Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 03

03: Spider

Renato stayed for a few hours that evening, trying to get the hang of creating a web.

“It’s a matter of belief, visualization, and resolve,” Sora said. “If you can heal…”

His Sun’s mouth flattened and twisted slightly, then he slowly admitted, “But that just happens. It’s not like I’m picturing exactly what my flames are doing. Or even for when I’m augmenting myself. I’ve been lucky that way.”

‘And prideful over it, I suspect,’ he thought. “It’s fine,” he said and created another web for Renato to study. “I believe in you.” Kiri had long since wandered off to his room to read, so it was peaceful in their sitting room, with only the usual sounds of life going on outside their walls. ‘I wonder, though, if he’s as pushy and arrogant simply because he had to crawl his way up to be taken seriously and to be as skilled as he is. Maybe he was a street rat?’

“If I could go from only knowing I had flames and could use them,” he added, “to creating webs in less than a year…”

Renato gave him a steady look, then nodded. “And I suppose it wouldn’t hurt for me to study up on anatomy and how the body responds to injuries.”

He hummed in agreement. “Activating white blood cells? The stuff that makes blood clot at wounds? I kind of think of a Sun as second in line with keeping things together in a group.”

“…I’m not sure I follow you.”

“Well, in the sense that a Sun’s activation property might lead them toward—consciously or not—seeing everyone doing better, or being more efficient, both singly and as a group. And healers can be the most lethal killers.”

“I certainly know where to plant a bullet.”

He smiled. “Part of that is learned, but I would bet a part of it is a Sun’s instincts at play. It doesn’t hurt that you can improve your own efficiency. Makes me wonder if you’re capable of altering the chemicals in your bloodstream to prevent disadvantageous side effects.”

Renato’s lips pursed in thought. “I suppose it’s possible there’s a lot going on in the background I never looked closely at. I’ll have to think about it, do some research. But for now, that web.”

He nodded toward the one still out and wondered if Renato had understood his message.

*

He brought a box with him to the meeting. He had spent a fair amount of time the day before making a cheesecake and before he left the apartment he drizzled it with raspberry sauce and added some whole raspberries. Lorenzo and Teschio were already waiting for him and so were a round of drinks, plates, cutlery, and napkins.

The first thing he did was set down the box, open the top and flip down the sides, and grab a knife so he could cut servings. Teschio melted into a figurative puddle with his first bite, so Sora supposed he must have done an all right job of the deal. When he tasted it he admitted it wasn’t half bad for a first try.

“Yes, you can take whatever’s left home with you,” he answered before Teschio even had a chance to ask.

Teschio nodded quickly and continued eating.

“I’m bringing cannoli next time, though. Suppose I could use raspberries for some of them instead of chocolate…” Both men looked thoughtful at that and nodded, so he made a mental note and tucked the idea away.

Once they were done with the first piece they got to work. Lorenzo got prodded every so often by Sora while Teschio worked on propagating various things, trying to increase his speed and control the multiplicative factor. When Lorenzo got tired of being electrocuted he switched over to trying to form a web, so Sora helpfully made one of his own and kept it on display for his friend and Lightning to eye as an example.

“Does it have to be the hand?” Lorenzo asked at one point.

“Mm, no. In theory you could make them come from anywhere,” he replied, and promptly set to work attempting to get them to sprout from his elbow. “It would be an interesting trick to do it from your feet and very sneakily electrocute someone that way,” he mused out loud.

After lunch Teschio departed with the remainder of the cheesecake, and Lorenzo turned to him with a questioning look.

“I’m going to wait to ask about Renato,” he said. “Clouds are prickly, and I don’t want Teschio to think I’m giving him any less attention. If we do form a bond, then I’ll see about combining lessons. But for now, I’ll just see Renato on other days. Though if I do keep bonding with more people, Kiri might be right that we’d need a bigger place. It’s not like we have a big enough kitchen for me to cook dinner for all of you.”

Lorenzo smirked. “I find this bonding phenomenon to be fascinating. Is there more information about it available?”

“Um…” ‘Not without going into the mafia,’ he thought, then said, “You should probably ask Kiri that question. And we’d better get going if we want to get the shopping done.”

And he did, after they got to the apartment and Sora was busy making a crust for the pizza. This one he would let rise a bit before beating it down and shaping it, unlike for the stromboli.

“There are certain truths in this world,” Kiri said in response, “but some of them are hidden behind oaths and vows, behind lines that once crossed are difficult to uncross.”

Lorenzo stared at his brother, hard, then exhaled. “You’re talking about the mafia, aren’t you,” he stated, then looked at Sora instead. “You’re mafia.”

Sora busied himself with cutting pineapple.

“These flames—they’re connected to the mafia,” Lorenzo persisted when neither of them verbalized anything. “So all right, now that I’ve done it, shown that I can wield them…”

Kiri sighed and leaned against the counter. “All right. Yes, it’s mafia related. People who have active flames, unless they are discreet enough that they can hide that use and knowledge away, are either incorporated into the mafia or killed. And now that you know that much you are subject to Omertà.”

Sora tuned out while his brother launched into a lecture, moving on to deal with the peppers, and then the ham.

“Vindice?”

That set Kiri off on another lecture as Sora began to deal with making up the sauce.

“So Sinclair and Zhu most likely already know all this. And probably Viper. It’s Teschio and Alfero who probably don’t.”

Kiri nodded. “But if harmonization occurs…”

Lorenzo nodded in turn. “All right. I won’t say a word to those two. Not the others, either, actually. The only reason you said anything to me is because I’m persistent and technically already a part of it.”

“Technically, so are Teschio and Alfero, but ignorance works in their favor for the moment.”

Lorenzo chuckled as Sora took the sauce off the heat and started dealing with the crust. “And Alfero was military. That’s going to be a rude shock.”

“I don’t know,” he said, finally joining the conversation. “She’s still pretty distant. I don’t feel any particular desire to try to harmonize with her right now, but I’m not opposed to the idea, either. I just feel neutral.”

“You’re not all that close to Zhu,” Lorenzo pointed out.

“True, but I suspect that’s because he’s still making up his mind, and that some odd little key factor will decide for him.”

“So you’re okay with him?” Kiri asked.

He nodded and added sauce to the crust. “He’s ridiculously calm for a Storm, so he’s overcome the worst flaw he could have.”

