Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 04

04: Coloured Dreams

Kiri was amused by his description of their adventure, as well as extremely pleased Sora was home again and available to cook, naturally. When Monday rolled around he got post with another account number slip inside, and his brother took care of that for him while he messed around with making sweets for the next day’s meeting.

When he arrived Lorenzo, Val, and Renato were already present. He set down his boxes of baked goods. He had gone a little overboard and prepared goods for everyone he had an idea of what to make. So there were some cheesecake bites for Val, cannoli for Lorenzo, tiramisu brownies for Renato, and bruttiboni for Alfero. For Zhu he had guessed and made pineapple tarts. Viper was the other one he wasn’t sure about, but he could try to make some guesses involving strawberries, assuming Viper ever decided to join them.

He gently slid boxes in front of each person present and smiled when they pulled them close and opened them. Sora sat down and opened his own little box of cannoli and grabbed a napkin. One of them had already gotten drinks, though Zhu and Alfero would have to order for themselves, as both preferred hot beverages.

Renato let out an odd, muffled sound as he bit into a brownie, then gave him a pleased look. A few moments later he said, “These are wonderful. Thank you.”

“I have a few other ideas, too,” he replied, “but I’m very glad you like those.”

Alfero and Zhu showed up right on time and were given their boxes. Zhu seemed pleasantly surprised by his offering if that quality of the man’s smile was anything to go by, and his murmured, “Thank you.”

Alfero opened her box and stared for a moment, as if in mild disbelief that Sora really had done it, then took out a cookie and bit into it. She hummed approvingly and nodded at him.

“I was considering bringing a small, caged, not so calm animal at some point,” he said to Alfero, “so you could try using the tranquilizing aspect of your flames. But what I’d like you to try today is to see if you can use your flames as radar.” He sent out a large pulse of his flames.

“Do you get anything when you do that?” she asked.

“Yes and no. If it’s in a place I’m familiar with I can detect discrepancies between what I expect and what’s new, and I can use it to detect anomalies in consumables. I think it depends on the quality of the flames and the user’s skill. Because you have Rain Flames, you’d probably be looking for something that disturbs the tranquility. People are excitable beings…”

Zhu showed a hint of intrigue and thoughtfulness as he munched on a tart, even though the statement wasn’t directed at him.

“Start with a smaller pulse and keep extending it. I would say … work on range and how diffuse you can make it without losing any feedback you get.”

“All right,” Alfero said with a nod. “I think I can work with that, the idea of spreading my awareness through my flames. Of course, if anyone ever notices me doing it, I’ll know they have the ability to use flames as well.”

“Yep. But if you can get it down, you can later work on refining your control to the point that the pulse is diffuse enough that people shouldn’t notice unless they’re really sensitive. That’s why I like starting with webs after learning how to spark flames off a ring, because those teach focus and control and help you for other things.”

Zhu took him aside after their snack was eaten and got him started on martial arts while Renato worked further on his own use of webs, Val continued to practice with gasses, and Lorenzo had moved on to messing with battery-operated lights to see if he could disrupt their function.

After forty-five minutes of Zhu showing him stances and katas to do on his own they took a break and ordered himself some vodka-laced chocolate milk—‘Maybe I should ask on the way out if they have vanilla rum,’ he thought. ‘That might taste nice, too.’—along with some tea for Zhu.

“You know,” Renato said, “you could always try a White Russian.”

He felt dubious about the idea; coffee was not something he favored.

“Seriously,” Renato persisted, then slid his glass over. “Just a sip.”

He took the glass and cautiously sipped, then hummed. It wasn’t bad, actually, and not at all bitter. “All right, maybe you have a point,” he said, then slid the glass back over. “But there is nothing wrong with boozy chocolate milk.”

Renato rolled his eyes. “At least you didn’t hate it.”

“No. But it’s extremely unlikely you will ever get me to drink coffee.”

Renato looked like he wanted to say something in reply to that, but held himself back. It was probably a perverted comment.

He arched a brow at his Sun before turning his attention to Alfero. “I noticed you were managing a fairly good-sized pulse. Are you sensing anything with it?”

“Almost?” she said uncertainly. “It might be a better test once I can spread it out a bit more, and maybe catch people in the next room over. Something like that.”

“If you have a pet at home, that would probably help. Well, maybe not a dog, since those tend to stick close. But a cat, maybe.”

She wrinkled her nose. “…No, no pets.”

“Birds landing on the windowsill, feeder, or nearby trees?” he suggested.

“Hm. That might work,” she said agreeably.

“You might even be able to pacify them enough to pet one. Or a quiet park somewhere with no other people around.”

Alfero gave him a shrewd look. Considering that some of them, Alfero and Teschio most prominently, did not know about the mafia connection, he hoped that his somewhat ham-fisted attempts at subtlety were working. Kiri would be miles better at it, but he wasn’t Kiri.

A knock came at the door so he went to get the delivery, then served Zhu his tea and sat back down with his own drink. “How about you?” he asked Val. “Coming along all right?”

Val grinned happily. “I’m able to work with smaller tubes,” he bragged a little.

“Ah, so your fine control is coming along quickly,” he complimented. “Perhaps the next step would be to use an opaque tube?”

Val furrowed his brow. “That would up the difficulty. Yeah, okay.”

Lorenzo nodded. “I’ll have some ready for the next session, then.”

They spent the next hour playing a game of who could web to the center of the table the fastest, with Sora as the adjudicator, mainly to get everyone more comfortable using their flames in a real-time manner. When noon rolled around Zhu gave everyone a polite goodbye and disappeared with the cart.

Alfero got up and started toward the door as Renato, Val, and Lorenzo started pestering Sora about later. “What are you going to make us for dinner this time?” Renato asked, leaning in close.

“Um… Well, you three all got—wait, no. Val didn’t get a chance yet. My brother decided for us.” He looked at his Cloud inquiringly. “What do you think? You get to pick.”

“Oh,” Val said wonderingly. “Um… Let me think… Well…”

Renato got an impatient look on his face, but a glance from Sora made him behave.

“Spinach tomato tortellini?” Val said.

