Three weeks following his twenty-fifth birthday, five following Vongola's most recent advancement, and ten months since the beginning of his marital life, Sawada Tsunayoshi found himself invited on a "relaxing vacation" (in Haru's sing-song voiced phrasing) alongside his best friends.
Far from the time when they were fourteen and had to manufacture licenses in order to travel by motorbike, the powerful Vongola Famiglia (now all grown-up and theoretically more car-friendly) had assembled many vehicles, visas, passports for travel, easy-to-access plane tickets, secret identities, and manners of disposing of records and moving incognito. There were personal drivers free for access from the salaries of the Ninth's internal monetary fund, as well as CEDEF.
Of course, none of that presently assisted Gokudera Hayato, the driver for this occasion.
In the beginning, at the age of sixteen, Shamal had given him a car. Four years later, Yamamoto Takeshi and Gokudera Hayato had jointly purchased a 485 Italia Ferrari (picked obstinately by Gokudera over Japanese car models), paid for in part through Yamamoto's early league winnings and in part through Gokudera's family's savings fund for himself (long ago abandoned and now occasionally revisited, in light of the uncomfortable but gradually improved relations with that history). The stunning vehicle with the 4.5 L V8 engine, capable of racing at 325 km/h, complete with aeroelastic winglets for reducing drag, and a sleek, light-reflecting bright red exterior, had -- improbably but perhaps unsurprisingly -- ended up over the steep edge of the Amalfi coast and down the deep ravine, a jagged drop across tiers of rocks and into the lapping waves.
Yamamoto and Gokudera, recently sprung from the convertible top in opposite directions, survived through solid reflexes. Well, Yamamoto survived through solid reflexes, as one who was accustomed to flinging his body into home base in the most advantageous of twists and turns. Even flying out of a speeding car at improbable double-digits per hour, he pitched his weight on his side and arm (the non-throwing one) and rolled with an emphasis to keeping his head above any hard, grounded objects, sidewalks, pavements, or streets. Gokudera, on the other hand, survived by (his usual) dogged uncanny luck, and came near to being run over by his own car, still in motion. His shoulder took out the side mirror (and it took out his shoulder), and he ungracefully crashed (there being no better word) in a heap, some clean twenty feet of distance away. Lying still so as not to exacerbate his injuries would have been the sensible thing to do, so of course he promptly rose to his feet and ran over to the edge of the precipice, bleeding vigorously, as red as his now broken automobile, and yelled in wide-eyed horror after the drowning metallic results of the disaster.
Yamamoto slapped him on the shoulder, wincing a little at the effect of this gesture on his hairline-fractured arm, and said, "They have good car repair services nowadays. It'll be all right."
The car, as if in answer, began hissing steam like a tea kettle, caught on fire, was promptly dragged from sight by the sharp waves, and then re-emerged a few quick, successive times to be dashed along the rocks, shattering more with each observable push. The water drowned out and distorted the undoubtedly present sound of the creaking, tearing metallic parts.
In response to his companion's increasingly baleful glare, Yamamoto added, scratching the back of his head, "You know what else is good? Our insurance policy." (With a muttered: "Haha. Oops." when he thought Gokudera was out of ear-shot.)
Yamamoto had the foresight to procure Gokudera's cellphone and seek the number of a hospital. Dr. Shamal was on speed dial, and being a family friend and substitute father figure, seemed to be the best bet. Of course, in calling him, he was curtly reminded, "I don't treat men," and, with a sigh on the other end, there emerged a hopeful pause -- but there followed an audible click. With no tandem bicycle in sight to cheerfully steal this time, the two of them were forced to hail a taxi -- tipping generously for the blood remaining on the seats -- and make their way to the nearest hospital. Gokudera complained to himself and anyone in the vicinity that the Tenth's right hand man wouldn't be shown up (his pride, not so secretly, as bruised as his body from having been bested by Yamamoto in the act of falling, or, at least, landing), and he refused any basic assistance from Yamamoto, limping stubbornly to the emergency room.
Thankfully, his injuries were not as severe as they appeared; it was only that a body can bleed a rather significant amount. The nurse, in checking his blood pressure, informed him -- in that smiling, ebullient way a lollipop-dangling pediatrician informs a small child -- "sir, I'm afraid it's a leeeetle high; best you be careful!" to which he growled that that he was fine.
