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the violets in the mountains (have broken rocks)

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(The first time she wakes up—really­ wakes up—it’s to a distinct lack of the expected pain and a humming, burning force curled up right beneath her skin.

Oh, she thinks, and then Oh! as reasoning returns. As memory returns, and she struggles up, clutching the rough hospital blankets to her. Not her hospital, even though she halfway expects to feel Sakura in the doorway with her face set in exasperated lines.

What were you thinking, Ino-pig? Why do you have to be the reckless idiot on your team?

Because Shikamaru and Choji would never be reckless, she thinks with a smile, and reaches up to push her hair back.

Short, she realizes with a start, as her fingers brush a fringe that falls around her ears and nothing else. She’d forgotten. Or hadn’t remembered? They're supposed to be the same thing, but they're not, and she never realized that before. It’s…a little distressing, honestly, that her wealth of hair is gone, shaded from butter-blonde to a deep purple. It makes sense, and she remembers it always being this way except that she doesn’t.

Her head hurts, and she presses her fingers to her temple and tries to think.

There was…an accident. She fell. The stunt didn’t work like it was supposed to, and she crashed.

(There was an attack on the village, and Sai had Inojin, and she went for Shikdai and Chouchou. There was no backup, and they ambushed her in a side street. The children—she thinks they got away, but she can't remember. Just pain, and desperation, and then this—)

Layered on top of those memories, wound through, is another set. Motorcycles and sets and crowds, a life spent traveling. The sky, always open, but a trace of…something. A longing for something she’d never had before but missed all the same.

The village, she thinks. I missed Konoha. I missed my team, and my family, and my clan.

They aren’t here, though. She died somewhere very far away from this world, and passed through somewhere bright.

Footsteps outside the room make her raise her head, and she looks for the door, counting paces silently. Fifteen steps heard clearly, and several before that more muffled—a corner in the hall, then. No others that she can pick out, so a quiet corner of the building. Easy to slip out unnoticed, if she needs to. Or there's the window in the far wall, curtained but reflecting the light from overhead—she might not have Sakura's strength, but glass is easy to break with a bit of chakra.

She doesn’t move, though. Waits as the door clicks open, and a redheaded woman steps in and smiles at her.

“Awake, Mister de Mort?” the doctor asks. “I'm glad. That was a nasty hit to the head you took.”

“Miss,” she corrects, glances down at her hands with half her attention. De Mort. And…Skull. She’s Skull. It fits, falls over her like a familiar coat, and she breathes out as the memories settle. World’s greatest stuntwoman, hated by the Grim Reaper himself.

Not Yamanaka Ino. Not anymore. Not outwardly, at least. She’s been Skull on the surface for too long now.

“My mistake,” the woman says apologetically. “I’ll make a note. How are you feeling? You’ve had something of a miraculous recovery, Miss de Mort.”

Miraculous, Skull thinks, and smiles a little. There's something burning in her chest, a fire that blazes violet, and it’s not chakra but it’s close enough. She’s used it before, to heal, to live even when she shouldn’t have survived.

Yamanaka Ino is curled up deep inside of her, a memory, a reminder. Skull flexes her hands, thinks of a village hidden in a forest that stretched for miles in every direction, with strong, kind people, and laughs.

“I'm good at miracles,” she says, and winks, and the doctor smiles back.)

 

1.

Kawahira is fairly sure this counts as desperation, but he doesn’t have a choice. The Tri-Ni-Set needs to be preserved, and the Pacifiers require the strongest of the attributes to hold them in balance. This time, the strongest Cloud Flame just happens to exist outside of the mafia.

It’s a shame, because mafia members are much more easily manipulated, and less prone to overreacting when they become Arcobaleno. Kawahira has taken to picking sacrifices primarily from the mafia’s ranks for that reason whenever he’s given the choice, but this time the only other contender comes in distant second compared to the strength of this Cloud.

He tugs Checker Face’s hat down a little further. A few subtle Mist illusions keep him hidden even in the middle of the crowded stadium, and he slips right past the security guard posted at the entrance to the staging room. There are several groups leaving, talking cheerfully among themselves, but things seem to be winding down, and Kawahira is glad. Better that there are no observers to see the world’s greatest stuntwoman disappear.

