Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 01
Diagonal

 

Part I
Earth

 

“I want you to live feeling, ‘It’s great to be alive!’”

01: Orange Slide

Byakuran gaped in disbelief as Tsuna’s body just … faded … out of existence. He glanced at his Mare Sky ring in confusion, then at the Vongola Sky ring on the grass where they had been sparring. This was not the kind of birthday present he had intended to give his killer turned friend.

He shook his head and concentrated hard, trying to follow the traces of his friend to wherever it was he had vanished, sinking down to sit on the ground, and finally pinpointed it. Tsuna was in an entirely different dimension. ‘What in God’s name…?’ he thought, then searched around for that dimension’s Daemon Spade. If he could just give the man the right memories, then hopefully he would find Tsuna and take care of him.

*

Daemon jolted up out of a sound sleep to the sensation of hundreds of moments entering his mind. He was being bombarded with a steady stream of information from—someone in a parallel dimension? It wasn’t until an hour after the memories stopped streaming in that he groaned and bashed his hand against the wall. “I am such a fool,” he muttered. “Elena would be incredibly disappointed with my behavior.”

He rolled out of bed and headed to the bathroom to prepare for the day. “But I can beat myself up later,” he said as he reached out to turn on the shower. “I have a Vongola to go rescue. The very one who made another me see sense.” Though not at full power—something impossible to achieve unless he could find exactly the right kind of body to steal—he had more than enough for his purposes. To that end he sent out spies to the various hospitals in the Milan region and waited for one of them to communicate back success.

In the meantime he would have to start looking for a better place to live. A one bedroom apartment was not going to work, not if he intended to take in the Vongola. Based on those memories the young man had left his world in 2025, and it was 1979 now. Not only sideways, but back; the Vongola had been sent on a sharp diagonal. He chuckled as he prepared breakfast. The hairstyles and clothing alone would probably frighten him if the memories he’d received were anything to judge by.

He would have to arrange paperwork for his new younger brother, as well, which meant getting photographs (not a problem if he borrowed Tsunayoshi “Tsuna” Sawada’s face to have that one done), a visit to one of the usual sorts (whom he would generously use his flames on to gloss the process along and make whoever it was forget everything, including any fees, because Daemon Spade never paid for anything if he could help it, or if he did it was with stolen money), and get new identification for himself and his sudden brother.

Daemon had located a new apartment and was in the process of moving two days later when one of his spies reported in a match, so he deposited the last load of his belongings at the new place and hastened off to the hospital, shrugging on a new guise that vaguely resembled the Vongola. He could worry about appearances for the both of them later. That sort of thing was fluid, anyway, and he needed to know what he was dealing with before making any long-lasting decisions.

He sneaked into the hospital and up to the Vongola’s room to find just what he expected from the memories. The young man looked too damn innocent, even with half his head wrapped up in bandages. He must have landed badly to sustain that much damage. A doctor wandered in, gave him a surprised look, and said, “What are you doing in here?”

Daemon smiled innocently and gestured at the unconscious figure. “I’ve spent two days trying to find my brother. What is wrong with him?”

“Brother?” The doctor looked back and forth a few times, comparing features, then nodded. “Well, I can’t tell you unless you can provide some proof of that.”

He promptly shoved a hand into his pocket and produced a constructed set of identification to show off, plus sent tendrils of Mist into the man’s mind. Once the doctor was “satisfied” the construct disappeared into his pocket again.

“Be sure to stop in at the desk so you can fill out your brother’s paperwork and take care of the details,” the doctor said, then picked up the chart and perused it. “As it stands, he was found with severe head wounds. There is a possibility of memory loss, but we won’t know until he wakes up. We’ve seen to the brain swelling, so no worries there.”

“Where was he found?”

“A park,” the doctor said distractedly. “Some early morning joggers stumbled over him, got him help.”

“He went missing on the ninth.”

The doctor nodded. “He was found the same day, then.”

Daemon nodded to himself and worked out the math. Tsuna was twenty-five years old and had done his inadvertent dimensional slide on his birthday, which made his new one the ninth of January, born in 1954. He would tack on four years for himself so he could be an appropriately-aged older brother. “How long do you estimate before he wakes up?”

“Not a damn clue,” the doctor said breezily. “But by the time you have the paperwork filled out, we should have a better idea of things.”

He nodded and eyed his new “brother”, and definitely added a disguise to his mental list of things to do. Tsuna’s resemblance to Giotto was startling in its intensity, and that should be corrected in case any Vongola who’d seen the portrait hall at HQ happened upon him.

A week later of hectic work saw him relaxing in Tsuna’s hospital room, reading a book and absently eating some hospital food of dubious quality. How they could do that to poor, innocent pasta…? Movement in his peripheral vision registered after a moment and caused him to lower the book. A soft groan of pain followed, so he set his book down, as well as his fork, and turned his attention to the occupant of the bed.

“Hey,” he said softly.

Tsuna’s eyes slid open slowly and a hand reached to shakily touch his head.

“You were in some kind of accident, little brother,” he said, still softly, and took a moment to press the call button to summon a nurse. “You’re in a hospital, so try to relax.”

“I have … a brother?” Tsuna whispered raspily.

Daemon’s brow went up. Before he could respond, however, the doctor bustled in and plastered one of those professional smiles on his face that held all the warmth of plastic.

“I see you’re awake,” the doctor said cheerfully. “Do you remember what happened?” When Tsuna just stared at him in confusion the doctor said, “All right. How about your name. Do you remember that?”

After a pregnant pause Tsuna shook his head, his eyes beginning to fill with panic.

Daemon reached over to place a hand on Tsuna’s. “Hey, it’s all right. I’m here. As soon as you’re ready to be released I’ll take you home. We’ll get through this together, Sora.”

“That’ll be a few days,” the doctor pointed out, eyeing the chart again. “At least.”

“And the memory loss?” he asked.

