sam_storyteller: (Slash Fic)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-06-03 02:57 pm
Entry tags:

Life Noir 2/2

Title: Life Noir
Fandom: White Collar
Rating: R (Nick Halden/Vincent Adler; Nick Halden/Kate Moreau background)
Warnings: I wouldn't call it dubcon but the sex gets a little unexpectedly rough.
Summary: Noir is popularly defined as a genre "in which no one is innocent".
BETA CREDIT JESUS: [livejournal.com profile] neifile7 made this awesomer than it was!

Part I: Nick

Part II: Vincent

Vincent kept his most precious things in his bedroom, behind the keypad-lock, where the maid only cleaned once a month and never while he wasn't there.

The desk and dresser had belonged to his family in Germany; the Adlers had been wealthy before the fall of the Reich. His father had come to America with nothing, but Vincent now had everything -- nearly, anyway. He'd gone to Switzerland and bought the pieces from the family his grandfather had sold them to, picking up a couple of other pieces in the same style, along the way, and shipped them all back to America while he flew home first-class.

The clothing in the wardrobe, the understated masculine cuff links and the expensive watch, those were things he prized because they marked him as a man of worth and taste. The paperwork in the wall safe was insurance -- the only copy of his birth certificate, the only proof he hadn't been raised as a child of wealth, just as the son of a child of wealth's nanny. A few childhood trinkets in a bottom drawer of the dresser.

And, now, Nick Halden, who was apparently a cuddler.

Vincent had no intrinsic objection to it, and knowing Nick he should have expected it, but it amused him. The boy was becoming known as Adler's shark, viciously perceptive and ruthless in business, somehow always in the know about what was happening in other companies and how it would affect Vincent's work. He never backed down because he never had to back down, and Vincent had seen the cold glare Nick could turn on his enemies. But now his eyes were closed, cheek pressed into Vincent's shoulder, his arm curled on his chest, one leg tangled around Vincent's. Nick was, after all, a romantic when you cut down a few layers.

Of course, if you cut down a few more, Nick wasn't even Nick. His name was Neal Caffrey, Vincent knew that already. He was younger than he said, and as far as Vincent could ascertain he'd never even been to college. But Vincent knew the first rule of the grift was to be the illusion, and if he wanted to maintain the lie that he didn't know who Nick really was, it would be folly to think of him as Neal.

Vincent was terribly fond of his new acquisition. It would be a shame to abandon him in a few months. Perhaps, if he managed it just right, he could bring Neal along.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. Something to think about later.

He ran his fingers lightly over the bandage on Nick's shoulder, and Nick stirred; his eyes opened and he propped himself on his good arm, skin glowing in the dim light. Vincent watched with a sort of anthropological interest as he smiled.

"Not to ask the awkward question," Nick said, while Vincent continued to run his fingers over the bandage thoughtfully, "but do you want me to stay?"

"Have somewhere you need to be?" Vincent asked, amused.

"No! I just...usually bring girls back to my place, so it's not an issue. I get to stay no matter what," Nick said.

"Stay," Vincent said, releasing Nick's shoulder and rolling away, off the bed. He could feel Nick's gaze on him as he walked to the desk and picked up a cut-glass decanter, pouring two helpings of cognac. He sat down on the bed again and Nick sat up to face him, a strange scene: the two of them, crosslegged, drinking and studying each other. "Still nervous?"

"No," Nick said, with a headshake that was almost rueful.

"Amazing what a little catharsis can do," Vincent agreed. "You're familiar with the term le petit mort?" he asked, and off Nick's nod, continued, "I've always thought it was more of a rebirth. An invigoration for the mind and body. When done right, of course. And before you worry, yes, we did it properly."

"I was pretty sure we had," Nick said with a dry look. "It's not hard to tell when sex goes wrong."

"Perhaps so, but I can anticipate the anxieties of the inexperienced. My point is that we can be useful to each other. Pleasurable, if you like," he added, seeing Nick's skeptical look over useful. "But I want you to remember, even now when all those good chemicals are hitting your brain, this is not a love affair."

"You've made that clear," Nick said. "And I understand it. I get why."

"Good, I'm glad you do," Vincent said.

***

Vincent never wanted an unwilling partner. Physical domination was too messy, too much work. Persuasion, manipulation, these were things he could do and he did them well. In the long run, they satisfied much more, at any rate.