The burn of Cloud Flames is already clear and overwhelming, and he smiles, pleased at his choice. Such pure Flames—rare indeed, but very welcome.

Without bothering to knock, he opens the door of the main changing room and steps in. Not empty, not with that glut of Flames so close, and—

He spins, cane flashing up, and a leaf-shaped blade crashes into the shaft, skidding sideways. Kawahira stares into sharp purple eyes, not at all those of the clueless, unblooded stunt rider he expected, and smiles.

“My dear,” he says lightly, “those are quite the reflexes you have.”

“You picked my lock,” Skull returns, and she’s smiling too, but there's a dare in it. A challenge, just in case Kawahira wants to underestimate her, and Kawahira has seen that stare on hitmen and Mafiosi before.

How delightful, really.

He flicks a look from the kunai to Skull’s face, watches her tip her chin up and hold his stare, and chuckles. “I was only expecting a stuntwoman,” he allows, “not an assassin. I wish I could say your reputation precedes you, but in this case it truly doesn’t.”

Skull’s eyes are sharp, even as she laughs a little. “An assassin?” she asks, and that tone is all breezy, cheerful bullshit, carefully crafted as a mask. Kawahira knows it well. “Me?”

“Yes, you,” Kawahira says, a touch dryly, and carefully uses his cane to push her blade down. “The fact that you can see through Mist Flames is an unexpected bonus, I’ll admit.”

Because he’s looking for it, he sees the flicker of her eyes, the way her attention latches on to the term. “Flames,” she repeats, and it’s probably supposed to be skeptical, but Kawahira can hear the hunger for knowledge in her tone. She doesn’t know, and even so she’s still this strong. Kawahira really did choose correctly.

“Dying Will Flames,” Kawahira clarifies, and offers her his arm with his best charming smile. “What would you say to a trade? Knowledge of the Flames in exchange for telling me just how you managed to hide the fact that you're a member of the underworld?”

Skull watches him closely for a moment, then smiles. One of her hands lifts, and for half a second Kawahira thinks she’s going to take his arm. But then she twists, stepping right in front of him, and even as he takes a startled step back her hands flash up, clasp with her fingers raised.

“Or,” she says, and Flames whirl up in a tide, traced through with something other. “I could just take what I want.”

Purple eyes catch Kawahira’s and there's a twisting, lurching wrench. He drags Hell Flames up from the ring, wraps himself in them, but it’s just an instant too late. He hears Skull gasp, feels something in his head that isn’t a Mist user’s invasion. An image of the Pacifiers surfaces, the Arcobaleno, the trap—

Kawahira throws her out of his mind, Hell Flames blazing, and Skull cries out. She goes flying back and crashes into the wall, and Kawahira staggers, catching himself on the edge of the door.

“Now that,” he says, and it isn’t nearly as light as he wants it to be, “is a very interesting trick, Skull.”

“And yours is a nasty one,” she retorts, pushing to her feet. The kunai is still in her hand, braced and ready, but she’s watching him more warily now, cautious.

Sensible, then. Kawahira can work with that.

“I'm trying to save the world,” he says, straightening his hat. “Seven sacrifices, to prevent countless more. Seven souls to contain a power that can't be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Surely you can understand that.”

There's a long moment of silence, and then, to Kawahira’s great surprise, Skull laughs. “Human sacrifices?” she asks, and the curve of her painted mouth is bittersweet. “You're making jinchuuriki to save the world. And you want me to be one of them.”

It’s not a term Kawahira is familiar with, but the context says she understands. Inclining his head, he says, “It’s for the good of the world as a whole. Your Flames make you the only possible candidate for the Cloud Pacifier.”

Skull flips her kunai up, catches it deftly, and slides it away into the motorcycle leathers she’s wearing. “Next time,” she advises, “lead with that.”

 

2.

There's another woman waiting at the foot of the mountain.

It’s a little surprising. Lal was expecting to be the only one—not a lot of women end up neck-deep in the mafia, for the most part. She’s a pretty one, too, Lal thinks a little admiringly, casting a look over the wild purple hair and dramatic makeup, the lean body in what looks like leather motorcycle gear. Another glance up and the woman catches her eye with a grin, and Lal buries the urge to flush at having been caught looking. Walks over, instead, because the only person she knows personally here is Reborn and she’d rather avoid him whenever possible.

