"What'd you like, sir?"
The question was spoken in heavily accented French, the dark-skinned vendor bending forward to smile at him in the manner of someone who had served a hundred confused locals already and would serve several hundred more before the day was over. Behind him, a young girl was flitting back and forth in front of a stove, checking pots, jostling pans, a colorful mass of grain and vegetables leaping up in the air whenever she did so, and neatly landing back in the pan without spilling a morsel. The food smelled like nothing he had ever smelled before, unidentified ingredients and spices blending into something both alien and appetizing.
It had lured him here, away from his rat run to the German sausage stand he'd so carefully mapped out before the masses had come flooding in, but in the face of the foreign pâtés, the bowls full of slices of meat glistening with strange sauces, and the piles of downright odd-looking pastry, Andreyev found himself wishing he'd just stuck to something steadfastly European. At least there, he had a fair chance of knowing what it was called, not to mention what was in it.
"Poison is bad for business," the man behind the counter chortled, though from his tone, he'd likely said that several dozen times before, too.
Andreyev flushed, fumbling with an awkward bow. "My apologies. I didn't mean to—"
"Ah, ah, say no more. When I first come here, I think they want to kill me. So much pork. With sour weeds." He shook his head in an exaggerated manner. "Now I say, who care. Different tongues, all same hunger. Here." Grabbing a spatula, he started loosening slices of a pâté stuck to its baking tray. "I will choose for you. Nothing too strange, but for a working man."
Andreyev nodded, handing over the choice with some relief. At least it would spare him having to ask ignorant questions. "Two portions, please. And, um. If you have anything sweet..."
"We invent sweet, my friend," the vendor said, shaking out another bag and starting to swipe a variety of small pastries inside. "Makrouth," he announced, before moving onto another basket containing square, green-speckled cakes. "And baklawa."
"Thank you very much," Andreyev said, counting out the coins and accepting the bags.
"Think nothing of it. Enjoy!" The vendor waved, before turning to the next person staring agog at the display.
Deprived of his place in line at the stall, the throng immediately closed in on him, and Andreyev could do little more than clutch the bags to his chest with one arm to keep them from being squashed. All around, people were pushing past each other, weaving through and across the street from stall to stall, eager to see what the world outside their own small sphere had to offer. The sun was glinting off a multitude of decorations, tinsel and streamers flashing their colors into the crowd, hoping to attract the curious and adventurous to their goods. Whoever hadn't had the money for a proper flag or guild sign was making do with scarves or slips of painted paper; some had even taken things a step further and added bells or cymbals to their repertoire, the music scattering across the blur of human voices. Sometimes, the cheery tune of a flute was mixing with the music from a street performance, artists or just wannabes taking up whichever corner wasn't occupied by a booth, juggling, dancing, or performing some other mind-boggling feat.
The food stalls didn't even need to advertise themselves, the aroma of roasting meat and grapes bursting open in the late May warmth mingling with the smell of melting confectionary and some of the more exotic scents— flowers and spices Andreyev had never seen or smelled in his life, and, or so it seemed, neither had thousands of other people.
That, at least, made him feel a little better about stumbling around wide-eyed and confused. All of Europe had been his home for the duration of the war, since growing attached to a specific place would have been foolish. He'd traveled it up, down and across more times than he cared to count, but in spite of that, the world suddenly felt so much larger without the frontlines closing in, without the ever-present threat of annihilation. Now, roads were opening up to places everyone had thought lost or destroyed, oceans revealing bastions of human life on their distant shores that no one had known existed.
It was reflected in the way people went about this festival, just bringing whatever they deemed of interest, just intent on taking in as much of the world as they could. No matter where he'd gone, or when, he'd never felt this kind of thrum, an excitement running through the crowd that made them all seem like children, eager and fascinated with anything that was placed in front of their eyes. In the war, celebrations had always carried a sense of desperation underneath the fleeting triumph, some underlying sense of doom boiling right beneath the exultations, waiting to spill over.
Even the victory celebration, for all its pomp and grandeur, hadn't been like this, certainly hadn't started like this, with people not knowing whether to laugh or cry or just start screaming in sheer relief. Most had opted to get drunk instead, and in a nice, bizarre little twist, it hadn't been until the higher-ups had shaken off their hangovers or stupor and wheeled out the podiums for their speeches that the world noticed its savior had gone missing.
Or, as Andreyev had known him, quietly packed his belongings and slipped out the back door for places unknown.
At least, that was how he'd imagined it at the time.
He hadn't know, after all, hadn't spoken to Sir Kiske about much of relevance, bouncing too hard between shock and exhilaration to think anything at all. The entire world had been tossed off a cliff and was free-falling, and so it was easier to plunge headlong into the festivities, shedding things like plans and rationale and tactics, and just let himself be pulled along by the dizzying torrent. Of course, by the time he and the rest of the army were once again ready to take on any task their Commander might appoint, said Commander had vanished, his room cleared out and no trace of his person to be found anywhere around headquarters.
Later, Andreyev would hear it referred to as the death blow for the Order, the end of an era, and other, similarly cataclysmic descriptions, when all it had been, really, was the inevitable. Someone like the Commander would see little use in a peacetime army. It wasn't at all hard to understand why he'd leave, even less so once Andreyev started listening a little, picking up on the rumors flitting around hallway corners, talks of pre-planned secular and spiritual honors trickling down the ranks the more time passed.
