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The offices that filled the interior of the Kremlin’s executive building were busy as usual. Nikolai was a regular sight on a daily basis, and his presence made little stir beyond the trailing eyes of employees and salutes of military or security officers. Everyone was immaculately dressed: even the humblest of workers wore uniform or business professional suits. The standard elevated the entire department, and those working in the Executive Office of the Ascendancy were compensated handsomely for their station. It was a privilege to work there.

Business with his Deputy-Consul Chief of Staff, Viktor Stepanovich concluded, and the man splintered his direction away from the Ascendancy just as the latter turned to enter the wing devoted to government engagement, propaganda, and interdominance relations.

He passed the worker stationed near the entrance desk with a polite smile and quick inquiry into the state of her new puppy, pleading that she bring the animal for a visit sometime. Nikolai loved dogs, the greater and grander the better, but this life did not seem to allow the luxury of a pet. She promised to do so soon, and Nik proceeded through the wing to the executive offices in the back. 

He continued the charming intrusion along the way, gesturing or politely greeting those who caught his eye. He seemed to be able to remember everyone by name and include some small insight into their lives. Finally, he stopped, “Is Aleksandrova in?” he asked.
The offices were overwhelmingly grand, like the palaces Noémi might have once imagined as a child. She did not consider herself a daydreamer, but it pulled at some stirring inside her that she was loath to listen to, or to dwell on. The people here were immaculate, denizens of an entirely different world to the one in which Noémi had grown up in, and she felt the distinction like a brand on her forehead. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling; the rooted fear that she might soon be discovered not to belong here, or anywhere. Likely it was why even in her first week, she already arrived before most else, and stayed beyond conventional office hours.

The shift in mood was a palpable thing as she passed through the wing, like whispering reeds at a river’s edge. The Ascendancy’s sudden presence created ripples, but only, she realised, in the way of something pleasant yet not unusual or unexpected. She watched with the same luminous curiosity as any other mere mortal for the way he casually strode among them, before she remembered the empty cup in her hand. She was still finding her bearings, and the last thing she wanted to appear was foolish. Or lost.

But she’d heard the question. The aid the Ascendancy had asked it to currently had the phone pressed to their ear, presumably to try the office. Noémi imagined such a visit superseded the Consul’s schedule -- which she happened to know, for the sheer efficiency of the fact Alexandrova was now her boss -- and he was unlikely to be kept waiting long.

She had intended to carry on the search for coffee, but her path took her closer instead.

“She’s in a meeting, with the Consul Bykov I believe.”
A measure of patience held him from intruding into Aleksandrova’s office. Privacy notwithstanding, technically the whole wing was his to enter at will. Nothing occurred within these walls that the Ascendancy may not be privy to should he desire the inclusion. Rather, respect for his Consul stayed his feet awaiting an answer. It was a vaguely familiar face that pulled his attention aside. She was an unexpected brush of fresh air, something that stirred the stagnant edges of this seemingly unchanging wing.

His expression was polite and accepting of the information. In fact, he wasn’t even disappointed. He could kill two birds with one stone by encountering both Consuls simultaneously, wherever they were.

The woman that addressed him was familiar in a way that suggested a brief encounter passed his desk at some point. Ultimately, the Ascendancy approved new hires to the Executive Offices, although they were almost always a rubber stamp, having gone through the most rigorous of selection processes, down to the janitorial staff. By the time they reached his attention, little guessed what characteristics that he deemed worthy or unworthy to join their exclusive team.

“Thank you, Noémi,” he said with a slim smile. The sort that paused for a moment to see if she would be taken by surprise for his familiarity. In the eyes of the staff, he might have been a god. He seemed to know everything.