The strange woman feels like distance and overcast days and the peace of drifting, unbound. And even beyond that, the purple is a bit of a giveaway.

“You're our Cloud?” she asks, taking a seat on the log beside the woman. Easy enough to see that there’s a representative of each attribute in their group. The only ones missing are Sky and Storm, and Reborn said that the Storm had been caught up at the airport. Lal doesn’t expect a Sky to show up; they're vanishingly rare, and the Families tend to snatch them up as quickly as they appear, and then keep them close.

The woman casts her a bright smile, though Lal can see the edge of caution in her eyes. “And you're…Mist?” she asks, testing.

“Rain. I'm Lal Mirch,” Lal corrects, amused. She tips her head at Viper, completely covered in their cloak and standing at the very edge of the small group, looking impatient. “Haven’t you heard of Viper before?”

There's a flicker in the Cloud’s face, assessment and evaluation, but she just tips her head. “I'm not a part of the mafia,” she admits, easily. “I've been working as a stunt rider most of my life. I'm Skull de Mort.”

That’s…startling. Everyone else here is deeply mafia, even Verde. Lal bites her lip, suddenly suspicious of what exactly this job is that they're supposed to be doing here, but tries not to let it show. “Are you our getaway driver, then?” she asks, makes it light enough to be a joke.

Skull laughs, leaning back on her hands. “More like I'm here for a crash course in Flames,” she corrects. “I know about mine, but that’s not enough, right?”

Not if one wants to survive, Lal thinks, and maybe it’s a little cynical, but she’s been orbiting the mafia as long as she’s been COMSUBIN, and that’s a while now. Skull’s Flames feel incredibly strong, and it’s something of a wonder that she hasn’t been snatched by one of the more ruthless Families yet, especially if she doesn’t know much about the Dying Will Flames.

“This might not be the best way to learn,” she says cautiously, because she’s mafia but no one else should make that choice without both eyes open and all the knowledge going in. “The mafia is dangerous.”

Skull looks at her, and smiles. There's something in her face, under the dramatic makeup and the piercings, past the seeming youth of her features. It’s ruthless, cold—Lal has seen Reborn’s face look like that, when he’s staring down a target who only has seconds left to live. Verde’s, too, with some helpless specimen under his knife. Not a soldier’s look, not really. A killer’s.

Assassin, she thinks. An assassin who’s managed to avoid the eyes of the mafia, even with such strong Flames. That’s…unsettling.

Before she can say anything else, a Chinese man slips out of the trees in clear sight. Making sure they see him, Lal assumes, and it’s easy enough to mark him as dangerous because of it. In a different way than Skull, though, and Lal can't resist another glance at the woman. She doesn’t seem to have noticed, or possibly just doesn’t care; her smile is still in place, and she’s reclining on the log like it’s the world’s most comfortable chair.

“We’re all here,” Reborn says, tilting his hat down a little to shade his eyes. “Let’s head up the mountain, then. We don’t have much time left.”

Lal rolls her eyes, because Reborn always has to be the most dramatic in any given room. Largely out of spite, she waits as everyone else gets to their feet, checking the laces on her boots and making sure they’re not frayed. When she glances up, though, a hand in a fingerless glove is in front of her, offered up with a smile, and Lal looks up into purple eyes and takes it. Skull pulls her to her feet and gives her a wink, and despite all the questions she still has, Lal can't help but smile back.

 

3.

He’s bleeding. He hurts, and he can't make the bandage stay in place, and he just wants to go home but home never fucking existed. Not really. Not in any way that mattered.

Gritting his teeth, Hayato presses harder on the gauze that’s already staining red, curses but keeps it quiet just in case there are any more Carcassa Family members nearby. He wants to think he escaped all of them, got away with the information he was hired to retrieve, but his luck’s been really fucking terrible so far and he’s learning not to take things for granted.

