10.[]-2: A Brother’s Wrath (Pazienza)

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Carl Foxman knew that he was dumb as bricks. His father said it all the time. His mother never denied it. Allen was probably thinking it all the time. Cadence always said good-naturedly, “Come on, Carl. Everyone’s a little stupid,” making Carl think that the fact maybe wasn’t so bad. Fortuna plainly said he was an idiot. Ricardo said he had smarts in other areas. But Francis always told him, “You’re smart, Carl. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you weren’t.”

Even so, Carl had an inkling that he probably wouldn’t make heads-or-tails of what Omicron was going to say next.

“What happened to you…” Omicron began, addressing Francis. “You have to have knowledge of what you call the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

“Vitae is a cycle. Vitae has the capabilities of coding memories from the brain. Vitae is equivalent to the soul,” Alice explained beat-by-beat. “I’ll hold my suspension of disbelief. Continue.”

Omicron’s eyes narrowed, and she lifted her head like she was rearing for a fight. Finally, she elaborated, “Our resistors are similar to your proto-conductors. They’re capable of storing vitae. In much, much larger amounts than your proto-conductors.” She glowered. “But they’re not used as weapons. Instead, they store—”

“—an entire person’s vitae… And, in light of the Hypothesis, an entire person’s memories and soul,” Francis finished before he stiffened and frowned. He looked as confused as Carl felt about his knowledge.

Carl shared a look with Allen but said nothing.

Omicron nodded at Francis before she continued:

“Yes… there are several conditions that follow its usage. Firstly, the vitae being stored in the resistor must be processed so that it will return only to the resistor and not to the vitae cycle when the person it was used on dies. The process is beyond me as I am now, but it’s how our vitae becomes white. Whitening of vitae also tends to cause congenital analgesia.”

“The hell’s that?” Carl grimaced.

“The dulling of sensitivity to pain,” Francis answered, not even glancing at Carl. “Though it varies depending on the person…”

Omicron looked away from him.

“The second condition is that only the vitae that was initially stored in the resistor is capable of returning to that particular resistor. In other words, no new vitae can be added.”

Carl didn’t get it. Not really. Some of the executives looked baffled too. But Cadence, Francis, and Alice looked pale. Paler than normal.

“The third condition is that in order for the highest success of vitae being passed onto another person, that person’s vitae must be leaving their body for the vitae cycle itself. This allows the vitae stored in a resistor to enter that person without complication and interference, and when that person ‘comes back’ they will have full access to the memories given to them by the resistor.”

Vitae leaving the body…? When a person ‘came back’…?

“Of course, residual memories stored in the brain can still cause some interference but the lack of that person’s original vitae makes it difficult to ‘access’ in a sense.” Omicron locked eyes with Francis again. “We call the entire process ‘initiation’.”

This Carl understood, and he took a threatening step forward as he grabbed the woman by the scruff. “Are you saying that Francis was kil—”

“But that doesn’t always happen. It didn’t happen with you, Francis. You were very far away from death’s doors when you were initiated,” Omicron said softly, not even bothered by Carl’s grip. “What happened to you was a mistake. Whoever’s taken our resistors must’ve used one on you. You were stabbed with a resistor on that night. But don’t worry. I wasn’t initiated properly either, and I’m okay.”

Allen signaled for Carl to release the woman. Carl complied, shoving her back down in the chair.

“So the dichotomy between Francis’s vitae and Theta’s vitae…” Alice nodded, placing a hand beneath her chin. “If we’re speaking as if the Hypothesis is true… then the dichotomy of memories may have caused a dissociation leading to the formation of two separately operating identities. Seeing as how Theta wasn’t aware of Francis’s allergy and how Francis wasn’t aware of Theta’s existence and actions up to this point, I’m assuming that they aren’t able to communicate with one another.”

Carl didn’t like how nonchalant Alice was being about his brother’s issue.

“It’s rare that it happens like that,” Omicron elaborated. “It only happens when there’s a serious disconnect between the two. For example, I still retain my identity both as Charite Haussmann and as Omicron…” She glanced to the side. “Although you could say I’m a rare case of improper initiation turning out in a balanced way.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed. “So Iris McKillop….”

“Iota is too influenced by McKillop’s vitae and memories,” Omicron replied. “Iota isn’t violent, but McKillop’s psychosis pushes Iota as you can see. Another example of that would be Pi who was incorrectly initiated into Erwin Ersatz at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. Ersatz was a very… nationalistic and passionate person, and Pi became the same… Tau, Gamma, and Omega are the only ones who have been initiated properly.”

‘Gamma’? Who the hell was that? Carl was too pissed to even think about that right now. He just wanted to nail Omicron in the face.

“It’s an accident every single time the initiation is improper,” Omicron continued. “We’re not like them. It’s not our intention to steal away an entire person’s life. We wait until they’ve naturally met their end before we reach out. That’s why there’s so few of us operating at a time.”

“The hell are you trying to sound like a saint for?!” Carl growled.

Fortuna placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him from lunging at Omicron again.

“So long story short,” Fortuna drew, releasing Carl from her hold, “your resistors store your memories—your souls, what have you—and you take over people whenever you use them.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re disgusting.”

“The modified conductors you sell fuel wars and death. You end lives before they’ve naturally ended,” Omicron returned. “To me, you’re the disgusting ones.”

“Am I correct in my assessment that since resistors don’t accept new vitae, you aren’t capable of storing ‘additional memories’— for the lack of a better word— in them?” Alice pressed. “You’re stuck in the same state that you were in when you initially stored your vitae in these resistors.” Her eyes narrowed. “And if you’re using conductors—even if you replenish your vitae reserves through consumption of nutrients—since you usually don’t have the original person’s vitae, you’re slowly burning up your own vitae. Since no vitae can be added when you ‘return’ to the resistor then that means that you’re losing vitae and memories every time the resistor is used.”

“Theta was right,” Omicron noted with a chuckle. “You are a bright girl.”

“You’re whittling away, and you’re laughing.” Alice frowned. “All for what? In retaliation for what happened to Ophiuchus at the end of the war? That’s ludicrous.”

The atmosphere in the room changed suddenly, and a coldness pressed down on the heat that was building at the back of Carl’s neck. Omicron looked at Alice and seemed to be looking down at her despite the fact that she was sitting below her.

“How long do you think we’ve existed, little girl?” Omicron asked. “You think something comes into existence exactly when people ‘discover’ it? ELPIS has existed long before it started making headlines in your newspapers.”

Alice frowned, and her shoulders tensed. “You’re saying that you—”

“Ophiuchus was a country founded in a time of peace. There were no enforcers needed to define what peace was. That very idea is what’s ludicrous.” Omicron shifted her gaze to Francis. “I know this because, as Omicron, my father was one of the founding members of Ophiuchus. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed, expression tightening. “You’re delusional.”

“You look scared, peacekeeper,” Omicron noted. “But you’re a child in all of this, so that’s understandable. I actually think you’re quite brave.”

Alice remained silent. Carl kept looking to Allen for what to do next, but Allen remained as stony-faced as ever.

“Rest assured,” Omicron continued, “there are only twenty-six resistors in existence at the moment. There are—were—only twenty-six of us ELPIS leaders. The other lower members of ELPIS—most don’t have any idea of what the truth about us is. And, well, all twenty-six of us have different viewpoints on what to do with those members. But those are opinions and not fact, and I don’t want to bore you with politics.”

“That’s… absolutely ridiculous,” Alice finally said, pinching the bridge of her nose. She paused, lowered her hand. “And what about Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.” Her eyes were sharp. “Is he…”

“That would be Gamma,” Omicron said evenly.

Alice’s eyes widened a fraction. “You mentioned that name earlier. So that means that the initiation was…”

Omicron studied her face before she frowned sympathetically. “So you were familiar with that peacekeeper then. I’m sorry.”

For a brief flash of a second, Cadence paled out of the corner of Carl’s eye. When he looked at her, however, she simply looked perplexed causing him to wonder if he was just seeing things.

Alice’s expression did not change. “And was it one of you who did it?”

“No,” Omicron answered evenly, “it wasn’t.”

Alice fell into silence afterwards. Since she was the one asking the leading questions and seemed to be the only one who knew what all this ‘vitae’ stuff was about, the silence stretched on.

Finally Francis cleared his throat and asked, “Is there any way to reverse this?” He gestured to his abdomen. If he was disturbed by anything he’d heard, he wasn’t showing it.

Omicron’s gaze softened as she laid eyes on Francis, and she slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry… But it’s alright. Eventually the distinction between your two vitae will fade away.” Her voice was gentle. “I’m sure you’ve already noticed it. Having knowledge you haven’t gained in your personal lifetime. Remembering things that have never happened to you. The same thing is happening to Theta. You will bleed into each other, and—”

That was enough.

Letting out a roar of fury, Carl grabbed the woman and threw her down onto the floor, chair and all. “You. Bastard!” He cracked a fist against her face. “How! Dare!” Again. “You act so. Damn. Casual!” Thud, thud, thud. “After what you! Did to my! Brother!”

A gentle hand on the shoulder gave Carl pause. He turned. It was Francis, who was expressionless. But his eyes. They were almost angry.

“Enough, Carl.” Before Carl could even form a coherent thought, Francis brushed past him and righted Omicron’s chair. “Being violent won’t solve anything.”

The executives began to whisper amongst themselves which pissed Carl off more but Carl conceded and rubbed his knuckles with a grimace. Omicron merely jerked her head to get some of her hair out of her face and spat blood to the side.

Allen wordlessly pulled a packet of v-cigarettes from his pocket and tapped Carl and then Francis on the side of the arm before shaking two v-cigs out. Carl plucked one, ignited it with a flick, and took a drag. Francis glanced at the box, hesitating.

“Ya always were a womanizer even though ya keep saying that you’ll be a bachelor for life,” came a bite followed by a chortle. Cadence. She had been chatting at the peacekeeper for whatever reason after Carl had started his beating and now stepped in front of them.

Francis chuckled musically, pulled out the v-cig, lit it, took a drag.

Cadence was smart, Carl thought. She always knew what to say.

“Cadence,” Allen addressed her suddenly with a nod, “Francis didn’t have a clue about what’s been goin’ on here which is understandable. But by the sound of it, it seems like Cavallo doesn’t have a clue that its ELPIS that’s after us, meaning you didn’t tell him.”

Carl glanced between them in confusion.

Francis paused and stared at Cadence. “Cadence, you were here before?” He lowered his v-cig. “When?”

“I…” Cadence averted her gaze. It was the first time he’d ever seen her looking so ashamed. “When Allen, Carl, and Fortuna disappeared the first time, I got taken with them. But I disguised myself and managed ta slip out.”

Fortuna snapped to attention. “Cadence, are you serious right now? You were here with us? And you didn’t tell Cavallo what happened here? The Campanas?”

Francis’s brows knit. “You knew they were being held captive by ELPIS, and you didn’t tell me?”

“I… I’m sorry, Francis,” Cadence stammered. “I… I honestly didn’t know what ta make of it when I saw you actin’ like ya had no idea what was goin’ on. I didn’t know who ya were. And Tau—the commissario—knew that I was hidin’ right off the bat, and he threatened me to keep quiet and Alma—”

“Dammit, Cadence!” Carl snapped, grabbing her by the scruff. “The hell’s the matter with you?!

“I didn’t know what ta do!” Cadence snapped back. “I didn’t know what was goin’ on. I’m sorry, okay?! What was I supposed ta do?!”

