The whole office heard Thomas Nast thundering down the hallway, though few peered out from behind their heavily protected doors to see the sight in person. Most of the world's most dangerous supernaturals preferred to be surprised, if Thomas was indeed coming to see them. Besides, they would have wasted too much time if they reacted every time Thomas went on the warpath.
That's why Albarita Fermi was still at her desk when the CEO of Nast Corporation burst through her door. She barely even raised an eyebrow at the way he was huffing and puffing, nor at the way he slammed the door shut behind him.
"Kendrick just asked me if I was interested in taking a meeting when I'm in Berlin next week!"
Internally, Alba sighed. Externally, she put on an expression of bored curiosity. Kendrick was Hollis' problem, not hers. Thomas could go yell at the necromancer about his moronic subordinates, but she shouldn't be bothered.
"Why is that a problem?"
"How did she find out about the trip?" Thomas was too humiliated by the whole affair to have told many people.
"You're the CEO, Mr Nast. Everyone knows where you're going, even when they don't want to. If you need Kendrick to keep her mouth shut, you should talk to Mr Leech."
"His son is having another a bad week." A cold note entered Thomas's voice. "It's the beginning of the end. We might as well start bringing the boy in before he dies."
"Hollis won't agree to that."
Thomas snorted. He'd known Leech for fifty years. There wasn't much the man wouldn't do for the hint of a promotion; besides, the reality was the boy was deterorating rapidly whether he was useful or not. They might as well make use of him.
"I would suggest the idea to him personally, but he hasn't been around the office long enough for me to broach the subject."
"Mr Nast," Alba sighed, "He has done remarkable work keeping the warehouse secure. Give him a few more months before you give him an ultimatum."
There was something about the expression on Thomas's face that made Alba uneasy, though she couldn't put her finger on what. It didn't matter. She was used to relying on her instincts. Thomas didn't see Hollis being a problem in the near future; that would not be good for the necromancer.
"If he can't keep his blasted department from bothering me, than his work is nowhere near remarkable!" With some difficultly, Thomas calmed down to remember the reason he had marched to Alba's office in the first place. He got angry all over again. "How come everyone in this organization knows I'm going to Berlin?"
"I told you we needed a gag order if you wanted to keep this quiet."
"You also said a gag order would make it seem more important than it was."
Because time was money, even if humouring Thomas was practically in her contract, Alba got to the point: "It would. I don't understand why you don't want people knowing, Thomas. Donating money to a educational institute is common enough. Yes, it's a little suspicious that Joey died almost ten years ago and you're only creating a memorial now and it's especially suspicious that you're also naming the library after another of Edward's victims, but it's explainable. Edward was our mistake. And you had family from the city."
Had the girl known that too? Or had she simply picked the capital and gotten lucky?
"Exactly. No one but me knows that, coincidentally, your grandson's ex-girlfriend is currently attending classes there. When they bring up your trip, they don't realize they are also bringing her up."
If they did, Alba was sure people would have started shutting up about the company's latest charitable donation. When Thomas got angry, everyone's lives got more difficult.
"What the hell was she thinking?" he demanded, yet again. "The MacArthur-Nast Library? Where does she get off?"
"She couldn't very well change her sister's name, now could she? What with the girl being dead and all? Would you rather she had just left it the 'Dana MacArthur Library'? Try explaining that to the board. They would have found you quite uncharacteristically generous."
He just kept growling and Alba felt the last of her patience evaporate. "Are you mad she put the two names together? Or just that MacArthur comes before Nast? We can't very well change the alphabet to spite her."
And then the old man cracked a smile. "Alba, I think I'm getting old. When I was younger I would have killed her for this sort of insolence. She doesn't get to give my money away and say it's from me without a damn good reason."
"She didn't want your money, Thomas. You should have received that message loud and clear because she just spent $2.5 million advertising that fact."
"And what did she want?"
"I'm sure your grandson could tell you. I'd ask him myself, but he's made it very clear he doesn't want to talk to me about her."
Bryce had always known her interest in his 'friends' had been more than maternal, but it was only now that he had decided he resented her obversations. Or maybe he just didn't want to discuss the witch, which worried Alba more than she wanted to admit. What was it about the witch that made her different from the others?
