The train stopped, and it was over. It was finally, really over. So, when all’s said and done, when you’ve won the day, gotten the girl (in our case represented here by the darling Cintamani stone), and everyone, even the bad guys, live happily ever after, what else can you say?
“Well that was a fucking disaster.”
I grimaced along with Marq. Well I guess there was that. Both of us staring outside at the massive gaping hole where a tenth of the entire state of Arizona used to be kinda put our personal victories into perspective.
“That… got out of hand quickly…” I said, agreeing with him.
“Indeed,” Theo said.
Marq groaned. “People are gonna have some really fucking interesting things to say about this. One thing’s for sure, this is not going to help come election day.”
“Ah come on, Marq,” I said, trying to cheer him up. “It’s not that bad. Like they have any way to trace this back to us or Nayeli. And even if they did, what are they gonna do? Johnny Dumani destroyed an entire fucking mountain fighting that hydra and they let him get away with it.”
“First, that was in defense of public property,” Marq said, sighing. “The collateral damage might’ve been pretty severe in the surrounding areas, but Johnny still saved the entire county from total annihilation. That alone negates half the charges against him. This was completely senseless, not to mention a thousand times worse. We’ll be lucky if people aren’t still talking about this when we’re all old and gray.”
Marq turned to the two Yamada brothers. “Kichirō! What the hell did you give Ren that made Nayeli go all-out like this? Some kind of mythic weapon?”
Kichirō glared softly at him. He was cradling Yoshirō, who was barely conscious and barely breathing. “I appreciate your help, Marquis. More than you’ll ever know. I never thought you’d actually deliver on your promises. But right now my brother is still gravely injured. He’s in pain, and he needs me. Whatever this is, it can wait.”
“Really?” Marq said. “The biggest un-natural disaster in recorded history since the Lost Renaissance… and it can wait? Look, I didn’t even know Nayeli had that kind of strength. This places her in the United States’ top ten for demigods, if not top ten in the world. If this had gotten any worse, she might’ve cracked the whole damn continent in half. Now I don’t know what you or Ren did that made this possible, but I need to know, because right now we are on a countdown until this place is swarming with feds and cinder dicks and aaaaalllll sorts of Untouchables, and we are all implicated. If I don’t even know where to start building a case, how could I possibly-”
“Waitwaitwaitwait. Wait,” I said. “What do you mean we’re implicated? We had nothing to do with this!”
“It won’t take a genius to check the registry and see our names listed right next to Nayeli’s, Al,” Marq said. “She’s a registered demigod and a known associate of the Allesandris. Trust me, the legal system and I are both intimately acquainted with her.”
“As her lawyer, Al,” Marq said, telling me to keep it quiet around others. “Even if we personally had nothing to do with this, we’re all persons of interest.”
“Okay, so what? How are they going to prove anything? We’ll just pay off the judges like we always do. Make it look like some kind of natural disaster. Like, I dunno, a volcanic eruption. The Allesandris have always been good at covering our tracks. That’s why we’re top of the New York food-chain, right?”
“Second to the top, Al,” Marq said. “You forgot the Pescatorres. We’re pretty neck and neck with the Sartinis right now too, and you can expect a major upset now that we’ve got this to deal with. Besides, you’re missing the point. The second one I forgot to mention earlier.”
I did a mental search of all the conversations we’d had in the last forty-eight hours, seeing if anything fit what he was talking about here. Then…
“Oh,” I said. “Oh shit.”
“You remember, don’t you? The bill just got passed last week. Psychometry can now legally be used as evidence in a court of law. And with a disaster of this size? The feds are gonna be rolling out the spirit cameras by the thousands, capturing every possible angle. Soon this entire crater is going to be on lockdown, and they’re gonna rewind the whole damn thing, Al. They’ll have a frame-by-frame playback of the whole fight. Even if they do think it’s just a natural disaster, they won’t be thinking that for long. Which brings me back to my question, Kichirō. What did you do?”
Kichirō stared at us silently.