The doctor looked up and shrugged casually. “Memory is a tricky thing. It may come back, it may not. But trying to force it would be a bad idea. A lot of that depends on why. If it’s just physical trauma…”

Daemon nodded, understanding what was being implied. A glance at Tsuna showed that he did not and was too wrapped up in confusion and, to a lesser degree, panic. He squeezed gently, trying to be comforting. If Elena were present she would give him that damn look, the one brimming with disappointment, if he did anything less.

‘True, the odds of this boy ever becoming the head of Vongola again is pretty damn slim,’ he thought, ‘but she would still expect me to take care of him. At least until he can stand on his own two feet. His memory coming back is just—well, if it doesn’t, he won’t be burdened by all that, and if it does, maybe he’ll be comfortable enough here that he won’t crack. I do wonder how much he does remember, though, but it’ll have to wait until he’s released. I’m not about to bring it up in a civilian hospital.’

Tsuna carefully twisted his wrist so that he could curl his fingers around Daemon’s.

That evening he was bombarded by another set of moments and memories. From what he was getting, Byakuran’s ring had been partially sealed as a result of his attempt to take over the world using its power to see sideways into other dimensions, but Reborn had called in his fellows and arranged to loosen the seal, so that Byakuran could send weak thoughts and receive them.

‘You can’t bring him back?’

‘No.’ The thought was accompanied by memories of Byakuran having brought over an alternate version of himself. The destruction of a world was not a price any of them were willing to pay again. ‘Tsuna’s slide was purely accidental. Even if I could bring him back, he would be a mere shadow of himself, and I will not destroy another world.’

‘He has memory loss.’

‘Work around it. Besides, the others should be able to help.’

‘No. It’s 1979.’

‘…I see. That explains why I couldn’t find myself there. I am not sure what I’ll tell the people here, but no matter what, they’re going to be extremely unhappy.’

‘With you.’

‘Yes, but that doesn’t matter. Tsuna saved me, too. Please take care of him. Help him to stand on his own. I don’t think I can do this much longer, this exchange. It’s a lesser form of what I did with Ghost, so…’

‘I understand. You’ve given me a lot to work with and I’ve already established an identity for him as my younger brother, and found us a place to live.’

‘Good. I’ll send more if I can think of more that would help. But talking? Probably not. I’m already about to lose consciousness.’

‘Thank you.’

When no more was sent he shook himself back to full awareness and sighed. His dinner was a burnt mess. Time for delivery.

*

“So what do you remember?” he asked.

Tsuna—now Sora—looked up from his meal and frowned.

Daemon bit back a sigh and slid tendrils of Mist into Sora’s mind to make him a bit more likely to actually talk. The quicker he knew what he was dealing with the quicker he could formulate a plan of action. “Do you remember that you were a part of the mafia?” he asked bluntly.

Sora looked back down and shifted uncomfortably. “Yes.”

“All right. Do you remember using your flames?”

“…Yes. But not how.”

“That’s fine. I can teach you if you want. Knowing how to defend yourself is never a bad idea. Give it some thought.”

“I don’t … remember why I was mafia.”

He nodded. “It’s fine. As soon as I found out where you were, that you’d been hurt, I found us a new place to live.” A tiny, minuscule, infinitesimally small part of him squirmed at the lack of blunt truth, but he was a Mist, and deception was his very life. “And arranged for new identities.”

Sora’s head snapped up and he swallowed his most recent bite. “New identities? Then what’s my real name?”

Daemon shook his head. “Until your memory returns it’s probably better not to know.” ‘And maybe with it currently out of reach I can train you properly, so that if it comes back you’ll already be comfortable with your power.’ One of the things Byakuran had passed on was the knowledge that Tsuna had his flames sealed by the Ninth at a young age. He knew better than anyone alive just how much harm that could cause. But, it was possible, enough time had passed that the damage was mostly healed, and the memory loss would allow for Tsuna to heal in other ways, as well.

‘He’ll probably crack for a while once he gets them back, anyway,’ he thought. ‘He did leave behind his little circle of friends, after all.’ From what Byakuran imparted, however, it was highly unlikely they were properly harmonized bonds. Tsuna should have been complaining of the strain of loss otherwise.

“I guess.”

He aimed a faint smirk Sora’s way. That having been established, he had a rough idea of what he planned to do in terms of training his new little brother. “I will have to create a disguise for you,” he said. “Or rather, I’ll have to place you in the one I came up with. When I created our new identities, I had to play both parts for the pictures. But I have a way to do that and not need to constantly maintain it.”

Sora stared at him, confusion lurking in his eyes again.

“Not hair dye or anything so simple,” he said, shifting his appearance to the new one.

“Oh. You’re a Mist.”

He nodded. “What I can do is create a piece of jewelry for you to wear, a piercing of some kind. Something tiny that won’t be obvious. It can be hidden in the curve of your ear so it would only be seen at extreme angles.” Mukuro’s use of illusion to create functioning organs for that Nagi girl had given him the idea. “I can ensure you won’t feel any pain from the insertion. And from there it’s simply a matter of making sure it heals properly.”

“…You don’t know why I was hurt?”

“No,” he lied smoothly, “but I have suspicions.” He finished up the last of his General Tso’s and got up to throw away the empty cartons, then looked back at his “brother” as a thought hit him. “I wonder… I’m going to track down a Mist ring in addition to a Sky ring for you. You might not be able to use that one as well as your own, but there’s no harm in trying. Being able to competently wield Mist Flames would give you an advantage.”

“The property of Sky is harmony,” Sora said distractedly, as if digging around in his memories the way he was in his Chinese take-away.

“Yes, which means you can probably get some reaction from any ring. How good of one remains to be seen. But if you can learn to wield Mist to a certain level of competence, you could change your disguise on the fly, overpowering the earring temporarily. Or learn to change it directly, to alter what’s, ah, stored in the earring.” He was pleased to see that Sora’s expression began to show interest.

“That might be … fun … to learn,” Sora said slowly.