It was Thomas' fault. If he had never noticed the girl, Bryce wouldn't have given her a second thought.
"He's been busy lately."
Though not with company business, Thomas was sure. It took a lot to donate all that money, especially if you were going to do it in someone else's name. There was no way the witch could have arranged her little joke without help. And Bryce had been far too amused when Thomas had tried probing how much he knew about the new MacArthur-Nast Library in Berlin.
"Busy convincing Josef to go along with the witch's harebrained scheme?"
"Joey was his son." The memorial might have been created by a witch, it might link Joey's memory with a dead, worthless witch, but Joey's memory would endure forever and that was enough. The armband on Thomas' suit felt heavy. "It would have been too easy for Bryce to convince him."
Second sons always did share an understanding; Josef was still looking for small ways to punish his father for refusing to hand over the company.
"Then you should yell at the two of them and let poor Sydney do her job. Take the meeting. Go the ceremony in Berlin, accept their thanks for your generosity and let it go. The girl is in Europe, Thomas. If they are still in touch, they're hiding it even from me. Let it go. She's not a threat."
It wasn't the witch he was worried about, though Thomas thought Alba a bit foolish. If Bryce was still taking talking to his grandfather, he was still in touch with the witch—somehow. Ultimatums didn't work on the boy; they never had. Thomas was very aware of the fact that his inability to get the witch alone to buy her off behind the boy's back would have destroyed the company when Bryce decided to punish everthing for Thomas' decision if Alba hadn't come through.
The witch wasn't the problem; Bryce was. There was nothing remarkable about the girl, but out of the billions of the women on the planet, Bryce had paid attention to that one. It was easy enough to see why. Very unfortunate, too.
It wasn't just because she was a witch, and therefore fundamentally inappropriate. Kristof had appreciated the lower race, but while Bryce had tried to follow his father's career he was abysmal at it. If he had set out to find a witch, he wouldn't have been able to do it.
It was ironic that Kristof's witch was the only woman Thomas had seen with his various relations that had been competent enough to survive as a knowing partner of a Nast CEO. Too bad her extraciricular activities would have gotten her killed and she was the type who wouldn't give them up. Thomas had no choice but to get rid of her. If she had been less independent, maybe Kristof wouldn't have spent the last fifteen years of his life silently resenting his position. But she looked Thomas in the eye and refused to back down and he had known it would get her killed. Eve wasn't like Bryce; she handled ultimatums gracefully. She had done the right thing and left.
Gillian MacArthur was nowhere near as impressive as Eve Levine. She was not as powerful; she didn't have any reputation in the supernatural community, except as a friend of Eve's spawn. Her history proved she was nowhere near as mentally strong as she needed to be (her father's fate alone would have ruled her out, though the girl herself presented a convincing case for her own ineligibility). She wasn't even that pretty. A nice smile, perhaps, but she was too muscular for a woman, and too short for a Nast. And yet...it had taken Thomas only a few minutes to understand what his grandson saw in her, and even less time to understand the unfortunate implications of it all.
Surrounded by sorcerers she had been rightfully scared, her eyes wide, her stance unsure, even if she managed to hide it better than most. When Bryce said something particularly shocking, she had glanced at Thomas every time, waiting for a blow that never fell. She was scared—but she laughed just the same. She leaned over and smirked and giggled and kept right on, even though she was scared. It was so senseless, so heedless, so damn stupid, that it almost shocked Thomas into admiring her for it.
It had been a long time since he had seen behaviour like that. Not since Bryce had been a teenager, determined to do the exact opposite of whatever he was told, not because he didn't know better, but simply because he didn't stop to think, just reacted, all poorly honed instinct and a strange desire to be amused no matter what the cost. The witch was merely a reflection of the boy's old behaviour and that he was drawn to it, still, after all of Thomas's attempts to change him, meant that Thomas had been right all those years ago.
If Bryce stayed, it would kill him.
