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The Show Must Go On
Connor and Ayden didn't say much as they walked away from Nox and Aria. Connor knew Ayden was angry- and in truth he understood it. The Atharim. The familiar anger wanted to well up- anger and loss. If it wasn't for the Atharim, Hayden might have had help, might have survived. Instead, they had created the conditions that directly led to Hayden lying in a bed, writhing in agony until he died. They would have killed him with as little thought as squashing a bug.

He tamped down the anger. He knew where that led to. And Nox was not like the rest. Nor was Aria, despite everything. The magnitude of everything seemed to wash over him. Aurora's death. Ayden and Aria's fight. Nox's pain.

In truth, he was tired. Just so very tired. He just wanted to have peace for a little while. And he wanted Ayden to be at peace. It had been a mistake to inject themselves into their search. It brought too many things up. Ayden was his responsibility now. Her needs came first.

The air was cool but not freezing as they walked through the gentrified neighborhood. Naked trees stood near sidewalks and buildings, the grass beneath them mostly dead with the fading remnants of packed snow-ice- all that was left of the winter. Shops lined the street, the tinkling of bells when doors were open or closed. Despite it not being winter anymore, he felt cold and the smells of pastries and coffee appealed to him.

He stopped, smiling softly at Ayden. "You want to get something to eat? Some coffee?"
They were finally away from two people she couldn't stand. Nox wasn't so bad but he was Atharim and annoying git who thought he was all that. Ayden did not like egotistical people, they were usually her marks and thought too high of themselves. Enough so that, someone wanted them dead. Such had been her life.

Now she was nothing, walking side by side with the man she loved. She was hungry now that she thought about it. Ayden was still upset, she tried not to think about all the things that had happened today. She should have just stayed put when Connor called that second time. Things would be so much better now.

They found a coffee shop, it was just outside the Enlightened District - a place Ayden had no real need to browse through. But it was historical and it was one street she knew that lead to the Kremlin and to the Red Square. She'd done her research before coming here. She had never expected to call Moscow home. It made her wonder if maybe she needed to leave now - assassin or not, the Atharim were here, and she needed to shake them from her trail.

They found a seat and a waitress came over and asked them what they'd like. Ayden ordered a black coffee and one of their fancy sandwich sampler plates. She hadn't paid much attention to what was on it, it didn't matter, it was food and she was starting to feel the hunger pains.

Ayden looked across the table at Connor and smiled after the waitress had left them to themselves. She did love the man. He was good for her even if she felt a deep sense of longing that wasn't connected to him. He had that longing too - for his son and Ayden had a feeling Nox was just a surrogate for that longing. She didn't want to start a fight but she had to know... "I know you miss your son. And feel guilty for not helping him. But does he need to help you fill that void in your life? He's Atharim. He wants me dead."
In his office, Armande Nicodemus stared at the screen but no longer saw the images that had been playing there. He felt a turning in his stomach and his jaw clenched. No. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, allowing himself to center. Their actions had to proceed from a place of calm and deliberate decision. It took a moment but his face relaxed and his breathing returned to normal.

Very deliberately he let his eyes remain closed as he examined the information he had. The cancer had continued to grow, spreading its tendrils out deeply and into every part of the world. After millenia of keeping the disease in check, virtually eradicated, it had returned, exploded onto the world. The cancer metaphor was limited. It was a virus, eradicated nearly to the point of extinction except for a few stragglers. But those stragglers....they were the hardy ones, the ones that were immune, in some way, to the treatment. And without competition now, they proliferated. And the old treatments were only having limited success.

He had begun to change things. Bringing the Atharim more directly under his control; refocusing them on their true mission; rooting out traitors and weaklings; creating the Order of the Archangels.

Already the team had success, having removed a dangerous godling with no casualties and minimal exposure. It was pleasing, though he did not expect the team to always remain intact. People died. Already he had marked and called out Atharii to fill out the other Orders of the Archangels. Barokvsky was his Metatron, but he had many willing tools that he would, and was, using.

