Everyone in the goon squad took a step back, whispering to each other and just freaking out.
“What the hell is that thing?” One of them hissed softly.
“It killed Boss Syl… just like that!”
“They didn’t tell us shit about this!”
“Oh god… I don’t wanna die!“
Theo looked back at me, her knives still dripping with the same color as her dress.She kneeled down in front of me, oblivious or uncaring to the confused and frightened stares of the men behind her.
She put her hand on my forehead.
“Alfonso…” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Theo…” I gasped. “How didju-“
“That is not important. If you must know, I received a ride from the Marquis. His assistance was quite… helpful.”
“Theo ahm sorreh. Ahm so, so sorreh. I shoulda known tha… I mean I shoulda… I didn’t-“
She put her finger to my lips. “We shall discuss this later. Rest assured I shall have plenty to say to you about the stupidity of your actions. Right now, I need you to do something for me.”
“Huh?” I said. “Wuzzat-“
She kissed me. That’s what she did, she kissed me. She bit her tongue too, so I could taste the sweet metallic texture and flavor of her blood. As our fluids swirled around our tongues, I felt a warmth start engulfing my entire body, and not just lil’ Alfonso. Suddenly it felt like the drugs were just dropping out of my system, being flushed out through my pores like squeezing a sponge. My broken leg that should’ve been in a cast if not for the cocaine, my crooked nose that was still dripping all over me, they were both being healed. My mind and my eyes were finally opened again, free from the impenetrable haze of what had to be my worst fucking high in recent (or for that matter, not so recent) memory.
She broke the kiss, and memories came flooding into me. Familiar memories. But not mine. They were my memories through someone else’s eyes. That’s how I realized what she’d done.
My eyeballs twitched back and forth in their sockets. The warehouse. The van. The restaurant. The Empire State Building. The park. I recognized all those places. And I recognized the shadow that hung over all of them. Mickey Donahue. He was everywhere, inside of everything, even the good memories. Inescapable. As I relived her memories I relived her experiences with him, through her eyes. Suddenly I knew what it felt like to be violated, inside and out.
Then, just as it felt like I was getting ready to dry-heave, it stopped. The last thing I saw was a scrawny-looking face smiling at me. His lips didn’t move, but I imagined him saying something like “take care of her for me”. That must’ve been Eric.
I coughed. She’d done it. She’d formed a probationary contract. Once we completed the exchange of vows, it was officially a master/servant relationship. A pact for familiars.
My heart dropped and soared at the same time.
“It was your idea, not mine,” she reminded me. “Besides, you are going to take responsibility for lying to me and robbing me of my agency in matters involving my own life. After everything you’ve said I expected better from you, Alfonso.”
I felt an ember of indignation flare up inside me. I stood up.
“I know it was a shitty thing of me to do. But what did you want me to tell you?”
“The truth? That Marq was going to let you be sold into slavery just so he could be a brown-noser with his dad? That you were going to go right back to where you were a few weeks ago if we couldn’t satisfy his psycho half-brother on what was looking like a goddamn suicide mission?! Why in the hell would you want to know the truth?!”
“Does it matter? It was my choice. It was what I wanted. I thought you wanted me to have freedom and choices. Is that not why you rescued me from Mickey Donahue?”
“I rescued you from Mickey Donahue because I wanted you to have something better after all the shit you’ve been put through! Forcing you to become my familiar or selling you out to Franky and letting him have you… I didn’t want that for you! I wanted you to have a good life, a better life than… than this!”
“Yes. That is what you wanted. Your version of a better life. But never for a moment did you consider what I wanted,” she said strongly. “You have been kind to me, Alfonso. I wish to repay you for that. Even when you wrong me, you do it because you think you are looking out for me, in your own misguided, stupid way. That is why I am trying as hard as I can to be understanding. But when you make these decisions for me, you are taking away my free will from me and controlling me for your own convenience, just like that man did to me when I was his possession. You do the same thing to your own sister too. You don’t consider what she wants, only focusing on what you want for her, what you think is best. Every time you lie to her for what you think is her own safety, you are being…”
She hesitated, like she was afraid to say his name. “You are being like Mickey Donahue. Lying to people. Selfishly toying with them for your own ends without ever considering their feelings, their wants and desires over your own. But you are not him. You can be better than him. You are better than him. Now can you see why acting like that and reminding me of him might make me a little bit upset?!”
I was at a loss for words. Did she really feel so strongly about this? I’d never known. Thankfully, I didn’t have the time to think of a response. The Vitalis were moving in. Apparently they ran out of shit to shat into their white granny panties and remembered what it felt like to have actual balls.
Theo got back up.
“We shall finish discussing this at a later date. Well, Master Alfonso? What shall I do with them?”
I thought about it for a moment. Just a moment.
Theo twirled her knives in her hands, itching and impatient. I sighed. No hesitation then.
“Theo…” I said. “Do whatever you want.“
Breaking out into a swift jog and quickly gaining speed, Theo lunged for the closest thug. The stupid mooks all opened fire at the same time. I felt sorry for them. After all, she only blocked the bullets aimed for me.
The bullets ricocheted back, bouncing the damage from Theo back to the Vitalis in a classic return-to-sender. They were riddled with bullet holes before Theo even got to them, and after that they were in even worse shape. Each motion was cool, calculated, and controlled, knives flashing and slashing through jugulars and femoral arteries, disabling the enemy by cutting out their tongues and slashing their eyes before driving the blade straight up through the base of their chin, or slicing through the flesh of their necks.