Turned out insurance didn't cover speeding at a high velocity off the face of a rock cliff.
The official story, told to Reborn and a very concerned Tsuna, was that enemies had fired at them while they were driving, and Yamamoto had hopped seats to take the wheel while Gokudera had fired back dynamite at the people pursuing them. And this was actually true.
The unofficial story continued: the enemies' cars had been successfully taken out, men scrambling about ruined vehicles, and Gokudera, no longer standing dangerously in the back of his own car, was resuming his sitting in the passenger's side without much protest, but looking at the clock, he realized with alarm and panic that, at this rate, they would be late for the local chapter's meeting of the International Society For Unidentified Objects, Entities, And General Paranormal Things; this day had been promising an exciting study on extraterrestrial life in which they would be looking at rocks (but not just any rocks, because they had come from other planets), and Yamamoto, all ears and cheerful compliance, sped up at Gokudera's angry requests, while twirling his finger and making a whirBRRRTT sound to signify his enthusiasm for aliens, and, "Maybe they'll look like the little guy when he was in that suit! You know, in that other future, and -- "
Gokudera had reached across to grab the wheel, as Yamamoto was about to make a wrong turn. At least, he was pretty sure it was a wrong turn, even though every street looked about the same when you were this far over the speed limit, but he was pretty sure it was a wrong turn, since he didn't trust Yamamoto, who was now committing a sacrilege against the scientific research he held in such esteem and reverence. The last words he heard were, "C'mon, Gokudera, let's not -- "
And then they swerved, saw the cliff, saw imminent doom, leapt -- and did not see the car's wild plunge to its death in the ocean below.
But they did see the aftermath.
Later, the car was retrieved by Basil and Superbi Squalo (having long since put behind them the situation which caused enmity during the trial of the rings -- not, of course, that it stopped Squalo from knocking Basil upside the head with the flat of his sword when he lagged) with the assistance of their dolphin and shark Box Weapons. Squalo kicking down the doors to the base to have his shark spit up a chunk of recovered belongings (including the soaked and now useless driver's manual) and screaming, "VOOOOOI, YOU SHOULD'VE JUST SLICED THEM, IDIOT!" did cause a minor disturbance, but most were accustomed to this sort of happening by now, and Yamamoto simply said, "Thanks, Squalo!" and thumbed his wallet of baseball cards, mercifully laminated with heavy duty durable clear plastic coating, and waterproof.
Of course, the car catching fire still would've destroyed them if the water hadn't put the fire out immediately, so Yamamoto reasoned things weren't as bad as they could've been, and being optimistic, he chose to regard that detail in this positive light. Thanks, waves.
This, in summary, was the story of how Gokudera Hayato found himself returning to the jalopy which Shamal had originally given him when he was younger and the sleazy old doctor had decided he needed a car. Shamal had prefaced the gift by explaining that, in order to pick up attractive girls, a Real Man needed a Mercedes, a Cabriolet, a Lamborghini Gallardo; something, in any event, with multiple syllables, chrome plated wheels, and a phallic-looking gear stick, a car that could beat its way through dimly-lit tunnels and grind hotly over asphalt in the sweltering Italian roads, and always with a well-lubricated sheen. Gokudera's expression was at that moment caught between scowling and eyebrow-raising, not sure whether he was offended or just extremely confused by this strange, quasi-poetic -- and yet, he had a hunch, kind of pornographic -- manner of expression in the old man, when Shamal amended his speech by saying, "That is what a real man needs. But, unfortunately, I don't share. So this is what you get instead."
