Skull's stunt to distract Byakuran worked better than any of them had expected. All of the Vongola, Varia and Arcobaleno present in Sicily made it out of the trap.
It also left them down one Arcobaleno in a very... sickening manner.
Reborn clenched his teeth and reached out a tiny hand to retrieve the gore splattered pacifier from the shreds of purple leather and decaying flesh. Damn his stupid lackey for not living up to his own goddamn reputation.
Byakuran would burn for this.
"Aaaand in this corner, we have the Great and Splendiferous Skull-sama! At shorter-than-he-wants and weighing in at wouldn't-you-like-to-know, Skull is the-"
/Stop being a dramatist and work faster, Lackey, / interrupted a voice over his com.
Skull snorted, re-bracing his foot on the cable when he started rotating slightly. "You're one to talk about drama, Silver-tongue McShiny. And don't tell me to hurry up. I'd like to see you disarm this shit while hanging upside down on a trapeze and not touching anything. If you don't want me to pass out from higher blood pressure in the brain, fall off this trapeze, hit the floor, and set the entire temple defenses off like a stampede on Black Friday, then accept that it'll take the amount of time it takes with breaks."
/Didn't you say you were an expert?/ Reborn mocked over the line.
"I am THE expert at navigating the inner sanctum of Harvest Temples, and don't even pretend you don't know it, Curlicue. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have had to put up with you harassing me for three weeks into agreeing to do this shit! But I am not putting up with you micro-managing how I do my stunts, and if you don't like it, why don't you just strut your way in here, smirk and all, and we'll see how long it takes you to set off a trap with your shiny Sun Flames," Skull offered, carefully twisting 45 degrees in the air as he sent a pin point flick of Cloud Flames down twenty feet to the floor below where it sank into a mosaic tile and lit up a hidden mana reservoir.
Skull hummed, distracted as he carefully traced the hair thin lines of active currents coming off the reservoir, visible only barely more to his Flame senses than his actual eyes. He idly noticed Reborn shut up in the background while he worked on picking out the real current from the deliberately deceptive designs on the floor, and sure enough, as soon as he gave a successful 'AHA!' at having found the lode nexus for the last trap, the Sun started up again with a scoff.
/I already did my part to take care of the animate defenses. You wouldn't be earning your keep if I took care of it all. Although, if you would make some effort to break some records, we might get out of here before I retire. /
"Is there a reason you're such a dick about speed today?" Skull demanded, finally starting to get irritated as he carefully dragged bare fingers a few inches above the glowing Growth Sphere. His nails glinted purple-black as he channeled Flames through the polish to coax the Sphere's power layers to open. "I mean, asshole has been your default setting since you were six, but you seem anxious which is weird as hell."
Reborn scoffed. /I don't get anxious, / he countered, sounding just like the cocky pre-teen that part of him had never grown out of. /And you have twenty minutes Skull. /
"Oh, please. I can do what I want, when I want to. You know damn well there's no time limit on Temple trips. Not a country on Earth would agree to adding that in the laws after those three brothers got eaten alive by the Sky Temple for rushing. You're just being-"
Skull stopped, frozen with his hand half-way in the globe as shit started rapid-fire connecting in his brain. Except there was no way Reborn would-
Fuck it, he WOULD.
"Did you forge our permits?!" Skull demanded loudly, voice involuntarily shading into the shrill tone he'd perfected to piss off a younger Reborn when they were kids. "Did you forge the fucking permits, and we're racing the guards to get out before they notice?! Is that what you did, you asshole!"
There was a millisecond of radio silence on Reborn's end, unnoticeable if you didn't know him, and Skull could have thrown the mother of all fits if he hadn't been upside down in the air. He started rushing the last few power layers even as he railroaded over whatever Reborn was about to say.
"I can't believe you! The Harvest Temples fall under Vindice authorization, and you know the sort of shit that happens when they catch people who actually live through their stupid lawbreaking! I did not sign up for this! This is- oh my god, this is on Viper's list of Shit She Won't Do For Money! Do you have any idea how short that list is?!"
/18 minutes. / Reborn reminded before clicking off the com.
Skull fumed, glaring at the last transparent layer of purple energy as it parted for him.
"You'd better be worth all this shit if he wants to sell you on the black market so badly instead of legally," he muttered, reaching in to carefully snap off one of the purple pacifier shaped stones growing inside the Sphere.
"What the HELL!" Skull shrieked, hand clasped protectively over his mouth as he practically levitated backwards until he crashed into the wall several feet away from the bazooka's last wisps of green smoke.
"Well, well, look at this," a smooth voice commented, red lips smirking under familiar black eyes as the woman slunk forwards. "Looks like some things stay the same even with a swap in sex, don't they Minion?"
