her as he had the port and cigar, but dismissed the idea of collecting either on his way to the bar. A wave of the hand summoned the bartender. He leaned casually on the rail. "A fresh Cuban,"
and he glanced at one of the men in his immediate presence. "And one for my friend, as well."

He returned his cuffs to his wrists and slid into a chair alongside Nicholas. "A pleasure, Mister Trano,"
he greeted, British accent crisp and elegant as the man's salt and pepper hair, but mixed with sounds that also hinted at somewhere else.

Once his sleeves were fixed, he extended a hand in offer of a gentlemen's greeting. He wrapped his palm around Nicholas' and introduced himself with a wide smile. "Dane Gregory."

Edited by Dane Gregory, Dec 9 2013, 09:31 PM.
The bar at the Ritz-Carlton was relaxing enough. Nicholas sat alone, with his second glass of whiskey empty in front of him. There were more than a few of his so-called colleagues washing away their boredom in the room. None were much in the mood for conversation, either. It was just as well--the privacy of public seclusion gave Nicholas time to think, and the liquor massaged away his morning headache.

He signaled the bartender for another glass. Expensive, but it was good to get away from Reed every so often. Even if she was nice to look at, too much time spent taking her abuse and Nicholas might have found himself brought down to earth. He grimaced. Like that'll ever happen,
he thought, only shivering a little. He was glad to know that at least there was nothing wrong with his head, but a lack of illness presented its own problems. He was really going to do it, really going to run for the presidency. Ever since coming to the decision he half-felt like kicking himself. There really was too little time, and he was stuck tailing Nikolai Brandon while Jessika Thrice was doing her best to destroy the United States from within. Now, if I can get her on board...

Something caught his attention and pulled his eyes away from his glass. The piano notes drifting from the corner of the room had been steadily increasing in noise and tempo, the melody becoming more and more complicated until Nicholas was sure there had to be at least three pairs of hands at the keys. Then it stopped suddenly. When he looked over to see who had been playing, there were only two. A man, well dressed and classically handsome; and a woman who looked like she was ready to tear his clothes off right then and there. Hey, he could give credit where credit was due. The guy was playing a nice angle.

Curiosity satisfied, Nicholas turned back to the far more important matter of his drink. The bartender had been kind enough to replace his glass while Nicholas' attention was elsewhere. There was so much to think about, and thinking was easier when you weren't sober. That line of thinking worried some small part of him, but most of him couldn't care less. Habits weren't unhealthy unless you took them to extremes.

"A fresh Cuban,"
that moment of dark reflection was broken by the arrival of a cheerful sounding Englishman. Nicholas didn't know what it was, but something about the people from that island didn't sit well with him. That said, he tried to keep his prejudices buried.

"And one for my friend, as well."
Nicholas didn't even have the time to politely refuse before the man claimed the seat next to him. Extending a hand, he made his greeting. "A pleasure, Mister Trano,"
he said, and with a wide smile gave his name. "Dane Gregory."
It was the same man who had been playing the piano.

Nicholas had really been hoping to do some quiet soul-searching while he sat at that bar. Still, he was quick to return the smile as he shook the man's hand. It was his first chance to talk to somebody normal in a long time, after all.

"Glad to meet you, Dane."
He glanced back at the glass sitting on the bar before bringing his full attention to the newcomer. "It looks like you know a lot more about me than I do about you, so what brings you to Moscow?"
Judging from the surroundings and his foreign accent, probably business. Moscow wasn't high on Nicholas' list of tourist destinations. He tilted his head towards the lone piano player. "It can't just be the women."

Edited by Nick Trano, Dec 9 2013, 09:57 PM.
Nicholas was quite the pleasant chap.

Dane laid his hands in his lap and relaxed himself in the comfort of the chair. Likewise glad to find a familiar face among strangers. The thing about faces, though - young, old, wrinkled, smooth - they were all skin, fat and flesh. Their eyes were all glass. Their teeth all polished. Their lips taut as the skin of a grape that given enough weight, always popped open. Nicholas, while a pleasant face to watch, was only another grape. Another wine to savor.

