Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 05

05: Lobster of Revenge

He arrived at the meeting escorted by Renato and Val, carrying the usual offerings. He had baked up some banana muffins that morning, and some of them (coded by the colour of the liners) had chocolate chips, some nuts, and some berries.

Once everyone was set he opened the envelope and slid packets around so they could start reading. He barely managed to read the first paragraph before he was distracted by Lal’s gasp of surprise.

“I know this man,” she said, her expression anything but tranquil. “He’s an asshole.”

“I’m going to guess it’s not because he’s a politician,” Renato said.

Lal shook her head. “Let’s finish reading first, then I’ll explain.”

Onorevole Senatore Ricco Vetere of the Senato della Repubblica was their target, but not for assassination. He ran a prostitution ring, apparently, and their mission was to gather up evidence of his wrongdoings and accidentally-on-purpose leave it somewhere the media could find. Simple yet dangerous. It meant they would have to be very sneaky. None of it explained why Lal had reacted that way.

Lal sighed once she was done reading and shook her head. “I will enjoy this so much.”

Sora took a sip of his drink and noticed everyone else was done, so he said, “I think we’re all very curious at this point.”

She sighed again. “You’ve all figured out I was military. I was part of COMSUBIN, and this guy, for a time, was my CO. He liked to pass me by for promotions because I’m a woman, never mind that I trained half the people there. If that wasn’t bad enough, he taught his underlings to think the same way, so even when he was promoted, they kept doing the same thing. And you might not know, but a lack of promotions is an easy way to force someone out. You either advance or they politely don’t allow you to renew or ask you to retire. And now I find out he’s a pimp?”

“A misogynist pimp,” Lorenzo said with a shake of his head. “How … pathetic.”

“Right. How do we want to tackle this?” he said, getting them back on track. “We have some basic information to start with, so who wants to do what?”

“I will take a quiet look at the operation he’s running,” Viper said. “Lurk around. If I can get into the office there…”

Sora looked down for a moment, then said, “If you need help getting inside, I could assist. Or depending on what the security is…”

Lorenzo nodded.

“I would pose as a reluctant customer,” Renato said, “but I don’t think it’s possible for me to not stand out. Therefore, I think I’ll check out his house.”

Sora eyed his Sun for a moment. “The same applies.”

“I think … I’ll track down information on any of his more interesting customers,” Lal said. “This material doesn’t say anything about them being exposed, but why not? If we do our job right on Vetere, it’ll come out anyway.”

Val looked conflicted on what he could do, then said, “I’ll assist Lal in tracking down customers.”

“You know, Sora,” Renato said, “you’ve been right there in the thick of things most of the time. How about you play coordinator this time? Stay here, receive reports…”

His brow furrowed. “I could do that. And step out if someone needs me for something specific.”

“Then unless I am needed for something else,” Shi said, “I will also stay. We can work on your hand-to-hand.”

“For the moment I’ll go with Renato, then,” Lorenzo said. “His brothel’s security is probably more people-oriented, but his house might have electronics.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Renato said.

“All right. I’ll be here starting ten o’clock tomorrow, then,” he said. “The question is when to leave for the day.”

“Five,” Val said. “If we find something important after that we can always bother you at home.”

He nodded. “I usually turn in around eleven, so…”

“So we’re good?” Lorenzo asked.

Nods around the table saw them all getting up, so he touched Shi’s arm and said, “What kind of snacks for tomorrow?”

“Anything you’d like to make,” Shi replied. “So far you’ve not made anything I’ve disliked, so you pick this time.”

“All right. I’ll see you at ten.”

“True, but I shall accompany you home, just in case,” Shi said firmly.

“Then I’m conscripting you into shopping with me and you can have lunch with me and Kiri.”

*

The next week was rather boring for him in that his time at their meeting room consisted of bouts of training interleaved with the occasional visit from one of his guardians dropping by to give him their findings and update themselves on whatever else was brought in. It did mean a lot of uninterrupted time with Shi.

He broke out the snacks he had brought along when they took a break, which happened to be spring rolls and shao-mai, and some containers of hoisin and duck sauce. He fixed himself a plate after sending in an order for drinks and paused in the act of dipping a roll at the look on Shi’s face.

Shi noticed his attention and said, “It just reminds me of something.”

Not wanting to pry he simply nodded and finished dipping his roll, then took a bite.

“It is odd at times, being in this country,” Shi said.

“Because we’re Asian?” he asked. “I don’t even remember my time in Japan, but I know that the customs here often…”

“Have a tendency to offend your sense of propriety?”

He nodded. “I can’t fault anyone for it, obviously, but all the same… It’s just odd, the casual feeling.”

“I suppose you’re wondering about my background.”

Sora gave his Storm a quick look. “True, but I don’t ask questions about things like that. We wouldn’t have harmonized if…”

Shi nodded. “And because you can’t return the favor. All you know is about the head injury?”

“Yes. I woke up with no idea who I was and my head wrapped in bandages. The doctor said something about brain swelling. I get flashes every so often about people that must come from memory. Like you and tonfas.”

“Perhaps you will regain your memory soon,” Shi said. “I will share something regardless, in part because you have not asked.”

Sora tried to reconcile that reasoning, but in the end shrugged it off as unimportant.

“There was a man I met while I worked in a dojo. He was there as a student and I got to know him reasonably well, enough to realize that he was part of the Triads. He never said anything about them and certainly never admitted it, but I’d seen enough of them around to figure it out. So that was my introduction to the mafia, I guess you could say. He met a bad end.”

He bit his lip and dunked another section of spring roll into some duck sauce.

“The Triads are involved in a number of illegal activities, and one of the them happens to be heroin,” Shi continued. “My ‘friend’ was a pusher, but he was too—he started using it himself. I tried to help him, but he ended up overdosing. That man—I call him Checker Face—showed up not long after and made his offer.

“So I had a good idea what I was getting into, but I figured I needed a change and would make my decision once I had seen who else showed up. I also knew enough by then that I knew, at least vaguely, who Renato was. But it was obvious most of the people present weren’t connected. The job we were presented with seemed harmless enough, and while there was a little friction at first I saw no reason to walk away.”