“… The nepenthe should be dulling the pain,” I said. “For what it’s worth, your brother probably doesn’t feel a thing right now.”
Kichirō hesitated for a moment, then gave in. “Phoenix yolk. I gave her phoenix yolk.”
“To activate her power of zenkai, Ren needs to be close to death,” Kichirō explained. “I gave her a belt of phoenix yolk vials so she could fight at full health while retaining the extra power she gained from each zenkai. Ren is strong, but there are people much stronger than her, like your demigod. This was a strategy we developed to fight those people that allowed for theoretically infinite gains as long as phoenix yolk was in steady supply.”
Marq became deathly pale. “You mean to say-”
“Yes. It is theoretically possible that Ren became strong enough to kill your demigod friend. Just as possible as it is that she killed mine.”
“Or!” a voice cried out in the distance. “Or maybe we could both be alive, and you could be crying for nothing, ya worry-warts!”
I poked my head out the car door. Two smokey female figures started to resolve themselves on the horizon. Both were covered in ash, and one was leaning on the other. The taller and bustier of the two (I assumed Nayeli) waved at us.
“Also, we could use a change of clothes!”
“Yes! Quickly!” the shorter one (Ren) said while she tried to strategically cover herself with her hands. “Before anyone see!”
“Heh. Heheh,” I chuckled, before wheezing and breaking into gut-busting laughter. “Hahahahaha haaaa. Holy crap! Marq! You’ll never guess who it is!”
“Nayeli!?” Marq yelled, all too relieved.
“No, uh, seriously boss. We need clothes,” Nayeli yelled back. “Like, right now. Please?”
“Oh, uh… right. Rightrightrightright!”
Marq scurried back into the car, panicking and trying to find some clothes to cover them up. I laughed again. Somehow, in spite of or maybe because of how much of a literal trainwreck this day ended up being, this was the funniest thing I’d seen all day.
I poked my head back outside.
“You do know you two ladies look like English chimney sweeps right now, right? I don’t think anyone’s seeing nothing until they give you like five baths and a de-skunking, at least.”
“Fuck you asshole, you already got a free show and I’m not giving you another!” Nayeli said, her middle finger raised high.
Marq rushed outside carrying a children’s night-gown in one arm and his coat in another. Handing the night-gown to Ren, who scurried off to change behind the train where nobody could see her, he wrapped the coat around Nayeli and proceeded to bombard her with the usual slew of questions.
“What happened out there?”
“Things… got really out of control.”
“Are you okay?”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, not really.”
“Define ‘not really’.”
“I got some bits of a spear stuck inside me.”
“Relax boss, it barely even hurts anymore.”
“You got bits of a spear? How did that even happen?”
“I uh… kinda crushed it with my abs.”
“Okay one, that’s kinda hot and I am so tearing the clothes right off your body as soon as we get home. Y’know, after we give you like, five baths and a de-skunking,” Marq said, causing Nayeli to blush (though you could hardly notice it). “Two, what the hell were you thinking?!”
“W-What?” Nayeli said, flustered by Marq’s sudden outburst. “Well, I mean I was kinda thinking that if I let her stab me I could-”
“Not what I meant, but finish that thought later. I mean what the hell were you thinking when you let this happen?!” he almost shouted, pointing at the gigantic hole in the state that a lot of mapmakers were probably gonna get pretty pissed off about, come to think of it. “And I meant that for both of you! I told you to keep things discreet, Nayeli, that’s why I told you to fight outside in the middle of nowhere! And Ren, why did you egg her on?! Do either of you have any idea what you’ve just done?!”
“Oh come on, it not that bad,” Ren said, stepping out wearing the night-gown. “This Arizona. We fight in the middle of giant forest, there no cities for miles! Besides, there no way they can trace this to us.”
Marq sighed. “First, yes there is, and second, no, but there are towns. A good handful if I remember correctly, and they’re going to want to know why their homes and their loved ones are now part of a giant hole in the ground! This is serious, like ‘eyes of the world’ serious! We will all be lucky if a ten-year legal battle is the worst that happens to us as a result of… this.”