“So we’ve really fallen right into their plan…” Francis surmised. He shook his head and took a puff of his v-cig. “Don’t get too worked up, Carl, Fortuna.” He nodded at Cadence. “It’s alright, Cadence. On a personal level, I understand where you’re coming from. On a strictly professional level, on the other hand—”

“It’s alright?” Fortuna parroted. “What about this is ‘alright’? Cadence, you had the perfect opportunity to get us out of this mess—”

“No offense, Fortuna, but how is that the perfect opportunity?” Cadence interjected. “I had no idea— and still don’t have an idea—of where this place is, and Tau had his eye on me. What if something happened to Alma?”

Francis sighed, took a drag.

“Alma?” Fortuna frowned. “Again?”

“Why are ya surprised?” Cadence asked. “I mean you were practically usin’ her ta make me investigate Francis, Allen, and Carl.”

“I knew it!” Carl growled, jabbing a finger in Fortuna’s direction. “You really did send Cadence after us! What—you can’t even trust us?”

Fortuna frowned. “How do you expect me to react? You were against my engagement to Ambrose from the very beginning. How is that not suspicious? And I needed your support!”

“Well, it’s good that you sent Cadence on ‘em seein’ what’s happened to Francis,” an executive interjected.

“Shut up!” Fortuna and Carl snapped in unison.

Allen took a drag of his v-cig.

The entire ordeal reminded Carl of the old days when they were younger:

Allen would throw a bone out. Cadence would play with it. Carl himself’d bite it. Francis would try to de-escalate and Fortuna would get pissed at Francis for de-escalating because she’d think he was being sly. Nico would cry and try to get them to stop fighting. Cadence would somehow reap the rewards. It had been their routine for years but since they hadn’t come together in a while, Carl had nearly forgotten about it.

“That is unacceptable, Morello,” Agape stated, arms crossed as she glowered down at Cadence. “You are an associate of the Romano Family. You’re poor decisions have—”

Suddenly, Francis gripped his abdomen with one hand and rubbed his temple with the other. Carl had seen his brother go through these motions before. Francis had been going through them ever since the night he was stabbed. During those bouts of pain, he’d down the doctor’s painkillers and saunter off to bed. Some days, he wouldn’t show face for hours after.

Carl released Cadence immediately. “Shit, Francis, you need your meds?”

Cadence placed a hand on his arm. “Carl, I don’t think that’s what’s happenin’.”

“I believe you are about to switch, Francis,” Alice said. She’d finally come out of whatever silent daze she’d entered earlier and turned to Francis all calm-like. She held her hand out placatingly—to the executives, not to Francis. “Don’t panic.”

Francis stiffened immediately, and he chuckled although he was clearly not amused. “Well, Miss Kingsley, it’s difficult not to panic when you say that…” He trailed off, eyes becoming distant.

“Cadence,” Allen said warningly.

Nodding, Cadence snapped her fingers and disappeared in a flash of copper. Carl shot a quick look back at Omicron but the woman’s gaze was focused solely on Francis.

“Shit, Francis,” Carl stammered, turning to his brother and gripping him by the shoulder. “You need to fight it or something! Don’t just give i—”

Francis slapped his hand away and shoved him back. Carl did a double-take, glancing back at the others. The executives and Agape skirted backwards nervously, while Allen and Fortuna remained firmly planted in place. When Carl snapped his attention back to his younger brother, Francis was no longer rubbing his temple. He wasn’t gripping his stomach either.

Carl stared.

Theta stared back at him.

Carl didn’t really know how he knew it wasn’t Francis anymore. He just did.

The ELPIS leader took a swift scan of the room, inspected the v-cig in his hands, frowned with mild disgust, sighed. “I see.”

Without addressing any of them, he unignited the v-cig with a flick of his wrist, placed it down on the game board as he walked past it, and reached Omicron’s side. He placed a hand on the woman’s cheek before undoing her bindings.

“Which one did this to you?” Theta asked once she was free. “Are you alright?”

“It’s not a big deal.” Omicron rolled her neck as she rubbed her wrists. Her gaze flicked to the area where Cadence had disappeared but didn’t say anything else.

“Where is her conductor?” Theta pressed, extending his hand out and waiting.

Carl grimaced, pulled the clunky thing out from his pocket, turned it over in his hand. Instead of tossing it to Theta, however, Carl walked right up to him and dropped it into Theta’s waiting palm.

“Oh, you’re much braver than before,” Theta noted, handing the conductor to Omicron.

“Never ‘fraid to begin with,” Carl grunted. “Be stupid to be afraid of my younger brother.”

“I see… You’re a bit too loose-lipped, Omicron.”

Omicron slipped her conductor on with a shrug. “Sorry, darling, you know I love to talk.”

A beat of silence.

Suddenly one of the executives stepped forward, brushing past Carl. “Wait, if all you’re saying is true. You ELPIS leaders are… You’re basically immortal.”

Theta sighed. Omicron cleared her throat.

“No,” Theta corrected, looking back or the executive, “this is the opposite of immortality. This isn’t even living. We are very much dead. The moment we bleached our vitae, we died. Every time we use our conductors, we burn away at the original vitae that was stored in our resistors. That vitae does not return to the cycle. Eventually, we will burn away completely and become nothingness.”

“Vitae cycle?” The executive scoffed. “Who cares about that?” He closed the distance between them and grabbed hold of Theta’s arm. “Hell, if that’s the case then sign me right up. I have the connections. I can make this organization big!”

Carl started forward without thinking, prying the executive from Theta and shoving the bastard to the ground. Omicron, meanwhile, pulled Theta backwards and stepped in front of him with a set frown. For a brief moment, Carl made eye contact with the woman.

Theta brushed past Omicron and stared down at the executive. “You want to join ELPIS?”

The executive swallowed.

“Let me show you what we plan to do here,” Theta drew, “and if you can stomach it then perhaps you show promise.”

Theta sank down to a crouch and placed his gloved hand onto the floor. It was painted entirely black, Carl realized. And in an instant, that blackness beneath them became engulfed in tangerine light and a cold wind rushed at them from below. A weightlessness tickled Carl’s stomach before the light faded and Carl was left in darkness.

It took just a second for Carl to realize that they were all outside.

The starless night sky unfolded above him, and for the first time in weeks Carl was able to breathe in fresh air. Shitty -tasting and -smelling fresh air, but fresh air nonetheless. The wind was harsh, cold, biting.

Carl stumbled forward in the dark—and nearly stumbled off of a ledge and plummeted down into the open air below. Allen caught him by the arm and pulled him up right.

They were standing on the tip of one the spires of the Dioscuri bridge. The v-train station was just below them and just below it was the glittering night lights of the city. From the surface of the bridge, the lights and people had looked like ants. From the tip of this spire though, they looked like specks of dust.

“This city is too entrenched in corruption…”

Theta’s voice was carried by the howling winds, and Carl turned to find his brother standing on the very edge of spire. He was facing the city and pointing outwards with a book. The book was open, spine facing up.

“Sometimes there are no other options. Some things cannot be salvaged.”

Theta flipped the book over so that its pages now faced the sky. He balanced the book carefully, holding it so that the city that stretched out before them was held on its pages.

“We will take the modified conductors we’ve taken from you and your warehouses and take them to the vitae reservoirs. We’ll fill the city with them.”

He slowly closed the book as a smile took the corner of his lips.

“And this city will sink by them.”

He turned to them, to the executive who was still on the ground.

“And while we will save the children who have been taken advantage of due to these conductors, you will be set at the center stage. We will see this to the end even if we have to sink ourselves. Are you willing to make that sacrifice, Mr. Etoile?”

“T-That’s insane,” the executive stammered.

“That’s punishment.”

There was another flash of tangerine light from beneath Carl’s feet, followed by another rush of cold air, and then he was back in that windowless room. All of them were— though Carl had no idea if Cadence managed to escape or if she was still with them.

But as Carl counted heads, he realized there were two extras with them not including Cadence. A man and a woman were sitting at the game table which was now stacked high with the open pastry boxes. The commissario and Omega.

“What the hell is going on here?!” the commissario snapped, leaping to his feet when he saw them. He jabbed a finger in Carl’s direction. “Why are they out of their restraints?!”

Omega flipped her hair, plucked a nut pastry from the box, and began to nibble on it. “It looks like they went on a fun trip together, doesn’t it?

“We ran into some technicalities as people call it nowadays, but everything is fine now,” Omicron explained. She studied Theta’s face. “We should take you to Lambda.” She said glancing in Allen’s direction. “You had an allergy attack. I’m not sure how long the epinephrine will last.”

“You look like you’re in poorer shape than I am,” Theta responded.

“Then we can both go,” Omicron said lightheartedly.

“Wait a minute,” Tau snapped, gesturing wildly to Carl and those who stood beside him. “What about them?”

Omicron lifted her conductor and flicked her hand in their direction. The ropes scattered on the floor which were doused with her blood from her beating earlier glowed white and flew towards Carl and the others. In an instant, they were back in their chairs just as bound as before. No, it was tighter now. Back to square one.

“Before we go, I would like to finish the initiation,” Theta said. “Since the details are known.”

Omicron and Tau froze.

Carl didn’t like the sound of that either.

“Theta,” Tau said, “are you sure? I mean, you have Francis’s face and eventually, you’ll have some of his memories. We could still use that. His position. Or at least—”

“Shall I have it put in a place where it can’t be seen then? Like yours?” Theta asked.

Tau grimaced. “That’s not what I…”

“I understand where you’re coming from, Tau. And I understand your reasoning,” Theta said gently, “but I don’t want to have a place where I can return to this time. A reason to hesitate.”

Omicron placed a hand on his shoulder, and her expression folded. “Are you really sure…?”

Theta sank down to one knee in front of her in response.

“Where would you like it?”

Theta smiled. “I thought we already decided where ours would be. You were the one who suggested it.”

Omicron returned the expression. “I was just seeing if you still remembered.”

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed before placing a hand over his chest and bowing his head.

The room’s atmosphere changed suddenly, and Carl almost felt as if he was in one of his executive meetings. Formal, reverent, professional. Ceremonial.

Omicron asked Theta something in a language that Carl couldn’t understand. Theta responded back in that same language as he lifted his head. Omicron held out her ungloved hand to Tau. The commissario walked over to her, pulled out a knife from his belt, and cut into her palm. Unflinchingly, Omicron dipped her gloved finger into the blood that began to pool in her hand. She then began to trace something with her finger onto the right side of Theta’s face which was turned away from Carl.

Instantly, Carl realized what was happening. He didn’t know jack about vitae and still didn’t know jack about ELPIS, but he still had enough smarts to put two and two together.

Carl struggled against his bindings, but he already knew it was too late.

Omicron’s gloved hand hovered over the right half of Theta’s face and a pale white glow began to emit from it. When the light faded, Omicron lowered her hand and Theta rose to a stand. The two stared at each, exchanged a couple more words in that language, before both inclining their heads.

Tau wiped his blade clean and slipped it back into his belt. Omega gave a small, cheery clap from where she sat in her chair, and Tau followed suit.

“It looks good,” Omega hummed. “Congratulations!”

Theta turned towards Omega. And Carl no longer felt angry. He just felt sick.

A white snake tattoo divided by a slew of foreign letters consumed the right side of his brother’s face.

“Omega,” Theta said, placing a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I have a new warehouse location I would like you to place your mediums in and use my proto-conductor at.”

Omega did a loose salute. “You know you can always rely on me, Theta.”