“How did you learn about flames?” he finally asked, then moved on to some of the shao-mai.

“There’s a concept in Chinese martial arts, called qi. It was while studying that and practicing that I realized I could create flames. Experimentation revealed what I could do with them, so I simply adopted practice with them into my normal routines, though I never revealed I could do so to anyone else. I have overheard things, though, certainly enough to understand about the other flames and the relationship they have with the Sky.”

“Val and Lalia don’t know about the mafia connection, so please don’t bring it up in front of them,” he asked. “I have to assume they suspect considering the jobs we’ve been doing, but neither of them has pushed the issue. Viper hasn’t said anything, either, but…”

Shi nodded. “Will you tell me about the mafia from your point of view, what you know?”

He proceeded to do just that during breaks over the next few days, changing the subject every time he sensed someone approaching the door, just in case. He was compiling a fair stock of data on Vetere, though someone would have to take the time to type all of it up, and some careful handling would need to be done on both the pages and whatever they were stored in.

Photographs he had amassed would be fine as is so long as they were wiped down first. By the time two weeks had gone by Val and Lalia had created profiles on a good dozen “interesting” customers, some of whom were fellow senators. A couple were even rather high up in the Church. Lal had a tendency to make strange faces when she read what the others had dug up, but otherwise did not comment.

“I think you guys have gathered more than enough information,” he opined during a full meeting at the end of the second week, “but I suppose there could be more to be found. What do you think? Are we good, or should we take another week for this? Any reporter who gets their hands on this information will probably dig ferociously to get the best, most detailed story to expose this kind of corruption.”

“Honestly?” Renato said. “I am bored to tears following people around and getting names. It’s all very good practice for being sneaky, but…”

“I’m kind of depressed at just how many officials are a part of this,” Val said soberly.

“At this point I’m more interested in waiting to see the headlines,” Lalia offered.

Lorenzo just nodded in agreement with the others.

“All right, then we’ll just finish up with this report, put the source material together for the drop location, and sit back to wait. Well, and have our usual sessions. I haven’t been able to cook you guys a proper meal in ages, either.”

Sighs resounded around the table as his guardians all smiled at the idea.

“Let’s say … Saturday? You can come for lunch, so be there by one. I think I might do a sampler.”

*

His sampler was a range of cold dishes along with his baked penne (minus the meat for two of them)—nothing special overall, but still well appreciated by his acquired family.

“I was thinking,” Lorenzo said to Val, “that maybe we could set up a thing with airflow and smoke so you could get a better idea—visually—of things like that, and it might help you with propagating other things you can’t see, like the force behind a push or strike. Things of that nature.”

Viper and Kiri were having a cozy chat in the corner about who knew what—illusion tactics, probably—and Shi was conversing with Lalia about physical techniques, comparing the things she had learned in COMSUBIN (and subsequently taught to others) against pure martial arts.

Renato shuffled sideways slightly and said, “I’m glad that job is over. It took a lot of skill to pull off, but it was so boring.”

“It remains to be seen just how big of a scandal we get. I can’t say I’m all that vindictive, but perhaps I’m feeling a bit more so on Lal’s behalf. On a side note, Kiri thinks he found a place.”

“Oh?”

He nodded. “Just about everything we were looking for. The ground floor is large enough for a bar, and there are two lower levels. The downside is it would mean moving to Grosseto.”

“That’s only about two hours from here, assuming you had business in Rome. It’s not so bad.”

“That kind of depends on who actually decides to move in with us and where they live now. People have friends, I assume,” he pointed out. “But either way, there will be room for all of us, and we can’t do what we were talking about in Rome. Just need to get people in there to fix the place up. Bedroom suites, a lab, a nice kitchen, a place where I can make a whole lot more mead than I do now, that sort of thing.”

“My apartment is nice,” Renato said, “but I’d rather be close by, so I’ll be moving when you do. That said, when can we look at the place, and what’s it going to cost us?”

Kiri laughed creepily at that and butted in with, “Oh, I think I can talk the price down considerably. And the price for any contractors necessary to fix the place up. Anyone who wants to contribute to the resulting costs is more than welcome.”

“You can bet on that,” Renato said.

Val nodded, but didn’t say anything.

Lorenzo smiled and said, “So I could customize a lab for myself. Excellent. I’m in.”

“Perhaps the two of us could design a place to train in?” Shi said to Lalia.

She nodded. “I think that would be a fun and fruitful thing to do. And it would be nice to have a place to keep in shape without jumping through hoops.”

“I assume you won’t mind if I help,” Viper said to Kiri.

“I would welcome the backup,” Kiri said with a smile. “As for when, I have an appointment on Tuesday, which means if you’d like to come along, you’ll have to skip the training session.”

Sora waited to see what how his guardians would react, and when they all looked ready to go there right then, he nodded. “All right. When do we need to be there?”

“Eleven-thirty, so we should leave at eight to be safe, or no later than half past. Bring notebooks so you can keep track of your ideas, because I plan to push through the sale as quickly as possible if we’re all agreed on the place.”

“So, all right. We can leave from here,” he suggested. “And if you come at seven I can make us all breakfast before we go.”

*

The place in question would need a fair amount of work, but it would be other people primarily doing it, so none of that bothered Sora. The ground floor had plenty of room for a kitchen, bar area, rest rooms, and places for customers to sit. They would have to come up with something appropriate for the décor, but aside from that it was fine.

The real prize was the lower levels. Both were more spacious than the ground floor because they covered almost the entirety of the property. Between the two of them they could fit in a second kitchen and lounge space, ten bedrooms, Lorenzo’s lab, and a training room. And that was with en-suite bathrooms. He would probably just lose a bedroom they most likely wouldn’t need and use it to make mead.

“I don’t even want to know what it costs,” he said to Kiri. “Just, you know, work your magic, and then quietly take my share out of the account.”

