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If You Can't Beat 'Em

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Hana’s worried.

She knows she shouldn’t worry. Kyoko is amazingly tough, despite having that pretty, pretty princess act down to an art form. She can take care of herself; Hana wouldn’t like her otherwise.

Still, things are getting pretty bizarre in Namimori, and Hana’s finding it hard to keep her cool. And even harder to pretend she hasn’t noticed.

Take Sawada: troubling item the first. He still has an embarrassing crush on Kyoko, so at least the world hasn’t spun completely off its axis. When he knows people are watching him, in fact, he’s a convincing imitation of his old loser self: goofy, klutzy, awkward but sweet.

It’s when he doesn’t know people are watching that things go sideways. When he thinks he’s alone, when he’s looking inward instead of outward…it’s like he’s seen it all, done it all, and is absolutely incapable of being frightened by anything.

Then some third year will walk by and he’ll panic and flail and fall out of his chair. Hana thinks he may be doing this specifically to drive her crazy. It’s maddening even before one takes into account the way Kyoko treats him these days. She was always fond of him, in that my-cute-but-spastic-pet-kitten kind of way, but it’s different now. She respects him now.

Why why why? What happened? Nothing had time to happen! This all started, seemingly, between one day and the next, and it makes no sense. Which would be worrying enough if it were just Sawada, but it’s not. Oh, no. Gokudera and Yamamoto have decided to try this sudden lifestyle change thing, too. Apparently they’re…friends now? And not friends the way they were before, when Yamamoto thought they were friends and Gokudera was trying to work out how to kill him and make it look like an accident, but real friends, almost like normal people. Those two being in any way normal is terrifying.

And when Sawada walks into a room, they turn to him like flowers toward the sun. They’ve been headed that way—the way of unsettling, slavish devotion—for a while, but sometime when Hana wasn’t watching, they arrived.

So, fine. Earthquakes, transfer students, catastrophic shifts in personalities and social dynamics for no apparent reason. Hana could have handled all that and more if Kyoko hadn’t been involved. She is, though, and that puts it over the line.

Hana walks into class on Monday, and Kyoko and the troublesome trio are all present for the first time in ages. Kyoko’s uncharacteristically stressed and worried, Sawada’s guilty and timid, Yamamoto’s oblivious, and Gokudera’s even more twitchy and unreasonable than his usual high standard of twitchy unreasonableness.

Partially out of spite, partially further to an experiment she’s conducting, Hana walks to her desk and drops her books onto it with a bang. Most of the class jumps a little, turning to see what the noise was.

Gokudera and Sawada reach into their pockets and Yamamoto lunges for his bat, and they all reflexively duck low, like they’re trying to…what? Stay out of the line of fire?

Belatedly, they realize the bang was just books. Sawada sits back, jittery and unhappy, Gokudera looks all kinds of pissed off, and Yamamoto…well, Yamamoto laughs, but that’s just the way he is.

Now, what does one call this behavior? Apart from demented, that is.

Hana turns to ask Kyoko what she makes of it, only to notice that Kyoko’s looking a lot like Sawada. Jittery. Unhappy. Did she just reach for a weapon and think about hitting the floor, too?

Oh, hell no.

It’s one thing for Sawada to turn weird. It’s one thing for Sawada to form underground sumo clubs or whatever and drag a bunch of idiots along with him. When he drags Kyoko along with him, though, Hana loses her sense of humor about it.

If she’d been paying proper attention, she would have seen this coming. She must not have been paying proper attention; she is clearly a terrible friend. But as God is her witness, she will miss nothing from here on out—and since Sawada is evidently the source of all the world’s troubles, she’s paying especially close attention to him.

The first thing Hana learns is that Sawada has a lot of people keeping an eye on him. Most of them aren’t really a surprise…but then there’s Hibari Kyouya.

It takes Hana a while to believe what she’s seeing, but yes, it is a fact that Hibari follows Sawada and crew around school like a creepster. Hibari’s refusal to take notice of individual humans used to be his one saving grace, but no more. He’s made an exception for Sawada. Well, why not? Everyone else has.

Sawada notices Hibari stalking him every once in a while. And when he does, he smiles a nervous, shy little smile.

Sure, you know, Hana would smile too if she caught the scariest sociopath on campus following her everywhere and staring at her with his freaky dead eyes. Cause for celebration!

But whatever, at least Hibari isn’t following Kyoko. No, he leaves that duty to this Haru character. Where she came from and how she came to be perpetually glued to Kyoko’s side, Hana isn’t sure. Nor does she feel that she can ask, because she knows exactly how bitchy she’d sound if she did.

She’s not jealous. Well, she’s not really jealous. If she tells herself she’s not jealous often enough, in any case, she’s sure she can make it true. After all, this girl…and Kyoko…

Well, Hana was never going to sleep with Kyoko; that’s just not the kind of relationship they have. The Haru creature is—or will be—serving a function that Hana can’t. Fulfilling a need. So that’s good.

Next step: force yourself to like her. Despite—despite!—the giggling. You can do this, Kurokawa Hana! You’ve liked more annoying people.

Haha. That’s a lie.

And as if Hana’s life weren’t disastrous enough, there are also the babies. They’ve been around for a while, but now there seems to be one every time Hana turns around, babies everywhere. Screaming, crying, being…sticky. Why the hell are they always sticky or wet or both? Seriously, what’s that about, is that some kind of disgusting baby law? Plus, they always feel compelled to grab onto you with their gross, mysteriously goopy hands and scream for no apparent reason, refusing to be shut up. And if you beat them off like the howling little parasites they are, people call you barbaric.

Why do humans reproduce? It must be a temporary, hormone-induced madness. That’s the only feasible explanation.

Last but not least, the cherry on top of the bizarre sundae that is Hana’s life, there’s Kyoko’s older brother. Hana hardly even knows Kyoko’s brother, and he’s nonetheless conspiring to make her world surreal.

The last time she saw him, he froze like a small, hunted animal—odd, coming from the high school boxing champion—and stared for an uncomfortably long time. After which he straightened up, declared, “I am not ready for this to the extreme!” and ran away.

Just. What.

* * *

Hana’s foolish hopes that things might one day return to normal are soon dashed. Every year, the troublesome trio have more unexplained absences from class. Every year, Sawada’s face gets a little thinner and his eyes get a little crazier. Every year, his people pull in tighter around him, harder, colder, more protective.

Kyoko is one of Sawada’s people. Hana can deny it all she likes, but that doesn’t change the facts. Sawada still hasn’t made a move, romantically speaking, and Hana’s starting to doubt he ever will…but he’s always there. Just like Kyoko’s brother, only scarier. Scarier despite being about half the size.

The trio drop out of high school midway through their final year, which seems a poor choice. So close to graduation—why not graduate? How do they think they’ll get decent jobs? Are they aiming for a life of crime or something? What the hell kind of career plan is that?

And why doesn’t it sound as implausible as it should?

Their dropping out changes very little, though, socially speaking. Kyoko persists in dragging Hana over to Sawada’s, where the entire gang apparently lives. (Sawada’s mother has to be a saint.) Sawada sometimes comes to pick Kyoko up from school, often with Ryouhei, Yamamoto and Gokudera, or the Haru girl. They go off together to undisclosed locations.

Sawada’s gang, though they should be utterly unemployable, are always stressed and busy, and always neatly—professionally?—dressed. It doesn’t compute. No, that’s not true—it does compute, but Hana really doesn’t like what it adds up to.

The whole situation makes her sickeningly nervous.

Kyoko and Hana graduate like normal people. They go to college like normal people, and far enough away that visits from the old Namimori crowd drop to monthly instead of daily. Well, except for Ryouhei—his visits are weekly, because, say what you will, he is a devoted brother.

Hana knows better than to hope that the reduction in visits means that Kyoko’s escaped. For one thing, it would help if she wanted to escape. At all. Even a little.

Haru follows them to college, but Kyoko opts to room with Hana. Hana would be touched by this if she didn’t suspect that it was just because it was an awkward time in Kyoko and Haru’s courtship for them to be living together. She figures her room will effectively work out to be a single.

Kyoko makes poor life choices. Hana wishes she didn’t have a front row seat for so many of them.

Hana majors in law, which is why she has a bookcase full of law books. Haru double majors in economics and poli-sci, and has corresponding books. Kyoko’s major is nominally psychology, which completely fails to explain the books on her shelves.

Gomorrah. Midnight in Sicily. Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld. The Monster of Florence. The Place That Was Promised. Helter Skelter. The Raven. Mein Kampf. And a few books on post-traumatic stress disorder, which is something.

The books may not, for the most part, be major-related, but there is a definite theme. A troubling theme. “Kyoko,” Hana says halfway through the second month of classes, staring at the bookshelf. “I think you’re majoring in the wrong thing. I’m not sure you’re even in the right faculty.”

Kyoko peers over the top of a massive biography of Mao. “Oh no, my major’s really helpful. I mean, I’d like to know why charismatic people…well. Why they sometimes decide to form cults or take over the world. That sort of thing.”

Right. Give or take a little serial killing and organized crime.

Hana considers the charismatic people Kyoko knows. Yamamoto’s pretty charismatic, but he’s too easygoing to form a cult or try for world domination. Kyoko herself has a certain quiet charisma…but it’s quiet charisma. Gokudera and his sister Bianchi both have charisma, if you like dangerous, unpredictable, dramatic types, but no, Hana knows, she knows who this is about.

This, like so many things, is about Sawada. Sawada, who has charisma to spare (and who saw that coming in school?) Sawada, who has a flock of scary people trailing devotedly after him. Sawada, who looks more strung-out, exhausted, and grim every time Hana sees him.

Except when he smiles. He looks straight-up fucking insane then.

“So. Preventative measures?”

Kyoko frowns and turns back to her Mao, but doesn’t answer. And why should she? She’s just worried Sawada might turn into Asahara Shoko or Charles Manson, no big deal.

Hana falls backward onto her bed and stares at the ceiling. Get real, Kurokawa. Like you’re any better. Why are you interested in law? Can you honestly say it’s for nobler reasons than to keep Kyoko out of jail?

She can’t say that. The desire to keep Kyoko out of jail was definitely her number one motivation for pursuing a law degree. Which means, taken to its logical conclusion, that she doesn’t care what illegal shenanigans Kyoko gets up to as long as she isn’t punished for them. This says nothing good about Hana’s moral fortitude.

Her life is spiraling into disaster by association. This is ridiculous.

* * *

On an innocent spring day at the end of their first year, Kyoko’s brother knocks on the door of their dorm room while Kyoko’s out getting groceries, so Hana’s the one who opens the door.

“Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry, Kyoko’s not—”

“Okay!” he interrupts, very man on a mission. “Think I’m ready. Let’s do this thing!”

Hana’s eyebrows climb. She’s only spoken directly to Ryouhei four or five times, and that includes the not ready to the extreme encounter. She wonders if he’s always like this. “Thing?”

