Actions

Work Header

In Medias Res

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

House parties were the best and worst aspect of life as a couple. On the one hand, it was wonderful for everyone to visit the Sawada residence -- entire generations of friends, even Mom and Dad (as "uncool" as perhaps this made Tsuna, in view of being deemed the Vongola Tenth, but then again, Family was ideally the very root of Cosa Nostra) -- but on the other hand, there were inevitably disasters: food uncannily finding its way into ceiling hangings.

The expenses of catering for so many people also shot through the metaphorical roof (even with the Cavallone Family's assistance, Yamamoto's father's services with reduced charges, and Bianchi's insistent if dangerous additions to every gathering), and none of this proved great for a young couple already in debt from the purchase of housing and from a lifestyle riddled with the expenses of necessary evils (business travel and the like). For as much help as they received at the hands of others, the debts chipped away, sitting patiently on the periphery of vision; as soon as you shot down one, another crept up. Relying so heavily on the means of Vongola was nothing Tsuna had ever planned, and eventually, somehow, he intended to get out from under this.

This course, too, proved difficult when you scarcely had time to think in between the frequent droppings in of guests (who were, after all, an entire congregation of friends throughout the ages, and not easily or happily turned away) and the pressures of work, the latter being the other reason why social gatherings were not to be desired at all times or in all conditions.

In the weak light of dawn, orange filtering through a hazy curtain of bruised, plum-grey clouds, Tsuna sat hunched over the desk of the personal office he had set aside within his house, coffee mug drained, fingers gently toying with a paperclip in between writing letters in practiced Italian to Vongola's allies, inquiring into the disappearance of forbidden weaponry, trade routes, political news of Italy's business districts, laws and what impact they will have on the poor; a meeting, Reborn has set up for him, this month, with --

The direction his eyes had been focusing on did shift, slightly, at the perception.

Outside, a spectre stood on the edge of recognition. A dark, light-and-shadow rippled figure, blurred appropriately to her element. Chrome, in black jogging pants with a blue stripe down the side and a white T-shirt, oversized – looking, in this casual setting, more formless than both the thin stick of a girl he had known and the healthy, well-figured woman she had become. Her hair, beautiful and glossy in professional settings, hung limp and shower-wet down her back, fluffed by a haphazard towel drying. She held a leash that led to the shape of a small, black, wiggly blob, this most probably being identified as a teacup terrier of some indeterminate breed.

Catching Tsuna’s eye, Chrome smiled (in that strange, shrinking way she had -- looking ready to scrunch in upon herself even as her face opened into its warm expression like a morning flower) and gave a short wave. Not sideways, not swinging her arm as Yamamoto would have done, but a movement of the fingers, a small and delicate motion, with the arm suspended, frozen in place.

He wondered.

This was not the first time he had caught sight of Chrome in the morning, emerging into the silent world with the black blob whose barking Tsuna could never hear through the divide of the window, but the blob pranced and jolted with a bounce in its step, shaking from its front (?) section in a way that roughly told you that noises were being emitted from its hidden mouth.

Chrome had never attended any of the parties. Two months as neighbours, but you would never know she and Mukuro were there, save for glimpses such as the one at present. Chrome looked pleasant in the mornings. At ease. Maybe, he reflected, it was the quiet. Only the crickets and the mechanical drone of the boats on the bay. There was comfort in her eye.

A thought: Chrome is happy.

Still, she looked different somehow. Seemed different. But he couldn’t quite place it.

You’re invited anytime, you know, he’d told her.

Meaning … Mukuro, too. The irritation would simply be dealt with maturely. They could get through the night without dumping punch over one another’s heads. Probably.

Possibly.

Chrome had smiled. Had nodded.

But she had never appeared at a single gathering.

~*~

“Is this seat taken?” began the familiar, unwelcome voice, prompting Hibari to reach for the assurance of his tonfas -- which, as it happened, weren’t there, because airplanes generally didn’t allow unconcealed weapons in the passengers’ seats, and even if Hibari had been willing to break the teeth of any flight attendants who might try to insist that he put them away, Kusakabe had implored special, official permissions for them to travel by way of carry-on bag.

He was now calculating how long it would take to lunge forward and tear into the aforesaid luggage.

Mukuro stood in the aisle, gloved (always) hands held up, faux-conciliatory: “Please, you mustn’t feel the need to rise on my behalf. I wouldn’t wish to rouse your attention from this, ah – “

With his usual lack of care for personal space annoyingly intact, Mukuro reached across and plucked the papers from Hibari’s lap. They consisted of a nature magazine, as well as fifteen pages of documentation concerning the licensing of endangered and extinct wildlife species for consideration as Box Weapons, with elaborate details paid to permissions from reservations, excavation sites, and museums. Dr. Verde’s scientific jargon-laden analysis of the raw potential and the possible complications was present, alongside the less familiar scrawl of Koenig and Innocenti.

“—this riveting reading material,” Mukuro continued, licking his thumb and flipping pages hastily, carelessly, bending and crumpling the thin sheets, much to Hibari’s sense of a gradually growing aneurysm (only of the kind that, rather than bursting within his own brain, was the more likely to result in Mukuro’s head being broken). “You know it’s not in my nature to judge a man’s tastes. Although it behooves me to inform you that most people prefer their nudity to be of the same species and opposite sex.”

To the murderous glare, he added, all thin-lipped smiles, “Or same species, same sex, if you’d rather.”

“How did you find out about this flight,” Hibari statement-questioned, wondering who he needed to kill for this. An annoyed glance backwards, at the empty seats.

That is: every seat. Every seat was empty, save for the one in which Chrome Dokuro sat, looking conspicuous and yet happily engrossed in her own literature. When their eyes met, she waved. Shamelessly. Quietly. Like you would wave at a friend. Not like you would wave at someone whose secret, expensively paid for, reserved (through arduous legal and less legal channels) personal flight you had just hijacked.

“A little birdy told me,” Mukuro said, heaving himself into the seat and crossing one leg over the other, dropping Hibari’s papers back into his lap. “Albeit I had to translate. A photographic representation of your secret mission – bird’s eye view -- but the consciousness kept fighting with me to pay attention to earthworms. He was much more interested in dirt than in your scenic travel. Take that as you will.” A look backwards at Chrome, and a returning wave. “I do wish you wouldn’t be so rude to her.”

Some would say it was without conscious thought that Hibari’s hands made their way towards Mukuro’s throat, taking hold of the scarf (of all the things to wear in this weather -- and with a shade of blue against Namimori’s dress code, too). Habit had honed his instincts. Those instincts were right now roughly estimating the pressure needed to snap a man’s neck in a single jerk. And then the best maneuver for dumping the body out of the plane, disposing of it in an expedient manner. Instinct told him that the airplane’s door was only four seats away, and they were lifting into the air. A clean job could be done in (estimating) about 30 seconds.

The scarf turned into snakes. Hibari dropped them artlessly, hearing them vanish (along with their hissing) once he’d punched Mukuro in the face.

“Your social skills -- ” Mukuro began, clutching his cheek, “ – nevertheless leave something to be desired."

Mukuro’s jaw visibly shifted, clenched, and he spat out a tooth, gently opening one fist to catch and enfold the object.

“There. Look.” Holding out his palm. “What a disaster for my dental plan.”

“You’re lying. Again,” Hibari said.

“Do you wish I weren’t?” Mukuro was smiling, sounding curious. Whimsical, as if they were having this conversation over tea. The tooth exploded into indigo smoke.

Mukuro’s mouth showed no trace of blood, but the colour was already rising to his skin. The mark would be honest, if he didn’t mask it with lies, but Hibari expected that he would.

When he looked over again, Mukuro was wearing a (hideous) purple scarf, with his arms on the armrests and that one leg still crossing the other, feet idly pointing towards Hibari like another challenge of territory -- as if he belonged there. As if he weren’t an invader. Toxic.

“I don’t wish,” Hibari said. “I command. Get out.”

“I fear we’ve already lifted off,” Mukuro responded, infuriatingly unafraid, unperturbed, unwilling to show anything besides this serpent’s smile.

Hibari had no such thing as a pleasant smile, so when his face returned that expression, there could only be one source of amusement. “I know,” he said.

~*~

Ultimately, Chrome volunteered to exchange places with Mukuro, but only after Kusakabe had found the three of them together and expressed some concern over their coming out of this flight alive and with all limbs accounted for; the structural integrity of an aircraft, it was noted, did not lend itself to massive, ballooning hedgehogs and their rolling spikes. “Miss Dokuro,” he had said, "would you be willing to exchange seats with your partner?" And she had looked up from her intense immersion, blinking, all soft distant smiling; with that eye which told you she was a million miles away -- a creature not of this world, but then, certain among them had said that of the Namimori prefect at one point. Kusakabe remembered Corsica. Hibari and Chrome, in full suits, standing before the Romanesque walls of the Church of Aregno. Corsica. Hibari's severity, self-protective aloofness, and Chrome's expression, as though someone had slaughtered her deity; she wore it much during that year. Miss Dokuro, he had wanted to say then, to ask if there was anything he could do, but she walked off alone. Miss Dokuro, as alone as Kyo-san, and the photographs telling of the two of them standing together, but always solitary, no matter how many others were present. Those times felt far from now, albeit close in the sequential order of events. This was a simpler mission. Cleaner. Make the weapons trade. Investigate the object of our tentative alliance.

Investigation, Mukuro would say, being a euphemism, of course.

Having traded seats with Chrome, he sat with his elbow resting against the window, palm to his cheek; eyes to the clouds outside. A sky full of clouds. "Are you in your element, here?" Mukuro wondered aloud. "Drifting, alone, by yourself?"

Hibari did not answer. He did not owe Mukuro anything.

"Do you think the puppy is doing all right?" Chrome asked, abruptly. "Should I call the housekeeper -- and check?"

"Oh, I'm certain he's pissed the floors and consecrated the offering with one of my ties."

"Put them up," Chrome said, simply, nonetheless sounding worried.

"And this would be why I've little and less interest in a kitten, because it would drag the clothing to the floor for the dog to finish."

"He's housebroken," Chrome continued; who was it, honestly, to whom she spoke, when her eye was unfocused, or wandering downwards, towards her book. "It's just -- when we're out for too long -- "

"His fright releases itself in the form of a bladder; I'm aware."

"I hope he's not depressed."

"Well, it's a pity Hibari Kyouya is on this journey with us, as well, or we could've asked him to oversee that animal in your absence. His ability to placate all of nature's finer species is well-known."

Hibari felt his brows knit at their insipid conversation. Mists were tiresome; meaningless. The girl might be more tolerable, but her concerns were equally pointless. She was holding it in her hands -- a book, a Murakami, thin, with an image of a figure concealed by dark glasses. It must have been a reread, then, for Chrome had been reading that book years before, when the two of them were in Brussels, Hibird sitting on her shoulder, fluffing rain water from his feathers. You could see all the world with someone and never see inside of them. Hibari had read it, too, in his solitude, while Kusakabe worked, and while Chrome was out of the room. A story of a woman whose skin betrayed her. A torment of the mind written upon the flesh; a body unwilling to open itself. Death and first loves. Grim subject matter. Hibari could not relate; he never could. What was the point of fiction. Dishonesty. Mukuro's territory. But did the girl feel such emotions? Her hands on the cover; bitten fingernails, chipped splotches of violet polish. A nervous tremor ran through those fingers, those bird-bone-wrists.

Hibari caught one wrist, and said, "You're stressing."

"Oh," she said, looking back warily. Mukuro had returned his attention to their direction and sat facing forward, appearing keenly alert to this new thread of conversation.

"I'm fine, Hibari-san," Chrome lied.

"You bought a house," he said, turning his attention towards the window and the sky beyond. Vacant. Open. Not crowded. The girl didn't crowd, at least. She was quiet. Albeit he despised when she behaved as though she were an herbivore, which she had a tiresome habit of pretending to be, when the mood infused her. "Next to Sawada Tsunayoshi."

"We bought it together," Chrome said, with a little smile.

And Hibari made a slight sound, scoffing and dismissive. It could not quite be termed a laugh. "Him. A house."

"Your monosyllabic contempt for my decisions aside, misfortune would have it that my teenage haunt was, ah, scheduled to be demolished, when last I looked," Mukuro chimed in. "And hotel hopping does become so tedious after a while."

"You have an ulterior motive," Hibari said, not doubting his accuracy.

"To put myself into a better position to possess the body of Sawada Tsunayoshi and spy on Vongola, of course," Mukuro quipped, not missing a beat. Chrome flushed, then went pale. "Ah, sorry. My plans still offend Chrome's sensibilities. Oh--"

But before he had finished, Chrome had risen and made her way to the bathroom, and Mukuro followed, heedless of the single occupancy status.

"Well," he said, looking backwards and throwing a winking, mischievous smile, "I fear you must excuse me, but shall we play again sometime?"

Then, the door closed.

Hibari lifted the book, which remained behind Chrome like an imprint; he opened it, eyed a few pages, then set it aside, resuming his own reading.

What were they really doing, the two of them --

Who knew. And who cared.

The most important thing was that Hibari had, without cunning, successfully gotten rid of them.

~*~

Rokudo Mukuro was the world's greatest illusionist. Furthermore, he could tie a cherry stem with his tongue sans illusions.

The only aspect to life that he loved more than playing tricks on the minds of others was ruining the livelihoods of self-deceivers, charlatans, and the sum total of mafiosi. From a young age, Cosa Nostra instilled in Mukuro a certain (paradoxical, you might initially believe) contempt for a world of deceit and fraud, with corruption lurking beneath the slick veneer of social acceptability, which was itself a continual form of dishonesty, or perhaps more aptly a mass hallucination; society, in the collective dream of the human beings, was that most perpetual and most fantastic of lies, designed to assure the comfort of being able to regard one's self as the highest of animals. Why did humans hold burials, maintain ritualistic ceremonies of marriage, engage in meaningless "small talk" for the sake of politeness, and create complex, often contradictory rules to sexual expression and the societal permissions thereof?

Mukuro befriended degenerates. Outcasts. He delighted in discovering a girl as removed from all convention as himself. He then took in a child, one of so many children, slipping through the cracks of the turbulent, broken system, and he made each of them work, gave them uses, and (intentionally or unintentionally) bolstered their self-worth, offering the only definition of "home" possible to such individuals. Of course, it had been Mukuro's home, too.

Adulthood brought separation, in body if not in spirit. Ken and Chikusa were living in an apartment not too far from Namimori. M.M. had returned to France, although she called frequently -- sometimes far too frequently, and with too much demand, until Mukuro had retaliated with passive-aggressive automated voicemail greetings: [Hello, I cannot take your call right now because I am busy having sex with Chrome; please leave a message, and I will return your call post-orgasm! Maybe!] The increase in Mukuro's vocabulary of French swear words as a result of listening to the consequences of this decision had been well worth the effort.

Sitting in Rome, drinking his favourite Starbucks order (venti 1 pump caramel, 1 pump white mocha / 2 scoops vanilla bean powder / extra ice frappuchino / 2 shots poured over the top apagotto style / caramel drizzle under and on top of the whipped cream, double cupped -- Mukuro approved in such seriousness of Starbucks' chocolate, cream, and coffee services that he offered them his honest patronage and paid in real money, rather than simply possessing a barista and stealing the drinks), he had once overheard conversation about a miracle worker, a man of the Holy Church of Rome, who was currently walking with the masses at Lourdes, the site of the alleged healing water grotto where Our Lady stood in watch; benediction, the people craved, and came, with their injuries, their cancers, their diseases of the skin and eyes and heart.

"Excuse me," Mukuro said, pulling out a chair and joining the women for whom this discussion was occurring, quickly adapting his demeanor to suit that friendly-but-deferential manner he had employed as Guido Greco, in another time and place: "But... if I may ask, what miracles does this man perform?"

Statues wept when he laid his hand on their stone visages. The Holy Mother bled out; stigmata, in sympathy of that ancient sacrifice. Flowers bloomed in the wake of the man's footfalls when he walked through the cobbled streets, a train of the ill behind him; tiny blossoms manifested in the empty spaces between his outstretched fingers. Most importantly, he could reunite men and women with visions of their lost loved ones, and his healing touch provided treatment for the blind, and those with chronic pain.

Mukuro tallied mentally, all while contemplating these paltry "miracles" and taking a long sip of his chocolate drink. He found himself thinking: Why, you should meet my friends Byakuran Gesso and Sawada Tsunayoshi -- the one who healed fatal illnesses for which there were no cures in this world, and the other who rose from the dead!

Still, Mukuro had changed his plans, swinging by Lourdes for a little visit.

When the man, whose name was Ambrogino, caught sight of Mukuro, amid the onlookers of the crowd, he exclaimed, "What fantastic eyes you have!"

"Yes," Mukuro agreed, and thrust his Vongola ring into his Mist box, utilizing the cambio forma in order that he might re-acquaint himself with a certain notorious lens -- "they see many things. Such as, for instance, the fact that your famed healing skills are a result of Sun flames, and your images of the dead are third-rate illusions."

He pocketed the lens, and sighed. "While I commend your luck on having multiple flames at your disposal, come now. Shouldn't you be so forthcoming as to tell this lovely crowd the source of your powers?"

The expression that overtook that charlatan's face was something like the one which Mukuro had felt on his own when he-as-Guido had been exposed by Byakuran. A horrified smile. Ravenous dislike. Teeth clenching with false politeness.

It was a delicious sensation, to peel someone down this way.

But, as Mukuro had anticipated, the man recovered himself quickly, propelled by the force of an appeal to fanaticism:

"You had me for a moment, thinking you were a miracle, but I see now what those eyes truly are!" declared Ambrogino, jabbing his finger in Mukuro's direction, "My children. This is a sign, a false temptation. The prince of the air walks among us. Look at his eyes. That unholy devilment in the red one, a symbol of the Anti-Christ-- surely no human could have such a face -- and that pitch-fork -- "

It's actually a trident, you fool, Mukuro thought, irritated. Although he found he had no particular qualms with the other associations. (Prince of the air sounded rather charming, but he thought it more suitable to Byakuran, insofar as hot air.)

Their wills clashed, but briefly.

Mukuro struck the side of his fist against Our Lady of Lourdes, whose body wept and bled with chocolate and cream (all right, so perhaps Mukuro's mind was still on that delicious drink). Pale pink lotus flowers drifted through the grotto; vines rose up, strangling, and fire rained from the sky. There were screams of terror, but in an instant, all was calm and blue above. The lilies, however, continued to float in the motionless water.

Clutching petals in one hand, and pointing the other (holding the trident) at the man on the platform, he said, "My apologies. My illusions are more suited to hell than heaven, and you are correct that my powers originated there."

