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Silvānus (Estonia)
#1
The Holy See issued a generic announcement after the press noticed the departure of the Papal transports. The Pope was to visit some churches in eastern Europe, nestled deep into the heart of the Custody darkness. Standing in the fuselage, he paused several steps from the plane exit. A cool air stretched into the cabin, carrying winds of freshness absent from Roman humidity. Before emerging, he lowered a veil to cover his face, and made quick passage from the stairs to a vehicle. A handful of delegates stood in attention for his arrival, but he didn’t bother skimming their faces. If anyone was important, they would surely find their way to an audience eventually. The windows were blacked out, so he was able to shove aside the veil while in private. As he glanced at his present company, a bishop, a Vatican staff member, and the driver, he casually studied the countryside as they passed into town.

The apartments of a priest were either within the grounds of the church or buried deep in the building itself. They were abdicated in favor of the Holy Father, who did not declare the duration of his visit to the otherwise sleepy town. The hills rolled with sylvan undulations. It was nothing like the fantastical landscape of prophetic dream, but he had to ponder at the scope of creation. Did such a place exist in the waking world? Was it hidden in these very woods? 

Upon arrival in town, the car toured him through notable places of significance to the townspeople. He listened vaguely, but primarily communed with his god rather than listen to the story of a union depot rebuilt after the second world war. The old town center was fixated on university grounds, a site of quite some prestige apparently. They rounded an ornate fountain and headed toward the church, but he noticed one odd statue placed new and shining among the old and historic. It was a monument to Nikolai Brandon. Waving on the air above fluttered a CCD flag of the district. Patricus’ study was wan derision. It was a good reminder of his current whereabouts.

Staff and clergy lined themselves upon the steps to the church. When Patricus emerged, it was without the veil. He cut a resplendent figure as a scarlet cape edged with fine gold filigree stitching along the hem. A time-honored Capello hat kept the sun from his eyes but was made of the same scarlet sheen as the cape. The white attire beneath was his casual day dress, but the sun reflected pink hues as he ascended the steps. He offered his hand, gloved in white and adorned by the ring of the fisherman, for an elderly priest that approached to kiss it reverently. The aged, stooped fellow he assumed to be Revane Ando, the priest in residence for some sixty-five years in Tartu. He seemed ready to meet his maker. Patricus assumed it was stubborn will that defied the tempting call homeward. If only all priests were so stubborn at the end.

There would be a time to inquire after the girl, but before he delved into gothic depths, he turned to scan the street behind. Several were watching the entourage. Many were on tip-toes, stretching themselves to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father’s passage. His jaw tensed as the scan passed. He did not recognize the girl he took to be Nimeda, but she would come. Without a doubt. She would come.

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#2
Once she’d secured somewhere to stay she texted Nox, letting him know she was still okay and to inquire sweetly over whether he had managed to lose any more limbs. The next few days passed quickly. Aylin was placated by the idea of the strange trip culminating in something so pleasingly ordinary as a commission (Thalia didn’t mention the Church), and seemed to be coping okay with her own return to work at the Guardian. Thalia spoke to Koit too, though it was probably fair to say she spoke and he listened patiently. 

The fear washed away, yesterday’s fading dream. Her nights were quiet, her sketches innocuous.

Today summer seemed to have finally found her wings, and Thalia had spent the morning drifting through the market stalls on the banks of the river. A floppy woven hat shaded her eyes, and she sat on a bench watching the water’s gentle lap, a punnet of sweet morello cherries balanced in her lap. People had been talking about the Visit (and it did have that capital sound to it), so it seemed the Pope really was coming on the misunderstanding of some artwork she had not in actual fact produced.

The how of that was a curious question she had made no attempt to dive into.

She hadn’t told Nox about the Pope part yet either, though she was sure he would believe her, which was just as well since she doubted the man in question would consent to the evidence of a selfie. And probably Nox would not be much impressed anyway. Her nose scrunched.