Most soldiers understood, at least those who had served directly under the Commander, those who grinned and shook their heads at the stories making the rounds, ideas that got ever more ludicrous over time – maybe Ky Kiske was going to return as king of some foreign nation? Maybe he hadn't even been real, but the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, descended to lead humanity to victory?
The Holy Ghost, it seemed, preferred stable working hours and life away from the spotlight, since the next time Andreyev heard anything regarding the Commander, he'd joined the ranks of a ragtag and rather disorganized affair with grand aspirations of championing the cause of justice and peace in the world.
If anything, this particular piece of news only hastened the collapse of the Order, or what was left of it, soldiers rushing to join their Commander on a different kind of battlefield.
Andreyev was one of the last to follow, not out of hesitance or disloyalty, but simply because he was certain the Commander wouldn't have wished for it. He'd been everyone's reason to join the Order, and now he was their reason to join what would become the international police, driven by the same idolism and fierce devotion he'd inspired during the war. Andreyev had never talked to him about it, but he'd been there when they'd hailed a fifteen-year-old boy the messiah, and later, he'd learned to look for the change in Sir Kiske's expression, the small shift of his jaw that suggested something inside was clenching tightly whenever someone invoked the moniker. People had died for him, and people had lived for him, and Andreyev thought that maybe, at the dawn of a new world, he'd want people to live for themselves.
So he'd tried. Took to wandering, drifting from place to place with no real purpose in mind, just trying to feel the peace, breathing it in. Like most soldiers, he'd never thought about an end to the fighting, about a future apart from surviving the next day, because there was little sense in nurturing any other wishes, only insanity. He ended up collecting jobs and lifestyles the way other people collect stray buttons in a box – working in a forge, at a communal construction site, by some odd turn of fate, he'd even gone from farmhand to accountant once. He held no job for more than a few weeks, driven by an unrest he couldn't explain, and it wasn't until he'd wandered as far as Paris and seen the police banners waving from the gates of the palais du Luxembourg that he finally knew the reason.
He really wasn't any different from everyone else.
Andreyev had felt like a contrite schoolboy, sitting in the Commander's office and mumbling his way through an excuse that he was sure was all too transparent, something about always having been too much of a soldier.
"They're starting to call it the Kiske convent," the Commander had said, lips quirking into a smile that was partly rueful and partly amused.
"I'm prepared to take the vows, sir," Andreyev had nodded solemnly, and apparently that had been the right thing to say, because amusement won out, the Commander chuckling a little as he put his seal on the paper spelling out Andreyev's contentment.
It might have made him no more mature than a star-struck cadet, but he felt better returning to what he'd come to think of as his accustomed place at the Commander's side. He'd wanted to do something worthwhile, he realized, and while there were many things to do in a world struggling to rebuild, few were as worthwhile as staying at the side of the man who had made it all possible. The police wasn't the army, of course, but it was hard to let go of old habits, to stop looking out for the Commander's well-being. Sometimes, the old title slipped out in casual conversation, but the Commander took it with grace, himself unable to shake off what had so long been second nature to them all – the sword always at his side, his eyes always sweeping an unfamiliar room for potential escape routes.
Even in a changing world, some things just didn't budge easily, and some things refused to change at all.
Like the instigators of this event, as calling them organizers would have been giving them too much credit.
Cynicism almost seemed out of place in the middle of this joyful crowd, on such a bright, expectant day, but it was a day that called all IPF officers to post, standing at the beck and call of politicians like peace had never come. The World Fair might have been a cause for celebration for the common people, but, Andreyev thought bitterly, he was getting to see the flipside, too, one he would have much preferred not to exist. It was the side that'd had the Commander up before the crack of dawn for several weeks running now, planning, coordinating, being forced to start all over again when some new whimsy collapsed all his security measures. The side that forced him to skip meals so he could act as a buffer instead, placating pompous delegates and trying to ensure their safety while they were boasting about advancements and feats of reconstructive effort to each other.
Shaking his head, Andreyev took the next exit, a small gap between the stalls that led him away from the press of bodies and into the tiny alley at the back of the stalls, used by the vendors and suppliers. He had to edge through sideways, dodging barrels of live seafood and crates, but it still made for much faster progress. Nobody remarked on him clambering over their goods, the blue cloak with the lily emblem enough to grant him unhindered passage.
It wasn't his right to be gloomy about the entire farce, when the burden wasn't even resting on his shoulders. In fact, he was quite sure the Commander had purposely sent him away for a break, was certainly not expecting him to go out on a simple food run, but it didn't feel right to just take advantage of his kindness and leave him there among the snarl of tension coiling at the center of the Place de l'Etoile. It was the kind of tension that was waiting for something to burst, and Andreyev much preferred to be of service to the Commander when it did.
A/N: So this is it. The first "real" part of the ominous reboot. What do I mean by that? Well, just that Overture is massively boring, so I'm writing my own thing where Sol and Ky kick ass. This project is going to eat my soul, won't it? orz Anyway, C&C is most welcome.
Now for stuff nobody cares about:
- Yes, the Andreyev from Three Degrees. I'm not above reusing OCs, and he makes for such a wonderful mother hen.
- I've seen the emblem on the police cloak rendered in a variety of different ways, sometimes as roses, sometimes as crosses. Meh. Wevs. Can't be as pretty as a fleur-de-lis.