Antonio had found that being a cute cat got you whatever you needed in life, up to and including free milk by hanging outside the alley next to Starbucks and mewing pitifully. He was now lapping up organic fat free milk which didn't taste very good, but it was better than nothing. Lupa was leaning against the alley wall, eyes closed.
“You know,” Antonio said, breaking the silence, “I've not been to the Americas for quite a while. My brother and I frequent Europe more.”
“It’s a place, certainly,” Lupa said. The brick was cool against her fur. “Everything gets mixed up here. It’s almost impossible to remain steadfast against it. Not a good place for gods or tradition.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Antonio stretched, dragging his front paws out in front of him. “There are all sorts of weird things here. Like whatever creature cursed my brother. It called itself a god too." He snorted. "Try and tell me this place is no good for gods once you see how that thing was thriving.”
“Wait. North or South America?”
“South. Somewhere in what I think is part of Brazil now? Deep in the rain forest, in an ancient cave.” Antonio was vaguely aware of his tail moving, although not to the violent extent that Lupa saw. “At that point, we'd figured I was immortal, but my brother was still aging, looking for a cure for my curse. So we tried the New World, and the magicks here. That was a mistake.”
“Well, there you go then. The southern part is untamed still - whatever gods were there probably still are, and are far more defensive than the one you encountered when it was still virgin territory,” Lupa said somberly. “We trend with human endeavour, but losing our primary culture made it hard. For a while we camped out in Byzantium, then to Florence and Venice, then to France, then England during the Victorian era. Always tied to the west. And we’ve run out of west.”
“I can’t imagine it’s easy,” Antonio offered. “Although I wonder what makes your gods so determined to stay.”
“The Greeks and Romans?” Lupa asked, continuing after Antonio nodded. “Well, what else are they going to do, die out? Why else do you think they have so many children?”
“Mm,” Antonio grunted. “But their genetics don’t get passed on, do they?”
“No,” Lupa said. “But we call those children of their children legacies, and they retain some power. Your cardinal is an example.”
Antonio stared. “Come again?”
“Cognomen Vargas. Old family, correct? In your society since time immemorial?”
“One of the founders of your society was an ancestor - a son of Jupiter by the name of Titus Marcus Vargus,” Lupa said evenly. "The cognomen changed, but I assure you, family traits have not if your cardinal is anything to go by."
Antonio laughed. It was the only thing he could do - it was ridiculous to even think about. Lovino, a descendent of the chiff of the Roman pantheon. Lupa didn’t share in the laugh. “The family has horrible luck, correct? Recent and in the past?”
“Well, yes, but,” Antonio started to say. “That’s the cause?”
“Juno’s abhorrence for her husband having affairs with mortal women is almost in the blood,” Lupa continued. “Tell me some of the things that have happened and consider my explanation.”
“Where to start?” the cat mused. “He lost a brother, for one. Younger brother. Sweet kid actually. Tended to upstage Lovino a bit by being so cute and friendly whereas Lovino isn't a people person. I think Lovino compared himself to him too much. Still does.” He paused, scratching his ear with his hind leg. “Anyway Felicinao's dissa-- death caused his mother's breakdown. Lovino told me once that he wished he was Feliciano so she would get better. But that's impossible. His grandfather died from a werewolf and he had lost his older brother and sister. Ironically, they were named Romulus and Remus Before that, oh goodness, their father lost face entirely because of Mussolini, their great-great-grandfather lost an eye to a ghoul, one ancestor almost lost children to Dracula and well, we always figured it was just bad luck.” He stopped. “Your explanation does make sense.”
Lupa nodded. “I’m surprised you don’t have records of Titus. Do you have anything written down about your own founding?”
“We might’ve, at one point. If there was, the documentation got destroyed, if it ever existed.”
Lupa shruged. “Any documentation wouldn’t have been written the day or week of the founding. Most of us were illiterate.”
“Fair then. I couldn’t read or write when I first joined the hunters,” Antonino yawned. “Learning was so hard.”
“I'm still not literate myself,” Lupa admitted. “Although Brown occasionally reads me everyones’ Twitter feeds.”
