"In the hands of an expert wielder, Mist flames are more versatile," the voice crackled in though Fran's earpiece. "They can craft illusions to trick more than your eyes."
Fran pocketed his hand-held screen, moved a small portion of the indigo flames that kept him invisible and layered them on the heavy wood door in front of him. The denser portion of Fran's flames projected a steady illusion of a quiet undisturbed door while the softer wisps of his indigo flames streamed through to the other side.
The soft flames- though much faster than ordinary Mist flames-still took a while to spread and map out the hidden cameras, sensors and various other security measures beyond the door. It took even longer for the flames to render every single device blind to his presence without disabling them.
Fran's gloves tightened as he unlocked the illusion covered door with a stolen key and waited. When the security systems and the people in the hallway failed to react and raise an alarm, Fran stepped in to the large office.
"All seven flames have been used in the mafia for over four hundred years." The earpiece relayed the words to Fran in between bouts of static. "But with each generation, flame users pioneer new ways to use these flames."
Careful to prevent any traces of his visit, Fran avoided the plush white rug that dominated the centre of the office and skirted past the wall-length liquor cabinets without a sound. Keeping an eye on his watch, Fran rooted through his bag and pulled out a modified laptop as he waited for the desktop computer to start up.
With a hit to the enter key, the laptop's screen flickered to show a program already running. A program that gave him access to the building's security feeds. At that moment, it showed three locations- the hallway he'd just come in from, the building's kitchen where he'd left an illusion and the computer lab that Lal was speaking in.
Standing atop a desk in front of a projector screen, Lal stared down every person seated in the room. "You've all shown considerable skill. Skills that make each of you a valuable asset to our tech team." Lal's mouth on-screen moved in time with the words coming in through Fran's earpiece.
Satisfied that the audio and video feeds were in sync, Fran plugged in the last bits of equipment he needed- an extra monitor, a hard drive and a thumb-drive- to the desktop computer.
"But you shouldn't be satisfied with that," Lal said, not raising her voice but still conveying the stern reprimand easily. "You need to be extra vigilant of these unknown and unseen threats to keep our systems safe."
The thumb-drive flashed a bright green. The desktop's locked screen changed into a black screen filled with indecipherable code. Leaning forward on the cold leather chair, Fran types out long sequences of letters and numbers that he'd seen a security technician use.
Lines of code sped up with each keystroke, filling the entire screen. Once again, Fran mimicked the technicians and typed up another string of memorized code. The second monitor on the desk flickered, it's blank screen displaying the building's internal communication network.
"As information brokers in the underworld, we are always under attack." Lal said, her voice flowing theatrically in the computer filled room. "Out tech department foils numerous attacks every hour to maintain our top notch security. From now on, you are part of that elite team. And you need to be prepared."
Fran glanced at the camera feed. Just like he expected, the newest batch of technicians ranging from gangly teenagers to wrinkled old people, hung off Lal's words. More importantly for him, they weren't paying attention to their computers.
Exploiting the organization's internal communication system, Fran gained control of the computers in Lal's location and transferred an executable file onto the server. A file that would cause havoc for the new recruits within the next ten minutes.
Leaving most of the equipment that he'd set up, Fran placed an envelope on the keyboard for whoever managed to pass Lal's test by following the data trail he'd created.
"That's why I'm leaving you in Jira'a capable hands now," Lal said as she jumped off the desk and walked to the door.
Jira, an old suited man with a stern demeanour, walked to the front of the room as a door slammed shut. Fran muted his earpiece, uninterested in what would follow.
With a final check to make sure everything was set, Fran re-cloaked himself in Mist flames and pulled out his hand-held screen as he exited the office. Using a few buttons on the side of the screen, Fran circled through security feeds of the hallways he'd be using.
Noting the locations of patrolling security and dutiful maids, Fran ghosted through the building's least crowded hallways and entered the kitchen only slightly out of breath.
Grey clad kitchen staff bustled around the kitchen, occasionally sending amused looks to the solid illusion he'd left by the oven earlier. The flame-fuelled illusion, a clone of himself, stood slouched by the oven completely entranced by whatever was baking.