‘Fun, huh?’ He would have to make all of his lessons fun. Byakuran had hardly been present for any of Tsuna’s original training, but from what he could share, Daemon noted that Tsuna seemed reluctant during the earlier encounters. Later encounters showed that the Vongola had seemingly accepted his power and the use of it, but he never seemed to take any pleasure in it.

That was all well and good, for taking pleasure in something purely for its destructive power was an easy way to losing your grip on sanity. He, like any other Mist, knew that slippery road, as it was inherent in the construction properties of their flames. He thought Tsuna would be one to avoid that trap.

And speaking of traps…

*

Sora entered the apartment and stopped dead a moment later, divided on whether or not to depart or close the door and investigate. The subtle haze of Sky Flame he wore like a cloak and his intuition were both pointing to an intruder.

“You’re good,” came an impossibly smooth voice.

Sora watched warily as a figure stepped into view, like it had bled out of the shadows. The height and build suggested a man. The toe caps of his shoes, his gloves, tie, one shoulder of his jacket, and even the right cheek of his face had a checker pattern on them. His hat appeared to be made of iron, and even it had the same pattern on part of it. The man’s left cheek looked scarred, as if he’d been burned at some point, but then it faded away in the next second as if it had never existed.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” His brother was going to have a fit over someone gaining entry to their home.

The man twisted his hand; from it a—a pacifier?—appeared. It was tossed in the air a moment later, where it hovered for a split second at the top of its arc, then fell and was captured, and tucked away. “I am here to gather the world’s strongest, the chosen seven.”

He frowned. “Chosen seven? Gather them for what? Are you saying I’m one of them?” And what did a clear pacifier have to do with anything?

“I have need of a team,” the man said, his voice like silk, or the sound of scales of slithering snakes.

It set Sora on edge, but at the same time it was soothing.

“The renumeration will be considerable. But first, I’d like you to get together,” the man continued, then gestured at what looked like a map resting on the console table against the wall in the short entryway—he only spared it a quick glance. “That will show you where you can meet your companions. There you would also find out what the job entails, and whether you think you could work with the other chosen.”

So he could decline, in theory. Something he would have to discuss with Kiri.

The still unidentified man tipped his hat and slid back into the shadows. Sora, after a few moments, could no longer sense him. ‘How does he do that?’ he wondered, then shut the door. He ignored the map for the time being and continued on in to the kitchen so he could begin preparing dinner. If the man was still there and beyond his ability to sense, there was little he could do about it. He was just about to drain spaghetti when Kiri arrived.

“What’s with this map?” his brother asked.

Sora looked over his shoulder before moving the pot to the sink. “We, uh, had a visitor. I’ll tell you once we sit down.” Several minutes later they were both seated with plates in front of them.

“So? This visitor you mentioned?”

“He was already inside when I got home,” he admitted, and was unsurprised when his brother’s eyes lit up with anger. “I sensed him the moment I stepped in, but I couldn’t figure out where he was.” He twirled his fork into the spaghetti on his plate and took his first bite, absently noting that his latest adjustments to the sauce were good, but perhaps a touch of sugar might add something. His brother was barely able to fend for himself when it came to cooking, so he had learned in self defense, and because, no matter what Kiri said, he had a tendency to worry about their finances.

“What did he have to say, this visitor? Why the map?” After Sora related the encounter Kiri said, “Hm. I suppose I don’t see the harm if you want to check it out. If you’re interested in the job, why not take it? It’d be experience for you, and experience in working with a team. The note on the map says the twenty-sixth, so you’ve got two weeks to decide. I’m more concerned about how he got in. I upped the defenses after that last idiot who came sniffing around.”

‘Two weeks, huh?’ he thought, knowing by the look on his brother’s face that Kiri was feeling miffed about the hole in his defenses. ‘Plenty of time to mull it over, I guess. It might be interesting. And if I don’t like the other people selected I can say no. On the other hand, there’s been more than one person after me in the past year, simply because I’m a Sky. Experience would be good. Assuming I can trust any of these chosen.’

*

The meeting place was a rather swanky spot in Rome, a city recognized as neutral ground, mainly because of the Church. It was considered bad manners to misbehave around the Pope. When he arrived he sought out the bar and the man tending it. “Crows,” he said quietly. “Their music is like turtleweed.”

The bartender’s brow slid up, then he nodded and popped open his register so he could lift the tray. A key was handed over a moment later. “Down that hall, door at the end on the left. It’s self-locking. There’s a vacuum tube system you can use to send orders, though one of you will have to open the door to accept delivery of whatever food and drink you asked for. The room’s paid up for the year, so keep the key. Come January, though…”

He nodded.

“There’s menus back there,” the bartender added.

“Thank you.” He headed off to the indicated room, tested the door and found it was indeed locked, and then keyed it open. Inside was a medium sized room with a table large enough for the “chosen seven”. Windows along one wall were blocked by wooden-slat blinds stained a dark brown, and the lighting was “intimate”, leaving pools of shadows along the walls.

He was the first to arrive, and took a seat to one side so he could keep an eye on both the windows and the door. A large manila envelope occupied the center of the table, but he ignored that in favor of browsing the menu at his seat. Hopefully the fare was at least decent and the drinks not watered down.

Sora grabbed the waiting order pad and began to write down what he wanted, pausing for a split second when his senses alerted him to someone else arriving just before the door’s lock clicked and it opened. He glanced over long enough to see it was a woman with dark hair, then finished up. He set the pad and attached pencil down and pushed his menu away.

She took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

He gave her a steady look. “Ciao. I’m Higashi.”

“Alfero,” she replied.

He nodded and pushed the order pad past the manila envelope and over to her. “I assume you got the same kind of visit I did, from a man in a…”

“A mask,” she said, then grabbed her menu.

“With a hat,” he replied.

“Of iron.” She set down the menu and grabbed the pencil, then jotted down her order just as Sora’s intuition alerted him again.

