Disclaimer: The Statute of Secrecy having a shield component against non-magical Seers, among other subtle memory-altering components, is a headcanon of mine.
Luce's death passed with little fanfare.
They were Mafia, after all, and sadly used to losing people in one capacity or another. As cold-hearted as it sounded, none of them were going to be affected for long. What they did was help Aria adjust, because she was a teenager who had just lost her mother, got handed the reins of an entire Mafia Family and Cursed.
Quite aside from what their feelings regarding Luce were, none of them were going to abandon Aria in that kind of situation, even if she had the silver lining of not having to be turned into a toddler.
(Skull shied away from thoughts of his one moment of weakness when he almost wanted nothing to do with Aria. He was not going to do something like that, and she wouldn't die if he had anything to say about it)
The next months were surprisingly productive, because the data Verde obtained from studying the effects of the Curse on Aria's Flames were apparentely the missing piece Hermione and Bill needed to make a breakthrough. Neither Skull nor Viper had understood either Verde's scientific jargon nor Hermione's answering technical questions, but the two geniuses had apparentely been able to understand one another despite their practically opposite especializations and the heavy censorship on Hermione's part.
The answer seemed closer than ever, and even Aria's spirits had been raised by that. Viper had even decided to try a new job, because apparentely she wanted to prove that she could be her best even in the state they all were in, which had made Skull overjoyed.
The rest of the Arcobaleno hadn't shared his enthusiasm, though.
He had just been happy that his cousin wanted to challenge herself and seemed to have definitively gotten out of the funk the Curse had had her on, but apparentely the group she wanted to join was bad news.
What he got out of their comrades' worried rambles was that the Varia was an assassin group, full of merciless and arrogant people that had infighting as a part of their culture to the point that it was the most common method of promotion.
He probably should have stopped his first impulse of asking "Viper, are you homesick?", especially at the disbelievingly astonished looks he received, but honestly... it was a serious concern. The Varia didn't sound all that different from the Black Family's... traditional ocupation -even if they were never blatant about receiving payment for those they killed and/or socially ruined- and Viper had been raised as one of them.
Judging by her exasperated look, he would probably pay for that comment, but he had had to make sure.
Reborn readjusted his fedora and valiantly pretended that he wasn't fidgeting.
It didn't work.
He hadn't felt so nervous since his very first hit, and while he could see that his companions were on the same boat, that was cold comfort.
It was time.
After almost fourteen years as a toddler, he was going to be free of this Curse. All of them were.
Maybe. It was possible that it wouldn't work. He tried to tell himself that getting his hopes up was dumb when he didn't even know who had worked on the solution or how they were going to pull it off, but it was hard.
Even if most of them were similarly in the dark, Skull and Viper seemed very confident -if still nervous- and he had gotten too used to rely on them on jobs to be able to truly doubt them.
Still, all the secrecy wasn't helping his nervousness any.
It didn't help that he still hadn't been able to work out if their family was actually Mafia or not in the first place.
Viper had heavily implied it the few times they had managed to make her talk about them, but she never outright stated it.
Considering how incredibly cagey both her and Skull were on the matter, that in itself was suspicious. There was also the matter that no Family of powerful Mists had destroyed itself from infighting on the appropriate timeframe.
(He had almost asked when the Estraneo mess happened, because lots of things seemed to fit with the limited amount of information they had been given, but the timelines didn't match. Even if they were a bunch of powerful Mists that had rather horrifying ideas for "improvement" -a Possession Bullet? What were they thinking?-, they had been destroyed because the whole of the Mafia turned against them, not due to infighting. There was also the fact that neither of them had reacted to it, and Skull had only gotten barely better at acting over the years)
He had toyed with the idea that they were actually disgraced nobility -not the established, powerful, realted-to-royalty kind, but the minor ones that squabbled for power and gave birth to truly vicious practices and individuals-, but that didn't fit quite right either.
Both Skull and Viper exhibited signs of childhood abuse -very subtle, very hidden signs, but they were there- and while that would fit with that kind of families, only Viper moved with the subtle flair that environment produced. He had to wonder what she had really meant when she said that Skull was "from a distant branch", because if he had been a civilian dumped into nobility life, then dumped into the Mafia he could believe Viper's claims about his legendary luck.