But this Theo Andlain had changed the game. He was not a god simply seeking power, not that alone. That was what gods did, to create their little kingdoms and rule to their hearts content. No. Andlain wanted exposure. He wanted acknowledgement. Despite himself, Armande almost smiled. He doubted Apollyon was happy with the man's displays and demands. Very obviously, the god who dared to call himself Ascendancy had kept his abilities secret from people for decades. There were always rumors, of course, of miraculous feats heard from a cousin who knew a guy who met someone. And the man looked no older than 30 despite being Armande's age. But rumors could be discounted. Technology made the miraculous normal. And a man such as him was expected to avail himself of the latest medical breakthroughs that would keep him young looking.

Apollyon's image was carefully cultivated, revealing only that which he wanted. Clearly, that included hiding what he really was, the Consulate of Propaganda providing the cloak and the obfuscation necessary. And now Theo- the name seemed appropriately blasphemous. "God" indeeed!- Andlain was bring it out into the open. Demanding that they be publicly acknowledged.

The old methods, he thought again. They worked. And with Dr. Daniat's latest missive, it looked as if they would be adding to their arsenal. But he would need more. The Atharim needed more.

The corners of his mouth turned upward slightly and he opened his eyes. The game had changed. The war would be public. Could he be Caesar? He nearly smiled, remembering The Gallic Wars. It had been a brilliant move.

The Regus Armande Nicodemus stood and took his long coat from the rack and left Baccarat Mansion. It was time to gauge the temperature. It was time to see what could be done.

For that he needed to be around the people. He walked casually down one street after another. He knew his destination. The first of many. A coffee shop just a few streets over. A place where college students could often be found. Or the leisure class. Those with too much time on their hands and too much fire.

He would find out what he needed, where to begin. Caesar had not clawed his way up to the position of Dictator without using every tool he had. Especially those that were mightier than the sword.
The cafe was not too small and there were only a few open tables. The hum of conversation filled the air, as did the aroma of coffee and pastries. That smell always reminded him of him mother and her family, the tiny cups of espresso and biscotti or something else on delicate ivory plates. He missed her. It wasn't like Hayden, of course. But still, she was his mother and had been his foundation.

But Ayden seemed to hit the nail on the head with the question. He'd known what was going on with Nox. He wasn't stupid. He knew he was trying to be fatherly to the kid, to be there for him and help him because he reminded him of Hayden.

How much of what I do is driven by guilt and memory? He knew what the answer was. But in this case, it was now putting someone he loved- the woman who was now his complete focus, in danger.

He let his coffee sit and cool off, the sides of the glass indicating that it was extremely hot. He didn't say anything in answer to Ayden for a moment. He felt that tearing again, like he was being forced to give something up. But this time, it wasn't as painful. Obviously. It wasn't like he really knew Nox. No, he was having to say good-bye to Hayden again. That he couldn't make things up to or be there for Hayden by latching onto or inserting himself into people's lives.

He had to learn to let go. Again. To focus on the people in his life. Finally, "It's hard, Ayden. I know I put you in danger. It was stupid. Selfish."
He looked out to one of the windows and saw a few people pass by. Then he looked back at her. "I am not the man I used to be. I am not wallowing in guilt or trying to kill myself. But this thing inside me, this need...I don't know how to let it go. Or if I should."

He breathed and took a sip and felt the searing heat warm his throat and chest. "But you are right. I can't do things like that anymore. I have a family now. I don't have the freedom to be reckless."
Strangely, at those words, he did feel sense of peace that seemed to ease his feeling. He wasn't the man he was- when he was a father; when he lost his son. But he still had work to do. He could still be the man he needed to be with this woman.
Ayden listened to Connor, there was almost desperation in his voice. He needed that release a surrogate and right now she probably wasn't ready to be THAT person. The one to give up even more so he could have a child. No she definiately wasn't ready for that.

But she smiled at him. "It's not that you were being reckless. Other than the fact that he's what he is - who he works for. But why that arrogant son-of-a-bitch? It's the two things together. The latter without the former I could probably tolerate. And then there is his friends."
Ayden sighed and shook her head, she didn't want to talk about that.

"Let's just stay away from them. He might try to do his job one day."
Ayden hoped it would be okay. That Connor could let it drop but he missed his son and she knew that. There were lots of decisions to make.
He smiled at Ayden, the feeling of warmth and tenderness suffusing him. She was as protective of him as he was of her. It was enough for him. He felt himself settle in his heart. Maybe one day he'd be a father again. One day. She was young.