Theta seemed to tighten her grip on Omega’s shoulder. “You should be careful when you go outside without traveling with my gates. The peacekeeper with the suitcase is in the city now.”

Omega saluted again.

Theta chuckled, musical.

After exchanging a couple more words with the other ELPIS leaders, Theta and Omicron left in a flash of pale tangerine side-by-side. Omega shoved the rest of the pastries into her mouth before she too flipped a proto-conductor in hand and disappeared into a portal she opened with it.

“See you next time, Tau,” Omega sang before she disappeared. “Enjoy the extra guest!”

And that left Tau, the bastard commissario, formerly Vincente Giustizia, sitting at the game board table. He glowered at them.

“You certainly chose a poor host didn’t you, Tau,” Agape finally said tersely. “Though I have to admit that this is an improvement.”

Tau arched a brow. “So they told you.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head as he loosened his tie. “Vincente Giustizia was stabbed in an alleyway outside of the Casa several months ago. By one of your workers, Agape Rosario. He bled out two blocks away from the hospital which was where Lambda used my resistor on him.”

“Bastard deserved it,” Carl grumbled. Francis didn’t.

“I agree,” Tau said. “Which is why I didn’t press charges against that Blanca Murio, though I’m sure she had enough of a punishment when she saw me up and walking.” Abruptly he snapped to attention and began to jab a finger at them. “And you bastards aren’t any better!”

And thus began another lengthy tirade. One that Carl didn’t really tune into. Instead, his mind drifted to Francis. They could fix this somehow, right? Undo it. There had to be a way.

“She’s here, isn’t she?” Tau abruptly asked, after taking five minutes to recollect himself. “Omega is a Manipulator, and she’s very good at manipulating items that can serve as observational mediums.” He scanned the room. “I’m talking to you, Morello. ‘Extra guest’.”

There was a beat of silence.

“I don’t give a damn about how you got in here, Morello, but the only way you’re getting out of here is through me,” Tau snapped, arms on hips. He patted his suit coat pocket. “I have a proto-conductor stored with Theta’s vitae here, and I sure as hell know you don’t have one—”

There was a shimmer of copper right beside the commissario, and he leaped backwards as Cadence appeared there.

“So ya’ve got that Omega doll under your wing for your mutiny spiel?” Cadence popped.

“Why are you back here, Morello?” Tau snapped, straightening his tie and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “And it’s not a damn mutiny spiel.” He recollected himself again and turned to her with narrowed eyes. “What I give a damn about is whether you have information about Omicron and the Campanas. If you don’t then you and your Alma—”

“All I know is what their product is,” Cadence said evenly.

“Their product?”

“I don’t know much about Theta and Omicron or about their relationship,” Cadence explained, “but the product is probably why Omicron’s tryna handle the Campanas herself down under.”

“Just get to the damned point, you short, yapping, ginger raccoon.”

“You’re gettin’ really good with your insults,” Cadence noted before she held up her hands placatingly and elaborated. “Their sellin’ Specialists…” She grimaced, lowering hands which told Carl that it wasn’t going to be pretty. “Specialist children. Probably orphans or kids whose parents sold ‘em—”

Tau slapped a hand over her mouth. He placed a finger to his lips and waited for Cadence to nod before he detached himself. “You’re one hundred percent sure about this?”

Cadence nodded, eyes wide.

Carl grimaced. The Campanas were bastards through and through. He knew he wasn’t a good man. He knew he wasn’t a smart man. But even he knew that selling children was a one-way ticket to hell.

The commissario looked like he was about to keel over. He pressed one hand to his mouth and one hand to his forehead. “No, no, no. Damn.” He sank into the chair beside the makeshift table and bit his fist. “You’re disgusting…. All of you. I hope when this city sinks into that damn bay, all of you drown in the damn ocean.” He shook his head. “If Theta finds out in his condition then…” He rose to a stand, shoved Cadence aside, and paced over to them. “If any of you value your damned lives, you better keep your mouths shut. If you think you’re suffering enough punishment now, then you’re in for a big damned surprised.” He whipped around to Cadence. “And you—”

Cadence had made it over to the wall and was now spinning an item in her hands. It looked like the proto-conductor they had been using to open portals with.

Tau’s hand immediately went to his suit pocket. His eyes widened. “You—”

Cadence twirled the proto-conductor in-between her fingers and tapped it against the wall. Tau rushed forward just in time for Cadence to slip through the portal she’d made there. The portal closed as soon as she stepped through it leaving Tau to crash against the wall.


Resistors are items we use in order to continue our goal of preventing the syzygy. Inside of them resides everything that makes us ourselves. Our souls, our memories, our vitae. Using these resistors on a recently deceased individual will allow our vitae and therefore—in a sense—they will become us. The ethics and effectiveness of this is constantly debated, but we hope that we will only have to continue this for a short while longer.

10.08.1601, Entry 105, ELPIS Records

10.[]-1: A Brother’s Greed (Carità)

Re-cap: Allen Foxman has been captured by ELPIS alongside Carl Foxman and Fortuna Romano. They discover that Caporegime of the Romano Family Agape Rosario and several other lower-tier executives have also been captured alongside them. A man who calls himself Theta and wears Francis Foxman’s face is among ELPIS’s leaders. And although Cadence has made her escape from the exitless room, Allen and the others remain in ELPIS’s clutches. The truth of ELPIS is just around the corner.  


(             )

The Foxman Family had its founding roots in an insignificant town in Aries. A place not even worth naming. Better to bury it. Because at the time it hadn’t been so much of a ‘Family’ as it was a ‘family.’ Frankly, in Allen’s opinion, it hadn’t been much of a family either.

The Reservoir War broke across the country a week after Allen’s birth. As his father liked to put it later, Allen’s birth was the “catalyst for misfortune.” Even now Allen wasn’t sure if the man had been referring to the war or the forced marriage that came following his conception. Probably both.

Allen hated his father to his very core. When he was young, Allen couldn’t really wrap his head around the feeling. As he grew older, he couldn’t wrap his head around why he’d feel something towards someone who was his father. Realization eclipsed at adolescence:

His father was a bastard with a hair-trigger temper. Whenever the man would return from the battlefront on leave, the first thing he’d do was demand that his mother hand over the stipend that came with his mandatory service which he’d spend on booze while they were left hungry. Then he’d demand a warm meal and some “special time” alone with her leaving Allen to care for Carl by himself for many long nights.

Eventually, all of that ‘special time’ led to his mother’s third pregnancy.

At the time of Carl’s birth, Allen was too young to understand the economic ramifications that came with a new life being added to the mixture. At Francis’s birth, however, Allen understood that his mother wouldn’t be able to work in the factories anymore since she’d have to look after both Carl and Francis.

What a moron, Allen had thought as he worked the factories on an empty stomach in her stead. Just another mouth to feed.

But one night when Allen was peering in Francis’s crib, his brother reached out for him with his small, grubby hands. Absentmindedly, Allen had extended his index finger out in turn. And when Francis wrapped his tiny little hand around that finger, Allen knew he was screwed.

Allen began to worry as he neared drafting age. He wasn’t worried about dying in the war. He worried about the repercussions of his death. What would happen to his mother, what would happen to his brothers? What would they do if he wasn’t there to stand between them and his father?

It reached a boiling point when Allen returned from factory work one day to find his father home on leave and making his presence known. His father was making work of his favorite wooden chair, beating down on Carl who was covering Francis with his own body. His mother was cowering in the corner looking away and sobbing. Without hesitation, Allen had leaped in his father, wrestling the chair away from him only to be knocked to the ground and beaten with another wooden chair. Allen at the time hadn’t been thinking about his own pain. He’d been thinking of his brothers’ pain, thinking about how no one would step in for them when he was gone.

“You were an accident,” his father had grumbled when he had gotten in enough swings, “but your brothers were a damn mistake.”

And that was more than enough.

On that cool summer night, Allen had packed his brothers’ belongings in a small knapsack. He’d snuck into his parents’ room, collected the large wads of Ariesian bills out from where his father hid them beneath the floorboards, and placed a kiss on his sleeping mother’s cheeks. He ripped a newspaper article detailing how the Twin Cities of Gemini was becoming a booming economic center from the nightstand. Read it over. Picked Francis up, held Carl’s hand, and left that house without looking back.

It took them five v-trains and a lot of walking to reach the Twin Cities of Gemini. Once there, Allen rented a small place by the docks and informed his brothers that this was now home.

A couple days later Allen managed to snag a job as a laborer at the docks. It was cheap labor, but money was money. The boss liked him well enough and soon he shot up in the hierarchy. In between his working hours, he’d spend the time teaching Francis and Carl. School things. His brothers weren’t going to grow up dumb as bricks, that was for sure. Of course, despite all of Allen’s lessons, Carl still liked to solve things with his fists. Francis wasn’t as much of a lost cause. But neither used the textbooks to figure out how to bring more money to the table. Instead…

Sometimes Carl would beat the daily allowance out of the rich kids who would swagger through the streets pretending to be street rats. Other times, Francis would come home with pockets full of miscellaneous items like pocket watches, gold jewelry, and earrings. Allen never questioned either of them. Money was money.

One day Francis brought home an expensive-looking deck of cards. He’d said it was a gift from a friend and taught Allen and Carl a game he’d learned from that friend. So, they started playing card games to pass the time. Even started talking about future job prospects. Opening up a shop of their own. Maybe a bar. Allen knew the dreams were childish, but his brothers’ eyes were full of that stupid naivety so he fed into the delusions. A couple of days later, Francis brought home the regaled friend.

“She’s from Aries,” Francis had said. “Like us.”

The orange-haired little girl with the freckled cheeks introduced herself as Cadence Morello and happily helped herself to their pot roast dinner.

Another mouth to feed.

But Cadence contributed more than enough to the household. She’d bring home pockets full of all kinds of knickknacks and sometimes even food. Allen never questioned her. Money was money.

Cadence later introduced them to a seventeen-year-old named Brussi.

Brussi ran a pickpocketing gang of similarly-aged boys and girls on the east side of the city and had recently taken up a morrowheat smuggling job for a larger gang in the area. He wanted to borrow the warehouse for a couple of days to store the product in exchange for money.

It was a risk, Allen had thought at the time. He could lose his job and get fired. But then Allen had thought of Francis’s worn-down shoes, had thought of Carl’s raggedy shirt, and had affirmed a simple fact. Money was money.

“How about I offer you something better?” Allen had asked, sealing his and his brothers’ fate—maybe, Cadence’s too. “Work for me, and you can use the warehouse any time you’d like. Pay you extra too.”

After some thinking, Brussi had accepted the deal, bringing his gang into Allen’s personal fold. Their ring of delinquents grew and soon they had absorbed the entirety of the Pollux Bay. It wasn’t that soon after that that they were approached by Ricardo Romano and Bendetto.

***

The night Francis was stabbed all three of them had been fighting over what to do with the Campanas. Francis had left to cool his head but instead got a knife to the gut.

Allen knew they had chosen this life, and this was one of the risks that was in the contract. Going into this business without expecting an outcome like that was stupid. Still, on that night, Allen had spent over a quarter of his secondary savings getting Francis treated and another quarter of it hunting down the elusive perpetrators.

Money was money, but family was family.

Francis had latter politely berated Allen for spending so much money on him after he had recovered. But Allen figured he hadn’t spent enough. Because… he knew something wasn’t right with Francis after the incident. And it wasn’t PTSD or trauma like the old doc said. It was something else. It had been just a feeling at first—that something was off. It was like one of those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles Nico like to play with Fortuna when they’d been younger. And Allen knew that money wouldn’t be able to resolve this issue.

