Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 06

06: Grunge Hamster

Sora spent several hours a day with Gallo (who finally asked him to call him Rio, same as Lal did), working on creating webs and getting to know one another. Rio was mostly cheerful and exuded a sense of optimism. Had he spoken more with Lal about the man he would have been expecting the pestering that started up, to the point that he was tempted to nickname the man Pixie or Sprite.

“I think I could fill that role,” Rio said confidently during one of their sessions. “Then I would be a real part of this family.”

“You’re already a part of the family,” he said again.

“I want a bond, too,” Rio insisted. “I’d like to share that with Lal.”

“Um…”

“I can be very useful, too.”

Sora eyed Rio in confusion. He was vaguely reminded of when Renato had gotten aggressive, except that Rio presumably didn’t want to be his lover. “How so?” he finally asked.

Rio grinned. “I’m really good at blowing stuff up, shooting things, and, um… Actually, I have no real idea what you do.”

“Can you be a bouncer? We were planning to set up a bar before all this happened. I make mead in my spare time and I figured I might as well sell the stuff. Make bar food, nothing special. And to have a place where if people need … help … they could come see if one of us was willing to do the job. But people might get rowdy, so at least one person has to be on duty to keep an eye out for that.”

“I can do that!” Rio said enthusiastically.

He nodded. “That has nothing to do with a bond, however. Do you really want a connection with me? Something you can actually feel?”

“Lal has a home with you, so I want one, too!” Rio insisted.

‘Is there a reason to deny him?’ he wondered. ‘Except for the part where I don’t know what happens if a bond is broken or severed. He just wants to have the same connection and place that Lal does. I’ve only known him for a few days. Can I really just decide I’m okay with it and—’ His thoughts jerked to a halt when he felt that warmth again in his chest.

“Amazing!” Rio enthused. “This feels really neat!”

Lal wandered in and put her hands on her hips. It looked odd on someone her size. “What just happened? What did you do, Rio?”

“We harmonized!” Rio said and slid off the bed so he could capture Lal in a hug. “Now I’m part of the family, too!”

Sora sat there quietly to see what the fallout would be. He felt a little conflicted over the harmonization, but that was mainly in relation to how Lal would take it.

“You harmonized,” she said quietly.

“Yep! Now you and I both have a bond with Sora and we’re both part of the family and we can be together at this bar place and things will be all right.”

“I don’t know whether to be angry with you or pleased that…”

“Aw, Lal,” Rio said coaxingly. “It’ll be fine. You earned your place here, and I’ve already seen that you’re trusted and liked. Hopefully I can earn my place, too. Sora’s been really kind and Renato is fun to talk to.”

Lal spared a moment to send a look at him. “Sora is always kind.”

“Not always,” he muttered petulantly.

Lal rolled her eyes. “I’ll help train this goofball’s Rain Flames, Sora. I know how it feels to use them, so it should help some. And I can work on my Cloud and Mist at the same time. I’m also going to kick his ass around in the training room.”

Sora giggled. “Well don’t kick it so hard that he can’t sit down, or it’ll be difficult for him at meal times.”

*

By the end of the week they were more or less used to moving around in their new forms, though a fair amount of time would yet have to be spent in a training room. “I think we’re ready for you to make that call,” he said to Viper during breakfast.

Viper nodded and feasted on more of the last of the strawberries; there had been two pints when they woke up in the house. It was amazing Viper had managed to pace himself. He finished up quickly and floated away.

Several hours later Sora was startled enough to miscalculate his attack and whiff himself straight into the wall when his and Shi’s pacifiers both started glowing. He picked himself up off the floor and said, “What the hell just happened?”

“I have no idea. Let us go see if the others are affected.”

The others were clustered in the ground floor hall and all of them were staring at Viper.

“What happened?” Sora asked. “I about gave myself reconstructive surgery bashing into a wall when my pacifier started glowing.”

Viper shrugged. “As I approached the house my own started glowing. Perhaps it is simply a way for us to know when another is within a certain range? In any case, I left a message on your machine, so your brother will hopefully get it soon. I also left a series of Mist markers along the way to guide him. Interestingly enough, this pacifier has…”

When Viper did not continue Sora prompted, “Yes?”

“It seems to refine my abilities. Even so, I would rather be free of this thing and back to my original form. I understand that we serve some purpose in this fashion, but to be duped into it? Was it that man?”

“Checker Face?” Shi said. “I wonder myself. But we only ever got letters. We have no way of knowing where he might be.”

“That won’t stop me from trying to find him. If he is behind this…” Viper trailed off and the corners of his mouth quirked down.

“We can all try,” he said softly. “It’s just as well we already found a place. Once we get set up we can start trying to figure out what happened and if we can fix it.”

Viper nodded again. “I need at least two of you to come with me into town. I want to do some shopping and I’ll need some help carrying things.”

Renato and Shi volunteered, and off they went, which meant his training session was at an end. “We’re going to have to find a tailor,” he said as he wandered up the stairs to clean up.

*

Three days later he was in the kitchen cutting vegetables to prepare them for steaming when a knock sounded at the front door. He set down his knife and raced out into the hallway, managing to get to the door before any of his friends. He whipped it open and started up into the face of his brother. But for just a moment he didn’t see Kiri, he saw Daemon Spade. And then he keeled over in a dead faint.

*

His brain felt like it was melting when he started to swim up from the depths of sleep. He could tell he was being held—by an adult, not a chibi like himself. “Kiri?” he whispered.

“I’m here, little brother. Though I’m very curious as to why you passed out.”

“He’s okay?” he heard. Val was quite possibly nervously shuffling around in the vicinity judging by the sounds he was hearing.

“I told you, he’s fine,” Renato said. “I couldn’t find anything wrong when I checked.”

“I remember,” he whispered. “But my head hurts now. How in the world…?”

“Remember? Wait, your memory’s returned?” Lorenzo asked.

He slit his eyes open, and when that brought no additional pain, he opened them fully. “This is so weird. So, so weird. Kiri? How did—? Did he…?”