No one was laughing, and most had moved away, giving him a wide space. The French had no sense of humour, Mukuro thought, remembering his ex-girlfriend's reaction to his specially tailored voicemail greeting (perhaps an inappropriate connection at such a moment, but in fairness, they were discussing hell).

"Nevertheless, you are an illusionist, and using Sun flames. Neither of those sources are commonly considered 'miraculous' in our era of modern science." He spun the trident a little, for dramatic effect, twirling it up and back to his side as one would a baton. "Renounce your title as miracle worker, or I shall take you with me on my next vacation to the realm of hell. I assure you."

Turned out, Ambrogino [Last Name Probably Omitted Because He Thought A Single Name Sounded More Miraculous, thus making him sort of the "Prince" of fake miracle workers] had been in possession of a Hell Ring -- not Mukuro's delightful Malocchio ring, with its fashionable evil eye, which Chrome would retrieve for him from a more literal hell almost a year later, but the other Hell Ring which had belonged to Mukuro in that alternate future, and which the Mukuro of this timeline had thus far been attempting to re-acquire.

That evening, at dinner in Chrome's apartment, Mukuro was idly turning the ring over in his hand and eyeing the dark-hued blue jewel in the centre, while Fran, in the other room watching television, suddenly declared, "Wow, Master, you looked really scary today!"

Of course, being Fran, this declaration was offered in all sarcastic deadpan. However, apparently some agreed more earnestly, and news of Mukuro's exploits had reached the media, where for weeks afterwards (and longer than that, on the Internet), people would speculate about the nature of the daemonic personage who had appeared at the holy grotto of Lourdes.

Oh, good grief, Mukuro would say.

As flattering at it initially was, having people screaming at him in the streets and little children running up asking for "Satan's autograph" began to grow somewhat tiresome, especially when he was back to drinking his [venti 1 pump caramel, 1 pump white mocha / 2 scoops vanilla bean powder / extra ice frappuchino / 2 shots poured over the top apagotto style / caramel drizzle under and on top of the whipped cream, double cupped] iced drink in relative peace and quiet, sitting in solitude atop the verandas of restaurants.

"I overheard -- today," Chrome said one afternoon, sitting down across from him, and placing her hands in her lap primly. "A woman. She was saying ... she had been going to give that man half of her savings. To try to cure her chronic pain. But after you exposed his methods... "

"People will foolishly spend money on anything, won't they, Chrome?"

"There are people who care. I wanted you to know. There are people you helped."

"Ah. Collateral damage in destroying certain others' lives, I suppose," Mukuro said, raising an eyebrow, and passed her the remainder of his drink.

Later, Dr. Verde thanked Mukuro in the name of science, for he had no end of trouble with those who professed healing powers from God. Insipid setbacks, paying to organized religion, frequently plagued his research.

There was, Mukuro knew, much in the age of miracles which could be accounted for as the work of sneaky illusionists (little realized as it had been by people of those eras), but hoaxes were far harder to successfully pull off nowadays, with the invention of cellphone cameras and massive technology.

~*~

I'm sorry, Mukuro said.

It's only that I wanted to have a little fun, Mukuro said. Hibari Kyouya always delivers on that.

In the cramped bathroom of the aircraft, with Mukuro popping watermelon candies into his mouth, Chrome was biting her lip, shivering with feeling, albeit withholding tears. In Mukuro’s personal opinion, such a mood swing was rather absurd, but considering that he realized the source of her turmoil, he wasn't about to admit to this belief. He added: here, Chrome, these candies are delicious, try one, won’t you, and so saying, he placed a piece between her lips, and kissed it into her mouth, brushing her errant strands of hair aside with his fingertips, tasting the salt of her body's reluctantly emerging tears. Body to body, as they were once before. Her moisture against his hair. A perfectly allegorical ouroboros; their union, continuing forward.

Chrome shook her head. No, she protested, softly. I wanted to leave the house, too. I’ve been inside too much. Thinking. Thinking about everything.

When Mukuro said it had perhaps been a mistake, hitch-hiking a plane and joining someone on what could yet be a dangerous course, Chrome continued to shake her head in defiance, insisting that no -- no, she had wanted to go outside and have fresh air, but most importantly, she wished to continue her career and all that it entailed. She'd had a lot on her mind. Her chronic anxiety was resurfacing, but she had spent much of her time being happy. Yes, she was happy. Even as she wept. Emotions were not all or nothing.

Mukuro understood.

Certainly no one expected you to live inside forever, Chrome, he said. But you always tear yourself in two directions. You are doing it again, do you see? You mustn’t continue in this way. We could've had a vacation more like Tsunayoshi's.

(Well, he added: perhaps not alike in every respect.)

But, ah. (His face, caught in profile in the bathroom mirror, with that oldest and gentlest of smiles.) But – you are never happy without risk, are you, Chrome?

I can’t have a vacation, she said. Not like Boss’s.

Because – (and Mukuro would comprehend, if he was the only one who did) -- that, the home and everything in it – that was the vacation.

The cocoon of normalcy.

And this –

“This is the other half,” Chrome said (meaning the half of her heart that beat of a pace with Mukuro’s, in that way for which there were no words), arms crossed, as her shivering ceased, and Mukuro reached forward, brushing aside the strands of hair surrounding her face, thumb tracing the line of the eyepatch, seeing in her heart-shaped countenance the remnants of the round-cheeked girl he had known before; the delicate, near-translucent shell, and the creature he saw beneath it, the one of gossamer fibres and steel bones.

“It will be harder, of course,” he said, tipping her chin up and pressing a kiss to either cheek; then, her brow, as though she were three points of a cross. His breath feathered across her, calming. The mirror caught the faded softness of the gesture, warm leather knuckles trailing, and his eye caught the mirror, watching himself. Mukuro laughed softly. “If you still accept me as your professional instructor, then my professional opinion is that –“

He aborted the sentence, shrugging a shoulder and smiling wryly, as Chrome turned and dabbed at her makeup. “Never mind. I’ve nothing to say at all.” She would weather this, too, as she always did. “What was your opinion of the candy? Delicious, wasn’t it? And we should make haste to leave, you know. We wouldn’t wish for Hibari Kyouya to become too lonely.

~*~

The neighbours' house had been quiet and shadowy for several days when Kyoko, lying next to Tsuna in bed, blurted out into the still, warm air: "We should probably buy something for the baby soon."

"Reborn is an adult now, Kyoko," Tsuna reminded her, half-dreaming. He scratched a glob of wax from his ear. Kyoko laughed, as if he had made a particularly hilarious claim.

"I know, Tsu-kun," she said, shaking her head (as if Tsuna was entirely silly, and Kyoko didn't say incomprehensible things every so often -- when in fact, she was saying them again now). "I didn't mean Reborn-san."

"What baby," Tsuna muttered into his pillow, not certain whether this Kyoko was a dream, and he was back in Namimori, the day before a horrifying battle -- or, even worse, a test. He was caught in a fuzzy intermediary space between walking down the hallway naked with a flame on his head and hearing Kyoko murmuring about infants across a wide gulf of ocean.

"The baby Chrome-chan is having, I mean," Kyoko said, without missing a beat.

Tsuna lifted his head. "What..." He sat up. "What..." Shook his head. "Huh. I must be dreaming. I thought you said -- "

"Chrome-chan’s baby," Kyoko repeated, patiently, her fingers playing with the covers. She reached up and tossed her long, blonde hair over one shoulder, combing her hands through it.

"Are you saying Chrome is -- but how do you know -- "

"Well." Kyoko touched her chin. "Mainly, it just looked true."

Once upon a time, Kyoko had been the first person to recognize I-pin as a girl, when all others who saw her believed her to be a boy. Remembering that, Tsuna knew better (call it his own Vongola intuition at work) than to doubt her perception of such events.

"She's seemed very nervous about it," Kyoko went on. "Did you see her hands? I guess it's still early, and the potential for miscarriage, you know? Oh.” She looked concerned, suddenly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. But I thought… it seems like three months, now.”

“No way.” Tsuna threw the covers aside, sitting up and staring out the window at the house next door, as if expecting one or the other of his Mist Guardians to emerge into the night. But it was too dark to see; there was no moon, and he was feeling terribly disoriented, the world tipping on its axis, and everyone but him, as always, understanding, and speaking with that strange knowledge. “Are you telling me that’s why – the house – “

“It seems best to start a family in a house,” Kyoko said, lying back down, looking up dreamily at the ceiling. “Chrome-chan’s apartment was too small, don’t you think?”

Tsuna blearily eyed her. He wanted to say: It’s past midnight. He wanted to say: My life doesn’t even make sense when it’s not past midnight.

“Tomorrow,” he said, rolling back over. “Remind me tomorrow, Kyoko.”

He made a note to speak with Reborn.

When he groaned back to sleep, face mashed into the pillow, Kyoko, with her half-smile shaded in this night in which there remained only starlight, reached across and ruffled that heavy, unruly mess of hair; in truth, she had never seen much difference between Tsuna’s Mist Guardians, who were after all the most tender of souls, and acutely sensitive to any negativity or pain in this world, of which they had experienced so much when they were children, with no one to protect them. She had often thought it must be hard for Mukuro, caught in a perpetual battle against his own fear of vulnerability, but for him to extend his proximity to her, and to Tsuna, as he was doing now, and had done initially by accepting the title of Guardian, could only be viewed as that most tentative of efforts: reaching out.

She hoped they were having a nice time with Hibari-san -- and it was good for him, too, who often seemed so painfully alone.

Chapter Text

Hana had often thought to herself that while she and her fiancé didn’t make the picture-perfect, almost unrealistically photogenic couple that Kyoko and her husband did, she was convinced they had better sex. Seriously, Sawada had always been so nervy, awkward, and concerned with appearances that imagining him as anything besides rubbish in the sack was impossible.

Truthfully, Kyoko had always been a little weird, ever since they were children in primary school, the day she and her best friend had first met, when Kyoko had stolen the classroom’s tree frog, still in its glass cage, and had proceeded to sit outside, reading it frog-related fairytales (she was still learning the kanji for many expressions) before releasing the animal into the wild, yelling and waving for the frog to hop free, hop free! Needless to say, Sasagawa Kyoko’s parents had received a call that evening about their daughter’s unruly behavior. Looking back on that occurrence, the future of her getting with an equally weird boy had practically written itself into the stars. Hana had befriended her because she liked Kyoko’s audacity.

And, seriously, animal rights was a good cause to spend a little audacity on.

Not that Hana wanted to deal with animals any more than she wanted to deal with kids, but she liked the idea of causes, and within ten years, boys and monkeys looked about the same, except for the part where monkeys were, to her mind, less offensive. You couldn’t fault them for flinging their shit everywhere and fucking all over the place because it was all part of nature’s great plan, and when you’re a monkey, you don’t know any better. All the world’s a toilet. It was kind of the motto of animals and teenaged human boys.

Fifteen, solidly informed by an Internet connection and a dose of feminist blogging, she had decided it was high time to teach Kyoko and Haru about the invaluable effect of self-love on a girl; pitching combined chunks of their end of the school year allowances into the gift pot, summer saw Hana browsing online versions of Tokyo’s Ms adult store – physically located in Tokyo, in the shopping district at Akihabara Station, where Haru had gone once in her life, and dreamed of visiting again.

“But not for this,” she said, side-eyeing the other girls, and blushing hotly. Her high ponytail moved with the motion of her head, her eager, punctuating hahi. “It’s only just – “

“Relax,” Hana said, smirking with raised eyebrow and waving a hand at the others to settle down. “I’ve got this covered. And congratulations; you’re only my second credit card purchase.”

The first had been a copy of The Bell Jar, which she thought seemed like the kind of book that told people not to fuck around with your humour and good graces, when they saw it in your hands. Sober. Severe. That kind of girl.

On the subject of sex, raised in their private gossip, Haru and Kyoko were something like hedgehogs who, poked by a topic, began to squeal into incoherence. They all joked a little. Even Kyoko joked a little. It was how you “dealt.” You couldn’t outright say whether you’d yet had it, or speak candidly (when they became collegiate, that was another matter; then all life could be as blunt as you pleased), and even if the topic made you uncomfortable, or sullied Haru’s sense of romance with that faint grime of humanity, you couldn’t admit to that, either. The way to “deal” was to laugh and joke and judge the merits of the boys. Kyoko never played that game, Haru put Tsuna above all others, and Hana gave a firm “I'll pass” on the likes of Sawada, Gokudera, and Yamamoto. The older ones, on the other hand –

Still, for all the giggling over-compensatory awkwardness, no one said no to the vibe-buying idea. Well, not at first.

“May I ask for pink?” was all Kyoko had offered; hands clasped together, laughing and treating it like a pretty accessory.

“Haru wants purple,” Haru added. “Ah – we should… for Chrome-chan…”

Chrome, however, shook her head and ducked out of the issue. “It’s really too embarrassing,” was all she would stammer. “But thank you. Thank you.

“Sheesh,” Hana started, “don’t tell me thank you when I’ve not even been able to do anything for you.”

It was some weeks after that particular incident, when Chrome had been visiting Kyoko, that the awful cow brat (for so Hana had come to think of him) had, as if emerging from a nightmare, appeared on the counter with Chrome’s purse, digging his grubby little hands into it and waving something around, screaming, “Grape candy! Lambo’s found the grape candy!”

Chrome, meanwhile, turned several unusual shades of red not commonly found in basic crayon boxes. “L-Lambo-san!” she exclaimed, rushing forward in that tottering hop-skip way, with one hand already outstretched. “No, those aren’t – no -- !”

A small yellow container of blue and green pills. From a distance, it looked sort of akin to a rouge compact, but all the other girls saw and immediately recognized the object of Lambo’s interest. So, she must’ve gotten a prescription from that sleazy Shamal – it only made sense, but birth control pills; honestly?

Everyone agreed that that girl was pretty; she worked the strange hair and what in some people would be a disfiguring injury, but she was so reticent that all her jittery actions made you feel as if you’d insulted her just by inviting her to a party or doing something nice for her sake, as if the mere act of talking to the girl was a hostile motion, punching her nerves with your voice.

Well. It certainly came as a surprise to realize the little wallflower was out getting some.

“But good on you,” Hana told her later, privately. “Although I still recommend you take me up on the vibrator offer. It’s good and therapeutic for a girl to do this on her own time.” Don’t let anyone tell you masturbation isn’t real sex, she proceeded to say. She knew. She’d been doing her reading. And, perhaps not so secretly, she liked lording her worldliness over the other girls. And what she didn’t say was: whoever he is, you guys might break up, but furthermore, I’m guessing you’re still figuring things out, so yeah, you might want to figure yourself out first.

Chrome just flushed, from cheek to nose to cheek, crumpling her lips, and shook her head – no, no, no. Stubbornly silent. Discussion off limits.

Which was fine: they weren’t supposed to have seen inside of her purse, anyway. It wasn’t fair that they had.

All the more reason to hate kids.

~*~

Years later, and Hana had never moved past that image of Kyoko, sitting outside and reading fairytales to a glassed-in creature with external eardrums; in truth, for all that she had made her peace with Sawada, her impossible-to-meet best friend’s Judgment Tier would never quite deem him worthy, if only because Kyoko was, to her – and absolutely secretly – the most perfect of beings. She loved the girl with the implacable force of a relentless cynic who has made that rare decision to accept an optimist into its fold. Kyoko was optimistic to a frankly ludicrous degree; she always thought positive of life, and as a teenager, she had never gone through any phase of obsession or devout interest in the opposite sex, which was significant only because it represented the extent to which she was beyond feeling a lack in her life, and beyond social judgments. As perfectly removed from desire, from hunger for the approval of others, as Sasagawa Kyoko had been, the acquisition of her husband had simply proved a matter of transition.

He charmed her. She accepted him. But she also could have gone her entire life without him, or any romantic companion. Everyone knew that.

And Sawada, of all people. The guy who had made perfect 0’s on his tests. Although even that wasn’t as big of a crime as his awkward personality and his tendency to accrue ridiculous luck. If Kyoko had to marry, she deserved (in her best friend’s opinion) a dreamy actor of the screen or stage, or maybe a classical musician – someone talented, sunny, cultured, and as easy-going as she herself was, but with a fine purposeful inclination towards beauty and creativity.

Still, the heart wanted what the heart wanted, and Sawada was a morally upstanding guy, well-paid -- but always in over his head through job ventures, it seemed, and now in debt from that ridiculously expensive house. Hana, working real estate, would’ve tipped them off to a better, cheaper, altogether more reasonable property, but they had gone ahead with their move.

Good luck with that, she thought, and refrained from feeling snubbed.

If (or when) they needed a new property, and if (or when) that ivory tower came tumbling down, she would be waiting to lend a hand, with perfect generosity.

You never forgot your adorable best friend.

~*~

“Since the 90’s, it seems as though cafes have been sprouting here like mushrooms.”

Reborn blew lightly over the espresso cup; third drink, dark crema, and Tsuna lowered his eyes to the shogi board between them, where his king stood in impossible-to-counter check. Kanji-marked wedges, dropped in a plastic tray -- their playing had annotated, with each soft fall, the sound of the summer rain; crawling down the glass rondure of the windows like clear caterpillars leaving slick trails. The light had begun to slant ever-so-slowly towards fall, and the café smelled faintly of wet leather, cooling skin, espresso wafting hot beneath rich air conditioning and that splash of open air and rain, with traces of moist earth, whenever the doors parted and swung open. Inside, the sun silvered over metal and mingled with the thin interior lighting; industrial, open, modern, and nothing, Reborn said, like old Japan – Shoji screens, low tables, paper lanterns, cast over in haunting drying-sap orange, where in years past, he had done business, and the descendants of Sawada Ieyasu counted their wins and losses, speaking in subdued voices over sake sets.

The Sawada Tsunayoshi of the present was not a man of the model with whom anyone Did Business. He spoke evenly, without the hush of a whispered strategy or the hardened grind of a voice which was accustomed to demand sacrifices or order targets; years of that would take its effect on the eyes, making them focused, and egg-wide, as the lips would grow tense and mournful and determined. The look of a boss was the look of grieving, but also void of humour, fixed and ill at ease. The body lost its characteristic boyish lissomeness as its shoulders began to fit the starched suit; that was the way of Cosa Nostra. Not so with Tsuna, who slumped inelegantly over his game, or slouched and sighed – those habits of lively exasperation that no years or suffering could beat from him – and thumped his fingers against his cheek, and spoke, smiling not infrequently, at a moderate speed and a varying volume.

“Predictably,” Tsuna said, passing his hands over the shogi set.

