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To be very clear, Viper had not wanted to join the mafia.

 

It was a reasonable enough stance- joining the mafia meant raising their mortality rate by the triples, at least, and they had no intention of dying, thank you very much. They'd discovered they had strange powers at a very young age, and had gotten enough shit for it when they were stupid enough to try confiding in someone.

 

So no, Viper had not wanted to join the mafia. Of course, they did, eventually, and they weren't altogether unhappy with it, but to be very, very, very clear, it wasn't because they'd had some great idea to toe the line of life and death for cash they could just as well illusion into existence. 

 

No, it was because of these assholes.

 

Let's go back to the very beginning...

 

~~~~

 

Way back when Viper was not the World's Greatest Mist or the World's Greatest ESPER or the World's Greatest Information Breaker, they were a small-time information sifter in the lower ranks, mainly buying information out of their own pocket for their own learning and understanding, rather than to sell.

 

They worked an ordinary job at a small bank, and could only be called a minor criminal, at best. This had less to do with the fact that they were weak and more with the fact that they were strong enough to be completely hidden from the mafia.

 

As a child, they'd always been able to make illusions. They were simply one of those few early Actives who felt strongly enough as children they could manifest Dying Will Flames upon distress. As a young adult, this was an extremely useful tool, especially for someone like them who was still a criminal for all that they were a minor one, and therefore needed disguises and the like.

 

They'd had plans. Plans to use their illusions to sneak their way up the economic food chain and become of those big-name billionaires who dabbled in shady underworld business on the side. In their opinion, it was completely feasible- and very appealing too.

 

Then they met Leech #1. 

 

It was literally a split second meeting. They'd been on their way home after a long day of work, wearing the illusion of their current identity -- a straw-haired man with dark brown eyes -- when suddenly the store on the corner street blew up.

 

Throwing themself onto the ground, they reacted out of pure instinct -- their first mistake -- and thrown up a barrier of flames, wisps of orange solidifying their illusions into reality. Screams rang out around them and they stared, stunned -- their second mistake -- as a man rolled out of the wreckage, looking barely winded and toting a fedora, of all things, on his head.

 

Even stranger were the curly sideburns adorning his face, though in hindsight, perhaps the gun in his hands should have been more alarming than his appearance. ("Don't feel too bad, everyone gets distracted by my face." "You mean by how stupid it looks?" "I'll that as a compliment, darling.")

 

When their wall of flames -- literal flames because they'd been shocked to react with anything else -- was then breached, with the sideburn freak ("You wound me." "Good.") diving over the wall as gunshots rang out behind him.

 

He rolled to a stop in front of them, looked up, and then their eyes meet and something tugged on their flames.

 

Their sticky orange flames were latched onto by something burningly bright and strong and- was that yellow?  Yes, they were yellow flames, bright yellow flames that could be nothing else but Sun flames, and they cursed, getting up and running.

 

No way were they going to get caught up with the mafia! If they did, it would be on their terms, nothing more and nothing less. Unfortunately, the leech wasn't so easy to get rid of. They constructed numerous illusions that successfully impeded the leech's chasers, but didn't impede the leech himself.

 

It took them four hours, more running about than they'd had to do since they were like ten and being hunted down, and increasingly complex and creative illusions to finally lose the freak. They didn't dare go back to their apartment, or back to the city itself. They moved cities, took a plane first thing possible, and swore off fedoras and stupid sideburns for the rest of their life.

 

("How's that working out for you?"

 

"Shut up, Reborn.")

 

~~~~

 

They encountered Leech #2 in the process of running from Leech #1. They'd done some digging and suspected Leech #1 was a hitman of some sort, though it was hard to pinpoint who, exactly, when all they had to go on were his weird-ass sideburns that might not even be real. Still, hiding was taking a lot more fucking effort than it should. ("You had no idea who I was?" "I was a little bit preoccupied running for my life.")

 

But they were managing it. Being both a Sky and Mist meant that they had, literally, the strongest illusions like ever. People didn't have Sky secondaries- it was just impossible, plain and simple. Sky's could have secondaries but the Sky attribute wasn't a secondary. 

 

Viper only had a vague idea why they were being chased by Leech #1. They assumed, with seething frustration, that it was because their flames had accidentally touched and now the hitman was out for revenge. ("You really thought that?" "For the last time, either shut your mouth or go die." "Such a plethora of options- you're so very generous, my Sky." "Damn straight.")

 

Anyway. They ended up near the Asias, though to be very clear they weren't actually in China or Triads territory, which is why meeting Leech #2 was an absolutely fucking ridiculous product of -- ["Fate?"] -- bad luck.

 

They were in the hood and cloak that would later become their trademark, the only thing showing of their face the upside-down triangles that had been tattooed onto their face. They'd been filled in with indigo ink after they'd left the church, though it still rankled that they couldn't erase the mark entirely.

 

["Someone forcibly tattooed you?"

 

"I did just say that."

 

"I could try to get rid of it if you wanted? Disintegration has many uses..."

 

"I can take care of myself, thank you very much."