“Getting married to the extreme!”

Unsurprisingly, it only goes downhill from there, and culminates in him standing outside, shouting up at her window about love and destiny while she hurls half of Kyoko’s collection of psychopath books down at his idiotic head.

“Brother?” Kyoko calls tentatively, having finally returned from her grocery run to save Hana from her crazy, crazy relation. “Hana? Um…what’s going on?”

“Kyoko, make him leave!

“Your friend,” Ryouhei says reverently, “is EXTREME.”

Kyoko giggles. Hana rescinds every nice thought she’s ever had about Kyoko, and chucks The Raven directly at Ryouhei’s upturned face. 700 pages, lots of shiny (heavy) photographs, the chilling history of a false prophet.

Doesn’t even slow Ryouhei down.

* * *

Hana doesn’t know how this happened.

No, wait, she does know how it happened. Kyoko made that pleading face, and Hana is weak to the pleading face. She knew Kyoko made poor life choices, but she didn’t realize they were contagious.

“This was your idea, buddy,” Hana declares unsympathetically. “So it’s your job to entertain me.”

Ryouhei stares at her across the table, seemingly every bit as confused as she is about how they ended up here, on a guaranteed-to-be-disastrous date, in an Italian restaurant that Kyoko and Haru picked out amidst waves of giggling.

In aid of nothing, their waiter has picked up on the choking blanket of awkwardness over the table. Whenever he finds time, he watches them with malicious glee, hoping for a scene—tears, storming out, thrown glasses. Hana had a brief, horrible stint as a waitress, and she remembers how other people’s drama could temporarily lighten the misery (when it wasn’t adding to it). That said, it has never been a goal of hers to provide amusement for embittered waiters. She hates Kyoko.

Ryouhei isn’t faring much better. He’s muttering to himself in distress, staring blindly at the menu, glancing at her nervously like she’s a cipher he doesn’t have a hope of understanding. What the hell is his problem? This was his idea, wasn’t it?

Oh. Not ready to the extreme, huh?

“Pick a topic,” Hana suggests out of sudden pity. “Any topic. I’ll try to run with it.”

“Usually I talk about boxing!” Ryouhei confides to the delight of the waiter, who is ostensibly checking to see if they’re ready to order. “But Kyoko said I was extremely not allowed to talk about boxing.”

“How about work, then?”

“Gokudera said I wasn’t allowed to talk about work!”

“Gokudera? You talk to Gokudera about your dating habits?”

“It’s his job. He’s a weird guy.”

“You’ve got me there,” Hana allows. So Gokudera monitors love lives. What the hell is Kyoko involved in? “Think Sawada will ever make a move on Kyoko?” she asks, figuring Kyoko is the one thing they definitely have in common.

Ryouhei responds with a truly scary expression, reminiscent, in fact, of Gokudera, and says, “Not if he doesn’t want to die.”

Uh huh. “So what are your thoughts on Haru?”

Puzzled face. “Haru? She’s an extreme good friend!”

Okay. This guy is kind of adorable. “Never mind. Go ahead and tell me about boxing; I promise not to tell Kyoko. Do women even do boxing?”

Ryouhei launches into an enthusiastic account of the time he tried to get a mystery girl to sign up for the boxing club because she kicked ass, but then she vanished in a puff of smoke; he’s never gotten over the loss. This somehow segues into a story about the time a baby taught him to smash boulders with his fist, which leads to a distressed and incoherent account of sun types, men with funny hair, and possible necrophilia. Hana isn’t sure about the last bit, but then Ryouhei doesn’t seem all that sure about it himself.

He’s hilarious, though it’s rarely intentional. He may also be certifiably insane, but Hana finds she doesn’t much care. If he is, at least he’s found an entertaining way to lose it. Plus, the longer she looks at him, the more she wants to kiss his nose and bite his biceps, which is pleasantly distracting. The disastrous date is turning out to be shockingly fun.

The waiter eventually admits defeat, takes their order, and slinks away, disappointed. More drudgery, less drama. Poor thing.

“Why did you want to go on a date, anyway?” Hana asks when Ryouhei temporarily winds down. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“That’s exactly why!” Ryouhei shouts, pounding on the table and alarming their fellow diners. Hana resists the urge to smirk at them. Pansies. “Kyoko says I should ask you to tell me…uh…stories about your childhood! Or something!”

He gazes at Hana expectantly. He makes no sense. It’s breathtaking how little sense he makes.

“Okay,” she allows. “My stories aren’t going to compare to yours when it comes to sheer, blinding weirdness, but I’ll give it a try. If you want. I mean, you don’t have to do whatever Kyoko tells you.”

He frowns. “I do when I can.”

Yeah. Weird guy, but adorable. “Right. So once upon a time my father bought this hair-cutting kit…”

This story is stupid and ends in accidental violence. Ryouhei should love it.

* * *

“So I hear you’re dating my brother,” says Kyoko, turning away from her homework, eyes alight with evil, evil glee.

“Shut up,” Hana tells her, deciding to forego the dancing around and just cut to the chase.

“He is a great guy.”

“Which part of ‘shut up’ did you not understand?”

“If I’d known he was your type, I’d have set you up ages ago…”


“But you kept going on and on about how you wanted someone calm and mature and intellectual—”

“Have I ever mentioned that I hate you—”

“And as much as I love my brother, I never would have described him as—”

You can stop any time.”

Kyoko does stop talking, but she doesn’t stop giggling. It may or may not be an improvement.

“You don’t have a leg to stand on, anyway, making fun of my love life,” Hana insists. “Look what you’re dating. Giggles!”

“Ahh, I’m going to tell her you said that.”

“She’s aware of my opinion.” Actually, Hana hopes she isn’t. “What do you see in her, anyway?” She’s waited six years to ask; that seems a reasonable amount of time. She’s given up hoping that Haru will ever disappear.

“Well,” Kyoko says in a you asked for it tone, “she’s funny, she’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s incredibly talented with numbers and abstract design, she’s great in bed—”


Kyoko smiles, pleasantly attentive. Kyoko is evil, evil, evil. “Okay,” Hana acknowledges, “that, I admit, all sounds good.” And she knows it’s all true, which is even more annoying. Well, all but the last one. She’ll have to take that on faith. “It’s pretty generic, though. Why her, specifically. Why you, specifically. Is it because of the mysterious, Sawada-related things you’ve been through together? What?”

Kyoko taps her pencil against her notes a few times, pondering. “She’s always been…” Tap tap tap. “You know, I’m not the most expressive person in the world.”

Hana laughs out loud and Kyoko throws the pencil at her. Which, ahem, is dangerous. Pointy objects and so on.

“I am shocked that you think that,” Hana declares, holding her hands up to fend off any more flung objects. “Shocked! Why, you have a whole range of expression. Cute, happily cute, scarily cute, worried and cute—”

“Hana, do you want this explanation or don’t you?”

“Sorry, sorry, I do.”

“Haru is really expressive. Everything’s right there; I always know what she’s thinking. I don’t have to wonder, she tells me. I guess…does it sound weird to say I trust her because she’s not too much like me?”

“Yes.” Weird. Sad. Not really surprising. “But it makes sense. You’re special and warped that way, it’s part of your charm.”

“Besides,” Kyoko says thoughtfully, “she understands about Tsu-kun, and, um. Everything. It would be too hard to explain to someone new. They’d never really understand.”

“Oh, really?” Hana asks dryly.

Kyoko beams at her, all lying (cute) innocence. Hana sighs.

* * *

Giving up on asking Kyoko is not the same thing as giving up, however. There are plenty of other concerned parties, and Hana isn’t afraid to harass the hell out of them. Though she probably should be.

She could ask Ryouhei, but, well. For one thing, Gokudera’s instructed him not to talk about work (God help them all), so it wouldn’t be fair to ask. For another thing, Hana’s not convinced he’d make a whole lot of sense even if he did try to explain. She’s starting to wonder if his boxing coaches were feeding him funny pills as a child. She’s also starting to wonder what’s wrong with her, that she finds him charming anyway.

So instead of upsetting Ryouhei with her questions, she waits until summer break. They go back to Namimori to visit their parents, and almost before she’s decided to try, Hana manages to catch Sawada alone. It’s nothing short of amazing. She thought Sawada was never alone, but lo and behold, here he is in a grocery store, holding a basket overflowing with, oddly enough, cabbages. Hana is shocked to learn that Gokudera lets him shop for groceries by himself. Or at all. Doesn’t he have minions for that kind of thing?

“Sawada,” she says in her most ominous voice, “What are you?

His head jerks up from contemplation of pears and he almost backs into a pyramid of oranges before he realizes who’s talking to him. He wrinkles his forehead in an adorably worried way, as if she’s the crazy one. “Oh, Kurokawa! Hello. Um, I’m…I’m a Sawada? Does this have something to do with Gokudera-kun?”

“What? No. Well, maybe. What are you? What’s with the suit and tie? You never even graduated from high school! You shouldn’t rate a suit and tie!”

“Oh.” He looks down at himself, apparently surprised by what he’s wearing. Adorably surprised. It’s been a while since Hana last saw him, and he’s lost a lot of the wild-eyed look and gotten exponentially more attractive in the meantime. He and Kyoko must be deadly together. “It’s for work.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. What kind of work do you do?”

He shrugs, self-deprecating. “Just business.”

“If you’re a salaryman, then I’m Mother Teresa.”

He bites his lip against a smile and looks away for a second. Hana has a sneaking suspicion he’s picturing her in a wimple. “…Not really a salaryman,” he agrees. “But…business, mostly overseas. Consulting. You could say.”

She eyes him in blatant disbelief. “You are so full of shit, Sawada.”

He smiles shyly. “Sorry?”

Now how do you attack something like that? There’s no way. “You’re a con artist, aren’t you?”

“Ha! What? I’m…no, I’m really not. Um, Kurokawa, why are you—is something bothering you?”

“You. You are bothering me. You’re a scary man of mystery who hangs around with my best friend, and it is making me really uncomfortable.”

The smile fades away. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s not especially helpful.”

“You’re…with Brother, aren’t you?”

She also doesn’t like the way he refers to Kyoko’s brother as Brother. They’re not married, for Christ’s sake. “Maybe.”

He bites his lip again. She’s glad her pain is so freaking amusing to him. “Brother works for me, you know?”

Yeah, she knows. “Great, so my best friend and my boyfriend are under your evil sway. Was that supposed to make me feel better? Because it didn’t.”

“Evil sway,” he sighs, rubbing his face with the hand not holding a lifetime supply of cabbage. Hana refuses to feel bad. She refuses to feel like she stepped on a puppy’s tail. Refuses. “You know, I got into this…work…so I could protect them. But you don’t believe that.”

She’s not sure whether she believes it or not, but if disbelief means more explanation will be forthcoming, she’s totally willing to pretend disbelief.