Pocketing his hand held screen, Fran walked up to his illusion, mimicked it's posture and vanished every trace of Mist flames around him.
The oven dinged.
A cook came forward and pulled out a large tray of biscuits from the oven. "Will you be taking Lal Mirch's tea and lemon cake up with you?"
Fran nodded, savouring the sweet and mouthwatering scents that wafted up from the biscuits.
With a smile, the cook pushed a towering platter of biscuits, cake and tea to him. "Enjoy, young master."
Nodding once again, this time in thanks, Fran kept his eyes fixed on the food as he travelled out from the kitchen and up to Lal's office.
"You didn't use Basil's computer," Lal said in greeting, her eyes flitting between the numerous screens that filled an entire wall.
Fran kicked the door to close behind him. "You didn't say I had to use it."
Lal swivelled her chair around, grabbed the tea thermos and swiped a piece of lemon cake. "Iemitsu isn't going to like some newbie snooping around in his office touching things."
"That'll only happen if someone notices the attack," Fran said as he slumped into one of the leather chairs. "They probably won't even realize that they're still being tested. Just like the previous two batches."
Lal huffed around a mouthful of cake. "It would be a waste if none of them passed."
"That's true," Fran said, munching on a sugar biscuit. "That envelope would go to waste after all that time I spent stuffing glitter in it."
"Glitter?" Lal said with an exasperated sigh.
"It's the first time you let me participate in the testing." Fran grabbed another biscuit, threw it up in the air and caught it in his mouth. "I had to add my personal touch somewhere."
"The way you carry out your mission is enough of a personal touch," Lal said and lobbed a paper ball at his head. "Anything extra can have fatal consequences for you."
Fran ducked away from the paper ball only to get hit by a thrown pen.
"Considering how easily you accessed Iemitsu's office, we definitely need a huge security overhaul," Lal said. "And our servers need to be upgraded and fortified."
"Why?" Fran said, rubbing the stinging spot on his forehead. "It's only the decoy server."
"It won't be a reliable decoy if it doesn't lure hackers into a false sense of security."
Fran stuffed a handful of biscuits in his mouth.
"Especially if a tech dummy like you managed to infiltrate the system like a seasoned pro," Lal said, staring at him with an unreadable look.
"Anyone can be a pro with useful equipment and working codes."
Lal snorted. "So you stole Turmeric's screens, Jira's password decrypting software and memorized all the code you needed."
"I also stole Oregano's security access," Fran said and tapped his chin. "I basically outsmarted the CEDEF, didn't I?"
Two pens smacked against his hastily expanded goggles, protecting his forehead from getting hit again.
Looking thoroughly unimpressed by his quick flame manipulation, Lal said, "You're one to talk, brat. You still haven't noticed the intruder who snuck in here with you."
Fran frowned mid-bite, searching his surroundings as his flame created goggles reverted to their normal shape.
"Ciao," an amused child-like voice said. "You're as sharp as ever, Lal."
Unable to pinpoint the location of the speaker, Fran took his cue from Lal's unconcerned posture and released the indigo flames he'd called up to his fingers.
"You're a hundred years too early to think you can hide from me, Cha... Reborn. If Fran hadn't come by and saved you the trouble of having to knock, you'd still be waiting outside my door."
A black-suited toddler with a yellow pacifier around his neck stepped out of the shadows and smirked at Lal. "I thought you'd given up teaching."
Lal narrowed her eyes but said, "Reborn, this is Fran. Fran, this is Reborn."
Reborn, according to Fran's knowledge, was the name of the mafia's number one hit-man. That coupled with the similarity between his yellow pacifier and Lal's blackened pacifier led Fran to one simple conclusion. "Are all your friends tiny, Lal?"
Reborn's black eyes peeked out from under his fedora. "Your posture needs work, kid. Even with that monotone, it's obvious you're uncomfortable."
Lal sighed. "You just have to do that, don't you?"
"Point out the glaringly obvious to your student before you did?" Reborn said, his voice smug as he sat on the sofa. "Don't worry, I'm not stealing your teaching position."
"Bastard," Lal bit out, sounding almost fond. "What do you want?"
"I'm just here to chat with my old friend."
