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We watched them wheel Frankie out of the house on a stretcher. Sometime in the past seven minutes, he’d lost consciousness. I’d done all I could in the meantime, but was hard to know if he’d ever wake up again.
Milo lifted Frankie into the ambulance himself, then marched on over to us.
“How does he look?” Marq asked. “Is his heart rate stabilizing-”
He barely got to finish that sentence as Milo decked him in the face, knocking him to the floor.
“What did you do to him, Marquis?!”
“Whoa whoa whoa, easy,” I said, stepping in front of him with my knife out. To my relief, Theo backed me up. Milo glared at me with every ounce of hate he could squeeze out of that sour lemon smile of his.
“Out of my way, soldato trash,” he growled. “Know your place or I’ll put you in it.”
“My place is with my boss,” I said firmly. “You’re not my boss. Now take a step back.”
He smiled. No, it was more like an imitation of a smile, wrought from anger and forced through clenched teeth like toothpaste in a tube.
“You have a lot of nerve talking to capo like that. I could have you stripped of your rank if I wanted.”
“Really? Is that what you are?” I replied. “I guess we’ll have to see how long that lasts after Boss Frankie wakes up. If he wakes up. I get the feeling he won’t take too kindly to you almost killing him today.”
“That wasn’t me!” Milo roared. “It was Marquis! He… he did something… to the stone!”
“Like what?” Marq said, wiping blood off his lip. “I don’t know the first damn thing about how that stone works. Kichirō doesn’t either, so I have a hard time believing you do. Admit it, Milo. You went in half-cocked not knowing what you were doing, and it almost got dad killed.”
“Stop trying to pass the buck!” Milo shouted. “You did something to the stone, admit it!”
“When exactly would I have had a chance to do that?” Marq asked. “You watched us cut it out of a live unicorn and then you took it for yourself. I haven’t seen it since. You just fucked up trying to make daddy love you.”
Milo bit his lip, a thin rivulet of blood forming as his teeth squeaked across the delicate flesh, ripping it open. A drop hit the floor, then two drops. On three, Milo went for his gun.
“Shut up shut up shut up!” Milo screamed, pointing his revolver at Marq and through me. “This is your fault! I didn’t… I couldn’t…”
Marq stared at him coldly.
“And you think I would? What reason would I have for killing dad? Me, the supposed ‘favorite’? Why would I go out of my way to shake this family up even more than it already has been with this stupid blood feud? Take some responsibility for yourself, Milo. Whatever happens to dad from hereon out is on you. You made a mistake. Now you have to live with it.”
He brushed the dirt off his coat, ignoring Milo completely.
“Come on Al, let’s go.”
With that, Marq turned his back on Milo even while he still had his gun out, and I guess I followed suit. Wasn’t really sure what else to do.
Milo’s gun hand shook, and he almost pulled the trigger, but Theo knocked it out of his hands before he could, the tip of her throwing knife wedged into the steel of the barrel. Then she waggled her finger at him like a disapproving nanny, a move I found surprisingly sassy for Theo. I liked it. I liked the expression on Milo’s face even more.
We all piled into Marq’s car before things could get any worse, and I turned my head to look out the window at Milo as we pulled out into the street. Even without my powers, I don’t think I would’ve forgotten that face. It looked something like a kneecapped lion or a cornered wolf. Desperate, broken, unrestrained anger with a little fear mixed in, a highly unstable mixture that almost always blew up in your face.
I looked away, trying not to let it worry me. If it really was supposed to be my job to protect my boss, I would’ve told Marq right then. I should’ve told him. We’d just made a very big mistake.
“Al,” Marq said, catching me by surprise.
A moment of quiet passed.
“… Yeah?” I asked, taking his silence as an invitation.
“Does this seem a little convenient to you?”
I thought about how I wanted to respond to that very carefully. “Convenient how?”
Marq sighed. “I mean, Milo won. He had the stone, there was nothing we could do to keep him from using it on our dad and curing his disease. Then dad nearly dies when the stone conveniently starts acting up. Doesn’t that seem a little suspicious to you?”
“What, you think Milo used the stone to try and kill Frankie on purpose?” I asked, confused.
“No, no,” Marq said, waving his hands. “Not like that. You’re approaching this all wrong. Even if it was just a freak accident or a mistake Milo made going in all half-cocked, the most likely outcome of someone mishandling the stone should’ve just been nothing happening at all, not a blood vessel popping in my dad’s brain. And besides that, I can’t see Milo ever trying to kill him to begin with. It’s like I said, what do we have to gain? For someone in Milo’s position it’d be a risky move at best, and career suicide at worse. And Milo’s too much of a daddy’s boy anyway.”