“You’re still a terrible player.” Reborn took a sip of his drink. As Tsuna was putting the pieces away, he added, with the usual hint of a nonchalant smirk, “You put too little effort towards protecting your king, and you struggle not to sacrifice any pawn.”

"Yeah, I do."

After another moment, his tutor tilted his head, and the cutting rain-prisms of light cast a quarter of his cheek in shadow.

“And that’s why I hope you never improve.”

Tsuna allowed himself the luxury of a smile, hoping it was now possible for him to do so without the indulgence being struck from his face by some ensuing criticism. Leon, curled at the top of the fedora, regarded Tsuna with unchanging eyes – eyes that had followed his development, but seemed all the while never to see, mute and complacent, the animal in whose skin the Dying Will bullet was embodied. Kyoko always did want to pet him.

“A disciplined leader can’t put aside the interests of his subordinates.” It went without saying: And, in your case, his friends. “But that isn’t the problem, is it?”

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Tsuna said. He had placed the pieces aside. “But I don’t know if there’s a problem. Not like what we used to face.”

“Ah.” Reborn sucked in a breath, visibly. “Stupid Tsuna. Aren’t you a grown-up yet?”

Tsuna watched the rain fall, thinking: Maybe. Maybe I’m not. Is that what’s the matter? Or is it that I am?

“That makes two of us,” he said, only. Remembering. Always remembering.

“Then you understand,” Reborn continued, “that a child, or an adolescent, or even a teenager, usually does dream of saving the world. It all seems a lot bigger at that age. To a middle schooler, there are monsters and villains. You punch them. Burn them. Think, Tsuna. Where are your monsters now?”

“Well.” He repressed a sigh. “I guess one of them moved next to me.”

“Of course, relationships sometimes have surprising endings. Others among the Arcobaleno would have sought my head at one time. But what can’t kill you can usually get used to you.”

Tsuna raised an eyebrow. “Is that a grown-up view, too?”

“No.” Reborn tsked. “It’s the view of someone who beats the hell out of everyone else and makes them disgusted with your existence. That’s you, now.”

Yes. Good thing, Tsuna thought, he could always count on his tutor’s gentle, sagely words. ”Great.”

On some level, he did recognize the parallel. Dr. Verde still gave Reborn ugly glares and “joked” (?) about lacing his espresso with new and improved cyanide concoctions or mercurial poisonings, made all the more difficult to detect by his ability to alter the chemical compositions; but Reborn was Reborn, and a genius in his own right. Tsuna, on the other hand --

"Of course, even if you disgust a person, if you're correct in what you say and do, and they can't refute you, effects can occur. Even if you can't outwardly change someone's mind -- though sometimes you can -- you can still do something for them. But are you asking yourself the right things?"

Outside, the rain was fading away, leaving only its wet traces. A song had begun to play on the radio, dispersing an infusion of instrumental notes into the air, itself peppered by voices.

"I worry about Kyoko, I guess," Tsuna admitted. And, continuing, almost with reluctance, "And... Gokudera and Yamamoto -- since the marriage. Do they worry that I... well, Gokudera-kun -- Gokudera -- suggested that trip, like old times, and Hana... Big Brother -- they're together, too, but we've not seen them as much. I want to make time for everyone, but then they all come together, or they're busy when I have time and have time when I'm busy. Lambo and I-pin are growing up. Hibari is all right, I guess."

He swallowed, gently asking the waiter for a refill of ice water, and, pausing in time to let her pour, taking hold of it, Tsuna added, between drinks: "Chrome is having a baby, Kyoko says. I don't know what to do with that. Even more, I don't know what to do for Mukuro."

“Then the only trouble is your cowardice towards change. If you won’t ask your friends what you can do for them, you won’t know. Nothing else you’ve said is anything besides people growing and changing and going their own ways.”

“Maybe so,” Tsuna admitted. “But – also… I’m in debt. And the work I do… well, I don’t want to think it was a mistake, buying this house, and moving here. My home isn’t hidden, and Kyoko – “

“Chose life with you, over anyone or anything else, Tsuna. And she did choose. Make no mistake. You know that from all the time when she didn’t look at you in that way – and so it could have gone on, and her life would have been none the worse without you. She understands the dangers of your world. She’s a grown woman. She came with you, whatever the cost. Don’t deprecate her choice by asking whether or not you should have allowed it. It was never for you to say.”

~*~

That evening, the rains returned – more forceful now, lacerating spears of rain, accompanied by gusts of wind that bent the umbrella backwards, and the light from the sky wilted to an oppressively grey-blue dusk, as one encountered when the horizon weighed itself down with clouds, with water -- blurred flower petal scattered faces, heartbeat-pulsing rhythm of street lamps flashing, engines humming, red death's eye, Mukuro's colour (the fever-strep-struck inside of a human mouth) of stop lights, tail lights; a metallic forest of yellow-white-red insects, or lumbering, start-stop monsters, the antennae of windshield wipers, the groans of horns held down and the wail of sirens in the distance. Clicking wet heels on sidewalks, humans rushing towards one another to take shelter beneath the pitched tent of umbrellas. Tsuna caught a bus segmented with green lines, no natural shade of it. Inside, viewing the tired, sullen, splashed faces, as void of colour as the outer world, he turned his umbrella at an angle, pushed it to submission, attempting to keep the rain from trailing down its neck and onto the aisle. The bus driver presented a face with a squashed, once (at least) broken nose; smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. Tsuna sat next to a woman with parted black hair and a white scarf, bitten and chapped lips. She never looked up, never woke from her slumber. She only lay with her head slumped, dreaming against the window. He felt water dripping soundlessly against his shoes, which tapped without intent, and looking out the window at the hidden sky, he thought of Reborn, of the black Italian curls flattened by the fedora, the perpetual press of hat hair, side burns, espresso, Leon's watchful stare; even in the café, where, out of respect for custom, the trained assassin brought no weapon, Tsuna had felt the solid aim of the gun in his tutor's precise words, his kind brutality. He had felt his age and his massiveness in his talk of cafes and Japanese locales, in the history of business, in the tired recognition that the world was changing, growing larger, but more compact, more efficient, tiny pocket computers on which to conduct Business; the world, Reborn had said, was growing younger, even as he was growing older. It must have been growing younger, because Tsuna was young, and Tsuna had not lost his faith, and those old shadowy corridors of murder-eyed men were burned away before the placidity of his uncreased face.

Arcobaleno, old and obstinate -- he had said; seniority, and set in their ways, primed for suffering, for death, the grim acceptance of it even in Luce's soft eyes, and in Uni's, a child of an age with Tsuna -- Arcobaleno, with their songs, their science, their mysteries and harmonies and little violent acts against one another. Old and obstinate, and yet as composed of petty rivalries as if they were children. The strong arm around the mafia. World-weary souls, parodied in their forms. Had it been any wonder, Reborn hinted, that when you, Tsuna, were a child, you saw me only as a child sees? (One who is shorter, who speaks in the voice of a child, and wears funny costumes. There had been no other form you would have accepted.) An adult could look on a level with another adult. When I was a child, I spoke as a child.

The imported jazz beats of the café played dimly in Tsuna's ears, mingling in the illusory persistence of memory with Uni's song, the haunted lullaby, and upon reaching his home, he found the ocean roiling before the storm. The ocean, which recorded sounds, voices, burials, passage of time; cycles, life spans. Ages of Arcobaleno. The prisms of the rain water felt vast and splitting.

People were only people in the end.

Reborn was aging. Lines beneath his eyes.

What a staggering thought that was. It could almost bring him to his knees.

Inside, in the safety and warmth of the house, that big hulking house where someone might find them, someone might try to kill them, Kyoko slept on the linoleum floor, curled foetal, design project unfinished and sprawling across the kitchen counter; paper-and-wire skeletons, taking shape. Tsuna touched one wing, wondering: a bird, or an aircraft, or perhaps a dinosaur, or perhaps --

The room smelled of bleach, the prickling bite of it, cool and chemical to the nostrils. Newly washed clothing. Scrubbed sinks. The scent of a space, of a home, where the two of them lived together, he with her, and where the others would be pleased to visit. They had worked to make this hospitality -- the both of them, in different ways. Tsuna smiled.

"Tsu-kun," Kyoko breathed, stirring in that dreamy way of hers, one cheek splotched red from falling into her trance-like slumber, and her misty eyes blinked. "I -- what time is it? This assignment... ah, I must've been tired, I -- " Design, she had said before, could be an all night affair, especially before project reviews were due. Her body had curled like the top of a frond, and she wore white-and-pink paisley, hair like a fluffed cut of wheat field, but gradually, she was smiling, too. "You're home," she said.

"We're home," he agreed with his wife.

Then it would all right, whatever must be done.

Chapter Text

The truth of adulthood is often this: at some point, the world reverses itself; objects and ideas grow smaller, and people, too, sometimes begin to age backwards.

When Nagi had first encountered Rokudo Mukuro, in that place between all places, that expansive representation of an unmoored subconsciousness, she believed him to be the oldest boy on the planet. Later, she realized it was suffering which had aged the two of them unnaturally (or which made them appear older, you might more correctly say). But in the beginning, she had not understood her own reflection in the water, and she had failed to recognize that she herself was a paradox -- an inexperienced and unworldly girl with the seriousness of personality and the gravity which so frequently belonged to the realm of adults.

"Is this somewhere you wanted to be?" Chrome asked when she first curled her toes against the grass swards and touched her fingertips to the sprigs of the trees.

It could have been a bold questioning, a sensitive probing, but Chrome had not thought of that, and asked in all innocence and mild curiosity.

Mukuro simply laughed, touching his chin, eyes measuring the length of her body with an analyst's detached admiration and a fitness trainer's appreciation for the unsculpted clay of a human form. He had been thinking of how her slender fingers would fit the trident, how she would heft and hold it, and what callouses would harden against her palms. His mind marked the surprising alertness and readiness of her fighting stance -- a body which had perhaps been languishing in the boredom of a life which made no room for its secret yearnings.

Mukuro had been thinking: I will give this girl a new life, then.

(He had not been thinking: She will give me a new life. In this way, without considering consequences in the long term, they had both been very young, and as innocent as little children.)

"Why should I want to be anywhere?" An answer without answer, as Chrome would find to be common with him. "Dear Chrome, I make my own worlds. I can be wherever I like. And soon, you shall be, too." A soft laugh. "I made this place for you. Do you like it?"

Simplicity of grass and sky and trees, faded colours, a Monet universe.

"I like it very much," she answered, truthfully.

But while she did not question her benefactor further, she was certain Mukuro was leaving words unsaid, and revealing himself in words which seemed to be intended towards artifice directed at her. It seems we may be alike, he had told Chrome, in their first conversation, and when she stood in his world (the world he said he had invented to please her, strictly), her illusory body felt the honesty of their sameness in the vibrations of his mind and his feelings, which were now linked with hers in that most intimate and invisible way. She could look at Mukuro, standing solitary against his backdrop of sky and water, close her eye to allow the darkness in, and feel his contentment spreading like ripples of a pond. He liked this place. Loved it, as Chrome did. He felt pleased with the sanctuary here, and unafraid. For Chrome, the closing of her eye meant she could feel Mukuro in the darkness; for Mukuro, the closing of his eyes meant his existence was wiped out, with one tentative link of air keeping him from death. He was afraid to close his eyes.

The truth: he made this world for himself, then invited Chrome.

He smiled at her, as if she saw none of this (for he had no conception that she did), but always with that lingering, self-betraying sadness.

~*~

The entirety of Mukuro's focus, Chrome had found, pointed towards guiding her and the other human beings who belonged to him and to whom he belonged. Guiding was the benign sibling of manipulating. Manipulating, Chrome discerned, had been a hobby of his, too, or perhaps something more like an innate push, a psychological necessity; the death drive and the drive to confirm hopelessness against the reality of human beings. There was no escape from the human realm but to shove them into the ground through their own devices. She understood his undercurrents of anger, but when she met him, sat with him, listened to him, that anger seemed to have grown quieter since Sawada Tsunayoshi, since the darkness of that place. Mukuro was tired, and resting. For now, he watched human beings and listened to their words and dreams with an attentiveness which Chrome had never known a boy to possess.

"That was how you understood Xanxus, wasn't it?" she asked him once, her voice reaching inside of her mind. She had been eating chocolate puffs, allowing the flavour to sink against her taste buds and linger, so Mukuro could enjoy it. Held open in her hands was the practice book of Italian, and on the park bench, the breeze stirred her hair, and couples stood on the walkways, arm in arm as she and he could never be, but Chrome let that thought pass her by, and focused only on the deep sensation of the coolness and the light of the sunshine, the warmth on her skin, the itches of her body and the manner in which she scratched them -- the little discomforts and pleasures of freedom. She transferred these to Mukuro by way of appreciation.

"I ventured into Xanxus's dreams, so to speak," Mukuro answered her, and Chrome could not tell whether he meant literally or not, all things considered. "But men such as him are always the easiest to understand. Anyone with eyes should have seen what he was doing."

Then, Mukuro would say, with that resigned smile: But, since when does anyone in this world have eyes?

(And, within Chrome's mind, the interior image of him would wink and tap the eyelid of the eye for which she had no counterpart: you will see more clearly than most, he assured her. You will. In spite of -- )

She gave him sunlight and air and chocolate. She told him of Ken's new game station (the previous one, Chrome sheepishly admitted, had been destroyed by Some Strange Accident involving water). She recounted stories of life at Kokuyo. The boys were doing well, as well as could be expected. But, she would add, they miss you.

"You reminded me," he told her once, "when we met, of a certain line in a famous poem. The beginning, in fact. Do you know -- " He lifted the trident from her hands with no command given and no force to the gesture; Chrome assented wordlessly, effortlessly, like a muscle reacting to the brain's silent twitch of physical wiring; Mukuro's eyes focused wholly on the glint of the forked prongs. Reflecting. Bright. "-- what the sibyl said?"

"She said," Chrome replied, "I want to die."

"Yes." Mukuro returned her gaze, passing the weapon back into her grasp. "Incidentally, you should hold it more like so."

~*~

I want to die, said the sibyl, cursed with immortality, but who had forgotten to ask for perpetual youth. According to the legend, she had withered eternally.

Chrome's life -- Nagi's life -- had improved with the friends around her, but what was it like for Mukuro, in that shadowy and cold place? And before that, the trail of -- blood. Everything. He was not a lost soul, she knew. He was not hopeless.

Thirteen was a confusing year, a brilliant year, a terrifying year. Confusing: the feelings in Chrome, the powers newly awakened within her, the voices, this sudden alternate path to life of which she had never dreamt. Brilliant: these people, this world, these worlds outside and inside of her. Magical. Terrifying: beneath the epidermis of the other realms lay the demons and monsters of the mind, as frightening as the wrapped faces of Vindice (who knew, too, what the sibyl said). Chrome had felt the fires of hell and the tearing of the gymnasium and the rivers of blood, and Mukuro had spoken to her calmly, asking, "Are you afraid?" and she had said, only,

"Did you live through this?" and when Mukuro had nodded, she had continued, "I-I'm sorry," and "It must have hurt. It must have hurt . . . " And he had looked at her with something like surprise, which Chrome had not understood.

"Then you aren't afraid," Mukuro confirmed, and she had puzzled at his words. For, why should she be: whose pain was nothing, compared to this?

~*~

Twenty-two, and Chrome had studied Eliot again at the University of Milan, where her dual degree was officially listed as veterinary medicine and history, but her minors and course programs revealed more specialized (and, if one were paying attention, more eyebrow-raising) topics: select issues in law and criminal cases, art studies for illusionists ("Illusory Art and Practice"), films ("Crime Films," a survey course), and other similar additions to her plan of study. With a full course load bordering on five years towards graduation and a part-time job as a veterinary assistant, Chrome still kept torn-asunder purple notebooks of scribbled, inked schedules for mafia organization infiltrations, rationing them to weekends, Fridays when the semester plans allowed it to remain a free day, summers, and holidays. Classmates asked her if she wished to go for drinks following lectures. She persistently refused, citing "busy," with her large eye assuming the sort of faux-grief it took on whenever she was faced with any social situation involving conversation with strangers, and her classmates would leave, feeling sorry for her for being so afraid to have fun.

In reality, Chrome was unafraid of "fun," but she had always lived, and continued to live, in an unspoken and perpetual war against smiling strangers, taxi cab drivers, workers behind cash registers, airport security, and everyone and anyone who might feel sorry for her, might rush her to fumble her change from her purse, might look upon her awkward body language and project notions of frailty or incompetence, or who might offer her "helpful" suggestions for hair, makeup, clothing, gait, small talk (or any who might make small talk, her mortal foe), who might consign her to drinks on tedious dates wherein she was expected to make conversation, herself having nothing to say, with their amiable faces waiting for her to speak, watching, probing, asking trivial questions, until she was compelled to fill the air with the inevitable, horrible, "Um, okay, I guess."

Thursday, with classes finished and a shift at noon the next day, the afternoon and evening plans consisted of checking in with Reborn to see if there was any "side work" for her second job, then knocking back peach Prosecco spritzers with Mukuro, who would be bringing Fran (who drank a little, too; it was Europe, after all), and they would have dinner, watch films, and make sacred career-and-vacation related plans.

Friday, after work, Chrome had a comprehensive doctor visit scheduled. She would have her heart checked, her vitals tested, her vagina uncomfortably speculum-probed (with all accompanying wincing). Vongola's personal healthcare and insurance plan offered the best nutrition, diet, exercise, and essential care for the maintenance of illusory organs, and it was, after all, important to keep her blood pressure low. Chrome had never exactly been great with nutritional suggestions, but Saturday was exercise day, and she would jog for six miles with headphone set and iPod intact (Mukuro had recently gifted her with a new one of each), then practice auditory, olfactory, and gustatory illusions after reading about neurology and somatic sensations. Hallucinations -- stimulated historically via the occipital or temporal lobes, in various medical tests -- Mukuro had said, were the first keys to understanding the production of what we now term illusions (though a true illusionist, he would add, could go far deeper in shaping reality's contours themselves). Then, she would practice studying and the routine of homework, and she would clean the apartment she had saved the money to purchase. Swiffer day, with the window open and the sounds of Milan filtering in.

Sunday, Chrome would illusion Folies Bergère costumes and lingerie for herself, dim the lights, veil the curtains, put on music to drown out the street sounds and pigeons (with a dash of illusory coating to all) and fuck on the new futon.

"We should make bets as to the number of times required to break it," Mukuro would say, but then, as with so many fine university students living in apartments, the futon was an Ikea purchase, and, unlike Chrome, no amount of illusory support would keep it from crumbling in the long run.