His brother nodded. “I will do so, little brother. And the same for the renovations.”

He wandered around upstairs for the time being, sketching out plans in his notebook for where things could go. The kitchen already present could use some updating, but it was large enough to make the simple foods he intended to make for any customers. If they wanted a restaurant they could go to one. The point of the place was to sell his mead, snacks, and be there so people could attempt to hire them for jobs.

It still needed to look nice and have the right atmosphere. And he would carefully not be asking too many questions of his brother. For all he knew, Kiri would find the most corrupt contractors in the area and use them to his advantage. Or maybe he would play it mostly straight. It was one those times when he just didn’t want to know the details.

Renato sidled up to him and leaned in to whisper, “So, do I get to pick the bedroom next to yours?”

He snorted. “Kiri and I will probably be on the first sub-level, so that leaves three rooms for you to fight over with the others.”

“Isn’t there a special place in your heart just for me?” Renato persisted.

Sora smiled at him. “Yes. You each have a special place in my heart.”

Renato frowned playfully. “I see. Or we could just have a lottery of sorts. I’ll talk it over with the others.”

“Just don’t do something like order of harmonization,” he said. “That sends the wrong message.”

“No, no,” Renato said with a shake of his head, “I’ll ask them if they have any preferences, and if that doesn’t shake out simply, we’ll have some sort of random choice, like drawing names from a hat. I did listen to what you said a ways back.”

He took a quick look around to see who was present, and on spotting no one, leaned in to give his Sun a brief kiss. “Good. What do you think of this so far?” he asked, holding up his sketch. “Maybe dark woods. And I like the idea of incorporating webs somehow.”

“Maybe the seat cushions?” Renato suggested. “And that seems serviceable, though we’ll need a private room if anyone really does come here looking for help. Or have Kiri or Viper provide a sound barrier.”

He hummed. “A private room would be all right so long as at least two of us were in there, and one of us being capable of discerning lies. I mean, I’d prefer to have the advantage, both in information and numbers. So that means my intuition, or an illusionist’s ability to get people to be truthful.”

“Oh, don’t be too sure the rest of us can’t be intimidating enough to make people talk, but it would be easier your way. Okay, let me go talk to the others about the rooms. It’s early yet, but we might as well get that out of the way.”

He wandered out of the kitchen and tracked down his brother, who was keeping the estate agent occupied. He smiled at the woman and felt some measure of confusion when she blushed. After a moment he showed Kiri his sketch.

“I like it. You going to do one for below?”

“Yes. I just figured I’d see what you thought first.”

The estate agent blushed again.

His brow went up in confusion as he made a hasty retreat. He could hear Kiri saying, “He’s shy,” as he made for the stairway. He found his guardians clustered together on the second sub-floor.

“You’re just in time,” Lorenzo said. “We’ve worked out who will take rooms on which floor.”

“All right. What did you all decide on?”

“Renato, Shi, and Viper will be on your floor,” Val said. “We debated whether or not you’d want a room on your floor for your mead, but decided it probably didn’t matter much.”

“No, it doesn’t. Having it on this floor is fine. I won’t be spending much time in there anyway, since it’s just a few tasks every so often and the rest of the time the mead is maturing. We can use the extra room for storage for now, though I suppose we might have an actual guest at some point. You can get with Kiri after he’s finished charming the estate agent to see how much we need to spend, and what you can afford or want to chip in. And if you have ideas for design and décor, bring them on Thursday? We can talk about it.”

*

A letter arrived right on schedule and two days later they were in their room at the bar. Sora grabbed the envelope and opened it, passed around the packets, and set to reading. ‘Treasure on a mountain?’ he thought.

Lorenzo groaned. “Don’t tell me we get to go spelunking again.”

“I still have pitons left if we need them,” Shi said. “I should probably buy more rope and markers, however. This may or may not be related to the earthquake that revealed that underwater cave system.”

Sora shrugged. “Considering it means returning to Sicily, it might well be. There’s probably already paths to some extent, but if we do end up having to enter a newly-revealed cave… Yes, maybe let’s do some shopping for that. And since we won’t have a convenient yacht to retreat to each day, we’re going to have to rough it. Sorry, Renato.”

“I’ll just have to buy an extra comfy sleeping bag,” his Sun replied. “This has the same limit as the last one—end of the month. So how about we take a few days to get our shopping done, then fly into Palermo? We can rent a vehicle at the airport and there might be a hotel of some kind, or cabins, in the vicinity we could stay for a night.”

“I think Renato just volunteered himself to check into that sort of thing,” he said with a teasing smile. “Shi can take care of basic spelunking supplies. I will look into food…”

“I’ll see about sleeping bags, tents, the usual camping implements,” Lorenzo said. “A second person to assist wouldn’t go amiss.”

Lal nodded.

“Hm, what else?”

Val and Viper exchanged a look, then Viper said, “We’ll see what we can dig up at the library on this place. This—” He tapped his packet. “—mentions nothing other than a vague rumor. I don’t know that we can find anything, but we can check.”

“All right. While we’re working on this why don’t we just gather each evening at my apartment and we can discuss things over dinner? And… Unfortunately, we’re not going to be eating very well, but I’ll make some things that will last a bit so we’re not entirely devoid of home-cooked food.”

“I’m going to guess and say you’ve never cooked over a campfire,” Renato said.

He made a face. “I’ve never been camping, I don’t think…”

Val said, “I’ll see if I can find anything at the library while we’re there about camp cooking and bring it over tonight. I’m sure there’s some simple stuff you can make, even if it’s not your usual wonderful cooking.”

“That works, and I’ll be able to adjust my shopping list accordingly. I think we’re done here for now.”

*

The approach to the summit was steep and littered with treacherous footing. The views they had seen along the way were breathtaking, but Sora was more interested at that point in setting up camp—despite having learned that camping on the mountain was not allowed—so he could rest his aching muscles.

Every so often he would hear pebbles skitter down the slope or tumble over the edge of the rough path, and birds would occasionally make themselves known. He sighed slightly and then smiled when Renato reached over to lightly squeeze his arm.