Marq gestured at the giant hole. I swallowed dry as the high from the battle came crashing down. Yeah, it didn’t really occur to me until just then, but uh… wow. When you looked at it, this was… wow.
I tried to forget about it. Not like we didn’t belong way down below already. This was just… this was a little more extreme than we were used to, I think. I mean, no one wanted this to happen. Even Nayeli seemed a bit shaken up by how scary her own power was.
“Hey… I uh… so Marq I mean boss I… if you w-want me to, I can just… go, I guess is what I’m… t-trying to say,” she said, sniffling. “I mean I know I… I… oh god… I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, I swear I didn’t!”
The woman I thought was an invincible stone-cold bitch started crying like a little girl, and Marq welcomed her into his arms. Was it because she knew she’d just killed gods know how many people and regretted it, or because she wanted so desperately for Marq to not hate her? I dunno. Which was more sad, do you think?
“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay. I’m not mad, it’s okay…” Marq said, trying to comfort her. If that was a lie, it wasn’t a very convincing one.
“No, no it’s not ‘okay’! I mean holy shit, I… I-I-I-I…”
“Just don’t think about it, babe,” Marq said. “Focus on me, okay? You listening? We’re gonna make this alright, Nayeli. One way or another. I don’t know how, but it’s gonna be okay. Just… trust me. We’ll think of something.”
Nayeli sniffled into his coat. No response, in a situation for which there really were no words.
I suddenly became acutely aware of just how cold and clammy I was for an Arizona morning.
This was the world we lived in, a world forever changed by gods and monsters, where one minute everything is great and peachy and keen and the next minute everything you thought you ever knew and would never go away gets swept up in an instant by some storm of heavenly or demonic violence that was just so much greater than you were. So great it may not have even intended to put you in harm’s way to begin with. And then? You get fucked. Just like that. Straight up fucked, like DVDA.
I looked out at the huge pit. This time it was Nayeli, and Marq. How long before the uncaring hands of the Fates came after me and Annie?
Panting with exhaustion after the stress of the recent battle, Felicity pushed the door to the car open and came stumbling out. She quickly picked herself up and dusted off her suit.
“If,” Felicity said, huffing, “you two are quite done, I’d like to remind my husband of his position, and recommend he start taking action if he wants to keep it. Starting with unhanding a wanted fugitive.”
Nayeli heard what she’d said and surprisingly clung to Marq instead of saying anything, begging him with her eyes not to do what she said.
“You know, before anyone starts to get the wrong idea.”
Desperately, Nayeli mouthed, ‘no’.
“Felicity…” Marq said slowly, still holding on tightly to Nayeli.
“Now darling, you need to begin preparing a preliminary statement in your defense if you wish to have any chance in the upcoming election, or else your campaign will tank like the Titanic.”
“Felicity…” Marq said, his tone sharper.
“Of course I’d recommend just cutting all ties completely to save face, but I know my sentimental fool of a husband would never do something as sensible as that. So instead, I’ve devised a plan that will hopefully still prove to be effective if we can’t just deny we know anything about her. If you throw the demigod under a bus, darling -figuratively speaking of course, there’s no way that would kill a mutt like her- then you may still be able to make an appeal to the public-”
“Felicity!” Marq shouted. His eyes were sharp and cold like a reptile’s. “I appreciate your input. But I’m not your husband yet. So if you’d kindly fuck off, I have business to attend to. Allesandri business. You know, with the family.”
Nayeli didn’t quite smile, but she looked relieved. Felicity snarled.
“I’m sorry, did I not make myself clear? Take it to a ten cent box, or I’ll call one for you. Or better yet, a meat wagon.”
Everyone’s heads turned. I heard the voice of my little sister as she crashed through the door to the dining car. She stumbled, catching herself on the rails before she fell. She was… running. I couldn’t believe it. She was running!
“Al!” she yelled, jumping down off the train and heading straight for me like an adorable cruise missile. I welcomed her in my arms and caught her with a bear hug.
“Annie!” I said, relieved.