Nick was an interesting conundrum. Was he attracted, or just conning? Was Vincent manipulating him, or was the boy allowing himself to be manipulated? It fascinated Vincent. Either way, it was best to keep him close, keep an eye on him. The week following their first night together was especially interesting; they had to break their routine, because Nick couldn't play squash with his right arm half-incapacitated. Instead they went to museums, a suggestion of Nick's that Vincent found unusually stimulating. An hour amongst the masters, watching Nick glow with passion over a Mondrian or a bauble from ancient Egypt, was enough to warm Vincent's blood. After, he watched him eat, the way he enjoyed good food, the casual lick of tongue over lip, and sometimes Vincent called for the check before propriety really dictated they ought.

The first time after that first night, they didn't get much further than they had, Nick still slightly skittish and favoring his shoulder. The next time, Vincent pushed him down still half-dressed and pinned him there, biting Nick's lower lip.

"I want you, all of you," he said in Nick's ear, hand cupping Nick's ass, the message unmistakable. "Lie still. Let me show you."

Nick's eyes widened a little anxiously, but he nodded. Vincent kept kissing him, a distraction. It almost worked, until he pressed a slick finger into Nick's ass, and Nick's breath left him in a high, inelegant whine.

"Hurt?" Vincent asked -- he drew his eyebrows together in concern, but really it was more interesting than anything.

Nick swallowed, eyes closed, tipping his head back. "Yeah."

"I can stop," Vincent said, letting a vague threat of failure hang in the air.

"No..." Nick arched and exhaled. "Slower next time, that's all."

"Like this?" Vincent curled his finger sharply. Nick's yelp of surprise turned into a moan after a second. "Do you trust me, Nick?"

"Yes," Nick breathed.

"So trust that if I hurt you, it'll be fast -- and worth it," he said, kissing Nick's forehead, smoothing his hair with the hand not currently penetrating his body.

It did hurt. Vincent could see that. But the pain was fascinating too, watching how Nick mastered it, finding out what exactly caused it. When he finally pressed his cock in -- just a little sooner than he should have -- Nick writhed and bucked at first, until he was used to the burn. It was incredibly stimulating.

"Worth it?" Vincent asked, stilling.

"Yes," Nick moaned, as Vincent started to stroke him. "Christ, yes -- "

"That's my boy," Vincent murmured, and when he finally came it was because Nick had shuddered around him when he thrust a little too hard. He reached up, raking his fingernails down Nick's chest sharply, and Nick screamed and came, too.

Vincent thought it worked pretty well for them.

***

Nick's courtship of Kate continued unabated, despite his new status with Vincent. Why shouldn't it? Vincent had given it his blessing. He understood how the romantic mind worked, even if he wasn't of that disposition himself.

If their relationship was purely about sex, then it didn't fit Nick's romantic ideals, but it didn't intrude on them either. Pitching it as a sort of traditional teachership had been smart, Vincent decided, because that made it obscure and mysterious, and left Nick with somewhere to file the sex that wasn't "we're fucking because we like sex".

And Nick would never have agreed if Vincent had told him Kate was off limits. She ought to be by common decency -- she was a co-worker, in some senses a subordinate, and what Nick was doing could certainly be framed as harassment by any Human Resources agent worth their pay.

It was, on the other hand, a brilliant seduction. Nick certainly knew his audience. Mute adoration wasn't going to work, but it wasn't a bad base to build on. Once he had to work with her, Nick had moved on to gentle flirting, and then -- and this was the brilliant part -- to flirting as if they were already together. Assertive, confident, comfortable, and with clear intent, that was his Nick.

Of course, sometimes it was fun to mess with him.

He waited until he was almost positive Nick was laying on the flirt with Kate outside, then popped his head out the door.

"Nick, good, you're not busy," he said, as Nick stood and straightened his sleeves self-consciously. "Come inside."

Out of Kate's view, Nick gave him a dry look as he moved towards the door. Vincent winked, ducking back into his office. He leaned up against his desk and pulled Nick forward when he hesitated, so that Nick stood between his legs and Vincent could kiss him without too much effort.

"I thought we were keeping it professional at work," Nick said, even as he nipped his way down Vincent's throat.