A half hour later the ground leveled off, though a fairly tall wall of rock was up ahead, forming a ridgeline of its own. It was starting to get dark, so he couldn’t see it very well, though it looked like there might be a crack in the uprising. They would have to investigate, but not until after they’d had a chance to rest.

They stopped for a moment, then continued on when Shi pointed out a likely spot to set up.

Unfortunately…

A bright light erupted when they were approximately half-way across, which caused them all to stop again. Sora looked up, even though he had to shade his eyes, but could see nothing. A panicked shout came from behind them and he looked over his shoulder to see a blond man dressed in military fatigues rush forward and push Lal off to the side.

And then he woke up.

The ceiling needed to be repainted, in his opinion.

He seemed to be unharmed, so he sat up and looked around. ‘I have no idea where I am, I just remember that light,’ he thought, then blinked a few times on seeing six tiny—babies? Toddlers? He frowned when he realized that one of them was Chinese, one female, one had Renato’s bizarre version of sideburns—

“What the hell is going on?” he whispered, then picked up the chibi version of his Sun and ran a finger over his cheek. Renato did not so much as twitch, which was horribly wrong for a man normally so aware of his surroundings. Renato was wearing a pacifier around his neck, a yellow one. He set his Sun back down after making sure that Renato was breathing, then checked on the others.

All of them wore pacifiers, shaded in the colour of their flames, but there was one additional person present. ‘Who is this…? Wait, I remember. He pushed Lal out of the way. So he got caught, too, whatever happened to do this. Lal is tiny, too, though, so I guess he wasn’t fast enough. But who is he? I guess I’ll just have to wait until they wake up.’

The blond stranger’s pacifier was blue, which told Sora he was a Rain, but Lal’s—Lal’s pacifier was a dull grey colour. It looked wrong, somehow, and lifeless. His own was orange, but that only made sense given what little information he had.

Another look around revealed nothing of note, so he cautiously exited the room by the only available door and found himself in a hallway. There was a door each to his left and right on the same wall at either end, and facing those were also doors. The only sound he could hear was the wind and rain outside.

A quick investigation revealed that the end doors led to bathrooms. Of the other two, one led to a library and the other to a training room—or so he assumed. Downstairs was a kitchen to one side and a sitting room to the other. At that back, however, were seven doors, each with a symbol carved into the surface.

Six of them were immediately recognizable, but the last one had just a simple circle carved into it. As a test he attempted to open the Sun door, and failed. None of them would open for him except for the one in the center. ‘I guess this is the Sky door?’ he wondered as he reached out to twist the knob.

It gave easily under his hand. He stepped inside and jumped when the door closed behind him, but a quick check showed that it opened readily enough again. The moment he stepped away, however, it closed by itself. ‘Maybe to prevent anyone not a Sky from coming in?’

He shrugged and looked around. There were countless small pictures hanging on the walls, and in the center was a comfortable looking chair, a small side table, and a low bookcase filled with books.

“Maybe this is all just a dream and I’ll wake up and be staring at the sky and my friends will be all right,” he whispered. Not yet hungry and with nothing better to do for the moment, he sat down and choose a book to examine, one with a faded orange cover, the only one that stood out.

Two hours later—because he had never particularly been fond of reading—he closed the book and sat back. “We’re stuck. Cursed. And I have a choice to make. If I wait until the others wake up, they might start arguing about my options here. Do I stay an adult and die much too soon? Or do I take the same form as they’re cursed with and live so much longer?

“I’m not going to find some girl and have children. And I can’t—” Sora looked down when his voice broke. “We don’t exactly have anything yet, but I can’t do that to Renato. So, I’m going to do it. I’ll take on chibi form, so I don’t break their hearts.”

The book was set aside, open to the spot he needed. As a precaution he removed his Sky and Mist rings as well as his earring, though he had to put his Mist ring back on long enough to illusion up a mirror so he could see what he was doing. His real appearance was something of a shock; it’d been two years almost since he had last seen it.

He woke up some time later and again thought the ceiling could do with a new coat of paint.

His rings ended up on his thumbs, and even then they were in danger of falling off, and it took him a fair amount of time to fix the illusion stored in the earring before he could put it back on, but eventually he got it right. Without Kiri’s teaching he would never have been able to manage it.

Sora stumbled a few times on his way to the kitchen due to his sense of balance being thrown off by his new size—that his clothing had more or less fallen off him due to the enormous size change and had to be jury-rigged into place did not help—and almost cried when he realized the stove towered over him.

He kicked the nearby cabinet door a few times to vent his feelings, then observed the room carefully. There, in the corner, was a folding step stool ladder he could use. But first, he opened the refrigerator using a handy leather strap attached to the handle and smiled when he saw just how much food was inside.

Once he was finished eating a quarter cantaloupe he rinsed his dishes and wandered back upstairs for a nap. For some reason he was feeling excessively tired. Sora crawled into Renato’s bed and snuggled up to him, and drifted off.

*

Sora awoke to the sensation of being held, and to the sound of a screaming row between Lal and a voice he didn’t recognize. The blond stranger, he assumed. He simply enjoyed the sensation of being close to Renato and listened for the time being.

“—because you talk in your sleep sometimes, Lal! I heard enough to make me worried.”

“So you followed me!? Do you trust me that little? Or think I can’t handle myself?”

“I know you can handle yourself,” the stranger shot back in an exasperated tone. “Are you saying I should never worry about you?”

“Should I take this to mean that our Lal has a boyfriend?” he murmured to his companion.

Renato chuckled soundlessly. “This has been going on for a while now. I’m surprised you slept through so much of it.”

“It’s bad enough we’re not much bigger than babies now,” Lal snarled, “and you interfered and got caught up in it, too!”

“I was trying to save you!”

“I know that!” she shouted back, then lowered her voice considerably. “And I love that you tried.”

“At least we’re stuck like this together.”

“And you think that’s a good thing!?” she shrieked. “If it was just one of us the other would at least have a chance at a normal life!”