“Aaaaahhh!” Antonio groaned, burying his head between his paws. “Lovi yells whenever you mention that thing. I don't even know what it is but it must be annoying.”
“It’s a lot of thinly veiled complaining,” Lupa snickered. “It’s amusing.”
“That'll be why he hates having it used in meetings then.”
Lupa grinned. “From what I recall, there's a lot of complaining about the meetings. And speculations on how large his nostrils can flare.”
Antonio laughed. “Record is three centimetres from my observation!”
The wolf clamped both of her paws over her muzzle, trying to hold in her laughs. She failed wonderfully and the two rolled in their entertainment, until Lupa finally took a sobering breath.
“Speaking of impotent rage, he's been in that accursed coffee store for a while now.”
Antonio followed suit, standing up. “I’ll go check on him then. Er...I guess you’ll stay here?”
He left after Lupa nodded, trotting into the Starbucks without much fuss. If anyone noticed him, they said nothing, and it was very easy to find Lovino. The cardinal had found a plush arm chair in the corner and curled up, sleeping. He looked relaxed, and Antonio felt bad leaping onto his lap and purring loudly in his ear. The cardinal took a few moments to register what was going on, and when he did, he barely wanted to move. “Hn?” he said thickly. “How long was I out, Boss?”
The cat purred at him happily and leaped off his lap, darting towards the door. Lovino sighed and forced himself to stand up, following him out. Lupa was lingering at the alley as Antonio approached.
“He just nods off. Guess he was stressed out.” Antonio whispered, gesturing behind him. “Where’s the other guy?”
Lupa gestured in the opposite direction of the street. Tages was walking towards them, a large cup of coffee in one hand and a file folder tucked neatly under his arm. He and Lovino reached the alley entrance at the same time.
“I got my Starbucks mixed up,” Tages said apologetically.
“It’s fine,” Lovino muttered. “Although why do they need to have two of them on the same street?”
“It’s America,” Tages grinned, offering Lovino the folder. Lovino took it gingerly and began to leaf through.
In very precise print - Italian, even - Tages had compiled images of the bird flock with explainations of what each movement meant and all possible interpretations, ranked one through three in terms of likelihood. He had also included a basic guide to signs as well as means of contact in case Lovino had questions or had found some new monster the Hunters hadn’t encountered - to say nothing of the full report that Tages had written, detailing the probable withdrawl of power, what monsters would reappear first and where. Lovino knew he needed more time to read it over, but-- still. For pagan divination, this was impressive, and he said so. Tages beamed.
“I wish some of my profilers paid this much attention to detail,” Lovino muttered, flicking through the pages. “You wouldn't consider joining the Hunters would you?”
“Tell you what,” the augur offered. “I can freelance.”
“That’ll do,” Lovino said, pausing, then offering a hand. “...Thanks. To the both of you.”
Tages took it, shaking it warmly. “Quite welcome. Just remember, these are not good for exact details, just painting a general sketch. There’s no way of telling it’ll rain tomorrow in those birds.”
“There are other forecasts for that,” Lovino said, letting go. Tages grinned and offered Lovino a Roman salute and then walking off. The priest watched him for a few moments, then looked down at Lupa. “How do we get home?”
“Luna,” Lupa said. “Diana is otherwise occupied.”
“A moon chariot,” Lovino muttered. “Sure, why not?”
However, it was only 12.30 in the afternoon. The trio wandered quietly around Fisherman’s Warf for another hour or two, then simply walked along the hills before settling in another Starbuck’s. Lupa was content to nap outside, Antonio hiding himself under one of the chairs so that he could remain with Lovino.
Night fell long after dinner, which Lupa had to convince Lovino to eat. Discerning Italians, Lovino had argued, need not apply for crappy American food. Lupa dragged him to a small cafe and insisted he at least get a salad, as she could hear his stomach rumbling from a few feet away. Lovino compromised, going so far as to order a pretentious pizza with fig and prosciutto on it. Reluctantly, he declared it not bad and engulfed the entire small pie, feeding only one slice to Lupa who had lounged casually on the sidewalk next to the cafe’s outdoor seating.