His “brother” smirked at him and nodded. “He found me and shoved a whole host of memories into my head. That’s how I knew where to look for you. And since you saved me, I saved you in return.”

“So the reason you’re damaged is… Oh, I see. I get it now.”

Renato huffed in frustration. “Care to share with the rest of the class?”

Kiri repositioned him in his arms so Sora could better see his guardians. “Oh, wow. I’m having the weirdest damn flashbacks now. Wait a minute.” He looked at Kiri. “How did you not see this happening?”

“What, you becoming my baby brother instead of just little?”

“Yes!”

“…I don’t know.”

Sora could detect no deception whatsoever in Kiri’s expression.

“I know what you are now. But I don’t know why I never saw this coming. Everything I have done since I found you was to build you up, make you strong, and give you a life you had stolen from you. But this?”

“Is there seriously someone strong enough out there to fill even your mind with Mist?”

Renato huffed again.

Sora waved a quelling hand at him for the moment. “Was he able to find an answer to this?” He flicked his pacifier with a finger.

Kiri shook his head. “He only contacted me twice. Once to get me to go save you, and once while you were still in the hospital to give what more he could. He would have contacted himself, but the time difference… It was taking a lot out of him just to speak to me across the connection. I’m not even sure he’s still alive, Sora. I would have expected something by now. It’s been nearly two years.”

“So… Nothing.” He heaved a sigh, then looked at his friends and guardians. “Right. Well, now I know where Kiri’s nickname habit comes from. You’re not going to believe this at all, but I’m from an alternate dimension. I knew all of you before, but you were already like this, had been for decades.”

“Time difference?” Renato asked in an oddly patient tone.

“Um… It was 2025 when the accident happened. I was sparring with a friend. He tried to take over the world at one point, but I kind of killed him in the future and… Yeah, that’s a long story. Anyway, we became friends in my normal time. I was … fifteen, I think?” He laughed a bit hysterically. “I was a fucking mafia boss!” he blurted out, then slapped a hand over his mouth in mortification.

Kiri sighed and shook his head. “I should have known it would come out at some point. I’ve tried so, so hard to train that out of you. Really, Sora. Now look, poor Skull’s jaw is hanging open and Lal has never looked so discomposed.”

“What family?” Renato asked.

Sora sent an uncertain look at his Sun before sliding his hand down and whispering, “Vongola.”

“Holy shit.”

“…Well, I mean, I’d guessed, of course,” Lal said, “but I wasn’t expecting confirmation…”

“Sorry?” he said quietly.

Viper floated closer and laid a hand on Sora’s wrist. “You knew us before. Other versions of us. But you never found an answer to our condition?”

“No. I met Reborn first. He was … very special to me. Through him I met the rest of you. Even Rio, though I knew him as Colonnello. That never made sense to me, by the way, because that’s an army rank and… But when I was tossed into the future to fight for the world, no one knew the answer,” he equivocated, though the sudden tilt of Viper’s head made him realize his Mist had picked up on it. “No one knew when I reached 2025 naturally. Then the accident happened and I woke up with most of my memories missing.”

“So you were not our Sky over there,” Lorenzo said.

“No. It was someone from Giglio Nero, and none of you were harmonized with them. But you’re mine and I’m not letting you go. I’m also not going to be a—I won’t be forced into that life again. Kiri?”

“Wait, wait,” Lorenzo said. “Who is Kiri?”

Kiri laughed creepily. “My original name was Daemon Spade, Mist Guardian for both the Vongola Primo and Secondo. This is not my original body, and that’s why I’m incapable of harmonizing. When I was contacted by someone in Sora’s original dimension—someone capable of reaching across dimensions—I accepted the role of caretaker in return for the fact that Sora had saved the me of his world. So to speak. I died over there, but at least he managed to talk some sense into me before I did. Sora has a habit of beating the hell out of an enemy, scolding them, and then either they die or at least become not enemies.”

Lal shook her head slowly. “I did say you were too nice.”

“And I said I’m not always nice. What’s-his-face wasn’t the first person I killed, but now I know why he disturbed me so damn much. Talk about issues. He reminded me of my father.” Sora buried his face in his hands and groaned.

“Now do you understand part of why I would never tell you your name?” Kiri asked.

“Yeah.” He slid his hands down his face. “If I get born again, do you think there’s a way to keep the old man away from him? And maybe make him hand over the job to one of his sons? I mean really. He had three sons and never stepped down? Were they that incompetent? I was too young before to have any clue what was going on, but now?”

“If that’s what you want, I will start keeping an eye on the situation. But you realize you need to maintain the disguise. If that part of this world is the same, you’re going to have a twin. I’ll do some investigating and keep you informed. Right at the moment…” Kiri trailed off and went a bit hazy-eyed. “He’s thirty-five right now. Enrico was born two years ago. Massimo was born this year. I expect Federico will be along within the next few years.”

“So plenty of time,” he said. “And… Well, no, we can talk about all of that later. Plots and plans and meddling and that sort of thing.”

“I have taught you well,” Kiri said, laughing creepily again.

“So, um, did I miss anything much after I very manfully passed out when my memories returned?” he asked.

“Manfully?” Renato said with a laugh. “All you missed was the lot of us being a bit panicky and Kiri being introduced to Rio. You were only out for about twenty minutes.”

He hummed. “Then I need to finish with those vegetables before they dry out and get icky. Let’s move this to the kitchen.”

Kiri promptly stood up and hauled him off downstairs, then positioned him on his stool so he could get back to his work.

The others all filed in and took seats at the table. “All right,” Viper said, “so we know nothing more now than we did earlier about this condition. We can still begin searching.”

“You know… If we hadn’t harmonized,” Renato said, “I think I would be feeling about ten times more bitter than I do right now.”

Sora looked up and pointed his knife at them. “I hate to sound so creepy and possessive, but you’re mine, and I’m not going to let you do anything stupid.”