 

"Still so prickly."

 

"Are you going to keep interrupting me or can we get a move on?"

 

"Peace, my Sky. I cherish your every word."

 

"You can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes right now."]

 

Their meeting with Leech #2 was as much an accident as Leech #1. In fact, it was safe to say that their meetings with all of the Leeches, #1-6, were accidents, because Viper sure as heck hadn't sought them out. 

 

They were in an underground fighting ring, partially to search for more information on how to not get caught by a certain Sun who didn't know the meaning of giving up, and more information on Dying Will Flames because they didn't want to repeat whatever had happened between them and the hitman ever again.

 

There was someone in the Cage, but that was a given. Viper was paying less attention to the fight and far more attention to the bald-headed rat-like man beside them who was haggling prices on brokering a meeting with the Cavallone. They were, for all that they were declining as of recently, still a very old Famiglia with the kind of knowledge on flames Viper wanted.

 

The shouts and roars of the crowd forced Viper to expend their flames so that they could actually talk and be heard. It was practically second nature to infuse Sky with Mist to create said barrier, and for the record, they would like to point out that literally no one else had ever noticed they were combining flames before they meet the Leeches. 

 

["Because none of them were ever your match. We Resonate, my Sky- it is undeniable."

 

"You've only repeated this a thousand times."

 

"And I'll repeat it a thousand times more if it means I can stay by your side."]

 

It just so happened that as soon as they made their barrier, mouth open to tell this bastard just how little patience they had, being stalked across three countries by a grudge-holding Sun, a dragon made of pure Storm flames ripped across the Cage, swallowing it up.

 

It wasn't fair. Viper's flames were small, and yes they were pure but they weren't flashy and it took far more concentration to summon those slight orange whisps than their massive, powerful, dense Mist. They weren't a Sky. They were a Mist, and they weren't supposed to be touched or restrained by anything.

 

And yet, as soon as those Storm flames flew out, part of them broke off and shot toward them, as if pulled by some sort of gravitational force. Viper threw up their Mist, expecting to get hit, except the Storm flames ignored their Mist entirely to dive straight for their pitiful Sky flames. 

 

There were now two flames latched onto their Sky, and Viper could have literally started crying with how frustrated they were. Why. The. Fuck. Did. This. Keep. Happening?!?!?!

 

They scrambled to move past the crowd and race for the entrance. Leech #2 darted out from the Cage, breaking the anti-flame metal with his bare hands and holy shit, Viper didn't dare to look back again at the Asian man wearing bright red clothes and the predatory, near-obsessive look in his eyes.

 

The crowd was scrambling to part for the Storm, and Viper had literally less than a second to run for their life. Their Mist flames swept across the room, creating illusions of themself that spread over the stadium and their heart raced furiously in their chest as they raced up the stairs to the underground fighting ring, breaking past the guards easily and melting into the crowd as best they could- which was actually pretty damn well. 

 

They didn't dare to wait. Not only was the hitman still after them, they now had another problem to worry about, one who was probably part-monster or something. 

 

They grit their teeth. Irritation and anger was quickly starting to overtake their fear. The incomplete bonds latched onto their Sky like a disease crooned, trying to take as much of their Sky as it could grab.

 

Fuck them. Fuck this. If they wanted a fight, Viper would give them one.

 

It was time for the world to know about the ESPER hidden in their midsts.

 

["I would never have harmed you."

 

"Yeah, just chained me up and Stockholm Syndromed me into accepting the bond."

 

"Well, yes. But I wouldn't have hurt you...much."

 

"That's not- no. You know what? Just- no."]