"What [he] got instead" had perhaps been some manner of a station wagon in a prior life. In this life, it was so scratched and dented from unspecified accidents that it had attained a mutt-like quality, as of one of those dogs who lacks the exact shape of any specific breed, but bears a commonality to similar forms of dog-kind only in its shared ugliness. This chipped-paint and broken-mirrored monstrosity had been of a like nature, reduced to that universal Ugly Car Kind by increasingly eroded singular qualities. Gokudera accepted it deep in his heart as a sort of UMV (Unidentified Mysterious Vehicle), and though it disappointed him in not flying (crawling, perhaps, would be the better verb), in the days of his youth, he saw to it that its ugly interior was further uglied by ashtrays of cigarette butts, making it cozy with the bad, bitter smell of home. After the demise of the sports car, returning to the UMV had been the most sound possible course of action, as the destruction of such a car, if destruction were the word, was far less of a loss. The UMV was solid, and its sputtering noises gave it a certain friendly life-like quality. Almost ten years after Shamal had gifted it to him, despite several abandonments, it was still stubbornly clinging to life, which also made it of a parallel with its owner, who had a notoriously bad habit of endangering himself, but also a certain inhuman persistence at surviving himself.
Of course, this persistent inability to blow himself up would not have been possible within the Tenth, currently sitting in the passenger's seat.
For Tsuna, the intermittent sputtering of the car was not so much endearing as it was slightly unnerving, and every time they hit a bump in the road and he jolted, he grew increasingly convinced that the tires would give out, or some something or other in the interior (he was still not exactly a car person) would die. The image of wheels flying off and the vehicle heaving over had already constructed itself in his head, but each time a thud did occur, Gokudera looked in Tsuna's direction and, beaming toothily, he said, "Don't worry, Tenth! I've got it!" with a giant thumbs up, and dubious though Tsuna might be (the wrinkle of agitation in his returning smile and eyes still present, but softer than it had been when he was a boy), he couldn't bring himself to reject or openly question his friend's self-assurance on the matter.
This was a talent he had never cultivated, thus explaining his friends' ability throughout all time and space to drag him into one dangerous situation after another simply through the limitless power of those smiles and that easy confidence.
In the rear seats, Yamamoto, Haru, and Kyoko were squeezed together, a fact made worse by Yamamoto's having seen fit to release Jirou for the ride; he sat roughly in his master's lap, his flank spilling over onto Haru, and leaned forward every so often to pant in Tsuna's general direction as if expecting a dog treat of some kind.
Haru, earlier taken by the dog for a little while, had become distracted by the scenery, and soon said, in an almost loving, wistfully sighing voice, "Haru hopes there are lots of scary monsters in the woods to make things exciting and give her ideas for costumes!"
"Stupid woman," Gokudera retorted. "Haven't you grown out of that hobby yet? Besides, this is the Tenth's vacation. We don't want anything to disrupt the peacefulness for him."
Ironic as the words were, considering the source, Tsuna doubted he would be getting much peacefulness with most of this crowd. "That's all right, Gokudera," he said, calmly: "I would be more worried about getting lost."
Well, he hadn't really meant to let that slip, but slips of the tongue were another quirk he hadn't quite grown out of, even if they now came with far less stuttering. When he chanced the occasional look backwards, Kyoko, in khaki cargo pants and brown hiking shoes, sat gazing admiringly out the window at the scenery of the Italian countryside. They had been in Italy as per one of Tsuna's business trips, anyway, so it was considerate of Gokudera, Yamamoto, and Haru (who came to Italy for business of her own) to offer to add relaxation in the form of a vacation to the trails of Umbria.
Married life, it happened, was not as entirely dissimilar from unmarried life as popular opinion would have suggested, and for Sawada Tsunayoshi, it had proved no more theatrical. His boyhood dream realized, the past ten months had been a quiet and busy affair.
There was only one matter, a very practical one: Kyoko's own career. For now, she was a student once more, having returned to her university's school of design after quitting her original track of culinary school, which had perhaps been a rash course prompted by Bianchi's hopeful urgings and Kyoko's own tendency towards excited optimism. While she loved to create meals, to see them form, to provide for the bodies of others and watch the splendid results shine on their faces and they partook of her labour, Kyoko loved these things in her own home, amongst her own friends. There was a kind of intimacy in offering sustenance, and while the culinary world was not necessarily as violent as Bianchi's creations would have suggested (although the professional aspects displayed on cooking shows certainly did come close, with names like Iron Chef and all that yelling), Kyoko ultimately found herself unwilling to submit her work to the scrutiny of uninvolved teachers and emotionally detached mass market recipes.
Some aspect of authenticity -- some element of home had been missing.