Actually, she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to wait for something so formal as a summons or if she was just supposed to announce herself. What did one wear to meet the Pope anyway? She was putting it off; she could feel it in scattered rise and swell of her thoughts, trickling diligently around all the reasons this made such little sense. A portrait, Ando had said, and since then Thalia had been especially careful not to find herself swayed by the nauseous temptation to look up his face. An ancient man, like the Father himself; that was what she imagined. And there was no one like in her drawings. So why was she still sitting on this bench?

It was still several more minutes before she carefully packed away the cherries in their brown paper bag and stood.

It’s just a commission.

The route she took was meandering, and intercepted by a polite phone call from a clergyman whose name promptly sieved right through her memory. They had welcomed Pope Patricius I that morning. He gushed a little, patently pleased with the honour. He sounded quite young. The church when she finally arrived looked different in rich daylight, and the intersection of its streets was busier. She delayed in the gardens outside before she finally skipped up the steps, pushing the hat off her head and pulling her hair free from the cord that let it hang down her back. Her boots echoed the same, and the same chill pricked her skin as the sunlight faded to something austere and cool.
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#3
Philip hated it here.

Despite the detestation, he didn’t question his resolve. He’d made the choice to plant himself in one place in order to satiate this hunger to help an innocent girl, whom by all appearances, didn’t seem to know she needed help. Therefore, in the small town of Tartu he would remain, but he was noticeably grim the entire time, more than usual.

Father Ando was a night owl and a late sleeper. The habit was bone deep, which Patricus highlighted when it was observed. He slept in the priest’s bed, hollowed out by the bowl of a body that occupied it for the better part of a century. The sleep was fitful. He did not dream.

The only respite to what Patricus endured these few days was a garden surrounding the church grounds. It was lined by old fence grown over with vines, and underfoot smashed more weeds than grass. A gang of young children were walked to the far side where a dilapidated play set and swings entertained them for hours on end.

He paused in his stroll, thankful for the shade of his hat, the same scarlet Capello as worn his first day here. The accompanying cape dragged on the ground behind him as came to a halt, watching the children frolick and play.
“They are neighborhood children, Holy Father,” said the junior priest at his side. “Their parents apply to our care while they work,” he added.

One little boy had crooked his legs on a swing and was stretched upside down, little fingers dragging in the dirt below.
“Why don’t they go to school?” he asked.
“They cannot afford the tuition,” he said.

Philip watched the children a few more moments. Charity was a virtue. Father Ando did not radiate such presence, but the distinguished act was noted by the Holy Father none the less. What bubbled in the back of his mind was an old worry, but one that he had no reason to act upon at the time. The children seemed well-cared for despite their situation at home. The boy on the swing finally fell off, and Philip’s brows rose with momentary concern until the child laughed and dusted himself off. He suppressed a smile and continued forward. Soon, he reached the fence and turned to pace in the opposite direction when someone hurried from the back door of the church.

“Holy Father, the young woman has returned,” he said.

Philip blinked, for once unmoving now that the moment was placed before him. When he entered the church himself, he discarded the cape and hat, smoothed his hair across his forehead, and set the stern of his jaw to empty nothingness. Hope did not bubble. He didn’t allow it. Nor did fear. This was the first time a dream reached into life and shaped existence. It was the will of the Lord, and Philip the servant of all. He accepted it.

He entered the cathedral, small and quaint as it was, adorned in the day-dress of a white cassock: the only Bishop eligible to don the color of the lamb. Gold filigree decorated the white. He was stunning, and when he entered, it was to present himself center placed before the altar, a poised figure with the crucifix and painting positioned directly behind him.