“Where’re we meeting our ride?” Lovino asked, waiting for the check. He was trying not to look insane for talking down at the street dog that was hanging around.
“Pier 39. Five minute walk,” Lupa said.
Lovino paid quickly with his credit card - praying that his bank account didn’t deny him the purchase under the suspicion it had been stolen - then left, following Lupa again. It felt like all he had done was follow people around and let himself be guided, rather than be the grumpy master of his domain. It was an unwelcoming feeling, and he had half the mind to never do it again.
Lupa cast Lovino a dark glance over her shoulder as they begna to wade through the evening tourist crowd. Pier 39 had begun to hum to life, the arcade lighting up in the fading sun, amusement park rides carrying the shrieks of childeren and adults alike and the smell of popcorn filled the air. Lovino was doing his best to tune it all out, but the noise still made him smile. It was a glorious cacaphony of unbridled happiness and elation, and it was marvelous to hear.
The crowd didn’t thin out as they approached the end of the pier either. It wouldn’t, Lovino chided himself, because it was a tourist attraction, but it made him worry about how easy it would be to hide another flying car.
“Ah?” he asked, when they reached the end of the pier.
Lupa was looking up, a smile on her face. “Here she is.”
It wasn’t a Ferrari this time - in fact, it didn’t look to be anything special at first glance. Just a dark blue saloon car that glowed in the night. The driver inside it was an older woman, maybe forty, with a cheerful smile, auburn hair and soft jazz emitting from the car stereo. Lovino looked at it again - the car was a Chevrolet Impala. He was sure it was meant to be ironic, but he couldn’t think of the connection.
“Lady Luna,” Lupa said, doing a wolf version of a bow. Lovino wasn’t sure why Lupa was doing this, but he dare not say anything.
Luna smiled at her, then looked to Lovino. “Front or back?”
“Er.” Lovino said, then opening the back door. “You mind?”
“Not at all,” the goddess replied. The trio climbed into the back, squishing together. Antonio settled on Lovino’s lap again, and Lupa curling up on the floor. “Domina Lupa, where is it we’re landing?”
“Ask the cardinal,” Lupa said.
“Vatican Hill? There’s a cloister near the library that will get me back to where I usually am.”
“Sure thing,” Luna replied.
It was a smoother flight than before, that much was certain. As a driver, Luna barely sped, although Lovino logically knew that they were going around 2,000 miles per hour. What he loved doing though was sneaking a look out the back, seeing night fall in the wake of the car. It wasn’t even just the eerie blue of the Pacific Ocean, or what Asia looked like beneath them, lighting up in their wake. It was the sensation of it and even if they were pagan gods, it was still incredible.
He stayed awake the entire ride, head pressed against the passenger window and eyes wide with childlike wonder. It was almost disappointing when he saw Rome in the windsheild, and moreso when they began to descend, landing in the Hunter’s Cloister.
“Thanks,” he said, opening the door. “That was....really amazing.”
Luna gave him a gentle smile. “I hope I was better than Apollo?”
“I think a lot of people are,” Lovino replied, watching Lupa and Antonio hop out. "Er. But not like that. Although probably like that too."
A laugh came from Luna, and the Impala roared off, leaving Lovino with his miniature zoo in the Hunter’s Cloister. It took him no time at all to gain his legs back, and he walked over to the eastern wall. He knocked on a section of it once, twice, thrice, and then in a pattern that probably had some meaning back when the society was young.
“Well?” Lovino said, turning back towards Lupa. “You gonna come in and prove Vash wrong, or is this good bye?”
Lupa trotted over, grinning. “I would very much like to prove your nanny goat wrong.”
The wall opened before them, revealing a set of subterranean stairs. Lovino and Antonio stepped in first, Lupa trailing after them. It was 72 stairs down - Romano only knew that because he had counted them the first time he ever entered head quarters, and he found himself amused at the number. Lupa, for her part, was simply taking it all in and sniffing the air madly. She had never been into the Hunter’s den, and she doubted she would enter it ever again.