“Flaw?” Lorenzo questioned.

Kiri stole a pepper slice. “Storms rage, they jump into things without always thinking first. They’re relentless. But one who can calmly assess the situation first? Pure gold. You’ve overcome your own flaw, actually. Lightnings are often brash and loud, attention seekers.”

Lorenzo shuddered and shook his head. “I think I avoided that entirely. I was always too busy pondering science. Maybe once I have a good handle on my own I could try a few things. I’m very interested in the metal the rings are made from, for example.”

Lorenzo rambling about his potential plans carried them through dinner, and Kiri was happy to egg him on.

*

“I’m impressed,” he said softly, “but I also kind of expected you to get this fairly quickly.”

Renato smirked with pleasure at the web of flames coming from his fingertips.

“Can you extend those to me, and use them to, eh, inquire about my state of health?”

Renato furrowed his brow and concentrated. “You sure you don’t know more than you let on?”

Sora shook his head. “I’m just saying what comes to mind. Maybe someday, if I regain my memories, I’ll know what I should know, but until that day comes I only know what I do know and can imagine.”

“Can’t we just, you know, knock you in the head or something?”

He scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Besides, the doctor assured me it was best to let it happen naturally. Trying to force it could cause further psychological trauma. And on top of that, do you really want to do something that foolish when you know damn well my brother would send you back to hell?”

Renato winced almost imperceptibly. “Ah, right. Why the hell isn’t he your Mist?”

“He said he was ‘damaged’, and no, I did not ask him to elaborate,” he replied, eyeing the steadily approaching web of Sun Flames. He considered pulling his hand back teasingly, but refrained.

“Don’t even,” Renato said tersely. “I saw your muscles twitch.”

“Nah. I’ll save that for later, when you’ve gained some skill.”

“I’ll show you skill,” Renato promised, looking up for a moment to leer at him.

*

A letter came at the start of the month and they assembled two days later. The envelope contained the usual seven packets of information and Sora slid them around, then set about reading.

“Surveillance?” Teschio said quietly. “Seems a little tame.”

Sora nodded absently. They were being tasked to surveil a building and the people in it, but not enter it. The client simply wanted the visible routines for two weeks, or just one if nothing of note happened during the first. “And we can start at any time.”

“I suggest we install cameras in or on nearby buildings and set up a command center nearby, say in a rented space,” Lorenzo said. “Depending on what things are like after dark, we should be able to get it done.”

“And that means we aren’t all constantly on watch,” Alfero said. “We could be in teams. One to watch the monitors, one to investigate any anomalies the cameras can’t quite capture, the remainder resting or going on a food run.”

“All right,” Sora said. “Who wants to scout out camera positions?”

“I’ll do that,” Renato volunteered, “and I think Vittori should be on the team to find a command center, since he’s going to be one of the people stringing cables.”

Lorenzo nodded. “Teschio, will you help me?”

“I will also scout camera positions,” Viper said.

“As will I,” Alfero said.

Sora looked at Zhu. “How about we stroll around the area just casually eyeing things to start? I’d say we could go purchase the equipment, but I don’t have the first clue about that kind of thing and we’d need numbers, anyway.”

Zhu nodded. “So, back here in a week, as usual?”

*

Alfero stared at the ring on her hand with a furrowed brow and a mouth twisted in frustration.

“Don’t force it,” he said softly. “This is your power. Command it. Ask it. But don’t try to drag it out kicking and screaming. Your flames are a part of you, so aside from a brisk pep talk, don’t do anything you’d do to a trainee.”

She shot a look at him, then went back to staring at her ring.

Sora turned his head so he could eye the monitors that Lorenzo and Renato were watching. Nothing of particular interest seemed to be happening, but the two were nevertheless jotting down notes.

A flicker of blue light saw him turning his head back to see that Alfero had managed to spark flames on her ring. He smiled, but stayed quiet. Sora was not entirely sure of the best way to motivate the woman, but given that she had actually come to him and asked to learn about her flames…

They flickered out and she sighed. “So… Keep working on this until I can do it reliably?”

He nodded. “They’re an extension of your will, but you still need to be comfortable with them, and calling them. Take a short break, and try again. It can also help at night, if you’re having trouble sleeping.”

“To order your mind,” she said.

“Yes.”

Alfero nodded sat back, glass in hand, and took a deep sip.

“In and around that you can consider the properties of your flames, those being tranquility, primarily, but that could be expressed as a sense of stillness or pacification. You have some control over water, such as freezing it. I suppose since water can be turned into a mist that you could use it as a form of radar, perhaps. That would depend on how strong of a connection you could maintain with your flames in that form.”

She nodded again. “You’ve given me a fair amount to consider.”

Teschio made a happy noise and Sora turned to look. The man had managed to propagate enough sugar cubes to create a model of the Taj Mahal. “Makes me wonder if those would actually sweeten anything, and if so, if it was the answer to fewer calories in food,” he murmured.

“Wouldn’t it all just disappear once the creator lost focus?” Zhu asked quietly.

“Yes, but… Suppose I could test it, but I’m not sure about the long-term effects of literally eating flames. But you know, now I kind of want to build something.”

Zhu chuckled. “I would hesitate, eating flames that way, no matter how sweet.”

“Oh?” Alfero asked.

“Cloud Flames propagate. Eating them, well… Who knows what they might propagate inside you?”

Sora didn’t think so, not unless the—‘Well, in theory he could propagate something edible and use his connection to his own flames to further propagate whatever in a target’s stomach, causing it to burst, perhaps. But I think I’ll hold off on sharing that idea for now.’ Instead, he went over to see if Teschio would let him play.

The days went by in a rather boring manner, with shifts of watching the cameras and taking notes, sleeping, going on food runs, or practicing. There had been just enough oddities in what they were seeing that they had upped stakes and switched to a new location for the second week, and re-ran the cabling.

He and Teschio were up for their shift of monitoring when someone on the other side saw or noticed something, perhaps. Sora’s intuition fairly screamed at him on Teschio’s behalf. He moved sideways and pushed Teschio away, then jerked and fell heavily when something exploded through his upper chest near his shoulder.

The ceiling needed to be repainted, in his opinion.

Teschio turned on him with an angry look that quickly morphed to fear; he ripped the shirt straight off his own body and crumpled it up before pressing it against the wound. Sora wheezed in pain, and wondered what that thudding sound was.