The last chair Chrome had attempted to assemble from Ikea now rested in some vaguely Dadaist heap of confusion; she would get back to it, she said, but never did. Fran sat atop the disembodied furniture parts pile sometimes, heedless of the leg jabbing him in the ass. His argument would be: "But surrealism was an important art movement, Master!" to which Mukuro, as a slightly brow-knitted aside, would remark again that there was something deeply the matter with that child.

~*~

"You look like you're about to sneeze at the climactic moment," Mukuro said, once, and which climactic moment did not need clarification. "Your eye closes and your nose furrows slightly with the muscle pressure; you part your lips and breathe a little through them... it looks like a forthcoming sneeze."

Chrome stared at him, completely nonplussed.

"It's very charming," he added (sincerely, if somewhat amusedly).

Ten minutes later saw her standing before the bathroom mirror, scrunching her nose and narrowing her eyes. Did it really -- ? Like this?

"At that moment," she said, when next Chrome spoke with Mukuro, "you do -- this -- "

Facial illusion (what most would term an expression): Somber, contented doe-eyed smile, complete with an illusory sweat droplet to perfect the visual. Chrome held the parodic image in place.

Mukuro scowled and turned his head to the side.

"Caricature serves no one any favours," he said.

"And then you make that frown, and you get warm -- here -- " She reached forward, taking hold of one cheek. "And I -- I want to do this -- " On the tips of her toes, she placed her hands on the edge of the futon and thrust her upper half closer, rubbing their noses together. "I want to do this ... when you make that face..."

"How strange you are, Chrome," Mukuro would say, as she grinned: "And -- "

Gently removing her fingers from his cheek, where the faintest undercurrent of blood tinted a patch of skin pink. " -- to tug at my face, here in broad daylight, where Fran might come in and witness the act? You would be teaching him bad habits, you realize." A furtive glance out the window, and Mukuro placed his hands in his pants pockets. "More bad habits, that is to say."

~*~

Today was Thursday. The futon remained intact.

Chrome walked the Old World streets hurriedly, Gucci bag slung from one shoulder, beige Prada boots, simple white dress with a tan coat suited to autumn, belted at the waist, incongruously cheap sunglasses (of which she had several pairs, in comparison to the Milanese designer wardrobe, for which she had only an item here or there) distancing her comfortably from passersby. She hailed a taxi, one of the new Milanese taxis -- the green volkswagen -- opened the door, and climbed inside with only the most minor stammering of sorry beneath her breath. Before, it would have been audible; her knees would have knocked at the stopping vehicle. She would have stared at it. She would have fumbled. Something would have fallen. Living entirely alone in the big European city was good practice, for now.

Chrome smiled a rehearsed smile and recited the address.

~*~

In the back room of Havana Club Mojito Embassy, sequestered from the noise of the bar, Yamamoto Takeshi chewed lime slices from the top of his perspiring glass. At Chrome's entrance, he waved, and Reborn tipped his hat in greeting. Her eye glanced over their concealed weapons, guns and dark-sheathed sword blending into the dimly lit space. Weapons, of course, were not permitted inside of just any establishment, but Vongola had affiliations with the owners of certain properties within Milan, as within other cities; this was a safe zone where they could speak freely, no hushing of voices required, and no attendant noise from the bar itself, save that which was filtering in through the walls. Chrome stood, bag against her side, with her eye open, staring in a daze of anticipation. It had always troubled her -- the acceptance of a social scene, acclimatizing, the niggling sense of being an intruder, or unwelcome, although in this case, there could be nothing further from the truth, and the rational part of the brain understood this. She watched Yamamoto rip the pulp of limes from the skin by his teeth, like a boy. Reborn said, finally, "As with any guest, the drinks are on me."

Chrome was still standing. She shook her head. "No. I'm fine."

"How's it going, Chrome?" Yamamoto pitched in. "We were just getting ready to watch some of the World Series."

You aren't participating this year? she wondered, and started to ask, and thought better of it, and continued to stand quietly.

"I'm only watching it for the purpose of study," Reborn clarified. "Have you ever heard about the 1919 incident, Chrome?" She felt her eye grow distant, searching, but the phrase hooked to nothing in her brain, and she shook her head with that abrupt start-stop of realization, of question-answering. "Ah. In 1919, the World Series was rigged."

At that, Chrome felt the dimmest flicker of recognition. Hadn't it been referenced in an American book -- The Great Gatsby? She read that for one English course (as everyone did). Mukuro had tapped the spine with a pen, had said, "I do believe sometimes that he was my favourite illusionist of them all," smiling wanly at her, but he had never explained his meaning, or to what fondness he referred -- though, as in all things, Chrome somewhat understood.

"It's being rigged again this year," Reborn continued, and Chrome watched the barest shadow of something pass across Yamamoto's face, but then his smile smoothed itself out, clear-eyed. He was a master of re-arranging his emotions, keeping levelheaded, Chrome had noted, with mild envy. She hid her emotions behind sunglasses, frowns, vacancy of expression; Yamamoto pressed down his displeasure through the weight of smiles, self-assurance. She hid in the daylight. He reconfigured the daylight to suit his needs. "The Texas Rangers will historically, improbably, win. The allied triads who oppose Vongola have put all their money towards this in gambling -- when the results come out, the cash flow will empower the ring leaders to buy more bootleg weapons and black market goods; Vongola will have an insurgency on its hands, then."

"Haha, yeah," agreed Yamamoto, and, with that sort of collected, distantly wistful (beneath it all, serious) expression, he added (with the same paradoxical tone of levity): "And it's always a shame -- right, Chrome? People not respecting a game."

"I -- " She looked down, briefly. Then returned her gaze. Fixed it on their faces. Chrome couldn't answer. Not sincerely. She had never understood sports at all, and what's more, she didn't even drink mojitos. But she belonged here, somehow; she insisted on believing that, because it was true. Her life always felt a little like a purse with the contents jostled, slightly out of place, but not completely fallen to the ground. "I'll help you, then," she said.

In all likelihood, this would require gathering intel and performing an infiltration, which were skillsets she could manage.

A brief quiet, Reborn touching his chin (sound of a TV blipping to life in the background: a sports announcer giving a play by play).

Chrome swallowed, feeling the unspoken weight of some new expectancy.

"That won't be necessary." When he spoke, he removed his hat, and Leon looked up at her, like one of the animals she dealt with on a routine basis. "I have it on good information that Rokudo Mukuro has already begun to work on this case, and two illusionists in one operation of this nature would be a waste of both of your individual talents. We'll contact you soon if we need anything more, however."

Leon blinked at her, slow and reptilian. The words rested. What was an action, abbreviated -- a person in motion, cordially stopped?

"No work, then?" she asked.

"Not right now."

"Ah," Chrome said, and bowed a little (cheeks warm), and turned, and left.

~*~

"Ouch," Yamamoto said, afterwards, with the wince of it momentarily bending the smile -- the face of a person who has been jolted by the slamming of a door, though Chrome had left in perfect silence. He was rising to leave, to say something (give words of consolation to a team-mate; it was part of the game), when Reborn touched his shoulder, indicated that he should sit back down. Little guy, he could have thought, but not really, not anymore; old habits, haha -- but hey Reborn, he said, wasn't that kinda harsh? (Or at least abrupt.)

"Tch." As the announcer dictated the events of the match, emotions passed across Reborn's face, lost in the quietness of the foreground. A sort of scowl. "Harsh? Think better about what you say and why you say it, Yamamoto. Chrome Dokuro isn't a woman who accepts pity or sympathy or nice but hollow words. They're acid to her pride. Going to her now would only wound her with that form of kindness."

Besides, he added, strictly speaking, no one had done anything wrong. Mukuro was well within his rights to volunteer his talents as an illusionist. Yeah, but, Yamamoto would retort: doesn't it seem a little weird? Mukuro saying he wants to join our team? Sure, Mukuro and Hibari could be the pinch hitters, but Chrome was the one who always went first to bat.

"I trust that the matter will be sorted out," Reborn said, with a little smile. "I have no doubt."

Yamamoto, for his part, did not quite know what was meant by such a cryptic remark, but Reborn's judgment was one to be trusted.

Meanwhile, someone somewhere was declaring a strike-out, audible but unheard.

~*~

Two years before, New York City, snow an inch or two above the knees scraped to the edges of the sidewalks -- not the soft white snowfall of the open plains that you saw in pictures of the American West (over sleeping evergreens, the ghost of smoke above chimneys, photograph-quiet, mute with whiteness), but the dirty city snowfall, slushy and tinted a dull, faded brown by dirt and dog shit. Chrome stood in her black snow boots (skull-decorated; indistinguishable from the preferred footwear associated with her Kokuyo uniform, save for the fuzzy tops), mittens, earmuffs, black leggings, grey wool coat, round wool hat masking her unique hairstyle. Wild, sprawling, tangled America, not so drowsy as Europe, nor so distant and aloof as Namimori, Japan; where people shoved shoulders, pushed their ways through the subways, honked their horns in the crowded many-laned streets. Mukuro had been pursuing his own affair, a tip about the activities of the American underworld contingent of the Italian mafia -- trafficking, bootlegging, one road to another, path to path, tracing a target. Stalking a target like a prey. Cat and mouse. He was fond of metaphors like that.

So this wasn't official Vongola business, but Chrome had travelled with him, and she stood shivering, red-nosed, within one of the many street shops. This was not part of the goal so far as she knew, but merely a routine stop for routine purchases -- even though it was midnight. Mukuro and Fran were standing amid the vegetables, Mukuro had been quoting something from a newspaper, and Chrome, half paying attention, half dreaming, heard the vague, distant undercurrent of a debate between the two of them (but this was a common occurrence). As she lapsed into the dream, the attempted robbery began. The cocking of the hammer -- almost inaudible, but Chrome had developed an acute sense for the sound of pre-emptive violence --

It was easy enough, spotting the culprit advancing towards the register. Easy enough to reach inside of her mind for an image, and to shift the scene accordingly: a gun melting to water, a frustrated yell of belief in this nonsensical portrait, the surprised face of the man behind the counter, and in the instant that reality dislodged itself, she crossed the distance and swiftly rendered the would-be criminal unconscious.

Something of a blur, that night: a 911 call from the man behind the register, a very brief interview in the form of a parting, Chrome walking out the door with Mukuro, with Fran, looking back to see if everything was all right, and the store owner saying, "Thank you, miss. I've got it from here. S'all right. Yeah," in that quick, rough American English that her slow speech could never replicate.

Fran was saying, "But Master, there's all kinds of uses for it --"

Mukuro was saying, "I didn't stop you from purchasing anything, Fran, but I'm not going to waste my own money on something so frivolous."

All in all, neither gave any indication that they had even noticed what had transpired, so caught up were both in discussing whatever it was that they had been discussing (and so immune were they to the presence of conflict unrelated to their persons). Chrome, for her part, barely registered their apparent lack of awareness, for she herself was feeling a deep, comfortable self-satisfaction, an inward musing of accomplishment.

That sense of self-satisfaction carried into the next day. Breakfast time saw Chrome sitting at Dunkin' Donuts, as per Mukuro's invitation, and he soon appeared with morning coffee and an entire box of donuts, of assorted colours and flavours. Chrome peered. Within herself, an intense internal debate raged as to whether or not she could stomach that much glaze, sprinkles, and frosting. Mukuro had no such misgivings and was already biting into the chocolate-frosted-with-sprinkles donut. He handed Chrome a morning paper.

The night before, he had not returned to the hotel. Business.

"Listen, Chrome, I have to tell you this," he began, as she opened the paper. "Yesterday, I discovered something wonderful. I told Fran it was frivolous because I don't want him stealing my clever ideas for this product, then attributing credit to himself, even if he was the one who pointed it out to me initially."

Chrome paused. A small story on one of the pages, farther back, concerning a robbery.

She swallowed, staring at the picture associated with the topic, reading the fine print.

"Tobasco-flavoured lip balm," Mukuro said, producing a tube from inside of his coat pocket and holding it out, pinched between thumb and forefinger. "I'm going to illusion it into green apple flavour and mail it to people. Who shall be first? I was thinking my dear friend, Irie Shouichi, must have cracked lips from all that ulcer-related screaming, don't you suppose?"

"What," Chrome muttered.

Looking up, but only after many seconds had passed. A response in slow motion.

"You're distracted. What's the matter?" (Well, he thought, she would appreciate his brilliant idea some other time, perhaps.) He put the lip balm aside, and Chrome, still looking stunned, gently passed the newspaper across the table, into his open hands. "The newspaper is full of bad news, as usual, I suppose?"

"No," she said. "Not that."

"Oh, hm." He held it up and out, shuffling the pages, eyeing the details with sudden immersion. "What's this? A story about me stopping some in progress robbery? What a terrible photograph they put alongside it! My hair doesn't even appear brushed. I would rather be standing more like this -- " He put his hand over one eye and splayed the fingers open. "It's a much better angle! More -- you know. Mysterious. And the copy: Vongola's famed Mist Guardian, Rokudo Mukuro. Offensive libel, that..." He crumpled the paper.

Chrome was distractedly folding wax paper from the donut box.

The persistent thought: It was mine. It was hers. She did that. She had done everything. Reading it in the paper, for the briefest, most surreal moment, she had questioned her own perception of reality. As if the day before had been a dream. A deft illusionist's trick.

And, the mind retracing it: she had been standing in her snowboots, half-hearing some debate (about, apparently, tabasco-flavoured lip balm, or other subjects common to Fran) in the background; someone had pulled a gun, and she had disarmed them, and the shopkeeper -- the shopkeeper had thanked her, called her miss. There had been no mistake.

When, where, how had the translation of the events become confused? The dull, throbbing wound of it, the surprising infliction of insult to her pride: Vongola's famed Mist Guardian. It must have been an honest mistake. Some lapse in memory. That shopkeeper had seemed like a nice man. Had thanked Chrome.

"I did it," she protested. "I don't understand."

"The press has a tendency towards falsehoods, you realize. It lies with a skill level I'm somewhat envious of."

Later, as they exited the donut shop, with Mukuro still carrying a half-full box in his arms, he explained to Chrome that he would not have stopped the robbery of a petty store, or most robberies.

Mukuro would say, as if idly musing upon the matter: What desperation do you suppose drives someone to commit such a crime? Poverty, perhaps? The economy is terrible. Or perhaps they were simply in it for the thrill. But who would I be to blame them?

In that moment, Chrome realized that Mukuro had not been ignoring the events around him. He had not been oblivious. He was never oblivious. If he willfully tuned out a store robbery in favour of a seemingly mundane argument, it was not because he was leaving the matter up to Chrome (though, in a sense, he was), but because his sympathies lay with certain kinds of criminals, if not others, and fundamentally, Mukuro was still the child who had stolen for his supper, long ago.

And Mukuro hated prisons.

Chrome did not sleep well that night, her mind consumed with thoughts about the vastness of the world -- the inadequacy of justice systems, the nebulous concepts of right and wrong. Starving thieves, or nice, kindly American men who somehow saw it to that your partner was credited with your deed.

Is it possible to do the right thing anymore?

~*~

Two years, and Chrome had never negotiated or resolved her source of conflict. Never fully. Old feelings were stirring within her, a pot ready to boil -- an accelerated particle soup of feelings. She stood inside of her apartment, hands deep in suds, hair tied back, scrubbing with brillo pads and yellow rubber gloves, careful when she wiped an itch on her face with the back of one hand -- careful because she did not wish to wet the eyepatch, to accidentally dislodge it into the bubbling mess of dirty dishes. Thursday night, and Mukuro would come. Planned inevitability. If she told him she was sick, he would sense the lie. She was scrubbing too hard, almost as if she intended to break the plates, she realized, and slowed her pace.

A hard, nonsensical series of knocks on the door, and Chrome said, "Come in."

"Chrome," Fran droned her name, once inside; slow, French-undertoned speech: "Did you know -- today Master was going to kill someone, but he thought of you, and didn't? It was really touching, even if he's still a disgusting person, that he cares about you in his own awful way."

Mukuro's hand thrust through the open space of the doorway, half-gloved fingers digging into the amphibian hat.

"Terrible manners," he chided, with a somber laugh. "Not to say 'hello' first, Little One."

With a thinner, more floating undercurrent of chuckling (so often present in his tone), Mukuro rested his elbow on Fran's hat (with the boy responding, a resonant that's uncomfortable, Master), and added, "I would demand he assist you with those, but I'm certain he would merely drop and break them."

"Why can't you help her, Master?" Fran rebuked, staring off to the side, down the hall, at nothing. "No one likes a person who mooches."

"Precisely my point. Don't get me started on your conduct today, when we were working. Rather, when I was working, and you were reading comic books in your illusory bean-bag chair."

"But I was trying to find the right pose so I could help you -- and besides, the new issue of -- "

"I don't need it," Chrome interrupted. Then, blinking. Catching herself. "I don't need ... help. Sorry."

She had decided, suddenly and somewhat unconsciously, that she did not wish to hear about their work. Something exciting, no doubt -- something highly productive and meaningful in the cause of disempowering the mafia underbelly of the world, but this evening had been planned as a break between such events. The touched nerve was flaring.

Fran's eyes widened. He and Mukuro exchanged an ambiguous, inquiring look.

"Hey, Master," he said, "there won't be more dishes if we order out."

A nice boy, Chrome thought, with sympathy. Mukuro and Fran settled the order with a coin toss. Each of them winked at the same time to manipulate the results, and caught one another doing so. Chrome had to break the tie and reveal the honest outcome of whether heads or tails had truly won (debates between cheating illusionists were the most tiresome). Tails: Pizza, then. Fran ordered it with peppers, forgetting (?) to specify only partially peppered. Mukuro spent the evening gingerly plucking them off his pieces with a grimace firmly intact. Spritzers, as planned.

"No more for you," Mukuro said, sliding the cup aside as Fran went for his fourth drink. Elegant raised eyebrow. "That's quite enough."

"But Master -- "

"Alcohol makes a sorry sight of someone with your dimunitive stature," he added, tsking, knuckles to his temple. "And I wouldn't forgive you if you threw up on my cute Chrome's sheets."

Fran was indeed an uncontrollably terrible drunk. The last incident, to Chrome's knowledge, had ended with him peeing in a public fountain and sobbing over a toilet about, among other things: his parental abandonment, the fact that the girl he liked had ignored him when he attempted to climb the wall of her house and knock on her window, and the death of his pet hamster when he was twelve. Mukuro had held his hair (and hat), grumbled intensely, and phoned to tell Dino Cavallone that he would be cheerfully blowing off the request for an illusionist's assistance (he was sure you were terribly sorry about that). Chrome had worked extra. She was always glad to help, which her friends did not seem to always understand, as with Haru, who complained, what a rude thing to do to a lady.

