A man, impeccably dressed, not quite old enough to be considered middle aged, but too old to be considered young, sat back in the small, yet comfortable chair and closed his eyes, allowing his mind a few moments respite to enjoy the soft patter of rain. One could easily make the statement that a man who had the connections and affluence that he possessed would hardly need a moment to relax; their lives would consist nothing but relaxation and enjoyment of the finer things. That is what most would say and suggest. That is what humans would consider bliss.

But Nicodemus Tsanthos no longer considered himself to be human. Humans cannot live for as long as he has. Humans participate in events; they build and destroy, create and kill. Very few observe and fewer still orchestrate. He fell firmly into the latter. He had lost count of the organizations that formed, the governments that rose and fell and the billions of lives that were saved or put to the sword with little more than a well-placed word throughout his long life; all in an effort to correct a mistake from long ago as well as save humanity from itself.

Presumptuous and arrogant? He had been accused of such hubris more than once by all manner of beings; both human and not. Who was he to dictate what humanity did? Who gave him the right, the power, to make such decisions? He knew the answer to that question—not him. For all his longevity, command over the ancient languages and Words, his intimate knowledge of what lay Beyond, and what exists outside of the realm that man inhabited, he had no power over humanity. He learned that lesson long ago. The best he could hope to accomplish was guide and advise; point certain people in the right direction, offer words of wisdom and hope they carried through as he intended.

Nicodemus’ internal musings shifted from reflection to planning as he took a sip from the aromatic tea. His other hand fished out the elegantly crafted silver pocket watch. Time, he found, was a rather funny thing. He stopped counting the years, decades and centuries long ago. The passage of time no longer mattered to him, and yet timing was everything.

“Hey.” A female voice shattered his thoughts. He knew who it was. He was expecting her, even though there was no reason for her to see him face-to-face. Nevertheless, she would have insisted, made it a point to seek him out.  The pocket watch was opened, examined and closed. Right on time. Nicodemus pretended he did not hear the woman, tucking the watch away before taking another sip of tea.

“Hey, old man. I’m talking to you.” The woman sounded irate. He expected this. She would get over it.

The first thing he noted about the woman when she came into view was the notable lack of overtly expensive attire. Instead of the usual designer outfit and obvious show of wealth he was expecting, she wore black denim jeans that hugged her curves a little too closely, a white collared shirt with one too many buttons left open, complemented by a black faux-leather jacket designed for looks and protection from the weather. The only thing about her attire that was unchanged was the presence of the metallic candy apple red sunglasses.

As the woman pulled a chair over to the small table and sat across from him, Nicodemus could not help but find his eyes wandering. Attractive figures were far more common than they were in the past – due in no small part to all manners of genetic enhancements, surgeries and the like. Enhancements or not, there was some truth to the old stories about a single woman being able to send nations to war on her looks alone.

“Tyche, this is a pleasant surprise.” Nicodemus began as he took a sip from his tea.

“Cut the crap old man.” Tyche Serket replied far too quickly. “How much of it did you plan?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Liar.” Tyche glowered at the man across from her. She knew it was useless, the old man would not tell her anything if he felt no need or desire to. But that did not stop her from trying to pry the information out of him anyway.

Nicodemus set his tea cup down, sat back with elbows on the armrests of his chair and interlaced his fingers. His storm-grey eyes met Tyche’s gaze evenly. She had the benefit of those sunglasses, but he had experience. “No.”

“What do you me –” Tyche was interrupted by the lifting of a single finger, pointing slightly to one side. She blinked and looked in the apparent direction to see a member of the staff patiently waiting to be acknowledged. A cup of coffee was ordered and the waiter departed. “What do you mean ‘no’?”

“Exactly what it sounds like. There is no deeper meaning.” Nicodemus evenly replied.

“That doesn’t tell me anything.”

“That is exactly my point. You are not in the right state of mind right now to understand what I would tell you, even if I were inclined to tell you anything in the first place.”  

“Bluh… fiiiiiiiine.” Tyche grumbled and fell into an irritated silence while she thought about her next move.

The irritated silence was soon accompanied by Tyche’s coffee and a fresh cup of tea for Nicodemus. Tyche prepared her coffee, adding just a little creamer. For a moment, she thought about asking for a bit of maple syrup, but thought better of it. The silence was finally broken as Nicodemus stirred a little honey into the cup slowly. “Let ask you this: why do you suspect I was behind anything?”

Tyche sputtered into her coffee. He can’t be serious! “Do you take me for a complete idiot? I saw the marker and got those messages! Even the note on my car and in the house. If it wasn’t you, then who?”

He tasted the tea and added a touch more honey. “Oh, you are quite correct there. But what gives you the impression that I had any more to do with anything than that?” The slight hint of bemusement was hidden behind another taste. Satisfied, he set the cup down to cool.

“Don’t give me that.” She replied with a frown. “There was no way you didn’t know what direction we needed to head in if you didn’t know something first. I got the first email when Jaden insisted that there was not only no reliable signals, but connection to the wider net was cut off…never mind that cryptic ‘warning’ you gave. You knew what was on the other side of the door!”

“Did I?” Nicodemus lifted a brow. 

“I read the 9th Squad’s reports from twenty years ago after the Director gave us access to them. You knew someone dangerous would be there, otherwise you–”

“How is the Director anyway? I trust you passed along my message?”