Renato gave him a look. “I’m not him.”

“No, you’re not. I’m just saying. I came to know and care about all of you without any preconceived notions. We’re a family now. I’m not letting that go. Who you were on the other side is irrelevant. Who I was on the other side is only peripherally relevant, and only because I’m a blood member of the Vongola Family.

“I have every intention of going ahead with the bar, these forms notwithstanding, and our other plans associated with it. Yes, there are a few things I’d like to meddle in. Or more accurately, point Kiri at. But the only thing I’m concerned about is if another me is born in this world, because I don’t want to happen to him what happened to me.

“Lal, your Rain Flames, how they’re warped now? My flames were sealed when I was all of five years old, because the old man decided it was the best thing to do to keep me out of the mafia. It turned me into a brainless, uncoordinated mess who couldn’t even harmonize with the people thrown at me as guardians, and who associated flames with pain and humiliation and loss of control. And when the old man’s sons died, I was dragged into the mafia and told I’d be the next boss. Fuck them.”

Val got up and went over to haul him off the step stool and give him a hug. “We’re here,” he whispered.

Sora hugged him back. “Yeah.”

“We’re not letting go of you, either,” Val said firmly. “So sure, fuck the Vongola. Whoever they are.”

Sora giggled and gave Val a squeeze. “I’m sorry for going off like that, but it felt good to say it. Kiri, thank you, so much, for taking such good care of me.”

“I told you, baby brother, anything for you. Except listening to you sing. No sane man would do that.”

He made a face, gave Val another squeeze, then got back up on his stool to finish preparing the vegetables. “Can you track down some guns that Renato and Rio could use? Renato has been complaining about how his gun’s too big for him to handle lately,” he said with a smirk.

“I really will get you back for this,” Renato promised.

The vegetables got chucked into the steamer and set going, so he started the rice going as well and moved on to the remainder of the meal.

“Yes, I can find guns for the both of you in and around ensuring the work crews are performing to specifications. Also, if you would like, I can make any rental payments while you’re all adjusting to this change. It won’t matter once we can move into the building… I’ll have them do the sub-floors first. That way we can transfer your belongings and I can place a Mist barrier to prevent any of them from returning to those floors.”

“How long do you think it’ll take?” Shi asked.

“I would say … probably we could move in by the beginning of January at the latest, maybe a bit earlier. The more I know ahead of time about what you already have and what you’ll need, the easier it’ll go. So for example, is the furniture in your places your own or part of the rental? Things like that. If I should just go ahead and arrange for furniture for every bedroom I will do so.”

“Let’s start fresh,” Lal said. “I don’t mean to say we should splurge madly, but I can’t see moving more than my personal effects to the new place, and all of the clothing is going to have to be thrown out or donated to charity. It’s nice that whoever screwed us over provided clothing, but…”

“I don’t care, so long as I get a lab,” Lorenzo said with a shrug.

Renato shook his head. “Start fresh.”

“Um…” Val bit his lip and looked at Lorenzo. “Do you think it’d be possible to make me a me-sized bike?”

“I don’t know the first thing about motorcycles, but if I have one to take apart and study, yes, I believe I could.”

“Then starting fresh.”

Viper nodded. “And I will assist in any illusionary efforts so that everyone can have time to pack up without interference, and with getting out of any contracts.”

“I think I would be the most complicated, but I stored most of my belongings before I came. Fresh, obviously, but I will have to return to China at some point to retrieve things.”

“Fresh,” Rio said with a nod. “I don’t have a ton of stuff anyway. And really? A huge bed when we’re this small now?”

“Would you like a crib?” Kiri teased.

“Hey!”

“Next question: are Lal and Rio sharing a room?”

The two of them eyed each other, then left the kitchen.

“So, Vongola, huh?” Renato said.

“Yeah.”

“What’s so special about Vongola?” Val asked.

“They’re only the largest and most powerful family,” Renato said. “They head the alliance of—how can I put this—less base families, the ones who don’t indulge in drug trade, human trafficking, that sort of nasty stuff.”

“I want to be neutral,” he said, then began putting the meal together. Val and Shi helped by setting the table and Renato and Lorenzo went over to help ferry the food. “Lal!? Rio!?”

“Okay, so, what do we call the place?” Renato asked.

“Filigrana,” Viper said.

“…I could see that,” he said slowly. “It sort of alludes to the webs, if that’s what you were aiming at, without being blatant.”

Viper nodded.

“I already wanted to incorporate webs into the décor, so… I’m fine with it. Kiri,” he said, “can you try to keep an ear out for this Arcobaleno business? This didn’t just happen randomly I assume. If it was that man, he picked us specifically, because we were the strongest seven. And if there was a previous set, what happened to them?”

Kiri gave him a steady look.

“They died, then,” he said flatly. “Fucking fantastic. So we’ve got forty-five plus years. And true, that’s a decent lifespan, but… Still, I have to wonder what people will say when suddenly there’s an entire new set.” He glanced down at his pacifier and wondered if they exuded some weird gas or something for the first few years to screw up people’s memories and make them not ask questions about the ones who had gone before. Or did some story get passed around, juicy and guaranteed to excite, that heralded the retirement to a quiet location of the old and the ascension of the new generation?

“I’ll bring a furniture catalog next weekend,” Kiri said into the silence.

*

Viper maneuvered him into a walk the day after Kiri left. The forest around their location was lovely, though it was a little chilly. “What happened to us in that future you averted?”

“The guy I killed? The one who ended up becoming my friend and who inadvertently ended up sending me here? One of the things he did in that future was attempt to collect all the pacifiers. He came up with some device that emitted waves that were fatal to Arcobaleno. The only one who didn’t die was the Sky Arcobaleno of the time. She was brainwashed into helping him, but she broke free and she ended up sacrificing her life to revive all of you.”

“…I see. What happened to you?”