"I thought I loved to cook, Tsu-kun," she told him, with that smiling scrunch of her button nose, smiling now in that dreamy, somber way; they sat on the back porch of her brother's house, away from the noise of her apartment and the city, in rural Japan, far enough from the light pollution to see the eerie, diffuse glow of the zodiacal light piercing the darkness above, and the fireflies, sprinkling-bright in the heavy woods; in this place, it was so green you could almost hallucinate that you smelled the green at night, as if green were an odor, a texture, a feeling in one's mind.
"But I realized," Kyoko went on, "that what I love is you -- all of you; our family. I loved to do it for your lives..." She was always doing that, he thought; putting things in that strange, almost hypnotic way that captivated his mind from long before. To do it for your lives: as if they would die without sustenance. Which humans tended to do, but perhaps not so immediately as Kyoko had made it sound. Still, she said, "To make your friends happy and smile. Otherwise, it's just work, and I didn't like that. But is it selfish to think so?"
And Tsuna had almost rushed to say no, of course not! -- but he hesitated, considering her question seriously, because he wanted to be honest with Kyoko, always, but the truth was, when he thought about it, and paralleled her words with his own experiences: was it selfish? Doing things for others wasn't selfish. No one would say that. But had others seen him as selfish for long rejecting a title (and continuing, openly, to reject it, however questionable that protest might seem to some in the present) which others viewed as an honour and a benefit? Tsuna did not wish to submit to a cold, unfeeling, bloodstained organization, just as Kyoko did not wish to submit her labour to a cold, unfeeling mass market, wherein consumerism would commodify her efforts and force her to modify herself as suited the whims of her employers and instructors. As different as their situations were, Tsuna thought he understood, felt some camaraderie, and so he said,
"I don't think anyone has a right to judge your reasons for why you do what you love, and I don't know what others think but -- " And he imagined, embarrassingly, his body might still shiver with that contorting effusion of pleasure which twisted his entire face, and which he thought he had outgrown, " -- for me, Kyoko, I think there's no better reason to do something than for people you love, and if calling yourself a professional title would disgrace that for you, then I think..."
But she cut him off by chiming, innocently, "Oh, thank you, Tsu-kun. I'm so glad you understand." A sigh of relief. "But, only, I wish I had some great childhood dream like you had, with the wanting to be a giant robot."
And Tsuna dragged a hand across his now even warmer face. "W-well, maybe it's all right if some dreams weren't meant to be, Kyoko."
Kyoko had laughed with her mouth open and her eyes closed, the sound coming mainly from her throat, not swayed by tongue and lips, and then she had hugged her knees, watching Tsuna's face, softened at it was by the feathery glow that swept through the shades of evening.
In any case, she had quit culinary studies, unsure at that time whether she would return to the university or what she would pursue if she did. Now that she had returned, diligently and contentedly taking new courses in a new field, Tsuna realized with a recently discovered immediacy that one day, Kyoko would graduate and seek a proper career, and when that day came, the difficulties of his back and forth travels might pose something of a dilemma. Numerous job positions could not easily be maintained alongside frequently abandoning the country at random, often unexpected, surprise-at-the-last-minute intervals.
But the alternative would be leaving Kyoko behind in Japan when necessary, perhaps with an uncomfortable amount of regularity. While she remained a student and a homemaker, their lives continued to be entertwined enough that travel was not too difficult, aided by online courses and other long distance methods of study, but if she wished to change the status quo, it would be unthinkable to suggest that she shouldn't -- to suggest she shouldn't pursue her own career, when Tsuna was working, and participating in activities he knew his wife found dangerous, no less. He would not allow her to sacrifice for him.
"We'll be okay," she said, who had come with him this far, even unto the risks of living alongside hardened criminals, the threats upon their lives, like the one who walks beside the traveller in the valley of the shadow of death -- but grinning, always grinning, sweetly, with love: "Because it's our life together, so we'll find a way to make everything work."
So Kyoko believed, applying her own logic:
For the hardened crime organizations around them were, after everything had come to pass, also consisting of their own beloved friends.
Of course, the car broke down. This time, at least there was no catching on fire.
Well, not at first.
