Fifty - Ira

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"Ira, stop looking at me!" Stuart leaned over his hand of cards like a child hoarding his presents, laughing. "I know you're cheating."

I took another swig of beer and giggled. "I'm not. I'm half drunk and even then I can tell that you're just losing. Your poker face is terrible."

Thierry and I had spent half an hour reteaching Stuart how to play poker, after practically dragging him away from the pinball machine. Throughout the game, Stuart had only been observing me to see if I was trying to see through everyone's hand, occasionally double-checking the rules he had up on his phone. I wasn't using my eyes, not against my friends.

When Thierry showed us his winning cards, Stuart couldn't believe it. He laughed until his forehead was on the table. "Ira, you still looked."

"Yup, so I could lose this time and catch you off guard next time," I said sarcastically, but Stuart stared up at me. "No, Stuart, you know how light gives me migraines when my eyes are like that. I wouldn't be having fun if that was the case."

"What's next?" Thierry had warmed up to us. All it took was a few compliments and we were like old friends.

"Pool?" I laughed, looking at Stuart. "I'm terrible at pool. No way to cheat." My pout made both of them chuckle.

"Ira, stop drinking," Thierry reminded me, cracking open another non-alcoholic beer. "You want to get at least one ball in."

"I'm not that terrible." It was debatable. I still had no idea how to arch my hand so that I could aim with the stick. Now I had a reputation to live up to.

"You'll start talking to us in Russian soon." Stuart took the drink out of my hand, took a sip for himself, before putting it away. For a moment, I was puzzled by his concern. Then I realized that he knew about my past with alcohol abuse.

Thierry put the multi-coloured balls at the centre of the table carefully, like he was putting eggs in a carton. He took two long sticks from the wall and passed them to Stuart and me, before taking one for himself. Placing the white cue ball down with a knock, he looked at me. "Do us the honour, Konstantinov?"

It caught my nerves by surprise, and blood rushed up my neck and into my face. "Okay." I raised my eyebrows and leaned against the felt table. The stick was wobbly in my hand. I drew it back and took a deep breath, widening my eyes. "Here goes nothing."

I hit the white ball with gusto, but the sound of the stick against it was dull and my stick scraped against the table. The ball bounced a bit before rolling slowly into the others. They barely moved.

"I did warn you." I snorted and straightened up. I tried to wipe the heat off my forehead but it stayed.

"Brilliant," Stuart said, watching Thierry bend over with practice and scattered the coloured balls like I should have done. Stuart threw his stick back and forth between his hands and let out a nervous exhale when Thierry gestured for him to make his move. He went to another edge of the table and lined up his stick with a purple ball in the white one's path. Face tensed in concentration, Stuart stared at his goal for a few seconds before taking the shot. The purple ball rolled into a pocket and he smiled.

Thierry cheered and raised his hand, which Stuart approached dubiously with a high five. "Well done, Stewie," Thierry said in his thick accent, and I could see that Stuart was trying to hold in his laughter at his infamous nickname. "Ira, come on."

My shot was another failure. While Thierry took his turn, Stuart came over and tried to teach me how to position my resting hand. It all looked the same to me. Stuart interrupted the lesson to take his turn, before calling me over to help me with mine. "Like this," He said over my shoulder and adjusted my fingers.

Heat crept up to my face again. "Feels awkward," I said, cleaning my throat. My left hand was tense, trying to hold the position that Stuart worked so hard to get right.

"Relax, Ira." His other hand rested gently against my right arm and pulled it back. "Let's try for the blue." Stuart helped me hit the cue ball right in the centre, and it bounced off the blue 2-ball. It made a clean clack and bounced off the edge of the table, stopping right next to a pocket.

"No!" Thierry looked devastated.

"Sorry," Stuart said, straightening up but I could still feel his body heat. He gave me a small apologetic smile. "You'll get the hang of it; don't worry."

"Hey, does Linkin want to take my place?" I smiled awkwardly. "What is she doing? I can keep score."

Stuart frowned. "Where is Linkin?"

"Let's get her," Thierry said, already heading towards the stairs. "She cannot avoid the fun for that long." We climbed back up the stairs, my body feeling heavier with each step away from the rush of the games. The high ceiling of the living room was a surprise after the basement. "Linkin!" Thierry called out, but she didn't answer. We went up to the second floor, past Linkin's darkened bedroom, and Thierry slowly opened the door to her new office. Light flooded the floor, and Linkin was asleep against her laptop, her head resting on her folded forearms and her hair messily falling off the side of the polished desk.

"We'll continue another time," I suggested.

Thierry sighed and stepped inside, scooping Linkin up effortlessly in his arms. He didn't say a word to us, just carried her to her room.

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