"Ah, not the tie," Vincent tapped his hands gently when Nick went to pull it off. Nick looked up at him. "And we are keeping it professional at work. I mean, we're not doing this in the lobby, are we?"

Nick snickered against his neck. "That'd be unprofessional, all right."

"I think you know what I want, Nick," Vincent said in his ear.

Nick didn't just lean back, he stepped back, throat working nervously. "Here? In your office?"

"Here, in my office," Vincent said, aware that Nick's question wasn't dismayed -- it'd probably been a fantasy of his. Pleasing Vincent here, among the law and finance books and the old-money furniture.

Nick knelt without any further objections or questions, and Vincent spread his thighs a little more as Nick worked his belt open and tugged his fly down. Vincent had requested diligence of Nick, in cocksucking as in all other areas, and Nick was a quick study. He wasn't sure whether Nick had gone to someone to find out how to do this or just watched a lot of porn, but either way the result of Vincent's challenge to Nick's pride was spectacular. Nick licked around the head -- nipped once or twice, very gently -- and then worked his mouth down Vincent's cock, all wet warmth and active tongue. Vincent let his head fall back and hummed his pleasure softly; the walls were thick but he didn't want to take the risk. Nick's hands, while his mouth was busy, rubbed tantalizingly against his thighs.

"You're lovely like this, on your knees," Vincent told him, stroking a hand through his hair. Nick's eyes closed. He loved to be petted and praised. A hand in Nick's hair was a conduit straight to his libido, most days. "Don't touch yourself," he added, when Nick moaned. "I don't want you coming on the carpet. It's worth more than your yearly salary."

After he'd finished -- Nick swallowed, good boy, and wiped his mouth with a handkerchief from his pocket -- Vincent let Nick get himself off, as long as he did it into the handkerchief. Nick gave him a demure smile, dropped it into Vincent's trash, and kissed him before he left.

"What did Mr. Adler want?" he heard Kate ask.

"Oral report," Nick answered, and Vincent waited until the door closed before he laughed.

***

Vincent had wondered, at first, whether Nick was an undercover Fed, sent in to investigate the company. He'd dismissed early on the idea that Nick was a corporate spy; he wasn't pushy enough, and his manners were too good. That left cop or con, and Vincent didn't think a cop would sleep with the guy he was investigating, or allow himself to be distracted by the admittedly lovely Kate Moreau. No, Neal Caffrey wasn't an alias within an alias -- he was working a long con, and Vincent was intrigued to see what the endgame would be.

Alex Hunter, on the other hand, was a pure thorn in Vincent's side. Before he knew her name, she was already making trouble.

Nick rested his head on Vincent's thigh, huddled up in the blankets of the bed; Vincent had some digital security reports propped on his bent knee, and was trying to make sense of them -- which wasn't easy with Nick gazing up at him, wide blue eyes all his.

"There's something wrong," Nick said.

"That's what I'm trying to find out," Vincent answered, dropping a hand to pet him. "Technology moves so quickly. Ten years ago I was trying to learn how to program my cellphone. Now..." he flipped a few pages, and then flipped back, "I think they want me to read binary or something."

"Can I help?" Nick asked.

"Do you have a degree in computing science?" Vincent replied.

"No, but I play a mean game of Space Invaders."

Vincent laughed. "You're too young to even remember that game."

"What was it you told me? To inspire trust, cultivate an air of agelessness?"

"I didn't mean pretend to be old."

"You can tell me," Nick urged softly. "That's why you keep me around."

Vincent acquiesced, sliding down a little in the bed. "Someone's been digging in my records," he said. "My private database. And the Foundation says they've had some unusual inquiries -- nothing they wanted to mention, of course, until I asked them about it."

Nick snorted.

"My thoughts exactly. Someone's being sly." Vincent sighed. "And we don't need a scandal spooking our investors, so I have to handle this in-house. If I can figure out what this is," he added, frowning at the paperwork. Nick took the top page out of his hands and studied it, head resting on Vincent's wrist.

"Want me to look into it?" he said.

Vincent smiled down at him. "Interested?"

"I like a mystery," Nick said. "Bet you I can have the hacker in your office inside of two weeks."

"I'll take that bet," Vincent said, pleased. He was even more pleased when he lost, and Nick presented him with Alexandra Hunter, neatly trapped in Vincent's office.

