Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 02

02: Sponge’s Pride

Sora continued to meet with Vittori and Teschio twice a week to help them work on flame usage. They would work for two hours, have lunch, then go their separate ways. Even with a mere four hours a week, they were coming along nicely, and he had no idea what they were doing on their own time as they never gave any details.

The beginning of March brought a letter in the mail, inviting them to meet again for a new job. Two days later saw him in the meeting room, and he was beginning to wonder if he was being a little too punctual given that he was always the first to arrive.

Orders were sent and delivered by Zhu that time. When he opened the envelope there were seven packets again, so he slid them around the table and set to reading. The mission, should they choose to accept it, was to acquire military secrets. Alfero sucked in a quiet breath, which caused him to look up briefly, but she quickly enough relaxed. Reading further, he saw that the job was in France, which probably explained it.

“We’re going to need to investigate their tech,” Vittori said. “How it’s defending them, how to get around it…”

“Okay, so how about you and I get on that?” Sinclair suggested.

“And me,” Alfero said.

Zhu shook his head. “The way you reacted says you were military at some point, so it’d be a better idea if you were to come up with an overview of potential tactics on their side.”

She frowned, but nodded.

“We’re going to need external and internal schedules,” Teschio pointed out.

“I will see if I can track down the contractor for the base,” Viper said, “and from there track down blueprints, if possible. And if so, Alfero would … be likely to give us some insight on those.”

She nodded after a moment.

Sora wondered if Viper would actually do that, or just glide on in and find a copy at the installation itself. “Well, I can do surveillance for shift changes and the like.”

“I will scout the entire external area looking for anything of interest,” Zhu said, “to start, at least.”

‘That leaves Teschio,’ he realized. ‘To do what?’ “Maybe you and Teschio should do that,” he suggested. “One to keep a look out and one to note things down?”

Zhu nodded agreeably enough, and there was a hint of relief in Teschio’s expression.

“We just need to find a place to meet.”

Sinclair smiled. “It’s a little quaint, that area, but there are several inns and hotels. One of them has fairly large rooms. So long as we aren’t all coming and going at the same times it shouldn’t be too obvious, or we can split up amongst the available options and just meet at the largest.”

“We could go two, two, and three,” he suggested. “Sinclair and Vittori, Zhu and Teschio, then me, Alfero, and Viper.”

Sinclair nodded and, after no one objected, pulled a small notebook from his jacket, removed the pen clipped to the side, and jotted something down on each of six pages, then ripped them out and slid them around.

The one he got had simply a name, but he could find out what number to call with a little effort.

“Then I suggest we gear up with whatever we think we’ll need to start out with and make arrangements,” Alfero said. “The deadline is the end of the month, so the sooner we start…”

Again, no one objected. Before they left Sinclair said, “Let’s meet up in five days at Higashi’s to talk.”

Thankfully, he had a fair amount of money stashed away after the first job, so he could afford the associated costs with staying most of a month in another country.

“I was thinking of taking a train,” he told Kiri after he got home.

“So you can avoid anyone actually knowing you’ve entered the country?”

He nodded. “Any suggestions as to what I might take along?”

“In return for a nice steak dinner, I will do my very best to come up with a packing list for you, and I’ll even make you a reservation for the remainder of the month there.”

He grinned. “Okay. Potato or mixed vegetables?”

“Baked potato. With all the good stuff added.”

“I’ll go shopping, then,” he said, and promptly set off to do that.

*

The place Sinclair had selected for him was a larger, older inn. The suite he ended up in was homey and had amenities like an under-counter refrigerator, hot plate, sink, and coffee pot, plus a selection of utensils and dinnerware. He would probably just order up, and the coffee pot was only good for heating water for tea. The suite was probably designed for businessmen, and the outer room was large enough to hold a meeting, even if they’d be a bit crowded.

Nothing he brought with him was of any real importance, so even if someone did break in they would learn nothing about him. That being so, the morning after he arrived he set off to scope out the installation, using his Mist ring to alter the illusion on his appearance. He wormed his way under a bush some distance out from the entrance and started taking notes on the soldiers manning the front.

He stayed far enough back that use of binoculars would be reasonably safe, lowering the odds of any flashes of light reflecting off the lenses, and stopped once the sun angled around low enough to make it a danger. He wasn’t nearly close enough to tell much about any of them individually, so he would have to sneak closer, under illusion, to see if it was likely that any of the soldiers could even spot an illusion, never mind see past one.

But he was tired and desperately wanted something to eat, so he carefully squirmed back out from under the bush and sneaked away until it was safe to get up and move more quickly. He showered back at the hotel and ordered up a meal.

His brother would most likely go straight to illusion for the next part, but Sora was not nearly as strong using a Mist ring. He could use things for cover, such as hiding behind a car entering the compound, then slide off to the side. The guard post out there might have a copy of the shift changes he could photograph.

But getting inside and poking around for schedules might require some props in case anyone could spot him despite optical invisibility. He suspected that Viper would be a better choice for infiltration, but they were not to meet up for another three days. He knew Viper was in the same inn and had yet to see him anywhere. For that matter, he had not spotted Alfero.

After a nap, and after it was full dark, he returned to the installation and did some more spying. The men on duty yawned a lot and spent time talking to each other, but that could be a front. To test it he used illusion to wrap himself in a light-bending cloak and carefully walked up to the gate. No one so much as twitched.

He was about to turn back when dust kicked up in the distance, signaling the arrival of a vehicle. As it got closer he could see it was a truck, the kind with the bed roofed over and walled in with canvas. It stopped at the gate and one of the men from the guard house popped out to check their identification, so Sora eased around the other side and slipped into the compound.

There were a number of buildings he could investigate, but based on the traffic pattern, he wanted the one not far to the east. People going off shift went there first, nine times out of ten, so perhaps there would be something of interest he could get pictures of. Unfortunately, the place turned out to be a mess hall when he glanced through the windows.

He could sneak in and listen to gossip, but that might not be very fruitful. Checking out the composition of the building materials, however, might be worth his time. Kiri had taught him a lot of useful tricks for a Sky to utilize. That, and he had a large collection of books (and comics for some reason), and Sora was not above taking inspiration from a multitude of sources.