“Why—how could you do that!?” Teschio said angrily. “Even if it hit me—”

He tried to focus on the Cloud. “Because it would have been a heart shot,” he whispered.

Teschio leaned in, still with that angry expression. “I can’t die,” he hissed. “I’m convinced Death hates me. I would have recovered.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t have to—” He coughed, feeling a bit woozy. That thudding noise was getting louder. “I’m kind of stupid that way.”

Renato burst into the room with Lorenzo, stopped dead for a second, then shoved what he was carrying at his companion. He raced over to Sora and laid a hand on his forehead. “Keep up the pressure. Actually, no, we need to sit him up for a moment. I need to know if the bullet went through cleanly.”

Teschio nodded and carefully slid an arm under him. Lorenzo helped in lifting Sora up so that Renato could check. Another wad of fabric was produced, that time pressed against the exit wound.

He could feel both Renato’s hands on his skin, and a welling of warmth seeped into him and rushed toward the hole through his body.

“It’ll be fine,” Renato said quietly. “I’ll make it fine.”

Sora nodded slightly. “I know you will.” He was feeling better by the second and the pain had dulled considerably.

The angry look on Teschio’s face remained, though it was warped by a smidgen of helplessness.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t let you suffer.”

Teschio sighed, the expression on his face smoothing out. And then warmth came again, that time from a new bond opening up in his heart. Teschio sucked in a breath and almost let go.

The sound of the shower shut off and Alfero walked out a minute later, then paused in surprise. “What the hell happened?”

Sora just looked at her. He honestly wasn’t surprised that she had heard nothing. Zhu was asleep, as was Viper, in another room, and he knew they used the white noise generator that Lorenzo had brought along.

“Higashi took a bullet for me,” Teschio said after a moment.

“I used illusion to cover us,” Viper said as he detached himself from a shadowy corner.

‘Hah, an assumption I was wrong about,’ he thought.

“We only have one more day to go,” Alfero said. “Can you make the place seem abandoned for long enough, or should we pack it up a little early?”

“Let me wake Zhu,” Viper replied. “He should have a say in this.”

Sora nodded. “We got complacent,” he admitted.

Renato snorted. “We did. I’d prefer it if nobody got shot the next time we’re stupid. This is going to scar.”

“So it scars,” he said tiredly. “Better a scar than one of our lives, Ren.”

“Ren?”

“I’m tired. So sue me.”

Renato huffed and removed his hands. “Okay, let’s see the back first.”

Lorenzo removed the wad of fabric and Renato hummed after he ripped Sora’s shirt open a little. “Okay, the front, please.” Once his Sun was satisfied, Sora was divested of his ruined shirt and cleaned up a little, then a new one was fitted into place. “You’re going to eat something, and then you’re going to bed,” Renato said firmly, his expression just daring Sora to disagree.

“Are you going to feed me like I’m a fluffy little chick?” he teased softly.

Renato scowled at him and lifted him up bodily long enough to plant him on a sofa, then he eyed Teschio. “Sit with him and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Teschio simply nodded and took the spot next to Sora as Renato and Lorenzo hauled away the bloody fabric and took a few moments to clean up. Zhu wandered out, eyed the blood on the floor, and went straight to the food.

Five minutes later everyone had something to eat—Sora was pleased to tuck into a carton of General Tso’s—and Zhu was informed of the decision to be made.

Zhu shrugged. “If Viper is comfortable with keeping up the illusion, we may as well stay and finish out the two weeks. They won’t find anything if they do send someone over here. And for all we know, one of them had a misfire or was shooting at a pigeon and has exceptionally bad aim.”

“It’s fine,” Viper said. “And from what I’ve been able to see, they don’t seem alarmed over there.”

Sora looked up from snaring more chicken to see nobody jumping on the idea of leaving early. “Then we stay. We’ll have to be thorough in cleaning up, though.”

Zhu said, “I’ll take care of that, just like I did for the other place.”

He nodded. Zhu had openly revealed that he had excellent control of his Storm Flames when he had used them to “clean” the signs of their occupation. It made him wonder just how good those would be at getting the blood stains out of the floor.

“Great,” Renato said. “Now finish eating so you can go to bed.”

Sora rolled his eyes and resumed his enjoyment of his food. He was shortly hustled off to take a shower and then to bed. Teschio had been drafted in as his minder, which was just as well. The man kept vacillating between hovering and not, but once they were bedded down Sora heard him whisper, “You don’t, um…”

“My given name is Sora, by the way,” he whispered back.

“Oh. Valerio, but Val is fine.”

“After our usual lesson you should come home with me,” he said, “have dinner. Vittori already does after those. Sinclair comes, too.”

“What happened? That warmth.”

“We bonded. It can happen between flame users.”

There was a pause, filled by the white noise machine and the sound of breathing, and then, “You’ve bonded with Vittori and Sinclair? Is that why they—”

“Mm-hm. You’d get to meet my brother, too.”

“Oh. I really would have been okay. I’ve been in a lot of accidents that should have been fatal. Or maybe they were and I woke up anyway.”

“I see. But it doesn’t matter. My intuition told me it would be fatal to you, so I acted without thinking. Are you normally accident prone?”

Val laughed bitterly. “After I realized… Well, I became a stuntman. What better profession, right? You don’t … think it’s freaky?”

“It sounds depressing, really, and a bit lonely, and scary.” He heard Val exhale at that, possibly in relief. “Think about what you might like for dinner, if you decide to come,” he said, then yawned. Apparently being healed took a lot out of a person.

“All right. Now rest. I don’t want Sinclair to come charging in here to find you still awake.”

When he entered the main room after he awoke the blood was gone, which gave him a new appreciation for Storm Flames. A glance into the kitchenette of the place showed that Alfero was making something in a frying pan, so he wandered in to see if she wanted any help.

“No, it’s fine,” she said with a shake of her head, then slid an omelet onto a plate and handed it to him. “How’s the shoulder?”

“A little stiff,” he replied as he grabbed a fork. “Thank you.”

She nodded and started a new one, so he went out to sit on the sofa and eat. Zhu and Viper were manning the cameras, so he tucked into his breakfast, occasionally rolling his shoulder. Val slid into the spot next to him with his own omelet and they ate in companionable silence.