You could see the precision and calculated efficiency of each movement, but I could feel the anger and the hatred seeping through it. The hatred she felt for the Vitalis for ignoring her… for treating her like a thing or a monster. I saw flashes and brief visions of Mickey Donahue’s face. The sheer sexual sadism that he’d inflicted on her for his own pleasure. Then I saw it all superimposed over the Vitali men’s faces, like a latex mask or a layer of wrapping paper. When she killed them, she saw him. She was taking out her anger on them, but it would never be enough. For the first time I felt what it was like to be Theo.
And I felt… the frustration she felt with me. What it felt like to be marginalized, and lied to. To be treated like a prize or a bargaining chip instead of a person, without consideration for your feelings.
… I’d made a huge mistake.
The last man dropped to the floor. Theo walked back over to me.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Theo,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I know you are. You did not want this. But this… this is what I want. To repay my debt to you. To be a part of your family. I am a homunculus. I was created to serve, so let me do this for you.”
She looked me right in the eyes. Our faces were so close we were practically touching.
“You’re going to have to… feed on me,” I said. “You know that, right?”
This is what I’d been afraid to tell her since the beginning. That again, someone was going to have to take advantage of her. If not Frankie, then me. Even with Mickey dead, she’d still be a slave by design, a person without freedom.
“Yes. It is alright,” she said, to my surprise. “I have known about this since the beginning, so I have had time to plan. In fact, I had thought of doing this at some point anyway…”
Theo shook her head, maybe a bit too much, batting me in the face with her bunny ears. “It is nothing.”
“Then… now and forever?” I said. I still wasn’t sure this was the right choice, but I’d be damned if I was going to let Frankie or Milo have her. Even if we failed this job, she was still coming back home with me.
“Now and forever,” she affirmed. The contract’s magic began snaking its way through us.
“You’ll stay with me when there’s trouble?”
“Especially when there is trouble.”
“You’ll always be by my side?
“As servitore e confidente?”
“Sì. E’ certo.”
“I didn’t know you could speak Italian,” I said, smiling.
“Not much. You tend to learn a bit in the company I seem to keep these days though,” she said, returning the gesture. Smearing her blood across her lips like cherry red lipstick, she sealed it with another, deeper kiss. The contract was complete. Theo and I were officially now master and familiar.
She broke off. “Now you are a proper mage, Alfonso Anastasio.”
I looked at her, confused. “Wait, what do you mean by that?”
She tilted her head. “Do you mean you did not-“
“Alllll!” I heard a familiar voice holler. Shit.
Suddenly Theo was gone. I looked around, and immediately saw her standing stock still behind a thin potted plant.
“Theo what are you doing?” I hissed.
“I am hiding,” she whispered back.
Y’know, sometimes I can’t help but think that this super-smart homunculus is actually super-dumb.
“It’s not very good. Why?”
“I said I would stay by your side in times of trouble. I said nothing about helping you to explain yourself to Mistress Anastasia. That is your problem.”
“Forget hiding, we have to run! Before she sees us!”
“But why?” Again with the head-tilt.
“Why do you think? We don’t have time to explain this shit! We have to finish this fight!”
For a moment Theo looked like she had something to say, but then she shook her head and said, “You are right. Let us go, quickly. If we are to save the Marquis… and ourselves.”
Nodding, we broke cover and ran.
“So?” I said. “What’s the situation? I’m betting Marq has something to do with this, right? Why you’re here?”
“I should not have to explain this, and we do not have the time. We have already wasted thirty one minutes and fifty six seconds since you called me. Read my mind if you must.”
“What?” I said for like the fifth time that day.
“You are my master now, are you not? You should be able to glean as much from my memories.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” I focused, and the treasury of memories I experienced earlier came rushing back. Theo flinched. Briefly I felt that assault again, that defilement of my mind, but I brushed it aside and moved past it. Not easy, but you’d be surprised what you can do under pressure.
I saw the letter arriving in the mail, along with a platoon of Allesandri henchmen. I saw the totally one-sided fight and the following interrogation by Theo. I saw the explanation, written in fresh black ink, saying that she had never truly left the Allesandri’s sights, and that she’d need to help the Marquis if she was to assure her own freedom. I saw the dragon whistle.
I turned to look at Theo, who was recovering from the memory probe.
“So does that mean-?”
A giant black mass flew past the window next to us, and I saw a burning slit eye.
We ran past the empty dining compartment and slammed through the door, and I finally got a good and sober look at what passed for collateral in a fight between demigods.
“Holy shit…” I said, unable to say much else. The devastation was incredible. Dark skies. Fires for miles. You could see it from fifty kilometers away. But that wasn’t the “big no” apocalypse part. Tonto National Forest was collapsing into a pit.
“We should be inside,” Theo said.
“The shockwaves, right?” I said. “Or is it the ash?”
“It is true, we have approximately one hundred and forty seven seconds before the shockwave from the most recent blast hits us. There may be additional shockwaves from previous impacts on the way in the meantime. But that is not why we should not be outside.”
“Why’s that then?” I asked. She pointed at something gigantic clinging to the side of the train.
“That,” she said. “That is why we should not be outside the train.”