“I won’t leave you, Lal!”

Sora sat up and coughed. “Guys, that’s enough. If you’re going to fight, I can’t stop you, but this—”

Lal’s expression was a mixture of frustration, anger, and helplessness. The blond stranger eyed him curiously and said, “Ciao. Illario Gallo.”

“Sora Higashi,” he replied. “Has anyone done any exploring? There are rooms downstairs I can’t get into.”

“No,” Renato said. “We haven’t left the room yet. We’ve been too busy feeling sorry for ourselves and picking fights.”

‘I don’t know if I should tell them about the choice I made,’ he thought, then sighed when Viper gave him a sharp look. “There are seven rooms downstairs with symbols etched into the doors. I can get into the Sky room, but the other doors are locked to me. The kitchen is well stocked from what I saw, but I admit I got a little weepy when I saw how high the stove is now…”

Val hopped onto the bed and leaned in comfortingly.

“You’re all so damn cute now, though,” he said.

“Right,” Renato said briskly. “We’re stuck like this for now so there’s no sense in wasting time on crying about it, not when we have each other for support. Let’s go investigate those rooms.”

“I’ll put together some kind of meal,” he said. “Gallo, are you vegetarian or…?”

The blond shook his head.

“All right. Doesn’t matter either way so much as me knowing how to portion things. I’ll see what’s available and figure something out.” He squeezed the hands of both Renato and Val, then shuffled off the bed and headed out.

He was waiting on some fusilli to finish boiling for a cold pasta salad when Lal trudged into the kitchen with a heartbroken look on her face. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t open the Rain door,” she said simply. “Something is wrong with me now. It’s like I’m broken.”

He went over to her and grabbed her hand long enough to give it a squeeze. “Have you tried using your Rain Flames?”

She shook her head, then started to form a web from one hand. Threads began to emerge, but she broke off the effort with a strangled gasp. “That felt like a part of me was dying,” she whispered.

He led her over to the dining table and bullied her into a seat. “Let me check something first,” he said, taking a seat of his own. He reached inside himself to find the bond with Lal and slid a mental finger over it. “That’s weird,” he muttered.

“What is it?”

“The, um, flavor has changed, and it’s weaker than it used to be. You must have other flame types available to you and whatever happened made them stronger as a result. This feels a little similar to Val and Viper, actually.”

“Mist and Cloud?”

“Yes. Once we’re gathered again I’ll see what Renato can ascertain. He’s very good at determining flame types, too. I mean, I could tell what each of you were that first meeting, but this is a bit unorthodox.”

“So that’s why this pacifier is so dull and kind of grey?”

“I guess…? Your friend is a Rain. If he had been some other type, things might have gone even worse.”

“It’s pretty damn bad already,” she said sharply.

“I know,” he replied calmly, then got up to empty the pasta into a colander and run cold water over it.

“What did you find in the Sky room?”

“There was a bookcase in there with a bunch of books, but…”

“What?” she demanded, giving him another sharp look.

“I kind of hate reading,” he admitted quietly as he got vegetables out of the refrigerator and began to prepare them.

“Sora!”

“I know, I know. I’ll go back in while the salad is chilling and check them out. Will you check around and try to figure out where the hell we are? I only investigated briefly before I felt so sleepy I had to go back to take a nap. And later on, we’ll work on you accessing the other two flames I think you have, after Renato takes a look.”

“I don’t have rings for those,” she said.

“You don’t need rings. They just make it easier,” he assured her.

“That’s correct,” an arriving Renato said. “It’s easier with one when you use your flames externally, but internally it’s completely unnecessary.”

“Find anything interesting in the Sun room?” she asked as Sora dumped the vegetables into the cooled bowl of fuselli.

“We are now … Arcobaleno.”

“Rainbow? What the hell does that mean?”

Renato shook his head. “I have this vague memory of hearing the term before, but… In any case, these stupid pacifiers function as rings.”

“So we have no idea why we were ambushed and changed,” he murmured unhappily. “Maybe there’s something in the Sky room, but…”

“Renato,” Lal said, “can you try to confirm what Sora found out? He thinks I also have Mist and Cloud Flames, and now they might be usable since my Rain Flames appear to be damaged in some way. I know I don’t use them all that much, but it hurts to use them now, and I hate that a part of me is broken.”

Renato took Sora’s abandoned seat and examined her carefully, threading a web of his flames into her. She squirmed uncomfortably—at the perceived intimacy, Sora assumed—and only relaxed when his Sun pulled away. “He’s right. You have latent, now patent, Mist and Cloud Flames. Your Rain Flames seem to be warped or twisted. You said it hurt to use them?”

“Yes. It was like a part of me was bleeding away or dying,” she said with a grimace.

“Well, some of the material in that room made it pretty plain that we’ll live long lives like this,” Renato said, “so if you feel that way using Rain Flames, don’t use them anymore. We’ll get you comfortable with the other two, okay? You know we can, and I’m confident you’ll pick it up just fine. You learned quickly when Sora was teaching you.”

Lal nodded. “It’ll be a bit difficult to shift my focus, I suppose, but I can do it.”

Sora put the salad in the refrigerator and said, “I would start the same way. Spark flames off—well, off the pacifier, I guess. When you can do that, start with the webs. Then we can get into the actual aspects.”

“Right. Now…” She stared at him. “Go check those books.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered. With that he exited the kitchen and wandered down the hall, back into the Sky room. He gave the bookcase a disgusted look and sat down, then systematically flipped through every book available, barring the one with dull orange cover.

There was a lot of boring information in them, but nothing explained what the Arcobaleno really were or what purpose they served. Nothing explained why they’d been ambushed and altered. True, he had made a conscious choice to join his guardians in chibi form. The only thing he gleaned from any of the material stored in the room was that he could—should it come to the worst case scenario and his guardians were killed—sacrifice his own life to revive them. And in that instance, his curse would pass on to some other Sky.