He nodded. “I can make that, sure. You two all right with that? Because if not, deal with it.”

Lorenzo just smiled. “It’s Val’s turn.”

“I’m sure it’ll be delicious,” Renato said agreeably.

“Well, the usual deal, then. We’ll buy what we need and head to my apartment. Technically a late-ish lunch, actually, considering that it’s noon now.” He turned to leave and realized Alfero was lingering by the door with an indecisive look on her face. “Is everything all right?”

“…Yes,” she said slowly. “I—I just realized that…” She trailed off, shifting slightly. “You’re genuine.”

He furrowed his brow in confusion, but then his chest warmed as another bond formed.

Renato shook his head slightly and chuckled. “Guess it’s a good thing you picked something vegetarian, Val.”

“What? Oh… Right.”

“…That was the bond thing you were talking about?”

He nodded. “Are you coming with us, then?” he finally asked. “And next time you get to pick what I make.”

“…Yes. Let’s go.”

An hour and a half later they were at his apartment and Kiri popped his head around the corner, as always. “And another one.”

“This is … Alfero. Alfero, this is my brother, Kiri.”

“Lalia, or Lal,” she said to Kiri.

“Ah, the Rain,” Kiri said. “Welcome to our apartment. I can assume this means you harmonized.”

Sora nodded. “And we’re having spinach tomato tortellini for lunch, since you preempted Val’s choice last time. And because of that, and because Lal is new, they can have the end pieces off the bread if they choose.”

Kiri pouted and shook his head mournfully. “So cruel.”

Sora rolled his eyes and headed into the kitchen, followed by his friends.

Kiri came in last and started helping him by unpacking the bags. “You actually look like a Lal,” he said to Alfero.

Sora paused and gave his brother an odd look. “That’s a first.”

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Kiri likes to give people nicknames. You’re the first one I’ve brought home that he didn’t.”

“Is Sora your nickname?” she asked.

“…I guess so?” he said. “After all, I don’t know my original name.”

“It’s safer that way,” Kiri said firmly. “If there really is someone out there aiming to blow your head off, not knowing your original name means nobody spreads it around.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied and started making their lunch.

Lal nodded, to herself mostly, and took a seat at the table.

“We may have to start eating out in the sitting room,” Renato said, eyeing the kitchen doubtfully.

“What we should be doing is looking for is a new place,” Kiri said, “but not for a bit. And it takes time to find a good place to invest in.”

“Define good,” Renato said.

Kiri looked up from patting spinach dry. “For one, room enough for everyone without crowding, which means multiple levels. For two, an excellent kitchen, because I refuse to go without Sora’s cooking. For three, a place I can set up defenses for far more comprehensively.”

“You make it sound like we’d have our own rooms there,” Val said.

“You would,” Sora said. “Even if you were only there once a week, you’d still have a room and a home. I’ve been experimenting with making mead in my spare time, so I was considering opening a bar of sorts, selling the stuff along with the usual varieties of alcohol, but it would make sense in that event to have a building that went down instead of up.”

Lorenzo and Renato nodded at that. “I love windows and sunlight as much as the next person,” Renato said, “but I have to admit, living underground does tend to make things simpler in some respects. Not to mention that a skilled Mist can fake the windows anyway.”

Kiri nodded. “Exactly. And hide any entrances to the lower levels. Either way, it takes time to find a suitable building.”

A short time later they were eating, though space at the table was a little tight. Val was very happy with the food, and Lalia was also approving. Before they broke up they made plans for the next training session, and then went their separate ways for the time being.

*

Right on schedule another letter arrived, and Sora decided he would bring a little something along for once, not just to a training session. Two days later saw him hefting a picnic basket up onto the meeting table as various people eyed him curiously. He smiled and started unpacking it. Bowls, forks, napkins, and, naturally, the whole point of it, a strawberry-kiwi-spinach salad with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

“So, who’s feeling daring?” he asked as he portioned some salad into a bowl, then slid it across the table to Val. He quickly shot filled bowls to everyone and finished up with one for himself. Someone had already sent in the usual drink order, so his chocolate milk was waiting for him.

Viper took one bite and slowly straightened up. Sora could almost see anime-esque question marks pop up over the man’s head. Viper’s head angled toward what was left in the original bowl, then quickly reached out to draw it toward him. His sample bowl got tipped into the original and Viper began to eat from that instead.

Sora eyed the whole thing with amusement. “I’m going to take that to mean you like it?”

“Yes,” Viper said shortly.

He nodded and took a bite of his own, hummed thoughtfully, then reached out to grab the envelope containing the mission details. He passed out the copies and read while he ate. It was guard duty again, but this time for a set of five year old heirs, Fahroni and Giomar Cavallone. The name rang a vague, distant bell in his mind, but it was nothing he could chase down and pin in place.

He ate the last of his salad and pushed the bowl away, absently noticing that Viper was also done—he must have eaten quickly to manage it—and had a sip of his milk. “I’m thinking at least one of us should be planted in with the kids, in disguise.”

“Why is it my senses are tingling and telling me you’re going to be one of them?” Renato said.

“Because you’d be right?” he replied.

“Cavallone, huh? Interesting,” Viper said.

“Do you plan to be a nanny this time or…?” Lorenzo asked.

“I was thinking of masquerading as a child.”

Val heaved a sigh. “I’ll join you, then.”

“Oh?”

“Yes,” Val said stubbornly. “I have an idea what I could do if someone attacked. I can handle the driving part.”

“And depending on how an attack might happen, stop the vehicle and propagate a barrier?” Zhu said.

“Something like that, yes. Potentially using a web as a framework.”

Sora nodded. “I could do that.”

“Well, whatever vehicle is being used I want to go over before it’s used,” Lorenzo said. “No sense trying to drive the thing if someone has inserted a few bombs.”

“This’d be easier in the long run if we could just slap illusions on the kids and take them to their destination via public transport and put two ringers in their place, but I guess that’d be just too logical,” Renato said with a roll of his eyes.