Sawada studies her for a long moment, calm and sure in a way she’s rarely seen him. She thinks, So this is what Kyoko loves. She thinks, This is the man Ryouhei follows.

Then she tells herself to stop that, focus, and not let herself get blindsided by charisma. Sawada clearly cheats.

“I will protect them,” he vows, quiet and deathly serious. “I’ll protect them with my life. I promise you.”

He bows deeply and walks away while Hana’s still reeling, off-balance, infected by charisma cooties. He and his cabbages are out of sight before it occurs to her that that was a really disturbing and not particularly reassuring sort of promise.

Oh, hell, she realizes. I let him get away!

Sawada cheats.

* * *

“How’s your number one headache doing these days?” asks Mayumi, an old middle school friend, in the bright, carefree tone of a person whose other friends aren’t all members of a shady secret society. Or whatever.

“Remind me who my number one headache is,” Hana moans into the phone, curling into a sad, self-pitying ball in her uncomfortable desk chair.

“Oh, that doesn’t sound good. Who are my options?”

“Kyoko. Ryouhei. Sawada—”

“Sawada?” Mayumi interrupts. “Sawada Tsunayoshi? Loser Tsuna, the dropout? I didn’t even know you’d stayed in touch with him. Why would you bother?”

Loser Tsuna. God. Hana had forgotten all about that. “Mayumi,” she says, “that guy has some serious hidden depths. You don’t even know.”

“I thought you were dating Kyoko’s brother.”

“Oh, they’re not romantic hidden depths. They’re run-screaming-into-the-night hidden depths.”

“…Are we talking about the same Loser Tsuna?”

“Yeah, I can tell you haven’t seen him in years. Trust me, he grew up lethal. Hibari does what he says sometimes.”

Hibari Kyouya?

“That’s the one.”

“Wow, that’s…disturbing.” A moment of silence. “So is Sawada hot now?”

Hana laughs sadly and tries to remember. And she can’t. She honestly doesn’t even know. “You can’t tell, looking at him,” she says mournfully. “He comes off as the hottest thing you’ve ever seen, but that’s probably because he cheats.”


“Yeah.” Hana casts about for a sane way to say charisma cooties. “Force of personality. Something. Maybe if you saw him, I don’t know, on TV, he wouldn’t be anything special. But in the same room? It’s scary.”

“Weird.” Mayumi sounds impressed, which happens approximately once an ice age. “I almost want to meet him now.”

“You really, really don’t,” Hana assures her.

“Hmm.” A considering, ominous pause. “So you’ve been with Sasagawa for a while, haven’t you? How serious is that?”

Mayumi has a gift for asking all the bad questions. “I don’t know, shut up.”

“Oh? Does that mean you’re more serious than he is?”

Hah! She swings, she misses! “You know, he never actually asked me on a first date.”

“…He didn’t?”

“No. He said, ‘Let’s get married.’” To the extreme, even.

“You’re kidding.”

“Oh, but I’m not.”

“Okay, you’ve been friends with Kyoko forever, but, like. Did he even know you?”

“Not really.”

“That’s so creepy, Hana.”

“Yeah,” she sighs. “I threw things at him.”

“Didn’t work, I guess.”

“Apparently not.”

“Was he stalking you?”

“No. He doesn’t have the attention span for it. Besides, I don’t think he’s ever done anything that Kyoko didn’t find out about sooner or later, and she wouldn’t have let him.”

“So Kyoko watches his every move?”


“And…this doesn’t bother you? You are dating the guy.”

“Why would it bother me? Kyoko has an eye on me, too. Nothing’s changed except that we’re making it easier for her.”

“Damn, Hana,” Mayumi drawls, sounding pleased. “Your life.”

“Tell me about it,” Hana mutters. “What about you? You’re being all normal and successful and sickening, aren’t you?”

“Why, yes,” Mayumi says in an unpleasantly self-satisfied tone. “Yes, I am.”

Hana doesn’t know why she’s drawn to all these rampant sadists. It must be a flaw in her character.

* * *

“I thought you’d be proud of me for getting a job,” Kyoko says sadly.

“You say job, I say indentured servitude to Sawada,” Hana snaps.

“I’m just working for him,” Kyoko insists with calm assurance that Hana doesn’t trust a bit. “It’s a business arrangement.”

“Right. So why does it feel like I’m sending you off to join a cult?”

Kyoko tips her head and smiles her very cutest smile. Which, for the record, is absurdly cute. “Because you’re paranoid?”

“Paranoid is not the same as wrong. Especially when it comes to Sawada.”

“Hana…” Kyoko shakes her head.

Under other circumstances, Hana might have let it go. A job is a good thing, right? Even if it does mean working for Sawada. But she can’t let it go, because she has the creepiest feeling that they’ve done this before. Almost like déjà vu. Like she had a dream in which they did this, and she let Kyoko go, and it was a disaster.

“Then get me a job, too,” she decides. If Kyoko’s diving headfirst down the rabbit hole, Hana’s going after her. At least then she won’t have to wonder what the hell is going on all the time.

Great, now she’s basing critical life decisions on funny feelings and random whims. Next she’ll be joining a cult. Assuming that isn’t what she just did.

“You don’t know what you’re asking for.” And Kyoko is not pleased. Now she knows how Hana’s felt for years.

“I think I have a pretty good idea.” Hana casts a resentful glance at the well-thumbed copy of Midnight in Sicily sitting on Kyoko’s bedside table. “And I don’t care.”

“You will care,” Kyoko insists.

“That’s my problem and not yours, isn’t it?”

Kyoko frowns, muttering, “You’d be amazed.” She pulls out her phone, presses one button, holds it to her ear, and says, “Gokudera-kun.”

She has Gokudera on speed-dial. Good. God.

* * *

“Why are we at my parents’ house?” Sawada asks, staring around his old room like he’s never seen it before.

“It’s private, Tenth, and she already knew where it was,” Gokudera explains. “We don’t want her figuring out where the base or any of our apartments are, but since she already—”

“But why are we at my parents’ house?” Sawada repeats plaintively.


Sawada rubs his face with both hands and collapses onto his bed, gesturing for Hana to take the desk chair. He turns expectantly to Gokudera. Gokudera shakes his head. Sawada raises his eyebrows. Gokudera makes a pleading face. Sawada smiles and points to the door. Gokudera sighs and leaves the room.

Interesting little song and dance, there.

Sawada turns back to Hana, giving her a soothing, rueful smile. “Still worried about Kyoko-chan, then?”

“Even more worried.”

He nods thoughtfully, then scoots back to lean against the wall and hug his knees despite his expensive suit. What with the knee-hugging, the room, and the absence of any hulking thugs, he’s almost managing to give the impression that he’s still scrawny loser Tsuna, completely harmless.

He’s probably doing it on purpose. Hana scowls at him, but he’s too busy gazing nostalgically around to notice.

“Law?” he asks after a few seconds of oddly comfortable silence.

“Right,” Hana agrees.

“…We could use a lawyer. But you’d have to finish your degree.”

“Oh, I am finishing, and I’m taking the bar, too. I’m going to be a real lawyer, not just a…a shady, fake, whatever-you-guys-are lawyer. If you think I trust you enough to work for you without a degree to fall back on, you’re out of your mind.”

“Mm, probably,” he allows, amused. But the soft expression fades, and when it’s gone, he just looks sad and overburdened. It makes Hana feel guilty, and she doesn’t like it. “You know,” he says, “what kind of job this would be.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“We break the law all the time.”

“Do you want me to act shocked?”

“I’m just saying, it might cause you trouble. Morally.”

“Not really,” Hana assures him. “It’s starting to dawn on me that I don’t have a sense of morality outside of making sure the people I love are fine. Is that creepy?”

Sawada ducks to hide his face behind his knees and his eyes crinkle—he must be hiding a smile. Ridiculously adorable. “I’m, um. Not really the person to ask. And Gokudera isn’t either, so. I guess we’ll pretend it’s not creepy?”

“Pretend it’s not creepy. That’s how you live your life, huh?”

“Pretty much.” He straightens and moves to the edge of the bed, feet back on the floor like a grown up. “And you’ll have to live like this, too. Or else, I don’t know, go crazy. Are you sure?

Of course she’s sure. She’s gone around and around on this question starting from age fifteen. “I have to take care of Kyoko.”

Sawada smiles and stands, holding out a hand. “Then I’ll take care of you.”

Skinny guy in a fancy suit, still more kid than adult, face too worried and sweet to be believed. Hana has no idea why she’s finding it so easy to trust him. Maybe it’s because she’s taken his advice and is going crazy already.

“Deal,” she says, and they shake on it. Fate sealed, easy as that.

* * *

Sawada explained, in one of his terrifying fits of total disclosure, that he wouldn’t force Hana or Kyoko (or Haru) to do any kind of physical training if they didn’t want to. He would do his best to protect them, and, in theory, that would be good enough.

But things, he pointed out, have a way of going wrong.

“I trained with Hibari, too,” he said, eyeing them nervously. “It’s really…um, painful. He won’t go easy on you, but that’s why I picked him. When he’s done with you, everyone else will seem…soft. It’s your choice.” A worried once-over for each of them. “It won’t be fun.”

He was so, so right. He always is, the jerk.

Hibari’s idea of praise is to act like you’re finally doing what he expected you to do from the start. His idea of punishment, on the other hand, is to hit you really hard in a sensitive place. Hana feels that she is not temperamentally suited to this style of encouragement.

“Your brother,” she informs Kyoko, “is going to freak out.”

“That’s why we’re applying makeup, Hana.”

“Yeah, but I can still tell you have a black eye because makeup doesn’t hide swelling.”

“Does he really need to keep hitting me in the face?” Kyoko demands, staring resentfully into the mirror at the mauled face in question. “He never hits you in the face.”

“No, he hits me in the kidneys and makes me pee blood. It’s not better, it’s just different. Maybe he’s going for variety.”

“He always hits Haru in the face, too. Chrome-chan says he never hits her in the face,” Kyoko mutters, resentment undiminished.

“I doubt he hits Chrome much at all—she’s a beast like the rest of them. We, on the other hand, haven’t got a prayer. Just be grateful your internal organs are being left alone, because, seriously, this can’t be good for me. That jackass had better be prepared to donate me a kidney when we’re old.”

“I look like Tsu-kun did all through school,” Kyoko says mournfully, ignoring Hana. “And to think I used to want to know what had happened to him.” She tips her head back and addresses the ceiling. “I take it back! I don’t want to know anymore!”

“Why’s Hibari doing this, anyway?” Hana mutters, dabbing concealer on puffy, split skin, watching Kyoko flinch, feeling an overwhelming sense of futility. “I thought Mr. Rage Issues liked a challenge.”

“Every time he fights one of us, Tsu-kun fights him. Or Reborn-san does,” Kyoko explains. “So he’s being paid for it.”

“Freak,” Hana whispers in awe. “That man is a five-star freak. I’m actually impressed.”

Kyoko’s smile stretches the skin around her eye, and she winces. “It is pretty impressive.”