Lal rolled her eyes but grabbed another piece of lemon cake and moved to sit in front of Reborn. "Fran, watch the screens."
Though puzzled by Lal's command, Fran took her vacated spot at the screens with his back to the room's occupants. Lal's penchant for surprise quizzes told Fran that he couldn't even chance faking surveillance duty to sate his curiosity. Lal would know and she'd made him pay.
"Interesting," Reborn said, drawing out the word with an amused lilt.
Before Reborn could elaborate on that, Lal moved the conversation forward, "What did you want to talk about?"
"Not offering me any drinks or snacks?" Snorting at whatever expression Lal had made, Reborn continued, "It's almost like you don't want me here."
"I'm glad we still understand each other so well," Lal said nonchalantly. "Why are you here?"
A screen to Fran's left showed Jira's computer lab descending into complete chaos with flickering computers and panicking technicians. On any other day, the results of his handiwork would have held him complete attention. At that moment, it couldn't compare to the conversation behind him.
"CEDEF has weakened."
"CEDEF is as strong as ever," Lal countered instantly.
"Enrico isn't relying on it. Not as much as Nono does and people are talking. Wondering at this dissent."
Lal clicked her tongue in annoyance. "There is no dissent."
"Instead of consulting Iemitsu, Enrico has been enlisting the Varia's services constantly over the past few months."
"There is no dissent," Lal repeated.
Fran pulled his Mist flames up, ready to protect himself when Lal's annoyance turned into violence.
"And more concerning," Reborn continued as though she hadn't said anything. "Frederico's been staying at the Varia mansion often. If Massimo wasn't in America checking in on Vongola's holdings there, then he'd probably be doing something similar."
"Did Nono send you?" Lal asked after a moment.
"Nono never called me in for a visit," Reborn said simply. "I came here to meet an old friend."
"And snoop around to satisfy your curiosity?"
"Enrico's been working hard to inherit the position of Decimo," Reborn's voice took on a thoughtful air. "If I'm not mistaken, his incomplete set of guardians is the biggest hurdle at the moment. The Mist Guardian position is especially hard to fill because of the Estraneo's actions."
The spike in tension behind him made it hard for Fran to sit still, let alone concentrate on the security monitors.
"Nice red hair, kid. The way it looks in this lighting is quite... interesting." Reborn said, voice light and unconcerned. "It must have taken a lot of oaths to make sure Iemitsu couldn't just make you Enrico's Mist."
Fran gave up all pretence of watching the screens and turned to the two people in the room.
"Am I wrong?" Reborn asked, eyes fixed on Lal.
"You're wrong," Lal said, her voice holding a dangerous edge to them.
"Yes, I suppose oaths wouldn't have been enough to keep Iemitsu quiet."
"Reborn," Lal hissed, emitting a murderous aura as she moved her shotgun.
Only the reassuring thrum of his flames kept Fran from ducking for cover.
Unfazed, Reborn patted the little chameleon that peeked out of his coat pocket. "Have some faith in your old comrade, Lal. I won't rat out your student."
Lal pursed her lips.
"Who would I tell, anyway?"
"Whoever you feel like being chatty with," Lal said, with no real heat to her words.
Reborn scoffed. "No matter what the others have decided, I still uphold the promises we Arcobaleno agreed upon. Students are off limits."
Lal shifted so that her shotgun wasn't aimed at Reborn anymore.
Fran released the breath that he'd been holding in.
"When Nono eventually sends someone to deal with the rift, they'll figure things out."
Lal interrupted Reborn. "Not everyone is you."
"They might take much longer than me but they will figure it out. Or jump to even worse conclusions."
"I'll manage," Lal said with a pointed look.
After a brief bout of silent communication that Fran couldn't decipher, Reborn pulled his fedora down leaving only his smile visible. "It was good seeing you again, Lal."
Lal nodded and stayed seated as Reborn left the room.
Lot of questions filled Fran's mind. Important questions that he wanted answers to. "Why didn't you tell me that my hair looked weird?"
"You were supposed to notice it yourself." Lal huffed, her stiff posture relaxing as she moved to the screen. "I can't keep holding your hand and pointing things out to you."