“When I arrived I came to in a casket. For the longest time I believed I’d been killed. Turned out that self concocted an involuted plan that would bring me and my—well, they were never really my guardians. But, we ended up in the future and eventually won. The Sky Arcobaleno sacrificing herself was part of that. They were somehow able to send memories back to everyone they could who’d been involved, which meant that all of you knew.

“I remember being really angry at my older self. I get why he did it, but he broke my heart and used me horribly. Either he didn’t remember what a complete fuck-up I was at that age, or he was just too desperate to throw a curve-ball into the equation. I don’t know. I learned how to ride a motorcycle, though, and they could even hover if you had the flames to power that.”

“I think I’d pass. I can already fly if I want to.”

“It’s really selfish to say this, but I’m really glad I have all of you with me in this.”

“I think Renato spoke for all of us when he mentioned bitterness. It’s the bonds that are allowing us to function as well as we are right now. Without those, I’ve no doubt at least half of us would do something inadvisable.”

“I’m glad. I still haven’t figured out how to react to having my memories back, to the realization of just how badly the sealing crippled me. I feel like half my life prior to arriving here was one big lie. Nobody pushed me to find guardians here. I didn’t even know what’d happened when I harmonized with Lorenzo.”

Viper hummed thoughtfully. “It sounds like the sealing made a small alteration that snowballed into a full-blown mental block.”

He laughed nervously. “I was ridiculously clumsy, had horrible memory retention, failing grades, lazy because it felt like nothing really mattered for a loser like me…”

“You are so far from that person I have serious difficulty imagining that,” Viper said, “and I have an excellent imagination.”

“Oh, I bet. I just … hope that my friends from before have—recovered isn’t exactly the right word. Learned to adjust, I guess. I think I’m only as all right as I am because of my bonds with you guys and the almost two years of memories that are happy and unconstrained. I am selfishly happy with what I have now, despite—” He indicated his tiny body. “—this. But we should still search for a way to break the curse. After all, I’m still a virgin.”

Viper made a sound suspiciously like amusement.

*

He remembered, as he lay there trying to drift off into sleep, that the Arcobaleno of his world had animal partners. So where were theirs? Was that another difference between the dimensions? Sora eased off his bed and padded downstairs to enter the Sky room. Had he missed something in one of the books? Was there some clue in the tiny portraits lining the walls?

‘Aside from the idea that they are past Sky Arcobaleno?’ he asked himself wryly, a bit annoyed at having missed the obvious. He flipped the light on and took a seat in the chair, then reached for the orange book. He must have drifted off while pouring over it for anything he’d missed, because the next thing he knew he was walking through a forest.

It felt like Spring. The air had that slight snap to it and was scented with green and growing things. He could hear but not see birds in the area, and the chitter of small woodland creatures. Leaves rustled and an odd snuffling sound was coming from somewhere.

Up ahead was a clearing that greatly resembled the area outside the house they’d woken in, with a spring-fed pond and flattish rocks to sit on. He settled himself on one and gazed into the water. The sky’s reflection showed rippling images of puffy white clouds, seemingly hurried along in their passage by the movement of the water.

They were mesmerizing, so he sat there and observed as they floated by, and slowly began to notice that the clouds were forming odd and odder shapes. A quick look upward showed only normal clouds, so he returned his gaze to the pond. Various animals progressed across the reflected sky on their chariots of puffy white, until Sora saw one that made his heart squee and his hands come up to clasp under his chin.

A second later something rose up behind his own reflection and startled him so badly he jerked forward and tumbled into the pond. He flailed around under the water until his sense of up and down reasserted itself, then broke the surface sputtering.

The cutest little squirrel in the whole damn world was sitting there at the water’s edge, and it extended a tiny paw toward him. Confused, but willing to accept the situation, Sora reached out to accept the offered help.

He jerked awake at the sound of increasingly loud knocking and rubbed at his eyes. His neck had an awful kink in it from sleeping in a chair, but despite that he slid down to the floor. A few stumbling steps brought him to the door, so he opened it and slipped through.

Renato eyed him with concern, then surprised wariness. “Sora, why is there a squirrel on your head?”

“Huh?”

“…I see,” Renato said as he took Sora’s arm and led him off down the hallway and into the kitchen. “We were getting really worried because we couldn’t find you,” his Sun said as he was bullied into a chair. Renato left and came back with a half cantaloupe for him. “I’ll be right back.”

He nodded vaguely and grabbed the provided spoon so he could eat. He heard the front door open and close, then a piercing whistle.

Renato returned and eyed him again after getting up on a seat himself. “So, the squirrel?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, though I did dream about one,” he said in between bites.

His other guardians all hastened into the kitchen and Lal said, “What happened!? And why is there a squirrel on Sora’s head?”

“He was in the Sky room, and I have no idea. He’s not awake enough yet to make much sense.”

“It’s really cute,” Val murmured to Lorenzo.

Sora became aware between bites that there was, indeed, something on his head. Something latched onto his hair and pressure moved down his head. Moments later there was a fuzzy little upside-down face staring at him and tiny paws braced against his forehead. He was so startled a piece of cantaloupe went flying across the room when his hand jerked. “All right. So there’s a squirrel on my head. Oh! That’s right. Now I remember.”

Lal picked up the poor, abused piece of cantaloupe and flicked it into the bin. “Remember what?”

“There were animal partners. I remembered last night and went to the Sky room to see if I’d missed something. I guess I fell asleep. Had a really odd dream, and then I woke up to the sound of Renato knocking on the door.”

“What are you going to name him?” Val asked, shuffling around excitedly.

“Um… Squirrels like nuts, so… Cashew, I think.”

The squirrel chittered and gave Sora a fuzzy little kiss on the forehead before moving back to sit on his head again.

“So if we enter our respective rooms and try to sleep…?” Rio said.

“I guess so,” he said, then shoved more cantaloupe in his mouth.

Lal heaved a sigh and went to get a snack for herself as the others dashed off into the hallway. She took a seat at the table. “I don’t even like animals all that much. It’s just…”

He reached over to give her hand a squeeze, then said, “I don’t even know if they eat.”