"She! She just!" Skull flailed, pointing wildly at the encroaching hitwoman as he scuttled along the wall to keep her away. "She-... ME!!" he yelped, taking a desperate glance at the others in the room, but if all the agog looks were to go by, he wasn't suffering from hallucinations or a truly horrible delusion via head trauma.
"Get over here, Skull," Reborn's counterpart said with an intimidating smile and a glint in her eyes. A single finger crooked beckoningly in the stuntman's direction. "That damn suit might work better on a man, but it's still ridiculous. Let's burn it."
4) Future fic (Four Things That Come Not Back verse)
"Not on your motherfucking life, sempai," Skull snarled, breaking into outright profanity for the first time any of them could remember. Reborn paused and started rethinking his plan of attack given that Skull's black eyes were changing back into a familiar purple from anger and Flames rather than contacts.
5) First Time (apologizing; Catalyst verse which isn't posted yet, see end notes)
"I shouldn't have done that."
Purple eyes looked at him, flat and unmoving and with that twist of pained, angry grudge still hiding in them. "No, you shouldn't have."
The hitman stopped, face impassive but unsure of how to continue when the Cloud went back to stare unmoving at the door. Apologizing wasn't something Reborn did, and if it was truly necessary, he preferred to do so with actions rather than words. You showed intent better in actions, and it was easier for his pride to swallow than actually saying anything.
But Skull had wanted nothing to do with the rest of the Arcobaleno, especially Reborn, since he had walked away from them over twenty years ago. He'd felt so strongly about it he'd successfully avoided everyone but Viper even seeing him until Tsuna had brought him to visit the Vongola mansion. Skull had even knocked out Viper and shoved her on the Varia's plane without him years ago rather than come to Checkerface's battle royale in Japan.
It was one of the most passive yet strongest examples of Cloud grudges Reborn had ever heard of. And unfortunately, Clouds had a tendency to either violently take care of things that angered them that much or to hold on to things until the day they died. Hibari had certainly never forgiven how much damage to Namimori Mukuro's first appearance had involved.
If it wasn't for how quietly unhappy Tsuna was about Skull being uncomfortable in the Sky's own home, Reborn wouldn't even be trying this. Even if he had to reluctantly admit to misjudging the stuntman in the past, Reborn was certain Skull preferred to just continue ignoring everyone but Viper (and occasionally Verde, bafflingly). And the Varia were certainly gleeful about subtly assisting with that if Fon's failed attempts to speak with the Cloud were anything to go by.
But. Reborn wasn't about to let his past screw ups make his student unhappy regardless of his opinion about Tsuna's taste in men. Torturing Tsuna was enjoyable, but he owed too much to the Sky to be party to this kind of emotional upset.
Which meant somehow fixing this so that Skull was at least willing to stay in the damned building when Reborn or Lal were there. He could always bash Colonnello's head into the ground if the blond inadvertently drove Skull off again, but Reborn and Lal couldn't lessen their presence around the Vongola mansion even if they wanted to. They were an Advisor and CEDEF, respectively and regardless of how stubborn Tsuna was, he couldn't reshuffle schedules forever.
So... how could he handle this without upsetting Skull further, igniting Tsuna's protectiveness, giving Viper more motivation to fine him, or actually saying the words "I'm sorry. I was wrong."
"Hey," Skull said softly, crouching down low on his heels so he wasn't looming over the black-haired toddler. He overbalanced for a moment, still not quite used to being back in his adult body after the most recent Fated Day, which caused a hidden spark of amusement to flick through the kid's black-coffee eyes.
Didn't stop the two-year-old from pointing the gun at his head though.
It was a pretty old piece: beat up, scratched, and yet obviously mafia tech from being more compact than anything else on the market at this time. The boy knew how to hold it too even if his tiny hands were far too small to really manage the adult sized gun. The recoil if he fired it, for example, would definitely break the kids bones if it didn't make him smash his own hands into his face after he shot. He was aiming steadily at Skull's left eye though, so clearly the kid knew he had to make the shot count even if he probably hadn't fired it before.
The two of them stayed at an impasse for several minutes: Skull just patiently waiting the boy out with his face and body language as open and honest as he could make it. Eventually a bit of reluctant respect crept into the kid's face. Skull had apparently passed his test somehow by not being intimidated or aggressive even as he took the kid's threat with the seriousness the boy meant it. The squirt probably thought he was brave for not backing down from a kill shot.
No need to let the boy know yet that it wouldn't have worked on Skull if he had fired.
The sound of gunfire resumed off in the distance and the kid tensed up, eyes flickering over to the door as his muscles stiffened.