“Oh thank god you’re alright, Al!” she said on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what happened! You disappeared as soon as I left and when I tried to look for you outside everything was exploding, it looked like the world was about to end!”
“Yeah…” I said hesitantly. “Yeah, it was a… volcano… right, Marq?”
Felicity opened her mouth to say something, but Marq shut her up.
“Yeah, that’s right. There was some kind of eruption. They think it was due to some unexplained seismic activity in the area. Sounds like Gaia having a stomachache, doesn’t it, Nayeli?”
She nodded. Good. About time someone shut Felicity up.
“I’m just happy you’re okay!” Annie said. “But… you’re sober. How did you do that so quickly?”
“I, uhhhhh…” I said, trying to explain.
“It was because of me, Mistress Anastasia,” Theo said, approaching Annie in full maid mode. The red party dress and bloody knives did not sell the look.
“Theo?!” Annie shouted in genuine surprise. “I thought you were in Montreal! How did you-”
“I flew here on the back of a dragon. It is not important,” Theo said dismissively, shrugging. Sorry Theo, but even I think that sounds like a big deal.
Annie looked around. First at Theo, then the wounded Yamadas, then to the dragon circling almost silently in the clouds above us. The wounded Sostene, Felicity who was still carrying her empty Tommy guns. Then her gaze settled on Marq and the half-naked Nayeli, and I think that’s when she put the pieces together.
“Al…” she said slowly, with trepidation. “What’s going on here? What happened?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “We told you, there was an earthquake followed by an eruption and-”
“Don’t give me that crap, Al!” she said with a ferocity I wasn’t accustomed to that may have scared even me. “Something’s going on here, I know there is! First all this stuff with the Marquis, and now these people we don’t even know, this disaster…”
“What, you can’t seriously think Marq caused that,” I said, laughing nervously.
“That would be ridiculous,” Theo said dully, nodding.
“Answer me, Al! Why do those people have weapons? Why are they wearing suits of armor, and why do you have a gun?!” she said with alarm as she spotted the revolver I’d tried to keep hidden. “There’s something you’re not telling me, and I can guess what it is! Why have you been hanging out with the Marquis? Why do you have this gun and a knife? Where did Theo really come from, and what happened here?! What have you been doing brother, and don’t tell me you’ve just been working at the hospital and that Marquis is your financial advisor, because I know that’s a lie!”
Tears started dripping down her face onto the arms of my suit.
“Tell me, Al!” she said, close to sobbing. “I don’t want to hear it from someone else… but I will if I have to!”
She glared at Marquis, who instantly took a step back from the crippled invalid girl, my little sister. When she wants to be, my little Annie can be as scary as a bearcat. But… what did I tell her? I knew this day would have to come eventually, but not this soon! Not now!
Kichirō and Ren stared me down with a look of urgency. Figaro unsubtly mouthed “no”, while Leon and Felicity looked like they couldn’t have given less of a shit. I looked at the expression on her angry, tear-stained face.
I looked over at Marq, silently asking for his permission. He shrugged, and I sighed with resignation. So this is where it ended, huh?
“… Annie… I’ve been working with Marquis.”
“I knew it…” she choked through hot, angry tears. “How could you, Al? You know what he does! He’s a murderer-”
“Hey!” Nayeli said.
“-and a thief-”
“He certainly is,” Felicity said.
“-and a no-good lying bastard son-of-a-bitch!”
“Guilty as charged,” Marq said nonchalantly.
“You’re not helping!” I said, pointing at Marq. “And you watch your language!”
“Why? Because you said so? Why should I listen to anything you have to say if you aren’t going to listen to me?”
“Because I don’t want you growing up like me!” I blurted. We floated through the awkward silence for a moment before I sighed, and tried to explain myself. “I was running out of money to pay for your cancer treatment-”
“Then why not just ask me to help with the finances? I’m sure there’s something I could do to make money! Or better yet, why not ask Marquis?! If he’s such a good friend of yours, why doesn’t he help pay for our hospital bills?”