“I think I saw some nuts in the pantry, so we can try in a bit,” she said.

Cashew did indeed like nuts—or at least, he liked stuffing them into his mouth. They repaired to the sitting room to play cribbage while they waited to see the results of the others’ efforts, and Sora soon forgot he even had a squirrel in his hair.

That is, until Cashew started moving around, scampering down the back of his neck and over to a bookcase along one wall. Sora looked over and saw his partner busily stuffing books into his cheeks. He gaped. How in the world that tiny little animal could fit things bigger than itself into its mouth—?

“Hey! Put those back, Cashew! Books aren’t food!”

Cashew paused in the act of stuffing another book in his mouth, but popped it in anyway—his cheeks weren’t even bulging—and chittered inquiringly.

“Why are you doing that?” he asked, unsure of how much the little creature even understood. “Those can’t possibly taste good to anything but a bookworm,” he reasoned.

Cashew tilted his head, then reared back and spat out a perfect stack of books.

Sora blinked and hastened over. They were fine, not even moist. “Huh.”

“Maybe he’s trying to show you what he’s capable of?” Lal suggested.

Cashew chittered again, happily, Sora thought.

“Is that it?” he said. “You can store a lot of things? That’s not heavy for you?”

Cashew scampered up his arm to sit on his head again, then launched himself into the air just as Rio entered the room with a falcon on his head.

“Ow,” he said, reaching up to rub the spot there tiny claws had scratched him.

Rio let out a startled cry as Cashew dive-bombed him on a sweep around the room, his limbs spread to let the membranes that stretched between them act as sails, and launched off the blond’s head next.

Lal started giggling madly at the sight, then harder when the falcon made an indignant sound and flew off after the squirrel. Rio huffed over to a chair and sat down.

“I see you made a friend,” Sora said as he reclaimed his own seat.

Rio brightened back up and nodded. “I’m gonna call him Falco.”

“That’s … oddly literal.”

Rio shrugged. “I’m not good with that sort of thing. But anyway, I took a nap in the Rain room and sure enough, I had a weird dream. Don’t really remember it, though. When I woke up, Falco was there with me.”

Renato strolled in, eyed the upper situation, then took a seat. A bright green chameleon was perched on his head. “I really can’t be surprised by this outcome,” he said. “I’ve kept chameleons as pets since I was ten. Always named them Leon, too.”

“Cashew showed us he can store things in his cheeks,” he informed the two. “No idea what his limits are or the effects of long term storage, but that stack of books over there looks fine for being stored briefly.”

Val dashed into the room hugging a little octopus in his arms and raced over to show Sora. “Look! Isn’t he the cutest?!”

The octopus waved a tentacle, and Sora reached out to gently take it and shake “hands”. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said. To Val he asked, “Do you think we’ll need to have some kind of salt-water bath available for him?”

“Um… I have no idea,” Val replied, looking worried.

“We’ll find a container in a bit, all right? That way if he wants one it’s available. What’s this cutie’s name?”

“Oh! I was thinking of Oodako,” Val said with a grin.

“…Are you a fan of Godzilla?”

Val nodded.

Viper and Shi came in next, with a frog (Fantasma) and monkey (Lichi) respectively, followed shortly by Lorenzo, who was riding a crocodile (Keiman).

Sora looked at Lal and smiled, then leaned in to whisper, “You might not care much for animals, but you’re surrounded by them nonetheless.”

She poked him in the chest. “I will kick your ass around the training room, too.”

He scoffed playfully, then grinned when Cashew landed on his shoulder and nuzzled his cheek. “Let’s go find a container for Oodako, Val. If he doesn’t actually need it much, maybe you could just run him a salt bath every night to have a soak?”

*

Kiri visited as promised and produced several copies of a furniture catalogue for them to flip through. Sora had a notepad handy to jot down his personal selections, such as a bed and side tables, dresser, a nice lamp. But he also chose a desk to place on sub-level one where they could keep track of the bar accounts and any jobs they were hired for. He could get stuff for the mead-making room elsewhere, but the catalogue did have some things that might suit for the bar itself.

“You know,” Shi said quietly, “I do know a bit about embroidery. It was one of the things I did to focus my mind. It might be preferable to scrounge chairs for sale in a charity shop, then redo the cushions. We could end up with a somewhat eclectic grouping of chairs that all share the same cushion style.”

“I think I like that,” he said, then glanced around to see what the others thought. Cashew was busy eating peanuts and dropping shells down his front, and there was a pile steadily building up on his lap.

Their days were mainly filled with training their smaller bodies, figuring out what their partners could do, and getting Lal and Rio up to speed on their flames. Keiman could send arcs of electricity from his tail and use that to zap himself places, and that included when Lorenzo was riding him. Lichi seemed to be abnormally strong for his size, and Fantasma, Leon, and Falco were no different from what his memories told him. Oodako did not require a salt-water bath available at all times, but he did like to have one, and retreated every so often to splash around and cause a mess.

“If Shi is willing to give it a shot,” Lorenzo said, “I don’t see why not. It would be more interesting than a bunch of perfectly matched stuff. Same with any bar stools.”

“If we could get some allegedly decorative panels at the entrance to the client room,” Viper said, “made out of Mist-reactive metal, it would greatly help with cloaking the room to keep busybodies from listening in. Line the whole room with panels like that, actually.”

Kiri was nodding along in agreement.

Lorenzo said, “I might try my hand at that. It’s a question of knowing the melting point of the metal, obtaining enough, making the molds… We could also put a set by the stairs leading down, to assist in hiding that from outsiders.”

“It’s just titanium-vanadium alloy,” Kiri said, “but during the formation process it has to be imbued with the flame of choice by at least one strong user. The more working on it, the better the reactivity later on. That’s why we get rings of varying quality, and they’re ranked up to S, though in practice rank C and below are melted down and recast. If you can make your own it’s a bonus, because the people who normally make them charge a lot of money.”