He wasn't cut out for this world, as Thomas had explained to Kristof, who already suspected but wasn't sure, Berkley brochure in one hand. He was too thoughtless, too prone to act immediately, too heedless of the danger he was getting himself into. The longer he stayed the more opportunities he had to do something stupid. Thomas had thought Kristof's death had cured the boy, but he had been wrong. The witch proved that. Bryce wasn't better, he was just better at hiding. He might not appear out of control anymore, his behaviour may have seemed the result of cold calculation, but one day someone would tell him to go right and he would go left simply out of spite—no thought, no consideration, just a mindless desire to ignore the rule—and then the boy would be dead.
And Thomas would have allowed that to happen by forcing him to stay.
But what else was there to do? Sean was becoming more difficult to manage as the years past. While it was never safe to trust Bryce to handle a situation entirely, Thomas was sure the company could trust him to come through for Sean. As long as the boy didn't get himself killed first.
"You tell Kendrick," Thomas ordered. "I have a business meeting now."
Alba agreed and got back to work as Thomas headed out. He should have left an hour ago, but good help was hard to find these days. Very hard to find. At least the delay was merely an annoyance and not a betrayal. Thomas had enough of betrayal for this year.
Sherri was the one who found him when it was time; he didn't trust anyone else in the office with the news. "Hollis just called to say he was waiting downstairs."
Her worry was etched all over her face. She had always been the best secretary he had ever had—she always knew what he was up to, even when he didn't tell her. It was with a secret smile that he remembered his grandson's implications about this remarkably competent woman. She was like a machine, and not the type that eventually reached enlightenment.
"It will be all right," he promised, as he often did, though she should have known not to believe him by now.
"Thank you. Remember, you have to call Sean tonight. His birthday is coming up soon and you have to tell me what to get him."
"Can't we get him the same thing I got him last year?"
"You bought him his gift last year," which was her fault for being too busy to help, "and it was cruel, even for you. Besides, my salary is not high enough to justify buying those magazines."
As if Sean did anything besides look at the female forms in disgust before recycling them.
"I'll call him. Was there anything else you needed to tell me about the children?"
A lie, but a necessary one; even Sherri couldn't know what he was doing tonight. It was one thing to bend the rules (it wasn't forbidden to talk to the dead, just frowned upon) but another to break them. For her own good, she couldn't be told what he was up to. He told her he was going to see her sister instead.
"No. I told you everything before. She won't be happy to see you."
"She never is." Tabby hadn't spoken to him for years after he had married Edith—you're not even trying to be happy, she had told him before disappearing. It had been years before she had agreed to speak to him again. Whenever he did something truly heinous, she refused to speak to him for a while. But she came back. She always came back. She was too kind not to, the little bit of goodness he somehow had been lucky enough to touch, once upon a time.
At least Hollis had the decency to not ask any questions as Thomas sat in his car. The necromancer and sorcerer had never really gotten along—not with each other or with anyone else. But Hollis was the only one Thomas ever considered for this plan. Not only because the man had his talents with the dead, but for other, more personal reasons. Thomas didn't know anyone who would like to go back the way he did, nobody but Hollis.
Hollis wanted to go back just as badly, to fix what had gone wrong, but Hollis wouldn't, just like Thomas wouldn't. It had been their fault; they were brave enough to admit that. They would suffer the consequences of their actions, no matter how painful they were. And they would clean up the supernatural mess.
The Eisenbergs—or some version of them, at any rate—might still be at large. There was nothing he could do about that, but Thomas could handle the Time Tear. The witch said it had been closed, but Thomas hadn't lasted as long as he had by taken someone's word on the subject. Hollis had been sent to the site for confirmation. His report, to Thomas and only Thomas, stated that though the witches had closed the Time Tear, it was still a problem. There was a solution, one that had take Hollis many months to find: remove it from existence. S
o that's what Thomas and Hollis were going to do.
A necromancer and a sorcerer. It was always a dangerous combination and Thomas berated himself yet again for not realizing it in the Eisenbergs. But in his defence, they really were model employees. One simply had to overlook their rather obsessive fondness for their tiny brat. And Thomas would—once Hollis had ensured said brat was never born.