The door opened and a cloaked figure stepped inside. He or she (and Sora was inclined to think male based on the way their clothing hung) approached the table and took a seat equidistant from him and Alfero.

“Ciao,” he said again. “I’m Higashi.”

Alfero pushed the order form over and said, “Alfero.”

“Viper,” said the figure in a whispery voice.

The door opened again, that time admitting a sharply-dressed man wearing a fedora. Sora nearly goggled at the man’s sideburns, but the past year with Kiri had dampened his tendency toward obvious reactions.

Introductions went around again and Sinclair was given the order form. Next was Vittori, a man who, oddly enough, had green hair, then Teschio, who had purple hair and piercings, and finally, a Chinese man who introduced himself as Zhu.

After Zhu wrote down his order Sinclair, whose default expression seemed to be either smug or arrogant, looked at Teschio and said, “Go send that in.”

“What? Why me?”

Sora frowned. “Not a bad idea, Sinclair. We can take turns,” he said, then grabbed the pad, ripped off the top sheet, and delivered it to the cannister for the system and sent it on its way. After he sat back down he said, “This is supposedly a team of seven strong people, not you and a bunch of subordinates.”

Sinclair sneered lightly. “You seem to be game to take charge.”

“Sometimes you reach for the Sky. Sometimes you are the Sky,” he replied, having pegged everyone at the table by their flame type. The masked man had chosen seven people, one of each flame, and from everything he knew, he was intended to be in charge, or at least part of the glue that held the group together. Kiri might have drilled all of that into his head, but his intuition and sensing capabilities told him plenty, as well.

“I’m going to assume none of you know much more than what little I do,” Zhu said. “So, the envelope?”

“Higashi was here first,” Alfero commented.

“Supposedly a team,” he repeated. “I thought it would be premature to open it before we were gathered.” He felt someone coming down the hallway and almost got up again, but waited until a knock sounded at the door. He strode over quickly and accepted the cart, then wheeled it back to the table and began handing orders out.

Once he was seated again he sent out a pulse of Sky Flame to ensure there had been no tampering with his order—Kiri would beat him senseless if he ever forgot that precaution—then took a sip of his wine, followed by a bite of his bruschetta. He looked up when the envelope was pushed at him to see Sinclair staring expectantly.

No one objected, so he wiped his fingers and pulled the envelope closer. Inside was a sheaf of paper in packets; there were seven of them. He slid a copy to each person at the table and sat back to read his.

‘Guard duty?’ he thought. ‘More like “preventing an assassination” duty. So we’d have to surveil the entire route we expect this guy to take, have at least one of us right there as a bodyguard, if not two, and the rest on scouting and distraction duty. At least we have a couple of weeks to get all that done before the actual escort.’

The man himself was of no particular importance aside from knowing who his enemies might be and how they might go after him. The packet included the projected route, but Sora already knew from his lessons that they would have to scout the entire thing, plus make contingency plans for alternate paths. He was also not naïve enough to think that killing was off the table.

“I suggest,” Zhu said into a silence broken only by the rustle of paper or the sound of eating, “that we learn as much as we can based on this information, and meet again in one week to decide on roles and plans.”

No one objected to the assumption that they would take the mission. He was there because he was curious and he wanted something interesting to do. The lure of riches meant little when he had the power to intuit lucrative investments to make that would build up a hefty account in Switzerland, or use what Kiri had taught him to sucker it out of people.

A look around showed that Alfero was only slightly uncomfortable, but she held herself in a way that suggested military training. Barring being a part of the upper class, no one sat like that and moved that way unless they were military. Teschio looked anxious and out of sorts, as if he had no idea why he was there, but wasn’t willing to get up and leave.

“I agree,” Alfero said. “We will all likely have different sources we can tap, and different perspectives to add.”

Sora finished his wine. “We’ll have a fair amount to go over, so ten o’clock?”

Sinclair nodded and tucked his packet away, then transfered his plate and cup to the cart, which started a progression of tidying up. Sora took charge of returning the cart to the front, then headed to the library. He wanted information, not only about the person they would be protecting, but about the buildings along the way. If he could track down the right information he could track down the plans, and start thinking of alternate pathways to take.

Nicolo Ferro was the owner of a manufactory specializing in poisons, and his leading customer was the Velenoso Famiglia, whose entire reputation was founded on being able to poison their targets. They wanted to take over the manufactory and cut Ferro out, to gain not only the knowledge behind the processes, but his contacts, suppliers, and to decrease their costs.

That being the case, they would have to be on guard for poison strikes. How they might be delivered, however… Kiri might know, or could at least point him in the right direction, hopefully. That left the route to go over, first on maps, and then in person.

That evening he pulled some sauce he’d made earlier in the week out of the freezer and set it to warm up, then boiled some water to make penne. One of the restaurants he had visited recently had baked the stuff in individual square dishes and he wanted to try it, though he felt that plain mozzarella melted on top was a little boring.

He gave Kiri a five minute warning before tossing together two small salads and setting them on the table. A cruet of dressing was placed, and then he was getting the food from the oven. Kiri made himself useful by setting the table and bringing his own plate over after Sora had placed the dish on it.

“I was hoping you could give me some advice,” he said after accepting a glass of wine from his brother.

“About whatever meeting you had today?” Kiri asked, then plunged his fork into the dish. He stopped mid-chew with a funny look on his face.

“Yes. And what is that expression about?”

“What kind of cheese is this?”

“A mixture of Colby and Monterey Jack.”

“…I like it,” Kiri said. “This is a nice change from the norm. What do you need advice on, then?”

“How would I go about getting information on the Velenoso Famiglia? They use poisons, but I’m not sure how they deliver it.”

Kiri ate a few more forkfuls before saying, “Well, I could just straight up tell you. In terms of a mission, I would count as an information source.”

“You have spies everywhere,” he said with a small smile.

“Keep training with that Mist ring and you can probably do the same yourself, if on a smaller scale.”