He sneaked back over to the guard post and looked inside. There was a schedule tacked up on one wall, but he would need a camera with a telephoto lens to get a picture (and to avoid the guards hearing the shutter). Or he would have to write it all down by hand, which would take too long for his comfort. With that in mind he sneaked out the next time the gate opened and headed back to his suite.

*

He opened his door when a knock came; Alfero was standing in the hall. Sora let her in and gestured vaguely at the available seating. “I’ll call down an order once we’re all here.” She nodded and grabbed one of the armchairs, which did not surprise him. He wondered at times if she felt a little uncomfortable being the only woman on the team, but that thought was set aside when another knock came.

Viper glided in and drifted over to the other armchair, which meant the rest of them would be taking up the sofas. He suspected that Vittori and Teschio would sit with him. A few minutes later Sinclair and Vittori arrived and took seats, then Zhu and Teschio arrived a few minutes after that.

As soon as everyone had written down what they wanted he picked up the phone and called down an order, then grabbed his notes and took a seat between Vittori and Teschio, though a part of him questioned if he was going to end up paying for everything each time they met in his suite.

When everyone just looked expectant he started things off by explaining the schedule information he had obtained, plus what he could tell of the base’s layout.

Viper eyed him—or he assumed that was what was happening, as it was hard to tell with the hood shading half the man’s face—and said, “I noticed you poking around. But I have to say, I am more than a little curious as to how you can phase through walls.”

“I like to be in harmony with my surroundings,” he said as various faces in the room expressed their surprise.

Viper nodded and produced blueprints for the base and laid them on the table their seating surrounded. “From what I was able to tell, the information we need to obtain is in this building—” He tapped a spot. “—and underground about five levels. It might be six.”

“And according to the schedules Higashi got,” Zhu said, “we have a very narrow window both ways.”

“On top of that,” Vittori added, “they have cameras in every hallway, and infrared sensors scattered around. If someone isn’t supposed to be down there and people manning security notice…”

“We could tunnel in,” Teschio said, “but it would take too long and make too much noise. So we need someone who can essentially be invisible, or at least capable of moving outside the range of those sensors.”

“They always go in pairs,” he reminded them, then glanced at Viper. Sure, he could attempt to phase through walls and floors, but harmonizing with vastly differing materials took a long time, so he would be at it for hours just to get down that far in a way that avoided the sensors. And then he would have to repeat the feat. Besides, a single person rather than two or more, from a team of seven? No.

Viper nodded slightly.

‘So he is aware,’ he thought. ‘He could see past my “cloak” and…’

Viper nodded again. “Higashi and I will infiltrate.”

“How, exactly?” Sinclair asked, looking a little put out.

Sora arched a brow in mild disbelief. “I think you already know. Why don’t you share with the rest of the class?”

Sinclair scowled. “You’re going to steal some faces, yes?”

Viper nodded. “Correct. Someone will have to stand guard over the two we borrow from.”

Teschio set a handheld radio transceiver on the table. “Zhu and I found this while we were scouting the surrounds. It doesn’t appear to have any tracking devices in it; we checked before we removed it from the area. Whoever you imitate will probably have their own sets and we can make sure this one is tuned to the right frequency.”

Vittori picked it up and gave it a once-over. “Fairly standard, though I expect it’s been modified for military frequencies only. Should come in handy.”

“And after the fact you’ll ensure their little nap is a mere blip in their minds,” Sinclair said.

“Of course,” Viper replied.

Alfero frowned. “I don’t understand half of what you people are saying.”

Sinclair sighed. “Illusions, Alfero.”

Sora sighed as well. “All right, look. Alfero, you have Rain Flames. That generally means tranquility—you’re like a walking version of Valium—and some power over water.”

“And the rest of you?” she said, her frown now tinged with confusion.

“I can only speak for myself. I’m a Sky, with a property of harmony. Some people have more than one type, and some people can control flames they don’t have, if they’re good enough, and with the right equipment.”

“Valium?” she muttered. “I’ve never needed anything like that before in my life.”

Sora shrugged. “Whether or not you learn how to use them is up to you. No one is going to force you. Though if this kind of thing weirds you out, you might want to reconsider being part of this team.”

She scowled at him. “I never said that. And who put you in charge, anyway?”

“All of you, by reason of not objecting, if nothing else,” he said calmly.

Sinclair snorted softly. “Yeah, let’s go with that.”

He smiled and said, “Maybe because you all like to enable my delusion of competence?”

Sinclair laughed. “Right. Who wants to join me and Vittori with guarding the guards?”

Zhu nodded. “I will. We can rotate as lookout.”

“What if a diversion is needed?” Teschio asked.

“We could set explosives,” Alfero suggested. “You scouted the surrounding territory, so you’d probably have a good idea where. If we get the signal, we set it off.”

Teschio nodded. “Yeah, I have a good place in mind. I hope you know more about explosives than I do, though.”

“Yes.”

“…Okay,” Teschio said.

“So we need another set of radios,” he said. “I can pick some up. We’d just need some kind of a code. Maybe a click code.”

“Three short clicks,” Alfero said. “We hear that and we blow the thing.”

Teschio eyed Sinclair, Vittori, and Zhu. “I’m going to hope none of you are the sort to click your pens when you’re bored.”

*

Sora held a light-bending cloak around himself and Sinclair; Viper handled himself, Vittori, and Zhu. Once inside the building they slipped into a side room and waited patiently after the camera hiding in the corner was looped to show an empty room. Two guards just coming on shift entered the building and walked into the same room, a glassy look in their eyes.

Viper smirked slightly and examined the one on the left, then morphed to look like an exact duplicate. Sora, not to be outdone, did the same with the guy on the right, though it took him a few minutes. They each grabbed radios, keys, and identification, then stepped away.

“A nerve pinch will do,” Viper said, “or whatever works. I’ll fix them once we return.”