***

And then Allen found himself captured by ELPIS and at the mercy of Francis who was playing the character Theta. Francis spouted nonsense about not being Francis, but Allen knew his brother well enough to know that wasn’t the case.

Not long after a disguised Cadence had left with the commissario’s group following their capture, the women called Omega and Iota also left. Omicron eventually left too, leaving ‘Theta’ alone with them.

Theta spent the most time out of all the ELPIS leaders within the exit-less room. But Theta didn’t do much except read when he was there. He was shockingly—almost laughably—lethargic. He would often sit in one place for hours without moving while flipping through books. Other times, he would drape himself half across the makeshift game table, prop a book up on its edge, and continue on reading that way. Once he’d even laid across the floor.

There were only two times that Theta would show a hint of energy. The first was whenever the brats from Matilda’s gang would come. The second would be whenever Omicron would stop by.

Omicron would always bring gifts when she visited. Mostly books and food—although Francis had never been a bookworm nor a foodie. They were expensive gifts. Books hand-bound in leather with embossed pages, sometimes studded with gems. Delicacies straight out of a Cancerian five-star restaurant. Patisseries and gold-dusted dishes, all served on silver platters.

Theta accepted all the gifts graciously and spent Omicron’s visits dining with her at the board game table. They’d whisper to each other quietly, but not quietly enough for Allen not to overhear.

“You’re a ridiculous person,” Theta’d say.

“I haven’t seen you in such a long time. If I didn’t do this, then I’d be ridiculous,” Omicron would reply.

Omicron was ‘generous’ enough to offer them the food she’d brought along. But she didn’t have the decency to untie them so that they could feed themselves.

The peacekeeper—Alice or something—would refuse every single meal Omicron brought.

“It’s most likely that their way of using conductors is through vitae particles in the blood,” Alice informed them coolly. “It’s unorthodox, but if that is the case then consuming that—well—I’m sure you’re able to picture the consequences of that. You’ve seen it with that Amaril person.”

That was disgusting. But given what had happened to Amaril, Allen figured the other executives and himself had already been screwed over by it much earlier, so he helped himself to the meals. It was free.

Overhearing Alice, Theta had said, “You really are clever. I did do that to the other executives, but I assure you that this food is perfectly uncontaminated.”

Casual conversation was rare with Theta. Most of the time, he’d only ask about the locations of their other warehouses. During the questionings, he would send the interrogated’s limbs, fingers, and sometimes even their heads through one of his flashy portals. Allen had no idea where those things went, but whenever one of the interrogated would have their head put through one of them, they’d start running their mouth immediately upon their return.

Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Agape had yet to be subjected to the torture. Allen supposed that just meant that Theta really wasn’t suited for ELPIS.

***

One day a girl from Matilda’s gang whom Allen vaguely recognized stumbled into the room from the light-doors in a flurried panic. She was very small with a clean face and hair that was carefully combed. She certainly didn’t look like she wandered the streets. ELPIS must’ve been taking very good care of her, Allen figured.

Theta was the only ELPIS leader present at the time and had set his book down as the girl rushed to him. The girl was cradling something in her hands and held it to him with hopeful eyes.

“C-Can you help him?” she stammered, voice wavering.

“What happened?” Theta asked, sinking down and inspecting what was in her hand.

“Some of the boys on the street were throwing rocks at him, and he got hit.” The girl peered into his face. “Can you help him?”

Theta silently held out his gloved hands, and the girl placed what was in hers into his. It was light, small, round, feathery. A bird.

“He’s already gone,” Theta concluded without hesitation.

The girl’s face crumbled and tears began to form. “No… oh no…”

He’d certainly gotten rusty with his people skills, Allen thought.

“It’s nothing to be sad about,” Theta said, cupping his hands around the bird fully and concealing it from sight. “All that has happened is that this part for him has ended. His vitae will leave his body and rejoin the cycle of vitae.”

There was a soft tangerine glow in Theta’s cupped palm, and when he opened his hands, the bird was gone. Up from his open palms floated orange orbs of light. Fireflies.

“That’s the ultimate fate for everything that contains, vitae,” Theta continued, the light from the insects casting warm light onto his face. “Nothing ever ends. Not really. It just becomes a part of something else.”

“So, maybe,” the girl sniffled, “in one cycle… parts of you and parts of me will be together…?”

Theta’s smile dropped slightly. “Not everything returns to the cycle, Lia… Some things are spliced out from the cycle and can never return. Once these things leave, their only fate is nothingness.”

“N-Nothingness?”

“Do you want to become nothingness, Lia? To disappear forever when you die?”

Lia shook her head.

Theta smiled thinly and placed his hands on the girl’s cheeks. “Good. Then you shouldn’t listen when the others ask if you want to join ELPIS. Whatever color is inside of you is what makes you you, Lia. A very beautiful color. You will make whatever you become a part of very beautiful. You will paint your existence into everything.”

Lia raised a hand and clutched Theta’s. “And you and Omicron?”

Theta pulled away his hand. “The moment you choose to become ELPIS, you become nothingness. The moment your vitae becomes white is the moment you can never go back. When you die, there will be nothing of you left. Do you want that?”

Lia shook her head vigorously.

Theta reached up to wipe the remnants of tears from her eyes. “Good girl. Now, go back to the library and read those books I told you about.”

The girl nodded again, catching one of the fireflies in hand before she left the room through a glowing doorway. Theta stared at the wall after she disappeared, the fireflies still floating around his head.

“How are you able to get people to join your ranks?” Alice asked suddenly. “Since you’re so adamant about nothaving people join your ranks.”

Theta slowly turned, drifted over to the woman, stared down at her. “How are you able to recruit people to join your peacekeeping organization…? How are you able to call yourself a peacekeeper…? Do you think you’re keeping the peace? You ask me all of these questions without questioning yourself.”

“You must really think lowly of us peacekeeping agents,” Alice returned, “if you think we don’t question our purpose and effectiveness.”

“It’s only natural…” Theta replied after a beat. “Someone who wasn’t born in a time of peace wouldn’t have the knowledge to implement a time of peace. You can use references, but if you’ve never experienced it, it’s still impossible. It was convoluted from the very start.”

Rather than lethargic, Allen realized as he listened to Theta continue on and on, it was more like he was gloomy.

“… So you truly operate solely based off of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Alice drew.

Allen had no clue what that meant. Didn’t look like Carl—unsurprisingly—Fortuna, Agape, or any of the other executives had any idea either.

“‘Hypothesis’ implies that it has yet to be proved,” Theta replied. “This is no hypothesis. It is law.”

“Laws are things that have rigorous research behind them proving that they’re true without a reasonable doubt,” Alice said coolly. “From my knowledge, that isn’t the case with the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

Theta stared at her. “Is it customary for a peacekeeper to be this stubborn?”

“I just want to understand,” Alice amended. “Your hate for conductors, your actions, your leaders, your wayward recruitment strategies—what exactly is your goal?”

Theta considered her question with a hand on the chin. “…While our goals may be lost in translation as more people join our ranks, our end goal is to prevent the syzygy.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to anyone else. “And because of that those disgusting generator conductors and vitae reservoirs need to be destroyed… and those True Conductors….”

“The syzygy?” Alice pressed. “What is that? A religious event in your belief system?”

Theta chuckled, sounding hollow. “If we were to speak in such terms, I would call it an apocalyptic event.”

***

Allen first witnessed how ELPIS solved their internal arguments and issues when the commissario and Iota started yapping about what to do with their underling in the Campana family. They shouted at each other for about fifteen minutes before settling in front of the game board and playing in silence. At the end of it, the commissario won and a scowling Iota agreed to his choice.

Allen personally found it ridiculous to solve problems with a board game. It made no sense. You could be cheated out by your opponent just like that. But ELPIS didn’t seem to fill their ranks with cheaters. Surprisingly, every person who played the game seemed to play fairly and honestly, regardless of how long the game took. Even Theta played by the rules which was a unique sight to see.

***

“I’ll tell you where our warehouses are. The ones the other executives don’t know,” Fortuna said one day. “On a set of conditions.”

Omega and Theta were the only two ELPIS leaders present when she said this and both turned away from their board game in mutual surprise.

While Agape sent Fortuna a whisper of protest, Allen kept his mouth shut.

“I said you knew what your position was before,” Theta said, turning back to the game and moving a playing piece, “but if you’re saying those things, perhaps my initial assessment was incorrect—”

“A game. The game you’re playing right now,” Fortuna interjected. “For every game you win, I’ll answer exactly one question. It could be a question about one warehouse. It could be a question about one of anything.” She lifted her chin. “But for every game I win, you have to answer one question for me.”

Agape now looked like she was about to keel over. Carl looked baffled.

Omega chuckled airily, covering her hand with her mouth. “Are you sure about that? Only Omicron has ever won while playing a game against Theta, and she’s only won about two percent of their matches.”

Fortuna lifted her chin. “Those odds seem fine to me.”

Theta gave a hum. “Okay. It would be more reasonable to gain information this way instead of through torture. More civilized.”

“But I’d like to move the table in front of them,” Fortuna continued, nodding her head up and down the row.

This gave Theta pause. “Why?”

“Cheating,” Fortuna stated.

“Cheating?”

“If you’re cheating then my associates will be able to catch you,” Fortuna said evenly. “I’m already at a disadvantage since I’ve never played before, and I don’t want to increase my disadvantages.”

“And if you cheat?”

“Then maybe I’d even the playing field.”

A chuckle, musical. “That’s acceptable.”

Omega undid Fortuna’s bindings while Theta moved over the make-shift table, chairs, and game board. The books making up the make-shift table were mostly history books—there were multiple editions of Countries of Signum—and a handful of journals with faded and archaic dates listed on their spines.

Theta explained the rules of the game which was called ‘Itero Recino’ to Fortuna. Each side had twenty-six different pieces, and each piece could move a certain way. Eaten pieces were removed from the table. But if a player captured an opponent piece that was the same type of piece as one that the opponent had previously captured, the player received the opponent’s piece and the previously captured piece back. It seemed simple but convoluted at the same time.

As expected, Fortuna lost the first round. The first round itself lasted thirty minutes, and at the end of it Fortuna offered up information on one of the Romano Family’s higher-tier warehouses. A warehouse that even Allen had no knowledge of.

But instead of focusing on Fortuna’s losses, Allen focused on Theta’s motions. Every single person had ticks they weren’t aware of. Maybe they’d lick their lips when they did a particular action. Maybe they’d run their hands through their hair when nervous or look up when lying. In the end, a person’s habits were their downfall. And with a bit of observation and underhanded hand-signaling to Fortuna on their end, she could probably win at least one round.

Fortuna lost three more rounds before Theta suddenly excused himself and left the room in a flash of tangerine light. Omega hummed to herself as she re-tied Fortuna to her chair, while Agape and the other executives kept silent dread. The Romano Family had divulged the location of three high-tier conductor warehouses in a span of four hours, after all. Lots of money down the drain.

Theta returned some unknown hours later but didn’t engage in another game. He did the next time though, and Fortuna lost again. Game, read, game, read. He flipped between the two as if the results didn’t matter to him. Gradually, however, the length of the games became longer and longer until they started lasting over an hour.

One day Theta came back looking worse for wear. He stumbled in hair dripping with rainwater and was for once not dressed in his usual turtleneck sweater. Instead, he wore a familiar-looking suit. After drying himself off, he undid Fortuna’s bindings and they continued their game from the last time.