 

~~~~

 

The problem, Viper reflected, was that they were more Mist than Sky. Being a Mist meant being possessive, and nearly as territorial as a Cloud when it came to things they considered theirs.

 

Viper's Sky belonged to no one but them. That was why the intruders attempting to sneak their way into a bond threw the Mist side of them into utter rage. They were their own Sky and the Mist did not want to share. No, flatly- they did not share.

 

So out of sheer instinctual necessity, they swept through the underground as the Strongest Mist, building up connections and power with laughable ease. They'd had the skills all along, so it was just about applying them to a greater stage, really.

 

They purposefully chose Russia, which was a pain and a half to every independent flame user in the world to navigate, whether it be because of the very near polarized values the culture had about flames, or the significantly more merciless competition dominating their underworld. It was, in fact, for Viper to set up their home base.

 

They were prepared, in every possible way, for another freakish case of near-Instant Harmonization -- rebuffed only by their own rejection of the Leeches flames -- to happen.

 

Which, of course, was why they were not prepared to deal with a civilian-gone-Active situation. Though the Rain who was currently swamping the ex-military base in their flames couldn't be called civilian, in truth.

 

Viper's body crumpled at the sudden onset of tranquility, and Rain flames reached out for them in a blatant, grabby way that made it clear the user had just gone Active. They grit their teeth and moved their Mist to the front to block the attempt, but tranquility had slowed their functions down. 

 

The damn Famiglia -- Pakhan, but, details -- that assigned this infiltration was dead. They said nothing about a possible Active or the fact that there would be other military groups also attempting to steal the blueprints Viper had been commissioned to retrieve.

 

They leaned heavily against the wall, trying to force their body to move, but flames were always at their strongest during Activation. They sank against the floor, and blindly reached out, groping for an exit. Their hands latched onto a handle, and it fell open. They toppled inward, only to get smacked with another fresh wave of clear, pure Rain. 

 

There was a woman in the center of the warehouse, and held against her like a lifeline was a blonde man who seemed to be unconscious, and very much not Active. The woman was clearly the source of the flames- and also looked to be teetering on the edge of going Feral. Viper's heart was slowing down, their vision blinking in and out. If they were going to survive, then...

 

They released their Sky, in one last bid for survival. Immediately, the woman's Rain flames swamped into them, and purred when they fit together, entangling and intertwining. Physically, the tension in her shoulders relaxed, recognizing them as a Sky she was Courting -- not Harmonization, there was only so far Viper would go -- and wrapped her flames around them protectively.

 

The heavy drowsiness that had slowed them down was slowly easing up. They flopped, dead tired for another reason now, and silently promised themself that the Fabio Famiglia would be wiped off the fucking map.

 

For now- for now, they would...just take a quick...nap...

 

Viper woke up around two hours later, when the flames had been expelled from their system, to the feel of someone touching them. Which. That was strange in and of itself. Viper didn't have family, friends, allies, or even enemies who would dare do such a thing. They shifted slightly, and got a growl in warning for their troubles. 

 

The Rain was still above them, though it seemed she'd moved their body to be closer to her. She was still clearly on edge, and they were still in the warehouse. Viper glanced over, and it seemed like the woman was unintentionally keeping her blonde boyfriend unconscious through her flames. {"Not my boyfriend." "Right. Sure. Let's go with that." "I'm serious!" "Sure..."}

 

Right. This was going to be just wonderful.

 

They sighed and their Mist rose up, swamping their Sky until it was only a dim light. The woman tightened her grip on their shoulder, but waited to see what they were doing. Viper guided their Mist -- after a bit of trouble, damn Rain's -- to slowly surround and guide the mass of Rain flames floating around without restraint.

 

Their Sky wasn't large enough to do this. Not for the first time, Viper grumbled over flame purity and flame size, and their individual importance. Flame size was needed for attacks, intimidation, and pretty much everything useful. Flame purity would affect the potency of the flames and their attractiveness but that meant shit if they were too small to be used for anything practical.

 

In other words, they were the world's most useless Sky. Like. Ever.

 

{"I can think of five idiots off the top of my head who'd disagree."

 

"You're not including yourself?"

 

"I said 'idiots' didn't I?"} 

 

The woman's Rain struggled against their Mist for a moment before recognizing them as a Guardian to their Sky, and then tentatively, grudgingly bending. They grumbled some more but then guided the Rain into something more manageable. In the process, they had to make their Mist as soothing as possible- which was as new to them as this entire situation was.

 

Slowly, the blue flickered out of the woman's eyes, leading her away from her potentially Feral state. She blinked once, twice, and then asked sluggishly, "'nello?"

 

"Mu, he's fine, right there," Viper pointed to the blonde in her lap.

 

She let out a sharp breath and then nodded, carding a hand through the man's hair. Then she looked at them and said, brows furrowed, "Who are you? Why do you feel so..."

 

"It's a normal thing for flame users," Viper spewed out in a deadpan tone of voice. "It'll go away within an hour or two. Now, if you excuse me, I have things to do, places to be, people to kill."

 

Her eyes flashed blue. "Sit. Down."

 

Viper was not paid enough to deal with this.

 

{"It's your own fault for trying to trick me. What 'It's normal for flame users' bull. You know how much I freaked out that the damn bond wasn't going away?!"

 

"I did offer to sever it-"

 

"No way. You're not getting rid of me -- us -- that easily."

 

"Even if I paid you?"

 

"Viper, I know this goes against your entire world view, but not everyone can be bribed with money."

 

"Don't remind me."}

 

~~~~

 

Somehow, they managed to get away from the Rain-woman. The Fabio Famiglia paid dearly. With their lives, and then some.

 

It was ironic that they'd meet Leech #3 -- and #4, technically, but he was out cold |"That was Lal's fault, kora!"| -- as an unfortunate mishap of their job. Because they'd meet Leech #5 also through a job. To be specific, Leech #5 was the job. People were getting sick with the sadistic creep <"'Creepiness' is a mere social construct-"> who was selling weapons every which way without any regard or regulation.

 

Now, Viper's job wasn't to kill Leech #5. No, there were idiots called hitmen ("I see someone's in a good mood today." "Shove it up Fon's ass." "Only if you're there to watch.") to do that sort of banal thing. Viper's job was to find the creep's hideout. Information and all that. It was a relatively harmless job- or it would have been, if the creep didn't have so many damn traps.