Zhu nodded and stepped forward to do just that, then caught the first body as it fell, and laid the man out. He did the same to the second one while they ensured all three radios were set the same. With that done Viper and Sora stepped out of the room and set off on “their” rounds, which just so happened to take them down to where the information they were after was stored.

Sora had spent the last week after the meeting with a spy on one of their targets, scouting the route the man took during his rounds in the building, so he knew how where to go and what pace they were supposed to take. Given that Viper seemed to be matching him effortlessly, he made the assumption that his partner in this had done something similar. The idea of Viper blindly following him through the halls just made no sense.

An hour and a half later they were on the fifth floor down and Viper indicated a specific door. It had heavy-duty locks and a card reader. It went without saying they were not authorized to enter.

He nodded. “This will take a bit. I will click once, when I’m inside. Once, again, when I’m about to exit.”

Viper nodded, so Sora reached out to place a hand on the door and begin the harmonization process, to feel out the composition of the metal so he could slide through it. Kiri’s habit of reading fantasy novels really paid off in the end.

Five minutes later he was through to the other side, wrapped in another light-bending cloak. He sighed once he saw just how much stuff was in the room. There were numerous file cabinets to check. He reached down to click the transmit button on his radio once, then got to work.

A half hour later he clicked his radio once and started the journey back through the door. “Not the right room,” he said quietly once he was standing next to Viper again.

“So we go down,” Viper said with a sigh in his voice.

Another ten minutes saw them next to a similar door one floor down, and Sora started the process all over again. A half hour later he was back outside with the information they had been tasked to retrieve tucked away inside his clothing. “Let’s go.”

They finished the rest of the guards’ rounds a lot faster to compensate for the lost time and ended up back at the side room on the ground floor. They had a quick huddle so that more than just Sora and Viper were certain that their goal had been reached, then they transferred back their stolen items and Viper did something—not that any of them could see any of it happening—before the five of them sneaked away under illusion again.

Once they were safely outside the compound and far enough away, Sinclair lifted the other radio and sent, “All clear. Return east.”

Sora almost snorted at the hideous code for heading to his room. ‘Sure, make a play on my name,’ he groused.

They all piled into a car and drove to Sora’s inn—‘I have so got to learn how to drive,’ he thought—and arrived there a half hour later. Teschio and Alfero arrived fifteen minutes after they did and another order was sent down.

“Who wants to make the drop?” he asked tiredly. Phasing through objects really wiped him out, which made it a risky technique.

“I’ll do it,” Teschio said.

“I’ll go with you,” Vittori volunteered.

Sora nodded. “Stay behind once we’re done, then.”

“So…?” Sinclair prompted.

Viper angled his head that way. “As you know, Higashi and I assumed the roles of two guards on duty in the building and took over their round. We stopped at the first of the two possible locations and Higashi phased through the door to avoid setting anything off. Unfortunately, it was not our target. Therefore, we descended another level to the secondary location. Higashi phased through again, secured the information, and returned. We encountered no other guards while en route and no alarms were tripped.”

“It probably helped that Vittori messed with the CCTV system from the camera in the side room,” Sinclair remarked. “But still, good. I wish to hell I could pull off that trick, though. It’s super cool.”

Sora smiled faintly. “I suppose if you tried hard enough you could meld with fire.”

Sinclair adopted a thoughtful look. “Now that … is something to consider.”

Alfero shook her head. “You people are weird,” she muttered, then went to answer the door when a knock came signaling the arrival of their order.

Sora had ordered fruit juice for himself, more for the sugar boost than anything. Alcohol was not a good idea after having expended so much energy. The carbohydrates from his pasta would also help. They ate in silence, and once they were done everyone but Teschio and Vittori left.

‘Just as well,’ he thought, ‘since I’m beat and not in the mood for somewhat sarcastic company, or disbelieving company. Viper is okay, though, and Zhu, he’s pretty calm.’

“That comment you made,” Vittori said slowly. “Do you think I could accomplish something similar with electricity?”

He bit his lip in thought. “I think if you used your flames as insulation and possibly a bridge, you could learn to become unaffected by electricity. You asking that makes me wonder. If a Rain could breathe like a fish. Maybe even a Cloud or Mist, because of the relation to water. Don’t know about a Storm, though.”

Teschio looked both alarmed and intrigued. “I wonder how that could be tested.”

He blinked and looked at the Cloud. “It’d be cruel, but, perhaps on animals.”

“Huh?”

Vittori perked up. “By propagating the oxygen mixture in their lungs? They could exhale carbon dioxide so their lungs didn’t explode…”

“Huh.” Teschio sat back. “Guess I could find some animals that really creep me out, or fight and attack simply because they can rather than because they need to eat. Test the idea with those.”

“You’re … really something,” Vittori said, giving him a piercing look.

“I had a good teacher,” he replied. “Crazy, but good. Teschio, if you haven’t already, I would start with trying to propagate something easier, like grains of sand or popcorn or … whatever.”

“Macro before micro?” Vittori asked.

He shrugged. “Makes more sense, yes? Why start with something you can’t even see? Though…” He thought back to some of the more esoteric things Kiri had drilled into his head. “I suppose if enough oxygen was propagated in an enclosed space, things would get a bit loopy. I’m not all that well grounded in sciences, though, so…”

Vittori gave him a funny look. “And yet you can do such interesting things.”

“That’s just imagination and an awareness of what my flames are capable of through experimentation,” he rebutted. “I told you, most of my memory is gone, so what I know is pretty scattered, except for where I trained hard over the last year with my ability. It seemed more important to ensure I could defend myself first, and then worry about things like what I lost from my school years.”

“And friends?” Teschio asked.

He shrugged again. “I have no idea. I don’t live where I used to live because it’s unknown why I got hurt. If it was a failed attempt on my life it’d be stupid to stay where I was, wherever that was.”

“Your teacher,” Vittori said.

His brow went up at the lack of a question.

“Is he—or she—?”

Sora leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I’m sorry that this is going to sound sarcastic, but I’m not psychic so far as I know.”

Vittori rolled his eyes. “Are you related to your trainer?”

“Yes. My brother. Why?”