The nobility theory seemed supported by their very different reactions. Viper became defensive whenever her competency was questioned, which was a sign of the classic emotional abuse those kind of families dished out.
Skull, however, was slower to react to verbal abuse, but being manhandled set off reflex responses that had honestly scared Reborn the first time he witnessed them.
It had been the first time he found himself regretting pushing someone's buttons to see their reaction.
(The instant tension-then-loosening of Skull's muscles and the subtle use of his Flames to Propagate Killing Intent of all things -which he hadn't even known was possible- had been bad enough, but the really scary part had been how instant and subtle it had all been. Skull would have exploded if he had pushed further, and anyone else wouldn't have seen it coming. He didn't know in what kind of environment he had been raised to develop the instinct to bottle his violent responses and release them whenever the other party least expected it, but he could imagine some possibilities and he didn't like a single one of them)
The only problem with his idea was that no matter how much he investigated, he couldn't find any Family -Mafia, nobility, or otherwise- that had come so close to extinction -Viper hadn't said "two people", she had said "could count them on a single hand with fingers left over", so between two and four members- and it had been an endless source of frustration over the years.
Viper and Skull seemed confident that they wouldn't get problems from that quarter, but Reborn always liked to have all the facts to analyze the situation himself. Sure, the idea that the rest of the Family could cause a problem was laughable, but powerful people -especially powerful crazy people- attracted enemies. And while they didn't seem overly concerned about their Family's old enemies, Reborn didn't want to chance it.
(He wasn't a worrywart. It was just common sense, even if the Lackey was too much of a happy-go-lucky idiot to understand the concept of readiness)
Embarrassingly, the only thing he had managed to do over the years to help them recover from their childhoods -and if he was also trying to ferret out more information, well, that was just an obvious opening they'd probably be disappointed in him if he didn't try to take advantage of- was helping Colonello with the "military-style therapy".
Which basically consisted on harsh language and physical challenges that emulated the treatment they received, but much more over-the-top and in a context in which it was expected of them to fight back.
(The puzzling good-naturedness with which Skull had initially received the nickname of Lackey had thrown him for a loop at first, but he had soon started snapping and scowling at him whenever he used it, which had been the whole point, so he didn't worry too much about it even if he did make a note about that behaviour)
It was actually surprising how well Skull had taken to rise to the challenges, and the positive reinforcement whenever he showed a spine -with short phrases of "Finally" or "It seems you aren't as pathetic as you seemed after all", because there was a limit to how unobservant even Skull was- worked wonders.
Even if it took Viper an embarrassingly short time to work out what they were trying to do and fine them for their presumption. Her "take care of that idiot, he's the one who needs it" had been pretty funny, though. Because it became clear very soon that whatever those two did when they went to take care of their Family business, there was something -or someone- there that was helping her, no matter how much she denied needing help in the first place.
Fon was feeling absurdly grateful.
His first impulse after being Cursed had been rage. At Luce, at Checkerface, at the entire world.
It had been a sudden upending of his entire world, apparentely for no reason, and in that moment he had hated himself. For not investigating Checkerface more, for not suspecting Luce, for getting attached to the rest despite himself.
The only reason he hadn't given in to his instincts in that moment had been his own stubborn refusal to let his Flame type dictate his actions. Just like he suspected the rest of the Arcobaleno had worked to beat back the impulses every Flame Active felt, he had been proud of his ability to keep his calm in any situation.
Not that it had worked perfectly. The months immediately after the Curse were honestly a blur for him. He barely remembered feeling incredibly betrayed, and hurt, and hazy plans never to come back to Italy.
In great part because he was too busy getting revenge on the Bosses that had ordered him straight into Checkerface's ambush and then had the utter gall to refer to him as weak, to be perfectly truthful. But he probably wouldn't have sought the others out even after accurately expressing his displeasure to those honorless bastards if the others hadn't reached out first.