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#4
She contemplated the high arched ceilings and tried to stem the waiting deluge of uncertainty that suddenly mired her, for it quite suddenly seemed all varying degrees of a bad idea. Her hand was hurting again, thrumming in time with her heart. The swelling had eased, the dressing fresh, but she could not paint with it -- nor even much sketch, which was the whole reason she was even here. Her steps meandered a little, turning mostly small circles at the back of the pews. She lingered at the back of the small church, as if she needed the surety of the wide doors and a swift exit.

When next she looked up, her eyes widened. The swallow of her throat was dry. Not for the splendor of white and gold, or even the majesty of the composition he had framed himself within.

It was the face.

A little curl of insidious fear held her static for a moment; an old fear, one she had thought pressed far behind with the acceptance of what she had discovered herself to be. It seemed she still found the confrontation unsettling, though: a drawing brought breath and life. 

Oh god, oh god.

“Oh,” she said. The colour drained a little. She stumbled inelegantly back through the doors before she'd quite realised she'd moved, and found herself blinking unexpectedly in the sunlight. Her heart fluttered panic like a trapped bird as she plopped down on the steps before her legs dumped her there, pulled her bag into her lap, and flicked through the blood-stained sketches Koit had bound like maybe she was wrong. 

But he was right there, in black and white excruciating detail.
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#5
The light of angels caught her hair. He waited, motionless, until he glimpsed the face scrawled into his memory. She saw him in turn, truly beheld who and what he was, but the peek into the forbidden overcame a mortal mind. She fell away, but Philip was neither offended nor surprised. She previously warned him a disconnected soul wandering the dream and the flesh living on solid ground. He did not desire to soften the blow of her epiphany. She was strong enough to endure the shock, and if not, she would need to thicken that hide if she were to walk treacherous paths ahead. She was capable. He believed it so.

He stood over her from the step behind. The sun caught them both in its rays, but the glittering beams did nothing to improve his judgement of Tartu. That he endured the pawing hands of eager priests hungry for his power to turn favorably upon their selfish desires spoke immense dedication to Philip’s purpose.

He pondered what to say first. Perhaps a repeat of some quip he’d hurled while they dreamed? It was clear she wouldn’t fathom the significance. It was a shame, really. He’d uttered some good lines. Nimeda revealed the identity of a family connected to the girl she was on earth. He could divulge some insight that may embolden her trust in him, but the intention was likely to backfire. He’d not imagined Thalia to be the paranoid type, but then again, her wounds may justify the worry, which was what inspired the search for her in the first place.

He decided to be direct, as was his usual approach. “Nimeda,” he called to her, calm as serene waters. He continued to stand guard behind her shadow, hands clasped before his waist. The drawing laid upon her lap stared up at him. It was rather jarring to behold. In that, he could empathize some of the shock that plagued her. “Nimeda,” he called again, confident that the command of his voice would reach beyond the flesh and snatch the attention of the soul sheltered within. She would hear him because he willed it so.

Finally, the Holy Father descended a step, then another and another until he rounded before her so to force her to gaze into her fear and thus overcome it. From the angle, he could view the portrait all the better. An amused smile broke the veil of serenity otherwise occupying his face simply because it really was good. Who else would think to sketch the Pope winking in holy sarcasm?

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#6
Her hands were trembling a little. But this was progress, right? Better than the utter breakdown that had followed her glimpse of the man on the tube. Right? Still, her eyes squeezed shut, blotting out the bright outline of the world. Because if he was real, then what of the rest? For a mad moment she contemplated scattering the sheets dropped in her lap to the wind; relinquishing possession and responsibility both. Escaping. But there wasn’t even any wind, and she knew with grim certainty that more would follow these sooner or later. The flood never stopped, and she could not escape it.

The air fled her lungs instead, and she deflated, unsure what to do next.

Then her good hand pressed over her mouth as a new thought surfaced, all those disparate facts bubbling up together with sudden revelation. The Pope. That had been the Pope.