“And what a choice that would be,” he said to himself. “Die so that they can live and be heartbroken? Pray that some new Sky would treat them well and love them? Or join them in death because my own heart would be shattered? And if my own curse would be passed on, wouldn’t it mean that if they died, theirs would too? Why would I even have the option to…”

He shook his head in confusion, feeling a little heartsick even though they were all alive, if not exactly well. He set the books aside and got up. As soon as he quit the Sky room Viper appeared out of nowhere and hustled him off outside, despite it being more than a little chilly. There was a spring-fed pond out there with rocks surrounding it that Viper used for seats. At least the rain had stopped.

A hazy barrier went up and Viper actually flipped his hood back and stared at him. “What choice?”

“Ah, you caught that, huh?” he said ruefully, eyeing his Mist. Viper was a handsome man—or so he assumed based on what he could see.

“Yes. Now spill. What did you do?”

He sighed. “When I woke up I was still an adult. Inside the Sky room there was a book and… Basically, I had a choice. If I stayed an adult I would die way before my time. But if I took the same form as the rest of you, I wouldn’t. I’d live as long as you will. I wasn’t prepared to let you—”

Viper nodded. “I chose wisely, then.”

“Huh?”

“You, willing to sacrifice yourself the same way, for our sake.”

“It’s a selfish decision, too,” he pointed out. “I couldn’t imagine life without all of you at this point. To die so soon…”

“I won’t say anything about it to the others,” Viper said. “That’s your decision. I only caught the briefest whisper of the thought anyway.”

He nodded. “Thank you. How about we go see if everyone is ready to eat?”

Viper flipped his hood back into place and released the barrier. They returned inside and entered the kitchen, where everyone had already gathered.

Renato brightened up and said, “Can we eat now? Because I’m super hungry.”

He noticed that the table had already been set, so he shuffled over to the refrigerator to get out the salad and returned to the table with it. “This will take some getting used to,” he said as he climbed onto the chair and situated himself.

Lorenzo took care of portioning things out and they all dug in happily.

“So,” he said after eating his first forkful, “Gallo… Regardless of why, you’re one of us now.”

“I don’t even know what that means, but all right. I’m sticking with Lal.”

He smiled weakly. “Tell us about yourself?”

Gallo glanced around the table and saw inquiring faces—except for Lal, who looked exasperated—and shrugged. “I was in the military, but I decided not to renew my enlistment.”

Lal scowled. “He was in COMSUBIN with me. I trained the ass and taught him everything he knows. You quit because of what they did to me, right?”

“Yep!”

“Oh, Rio…” To Sora she said, “He’s obnoxiously cheerful at times, but a good guy. I should have guessed he had—” She stopped abruptly.

“We’re going to have to teach him,” Renato said. “Even if he rarely uses them, he should still know and be prepared.”

“Use what?”

They all looked at Sora, who heaved a resigned sigh. “Flames of Dying Will. They’re derived from your life force, much in the same way as the energy you use to walk or run or fight.”

“Sounds like magic,” Gallo opined.

Lal snorted and shook her head.

Lorenzo pushed his glasses up—they had mysteriously reduced in size like everyone’s clothing, all but Sora’s—and said, “What I am curious about is the damage Lal has suffered and the inclusion of this unexpected variable.”

Gallo leaned sideways and whispered to Lal, “Is he referring to me?”

Lorenzo sent a serious look at Sora, one brow going up.

“You mean…” He wondered exactly what they had been talking about while he was outside with Viper. Was Lorenzo referring to the damaged bond with Lal, and therefore the lack of a proper Rain bond? “I don’t know how to answer that yet,” he finally said, then forked up more of his salad to eat.

Shi spoke up to avert the awkwardness of the situation. “I suggest we spend some time in that training room, those of us with any knowledge of martial arts. We’re going to have to learn how to adjust.”

“And I’m going to—” Renato broke off with a scowl. “I can’t even handle my gun now it’s so big in comparison.”

Sora smirked. “Is that so?”

Renato blinked and shot him a surprised look, then chuckled. “Don’t think I won’t get you back for that.”

They spent the remainder of the day either exploring the area outside or in the training room, trying to reconcile their size against their previous physical training. His friends all seemed driven to fill up the time with something other than talk.

They took to their beds that evening after they were all tired out and Sora fell asleep more easily than he expected. But he was awakened by a sound. Someone was … crying? He carefully eased off his bed and followed the sound, only to find Gallo in a right mess. He wasn’t crying so much as his breath kept hitching.

Sora laid a tentative hand on the man’s arm and when Gallo opened his eyes whispered, “Want to go outside for a few?”

Gallo nodded and sat up, so Sora pulled the cover off his bed and dragged it along with them. Outside they bundled up in the blanket and sat on one of the rocks. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked softly.

Gallo shrugged. “I just—I only wanted to help, you know? And now we’re both messed up. I love Lal.”

“We do things like that for the people we care about. I took a bullet for Val once. He was really angry with me, but he understood. I’d do it again if I had to and thought I could live through the experience.”

“Wow… You took a bullet on purpose? Without even knowing you’d live?”

“Well, I was fairly sure I would. My intuition is pretty strong. I was certain Val would take that bullet through the heart and I just couldn’t let that happen. It didn’t hurt that Renato showed up so quickly and healed me. So I understand why you tried to save Lal.”

“Wait, healed you? With those flame things you were talking about?”

He hummed. “Yes. We can talk about that during the day, though, if you want to know more. They can be pretty useful, for a number of things. You do understand why Lal might be angry, though, right?”

“…Yeah.” Gallo hung his head for a moment. “I guess I’d be angry if she had done the same. So you guys are the ones she’s been hanging around with most of the year. A lot more lately than before.”

“I’ve been teaching her how to use her flames.”

“And doing jobs with her.”

He turned to look at Gallo directly. “Yes. We’ve done a number of jobs together. We’ve formed bonds.”

“I was starting to get a bit jealous,” Gallo said forthrightly. “Some of the things she’s said in her sleep, her habit of raising a hand to her chest and that serene smile that shows up—I kept wondering if she’d found someone else.”