They started packing up a few hours later. By the time Renato and Lorenzo emerged from the makeshift bedroom the only things left were the bedrolls and the electronics, plus the supplies in the bathroom. Once they were finished the owners of the place would never even know they’d had guests. They would also never know why they had felt the ineludible need to take a holiday.

The final packing took place and Renato and Viper went off to remove cables and cameras under the cover of illusion. Alfero and Zhu took care of leaving their compiled observations at the drop off, while Viper wandered away on his own. Sora headed for home in the company of Lorenzo, Renato, and Val.

Kiri arched a brow on seeing yet another new person and introduced himself.

“Ciao,” Val said after a moment. “Valerio Teschio.”

“You strike me as being Skull,” Kiri commented, then ducked into the kitchen to get some sauce out of the freezer and drop the bag into a sink of warm water.

“I take it I’m making pasta,” Sora said on seeing that.

Kiri smiled and nodded. “Yes, dear brother. You’ve been away for a fortnight and I would dearly like some of your baked penne.”

He nodded and checked their supplies; Kiri had obviously planned for this event. “Well, I suppose I should mention I got shot.”

Kiri looked at him sharply. “Why?”

“Not sure why someone fired,” he said. “Maybe they were bored. But it would have gone through Val’s heart and—”

Kiri cut him off with, “I get the picture,” then eyed Renato.

“There’s a slight bit of scarring, but otherwise he’s fine. Lorenzo and I got there shortly after it happened, so…”

“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “He patched me up no problem.”

Kiri heaved a sigh. “Thank you, Reborn.”

“Reborn?” Val whispered.

Sora smiled at him. “Kiri likes to give people nicknames,” he said, then checked the sauce. It had mostly softened up, so he emptied it into a pan and set it to heat up properly and moved on to getting the pasta going.

Kiri got the dishes ready, lined up like ducklings on the counter.

“After dinner we can practice a bit, or just whatever,” he said, giving the sauce a stir as he waited for the water to boil.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at propagating visible things,” Val said. “Maybe soon we can move on to gasses?”

Renato’s brow went up.

“With the idea of propagating an oxygen mix in the lungs to be able to have a steady supply underwater,” Lorenzo said. “That was one idea, anyway.”

“Ah. That would be an interesting application. But…”

“On a glass tube at first,” Val said, “then maybe seeing if I could manage it for an animal of some kind, maybe a rabbit.”

Renato nodded. “Because there’s no point trying it on a living being if you can’t propagate something you can’t see.”

Sora dumped the pasta in the water and gave it a stir, then turned on the oven. He smiled when Kiri produced a fresh loaf of bread; it even had both ends on it still. “You do love me!” he cried.

Kiri smirked.

He went ahead and got glasses out, and wine, and poured for everyone, then drained the pasta, fixed up the dishes, and shoved them into the oven. “All right, twenty minutes. We didn’t really have a chance to talk much, Val. Do you have any questions?”

“Um… You explained that we bonded, but… What does that even mean?”

Before he could say anything Renato spoke. “Sora is a Sky. We three harmonized with him as his guardians.”

“Guardians!?”

“I kind of hate that term,” he said with a frown. “It makes it sound like you guys are servants or something. I think of you as my friends, primarily.”

Renato shrugged. “The word doesn’t matter. The point is that if we stay apart for too long we get a bit twitchy. But since we have meetings twice a week for training and time together, it’s fine.”

Val looked slightly ill. “Is this parasitic?”

“More like symbiotic,” Kiri said, “and it’s emotional. You needn’t worry, Skull, you’ll be able to have all the alone time you need and desire. But you have a home.”

“I al—right. I see,” Val said, hand pressed against his chest.

“The other point,” Renato said, giving Val a sober look, “is that some people see a Sky and think ‘protect’ or ‘leader’, but other people see one and think ‘puppet’ or ‘hostage’ or any number of not so nice things.”

“You’re right on that point,” Kiri said. “I’ve tricked away a number of people sniffing around. It gladdens me to know that there are others who see my brother as someone to care about.”

Sora turned away to glance at the timer, half embarrassed and half thinking that Kiri’s phrasing was oddly ambiguous. After a sip of wine he started getting plates and cutlery out.

“Well, he’s willing enough to take a bullet for one of us,” Val said.

He coughed. “That’s because I can generally be sure I can take one in a non-fatal, non-crippling way. But admittedly, if I had more options, I’d push us in opposite directions, so neither of us would get hit.”

“It’s not that I mind healing you,” Renato said, “or any of us, but I’d prefer not to have to.”

“Either way, I’m grateful you did. I’d have survived, it just would have taken some time to recover.”

Val got an angrily frustrated look for a moment, then subsided.

Being uncertain of how anyone else would take Val’s claim of being more or less unable to die, he said nothing regarding that. And besides, Val might become angry with him for mentioning that little detail. He sure as hell wouldn’t want it widely known if it were him.

The timer chimed so he shut off the oven and started getting the food ready. Maybe someday the mafia part would come up, but not yet.

*

The envelope contained the usual packets, this time with information about an underwater cave brimming with treasure. “Seriously?” he muttered.

“It is a bit weird,” Lorenzo said. “This has allegedly been there for how long, and someone only just recently tracked the place down?”

“There was that earthquake not so long ago,” Zhu pointed out.

“True,” Renato said. “I guess it’s at least vaguely plausible.”

“We’re being tasked to find out,” Alfero said. “We get paid either way.”

“Uh, does anyone here even know how to dive?” Val asked.

Sora snorted. “I don’t have a clue, but hopefully it won’t be far down. The entrance, anyway. This doesn’t say anything about us dragging any spoils out. But for all we know there’s a huge sea monster making a home in whatever cave we’re supposed to find.”

“Let us investigate the area, see how it changes at low tide, and plan from there,” Zhu suggested.

“So we need to make reservations for a place to stay, or get camping gear and find a place in the nature preserve,” he said.

“Or rent a yacht,” Renato said.

Val wrinkled his nose. “That’d be kind of cramped, but I guess it could be okay. But that only works if one of us knows how to pilot one.”

“I do,” Alfero said.

“As do I,” Renato added. “I’ll even chip in extra for a bigger yacht out of my own funds. I’d prefer to sleep on a bed and not in a bedroll, and this way we don’t have to split up again in separate hotels.”

Val shrugged. “Fine.”