It was somewhat humiliating that, in hindsight, he had given up from the start. While Lal joined the CEDEF for the express purpose of finding information about past Arcobaleno, Reborn made contacts everywhere, Verde conducted experiments nonstop, Colonello kept himself on the Mafia world's most popular vacation spot -where gossip flowed freely-, Viper called all of her old contacts and Skull scoured their mysterious Family's Library, Fon had just stopped.
He hadn't been the only one to do that at first, and he had taken apprentices from all over China in an effort to obtain more information with which to help his comrades afterwards, but he was somewhat ashamed that it wouldn't have even occurred to him to do that if the others hadn't taken the initiative.
And their efforts had bore fruit. They were waiting for "Jean" and "Arthur" so they could try to remove those unsightly pacifiers. Fon didn't know anything about them -and felt pretty certain that those were fake names-, nor did he need to. Those were Skull's comrades, who were going to help all of them, and that was enough for him.
He didn't even care that his contributions had ended up being largely useless, or about the possibility of failing. They had given him his spirit back, his drive to fight and damn the consequences.
(And, some part of himself aknowledged, his faith in his friends as well)
That was already enough to make the trip back to that fateful hill more than worth it.
Verde was somewhat jittery.
(Nervousness was one of those bafflingly useless human impulses there was no way to fight against, no matter how much intellect one possessed)
Normally that in itself would be irksome, but he believed that, just this once, it was justified.
While he could usually count on his carefully studied hypotheses to be right, in this case he was working without all the variables. It was the one aspect of Mafia life that drived him absolutely up the wall, especially in this case when the answers he was denied affected him so personally.
The worst part was that he understood why he couldn't be let in on Family secrets. Even if the Mist contingencies Skull and Viper's Famiglia left weren't an issue, Family secrets were a very big deal on the Mafia, and they would be perfectly justified in not sharing even in their very special circumstances.
But he was, first and foremost, a man of science. Information hoarding was anathema to his sensibilities, and while he would never hold it against them for not telling him, having the answers so near was incredibly frustrating.
Jean had responded to his correspondence with obvious care not to reveal anything, which was already more than could usually be expected. But it simply wasn't enough for him. He needed to know what the underlying principles and theories were so he could be absolutely sure this was going to work, no matter how sure Jean and Arthur were of themselves or how promising the results of their experiments had been.
Verde, in the end, was the kind of person that needed to see to believe, and while he trusted Skull and Viper and, by extension, their contacts to a certain extent as well, he just wouldn't be completely at ease until he could see the results by himself.
Lal spied her -comrades? team? friends?- out of the corner of her eye.
There were hundreds of things she wanted to ask. Her Curse was incomplete, her Flame broken. Would this still work for her? And that was if this attempt worked at all in the first place. She was certain that all of them were acutely aware of the possibility of failure, but she firmly kept her doubts behind her teeth. She wasn't going to make them even more nervous, or start asking if she'd be free as well when they still didn't know if they were even on the right track to get rid of the Curse.
She was equally certain that they wouldn't give up if they weren't. And while some part of her berated her for that kind of baseless confidence, she also knew with the certainity born from years of working together that none of them would stop looking for a way to help her even if her corrupted version of the Curse wasn't lifted while theirs was.
All of Lal's instincts rebelled against putting that much trust on (technically) criminals that she didn't actually know all that much about.
Military life was very different from the Mafia, and she was used to close-knit units that knew absolutely everything about their members' lives. She had adapted to this new environment, but she was also suspicious of everyone by default, even if part of that was just her own nature.
That jaded nature was failing her as of late, however. No matter how much she tried to contain her hope, she could feel herself falling prey to the same sort of excited energy that had overtaken the rest.
(It only showed on the subtle swaying of legs and soft movement of arms and hands, little tells like unnecessary grooming and wasted movements, but none of them managed to fool any of the rest. They were the Best, and they knew each other too well sometimes)
She was blaming their influence for that one. And for a great many other little things. Reborn had taken poor Skull's abysmal luck as incentive to become a "harbringer of Chaos", insisting with a straight face that he was just trying to counteract his luck's craziness, and the rest of them had seemed to interpret that as a challenge.