Hana smirks. Nice to know that even Kyoko can be driven to overt unkindness.

* * *

Inasmuch as Hana had pictured her life as a criminal, she’d pictured it involving a lot of time spent behind a desk. She’d pictured tinkering with tax records, possibly creating fake identities, writing shady contracts. A lot of corporate, real estate, tax, and/or criminal law.

She’d failed to understand the true scope of her job. Not surprising, given that the scope of her job is insane. She is somehow the one and only attorney for this whole…enterprise of theirs. (‘What are these branches of law of which you speak?’ they ask. ‘What is this specialization?’) She gets some help from Haru with the corporate side of things, from Shouichi with intellectual property, and from Gokudera with extralegal mafia politics. Even so, she’s expected to do more than is rational, reasonable, or indeed possible, and she doesn’t even have a full-time secretary.

Worse yet, the only person she can complain to is Sawada, and Sawada’s job makes hers look like a cakewalk. It’s a losing game, comparing your life to Sawada’s. Hana can’t even bring herself to whine about how hands-on her job is, much as she’d love to—you can’t complain about something like that to a mafia boss who’s both skinnier and shorter than you.

The thing is, as the sole attorney, Hana has to attend lots of meetings with scary, heavily armed people. This is a real shame, because Hana doesn’t win many stars in the diplomacy department. In fact, she has something of a gift for seriously annoying people with guns.

When the situation is delicate, Hana just briefs Sawada on the law and he and Gokudera take care of it—Sawada owns diplomacy. But when there shouldn’t be much tact required, Sawada sends Hana plus muscle.

The system usually works. Unfortunately, people are occasionally quite sneaky about how hostile they’re feeling, and in that case…well, in that case, Sawada thinks he’s safe sending Hana, and he’s wrong. That’s what happened today—Sawada sent Hana and Yamamoto, and they learned the hard way that Yamamoto’s muscle is insufficient in the face of thirty guys with box weapons.

At least Hana’s diplomatic failures weren’t what brought on the disaster this time—she didn’t get a chance to fail. She and Yamamoto flew into Reggio Calabria (always a fun experience, involving at least three unnecessary connections and as many delayed or cancelled flights as Alitalia can manage), and were promptly attacked on the way to their rental car. Yamamoto took down a lot of the attackers, but only managed to annoy the rest.

Hana strongly feels that none of this would have happened if they had a private jet, and so, clearly, they should have one. The Varia have a private jet, but Sawada insists it’s ridiculous. The whole thing makes Hana and Gokudera cry.

But back to the disaster: Hana and Yamamoto got themselves kidnapped and chucked in a basement, and they’re now awaiting God knows what unholy torment.

It becomes awkward and boring surprisingly quickly. Hana hardly knows Yamamoto. He looks and acts like a dumb (if attractive) jock, and she’s already dating one of those. She figured her dumb jock quota was filled, so she never bothered to get to know Yamamoto.

Now she’s going to die with him, which is so absurd it’s painful.

Yamamoto’s filling his time by pacing around their cell like a caged animal—tiny concrete basement, cell, is there really a difference?—checking for weaknesses. The steel door locks from the outside, he discovers, and there are no windows, which Hana could have told him. Because she is keenly observant in that way. The only feature of the room, in fact, is a bare, eye-burning fluorescent light above them. At least they aren’t in the dark, though in a few hours, Hana expects she’ll be wishing they were.

Yamamoto eventually gives up, settling onto the floor beside her with a laugh. The laugh is both wildly inappropriate and completely disturbing, an eerie contrast with the homicidal look in his eyes. But then, all of Sawada’s guardians are disturbing except Ryouhei. And Gokudera, actually, who’s just a geek at heart, even if he’s mainly a geek about explosives.

“Well,” Yamamoto says lightly. “I guess we’ll have to wait.”

Hana scowls at him. “For what?

“Oh, you know, I’m sure—”

“Don’t you dare tell me someone will come for us and everything will be fine when I know full well how screwed we are. In detail. Do you want to hear the details?”

“Haha.” Yamamoto gives her his full attention, which he’s never done before. It’s frightening. “No.”

Hana doesn’t give a shit what he wants, actually. Frightening or not.

“I’m assuming our would-be hosts were the ones who abducted us,” she tells him, “which means that even if, even if Sawada shows up right now and knocks down the door, our deal with the Tegano ’ndrina is blown forever, which means our relationship with the ’Ndrangheta is in trouble, which means we can’t expand into Calabria, which means those waste disposal contracts Ryouhei wanted are history, which means…”

She goes on at some length. Yamamoto lets her. He even seems to be paying attention, though it’s hard to say for sure, what with his perennial creepy smile pasted on.

Eventually, though, even Hana runs out of grim predictions and is forced to conclude. “…and Sawada will do that horrible quiet thing, Ryouhei will freak, Kyoko will cry. And we’ll probably all end up dead.” With that, Hana stares at the light, which is already driving her nuts, and fiercely wills it to explode.

“Wow,” Yamamoto says eventually. “You’ve really thought this through, huh?”

Hana does not scream in frustration, but it’s a near thing. And Yamamoto’s smile turns suspiciously bright. “Every cloud,” he informs her earnestly, “has a silver lining.”

Her jaw drops. “Oh, you did not just—”

“If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you won’t catch its cub. Where there’s life there’s hope! Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

“Do you memorize these?”

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

“You memorize these to annoy Gokudera, don’t you.”

“Perseverance is strength, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! After the rain, the earth hardens.”

“Yeah, okay. Even monkeys fall out of trees.”

He grins, apparently pleased that he’s driven her to play along. “Hayato does get pretty annoyed,” he admits. What is this, positive reinforcement?

…And Hayato, huh? “Are you sleeping with him?” Hana asks absently, figuring, hey, they’ve got time to kill. Plus, there’s a passing chance that the question might make Yamamoto uncomfortable. That would be funny.

“Yep,” he answers blithely. So much for making him uncomfortable.

Hana briefly considers asking for details, but decides that would just make her uncomfortable, which would defeat the purpose. “Huh,” she says instead. “Thought so.”

“Didn’t know you spent time thinking about my love life. Haha, that’s kind of weird!”

Yamamoto has definitely won this round. “I’m a closet pervert!” Hana announces cheerfully, not quite ready to give up. “Better check your room for cameras after this.”

“Nah, I like you. If that’s your thing, it’s cool.”

“Is it?”

“…Probably not with Hayato, haha.”

“Do you even care if I’m serious?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“Do you ever answer direct questions?”


“The miracle is that no one’s killed you yet.”

“Haha! Hayato says that all the time.”

Hana slumps back against the wall and folds her arms, petulant. She just got verbally smacked down by Yamamoto Takeshi; she gives up on everything. This is probably exactly how people feel when they get into sword fights with him. He looks like such a goof until the fight starts, and from then on you have no idea what’s happening until the moment you realize you’re missing a limb. Apparently he’s not just muscle.

And yet despite all their combined sneaky cleverness, they’re still locked in a basement, aren’t they? Locked in a basement, and Hana forgot to bring a book.

“Do you know why this happened?” she demands.

“…No?” Yamamoto answers warily, because he thinks she’s going to start casting blame. She knows better; she’s almost as much to blame as he is.

“Because I didn’t bring my book.”

He stares at her while his brain changes gears and attempts to process that. “Book?”

“Yeah. I always bring a book everywhere in case I get stuck on a train or in an elevator or whatever. But this time I didn’t. I brought Gokudera’s reports on the Tegano instead because I was sure I wouldn’t have time to read a book. So obviously we got locked in a basement. I should have known.”

“But if you had a book,” Yamamoto says, “You’d be reading, and I’d be bored all by myself.”

“Yes,” Hana sighs wistfully, “you would.” Beautiful thought. But not really her point. “No, what I’m saying is, we wouldn’t be stuck at all, because I would have been prepared, so the gods wouldn’t have seen the need. See?”

“Haha! I don’t think it works like that.”

“Oh, it does,” she insists darkly.

“Maybe we’d have been locked in here with no lights—if you’d brought your book, I mean. Anyway, they’d have taken the book away. They took everything else away.”

“You make horribly valid points, Yamamoto Takeshi. I think I liked it better when you were proverbing at me.”

He laughs again. There is an awful lot of laughter going on for a trapped-in-a-basement-imminent-death type situation. He does stop eventually, though, and tips his head back against the wall, eyes closed, still smiling faintly. Settling in for the duration. Meditating, perhaps.

Hana hates him a little.

She lets her brain chase around horrible possibilities re: the potential collapse of their quasi-evil empire for about ten minutes before giving up and accepting what was inevitable from the moment she got locked in a basement with Yamamoto. Anything, anything is better than being trapped inside her own head with no distractions.

“Fine,” she sighs. “Tell me how baseball season’s going.”

Yamamoto’s eyes fly open and he lights up, and he does, indeed, tell her about baseball. So, so much about baseball. Trades. Batting averages. Historical games. In-depth descriptions of home runs and teams and rivalries and, randomly, the 2004 strike. On and on he goes. It’s better than Hana’s brain, but not by a lot. She bitterly misses Ryouhei’s boxing nonsense, which at least has an element of insanity to keep it interesting.

It feels like a lifetime, but it’s probably only a couple of hours before Yamamoto’s discourse on baseball is interrupted by a strange noise from the door. A sort of hissing, crackling, groaning sound. The door starts to glow red, then orange, yellow, blue, white.

“Oh, good,” Yamamoto murmurs, serene, dragging Hana as far from the door as they can get.

No need, it turns out. Sawada just melts it instead of blowing it up, then paces through the dripping, white-hot wreckage—which seems like a supremely bad idea—and scans the room, eyes settling on Yamamoto and Hana and staying there.

Hana assumes he’s happy to see them. It’s hard to tell with his eyes orange and his face blank and his head on fire like that, though.

Having satisfied himself that they’re alive, Sawada turns to the far wall of the basement and blows out a giant hole—a tunnel leading to ground level. Hana wonders how smart that was, structurally speaking. “Gokudera is waiting with your things,” Sawada says softly.

“You just blew up the last of our deal with the Tegano,” Hana informs him, making Yamamoto laugh.

Sawada turns his blank, burning eyes her way. “It doesn’t matter,” he murmurs, calm enough to chill. “By next week, they won’t exist.”

Ah ha. Well, in that case, all of Hana’s disaster scenarios collapse like a house of cards. Clearly she hasn’t been in this business long enough, because destroy them all didn’t even occur to her as an option. For shame. “Right,” she says. “Well, you might’ve killed anyone standing up there. Reckless maniac.”

“I told all of our people to stay back,” Sawada tells her. “As for the rest…I’m not worried about them.”

Yamamoto claps her on the shoulder before she can come up with any other protests that will only be brutally shot down. “Let’s climb, okay? Looks like the boss has it under control!”