Fran dispersed the illusion on his hair. "Red doesn't work with my skin tone anyway."
"Didn't you say that for purple?" Lal said as she prodded him off and reclaimed her seat in front of the screens.
"I need something cool toned." Fran moved to the door, "I better go find some colour samples."
"Fran," Lal called out. "You don't have to go anywhere."
"There's no interesting colours in here for me to choose from."
"Don't ruin the moment," Lal said, her voice strangely soft.
"The heartwarming moment where I tell you not to worry about what Reborn said because I can handle things."
"That sounds stupid," Fran said, turning around to stare at his teacher. "Besides, I'm just going out to find some nice hair colours."
Lal shot him an exasperated look at his choice of phrase. "And how far do you plan on going?"
Fran shrugged carelessly. "As far as I need to. There's no point sticking around this colourless place anymore. I don't want to become a herb."
"You? Joining the CEDEF and taking on the code name of a spice?" Lal emphasized the last word with a reproachful look. "That's never going to happen. You're not suited for this place."
"I'm much better than most of the people here."
"It's not your skills that make you unsuitable, brat," Lal said with a long suffering sigh. "It's your loyalty." Before Fran could argue, Lal added, "Not to me, your loyalty to Iemitsu."
Fran did his best to repress his disgust at the name. But the amused curl of Lal's lips told him that he hadn't been fast enough.
"I suppose I should be proud that you're not clingy. And it would be interesting to see what a brat like you can accomplish."
"I'll get the brightest colour imaginable," Fran said with a solemn nod, trying to keep the conversation as light as possible.
"Try not to destroy the mafia while you're out... searching for your new hair colour," Lal said, sounding resigned as she finally used his words. "Otherwise I'd have nothing to do."
"You could marry your darling Colonnello."
Her chair creaked. Lal's hand twitched towards her shotgun. "Where did you hear that name?"
"Apparently, you were a babe before you got cursed. And Colonnello was lucky to tap that."
Lal's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Who?"
"Unfortunately they ran into some horrible luck and got injured before I could hear anything else about you."
Her hands relaxed but Lal's eyes stayed fixed on him with sudden understanding. "That group that mysteriously had a training accident." Lal took a deep breath. "They're lucky I didn't find them first."
Fran nodded. "I did them a mercy by breaking their bones."
Lal's lips twitched. "That you did."
"You would have made them crippled for life."
Lal opened her mouth to protest but frowned thoughtfully and conceded. "And then I'd have to waste time fixing our reduced manpower." Lal shot him a wry smile. "But really, you've been here for more than a year and you haven't really grown up much."
"I'm much taller than you," Fran said and ducked away from her thrown blade.
"People will try to kill you," Lal said.
"I can take care of myself."
"They might succeed since you're still such a brat," Lal said with an odd tone.
"You shouldn't worry. It makes you look uncool." Another blade sliced his cheek and slammed into the door behind him.
"I'm worried you'll give me a bad name as your teacher."
"I think Colonnello is the student you need to worry about," Fran said and pressed his the burning cut. "I didn't know you prefer blonds."
"I don't, stop trying to distract me by talking about that useless person!" Lal sighed. "Look, Fran, you don't..."
"I need to find a new hair colour." Fran put all of his resolution into his words.
"Well," Lal huffed after a long moment and pulled out a bandage. "It's easier to... create colours when you're seeing them first hand."
"Right," Fran murmured and sat down on the sofa, keeping his eyes fixed on the wall.
Lal pressed the bandage down on his cut with quick efficiency. "It'll be educational too."
Fran rubbed the bandage and chanced a glance at his teacher.
Looking lost in her thoughts, she said, "The challenge will make you grow as a person."
"I'll tower over you in no time," Fran said and closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable blow to his head.
Instead, a small hand patted his head gently.
Fran opened his eyes in disbelief only to wince when Lal smacked the top of his head with a sharp grin.
"You better get going." Lal jumped back onto her seat and swivelled around to look at her monitors. "I have work to do."
Fran took one last look of Lal's back framed by the glow of the security monitors, committed the image to his memory and walked out of the office wreathed in his mist flames.