“It is Noémi? Did I pronounce it correctly?” He asked despite being confident that the syllables were pure.  He never mastered the French language. He struggled enough with Italian and he lived there for – all of a few months. Greek would have been preferable. It was with a gesture of humor that he offered a hand by means of introduction, “Nikolai Brandon,” he said, though none present would dare use his name so informally.
Noémi was not shy, and nor did she lack for confidence, but she was not the sort to push herself into the limelight. Given the opportunity she watched with a quiet sort of curiosity; comfortable with attention in turn, but not seeking it. She was not a flower for the sun.

For a moment she was surprised he knew her name, or maybe just at the unexpected sound of it from his lips, but she caught herself quickly. The sense of being seen soon faded under the consideration that such knowledge was the careful cultivation of a natural born charm. She had already watched his amenable path through the office; sparing time for each person, remembering quaint details. It was how he won hearts. It was how he won empires.

“Yes, to both,” she said. She did not smile, but there was a softness to her lips, like the expression hid as haze on water.

He was handsome. She had expected that. From an artistic perspective she appreciated it; the clean lines, the perfectly packaged exterior. In person his face was as young as the media painted, but possessed of such ancient eyes. Dimension and juxtaposition -- a photographer’s dream. What she hadn’t anticipated was the warm flush of a genuine attraction, as sure as a river pulled to the heart of the sea. The career of her youth had taught her plenty about discretion, and she was too jaded for girlish, starry-eyed crushes. She was not awed by titles. She was not drawn by the godlike mantle on his shoulders. It was something else.

Un coup de foudre. If one believed in such foolishness. You're one among thousands, Noémi. One among millions. How many other women stood where she stood now, charmed so by the man who stood atop the world. Insignificance was dazzling, and sobering, and she had a cynic’s soul. Still, she itched to pull out her journal and capture the feeling down into verse, while it still felt like breathing in stars. On paper it was art, not folly.

She moved the empty coffee cup from one palm to the other in order to meet his hand. The informality of his manner left her a little unsure; she preferred the boundaries of hierarchy, with those she did not know especially. Practically speaking, she was new to the job and a boss did not get any more senior than the man teasing his name like there was not a child on the earth who did not know it. It also felt like the worst kind of trap, made of her own fluttering heart and shivers across her skin like the smooth kiss of shadows at so innocent a touch as a handshake. The thrill might have been pleasant, but the familiarity did not feel earned.

His humour paved her ease though, and for that brief moment she chose to acknowledge the man beneath the Ascendancy’s skin. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Nikolai Brandon.” That almost-smile hovered like a secret. Her musical accent travelled the peaks and valleys of a name she was never likely to have occasion to speak to his face again. For a moment the glitter of humour in her own eyes almost spilled more words. A tease, to question her own pronunciation, but though her lips parted she said nothing else. The moment folded in on itself, else maybe she suddenly recalled the busy office around them.
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Alexandrova Vladislavovna
Consulate of Propaganda

Alexandrova pulled off her glasses and pressed the bridge of her nose with her fingers. Leonid had left by the secret door much earlier in order to avoid eyes. Thinking over the situation had taken up the longer than she had planned. There were times things seemed to spin out of control. Now was such. The existence of the paranormal and Nikolai's own revelation to the world- a lifetime ago, it seemed- had fundamentally changed the things. Relationships and strengths had to be recalibrated. In retrospect, their strategies and actions prior to that seemed to hearken to a world more simple and easy to control. A lie, of course. Merely a changed perspective.

She knew that from experience. Creating the ASU- the Ascendant Soviet Union- had been a monumental undertaking.
It was not enough to simply remind people of a more "glorious" time (a fiction, of course). No, they had laid the groundwork for something far beyond the Soviet Union, something that transcended it. But the name had been necessary, an emotional foundation on a bedrock of nostalgia after the decades of mismanagement and flittering away of world-wide importance. There had been a real time when Russia had become considered a Banana Republic, a 3rd world country that commanded little to no respect among its peers despite the nuclear weapons at its disposal. Not quite as bad as North Korea, but close.