A voice sounded behind, a little slow to nudge into her stupor, and presently she decided that at least it saved her from the awkwardness of rallying herself from the step. That name haunted her, but the shock was wearing thinner now. When her gaze finally pulled up, this time she studied him properly. Her eyes were still fantastically wide, though softened by the slow ripple of curiosity now. It was only the realisation that unlike the drawing below he was staring straight back at her which roused her from the discomfort of looking so deeply at another. He wasn’t even old.

And god but she’d drawn him winking.

Her throat cleared. She didn’t look down again, but she did lean to rest her forearms on her lap like maybe he hadn’t already seen. At least judging by the wry twist of amusement to his mouth, he did not consider it blasphemy. Or offensive blasphemy anyway. She offered a small smile in return, wriggling her toes inside her boots while she plumbed her depths for words. She didn’t usually flounder for them, but then it didn’t appear to be the usual sort of day so she was fairly sure she could forgive herself.

“I thought you’d be old,” was what she ended up saying. “Somehow it never occurred to me that you’d be him.”

Probably not the most eloquent words to ever leave her lips, but though she hesitated into quietness then it was not from embarrassment. She was wary of really thinking back to the stack of drawings in her lap; the animals and the shard and the vines, and most of all the way their memory twisted something up inside like the most terrible grief, but there was something staunchly comforting in the presence of him opposite. Because whatever it was that had bled from her fingertips and frightened her so badly, he shared something of it. The burden had never been split before, perhaps only because she had never been forced to confront it. Nox’s warnings of the Vatican drifted somewhere distant, but looking up at him then, lit from behind, she felt she could tell him anything.

“Father Ando said something about a portrait, but it seems unlikely now that you came here for a commission. Do you…” She paused again, brow flickering with the hint of a furrow, like she was not fully committed to the question that followed. “Do you know what they mean?”
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#7
She finally craned her neck upward, but it was sheepish and hesitant. The blurt of Thalia’s thoughts was consistent with Nimeda's, but where the latter was bold and fearless, the shy girl on the stoop was timid. He doubted it was mistrust that brewed in her nature. Perhaps the instinct was spawned by the recoil of a wounded hand, but she did not favor the arm. Rather, she thumbed the papers in her lap without concern for bandages or motion. A thoughtful line furrowed between his eyes, but he did not stoop to issue comfort. Those waters were too shallow a gesture for those such as them.

The comment about his age stole from him the first vestiges of honest reaction: a gasp of mockery. “The Pope should be old, like our Father Ando inside. He has the hump of a Pope, although I dare say, not the alarm clock of one,” he said with a snort. With that, he drew a deep breath like the gulp of first air upon thrusting above the water’s surface. A cleansing passed between them, now that the obvious was laid before both. Philip’s gaze was drawn upward ever so slightly. He was accustomed to being watched, if not by his own prefects than by the cardinals. If not them, then it was a cook or a nun, a council member or a lawyer. In keeping with the theme, his gaze fell upon the priest previously name-dropped. He coughed like he was covering up a reaction, then gathered himself and disappeared inside his little domain. Philip watched him go, pleased with himself, and continued in absence of an audience. “I am a young Pope, but I am quite old, I assure you.” He blinked with eyes clear as blue waters. She was much the same. He glimpsed her antiquity through the veil of pink flesh while they dreamed.

Her question sprung new fountains, though. He extended an expectant hand: “Show me,” he said. He sifted through the pages one at a time, reliving the visual account of what he transcribed in private pages the morning after. He would treasure those that depicted himself, simply because they were amusing, if she offered the gift. Everyone did: from works of great art to relics of centuries past to unique additions to the papal gardens. Those he treasured, though, were letters scribbled by the hands of children or cards splotched with artwork of a white figure surrounded by the cross and outlines of small humans.

“You told me you would draw me when you woke,” he said as she offered the pages for his scrutiny. More hesitation. “Your other should have warned you that I am not what people expect,” he said while thumbing through the contents. Much of his memory was emblazoned upon these pages, similar to how he recalled the events. It was the final few that he studied the longest. There was a pillar, a garden, and the arboreal face of an ever-lasting guardian. Emotion dripped from the shapes. Awe, fear, power and need. The greatest of these was Need.