Dragging in a shaky breath, Hayato checks the bleeding, winces, and grabs for more gauze. If the Carcassa use dogs, he’s dead, because they're going to find him as easy as breathing, but if he moves too much he’s just going to bleed out, so there's no way he can run. If he had a family, or a Family, he could call for help, but he’s a bastard child and he doesn’t. No Family wants him, and the only possible way he can get enough money to eat is by taking on the jobs that no one else wants, that are too dangerous for bosses to pass on to their Family members.

Fuck, he thinks bleakly, and thumps his head back against the tree behind him, trying to think through the dizziness of blood loss.

“Hey,” a voice says from above him.

Hayato yelps, jerks, scrambles for his dynamite and his lighter. His fingers are too clumsy, though, nowhere close to steady, and he drops the lighter, can't get a good grip on the bomb as he spins—

A toddler dressed in motorcycle gear drops from the branches of the tree, flips over in the air, and lands lightly on the ground. Hayato freezes, caught entirely off guard, and he can't decide whether to try and run or stay where he is, because that’s a baby and he has no idea what’s happening.

And then the baby’s form shimmers, purple Flames flickering, and an instant later a woman is crouching in front of him, pulling off her bulky helmet to give him a grin. “That looks nasty,” she says, tipping her head at his leg. “Want some help?”

Suspicion is the right answer here; Hayato is deep in enemy territory, almost defenseless, and bleeding heavily. He’s a thief, with information on the Carcassa Family’s main supply routes shoved into the pocket of his jacket, and anyone he meets is a danger.

“I'm fine!” he snaps, bristling, because if he fails he’s not going to be able to pay his rent, won't be able to eat or resupply, and then he won't be able to work, and he’s thought about that downward spiral way too many times since he left his father’s house. “Who the hell are you?”

The woman snorts, setting her helmet down and rising to her feet, arms crossed over her chest. “I'm Skull,” she says, “the world’s greatest stuntwoman. And I'm a pretty good medic, too.”

Medic. Hayato hesitates, bites his lip as he wavers. That’s…convenient. And she wants to help. If he bleeds out he’s not going to have to worry about getting paid, since ghosts don’t exactly need money in the afterlife. Better to make sure he’s going to survive, and then worry about whether Skull is an enemy or not.

He doesn’t say anything, but the woman apparently reads his decision in his face, because she steps forward, getting an arm under his, and Hayato doesn’t protest as she settles him back against the tree on the ground. “Thanks,” he says grudgingly, though he takes care to scoop his lighter back up as soon as it’s in reach.

Skull either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. She tugs the pad off his leg, frowning at the bullet wound, and says, “You're lucky this is only a graze.”

“It’s only a graze because I'm good!” Hayato protests, deciding not to mention that he’d only realized at the last moment that he could use his dynamite to increase his speed. If he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be much of him left, given the way the Carcassa were shooting.

Skull laughs, bright and surprised. “That’s a good point,” she allows, much to Hayato’s surprise, lifting one hand and twisting her fingers into a strange shape. Her Flames flicker from purple, but instead of the yellow of Sun Flames they turn green. Not Lightning Flames, either; something gentle and warm that slips through Hayato’s skin as Skull lays a hand on his leg, and under the press of it Hayato can see torn flesh mending. The spinning in his head settles, steadies, and he takes a startled breath.

“There we go,” Skull says, sounding smug, and pulls away, her strange Flames shifting back to purple and then disappearing. “Almost as good as Sakura's patch jobs. You’ll be just fine.”

There's no pain at all. Hayato swallows, presses down against the skin of his leg but can't feel any difference. “What was that?” he demands, and it comes out too sharply but even Shamal can't heal like that.

“I told you I'm a medic,” Skull says airily, and pushes to her feet, picking up her helmet and offering him a hand. “Come on, my bike’s parked by the road. Infiltrating the Carcassa when you’ve already kicked the hornet’s nest is way too much work, so I might as well give you a lift back to civilization.”

Infiltrating the Carcassa? That means she’s definitely part of the mafia. “What Family are you with?” Hayato asks warily, standing on his own. There's another stick of dynamite up his sleeve, and he can have it lit in an instant if she tries to steal the information he got.

