Chapter 3


There was no better way to wake up then with the flutter of breath over his neck. Ath'ran smiled to himself and hugged the tiny, sleeping body that had spent the night on top of him, dark ringlets of hair tucked under his chin. He kept his eyes closed, enjoying the moment as a rare time of peace and quiet, and had almost fallen back to sleep before a shadow passed over his eyes and lips came down on his in a quick and gentle kiss.

"Tell me you two didn't stay up watching the terminal again."

Ath'ran tried not to smile too clearly at the slight annoyance in his wife, Lisa's, voice as he continued to hug his daughter to his chest. "Not all night. She fell asleep halfway through the movie."

"A scary movie. Don't think I couldn't hear all that screaming from the bedroom." Lisa's voice grew fainter as she entered the kitchen. "I don't like you filling her head with things like that. You want her crawling in our bed because of imagined monsters?"

"It wasn't a horror film. It was science fiction."

"Same thing. Something not normal comes and everyone is in danger. You'll give her nightmares."

Ath'ran rolled his eyes and nuzzled the top of Paelah's head. "She likes that kind of stuff."

"And I like to sleep with my husband in the bed. You know it's hard for me to get a good nightís sleep when you're not there."

"It's only one night a week, Lisa. And it means a lot to Paelah that there's something just me and her do together."

He could hear Lisaís sigh of defeat as well as the crack of eggs on the stove. "I'm just saying that just because the two of you want to scare yourselves silly watching that stuff doesn't mean you have to sleep on the couch. I don't care if it's three in the morning, I want you in bed with me."

"Alright. But I'd probably better take her to bed with us. Just in case she does have a nightmare."

"Oh please. Listen to yourself. You want to cuddle with Paelah while she's still young enough to let you. Fine. May as well, anyway because I'm telling you, those kinds of movies warp your brain and soon she'll be talking about seeing ghosts and demons in the house."

"In other words, I win?"

"Get in here and help me make breakfast!"

Ath'ran smiled and rolled his daughter onto the couch as he slipped away from her and stood, tucking her in before heading to the kitchen. He found his wife standing at the stove and wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her close and kissing her cheek. She leaned back into him and smiled. "So, what would you have me do this morning? Take over the eggs? Make toast? Wake the kids?"

"Mmm. I'll get the kids, you finish up in here," she instructed, pulling away slowly. Ath'ran took her post and the spatula and began tending to the frying eggs with the utmost care. By the time Lisa was ushering the three sleepy children towards the kitchen table, Ath'an had a full plate of eggs, toast and some warm ham waiting. "Riyad, you set the table. Kimberly, milk and juice. Paelah, go ahead and sit down, but don't you dare eat anything yet."

The three did as their mother told them, following through with the morning routine. Ath'ran tousled his son's hair as the boy gathered forks and knives and gave Kimberly a pat on the back as he stepped around her to collect the jellies and butter they'd need for their bread. Once they were all sitting around the table, the Mukshahs began to eat.

They were a motley assembly, but they were family through and through. No two children had the same complexion, coming from a mother with light skin and a father with dark. Six-year-old Riyad favored his mother, fair with brown hair, but he had his father's eyes. Kimberly, five, was a lighter shade of brown from head to toe, while Paelah was the spitting image of her father: dark with unmanageable curls. Lisa often expressed a desire to chemically relax their four-year-oldís hair, but Ath'ran wouldn't allow it. As much grief as his own hair gave him, he found it adorable on his youngest.

He preferred the natural look, while his wife, a beautician, was more inclined towards otherwise. Lisa's own hair was dyed blonde, only her roots proving she'd been born a brunette, and her nails were glued on to be longer and stronger than her real ones. It was just a female thing, he suspected. If she needed to mask everything natural and beautiful about herself to feel good about herself, he wasn't going to strip it away from her. Still, he got a say when it came to their children and he dreaded the day when Kimberly would be old enough for highlights, waxing and perms. He imagined that day would come right around the time that boys would begin to show up, and he would be too distracted to stop any cosmetic changes to his daughterís appearance. It was a sad thing to admit defeat ten years before the battle even began.

"Can I go play with Johnny today?" Riyad asked, his plate nearly clean.

Lisa didn't look up from cutting her eggs. "I don't have a problem with that. You going over to his place or were the two of you thinking of coming over here?"

"Um. Well, he's got that new game system. We were gonna play on that."

"I don't want you sitting in front of a terminal all day. Why don't you and Johnny go to the park?"

Riyad frowned at his plate. "Who's going to watch us?"

"Your father can." Lisa looked up at Ath'ran but still spoke to their son. "He doesn't start his new job until Monday. He's got all weekend to help out around the house before he starts work."

"Can you Dad? Really? That'd be so cool, we can play basketball or catch or something."

Ath'ran nodded slowly. "Sure. That's not a problem. I've got to head over to the office and pick some stuff up first, though. How about you and Johnny play that game for a while and I'll pick you both up for lunch before we go to the park."

"Alright!"