“What makes you think you’re so much better than us?” Fortuna asked suddenly as she ate one of his pieces. “You do terrible things, but you justify it by saying it’s ‘necessary’. People like us are the same way. We do things because we view what we do as ‘necessary’. Our intentions may be different but the results are the same.”

Theta stared at her. “You haven’t won a game yet but you’re asking questions.”

Fortuna tensed. Swallowed.

“But yes, that is certainly a valid point,” he said, returning his attention to the game board. “While you are domestic terrorists, we are international terrorists. That’s set in stone. I’ve read the articles about the things we as ELPIS have done in the past. The real question is whether or not the ends justify the means…”

He stopped short, stared up at the ceiling.

“The more I think about it, the more uncertain I become. The easiest answer would be to not think about it at all, but that would be irresponsible. Perhaps….” He mumbled something into his hand. “Yes, that’s not so bad. There’s hope in that. And hope is all that is needed. For them. Perhaps not in your viewpoint but in ours—rather, mine. But still that seems too easy…”

“What the hell is he talking about,” Carl whispered beside him.

A flash of light and an updraft of air cut Theta’s ramblings off short.

It was Omicron, entering the room with two large white pastry boxes in hand. She hadn’t come around these past several days, so Allen had assumed that she’d died in a ditch somewhere.

Theta turned back to look at her. After a moment, he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“We ran into that suitcase peacekeeper again,” Omicron said with a grimace. “I had to take Iota to Lambda.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed.

“That peacekeeper is dangerous,” Omicron muttered, “and Ophiuchus’s increased their agents here. Our gate in front of the Casa is completely blocked off. I also spent the last of your vitae in the proto-conductor….”

“I can refill it for you,” Theta replied offhandedly.

“Thanks—but I do have good news,” Omicron continued, falling into step beside him. She popped open one of white boxes revealing a collection of assorted pastries. She paused, blinked at Fortuna as if finally noticing her, and then stared down at the game board. “What’s going on?”

“Fortuna Romano challenged me to a match of Itero Recino in exchange for information,” Theta replied. “I felt a bit nostalgic so I agreed.”

“Oh… How many times have you won already?” Omicron inspected the board with mild interest.

“If I win this one, it will be ten,” Theta replied. “But she is a quick learner.”

Omicron’s gaze flicked to Allen and the rest of the executive line up before she frowned. She followed Carl’s gaze to Theta’s hand, and her frown deepened. Instead of addressing anything, however, she plucked a flaky pastry topped with glazed nuts from the box and held it out for him.

Allen tensed.

“Open,” she ordered. “While it’s still fresh.”

Theta sighed. “You’re a ridiculous person.” But he opened his mouth anyways, and she popped it in. He chewed a bit and gave a nod of approval. “It’s good.”

Allen felt the tension leave his body immediately. He shifted his gaze away from their intimacy—

“Darling, what’s wrong?!”

Allen snapped up and found Omicron kneeling on the ground beside Theta. Theta himself had a dazed look in his eyes, and his face was being consumed by red splotches. His breathing was hard, shallow.

It was all too familiar.

“I…” Theta’s face contorted. “I can’t breathe…”

“Saints, Allen….” Carl whispered from beside him. “He’s got a…”

A peanut allergy.

Theta clutched his chest and began to slide off of the chair towards Omicron. Omicron caught him in alarm and lowered him to the ground, while Fortuna shot up to a stand and took several steps back.

“C-Conductor,” Omicron stammered. “Use your conductor. We have to get you to Lambda.”

Theta didn’t respond. Merely grimaced.

Allen bit the inside of his mouth, tested the bindings Cadence had loosened for him, and without hesitation tore right out of them. He rubbed his wrists as he rose to a stand, ignoring Agapes’ gape and Fortuna’s stare, and went immediately over to Theta and Omicron’s side.

Omicron blinked up at him in a confused and panicked daze before realization flashed across her face. She raised a conductor-gloved hand warningly. Allen grabbed her wrist, and she shoved him away in response. He returned the gesture right back at her.

“Enough. It’s an allergic reaction,” Allen stated, keeping his voice even. “You want him to die or you want him to live?”

She stared back at him tense, glanced down at Theta whose breathing was getting shallower, and pulled her arms away with a nod. Allen reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small case no bigger than his palm. He flipped it open, showed her the vial labeled epinephrine and the syringe within.

Allen had the doc and Nico teach him how to use this years ago after Francis had gotten his first allergy attack after Francis and Cadence had robbed a candy store and had inhaled their nut-filled rewards. After that incident, Allen had made Carl, Nico, and Cadence carry a case of medicine with them at all times, but once Francis had identified what his allergy was, he asked them to stop carrying it. Instead, he carried one himself. “It’s expensive,” Francis had said at the time while insisting that Allen stop carrying it too. But Allen figured that the hospital bill for Francis would be even larger if he didn’t have one of these on him all the time. And so, he’d been constantly keeping one of these on his person for all this time.

Allen stared down at Theta, studied his face, met his glazed eyes, reached a decision. He swiftly filled the syringe and carefully injected it into Theta’s thigh muscle. He sat back afterwards, pocketing everything carefully.

“Wait.” Omicron pulled the still shallowly breathing Theta onto her lap. “What now?”

“Well, usually we take him to the hospital or the doctors after so they can make sure everything’s fine.”

“I can’t,” Omicron said, eyes wide. “I don’t have a proto-conductor with Theta’s vitae. I need Theta’s vitae in it in order for it to work, and Theta’s in no condition to use a conductor. We’re stuck here until one of the others comes back.”

“Then we wait,” Allen replied calmly. “It takes a while for epi to get working. He’s still breathing and awake. Probably just anxious. There’s no point in panicking.”

“How can you be like that when he’s—”

“He’s what?”

Omicron’s eyes widened. She looked away from Allen and refocused on Theta. Hesitantly, she raised her hands to Theta’s face and began to whisper things to him in a language Allen had never heard of before.

She really was in love with him.

Damn.

A couple of minutes passed with them like that. Fortuna moved back to sit on her chair, while Allen remained seated where he was. Theta’s breathing gradually became even as the minutes ticked on, and some of the redness began to leave his face. He seemed to gain some of his alertness back because he lifted his gloveless hand to press against his eyes. A groan escaped from his mouth, and a grimace pressed his face as he lifted his hand away.

Relief broke across Omicron’s face immediately, and she reached for his cheek again. “Darling, I—” A hand on the wrist stopped her short.

A perplexed expression folded across Theta’s face as he gripped Omicron’s wrist and studied her. And then studied the left half of her face. His eyes widened, and he immediately pulled away from her, still gripping her wrist.

“What kind of joke is this?” he asked, tone even.

Omicron paled.

Allen studied Francis for a beat before he tried, “Francis?”

The man whipped to attention immediately, eyes widening in recognition, confusion, relief. “Allen? You’re…” He released Omicron and rose to a stand as his gaze swept to those behind him. “Carl… Fortuna… and Miss Rosario. You’re all… alive.” It looked like a weight had come off his shoulders.

Out of the corner of his eye, Allen could see Carl and Fortuna exchanging looks.

Still tense and keeping an eye on the frozen Omicron, Allen stood up and jerked his head towards his youngest brother. Francis arched a brow in turn and cautiously walked over to him, scanning the room with terribly masked confusion. The bindings, the board game, the books, the lack of windows and doors—Allen knew that Francis was taking it all in and trying to make heads-or-tails of it.

“What is this?” Francis asked. “Where is this? What’s going on? Are you—”

Allen gripped Francis’s shoulders tightly, stopping him short. “Francis.”

Francis arched a brow. “Yeah, Allen, what’s—”

“Francis,” Carl snapped, drawing Francis’s attention. “You’re Francis?”

Francis stared at him. “Who else would I be?” He paused, startled. “Carl, you look like you’ve been hit by a v-ehicle. What the hell happened?”

Carl’s face lit up instantly. “I knew it! I knew you weren’t some look-alike, and I knew you weren’t really with ELPIS. It’s that damn Omicron. That Manipulator!”

“… Manipulator? ELPIS….?” Francis glanced at Allen.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Agape muttered. “So you’re not Theta?”

“Theta?”

“We’re being held by the real deal ELPIS,” Allen said plainly.

Francis tensed, frowned, the relief in his face dissipating in an instant. “What…?”

“I’m sorry, Francis, but I can’t let this go any further,” Omicron interjected, rising to a stand with a somber expression. She lifted her hand and—

—and realized that her hand was no longer gloved with a conductor. Something Allen had noticed much, much earlier. Before she could understand what had occurred, Carl burst out from his bindings that Allen had figured had probably been loosened a minute before Omicron’s conductor was whisked away. He lunged at the woman, tackling her to the ground and pinning her in place as she squirmed beneath him.

“Cadence,” Allen grunted, “no need to keep hiding any longer.”

There was a familiar snap. And in a burst of copper light, Cadence appeared in front of them holding Omicron’s glove conductor in hand. “Ya know, if ya go announcin’ my presence like that then it’s real hard ta do my job.” She tossed the conductor to Carl who caught it and shoved in his pockets with a sneer.

Francis ogled Cadence. “Cadence? Why are you…”

“I followed ya here, Francis,” Cadence explained. “I saw ya wanderin’ the west side by yourself. Ya looked bent outta shape, and I was worried, so I… I dropped everything and followed ya and I…” She gestured loosely around. “…ended up here.”

It was weird. Hearing Cadence say she was worried. Made Allen wonder if there was something wrong in her head too.

“West side…?” Omicron whispered from beneath Carl. “What were you doing in the west side?!”

Carl snarled, rising to a stand and jerking her up with him. “You don’t get to ask the questions anymore, you hear—”

“I was…” A perplexed expression folded across Francis’s face, and he locked eyes with Omicron from afar. “I arranged a meeting with the Campanas about their feud with the Romanos. I was seeing if I could work something out since I had an inkling there was someone else pulling the strings. I headed out with Maximillian and a couple of the other guys, but…” He shook his head. “The details are fuzzy after that.”

Allen nodded at Cadence signaling for her to take over, gave Francis a pat on the shoulder, before going over to help Carl tie Omicron to a chair. Once Omicron was bound and useless, Cadence left Francis’s side to undo the peacekeeper’s bindings while Carl, Francis, and Fortuna freed the other executives. While the others collected themselves, Allen gave Francis a rundown of everything that had happened since they’d fallen into the exit-less room.

“I… don’t remember doing any of that,” Francis said after a beat. He looked up at Allen, pale. “Allen, I’m sorr—”

Allen placed a hand on Francis’s shoulder. “Don’t get yourself in a knot about it.”

Francis nodded before addressing the others. “I deeply apologize for everything I’ve done to you all. Even if I was under the influence of a Manipulator, I—”

“Yeah, well, I think we should tie you up too, Francis,” one of the executives muttered. “If this is manipulation, we don’t know when you’ll crack and start shovin’ us through those damn creepy things again.”

“You talk a lot of talk,” Carl growled at the executive, taking a threatening step forward, “for someone who was sobbin’ out the warehouse locations just a day ago.”

“No, Mr. Etoile has a point,” Francis said. “We don’t know if the Manipulator responsible is actually Omicron. We don’t even know if the perp is actually a Manipulator. Manipulating a living being to this degree is unheard of it. We could be dealing with a Specialist.”

Allen frowned, and he looked over to find Carl frowning too. So was Cadence.