“I will. I promise. I think…” He paused, turning the situation over in his mind as he ate. “I think this time yes, I will ask you straight. But perhaps profiles on the various famiglie I can use to study?”

Kiri nodded. “I can work something up. But it’s also the kind of thing we can do together. Little missions of our own design to spy out a famiglia and make a dossier.”

“Preferably starting with the less reactionary?” he said.

Kiri nodded. “After dinner we can start.”

*

He had made a list of all the routes they could reasonably take, then went over the buildings along the way. Even a shop could be of interest if it was possible to use Mist Flames to gloss past those inside to take Ferro through a safer way. He spent his time before the next meeting walking those streets in disguise—or rather, a different disguise from his usual, his brother having taught him how to override the one “stored” in his earring.

Sora was an average Mist at best, but the class of the ring he was using helped push him a little higher, along with the harmony factor of his Sky Flames. Someone skilled in sliding past illusions might see beyond his alterations, but unless they were stronger than Kiri, they would still see what his brother had devised.

‘I wonder what effect layering illusionary appearances would have?’ he wondered idly as he stepped into a coffee shop and purchased a mixed fruit tart and a small coffee (that he would drink and not especially enjoy) with plenty of cream and sugar. ‘I feel like I’ve seen a film once where layer upon layer of masks were stripped away, but for the life of me I can’t remember.’

The shop itself was simply too crowded with furniture to make it a viable egress point, so he drained his coffee and wandered back outside, nibbling at his tart as he moved on to the next possible option. There were so many buildings, and so many spots where someone could snipe from an upper floor, even with senbon or darts. All it would take, with the right poison, was even a bullet shot to graze the target.

‘Why do people in his position feel the need to do stupid things like drive to a fancy restaurant for a business meeting, eat a fancy meal, and then drive back? In a convertible, of all things. It’s like he’s asking to be assassinated. Or hit with a poison that will only be cured if he signs over his company.’

*

He arrived first and let himself into the meeting room. Menus were out, along with an order pad. Sora took a different seat and glanced over the menu again before writing down what he wanted.

Sinclair was next, and that time he got a nod of greeting, which he returned before sliding the pad over. Once they were all assembled Teschio dropped off the order sheet without being asked. ‘Quite possibly to avoid Sinclair trying to boss him around again,’ he thought, ‘and not be in line again for a while.’

He noticed Viper giving his drink an odd look as he pulsed his selections. Sora had no idea what was so odd about chocolate milk. It had vodka in it! “All right,” he said after a sip, and produced the information he had collected, one packet for each person, and slid them around. “This is what I have.”

Sora sipped his drink and ate his food, feeling a touch of amazement and some mild resentment that half the table seemed surprised at how much information he had collected. True, they had no idea what kind of a slave driver his brother could be, or even that he had one, but still…

When Sinclair looked up next there was an odd gleam in his eyes. Sora found it scarily attractive for some reason he was not willing to dwell on. Even after a year his memories had yet to return, so he had no idea why the thought of being with a female made him want to run the other way as quickly as possible. That he was already finding some of his fellow team members attractive was disturbing.

Sinclair went next, though he gave his report verbally. Sora jotted down notes on the backs of the sheets of his packet. The others followed with their own reports, and then Teschio said, “So we need at least one person with him at all times, maybe two.”

“With the rest acting as scouts and determent,” he said.

“Well,” Sinclair said a bit condescendingly, “I vote for placing Higashi and Vittori as the bodyguards.”

“By what reasoning?” Zhu asked.

Sinclair’s brow went up as he ran his index finger over a ring he wore.

“I see.”

He had to assume that was Sinclair saying he could discern flame types. Putting a Lightning in close made sense, assuming that Vittori had control of his flames, or even knowledge of them. He was going to have to do a lot more research, regarding the rest of his team. Still, given that Vittori wasn’t objecting, it looked like the man had a clue, or at least saw no reason to disagree. ‘Maybe after the mission I can do that,’ he thought. ‘Though I may have some time before this one starts.’

Vittori shrugged as a response.

“It’s fine,” Sora said, though he wondered how that was supposed to work in Sinclair’s head inside the restaurant. He could make himself unremarkable just fine, though he had to wonder how Vittori would handle that. Then again, the man did look like he’d just stepped out of an advertisement for the latest and greatest research facility, so maybe he had some odd tech toys up his sleeve.

“So we need to decide on the most likely places for an attempt,” Alfero said, “so we can position ourselves correctly.”

“My bet is on the way back,” Sora said, “when the client would be feeling more relaxed, though the restaurant itself seems like an obvious choice. Someone could infiltrate the place and poison the cutlery rather than the food itself, or even the man’s napkin.”

Sinclair shot an approving look his way, as did Zhu. Vittori eyed him curiously, but nodded.

“That being the case,” he continued, “I plan to infiltrate myself, ahead of time, and secure multiple copies of each in the event his need to be replaced. I don’t think they’d go for a tablecloth, if only because his dinner partner or the staff might be affected and give up the game. I have some skill with, ah, misdirection, so…”

He also knew, thanks to Kiri’s tests, that the client was not proof against his level of ability when it came to illusions, so Sora could trap the man in one if necessary, just to keep him easy to handle. He hoped it would not come to that, because then he personally would be at risk.

“It’s easier to lead a target,” Alfero said, “so I would expect a back or side attack.”

“One of us should keep watch on the vehicle while they’re in the restaurant,” Teschio said.

“I will,” Viper said.

They spent a few hours hashing out the details, Teschio actually sending off another order and collecting another cart when the expected knock came at the door, but eventually they were satisfied with their game plan.

And not once had anyone actually said anything about flames.

*

Sora met up with the others outside the client’s ostentatious home. He was dressed in the kind of outfit that suggested a humorless aide with a stick firmly lodged in an uncomfortable place. He adjusted his spectacles in a stilted manner and flashed a brief and utterly devoid of warmth smile.