“It didn’t work with that other guy,” Lorenzo said, “so why would it for this one? Maybe we can come up with a slightly different take on the idea, but for the moment…”

“We can try,” he said. “Teschio and I will be with the children and the rest of you can have an eye out for snipers and the like. We’ve got enough time to get there and scope out the possible routes before we have to do the actual job.”

“Speaking of which,” Renato said, “I know a few good places there we can get rooms.” He jotted down something on a spare piece of one of the pages in his packet and slid it over. “They have a few nice suites, so you can probably get one. Should be enough room again for a meeting that end. Two people should find rooms there, too, and the others…” He started writing again.

“Um…”

Val looked at him. “I think you should have Sinclair with you. You know…”

“In case he gets hurt again?” Lorenzo said.

Sora rolled his eyes. “Guys… It was one time!”

“I agree,” Renato said. “So duke it out for the other spot.”

Lorenzo, Val, and Lalia exchanged a look, then went for a round of rock-paper-scissors. Val won and grinned happily. Renato nodded and started sliding slips of paper around.

“So, all right,” he said. “Same as before? We meet up in a week at my location, for dinner. Get in any scouting you can in that time, but since we have two weeks before the kids arrive…” He knocked back the last of his drink and started packing up the picnic basket.

An hour and a half later he was home with his guardians in tow and he started in making sauce for some vegetarian lasagne while Kiri secured him a suite in the hotel Renato had specified. The others borrowed the phone one at a time to arrange for their own rooms.

“So, we can—”

Renato shook his head. “I checked while I had the phone. There’s a train that leaves tonight a little before midnight. A bit more expensive for the sleeping accommodations, but we’d get there mid-morning, check in…”

“Oh. What do the rest of you think? Because I’m good with that idea if you all are. Of course, I have no idea how far away any of you live from here, so…”

“I’ll have enough time to run home and pack, get back here,” Val said, and the rest nodded in agreement.

“Then we eat earlier, to give you guys a chance to do that.”

“I’ll stop by the station on my way and get us tickets,” Renato said, and when Sora went to speak he added, “And don’t even say a word about paying me back. You’ve cooked us dinner how many times now? I think I can afford to buy you a damn ticket.”

Sora closed his mouth and went back to seeing about their meal.

When they did get to the train he realized that Renato had pulled something of a fast one and gotten two doubles and a single. Naturally, Renato was sharing a sleeper compartment with Sora. “Should I be concerned?” he asked as he racked his suitcase and inspected the small room.

“What, are you afraid I’m going to ravish you?” Renato said with a smirk. “Or are you hoping I will?”

Sora rolled his eyes. “This is probably a mistake to admit, but … I have no idea if I’ve ever even been in a relationship with anyone before.”

Renato sat on the lower bunk and patted the spot next to him. Once Sora was seated he said, “Well, does the idea bother you?”

“I guess not…? But I don’t like the idea of someone coming on to me just because I’m a Sky.”

Renato snorted softly. “Sky attraction is no joke, but that’s not what interests me primarily. I never thought I’d get the chance to bond with a Sky, and certainly not with one like you. I wouldn’t fuck that up for the world. But you are attractive, in a number of ways and for a number of reasons, and I would gladly fall for you, preferably with you falling for me in return. But for now, how about you take first shot at that closet of a rest room, and then take the top bunk.”

“So you can protect me more easily?” he asked with a faint smile.

“Yes,” Renato said, then leaned in and gave him a soft peck on the lips. “Go.”

He rolled his eyes again and got up so he could rummage in his suitcase. “Pushy mother-hen,” he muttered to hide that fact that even such a quick kiss had felt awfully nice.

“I’m nobody’s mother,” Renato protested grumpily.

He finished grabbing his things and went into the tiny bathroom to brush his teeth, relieve himself, and change into his sleep trousers. He wandered back out and ignored the way Renato eyed him, and folded his clothing before stashing it in his suitcase. He then climbed up into the top bunk and maneuvered himself under the covers, giving Renato enough room to move around properly.

Five minutes later Renato was back from his own ablutions. He climbed a few steps up the ladder and said, “Anything you need before I turn out the lights?”

“Um…” He spied the watch Renato was still wearing. “You setting an alarm on that thing?”

“Yes. Nine, unless you want to have their excuse for food a bit earlier.”

He shook his head. “We can eat at the hotel after we get checked in.”

“All right. Do I get a goodnight kiss?”

Sora smiled and said, “So pushy.” Then he pushed up on his elbow long enough to give Renato a slightly more lingering kiss before retreating.

Renato grinned and climbed back down.

*

The mission itself was something of a let down in that it went far more smoothly than their first escort. Sora used illusions to make himself look much younger and held Val’s hand as they entered the airport to pick up the two boys from their flight. Viper and Lorenzo hung back in the parking lot to keep an eye on things, to ensure that no one meddled.

Val was wearing an orange carnation in the lapel of his suit jacket, a sign for the children they awaited. First off the plane was a stewardess accompanied by twin blond boys. One of them spotted Val and pointed excitedly.

“That’s the man,” he said. “Papa said to look for an orange flower.”

Sora waved “shyly” as the stewardess carefully looked at the people at the gate, then she walked the two boys over.

“Signori Cavallone,” Val said quietly. “I hope you don’t mind, but I brought my nephew along. This is Piero.”

Sora murmured a quiet greeting, which the twins returned, though they did not provide their given names. ‘These two look … familiar … for some reason,’ he thought.

The stewardess finally left after one of the ladies manning the gate podium called out to her, and Val led the procession to the waiting car. Viper was still lurking in the parking lot, and promptly, once they arrived in the vicinity, used his illusions to fool anyone watching into thinking that Val ushered the children into one car, when in reality it was a different car entirely. The false car started up and drove away while Val was still ensuring the boys were situated properly.

A rather tedious half hour later Val motored up the main drive to Cavallone manor and pulled to a stop. Two servants rushed out of the manor and down the stairs as Val got out of the car and held the door for the twins. Only after the boys were inside did Val get back in the car and drive away.

Sora released his illusionary appearance once they were out of sight and climbed into the front passenger seat. “That was amazingly boring, and I’m glad.”

Val nodded. “Yeah. I’m happy that Viper came up with the idea of faking what car they went in to draw off any pursuit. Saved us a lot of worry.”

