Disclaimer: I don't own Phantom Brave or its characters.
"Marona! Are you up yet?"
The girl in question merely snuggled deeper underneath the blankets and pulled them over her head. After that last job, Ash agreed that they had definitely earned a vacation, starting this morning. So why was he yelling?
"Marona!" Ash called again from the bottom of the stairs, just as she was drifting off. She cast an annoyed glance at the door. Whatever he wanted, she knew him well enough to know that he wouldn't rest until she did what he had asked. She stretched leisurely and strolled over to the rack where she hung her dresses, mulling over which one to pick for the day.
"MARONA!" Ash roared. "Hurry!"
This time she detected a note of panic in his voice, along with some strange thumping sounds. Puzzled and slightly alarmed, she threw on her bathrobe and slippers.
"Damn!" Ash cried. "There's too many of them! I can't keep them back any longer!"
"Too many what?" Marona asked, walking downstairs. "...Oh."
Every empty inch of floor in their already cramped kitchen was teeming with sea mail bottles, all running around and bumping into each other. Some had managed to climb up onto the counter, and several more were on the table. Poor Ash stood with his feet planted at the bottom of the stairs, with the air of a warrior who planned to go down fighting.
"Oh, Marona!" he sighed in relief. "Thank goodness you're - " As he spoke he looked up, and a pair of bottles seized their chance. They dashed between his legs and darted up the stairs.
"Urgent! Message for Marona! Urgent!"
Bemused, Marona picked one up and started to open it. When the other bottles heard the seal being broken, they began to clamor too, so loudly that Marona dropped the one she was holding and clapped her hands to her ears.
"Ash!" she screamed above the racket. "How many are there?"
"Hundreds!" the phantom shouted back. "These are only the ones that made it inside!"
Realizing that keeping the invaders away from the stairs was now pointless, he made he way over to the window and threw back the curtains. Here and there, she saw a patch of grass, but the rest of their yard was a sheet of pink, with the occasional golden sparkle. The Healer, Merchant and other phantoms were all glancing around in consternation. Marona was speechless.
"Where are they all coming from?" she demanded, pointing as a few new arrivals pulled themselves onshore.
"I wish I knew!" Ash replied. I didn't even get the chance to open one!"
"Well, let's do that now," Marona suggested. "You guys can help, too!" she called to the Mystic and two Valkyries hiding on the roof. Together, they managed to read about twenty of them before giving up.
"They're all job requests!" Marona said. "That's weird."
"Not really. You are famous now," Ash reminded her. Since the defeat of Sulphur three months ago, the mail they'd been receiving had steadily increased, until Marona had no choice but to begin turning down the majority of jobs, no matter how much it pained her to do so. Sometimes she forwarded them to other Chromas and Ravens, although Ash cautioned that it might wound the others' pride. But that still didn't explain this sudden tidal wave.
"There's no way we could read all of this, not in an entire year," Ash said. "There's not much we can do but throw them all back to the senders."
"But what if there's some personal mail mixed in?" Marona protested. She was expecting a letter from Castile, and would hate to give the wrong impression to her new (and powerful) friends, like President Hogg.
"There's only one other thing I can think of," Ash said after a minute. He idly kicked at a bottle that was trying to climb up his leg.
"We can pay a visit to Sienna," Ash said. "At the very least, she'll be interested to know about this, if she doesn't already."
Marona agreed that it seemed like the only profitable course of action, and she didn't mind seeing the former Brave again anyway. "Okay, you guys are in charge until we get back," she told the Dungeon Monk and Titlist, who started at her in horror as she and Ash climbed into their boat.
At Clutter Haven, Sienna had indeed realized that something wasn't quite right, although she didn't know what. Sir Raphael happened to be visiting at the time, and she silently cursed this interruption. Murasaki valued his skin too much to make any untoward comments. He was too busy with a project of his own to really notice.
"Hello, Marona," Sienna greeted the Chroma warmly as she and Ash arrived at the factory, looking rather bedraggled. More sea mails had been en route to Phantom Isle as they headed in the opposite direction, and Ash had to beat a few off with a paddle.
"Hi, Miss Sienna!" Marona chirped, unaware that Ash and many other adults had no idea whether this remarkable woman preferred to be called Sienna or by her old name, Scarlet. "And Mister Raphael!"
"Greetings, Marona, Ash," the knight captain said. "Are you here for that friendly duel I promised?"
"Uh, no, no!" Ash cried quickly. "I'd love to, but we've got a little problem to take care of first."
"Murasaki?" Sienna prompted her assistant, who hadn't even looked up when the guests entered.
"Yeah, hi," Murasaki said, waving one paw absently as he continued to pore over what looked like blueprints.
"What are you working on?" Marona asked, trying to get a closer look.