He got the distinct feeling that half the team was laughing on the inside, so he fussily swapped his leather-bound planner to his other hand and sniffed. A look at Vittori showed that the man was dressed in a sharp suit and wearing a chauffeur’s hat, which hid the green of his hair—or maybe the man had used temporary dye.

“I’ve already gone over the car. I’ll bring it around,” Vittori said, then strode away.

Sora checked his watch, then his planner, then glanced toward the front door.

“Right,” Sinclair said. “We’ll just melt into the shadows for now. Try not to die or anything foolish like that.”

Sora sniffed again and swapped the planner to his left hand, then approached the door and rang the bell. A butler allowed him entry to the foyer and bade him to wait. Ferro showed up a few minutes later and gave him an approving look, then allowed himself to be escorted out to the car. Once tucked away in the dubious safety of a classic convertible Sora said, “We will be arriving at your meeting in fifteen minutes, signore, twenty if traffic is uncooperative.”

“Good, good,” Ferro said. “Let’s go, then.”

Vittori started the ignition and smoothly set off, and Sora spent the ride listening intently to his intuition.

“How are you going to protect me inside?” Ferro asked.

Sora flashed another humorless smile. “We are skilled at making ourselves unremarkable and unnoticed, signore. Some of us will be inside the restaurant, ready to deflect any and all attempts on your life.”

“What if I need to signal you?”

“Make a casual remark about the weather, signore,” he replied. He noticed Vittori eyeing him for a moment in the rear-view mirror.

“I worry about the effect all this rain is having on crops?” the man said.

“Something of that nature, yes, signore.”

“It’s just that I can’t afford to look cowed,” Ferro explained. “Going out like this is a way to not only meet my obligations to my business associates, but also to say I’m not afraid.”

“I understand, signore,” he said smoothly. ‘I still think you’re a fool for using a convertible, though. It’s taking that stance too far.’

They arrived at the restaurant a few minutes later and Sora escorted Ferro inside. He knew that Vittori would be entering on their heels, as soon as Viper took on guarding the car from any tampering. The first thing Sora did when Ferro was shown to a table was slide on a pair of gloves and use illusion to swap out the cutlery and napkin.

He wasn’t getting any nudges about those items, but it was better to be safe. He took up a position with an unobstructed view of the table and shoved his stolen goods into the hollowed-out planner along with the gloves, and sent a spy on over to the table to listen in for any verbal cues. It was difficult to split his attention between his eyes and input from the spy, but he managed.

Vittori, sans hat, strolled on by like he had every right to be there, and took up position to keep an eye on the doors to the kitchen and the entrance. Sora was relived when dinner itself went smoothly and Ferro never once referenced the weather. Ferro finished up his business meeting-cum-lunch and paid the bill, then headed for the exit.

Sora took his place again at Ferro’s side as they departed the restaurant, Vittori already having slipped out to bring the car around. It was on the way back, both to his vindication and irritation, that a serious attempt was made. He would have to wait until they met up afterward to see just what else had transpired, but for the moment…

He could see Vittori’s eyes go wide in the rear-view mirror, and even though the man quickly swerved to the side and reduced the speed of the car, the attack itself was sweeping enough that it could not be so easily avoided. Thousands of flashing needles were headed their way, as if someone had loaded up a trebuchet and launched it.

Sora grabbed Ferro and pushed him down, though that was only a stopgap solution. Any of those projectiles could ricochet and strike, introducing whatever poison they might carry to any or all three of them. Just as he was about to use his flames Vittori erupted in green light, forming a crackling barrier around the “interior” of the car. The man seemed stupidly surprised, but managed to keep the vehicle in motion and headed toward Ferro’s home.

Sora reached out to weave a web of his own flames into the barrier Vittori had made. The combination of the two, and Sora’s intuition, caused sparks of electricity to snap out and scorch each of the needles that approached. They were deflected or bounced off the barrier, but the end result was the same; the client was safe. And hopefully, the poison had been burned away, because someone random would surely end up sticking themselves with one of those things.

“I’m thinking you should drive faster,” Sora said calmly.

Vittori gave a jerky nod and accelerated. A few minutes later they arrived at the house, and Sora quickly hustled the client inside.

“Those lights,” Ferro said, his expression somewhere between shock and wonder.

“I respectfully suggest you not use a convertible next time you go out,” Sora said evenly.

“But those lights…”

“Technology is a wondrous thing, signore,” he said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting I must attend.”

“Of course, of course,” Ferro said a bit absently. “I’ll contact the coordinator about payment…”

Sora nodded and exited the house, then got into the passenger seat of the car Vittori was then driving, a sensible dark blue sedan that had seen better days. His prop glasses went into a pocket and the drive to the bar passed in silence, but Sora noticed the signs of anxiety in the moisture darkening his companion’s hair around the temples. Sora could feel the dampness under his arms and the sheen of sweat swiftly cooling on his skin, plus the weariness of coming down from an adrenaline high.

Vittori parked near the bar and they both slid out, walked to it and inside, and headed straight for their meeting room. Vittori was even nice enough to unlock and hold the door for him, which caused some surprise to flit through his head. The first thing Sora did after grabbing a seat was write down an order for more vodka-laced chocolate milk. Food could wait until he got home.

Vittori wrote his down as well and, as everyone else was already present, sent it off to be filled, then took the seat next to him.

“I’m guessing you guys missed one,” Sora said dryly.

“Unfortunately,” Alfero said just as dryly. “What the hell were those lights?”

Sora blinked. “I’ve been able to do it for as long as I can remember,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean a whole lot when my memory is shot. Vittori can, so can’t all of you?” he asked. “Perhaps I was mistaken, but I rather thought that was part of the point in who was chosen for this team.” In truth it was more of a wild guess, but his intuition seemed to be leaning that way.

“What did you tell the client?” Sinclair asked.

“I passed it off as technology. At this point the shock may have worn off and he’s confused about how that could be possible, but it’s a little too late for him to press the issue.”

Alfero stared at Vittori, her brow going up.