He reached over and removed the cap Val was wearing and set it on the dashboard. “So let’s drop off the car and have dinner, and arrange for the trip home.”

“Right!” Val said cheerfully. A half hour later they were back at the airport, dropping the rental off, and then catching a cab to the hotel. The others were waiting at various points in the lobby, and followed him and Val up in stages.

An order was sent down once they were assembled and Sora said, “Mission accomplished. Very boring, but boring is good when it comes to little children. Thank you, Viper, for that lovely bit of misdirection. I expect things would have been much different otherwise.”

Viper nodded.

“Considering that I saw several people expressing their frustration…” Zhu shrugged.

“Tomorrow morning I’m going to see about getting tickets on the night train,” Lorenzo said.

“I’ll go with you,” Val offered.

“Is this the part where I don’t object again?” he asked.

They nodded.

“Right.” He got up to answer the door and was promptly pushed back down by Renato, who went in his stead. “God damn pushy bastard,” he muttered.

Val let out a little giggle and quickly covered his mouth.

Renato came back a moment later pushing a cart and started handing food out. Sora dug into his spaghetti as Lalia said, “I expect we’ll get the slips in the post, then, like last time.”

“I almost feel guilty taking the pay,” he said. “Almost. But two little boys did get home safely, so whatever.”

The broke up after the meal was finished, with Lorenzo and Val promising to return for lunch with tickets. Renato stuck around, and after everyone else had left he said, “So just Storm and Mist.”

“Yes.”

“Viper seemed awfully taken with that salad you made.”

“I hardly think that would be the determining factor,” he said with a sigh. “I know you guys like home-cooked meals, but that’s kind of ridiculous.”

Renato shook his head slowly. “Well… Since we have time tomorrow before we leave, how about we poke around town? Or we could just sit and talk.”

“We could talk now,” he pointed out.

“True. Val doesn’t know, does he,” Renato said. “Nor Lalia. Not so sure about Lorenzo.”

“Lorenzo knows. He pushed the issue and Kiri explained. But Val and Lalia haven’t. I’m not sure they’re even the least bit suspicious.”

“But you’ve made it clear they should be discreet.” Renato nodded. “How did Lorenzo take it?”

He thought back. “Um… Well enough, I suppose. He didn’t freak out or anything. But he also knows that so long as he’s discreet he can escape most notice.”

“Won’t help for anyone who was watching that first job and got a good look at him,” Renato replied. “But yes. The fact that he’s harmonized with a Sky and has fellow guardians will certainly not hurt. I really do wonder about Val and Lalia, though.”

“Why they agreed to do any of this?” he asked. “I wonder that myself. But asking is…”

“Asking opens you up to talking about things you shouldn’t be.”

He nodded. “Right. I don’t doubt it’ll come out at some point, though, and the fallout might not be so nice.”

“Harmonization should cushion that. Do you want to harmonize with Zhu and Viper?”

Sora’s brow furrowed. “Kiri explained a lot to make up for what I lost, so I know that Zhu is a fantastic example of a Storm. He’s so steady and calm, it’s amazing. He’s also really skilled. He seems like a genuinely nice person. So yes. As for Viper, well… I think a lot of people would have a reflexive—”

“Distaste?” Renato offered.

“…I guess? The idea of never knowing what’s real or not,” he said. “But Kiri is a Mist, so I know they’re just like anyone else. They can be as sane or as psychotic as the next person depending on their experiences. Viper is also really skilled. He’s calm, he seems stable. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my brother sometimes cackles to himself in a stereotypically evil manner, but it’s just one of his eccentricities. Viper doesn’t seem even that quirky. He’s good, he doesn’t flaunt it, and while reserved, I don’t see anything about him that puts me off. So yes there, too. I’ve noticed…”

“Yes?” Renato prompted after a moment.

“It’s—since I’ve harmonized with four of you, it’s like I can feel this emptiness inside me.”

“Wait—” Renato showed his surprise in the rise of his brows. “You can feel the missing bonds? Can you separate them out?”

Sora reached inside himself and slid a mental finger along the bond he had with his Sun.

Renato shivered and smiled. “That … was super cool. I never really expected the bonds to be quite that distinct, or to have any real proof that … well … I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here.”

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing a Sky would talk about with anyone other than their guardians, you know? It’s awfully private, don’t you think? It’s bad enough that any Sky who is less than, say, honorable, could use that knowledge against another Sky they had a conflict with.”

“By holding their guardians hostage, or…”

“Yeah. It’s the ‘or’ part that’s scarier.”

“Just how many people has Kiri scared off, anyway?”

“A few,” he said, then poured himself a new glass of wine. “But they could be nosing around because we’re obviously foreign.”

“Is that even your real face?”

Sora grimaced and shook his head. “Kiri fixed that up, too, after the ‘accident’ happened.”

“Well, maybe after your brother finds a decent place…” Renato trailed off, then said, “I’m a freelance hitman, but sometimes I think it’d be nice to operate out of one place, rather than having several families I bounce around between.”

His brow furrowed. “So, in addition to me selling off the booze I make and maybe food…”

“A place where people can go who don’t want to deal with a big, intimidating family. And Lorenzo could have a place to experiment. I did some checking around on other members of the team, but some of us cover our tracks pretty well. So I don’t know very much about people like Zhu or Viper—certainly not enough to know if they’re hitmen like I am. But if they are…”

“I see. If they are, they could potentially benefit from that arrangement, too. A home base, where people have to come to us. And Kiri could certainly ensure that people weren’t trying to trick us into something. There are probably a bunch of people who could use help, but like you said, don’t want to bother a big family or pay the prices they’re sure to charge. Though, I have no idea what kind of money you normally pull in for hits you do.”

Renato shrugged. “I do all right. But I’d be fine with a change of pace. Nothing says I couldn’t do both.”

“I’d ask about your past, but that doesn’t seem very fair when I don’t know my own.”

Renato chuckled. “There’s not much to tell. French father, Italian mother, both dead at this point. One from drink and one from being unable to keep his hands off other people’s women. I was discovered after I went flame active and brought into the mafia. Once they discovered I was exceptional with a gun, well…”

“Are those people even still around?” he asked, wondering why his Sun would have gone freelance.