“I just wondered why you would trust someone if your memory was…”

“At the time I was recovering from a bad head injury, he looked like me, had the right documentation, and I was confused and a bit panicky. By the time I realized he could have been anyone I also realized I felt comfortable with him and there were no mental alarms going off.”

“Mental alarms?” Teschio asked.

“I have good intuition. Not saying it can’t be fooled, because that would be naïve of me, but I can generally tell when someone is bad news. If I had gotten any hinky feelings about anyone on the team, I’d have left that first meeting before opening the envelope.”

Vittori and Teschio exchanged a look.

Sora simply ignored that and put the information he had acquired on the table. “I’m going to assume that we’ll get something in the post after this gets dropped off. Still, I kind of feel that we either missed something on this one, or it was a strange choice for a team of seven.”

Teschio frowned. “I felt kind of useless.”

“You weren’t,” he said. “You and Zhu found a good place to stage a distraction we ended up not needing. I just think we weren’t—” He sighed. “I don’t know how to say it. The task was almost too easy, I guess.”

“Hey,” Vittori said. “After we get back, can we start the sessions again?”

“Sure,” he said warmly. “Teschio?”

“…Yeah, okay.”

“All right. I’ll see you two on Tuesday.”

*

He hadn’t been home for ten minutes when Kiri breezed into his room and handed over an envelope.

“I’m going to assume things went well,” Kiri said.

“Yes, though it was a little boring,” he said as he ripped the end off and slid out another slip of paper with an account number on it.

Kiri snatched it out of his hand. “I’ll take care of the transfer for you so you can unpack.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t just open it for me and present my statement as fait accompli,” he said dryly.

“Ah, we have enough problems with mail tampering and theft in this country. I’m not going to contribute to the problem when it’s my own brother. Besides, if I upset you I won’t get those amazing home-cooked meals.”

He snorted. “If the mafia is so damn good at what it does, why don’t they fix that problem, then?”

Kiri looked briefly poleaxed at the thought. “But…”

“Never mind, Aniki.” He turned away so he could continuing unpacking. He had plenty of laundry to do, for one thing.

“Pizza tonight?”

“How about calzones?” he suggested.

“Sure. I’ll call in an order after I get this taken care of.”

*

When Teschio arrived he brought him with a small container, which turned out to contain both sand and seeds.

Vittori brought his own, a case, but that held a cattle prod. “I want you to use this on me,” he said to Sora.

Sora, for his part, blinked a few times in disbelief. “That would hurt.”

Vittori rolled his eyes. “Yes, it will. But I’m not about to stick a fork into an electrical socket. I made this myself so I could ensure the voltage and current. It has three settings, and right now it’s at the lowest.”

“I need a drink,” he said quietly, and wrote down his order. Once they received their delivery and he’d had a few sips of his wine, he took up the prod and stared at Vittori. “You sure about this?”

“You’re not getting any—ah, how did you put it again?—‘hinky’ feelings about the idea, are you?”

“Well, no…”

“Then yes. Just a quick touch.”

Teschio sat there with a little smile on his face and sipped his wine.

‘Well, I was the one to give him the idea,’ he admitted, then exhaled slowly. “All right. I’m going to trust that you know what the hell you’re doing,” he said, then poked the end of the rod against Vittori’s arm. Nothing happened.

Teschio let out a quiet laugh and had another sip of wine.

“You need to press that button when you do that,” Vittori pointed out patiently.

He shifted in embarrassment and tried again, just a quick touch while pressing the button; Vittori jerked and bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. “Um…”

“I’m fine,” Vittori said after a few moments. “I’m going to think about this for a bit, examine it from every angle, then we can try again.”

Sora felt relief at that statement and set the prod down. After another sip of wine his attention was caught up by Teschio’s attempts to propagate sand, as watching Vittori ruminate on his recent experience was as exciting as watching paint dry.

As he waited patiently he saw a single grain of sand replicate into a tiny pile and nearly spoke up, but the look of concentration on Teschio’s face stopped him. The barest hint of Cloud Flames was wisping off Teschio’s ring and flitting over the sand. He wondered what exactly was going through the man’s head to have such success, but contented himself with a smile.

A second later the pile multiplied to about five times its size and Teschio sat back with a sigh, looking a bit tired.

“I’m impressed,” he said quietly. “I wonder…”

“Yes?”

“If you can get this down,” he said, “and then got something like a glass tube filled with some kind of gas…”

“He could propagate the gas and cause the glass to shatter from the pressure?” Vittori finished.

He nodded. “That would be on the right track for figuring out how to breathe underwater, right?”

“In theory it would teach Teschio how to propagate something he couldn’t see, and to control it such that things didn’t get messy. So yes, I think it would be.” Vittori looked at Teschio directly. “If you could manage that, then it seems likely you could move on to testing with animals. Of course, if you used something like a deer or a cow, we could just butcher the thing if it died and have plenty of meat for meals.”

Sora blinked. Still a potentially cruel idea, somewhat balanced by proper use of their resources. “I’ve never butchered an animal before,” he said somewhat inanely.

“I don’t exactly have a lot of room to hang up a dead cow to age the meat,” Teschio pointed out. “A rabbit, on the other hand…”

Vittori smiled. “There you go, then. But gasses in an enclosed tube first. I’ll help get that set up whenever you’re ready for it. And speaking of which, prod me again.”

Sora had a quick sip of wine and picked up the cattle prod, then poked Vittori in the arm. Another jerk, a little more blood, and a frown resulted.

“I clearly did not think that through well enough,” Vittori muttered, then adopted his thinking pose again.

*

“You know,” he said slowly, “it’s almost a little suspicious that post comes from that man like clockwork.”

Kiri poked his head around the door frame. “Are you talking to yourself again? Because that could be a sign of insanity.”

“You would know,” he shot back. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed all the times you ‘kufufufu’ when I’m in another room.”

“So… Another meeting?”

He ripped the end off the envelope and pulled out the letter. “Yes. I wonder if he’ll keep to a pattern of one per month?”

Kiri shrugged and wandered off again.

Two days later he was back at their meeting room and was surprised to see that Vittori was already there. He slid into the seat next to the green-haired man and smiled a greeting.