The bartender laid two cigars before them, each perched across a pure white saucer edged in gold foil. The kind that belonged beneath a teacup rather than a cigar, but for now guarded a treasure more delicious: the taunting scent of aged tobacco leaf.

Alongside each were laid pots for ash, a cutter, and a book of matches. Dane gestured for Nicholas to partake first. As it was only polite. And carried on their himself conversation while rolling the uncut cigar in his fingers. Playing with it. Feeling the weight. Absorbing the flavors as though they soaked through the silky flesh of his fingers.

Nicholas' quip brought a chuckle. And caused Dane to give an ear to the thrumming resonance of distant piano string. The pianist was a talented little strawberry. Nicholas was funny. Fame and familiarity aside, Dane liked the man. He hoped to get to know him further.

"I would say I am a tourist."
His smile considered the posh aesthetics of the parlor a moment. "This room alone is worth the trip,"
he added, elegant accent hinting at more than interior design, before settling on the spine of the pianist. Her black hair shone like the velvet of a night sky. Then returned to Nicholas'. The lingering gaze included their acquaintanceship well.

He swiped the cutter, a double guillotine-style, and snapped the tip from the cigar with one swish of blade-on-blade. A beautiful sound - similar to a kitchen knife drawn slowly over granite. It tumbled away, but Dane was unconcerned with where it fell. He propped the cigar in the corner of his mouth and drew a match. A swift stroke and the chalky sulphur exploded with angry life, flashing his face with heat. But it teased and simmered to a small flame. The timbers of the Oświęcim museum had done much the same: a roaring power fed by the screams of those within, only to die to crackling and beautiful solitude.

As he put the match to the paper, smoke curled and leaf hissed. Though aged and dead, the leaves fought the consumption. Fought him. But where nature dictated its own pace, Dane forced his own.

He seized the power, and easily overcame the battle for dominance of will. With it, he twined a simple hive of heat and energy, and the cigar succumbed to consumption of both match and flame.

He waved the match's death and dropped it on the saucer. While his puffs turned the paper into cherubic ash, he bowed his head at Nicholas, and pivoted the cigar around to take stock of the smoldering accomplishment. Perfect.

He crossed one leg over the other, and lounged, enjoying the company and his own imagination. And the cigar, of course.

The bartender replaced his glass with a fresh one. The deep port sat uncongealed in the globe of its stemware. Elegant and quiet. Dane did not partake yet. Gratification was sweetest when delayed.

He flicked a Gothic gaze upward. Nicholas was slightly out of focus until the colors faded. A disconcerting combination of heightened sight blocked by opacity. He released the power, and his eyes widened playfully, followed by a helpful smile. "Your glass is near empty."

Without breaking gaze, he pushed the weight of the whiskey's lowball glass forward a bit. Inebriation made for interesting company, after all. Dane swiftly set the man at ease with a chuckle and smile.

Talking to someone who wasn't a secret agent, Custody servant or dream-invading lawyer was refreshing. Until then, Nicholas hadn't realized just how isolated he had been during his stay in Moscow. That wasn't to say Dane's intrusion was entirely welcome, of course, but at least there was a silver lining.

Even so, when the cigars arrived Nicholas had to decline. Smoking wasn't a habit he wanted to pick up, and besides, he didn't feel like coughing up half a lung. It'd be embarrassing. That didn't seem to bother Dane much. In practiced motions he cut and started to light the--crap.

Nicholas had to give himself credit for not flinching when that unfortunately familiar feeling like nails on a chalkboard settled over his shoulders. Christ, can everybody do that now?
He still hated the feeling, but at least it didn't make him cringe anymore. Semi-transparent yellow and red wires snaked around the tip of Dane's cigar, directing the flame.

If there was ever any proof of a God, it had to be the sheer number of inexplicable secrets. How in the hell did nobody know about the existence of globe-spanning murder cults, monsters and magic when there wasn't even a cursory attempt to keep it hidden? He felt like he was in a Dungeons and Dragons game.