“No. It was a smaller family and they tangled with the wrong people. But by then I knew enough people to stay afloat, and actually start to make enough to get a decent place and enjoy some of the finer things in life.”

“Like decent coffee?” he teased. “If there is such a thing.”

Renato rolled his eyes. “And what are you going to do if I give you a kiss that makes you forget how to breathe after I’ve just had a cup of coffee?”

“Be concerned that a basic autonomic reflex has gone by the wayside?” he said, still teasing.

“Oh, wow,” Renato said a bit wonderingly. “You really don’t know.”

“Hey!” he complained, trying to cover his sudden feelings of embarrassment.

“Don’t you worry, Sora,” Renato said leeringly. “I’ll teach you. When the time is right, anyway. No sense jumping into things.”

*

On Tuesday he was about to leave his apartment to head out to the training session when a knock came at the door. Lorenzo was waiting patiently outside, and on seeing him said, “I figured I’d go in with you. Help you carry anything.”

“Oh.” A smile came to his face. “All right. Um, here,” he said, handing over half his burden. With that out of the way they took off, Sora calling a good-bye over his shoulder to Kiri.

“I made up a new prod,” Lorenzo said as they walked. “I considered the idea of just walking out into a lightning storm, but I figured you would get upset.”

Sora stared at him.

“Ninety percent of all humans who get struck survive, you know.”

“So? And some of them suffer nervous system failure or fried internal organs. I prefer the idea of you being certain you would survive unharmed before you court a lightning strike or try to call it down from the heavens to zap someone.”

Lorenzo nodded. “Which is why I made a stronger prod. I am trying to be scientific about this.”

Sora sighed. “Right. For the sake of my nerves, keep it that way, all right?”

Lorenzo patted him on the arm.

He handed out the food gifts once they arrived and spent the first hour working with Zhu, then took sent in a drink order of juice and tea.

“I could sense you two moving around,” Lalia said once he was situated.

Sora smiled. “Excellent.”

Val shifted impatiently and said, “I managed to explode two opaque tubes at once.”

He turned a warm smile on his Cloud. “Pretty soon you’ll be able to test that theory.”

“And we have determined thus far,” Renato said, “that Vittori is taking no damage whatsoever from his experiments with electricity.”

“Oh, good,” he said. He hadn’t considered having Renato keep an eye on the man that way, which was silly of him when he thought about it. What better person to supervise than a healer? “It’s your turn to decide on the meal today,” he said to Lorenzo, forgetting for a moment that Zhu was sitting there.

Lorenzo hummed thoughtfully. “How about a stir fry? You can add the meat in after one portion is taken out. Or use tofu. Or both.”

He glanced at Lalia, who nodded agreeably. “I can do that. I have more than one wok, so… Yeah. We can decide on what to put in it while we’re shopping. And … whoever wins three out of five on the web game gets to choose dessert.”

Val got a determined look on his face. “All right!”

Surprisingly, Zhu won, at which point Sora remembered that they had been discussing plans the man was not actually included in. He blushed and tried to think of what to say.

Zhu gave him a serene smile and said, “I don’t suppose you know how to make manju? Say, for the next meeting here?”

He nodded. “Sure. Would you prefer that over the pineapple tarts?”

“I like both.”

“I’ll bring manju next time, then.”

Zhu nodded and wandered out.

“I feel bad now,” he admitted. “Like we were discussing secret club things and he… Maybe I was already thinking of him as part of…”

“So make it plain in some way,” Renato suggested.

*

Lorenzo and Val both showed up to escort him on Thursday. Zhu gave Sora another serene smile when a box was handed to him filled with manju, then hustled him off to the side for martial arts practice.

“I wonder if you have had prior practice,” Zhu said about fifteen minutes in. “You are picking this up faster than I would have expected.”

“Anything’s possible, I suppose,” he replied. “I keep thinking you ought to have tonfa in your hands for some reason.”

“Tonfa?” Zhu said with mild amusement. “No, I prefer only to use myself.”

“I don’t think I’d be all that good with anything else. I think I’d be hilariously inept with a gun or a sword or whatever.”

“And yet I suspect you have something up your sleeve when it comes to using your fists, should it come to that.”

His brow furrowed. “Well, yes, I do.” He glanced over his shoulder to see that everyone was busy doing their training, then made a fist and exerted his flames. Thin blades like razors emerged from his fingers, from the knuckle to the first joint.

Zhu’s brow went up slowly. “Yes, that would cause more than a little damage, I must assume.”

“Yes. You see the concept in science fiction of monomolecular wire. This is similar, I suppose, in that the blades are thinner even than what they resemble.” He dissolved them and relaxed his hand.

“But you didn’t use those against Rosario,” Zhu said with certainty.

He shook his head. “Too much of a chance of getting blood all over myself. No, you already saw what I did, though you might not remember my example.”

Zhu paused and pressed a finger to his lower lip in thought. “The bruschetta, when you speared it.”

“Yep. Got him from just inside the door. He never even saw the web coming. Right through his heart. There was just something about the guy that set me on edge.”

“You mean aside from his crimes.”

Sora nodded. “Yes, but… It’s silly—well, maybe not silly. Just something I suspect is from my memories. Either someone I hated or something unresolved. I don’t really know.”

“With luck, or a sufficiently disruptive occurrence, they will come back to you,” Zhu said calmly, slowly folding down to take a seated position on the floor.

“I suppose,” he replied, sitting down as well. “Though a part of me almost hopes that doesn’t happen. I like my life right now. I have friends I care about and trust. I’m not sure I want to know what happened to land me in the hospital. But another part says I need to know, so I know who I was, and who I might have been.”

“Might have been?”

“Maybe I was on the wrong path,” he said with a shrug.

“You’re gathering guardians,” Zhu said.

He hummed. “Yes. I obviously never did that before, at least not actually bonding with them, harmonizing.”

“And you are now?”

“It’s weird,” he said, giving Zhu a direct look. “This feeling in my chest, and being able to trace the bonds to each person. I can feel the holes.”