“When we get home,” Hana mutters rebelliously as they climb, “I swear I am never leaving my desk again. I love my desk. I’m a white collar girl. Basement cells are not my milieu.”

Yamamoto just laughs. If Hana never hears Yamamoto’s laugh again, it will be too soon. Gokudera makes so much more sense now.

* * *

Hana really is white collar at heart. Given the choice between paperwork and being shot at and imprisoned, she doesn’t even have to stop to consider. That said, there are times when the desk job closely resembles hell, and this is one of them.

She knows there’s a reason they don’t owe anyone money. A nice, clean, legal reason, which she read about somewhere. Once. In a class, possibly. Studying for a test, possibly. It’s definitely in Japan Companies Law, Article…something.

There are a lot of articles in there.

This whole situation is stupid, not least because Sawada can never, ever find out about it, because he would freak, and there’s no need. They acquired this company—legally!—three years ago, and the old company’s creditors cannot now, for the first time ever, announce that they want the money. They can’t, it’s illegal. Sawada would totally give them the money anyway, though, because he is that kind of sucker. Which is why Hana has to find the legal justification for her forthcoming nasty letter before Sawada finds out about any of this.

Working for a bleeding heart sucks. Working for a bleeding heart crime boss is surreal and it sucks.

She just needs to find the right reference, why is it so damn hard? …Maybe because it’s midnight and she’s been staring at paperwork for twelve hours straight. When was the last time she ate? Noon? Hell.

Can’t be helped. She has to find this.

“Hana, stop staring at those papers like that, it’s scary. Hana? Hana. Hana.”

“Article 23!”

“Hana, please—”

Hana dives for the bookshelf, because she knows. That’s what it is, Article 23, Section…3, maybe? Two years! Liability is extinguished after two years!

“Hana, put that book down right now.”

“Huh? Kyoko?” How long has she been standing there? “I found it!”

“Yes, I know. Article 23. Do it tomorrow. Do you know what time it is?”

“But if Sawada finds out, he’ll flip. I need to finish this, just this one thing, I’ll send it first thing in the morning—”

“I know you and your just one thing. If I let you go, you’ll be here all night. Here.” Kyoko leans over and writes Article 23 on an unrelated draft letter in her ridiculously girly handwriting. “Now you won’t forget. Go to bed.”

“I can’t just go to bed! This has to be done, I’m already backlogged for tomorrow, if I don’t do this now I’ll be behindeven more behind—”

“I didn’t want to have to resort to this,” Kyoko interrupts, arms folded, foot tapping. “Remember that you drove me to it. Brother?”

Ryouhei looms up from between darkened stacks of files. Kyoko points accusingly at Hana, and Ryouhei grabs her around the waist and slings her over his shoulder.

Hana punches him in the kidney because she is intimately aware of how much that hurts. He grunts but doesn’t otherwise react. Goddamn caveman. Or maybe that was a given, seeing as he did just walk in here and heave her bodily around, what the hell, what the hell.

“I’ll tie you up if I have to,” Kyoko says calmly, turning the lights out, locking the office door behind them, and pocketing the key. As if Shouichi hadn’t spent hours teaching them how to pick locks. “But I’d prefer it if you’d cooperate.”

“Put me down, you giant, hulking—wait, this isn’t even your idea—Kyoko, you jerk, I have things to do, this has to be finished. I hope you know that when Sawada bankrupts us and gets us killed, it’ll be your fault.” Hana is aware that she’s babbling, hysterical, and on the verge of tears. The knowledge helps nothing. “Not mine! Not my fault!”

“You need to eat something; I can tell your blood sugar is low. Brother, take her to the kitchen first, then bed.”

“Will do.”

Hana loves how they talk about her like she isn’t mentally competent. She punches Ryouhei in the kidney again. Harder. It’s predictably unsatisfying. He hauls her to the kitchen anyway, and Kyoko prances off, presumably heading to her bed and her giggling girlfriend. Hana’s resentment is profound. She’d like to take it out on Ryouhei, but can’t, because none of this is actually his fault. Kyoko tends to treat him like order-obeying furniture, and he’s never learned to say no to her. Hana is the last person on earth who can judge him for that.

She limits herself to scowling at him savagely when he sets her down on a kitchen chair. He ignores the scowl, busily wandering around and putting together a meal in his peculiar, can’t-call-it-cooking fashion. Ryouhei dishes are always an odd combination of randomly reheated leftovers, heavy on meat, no dessert. Damn athletes, anyway.

Further to which, Hana has no hope of escaping now; Ryouhei is faster, stronger, and bigger than she is. Her only remaining option is to sit in sullen silence and comfort herself with the fact that men die sooner because testosterone is poison.

“Dinner!” Ryouhei cries happily, presenting her with a training-meal-fit-for-three.

It is really hard to stay mad at him when he hasn’t deliberately done anything wrong and is beaming at her like a stunned puppy. “Ryouhei, this is—”


She does, but she’s determined not to enjoy it. To that end, she spends the entire meal lecturing on the legal ins and outs of her current liability woes. Ryouhei is not spared a single detail. Hana repeats the shorter demand letters verbatim, which is a sad commentary on how many times she’s read them. She paraphrases long sections of the law. She flails with rage and nearly flings vegetables across the room.

Ryouhei just watches her with bright, attentive eyes, nodding in the right places. Well, nearly the right places. Hana doesn’t quite trust it—he looks way too happy for someone actually understanding corporate law.

“Well?” she demands when she’s finished.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about to the extreme!” Ryouhei announces almost proudly. It makes Hana want to beat her head against a wall. “But if you want to train hard, you have to rest up. You’ll never get stronger if you don’t rest!”

“It’s confusing when you make sense,” Hana moans, cradling her head in both hands.

“You should definitely stop thinking about it. Finish your dinner, and I’ll take you to bed!”

Hana snickers, tipping her face up and propping her chin in her hand, the better to gaze at her boyfriend’s silly face. This is as close as Ryouhei gets to innuendo. “I thought I was supposed to be resting.”

“Physical exercise is a good break from mental exercise!”

Hana’s not sure how Ryouhei would know. “Is it?”

“To the extreme!”

He’s grinning at her hopefully. She grins back, still on edge, still liable to start laughing or crying with no warning. Endorphins will probably do her good. “Yeah, okay,” she says. “I guess I can’t argue with such flawless reasoning.”

Ryouhei gleefully punches the air. Hana laughs outright and leans her head against his shoulder. He’s so absurdly muscle-bound that it feels kind of like leaning against a warm rock, but for some reason she finds that comforting.

It’s not so much that Ryouhei puts up with her bullshit as that he honestly doesn’t notice it. He labors under the misapprehension that Hana’s nice, and nothing she can do or say convinces him otherwise. He’s a sure thing. She didn’t even know men like that existed.

She breathes in the scent of Ryouhei and nitroglycerin; he must have been training with Gokudera today. It’s soothing—both smells are soothing, actually, which should probably worry her. Still, the smell of explosives brings home the fact that even though Hana’s having a work crisis—perspective!—no one is going to die of it. That gives her major points over Gokudera (and Sawada). She’s doing pretty well in general, come to that. She has Ryouhei. She has Ryouhei’s evil little sister, who’s always on Hana’s side even when Hana’s not on her own side. She works for insane, brilliant people who always keep things interesting. Sometimes too interesting, but hey.

Most of the time, she loves her stupid life. She should keep that in mind.

* * *

Hibari made her do pull-ups. Well, attempt to do pull-ups, at any rate. Repeatedly and over days, until she had blisters across her palms. Until one of those blisters ripped off, causing her to cry, at which point she was permitted to stop. Doubtless it was only because she was getting blood all over the bar, and that offended Hibari’s sensibilities.

She’s currently collapsed in a hallway, staring at the coin-sized, shallow hole in her throbbing palm. At least it’s stopped bleeding. Now it’s oozing instead, presumably trying to cover up all that delicate stuff that’s usually protected by skin—nerve endings and whatnot. Hana watches the ooze and daydreams of stabbing Hibari while he’s sleeping. Of course, even in her daydreams, he wakes up and kills her before she has a chance.

It’s her left hand, and she is left-handed. She needs that hand for typing and filing and signing things. For her real job. She hates Hibari with the fire of a thousand suns. The pain, seemingly in response to the thought, abruptly stabs its way up her arm, and she doubles over and gasps and thinks, Poison, maybe he won’t see poison coming.

“Hana-chan!” cries Haru, popping around the corner into the hallway and proving that there is always a lower place. “Oh, you look awful.”

“I feel awful,” Hana agrees as dryly as she can manage under the circumstances. “I don’t believe in false advertising.”

“Hmm.” Haru holds a hand out and makes a little beckoning gesture with her fingers. Hana tentatively offers up her damaged hand, though she has a bad feeling.

Haru slaps the shit out of Hana’s palm and there is blinding, agonizing pain. Sparks bloom across her vision. It actually, for a moment, hurts too much to scream.

What the hell was that!?” Hana shrieks as soon as she can find the breath.

“Hahi? It kills the nerve endings. Now it’ll hurt less!”

“You’re making that up.”

“I’m not! Come on, if I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t have brought you this nice, cream disinfectant thing I got from Bianchi-san.”

Hana scowls suspiciously, protectively cradling her abused hand, which certainly feels like it still has living (screaming) nerve endings. “How did you know I’d need that?”

“Hibari-san told me.”

…Hibari told her. Right.

Questions: why would he bother? Is he capable of such a thing as being nice? Probably not. Is he trying to make Hana grateful to him? That seems unlikely. Does he know that Hana and Haru don’t much care for each other? Also unlikely. But whatever his reasons, the facts are the facts: first he made Hana bleed and cry, and now he’s inflicting Haru upon her.

Whatever. Someday she’ll poison his tea, and then his motivations won’t matter.

Haru is doctoring her hand quite gently, which is making Hana feel petty and small, physical abuse notwithstanding. “Hey,” she says reluctantly, “next time you have one of these, I’ll definitely slap the hell out of it for you.”

Haru laughs. “Kyoko-chan usually does mine.”

Wow. “That’s messed up.”

Haru giggles in response. Oh, the giggles. But fortunately, it’s not important for Haru to appeal to Hana. That is not the point of Haru. “You’re really good for Kyoko, you know?”

Haru’s hands pause over a bandage, expression turning uncharacteristically serious. “Well,” she says quietly, “I try to be. But I think…mostly Kyoko-chan is good for Haru.”

Hana is a bad, low, no-good human being. Make yourself like her! she orders herself for the hundredth time. It can’t be that hard!

“…Um,” murmurs a hesitant, vanishingly soft voice from right beside them. They both jump.

Chrome, of course. Woman moves like a ghost.

“Chrome-chan!” Haru cries, voice slipping from uncertainty into cheer with something like relief. “Are you looking for Hibari-san? He wandered off. You know how he does.”