"Don't forget to be home before three," Lisa reminded him. "I'm working the closing shift so someone needs to be here to watch Kimberly and Paelah."

Ath'ran nodded again, looking at the clock. Nine-thirty. If he wanted to make it, he'd need to get moving. "I'll make sure we're here. Riyad, help your mother with the dishes before you go over to play." He pushed his chair back and excused himself from the table, stepping towards the bathroom to wash and shave. It was just past ten when he left the apartment and only half an hour later when he walked through the front doors of the Protectors of Antiquity headquarters.

"I'm sorry, do you have an appointment?" Jin asked, swirling around to face him from his chair. "We have a strict policy against walk-ins."

"I'm aware of that." Ath'ran crossed his arms over his chest. "Please don't tell me it's going to be like this every time I come over."

Jin's smile grew. "Nah. Just a cursory reminder. Riyad's in the kitchen, no doubt listening in. Go on back."

Ath'ran nodded and headed down the hall of what had been his second home only days before. He could hear Riyad Shihar in his chair, rolling along the floor and leaned in around the doorway. "Hey. I'm just going to get a few things out of the office," he informed him. He would be trespassing in his new office, after all.

Riyad looked up at him with an expression that was between irritation and acceptance. "Don't have time to hang around?"

"I promised Riyad I'd take him to the park. I didn't want to clutter your space with my personal effects for long, though, so I thought it'd be a good idea to come and collect those."

"Alright, let's get this over with." Riyad stood up and motioned for Ath'ran to follow, hands deep in his pockets as he lead the way. They entered the office where a small brown box was already packed with the picture of Ath'ran family and the few other odds and ends his children had given him to keep at work with him. Riyad closed the door behind them. Though Athíranís things were ready, his friend did not seem ready to let him leave with them just yet. "Just so you know, that wasn't fair. After the poker game, you just left. You didn't give me a chance to talk to you about this."

Ath'ran sighed. "There is nothing to talk about. I have more pressing obligations right now."

"You've been planning this since college. This was what you wanted to do with you life."

"That was before I became a father." It was silly to think that just because Riyad did not have a family of his own that he wouldn't understand, but the subtleties of the situation were still lost on someone without personal experience. He gave him a look he hoped helped his case. "I'm not walking away for good. I still want to know how things are going and you can count on me to be here for the monthly meetings if only for the poker game. I just can't lead anymore. This is what you were born to do and I trust you not to give up."

"Well maybe I don't want to do this without you. Maybe the best part of working here was that we were doing it together." Riyad punched him in the arm. "And now, even if I didn't want to work for the Protectors of Antiquity anymore, I'd have to because if I don't, then I'm letting you down and I'd rather die."

Ath'ran rubbed at his arm and then wrapped it around Riyad's shoulders and drew him close. Riyad leaned against him, arms at his sides.

"You should have talked to me about this. If you're going to decide for me what I'm going to be doing, then you should have talked it over with me first."

Ath'ran patted his back. "I'm sorry. If you really don't want to be here anymore, I won't blame you for leaving."

"No." Riyad shook his head, his curls catching on Ath'ran's lips. "I want to be here. I don't want to go back home and if I lived alone, I'd get lonely and start talking to myself. This is where I'm supposed to be. But I thought you were going to be here with me."

Ath'ran held him, smiling despite the sadness in his lifelong friend's voice. "Do you remember what you said when I told you I was getting married?"

Riyad pulled away from him, his face twisted in discontent. "I thought we made a deal that we were never ever going to talk about that again."

"I'm just making a point. You said almost the same thing back then. And nothing changed, did it?"

"Not really," he admitted grudgingly. "But that's no excuse for you not talking to me. That's the real issue here, okay? The next time you make a decision that impacts the both of us, I had better he seeing you face to face and words have better be coming out of your mouth."

Ath'ran nodded. "I promise." He picked up the box waiting on his desk and looked through it to be sure it contained everything he had come for. "Thanks for putting this together for me, by the way."

Riyad smiled a bit. "It was pack it or toss it. I was pissed. You're just lucky I love those kids of yours. I did break your stapler, though. "

"Your office means it was your stapler."

"Damn it." Riyad smiled, opening the door a bit. "Oh well, I'll buy a cooler one later. And then flaunt it the next time I see you."

"So that's the way it's going to be, hm?"

"You sort of sprang this on me. I think I'm entitled to be a little bitter about it."

He was, Ath'ran agreed, and it could have been worse. He kissed his forehead, as aware as Riyad was that it would probably be weeks before they actually saw each other again, and headed towards the door. "I'll call you later. Maybe Lisa and I can have you over for dinner some night soon."

"Yeah, sure. Say hi to the kids for me."

Ath'ran promised he would and left the building, waving to Jin as he passed, hugging his box of belongings close to his chest. Somehow it didn't quite feel like goodbye. He was glad it didn't. As much as it had been his idea, it was hard to walk away. Still, it was getting later in the morning, the sun not far from its zenith, and he had a couple of young boys waiting to play ball in the park. With that being the alternative, Ath'ran would never regret his decision.