Francis was knowledgeable when it came to people and law, but when it came to things like vitae and conducting-types, he always referred to an advisor or a consultant. Where was all this coming from? Something wasn’t right here.

“Mister… Francis, was it?” Alice interjected coolly, arms crossed as she stared down at the bound Omicron. “You’re correct in saying that you weren’t at the mercy of a Manipulator. That much is obvious. If you were, you would still retain memory of your actions, and you wouldn’t operate with an independent and unique personality.”

Omicron said nothing.

“You’re still looking at Francis with affection despite everything that’s happened,” Alice continued. “Why is that? You ELPIS leaders… what is it that makes you tick?”

“I don’t care for your words, peacekeeper,” Omicron returned with disinterest before locking eyes with Francis. “But you…” Her gaze softened. “You deserve to know.”

Francis stiffened before nodding. “…Tell me then.”


Allen Foxman serves as the head of the Foxman family. He is wise in his investments and always cuts corners where he needs to. His main weakness is his strength. Filial affliction. If one wished to hurt the Foxman family, targetting just one of the heads would suffice.

Please see card #400 for information regarding finances. 

Information card #145, Category F,  Astante’s Brokering Files

7.2: Cadence’s Family (Conoscenti)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. After investigating an attack on a bar belonging to the Foxman Family who share business relations with the Romano Family, Cadence has discovered that Romano Family executive Verga has been siphoning off illegal conductors from the Romano Family. Banding together with a group of street orphans who were wronged by Verga and who are headed by Matilda, Cadence is able to successfully reveal Verga who is switfly put down. A mystery still lies, however, in the mysterious cargo Verga had claimed to be shipping for ELPIS. 

Three months later, the city appears to be brewing once more with the death of the mayor and an attack on one of the Foxman brothers.

Twin Cities, Gemini

The synchronization meetings that Werner liked to hold at the beginning of each week were events Cadence actually enjoyed. But calling them meetings did them a disservice. Despite Werner’s attempts to keep things professional and controlled, they always unraveled into something resembling the chaos that graced cheap, late-night bars. Mostly in part thanks to Maria—but Cadence liked to think she had a hand in at least one or two of the derailments. Of course, neither Werner nor Olive found them particularly amusing and Atienna always tried to patch up the whole mess as gently as possible.

Still.

It was fun to pretend that they were more than a couple of randoms forced to work together due to mystical circumstances.

That being said, despite the get-togethers being enjoyable, Cadence could have done without it this week. She had two other meetings of high importance lined up after all. Two important meetings just because some guy fell in love with some girl.

Cadence paused on her stroll through the city on top of a small bridge as she thought on this. She peered down at her reflection on the softly rippling canal below her. She understood the sentiment. Falling in love and causing a bit of chaos. Love. The one thing that could conquer everything and anything.

Cadence frowned a bit. Her outfit wasn’t very appropriate for the meeting she was heading to, was it? Just her usual overly large suit that she still hadn’t gotten to the dry cleaners yet. It wasn’t really presentable for this kind of meeting, right?

Damn. Werner was rubbing off on her.

A gondola passed beneath her distorting the reflection.

She pulled away and snapped her ringed fingers. The usual glowing copper light began there at her fingertips before sliding up her arm to her shoulders to her other arm to her legs. When the light faded, she gave the gawking passersby a wink before inspecting her reflection again.

A crisp, well-fit reverse monochrome suit, and—

She touched her beaten hat and watched as it transformed into a black fedora in a flash of light.

“Perfect.”

***

The building that housed her second meeting of the week was one that everyone knew belonged to the Romanos. Like everything in this city, it was hidden under a false guise—an art museum. And what a grand art museum, it was.

Wide, polished marble stairs unfolded up to a path lined with the pillars that held up a stucco roof. The pathway, in turn, led to great glass doors that reflected back the dim city lights.

Climbing the stairs took great effort as did the walk to the doors. But it wasn’t bad. The weather was pleasantly warm with a soft wind blowing up from the south, and the crickets were just beginning to sing.

When she entered the building, she was met with a cold updraft, veiled darkness, and a burly man who gave her a once over and then a nod of approval. The v-lights in the place were dim, and she had to inch forward slowly in order to not trip over the rug. She could barely make out the glass cases of pottery that lined the walls and the abstract murals hung up on frames behind them. Not that she needed light to tell what they looked like. She used to sneak in here all the time with Nico, the Romano children, and the younger Foxmans when she was a kid. All to try and see if they could sneak into one of the executive meetings.

She slipped through the back door which was also guarded by another burly man and stepped into a different world.

A large ballroom unfolded before her. Glittering, gray chandeliers hung high above velvet-tiled floorboards and cast shattered rays of light across the pale walls and r square dining tables that dotted the room. At the center of it all was a large circular wooden table above which a grand chandelier twinkled. A spotlight on a stage.

Men and women huddled in loose yet tight circles with eyes that flickered, hands that gestured, smiles that assured. Waiters and waitresses weaved in and out of the sea of chatter smoothly, efficiently.

A pleasant place, a tourist might think if they took a quick glance around.

But appearances were deceiving.

Cadence weaved through the crowd, offering friendly handshakes and tips of the hat to the bigwigs. There was old Caporegime Donato, who once again asked her to transmute a couple of lottery tickets for him. He had a bad leg from the war and had unfortunately dragged along his son who had an attitude that even put Olive’s to shame. Feliciano Donato, a twenty-something man with a square jaw and narrow eyes that always seemed to be scheming and who wielded his father’s status like a police baton. Cadence didn’t really know the younger Donato too well, but she heard enough about him from the Foxmans to keep their conversation pleasant and short.

Then there was Caporegime Agape whose name meant love but whose Family-designated duties meant anything but that. Although she was a small woman, her presence was like none other. Whether it was due to her hawk like eyes, the deathly tight bun she always wore, or her bright red lipstick, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Maybe it was all three.

As usual, Agape appraised Cadence’s body from beneath her librarianesque glasses as they spoke of the hosts and hostesses working at her business front. As usual, Agape said, “If you’re not going to work in the medical field as a Transmutationists, you might as well come work for me. Being able to change what you look like would be very popular with the patrons.”

To which Cadence responded with, “I’m already popular with your patrons by personality alone, Agape.”

Cadence greeted Caporegime Benedetto, the realtor, next. Benedetto was a large man that made everyone in the room seem like dwarves. He had bad burn scars eating up half his face from the war and always seemed to be grimacing, but his loud and booming laugh was jolly enough to brighten anyone’s day. Even Verga had gotten along with him before he’d kicked the bucket.

Cavallo received Cadence’s next greeting, but the old man kept the conversation short and brief, stating that he had other people he needed to greet too. Or maybe he thought he was above her now since he’d recently been given the title of Caporegime. Cadence didn’t blame him. It was natural.

A minute later she spotted the police comissario of the city intermingling with one of the lower-ranking executives and immediately ducked her head. Vincente Giustizia. Although Ricardo paid the comissario off well enough, he was still someone she didn’t want remembering her face too well. The man was praised for his pretty boy face and suave personality, but he just rubbed Cadence the wrong way.

After making her last round greeting the Romano heads and a couple of their underlings, Cadence laid eyes on someone who was not intermingled with the rest of the chattering crowd. She approached this person slowly, thoughtfully, and then reached out to tap her shoulder.

“Hey, doll, what ya doin’ all by your lonesome?”

Matilda jumped and swiveled. Her lacy white dress flowered outwards at her turn. Her hair had grown out even more over the past couple of months and was tied into a neat ponytail. The tenseness in her shoulders eased slightly as she met Cadence’s eyes.

“Not gonna mingle with the others? Ya seem like that the social butterfly type, y’know?”

“I don’t know why I accepted the invitation. I don’t even understand what this is all about.” Matilda frowned, traced the butterfly-shaped birthmark on her face, crossed her arms stiffly. “I’m not like anyone here.”

It was hard to tell whether Matilda’s disdain was directed towards herself or to the others surrounding her, but Cadence had an inkling. The swindler cast a glance around the room and hummed in thought before flashing a grin. “Nah, ya fit in just right. I mean with the way you and your pals have been deliverin’ the goods these past couple of months, it’d be weird if ya didn’t get a pat on the shoulder. Saints! You’re practically parta the Family now!”

Matilda’s face brightened only briefly. There was still that dim fire in her eyes. Leftover embers from that night in Warehouse 13 three months ago.

“Word of advice. Take it easy and fake your confidence till ya make ‘cause there’s a lot of people out there who’d do more than kill ta get where you are.” Cadence pulled away with a tip of her hat. “And don’t think about it too much. There are times ta think and times ta enjoy.”

With that, Cadence re-entered the social sphere. She chatted up several of the waitresses who were walking around with platters of food and wine and was just about to get a phone number when—

“Well, you’re lookin’ unusually sharp today, Cadence,” came a rumbling voice that carried all the way over from the large round table at the center of the room.

The table was evidently much more lovingly attended to than some of the others. Expensive wines and half-eaten sirloin steaks and other foods Cadence didn’t recognize were piled up on there. The extravagance made sense. This was a table for executives, after all.

“Hey, what are ya implyin’, Mr. Carl Foxman?” Cadence approached the two men dressed dark green and dark blue suits seated there. The man in the dark green suit grinned while the one in dark blue suit remained impassive. “I’ve always been the most attractive one outta all of us.” She spied the empty seat to Allen’s left. “Is Francis doin’ any better?”

“Yes, he is,” came a voice from behind paired with a musical chuckle. “And I have to agree with Allen. You look nice.”

Cadence looked over her shoulder. And broke into a grin. “Francis! Well look at ya. The way they were all talkin’, I thought ya was a goner after ya got stabbed. Shouldn’t ya be restin’ a bit more or somethin’?”

“You’re starting to sound like the old doctor, but I do appreciate the concern.”

Cadence turned on her heels with a shrug. “I mean ya just called Carl Allen. I know ya guys are brothers, but I expected that sorta slip from Carl not you.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just pullin’ your leg, Carl, ya know that.” Cadence chortled.

Francis was dressed in his go-to crisp, dark maroon suit with his usual loosely slicked back hair. There were faint dark circles beneath his eyes—not the kind that could easily go unnoticed. Cadence didn’t have time to address it because the man was soon shaking out a cartoon of v-cigs in her face.

Waving off the offer, Cadence arched a brow. “Aw, come on, Francis, stop teasin’ me like that. Ya know I’m tryin’ to abstain from that kinda stuff.”

Francis lit a v-cig and put it to his mouth. He took a drag. “I thought I’d try at playing devil’s advocate.”

“Sure you should be doin’ that?” Cadence nodded to the cigarette. She craned her neck back towards Allen. “Nothin’ the eldest Foxman has to say?”

“Francis is an adult,” answered Allen.

“Smoking ain’t bad for you anyways,” Carl said as he accepted a cig from Francis. “That’s all propaganda. Tryna kill good business.”

“I’d expect the money talk from Allen but not from you,” Cadence returned, amused.

Francis took a seat beside Allen before taking another drag and gesturing to the chair across from him.

Cadence found herself arching a brow again. She chuckled. “That’s kind of ya, Francis, but ya know that—”

“Only don of the Romano Family and executives are permitted to sit at this table,” came a voice from behind.

Francis looked past Cadence and smiled. “Fortuna, it’s good to see you.”

“Aw come on, Fortuna. Can ya go one day without pickin’ on me?” Cadence sighed, giving Francis a look. “Besides, ya don’t really fall into any of those categories either, do ya?”

“If you think I’m not going to use Ricardo’s status to my advantage to combat my other disadvantages, then you’re naive,” came the reply.