In the meantime, she was his world. And he would do anything for her. He took her hands and just held them. The passion of their first meeting had changed, matured. It was enough to just touch her, now. "You're a smart one. You're right."
And he leaned over and kissed her tenderly.

Then he sat back, relaxed. He felt at peace.
Armande walked out of the cold, his black wool coat swirling about his feet as he stepped through the door. The room exuded warmth and a security, an island on which to find peace.

That was not his goal, of course. A war raged beneath the surface, a war hot and terrible, for the very soul of humanity. He looked about, taking in the patrons seated at their tables, the barristas and servers busy working or simply standing about.

These people, it was for them he fought. For all them would nothing but baubles and cannon fodder if Apollyon and his dark angels were allowed to continue.

The young girl behind the counter was far too pretty. If Zeus walked the earth she would soon find herself the impotent victim of his advances. And there, the lithe young man clearing dishes from a table might find himself pressed into service in the halls of Odin. The young child seated innocently in his stroller, bundled up in coat and scarf, peacefully sleeping, his cheeks flushed red, he would grow up on the streets, an urchin, hiding among garbage cans and alley-ways, an orphan, parents simply collateral damage in the petty fights between Horus and Set.

No. This world, these people, he would protect them. Mankind would not be enslaved again.

But...they could assist. They could play a role. They could support the Atharim. Despite their antiquity and great power, their name was appropriate. They were indeed a "Remnant", in comparison to the rest of mankind. But with the Atharii at the head, humanity could win.

It would be delicate, of course. Apollyon had an entire Consul filled with those crafting his image and that of his empire. He had master propagandists working for him, shaping and gauging public sentiment. Andlain provided an opportunity, though. A way for him to begin shifting things in their favor.

Armande went to the counter and ordered, a simple hot coffee and half cream and a scone with preserves. It was, perhaps, one of his few indulgences in a life filled with self-denial. He watched the girl get his order together. Those at war did not have the luxury to pamper their flesh.

Order completed he went to a table near a small grouping of people. Surreptitiously he stuck the tiny device in his ear, a directional microphone. It would allow him to hone in on the conversation it was pointed to, though it was smart enough to filter out background noise.

It would be here, as well as college commons, restaurants, and others, that he took the pulse for his next step. It was as he expected. Despite the warmth and homey atmosphere, the tension in the air was clear from the whispered conversations. Andlain's attack was that of a terrorist. And a terrorist above all lives to create terror, to strike uncertainty and fear into people.

These people had braved the cold and their own uncertainty to go about their day, but the underlying fear was there, the confusion about what to believe, about their future. That potential could be stoked, gently fanned. It would not take much, really. There were already rumors and connections being made. About Jeddah and Sierra Leone. Even video of Vellas and Volodin. Not to mention the explicit demonstration and accusations made by the American demagogue, Nick Trano.

And in the face of all that, the CCD's propaganda arm had responded with obfuscation and outright denial. It was perhaps the one advantage Armande could see about the selfish nature of the gods. They would not work together. They would fight each other. Those denials would soon become impossible. With some small effort, some nudging, Apollyon could find himself dealing with trouble in the heart of his empire.

Table to table he focused and listened and learned, as one group left and another arrived. And then, Armande saw him in the corner, seated with a woman whose back was to him, mass of fire red hair the only thing he could make out. Curious. The man had smelled of lies and deception, seeming to dance neatly from one verbal trap to another as they spoke in the bookstore months ago. But he had not been fooled. His instincts said there was much more to this man.

At the time, he had taken a picture and submitted it for identification through various agencies and channels. Idly, Armande pulled out his wallet and thumbed through it until he found the request along with the follow up. It had been passed on to another hunter, though it had been set as low priority. Connor Kent. American, obviously, if not through his accent, definitely in his manner and decorum. Divorced. Father to a son who was now dead from a hiking accident. Working in IT for a security firm. None of that was strange. And yet he couldn't help that feeling of suspicion.

Armande focused his microphone on the couple at the corner table and listened.
Connor let his eyes wander over Adyen's face, trying to read what lay behind those eyes. She was ever the mystery to him, someone he would always be learning something about. It was one of the things he loved about her.

And that peace he felt seemed perfect. He could imagine Hayden behind him or watching him and he smiled. Nox was not Hayden. He would never be Hayden. He had not failed his son. He did not need to make it up to him, somehow. He had done the best he could. He knew that. And knew that wherever Hayden was- if he was anywhere at all- he knew that. He missed his son, of course. He wished Hayden could meet Ayden.