At first, they were driving through the Apennine Mountains of central Italy, some miles past the hamlet of Castelluccio, where all the fields were bright with red poppies. Haru had her camera out, eagerly photographing the great views, Jirou had begun barking, Gokudera had begun grunting at him, Yamamoto was just laughing, and Tsuna, having been perceptive to any slight discomfort in Kyoko, had exchanged her seat for his, and was now scrunched up in the back, shoes scuffing against the seat in front of him, as there was no room in the floorboards.
"These flowers are wonderful and like a dream," Haru said, punctuating the thought with a standard hahi; "if only we had a road made of yellow bricks, we could be from a beautiful cinema picture. Let's stop and pick flowers for Kyoko-chan's hair."
Yamamoto was amiably neutral on that idea, offhandedly thinking Haru's description of flowers didn't make much sense (he was not strictly a cinema buff); Gokudera, not taking his eyes from the road, said, predictably, "That's a stupid reason to stop."
"Of course, a truly brutish yelling man without the spirit of romance in his bones would think so!" Haru declared, undaunted, "But a romantic and beautifully-hearted man like Tsuna-san would pick flowers for his lady love. Tsuna-san, don't you agree?"
Tsuna scratched the side of his face and laughed awkwardly, wondering how this had turned on him, with both Gokudera and Haru now looking entreatingly in his general direction. Before he could formulate a reply, however, there was a particularly loud, angry sputtering protest from the car -- the kind which can quickly spin such a noise so as to drown out the voices of all those inside of a vehicle. There was no swerving, only the faintest tremor of something dying inside, and then all sound ended, and so too did the car's movement.
Therefore, five human and two animal occupants found themselves on the side of the road. Uri was mercifully high on catnip to prevent his clawing Gokudera's face while they drove; released from the ring now, he lazed in the sun while his owner opened the hood of his car and had a look inside. "I have this, too, Tenth!" he shouted back at Tsuna.
"I have this" indicated, in Gokudera terminology, something unorthodox and probably extremely dangerous. Tsuna only had time enough to wonder what in the world he was doing with that stick of dynamite, and time enough for Yamamoto to sling an arm around his shoulder and go, "Isn't it great that you're with us this time, Tsuna?"
-- before flames shot up in the air and they were all thrown backwards. Gokudera, standing nearest the car, was not only thrown backwards with the rest of them, but also made sooty from whatever he had accidentally ignited in his genius plan to restart the automobile through dynamite. Somehow, one of the many country sheep grazing in the vicinity had been caught in the updraft, and Tsuna had a fraction of a second to see it rising like a great white cloud in the air, while beside him Haru yelled, "That poor sheep! Catch it, Tsuna-san!"
Turned out, her order was unnecessary. The sheep landed on top of Tsuna.
He could not momentarily speak, for a mouth full of slightly singed wool.
Haru, with a horrifed look, embraced the stunned sheep, wrapping her arms around its neck and crying in Gokudera's direction: "What a cruel and heartless person, that abuses nature's beautiful creatures!"
Tsuna may have, at that time, made a faint, muffled sound of ow.
"Tenth!" Gokudera yelled, horrified. "I'll rescue you!"
The sheep came out of its stunned condition enough to wobble to its feet, if not yet enough to bolt away. It swayed drunkenly. Now that it was his turn to be stunned, Tsuna lay on the ground, staring blank and wide-eyed at the sky.
"Aww," said Kyoko. "It's so cute."
She was petting its wool.
Gokudera swept Tsuna to his feet, which caused him to cry out as various things popped -- since, after all, he had just been tackled by a falling sheep and some bones and joints weren't meant to move in quite those ways and quite so suddenly. Furthermore, Gokudera, in his mad dash to free Tsuna from death-by-sheep, had paid more attention to the idea of wresting Tsuna to an upright position than he had paid to whether or not the force of aggressively dragging an injured person to their feet might actually be worse than the initial strike.
This was probably not the most auspicious beginning to a vacation.
In the beginning, the idea had been to come to Umbria for a hike. If nothing else, Tsuna and the others did get their hike. Lost in the greenery, in an area with poor cellphone reception, they hiked along the road for some miles in an attempt to return to the hamlet -- or any hamlet. When it began to rain, they veered off the road and into the woodlands for the sheltering trees. Yamamoto and Gokudera eagerly pitched tents for everyone, which then caught in the wind, inverted, and collapsed. However, with some swearing on Gokudera's end, they pitched them again. Haru somehow found her way into a tree when the rain stopped. No one had actually managed to see how she had accomplished that, but some things never changed, and even after ten years, a professional body of work, and a mature style, Haru was still happily at home following Tsuna into the wild outdoors and applying her own unique touch. As a matter of course, she slept on that tree limb, snoring loudly, and somehow never actually rolled off throughout the night.