“You know you’re in no condition to be working, Annie, and besides, the family business is a family business. You can’t expect them to just hand out money. A boathouse burned is a dollar earned, and it’s a lot better than owing them money. Trust me.”
“Or y’know, trust me because I’m the one who usually has to hand out those punishments to all the naughty boys and girls!” Figaro said with a chipper voice.
“Then we need to budget ourselves better!” Annie protested. “You work at a hospital! Even as an assistant nurse you should be making more than enough to-”
“Annie!” I said, interrupting, already regretting what I was about to say. “I… I didn’t get the job at the hospital. I never did.”
She looked confused. “W-What?
“They turned me down, Annie. Because I was a medium. I was ‘the least favorable candidate’ because they didn’t trust my powers, so they gave the job to an elf instead. I’m sorry. I… I didn’t have the heart to tell you. That was the last straw. We had no more money, we didn’t have any other options, so I went to to work for Marq.”
“I bet that’s how it happened,” she said, glaring at Marq. “That’s when he suckered you in-”
“Actually,” Marq said. “Your brother came to us.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Ouch. So quick on the comebacks…”
“She’s got your number, Marquis,” Kichirō said, rasping wheezily.
I sighed again. “No, he’s right, Annie. I did. I came to them looking for a job, because it was the only way I was going to be able to pay our bills. I already had a history as one of Marq’s associates, and as it just so happened another made man had gotten bumped off recently, so they, y’know, held a ceremony and welcomed me into the family.”
“I was there!” Sostene pitched in unhelpfully with a slurred voice. He sounded really dizzy. “Can someone get me some blood? I think I… I think I ran out…”
“I can’t believe this…” Annie said, shaking. “I don’t want to! That you would… you said you’d leave that life behind once you became an adult! So you could look after me! Those were your words! How am I ever supposed to trust you again, Al?”
Everyone looked at me. Yeah, great. Put me in the fucking spotlight why don’t you?
“I… I dunno,” I said, giving up. “How can I make you trust me again, Annie?”
She glared at me. “Stop telling me lies.”
“You promise this time?”
“And you’ll start listening to me from now on?”
“Good. Find another job.”
“No can do,” I said, throwing my hands in the air.
“Al!” she said. “Already?!”
“What do you expect from me, Annie?” I said. “Once you’re in the family, you can’t just leave!”
“He’s right, you know,” somebody added.
“It’s a life-long commitment, both in honor and in blood!”
“There are people who would kill me just for being Allesandri, Annie, and they’d kill you too!” I said, trying to sound as urgent as possible to convince her. “The only reason we don’t have to worry about those kinds of no-good punks is because we’re under Marq’s protection! Even if I could just turn in a letter of resignation to Franky Allesandri and walk away from the mafioso lifestyle, we’d have to constantly look over our shoulders! I don’t want that life for you, and if I have to bite the bullet so you can live like a normal, happy girl, then that’s just how it’s gotta be! That’s my decision, Annie!”
“But you’re making it about my life!” she said. “And you’re my brother, Al! Don’t I get a say in this? I don’t want to see you become something like him!”
Marq sighed. “And again she singles me out… Listen, Annie. You know the rules, or at least I think you do. Your brother can’t just leave us. There are strict laws and codes of conduct in place about how you honor the family. Pay your tributes, respect the family, never snitch. It’s all about omerta.”
“Go to hell,” she said.
“Ah ah ah,” Marq said, tutting. “You’re gonna wanna hear what I have to say. It might make you change your tune. I did say your brother can’t leave us. I didn’t say he had to keep doing what he’s doing. There are other jobs available to a made man besides being a hired gun. It was just my preference that Al’s skills be put to good use. If both of you want, I can try to find him a different job besides being a hatchetman. Say, maybe, butter and eggs?”
She looked at him, confused. Marq sighed.
“He could work the bankroll. Manage finances. Maybe do work as an information broker? I’m sure he’d be good at that. Point is, there are less lucrative but also less violent jobs we could have him doing. How does that sound? Would that help you forgive your brother for lying to you?”