"Your glass is near empty."
When Dane pushed the glass towards him, he laughed. Then he downed it. The world was an interesting place.

To Dane's warning, Nicholas responded with the obvious. "That's why Anatoly's here."
Within moments the man behind the counter replaced his glass. Nicholas gave him a nod of thanks and slid another tip across the bar without looking. He didn't want to think how much money the man had made off him in the span of his short stay at the hotel, but good service deserved rewarding. Judging from the number of rich alcoholics slowly filing into the room, Nicholas doubted he ranked in the top twenty even so.

The man didn't make conversation easy. Nicholas still didn't know anything other than his name. "Ever been to Saudi Arabia? I'm visiting soon."

<small><small>(Gah! When I finally sat down this took five hours. [Image: 4.png] )</small></small>
Nicholas' rejection of the cigar smoldered deep and far away, but sinister and portent. He could hardly turn away from it. A child who knew the oven was off-limits, but wanted to press their fingers to the flame anyway.

The moment wasn't spoiled, however. Nicholas downed the very drink Dane had suggested he finish, and Dane smiled at his joke while the bartender - Anatoly - supplied more. Whiskey, Dane recognized the label, if not the aroma, and cringed at how he imagined it to burn the inside of Nicholas throat. A slow, sinister burn, less dramatic than the boil of acid, but more effective. As tolerant as Nicholas apparently was, his liver must be the consistency of warm porridge. He should really take care of his health. Then again, 'tis healthy to be sick sometimes.

Dane brought his own glass to his lips and savored the deep aroma pooled within. The port was heavy and a touch shy of being too sweet, but balanced with the savory bite of the cigar. Together, the flavors enhanced what either could accomplish on their own. Like many things in this world, they were meant to be appreciated together.

"I envy you, Nicholas."
He placed the glass aside in exchange for tapping away the growing fur of gray ashes. "I have not had the fortune to see any of the world within the Fifth Dominance, but the only value therein are the fossilized antiquities."
He waved a hand, "Nobody goes to Cairo for the bustling nightlife and infamous cuisine."
He fixed Nicholas with a look, seeking agreement. "Patina is far more interesting than bronze alone."
It added complexity and depth, and through the application of chemicals, acid, and caustic layers, was often manipulated to enhance an otherwise boring landscape. Yet blinded by beauty, men were unaware of their own morbidity, but there was a fascinating design bought by erosion, probably much like Nicholas' ever-thinning esophagus.

"Fortunately, fossils will outlast us all. I'm in no hurry to walk the Fertile Crescent any time soon. Have you ever been to the British Isles?"
The anticipation in his question sought a sincere answer, and the lordly accent suggested Nicholas should say yes. "Although I suggest waiting until the Tower Bridge of London is rebuilt. It is like visiting Paris while the Eiffel Tower is a pile of sticks."
His smile lingered, oscillating between a cruel joke and a proud father. It's simply not the same.

Dane was in the midst of puffing and rotating the gentleman's treat, simply tasting the smoke in his mouth and exhaling it, never inhaling beyond the tongue, when the Ritz concierge approached. He was about their age, but small of stature with a bowl of yellow-red hair and a thin beard. Dane couldn't recall his name, but the tag on his shirt supplied it.

The concierge apologized for interrupting. "Sir, I have the tickets you requested."
And he presented two strips of heavy-weight paper, printed with the logo of the Moscow Ballet, and the golden, scrawling script of The Nutcracker across the top.

Dane smiled broadly and eagerly took up the tickets for inspection. First row, within a grand tier box not squarely before the stage, but neither at too sharp an angle. Dane rather enjoyed the prospect of seeing who was seated within the isolated confines of the Tsar's Lounge, the great viewing box on the same level reserved for modern-day royalty.

"This will do."
He thanked the concierge, Sergen, and turned to Nicholas, scintillating with delight. He held out one of the tickets. "Would you be interested in a Christmas Eve viewing of The Nutcracker at the Boloshi Theater, Nicholas?"