“Oh.” Chrome fidgets, but doesn’t leave. She must have something to say, but is evidently afraid to say it. She’s such a sad object, it’s hard to remember that she’s a spy and assassin by trade. Which may be part of her evil plan. “Are you…okay?”

“Hana-chan just has a rip. She didn’t believe me when I told her you were supposed to smack them.”

“You didn’t tell me anything,” Hana mutters resentfully.

Haru ignores her. “What do you do for rips, Chrome-chan?”

“Oh. I used to pack mine with dirt.” A moment of considering silence. “It’s worse when calluses rip, I think.”

Haru and Hana stare. “Um…Chrome-chan?” Haru asks tentatively. “When you packed them with dirt…didn’t they get infected?”

Chrome shrugs. “Sometimes. But they would stop hurting.”

“Until they got infected.”

“At least it was a different kind of pain.”

It’s times like these when Hana remembers that Chrome can conjure up images that drive normal people into screaming insanity, and the inspiration for that had to come from somewhere. She is also reminded why she doesn’t seek Chrome out, as a general rule.

“Um, right. So what do you do for rips now?” Haru asks, because Haru and Kyoko are brave and crazy and they adore Chrome.

“Bianchi-san…” Chrome trails off. It’s really irritating when she does that. Still, Hana supposes they get the drift. Bianchi must have forbidden Chrome from packing her injuries with dirt, and when Bianchi forbids you from doing something, by God, you stop doing it.

Hana would like to be Bianchi when she grows up. Technically she already is grown up, but since she’s nowhere near as scary awesome as Bianchi, she pretends it isn’t so.

* * *

Illegal occupancy is usually Gokudera’s problem, and Hana’s not sure why she has to deal with it this time. Gokudera’s the expert. And he cares, which is more than can be said for Hana. Besides, her assigned muscle is Hibari, of all people. That’s nothing short of cruel. Has she annoyed Sawada in some way? Is this a punishment? A test?

“Pay attention,” Hibari murmurs, “or you’ll die. If you die, Sawada Tsunayoshi will make a nuisance of himself.”

Hana is touched by his concern.

The plan, apparently, is to persuade the squatters living in this vacant but Vongola-owned warehouse in Chiba to go away, and then to call Shouichi and Spanner so they can install a better security system. It ought to be an easy job.

It’s going to be a terrible job. Hana knows this, not because she’s chatted with squatters before, but because she knows how Sawada thinks. He has a ranking system for who gets sent on which type of job, with Haru and Lambo at the top (meetings with people who are almost friendly) and Mukuro and the Varia at the bottom (assassinations, quiet and loud, respectively).

Hibari is the last stop before the bottom, which means Sawada is predicting disaster. Though, in that case, the choice to send Hana along is…odd. The Iron Fist of the Vongola, she is not. Even Kyoko would make more sense—at least Kyoko’s good at calming people down.

If this turns out to be a test, Hana’s poisoning Sawada’s tea right after she poisons Hibari’s.

“Open it,” Hibari orders impatiently, standing at the warehouse’s side door. Maybe Sawada sent Hana along to open doors because carrying keys is beneath Hibari’s dignity. She opens the door anyway, feeling quite literally like a tool. (Slow-acting, painful, nasty poison.)

The squatters have a lookout waiting in the small office behind the door. Well, squatters may not be the most accurate description. Judging from the lookout, the alleged squatters are probably angry and armed, and Hana’s guessing this whole squatting thing was a ploy to lure the Vongola into showing up undermanned.

It might have worked, too, except that Sawada saw right through them and sent Hibari, who’s basically a one-man army.

Sensing this, the lookout takes the coward’s choice. Instead of attacking Hibari, he lunges for Hana, drags her close, and produces a knife. He is actually trying to use her as a hostage. Clearly he doesn’t know Hibari at all, but he’s about to learn.

Hibari ignores the entire hostage situation, sauntering unfazed toward the door to the warehouse proper.

The lookout panics. He shouts and threatens to kill Hana. Why he persists in believing this will interest Hibari, Hana does not know, but if they let him get any louder, the people on the other side of the door might hear. Someone needs to shut him up, and it seems Hibari can’t be bothered. Hana rolls her eyes, and, almost experimentally, knees the lookout in the nuts.

Apparently he didn’t see that coming; he does nothing to avoid or block it. Instead, he makes a whuffing noise, doubles over, and drops the knife like a moron. That means his head is in easy range, so Hana claps her cupped hands violently over his ears. He falls down, moaning. Hana nudges him onto his back and wrestles with herself a bit over whether she wants to go any further, because it’s inhumane, and, well, gross. On the other hand, she definitely doesn’t want this joker picking up any more weapons any time soon. On that thought, she grits her teeth and stomps on his collarbone, which breaks with a sickening crack. (Good call, wearing boots instead of heels.) He lets out a noise that would’ve been a scream if he weren’t so addled and breathless. Lucky he didn’t scream—it would’ve rendered the whole exercise pointless.

So that was…upsettingly easy. “What a wuss,” Hana says in some surprise over the moaning and whimpering.

“He didn’t expect a woman to fight,” says Hibari, voice thick with disgust. He must’ve paused to watch the show. “I told you, they’re herbivores.”

Hana looks down at the moaning lookout, then back at Hibari. She is actually experiencing a moment of gratitude toward Hibari Kyouya. It’s creepy, unnatural, and wrong.

Then she remembers that, if he’d felt like it, Hibari could’ve knocked the man down with one swipe of a tonfa and spared her the whole mess. “No. I don’t care. I don’t—you still owe me a kidney, Hibari!”

He ignores her, already turning and slipping through the door. The crashing and screaming starts shortly thereafter. No gunshots, but that’s not a huge surprise. As Hana well knows, bullets are often prohibitively expensive in Japan—Haru has lectured her on the subject at least five times.

Guns wouldn’t have saved the fake squatters from Hibari anyway; it’s just as well they didn’t waste the money.

So in the end, there’s no reason for Hana to be here. None at all. Though she does finally understand why she was sent—because of Sawada’s horrible optimism. If Sawada had been wrong, if these people really had been squatters, Hana would’ve had the unenviable task of trying to keep Hibari from killing them anyway. It makes a ruthless kind of sense.

There are a very limited number of people willing to work with Hibari. Of that number, Kusakabe never argues with him, Dino’s in Italy, Yamamoto’s on some top-secret something with Gokudera, Chrome and Adelheid would both have actively joined in on the killing, Mukuro doesn’t bear thinking about, and Kyoko gave up on preventing Hibari from doing things years ago and now just aims for damage control. Which leaves Hana. Thanks for nothing, Sawada.

Hana grabs the moaning guy’s knife (abundance of caution), walks to a window for better reception, and calls Shouichi.

“Hibari’s cleaning up now,” she informs him. “So are you guys actually going to secure the building this time, or were you planning to make do with ofuda and prayerful good wishes again?”

Shouichi has no sense of humor. Hopefully he’ll never work out that this makes tormenting him the easiest thing in the world.

* * *

Planned-for excitement is bad enough, but unexpected excitement in the middle of the downtown is just plain stupid.

It had been a good day, so of course Hana should have been prepared for disaster—these things have a way of balancing out. She and Haru had managed to do something absolutely evil and yet hopefully untraceable to the Motisi clan—the clan of out-of-control extortion issues. They’d engineered a perfect moment to have Kyoko introduce the right people to the wrong people.

Explosions, arrests, and burnt buildings ensued. The arrest of Giovanni Motisi, among others, which is something the police have allegedly been aiming for for almost thirty years. It’s beautiful.

The thing about Kyoko in Italy is that she’s pretty and polite and foreign, and all of those things combine to make most mafia men believe she’s a naïve pushover who might sleep with them. Wrong on all counts. So, so wrong. (They use Yamamoto on mafia women to much the same effect.)

Haru and Hana reassured each other that they hadn’t actually used Kyoko as a honey trap, and anyway, she’d volunteered. Once comforted on that score, they entertained themselves with the thought of the innocently adorable smile Kyoko must have worn. Hana was every bit as guilty of giggling as Haru. In fact, even Gokudera giggled when they told him about it.

That was this morning. Unfortunately, it is now afternoon.

Hana pauses in the park on her way to the new mall. There’s some festival or other going on, and they have all kinds of food stands set up. She’s checking out the lunch options and being quietly amused by the knowledge that there’s a high-tech base under her feet when she bumps into Mayumi. Normally, this would be a cause for cheer; she loves Mayumi. Unfortunately, she bumps into Mayumi just in time to spot Gokudera and Sawada running across the park with faces like grim death, faces that say, Duck and cover—we fucked up.

Hana cuts Mayumi off mid-hello, grabs her, shoves her under the nearest condiment table, and bundles in beside her, strongly wishing condiment tables were sturdier.

“Your timing is very bad,” she informs Mayumi, crushing her face into the dirt more firmly than strictly necessary. First she was feeling gratitude toward Hibari, now sympathy for him. This job is making her batshit, is what. “Very bad, unspeakably bad, why are you here?

Mayumi mumbles something into the dirt, and Hana eases up on the head crushing a little. Mayumi displays her gratitude by spitting mud at Hana. “What the hell is going on?” she hisses in a rage.

That’s when Gokudera starts blowing stuff up. Mayumi yelps and tries to use Hana’s body as a shield.

“He’s on our side,” Hana shouts. Something explodes nearby, spraying them with fine debris. Mayumi pulls back enough to give Hana a look expressive of her lack of confidence in Hana’s allies. Hana sighs agreement, tugs off her jacket and throws it over their heads. That should help with the small stuff. They’ll still die if anything big hits them, though.

Hana loves her coworkers.

An indeterminate amount of time and number of explosions later, a hand tugs the jacket from their heads, and Hana squints up to see Gokudera scowling down at them. The rest of the park seems to have cleared out. Imagine that.

No hint of sirens, though. Why are there no sirens? Why are there never any sirens? Is this one of those creepy mafia things everyone is better off not knowing?

“This is Takahara Mayumi,” Hana tells Gokudera in a pleasant, introductory tone. “We went to school with her, remember?”

“Maybe. Do you remember that word omertà that I taught you?” Gokudera demands.

“What was that!?” Hana shouts. “I couldn’t hear you over the ringing in my ears caused by those explosions in a public park.”

“Oh my God, it’s Gokudera Hayato,” Mayumi whispers. “This is hell, isn’t it. I’ve lived a bad life, and now I’m being punished.”

“This is no time to be hysterical,” Hana informs her, sitting up and patting at her hair, suspecting it’s dusted white with random park debris. “But if you want to throw rocks at him, I won’t stop you.”

“No one throw rocks, please,” says an amused voice that’s positively dripping with charisma cooties. Hana scowls and Gokudera smiles.

“Shut up, Sawada,” Hana forces herself to say. “You’re responsible for half the cost of cleaning this jacket.”

“Oh, is that…Takahara-san?” Sawada asks in alarm when he notices Mayumi. He would remember her name. The name of a girl he hasn’t seen since they were teenagers. “Are you alright? Um, how did you…well, I’m sorry you got mixed up in this. Would you like someone to take you home?”