The security around the warehouse let Thomas and Hollis in after a long while. Normally, Thomas would have been upset at the delay, but if that sort of thoroughness kept the Eisenbergs from returning to the Time Tear than it was necessary. The two men did not speak as they exited the car and began wandering through the storage containers to the spot that Martin had carefully (and unconsciously) described to his father. It looked unremarkable to Thomas, but Hollis nodded. That was good enough.
Hollis opened the briefcase he carried with him and began removing the tools they would need. Thomas merely hovered over him, supervising and conserving his strength. It was the sorcerer's magic that was needed in these sorts of situations, though the necromancers created excellent conduits. Since neither was exactly sure what sort of spell would be required to reopen the Time Tear, Thomas felt justified in not wasting precious energy.
"Done," Hollis announced eventually. The necromancer rose and Thomas expected a brief reiteration of the steps they planned to execute. That wasn't what Hollis said.
"Sir, if I may, there is one other issue that we should discuss before we continue."
"What is it, Leech?"
"One of us could emerge on the other side with no memory of our goals. I want to make sure we have agreed on what those are before we continue."
"Don't," Thomas warned Hollis. "We aren't here to change the past. We are here to stop the Eisenberg's from trying to change it."
The Cabals didn't have many rules, but Thomas had enough for any organization. As badly as he wanted to go back and fix things (smile, when she told you she was with child, not frown, certainly not worry out loud that it could get you both killed, and never scowl, like it was somehow her fault) he wouldn't. It was his mess; he had learned to live with it.
Besides, there was no way to change the past responsibly. Who knew what he might accidentally undo? They couldn't risk it.
"I simply wanted to know where you wanted to begin from."
It was a lie—Thomas liked employees who couldn't convincingly lie to him.
"From the inception of the child." He would have tried a smaller window, but he wasn't sure he could stop the Eisenbergs unless they were childless. Better to err on the side of caution.
Hollis shifted, ever so slightly. "Sir, with permission, I would also like to request that you attempt to keep my son's condition from deteriorate to his present state."
"Stop him from contacting Fidelia?" Thomas found himself a little surprised. He didn't know Hollis could be sentimental. The necromancer nodded and Thomas found himself agreeing. It wouldn't be too hard to make sure Martin was unable to break that deal with Lucifer; the situation might not even arise at all if they dealt with the Eisenbergs properly. "Fine."
"Is there something you would like me to do, sir, if you don't remember our mission?"
Of course not, Thomas was supposed to snap, but he couldn't. There were many things in his past that he found himself uncomfortable with, some of the times. This was not the situation to rectify them, though he would enjoy the unintended consequences of his actions tonight. If they succeeded in going back, his relationship with Kristof's sons would not be quite so frayed. There would be hope for the company still.
When they succeeded, they would be thrown back before Mariah had unluckily conceived. Sean would still be dutifully sitting in his office down the hall—still with that unfortunate practice of his, but exercising a little more discretion. That was all Thomas asked, for the most part, to not to have to observe the abomination. Bryce would still be difficult and hard to manage, but there would be no pesky witches to distract him.
No witches at all.
No tiny blonde woman who managed to oh-so-politely ruin Thomas's month (he couldn't stop feeling like she had somehow won something, though he wasn't sure what), and especially no illegitimate sister that he was cheerfully trying to get Thomas to hire. It may have been revenge for the other witch, but Thomas was starting to suspect it might have been because it was what the boy thought Kristof wanted. And if Sean and Bryce both believed Kristof would have wanted the girl looked after...
If Kristof had cared for the girl that much, he should have lived long enough to explain her existence to his father. It was that simple.
Should he tell Hollis to keep the witches away? It was tempting. Sean might toe the company line more, if it wasn't for the Eve's child. Thomas would also have the joy of not having to deal with them. Ever. But as much joy as it would have brought him, Thomas knew better than that.
With a snarl, the CEO of the Nast Cabal forced himself to say: "No, Mr Leech. I will not change the past. If the future is meant to unfold as it has, then we will just have to let it."
He would just hope the witches didn't cross paths with him. With a nod, the necromancer began the ritual.
And they undid history.