But, rather than making a move to take the flash drive, Skull just smiles a little, small and sad. “My family’s gone,” she says simply, and turns away, stepping into the thick brush. She doesn’t even bother glancing over her shoulder, just asks, “Are you coming?”

Well. Maybe she’s going to kill him and dump his body somewhere, but hopefully she’ll at least get him back to the closest town first. Otherwise, it’s a hell of a long walk, and Hayato is tired. He swallows, glances back towards the Carcassa Family’s compound, and then follows Skull.

“Why did you look like a baby?” he asks challengingly.

“Because using a henge all the time is a pain,” Skull says breezily, like that means anything sensical at all. When Hayato splutters out a protest, she laughs, tosses him her helmet and drags a black and purple street bike out from behind a tree.

(Skull doesn’t murder him for his flash drive. She takes him home and shoves him into her spare room, feeds him, and shows him the best way to throw a knife for maximum damage.

Hayato keeps telling himself he’s going to leave. He is. Definitely. Absolutely. He doesn’t have a family, or a Family, and one crazy stuntwoman with strange Flames and an inability to die or answer any actual questions isn’t exactly what he was looking for when he decided that he’d find his own Family.

He really is going to leave. Any day now. Honestly.)

 

4.

Of all the people Reborn expects to find in Japan, wandering around after Smokin’ Bomb Hayato, the very last is the Arcobaleno’s useless lackey.

(Lal gives him weird looks whenever he calls her that. Reborn’s never quite figured out why, but he’s hardly going to ask Lal the reason for it. It would ruin his image.)

“Senpai!” she says cheerfully, when he lands on the wall where she’s perched. Her helmet is off, that ridiculous chain on her piercings catching the sunlight like a beacon, but at least she doesn’t seem fazed by the drop underneath them, a straight fall all the way to the schoolyard. Reborn supposes that as a stuntwoman, a fear of heights is probably counterproductive.

“Lackey,” he returns, and she grins like she always does, like it amuses her. Simple pleasures for simple minds, Reborn assumes. She certainly hasn’t shown many talents beyond her ability to survive practically anything. “Did the Carcassa kick you out already?”

“I told them I wanted to come to Japan to brush up on my flower arranging,” she says brightly, and Reborn is even willing to believe it’s true, both of her and of the Carcassa. He’s never had reason or opportunity to check, but he’s absolutely certain she’s a blonde under that purple dye. A ditzy one, too. The Carcassa aren’t exactly willing to give up the advantage of having an Arcobaleno on payroll, though, no matter how she acts.

“The Gokudera boy is living with you,” Reborn says noncommittally, and it’s something that Gokudera himself hadn’t mentioned when Reborn recruited him, which automatically makes it interesting.

“You’re spying on me?” Skull demands, but before she can puff up in offense, Reborn huffs.

“I'm Vongola, and Tsuna's the heir,” he says, and meets her eyes. “Don’t try to pull anything on me, lackey. I'm the one who taught you about the mafia and Dying Will in the first place.”

Skull subsides, slouching back in her chair with a pout. “I'm not trying anything,” she whines. “If I leave Hayato alone he’ll have to work two jobs to pay his rent. I'm being kind, praise me.”

Reborn ignores that, because otherwise he’s going to shoot her. He doesn’t understand why Lal seems to prefer her company to anyone else’s, even Colonello’s at times. And Viper, too—it’s ridiculous. “If you get in my way, I'm not going to show any mercy,” he threatens.

Skull ducks her head and scoots her chair back, hiding her face. “Eee! I won't!”

(A lot of Reborn’s time around Skull is spent wondering if she’s actually fucking with him, and not actually as dumb as she pretends to be. He can never tell, though, and it’s absolutely maddening.)

“See that you don’t,” he says warningly, and hops down off the edge of the wall.

The door at the top of the stairwell flies open, and Tsuna staggers out, smoking slightly in the way that means he got in the way of Gokudera’s argument with Yamamoto. “Reborn! Reborn, they're fighting and I can't make them—huh?” He blinks wide-eyed at Reborn, then back over his shoulder.