Tyche blinked. “She’s fine, gave me the strangest look when I… wait, no. I’m not letting you do this Nicodemus. Not this time.”

He shrugged in reply and sipped from his tea. He gestured with his other hand for her to continue.

“Bluh…” Tyche grumbled as she tried to regain her train of thought. She knew he had interrupted her on purpose, tried to change the subject. Such a meddler. “Anyway, you knew what… or who was there otherwise you wouldn’t have warned me to behave myself.”

“That warning wasn’t for you.” He replied evenly. “It was for Findlay.”

“Ah HAH! I knew it! I… wait… what?”

“You’re correct in that I anticipated certain things with seemingly precise clarity, but there are nearly infinite variables that simply cannot be predicted, much less taken into account. That said; I know that at least one of your squadmates has a propensity for behaving… irrationally. Do not get me wrong, He is excellent at what he does and there are not many out there that have the particular set of skills and availability to be a part of XSWAT, even on a temporary basis, that he does. However, this also means that he is the absolute last person who should act in a diplomatic role in any capacity other than a silent bodyguard, but even his ability to remain silent is questionable.”

Tyche’s eye twitched from behind her sunglasses. You tipped your hand old man. You may be great at chess, but you’re horrible at Texas Hold ‘Em. “Uh-huh. So you’re telling me you knew Findlay would be through the door first.”

“No, but I did expect it.” Nicodemus replied as he sat back again, the light glancing just right off of his glasses. “After all, given your mission, wouldn’t you want someone like him in the lead?” Before Tyche could answer, he sat forward again and collected his tea. “Let me ask you another question: why are you angry?”

“I’m not.”

“You certainly seemed like it before, and the very rude, terse response to my congratulatory message heavily implied otherwise.”

She sighed and held her coffee in both hands. “Because I know you’ve been jerking me around, and I hate it.”

“Have I now?” Nicodemus lifted both brows and sipped his tea.

“It sure as hell seems that way.”

There was a moment of silence before he replied. “If it is any consolation Tyche, you are not the only one being manipulated and I am not the only one pulling strings. But you know this already; you have built your entire life on manipulation and tugging strings, granted, not of people, but of fate and probability, which in turn affects people indirectly.”

 “Yeah… and?” This was nothing new to her; she had had this discussion with him several times in the past. It invariably ended with them agreeing to disagree on the matter most of the time.

Nicodemus adjusted his glasses, set his tea aside and interlaced his fingers. “If the records aren’t classified, I suggest you look for an impromptu group called the ‘Crash Team’. It was assembled about ten years ago and then, after accomplishing the majority of their mission, disbanded. If they are classified, speak with the director about granting you access to them, use my name if you feel it will be of any use. You may find some of the information there…enlightening.”

She shrugged her shoulders and lifted her cup to her lips.

“Now…” Nicodemus continued. “…you asked how much I had to do with the escapade that you and your teammates went on.” Tyche nodded. “The answer is ‘enough’.” He paused, mentally debating how much to tell her. “I would be lying if I said that I only had your best interests at heart when I encouraged you to join XSWAT.”

“Yeah, I figured that much.” Tyche muttered into her cup.

“As you know, I, and others who currently share my interests, will, most likely, have need of you in the future. To make sure that you are able to do and be where you are needed, you also need to be kept safe until the time comes, and you being in XSWAT is part of that. What you may not know, is that particular …immaturities… on your part would be more of a hinderance and would, in all likelihood, prove to be far more of a detriment than anything else. XSWAT is also part of that. The fact of the matter is that you were progressing far too slowly, if at all, in the direction that I wanted… needed you to go in.”

“So you set the whole thing up, rigged everything just right so I would be your little puppet and play your little game.” She responded bitterly. “I’m sure you’re soooooooo proud of getting everything to work out exactly as you wanted to, aren’t you?”

Nicodemus sighed with a slight hint of weariness. “Not entirely. I did make some arrangements, set other things in motion and pulled a few strings here and there. While it may seem like it at times, the truth is that I cannot force people to do things they do not wish to do. I can only make suggestions, point them in a particular direction and hope they tread the path that I want them to.”

Tyche folded her arms over her chest and gave him her best ‘I smell bullshit’ face as a reply.

He shrugged in reply and drained his tea. “Believe me… or not. Do as I ask… or not. It’s your choice Tyche. I won’t force you, though I will offer the suggestion that you continue to work with and support your team and at least finish this new tour. In many ways, I expect things to begin to get worse before getting better.” He paused, withdrew his pocket watch, checked the time and put it away. “Now, if you will excuse me…” he said, standing slowly. “…I have a train to catch for an appointment at Shell Beach. Please try to stay out of trouble in the meantime.”

Tyche watched him leave, debating for a brief moment about the consequences of throwing her cup at the back of his head. She hated losing, even games that she was not particularly good at. The knowledge that the deck was stacked against her at every turn only infuriated her further.

She sat back with a frustrated sigh. The conversation had not gone precisely the exact opposite way that she wanted. She really should have expected this. He was always ahead of her, by miles at the bare minimum. For a brief moment she genuinely regretted her decision to not spin the wheel when she had the chance. It was a thought that she held for only about half of a second, and that was half of a second too long.

Suddenly in desperate need for some fresh air, Tyche stood and returned the chair where she had gotten it from, paid her tab and left the shop.