“That’s because of the bond,” he replied. “It’s a—well, not tangible. But it’s real. You can imagine it any way you want, but I tend to think of them as threads of flame linking us together, from me to each of my friends.”

“Is this something like that red string of fate thing in Asian myth?”

“I suppose so, except for the destined to be lovers part.” He grimaced at the idea of a seven-way relationship of a sexual nature. Renato was surely enough, though the likelihood of them ever actually… “The point is, the bond lets you know you’re never alone. You can feel it, always. It’s comforting, it’s like a home. Speaking of which, now I’m glad the building my brother found has extra rooms, because I think you should probably move in with us once it’s completed.”

“Grosseto, right? I, uh, followed her that time.”

Sora laughed quietly. “You’re welcome to be a part of this family, too. You can move with us when the building is renovated. We’re all in this together, so…”

“Just like that?” Gallo looked at him searchingly.

“You’re important to Lal. She obviously wouldn’t spend so much time with you or have you in her life if you were the wrong kind of man. Either way, you’re kind of stuck with us, Gallo. You’re a…” He glanced down at his tiny body. “No one is going to take you seriously right now, except someone in the same position. Lal might be angry with you for a while, but as far as I’m concerned you’re a part of this family now.”

“I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Lal talks in her sleep, huh? Want to sneak back up there and see if she’s saying anything right now?”

Gallo giggled and his hand shot up swiftly to cover his mouth in surprise. “That did not just happen.”

“Um… Right. Of course not. But if it should happen, I think it has to do with our sizes now. Anyway, let’s get some rest.”

“Okay.”

*

The next morning he put together a hearty breakfast for everyone and tried not to let his feelings of annoyance get out of hand. Having to use a step stool was embarrassing and a bit degrading, but he had made the choice to chibify, so he had only himself to blame in that regard.

“I don’t think we’re in Italy any longer,” Renato said while they ate. “It’s something about the air and the view.”

“I wonder how long it’ll take Kiri to find me.”

“Kiri?” Gallo asked.

“My brother. But since he has no idea how long we’d be gone…”

Viper shot a look his way. “You don’t think he has a spy on you?”

“Why would he? I’m with you guys.”

Gallo sent a confused look at Lal, so Sora said, “My brother is a Mist. That means he can use illusions in some pretty creative ways. We’ll sit down after breakfast and I’ll go over all of it with you.”

Gallo nodded and resumed eating.

“Well, you’re right in this case,” Viper said. “I can’t sense one on you. Would you like me to send a message to him?”

“Yes, but not right away. Let’s take a little more time to adjust first. Maybe send out some scouts to find the nearest town or city?”

Viper nodded. “I will do so. Once I ascertain where we are I could make a simple phone call when you’re ready.”

“That sounds good. And we have an answering machine, so if he’s off making arrangements at the place in Grosseto, he would still get the message at some point, once he went home.”

He took Gallo aside after breakfast and sat with him on one of the beds upstairs, the least likely place for anyone to bother them much. “As I said before, you’re capable of using flames. Probably everyone has the latent ability, but most people never have active access to them. The fact that you ended up taking Lal’s place in this … whatever it is … means you’re most certainly a Rain.”

“And that means…?”

“Rains are characterized, generally speaking, by the aspect of tranquility. Or as I originally told Lal, you’re like a walking version of Valium. Your flames have the capability to do things like tranquilize others, to calm them down, or to do things like freeze water. But a lot of what you can do depends on your imagination and what you’re normally skilled at. We’ll get into that later.”

“What about these other types?” Gallo asked with a tilt of his head that reminded Sora of a ferocious puppy.

“Mm. Sky is harmony, and it’s what allows me to form bonds with other people, for one thing. Storm is disintegration; it’s primarily offensive in nature. Sun is activation; they can heal and augment people, make them function more efficiently. Lightning is hardening; they lean toward defensive, but any flame can be used offensively. So they can do things like create barriers of electricity. Or, you know, electrocute people.

“Rain is tranquility. Mist is construction, and that deals with illusions. Some people are way more resistant to those than others. Finally, Cloud is propagation; they can cause things to replicate themselves. So as an example, instead of throwing just one knife, they’d send a dozen or more at their target. It applies in a lot of ways, though. Physical things aren’t the only things that can be propagated.”

Gallo nodded. “Okay, that helps a bit. So I’m Rain. So how do I do this, and are you as much of a slave driver as Lal?”

Sora snickered and shook his head. “No. Now watch for a moment.” He started to focus on his ring, but then remembered the pacifier supposedly served as one, so he focused on that instead. It took him far longer than he felt comfortable with, but eventually he had flames dancing on its surface. “This is the simplest exercise. You see it. You know it’s possible. I want you to figure out how to do this. Your flames are yours. They belong to you. You can ask or coax or order, but don’t, er, scream at them, because that’s like screaming at yourself.”

“Do flames correspond to personality types?”

Sora smiled at the insightfulness of the question. “To an extent, yes. If you see someone hot-headed, there’s a good chance they’re a Storm, but that’s not always the case, and their flames might not be active anyway. I mean, if it wasn’t for the colours of the pacifiers, could you even tell who the Storm was amongst our group?”

“Now that you mention it, no. The least calm person of the bunch is Lal, and right now I suspect that’s only because she’s shook up. Okay, so, I need to make flames dance on my pacifier. In what life did any person ever think they’d seriously say something like that?”

Sora just shrugged and waited, quietly focusing on making webs come out of his hands to prove he could still do it easily, though he removed the Sky ring from his thumb and tucked that into a pocket. After he managed his self-imposed task he moved on to crafting blades on his fingers.

“Webs?” Gallo interrupted.

“Mm, yes. It’s a method my brother came up with to teach me fine control. During our training sessions we developed a little game at the end of each one, to see who could web to the center of the table the fastest. Sometimes we’d make it a contest and whoever won got to choose what I made for a meal or dessert, stuff like that.”

“And you’re the source of all those delicious goodies Lal started bringing home.”

“Well, whatever’s left over my friends take home, so yes, I suppose.”