Vittori gave him an uncharacteristically nervous look and said, “I wanted to say … how much it’s meant to me, how much time you’ve given over to helping me.”

It was cute in a socially awkward kind of way. He smiled warmly. “I’ve been having a lot of fun helping. Well, not the part where I have to hurt you. That upsets me a bit.”

“And yet you do it.”

“Well, you asked for help, and I was the one to give you the idea in the first place. I feel responsible and I want to make sure you’re all right.”

Vittori looked away for a moment. “It’s Lorenzo, by the way, and I don’t exactly have a lot of friends…”

“You have me, and it’s Sora,” he said, then blinked when a feeling of warmth blossomed inside him. At the same time as his hand went up to press against his chest, so did Lorenzo’s to his.

The door opened to reveal Sinclair, who eyed the two of them in confusion. He hovered in the door for a moment, then entered fully and walked over to take a seat. “Oh, I get it,” he muttered.

Sora spared the man a glance, but quickly eyed Lorenzo instead, who looked awfully emotional for a man who normally never quite managed to get the look of boredom off his face.

Sinclair grabbed the order pad and jotted something down, then shoved it at Sora with an expectant look. His hand came down to grab the pen and write out his usual order for vodka-laced chocolate milk and bruschetta, then he slid the pad and pen over to Lorenzo.

“That happen often?” Sinclair asked him.

“Huh? Uh, no, never,” he said distractedly. He made a mental note to ask Kiri about what happened once he got home.

He was surprised to see a faint smirk form and a gleam take up residence in Sinclair’s eyes, but he was distracted again when the door opened to admit another member of their team. Viper glided over and took a seat, swiping the pad from Lorenzo, and then the others entered and took their places. Sinclair took care of the delivery that time, and pushed the envelope over to Sora.

He opened it and pulled out the usual stack of papers, and passed them around. The job was an assassination. A part of him shied away from the idea, but a part of him was insistent that some people did things to deserve retribution, even death. The target was a real piece of work, a serial rapist who even went after children.

In addition to the bio there were pictures of the target, and included in his packet was a selection of documentation on his victims. A quick look around showed that Sinclair, Zhu, and Viper were all nodding slightly, so he supposed this sort of dossier was standard fare. Maybe. Even Alfero seemed all right with it, if he was interpreting her expression correctly.

The target, once Nicoli Rosario, was blond and hearty and caused a vague and menacing half-memory to flit through his head, making him feel upset for no reason he could understand, but it did make him more inclined to go along with the job. Page after page detailed crimes and the corruption that let the man stay free.

According to the packet, the men the target surrounded himself with should be left alone if at all possible, but the man with the iron hat noted that self-defense was always a valid reason for taking out an opponent permanently. It was also indicated that something other than a gun was preferred.

‘Either I read at the same speed as Sinclair and he really likes guns, or he’s making that noise over some other details,’ he thought, sending a quick look Sinclair’s way. The man’s lips were pursed and his brow creased. “I’m taking this guy out,” he said softly.

Six sets of eyes all transferred their attention his way.

“You?” Sinclair said evenly.

“Just watch me. But for that to happen we have to decide how to handle the rest of them. Maybe drive them straight into an ambush so they can be knocked out? Perhaps a diversion that would help to lead them to a spot where they could be ensnared to be driven to that ambush?”

“I could … stage an accident,” Teschio said.

He nodded. “What would you need?”

“Probably a motorcycle, but I suppose we should scout first, decide on where to do this.”

“In theory, just about anywhere, but the better we can control the arena… And of course, having viable exits.”

“This one has a deadline of the end of the month again,” Zhu said, “so there’s every reason for us to tail the guy for a week and spend time scouting the places he goes. Some of that is here in the packet, but I’d prefer to verify it before acting on it.”

He looked over at Vittori, who nodded. “We can wander around in his wake.”

“I’m going to check out any tech we might need to mess with,” Sinclair stated.

“I’ll keep an eye out for spots for a fake accident while I stalk him,” Teschio added.

Alfero, Zhu, and Viper murmured agreement with the stalking plans.

“So, standard,” he said. “Let’s meet back here in a week with our information.”

Everyone nodded and people started getting up to leave. Vittori lingered, as did Sinclair. Sinclair slid into the seat next to him and said, “How exactly do you plan to kill the guy?”

“I’ll tell you what,” he replied. “When I do it, you can be my bodyguard.”

Sinclair nodded after a moment. “I will. I’ll protect your back and watch your technique. Right. I’m off to do some checking.” He got up to take hold of the cart and started off.

“Say,” he said to Lorenzo, the warmth in his chest intensifying as he looked at his new friend, “would you like to come have dinner at my place tonight?”

“Ah… Sure. What do you plan to make?”

He shrugged. “No idea. But we could stop and buy stuff on the way, decide then.”

“How about chicken alfredo?”

“Sure,” he almost chirped. “Let’s go!”

An hour and a half later they were entering his apartment. Kiri poked his head around the corner and paused noticeably, then said, “Welcome home, brother.”

“Aniki,” he greeted. “I’d like you to meet my friend, Vittori.”

“Lorenzo is fine,” the green-haired man said quietly.

“And, Lorenzo, this is my bother, Kiri.”

Kiri nodded and stepped out fully. “Welcome to our home. I have this strange urge to call you Verde, though.”

“It’s the hair, right?”

Kiri shook his head. “No, you strike me as a Lightning.”

“Huh.”

Sora shrugged and said, “I’m going to get dinner started,” the headed into the kitchen.

Lorenzo followed and took a seat, and Kiri helped him unpack the bags.

“Want me to work on the salad?” his brother asked.

“Please.” He got out his tools and said, “Something odd happened earlier. I don’t know what it was. It was a feeling.”

“Of warmth?” Kiri asked as he sliced up a tomato.

“Yes, in my chest. It’s still there, being all soothing and…”

“Mine, too,” Lorenzo admitted in a somewhat distracted manner.

Kiri sighed and shook his head. “I obviously skipped over that lesson, little brother. What you experienced was harmonization.”