It had been enough for them to tap into, the longing for the days when Russia and her empire were feared and respected the world over.

And it had all begun with a name, a concept that propelled Nikolai and the ASU to the Ascendency and the CCD. In many ways, she considered it one of her best moments of inspiration.

Now, it was a new world. And new pieces spun out of control. And she was no longer in her early 20s. She did not have Nikolai's gifts and well of power to draw on. One day, he would speak at her funeral, she knew. She had made peace with it. They had birthed something new and great into the world. Nikolai would carry her legacy into the future.

And so, despite her tiredness, she shook her head and refocused. The little things piled up. And the not so little things! Where had the Pope disappeared to? She had her feelers searching, cats to ferret out every secret and truth. It was like being beaten to death by feathers.

She needed to walk. And to take the pulse of her Consulate. A fool watched the world for sparks while her house burned.

And so stepping out her her office, she was surprised to find Nikolai himself standing and conversing with one of the new aides at the office. The name escaped her at the moment. There were many new faces as their work had expanded yet again. She cast about. "Ascendancy," she said warmly. She knew Nikolai was not fickle, nor prone to flirt without thought. But the color on the woman's face said that he had found yet another heart drawn to him. She suppressed a smile at the repetitiveness of it. There was no twinge of jealousy there, she knew. That too had been rooted out long ago.

"Ms. Jourdain." She looked at Nikolai. "How can I help you Ascendancy." Proprieties needed to be maintained.
The Executive Offices of the Ascendancy were among the highest functioning groups in the world. It was a place where efficiency and precision were infused with culture and ambition. Where jobs were plenty in Moscow, government human resources prowled hundreds- sometimes thousands- of applications to fill each and every post in the EoA. It was only with the final approval of the Ascendancy himself that offers were made. With such a worldly pool of candidates, only the best fits were considered. Standards were high as if every person in the EoA was an extension of himself. They were required to be diligent workers, emotionally competent, skilled at their necessary tasks, and held to a certain outward standard of appearance. At first blush, Noemi fit well, as if she belonged.

Truthfully, he hadn’t come to chat with the newest member of their team, but if Aleksandrova was busy with Bykov, she could use an extra minute without interruption. Certainly Ascendancy’s time was more valuable than even hers, but if he had an ulterior motive, this was it as ever there was one. He did not have much time to socialize as one would assume; and Evelyn was far away. He truly cared for the young American in a way that surprised even him. When he proposed, it wasn’t completely out of strategy, mostly, yes, but not entirely.

Noemi possessed a beauty that required pause to marvel upon. Her skin was a blushed rose, poised at its peak, irreverent for the inevitable wilting soon to come. Her eyes gleamed as a gray sky meeting the distant sea, an otherworldly chill tempting. Her mouth parted, the upper lip lay upon the lower with a plump rest, tempting to be touched.

Nikolai was far too disciplined to allow himself fleshly distraction, but neither was he altogether dismissive of heart and need. An idea pulsed his thoughts. A plan was formed. His smile was slim, like the ruler of the world shared a secret smile only with her, one impossible for photographers and movie makers to recreate.

Aleksandrova’s arrival was timely in a way that he did not assume was coincidence. She watched everything, and if she was the regent, this was her land.
“Thank you for your assistance, Noémi,” he said, holding the globes of her eyes in the gaze of his own. Yet it was business that turned him away. The spell was broken, but connection wove invisible tendrils that he would ponder at odd times when his mind was not working on other ventures.

“I came to speak with you,” he said, gesturing that they enter her office for discussion. The stately, refined  Aleksandrova was immaculate, perhaps the sort of woman that Noemi herself would someday mature into. The time for humility came to its end, and he seized the power of the universe into his grasp, using it to tug the door behind them, but not without stealing one last nod for the lowly assistant that promised this was not goodbye.
Noémi wondered at the thoughts that passed behind his eyes in those moments. The smile, so faint, felt strangely intimate; something born of more than the polite politik of a cursory introduction. Connection forged of a fleeting moment, soon to be forgotten no doubt, yet no less beguiling for its brief spark of life. She didn’t smile back, though neither did she look away from the captivation. She relished it in a quiet way; a woman sensitive to the nuance of detail.