“Do you have room for a Storm?” Zhu asked softly.

“Not just a Storm,” he said. “I have room for you.”

“Good.”

And then it came, that warmth, the bond, filling one of the empty spaces around his heart. A quiet smile blossomed on his face.

“It’s nice to have a home.”

“It is,” he agreed. “My brother is looking for a physical one. And speaking of him—will you be coming home with us today? We usually have a late lunch at my apartment, rotating who gets to pick.”

“Not a very spacious apartment, then,” Zhu guessed.

He shook his head. “He picked it for the two of us. It’s kind of a tight squeeze at this point with everyone coming over for meals twice a week. But I’d like to have a place where we won’t crowd unless we want to and everyone has a room for themselves. And have a bigger kitchen and eating area.”

“Well, I would love to join you today. I think … fried rice. With meat added after some is taken for Alfero.”

“So plenty of vegetables.” He nodded. “And my name is Sora.”

“Shi. And we may as well join the others for now.”

“Hm? Oh. Yes, I suppose that’s probably wise.” He pushed himself up and wandered over to the table.

Renato gave him a curious look, eyed Zhu, and nodded. “I see,” he murmured. “So what are we having today?”

“Fried rice, but you guys can pick what kind of meat to add in after, if any. Or tofu.”

“How about you make it with tofu, and then add the meat in after?” Lorenzo said. “Sort of like last time.”

“Fruit all right for dessert?” he asked.

Val hummed happily.

“Why don’t we call it a day early and head out,” he suggested. “Get the shopping done, have a nice meal…”

When they arrived at the apartment Kiri took one look at Shi and said, “You look like a Fon. Well, technically Feng, but Fon nevertheless.”

Sora sighed quietly. “This is my brother, Kiri. Aniki, this is Shi Zhu.”

“A Storm, I see. Well…”

*

The usual letter arrived and two days later they assembled at the usual place. He and Renato unloaded his offering of spinach “brownies” and stuffed mushrooms, and once the drink orders were out of the way he opened the envelope and passed the packets around. He was mildly surprised and yet not that the mission was another assassination, except there were two targets, and the packet specified that a non-bloody solution was strongly preferred. ‘So, required,’ he thought, ‘and if we don’t it’s even odds we get a pay cut.’

The two in question were a husband and wife duo who ran a drug operation. The woman was beautiful and her husband was charming, and together they spread their poison amongst the people around them. They also had a little manufactory outside the city that ought to be destroyed.

“Well,” Renato said, “I don’t get to shoot anyone. I’ll volunteer for demolition.”

“Um…” Val looked indecisive, then said, “Demolition.”

“I plan to be part of the hit teams,” Sora said.

“Teams?” Lorenzo said.

“In case they’re separated,” he explained. “Two people on each target. One to do the hit, one for lookout and coordination if necessary.”

“I will be a coordinator,” Viper said.

“I’ll go with you,” Lorenzo said to him. “I want to give it a shot, so to speak.”

Sora nodded.

“I will go with Viper,” Zhu said.

“Okay, then Alfero will be blowing stuff up with us,” Renato said.

“Then we go surveil for a week, make preparations, and meet back here,” she said.

“Sounds good.” As the demolition team took off he said, “Which one do you guys want to go after?”

Shi and Viper exchanged a look, then Shi said, “Orsino, if that’s not a problem.”

Lorenzo shook his head. “It’s all the same to me. We’ll go after Ghita, then.”

*

He spent the week keeping watch on the lady of the pair with Lorenzo, using illusions to help keep them unnoticed. She spent a lot of time in and out of boutiques, or at visits to the spa. She and her husband didn’t even meet up but for once a day, and frequently that was for a meal.

“I think we actually might need coordination,” he muttered. “But…”

“How do you plan to do that?” Lorenzo asked. “I mean, sure, we could use radios, but that means making excess noise.”

“Illusions can be used for a lot of things,” he replied, “but discussing that will have to wait until we meet up again.”

They showed up to that meeting carrying more snacks, including a portion of that salad Viper liked so much, just for him. Viper snatched it away with a tilt of his head and immediately set about eating.

Sora just smiled. “All right, so … demolition team?”

“We have the explosives,” Lal said. “Or rather, the whole place is explosive. And Val can propagate anything we’re low on from on-site samples. We just need to wait for the right time, and preferably when no one is around.”

“But we can create a diversion to lure people out if there are any hanging about,” Renato added.

“Or find those few, sneak up behind them, and knock them out,” Lal said.

“Whatever works,” Renato replied agreeably.

“We could just use a knockout gas if it comes to it,” Val said with a shrug. “So long as it doesn’t react with whatever they’re cooking in there. From what we could gather there’s only a couple of people who stay at night, mostly to keep an eye on things. The ones we saw seemed pretty sleepy, though.”

“Well, the two targets spend very little time together,” he said, “even at night, so if we want to take them out at roughly the same time and then blow their operation, we’re going to have to coordinate.”

“We could get them after they separate from the meal they share,” Viper suggested. “From what I noticed she usually sunbathes or gets in the hot tub, depending on the time of day, while he heads to his study or leaves entirely.”

“How about this?” he said. “We use illusions to at least keep them from leaving the house after they eat, should one of them break from the pattern we observed. The study and where she usually goes aren’t that far apart, so it’s possible we could have myself and Viper in line of sight with each other when it happens.”

Viper’s head angled his way after shoving another forkful of salad into his mouth, and nodded.

“We have servants to contend with, but only two,” Shi said. “They have the evening off on Wednesday, and leave right after dinner is served.”

“Right, and they don’t come back until Friday morning,” he said. “I think … after they’ve eaten, to give the servants time to vacate the premises.”

“And the blow the manufactory that night?” Val asked.

Renato nodded and asked, “What about security at their house?”

Lorenzo shook his head. “Nothing outstanding. It’ll be simple to disable it. Once that’s done and those two are in their respective areas, we can proceed.”

“So we assemble outside the house at eight o’clock,” he said. “It’ll be boring for a while, waiting for the servants to leave and for them to finish eating, but it’ll give us time in between to disable the security, and then get into position to make the hits. It’ll be getting dark around then, anyway.”