“I know what they mean,” he said with a finality that stretched into the beyond. With that, he offered a hand that she may be lifted to her feet. He wondered if she would hesitate, or perhaps, accept with as generous of trust as had Nimeda. Together, they journeyed farther than two had before. What would happen this time, he could only speculate. 

But it was A beginning....

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#8
Her eyes widened. The laughter sputtered from her unbidden; from the comment, or the most un-Pope-like snort, or the way his glance up betrayed a visitor hovering behind. She did not turn, at least in part because her own expression would not smooth itself of the amusement. She rather liked Father Ando. “I’m not sure you’re supposed to have a sense of humour either,” she confided. “But you’re certainly dressed the part.”

When he held open his hand, she straightened without pause and offered out the images in her lap. Even with Nox there had been some hesitation before she had allowed him to thumb through one of her sketchbooks, not through any lacking trust, but because it was like breaking off a piece of her soul: something that ought to be kept hidden, a compulsion. She’d never felt ownership of the drawings that burst forth of their own volition, not truly, and she had never been precious about her work either. But they weren’t things easily shared.

He was in them, though, and they felt as much his as they were hers, perhaps moreso for his affirmation. He recognised something in what he saw. He did know what they meant.

Her chin sank into her good hand as she watched him work through the pages. It bubbled in her briefly like a confession, but she chose not to narrate the manner of their birth, though consideration of it shifted her other hand a little tighter in her lap. Aware of the torn nails, though perhaps he would not look too deeply because of the bandaging around her palm. He’d known about that injury already, she recalled.

“My other what?” she asked instead, taking the offered hand with her uninjured one and sweeping herself up onto her feet. She scooped her bag with the other and hooked it on her shoulder, only wincing marginally. Curiosity held sway now, and if fear had gripped her before, she had clearly decided to trust him. Not that she noticed those currents in herself. She leaned to peer at the page he held, trying to see it with fresh eyes. Nox had mentioned dreams, and she’d carefully stepped around that thorny issue before now. Abstract images were one thing, even when they unravelled to real places and people, but she realised then that his manner suggested a familiarity.

It was disorientating, and long-held coping mechanisms pushed her forth to easier territory. “And what am I supposed to call you?”
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#9
He hand-waved the reference to another Other. As Nimeda described ignorance of her waking Other, he assumed the inverse was also the case. She took the hand, though the clench of her grasp was light when Nimeda’s wrenched his arm across space and time practically from the socket. The same, but also different, he realized. He may have thought the same of himself: Philip in the dream, Patricus while awake.

Before he could explain the appropriate reverence people typically showed him, someone in the archway caught his eye. It was the stomp and romp of Fr. Ando, whom apparently deprived of his previous disrespect had adopted a new place to pop a squat.
“Hang on,” Philip told Nimeda, but even as he did, he motioned that she come along with him inside. The doors were flung open to air out the musty smell inside: a stench that either wafted from rotting wood or from the murky smell of its oldest priest.

He found Revane leaning along the inside wall.

“Father Ando, what about our previous conversation did you interpret to be invitation to eavesdrop on the Holy Father?”

The priest righted himself, coughing as though surprised by the interruption. “Oh, yes Holy Father. I am wondering when you will hold Mass. If it is this evening, the mayor and Custody regional director will attend. As you know, we Catholics are few in the area. Attendance will fill the place to the brim if you will –” Philip held up a hand.

“That sounds like a circus,” Philip replied.

Revane barked a short laugh, “You’re quite colorful, Holy Father. When the local politicians are involved, it can be a little like a circus.”