"You know there's trouble out there already, don't you," Skull commented, not truly a question even as the kid turned his attention back on him and lifted the gun back to Skull's eye from where it had drifted away. It was shaking a bit now as the boy's weak arms struggled to keep the heavy thing steady.
"I'm heading out of this town right now," the Cloud said, idly flicking his fingers from where his wrist dangled over his raised knee and, with a moment of inspiration, letting small licks of Cloud Flames dance over his hand. Black eyes immediately zeroed in on the vividly bright color, and Skull could feel the huge reserves of dormant Sun Flames which had initially caught his attention ten minutes ago shift slightly in response to the active Flame nearby. The kid was going to be a Flame beast equaling at least half of Skull's total reserves one day if he lived to adulthood.
Which was unlikely to happen if WW2 killed him first.
"Do you want to come with me?" he asked finally. "You can stay if you want."
The last part seemed to surprise the kid. Skull couldn't blame him. Adults didn't tend to genuinely mean it when they said infants could make important choices. Skull, however, wasn't going to give a two-year-old any reason to fight him enough to draw on those Flames of his. Kids with Flame access that young were massive headaches and dangerous to boot. To themselves usually but not always.
The little head finally nodded, just dropping the gun to the side and holding his arms out with an imperious demand on his face. Skull snorted and stood, picking the kid up as he went and propping the skinny thing on his hip, still feeling the ache in his bones from Kawahira, but not minding it as much now with his living distraction.
"That gun didn't work at all, did it?" Skull asked as he snuck out the side alley, lips smirking at the kid's sheer chutzpah to pull off that bluff. And it had to be a bluff: he wouldn't have left behind the gun if it really worked.
The boy just tilted his chin up with a smug look, wrapping small arms around Skull even as eyes darted every which way around them. Kid was like a kitten: tiny, fluffy, predator in the making, and with a personality bigger than his body.
"I'm Renato," he said imperiously, speaking for the first time.
"Name's Skull," he offered, giving the kid a subtle hug which he pretended to ignore even as he relaxed into the Cloud's torso. "What's your opinion on Sweden over Italy?"
The day Reborn finally got over himself and cottoned on that certain chunks of Skull's "personality" were specifically ramped up to piss him and the others off was going to be like the Day of Reckoning come down upon Earth early. It might actually surpass in horror the future memories of Byakuran killing him or the personal memories of the Vindice caving his head in.
But GOD was it funny until then.
It wasn't until Reborn had actually aimed Leon point-blank at Skull's face in the middle of a black-out rage and tried to fire several times that the hitman finally realized what was happening. Leon had refused to manifest bullets when Reborn fired, but despite neither of the two men knowing that until after it happened, Skull hadn't flinched at all.
He'd been deliberately goading Reborn on to get him to shoot him.
The hitman took several controlled breaths, still incredibly furious with no real desire to calm down. Fingers white-knuckled around Leon's grip, he silently glared at his fucking Lackey in demand to know what the goddamn hell he was thinking.
Proving that he had learned to read Reborn in their decades as Arcobaleno and wasn't actually as moronically stupid as his recent actions would indicate, the Cloud understood him immediately and wilted a bit, crossing his arms and avoiding eye contact.
"You feel better when you shoot people," Skull muttered, nearly inaudible. "And I'm the only one it wouldn't kill."
Reborn stilled, rage guttering out abruptly as he stared at the- the stupid fucking coglione who never had learned to like violence or having others hurt even though he was better than Reborn would ever admit at figuring out exactly how he could have the smallest collateral to get what he wanted.
And apparently his Lackey considered himself acceptable collateral in the right situation.
Reborn reached out, hand latching around the back of the younger man's neck and just shook for a moment: still wordless at the fucking stupidity of HIS goddamn Lackey and reaching desperately for the rage that he couldn't reignite. Skull's boneless acceptance of his manhandling wasn't helping though and he just-
Reborn just collapsed. Dropped down to sit on the floor of the roof and dragged the stupid Cloud down to sit next to him. The rage and adrenalin were gone now, and he just didn't have the energy for grinding proper self-preservation into the stupid moron's head when all he could feel now was the yawning hole inside him. And just thinking of going back downstairs into the hospital and having to confront and deal with the Tenth generation falling apart and all the fucking implications made him want to go on and just murder his way through the entire hospital, Lal Mirch and Verde included, and continue with the rest of fucking Italy until he either felt better or the Vindice stopped him.
Just like Skull had seen coming.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Skull murmured beside him, purple head bowed respectfully. Reborn closed his eyes, teeth clenched, and crushing his hat to his head with the hand not latched onto Skull's neck and pressed against that steady pulse of life. "He was... he was a good kid. And he was on his way to being a good man, despite everything around him."
Reborn just breathed.