They watched films on Blu-ray Discs. A debate as to the merits of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory vs. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mukuro enjoyed musicals. His secret childhood dream had been to be the star of his own real life musical. Fran looked dubious. Mukuro conceded that he would fuck Johnny Depp (this was after several successive spritzers and a mild buzz), but Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka; you couldn't really deny that, could you? Depp was more of a Burton sort of thing. Mukuro was a fan of Burton, too. Another illusion he would be happy to oblige as his life's stage.

"At any rate, the treatment of the children in this film is inspirational for what I ought to do to you," Mukuro said, picking his teeth. Of course, he was lying. If anything, he found the candied, chocolate world more inspiring than the child abuse (not that it wasn't somewhat inspirational, but really, adults mistreating mischievous children still gave Mukuro kneejerk That Could Have Been Me willies and made him somewhat want to slaughter the adults in question, out of old habit -- even if age had made him rather more sympathetic to the adult's plight, in light of Fran). He had wanted to live in such a place. Fran still did, and they had made such worlds together through the years. By the time they began to work their way through the Godfather films (the first two, of course), Fran was still humming about oompa loompas under his breath.

Chrome lay on the far on the side of the bed, face pressed to the pillow, hugging it. She did not participate in the movie conversation, save for the occasional acknowledgment of a comment.

"Master, is Chrome on her period?" she heard Fran whisper (loudly), when he and Mukuro had walked into the kitchen to retrieve dry cereal for consumption with alcohol. "She seems down . . . "

"My verdict for you: single forever," Mukuro informed him, with a mock pat on his forehead, and Fran sighed loud enough for Chrome to hear.

~*~

The Godfather's ending credits were playing, with the instrumental of "Speak Softly Love" rising and falling, filling the small space with haunting notes, and Mukuro had walked away from the bed to place Fran (who had already fallen asleep against him) on the futon in the living room. Sawada Tsunayoshi, Mukuro had said in jest, was no Michael Corleone (the idea amused), but what theatre! And the music, the evoking of the Old World nostalgia. Fran dreamt in the shadows of the dimly lit apartment. Chrome watched Mukuro flip the switch of the lamp, drowning the room in full darkness and moonlight; an atmosphere of the night -- of booziness and background music and flickering television, street sounds and quiet bodies giving in to the urge to slumber. A somber, whispering mood -- a mood to be pensive. A mood for communication. Resolution. Secrets. Fran tucked in. Mukuro was returning to the bedroom, straightening his gloves with a tug and a snap of fabric. Chrome watched through the dream (dreaming, always dreaming), wondering what would come of the next year, and whether he would miss the boy, who would leave soon to pursue life amongst Varia.

"Well," Mukuro began -- the first to end the silence of middle ground, "shall I assume you would prefer I take my place beside the boy? On the futon?"

He was still smiling, outlined by the moon, a silhouette; beautiful, his movements, like shadow theatre.

Chrome hesitated. Cleared her throat. Said: "You could."

"The truth of it comes out, then."

She sat up, hands in her lap, watching him expectantly and intensely. I didn't lie, she thought. She had not uttered one untruthful word to him this evening. Chrome was sitting up at the end of the bed, against the pillows, in the middle, and had unconsciously positioned it as something of a territory. Mukuro wanted to Discuss Matters With Her; she could tell, and had expected this. She would not argue with him. She had no intention of arguing. She looked away. The credits had finished rolling, but now the disc was repeating itself at the options screen.

"Chrome Dokuro," Mukuro said, "what an impossible woman you are when your temper takes you. Come, now. Be honest. Is this about the job offer?"

"This?"

"Silences speak louder than words, sometimes."

"I guess." She fidgeted.

"To put it another way, then: have you refrained from all words or facial expressions in the direction of my person because you are displeased with me? And, if so, is it because I accepted an offer you had hoped for as your own?"

"I -- " As she watched, he sat down on the edge of the bed. There was a great hesitation in the motion, as if Chrome were a crouching tiger in the act of protecting her den. It was her den, but she had not meant to convey the impression that Mukuro's physical presence bothered her. "I wasn't going to cause a fuss," she said. "You can... if you want..." She patted the space beside her.

When Mukuro's face softened, in the light of the moon and the incoming glow of the street lamps, she saw in him the features of the boy with whom she had fallen in love, so long before, in another world, lost to time and space and hope, when she had been his only outlet to this place, and he had been the oldest boy she had ever known: how had time reversed him in age and solemnity? Or had she merely grown older and wiser? Nevertheless, he had saved her life, given her friends, and lived as her best friend, and to see his fond smile caused a pang in her heart (and vagina): the whim of the heart tended towards immediate reconciliation, comfort, and the whim of the vagina agreed (albeit with more sensual decorations to this idea of reconciliation), but no, she thought stubbornly. No -- intellectually, it rose up within Chrome, as she looked at Mukuro, that presently, he was her mentor, her best friend, her partner, but he was also, in sum total, competition.

And she didn't quite know what to do with this realization.

"But I don't like it," she said, finally -- after the agonizing pause, in which he had looked at her, pressing, as though asking whether she were quite finished speaking. "I don't like that you did that. It was mine, Mukuro-sama... Mukuro." At this point, her face was very hot and flushed with feeling. "I want... to help Boss... everyone... too. I'm sorry. But I don't like it."

On his knees, Mukuro leaned forward, tipping her chin upwards. "So, you are angry with me?" he asked, voice hushed. Phantom smile hanging, unbroken. "Definitely?"

"Yes," Chrome answered.

"Good," he said, and kissed her jaw.

To her surprised look, he added, "I wouldn't be able to live with a woman, you see, who couldn't stand up for her own boundaries. Now, please -- " She felt him pressing a piece of paper into her hand, exchanged from his back pocket. "-- accept my own mission for you. It's far more exciting than anything pertaining to organized sports, I assure you."

When Mukuro sat back, Chrome leaned forward, taking hold of his wrists, numb with the spent energy of repressed frustration that was emptying itself, exhausted from the sense of having been tested. Mukuro was laughing amiably.

He let her kiss him, more fully, and added, "You see, I took this job of Reborn's that you might have the other, the one I wish for you, all to yourself. Honestly..." He wrapped an arm around her. "... what do I care about the World Series? Besides, I'll have to deal with Yamamoto Takeshi making silly facial expressions at me the entire time. It's a mercy, sparing you that."

"He's my friend," Chrome said, reciprocating the wrapped arm, and leaning against his shoulder.

"Yes, well. Our last outing together had an unfortunate incidence of raptors."

"Raptors?" She blinked.

"Never mind about them." Mukuro waved his hand. "A story for some other time, perhaps."

"Ah."

~*~

Read it in the morning, Mukuro said, with a voice barely above a whisper. Read what I wrote for you by the light of dawn, and give me your answer then. If you say no, if you refuse, then that will be that, but I do not think you will. Chrome had thought to apologize for her frustrations, for having taken his actions at face value (a fault which belonged to the world at large), but Mukuro pressed a finger to her lower lip and said: Blind faith is for children, which we are not now, do you see? Adults are critical; they scrutinize, and they question, and they become angry when anger is due, and sometimes when the necessity of anger is in doubt but its luxury is not. I had the luxury to take from you what you hoped for, and you had the luxury of anger, and you, Chrome Dokuro, Nagi, are an adult woman.

So she had grown older, she thought. She knew. Remembered a past when she had assumed her sufferings as nothing. Unaccountable, when compared to his.

And Chrome remembered the words, long before, that Mukuro had said she reminded him of: I want to die. Which was no longer true, and which had not been true since the day they met. When he pulled her from that dark place; they were your words, too, weren't they? The warmth of understanding. Nostalgia. Far away, in their nightmare fairytale childhood; death row and death sentence accidents. It was a miracle, living. Will our future generations ever believe us? Chrome wondered. Children believe they emerge from acts in sexless, drab rooms; no passion. They sterilize the lives of their parents, render them dull with next generation ennui.

Will any ever accept the vastness, the immensity of the love which crossed space, time, hopelessness, futures, reality and unreality?

It seemed an unlikely story. We'll fade with the years and become human beings. Indistinguishable from every other couple.

In the morning, by the sunrise, Mukuro was touching the faint outlines of old scars, thumb tracing the knitted stitch maps and rings. He let down the illusion, on occasion, or pulled back his sleeves, just a flash of vulnerability amid the dark lines. Another miracle. Impossible injuries. An unbelievable source. Concealed. Chrome remembered the first time he had shown her. That first night at Kokuyo. That first occasion of lovemaking, conspiratorially whispering amid the sheets, and the knowledge that she would have to get dressed, go to school. Hide in the world. Daydream of other meetings. She had watched his eyelids when he slept. Watched with the old childhood fear that sleeping is a temporary death.

"I still hate this world," Mukuro admitted, rubbing his thumbnail against the long blue veins in the wrist. "But only most of it."

"You choose to live," Chrome said. "And... me, too."

"Whatever I may think of it, it's not going anywhere. So, yes. Living is as good an option as any."

Fond smiles.

"And perhaps," he added, ruefully, "mocking it, too. That always does help. Laughter is the cynic's eternal tonic. It makes life bearable."

"I read your words," Chrome added, "and I accept. I -- want to teach you something, for once."

Because whenever she thought she had the upper hand, whenever she thought she had grown, whenever he appeared childish, playful, a trickster, Mukuro always proved one step ahead, one plan in front of her, one wise word forward towards a conclusion which she felt she could not have reached on her own. It was maddening, exhilarating, this sense of challenge. Even now. Especially now. He had said that he could not live with a woman who would not disagree. Chrome could not live as a woman who failed to prove something to him, to save him in equal measures to those ways in which he saved her.

Mukuro pulled his sleeve down. Disguised the marred skin. In the other room, Fran was snoring. Contented. All the world was going about its day.

"I would expect nothing less," Mukuro began, with that haughty intensity, that aged pride, "from that most uniquely perceptive girl I met nine years before . . . who surprised me, already, by being honest in a dishonest world, and finding pleasure in this. For me, I see now that the endless cycle is tedium. Monotany of existence. That is hell. And hell itself, if that is this world, won't see to it that I am unhappy -- not so long as she is there." He pressed his finger to her forehead. "The person I do love."

Cool leather. Warm skin. Chrome had only one eye from which to weep.

Chapter Text

To outsiders, the relationship between Sasagawa Ryohei and Kurokawa Hana was a matter of the utmost mystery. How had the studious, hard-working, no-nonsense (and altogether entrepreneurial) girl ended up dating (and staying with) the klutzy armored tank of a boy who didn't listen to others, didn't perform well in school, whose nose was a half-crooked from the breaks and bends of left hooks, whose teeth and jaw locked with trained severity, bulldog-like, and who carried scars on his skin?

The truth was: seventeen, jaded, awash with cynicism, a shitty break-up with an older boy -- you know, the kind of bad break-up where you drop by his house to return a handful of CDs and find a naked girl in the kitchen (and then, because you've practiced the art of Not Giving a Shit, you ha-ha under your breath and shoot the breeze with her just to make things awkward for him, before walking the hell out of there with a shrug of your shoulders and a glide in your step) -- Hana was thinking life was starting to seem like one of those stupid, quirky-dramatic movies that try too hard to be cool. She was ready to give it all up and be the fucktoy of some old businessman, as long as it meant free cellphones and Amazon kindle packages.

The truth was, that wasn't true, either.

That too was practiced cynicism (or Cynicism, with a capital C).

Cynicism is a defense mechanism, as the old logic goes. Berating yourself alongside berating the world at large for seeming to berate you. What wasn't cynical was the assumption that being single was preferable to a bad relationship. What was cynical was the projected certainty that any future relationship would always be -- and could always only be -- bad.

But where were the other girls? Kyoko and Sawada had begun a disgustingly cute courtship, wherever that might land them, the eyepatch girl was getting some from somewhere (probably from one of those degenerate types; it's always the cute, innocent-seeming ones), and Haru was obviously on the way to living out the remainder of her teenage years in an orgy of debauched harlotry, since anyone could see it was only a matter of getting over her juvenile crush on Sawada before all the springs broke and her naturally free and flirtatious personality made her naturally free and flirtatious with sex. The only thing holding that girl back was obviously some clingy adherence to childhood traditionalism and marital obsessions; she was trying really, really hard, but anyone could see it didn't make for a coherent picture. It was almost painful just how badly Haru wanted to be a model, standard-issue wife. But it wouldn't last.

Debauched harlotry seemed fun, in any case. Dumb, but fun.

Hana had given that boy her virginity (tarnished though the concept may be). First fuck. A bad ex. All the girls around her were cute and spoke well. Sweltering Namimori summers and swimming practice; listening to them flirt with boys (tedious, boring, insipid conversation) at the local pool, the cool blue of the waters and the taste of lemonade and ice; her bruised knees, skin break-outs, frizzing hair, half-written college applications, apathy towards work. The grind of a part-time job. Parents' separation in the background of it all.

It was Kyoko who hooked them up, Kyoko who said, "Big Brother has been pining for that girl with the big forehead at the dojo, but he can't ever find her, and you mentioned wanting an older boy to go out with... and I think the two of you could give it a try..."

It was thus for Kyoko's sake (because Hana couldn't stand the pressure of that bright, dopey, hopeful smile) that she went out for street vendor ice cream alongside one Sasagawa Ryohei. Who ordered a massive cone of five scoops and yelled, "Kurokawa Hana, do you extremely want to share this ice cream with me?"

And when she, arms folded, smiled in that laissez-faire way and replied, "Well, I guess I co--" Ryohei, in his eagerness towards the romantic gesture of partaking of the same piece of food in the way fictitious animated dogs have been known to do, promptly punched (the most appropriate verb for the arm gesture) the ice cream forward, pitching all five scoops out of the cone and onto his date's face, hair, and clothing.

~*~

At Kyoko's house, the sun washed in golden across the wooden boards of the stairs, illuminating the attic dust that was stirring about. They were latchkey kid siblings, Ryohei and Kyoko; their parents were working, constantly working, at the office, out of town, and the two of them had taken care of each other since childhood. It was the sort of place where the doors creaked and the pictures looked back with thin, thumbprint-ready dust films. Brother and sister, brother and sister -- his arm slung across her shoulder in every frame. Dusky carpet. To have someone -- not to be alone in this world -- to have a big, picture-leaden house with wooden stairs and old basketballs in the closet and high second story windows where the sunlight poured in over the old signs of living -- that was the Sasagawa household, and, in spite of the hardships of fending often for themselves, and the day to day struggles of school, where, after all, people walked with the kind of cruelty only middle schoolers could adopt, there was nevertheless the sort of happiness here, a feeling of home, security, that many children would never know. Wasn't that why Sawada had convinced himself he loved her? It was Kyoko's smile, which had been nurtured here, raised by her brother. The pictures told the story of Kyoko's smile.

Call it a crazy whim, but it was then, standing there, looking over the photo collection of sister and brother, just inhaling the smells of Sasagawa Kyoko's house (which after all she had been to so many times, but today was different, new, an epiphany day), that Hana realized she wanted to be a part of this family forever.

Ryohei, meanwhile, walked into the hall, found her, and sheepishly (with a level of awkwardness and hesitance you wouldn't think possible for him) handed her an old, faded jersey, and baggy pants with butterfly-knot ties in the front.

"I'm extremely sorry," he murmured, when she'd emerged from the bathroom in the proffered attire, having placed her own clothes in Kyoko's washing machine.

The tone changed the adverb. Made it low and sweet on the tongue. The words we use in conjunction with excitement, fervor, intensity, anger, are also our words of deference, kindness. An adverb modifies both, one as easily as another.

Hana rolled her eyes, but smiled. You big idiot, she wanted to say. He smelled like shaving cream and athlete sweat, that heavy, musky boy odor, all armpit, but somehow not entirely unpleasant (if nothing like Kyoko, perfumed and soft). Up close, she could see the little nicks and cuts where his razor had been applied to his jaw, the fading rough patches where prickly white pieces of bandage had stemmed the blood flow. The thought of this boy with a razor was alarming, she had to admit. How had he managed not to grate his cheeks off?

"It'll wash," Hana said, tossing her hair back. It was wet from the shower, crinkly from being towelled. Her frizzy, easily-tangled, entirely unstriking hair, the kind of hair which you had to learn to love, because it wouldn't give you an inch in the beauty or lustre department, and made you work for any style, any compliment. Hair she had made peace with, hated, loved somehow, still. "I should be more worried about you. How is it you've not died a death by unfortunate accident yet, Sasagawa?"

His eyes lit up. Kind of literally. Which was alarming, or would've been, if she were less of a woman. "OH, Hana, I'm careful TO THE EXTREME."

"Right. Well, I was noticing here -- " She pointed at the collection of pictures and ornaments "-- these trophies and plaques."

"The trophies are from the boxing tournament," he agreed, nodding. "I also have a container of the teeth I've had knocked out, if you want to look at that." He had made a fist, and was gesturing proudly, showing off the muscle in his arm. "What do you say, Kurokawa Hana? Do you extremely want a romantic gift of one of my teeth?"

"Ah. Well. Heh. Isn't a first date a little early to be offering that, mister charmer?"

Hana was quickly noticing that Ryohei's face was prone to boyish, round-cheeked looks of surprise and guilelessness. It was probably the most significant feature he shared in common with his sister. Both would stare at you like a gaping fish if you said something which was in any way outside of their world view (which usually meant you were saying something practical). The difference was, mixed with Sasagawa Ryohei's indulgent, at ease buoyant happiness was also the trademark aggression towards tackling life. He could go from intense (squinting, wrinkle-browed, sweating) to fish-gaping at the drop of a hat. What a dumb lug, she was thinking, scraping her fingers through her hair.

"I didn't even think of that. You're right, Hana," he said.

She had begun looking back at the other assorted shelf decorations. To one's astonishment, they did not consist exclusively of boxing trophies.

"What's this?" Hana leaned forward, lightly pressing her thumbnail against one of the framed certificates.

"Extreme community service," Ryohei explained.

It was then that it came to her attention that the boxing club captain, always in Dying Will mode (not that she knew what that meant at the time), had expended a non-negligible amount of his energy towards cleaning the dojo, teaching the kids self-defense, looking over the elderly, setting up school activities at Namimori, and all deeds to which one would commonly apply the word "Spirit." Ryohei was an idiot who could not even remember that he had graduated a grade in their middle school, let alone succeed in academics. Furthermore, he was a singleminded jock. But you couldn't say he was selfish, or that he didn't care, or even that he didn't give back to the local community. He was friends with Sawada's mysterious crowd, as well as that Hibari kid, who was a major fixture in Namimori politics.

With this in mind, Hana continued to date Sasagawa Ryohei.