Verde insisted that he was above such things, but she had caught him gleefully giving "trial runs" to some experiments that looked like little boys' toys more than once. No matter how sweet the gesture of making a miniaturized bike for Skull, there was no way he could spin "giving it a trial run" that didn't make it clear that he was just having fun.
Viper insisted that money was her only interest, but she'd seen her goad the others into betting more than once just to have a "legitimate" excuse to join them on horsing around.
Fon as well, could be incredibly petty and competitive when he wanted to, even if he at least had the decency to be subtle about it. Not that Colonello and Reborn's loud protests whenever he got ahead of them in any of their childish one-upmanship games let him be low-key about it.
Even Skull had gotten in on it more than once, for all that he was surprisingly serious under all the flamboyant make-up and outrageous acting.
Colonello, of course, was as much of a child as he had always been. Bright, cheerful and energetic as he was, Lal had wondered many times what he could see in someone as serious as her. She had been convinced that she was over that old insecurity, until the Curse made her confront the ugly possibility of a relationship without future prospects.
The idea of being a couple when they could barely do anything together and children were completely out of the question had left a sour taste on her mouth. She had thought to spare the both of them by breaking up, but the frantic search for a solution to the Curse had halted that train of thought in its tracks.
She had seen them all together again, and while the image was definetely jarring with all of them baby-sized, their intellect, teamwork, cunning... all of the things that had made them the Best were still there. And that went for her and Colonello as well. The foundations upon which their relationship was built... it was all there.
Lal didn't know if this attempt would work or not, and she was a jittery ball of nerves inside even if she didn't show it. But just for the fact that this undertaking had laid the groundwork for Colonello and her to get back together, it was already worth it.
Colonello was feeling incredibly optimistic.
He and Lal had recently gotten back together, the gang was together again, Lal had agreed to go out again, there was a good chance that the Curse was going to be lifted in a few hours... did he mention he and Lal were together again?
Colonello tried to supress -somewhat unsuccessfully- a happy grin.
If he was being brutally honest with himself, the mere fact that he and Lal were together made all of this worth it -to the point that he wouldn't even mind if they didn't get rid of the Curse.
Of course, he wasn't going to say it and let himself open for his -she was his Lal again!- Lal to slap him for being an idiot. Or Reborn. Or Fon. Or Viper. Or Verde. Or, if they were truly lucky, Skull.
Skull still had not done anything that even remotely qualified as "roughhousing", nevermind the kind of casual violence usual on the Army and the Mafia between friends, that was more of a test of reflexes and affectionate gesture than anything. He had concerns about that, not that he was going to say anything.
Reborn and him had done everything they could to help him, in great part as a thank you for all his and Viper's efforts to break the Curse. And, considering what they suspected had happened to him, he had recovered admirably. So he wasn't going to air his issues for all to see. He was pretty sure everyone had their own thoughts and suspicions in the matter anyway.
Aria clasped her hands in front of her pacifier. She had always known that she would wear it someday, but she hadn't dared hope something like this could happen.
Even if something in her insisted on reassuring the Arcobaleno that she had Seen that the Curse would be lifted, she could only seem to anxiously await Viper bringing the older red-haired man and the fuzzy-haired woman she had Seen that morning.
(She very pointedly didn't think about how the Arcobaleno should look closer to those ages than the youthful appearences she knew they would eventually get back)
It was somewhat strange that she couldn't get any details about who they were and they even seemed somewhat shielded from her Sight -much like Skull and Viper, actually, maybe it was a Family secret- but she was too grateful to be bothered by that.
They were trustworthy, and that was all she needed to know.
AN: Just to clarify, Fon's Bosses didn't think he was weak. It's just that they ordered him to go obtain the title of 'Strongest' because they were scared crapless of anyone confident enough to try and ambush Fon of all people, much less in such a blatant way.
So when Checkerface actually succeeded they went the age-old route 'deny deny deny' and tried to play it off casually, like so: "Fon? Pfff, no of course we aren't worried about who did that to him, he was weak anyway."
Fon is a Storm, with the temper to match. It's just that he usually keeps a very firm lid on it. If you piss him off enough, though... well, he "accurately expressed his displeasure".