“I see,” Gallo said, still focusing on his pacifier.

“I learned how to cook in self defense,” he said, switching focus to sprouting webs from his feet. “My brother can barely cook—just simple stuff—so I take care of most of it. We occasionally order out, but that’s usually when I’m feeling kind of lazy.” He lost focus when blue flames erupted from Gallo’s pacifier. “Hey, well done.”

“I did it!” A wide smile broke out on Gallo’s face even though the flames flickered out. “So now what?”

“You keep practicing that until you can do it easily. Then we move on to webs. After that, specific applications. We’ve got a pond out there you can practice freezing the surface of, for example, though Lal started with shallow containers of water for that. Later on, well, we can always see about combination techniques.”

“Huh?”

“Um, like Lal freezing water and Val propagating her efforts, to make the ice spread faster.”

Gallo nodded. “Okay.” He sparked flames on his pacifier again and asked, “Are your flames the only weapon you use?”

“Mostly, though Shi has been teaching me martial arts for a while now. I knew a little bit in the way of dirty fighting before that, but nothing too involved. Why, what do you use?”

“I really like guns,” Gallo said with a broad, almost frightening smile.

“…I see. You might want to talk shop with Renato, then. He’s very fond of his guns. We’re going to have to see about getting new ones, though. The ones he usually carries around are too big for his hands, now.”

Gallo’s flames winked out, then sparked again. He seemed to have the hang of it. “I will definitely do that. I have a certain fondness for anti-tank weaponry myself.”

He grimaced slightly. Lal sure had interesting taste in men. ‘I can probably get Kiri to pick some guns up, but I don’t know if Renato would be thrilled with not being able to choose his own. But as a stopgap measure…’ “I don’t think I’d be all that good with a gun, but I admit I’ve never tried using one.”

“How close are you guys?” Gallo asked, his attention briefly switching to look at him directly.

“Close enough to trust them with my life. The bond has a lot to do with that, though.”

Gallo looked at him again. “And how do you bond in the first place?”

“You both have to want it, even if you don’t realize you do. But for someone who didn’t know about any of it it can be a really foreign concept. It’s a deeper form of friendship, I guess. Or as my brother puts it, friends, siblings, or lovers.”

Gallo hummed thoughtfully. “I don’t have any siblings. Not a lot of friends, either. Most of the guys in COMSUBIN were… Let’s just say they were a little more concerned with blowing things up in creative ways over making actual friendships.” He paused, the flames on his pacifier flicking out again. “I kind of messed things up for Lal with your bond, huh?”

“It’s still there, it’s just no longer the same. It’s not exactly a Rain bond any longer, but Lal’s still part of our family. What you did didn’t change that.”

“Can I fill the gap?”

Sora grinned. “I don’t know, can you?” he said teasingly. “You seem to be doing really well with sparking flames, so let’s move on to webs. Here, look.” He balanced his wrist on his knee and extended a web from his fingers. “You see it, you know it’s possible, so let’s see you reproduce it.”

Gallo huffed and laid his hand down in a similar position. After a minute he said, “I can already tell this is going to much harder. You have to concentrate on multiple points at once.”

“True. So start with your index finger, just to prove to yourself that you can make a thread.”

Fifteen minutes later Gallo managed to produce a thread, but it quickly winked out. He huffed again and said, “I can see now why this is so good for control purposes. If you could do this sort of thing with no issues…”

“Precisely. But, now that you’ve proven you can, let’s take a break. It can be pretty tiring work at first. Maybe an hour on, hour off. If you keel over from exhaustion, we’re just going to laugh at you for being silly. Remember what I said, it’s like the same energy you use to walk or run, so you have to get enough rest, especially while you’re learning.”

“All right, all right. I am kind of hungry again already.”

They went downstairs to the kitchen and Gallo grabbed a banana to eat while Sora checked their food supplies. Renato wandered in and Gallo swallowed quickly so he could say, “Guns, huh?”

“Uh…” Renato grabbed a quarter cantaloupe out of the refrigerator, a spoon, and took a seat at the table. “Yes, I use guns.”

“Wonderful!” Gallo enthused.

Sora shook his head lightly and began making brownies. For lunch he would like to make stir fry, as it was simple and easy to make in large quantities, but there was a serious lack of interesting items such as peapods, water chestnuts, and other Asian goodies. Instead he would make sandwiches. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, and cheese, though for Lal and Viper, he would leave off the bacon and perhaps use a honey mustard sauce he saw in the pantry.

Once the brownies were in the oven he joined them at the table and said, into a lull, “What do you think of the idea of Kiri getting you at least one new gun as an interim measure?”

“Yes,” Renato said promptly. “I’ll still have to get something custom, but having any gun small enough for my hand right now would allow me to make the basic adjustments necessary to our reduced stature.”

Shi wandered in and said, “I’ve noticed something odd.”

“Oh?” he replied, twisting in his seat.

“I am just as strong as I was before,” Shi said, his brow crinkled in mild confusion.

“Oh really?” Renato drawled. “We sparred, but that’s not really a good measure of things, especially as we’re having to compensate for ingrained reach expectations.”

Viper entered the kitchen. Sora took note that his Mist appeared to be floating, but that might simply have been the way his clothing obscured his feet. “There is a town not far from here, large enough to have an airport. I saw a plane overhead and sent a spy that way. Let me know when you’re ready; I will head in to make that call.”

“Thank you, Viper. I’m glad to know we’re not out in the middle of nowhere at least.”

“No, just in France, near the border with Switzerland, from what I can tell. The signs I could see indicate that the town is Pontarlier.”

Renato nodded. “How the hell we got from Sicily to here, though…”

He started to respond, but reconsidered and decided to take the statement as rhetorical. All someone had to do was find a way to knock them out. Even if the change had not taken place there, they could have been loaded onto a helicopter, perhaps, transferred to a plane, then dropped off. At least he had found a number of chibi-sized outfits in the dressers that any of them could use.

The oven timer binged at him, so he got up again to take care of the brownies.