“If I talked about my father like that, he’d beat me into a coma,” Carl scoffed. “And what’s this about disadvantages? I remember when we were younger—”

“Carl, careful. This isn’t the time or the place for that sorta talk,” Allen interjected, not even looking up from his steak. “This is a meeting between business partners, not friends or family.”

A mirthless chuckle. “Hearing you talk, I can tell that you four really haven’t changed at all.”

Cadence turned on her heels.

There she was. The girl.

Fortuna Romano.

Her wavy dark hair was tied in an elaborate bun that blossomed from the back of her head like petals of a flower. An equally dark dress hugged her neck and arms and ghosted her calves. Earrings that resembled the chandelier above their heads twinkled above her shoulders.

Fortuna was cute, alright. She’d always been the best looking one out of all of them. When they’d used to run through the streets wild causing trouble, Fortuna’d always be let off easy when they were caught in the act. Carl had argued that it was because she was a girl, Allen had argued it was because of her status as Ricardo’s daughter, while Francis had insisted it was because Fortuna had a silver tongue. Cadence knew it was all the above and then some. Her fortunate circumstances were one in a million, but her drive was also one in a million.

Fortuna brushed past Cadence and took a seat at the table. She waved her hand and summoned a waiter to fill up a glass of wine. After taking a sip, she nodded in Francis’s direction. “You must be feeling well to be at your v-cigarettes again—though you don’t look it.”

“I appreciate the concern, Fortuna,” Francis returned, “but even if I had a foot in the grave, I wouldn’t miss an important event like this.”

“Your foot was in a grave.” Fortuna frowned, swirled her glass. “If this is you merely trying to prove the Foxmans’ resilience in response to what happened that night then—”

“A bunch of cowards—just thinking about that night pisses me off!” Carl snapped abruptly. His fist started shaking. “Once I get my hands on the bastards who did it, I’m gonna—”

“There’s no use getting worked up here,” Francis assuaged. “Besides, everyone knows we have no leads on who paid those goons to jump me.”

“No leads—what, Francis!” Carl snapped. “It’s obviously those Campana—”

Uh-oh. Not good.

“Say, Francis,” Cadence interjected, leaning over the table and looking the man up and down. “I heard ya really went all out that night. Took out some of the guys in the alleyway yourself like some sorta superhero.”

“Is that how they’re playing it on the street?” Francis looked away from Carl and appeared amused. The expression flitted away quickly. “Well, unfortunately, reality isn’t such a pretty picture. Stefano and Maximallian were the only ones of ours who made it outta there alive.” A glower. “And three of them got away. I can’t even remember their faces—”

A creaking sound cut their conversation short, and the chatter around the room suddenly died down. Cadence didn’t need to look up to know who it was. The change in atmosphere at his mere presence was enough of an identification.

It was the boss. Ricardo Romano.

Cadence clapped a hand on Fortuna’s shoulder and arched a brow. “Not sharin’ the grand entrance with the boss?”

Fortuna merely gave a quiet humph and took a sip of her wine.

Quickly, quietly, the individuals within the room shuffled to their respective tables. Like clockwork.

The Caporegimes and other executives didn’t even glance at Cadence as they seated themselves at the table in front of her. Those sitting at the square tables behind her, however—well, she could feel their stares. Why are you speaking with the executives, those eyes seemed to ask, who do you think you are? Talk about drama. Well, that was fine. It was the situation, after all.

Giving each of the four a tip of her hat, Cadence pulled away from them. She spied Matilda sitting stiffly at a table with two other men and headed towards her. Might as well keep her company, Cadence figured.

“Please, Cadence. Sit here. You are family.”

Cadence froze and turned her head. Ricardo locked eyes with her from across the room. She hadn’t seen him face-to-face in a month or so, but it seemed as if he’d aged ten years since then. The wrinkles on his cheeks were accentuated by the fragmented light of the chandelier, and there were circles darker than Francis’s beneath his eyes.

What was the old man playing at?

“There is an empty chair beside Fortuna for a reason, Cadence,” Ricardo continued as he seated himself in-between Agape and Cavallo at the table. “The matter we’re going to discuss also pertains to you, so it would be easier if you were here too.”

That definitely hadn’t been notated in the invitation. Well, maybe it’d been in fine-print somewhere. But Werner would have pointed it out if it were, so in the end this had all been a trap. Well played, Cadence concluded.

“I see,” Cadence returned with a feigned smile of realization. “I didn’t realize. Thanks for the invite.”

As Cadence seated herself beside Fortuna, she felt something prick her back. An intense stare. Living in the Twin Cities made one attune to these sorts of things. It was always best to know when one had eyes on them—wanted or unwanted. Rolling her neck, Cadence threw a subtle glance back in the direction of the stare.

It was Donato’s son, Feliciano. He was seated at one of the smaller square tables closer to the central main table, and his glowering intensified as their eyes met. Jealousy, probably. Cadence figured he had some sort of complex. But since he was Donato’s son, she couldn’t say much about it. And so, picking up the knife and fork set beside the plate in front of her, she began to make diligent work of the steak there. She popped a piece in her mouth and felt it melt on her tongue.

Saints, this was good.

Appearances. 

She placed her utensils down after savoring the taste and glanced up to find Carl still working on his steak. The clack of his fork against the glass plate echoed around the quiet hall. Instead of kicking Carl into etiquette as she had been expecting, Francis’s gaze remained fixated on Ricardo. Allen instead whispered to Carl. The latter stopped, choked a bit on the large piece of steak he’d just swallowed, and straightened himself with watering eyes.

“First off,” Ricardo began as he signaled a waiter for a glass of wine, “I would like to thank you all for submitting your selection for the next mayor. We will take into consideration all of your selections and compile them. Of course, this will take additional time and consultation with the recent developments.” There was a pause. “Which is, as I am sure you all know, the reason for why we’re here today, and I’m sure you all have your opinions on this matter. Additionally, due to this matter, we will move our discussion on Ophiuchus’s investigation of Verga’s ELPIS shipment to next week. But first—” He gestured across the table to Francis. “I am glad you’ve made a full recovery, Francis.”

Francis returned the smile cordially. “I appreciate your kindness, Mr. Ricardo. And as always, we are glad that you’ve invited us to such an important meeting.”

“Of course, Francis. The Romano Family and the Foxmans have shared a partnership for many years. Not consulting you about this affair would not only be rude but also dishonorable. While on the topic of your incident, I once again am offering the Romanos assistance in finding the culprit.”

“No need,” Allen interjected thickly. “This is something we’ll handle on our own. But it’s appreciated, Ricardo.”

Ricardo nodded. “Then we may move to the matter at hand. In regard to the Campana—”

A chime rang through the room as Fortuna finally placed down her glass and met her father’s eyes. “There’s no point in beating around the bush. Ambrose Campana has proposed to me.”

Whispers followed.

Agape shook her head, pushed up her librarian glasses, and pursed her red lips. “That’s absolutely ridiculous. The gall that boy has. He’s worse than his father. At least the don of the Campanas is better at hiding his intentions.”

“Agape, I understand your position puts you in a mindset that,” Donato said with a hum, rubbing his bad leg and then reaching for his fork, “gives you a jaded worldview on love and the like, but I like to have a little faith in humanity. And the youth of today. Love.”

Bendetto grunted in agreement from beside him and stroked his scarred chin. “I remember when I met my Lucy. You said we’d never make it, Agape, but look at us. Ten years and still going.”

“I agree with Agape,” said another. “The Campanas obviously want to gain a foothold in the Family and—”

“Ultimately, it’s my decision since I am the one being proposed to.”

Everyone turned their attention to Fortuna. She met each of their stares head-on.

‘You four haven’t changed’ was what Fortuna had said to them earlier, but Cadence figured that out of all of them Fortuna herself was the one who’d changed the least. Always straightforward and to the point.

“A union between the Campanas and the Romanos would be advantageous for the Campanas, yes,” Fortuna said evenly, “but it would also be advantageous for the Romanos. We would be able to expand our business to the west side and make use of the manufacturing plants there too.” Uncrossing her arms, she finished with, “Any hurdles that we could encounter on the way are nothing if you can see the bigger picture.”

“Fortuna!” A loud bang resounded around the room followed by the clattering of silverware. “How dare you!”

Cadence whipped her head forward and found Carl standing with both of his fists pressed against the table. His veins were visible on his neck which was beginning to turn an almost inhuman shade of red.

“Hey now, Carl,” Cadence tried.

“Stay out of it, Cadence!” Carl jabbed a finger in Fortuna’s direction. “You know the Campanas are behind what happened to Francis!”

Cadence winced and glanced at Francis, but the youngest Foxman’s attention was still fixated on Ricardo instead of his brother. Cadence felt something crawl up her spine as she registered his expression. Something about it was familiar. Hot, burning ha—

“They went after us because we refused to do business with them!” Carl snapped, slamming his fist back down on the table. “Because we are loyal to you!”

Fortuna exhaled. “You think the Campanas would risk a war with us over something like that? That aside, what’s all this about loyalty? The Romanos and the Foxmans are business associates. If profit appears elsewhere, the Romanos are going to invest in that profit. That’s all there is to it.”

Carl faltered for a moment before he leaned across the table. “You really are a b—”

Before Carl could finish, Allen grabbed Carl’s arm. “Enough, Carl.”

Carl opened his mouth but then closed it and pulled back.

“It seems as if you already know our views on this situation,” Allen said, addressing the table as a whole as he released Carl from his grip and rose to a stand. He wiped his hands on the provided napkin, dabbed his mouth, and threw it onto his plate.

Cadence watched as Carl and Allen exited the room without another word. She then turned her attention to Francis who remained seated and staring at Ricardo. She kicked his foot from underneath the table.

Francis stirred from whatever daze he’d entered. He stared at her for a moment before he unlit the v-cig dangling from his fingertips and pocketed it. He leaned forward and cleared his throat—

“I apologize for my brothers’ outbursts. This whole situation has clearly gotten them riled up.” He clasped his hands together. “Their actions today do not define how the Foxmans view the Romanos, and I hope this does not sour our relationship in the future.” A pause. “I’m sure we will be able to work something out.” Francis stood, pulling his napkin from his lap and setting it to the side. “We appreciate the invitation.” He smiled cordially at Fortuna. “And congratulations, Fortuna. Ambrose is a lucky man.” With that, he too left the room.

Whispers returned with his exit.

Caporegime Donato rubbed his bad leg again and shook his head. “I knew it from the beginning. Those boys aren’t suited for this kind of business.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence saw Feliciano smirk. The guy really had a punchable face. Why was Feliciano enjoying this so much anyways? Probably enjoys other people’s suffering since he’s so miserable himself. What a stand-up person.

“You’re just jealous ‘cause they hit it big in half the time it took you to,” Caporegime Bendetto said as he shoved a large piece of steak in his mouth.

“I’m not the type of person to worry about pride,” Donato returned, “but don’t tell me you’ve never thought about them like that. You know best that their needs to be a separation between business business and personal business.”

Cadence resisted arching a brow. She could’ve sworn Donato was fond of at least Allen.

Wow. I don’t really care, aren’t you and the Foxmans close? came Olive’s thought, which came much more forcefully than the previous thoughts had. The prince always precursored his statements with I don’t care which Cadence found humorous since she could feel that he in fact really did care.

Cadence spied the prince and his surroundings out of the corner of her eye. It looked like he was wandering that Sagittarian city again.