“You planning to meet up with us after?” Lal asked.

He nodded. “Just in case, though I expect you three will have things well in hand.”

“There’s a tree off the right side of the road, a real big one,” Val said, “tilted all funny. You can’t miss it. There’s a hollow behind it. We can meet up there.”

*

The sun was nearly below the horizon when they gathered near the Agresta home, in a spot part-way down the street. Sora used illusion to pretend to be female and sat on a bench with Lorenzo. They passed the time while watching their target door by pretending to flirt with each other. Viper and Shi played cards on another bench a short distance away.

It was not until fifteen minutes before the hour that the cook and housekeeper exited the building and hastened off, both with anticipatory smiles on their faces. They waited another fifteen minutes before moving, and Lorenzo and Sora got up first, mainly so that the security system could be addressed.

Lorenzo did some fiddly thing with some of the cables outside the building, then nodded. Sora popped his head out around the side of the house long enough for Viper and Shi to notice, then ducked back out of sight. Several minutes later they were all together, so Sora whispered, “This’ll take a minute, unless one of you prefers the idea of removing the glass.”

“Too much evidence,” Viper whispered.

He nodded and pressed a hand against the glass of the window, and started to harmonize with it. As glass was a liquid to him it took less time for him to pass through it and reach the other side. He pulled out a handkerchief as Lorenzo wiped his fingerprints off the glass, and unlatched the window to let the others in, using the fabric to keep his skin out of contact with the metal.

A quick checked showed the woman where they expected her to be, in the hot tub on the first floor balcony. The man, however, was not in his study, nor anywhere else in the house. They miched back behind the stairs.

“I did not want to do this,” Viper whispered, “but it seems I must.” As everyone looked on in confusion, Viper pulled a roll of paper from his pocket and tore off a piece about four inches long from the end, then tucked the roll away. Then he sneezed onto the paper.

Sora watched avidly as letters formed on the surface.

Viper sighed and said, “He must have left by the back entrance. He’s headed east right now. Higashi, may I speak with you privately for a moment?”

“Um… Sure,” he said, and waited as Viper put up some kind of illusionary barrier that presumably prevented the others from overhearing.

“We’re going to have to go after him, Zhu and I,” Viper said. “But there is only one way for us to coordinate at this point, unless we try again tomorrow.”

“And you think I won’t like it.”

Viper shrugged slightly. “I don’t know, but I would prefer you keep this to yourself.”

He nodded and said, “I will.”

“I am a telepath in addition to wielding Mist Flames. I can create a temporary link between us such that I can let you know when we have our target in sight and are ready to proceed, but the connection will be passive on your end. Basically, I will be able to get a sense of what you’re seeing as well as know what you’re thinking. Once both targets are down we can regroup, I can remove the connection, and we can meet with the others.”

He half-closed his eyes as he sought out his sense of intuition, then nodded when he felt nothing bad would come of the idea. “All right. Go ahead.”

“…Just like that.”

“Yes. I trust my intuition.”

Viper’s head angled slightly. “Even though I’m a Mist, and I’ll be able to hear your every thought.”

Sora smiled. “My brother is a powerful Mist; he taught me how to use illusions. He’s a bit crazy, but it’s not any worse than most people, I suppose. He can read my thoughts. Not sure how he does it. Maybe he’s just that familiar with me, I don’t know. The point is, my intuition says I can trust you, so go ahead and make the link. I’d rather get this done with today than have to fall back and start over again tomorrow.”

“Is your brother your guardian?”

Sora laughed and shook his head. “No. He won’t tell me exactly why, but that’s all right. He protects me anyway. And I protect myself from his poor excuse for cooking.”

A faint curve of Viper’s lips suggested a smile, then he reached out to touch a finger to Sora’s forehead.

He almost felt like he had a passenger tucked away in the corner of his mind, but that might have been fanciful thinking on his part. “All right. Vittori and I will keep an eye on Ghita. Soon as you give the word, we’ll act.”

Viper nodded and dropped the barrier. “Zhu, we must go.”

Zhu looked at both of them, then nodded and started moving.

Sora was left with a confused Lorenzo, but he shook his head when his Lightning opened his mouth. “We need to keep an eye on the woman, and I’ll keep her from leaving the house if necessary. Either way, I’ll know when she needs to be taken out. Please.”

Lorenzo sighed. “I think I see. All right, let’s go upstairs and find a spot to lurk in.”

During the wait he wondered if the woman might inadvertently kill herself. It was a bad idea to drink so much alcohol while lounging in a hot tub. An hour later he heard a voice in his head, that of Viper.

‘We have located the man and Zhu is ready to proceed.’

‘All right,’ he thought. ‘Then Lorenzo can start.’

‘Yes. We will meet you at the car.’

‘Proceeding, then.’ He touched Lorenzo on the arm and nodded. “It’s time,” he whispered.

His friend got a focused look on his face and turned back to face the window, then started to create a web. All the practice he’d had from the game played in the latter half of the training sessions paid off. He had one extended out to the water in just a couple of minutes, and moments later the woman was convulsing as if lightning had struck. When Lorenzo eased off she slid under the surface of the water.

Sora tapped into Lorenzo’s web long enough to check that she was dead, then released his flames and touched his Lightning’s arm. Lorenzo released his web and the two of them made their way back to the window. Lorenzo exited and Sora locked it again, then harmonized his way back outside, using the back of his hand instead of his fingertips to start the process.

They met up with Shi and Viper at the car and headed toward the manufactory. They stopped the car and parked it a fair distance away, then walked the remainder of the way. The tree Val had mentioned was indeed easy to spot, and they veered off to the side and down a slope to find the three waiting.

Renato looked Sora up and down before saying, “I take it everything went well? You’re later than we expected.”

“We ran into a little snag,” he said quietly, “but the targets are down. Are you guys set?”

Val nodded. “We just need those two men out of the way. Would you or Viper like to do the luring, or shall we do things the old fashioned way?”