Perfect, Reborn thinks, mildly irritated. The absolute last thing he wants to do right now is explain the Curse, but two mafia babies might be too much for even Tsuna to let pass unremarked without a lot more questions than normal, and despite appearances Tsuna's proved that he can grow a spine. Still, at least he’ll have Skull to take it out on—

Long arms scoop him up, and there's a bright, happy laugh, but it comes from the wrong face. A young woman still, but her hair is blond and long enough to hit her knees, and she’s wearing a purple dress instead of motorcycle leathers. “Hi!” she says to Tsuna. “Is this your little brother? you shouldn’t let him wander around dangerous places like this.”

That’s definitely Skull’s voice. That’s definitely Skull, but she’s an adult and it’s not a Mist illusion. Reborn is—well. Bewildered would be a good word, except Reborn has never been bewildered in his life.

Tsuna flushes, though whether from the horror of having Reborn referred to as his brother or teenage attraction to the large bust Reborn is currently squashed against Reborn can't say. (Either way, Tsuna's going to be punished for this. Reborn sees a lot of early-morning runs featuring chihuahuas in his future.)

“I—I—I'm sorry, thank you,” he babbles, and practically snatches Reborn out of her arms. Reborn allows it, mostly because it gives him a prime perch from which to level a suspicious stare at Skull, who’s beaming.

“I’ll see you later, cutie,” she coos, and pats the top of Reborn’s hat before she sashays down the stairs and out of sight with a flip of her long blonde hair.

Reborn is going to drag her secrets out of her, one way or another.

 

5.

Their plane back to Italy is grounded with mechanical issues, and Xanxus is so fucking tired of everything in this shitty place that he can't even bring himself to care. Once it becomes obvious they’re stuck in Namimori for at least another day, Levi finds a them house—they all learned that people get pissy about hotels being destroyed, and this at least saves Xanxus the headache of having to deal with outsiders.

Not that the Varia are all that much better.

Still, everyone’s a little too wounded from the Ring Battles to be quite as obnoxious as normal, and Xanxus gets to skulk around the garden in peace with a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes. Behind him, the house is dark and quiet, almost everyone asleep except for Squalo and the Bronco, who are talking in the study. That isn’t quiet, but it’s also at the other end of the mansion, so Xanxus doesn’t give a damn.

His chest aches. His hands ache, and if he stops concentrating for even a few seconds they tremble as if with the cold. He closes his eyes and all he sees is ice, climbing up his body and freezing him solid, leeching away life and heat and all of his rage.

Rage is the only thing Xanxus has left.

He breathes out a cloud of smoke, takes another long drag to feel it burn hot in his lungs. The whole damn world has been turned on its head, and Xanxus is so unspeakably bitter about it. The Sky Ring’s rejection, the fucking ice, that piece of scum who somehow managed to beat Xanxus even when Xanxus stacked the deck. And then, and then Sawada Tsunayoshi had the nerve to pity him.

Good riddance. Xanxus is going to be so fucking glad to leave Japan in his dust, and Sawada with it.

Low voices break through his preoccupation with keeping the memories at bay, and he narrows his eyes dangerously, lifting his head. Two people, talking so quietly that it takes Xanxus a minute to track their voices, but—

A pair of shapes are sitting on the edge of the garden wall, close together. One is Mammon, wrapped in their cloak but with Phantasma nowhere to be seen, and the other is a stranger, lean and long-legged, with shaggy hair backlit by the light from the town. It’s not someone Xanxus knows, and he’s feeling twitchy enough that any strangers nearby are a threat, so he touches his guns, pushes off his bench, and slips along the base of the wall with silent steps.

“—strongest illusions won't last,” Mammon is saying, high voice skeptical.

“Not forever,” the stranger agrees, leaning forward to brace gloved hands against the top of the wall, “but with a little effort to make it solid, we can actually have a little of ourselves back.”

As Xanxus watches, a familiar shape swings out into the air and falls back to the stranger’s chest. A pacifier on a chain, not nearly as oversized in comparison to an adult body as it always seems on Mammon. His grip tightens on his gun, and he tenses, because whatever made another Arcobaleno decide to visit them is probably more crap he really doesn’t want to deal with while he’s trying to lick his wounds.