Sora snorted. “Unless you’re the one buying.”

“Well, there is that little detail,” Kiri said modestly. “I am exceptionally good when it comes to haggling, I admit.”

“And the effects of a strong Sky being involved in something other than the making of a Sky ring?” Lorenzo asked.

Kiri looked doubtful. “I’m not sure. It might muddle the results, but it could strengthen them if the Sky was good enough at focusing on only the one aspect of the spectrum. Sora is quite good with Mist for a Sky, but he’s still only average at it, and he’s a very strong Sky. The same might be said for someone with multiple flame types, but even those usually have one that stands above the others.”

“So Lal could assist with Cloud or Mist, in theory,” he said.

“Yes. If Lorenzo wants to include that sort of thing in his lab setup, we can test it out and have some idea of how strong those really are as opposed to her original main strength of Rain.”

Lorenzo was busy jotting down notes regarding his lab, so Sora felt it was safe to assume his Lightning would be learning about metalworking. Maybe he could take up a hobby himself. Making mead barely took any time at all; most of it was waiting, with short bursts of straining and decanting to new containers.

“A very strong Mist, on the other hand,” Kiri continued, “can often fake other flame types well enough to contribute to the imbuing process.”

“A new project for me,” Viper murmured, the corners of his mouth quirking up slightly.

“For the purposes of the bar, however, we don’t need to worry about rings, unless we plan to sell them as a sideline.”

“Are any gems especially reactive?” he asked.

Kiri shook his head. “They’re just decorative. Often used as a way to distinguish which ring is attuned to what. But etchings can do that, as well. Mother of pearl would be the closest, if only because living creatures create it and it’s partly organic material. Those could be imbued if you tried hard enough, I suppose.”

“All right. Something to think about, anyway.” He slid his selections over to Kiri and went to start preparing lunch.

Val was busy sketching out ideas for the panels with Shi making suggestions, and Lal and Rio were arguing over their choices for their shared bedroom. Renato was pestering Lorenzo about metalworking, asking, “Do you think you could cast the frame parts for a gun for me out of that alloy? Kiri brought a selection of guns that are small enough, so you could use them as templates.”

Lorenzo made a distracted sound as he kept making notes and nodded vaguely. “Yes, I suppose I could make the attempt.”

“Just think,” Renato said. “If you could do that, perhaps I could also check out the idea of bullets of the same, to convey flames over large distances.”

“With Sun Flames?” he asked in confusion. “And aren’t most bullets made of lead?”

“Depends on what you’re using them for,” Renato replied, “but yes, mostly. I wonder…” He glanced at Leon, who promptly formed himself into a gun. Renato got up and wandered off out the front door.

“I hope he doesn’t somehow manage to burn down the forest,” Lal commented, then went back to arguing with Rio.

He was just serving up lunch when Renato returned with a look of glee. “That was super cool. Leon can’t fire real bullets, but he can fire ones made from flames. It was ciaossu.” He blinked and frowned unhappily. “What the hell?”

“You appear to have picked up a slight speech impediment,” Kiri said. “I assume you tried to say chaos.”

“Yes,” Renato said unhappily. “And I bet you knew it would happen. Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because I didn’t want to influence your speech,” Kiri said reasonably. “It might not have happened this time.”

“And…?” Sora interjected. “What was the attack like?”

“He shot out a bunch of Sun Flame arrows. I was too excited to count how many and they dissolve afterward. But a little experimentation showed me that they can attack multiple targets.”

“I see.” He remembered, oh so long ago, when Reborn (with a suspiciously adult shadow) had used Chaos Shot on his behalf, though at the time he was still too mentally shackled to understand what had happened. “Forest still standing, I hope?”

Renato scoffed. “Of course.”

“On the bright side,” he said as he slid a plate in front of his Sun, “you can use ciaossu as a greeting and people will think you’re cool for combining Italian and Japanese.”

Renato gave him a dubious look. “I think I just decided how I’m going to get back at you.”

“Oh?”

“You’re going to teach me Japanese.”

He grimaced. “Wonderful.”

“Hey, I already know three languages. What’s one more?”

Shi leaned over and muttered, “I should teach him Chinese, then, too.”

“I heard that, and I’ll take you up on it. But I’d rather not try to learn them at the same time. I can imagine that’d be entirely too confusing.”

“There’s no reason we can’t all learn,” Lal said. “So, Sora, you get to be our Japanese teacher. Kiri, too. And then Shi can teach us Chinese, and Renato can teach us … whatever.”

Renato rolled his eyes. “I speak Italian, French, and English.”

“I speak Japanese, Italian, French, English, Chinese, Russian, um…” Kiri trailed off. “Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Probably some others, but it’s been a long time.”

“Says the man who’s been alive since the Dark Ages,” Lorenzo pointed out.

“I’m not the only one who’s been alive for so long. I just have a different method of existing.”

Sora nodded. Talbot had been around since Primo’s time, though he looked like a wizened old mummy kept alive by sheer determination. “Great, so you can help teach.”

Kiri shook his head mournfully. “So cruel. I’ll bring along some instructional materials next weekend. For, say, Japanese and French.”

*

Renato dragged him off into the forest after he bundled up a bit, ostensibly to show off his new attack. “I have to assume you could make use of it if you were on a job and had to take out multiple enemies per shot?”

“Assuming the arrows are homing, sure. Because trees don’t dodge and people do. Of course, if anyone ever actually witnessed me using it, word would get around, but now that we’re Arcobaleno that might not be so terrible. As it is, word will get around once we open the bar. I suggest we all practice our speed with various attacks, even the non-fatal ones.”

“What, like Rio webbing into someone to tranquilize them?”

“Yes. Or you. I’m not sure what feelings you sent into Lorenzo that day, but I conjecture it’d stop most people in their tracks.” Renato found a nice rock and bullied him over to it to have a seat.