“With a person? Persistently?” he questioned. He knew he could harmonize with any number of targets, but…

“Yes. It means you’ve forged a lasting connection.”

Sora frowned at his brother. “Then why don’t I have one with you?”

“I am … damaged.”

He could hear the reluctance to say more in his brother’s voice.

“But even so, we already have our bond as brothers. We need no more than that. You already know I would do anything for you.”

“Even listen to me sing?” he teased.

Kiri hissed not unlike a cat and scowled at him. “Okay, not anything, but close to anything. With a bond like you’ve forged you can be the best of friends, like brothers, or even lovers. It all depends.”

“I kind of like the idea of a nickname,” Lorenzo said suddenly.

Sora looked over with a smile. “Be easier to say, I suppose.”

“Verde is perfect for you,” Kiri said grandiosely as he sliced up a cucumber. “Electricity is life, my friend!”

Sora raised a brow at his brother.

“Our brains run on electricity, little brother. Little sparks of life, dancing along our nerves and through our synapses. It is a fundamental part of nature. And besides, his hair is green.”

Lorenzo snorted. “Verde is fine.”

Kiri adopted a smug look and put the bowl of salad on the table, along with a cruet of dressing. Sora got plates of food ready in the next minute and ferried them to the table as Kiri got the cutlery, napkins, and drinks.

Kiri dove straight in without comment, and only after he’d taken his first bite did he bother to grab the cruet, shake the hell out of it, and dribble some on his salad.

“Do you think teaching Lorenzo fine control with something like webs…?”

Kiri nodded. “Could work, yes. Worked brilliantly for you.”

“Webs?” Lorenzo asked.

Sora raised his left hand and aimed it at his brother. He concentrated and a fine array of lines spread out, like a spider’s web, and extended to pass into Kiri. Then he relaxed his resolve and they vanished. “It’s how I learned to harmonize with things, how I understand them well enough to do things like walk through doors. But I could use it in other ways, like killing. It takes a lot of control to do, but if you have that control, well, your imagination can provide a lot of ways to use the flames.”

“I could call lightning out of the sky?” Lorenzo said dreamily.

“Probably,” Kiri replied. “No reason why not. You’d be attuned to it. Hell, with the right level of control you could probably turn a person’s internal electrical impulses against them.”

Lorenzo’s fork paused halfway to his mouth, then continued on its way.

They spent the week wandering around trailing Rosario and checking out his normal haunts, usually with cups in hand (hot chocolate for Sora and coffee for Lorenzo), and they eventually came to the conclusion that if an accident was staged outside the man’s business (his personal office was on the first floor) it would draw plenty of attention.

He had even gotten them inside with some illusions to poke around for a good place for Viper to redirect people coming to their boss’s assistance, and a nice room where Alfero and Zhu could knock them out. And, incidentally, a look at what sort of security the building had, and where the guard room was located.

When they arrived at the meeting Sinclair was already present, and Teschio. He didn’t even have to write down his order. Sinclair had done it for him, it seemed, and Lorenzo’s. They were such terrible creatures of habit.

Once they were all assembled and Viper had taken care of the order and delivery, they got down to it. “I’m thinking his office is the best bet,” Sora said. “There’s potential for an outside diversion, room to keep anyone we have to knock out, and a spot we can use to redirect anyone who attempts to get to Rosario.”

“I concur,” Viper said.

“The security there is shit,” Sinclair said crisply. “There won’t be any issues keeping that from causing problems. All we have to do is knock out the guards in the security office and bind them. Turn off the cameras. Jam the door behind us. Gives us plenty of people to disable and guard anyone who gets taken down after that while the hit is being made.”

“The only person directly in line is the man’s secretary,” Vittori said, “but I know she can be handled simply enough.”

Sora nodded.

“Well, I found a spot I could crash a motorcycle into,” Teschio said. “I just need to find one I won’t mind wrecking. Got my eye on a couple of used ones for sale cheap.”

“Tell me how much so I know what to chip in,” Sora said.

Teschio shook his head. “It’s no big deal. I have the money.”

“Not the point,” he replied. “This is for a mission. You shouldn’t have to bear the cost alone. And that includes whatever you’d be wearing, because it might end up too damaged to be of any further use.”

Lorenzo nodded. “I agree. Last time it didn’t matter because you acquired the explosives from the base, but this would be out of pocket.”

Sinclair chimed in next, surprising Sora, at which point Teschio accepted and named a figure.

“Not a problem,” he said, doing the math on a napkin. “I’ll give you my share before we leave.”

Viper produced a map of the building and surrounds—Sora was half convinced it was a solid illusion—and started pointing. “The accident can happen here,” he said, “and this room here is where we can dump anyone who gets too close. I can set up here, a bit down the hall, and redirect anyone while Higashi and Sinclair take out the target. The staged accident should draw most of the building’s inhabitants away from Rosario. He spends his lunch gorging on food and I doubt he would stir himself to get up and see what the commotion was about.”

“I can make the secretary take a nap,” he said, “and then Sinclair and I will enter. I’ll take Rosario out while Sinclair will be lookout in case someone’s hiding in the bathroom.”

“Or under his desk,” Sinclair quipped.

Sora wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, or that.”

“There’s a training seminar scheduled on the fifteenth,” Alfero said, “so a good number of people will be otherwise occupied.”

“That will give Teschio time to get ready.”

“So once Teschio crashes, we can immediately move to negate the security office and get into place,” Zhu said. “We shouldn’t need anything more than line of sight.”

“All right,” he said. “Then we plan to start this at approximately noon on the fifteenth.”

*

They were standing around in two clusters when the time came. Viper was utilizing his talents to ensure no one walking by asked any stupid questions, so they were perfectly positioned for when a motorcycle roared down the street, swerved to avoid something in the road, and crashed into a wall when the driver lost control.

Sora winced, but Teschio made a specific hand movement he was waiting for, signaling that he was all right, so he nodded. Viper headed off toward Rosario’s office to take position and Sora went with him. In the amount of time it took him to send webs into the secretary and induce a nap Sinclair had caught up.