 

Viper was feeling particularly murderous <"When are you not?"> by the time they tore through the last of the game-themed death traps <"In my defense, Keiman chose the theme."> and was a little bit exhausted.

 

When the gas came, they fell into it, hook, line, and sinker. Viper didn't expect to wake up again.

 

Unfortunately, they did. In hindsight, maybe that was the worse option. When they woke up, it was to some green-haired creep hovering over them with a fascinated glint in his dead fish eyes <"I don't see how this has to do with anything." "Shut up, you owe me this much."> and blood smeared on his cheek. He looked like a walking zombie. Even worse, he looked like a mad walking zombie scientist about to cut them open.

 

They did what anyone would do in that situation. They headbutt the guy, scrambled off the table -- table?! -- and raced...well, not for the door, because there was no door from what they could see, but just as far away from the guy as they could get. Their cloak was nowhere to be seen, and fear spiked in their heart.

 

Green flames rose and tried to crawl up their orange, dye it in its color, as if that would be a comfort to them. They stumbled in shock, tripping, and tried to summon their Mist to defend themself from the advance, only to feel their control stiff and slurred. A drug. Their eyesight grew hazy, and they wished with all their heart for the green-haired bastard to die from blood loss-

 

Unfortunately, said bastard was already recovered from their admittedly weak headbutt. He was walking toward them, in fact, seemingly indifferent to the wound on his forehead. Viper shuddered under his scrutiny- great, another freak trying to leech onto their weak scrap of Sky. Only this time, this leech might actually succeed.

 

They were promptly picked up. Viper attempted to strangle the guy. Their fingers only barely twitched. Leech #5 placed them back on the table, then seemed to hesitate and then picked them up again, moving to a corner of the wall. It opened up, revealing itself as a door, and they were carried to a large computer room with dozens of screens hanging from the walls, and on the table. 

 

Leech #5 sat before the computer, idly holding Viper with one arm, and typing with the other. Being one-handed, his typing speed was actually a little impressive. That only made them feel even more hateful.

 

Those powerful, dense flames kept taking more and more of their Sky, more than anyone had besides their own Mist. The Sun was spiking, what little of it was there, in clear possessive territorial anger, and the small bits of Storm happily ripped apart whatever Lightning dared to approach 'its' corner.

 

The Rain lurched out only when provoked, obviously acting on instinct. Viper's Mist was so deeply intertwined with their Sky that it was impossible for the Lightning to dislodge it, not that it was trying to. It seemed to recognize that the Mist was there to stay. 

 

Everything else, on the other hand, was free game. And so began the stupidest territorial posturing in the history of posturing, with the prize being Viper's Sky.

 

That's it. Last straw. They were just going to hunt down and kill every single one of these bastard, potential backlash be damned. They didn't want these parasites, and they sure as hell weren't going to keep running for the rest of their life. 

 

Now, to find a way to escape so they could exact that plan...

 

"The effects will last for about two hours," the parasite said, his face reflecting none of the smug gloating his flames were currently communicating to the other potential bonders. "I wonder if Harmonization will still work through anti-flame chains..."

 

Viper's blood ran cold. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, this guy was fucking insane. If they didn't escape, like right now, they were going to get locked up for the rest of their life. Shit. They scanned their options. They were too weak to properly fight, and their flames had been given a hard doping of a Rain-based drug of some kind.

 

There was only one option, and it was one that they were absolutely desperate to avoid. Theoretically, accepting a bonded Element would make Viper's Sky flames stronger, and they might be able to use their Sky to get out of here. But that left the important question- who would they bond to?

 

The Storm was obviously as batshit insane as this Lightning. The Sun...he had too strong of an ability -- four hours to shake him off, and they were a Mist primary-! -- for them to be able to dispose of later. That left the Rain. Which. Potentially, they could use a Rain bond to combat the Rain flame drugs...

 

Viper mentally groaned, and physically, let out a small mumbling noise. They didn't want to bond, damnit! Let alone to some army spy...it went against their principles. No. No way. 

 

But the Lightning was creeping on them, very near a complete bond -- they suspected he'd only drawn it out to taunt the others -- and there was very little time to decide anything.

 

They had around ten minutes. They needed a miracle in ten minutes, or they'd have to bond with the Rain, like it or not. Viper's Sky flames pulsed erratically, weak, useless thing that it was, and the Sun rose, attempting to fix a problem that it couldn't reach or touch, let alone combat. The Storm flickered worriedly and angrily. The Rain reached for them.

 

"It's okay," the Lightning looked down at them, glasses glinting eerily in the dim light. "I'll take very good care of you. It won't do to let such a precious specimen break, after all."

 

Oh, this fucking bastard-

 

No. No way were they getting bonded to this asshole. Viper's will blazed, and their Sky flared in response. They grit their teeth, reaching for that feeling once more, focusing on how they wanted nothing more than to let this bastard and his stupidly complex base burn, leave them to nothing but ash and dust and death-

 

"I," Viper murmured, slowly reaching up and yanking the Lightning down by the back of his scalp, making him suck in a breath of pure shock. His eyes were wide as he looked into theirs, and dazed, as if enchanted, "am going to kill you. Slowly."