He thought back. “I think it was mostly affection. But since I can make people take naps… We’d need volunteers, though, and I don’t know the long-term effects of—I guess I could work on speed with inanimate objects. The webbing, the sending. And then maybe a single test case on a human. Do you think you can translate what Leon’s helping you to do with those bullets you were talking about?”

“Only way to know is to try it. But I didn’t actually bring you out here to impress you with my shooting abilities,” Renato said as he took a seat next to Sora and slung an arm around his shoulders.

“Oh?” he said and smiled, ruthlessly shoving his memories of Reborn into a dark closet in his mind and locking the damn door.

“Unfortunately, we never seem to get much time alone together. And admittedly, I feel a little odd right now about the idea of romancing you. It won’t stop me, of course.”

Sora giggled. “Any outsider seeing us kissing would either fall over from cute overload or start ranting about the evils of homosexuality. I like you very much. Sometimes your aggressiveness makes me a little nervous, but otherwise…”

“I’m charming, right?”

“Yes, you’re charming,” he said, and gave Renato a peck on the cheek.

Renato reached up to touch the side of Sora’s face and lean in to kiss him on the mouth. He pulled back and said, “It’ll be difficult to take you to fancy restaurants. And you’re a better cook, besides. Maybe I’ll learn to make something you like.”

Sora shook his head. “Something not food. Not even necessarily material.”

“Will you do to me what you did to Lorenzo? I’m kind of jealous, actually,” Renato said softly.

He blinked in surprise. “Um, sure.” He extended a web into Renato as quickly as possible, and then focused on his feelings for the man.

Renato sucked in a breath. “Those are some seriously complex feelings, Sora. It’s almost intimidating just how much you trust me.”

“Then you know what you have to live up to,” he said, smirking. “You might be able to learn to do it yourself. All I’m doing is concentrating on how I feel about you and willing it into my web.” He relaxed and the web vanished. “Show me that attack?”

Renato smiled at him and nodded. “Of course.” Sora got another kiss before Renato held up his hand for Leon to crawl onto and transform into a gun. He hopped up and moved a short distance away, then aimed. A small ball of sparkling yellow flame appeared at the end of the muzzle, then Renato pulled the trigger.

Sora watched with interest as the flames transformed into multiple arrows and landed in three different trees, two arrows per. They winked out a moment later, but there were deep holes where they had penetrated. “It could be ridiculously powerful over and above what it’s already capable of. Depending on how many arrows you can make, you could take out…”

“A whole hell of a lot of people at once,” Renato said. “Awfully damn flashy, though. Best saved for making a statement, I think.” He turned a smile on Sora and said, “Are you impressed?”

He giggled and nodded. “Dazzled, even. I wonder if you could blow out a wall with that attack.”

“Do I get another kiss for being impressive?”

He laughed and got up so he could move closer. “Of course you do.” He leaned in for another kiss, but Renato placed a hand on the back of his neck and kissed him properly, which made his head spin a bit worryingly. He shot a thread into Renato and focused on what the kiss was making him feel.

The hand at the back of his neck gripped him almost painfully and Renato pulled away a second later. “Oh, man, that was … amazing. I would desperately like to break this curse now. And as much as I’d like to get revenge on the person who did this to us, without him, we might never have met.”

“All we can do is our best to find a way. There’s no point in … assigning lesser importance to what we do have. So we search, but…”

“I get the message. I’ll just have to romance you with the tools at my disposal. And if we get in a little revenge on the side, it’s a bonus. So let’s have a romantic walk back through the woods, and we can pretend we aren’t stuck as toddlers.”

*

Filigrana—not that it had a sign yet—was an utter mess on the ground floor, but the sub-levels were beautiful. Kiri had worked his magic to get top quality materials and workmanship. Lorenzo’s lab was full of shiny, complicated things and the training room was properly lined with tatami.

The bedrooms were duplicates of each other in layout, though the colours differed, and what would have been roomy for an adult was now quite a bit of room per person. Kiri had somehow managed to come up with a room for Sora that incorporated all the flame colours without it looking garish, though the main colour was orange.

Multiple trips were made to gather up everyone’s belongings and transfer them back to their new home, and then Kiri and Shi took a trip to China to retrieve what had been stored. “Bring back some good ingredients?” Sora asked before they left.

Shi nodded. “As much as we can carry.”

“We’ll track down good places to shop here. And if we’re lucky there’ll be some decent suppliers.” He gave Kiri and Shi hugs and waved them off, then went to see what his other friends were doing.

Renato was decorating his room. He had a number of guns on display on his wall, all of which he could no longer handle due to their size. The weight was nothing, as they had found. As with Shi, their strength had remained on par with their adult forms, but the distance between the grip and the trigger was not something easily overcome by tiny fingers.

“That’s … a lot of guns,” he commented.

“I love my guns,” his Sun said with a somewhat disturbing grin. “And as soon as we’re settled I’ll be pestering the hell out of Lorenzo. We also need to find a tailor and a haberdasher. Maybe Viper will be so kind as to mess with a few minds to keep them from asking too many questions.”

“Well, I don’t care about suits and all, but I would like a better wardrobe. Shopping in the children’s section is likely to see me outfitted with cutesy little shirts with animals on them. And that’s fine if you’re trying to con an unsuspecting adult, but I’d like proper clothing.”

Viper floated in and said, “And I would like a new stock of my own preference. I will be happy to assist in ensuring we are all outfitted to our standards.”

He looked down for a moment. “I wonder if we can convince Rio that military-style clothing is…”

Viper snorted softly. “I will hunt down appropriate craftsmen for us, Sora, and make arrangements for them to come once Shi has returned.”

“Perfect. Would either of you care to accompany me on a shopping trip? I need to know what we have available to us in the area, and I rather doubt you guys would want me wandering around unaccompanied.”

Renato frowned. “Of course I’ll go.”

“And while I suspect you are well able to ‘charm’ any shopkeeps, I will come along to ensure the places we prefer will never give us trouble.”

“Thank you,” he said with a smile. “Let’s go tell the others so they don’t wonder where we disappeared to.”