Viper gave a little sigh and disappeared. A few minutes later Sora could see two men emerge from the large warehouse-style building down the road a short way and wander off. Viper reappeared a minute later and nodded. “They will fall asleep in the woods.”

“So… Right. I’m just going to stand here and wait for the fireworks while you three do the fun bits.”

Renato, Alfero, and Val took off swiftly but silently, and returned about fifteen minutes later. “We should probably get going,” Alfero said, casting a look back over her shoulder.

Sora eyed Val and saw a squinty-eyed look of concentration on his face. Moments later things started blowing up and part of the roof of the building launched into the sky. He snorted softly and said, “Well done, Val. And you’re right, we should go.”

“Meet up tomorrow?” Renato said.

“Yes.”

Renato reached out to squeeze his arm, then loped off with Val and Lalia.

He sat in the back of the car with Viper after the man gave him a look, or what he interpreted as a look. A very subtle barrier went up before Viper reached out to touch his forehead again. That sensation of carrying a passenger vanished and left him alone in his own thoughts again.

“I am … impressed,” Viper said.

“Oh?” he said, clueless as to what Viper meant.

“Yes. You accepted me into your mind, showed no fear, did not speak of it as I requested and showed no evidence of even thinking of doing so, and did not immediately ask me to remove the link. I could see myself harmonizing with a man like you.”

“I could see the same,” he replied, and welcomed it when that hollow space in his chest filled with warmth. He smiled and said, “I would invite you home for the usual lunch or dinner, but it’s a bit late. You can come over tomorrow, though, or join us for the usual training session tomorrow at ten, and join in for lunch after.”

The barrier dissolved as Viper said, “Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

He hummed. “From ten to noon, and then we go shopping based on whoever’s turn it is to pick the meal, and eat at my apartment. You’d get to pick this time, so if you wanted that salad again…”

The corners of Viper’s mouth tilted up slightly. “I will come tomorrow.”

Sora smiled back. “I’ll make you that salad no matter what since I know how much you like it, but too often and—”

“No more than once per week,” Viper said. “Though I also enjoy most pasta dishes, with appropriate alterations.”

“Mm. I’ve started keeping two sets of sauce frozen, and other meat additions are easy enough to do right at the end. But I also do a number of Asian recipes. Maybe if my brother finds us a nice place I can put up a schedule or something and people can claim meals?”

Viper tilted his head just enough that Sora could see the man’s eyes were a blue verging on violet. “A place?”

He explained about his experiments in mead and the idea for a bar of some kind, but before he could really get into it Lorenzo parked the car and looked back over his shoulder. “We’re here. You want one of us to make sure you get in all right?”

“It’s late and I’m sure we all want some rest. I’ll just cloak myself for the walk up, all right?”

Lorenzo frowned. “So your intuition isn’t acting up?”

He shook his head. “No, just being cautious.”

“We will see you tomorrow,” Shi said.

“Right.”

*

The meeting went more or less as usual and shopping was even more of a mess considering how many people were involved. Once back at the apartment Sora introduced Viper to his brother.

“You look like…” Kiri paused. “No, you look like a Viper. There’s something else, but I don’t think it quite fits. Either way, welcome to the family.”

Sora headed into the kitchen, saying, “Kiri and Viper can come with me, but the rest of you get to lounge in the sitting room after you get drinks.”

He got started on making the salad once the majority of his guardians had shuffled off clutching their beverages of choice, and after making sure that Viper had some of his preferred strawberry milk.

“It might be fun at some point to spar with you,” Kiri said, a faint smirk visible.

Viper tilted his head. “Perhaps. Skilled illusionists are rare.”

“You are welcome to add to the protections on this place,” Kiri offered. “I’ve done what I can, but a second set of eyes might help. Perhaps after lunch we can go over things and see if you have any suggestions we can implement.”

“Certainly. I would find a comparison of techniques to be of interest.”

Sora listened to their discussion with one ear as he sliced strawberries and kiwi, wondering if it would be a good idea to suggest trying to inure his other guardians against illusions. Once the salad was tossed he set the bowl aside and got a pasta salad he had prepared that morning out of the refrigerator, along with a bowl of diced meats.

Kiri got out the rest of the supplies and ferried them out to the sitting room while Sora put the bowls on a tray and followed.

“All right, guys. Viper gets first dibs on the strawberry salad,” he said.

“So,” Kiri said once they were all set for food. “You have a full complement of guardians, little brother. I always knew you could do it.”

He gave his brother a dubious look at the tone, which was somewhere between portentous and satisfied, then sliced off the end piece from the waiting bread and slathered it with butter. “I wonder about you at times,” he said, then bit into his bread.

Kiri laughed creepily. “You should never wonder about me, and should always do so,” he said cryptically.

Renato rolled his eyes. “Your laugh is too stereotypically ‘evil’ to be real. And yet, somehow it sounds so natural coming from you.”

“Didn’t I tell you? The first thing you learn at the Mist Guild induction meeting is how to laugh properly. Then they start you on reading all the Lovecraft material.” Kiri maintained a serious expression through all of it.

Viper’s mouth twitched in response.

“You should know better than to think you can win an argument with him,” Sora said to his Sun. “He’s too damn slippery. When your mind is geared toward illusions you spend a lot of time coming up with ways to literally out-think others.”

Renato turned to Viper. “Well? Do we get to hear your creepy laugh?”

Viper scoffed. “I’m not a performing monkey in some circus. But if you pay me enough I’d consider it. Say, ten million lira?”

Renato looked surprised for a moment, but quickly regained his cool. “I might pay that to see what you look like under that hood, but for a laugh I might actually hear for free one day? No.”

“You make Viper sound like a car,” Val complained. “Well, darlin’,” he said gruffly, “let me look under yer hood. I bet you got one hell of an engine.”

Sora snickered at the look on Renato’s face. “Be nice, guys, or no dessert. I made a selection of brownies this morning that should be very tasty. Some have coffee, some have cheesecake mixed in, and some have cherries.”

Several people gave him anticipatory looks.

“And of course, you can all take home whatever is left over,” he finished.

“I’d say you’re too good to us, but that would be a foolish thing to complain about,” Lalia said with a smile.