 

The Lightning's mouth parted just the slightest and Viper kicked him right between the legs. He doubled over, prideful enough to hold back any obscene noises, and they stumbled, running for the wall. When their hands pressed against it, Harmony factor made it crumble into dust, and they just plowed through, racing through without knowing where they were going. 

 

They rolled into a darkly-lit room, filled with cages and an assortment of creatures. The reminder of what that bastard had almost done made them seethe, and they vindictively destroyed every cage. They didn't even notice when a small, thankful white snake slipped up their arm. 

 

Somehow, they got out. Don't even ask them how they did that, because they still don't know <"For the record, I let you go." "Yeah, let's go with that and not the 'I was too busy holding back my screams of pain to move properly' option."> but they did it. Without bonding to anyone. With their weak, useless, pathetic Sky flames.

 

["Out of curiosity, were you ever able to summon them to that extent ever again?" 

 

"Of course not. This fucking useless bitch went completely and utterly quiet after that. Couldn't even use it to power-up my illusions for a good couple of months. How do you think this happened?"

 

"I'd hoped you'd changed your mind and subconsciously sought us out."

 

"Ha. No."]

 

Viper let out a laugh of pure, vindictive glee. Take that, you damn leeches! Nothing could possibly, possibly make them Harmonize. Nothing at all.

 

They would come to regret taunting fate. Much, much later.

 

~~~~

 

Now, Leech #6 //"Hey, I'm not a leech!" "Oh, yes you are."// was probably the most accidental encounter out of all of them. Viper met Leech #6 while attempting to avoid Leeches #1-5. As in, literally running away from them, a full out chase in the middle of Pedesina. That is to say, the middle of nowhere. 

 

Viper ducked and rolled, tucking in their already small body as a quake shook the ground. They canceled one of the many, many illusions -- among other things -- coloring the battlefield that was once Pedesina. It promptly re-shattered the Storm's already messed-up sense of balance and sent him careening into the Sun, who promptly dodged and threw him to the damn Lightning in a giant robot. 

 

The Rain dodged and rolled, her blonde boyfriend firing, back to back, and then lunging to the side to snatch Viper as if they were a stuffed doll. Immediately, they replaced themself with an illusion and sneered at the curse that fell from his lips.

 

Unfortunately, Leech #4 had somehow ridden on Leech #3's incomplete bond. They were twin flames, apparently, which was a condition nearly as ludicrous as having a secondary Sky attribute. It just figured, at this point.

 

Leech #2, lunged for Leech #4 with vicious brutality, no doubt for daring to touch 'his' Sky. Viper sent giant snake monsters to swallow up all three of them and tried not to scream in frustration when they were easily ripped apart by a tide of red flames. 

 

The robot fell as several bullets made of pure, condensed Sun flames -- and seriously what the fuck, they were even pretty sure that gun wasn't modified, which made it even more insane -- and crashed to the ground. The Lightning was unfortunately alive, a product of the hardening effect, but he lacked the physical capability to keep up, so that was one down. 

 

Only...what, four more to go?

 

"Are you distracted, or just waiting for me to pick you up?" the Sun asked cockily, a wide smirk on his lips as he swooped down from a grappling hook to crash into the abandoned building they'd been catching their breath in. 

 

"Go die!" Viper snapped, and reality shattered as they dumped the Sun's brain into another planet. It would only last for a few seconds, but that was enough for them to jump from the building window. They flipped, ready to land, when out of nowhere the Storm tackled them, pinning down their arms harshly to the floor, a wild, crazed smile on his face.

 

"Hello," he said, his voice breathy with elation. "This is by far the best Courting gift I've ever received, my Sky."

 

How broken was this guy's brain?! Viper hissed, trying to wrench themself away, but this guy's grip was even harder than steel. He smiled indulgently and then leaned down, and then with brutal precision and pressure, dug his teeth into their neck. Viper let out a shocked cry of pain and the Sun fired a volley of bullets with a murderous look in his eyes. 

 

["I was...a little enthusiastic."

 

"..."

 

"Admittedly, it wasn't the best impression I could have made."

 

"..."

 

"..."

 

"..."

 

"...though given the chance I'd still do it again. With your permission, of course."

 

"Go die in a ditch, bastard."]

 

Fuck, they were bleeding. The Storm was tackled off of them, and Viper scrambled to get up and run. The Lightning was encased in a shield, attempting to discharge bullets in the direction of the two Rains, but they were well hidden. It was one giant waiting game. One that didn't actually need two snipers, which meant-

 

"You," the Rain woman growled in their ear, suddenly pulling them back behind a pillar, her bright red eyes digging into them, "have a lot to explain."

 

Viper actually whimpered a little when her grip dug into the fucking bite mark on their shoulder and she pulled away, face changing into something brutally murderous when she realized they were, in fact, bleeding, from a wound with teeth marks. Her Rain flames softened into something kinder, and a dash of tranquility eased the pain.

 

It also tried to put them into a semi-coma and that was a big nope. Viper weaved an illusion of blindness and the sound of illusionary cannons firing made her flinch automatically. They ripped themself away, panting for breath, and climbed onto a heap of rubble. 

 

Unfortunately, they happened to choose the worst place to stand, ever. It was, sadly, tall enough to catch the attention of all the fighters, and also make them realize that the object of their fighting was, in fact, right there. 

 

Viper grit their teeth, exhausted and hurting and pissed off beyond belief, and summoned every last scrap of their flames. There was the sound of something tearing, and those involved in the mafia - Sun, Storm; Lightning didn't know enough to react properly -- blanched when they saw a portal being etched away in front of them.

 

The Sun fired without hesitation. Not to kill, of course, but to keep them from escaping. Viper snarled and jumped into the half-formed portal without hesitation, uncaring of the fact that it had a very high chance of ripping their body in two. At this point? They'd take that over being around these batshit insane fuckers. 

 

The following sensation was unbearably painful and also extremely uncomfortable. Sort of like being shoved into a jar that was the wrong size, shaken like a milkshake, and then promptly smashed against someone's head. 

 

They fell from the sky, wind rushing against their ears, and had the hysteric thought that they'd die from getting smushed like a bug. They braced themself, ready to just flop over and give up -- because obviously, the universe hated them, so why bother? -- when they were slammed into a very real, very living, and very warm body. //"I thought you were an angel!" "You need to get your eyes checked. And your brain. And your...everything." "I wouldn't mind showing you my everything..." "Oh, for fuck's sake-"//

 

Who seemed to have also been flying in the air. Viper let out a startled shout, and so did the person, and then Active and completely untrained Cloud flames swelled and clamped down like a vice.

 

Viper. Was. Done. 

 

They were completely resigned when the Cloud rolled to the ground, holding them in his arms out of sheer instinctive need to protect his Sky, something blowing up behind them. //"My poor motorcycle..." "Mu, are you still going on about that?" "It was a nice motorcycle."//

 

The boy -- teenager, baby-faced man, something -- was babbling above them, half-drunk on their flames, and their Cloud purred loudly as it wrapped around them with the crushing weight of mineminemine. The rest of the Leeches attached to Viper were baring their flames in various forms of protest and promises of vengeance to the new competitor entering the ring.

 

Viper took one look at the man-child still clinging to them, closed their eyes, and just...flopped.

 

They were so done. With everything. Just- whatever. Whatever.

 

Viper officially gave up.

 