"Remember that model ship you traded for your island awhile back?" Murasaki said, finally straightening up. "Well, after I'm done with this, I'll have enough bordeaux to buy lots of islands! Count Malt saw that same model resting on that shelf last time he was here, and he commissioned me to build seven of these for an expedition."
"To where?" Ash asked.
"Sorry, I'm not at liberty to disclose," the scrabbit replied with a cheeky grin.
"What do you need?" Sienna asked Marona, anxious to get the conversation back on task. As concisely as they could, Ash and Marona tried to explain the trouble at their house.
"I can't believe there are that many sea mail bottles in all of Ivoire!" Marona finished.
"There's far more than that," Sienna told her. "But from what you say, it does sound like you received at least a fifth of them."
"Do you think there might be... some kind of malfunctioning?" Ash asked timidly.
"You mean an error on our end?" Sienna asked. "It's possible, albeit unlikely. I'll have Murasaki check." The scrabbit sighed, put away his plans, and scampered off. "I don't think a broken piece of machinery would account for all of those bottles going to the wrong address, though."
"That is, assuming that they are going to the wrong address," Raphael commented. Sienna just gave him a look. "It could happen, although I doubt it. If this was caused by people wanting to thank you for Sulphur, it would have happened months ago."
"Well, we have been getting swamped with requests lately," Marona admitted. "I'm sorry that I sent so many of them over to you. Were you able to take care of them?"
Raphael the Invincible nodded. "I must thank you for the business - all of those jobs together brought in quite a bit."
"See?" Marona asked Ash. "I told you they wouldn't mind!"
"Captain Drab might not feel the same way," Ash told her.
"The sea mails," Sienna reminded them sternly. "It will take Murasaki about an hour to check up on all of the machines, so you might as well make yourselves comfortable. Can I get any of you something to eat?"
Everyone politely declined, even Ash, who understood that people tended to forget that phantoms couldn't eat. Even Castile had offered him lemonade once. Murasaki returned, shaking his head.
"Did you find anything?" Sienna asked him.
"No, ma'am," the scrabbit replied, scratching his head. "Everything's in perfect working order!"
"Then why so grim?" Ash wanted to know. "Isn't that a good thing?"
"Well, yeah," Murasaki admitted. "But we still have no idea what's going on. A goof-up at the factory would have been embarrassing, but it would have also been the easiest to fix." It was pretty clear that while he liked Marona and Ash, he really wanted to get back to his boats.
"I don't suppose you have any enemies who would pull a prank like this on you," Sir Raphael said. Sienna gave him another look.
"My, aren't you just full of suspicions today!"
"Well, after some of the things that have happened to me in our line of work, I don't think it's too far-fetched."
"Nobody that I can think of," Ash answered after a moment's thought. If this had been a few months earlier, he might have suspected Walnut, but now he felt slightly guilty for even thinking such a thing.
"Then I guess we have to look for a more benign explanation," the knight said, sounding slightly disappointed.
"I don't suppose there's any chance that they might just disappear on their own?" Marona asked without much hope. Sienna smiled.
"I'm afraid not. Sea mail bottles are designed to be incredibly tenacious, and to stop at nothing to get their message delivered. It's partly why they're so successful."
Before she could go on, there was a knock on the door.
Business at Clutter Haven was always slow in the mornings, but by early afternoon it usually began to pick up, as clients started arriving from the outlying islands. That day was no exception. Murasaki put down his pen with a world-weary sigh and hopped over to answer the door, and Sienna had to cut her talk with Marona and Ash short. Several clients came in, one almost immediately after the other, so she had her hands full.
Ash turned invisible again, not wanting to upset any of the customers. He and Marona sat off to the side and watched as she pointed to the maps hanging on the wall, did rapid mathematical calculations in her head, and skillfully dealt with people who were late with their rents. Raphael was in the middle of telling Marona a story about Fox and the Zephyr Wings to pass the time.
"Maronakins!" a booming voice suddenly rang out, making them all jump.
"Papa Cauldron!" the Chroma cried, running over to the Island Collector and giving him a big hug. Ash still didn't completely trust Cauldron, but he certainly seemed to mean well, so he let it slide.
"You're here for your usual?" Sienna asked. "Murasaki, get the crate from the back room!" After her assistant was gone, she looked at Cauldron curiously. "I wish I knew what you were doing with all of these sea mail bottles." For the past month and a half, Cauldron had put in an order for five hundred bottles a week.
"I use every last one of them, all right," he assured her. "For official business."
"Oh, I don't doubt it," Sienna said, but he was already turning to talk to Marona once more.
"Come on, sweetie, are you sure you don't want to do a concert? Imagine, we could do a world tour! Castile could be your backup singer, and Phantom Boy could play the drums!"