Pragmatism suggests not all relationships begin with love, hearts, roses, glamour, perfection, and sweet smells. This was not love at first sight, for they had passed one another countless times. Nor was it love at first yell, at first clumsy accident, first miscommunication. His timing was all wrong. You could tell he'd never had a girlfriend before. But he had a huge, kind heart. He would have a bright future as a leader of service projects, a family man, taking care of others as he had taken care of his younger sister, and it was worth being a partner to someone with a heart like that, enduring silly fumbles, if it meant security (which was a kind of maturity) at the end of it all.

Hana could not bring herself to cheer or scream for Ryohei's team at the school festival, since it went against her personal moderate self-expression, but she watched, clapped, held her chin and furrowed her eyebrows in concentration, seeing and listening to the scores as they were called. At the time, it had meant trying something new.

It will surprise onlookers, at times, that those who make the biggest deal out of cynicism and sense can nevertheless be amenable to opposites in a lover -- not because their cynicism is insincere, but because cynics, too, can make exceptions.

~*~

Hit the ground running and don't look back.

Ryohei would stand, slapping the sprinters' backs, face growing more serious with age. Severe sportsmanship. A man puts his heart into the game (he was careless with his language like that, assuming his sportsmen to be men). My teacher, he would say. My teacher was a man who could sleep and eat and love under the stars, or in the forests, or by the creeks. He could bleed and sweat to the extreme. He was a real man, and loved a fine fierce woman (but yet, bewildered -- why did she struggle with him, and why did she resist?).

And Hana would think: Baby, love (she could write like this, think like this, but she would not say the words aloud -- meditative pet names), Mister Sasagawa, let me tell you. You understand running and punching and being good, but you don't have a clue. The fierceness and strength of women. The night Kyoko had called her, and she hadn't told Ryohei about it, hadn't told him why or what had happened -- and, really, if he was going to lie to his sister, then he didn't always have a right to be privy to information about his sister's life that she hadn't chosen to disclose to him, now did he? But maybe that was why Kyoko had been afraid to tell him. Even if she believed his lies, she did have a feel for the state of disclosure, and Ryohei himself had established the trend for their communication.

Hana listened to Ryohei talk about his teacher, and about the strong and capable woman his teacher loved. Lal Mirch, and how she resisted.

Well, can't you see why she resists? It's her pride. You can understand it so well when it's a boxer, a sportsman, a sprinter, a boy with a little sister.

But, here, a woman. A soldier. She'll set her own terms.

And so will I.

~*~

Don't look back.

Hana never did. Not the night she received the phone call, driving out alone, with the car lights through the woodland and her empty thoughts, the lonesome radio. Not through the evenings after Ryohei's matches, when she stood outside in her skirt and jacket, tissues in hand for some cold or another, or chatting on the cellphone with her mother, who needed this, needed that -- the local high school kids nearby making out in the dark, laughing, and the clang of the gymnasium being locked for the night, Ryohei throwing his hoodie over his shoulders as he joined her, knuckles bruised. Walking together, communicating unto a point. Infertile, dead frustration beyond that (gender, politics, foreign affairs). Kissing. Fucking. The vague, bemusing horror of having been the one to deflower Kyoko's Brother. Did that earn you a special place in hell? The condom tore from his "extreme thrusts," had to be thrown away in a sticky mess, then a dose of morning after pill, but it was all right. More careful next time. The sex was athletic. Hana lay exhausted and soaked, gushing wet, afterwards, and Ryohei liked to cuddle. Or sleep, instantly. Just sleep. Hana stayed up, counted the tree leaves, the ceiling ruts, made morning coffee. This would be a life in the last years of high school and the beginning of college.

During a semester abroad, Hotel Royal Riviera, France, at the end of college, celebrating business prospects with colleagues (which had later fallen through, and such was life), Hana had been awakened to the truth about Ryohei's own elusive work affairs.

Literally awakened, following a dubious drunken tryst and bi-curious threesome, because this was travel abroad and Things Happened, and she and Sasagawa were currently On Break in their relationship, having agreed to take it slow. Moreover, there had been years of College, and Things Happened, for they had been distanced physically (turned out, boxing scholarships weren't an especially safe bet for getting into a worthwhile school), and Ryohei had become prone to running off at strange hours for strange phone calls, dressing in suits and ties, but to what end, Hana was not entirely sure. It probably wasn't another woman. The guy was too honest with his face, whatever a filthy liar he might be to his sister, but if it was business, as he said, it seemed to be rather shady business. Though, honestly, Ryohei and shady?

Anyway, Hana had said, "Look, Sasagawa, we'll see what happens," but in the back of her mind, she had been thinking: Who gets with their high school sweetheart, anyway?

And there he was.

Standing outside the sliding glass door, polished shoes and button-down shirt, tie blowing backwards, catching in the night air.

Hana disentangled herself from the unconscious bodies, the sheets, the empty bottles and glass trash piles, the hotel experience. The pain in her head suggested hours had passed sinceShe tossed on a pair of black leggings, white T-shirt, wool-lined jacket, flat dress shoes.

Slid open the door --

"Hana," Ryohei said, with an intense, conspiratorial look on his face. "I can explain to the extreme!"

She sighed and pressed a hand to her temple. Wouldn't you know it -- she had forgotten to pilfer the Tylenol which tended to come after the little piles of glass bottles.

"I love you," he said, grasping her shoulders (with those large, crushing, boxer's hands, surprisingly gentle, but callused). "I love you extremely. So extremely I can just let go of extremely and say I love you, because my feelings are extreme enough that they are -- JUST THERE. Maybe that extremely doesn't make sense. I didn't pay attention in school. But I know this. Hana."

"What's extreme is the time of night," Hana answered, a little taken aback, overwhelmed by the confession (but then, that guy was always like that, never doing anything in half-measures). She huddled, pulling her jacket closer around herself. Hers was a body that had always been easily prone to chills. "And that you're here in France. What the hell are you doing? Love me, sure, but be honest with me, will you?"

"Well, you see, Hana." He was smirking a little, a look that quirked the side of the mouth. His hair had grown longer, spiked up with gel, combed businessman-like, his jaw longer, his muscles harder, but the tallness made them less boyishly compact, his body less stocky than it had once been. On other men, the smirk, the gel, the suit and tie seemed distant, arrogant. Maybe it was because she knew him, and maybe it was bias, but even now, for Ryohei, the look seemed clear-eyed, innocent, hopefully enthusiastic. He swiped a fist alongside the side of his jaw and pointed at her, boxing stance creeping into every little gesture: "I extremely believe -- YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME AND SEE!"

~*~

And this was the story of how, on one ill-advised Saturday night at the end of an expensive semester abroad (with ill-advised drinking, and ill-advised threesomes, and ill-advised spending, and a general college-tier waning of that usual pragmatism), Kurokawa Hana found herself in the backseat of a car being driven by one Hibari Kyouya, with Sasagawa Ryohei upfront in the passenger's seat, turning backwards to stare at her intensely, and herself sitting beside a strange muscular man who tackily donned sunglasses at night. It was a black car, simple and cramped, shining in the lights of the French avenues, as the quartet sped along the brief stretch from Hotel Royal Riviera to Baie des Fourmis Beach.

"The French atmosphere is always so romantic," the man beside her was saying, throwing his head backwards, sunglasses glinting. "I've been telling your Ryohei to make a real film out of it, you see. A Hollywood proposal, right here."

"Ah," said Hana, raising an eyebrow. "That's nice, I guess. I still don't understand the purpose of this drive, though. So you say this is your business?" She looked with skepticism at the motley group. They were well-dressed, all of them, but what was with this flamboyant guy in the back? And the stoic, violent chairman of the Disciplinary Committee? Hana was ticking off possibilities in her head. Beneath his feather boa, feather-lined jacket, green-shock-of-hair guy had the build of a fighter, and Hibari Kyouya's violent tendencies had been no secret even as far back as middle school, but none of the men were dressed with the sort of informal, uniformed appearance you tended to associate with jocks. They looked professional, in a way. But going out for a business venture at this time of night, and with a feather boa -- or a feathery whatever-that-was? Hana wanted to inform them again that it was far too late, and she was already nursing a hangover and what, tomorrow, would culminate into ache and soreness. If this was some ill-timed frat event --

But, no, Ryohei had assured her. This was a job. She rapped her knuckles against his seat.

"Well, Hana!" Ryohei began again, thumping his chest with his fist and all but spitting the words. "Tonight, we're extremely going to dispose of a dead body!"

"Hey," she answered, "what do you mean, kidding around like that? Mister, don't start with me." Kidding, obviously, with a big shit-eating grin on his face, or maybe he was trying to lie to her like he lied to Kyoko, but this was shoddy even by Ryohei's standards.

"He's serious," said Hibari Kyouya, all monotone. "It's a mission from the Baby."

At the mention of that most loathesome creature, Hana shuddered, but her still marginally inebriated brain caught up with her to inform her of the fact that, in all likelihood, corpses were probably the more problematic issue at work here. "What the hell are you guys talking about?" This was turning into some really unfunny business. "Wait a second. Are you telling me you're in the yakuza? The mob? Doing dirty work?" A sudden gasp, realization flooding into her all at once: she was the job. They were going to kill her and dispose of her body. She'd never imagined herself going out like this, and the impulse was to beg, plead, ask why --

"The body is in the trunk," Hibari went on, closing his eyes, at which point Ryohei yelled don't extremely close your eyes while driving! and took hold of the wheel, steering the vehicle away from crossing over the line. A passing car returned an onerous honk in their direction. "How tedious." He appeared to be trying not to nap. While driving. In the mirror, Hana caught Hibari's expression as one of feral severity tottering back and forth with absolute boredom. He glanced down pointedly now and then, checking the texts of his phone, adding, "Rokudo Mukuro has found a means of bypassing the fact that I blocked his number. Once I finish here, I'm going to bite him to death."

The phone was displaying a dubious YouTube video of a set of fruits wiggling with alarming faux-sentience to the tune of Caramelldansen, of which Hana only knew because it was one of those annoying college student memes. She had to pause in her moment of terror to contemplate the complete immaturity required to have forwarded such an attachment. The man beside her, meanwhile, chimed, "How fantastic!" and proceeded to jiggle his hips in place, hands clasped together dramatically.

Hibari, looking very much like he wished to throw the phone from the window, showed a restraint he had perhaps lacked in his youth, and simply clicked it off, putting the item away. Ryohei was turned around once more, declaring that he could extremely explain: "I guess it's true that I'm in the mafia, but --"

"What? Ryohei!" Hana was still looking around, panicked, for a means of escape.

"But it's the good mafia! Extremely good!"

"You said you were dumping a dead body!"

Unbelievable. Torn between fear and intense indignation.

"Hana, you're extremely mistaken! It's -- he's -- he wanted this!"

~*~

Aldobrandino Azzone, Rain Guardian of the Famiglia Taddeo, retired subordinate of Varia, survivor of the disbanding of the Sicilian mafia during the second World War, political reformer during the days of occupation of Allies and Americans, a man who had sought an end to the violence between anti-communist mafia families and socialist reformers (losing three fingers and an eye in the disputes), who lived when Italy was trodden beneath the feet of the soldiers from across the sea, those who, heedless of social awareness of mafiosi, established them into positions of power, demarcated power, and the old Families -- those, like Vongola, who once hoped to stand for something -- had stood aside, or fallen into corruption, the cosigned murders of the reformers who pushed for the socialism of the landowners. Few had spoken then, and this man, who did, went largely unremembered.

Furthermore, Azzone fought with box anemones that glowed violet, and the energy of his own Dying Will flames suffused him with a faint bioluminiscence, resulting in highly amusing possibilities for light switches and dark rooms. He left this tragic mortal vale at a French brothel, in the company of two sex workers and two vibrators (themselves and the objects all faintly glowing, too, but informed that the effects would subsequently wear off, and no, there was nothing nuclear involved, merely a little too much hadou in the wrong directions, if you understand), and though he perished of a heart attack, a grin had persisted in death, itself plastered onto his visage.

Aldobrandino Azzone had, in his will, requested the rites of a mafia funeral. To swim with the fishes, or rather the anemones, he added. It should be noted that a touch of senility had set in, and the old man appeared to have crossed certain mafia-death-related wires in his brain. To wit, being dumped in a river or, better yet, an ocean, was associated too poignantly with the old days of the Families. The context of releasing those bodies into the river had blurred with the context of sentimental events in one's life, and Azzone wanted nothing more, in his constructed will, than to be eaten by marine animals. Actually, considering his weaponry, of which he was fond, perhaps it was not entirely the aforesaid senile touch. Reborn, ever careful with his phrasing, had called it, "a pain in the ass, and an idiotic whim" but Hibari Kyouya was good at disposing of bodies, and Ryohei and Lussuria were the Vongola and Varia representatives chosen to attend the departing of a respected man who had served as an old historical ally.

"You know," Hana began, watching the body float in the moonlit bay (now softly lit lavender, as though glowing by the light of luminous plankton, feathering out in a telling halo around the corpse). "I'm pretty sure this is completely weird. Just gonna throw that out for your consideration, Sasagawa."

Suddenly, for no easily discerned reason, the corpse began to burn, blazing in the water like a Roman funeral pyre on the shores of ancient Italy.

"You're right, Hana!" Ryohei yelled, gaping in slackjawed wonder at the remains. "The 'Activation' of my Sun Flames must have done this when I picked him up! I'M EXTREMELY SORRY!" he yelled in the direction of the water. Sun flames, though generally associated with healing, had as it turned out unexpected consequences when mingling with certain mutated flames and body compositions.

"What a tragedy," Lussuria remarked, grimacing and adjusting his sunglasses against the growing inferno. "It's always the cute ones!" A dramatic sigh.

Hana was going to pretend she did not hear that.

"Uh, doesn't this whole thing seem a little conspicuous?" she observed. "The... dumping and yelling and body setting on fire... aren't you, you know, afraid that... " Sideways glance at Hibari Kyouya, who was patiently engaged in attempting a phone arrangement which would send the messages from all of Rokudo Mukuro's email addresses into the spam folder. He looked at her, expressionless. "-- you know what, never mind."

"Well, you see," Ryohei said, turning to her and grasping her hands within his. Hana knew that look. That sincere intensity. In his own earnest approach to life, this night was important to him, meant something to him. "Hana, I wanted to show you a part of my life beyond boxing, that I do more, that I'm a career man, to the EXTREME of careers, and that I am a Family man, to the EXTREME of Family. I, also, love you extremely. I'm not a good speech man, I guess... I failed all of those classes to the extreme, too, but... "

She could feel the roughness of Ryohei's hands, hard from years in the service of the boxing ring, and, on his finger, another kind of ring. Symbols of fealty, these hands and the burden they carried, both in the exterior of the flesh and in the band, the meaning of which Hana had only just learned, though she had seen it on his finger every day for years now. The hands that had clasped Kyoko's each year, every morning, on the way to school, in the darkness of their seclusion, in the light of their house, squeezing to reassure the blossoming of her smile, when she, in her moments of uncertainty, had looked up to him, awaiting the strength to continue. The finger that wore the burden of Sawada Tsunayoshi's Family, as a friend and a brother. Hands that promised, had always promised, loyalty and stability and love, battle for what was good and true.

"-- but I want us, you and me, to extremely work out, Kurokawa Hana. AND! HEY! IF IT'S THREESOMES YOU NEED -- " He released Hana, pointing a thumb backwards at Hibari. "WE COULD ASK HIM."

Hibari Kyouya was no longer staring. In fact, his eyes had closed, and it took Hana a few seconds to realize that he had fallen asleep while standing -- an impressive feat, and one which undoubtedly spoke volumes about Hibari's opinion of Ryohei's heartfelt love confession.

Ryohei put a hand to his face as if to (conspiratorially) whisper, and instead (conspiratorially?) yelled, "ONLY, WE HAVE TO BE CAREFUL TO THE EXTREME. HE HATES CROWDING. But if it's extremely important to you, I'll offer him a MANLY FIGHT in exchange!"

"No, uh. Ryohei, wait. That's really not necessarily." She sighed (in a less swooning manner than Lussuria had) and pressed a hand to her temple. The booming voice of her boyfriend was doing her no favours in terms of that niggling hangover currently pushing through her brain like a freight train. "Listen, I never said we were done. I said I would wait and see what happened. I know you care about me. But."

She thought about it, realizing she wasn't entirely certain where this thought trailed off to. But you seem preoccupied with other things, or you've kept secrets, or are you really serious? I mean, I know you say you're serious, but --

Ryohei was serious. A glance at the incinerated remains of Aldobrandino Azzone, fire submitting to water as the waves lapped over the flames. God help her, Ryohei was serious. No, God help her, she was in love with this man, and this was what seriousness meant to him. If she committed now, this would be forever, wouldn't it? The remainder of their lives together would be -- crazy? no, that was manageable, she guessed (Kyoko was, after all, Hana's best friend, lest people doubted her ability to tolerate and love Crazy) -- together. Ah. That was the word on which her mind hung, on which it sputtered, started and stopped like a broken vehicle.

Together. It frightened her.

"I care about you, too," she admitted. "I love you. I guess. And I'm... it's... good that you were honest with me about this part of your life... I think. I can see that this means a lot to you. I'll try to be accommodating, and work to accept everything in you like you've accepted everything in me. I know I'm kind of suspicious, prickly, jaded." Smiling, tentatively, a little. "But ... I'm not about to apologize for that. And you're just going to have to wait until I'm ready. Thanks, though, for sharing your other family with me."

The gesture had meant something. She would keep it in mind. Of this, at least, Hana could swear (and keeping such an incident out of mind might not prove so easy, in any event). The knowledge that he was willing to fight for her, albeit not in a boxing ring, did merit consideration.

But, for now, could they please swing by a store to purchase a bottle of headache medicine?

~*~

Long ago, the seaport of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, off which Baie des Fourmis Beach opened, had been occupied by the Romans, then ravaged by war, recreated with monastic sanctuary, crushed by the Lombards. The centuries of sacred and passionate religion, of battles, left their scars upon France, Italy, like the scars across the body of a boxer, or a woman warrior, but tonight, the sea was calm, the moon bright, and Beaulieu-sur-Mer slept, conquered by the wealthy, by new architecture, by the modern and globalizing world. A seaside tale of history, France beneath nightfall. A man sent to the water, living his life for his people, dying smiling. With two hookers. Lussuria had sniffled, terming it hope that we could find love, even in our last days. Hana had thought, if that is finding true love in the end, dying with True Love, then just go ahead and throw me in the water. To have survived the war, the occupation, seeing the passing of generations, during that era when the Bomb had entered the memory of Hana's and Kyoko's grandparents (the distant looks in their eyes, the strange detached way they spoke of it, bicycling in the countryside, unaware of the full severity, not a flashbulb moment, but a gradual shaking), to have known the coming of a new world, new technology, and to have undergone a watery burial in near isolation, the memories of a cluster of unusual mafia members, a pain in the ass. Glowing. On fire. Was there no dignity left?