“Okay. I’ll get that sorted out. Someone should check into dive gear, or a way around using it at all, such as air hoses. You’ve been making fantastic strides in that project of yours, Teschio, but I don’t think now is the time to test it on humans.”

Val shook his head. “You’re right. It’s nowhere near human testing. I’ll look into alternatives.”

“I would say I’d see about plane tickets,” Sora said, “but it depends on where this yacht will leave port. If we can take that…”

Renato nodded. “Soon as I have that information I’ll swing by your place, or a training session if it works out that way.”

Alfero’s brow went up. “Training sessions?”

He nodded. “Those of us who have a closer bond than simply team mates get together twice a week to train. Flames mostly, though I’d like to keep my hand-to-hand from getting rusty.”

Zhu twitched minutely.

“And I’ve been trying to teach how to use my webs.”

Viper’s head tilted slightly.

“Can we join in anyway?” Alfero asked. “And what do you mean by webs?”

He demonstrated by forming a web off one hand.

Alfero tilted her head curiously and frowned. “What good is that? What purpose does it serve?”

Lorenzo smirked. “A lot of things, including teaching fine control.”

Sora shrugged and extended the web such that it entered his bruschetta, then solidified the threads. With a quick movement of his hand his food was lifted off the plate. He set it back down and released the web. He picked the bruschetta up normally and showed the plate to Alfero; it was undamaged. “I can walk on water using webs,” he said, then bit into his bread.

Alfero gave him a look of mostly concealed incredulous admiration. “Hm. That would be an interesting way to practice, I admit,” she said carefully.

“Yes, you could join in anyway,” Sora said as he set his bread down. “Sinclair has picked it up fairly quickly, but he had prior experience. But it does mean we have two people capable of teaching. We may not have time until after the mission, though. Depends on how quickly Sinclair can scare us up a yacht.”

“Allow me to assist you with that,” Viper said.

Renato nodded agreeably. “Sure.”

He could only hope that translated to haggling the price down. He was by no means a miser, but haggling was an accepted practice in many places of the world. Sora ignored the little voice that sounded like Kiri that insisted that haggling was not going to be in play.

“I will assist Teschio with the diving issue,” Alfero announced. “I am well versed in that.”

“Well, camping or yachting, I can start gathering up supplies,” he said. “If anyone has any particular dietary needs, let me know before you leave, or if there’s anything you’re hoping to be able to eat while we’re away.”

Renato grinned. “I’ll make certain the yacht has the best kitchen we can get, then.”

Lorenzo immediately offered to assist with that, and Zhu did as well. Before anyone left, Sora made sure they all knew he would be in the room at ten o’clock on Thursday in case anyone was able to make it, and everyone left notes on their preferences regarding food. Alfero and Viper were both vegetarians, which meant getting a bit creative in terms of food that would store well. He would have to freeze a number of things, even if that would alter their structure a little.

As it was, he started making a list on the back of his packet of things to purchase, including basic medical supplies—perhaps Alfero would have something to add given the conditions—and Lorenzo and Zhu made lists of their own. “Depending on when we can set out,” he murmured, mostly to himself, “I can start actually buying stuff.”

“We don’t even know how long we’ll be there,” Lorenzo replied. “That quake could have uncovered an entrance into a vast complex of caves.”

Zhu looked up for a moment, then jotted down a number of new items on his list. A quick peek showed things like fluorescent markers, pitons, and guide ropes.

*

Alfero showed up to the Thursday session with Val. As they were only for two hours he supposed his Cloud had talked her into it somehow—or she really was that curious. Lorenzo showed up, as did Zhu, which was a little surprising. He sent in an order and made sure that Val and Lorenzo were set to practice, then collected the cart, passed out drinks, and set to getting Alfero and Zhu on target.

Zhu already knew how to use his flames, so just shooting a web out of his fingers a few times was enough for him to nod and start making his own attempts. Alfero, however, had only just become interested enough in flames to bother trying, so she would be more of a challenge.

“How’ve you been doing with sparking flames off your ring?” he asked her.

“Well,” she said shortly, then elaborated. “I’ve been practicing for an hour before bed each night and I’m able to do it easily.”

He smiled at her. “Excellent. I had a feeling you’d be disciplined enough to get it and stick with it. So, the webs. They’re a method of learning fine control. When you can do those, you can do about anything within reason, because by then you’ll know exactly how to manipulate them.”

“It’s not just the hands, then,” she stated.

“Right. I can make them appear from just about anywhere if I concentrate hard enough. It’s easier to start with your hand because it’s so visible and we’re used to things like pointing, if that makes any sense.”

She nodded. “It does, yes.”

She looked at his hand so he slowly created a web for her to look at, then waited patiently as she began trying. Zhu occasionally glanced over, as well, so he made sure his web was easily visible to both. Explaining the “how” of something was not his strong point, but sometimes an example spoke louder.

Kiri had not exactly been verbose when it came to explaining certain things, either. He showed; he demonstrated. He expected that Sora would be good with that much, and he had been, because he already knew he could use his flames, and his imagination was flexible.

Alfero had taken his words to heart, though. She didn’t appear to be trying to force her flames out so much as coaxing or asking them. Already she had short threads emerging from her fingertips and a focused, determined look on her face.

They disappeared abruptly when glass shattered. Sora looked up to see the gas-filled tube Val had been working with was in glittering shards, and Val had a bright smile on his face. He smiled, too, pleased at his friend’s success.

Lorenzo had a smug look on his face as he reached over to pat Val on the back. “I have plenty more where that came from,” he said.

*

Renato appeared on Tuesday, along with Viper, to the next training session, though they were a little late. A sheaf of photographs was placed in front of Sora and he left off being a demonstration model so he could shuffle through them.

“This looks really nice,” he said admiringly. “Do I even want to know how much I’ll be chipping in?”

Viper smirked. “We talked the price down considerably.” He slid a piece of paper over.

Sora took a look and gawked. Eight million lira. ‘I don’t even want to know what it would have cost at full price.’ He nodded and said, “So a little under one point two five each.”

“Eh, make it one,” Renato said. “I’ll cover the rest, since I pushed for a better yacht.”

He nodded. “If anyone is uncomfortable spending that much, I’ll chip in the difference.” His investments were starting to really pay off, after all, and the payouts from the missions were not exactly pocket change. “And since you’re here, order up and join in on the fun.”

Once that was out of the way he asked, “When are we good to go?”

“We can leave on Friday,” Viper said.