“Loser Tsuna,” Mayumi says, turning to Hana with wide eyes. “You were so right.”

“Told you,” Hana agrees. “Freaky, isn’t it?”

Sawada tips his head to the side curiously, but doesn’t ask for clarification. He looks all cute and delicate and sweet, but Hana knows he just burned down half the park while Gokudera blew up the other half, and, unlike Gokudera, he didn’t even break a sweat. He’s scary as hell, that’s what he is, and no amount of cuteness can make up for it.

“Hana, should I accept a ride?” Mayumi asks, justifiably bewildered, maybe a little stunned from random explosions.

“Probably,” Hana allows. If Sawada thinks she might be in danger…he’s likely not wrong. “Actually, yes. Definitely. Who’s driving, guys?”

“Kusakabe-san,” Sawada says.

“Oh, good.” Kusakabe is a great driver. If it had been Yamamoto, Gokudera, any Varia at all, or even Ryouhei, not to be disloyal, well. Hana would have walked. “In that case, I want a ride, too.”

“Kurokawa…how did you end up here?”

“It was pure bad luck,” she admits. “Please consider what it means when people can get caught up in your chaos out of bad luck. Wait, don’t try to think, I’ll just tell you: lawsuits, that’s what it means.”

“Hana,” Mayumi murmurs with quiet menace. “We’re going to have coffee and a nice, long talk soon, okay?”

Hana sighs.

Omertà,” Gokudera says again, and Hana stands up and kicks him in the shin.

* * *

The next bit of unplanned excitement is, unfortunately, all Hana’s fault. Well, not all her fault—but it can’t be denied that if she had a little more self-control, she wouldn’t have goaded that Inagawa-kai guy into punching her in the face on purpose. It was just that he was a jerk and she’d wanted to prove how very like a monkey in a suit he was, and yeah, okay, it was a bad idea from the start.

Although technically she walked away the winner: he hit her but didn’t manage to knock her down, and even his own men gave him funny looks—can’t even deck a girl, what a loser.

What they don’t know about Hibari’s training regimen won’t hurt the Vongola.

Still, a bad idea. Predictably, Ryouhei didn’t take well to his girlfriend getting punched in the face. (Hana had tried to talk Sawada into sending someone else as muscle, but once Sawada’s got an idea in his head, you can’t thwack it out with a crowbar. Hana’s seen people try.) So Hana got punched and Ryouhei attacked the room at large. When Ryouhei’s fighting, it’s wisest to stay out of the way, so for the most part, Hana did.

She did break a chair over the head of the suited monkey, though. That was satisfying.

Ultimately, the whole mess led to this: Hana standing on a familiar doorstep with her bloody, battered boyfriend leaning heavily against her, total mortification in the offing. They didn’t even get the construction contracts they were aiming for. Gokudera may make her cry over this one, and he won’t be wrong.

And God, this is going to be an awkward visit.

Ryouhei’s legs give out, Hana staggers under his weight, and she decides she can deal with awkwardness better than she can deal with hauling Ryouhei all the way back to base. She pushes the doorbell with her elbow and prays there won’t be too many questions.

“God save us,” gasps the woman who opens the door.

“Mom!” Hana cries. “Um, sorry I haven’t visited for a while? But we were in the neighborhood, and, ah ha ha!—” God, she sounds like Yamamoto and Haru combined and on speed, this is so, so bad “—you wanted to meet my boyfriend, right? Here he is!”

Ryouhei’s managed to get his legs more or less under him again, and he waves cheerfully at Hana’s mother, or as cheerfully as a guy that messed up can manage. “It’s a pleasure to meet you! Thank you for the extreme honor of allowing me to date your daughter!”

Mom appears to be approaching a state of permanent shock. Not helpful. “Can we come in?” Hana asks desperately.

Hana’s father, attracted by the noise, drifts into the entryway, stops in alarm, and studies the scene. Hana waits in dread.

Dad beams and claps Ryouhei firmly on the shoulder. “Nice to meet you, son,” he says, chucking, while Ryouhei tries not to whimper in pain. “Finally, eh? Come in, come in—we can’t leave family hanging on the doorstep!”

“But—” Mom starts, bewildered.

“But nothing! Our future son-in-law!”

Great. Mom wants to call the cops, and Dad’s already married them in his mind. It’s not worse than Hana was expecting, but it is weirder.

They settle themselves carefully in the living room. Mom goes to make tea, Dad goes to fetch the first aid kid, and Hana studies Ryouhei, trying to work out what delighted Dad so much.

Hana has a massive bruise on her face, which is something parents don’t generally take well to. On the other hand, Ryouhei is a catastrophe. Bruises, blood, powder burns—though Hana really hopes Dad didn’t recognize them as powder burns. Ryouhei’s knuckles are the hardest-hit, of course. They always are. Split, bleeding. He’s a mess.

What does this picture say to a father? Lightly damaged daughter, destroyed boyfriend. Destroyed boyfriend with really battered knuckles…

Hana ducks her head and smiles. Okay. So it probably looks like someone hit her, and Ryouhei took on the whole world in retaliation. Which is…approximately what happened. No wonder Dad approves.

“Better report in,” Ryouhei says, woozily swaying in place. The problem with sun flames is that it’s apparently hard to use them on yourself when you’re completely wiped out. So they’re useless when they’re most needed. It figures.

Ryouhei’s just going to have to get by on standard first aid, though, because Aoba’s not in the country, and Hana refuses to call Lussuria. It’s one thing for a man to hit on her boyfriend, but it’s another thing entirely for a self-proclaimed necrophiliac to hit on her boyfriend. She’s just never going to warm up to the guy.

“I’ll call,” Hana says, scooting closer to Ryouhei so he can lean against her. “You’d probably pass out halfway through, and Gokudera would have a panic attack.”

“I’m fine!” Ryouhei insists.

“You lie,” Hana replies. “You lie constantly; it’s a sickness with you. And what’s more, you lie badly.”

“That’s not true to the extreme!”

“You just told me you were fine…and then you tried to wipe blood out of your eye and couldn’t reach. If you admit you’re not fine, I’ll wipe the blood out of your eye for you.”

And the stubborn stare-off commences. Hana suspects they’ll be the death of each other one day.

“…I’m extremely tired,” Ryouhei admits grudgingly.

This doesn’t quite meet the terms, but Hana caves. He’s just too pathetic. “Well, don’t fall asleep; you’d probably die.” She wipes the blood away from his eye, leans up and kisses him gently on an undamaged part of his forehead, then resumes her duties as a prop and pulls out her phone.

It’s a sad fact, but these days, she has Gokudera on speed-dial herself.

Where are you?” Gokudera shrieks into her ear.

“At my parents’ place. We’re fine. Sort of. Also, ow.”

Sort of—we’ll be there in five. Don’t move. Don’t say anything to anyone.” And click. That is one paranoid man. One paranoid man who evidently knows where Hana’s parents live.

Of course he does.

“Gokudera knows where my parents live,” she informs Ryouhei.

“It’s his job,” he replies, squinting stubbornly against blood that Hana refuses to wipe away on principle.

Hana’s parents take this moment to make their presence known, though, and Hana’s mom wipes the blood away instead, before suspiciously checking Hana over. Once Mom’s satisfied that Hana will live, she has Dad pass her first aid stuff while she cleans Ryouhei up and bandages him and does all those good, wifey things that Hana is never, ever going to learn to do. Frankly, she has no idea what Ryouhei sees in her. Of course, Ryouhei is insane and she has never once understood him, so she’s not too worried.

“Gokudera?” Mom asks mildly. Because she’s a sneaky eavesdropping menace.

“Gokudera,” Hana repeats thoughtfully. “He’s sort of our boss. But at the same time, sort of our collective mother, or maybe stalker boyfriend.”

Sawada’s our boss,” Ryouhei corrects in the appalled tone of someone who’s overheard people insisting the sun rises in the west.

“Yes, dear,” Hana agrees, rolling her eyes. “That’s another way to say it. Sawada’s our boss, and Gokudera is his stalker boyfriend.”

“But Gokudera’s Yamamoto’s—”

“Don’t be so narrow-minded.”

Mom doesn’t look very reassured. Dad, on the other hand, appears to be having the time of his life. “I had no idea,” he murmurs, “that you worked with so many interesting people, Hana. Why didn’t you call this…Sawada, then? If he’s your boss.”

“Sawada?” Hana shivers at the thought. “No way. Now is not the time to call Sawada.”

Ryouhei is silently shaking his head in horrified agreement. Hana grabs his chin and holds him still, trying to see if that cut on his cheekbone is deep enough to need stitches.

“…Why not?” asks Dad.

“Because he’d freak, that’s why.” She releases Ryouhei. No stitches, probably. That’s good, for what it’s worth. “If he sees one of us bleeding, he goes berserk, and we don’t need any smoking craters in the downtown right now. God, Sawada, I swear. In this line of work, he has no business losing it every time we get a little bashed up.”

Hana is talking too much. Ryouhei is staring at her because she’s talking too much. This is why she’s tried to avoid her parents for the last few years—her dad has this horrible effect on her. The babble effect. It’s the way he looks so interested, the jerk.

“Hmm. Tell me again, what exactly is it you do?”

“Consulting,” she answers promptly. “Some days I am the entire in-house legal department for a consulting firm.”

“Consulting,” her father repeats, delighted. Shouldn’t he be worried? Wouldn’t that be the fatherly thing, here?

His delight only increases when he escorts in an angry, hysterical, chain smoking Gokudera. Gokudera, who takes one look at Ryouhei and Hana, says, “Oh, fuck,” and marches directly back out the door.

Dad beams at the entire situation. He’s a bad person. At least Hana doesn’t have to wonder where she gets it from.

Mom, on the other hand, looks scandalized, traumatized, all the proper parent emotions, but she doesn’t say anything. Unlike Hana and her father, Mom only says about half of what she’s thinking, and it’s the nice half.

Gokudera returns with Yamamoto, who cheerfully introduces himself and Gokudera around the room before kneeling and hoisting Ryouhei to his feet. “Thanks for taking care of him!” Yamamoto says brightly.

“It’s no trouble looking out for my future son-in-law,” Dad replies, rivaling Yamamoto’s brightness and patting Ryouhei firmly on his bruised cheek. Ryouhei winces, grins, says, “Thank you, sir!”

Hana doesn’t understand men.

Gokudera, meanwhile, is gazing critically around the room, and eventually settles on Hana’s mom as the most competent person available. “Kurokawa-san,” he says with disorienting politeness. “How bad is this idiot? Broken bones, concussion, what?”

Hana’s mother, though horrified at being addressed by an obvious maniac, makes an effort to rally. “Well…well, I’m not a doctor, but, um. Nothing seems broken. He may have a mild concussion; our Hana’s been keeping him awake. He should get properly checked…?”