If you have any tips on being that two-faced, I’d like some. It’s impressive.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, kid, Cadence thought back as she side-glanced at Fortuna who had returned to sipping her wine.

“Cadence, I hope you don’t share their sentiments,” Ricardo called out to her suddenly. “You’ve been in our employ for many years now. I am aware that you view yourself as a mere associate of ours, but I was wondering if you would be willing to fully extend your services out to the Campanas as a friendly gesture.”

Cadence raised a glass. “Of course, boss.”

***

It didn’t help that right after the Romano-Foxman meeting Cadence and the others lost contact with Werner and Olive. It was strange. Not having the kid’s sarcastic snaps just ghosting the edges of her mind. Weird not having Werner’s reporting and understood and is that clear and, of course, the wonderful you should attend to that in reference to cleaning.

As their disappearance drew on, Cadence’s chest became wracked with worry and her stomach twisted with a bottomless nausea that started to knot into cramps. Atienna’s thinly veiled concern most likely, she figured. Cadence had half the mind to call Nico up about it but knew it would be fruitless since she hadn’t been able to reach him since he’d been sent out to Argo. In fact, Werner had been her only means of communication with him.

The silence was uncomfortable so the next day Cadence stopped by the Casa De Bambolle. She spotted Agape managing the storefront, so she quickly disguised herself as a patron and took to chatting up the hostesses and hosts within.

But the noise from there was still not enough.

Cadence then swung by the Sognare. As usual, the bartender did not even look up at her entrance. He cleaned the already spotless glassware behind the counter as she played her favorite hopping tune. When she was leaving after she’d finished her final song, the bartender grumbled as usual about his bar shutting down per lack of visitors.

“Don’t ya worry, pal. Y’know me, I’m always here ta keep this place open for ya.” She reached into her suit pocket, pulled out a fistful of cens from her wallet, and tossed it onto the bar top with a wink.

The bartender pulled the cens over the table grumbling. “Yeah, but what am I gonna do when you’re not here anymore?”

“We celebrate,” Cadence said. Right. A celebration. It was only a matter of time now. Everything was in place. “Besides, I have an inkling that you’ll get another visitor real soon.”

Relief came swiftly after when Werner and Olive returned to them. They both seemed to be tense from whatever had happened, but Cadence figured she’d be able to iron that out swiftly.

***

The dreaded Campana-Romano get together was at the very end of the week. If it wasn’t bad enough that Cadence had to attend the meeting instead of perusing the gambling dens for tourists like she usually did, she also had to traverse the maze that was the west side of the city.

While the east side of the Twin Cities was constricted by spider-webbing roads, the west side was threaded through with crisscrossing canals. The sound of slapping gondolas against small wooden ports was as common as the squawks of seagulls. The popularity of the gondolas in this half of the city made v-ehicle usage sparse, and only a few could be seen parked along the sides of buildings. The buildings were older here—more brick and mortar than metal and steel. Unglazed windows were a cens-a-dozen as were bird droppings. City workers armed with scrapers and mops made their way up and down the walkways mechanically, dutifully.

Cadence was familiar with these parts well enough to know which corners were tourist traps, which alleyways people were most likely to get jumped, and which districts were shown in the popular magazines. Cadence was headed to one such district.

The Giorno District. It was strategically littered with all sorts of high-end stores and restaurants with twisting metalwork displays of arts popping up in-between them. Men and women in suits and dresses flocked the streets like doves on a wedding day. When Cadence was younger, she’d like to imagine bringing Alma here. They’d laugh to themselves loudly and then quietly judge people who were just like Cadence—people who were from the opposite walk of light, people who did not belong in such districts. What a dream.

The meeting destination was hidden beneath a casino—the largest one in all of the Twin Cities. Its front entrance was blazed to the underworld and back with flashing v-lights, and its walls were decorated with all sorts of art pieces that originated from various countries around Signum.

Despite its grandeur, Cadence couldn’t help but think that the Foxmans’ casino was better. Despite the warm greeting she received in the back of the casino as the Campana bodyguards led her to a hidden room there, she couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place. She didn’t let them know that, however, and gracefully waltzed into the meeting room with a smile.

The atmosphere within this meeting room was completely different from the Romano Family one. If insincerity and tension had a smell, then this room was permeated with it. The scent was a lot like alcohol and not the good kind. Too clean.

Four tables had been set up at the room’s center in a square formation. Cadence didn’t really see a point to the tables being there since there was no food to be eaten anywhere. The only things close to a meal were the cheese blocks and wine bottles the waiters and waitresses carried around the room on stainless steel platters. Cadence resisted frowning. She’d hoped that she’d at least get some free food from this meeting, but it looked like she was going to have to hit one of the restaurants on the strip before heading home.

It was less crowded here than the Romano meeting, Cadence realized as she scoped the place out further. But she figured that it made sense since only executives and specially deemed associates had been invited to this one.

Only a handful of people were seated, and Ricardo was among them. He was lounging beside a thin man with dark eyes and dimples. The thin man’s face was lined with wrinkles, but his grin was youthful. The don of the Campanas. Oddly enough, he looked as normal as could be. If Cadence didn’t know any better, she would have thought he was some office worker in uptown.

Hands in pockets, Cadence kept to the walls. She smiled when she received glances from familiar faces and offered a respectful nod to those who greeted her. All formalities. Stiff and awkward.

There was a brief temptation in her to reach out to one of the others to garner some free entertainment but she thought better of it. Although she didn’t think she was a decent person, she felt like she was decent enough not to subject them to this kind of torture.

Cadence almost chuckled at the dramatic thought before freezing when she felt a particularly curious gaze prick her skin. She shrugged her stiffened shoulders and scanned the crowd. It did not take long for her to lock eyes with the starrer.

There he was. The boy.

Ambrose Campana.

He had inherited his Cancerian mother’s fair hair and skin while maintaining his Geminian father’s dark eyes, dimples, and height. When their eyes met, he beamed. Cadence mirrored the expression.

“That hair! You must be Cadence Morello!” Ambrose exclaimed, closing the distance between them. His voice was comparable to Francis’s in melodic quality, albeit several octaves deeper.

Cadence spread her arms wide open. “And you must be Ambrose Campana. Have ta admit. I’m a bit star-struck ta have the don’s son talkin’ ta me all friendly-like.”

The corners of Ambrose’s eyes crinkled. “Oh nonsense. You’ve known Fortuna for quite some time, haven’t you? And the Foxmans too.”

Cadence didn’t allow her surprise to show on her face. “I see the Campanas are well-versed in the word on the street.”

“Well, we have half a city to look after,” Ambrose provided. He scanned the crowd. “While it pains me to see that the Foxmans have declined our invitation, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve heard many good things about your services. Frankly, my father’s always wanted to hire you out, but his sense of rivalry against the Romanos prevented him from requesting you.” Ambrose extended a hand, still all smiles. “But now that there’ll be a union between us, I hope we can work together in the future.”

Cadence mirrored his smile again and accepted the gesture. “My pleasure.”

Intuition, came Jericho’s sudden thought. He was very lightly synchronized—Cadence could barely feel him. Regardless, his presence was a bit of a comfort. The memory of the emptiness left by Werner and Olive was still scratching at the back of her mind. This man is involved in illegal business.

Not really intuition, detective, Cadence thought back. Besides, look who you’re thinkin’ to.

…Yes, I know you are ‘Cadence’. A beat of silence. You shouldn’t be involved in this type of business. It is illegal. 

And yet ya still haven’t reported it to your Serpens Establishment. Kinda warms my heart actually. Makes it feel like we’re friends or somethin’. Cadence did not allow her mental smile to seep to her cheeks. We are friends, right?

Yes, we are friends. What— 

“Your thoughts seem to be elsewhere, Miss Morello,” Ambrose interjected. “Are you alright?”

Cadence glanced down and realized that she was still gripping Ambrose’s hand. Thanks to Jericho’s influence of course, she figured as she chuckled an apology and released the man from her grip.

“Just can’t believe you and Fortuna are a thing,” she said. “But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. You two are perfect for each other.”

Ambrose’s eyes glittered, and his smile climbed a bit. It would’ve been charming if Cadence didn’t feel unnerved by it.

“I think so too,” Ambrose agreed. He stared past Cadence’s shoulder, and she could see Fortuna reflected in his eyes. “We’re going to make great changes to this city together—me and her.” He gave Cadence a cuff on the shoulder. “Well, time to join my bellflower.” And with that, he departed.

Good for them, Cadence thought, watching Ambrose join Fortuna who was speaking to one of the executives of the Campana family at the corner of the room. Cadence snagged a glass of wine off a platter and reclined back against the wall again. She took a sip, gave a pleasant hum in response, and watched the pre-meeting pleasantries unfold.

An abrupt and cold wind whistled through the room cutting Cadence’s serenity off short. For a moment she thought she had synchronized with the prince and was experiencing his windy city. But then—

—there was an ear-piercing scream from one of the waiters followed by a loud crash.

Cadence looked up and found herself frozen stiff in place. But not because of the cold.

The floor was littered with shattered bottles of wine. The red and purple liquids seeped in between the remnants of the glass bottles and around the fallen platters that once held them up. The silver platters themselves reflected a startling scene.

An invisible line now divided the men and women who had been casually chattering just a moment earlier. They faced that invisible line—rather, each other—in frigid silence. The Romanos were on the right and the Campanas were on the left. In-between them and eclipsing the invisible line was the table Ricardo and the Campana don had been seated at. It was almost perfect reflection accented by the weapons they had pointed at the divide, at each other. Normal pistols, conducting guns, conjured guns.

“Enough!” came a furious shout from the corner of the room. It was Fortuna who was now pushing herself between the two groups. Storming over to the Romano side of the room, she slapped away the gun that Bendetto had been pointing at a stocky Campana capo. “This isn’t the time to be doing this!”

Ambrose was behind her, snapping at the Campana side of the room. “Stop being idiots and get some medical Conductors in here now!” He didn’t wait to see if any of the Campanas abided by his order and instead scrambled towards the table that sat on the invisible line.

Fortuna soon joined his side and remained standing stiff as stone.

Usually Cadence would keep as far away from this type of chaos as possible—she’d fold into a corner somewhere, step behind someone, maybe even put on a different face—but this time she found herself being pulled forward by an invisible string. Jericho.

She pushed past the crowd that had gathered around Fortuna and Ambrose and nearly slipped on the wet floor. She managed to catch herself halfway through the action and grimaced down at her shoes. They were stained red now. But it wasn’t with wine.

Cadence slowly looked up at the table—the center point of the invisible line.

She saw the don of the Campanas first. He was lying face-first across the table, arms splayed out like a bird. There was blood pooling beneath him, but Cadence couldn’t tell from where.

Ricardo Romano was laying right next to him with a knife embedded into his back. There was something tied to the end of the knife’s hilt. A piece of paper. A note in Common.

Jericho read it to her plainly—

“You cannot run away from what you’ve done. What is taken must be returned.”


“The Romano Family of the east side of the Twin Cities and the Campana Family of the west side have shared a rivalry for many decades. Their rivalry stems over territorial issues. This nearly exploded into an all-out war a decade ago, but was prevented by a peaceful exchanging of gifts. Recent developments indicate a union between the two families.

The Romano Family has many money laundering fronts to conceal their true business from detection: illegal conductor manufacturing. The Campanas operate similarly, although their particular true business activities are kept very under wraps. Note: get this information from the Campana capo Enzo?”

– Information card #138, Category F, Date: 03.09.1941,  Astante’s Brokering Files