When Kiri and Shi did return they were set for a number of things, and Viper had taken over supervising the work upstairs in Kiri’s absence. Then the tailor was brought in and Renato monopolized the man for hours before he was satisfied.

Sora pulled Kiri off to the side after a while to whisper, “Your thoughts on Estraneo?”

“Oh my,” his brother said. “That is an interesting proposition, now isn’t it? Unfortunately, I have very little information on them, so… Let’s say, once Filigrana is up and running, I will start poking around over there.”

“If it’d be possible to prevent them ever coming up with that damn bullet… Stopping them from that horrible experimentation would be good, too.”

“You do realize that changes I made now could prevent the births of people you knew,” Kiri said seriously. “Can you live with that?”

He inhaled and let out the air in a whoosh. “Yes. I’m prepared to shoulder that. Even if they’re still born, they’d never be the same people. The only way to get them back is to allow Estraneo to—no, because that’d be condoning their actions. I sincerely doubt that Estraneo would ever migrate to the alliance side, but if we could block them early, maybe they wouldn’t be such a driving force in this world.”

“And your thoughts on Vongola?”

“I want the old man to step down far earlier. I know it won’t be for decades yet, but he held on for so long. Why? Why did he never step down and let one of his sons take over as Decimo? Why did none of them ever marry and have children? My perspective is horribly skewed on this, I know, but how did all three of them end up dead? Is Vongola really just a lot of hot air and reigning on reputation? Did his sons even get proper guardians?”

Kiri shook his head. “Not something that your friend imparted to me. He probably didn’t know anyway. But it’s something I can keep an eye on. As you said, however, we’ve years yet to go on that score. I wouldn’t expect Enrico to start gathering guardians until he’s at least twelve.”

“By then we may have built up quite the business here. Do you think they would bother to investigate?”

“Depends on how stingy the old man is feeling. The Varia normally only takes on high-risk, high-difficulty missions, so what we’re trying to start here should sail beneath their notice. Word will get around, however, so he might. Smaller families are to be expected to come snooping around if they think we’re infringing on their job pool.”

He felt someone lay a hand on his arm and realized Renato had sneaked up on him. “It’s your turn, my beloved Sky. And you will be getting at least a few suits.”

“I wonder if the guy can do traditional wear,” he muttered.

Renato shook his head. “We can always take a trip to Japan and get that sort of stuff there. Now come on. It’s not like I’m going to make you get a hat or anything, just clothes, a few pairs of nice shoes…”

He heaved a sigh and let himself he escorted over to the tailor, casting a wistful look at Shi, who was happily ensconced at a table doing embroidery on seat cushions. He could be teaching himself a new hobby rather than letting some finicky man measure him in awkward places and make humming noises that he personally found disturbing.

Renato just smiled at his discomfort and made suggestions on cut and fabrics. Sora knew the man knew what he was talking about, so he suffered in silence as the two discussed options, and gratefully scurried off when they were done. Shi had been able to replenish his wardrobe in China, so he was off the hook. Lorenzo would only care about practical things, like lab coats. Viper preferred the simplicity of dark clothing and flowing, hooded cloaks, so he should not be much of an issue.

Rio, Lalia, and Val were fair game, however, and Renato gleefully dragged Rio over for his turn. Sora shuddered and retreated upstairs with Kiri to see how the workmen were doing. The floors were being installed, a dark-stained hardwood. The kitchen had already been tiled and the appliances installed, so they went in there to be out of the way.

“Once we’re up and running—and you should have some mead ready—I will go out and find us some customers. The odds of exactly the right people showing up to drink at our new bar and spread the word is too low to bother.”

“So you’ll go find some low-importance mafiosi who need help, nudge them this way…”

Kiri nodded. “I plan to cheat, of course.”

“Of course.”

“You expected nothing less. But once we’ve helped a certain number, word of mouth will take care of the rest. Any preference on what to go after first?”

“I think for that we should have a meeting. Set priorities. See who wants to start things off.”

They did just that after the workmen left and everyone had been bullied around by the tailor, who left with promises of exceptional craftsmanship and delivery.

“I would really like to explode a few heads,” Renato said once the question was posed. “I’m feeling exceptionally feisty these days.”

“I don’t really have a preference,” Val said.

“Blowing stuff up is good,” Rio said. “Maybe someone out there wants to cut down a few drug lords and we can combine that with some awesome explosions.”

“Can we all agree that we won’t deal with the baser side of the equation?” Lal said. “I don’t want to be helping anyone out who’s not neutral or part of that alliance, though I tend to think most of our customers would be neutrals, people who aren’t interested in that struggle or are too weak overall for the allied families to bother with.”

“Definitely,” Sora said. “And the last thing I want to do is get sucked into being folded into the allied families. The second that happens we get pressure on us to conform to what they want, such as not helping neutrals because ‘they aren’t one of us’ or because we won’t convince them to be absorbed into an allied family.”

“I’ll look for some people who need help with the odd assassination, then,” Kiri said. “And I’ll check around and see what problems are available to be sorted. I’ll stick to the neutral areas and families for the time being.”

“What about non-mafia sorts?” Val asked. “What if a local needs help with something? I mean, what little I know of the mafia says part of their money is built on protection services. If there are any gangs in the area…”

Sora glanced around to gauge reactions. “Since none of you are shaking your heads, I think we could make a bit of a difference there, especially since those sorts might well attempt to cause trouble for us. I like the idea of our little slice of Italy being reasonably safe. The side effect is gaining trust with the locals. And if more idiots try to move in, we can probably expect the locals to come let us know. We’re a family, but we’re not a Family.”

Val nodded. “Okay, got it. We can help them, but charging would be a bit much for protection we’d give anyway just to cover ourselves.”

“There is a chance, however remote,” Viper said, “that some of the people we end up helping—paid or not—might have some knowledge of the man who did this to us. So we should always keep that in mind if we’re ever to find a way to break this.”