Gokudera bows and even thanks Mom, which is the creepiest thing he’s ever done. Brain-breaking mission accomplished, the guys haul Hana’s possibly-concussed boyfriend out the door as she watches in combined worry and irritation.

Dad’s hand lands on her shoulder and she flinches. She really doesn’t want to hear what he has to say.

“I remember when you weren’t going to get married,” he murmurs gleefully. “‘Marriage is a restrictive institution,’ you said.”

“I’m not married; marriage is a restrictive institution,” Hana snaps.

“Mm. You’re as good as married, Hana.”

Actually, she’s managed to snag all the good things about marriage without putting up with any of the bad things. She’s better than married. It’s not something she wants to point out to her married father, though. “I’m still not having kids.”

Dad has the gall to smirk. “Yes, dear.”

“I am not having kids.”

“Oh, I know.”

“Kurokawa, are we getting him to the hospital, or do you plan to stand there bullshitting until his brain bleeds out?” Gokudera demands.

“His brain is not bleeding out,” she mutters. Still, she kisses her snickering father on the cheek, hugs her long-suffering mother, and dutifully climbs into the car. She doesn’t want to be blamed for Gokudera’s inevitable aneurysm.

* * *

“So you work when you’re worried?” Gokudera asks some hours later, waltzing into her office like he owns the place, which he most assuredly does not. (Technically, Sawada owns it.)

“So you’re a stalker? Oh wait, I knew that—how is he?

“You could’ve stuck around and found out for yourself.”

She could have, but it seemed irrational. She knows he’s fine. Anyway, Kyoko was sure to stick around, and Hana has a lot of work piling up. She only meant to do one quick job today, and it turned into an entire ruined afternoon plus bloodshed. She’s busy. Besides, that hospital smell gives her an instant panic attack. “Okay, fine, you win. I do work when I’m worried. Also when I’m unhappy, uncertain, or angry. Like you, I am a workaholic. We share a disease; I feel closer already. Do I pass? Can you tell me if my boyfriend’s alive now?”

Gokudera slings himself into her purely decorative client chair and starts pulling books off her shelves. Hana doesn’t have any brothers, but she’s pretty sure she knows what it would feel like if she did. “He’s fine. Your mom was right—a concussion, but not too bad. You’ll have to wake him up once an hour all night, though. Have fun.”

Hana signs a letter to distract herself from doing anything ridiculous, such as expressing emotion in front of Gokudera.

“And you seriously lucked out with the Inagawa-kai,” he goes on. “Turns out Okumura—the guy who punched you—was getting to be trouble for the oyabun anyway. Now that he’s made an ass of himself in front of his men, he’s not as much of a threat. The oyabun is pleased. So good job, you got us the contracts.”

Hana breathes out slowly. Better lucky than good, apparently. “It was all part of my master plan.”

“Yeah right. Look, if I have to deal with my rage issues, you have to deal with yours. Pull something stupid like that again, and I go to the Tenth. He’ll make you take a class.”

Does this mean Sawada’s made Gokudera take anger management classes? Hana hopes so, because if he has, that is her beautiful thought for life. “…Fair enough.”

“Your parents are surprisingly likable,” Gokudera informs her after a minute or two of silence which he spends checking indexes for God knows what. “They know what you do for a living?”

“Don’t be stupid; it doesn’t suit you.”

“I think you could tell them.”

“Yes, because you’re a poster child for happy family relationships.”

“Fuck you, I mean it. What? You’ve got an exciting job with international travel and a good income and a…well, a stupid boyfriend, but they seemed to like him. Isn’t that what normal parents want?”

“Plus violence and systematic lawbreaking,” she points out.

“Whatever, you’re not into that side of it much. You’re fine.”

“You’re right,” Hana agrees, feeling distinctly crazy. “I am a Namimori success story. I’m a star.”

“Jesus Christ,” Gokudera mutters, now browsing tort law. “Get a grip.”

He proceeds to do a good impression of not paying any attention to her. On the other hand, he doesn’t go anywhere. He’s letting her work, but not leaving her alone.

Just what a brother would feel like.

Hana bites her lip and turns back to her letters and firmly instructs herself not to encourage Gokudera by smiling or alarm him by crying.

* * *

Today,” Kyoko moans, wandering into Hana’s bedroom and pitching face-first onto her bed. Hana peers at this strange spectacle from the safety of her desk. “Today was not a success. Contracts notwithstanding. Brother’s fine, by the way. He’s staying overnight in the base hospital, though—he didn’t want you to have to wake him up all night.”

Hana resents the fact that Ryouhei knows what a lousy nurse she is. “I could have handled that much.”

“You know my brother,” Kyoko says, turning her head to the side and staring at Hana with one bloodshot, exhausted eye, hair strewn across her face. Hana hasn’t seen her this badly put together in years. “Always has to do everything himself. Refuses help.” She huffs dismissively and buries her face back in Hana’s pillow. “Your bruise…” she mumbles into said pillow.

“It’s fine.” They’ve both had worse from Hibari, God knows.

No further comment for some time. Maybe Kyoko is planning to fall asleep on Hana’s bed, thus forcing Hana to sleep on the floor, and thereby exacting revenge for the way Hana fled the hospital like a coward.

“So why are you here instead of with your brother?” Hana asks, figuring if she’s going to draw fire over the cowardly abandonment, she wants it here and now instead of at some unpredictable future moment.

Kyoko stomps on her expectations, of course. It’s what Hana gets for daring to expect anything. “You need more watching than Brother right now,” Kyoko explains, muffled. “You get so guilty sometimes. It’s silly.”

Hana’s known Kyoko for over half their lives; she should not still be having this what the fuck? reaction to her so often. “Yeah, right. Silly. I mean, I only ran out on my injured boyfriend—why would I feel bad about that?”

Kyoko turns her head to the side again, the better to allow Hana to see her disappointed face. “You didn’t run out on him. You left him with doctors. You couldn’t do anything for his head, and you’re…well, you’re kind of a menace in a hospital room.”

So no one wanted her around anyway. Nice.

“You shouldn’t even have a boyfriend who’s always getting beaten up,” Kyoko rambles on in an increasingly tiny, sad voice. “As it is, you have a job that sometimes gets you beaten up, and that’s…you never would have. If it weren’t for me, you’d have a normal life, but I dragged you into this, and now—well. I’m sorry, Hana.”

Allowing herself to look that upset is the Kyoko equivalent of kneeling on the floor, tearing her hair, and sobbing for forgiveness. It’s terrifying. “Speaking of silly guilt,” Hana says brusquely, “stop that right now, you’re freaking me out. I knew what I was getting into, thanks. You made Gokudera give me a lecture, for which I may never forgive you—and Gokudera may never forgive you, either—but no one can say I wasn’t warned.”

“But you—”

“Plus,” Hana says loudly before Kyoko can come out with anything else upsetting, “I am never bored.”

Kyoko giggles despite herself. “There’s that,” she agrees. “Our lives are definitely way too interesting.”

* * *

“Ha! I knew it to the extreme!”

Hana’s head jerks up from where it was resting (unbruised side down) on the intellectual property notes she’s been going over for Spanner’s benefit, and she stares wildly around the room. All the lights are still on, but that hasn’t kept Kyoko from falling asleep on Hana’s bed, face buried in the pillow in a way that you’d think would lead to suffocation. And then there’s Ryouhei, who is for some reason standing in the doorway, wearing nothing but hospital pants, bandages, and an insane grin.

It may seem like an odd trip, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Much of Hana’s life has a certain hallucinogenic feel to it. “Ryouhei. Weren’t you staying in the hospital?”

Ryouhei nods vigorously, which probably isn’t good for him. “You needed sleep! But then I remembered, you definitely wouldn’t sleep—you never sleep when you worry. So you need company! Plus, if you’re awake anyway, it’s extremely easy to wake me up every hour.”

He beams, pleased with this logic. Hana carefully refrains from hitting him; he is concussed. “Uh…huh. So you broke out of the hospital, and now you’re planning to sleep…where, exactly? Your sister’s crashed out on my bed: observe.”

She points to Kyoko, who’s slept through all of this. No surprise there: years of living with Ryouhei have left Kyoko with the ability to sleep through anything short of explosions. Haru came to check on her earlier and rejected Hana’s idea of waking and moving her as ridiculous.

“Brought a futon,” Ryouhei explains, reaching back into the hallway and, indeed, grabbing a futon, dragging it into the room, and arranging it on the floor immediately behind Hana’s chair. He carefully extracts a pillow from Hana’s bed without disturbing Kyoko and flings himself down with a carelessness that would doubtless meet with medical disapproval.

Hana sighs and rummages up some spare blankets, offers them to Ryouhei, and gets a puzzled frown in return. She rolls her eyes and pitches the blankets at his head.

“I know I’m a failure of a girlfriend, but I’m not actually so bad that I’d let you freeze all night on my floor without blankets.”

“What failure?” he asks, pawing blankets away from his face.

“You can’t seriously tell me you weren’t bothered by the way I ran away and hid when you were with doctors. Obviously I should have been there.”

Ryouhei looks deeply confused. Not that this is an uncommon look for him. “Why?”

“Be—because, because I’m your girlfriend, because I should—I’m supposed to be—”

He’s sitting up now, as if to better communicate the force of his bafflement. “You’re not a doctor to the extreme!”

“Well, no, but—”

“You hate doctors!”

“Yeah, I have a phobia, but that’s—”

I hate doctors!”

“And that’s exactly why—”

“If I have to be with doctors, I don’t want you with doctors, too. Pointless to the extreme!”

“I’m useless when you’re hurt,” Hana snaps, determined to get in at least one complete sentence.

“Hana. You dragged me all the way to your parents’ place.”

It’s not often that Ryouhei settles down and turns serious. That’s probably why he’s so devastating on the rare occasions when he bothers.

And he has a point. She did drag him to her parents’ place. In fact, she waited to run away and freak out until he was in the hands of medical professionals and she was sure he’d be fine.


“Come here,” he says, lying down again and throwing an arm out toward her. “Better for your back than hunching over a desk like that!”

“What if I fall asleep down there and don’t wake you up in an hour and then when I finally wake up in the morning you’re dead?”

“If you’re thinking like that, you’ll be extremely awake all night! Come on.”

She sighs, grabs her watch, slides out of the chair, and stretches out beside Ryouhei. He wraps an arm around her contentedly and falls asleep in—she times it—ninety-three seconds.

Hana is lying on a borrowed futon on the floor of her own bedroom on top of the blankets so she’ll stay uncomfortable and cold and awake, the better to wake up her concussed lover every hour. Oh, and said lover’s sister is sleeping on her bed, hence the whole borrowed futon situation. It’s like they’re going for some kind of award in domestic surrealism.

As if to confirm a point, Ryouhei starts snoring. Hana giggles quietly, possibly a little hysterically. Clearly, there is something very, very wrong with her.

Despite everything, she really does love her stupid life.