"It's not exactly what I had in mind," Tsuna said to Kyoko after everyone else was asleep; he glanced backwards, into one of the tents, where Gokudera rested in some impossible sideways angle, with his leg across Yamamoto's chest, and Jirou sat licking the bubbles Gokudera's nose made in slumber. "Being lost in the woods at night, rained on -- " Crushed by a sheep, but there wasn't really a good way of putting that. "-- and all that."
"The world smells nice after it rains," Kyoko said, in a near whispering voice. They had made a small camp fire with Gokudera's supplies; it crackled and threw shadows, bringing out the warm gold in her features. "Don't you think it smells nice here?"
"I guess it does," Tsuna said, inhaling deeply.
She smiled and edged closer, clasping his hand. The night was cool and wet and alive with sounds. She wanted to take a flash light and walk with him over the stones and through the forest. Tsuna, for his part, was struck by the nostalgia of all the forests they had been in before. He remembered the mountains in which he had trained with Reborn, and the terrible trials of climbing with gloves; they were not so unlike these Italian slopes which surrounded them on all sides, and how Haru had visited him then. Tsuna recalled once, when he had been lost before, in the mountains around a cave, years prior. Dino, Bianchi, Haru, and the others had appeared, saying their crazy things in their crazy ways, while he had panicked.
He remembered the forests of that divergent future, where he had seen the coffin of himself, the threat of wandering moscas, and, where later, he had sat with his injured friends around a campfire not so dissimilar from this one. Only, then, they had been plotting a battle which would decide the fate of the world.
Compared to that, he thought, sobered --
"Well, maybe it's not so bad."
"I think they wanted you to remember all those experiences in the woods," Kyoko said, leaning back heavily with one hand pressed to the stone on which she sat. She shared certain of those memories, too. "I think that's why they wanted to bring you here. Sometimes things don't always go as you plan, but isn't it nice, being with friends?"
These are our memories that we carry with us.
"No," he agreed, happily. "Things don't always go as you plan. But it's all right."
It is all right.
The other travellers they met have told them:
It's not the destination, but the journey.
A house is not always easily and immediately made into a home. Takarazuka, Hyōgo Prefecture, in the Kansai region; miles away from Namimori, in the exclusive residential area of high-rise buildings, the house sits at the top of the blue hills, its full-bodied glass windows giving a view to Osaka Bay, Kobe, Kansai Airport; everywhere you look, you see the bright-dark of the city; cool modern architecture, light and shadows playing on the walls from the natural hues of evening, moonlight and stars, and from the high studio lights looking down from corners. Airy, Tsuna thinks it; a good view of water and boats and business life in and among the city. But he had also questioned whether it suited him -- them -- living in a place like this, among the stupendously wealthy industry elite of Japan. The price of the house, its stature, felt like something of a challenge to others, a threat, a distancing measure from many facets of the outside world, for all that it was airy and lit. Sawada Nana and Sawada Iemitsu did not live nearby, nor did Lambo, Fuuta, Haru, Big Brother. Those were the practical concerns. This house had come, downpayment-wise, as a wedding gift from the Ninth, the allied Families in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere, and the current generation of Sawadas was still in the honeymoon phase of home ownership (if not marriage). They still thought they might move somewhere more cozy. On the other hand, the place was beautiful, scenic, and most importantly, good for having an enormous number of family members present in a single space -- which was, truth be told, Tsuna's one and only concern that nudged him towards over-priced housing. With the size of their family visits, you had to find some way to maximize space, and the younger ones, Lambo, I-pin, grown up as they fancied themselves now, still loved the sight of the bay and the designer shopping districts of the city, where hapless youth could spend a month's earnings on a single new suit. Maybe they would live in this area permanently, or maybe they would move. "Home" had yet to be fully broken in.