Upon coming off the last step, they found themselves in a long corridor that stretched out in either direction, as well as looking at an elaborate iron door in front of them. It was lovingly engraved with the Society’s crest, and Lovino’s hands rested on the handles.
“I suggest you let me walk in first,” he said. “ They'll probably shoot you first and ask questions later.”
Lupa nodded to show he understood, then let the cardinal fling the door open. The sounds and scents of the mess hall bombarded her at once - zucchini risotto, chorizo, roast chicken, tomatoes, all spice, saffron, and conversation in too many languages to count. The minute that Lovino stepped through the door though, the room fell silent and stood to attention in quick succession. Lovino’s sneakers echoed on the marble floor, and he gestured for everyone to be seated.
“Before you continue,” he said, walking towards the food section and grabbing a plate. “I'm giving you a warning. If you shoot the animal that follows in this door behind me, I will have Vash shoot you, and dump you in the Tiber. Understood?”
All the assembled hunters nodded, allowing the cardinal to take his risotto in peace. “Resume,” he said, once he had reached the end of the line and grabbed his utensils. Lupa took that as good an indication as any that she could walk in, and did so. Antonino padded on one of the tables beside her, taking the stunned silence as an opportunity to snag a sausage. Lovino waited for them both at the opposite end of the mess hall.
“They listen well,” Lupa said in Latin, once in ear shot. It was likely the room still heard her - the noise level was still barely a whisper.
“A trait that comes and goes depending on the amount of booze they've snuck in,” Lovino sighed, pushing the door next to him open.
“In wine, truth,” Lupa said, trailing after him. “ Mind, everyone used to be in some state of intoxication during the days of Rome.”
“You know,” Lovino replied, “That explains a lot.”
They paused for all of a moment, waiting for Antonio to rejoin them. The cat placed a sausage down in front of the much larger wolf, who gave Antonio a gentle nudge and then snapped the meat up all in one bite. A few minutes later, which involved two flights of stairs and three hallways with far too many doors, Lovino breezed into Vash’s office.
“I’m back,” he said, walking past the Swiss Guard’s desk.
Vash looked up from the piece of paper he had been doodling on. “So you are.” He then looked down at Lupa, narrowing her eyes. The wolf wagged her tail and offered him a grin.
“And no worse for wear,” she added. “Unless you wish to check him for bumps and bruises.”
“...” Vash said to the magic, talking, pagan wolf, taking into account the weary look Lovino was given him. He imagined that it was supernatural jet lag and decided to return to his work.
Lupa gave Vash a curt nod, then walked over to Lovino. She sat down again and offered a paw. Lovino placed his plate of risotto down on the ground and then took it, marveling at how ridiculous this all was. “Do you need a place to stay for the night or are you good?”
“I can find my own way back,” Lupa said. Lovino had to blink, as the perpetual edge in her voice had disappeared. “But thank you.”
“Yeah, well,” Lovino said, letting go of her paw. “If you want to come back some time, I'll make sure they don't shoot you.”
Lupa nodded. “Noted, and with deep gratitude, Lovino.”
“Hey can I--?” Lovino paused, reaching a hand out towards Lupa’s head.
“Yes, so long as your cat can show me a more hidden way out.”
Lovino gently scratched behind one of Lupa’s ears, “Do you mind, Boss?”
The cat, who had perched himself on Lovino’s shoulder at some point that Lovino had missed entirely, purred happily, leaping off after Lovino withdrew his hand.
“It freaks me out how well he understands human speech,” Lovino said with a shaky laugh. “Anyway. Later.”
He disappeared with his plate of risotto back through the office door without another word. Antonio waited until the door shut, then looked at Lupa with a proud grin. “He’s good with animals.”
The wolf said nothing in response -only replying once they were in the corridor.
“It was oddly satisfying to see him do such crowd control.”
“Lovino does use the power of his office occasionally,” Antonio said, speaking ahead into the corridor. “He doesn't like to do it too often. It lessens the impact when he does. “
“That’s very smart of him, actually,” Lupa replied. “He cuts more of a figure with a calmer and more commanding voice than spluttering like a pup over small things.”