Philip nodded slowly, seeming to process the proposal.
“Father Ando, you misunderstand my purpose here. I am not here to flatter you. Nor am I here to plant new butts in your seats. Your junior priests are unmentored. Your charity is shallow and worryingly beneficial to you personally. You are more concerned with placating politicians than honoring God. To answer your question, I will say the eucharist this evening, but none are invited to attend except the families of those children outside.”

Revane was horrified, and with a gruff, he disappeared into the dreary depths of his study, presumably to call his friends with the bad news.

Philip glanced at the junior priest who bore witness to the exchange. He blushed and looked down when Philip found his gaze. Shortly after, he also departed.

The Custody must be salivating that he was finally encased within their borders. Their hunger would not be satiated this day. He suppressed a smile and re-engaged with the dreamer once more.
“Thalia, would you walk with me? I have already trodden a circular path round and around the garden outside, but at least you know where you’re going.”

An irreverent sort of smile pricked the corners of his mouth. “Most address me Holy Father, but I also accept Your Holiness if you’re feeling particularly cheeky.”  

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#10
Thalia followed him back into the church, watching a little wide-eyed at the resultant exchange, though her sensitivities did not include turning away despite a twinge of awkwardness. In fact she rather absorbed it all, reflecting on the absurdity of herself caught like debris in the current. 

Colourful, indeed.

When his attentions returned, she seemed to have recovered her equilibrium. If she was awed by her strange position or the eminence of his company it did not appear to bow her with the burden of any weight. He felt familiar, and Thalia was warm with even strangers at the best of times.

A smirk stung her lips for his quip, and she did not bite down the laugh that followed. It echoed around them. You probably couldn’t ask the Pope his name twice, and she didn’t want to betray her ignorance given it was very likely public knowledge. So, fine, she would just google it later. “Of course, Your Holiness.” She rippled the skirts of her sundress in something of a curtsy, not mocking, but blithely playful. The shine of her smile was effervescent. Something else in what he said amused her greatly; the inference she knew where she was going. It couldn’t possibly be further from the truth. “Is that what I call you? In, the, uh… That’s what she calls you, I mean?”

Though trees crowded the church’s entrance, its grounds were not much more than a dusty yard. Unkempt vines swarmed the chain fence, a little wild, but the sort born of neglect rather than freedom. Despite the girlish dress and ribboned sunhat, Thalia’s boots were sturdy and made for walking. She was a creature appreciative of aesthetics; beautiful things drew her like flame, but the disparity did not seem to bother her either.

“It’s lovely by the riverside, the river itself cuts right through Tartu’s heart. Ah, the Emajõgi…? Though I’ve probably butchered that. Before here I stayed in a town further west -- it turned out to be why I made the journey, though that’s another story. I usually live in Moscow, it’s where my sister is. Did you know the university library here has a whole wing devoted to semiotics? Though I haven’t really had the time to study properly. I do know a lot about pine cones now though.”

She didn’t imagine he was very much interested, and she also assumed he had something of his own to share given the apparent oddity of him having left Rome, but the words spilled out pleasant as the warm afternoon sunshine almost the moment they left the shadows of the church. It also gave her a moment to sort through the shiny pebbles of her own thoughts, for it already did not seem he would be willing to hand out answers she did not work for.

The man on the tube had called her Nimeda. So had Calvin when he’d seen her winding through the open air stalls at Izmailovsky, a novelty she had never asked him to explain and that he had never pressed (yes, he did; he told you everything). Work kept him busy these days, a little regrettably, though not surprising given the new beginning of his career. And now knowing what Nox revealed lurked in Moscow’s shadows, maybe the CDPS had more to contend with than a surface glance revealed...

She reigned herself in. Made herself confront the idea circled. A Dream Walker. Nox’s term, and Calvin’s explanation. And no memory of it either; it seemed she breathed whole new worlds unknowing. She had no reason not to believe it, not with the evidence all stacked finally in a neat pile, but it filled up her chest with enormity too.
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