<small>((Really? Took me a grueling 30 minutes.))</small>

Edited by Dane Gregory, Dec 17 2013, 01:09 PM.
Dane winced visibly when Nicholas downed what little remained in his glass. Nicholas didn't even blink. The dull burn passed through his throat in a matter of moments, leaving nothing in its wake. For his part, Dane took a small sip of his own drink.

"I envy you, Nicholas."
Dane put the glass back in its place on the bar before tapping away the precariously balanced ashes on the end of his cigar. "I have not had the fortune to see any of the world within the Fifth Dominance, but the only value therein are the fossilized antiquities."
He waved a hand, "Nobody goes to Cairo for the bustling nightlife and infamous cuisine."
To that, Nicholas could not agree more. He nodded in agreement as Dane continued. "Patina is far more interesting than bronze alone."
He paused for a moment, considering something before returning to reality.

"Fortunately, fossils will outlast us all. I'm in no hurry to walk the Fertile Crescent any time soon. Have you ever been to the British Isles?"
He seemed hopeful that Nicholas had.Sadly, that wasn't the case. "Although I suggest waiting until the Tower Bridge of London is rebuilt. It is like visiting Paris while the Eiffel Tower is a pile of sticks." The man's smile was a bit disconcerting; Nicholas had seen the reports.

To Dane's question, the answer was sadly a negative. "Can't say I've had much chance to travel outside the U.S. since my Navy days, and we never docked in Custody ports."
It would have been as likely as stopping in Shanghai during the '70s. Maybe liberty would have been better, though.

Right on the heels of Nicholas' answer, a concierge from the hotel scampered up. He was short, but of an age with the two men. His red-gold hair and short, bristly beard made him look almost boyish. The name tag on his uniform marked him as yet another Russian; Sergen.

He produced a pair of tickets, handing them to Dane after a brief apology for interrupting. "Sir, I have the tickets you requested."
Nicholas did not recognize the logo, although the words printed upon them made it obvious what they were for. Apparently the man had an appreciation for ballet.

That appreciation was only made more clear when he eagerly examined the tickets, before thanking the concierge. A moment later, Dane was holding one of the tickets out. "Would you be interested in a Christmas Eve viewing of The Nutcracker at the Boloshi Theater, Nicholas?"

Sadly, to that Nicholas had to decline. He had enjoyed Dane's company well enough, but by Christmas he would be long gone from Moscow. "I appreciate the offer, but I won't be in the country. Nikolai Brandon decided to take me on his vacation in Saudi Arabia for Christmas."
He smirked, "Don't ask me why I agreed."
It was something of a pity. He probably could have learned quite a bit just by watching the man's indiscriminate use of the power.

((<small><small>FUTURE REFERENCE. DANE'S COLOR IS #DBA901</small></small>))
One ticket lay on the bartop. A slender rectangle of elegant paper now the object of rejection. Dane's heart sank a little. He had hoped to find a friend to share the Nutcracker with, a friend such as Nicholas. It seemed it was not to be.

Dane slipped the second ticket inside his jacket, then buttoned it up snug around his chest. Like a hug.

"Christmas in the Arabian Desert,"
Dane said, shaking his head.

There were few faces in the room which Dane really and truly saw. If the concierge returned wearing a hat, Dane would look him over anew. If the bartender wore a sweater vest rather than a waistcoat, Dane would look right through him.

With Nicholas, however, he looked straight into the man's eyes and saw the soul within. It was empty as the lowballs he continually drained.

Dane's disappointment was quickly covered by a smile. With the tips of his fingers, he pushed the invitation toward Nicholas. "Give it to a friend, then, and you can be there in spirit."
Any man worthy of Nicholas' friendship was equally worthy of Dane's; Nicholas was a good man. A rarity in these days.

A sting cut into the edge of his face, and Dane rubbed a corner of his eye until he dug it out. The crystal of a tear, perhaps, or maybe a whiff of ash that'd curled from the stem of the cigar.