She acknowledged the Consul’s arrival and greeting with a demure nod, flowing seamlessly, and expectant of dismissal. There was no curtness in the tone, but Noémi regretted that the moment might be taken for fawning on her part. It was unlikely to be considered a blemish, but it touched Noémi with a shadow of ordinary she did not care for in the Consul’s eyes. Not an early impression she wished to make.

Another incline met the Ascendancy’s final words, her name shivering like a parting gift to pull her attention just for the way it sounded when he said it. It was an informality on his part she did not miss, despite the Consul’s gentle correction, though given the gulf of their positions perhaps the warning had been for her. She could still feel the cool graze of his skin against her palm.

A single moment, transient. Her maman’s words laced the armour of her heart. Yet his gaze pulled for possession one last time; that she did not imagine.
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Alexandrova Vladislavovna
Consulate of Propaganda

Alexandrova entered her office, only smiling at Nik slightly. Not generally a flirt...but with him she could tease. They had been friends for too long for her to feel intimidated. "Aside from bringing the new hires out for you to inspect, how can I help you?

Alexandrova's casual probe was met with the sort of sly smile that Nikolai did not deny. "An idea to run by you. It concerns the Nine. Right now, they're a headline and forgotten. They're military. Or might as well be. The every day person doesn't care about military. I don't blame them. Do you know what sells better than soldiers?"

Alexandrova relaxed as she sat down and listened. It was true. The announcement had been met by proclamations and discussion. Carefully planted op ed pieces in sites that ran the spectrum from left to right elicited comments. That was their purpose, of course, a way to gauge the pulse. The initial excitement at what this might mean was there. But absent anything further as grist for the mill, it had already begun to lose steam.

She paused, thinking. Her most cynical and amoral side knew one answer. She threw it out there, her own probe. "War. War heroes. A narrative that shows these men in the light of adulation." Her eyebrow raised. Was this where Nik wanted to go?

Nikolai nodded. He liked the idea of war heroes, but disliked the public perception that associated himself as a warlord, a hungry dictator gobbling up domains when they fell. He shook his head. "Superheroes, Lexya," he used to whisper that nickname in her ear once upon a time. "Superheroes are often as popular as celebrities, as influential as politicians, and sometimes even as revered as gods."

He waited for the gears to churn in her brilliant mind. "I want the Nine as famous as superheroes. I want them to walk into the street and people swarm them for their autograph. I want them to be -loved-." Well, almost as much as they loved him.

She stopped, a smile forming on her face. Her hand tapped at her keyboard. "In fact, we have strategized something like that, though it had been planned for you. One of our interned writers- Katya Alohkin- had done her work on linking the power to mythology."
stopped, steepling her fingers, considering. "We could shift that strategy to include the Rods of Dominion."

Nik thought a moment. He considered his own existence to already approach such standards, but if there were more to glean. He finally nodded. "Very well then. All of us together."

"Finally. I want to do some more mingling in society. It has been too long since I last crashed a karaoke bar." he hinted at a smile, referencing the long-standing joke of his croning escapades.

She studied him for a moment. "They might be included- and loved- but no one will be loved more than you. I will make sure of it."

She laughed. "I've heard you sing. If you do decide to go that route, let me know. We will make sure the microphone has auto-tune enabled." She was only half joking. No one had all the gifts. Nik came close. But still.

"I will contact you in a couple of days. In the meantime, if you could find a way to make yourself visible- perhaps in some heroic fashion, it could lay the ground work."

He nodded assent. They would reconvene in a few days, and he had no doubts the work would be carried out perfectly.

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