"I'd love to, but I have something to take care of first," Marona said quickly, secretly glad to have another excuse to weasel out of Cauldron's "Idol the Brave" bonanza. Ash just wished she would tell him no already, especially after that drum comment. Come on... I'd obviously make a much better saxophone player.
Of course Cauldron demanded to know what was up, clearly even more eager than Raphael to leap into battle against the unfortunate soul who decided to do anything to Marona. The girl explained the problem with the sea mail bottles swarming Phantom Isle.
"Now so many job requests are pouring in that we can't even turn around without stepping on a sea mail bottle," she finished. "We have no idea where they're all coming from... what's wrong?" she asked suddenly, alarmed by the look of horror on the millionaire's face.
"I, uh, didn't mean for it to get so out of control," he cried, aghast.
"This is your fault?" Ash demanded, appearing at Marona's side with such alacrity that it made everyone start, even Sienna.
"You could say that," Cauldron admitted. "But I would never do anything to harm Maronakins, you've got to believe me!"
"We do," Marona said, taking one enormous paw in her own hand comfortingly. "But how did this happen?"
"It's the fan club. Everybody's been out spreading the good news, and you're a world-wide sensation! Membership has almost quadrupled, no, quintupled, since I last wrote you! So to commemorate this momentous occasion, a few days ago we gave a free gift to every member of the club - a sea mail bottle already addressed to Marona! And of course our members would rather give our business to Marona than to some other Chroma or Raven," he added, oblivious to, or unfazed by, Raphael's presence. It was a good thing that Captain Drab, Cauldron's former favorite, wasn't there.
"How many members does your club have?" Ash asked. Despite being Marona's true number one fan, he wanted nothing to do with that crazy organization.
"About twenty thousand members, give or take," Cauldron replied. Marona clapped a hand to her mouth, torn between shock and pleasure at so many admirers. Ash was also dumbstruck, but for a different reason.
"Oh, no!" he cried. "That means this morning's bottles were only the beginning! I hope our house is still standing when we get back!" Marona remembered the look on the Titlist's face when they left and feared that he was right.
"Don't worry, Maronakins!" Cauldron told her, seeing her expression. "Leave it to me! I'll get it all straightened out for you in a heartbeat."
Marona smiled. "Really? Thank you, Papa Cauldron!"
"Of course! I'll even send a crew to deal with the pileup at your house. Just meet me there tomorrow morning, okay?"
Before any of them had a chance to ask just what he had planned, he walked out the door.
Marona and Ash opted to stay overnight at Clutter Haven when Sienna offered. They woke up bright and early the next day, partly because they didn't want to keep their hostess waiting, but also because when the machines started, sleep was out of the question, even though their room was at the opposite end of the building. After a quick breakfast, they set off for Phantom Isle, not knowing what to expect.
The Titlist, Mystic and other inhabitants of the island had been forced to climb to the upper boughs of the tall tree that grew next to the house, which Marona could barely make out under the mound of bottles climbing up the sides. The waters surrounding the island also teemed with them so thickly that it was impossible to properly land the boat. Rather than join the phantoms in the tree, Ash decided to stay in the boat, occasionally beating off bottles that tried to climb in with them. Marona wanted to read a few of the messages while they waited, but Ash ordered her not to, because he didn't want to risk giving the others ideas.
Just when Ash was beginning to doubt that Cauldron was going to come and help them out of this mess at all, Marona pointed over his shoulder.
"Look, I bet that's them now!"
Cauldron's personal yacht pulled up alongside their smaller boat, and no less than a hundred volunteers climbed out. Before long, Marona was swamped by people wanting to shake her hand begging for her autograph. She snatched bottles out of the water and wrote on them in a black marker. Over an hour passed before they finally got down to business, loading the bottles onto the ship to be sorted out later. Even with such enthusiastic help, it still took almost a week before things were back to normal, or as close as they ever came. Marona was just glad to be able to reach her front door again.
Ash and Marona sat at their kitchen table, sorting through the personal messages that had been delivered along with the other sea mails. They didn't amount to much, just a few letters that they put aside to answer later. Neither of them wanted to look at another sea mail bottle for a long time, or after the Valkyries and the Merchant finally stopped giving them the silent treatment, whichever came first.
"Cauldron sure rose to the occasion, didn't he?" Marona asked, wincing slightly as she rubbed some medicine on her paper cuts. "I'm so glad we have such good friends. We're really lucky, Ash."
Ash personally would have preferred to have friends who didn't get them into these situations in the first place, but he kept that to himself. "It all ended well," he agreed instead. "And now you have a heck of a story to tell Castile the next time you see her!"
It felt so good to finally sleep in the next morning.