There's a pause, and then Mammon makes a sound of grim amusement. Indigo Flames bleed into the air, and an instant later their form shifts, stretches. An adult settles across from the stranger, tugging their hood down er their eyes even as their legs dangle, and they take a breath, raising a hand to inspect it.

“Checker Face isn’t going to like this,” they say, almost wistful, “but I’d forgotten how it feels. Maybe for this I’ll reduce the interest on what you owe me for stepping in with Verde, Skull.”

Skull laughs, and—Xanxus knows that name, if vaguely. Part of the Carcassa Family, which is shady even for the mafia. “I don’t think I ever said thanks for that, Viper.”

Mammon sniffs. “Watching you fuck with Reborn is the most fun I get these days. I was hardly about to let that hack ruin my source of entertainment.”

Skull snickers, bringing her legs up under her and crossing them. “I have no idea what you're talking about,” she says, but that tone is all wicked humor.

With a snort, Mammon turns, swinging their legs over the wall to face out towards the town. “I want to go to a bar,” they decide, “before the illusion wears off.”

“You're not going to leave the great Skull-sama out of it, are you?” Skull demands, tone haughty in a way that’s mostly self-mockery, and Mammon groans.

“Stop that. I'm not Reborn,” they say reprovingly, and then drop from the wall and vanish. “Are you coming? You're paying my tab.”

Skull waves a hand. “Start walking, I’ll catch up!” she calls, waits several long moments as Xanxus gets tenser. Mammon must be out of sight entirely when she turns, looks straight at Xanxus, and says, “Eavesdropping isn’t polite, you know.”

Xanxus narrows his eyes, stepping out of the shadows and leveling one of his pistols right at her head. “You're the intruder here,” he growls, and takes the shot without hesitating.

Half an instant later, something large hits his back and sends him sprawling. Xanxus hits the ground hard and instantly rolls, bringing up his guns, but the woman is already gone, a blur of purple hair and motion, and there's nothing to hit. He curses, pushes up as fast as his aching, battered body will let him, and twists, just as a long knife comes to a stop against his jugular.

“So you're Viper’s edelweiss,” Skull says quietly, blankly. Not cool, or unimpressed, just…empty. There's no emotion behind the words, and Xanxus feels a frisson of something like wariness slide down his spine. He keeps himself perfectly still, fingers tight on his guns, and breathes out.

“Arcobaleno,” he growls. “Get the fuck out of my house.”

She laughs, a little, but rather than humor it puts Xanxus in mind of a cat with a mouse, and the thought makes him snarl. He slams an elbow back, but she catches it and flips right over his head, sweeps his feet out from under him, and flips her long knife around in her hand. The blade lights with purple Flames as she brings it streaking down, and Xanxus barely has time to brace himself—

The knife slams into the ground next to his head, and cold purple eyes meet his. Skull is still smiling, but it doesn’t touch more than her lips, and with the glow of Cloud Flames around her she looks precisely like the aloof, deadly protector a Cloud is supposed to be.

Somewhere deep inside of him, stunted and twisted as they are, Xanxus’s Sky Flames curl around her presence, seeking Harmony.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” she says, and it’s easy, almost teasing, though the humor of it doesn’t reach her eyes. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to treat a lady?”

“I’ll talk to you however I want, trash,” Xanxus spits, and god, he’s going to have to haul his damned aching body off the ground at some point, which is unpleasant to even consider.

Skull rolls her eyes, then twists off of him and slides her knife away somewhere. “Congratulations,” she says, and Xanxus can't even tell if it’s sarcastic or not. “Viper doesn’t like many people, even the ones who pay them.” Then, with barely even a step to get up momentum, she leaps the wall and is gone.

Xanxus is left alone in the garden, pissed off and in pain and more than ready to put a Dying Will bullet between the bitch’s eyes next time he sees her. Staggering to his feet, he abandons his sulking in favor of bed, and slams back into the main house with a snarl.

Squalo is in the front hall, balancing on his crutches as he says goodbye to Cavallone. They both startle as Xanxus storms past, and he snaps as them, “What the fuck is edelweiss?”

“Flower,” Cavallone says, like it’s automatic. Xanxus has met Reborn; it probably is. “In hanakotoba it means power and strength.”