***

The day after Kate was supposed to have left for Chicago, Vincent walked into the lobby to find her there, looking abject and afraid, and Nick behind her, practically vibrating with pleasure and excitement.

Ah. So it had happened.

"Go talk to HR, have them put you back on payroll," Vincent told her. He didn't have a very high opinion of Kate's motives for staying in New York, but he was happy enough to have her back -- good admins were hard to come by. She beamed, a smile that admittedly could light the world, and then she turned it on Nick, who looked at her like she was the world. "When you return, check in with me and we'll make sure everything's sorted."

"Yes, Mr. Adler," she murmured, all aglow, and Vincent watched Nick watch her leave.

"To the work of the day, then," Vincent announced, and shooed Nick off to his desk.

When Kate knocked quietly and let herself into his office, Vincent was sitting behind his desk going over quarterly earnings reports, highlighting where they should be modified. He didn't like to do con work at the office but quarterly reports always meant a lot of work for him -- a lot of lying, a lot of faking -- and anyway it wasn't like Kate understood any of it. Nick might, but by the end of the day his to-do list would be in his head, and these documents would be in the shredder, off to be burned after that.

"Sit down," Vincent said with a smile, and rested his elbows on his desk, hands clasped in front of him. "I'm glad to see you, Kate."

"Thanks," she said with a smile. "I know it's sudden and...well, almost flaky, but you know that's not me. Usually."

"No, I've always found you very reliable. I hope this is just one of those..." he waved a hand. "Youthful aberrations. Everyone goes through that kind of thing. I did, when I was your age."

When Vincent was her age, he was running circles around his colleagues at B-school, using startup capital from cons for a little insider trading and shady investing. Well, tuition had to be paid somehow.

"You had to work some things out. I understand," Vincent continued. "Your boyfriend -- "

" -- Ex. Ex-boyfriend," she corrected demurely.

"Do you know why he went to Chicago, Kate?" Vincent asked. She frowned. "He went to Chicago because he couldn't keep up with the pack in New York. We both know it's true."

"Keeping up isn't everything," she said.

"Yeah, Kate, it is. In this business, if you can't keep up, you shouldn't even try. This is a good thing," he added, because her frown was deepening. "I know you and Nick are close. He's leading the pack. In your shoes -- give up the knuckle-dragger for Icarus? I'd do the same thing."

A change came over her face, subtle -- but Vincent was an expert in subtlety. Her eyes hardened, mouth lifting just slightly, tension leaving her jaw.

"I like Nick," she said softly. "I wouldn't have stayed if I didn't like him, if I didn't think I could love him."

"All the better. He likes you, too. I don't think he knows a thing about who you really are, but what does that matter? Blind adoration gets a lot of undeserved bad press."

"I'm not a bad person," Kate insisted.

"No. You're a smart girl. Nick's a smart boy. Your last boy wasn't even on the same playing field as Nick, let alone the same level. But let's not play games, you and I. You take Nick away from the work, you pull him away from me, and you will not win. You can have him soon enough. For now, he belongs to me first, and you second. Do we understand each other?"

"Someday he'll be rich."

"Rich, and all yours. Yes."

She nodded. "I can wait."

"Good. Now, off you go. There's a lot of work to catch up on," he said, and dismissed her.

***

Peter Burke came onto Vincent's radar about a month before one of his bi-annual transfers, and the presence of an FBI agent, even at the fringes, was enough to convince Vincent that the con was over. He could perhaps have kept the scheme running for another year, but he'd prefer not to tempt fate. Besides, the longer he waited to end it, the longer he'd have to stay in hiding before he could start putting out feelers about the music box, about the U-Boat.

Burke was looking into Nick, even if he didn't know either of his names yet. It couldn't be anyone else; Vincent had seen the sketch. Sooner or later, it would probably lead him to Adler Financial Management, and if he started looking into Nick's activities, he'd be led to Vincent's. Too risky. Time to shut up and get out.

Just in case, he did ask his people to compile a file on Burke, checking if there were any opportunities for blackmail should the Fed come sniffing around before Vincent could get out. He thought about having Nick do the research, to see how he'd react, but there was a time for fun and a time for professionalism, and this was the latter.