~~~~

 

Viper hadn't given up.

 

They were...on break...for a few weeks. The bumbling, bouncy Inverted Cloud who went against all known stereotypes -- because apparently, that was just a thing that every damn potential Element Viper encountered boasted -- was, on top of being a complete chatterbox, a civilian.

 

However, unlike the Rains, his flames didn't back off because they didn't know what to do. No, Skull's flames took, because all they knew was that they wanted something, and were so incredibly suffocating in their need to bond that it was a wonder Viper lasted as long as they did.

 

It did, they admitted, have a lot to do with the fact that despite the nature of his flames, Skull was actually quite...refreshing, personality-wise. His flames were as overbearing and screwed over as any of the others, but he himself showed no sign of it. He was a bit like a puppy, bouncing around from place to place, eager to do whatever they wanted. //"I don't even know if that's a compliment..."//

 

They were somewhat reluctant to leave, to their own surprise and slight horror. That's why, a week later, after nursing their wounds and increasing the stuntman's savings threefold -- because they never left a debt unpaid -- they left, disappeared, went back to their safe house and began to make all the necessary preparations to become a hermit for life. 

 

They were sorely tempted to put out hits on the annoying bastards who persistently flared their flames hourly to remind Viper of their annoying presence, except the Sun was terrifying competent, the Storm wasn't even human, the Rains were expert snipers, and the Lightning would probably experiment on whatever unfortunate assassins were sent his way. 

 

And they did sort of like Skull. They'd leave him alone unless he looked for them. Viper wasn't that nice as to leave a threat not-dead.

 

Now, there was only one problem. In between running away and running away some more and getting pissed at incompetent mafioso, they'd done a lot of fighting and made horrifyingly little money. Most of it had been spent constantly running. They grit their teeth. Every problem in their life could be accosted to the Leeches

 

They cooled down, tapping a finger against their desk. Their Sky flames were still completely silent, as they'd been ever since they'd overused them. Theoretically, they knew their Sky still existed, because the bonds were still there and they could still feel them, they just couldn't use them, at all. For all accounts, they had no Sky flames. None that could be sensed, anyway. Their illusions had gotten weaker as a result, but their 'weak' was everyone else's 'holy fuck I'm gonna die' so it worked out. 

 

As they were contemplating how to make a shit-ton of money very quickly, an intruder broke through their illusions and casually ripped open a hole in the plane of existence to saunter into their apartment. Viper just deadpanned. They'd seen so much crazy shit by now that they were more annoyed than shocked or awed.