And yet, he had died smiling.

The little yellow bird perched outside the window of the hotel room.

Sunlight was breaking across the morning, lever de soleil, warmth, and while it chirped -- that feathered drop of lemon -- the Guardians who bore the title related to this event stood outside, talking, speaking words Hana could not hear through the glass, and then to Hibari, too, until such a moment when he bristled, wound up like a spring, and charged upon them for the offense of engaging him (or attempting to engage) into the act of crowding.

When the curtain closed, blocking out golden-orange glow, yellow bird, and radiant human beings, the shroud of darkness clasped the room like a rebirth of night -- masking, for now, the fondness of her smile.

Chapter Text

Fireworks sparked the waters of Venice as red as wine on the night Massimiliano Bacciarelli was pulled from the second floor of his palatial mansion. Venetian Gothic architecture, palm trees that would in the day have cast leaf shadows across the grass, moonlit fountain spray, latticework and window traceries, the shapes belonging to a world of the past, which had witnessed the Byzantine style, the confluence of the era of the Moors, the loggias and lancet arches of bygone Venetian families, the faded splendor of Rome. The Italy of a thousand romances: tender, starlit canals, gondolas rowed along sunset currents, gentle waterways, a city comprised of the descendants of the incolae lacunae, Lombards, Roman refugees, but over time, the population had mixed, become diversified, and now the palaces, the churches, held a sort of skeletal appearance by dint of the memories residing within the architecture, and come ghostly nightfall, this facade lengthened. Illusory.

The fireworks coincided with Festa del Redentore, the commemoration of an end to the plague darkness, the plague winds of 1576, the building of a church, Il Redentore, gift to God from human hands. Today, memory persisted in the form of an annual festival. Boats filled Saint Mark's Basin, dining Venetians, parents and children, tourists. The spires, domes, buildings were lit, and there floated the bright displays of balloons, coloured lanterns, garlands, and people, crowds from everywhere, tourists who would gorge themselves tonight and hit the streets and the churches in the morning, to give thanks, to celebrate, worship. Explosions of light, like bomb bursts, shot through the air, backlit the night sky, trailed out and across watery reflection to illuminate the Floating City.

It kind of brings you back, doesn't it, Master, Fran would say, with all due dispassion, and though Mukuro was fairly certain Fran meant the words with regards to his own childhood, and certain incidents of releasing missiles in battles, Mukuro had to wonder whether the comment was intended for him, the "bringing back" being that of a home that was not, had never been home.

Standing at the water's edge, wind uplifting the back of the long black coat, the fireworks a continual radiant spray that illuminated every hidden nuance of blue-black, jade green, heart red, each individual pigment of clothing and eyes, Mukuro turned the trident to its side, fingering the tines, themselves sparkling, as if heated, heart-beating, alive. As if ready to set fire with a touch.

"Human pomp and celebration are of no use," Mukuro said, as he always did, "save for as a means of distraction."

But Fran understood, for this was an old lesson: certain deeds were best committed during times of crowd gathering, for when all eyes were on the sky, none would be on you.

~*~

Oya, oya, Mukuro said. You know, I always did detest adults.

The past tense hinted at the reality of his being an adult in the present tense (though there were those who would've debated such a claim) rather than at the absence of lingering feelings. Massimiliano Bacciarelli, current heir of the Famiglia Bacciarelli, complicit in the deaths of two elder brothers, accomplice in the murders of CEDEF workers in the unsettled territories (what a shame that this would benefit them, then), currently finding a new field of profit in trafficking underage girls through the Internet.

What an insulting practice for mafiosi, really, but then, Mukuro could've told you in an interview (had he felt so charitable) that the mafia had its secret affairs. Two close and trusted companions bound the man's wrists and feet, gagged him, and dropped him over the edge of the window. They never seem to see the red in the eye before it is too late, or perhaps it really is simply invisible to most human vision. Well, no matter. The ivy was beautiful against the arched windows, the trident a silvered glint mirroring water which mirrored back steel (and other assorted, unnamed alloys). Bacciarelli was still kicking, attempting to yell profanities around the gag, through the length of the driver's course past the ornate palatial mansion driveway, through the back alleys, and to the edge of the canals, where Fran sat on the quayside crates of oranges, whistling, bored, hands to his face.

"Are we going to dump the body, Master?" he asked, kicking his feet against the crate. "It would be better for the environment that way, right? Something for the fish."

"Now, aren't you hasty?" The car door yielded to Mukuro's hand with a click of release, and the still-living body tumbled out, face first, in that wriggling-from-a-cocoon (if the caterpillar did not struggle properly, the wings would never grow, never grow) manner employed by those whose arms and legs were locked.

Yes, Mukuro thought. Crawl like a worm, like a serpent of temptation to bite at the heels. This is appropriate. This is just.

And to the captive, Mukuro said, "Good evening, signore!"

He clapped his hands together at the same second in which another burst of fireworks resounded. In perfect, crisp Italian: "My sincerest apologies for interrupting your smuggling operation talk in progress, but as your considerate host, I have saved for you a view of the fireworks. Please, take a good look."

"Because it's the last thing you'll ever see," Fran added, speaking in (significantly) less perfect Italian, the words inundated with ennui, a garbled smattering of bastard French, and expressed with an expressionless, impossibly unenthusiastic face. Turning, in equally blank appeal, to Mukuro: "Did I do all right, Master?"

The amphibian eyes glared at Mukuro from the hat, which Fran wore as a testament to his own superstition. He could not abide this version of himself to fail to live up to what he had accomplished in an alternate timeline, of which the unusual headgear was a career symbol. Perhaps, just perhaps, the hat (needless though it was, with the Varia Arcobaleno still living) also symbolized something more, something competitive and anxious in Fran's temperament, a self-inflicted replacement woe writ large in green, warty superscript. But, Mukuro noted to himself (as he also always did), the Freudian manifestations of youth were only useful when the youth in question was a target. From a protege, they were noise. Nothing more.

"Rather too dramatic," Mukuro answered, mock-sighing and clicking his tongue, one side of the lip curling. Exasperation with the boy. Distaste for mafiosi.

Bacciarelli was all receding hairline, stark forehead, puffy sacks beneath the eyes, the kind of rondure at the end of a nose which drooped across the upper lip and created something of a dour businessman look, as though he were a sympathetic creature fallen on hard times, a kindly uncle, and not, in fact, a murderer, one who committed fratricide, trafficker of bodies in another sense than human possession. Less of a killer's face than Lancia (oh, Lancia!) had possessed, but more of one than Mukuro's.

The irony of humanity's spectrum always touched him. Mukuro smiled. Thin lines. Fireworks streaming, lights criss-crossing, explosions above. The ordered chaos of it, like gunshots, a noise you could become lost in, and Mukuro's face became all angles, smirk, eyeshine.

"I further apologize for my wayward student," he explained, and thrust his hand forward, yanking the gag away.

~*~

One of the primary irritations in this line of work consisted of the instances in which the wretched devils attempted to presume a certain Namimori prefect's threat of choice in a more literal sense: that is to say, as soon as Mukuro drew back Massimiliano Bacciarelli's gag for a friendly man-to-man conversation (or a kindly offer of last words), the latter yelled, "Brutto figlio di puttana bastardo!" (the relative meaning of which might be derived in most Romance languages, as well as English), spat a mouthful of phlegm at Mukuro, and attempted to lunge forward, teeth going for the gloved fingertips as though each ring were glittering wrapped candy. This was why, in Mukuro's youth, he had had the foresight to remove certain parts of targets. Age had made him altogether too courteous, he supposed, and while Fran yelled -- don't do that, you'll get pineapple poisoning if you bite him -- Mukuro, none too taken aback or ruffled, fisted his hand in the front of the man's shirt, and with more strength than one would imagine his frame to contain, forcibly dragged him to his feet and politely explained (noting there were fingers, fingernails, toes at risk, eyelids to be taped; we can do this the hard way or the easy way, you realize) that the intelligent course of action would be to confess one's crimes.

You see, he explained, I've a tape recorder, and I am a good listener. It's a shame about the fireworks, but I think if you scream loudly enough, the audience will understand your words in spite of the noise pollution.

Rather than a confession, there followed the usual invective, threats. Cosa Nostra would not stand for such treatment. The allied families would not abide it. There would be blood to answer for. Blood to pay. Vongola dog.

How tedious. A brief struggle ensued. Mukuro hauled the man back to the car, stuffed him in the trunk, closed it, sat on it, and began to swing his legs against the edge of the vehicle, watching the ongoing festival for a few seconds before sliding his phone from his coat pocket and proceeding to text Chrome while the captive banged away, yelling in now-incomprehensible and muffled fury as he lay within the trunk.

"I'm pretty sure he can't see the fireworks now, Master," Fran observed.

"Unfortunate, when one considers that the finale is the best part of a show."

But Mukuro was not watching, either.

Breathing lightly, he was reading his texts, contemplating.

It really would be easier to kill him, but Chrome had a tendency to make mournful faces when that happened, and there would be no end of nuisance from Sawada -- not that Mukuro cared what he thought, but the complaining was an irritant. Consequently, Mukuro had determined that the best course of action lay in forcing confessions. Leave the enemy up to the delicate care of Vindice, or even standard law enforcement. So -- he thought, smiling wryly -- what would it to take to make this one talk? Face first into an illusory wood chipper? A firing squad, ready to fill you with bullets -- which, should your imagination grow too expansive (for even a second) would become real, heart-stopping lead? Now that was a prospect which tended to wring the necessary words from otherwise obstinate men.

Mukuro was toying with the idea, mentally rehearsing the usual procedure for explaining to the captive that this probably wouldn't conclude with a fatality so long as he resisted belief really, really hard (ha ha), but it would probably still be scary and perhaps hurt like a bitch, and there was no cure for that -- the mind was a tricky thing --

Then: a new text.

An interruption. Hm.

"Master?" Fran prompted, after many seconds had elapsed.

"Ah? Oh, yes."

Mukuro slapped his open palm against the trunk.

"You know." He shrugged his shoulders, sending a response on his phone before putting it away and subsequently tucking his hands within his coat pockets. "It's been a long night. Why don't I let you suggest an idea for how to resolve this situation, Fran?"

~*~

It turned out that a night spent tied up, sitting in a chair, being interrogated, or even talked to, by Fran, was quite an effective technique for breaking even the hardest of men's minds. In the morning, the news confessed to the tale of a pleading man, red-eyed as if from sobs or illness, who, voice shivering (unwell, his nerves were unwell) spoke in mutters, whimpers, a hushed voice, broken speech, of atrocities far and wide. The figure was identified as the Bacciarelli heir. What would the allied triads say of this? And what would be the repercussions?

Mukuro watched the sunrise at the Lido, one hand shading the eye which, after all these years, remained slightly more sensitive to stimulation. In the morning, the skies were smoky, dim, grey, and a cool breeze came off the waterways. Pigeons filled St. Mark's Square, picking at the refuse of the night before, the crumbs of the passersby, the tourists. Church bells pealed, haunting. They were everywhere, the birds and the churches, the shops and the boulevards. Mukuro worked his way through a cappuccino purchased from one of the cafes, eyeing the lazy, exhausted walk of the visitors to Venice, the indolent floating of gondolas.

Drowsy, over-stuffed morning, chill and masking the sun.

If you keep inactive for too long, thoughts begin to fester, and memory becomes corrosive. Italy was full of hungry ghosts. Distant scurrying through backroads, empty stomachs, spectre-like tall people with their then-strange adult language and their secrets (that you could reach into them and pluck like the feathers from the birds you caught for supper).

One eye remained more sensitive, yes. Mukuro disliked over-exposure to water. Sometimes the weight of his coat would create a self-aware itch, and he would wish faintly to remove it, but he never did.

~*~

Do you remember?

During the night, when he was still a child, Fran had made the most terrible noises.

Mukuro slouched on the couch before the cluttered coffee table, stirring milk into tea, reviewing battle plans and weaponry, pretending not to hear. If he left the matter alone, Ken would come, with his loud noises and his exuberance. He could rouse children, understand them. Or Chikusa, with his pragmatism, his quietness. It would soothe Fran. Even M.M., with her sharp temperament, could tend to the boy if necessary. Mukuro wanted to let it alone. He had work to do.

~*~

Adoption within the periphery of mafia remained, in this world, a double-edged sword -- or, perhaps, a mixed bag of bullets, some of which fire backwards into your face. Most would agree the Arcobaleno Reborn had precisely such a weapon somewhere, conceived in Leon’s body. Back-up, should your prized glock fall into enemy hands: an assured means of seeing that the matter went no further. Adoption was a similar affair.

Xanxus, the Ninth’s eternal mistake, bred from a single instance of compassion towards the underclasses and the mad –- Bedlam of the modern century.

Mukuro himself. Did not a certain boss come to regret his decision? And Lancia-senpai? Where had he gone to these days? One must wonder. It had been a while since Mukuro tracked down his new number (he kept, for whatever reason, switching them) and wire-tapped his latest conversations.

Mukuro mentally rebuked his negligence. At this rate, his senpai would think he did not care, or that he had forgotten about him. Perhaps it was time to give him a new dream. Something with the faces of his dead comrades. For nostalgia’s sake, you know. It’s good to keep your past affiliates in mind.

Lambo Bovino. Fuuta de la Stella. I-pin. Unsupervised, dubiously wanted children. Their parents, their bosses, were too preoccupied with trades, alliances, the buying and selling of weaponry. Sawada Tsunayoshi’s home was simplistic to the point of being asinine, with that caricature mother and father, but it was better than no mother and father at all.

( -- to some children, maybe. Parents weren't a topic Mukuro expended mental energy upon. )

And Fran. Fran was created, the rumour went, in the loneliest place on Earth.

Courbefy, the mottled, broken village in Limousin, France. Abandoned to harsh economic times, real estate deals gone awry, rustic, orphaned, all empty swimming pools and stables bereft of horses. The weeds had grown high. The moss on the stones rolled ever downwards. A terrain so abandoned it would be auctioned for sale soon, said the news media. There they had retrieved the little boy from the last commune which existed in Courbefy, the mother’s last phone call to civilization. She would not speak, would not tell anyone under what circumstances she had been travelling under a pseudonym since leaving her home, when many had counted her as missing.

She would not speak, but cut her hair, and packed her bags, and left for the city.

Turned over to the grandmother who had not known him before, now living within the department of Jura in Franche-Comté, in the cold wintry mountains of that wine-growing region, the malnourished boy’s twig-like arms grew a little fuller.

The grandmother was a kindly woman, but half-blind, half-senile. She would sometimes feed Fran from the same bowl as her ten cats, their tails in the air as they crowded around the ambiguous mulch. And with her eyes too tired to light the fire, her fingers too unsteady, the wood pile too low with no strong person around to replenish it through old-fashioned chopping, and her bank account too sparse to purchase proper heating utilities, the child would forsake the dim and narrow comfort of moth-eaten blankets within his room and sleep in the barn, soaking up the warmth of animals, their smells and their sounds.

The subhuman poverty. The starvation. To know the meaning of hunger.

The parallels were always there, if you looked too hard.

Too much of great discomfort lurks in our human pasts, waiting like a thorns for bare feet.

~*~

When the asuras walked the earth, it was their arrogance which led to them being slain by the avatars of Vishnu.

Mukuro would begin a story like this, lying in the cool darkness of the emptied out theatre, where movies had once played on a screen and children had once sat beside their mothers. They had torn down the remnants of the curtains, broken up the furniture, made way for Fran's matress. It was lousy, the room. Mukuro could feel the lice in his hair. At night, he could hear the beetles crawling. Cockroaches would startle and run if you shone a flashlight. Ken's candy wrappers lay strewn about the floor. The ceiling rafters sang with the voices of the nesting birds. Kokuyo lived and breathed and scurried and scraped and clawed and bit at your skin, like a jungle. The primeval world. When Mukuro was a child, he had sat upright in the bed of the mansion where Lancia lived, watching the trees catch in the wind and throw long shadows across the walls. He had sat upright through the night, lighting matches against his skin and watching the faint discolorations form along his arm, fancying that they were proper complements to the stitch lines and scars, the deep-set bruises and splotches of purple and black and the segmented paths which only Ken and Chikusa had seen. To a ten-year-old in his position, an extra spot of burn or reddening skin was fascinating -- a reminder that the skin was still alive, still yours, still responsive to stimulation. Mukuro had become so used to wearing long sleeves (and to utilizing instinctive illusions if short sleeves were an absolute requirement) that he sometimes began to lose track of his own body, to wonder if he imagined them -- the marks around the eye, on the wrists like shackles, around the elbows and ankles, behind the knees. The brain, stubborn as it was, re-configured the remnants of wounds to little patterns. Chokers, armbands, anklets. Something decorative. For a while, he had worn a spiked collar to enhance the look.

Fran had removed his hat for the night, and Mukuro could roll over, bury his nose into his hair, but he preferred to lie on his back with one arm pillowed beneath him, that small measure of necessary distance, as he would relax, almost motionless but for his intermittently curling toes, eyes lazily unfocused as he stared up at the ceiling. It was there, in repose, that he began to remember.

Remembered when he had been caught walking down the hallway at midnight, and Lancia had held him by the arm. That face hovering near his, that faint scent of boozy breath, cologne, shaving cream, adult male odors. Meaningless words like security. Where are you going, hm? Where are you trying to go? Mukuro had not protested as he was ushered back to the bedroom.

"How were they killed?" Fran asked, a little squeak in the saturation of evening silence, and that was how Mukuro knew, finally, that he had been listening.

Mukuro explained. Asuras were sent against Indra by Brahma and Shiva after Indra had incited their wrath (Fran: "I kinda know how that feels..."), but Indra prayed to Vishnu for protection. Vishnu began incarnating himself in various forms of life. Avatars.

"Such as fish," Mukuro added. "Or amphibians... of which, I suppose, you share an affinity."

Fran thumped his pillow. "Ahhhhhhh, fish fairies and frog fairies. Was there a pineapple fairy like you, Master?"

"Avatars aren't fairies, Fran." Mukuro sighed. "Now, listen -- "

"And why would he go and make himself into fairies, anyway? Couldn't he have just come like he was?"

"Because of the cycle of reincarnation," Mukuro said. He went on to explain that the avatars were something like his multiple bodies. Possession of life. Simple life, or more complex life. Fran would bite his thumb in the dark and mumble that Dr. Verde was educating him on the theory of evolution, on frogs turning into human beings.