The two men grew quiet for some time, then. Each were comfortable with the rest. Piano music curled around their ears as the smoke from Dane's cigar through his fingers. Relaxed, Dane's thoughts stretched toward the far desert, a horizon scorched by the burning sun. "You sound so eager to go along."
A wry smile, "Why follow the Ascendancy when you do not care to?"

He tapped away the ash of his cigar and drew upon its flavor once more.

Edited by Dane Gregory, Jan 2 2014, 08:05 AM.
Nicholas nodded to Dane's request. He didn't have many friends in Moscow but hell, why not? Silence stretched for a time before Dane chose to rekindle the conversation.

"You sound so eager to go along,"
he began with obvious sarcasm. "Why follow the Ascendancy when you do not care to?"
Nicholas almost envied the man as he tapped away the ash on his cigar and drew another cancerous breath. It was a habit Nicholas barely tolerated; it reminded him of his father.

Nicholas smirked. Getting dragged along by the CIA, who are actually Custodians, who are actually CIA. And magic.
Incidentally that last part was probably the most believable.

"I've been invited to report on the man who's certainly the greatest tyrant the world has ever known."
He glanced at the smoldering tip of the cigar. "I have to make a living somehow, don't I? Telling the truth isn't the worst job I've had."
It was better than the alternative. He could always slink back to Aberdeen and live out his years in comfort. Nicholas wasn't in it for the money. The fact that he'd never taken a job he didn't want to do wasn't lost on him.

He'd long since had the same realization Carnegie tried to popularize. Probably more sincerely, too. "I've been damn lucky."
He looked around at the empty people drinking away their sorrows in the room. All the money in the world and still miserable. "Judging by the room we're in, you have too. Wouldn't you rather be the man who made the world a better place than the one who sat in comfort watched it burn?"
History was usually kinder to the former. He smiled wryly. "Then again, you're one of Brandon's loyal subjects and I'm just an up-jumped journalist."
Tyrant? Dane looked Nicholas over in new light. The man liked strong words. Good for him. He was a writer, after all. Dane's smile died slowly, rendered intent and thoughtful by the images drawn by Nicholas. He was a vivid man. Though the drab colors of his appearance were something to be acquired. In many ways they were quite opposite from one another. Dane's voracity was all internal while Nicholas's presence was a hurricane seen from space. Yet his shoulders were slumped and his appearance mottled. Loose tie, unkempt beard, rounded shoulders. Dane was straight-backed, meanwhile. His legs were crossed, his posture relaxed. There were splashes of color on the inner lining of his tweed coat. His tie choked snug, its path narrow down his chest. Inside and outside, so opposite, and yet, their thoughts ran in parallel with one another. Sweet and familiar. Like brothers.

Dane shrugged off the question. "My grandfather was an Earl,"
he said. The announcement of birthright partly explained the lordly accent. The rest was heightened by a French education.

"Lucky would be if I were born in time to enjoy those titles."
He said, irritated. "As it stands, I am nobody but what I make myself to become."
His eyes slid sideways to Nicholas. "Allow me to correct you, however. I am subject to no one."
No title, no crown. No subject.

He traded the cigar for port. The globe filled his palm, delicate and trusting he would not crush it. The liquid within heavy, like congealed blood. His mood walked the dark edge of a knife, but held its delicate pose. Dane licked his lips before savoring the liquid on his tongue. Nicholas was unaware, but he likewise walked a nefarious edge. For it was his blood Dane was imagining slipping from smiling wrists. He would be seated as he was now. Shoulders slumped, beard unkempt, tie loose, sleeves rolled, and forearms tied down. What strong words would he call upon then?

"The world is going to burn anyway, Nicholas."
He said with unsettling revelation as his eyes were drawn to the crackling hearth in the corner. The flames danced their own little symphony. Just for him. It would burn indeed. "The best we can hope for is to have a good view."
Edited by Seth Marx, Jan 17 2014, 04:57 PM.

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