Xanxus slams the next door after him so hard it rattles in its frame. Not as bad as it could have been, but he’s definitely putting a bullet in Skull at the next available opportunity.

 

+1.

A week after their return from the future, Gokudera comes down with a cold that has passing resemblance to the Bubonic Plague, to the point that Hibari himself chased him off school grounds and sent him home. Or, well, told him not to die on school property, but for Hibari it’s pretty much the same thing. Since Yamamoto has to work in his dad’s shop, Tsuna collects his work for him, picks up the get-well gifts Kiyoko and Haru made, and heads for his apartment.

It’s the first time he’s actually been there, Tsuna realizes a little belatedly, blinking at the apartment door in front of him. Tentatively he rings the bell, listening for any signs of life at all, just in case Gokudera is too sick to get up and answer the door.

Instead, a voice calls, “Just a moment!” and there are steps. The door opens, and the most intimidating woman Tsuna has ever seen looks down at him. She’s tall, dressed in a tattered tee-shirt and well-worn jeans, purple hair messy and makeup heavy. A slim chain connects the piercing on her lip with the clip on her ear, and she’s wearing small hoops in her lobes as well.

“Hi,” she says, and smiles widely, stepping back and pulling the door the rest of the way open. “You must be Vongola Decimo.”

Tsuna squeaks, twitching back, and wishes desperately that he’d brought his gloves as he tries to decide which way to duck. He’s not prepared—

But this is Gokudera’s apartment, she’s in Gokudera’s apartment, and Gokudera is sick enough that he’s vulnerable, so Tsuna aborts his backwards lunge, looks up, and—

Her smile is soft, almost sad. “Hayato’s told me a lot about you,” she says gently, and steps out of the way. “Come in, Decimo, please.”

“It’s—it’s Tsuna,” Tsuna corrects, wonders if he’s really going to go through with this. But he is, because there's no uneasiness in the back of his head like there usually in when there's a threat. Just calm, and if his Hyper Intuition isn’t screaming an alarm, things are probably fine.

“Tsuna,” the woman corrects without hesitation. “I'm Skull de Mort.”

Gokudera probably would have mentioned another sister, and Skull doesn’t look anything like him anyways. Maybe just a friend? At the very least, it’s enough to make Tsuna smile back, if a little warily, and she giggles, reaching out to pinch his cheek.

“Hayato was right!” she declares cheerfully. “You really are very cute!”

Tsuna splutters. Gokudera said that? About him? To his—his friend that he’s apparently living with? All of the blood is rushing to his face, and he buries his nose in the papers he’s carrying, too embarrassed to even attempt to meet Skull’s eyes.

From the back room, there's a loud squawk, a thump, a flurry of coughing. “You—you motorcycle idiot!” Gokudera howls, hacks, and immediately breaks down coughing again. Skull snickers, putting a hand in between Tsuna's shoulder blades and lightly shoving him that direction.

“Go on, go on,” she urges. And then adds, low enough that there's no chance of Gokudera hearing, “If you break his heart I’ll mind-swap you with a cockroach, I don’t care how cute you are.”

It’s very, very clear that she means every word of it.

Tsuna squeaks, unable to get anything else out through the rush of sheer terror as he skitters away from Skull. He already knew she was scary; he didn’t need her to actually prove it.

“Skull!” Gokudera staggers out of the hallway, as pale as a sheet and sweating heavily, with bags under his eyes that Reborn could hide in. He careens into the room, almost tripping over his own feet, but Skull laughs and dances out of the way of his uncoordinated grab.

“You’ll never catch the mighty Skull-sama!” she declares, and Gokudera snarls like a kitten with a head-cold, crashes into the corner of the coffee table, and almost face-plants on the floor. Tsuna catches him at the last second, hauling him back upright with a lot of effort, and Gokudera instantly goes as red as a boiled lobster. “J-Jyuudaime! You—you didn’t need to do that, Jyuudaime!”

Skull pulls a phone out of her pocket, deftly snaps a picture, and says, “You two are adorable.”

Gokudera shrieks like a teakettle, then starts coughing, and Skull gives Tsuna a smile that is pure, concentrated evil.

This, he thinks a little faintly, is one enemy he is not prepared to face at all.