“All right,” he said, eyeing the pictures of the galley kitchen.

Another glass tube exploded and Val smiled happily. Renato smirked and said, “Very nice. You seem to be getting that down handily.”

“Thanks,” Val replied as Lorenzo got out another one and set it in place.

Sora ruthlessly suppressed the smile threatening to break free at seeing his guardians getting along so well. The kitchen in the pictures had a stove, though small, a refrigerator with a freezer compartment, and the requisite sink. Cupboard space was a bit lacking, but—“Do we have to supply the pans and plates and…?”

Renato shook his head. “It’s all part of the deal. But if you have anything special you’d like to use, bring it along. There’s a port a little south from the airport, across the river. That’s where we’ll be leaving from. We can go as early as eight o’clock.”

“So probably ten,” he said. “Gives me time to wake up, get ready, get any perishable supplies, and get there.”

“Vittori and I can help with that,” Val said.

He nodded. “I would welcome the help. You can spend the night if you want.”

They nodded.

Renato looked as if he wished he could do the same. “I’ll get there at eight, just in case.”

“So will I,” Alfero said with a nod. “I’d like to check things over before we leave, so that will give me time. I’ll bring along the gear I’ve rented.”

“You need any help with that stuff?” Renato asked.

She shook her head. “I plan to rent a car. But you can help unload it.”

“Sure.”

*

“Oh, my stomach,” he moaned quietly as Renato snickered at his misfortune.

“I’m going to make a wild guess and say you’ve never been on a boat like this before?” Renato said, then reached out to lay a hand on Sora’s arm. “I’ll see if I can help, but if not, I’m pretty sure I tossed some pills for that into my bag.”

It was the kind of nausea that made him want to throw up, but not badly enough for him to dash off to the side of the yacht to actually do so. He felt as if he was stuck in a limbo of misery. Whatever Renato was doing was helping to tamp down the sick feeling, but the look on his face must have said it for him.

“Okay. Let me go poke around real quick,” Renato said, and gave him a quick squeeze before gliding off.

Just watching the man walk so confidently made him feel irritation.

Lorenzo sidled up to him with a faint smile and gave him a pat on the arm. “With any luck it’ll taper off on its own once you get used to the motion.”

“I just feel stupid that I never even considered it,” he half whispered.

Lorenzo just patted his arm again. “Your body may even adjust once you’ve slept on board overnight and figures out how to react.”

Renato came back with a plastic vial and handed over a single pill. “I’ll put the rest in the bathroom, all right?”

He nodded and headed for the galley to get some bottled water, the other two following him.

“Give it half an hour to an hour to kick in. It might help to stay up on deck where you can see the motion.”

He nodded and headed to the deck so he could slump into a chair and be miserable in the fresh, salty air. Lorenzo followed him again and took the seat next to him, then said, “I stumbled the other day. Ended up doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t.”

“Huh?”

“Jammed a fork into a socket and electrocuted myself.”

He angled his body swiftly, heedless of the nausea, and ran his eyes over his friend.

“I’m fine,” Lorenzo assured him. “It barely tickled. I’ve had worse from the prods I’ve had you use on me. I’m just trying to say, it’s the little things that trip us up. Hell, I’ve never been on a boat this size and I didn’t think of it, either.”

He smiled softly at Lorenzo’s attempt to make him feel better and had a sip of his water.

Renato showed back up and took the seat to his other side, and reached over to lay a hand on his arm. Threads of warmth entered him and helped to quell the seasickness again.

A few minutes later, just when he was beginning to enjoy himself, a somewhat green Val stumbled out on deck and sank into a chair. “I don’t feel so good.”

Renato laughed, not unkindly, and laid a hand on his arm, as well.

“I’ll go grab more water and another pill,” Lorenzo said.

*

“If no one objects, I’ll go down and scout out the situation,” Alfero said.

Sora nodded. She said she knew what she was doing, and he chose to believe her.

Alfero nodded when no one said anything and went to get changed. A short time later she was back, dressed in a wetsuit. She got her air tank in place—Lorenzo double-checked it—got on her flippers and other equipment, then said, “I plan to be down there no longer than an hour. I’m leaving a line attached to a cleat and if I get into trouble I’ll send up a balloon.”

“In which case we start hauling?”

She nodded. “Or find other, more interesting ways to assist.” She pulled a line from a plastic container on her belt and tied the end around the nearest cleat. It reminded Sora of certain dog leashes. Then she dropped backward off the side of the yacht.

It was a long hour before she returned, with two of them always watching the water at any given time, looking for a signal that thankfully never came. Alfero hauled herself up the ladder and removed her mask and breather. “There’s a fracture down there, large enough to fit two people side by side. Not too far in—it’s like a u-bend almost—it opens up into a small cave with tunnels leading off from it. Two of them show signs of man-made tools, and are large enough to walk through. I didn’t do more than glance down those two. Had no plans to wander very far without backup.”

Sora nodded. “Do we need gear to get down?”

Alfero shook her head. “If you’re a decent swimmer and can hold your breath for a couple of minutes, no. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some lines coming down from the yacht. It’s not so deep that we’d need a generator going. I want to put up a marker, but I’m a little hesitant.”

“Because other people might boat by and notice it, start asking questions,” Val said.

“Yes.”

“Most people cannot see flames properly if they aren’t active,” Zhu said. “Could we not use a flat disk that will float, and place atop it some measure of flame?”

Sora looked down in thought. “Even without flame it would still be visible enough to guide us,” he said quietly. “I think I can make a lasting marker, though. Assuming we have something that would work.”

Alfero ran a hand through her hair. “Okay, well, I’m going to get cleaned up.”

During lunch he opened with, “How do we want to work this? How many of us go down there?”

“I’m not sure how useful I would be,” Viper said slowly.

“I wonder if two of us should be up here,” Lorenzo said, “and I volunteer to be one of them, but we would need a way to communicate.”

Alfero snorted and shook her head. “Not happening, not without running an actual cable down there to get snagged on sharp rock. It’s a risk, yes, but I think we’d be better served to go down as a group.”

Viper looked reluctant as he tilted his head in a way that could be mistaken for acceptance.

Renato and Lorenzo shared a speaking look, and Sora sat back and closed his eyes so that he could better listen to his intuition. “It’ll be fine if we all go,” he murmured.