“That’s the first time it’s ever happened, if that’s what you’re not asking,” Vittori said, then got up to answer the knock at the door signaling their order.

Sora pulsed his drink out of habit and gratefully took a sip once the scan came back clear.

“And that,” Alfero said. “What the hell is that?”

He looked up with an innocent expression. “You mean to tell me you don’t test your food and drink for tampering?”

“I do,” Sinclair said. “You don’t get to be so good without making enemies.” He eyed Sora. “I’m just more subtle about it.”

‘More like these people are a lot more observant than the average random person, and someone who plies his trade with a gun needs to be even more so. Sometimes it’s hard to see other people as real when they seem so clueless,’ Sora thought with a shrug. “And maybe my method ensures no one here is getting something unexpected in their selections.”

“How did you guys miss something that could launch an entire shipment?” Vittori asked.

“Remote launch,” Zhu said. “We were looking at people, but the equipment was somewhere else entirely.”

Vittori sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, temporarily bumping his glasses out of the way.

“And those people are all unconscious,” Alfero said, “or were when we left.”

Sora nodded to himself. The mission parameters had said nothing about kills being required. If Ferro had wanted his enemies dead, he should have said so. He only then noticed an envelope at the center of the table.

Sinclair slid it over to him.

‘Is he doing that because I’m a Sky, or because he’s mocking me?’ he wondered, then picked it up and opened it. Inside were eight pieces of paper, seven of them strips with numbers on them. They looked like account numbers. A closer look at one showed him a bank name was imprinted in tiny letters. He kept one for himself and passed the others out.

The final paper was a short letter of sorts, which he read out loud. “Congratulations on completing your first mission and having acquitted yourselves well. I will be in contact in the near future with another job for the team.”

“That’s it?” Teschio asked.

He nodded and set the paper down. “I guess he’ll send post?” he replied uncertainly.

Alfero heaved an impatient sigh and got up. “Well, I’m heading out. I suppose I’ll see you all later.” She left, and was followed by everyone but Vittori and Teschio.

Sora drank more of his milk and wondered if they should have discussed what happened more.

“You can … do that whenever you want?” Teschio asked quietly.

He nodded.

“And you think all of us can. Will you teach me how?”

Sora smiled. “I can sure try.”

“And me?” Vittori asked.

“Sure. How about we meet back here at ten tomorrow?” he suggested. “I’m a bit tired from the excitement and it’s better to start with a clear head and some rest. But tonight, in a safe, quiet place, try to…” He paused, squinting at nothing. “Think about what you might use it for? What would give you the resolve. All right?”

They nodded, but Teschio asked, “And payment?”

Sora frowned. “Payment is in having a team with more options. Something like that can save a life as easy as kill. It might be my life you save.”

Teschio looked only half convinced, but nodded, so Sora smiled and knocked back the remainder of his drink, then placed the glass on the cart and departed.

Out of habit he took a circuitous route home, stopping at the market place to pick up supplies for dinner that evening. He was halfway through making minestrone soup when Kiri wandered in and looked over his shoulder.

“Mm, that looks and smells delicious,” his brother commented. “So how’d the job go?”

“Well enough, I guess,” he replied. “I’ll tell you about it over dinner. On a side note, do we have any spare rings?”

“What kind?” Kiri said, then sliced the end off the load of bread waiting on the counter and slathered it with butter.

“Lightning and Cloud. And if you take the other end of that loaf I will hurt you.”

Kiri laughed. “As if you could.”

Sora stopped stirring for a moment and looked his brother in the eye. “I’ll sing,” he threatened.

“Low blow,” Kiri hissed, then bit into his bread.

Once they were served and seated he went over the mission. His brother shook his head over the description of the attack. “But you used something I taught you, so that’s good. But why the rings?”

“Two of them asked me after the others left if I could try to teach them how to do the same, and I said we could start tomorrow. I figured having rings would help, for focus if nothing else.”

“I will give you some, with one understanding,” Kiri said seriously. When Sora nodded he continued, “The rule still stands. No mentions of the mafia unless you are certain they’re already aware of it.”

Sora nodded again and shoved a forkful of salad into his mouth. The two were not mutually inclusive, but they might as well be. The mafia took a dim view of so-called “civilians” running around using supernatural powers, but if you knew what you were doing, had the right powers, or the right allies, you could avoid notice for an indefinite period of time. “I suspect that Sinclair and Zhu already know. Not sure about Viper. Alfero was military, so probably not. And if Vittori or Teschio had any idea, you would think they’d already be aware of flames.”

“Teschio? Purple hair?”

“Yes.”

“He’s a stuntman. Calls himself The Great Skull. I doubt he’d have a clue.”

“I’ll be careful,” he promised.

“What time tomorrow?”

“Ten.”

Kiri’s eyes went hazy in thought, then he nodded. “I can have them before you’d need to leave.”

*

He switched back to wine for their training session; vodka was a little too potent, and the combination with chocolate milk made it far too easy to drink more than was wise. Vittori and Teschio showed up within minutes of each other, and the first thing Sora did was hand them each a ring.

“You guys ever read fantasy?” he asked.

Vittori looked almost offended at the idea, but Teschio nodded.

“All right. Think of the rings like Gandalf’s staff or something along those lines. They aren’t absolutely required, but they do make things a whole lot easier. Vittori, how did you feel once we were back at Ferro’s place?”

“A bit wiped out, but not like I desperately needed a nap.”

He nodded. “The way this was explained to me is that those lights—flames—are a high-density energy derived from your life source, much like the energy you would use for running or swimming.”

“So eating and rest…”

He nodded at Vittori. “The, ah, purity of the flames depends on your resolve. You wanted to protect our lives badly enough that your flames came out to do your bidding. Yours lean toward being defensive in nature, but any of them can be used offensively. What happened is that they formed a barrier that also lashed out, kind of like the surface of the sun.”

“And burned the poison off them?” Vittori guessed. “I assume they were poisoned, anyway.”