The rhyme amused him. Ayden and Hayden. Somehow it fit. He wasn't sure what or if that meant anything but it was enough that being Ayden had been part of coming to terms with Hayden's loss. And learning to live, to trust, and even to love again.

And if he ever became a father again- he was still relatively young and Ayden definitely was- he knew that he would put his life into teaching his son to be a good man just as he had with Hayden. He would teach by example. Because in the end, that was what mattered. It didn't matter what kind of job you had or whether you became famous or rich or anything.

What mattered was the man you grew up to be, the man you could look in the mirror and respect. That kind of thing came from how you dealt with others, whether you put them and their needs first. You wrote yourselves in people's lives.

He wondered why this seemed to come to him now, why he was thinking this way. Maybe it was the culmination of so many ups and downs today- and over the last year. But either way, it felt appropriate. Stop looking for substitutes. Live your life.

The look on her face said she was puzzled as to why he was staring at her. He smiled at her. "I'm imagining you as a mother. Us as parents. I think it will be good."
Connor said she was right. Of course she was! She smiled brightly at him. He continued to look at her and she wondered what was going through his head. It was the simple things that made it work. The times when they could sit in silence. When Connor finally spoke Ayden had to wonder how many other times had their thoughts been in sync that they were thinking about near the same thing.

She smiled shyly. "I don't know if now is the right time. But someday."
She looked down and whispered. "Maybe soon."

Ayden had drained her coffee and turned to look for their waitress to flag her down. She was still chilled from standing outside in the Moscovian winter and having to deal with the pratt of a boy who was hunting her. She sighed at the thought, why did Connor have to choose him. He wasn't just Atharim, he'd hurt her friend, how could she have forgotten that in all those things. Ayden sighed and requested another coffee when their waitress finally showed back up.
Armande wanted to roll his eyes at the banality of their conversation. Children. That had never appealed to him. The desire for a family made sense intellectually. Biologically. But it was alien to him. He had known love and happiness twice in his life. Both times it had been taken from him. The face of Gregorio flashed in his mind and he winced, the memory of finding his body hanging in his dormitory still powerful after more than 40 years. For weeks after that he had tried to think back, searched his memory for the signs that Gregorio was unhappy, For indications that he wanted to suicide. Had it been him? Had he failed Gregorio somehow? The monastery on Mt. Athos had given him clarity. It had revealed to him a fundamental truth. People you love do not last in this life. That point was driven home more sharpley when Jova left after 15 years of working, hunting and living together. She simply disappeared one day.

No. Love did not last. At least not now 'in the dream' as the Atharii saying went. And for now, he had more important things to do. He did not begrudge his younger self those experiences or consider them weakness. They were simply part of the crucible in which he had been made.

Still, the mass of fiery hair reminded him of Tova, now that he had thought of her. For the barest moment a wistful longing for her emanated from deep within. Only for a moment though, before the cool calculating realities of life washed over him and took control and he returned to studying the woman. She turned around to wave over a waitress. Carefully, Armande used his wallet to feign taking a picture of his scones as if posting to the clog. Such a ridiculous thing. But narcisism was the norm. Her picture was now safely on his wallet. He set the facial recognition software to work. He doubted she was in their database but he was nothing if not thorough.

He set down the wallet and continued to watch the couple. Almost immediately it vibrated and he looked. What he saw there drew his eyebrows down. His mouth tightened. He looked again at them. His icy blue eyes seemed afire, as if to bore into the girl's back. He knew what she was now. He looked at Connor too, feeling contempt and disgust, lip slightly curled. This man was talking about having children with her. Any child they had almost certainly would almost certainly be an abomination. Moreoever, the man knew about the Atharim. The coincidences of his converstation in the bookstore and this were too much.

So, why was she still alive? The Atharim who was assigned to her was still alive., one Nox Durante, though he seemed to be out of the country. He would have to speak to the young man. He had to be vigilant to keep the Atharim clean. In the meantime, a new threat had presented herself. He thought about sending the case to Barovsky. But no. He wanted to do this himself. It had been a while since he had hunted.

Edited by Regus, Apr 16 2016, 07:31 AM.

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