Tsuna and Kyoko returned from the camping and hiking trip in Umbria after they had managed to phone Dino for assistance in one of the hamlets; the Cavallone heir arrived with an entourage of men and an entourage of sheep, who for some inexplicable reason had taken to him and were following in his footsteps as soon as he departed from his car; pleasantly sun-kissed and windswept from his own vacations and business ventures, Dino was wearing sunglasses and carrying a designer bag slung lightly over his shoulder, looking smart and handsome in contrast to the others, who were muddied and rained on and generally abused by the forests and the weather. At least until he turned, said over his shoulder, "C'mon, follow me," and proceeded to trip over first one, then another of the sheep (that is, a miraculous successive trip, falling over one and onto another, which then fled, causing a second fall). Romario had gone inside to procure a local map. In any case, Dino and the others assisted them with rides back to crowded civilization. Dino sipped bottle water along the way, laughing and scratching his head at Gokudera's misfortune with automobiles. "It's all right," he assured, in that easy-going way. "I've had my share of mishaps, too."
No one argued in disbelief.
When they returned home, however, there was a surprise waiting for Tsuna.
More specifically, it wasn't for him at all. It came in consequence of his housing, his location: moving vans, people carrying furniture, and lights flickering to life, voices on the rumbling bay area air. All of this was coming from next door. Tsuna breathed a puff of foggy air. "Looks like you have a new neighbour, Tsuna," Yamamoto said, slaying the thoughtless-thoughtful pause, where the mind goes blank in the face of evening life, movement, change. The hypnosis of the city. Tsuna didn't take his eyes from the house and the people going back and forth: the way the lights coming on made that luxury home look as though it were awakening, like a roused giant.
Wealthy neighbours. What would it mean. Would Reborn know about this. But no, perhaps it had nothing to do with mafia. God, he hoped it had nothing to do with mafia. This was a residential area. It could be a coincidence. With any hope, the new neighbours would be nice, common, average, everyday folk; the kind who throw parties and take their kids out to the local festivals and eat chocolate-coated bananas with empty-headed smiles. Those were the neighbours he wanted. And the sort who would give you space, too.
"Ah," said a voice behind him: little burst of exclamation, as of someone catching themselves, and he felt his hairs raise slightly. "Sawada Tsunayoshi. What a coincidence."
You have got to be kidding me, he thought. Or apparently said aloud, under his breath, because Mukuro answered, with a small laugh, "Certainly, I'm not. What do you take me for, a liar?"
Mukuro, standing behind and beside the others on Tsuna's yard, sipping a piña colada garnished by a maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge (which, Tsuna had a sneaking suspicion, had come from the ingredients in his own refrigerator), regarded them with the sort of smirk commonly associated with the best of pranks, eyes touched by a look that could almost be called pitying, but in an amused manner. Those eyes did not linger on them, but gazed adoringly at the move-in going on next door. Hands still gloved, even in such a theoretically casual setting, Mukuro gestured with an expansive arc of his arm.
"Lovely property, don't you agree? Well, I suppose you must, to be living here also."
"Heya, Mukuro!" Yamamoto said, and Kyoko waved, all smiles.
"Boss," chimed a tiny voice behind him (now that he had turned to face Mukuro), and Tsuna turned a second time, seeing Chrome, two unwieldy suitcases in her deceptively fragile-looking arms. Despite being pale in appearance, with that occasional glassy look her eye sometimes had when she was not altogether feeling well -- worrying, really -- she smiled warmly in greeting and nodded her head vaguely in their direction. "It's good. Seeing you."
Are you all right, he wanted to ask, instinctively, but from the way she carried herself, you could see it would be that age-old battle: she would say, I'm fine, really and brush off all concern, and neither she nor Mukuro looked in any way distressed about whatever secret, hidden misfortunes her unique body might have visited upon her. Chrome, stubborn as a mule, had never let anyone immerse themselves in care for that body, or patronizing. She had too much pride. So it was when Yamamoto and Kyoko went to assist with that luggage, although she eventually let them carry some of the extra bags.
"What are you doing?" Tsuna demanded as soon as Kyoko and Yamamoto were out of earshot. Not, he knew, that those two probably would've been discomforted if a herd of elephants had been the ones moving in next door, but he felt more comfortable speaking privately, and maybe he was more likely to get a straight answer this way. Maybe.