Sora waited until Sinclair was standing at his side to weave a quick light-bending illusion, then open the office door and slip inside. Rosario was stuffing his face with pasta already and it was barely noon. He looked at Sinclair and held up a hand, then moved it to point at Rosario and began to create his web. Fine strands of Sky Flame extended from his fingertips toward the target and straight through his chest.

Sinclair’s brow was furrowed in confusion when Sora glanced over, but he quickly turned back to the target, who hadn’t even noticed anything wrong. He concentrated again and watched as the threads of his flame solidified, then vanished. Rosario made a strangled sound and clutched at his chest, blood rapidly soaking his clothing and hand, then collapsed back, half-chewed pasta spilling out of his mouth.

Sora tapped Sinclair’s arm and turned away, taking care to wipe the door knob on both sides with a handkerchief on his way out. They collected Viper on the way, and Vittori, Alfero, and Zhu, who were standing guard over two unfortunate souls, then exited the building from a door at the back. Sora used his handkerchief again, just in case.

They all made their way back to the meeting place in cabs and somehow Sora ended up with Sinclair sitting next to him. The man angled his body and stared at him with something like hunger. “That was super cool,” Sinclair said slowly. “The absolute silence and subtlety was staggering.”

“I’m feeling like this moment is apprehensively alliterative,” he replied.

Sinclair leaned in close enough that Sora could see the man’s eyes really were black and not just a dark brown. “I want to be your Sun.”

“Are you hitting on me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Would it help?” Sinclair leaned closer. “I like you. I’m very impressed by you. I would kill for you.”

Sora edged away a little to consider, suddenly remembering Sinclair’s actions the day he had—“Oh… This is… You want to harmonize?”

“Oh yes,” Sinclair whispered. “I want to be your Sun. Will you be my Sky?”

“Um…” Kiri had never mentioned this sort of thing when he spoke of forging bonds. He had, after Lorenzo had wandered off home, mentioned that it was highly likely Sora would pick up bonds with bearers of each flame type and, indeed, would lure them to himself simply by being a Sky, but he had not expected such an aggressive approach from anyone.

He eyed Sinclair; it was something of a bother that he found the man to be so damn attractive, though he normally tried not to think about that. With him leaning in so close it was difficult not to notice. “Er… All right?”

Sinclair’s smile went incandescent and Sora almost lost cabin pressure. And then the warmth set in, and he could feel the distinct “flavors” of the bonds. He could also feel that Sinclair was actually attracted to him, but that might have been the hand on his thigh.

“Were you a shark in another life?” he asked faintly. “Because you have that kind of smile at times.”

“Well, they are apex predators,” Sinclair purred, “and I am the world’s greatest hitman. Though after seeing you in action, I have to wonder…”

The cab swerved to the side and came to a stop, then the driver slid back the window between the front and back seats. Sinclair shoved money at him and reached across Sora’s body to open the door. “After you.”

Sora shuffled out of the car and moved away so Sinclair could exit, then walked into the bar with him as another cab pulled into the spot theirs had just vacated. “How do you get your sideburns to do that?”

Sinclair snorted. “It’s entirely natural. How do you get your eyes to glow orange?”

“Huh?”

“I take it you’ve never seen your reflection when you do your thing,” Sinclair said as he keyed open the door to the meeting room and held it for Sora.

“…No.”

“We’ll have to do that sometime. And I expect a dinner invitation like the one you made to Vittori.”

“You’re really pushy, you know that?”

“What ever gave it away?” Sinclair said teasingly as he gallantly escorted his Sky to a seat.

Lorenzo eyed the proceedings with scientific bemusement, then heaved a sigh. “Oh dear,” he muttered.

Sora nodded and watched as Sinclair wrote down their orders. “He’s kind of grown on me,” he whispered to his Lightning. “He’s also very pushy.”

“I’m charming,” Sinclair protested.

“I do hope you’re not going to try anything untoward,” Lorenzo said quietly, and a bit menacingly.

“I will if he lets me.”

Sora cradled his face in his hands to hide his expression. “I—”

Lorenzo patted him on the back. “It’s all right, Sora. I’ll protect you.”

“Ah,” Sinclair said. “Sora, is it. How … appropriate.”

They were interrupted by the remainder of the group filing in. Alfero took care of the order that time and Sora opened the envelope that was waiting. It had the expected slips of paper with account numbers on them, plus another letter of congratulations.

Once that was out of the way Sora fussed over Teschio, who gently pushed his hands away and said, “I’m fine, honestly. I’ve done that sort of thing before and I know how to make it look uncontrolled when it’s really not.”

He frowned, then smiled warmly. “Be tetchy if you want, but it won’t stop me from caring. Are we still on for lessons?”

“…Yeah.”

“See you on Thursday, then. I’ll bring cookies.”

“…Cheesecake?”

“All right, sure. Anything on it?”

“Raspberries,” Teschio said quietly.

He smiled warmly and nodded. “I’ll make it myself.” The next thing he knew he was being escorted out of the room by Lorenzo and Sinclair. “All right, all right. You can both come home for dinner. I wonder what I should make.”

“Stromboli,” Sinclair said promptly. “And my name is Renato.”

“Hm. All right. Anything special inside?”

“Bell peppers, but not the green ones. Those never taste as good. Aside from that, the usual.”

He nodded. “Let’s go shopping, then.”

They entered his apartment an hour and a half later and Kiri’s head popped out around the corner again. He was starting to think his brother kept a spy on him at all times, or at least around the building as an early warning system.

“So, another one?” Kiri said as he appeared fully.

Sora sighed. “He’s very pushy, Aniki.”

“He’s a Sun, Sora, they’re like that.”

“I’m charming,” Renato protested.

Kiri smirked. “What’s for dinner?”

He rolled his eyes. “Stromboli. And this is Renato Sinclair. Sinclair, this is my brother, Kiri.”

“A Mist, huh?”

“At this rate we’ll have to get a bigger place,” Kiri said mournfully, then diverted into the kitchen.

“You don’t mind if I seduce your brother, right?” Sinclair asked as he followed Kiri.