“I suspect so, yes. Your flames are like lightning,” he said, then chuckled when Vittori looked confused. “The base property is hardening, which allows you to do things like increase the firmness of something. But as you saw, you can project them as a barrier. Offensive uses are largely up to your imagination.”

“And me?” Teschio said a bit pushily.

Sora smiled. “You feel like clouds. Tell me, are you the sort to keep your heart locked away and drift so that you don’t have to deal with people that often?”

Teschio scowled.

“I’ll take that as a yes. The base property of your flames is propagation. That attack they used? Imagine throwing one needle and multiplying it into thousands. Or propagating the properties of something a little less obvious, like sound waves, or shock waves, or the force behind a punch. If I’m right about your flame type, you’re a seriously heavy hitter, a real powerhouse. Assuming you attack intelligently you can be a one-man army. Or, you can be more subtle, like a plague.”

Teschio’s expression slowly relaxed and flipped into a look of pride.

“So, those rings,” he said, then tapped the one he wore. “Gandalf’s staff, in a much more easily handled form. You can use them as a focal point. They’re made of a reactive metal designed to work with specific flame types, to help you draw them out.”

“Okay,” Vittori said, “can we back up a minute? You said something about your memory being shot. If that’s true…”

“Yes. I ended up in the hospital a year ago. They don’t know if it was an accident or a failed attempt on my life. But as a result, I lost a good chunk of my memories. I bashed my head pretty hard and there was some brain swelling.”

“You kept the important things.”

He shrugged. “Depends on how you define important, but yes, I retained my skills for the most part. I also spent the last year making sure I could use them. The only thing I ask of you two is that you be discreet.”

Vittori nodded. “Speaking as someone who knows more than a little about science and research, I’d hate to see what’d happen if…”

Teschio shuddered.

“Let’s get started, then. The easiest thing you can start with is to create flames on your rings, mainly to prove to yourselves that you have the resolve to do it.” He took a moment and sparked flames off his ring to give them a visual example. Orange flames danced for a few seconds before winking out.

Teschio looked fascinated by the display. “What else can you do?”

“Ah, plenty of things, but right at the moment I don’t want to limit your imaginations. When you can reliably spark flames off your rings we can move on to the next step.”

“You helped with that barrier,” Teschio said, and Vittori nodded in agreement.

“I did. I was just about to do something myself, but you did it first. So I sent my flames in to help. And before you ask, I’m like the sky, and the base property of my flames is harmony.”

Teschio started trying right away, but Vittori eyed him speculatively for a few seconds before staring at his ring. It made him wonder just how good the man’s memory was, and if he remembered that comment Sora had made at the start of the initial meeting, not to mention Sinclair’s reaction, and Zhu’s.

Several hours later he called for a break and they ordered lunch. While they ate he said, “Something else to consider is that stamina plays an important role in all of this. If you’re in decent shape, that’s fine, but if you’re in excellent shape, you can do more and last longer.”

Vittori made a slight face.

“I practice regularly, and learned ways to incorporate use of flames into something like tai chi for an even greater defensive capability, or a harder style to cause more damage, and unexpected damage at that. From a purely calculated point of view, imagine stamina or life force as a number. If you have one hundred units, you can only spend one hundred on moves of any kind, including flame use.”

“But if you had twice that…” Vittori trailed off and his expression went thoughtful as he had another bite of his pasta.

Sora nodded. “Then add resolve or force of will to that, which you might see as multiplicative rather than additive. The better your resolve, the denser the flames, and the more effect they have.”

Vittori nodded, as did Teschio. Sora wondered if the man’s work as a stuntman involved the study of physics. If so, it should make fairly good sense to him. The two finally got flames to dance on their rings an hour later, which made him smile.

“I would say practice for an hour this evening, before you go to sleep. It’ll tire you out and give you an almost meditative focus. And if you want, we can meet again here tomorrow at ten, and I’ll show you how I check my food.”

That evening he prepared some snacks for the next day—cookies, to be exact—and purposely inserted something wrong in six out of two dozen. Rice paper was used to enclose things like cayenne pepper and stuffed into the center of the unbaked dough.

When he arrived at the bar he asked the bartender for a clean platter and used that to display his offering. When Vittori and Teschio showed up they looked surprised and pleased, at least until he said, “These are a test.”

“How bad of a test?” Teschio said warily.

“Nothing fatal,” he replied, “unless you have some weird allergies. Six of these are in some way bad. We’re going to test pulsing your flames over the platter to see if you can detect which ones are not to be eaten. If you can tell one of them is bad, set it aside on that napkin. Once all six are found, we can eat what’s left.”

Vittori and Teschio exchanged a look of mild disbelief, then nodded.

“All right,” Vittori said. “I will try.” He laid his hand on the table and furrowed his brow in concentration. Flames danced, and he sighed. “Not what I was going for.”

“As a reminder,” Sora said, then pulsed flames off his ring in a sphere. “Though you can do them flat, too.”

Teschio also laid his ringed hand on the table and gave it a go. He managed a tiny circular blip of flames and smiled. “It’s a start.”

Sora nodded. “It takes practice, like anything else. Now, as I said yesterday, the base property of Sky Flames is harmony, so what I sense is disharmony. What you sense is something else, in theory.”

Vittori absently shushed him and kept trying, so Sora shot off an order for wine and the drinks his two companions always ordered. He spent the next two hours patiently, ready to answer questions if one of them should ask one, then called for a break when noon arrived. The platter was shoved off to the side while they ate, naturally.

An hour after that Vittori managed a proper pulse and almost sagged in relief. He pointed at one of the cookies. “I’m fairly certain that one is off.”

Sora pulsed the platter and nodded, then removed the cookie to the napkin. “Five more to go, guys. Actually, wait.” He pulled two good ones off the platter and handed one each to them. “A reward.” As soon as they bit into them he rearranged the remaining cookies to close the gaps and gave the platter a spin.