Antonio paused, staring at the door in front of them. Lupa sighed and lowered herself to the ground, figuring the cat needed a boost. Antonio climbed onto her back, forcing the door open. It lead to another set of stairs and more doors, but Lupa couldn’t say that was surprising. The entire place was a labyrinth.
“Thanks,” the cat said, trotting up the stairs. “Sometimes this form has drawbacks, and I can’t exactly will myself into being a human just for the sake of opening doors.” He began to pick the pace up, reaching another door soon after. This one had a number of boxes stacked beside it, and he scaled them with ease. The door, Lupa supposed, reacted to his DNA or other technology, because it opened the minute he climbed the last box. She made a little noise of approval, then walked through the door and onto the streets of Rome.
“There are worse curses than being a cat, I suppose,” she offered weakly, taking in the scent of her old city in it’s entirty. “Lyacon’s springs to mind.”
“You mean the werewolves? Yeah, at least my transformations aren't painful, and I keep in control of myself all the time.” He sat down beside her. “You know where you’re going?”
“Tiber Island,” Lupa said, starting to walk. They had emerged on the side of the Castel Sant’Angelo, which meant it would take ten minutes tops. Antonio scurried to keep pace with her. “And I tend not to use their actual name - names have power, and there were two in my territory not too long ago.”
“Did you chase them off?” Antonio asked, weaving between the legs of tourists.
Lupa grinned. “I sent them towards Tages. I doubt they made it that far.”
“Likely,” Antonio said, imagining that there were probably interesting monsters between the two. Tages had never said where he was based though, and Antonio didn't feel like asking was a wise idea. “Why not just kill them yourself if you dislike them so much?”
“Why waste my time?” Lupa said with an elegant shrug. Antonio nodded in agreement, then fell into silence. From the way the wolf kept pausing to sniff at the air, or to take in a shop that Antonio had seen many times before, he had to wonder what was going through her mind - especially if she did remember when the places was nothing but huts and mud.
“How long has it been since you were--”
“410, CE,” Lupa said, cringing. “When it was sacked by Alaric. The closest I got to coming back was when power shifted to Florence and Venice.”
“Ah,” Antonio offered weakly. Tiber Island was in sight, and Lupa seemed to be barely holding back a desire to run.
“The entire attitude of the place has changed,” Lupa said, walking onto the bridge.
“It’s always in flux,” Antonio said. “But how do you mean--?
“It is.....Rome loved life, but it had some romanticized element of discipline. That element has long left this city.”
“So, you’re go back to the beginning?” Antonio asked, as they walked onto Tiber Island. It wasn’t big at all - home of a very small park and a hospital. “That’s how you get back?”
Lupa began to walk towards the south of the island. “In a cartoon, you know how a child digs a hole in their back yard and ends up in China?”
“Yes? Is there a portal here?”
“Similar to cartoon logic. Enter the cave here, and you re-emerge in San Fransico..”
“Huh,” Antonio said. “Can only half bloods and gods use it or--?” The idea of such transportation sounded perfect for hunters.
“Yes,” Lupa said, almost too quickly. It was a lie, of course, as it was limited further but Antonio didn’t need to know that. “I will leave you here then.”
Antonio nodded. “It was nice of you to come to us as you did.”
Lupa gave Antonio a smile and bumped her nose to his. “Hopefully, I will not need to see you again.”
“Nothing wrong with a social visit. Lovi doesn't mind, nor do I. “
“I will drag that boy kicking and screaming into the world if I return.”
“Someone's got to, I'm just not brave enough!” Antonio said cheerfully, turning around. “Happy travels.”
“Boccal al lupo,” Lupa replied with a nod.
She turned her tail to Antonio after that, walking down towards the edge of the water. Where the steps should have ended, the ground opened up, leading into a deep and dark cave. Antonio turned around long enough to see her descend, then considered following after her. He blinked, and the cave was gone, back to wherever it had come from.
Quietly, Antonio began to wander back towards the Vatican. He was starting to feel the same chariot lag as Lovino, and needed to confer to Gabriel what had transpired that day. It was something his brother needed to know - although Antonio was unsure how okay Gabriel might be with more magical talking animals.