He growled and went in himself, and started unpacking his bags.

“Well, that depends,” Kiri replied, moving to help. “If you toy with him or break his heart, I will send you to a living hell for the rest of your miserable existence.”

“I’m more or less immune to illusions, you know.”

Sora ignored the byplay—including the sudden stillness of Renato and the sweat that started to form at his temples—and began to make the crust. When his Sun actually dropped to one knee he sent a sharp look at his brother, who immediately flashed an innocent smile and released his hold on his unfortunate victim.

“Have a seat, Sinclair,” he offered.

He was pinned by those black eyes briefly, then Renato stood up smoothly and leaned against the counter insouciantly. “You can call me Renato.”

“Of course I can. I’m also capable of calling you pushy,” he said reasonably, having decided that Renato needed to be handled a certain way, and the first rule was never to give in too quickly. It was similar to his brother; you had to be firm or you’d drown. Or possibly be mauled.

Sinclair inhaled, a frustrated look on his face, and said, “Please, call me Renato.”

“You look more like a Reborn to me,” Kiri commented, then offered the man a pepper slice.

He shook his head and rolled out the crust. “Are you all right with peppers, Lorenzo? I can make one without.”

“They’re fine. Do you think…?”

He looked up curiously and reached over to grab a knife. “Yes?”

“Maybe pizza Thursday night? I’ll buy all the stuff.”

“Sure,” he said with a shrug. “Any particular kind?”

“You ever heard of Hawaiian style?”

“Ham and pineapple?” Kiri asked.

Lorenzo nodded. “Though I like peppers, too, on it. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure since … it’s not very Italian.”

He smiled brightly. “I won’t tell,” he said, then stared at Renato, who shrugged. He finished making up the four servings and tossed them in the oven, then began to whip up a quick sauce while they baked.

Kiri got out glasses and poured wine, then began to get things out for the table, and Sora was surprised to see that Renato made himself useful by taking the cutlery and napkins and placing them. Lorenzo grabbed the bottle of wine and transferred it to the table. Given that none of them would be driving a car, drinking the whole bottle between four of them should not be a problem.

Twenty or so minutes later the food was ready and on plates, and they sat down to dine after the sauce was ladled into individual bowls. Renato sliced into his, dunked his forkful, popped it into his mouth, and got a dreamy look seconds later.

“And another one bites the dust,” Kiri murmured, then had a bite of his own.

“This is your fault,” he muttered. “If you knew how to cook I’d not have had to learn in self defense.”

“There is nothing wrong, little brother, with being able to cook for your friends and loved ones,” Kiri said, then looked at Renato. “I assume you already know how to do things like heal?”

“Of course,” Renato drawled.

“Good.”

“But I am super curious about those webs Sora makes.” Renato dunked another forkful of stromboli into his sauce and popped it in his mouth.

“Oh-ho, you like those? One of my better ideas, I believe. If you behave yourself and don’t take any unwanted liberties, Sora might be willing to teach you how to do it.”

“I love how you’re volunteering me for things, now,” he groused, sending a muted glare at his brother.

“You’re already teaching two people. Why not one more?” Kiri said reasonably. “And they are your bonds.”

“I only have two!” he protested.

“And working on a third. Don’t think you have me fooled. You’ve been very patient and understanding, but that’s needed to snag a proper Cloud.”

He groaned.

“He has a point, you know,” Lorenzo said. “I was listening when you said those things to Teschio, so it would take time. I’m sure you’ll get him soon.”

Renato leaned sideways and practically breathed in his ear, “I would love to get lessons from you.”

Sora resisted the urge to go huddle in the corner and cry. ‘Do not let yourself be baited,’ he told himself. “You’re so eager to give up your guns?”

“It’s not that at all,” Renato assured him as Lorenzo rolled his eyes. “I just don’t have a problem being more flexible. And I’ve been using my flames for years. If I can learn quickly, I can help teach others.”

“I can accept that reasoning. But until I know if Teschio would be open to the idea, you’ll have to take lessons separately.”

Renato chuckled. “Not a problem. I may not get what you see in a stuntman, but…”

Sora gave his newfound Sun a sharp look. “But if I do gain him, he would certainly deserve your respect, yes?”

Renato gave him a long-suffering sigh and nodded. “I do know how this works.”

He smiled brightly. “Good. Now tell me your favorite dessert. You, too, Lorenzo.”

“Cannoli,” Lorenzo said.

“Anything with coffee in it.”

He finished up his meal while pondering that and got up afterward to put his dishes in the sink and grab a plate of cookies from his sweets cupboard to lay on the table, then started clearing the other dishes away. Anything with coffee in it could cover a whole host of things—but what would be interesting?

“What do you mean by webs?” Lorenzo asked, breaking Sora from his thoughts.

“Oh, it was something Kiri originally taught me as a way to help with fine control of my flames,” he explained, “but they can be used for a lot of things.” He held out his hand and concentrated so that threads of flame webbed out from his fingertips.

Lorenzo looked at the web, then at Renato, then at Sora. “You used it to kill.”

“Yes,” he said, letting the web disappear. “And to get the secretary to take a nap.”

“I definitely want to learn that,” his Lightning said, almost reverently.

“I’ll do my best to teach you,” he promised, then grabbed a cookie. “I honestly have no idea how well it’d work for anyone else. Certainly not the harmony aspect, anyway. But the web might.”

“It would certainly be an interesting way to electrocute someone,” Renato opined.

Lorenzo nodded, a slight smile on his face. “But not until after I’ve inured myself to the effects. I made a new prod with higher settings,” he said happily. “Can you show me what you mean by harmony, though? I mean, we have the bond, but…”

“Sure.” He aimed his hand at Lorenzo and sent out his web, letting the threads of orange flame enter his Lightning’s chest. Then he concentrated on feelings of affection and serenity and let his flames carry those to his friend.

Subconscious tension seemed to bleed off Lorenzo almost visibly and his smile widened. It was a little frightening, actually, so Sora eased off on the harmony factor and withdrew his flames. Lorenzo’s eyes flew open and he pouted. “Drug lords would kill to bottle that.”