 

"My name is Checkerface," the Mist said, as if Viper couldn't see the checkered mask he wore over his face. "I've come to offer you a job, as part of the I Prescelti Sette."

 

I Prescelti Sette. The Strongest Seven. For a moment, Viper felt trepidation. The I Prescelti Sette were infamous for disappearing after a certain amount of time. Without fail, every time. 

 

And then he added, "The pay for showing up to the first meeting is seven figures."

 

"Mu." They snatched the address from his hands, coughing. "I suppose I'm free anyway. There will be a Sky there?"

 

"Of course," Checkerface smiled. "The Strongest Sky."

 

Viper nodded. If there was already a Sky there, then those guys probably wouldn't be there, right? Even if they were really strong, it wasn't like they were the Greatest or something...

 

And anyway, seven figures was a lot to just show up. They even waved as Checkerface disappeared, mood soaring. A solution had literally shown up in front of them and dropped free money into their lap. There was also the swell of pride when they came to the extremely satisfying realization that they were the Strongest Mist. The Strongest. They very pointedly did not think about the teeth mark they'd had to take to several underground clinics to prevent from scarring.

 

Though they were a little curious. What, exactly, would the Strongest Seven be like?

 

They were looking forward to it.

 

~~~~

 

Viper was running a little late, but it wasn't really their fault. They'd spotted an ex-supplier for the Fabio Famiglia, and couldn't help indulging in a little vindictive revenge...

 

Anyway. They made it to the meeting building, which was, hilariously enough, a literal cabin in the woods. Woods in the middle of a complicatedly dense forest with probable traps judging from how detailed the directions were, but still. A cabin.

 

They took a breath, feeling unusually nervous. This was quite possibly the biggest job they'd ever been handed. And if they made it onto the I Prescelti Sette, then even those Leeches wouldn't be able to mess with them. The I Prescelti Sette meant complete and total neutrality, plus Viper would be there as a Mist.

 

It was really quite perfect. They swallowed down a smile and opened the door. 

 

They blinked. Once. Twice. The eyes looking back also seemed to blink in their own respective ways. There was a beat of pure and utter silence.

 

"Nope," Viper deadpanned, then slammed the door shut. Immediately, it was torn down, but by then they were already running across the forest grounds. They yelped when they were quite rudely caught by their ankle and literally dragged down.

 

Turning, they cursed at the blonde Rain's massive, tooth-lined grin. Obviously, he'd been waiting somewhere outside for his partner. They struggled, but the blonde easily manhandled them. And unfortunately, this was strictly, strictly neutral territory. If Viper used their flames here, they'd be hunted down not by the Giglio Nero, but by the Vindice.

 

Fuck. Fuck, they were really stuck this time. The others caught up in a second, and to Viper's great dismay, didn't immediately try to kill each other. It was their worst nightmare. The lot of them seemed to have finally realized they were all different flame types and could actually make up a whole set. Even if they hated each other's guts, it was obvious they were all at too equal strength to kill each other. Not without destroying the world first anyway.

 

"Well, it seems my job here is done," said the Giglio Nero Donna, looking somewhat, but not nearly apologetic enough for what she was subjecting them to. Viper suddenly recalled the rumor about foresight surrounding the Famiglia and hissed out promises of retribution. Luce merely smiled. "Do have fun. The grounds are open to you as long as you wish."

 

"Many thanks, Miss Luche," the Sun -- fuck, that was Reborn, that was the World's Greatest Hitman, because who didn't know that he was a shoe-in for the I Prescelti Sette? -- purred, and the lady smiled and cheerfully walked out of the forest. She didn't even look back, the bitch.

 

"Let. Me. Go!" Viper aimed a wild kick between the blonde's legs, and he let out a yelp before rolling off to preserve his manhood. The Lightning -- god, they were so stupid, that was obviously Verde, who else would be a Lightning of that strength and have all those weird-ass devices? -- hid a grimace.

 

The Storm -- Triads fighting ring, Storm flames, the damn clothing, that was definitely Fon, the Eye of the Storm -- smiled at them gleefully. "It's nice to finally meet you, my Sky."

 

"You must be blind," Viper sneered, Mist flames coiling around them agitatedly. Nothing was worth being locked away by the Vindice though, so they stated their hand. "I'm a Mist, mu. Obviously."

 

Fon smiled indulgently -- oh they really hated this one -- and his flames, roiling in Viper's Sky, suddenly clamped down, hard. Viper staggered at the unexpected sensation and Fon's smile couldn't have been more damn smug if he tried. 

 

"That still doesn't mean anything!" Viper bristled when the woman -- there had been rumors of an ex-army duo; if she was Lal Mirch, then the blonde was Colonello for sure -- sent a lick of Rain flames their way. "I never wanted any of- this! You're the ones clinging to me!"

 

"But Viper-" Oh great, it was Skull, in all his purple glory, whining and stumbling toward them with large, trembling puppy eyes. "You're warm and pretty and your flames are really, really nice!"

 