Burke's financials, as Vincent would expect of an accountant-turned-cop, were squeaky clean. He had a mortgage, a dog, and an apparently loving relationship with his wife. He went jogging, but he didn't have a routine. His subordinates admired him. He and his wife were friendly (but not sleeping) with the neighbors. It was so humdrum it set Vincent's teeth on edge.

He would have been surprised, but he knew in reality most people weren't really wicked. Greedy, perhaps, but only if the situation presented itself. There were millions of men like Peter Burke in the world: upstanding, trustworthy, temptable perhaps but not willing to initiate a bribe or scam -- boring people living boring lives.

"Can't con an honest man," Vincent said to himself, looking down at Burke's picture in the file they'd been compiling on him. Shame, really. He could use a Fed in his pocket. If push came to shove he supposed he could go after the wife. Then again, Burke was a smart guy, sneaky; if he wanted a Fed there were plenty of dumber ones around who would do as they were told with sufficient motivation. Something to think about.

***

Vincent still wasn't entirely sure what Nick was after, but either way he felt it lacked ambition. Nick, he decided, was a craftsman, an artisan, the old world in a young body. Vincent was modernity, mass-production, Henry Ford. Spare and sensible, lacking in romanticism perhaps but stronger for that. After all, why con one man when you could con thousands? He was going to enjoy watching the chaos when he departed for Argentina. This kind of con got you news coverage; you could watch your marks in their defeat. If Nick made off with his money, or his art, what would he get to see? At most, some police tape around Vincent's front door. Where was the fun in that?

It was fun for Vincent, of course, always wondering what questions of Nick's were innocent, and what were designed to elicit information he would need.

"You're quiet tonight," Nick said, propped on an elbow over Vincent. His shoulder was almost completely healed, though he'd been sunbathing in his bandage and had a faint tan line where it had been looped. "I'd ask if you had a long day, but I was there for most of it. Nothing so unusual. Was there?"

Vincent gave him a smile. "Points for perception. And no, nothing unusual."

"In that case I can't be as perceptive as you think."

"No, no," Vincent laughed. "I'm having a pensive moment. Forgive."

"Nothing to forgive," Nick assured him. "Can I help?"

Vincent turned slightly, tilting his head to look at Nick sideways.

"Have you ever worn a bespoke suit?" he asked. "One cut just to fit you. Not that you don't have the body-type suits were designed for," he added, when Nick gave him a puzzled look, "but...it's a shame to see you in something so generic."

"I can get one tailored, if you want," Nick offered. Vincent smiled. He wondered if Nick knew how it sounded, his offering to dress to Vincent's tastes. Even better than allowing Vincent to dress him, though in a different, less vital way.

"No -- I have a tailor I trust," he replied. "He's coming tomorrow to measure me for some new shirts. Clear your calendar -- we'll get you measured."

The next day, Nick practically glowed under all the attention he received. Nelson was a solicitous, conservative, old-money tailor with impeccable taste, and he commented quite professionally on Nick's proportions and posture. Vincent sat at his desk and listened to the happy murmurs with a light heart, pretending to work while Nick, stripped to his underwear behind a screen, was measured and gently prodded and questioned about his fabric tastes and requirements.

Once Nelson had been dismissed, Vincent expected Nick would dress and emerge from behind the screen, but he didn't hear the rustle of clothing, and Nick didn't appear. Vincent considered matters, then let a slow, predatory smile cross his face as he stood and walked to the screen.

On the other side of it, in the little enclosure it formed, Nick was standing in front of the mirror attached firmly to one panel. He was hard in his white cotton briefs.

"Nelson tell you that you were pretty?" Vincent asked, wrapping his arms around Nick from behind, edging the waistband down. "You look like you enjoyed it."

"I thought about boring things until he left," Nick answered, leaning back into him.

"And then?"

"And then I thought about you," Nick said, arching his hips a little to try and get Vincent's hand closer to his dick. "Shame to put this mirror to waste."

Vincent was amused. Two narcissists fucking in front of a mirror held a sort of obscure charm. Still, it was usually more fun to make Nick wait for it, to make him beg for it, even when it hurt.

"If we do that now," he said in Nick's ear, tugging on his briefs, pulling them tight to hear Nick gasp, "Next time you're in here, what will you think about? Nelson can't fit you properly if you're hard the whole time."

Nick whined, turning his head to nuzzle Vincent's jaw.