"What does one generally do with moving vans, Tsunayoshi?" He plucked the cherry, popping it between his teeth with a rather more than necessarily loud smack. "The maraschino is delicious, incidentally. I must commend your taste in rum ingredients. Did Reborn teach you that, too?"
"Don't come into my house without permission, Mukuro!"
"Oh, that." Scratching his cheek with faux-innocence. "Please, excuse me. Would you believe I took a wrong turn and lost myself in your house, thinking it was mine? An easy mistake, I suppose, now that we're -- " Smiling over the rim of the drink, and biting down on the straw, "-- neighbours."
"Quit messing around. Why would you move next to me?"
"To put myself in a better position to possess your body, of course," Mukuro returned, instantly. "And spy on Vongola and all that. The usual, you know."
"And Chrome, too. Are you getting married?"
Or had they already been married, perhaps, in some secret Mist-styled ceremony, known only to them? Who would put that past them.
"Of course not. I detest more than necessary legal documents, as does she, and foolish human ceremonies. Besides, do you have any idea where the diamonds in those rings come from? Horrible practice, really, exploiting children like that." An almost sincere look of displeasure touched his eyes, at those words, but it was fleeting, and sighing dramatically, Mukuro looked down, and said, "I should hope you never gave your wife one."
"We kept it simple," Tsuna said, sobered, looking down automatically at the gold band on his finger. Stroking it thoughtfully, he returned his gaze to meet Mukuro's eyes with less ire than before, considering everything anew now that the initial shock had begun to wear off. He was already feeling marginally guilty for having become frustrated by this turn of events, even though, he thought, he had no reason to feel guilty. He had wanted a relatively quiet life, making this house into a home, and Mukuro had dropped a ten ton pile of Mukuro onto his peaceful, normal dream, all while characteristically showing no respect for his boundaries (or for anything else).
But Mukuro was, in a very stretched sense of the word, his friend. And there was Chrome to consider. Kyoko would love to have Chrome around to talk to, in as much as Chrome... talked. And they were all of an age with one another. Maybe it would be nice to have another couple (assuming his Mist Guardians were, which seemed probable, but no one had ever quite figured it out, given the extreme level of privacy in their relationship) around to do things with. That was part of married life, too, right? Quasi-ritualistic domestic gatherings of similar pairs? Tsuna's brain was admittedly tripping all over itself at the thought. Mukuro, domestic. Impossible.
But then, he was here.
"I don't know what you're doing this for," Tsuna admitted. He thought back, briefly, remembering when they were teenagers, and Mukuro's abandonment of Chrome had been an elaborate misunderstanding on Tsuna's end. Obnoxious as he could be, Mukuro usually had motives that were better than he let on. "And I can tell you're not going to tell me, but I'm... going to trust that you have a good reason for this, Rokudo Mukuro. So... I guess I'm ... pleased to have you as a neighbour. But please don't get into my drinks again."
"Thank you for the offer to serve me and act as a host, Tsunayoshi."
"I didn't mean it quite like that. More like -- " He sighed and rubbed his temples.
"You're carrying yourself a little strangely, too. Did you get injured on that vacation of yours?"
Tsuna frowned, but was rather unwilling to tell Mukuro that, yes, he had been flattened by a falling sheep. "It's nothing. I enjoyed myself. Mukuro -- "
"But now it's time to get back to business, yes?" Mukuro walked closer, body language nonchalant, at ease. The motions of his long legs seemed curious, spidery in the dark. He was dressed all in black -- black pants, black trench coat; only the white shirt gave a hint of light, and the glints from his collected rings, the bright-dark sheen of impossible colour in his hair, which matched the shades of the mountain, and as he passed Tsuna, he pressed the drink into his hands, and without looking in his direction once, added, "For me, as well. There's much work to be done."
And his tone, slick-playful, purposeful, assured: You will see the results.
Sometime after he was gone, and Tsuna stood, absently staring at the little straws in the glass of frothy piña colada, Kyoko re-appeared, her wide eyes full of twinkling pleasure as she looked at the house beside them, saying, only, "What a wonderful development, Tsu-kun."
"Wonderful," he agreed, and sipped -- wishing, suddenly, that it were something stronger.