Renato eyed him piercingly, then nodded. “I see. What aren’t you saying?”

Sora smiled a bit ruefully. “Just a feeling. It won’t go entirely smoothly, but having people up top isn’t going to help us any. So, for those of us a bit on the leery side, we can run hoses. If we don’t already have some…”

Alfero nodded. “I can run out and get some. The water is a bit on the cool side, but we can bring towels in a waterproof bag, dry off a little once inside, and hang them up. Anything we need to bring along can also go in a waterproof bag and I’ll drag it along.”

“Because you’d be wearing dive gear,” he said.

“Yes.”

“All right. If there are no objections?” he said.

After a few moments Alfero said, “I’ll head out after we finish eating. We can go down tomorrow.”

Sora cleaned up afterward with Val’s help and went to go practice on deck. He eyed Zhu briefly with the idea of getting some help with his hand-to-hand, but the idea of doing so on a yacht was off-putting. Aside from space considerations, he did not want to foul up his adjustment to the boat’s motions on the water. Even so, he could talk to the man.

“So, um…”

Zhu looked up from his book and smiled faintly.

“You have experience with martial arts?”

Zhu nodded, and then tilted his head at the next chair over.

Sora took the invitation and sat down. “I was wondering if you would be willing to help me with that sometime soon? My brother only knows so much about that kind of thing…” He trailed off, hoping he wasn’t about to suffer a rejection.

Zhu’s smile grew a tiny bit more wide. “What do you already know?”

“Well, I say martial arts, but it’s more like dirty fighting,” he admitted. “Kind of, you know, whatever got the job done. Not that I’ve been in a lot of fights. My brother has his ways of keeping malcontents away for the most part.”

“Because you’re a Sky?” Zhu asked very quietly.

“Well…” He paused. “We do tend to attract attention.”

“I think we can come to some kind of arrangement. The room we meet in is large enough for at least some things. I can see what you know and figure out a plan to go from there.”

Sora smiled happily. “Great. I look forward to it.”

*

The next morning, an hour after breakfast, they set off on their adventure. Alfero was suited up again and had bags attached to her belt, which slowed her down, unfortunately, but it allowed those who could not swim all that well to keep up.

Alfero led the procession straight to the entrance of the cave system. Inside and up a slope they were able to breathe again without the need for the air hoses. She removed one of the bags and broke out the towels so they could dry off, though once Sora got used to the temperature it wasn’t too bad.

A look around showed the tunnels Alfero had mentioned. Indeed, two of them looked to be altered by the hand of man rather than the smooth wear of a steady rush of water. Sadly, the battery-powered lights they had could not reveal the entirety of the cave at once, not unless they all faced in different directions.

“Well,” Zhu said. “Shall we try the left-most?”

Sora shrugged. “I don’t see why not.” Some mostly-forgotten memory told him that it didn’t matter which you chose first, so long as you were consistent.

Zhu, after no one objected, got out a piton and drove it into the rock between the two tunnels, then tied a cord to it. The remainder was attached to his belt so it could play out. About thirty feet down the tunnel opened up into another cave. More tunnels led away, one of them carved, so Zhu tacked a fluorescent marker to the tunnel they had emerged from and they continued on, though Val was quietly marking a piece of paper as they went.

Lunch was a cold meal of sandwiches, and they pressed on again until it was near time for dinner, at which point Sora said, “We should probably head back. Teschio, you’ve got all this mapped so far, right?”

Val nodded. “Yes, however shakily. I’m not exactly an artist. It’s mostly just quick lines with compass directions.”

“Well, I’d like to sleep in a somewhat proper bed,” Renato asserted, “so I vote we finish for the day.”

“…All right,” he said, then shuffled over to glance at Val’s map. “So long as we know where we left off, we can get back here easily enough.”

Getting back was far quicker due to Zhu’s markers lighting the return path and warning them off dead ends.

They spent the next week mapping out the cave complex and finally came to a rather odd room. The floor was lower than the tunnel they had entered by and water filled the difference. Seven beams of light played around the room. Sora saw three new exits, and all three of them showed signs of man-made tools.

“I swear,” he muttered, “this place never seems to end.”

Zhu gave a tiny sigh. “This is becoming wearisome, I agree.”

“We still have some time before stopping for the day,” Alfero said briskly as Zhu marked their entrance point. She stepped down into the water and headed for the left-most tunnel, as per their “strategy”. She was at approximately the center of the room when she suddenly sank out of sight.

“Huh?” he said inanely.

She popped back to the surface with a grimace on her face and heaved herself back up to the solid floor, then started wading back toward them. “That kind of hurt,” she said.

“You need any hea—” Renato started to ask, then, “You better hurry. Something is happening where you fell in.”

Sora saw that the water was bubbling.

Alfero glanced back, then start moving faster. She seemed to be favoring one leg that he could see, and when she stepped back into the tunnel he noticed her left leg was badly scraped up and bleeding. Renato immediately set to healing the damage, but the bubbling was getting worse.

“I have no idea what that is,” he murmured, “but…” He stepped forward to the edge of the tunnel and sent out webs in an attempt to cover the surface of the water and contain whatever was happening, or at least pacify things if some manner of creature was involved.

And there was. From the center surfaced a group of odd fish, with gaping mouths showing off sharp and numerous teeth. They made a beeline for the group, possibly following the blood, and Zhu began to disintegrate them, but more kept surfacing, no matter how many he killed off.

Sora’s web continued to spread, but to no effect. When he attempted to send in feelings of satiation or serenity or sleepiness, the fish just kept coming. “Damn it,” he muttered.

“Not working?” Lorenzo asked.

“No, they’re not responding. I don’t think they have enough of a brain for this to work.”

Viper replied, “They do not. They don’t even see my illusions.”

He hummed. “For all we know there’s an enormous underground lake under that spot with thousands more. You can try to thread into what I’m doing and zap them like bugs, but I suspect we need something a little different. Alfero, do you think you can freeze the surface of the water?”

She gave him a startled look.

“You’ve been doing really well in our practice sessions,” he said encouragingly. “Try, please. Imagine freezing the surface of the water, enough to keep them under.”

Renato stood up and nodded. “You’re done, though I’ll take a look at it again once we’re back at the yacht.”

“You are uniquely suited for this, Alfero,” he added. “Hook into my web if that helps you get started, but I know you can do this.”