"Patience, Nick," Vincent whispered, and then let him go. "Get dressed. I have a fundraising dinner for the senator tonight, and I can't be distracted with visions of my boy half-naked in my office."

He smacked Nick on the ass for emphasis, and Nick jerked like he'd been shocked. Interesting. Something to try later, when he didn't have a girlfriend and a senator and a six-course dinner waiting for him.

***

Vincent felt it keenly when Nick finally betrayed him. He'd still been considering telling Neal he'd figured out who he was and offering him a once-in-a-lifetime one-way trip to Argentina. Time was short -- he was leaving that night, following the wire transfer -- but he could have taken Nick out to dinner, shown him the plane, forced him to make a decision on the tarmac. He was willing to bet Neal would choose him. He could have reveled in Neal's surrender of his own game in exchange for Vincent's.

Instead, that afternoon, Nick weaseled the password to Vincent's bank account out of him, and Vincent gave him a dummy password with inward regret. Like the Raphael, like the Degas bronze in his brownstone and half a dozen other beloved works, Vincent was going to have to leave Nick behind.

"I'll give you a call if I find anything," Nick said, as he left the office. "See you on Monday?"

"Monday," Vincent said with a smile. They both knew Monday was a lie.

***

It was eight years before they met in person again, though Vincent had seen surveillance of Neal before that. Eight years turned Neal Caffrey from a clever, big-eyed grifter into a slick smartass with a hard stare. A man, not the boy he'd been when Vincent conned him. Neal had seen Europe, and Vincent would have liked to have talked to him about where he'd been and what he'd been up to. They could have exchanged stories -- not as equals, Neal would never be his equal, Vincent would never let him -- but at least as men. Neal had been in prison, had worked for the FBI, had lost a woman he thought he loved; Vincent was hungry to pick him to little pieces and see how he went together, now that he was so changed.

Time for that later, perhaps, if Neal was a sensible man as well as a smart one. Time for that if Neal would follow the art and Vincent, and forget about Kate.

Vincent hadn't banked on Peter Burke. He should have -- he knew how resourceful the man was, how wise it was to be wary of him. He knew Neal and Burke had a connection, but he was sure it was tenuous, easily broken. Neal had been ready to leave Burke once before, and if he thought it was Burke's fault Kate had died, that would be even more incentive. All Vincent had to do was carefully plant little seeds of doubt that Neal's sense of the real was sound.

He had misjudged their relationship, however. He saw that as soon as he met Burke. They had to be fucking, which was both dismaying and delicious: finally he had found a crack in Burke's facade of respectability, too late to make use of it. It was distasteful, anyway, whether or not it was hypocritical. He was such a middle-class man, with his blue collar morals and his off-the-rack suits. Burke was easy to manipulate, too -- threaten an innocent, or even a not-so-innocent, and Burke would comply with all demands. Neal had once been the belonging of a much superior class of man.

Burke ought to know that.

As they were walking to the car after Neal and Burke had cracked the sub open, Vincent tugged on Burke's bound wrists, pulling him back from the others.

"I thought you'd like to say thank-you," he said in Burke's ear, as they walked.

"Go to hell," Burke answered. Vulgar; typical.

"I don't think you really mean that," Vincent said lightly. "After all, I was his first. I taught him everything he knows. So you see, you really should be grateful."

Burke stopped, turning sidelong as best he could. He tilted his head to look at Vincent, those little bourgeois wheels spinning, and then...incongruously, he laughed.

The others, further down the hallway, stopped to see why. Neal shot them both a worried look.

"Peter?" he called. There was a plaintive note in his voice that Vincent had never heard. It angered him, but he kept it under control.

"It's all right, Neal," Burke called, and then he leaned in close. Vincent let him, unwilling to show fear or fury first.

"I don't have to fuck Neal Caffrey to own him," Burke said softly, in his ear. "When I call, he comes to me of his own free will. And under his own name. Unless you can say the same, you weren't really anything to him. He just let you play for a little while."

Vincent tugged sharply on Burke's restraints. The other man grunted, jerking with the pull, and stumbled when Vincent shoved him forward, but the smile didn't leave his face.

"Be seeing you, Adler," he called, as one of Vincent's men came back to drag him down the hallway.

"I highly doubt that," Vincent called. But he saw Neal bend towards Burke as they were led out of the corridor, and the victory of the last word turned hollow and faded.

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