But I don't know. I thought maybe it was where the fairies came from, he would add, and Mukuro would laugh and say it was a little like that, and it was true that when the scientists came up with their biological theory, some had observed that Vishnu's eras of reincarnation -- his states of the avatar -- were not so unlike this parallel.

Fran was young. His attention span scattered itself like dust. Mukuro enjoyed telling stories from religions, the symbolism and mythology which had sunk deep into his memory, because when you told stories in the night, your voice became a sort of hypnotic lull, and your mind could drift through dreams, subconscious states, out beyond Vendicare and to the ends of the Earth.

Asuras sought protection from mortal wounds. Neither human beings nor animals could kill them. Vishnu outwitted these rules and regulations by incarnating himself as half-man, half-lion. Chimerical. Shiva granted Ravana protection from the Devas. He was then felled by Vishnu in the form of Lord Rama, a mere human being.

So, you see, Mukuro would say, the moral of the story is that attempting to cheat at life and death is pointless. Instead, you should get by on your own abilities.

("Well." He would chuckle softly. "That's what they told me the moral was. But what I heard was that even a demon could fall, if you understood the right trick.")

"Waughhh, big words. Did they all die or not, Master?"

"Yes, everyone died. The demons all died. They died, and they won't bother you any more, so can't you go to sleep?"

Mukuro thought he was wasting his own time, lying in the dark with that child, who didn't understand him, and to whom nothing in this world meant anything or had the slightest effect.

The negligent grandmother had failed to register in that addled head, as did living here, as did Fran's great volume or talent. Not even the knowledge that assassination squadrons would come from the across the ocean to secure his skills could rouse any pride in this boy -- whose screams and shouts rose out from his nightmares, but suffocated, turning instead to pained wheezing and whimpering. Children cared for nothing. Hadn't Mukuro of all people recognized this?

But when the quiet descended, when Mukuro too began breathing heavily, realizing all at once that this week had exhausted him (and wondering how best to make a demon die: should he, Rokudo Mukuro, incarnate himself as a mere man? or was that the story of Sawada Tsunayoshi, a miraculous one, long before?), Mukuro found himself thinking upon teeming Kokuyoland, and Lancia in the hallway all those years ago, reading to him in Italian from stories like these.

Mukuro was preparing to sit up, to leave, when he felt small hands squeezing his arm, prying him close. In the hot press of the night, Fran had rolled over, so he was exhaling against his teacher's side.

"I love you, Master," Fran whispered, in between those somnolent breaths.

"I love you."

Like children who will say it so casually, when they still remember how.

"Don't go. Tell me more about -- " Trailing off. "-- how they were killed... all killed... and frogfishes... and..."

Mukuro grimaced and pulled his sleeve away. But what could you do with such a student who didn't listen -- save to recite the legends a second time?

"Once more," Mukuro would start, but by then, Fran was fast asleep, and soon snoring as loudly as he had previously cried.

~*~

One morning, Verde had screamed at a snake. Verde screamed at the snake the way that Fran screamed during the night. That is to say, rather than all at once, like a bloodcurdling horror movie sound (and Mukuro was well-versed in those and other common variations upon screaming), the two of them would go "ah, AH, AHHHHHHHH, AH, ah," as if they were gradually coming into an awareness of something menacing. When Mukuro entered the room, he heard Verde making those sounds and gesticulating in the direction of the snake. Vermin entering Kokuyo was not an uncommon ocurrence, but those frightened sounds were new.

"Now what a strange pervert baby scientist you are, Dr. Verde," Mukuro had said. "That you should have a caiman as your animal companion, then make such a fuss about a little snake."

"An animal companion is different, Rokudo Mukuro," Verde said, and pushed his glasses up. "Snakes lash out. Their flexible jaws see to it that they can consume prey of a much larger diameter than themselves. They creep up on you quietly, as this one did while I was working. And with the size of me, as I am now -- "

"It's more likely that it wants a taste of your laboratory rats," Mukuro replied, but if Verde was going to make such a fuss (as though he were a real baby), Mukuro would see to it that the animal could be placed outside. Chrome had been standing beside Mukuro -- she walked all the way from Namimori on certain days of the week -- and she had eyed the snake in that appraising, wide-eyed way, as though there were anything whatsoever to catalogue about its appearance. She was wearing knee-high purple socks which clashed with the overall colours of Kokuyo, mildew green and brown rot. Mukuro was at an eye level with her feet when he knelt down, slipped his shoe off, pressed it gently to the snake's head, and lifted the animal behind the point of its non-existent neck. It coiled and writhed about his arm as he turned to take it outside.

"That looks like it would hurt," Chrome put in (worryingly, always).

"There's not enough pressure for that," he explained to her as they were going out the door. "But I have to make certain this snake doesn't bite me." He was laughing. "The last one that bit me, you see -- I found him a day later, lying dead."

Chrome seemed skeptical, like that was a bad joke. It wasn't, but Mukuro couldn't prove his blood had been the source of the death. And perhaps it was a different snake. The black ones looked the same after a while. Still, it made for an uproarious story.

She was still watching as they turned it loose. Always a great watcher of animals, that Chrome.

When you were fifteen, life was claustrophobic. Life was claustrophobic even if you weren't locked away and drowning in water. Even if you could literally change the world (and Mukuro could), create objects from your mind, run to France on someone else's money. He would go with Chrome to the cinema, the ice cream shops, and there they would count their salaries. Chrome would open a textbook, her arms spread wide, the charm bracelet Sasagawa Kyoko had given her jangling against the pages. Studying would be a way out. That's what they told you in school. That was even what they had told him, a lifetime ago. What do they say about me, Mukuro wondered. Chrome would make non-commital noises. Finally: "They don't really know about you."

There was Chrome, attending classes and taking notes, highlighting material in yellow and purple ink, sunshine through her classroom windows, birds outside in the bushes. Some wayward boy glancing in that direction for the teacher to reprimand him. Chrome's little array of erasers and pencils, neatly organized. It was easy to imagine her among the girls who kept company with Sawada. The picture of her in school, neat and orderly and inadvertently charming the local boys or rousing lesser known girls to jealousy, was far too easy to conceive of, and if Chrome were bullied -- for there was often that -- her quietness and refusal to notice or acknowledge certain kinds of comments would shield her, as it had shielded her from Ken's and Chikusa's gruffness.

Mukuro liked Japanese funerals. He liked Buddhism and Shinto and the way that the Japanese gave their dead loved ones coins for the river crossing, food so that they would not be hungry souls, so that they would not weep as his ghosts had done. He liked that they were provided with sandals and clothes. In Japan, you treated your dead with love and kept them nourished. This was not so in Europe. With Chrome, on a walk, Mukuro had fallen asleep in the cemetery once, listening for the heartbeats under the ground. He imagined his own dead sometimes, like a tell-tale heart down under the floorboards, and Lancia's hands that had made them, too -- and would you believe, he still thought that they must need food, that they must need sandals and coins, though they did not haunt him, save for occasional memories in that space amid the dreams. Memory was a haunting unto itself, some would say.

Chrome had no dead. It was the living who haunted her.

Ken, Chikusa, M.M., and Verde understood. When Mukuro returned that evening, Verde had said, "By the way, Rokudo Mukuro, if another snake appears that is venomous, would you be so useful as to assist me in collecting the venom for one of my formulas? It's only that I have this job, you see, and Reborn -- "

"I'll be sure to put the snake in your bed," Mukuro had said, and walked off.

The first night, Chrome's body closed up. She had wanted this for months, but her body refused her, dry and raw and altogether tiny, narrow. Mukuro could only wedge one pinky finger inside of her. She thrashed and sighed heavily and then began to cry. She was haunted by a living ghost -- a mother ghost. "I'm sorry," she kept saying, apologizing for her skin. The mind within had shut itself off to this. "I don't know why --"

"We could do other things," he observed. It hadn't seemed an insurmountable issue, really, if you were creative in bed, but she was crying, and she refused to relax the world with illusions, refused to seek their malleable cover. A vagina was strange angles and pelvic bones, but this had never been a problem with M.M.

Chrome unlocked herself, in the end, when she opened Mukuro's pants and saw the jut of hidden scar tissue on his hip -- and he hadn't known what she was looking at, not at first, instinct being what it was, and himself being accustomed to hiding. But then he realized only Chrome's eye could have seen. She had taken his arm after that, and every piece of him, and said, "Can I see?" and he had inhaled deeply, but nodded at last, so she peeled aside the illusions, one by one, and finally, when it was over, she reached up to untie her eyepatch.

"Many lifetimes of dead skin," Mukuro had said, and pushed her hair from her face, so he could see clearly where the socket pitted and drooped, an empty deformed indention, shriveled and brown.

"I like it," Chrome had responded, revelling in their amazing, never-seen ugliness, eye to eye, and that was the first time her body had opened, and after that, in each consecutive instance, it had come naturally.

~*~

What a decade it has been.

There in the airport stood Chrome Dokuro, immaculate in her black suit, but you remember the scars, and you know that while money can put fine threads on a body, it cannot teach the physical form to unlearn its habits. Chrome would always accrue dander, stocking holes, broken nails, fraying hair that needed re-styling, but she was crisp and beautifully dressed, smiling in that half-bashful way. She was placing the book she had been reading within her purse. And there beside her was Hibari Kyouya, similarly immaculate. Why, you could begin a modeling agency here, if the personalities didn't register so dourly upon the faces (not everyone could be as well-rounded as Mukuro, he conceded to himself), or in Chrome's case, if she didn't look as though she would begin tripping in her heels at every tenth step.

"It's such a pleasure to see you," Mukuro began, and turning to Hibari Kyouya, added, "I take it that you enjoyed the selection of music I sent in your general direction."

Hibari threw Chrome a withering look, made a noise beneath his breath, and when she responded with a vague sort-of-shrugging gesture (still smiling in that sheepish way), he turned and departed without a word. Chrome was still watching. Then she swung on her heels.

"Well, if I didn't know better," Mukuro said, taking hold of one of her bags. "I would think the two of you were conspiratorially indicating ill of me."

"He has opinions," Chrome said.

"On the fine art of being a dullard. Please, you mustn't listen to anything he says."

"We just finished . . . " The job, but that went unsaid. Chrome was pleasantly giving eye to every airport restaurant. A new and purposeful light had suffused Chrome's being since she had returned from that place -- that place which Mukuro himself had sent her --where she had encountered suffering and grief, including her own, but where she had also found the ability to help others. A person as vulnerable as Chrome had once been had found in her a source of strength and inspiration, and that seemed to have worked a kind of magic upon her.

I've been thinking of her, Chrome would say. That little girl. It must have been like Fran. Like you and him.

Perhaps, Mukuro would say, ambivalently.

~*~

There are seconds that frame our memory -- when the light slants a certain way, or a moment occurs which freezes the mind like a photo negative.

There is Chrome, now in a plain white nightgown, pushing her hair from the side of her face, holding up the little white stick with the blue line, which she, in her infinite but perplexing wisdom, peed on, then carried back all the way to Japan, locked in her purse like a secret. Mukuro tweezered it from her fingers, deposited it in the waste basket, and announced that he had too much difficulty reading signs, and symbolism was a tiresome practice. Chrome lifted an eyebrow. Her face was unreadable. Amused. Distant. Chrome. "Be serious," she said.

His Chrome inhabited the world, but she did not inhabit the world. Chrome liked sex. Loved sex, but she could not bear the scrutiny of the deed. Mist-elusive. If she was in the mood, she would turn hotel rooms red as bordellos, wear lace stockings, heels and eyepatch and nothing else, necklace and eyepatch and nothing else, nothing at all, only a fall of hair. You could cut a path through the hotels and landmarks of Europe: the Italian fountain statue Chrome had blown Mukuro in front of (it was smiling ironically all the while) under the cover of shadows -- night, illusions. Mairie Hotel de Ville Neuilly sur seine -- doubtless there was the conception point, when Chrome had only just returned from her quasi-religious self-discovery, and she was all too happy to see him again. Had laid her pills aside for several weeks. Mukuro was never entirely inactive, never entirely off work. He took tips on his phone. Calls for leads at midnight or two in the morning. But it was nevertheless a sort of nouveau riche pleasure, Mairie Hotel, Neuilly, everywhere in the world like this. Slick parodying of their lives -- the lives he had seen growing up. Playing cards with Chrome. Shuffling -- his long fingers, still gloved out of old habit. Accepting and returning her kisses after many glasses of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, until the bottles were empty. Letting down his hair. She licked, bit his earrings, whispered breathily. Spoke in her feverish Italian, when Mukuro laughed and answered, smooth and rich, in his oldest language, when at moments he would pretend as though he had forgotten all others, as though they had been fucked into oblivion. In the middle of the act, Chrome would shift the setting. Blur the room. Create star canopies. Set their bodies beside an ocean. The sound of waves. Comets in the sky.

They made love like no two beings who weren't illusionists could.

In the daylight, there would be slivers of Chrome. A shoulder. A silhouette putting on a stocking. Tidying a piece of attire. Smoothing the wrinkles from a suit.

Chrome could do all that, fuck for hours on end, but public displays of sexuality still scandalized her. She would sit primly in taxis while Mukuro adjusted his rings. Pornographic websites, if she accidentally stumbled upon them while searching for other topics, made her squint in distaste. She blushed at the blunt sexual conversations the Vongola men could have with one another. She never uttered a word about her own exploits. Always behind curtains. Veils. This was the Mist. And this was the cultural difference, with Mukuro born in Italy and Chrome in Japan. One was more given to outward reservation. But in Mukuro's own ways -- and there were many -- he too preferred his privacy.

The faint light in the hotel room, Chrome asking: "Do you want to go to Mass tonight?" Mukuro declining, ah, perhaps some other time. And: "How was the festival?" Well, it was good, you see. And when he explained his goings-on while the fireworks had been in progress, Chrome had taken Mukuro's hand in alarm, peering at his fingers, and Mukuro had said, wistfully,

"I said that he attempted to bite me -- not that he succeeded in doing so."

Chrome sat, contemplative, looking out the glass doors at the Italian evening, where somewhere in the world, Mass was being held, and the festival's conclusion was commencing and the fireworks had long since burnt themselves out in the night. "I think it will be a girl," she said abruptly, and Mukuro laughed dryly.

"So, tell her not to emerge. This is no world for a girl, nor a world for a child, nor a world for human beings."

Mukuro, lying on the bed with one hand over one half of his face, over the old eye. Gazing at the ceiling, remembering. Children existed to be broken, deformed into adults. Adults were the flawed offspring of children. You were going wrong with a child, with an infant, from day one. "Hadn't we parents once, too?" That seemed an appropriate thought.

~*~

You see.

Truly compassionate people did not engage in generative acts.

Children were had by those with an abiding apathy towards cruelty. The world was cruel, and you could not justify entering further life into it unless you were something of a sociopath. Mukuro's family, Chrome's family, Fran's family, the families of most of those whom they knew of. Any kindness was to be scraped (if you were lucky) from the boots of others. Even Sawada Tsunayoshi's mother and father were of the blithely horrible make and model, joyfully content in wretchedness. You could be that, or you could be simply cruel. There was nothing in between.

Chrome knelt beside him, brushed the hair from his face with her fingertips, and when he regarded her tiredly, she said only, "I thought that, but."

~*~

Festa del Redentore was an Italian celebration in memory of the ending of the plague.

When the great plagues had haunted Europe, one result had been the death of compassion. The locking up of fathers, wives, children, brothers, sisters. Quarantining them in solitude at the height of the disease, such that the contamination would not spread, and they would die in separation. How lonely it must have been, pressing your face to the ground and awaiting an ending without warmth of human touch. Some there must have been who refused to relinquish their ill, who remained with them. At what point does feeling outweigh the terror, the human self-preservation instinct? And at what point, if you should physically survive, does a life without feeling come to be no life at all?

During her time working as a veterinary assistant, Chrome had treated sick animals. Creatures who had been subjected to chemotherapy. Cats whom they told you not to touch, because they had been exposed to radiation. You shouldn't risk it. That had been the official word. But when the cat was frightened, showing her fear in her frantic cries, there was no way Chrome wasn't going to hold her.

What was a life if you couldn't even risk something of yourself to hold a frightened creature?

You would survive, perhaps, but what was the cost?

Hadn't Mukuro understood -- who let himself be sealed away to dream in darkness?

Once, Fran had tried to recall the face of his mother, remembering only a pair of arms holding him. At sixteen years old, the blurry childhood recollection had finally resolved itself as the same person who had told him stories during the night.

When all else of childhood memory has been burned away with time, that is how they will remember the older people who were and were not their parents -- Lambo, Fuuta, Fran, even Mukuro himself -- a pair of arms, a person holding you, a reassuring voice, and warmth.

~*~

The next day, when Chrome returned, Mukuro's hair was down, and he was dressed casually, pajama-like in white top and loose black pants, a glint in his eye and across the clips in his ears. He was scratching the back of his head, smiling whimsically (and all too evilly) and speaking to someone on the phone. When Chrome gave a questioning look, Mukuro sat her down and explained that -- after all, if you must have children running about (deplorable as they were), where would you do it if not in a household?

"Realtors are like used car salesmen, though," he was saying, when the call was put on hold. "If they see you coming, delicate and innocent as you appear, all the red flags will go off, and they'll crowd around you like a herd of elephants. I'll accompany you."

"You could cheat them, I think," Chrome said, and began spreading cream cheese across one of the bagels sitting neatly at the little hotel table.

"But, would you imagine, there seems to be a property next to -- " Mukuro was really laughing now, as he rarely laughed, the full kuahahaha of a sound: "-- Sawada Tsunayoshi. And his wife. Well, I do seem to remember he owes me a body . . . "

Chrome was perking up. "We could live next to our friends."

In her mind, she could see them there -- all of their friends, waiting for them.

"But it would appear that he and the wife are on vacation right now. What a pity it would be if we purchased the house right under their noses. Wouldn't it be a terrible thing to do? Spoiling the chance for them to express their cheer at seeing me. Though there's something to be said for surprises."

And another photo moment: Chrome smiling, sun flooding in on her. Festival over. Tourists dispersing. Goodbye, memories of the end of the plague. Church bells ringing, ringing, ringing.

"I haven't changed my opinion, of course. She shouldn't come out. But if she must, it would be best to be near enough to your Vongola friends to annoy them vicariously. I don't suffer well alone."

And tormenting mafiosi never got old. With those earlier brats having become teenagers now, it was probably time for Sawada to have a fresh round of difficulty on his hands.

Mukuro passed Chrome the housing information, lately printed.

"Please," he said, "have a look."

But, really, they knew, her mind was already decided.