“So what are you suggesting?” I asked. “That he was framed or something?”
“It’s possible, though I don’t see why anyone would do it. Everyone knows Frankie never really liked Milo, so what point would there be in trying to knock him out of the race when he’s already not a threat? You’d have to be pretty low on the waiting list to be less popular with dad than Milo, and frankly we’re running out of brothers and sisters,” Marq said as if it were just simple mathematics. “Besides, why not just kill him if that’s what you want to do? Anyone who can sabotage the stone or Frankie’s medical equipment should already have the resources to do that.”
“Maybe they were worried it wouldn’t work?” I suggested. “It’s not a guarantee that a demon would take a deal to have him assassinated, and hitmen can make mistakes.”
“And this roundabout method is somehow more foolproof?” Marq asked me sarcastically. He sighed. “Look, right now I’m not suggesting anything. All I’m saying is this smells way too much like fish for us to ignore it.”
We parked outside Marq’s office a half an hour later. I looked at Theo as we all piled out, and she cocked her head at me questioningly.
“You should head back home, Theo,” I said. “… Make sure Annie’s doing okay.”
“And you, Master-”
I put my finger on her lips.
“Don’t. Say it. I’ll be home soon. Just gotta take care of some things here at the office.”
She closed her eyes and tipped her head forward in a bow. “Understood.”
“Don’t do that!” I hissed, whipping around to make sure no one was looking. “It’s really embarrassing! Besides, you don’t want to get caught, do you? If anyone finds out you’re a homunculus we could both go to prison!”
“I’m sorry, Master. My apologies,” she said, and bowed again.
“God-!” I started, then took a deep breath. “Look, just go. I’ll see you at home.”
Theo nodded. “Please call me immediately if you think you may be in danger.”
“What do you mean? Why would I be-”
But she was already gone. I hadn’t even seen her leave. Damn she’s fast, I thought to myself.
“You know, you really don’t have to be so hard on her,” Marq said. “She’s just trying to do a good job.”
“A little too good if you ask me,” I said. “Makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want her to feel like she’s still a slave. Makes me feel shitty.”
“Maybe this her way of trying to thank you,” Marq suggested. “You saved her life, so now she figures being the best familiar she can be is the least she can do.”
“Speaking of that,” I said. “What did she mean by ‘call’ her? This telepathy thing, how do I use it? I haven’t had much practice.”
“Oh, that?” Marq said. “That’s easy. Just think about your familiar really hard, then tell them what you want them to do or whatever kind of message you’re trying to send.”
“That? That’s it?” I asked. “Sounds a bit too easy, don’t you think? I mean, a guy has to worry about his privacy now and again. What if I’m uhhh… thinking about Theo but I don’t want to call her? That seems like it could get embarrassing.”
Marq snorted. That got a chuckle out of him.
“Don’t worry. The geas we use for familiars was designed to prevent that from happening. You have to be very deliberate in what you’re doing, otherwise your message won’t go through,” he explained. “It takes a little practice though. Try to train your mind to associate calling her with a very specific set of stimuli. A strong mental image, like a phone ringing. Maybe snapping your fingers to a certain beat or clicking your heels together three times and saying ‘There’s no place like home!’ You’ve gotta make a ritual out of it. That way it doesn’t happen by accident, and you can trigger it whenever you want.”
I tried to think of something that’d make a good trigger. Mental images were out. I didn’t trust my brain enough for that. After all, your brain can be tricked. Doesn’t even take magic to do it. So it had to be something I did physically, or with my voice. Wouldn’t that be inconvenient if I wanted to make a call in secret though? It’d have to be something inconspicuous then.
I frowned, deep in concentration. Damn this was hard!
“Huh?” I said aloud. Was that Theo’s voice? Had I accidentally called her?
What is it that you need?! Theo asked urgently. Are you in danger? I shall head there right away-
No no, Theo, I tried thinking back to her. I’m just trying to get this telepathy thing down. I didn’t mean to call you.
Oh, she said, her voice sounding much calmer. Well that is certainly a relief. Should I…
Yes, go check on Annie. I’ll see you at home.
How… do I disconnect?
I could feel Theo’s sigh of exasperation on the other end of the line, then I felt nothing at all. The connection had been cut, presumably on Theo’s end. Well that was embarrassing.
“So what are we here for again?” I asked Marq as he opened the door, trying not to think about my ineptitude as a mage.
“Just wanted to go through our stories and all our information together,” Marq said. “Make sure everything matches up. You will be testifying, right?”
“Hmmm…. I dunno,”’I said, faking uncertainty. “I mean technically I was inebriated, so I don’t know how much of that fight I really witnessed per se. And when you take the curvature of the Earth and the early morning light into account, I can’t really be sure what I saw…”
Marq raised his eyebrow at me.