What? Viper did a double-take. What planet was this brat on? What was he smoking? Viper needed some of that, whatever it was, right about now. Also, whoever taught this kid about flames was going to die. The one loose end that could've been easily cut off...

 

Viper shifted their foot slightly, contemplating their best escape route. Reborn said, drawlingly, "Don't be a fool. Every one of us besides the lackey could easily take you in a no-flame fight. And we all know what happens to idiots who use their flames in neutral territory."

 

"I'd rather rot in Vendicare than get chained like a dog," Viper spat out, fuming. They jabbed a finger at Verde. "You especially! You bastard, because of you I've had flame exhaustion for months!"

 

The scientist merely looked at them with renewed interest. "Indeed? How interesting. I wasn't aware flame exhaustion could last more than forty-eight hours..."

 

Ugh. Why had they even tried? Viper's panic was crawling up their throat and suffocating their senses. Their Sky flames tried to disappear into their Mist, objectively terrified, and Lal quickly said, making her voice as soothing as she could, "Wait, wait, we're not going to hurt you. Or lock you up. We just want to talk."

 

Viper looked at her in clear disbelief. Fon cleared his throat and stepped forward, grabbing Verde's hands and locking them behind his back. The Lightning grunted, glaring, but the Storm merely smiled and asked, "Is this better?"

 

Oh, this son of a... Viper said, their voice low and filled with rage, "Says the maniac who bit me."

 

"I have to agree," Reborn stepped forward and pressed the barrel of a gun to Fon's head. He arched a brow. "Is this better?"

 

Admittedly, it kind of was. Viper grunted, and Colonello coughed, getting up and asking, "So, uh, can we go back to the cabin now, kora? These woods are filled with all kinds of funky shit..."

 

"Don't complain," Lal huffed. "You're the one who insisted on waiting outside."

 

The blonde idiot made a sad little sound. Skull seemed to think it over, then waddled over and patted the blonde's shoulder. Look at that. Bonding.

 

Viper mentally gagged and strode toward the cabin in quick, purposeful strides. Their accursedly short legs meant that the odd Verde-Fon-Reborn congo line literally only needed to take one step to catch up with them. Fon's flames curled up around their Sky adoringly, near cooing. Reborn's flames poked their teasingly. 

 

Viper's eyebrow twitched. They very carefully did not show any reaction. Obviously, it just egged the lot of them on. 

 

Eventually, they all assembled at a round table. Viper twitched every time any of them so much as breathed in their direction. Every cell in their body was screaming at them to leave, to run, to get the hell out of there and never look back.

 

They were a Mist. Being trapped was the exact opposite of their nature. 

 

To make things even better, it started to rain outside. Heavily. They were pretty sure those were storm clouds gathering. Great. Now they were really trapped inside.

 

"How unfortunate," Reborn said with far too little concern. "It seems like we'll have to stay inside for an unknown amount of time."

 

"It really is such good luck that this base is fully stocked to last several months," Fon agreed, not even bothering trying to hide his smile. "A true pity."

 

"It just so happens all my research has already been moved to the underground lab," Verde smirked.

 

"And the rooms are completely furnished," Lal agreed, leaning back in her seat, completely at ease.

 

Colonello hummed, "We're directly connected to satellite too, kora. No worries about communication or entertainment."

 

"And all our schedules are clear for the next half a year," Skull finished, a bright smile on his face. "It's such a disaster!"

 

"The storm will let up by tomorrow," Viper stubbornly refuted, nails biting the wood. "I refuse to be forced anywhere, with any of you."

 

Looks were exchanged. Viper probably shouldn't have said that out loud. They only came to really regret it in the morning, after they'd reluctantly taken the room at the end of the hall and spent all night refusing visitor after visitor.

 

"I'm afraid," Reborn said with a dramatic pause, looking the perfect picture of regret and grief, "that there's been a landslide. All the traps in the surrounding five kilometers of forest have been...scattered. It would be very unfortunate if someone were to try and leave without proper aid and get blown up."

 

Oh my fucking god-

 

Viper let out a strangled noise of rage and attempted to skewer the sun with a kitchen knife. Reborn indulged their attempts, tripped them, and used that opportunity to grab them in a semi-hug, flames purring loudly when they touched. 

 

Phantasma, thank the gods, saved them with a very threatening hiss and near-bite of Reborn's hand. They were a very, very venomous snake. Viper retreated to their room, locked the door knowing it wouldn't do shit to keep anyone out, and promised the snake a mansion of his own when this shitshow was finally over.

 

Thus began their -- forced -- cohabitation. 

 

It was the beginning of the end, as Viper liked to call it. Hell on earth. If only an atomic could have been dropped on them right then and there. A true misery.

 

("It was one of my more brilliant plans, I admit."

 

"Reborn. It's been a full year and we're still stuck in this god-forsaken place because you forgot where you put your own damn traps!!!"

 

"So brilliant that I trapped even myself. Pure genius, if I do say so myself."

 

"You're a goddamn idiot is what you are."

 

"Your idiot."

 

"And now I'm going to go puke. Goodbye. It was terrible knowing you."

 

"Pure. Genius.")