She straightened up and turned back to the water, then slowly extended a web down from her hand to the one Sora was spreading. Several minutes later of Zhu disintegrating fish that got too close, ice started to form at the edge of the water. It was thin and spread very slowly, and before too long Alfero heaved a sigh and stopped trying after the effect started to recede.

Sora shook his head slightly. “All right. I say we retreat for now. Alfero can get in some practice in a less tense situation, and then we come back. We still have a couple of weeks left before an answer of some kind is expected.”

“I think that’s probably for the best,” she said. “And all else failing, we rig up some kind of makeshift raft that wouldn’t be too troublesome to cart in here.”

“I would say propagating stones to fill up that hole,” Val said, “but depending on how deep it is, I could be doing that forever.”

“Actually… You could practice propagating whatever ice Alfero comes up with, to hasten the process along for when we come back. Are we agreed on leaving for now?” Once everyone assented he stopped forming his webs.

Zhu covered their retreat back down the tunnel, but was quickly able to turn and follow them properly. They had the route down pretty well by that point so getting back to the entrance was no hassle, and they were shortly enough back on the yacht. Renato took another look at Alfero’s leg after she showered, and once Sora was done with his he got started on a meal.

The next morning after breakfast they set up several pans filled with water for Alfero to practice with. He also hunted down a shallow plastic container and set Val to working on trying to multiply the thing’s size rather than its quantity. Val gave him a funny look and scooted closer so he could whisper, “I thought about what you said a ways back and tried some experiments.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. So I experimented a bit outside the training sessions. I can alter my musculature, so I think I already know how to do what you’re suggesting.”

He furrowed his brow. “You’re okay? You didn’t suffer any side effects?” he whispered a bit anxiously.

“I’m fine,” Val assured him. “It was like a temporary augment. Let me apply that to this, and we’ll see. And then if Alfero steps up to, hm, maybe trying to freeze part of the ocean?—if she can do that we’ll be certain she can handle the cave—I can try to propagate her efforts and speed freeze the whole thing so we can pass by without disturbing whatever those creepy fish are.”

He gave Val a warm smile. “I know you can do it. You doing all right, though? Being cramped up like this can’t be easy for you.”

“It’s a little rough, but it’s easier because you’re here. And Vittori and Sinclair are pretty nice once you get to know them.”

“Hopefully we won’t be out here much longer. I’m feeling cramped myself.”

By the end of the day Alfero could freeze her pans of water over, so Sora suggested she try both at once starting after breakfast. Two days later they were geared up again and in the caves, getting to the trouble spot in record time.

It took a half hour of effort on the parts of both Alfero and Val, mainly because it took some time for the two to mesh properly when it came to extending the ice layer efficiently, but the water was frozen over thick enough to hold them.

“Excellent work, you two,” he said. “So, left?”

Left was a dead end, as was the middle tunnel. But down the right-most tunnel was what they were after. Chests and crates abounded, decaying with age and spilling out their contents on the rocky floor to reveal gold coins and gems and other treasures.

“Oh, if only we could squirrel all this away,” Renato said quietly.

Sora snickered. “We’re getting paid quite well. All right, so, let’s take a moment to admire the swag, then we can check out those last few tunnels. I’d say get some pictures of this place, but unless we set up a bunch of lights…”

“I’ll help you do up a better map once we’re done,” Lorenzo promised Val.

The final few tunnels held nothing of interest aside from a few skeletons and a burnt spot in the center of the floor, so they returned to the yacht to clean up, relax, and have something other than sandwiches on the go.

Val and Lorenzo sketched out a new map that evening after dinner and tucked it away afterward to be dropped off at the location they’d been given in their packets.

The next day they began the return journey to Rome, with Alfero once again taking up the morning shift. Sora went up to see how she was doing and bring her a cup of tea. It was pleasant enough up on the bridge, but not a place he would want to spend a lot of time in, because it felt cramped to him even if the view was nice.

As he turned to leave she said, “I wanted to thank you.”

“Oh?”

“You don’t teach the way I would, but you do get results, and you have a way of making people feel confident.”

He leaned against the wall. “Well, it’s kind of a weird concept to get down.”

“Whereas teaching people how to increase their fitness and fighting capabilities is a lot different.”

He nodded. “True, or I would assume so. Either way, you’re welcome, as a person and as a member of the team.”

“And these Sky people are team leaders by default?”

“Skies are pretty rare in comparison to any other type of flames, and their harmony aspect tends to make them … attractive, I guess you could say.”

She gave him a sharp look. “Attractive as a target?”

“That, too. That may be why I ended up in the hospital, after what might have been a failed hit.” He shrugged his ignorance. “But I’m not without…” He trailed off, unsure of how to say what he meant.

“People who keep an eye on you,” she said, then sipped her tea.

“I suppose you could say that,” he replied, “but I think of them as my friends, because friends look out for and help each other. I’ve created bonds since the accident.”

“You say bond, but I hear something other than what most people would assume you meant,” she said with a shrewd look.

He smiled. “It’s more than just friendship, yes. It’s more of a spiritual thing. I can feel the people I’m bonded with in my heart, literally, but that’s part of being a Sky.”

Alfero tilted her head and sipped her tea before saying, “And between those people?”

“No. That’s all the old fashioned way,” he replied. “You going to come to the regular training meetings? Zhu said he’d give me some help with martial arts, but I’d still be helping everyone else who needed any. A lot of it is imagination past the point of learning control, though, or getting ideas from other sources. I got a lot of mine from various forms of fiction, actually, but my brother—slave driver that he is—got me started on webs.”

A smile flitted into view before vanishing. “Did he teach you how to cook, too?”

Sora grimaced. “No. He can’t cook to save his life. I had to learn in self defense or we’d have been eating sandwiches all the time or getting delivery. Speaking of which, is there anything in the way of snacks you like? I try to rotate what things I make. Cheesecake, cookies, whatever. I’ll give it a shot.”

“Oh, uh, bruttiboni.”

“All right. So you’ll come?”

“Planning to bond with me, too?” she asked.

“I don’t plan those things,” he said with a shake of his head. “And it’s a two-way street, usually with the other person initiating the bond.”

“Well, I’ll be at the meeting. Tuesday, right?”

“Yep. Ten o’clock, Tuesdays and Thursdays.” He gave her a smile before wandering off to attempt a nap. The motion of the yacht was upsetting his stomach again.