“… Of course I’m going to testify, you idiot. Nayeli’s family, no matter what your dad says. She’s loud, annoying, obnoxious family, but she’s still family. And besides, what kind of mafioso would I be if I didn’t look out for my boss or my blood brother?” I said, ribbing him with my elbow. He smiled as he pushed open the doors and nearly bumped smack dab into the lady of the hour herself.
“Nayeli,” he said, surprised. “You’re up… and out of the house. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, ummm… just picking up the apron I left here,” she said sheepishly. “I thought I’d head down to the soup kitchen to help out one last time. You said we still had a few days before the news got out, so, y’know… I figured I’d make the most of them. Do something good.”
“Really?” Marq asked, still bewildered. “You’ve been cooped up for the last couple days. Are you sure you’re ready?”
Nayeli giggled. “Come on boss, I’ll be fine. Really, I will.”
“Ookayyyy…” Marq said, still somewhat disbelieving. “Well, do you want me to drive you there?”
“No, I’ll walk,” she said, heading for the door. “What are you so worried about?”
“Nothing, it’s just…” Marq faltered. “I love you… you know that, right?”
Nayeli smiled warmly, one of the few times I’ve seen her do that.
“Yeah. ‘Course I know that.”
“Well… see you later then, I guess.”
“Yeah. See you later, boss. Take care.”
Marq watched her go. She sounded so sad when she said that. I didn’t think about it too much though. I had problems of my own I needed to talk to Marq about.
“Marq. Hey Marq,” I said, snapping my fingers in front of his face. “We were gonna do our stories or whatever?”
“Right, right,” he said, the trance broken. “Here, let’s just head into my office quick.”
He turned the doorknob. The room was absolutely cluttered with stacks of paper, mostly legal documents. Court transcripts, letters, laws, bills, dossiers, the works.
“Johnny Numani v. the State of Florida, Adler v. the Black Cove Coven, ‘On Demihumans and How to Judge Them’, ‘A Short History of Post-War Law’, ‘Our New Reality’…” I read aloud. “Marq, what is all this shit? I’m feeling a bit behind the grind, here.”
“It’s demihuman defense law, Al,” Marq said. “I’ve been studying it, trying to find something that’ll keep Nayeli out of the hoosegow.”
Marq scowled once he saw his desk.
“Oh what the hell is this? Who moved my papers?! I had these all nice and arranged in a specific order! Now I’m gonna have to redo this whole thing…”
He sat down and started sifting through the mess, shuffling folders and packets of paper around in ways that only made sense to him, I’m sure.
“Hmmm… looks like there’s a letter here,” he said, picking up a folded envelope at the bottom of the pile. “Did I leave this here?”
He pushed a bottle of brandy to the side and cut the letter open with the knife he kept next to his pens. Now seemed like as good a time as any.
I took a deep breath. “Listen, Marq, about we talked about on the train. I was thinking I should-”
But he wasn’t listening. He was just staring, at the piece of old paper he held in his hands. Staring at it like a cyclops. Worst of all, his hands were shaking.
“… Marq?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t say anything. That everything was still going according to plan, like they always did. “What’s wrong?”
He looked up at me, slowly, like someone was cranking a car jack attached to his neck. I’d never seen that look in his eyes before. I’d seen him mad, sad, frightened, worried, anxious, happy. Afraid. But never this. This was true fear. We stared at each other wordlessly, then he bolted for the closet.
“Marq!” I yelled after him.
“Nayeli!” he shouted, dropping the piece of paper at the door as he hurried to the stairs. Not thinking twice, I grabbed the paper and followed him through the trapdoor.
“Marq, what’s going on?” I asked him, extremely worried, but he wouldn’t respond. Instead he just skidded out the door on the bottom floor, making a mad dash for the exit. He flung open the front doors wildly and yelled out into the streets at the top of his lungs.
“Nayeli! πρώτa αγάπη!” He yelled in Greek. “Isn’t that what you said?! πρώτa αγάπη?”
I held the piece of paper up to see what was written on it. My eyes scanned the chicken-scratch Greek lettering, and suddenly I understood.
“υγεία χαρά…” I read aloud. That meant goodbye.
“προτιμώ εσένα!” Marq trumpeted into the streets, desperate for his pleas to be heard. “προτιμώ εσένα! προτιμώ εσένα…”
He dropped down on his knees, sobbing.
“προτιμώ εσένα…” he croaked. “Please… Nayeli…”
I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder, concerned. He looked up at me, crying.
“She’s gone, Al,” he said, choking through tears. “Nayeli’s gone.”
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