"The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God."
― Hermann Hesse, Demian: Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend
"Por favor ponga atención a un importante anuncio de seguridad, en el caso de una pérdida de presión en la cabina, se necesitarán las mascarillas de oxígeno, jale la mas cercana a usted y colóquela sobre nariz y boca."
Yako sighs and offers a polite smile to the flight attendant as the woman strolls down the aisle, displaying an oxygen mask as the normal safety instructions are droned out.
Later, when the cabin is dim and Akane wriggles against her neck, Yako leans back in her seat and has to suppress a laugh. She would be lying if she said she isn't just as eager to get back to Japan; she enjoys her cases and all the people she has the opportunity to meet along the way, but there’s just something about coming home that not even the most exciting—or epicurean—new country can seem to match.
She tugs gently on the small braid of hair her ghostly secretary is possessing, as a silent warning to calm down before the person seated beside her can notice that anything is amiss. Even years later, it’s surprisingly easy to cart around a supernatural phenomenon, even without Neuro’s aid. Or at least, very little of his aid.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that, even with the very pressing danger of Sicks looming, Neuro had still made arrangements for his so-called ‘slaves’. A few extra traps here and there had been his generous parting gift to Yako and Godai, but there had been an untouched demonic battery for Akane, hidden in Troy’s trick drawer.
It was, she can ruefully admit, exactly what they had needed. She and Godai are (arguably, in her case) perfectly able to function on their own, but Akane needs some form of supernatural energy to sustain her or she might simply revert to her natural state: a corpse, buried in the cement of the office’s wall.
Nowadays, Yako keeps Akane either attached to her own hair or to her cellphone and—
Her train of thought, which has been growing more and more nostalgic and sluggish as her head dips and her drowsiness creeps up on her, is abruptly shifted back on track.
She lets out a belated, soft noise of discomfort and raises her head. She rubs her fingers, now sleep-clumsy from a nap she hadn’t quite managed to sink into, over where the jolt had come from: Akane herself. The braid is wriggling frantically against her palm, and her focus sharpens nigh-instantly. Akane isn’t one to make a scene over nothing; if anything, her secretary has a protective, cautious streak a mile wide and counting, now that Neuro isn’t dogging Yako’s every waking step.
She glances around from beneath her lashes, her fingers cupped to hide her flailing braid from any would-be witnesses. Her seatmate is fast asleep, as is the young couple across the aisle, slumped together in a picturesquely domestic scene of exhaustion. The overhead symbols all seem to be in order, and her tote is still balanced on top of her feet, untouched since take off.
That leaves one last likely avenue for Akane’s distress, barring the event of some underhanded sealed-cabin murder suddenly being discovered. The latter case is not, unfortunately, a particularly unexpected occurrence in her daily life, but she still opts to glance out of the window first.
Her breath freezes in her lungs.
It feels like an eternity drags by as she stares, transfixed, at a familiar shoe sole—a maddeningly welcome profile in the pre-dusk gloom, slanted at a maddeningly impossible angle—a glimpse of acidic, glowing green burning into her own eyes—
And then, with a roaring clash of thunder that shakes its way through the plane and a blinding flare of lightning, it’s all gone.
She practically plasters herself to the window even as the man beside her jolts awake along with the rest of the dozing passengers. Somewhere on board, three babies start wailing. She blinks away the bruise-colored afterimages of the flash as best she could, but no matter how she strains her gaze, she can’t find any trace of what she was sure she had seen. She can’t see any trace of Neuro at all. The only consolation is that Akane is still twisted around her ring finger and shaking like a leaf, practically rattling the digit in its socket out of sheer excitement.
Her pulse is pounding in her ears frantically, like a drum, like a clock.
Three years, she thinks, curling her fingers around Akane in a loose squeeze. It’s a far cry from the uncertain projections Neuro had originally made—decades, centuries, perhaps even longer—and something inside of her burns with delighted vindication. She was right. More than that, she has succeeded; he found her. Her growth—her evolution—she’s worked so hard all this time and this moment makes it so utterly worth it.
He’s finally back.
She takes a slow, shaky breath, a silly, exuberant smile stealing over her lips as she finally peels herself away from the window, flopping back against her seat. He isn’t on the wing any more, which she is dubiously grateful for; she immediately suspects that this is one of his usual ploys, trading immediate physical trauma for exhaustive emotional trauma via gas-lighting, since she isn’t immediately and privately accessible to him.
It would be par for the course for him, if a little mild. She rubs a hand over her eyes, blinking back a sudden prickling wave of tears. After missing him for so long, even this assholish greeting is a welcome change of pace. He’ll probably be waiting for her when she gets off the plane, hoisting up some utterly degrading sign filled with insults towards her and sporting that damnably innocent grin all the while.
She can’t wait to see him again.
Neuro is not, as it so happens, waiting for her when she disembarks. Even when she returns to her house, she finds no trace of him—nor her mother, for that matter. That much is to be expected, though; she already knew that her mother was away on a business trip with the rest of her editorial department. Kanae is similarly absent, on a trip to Hokkaido with her latest boyfriend, but they speak at length on the phone once Yako is back in the country.
“You’re probably right,” Godai agrees the next day. The weather is just as gloomy as it had been during her flight, filled with torrential rain and booming thunder. It feels like salt being rubbed into an open wound each time the sky lights up. “If that monster finally decided to show his face again, screwing around with us’d definitely be the first thing on his To-Do List.” They spend a moment in quiet, exasperated solidarity over the fact that it would hardly be the first time he put them through some sort of weird abandonment play for his own sick amusement.
Not long after that, once Mochizuki pops up and, like clockwork, so do an alarming number of veins on Godai’s face, so Yako sees herself out. She moves down the list of people she needs to touch base with and swings by the Police Department to check in for any open cases—and to drop off souvenirs.
“He’s such a jerk,” she vents to Higuchi, not long after she finishes making her rounds.
“Usui-san?” Higuchi guesses, sipping his coffee.
Usui is as abrasive as ever, staunchly refusing to let her work unless clients have requested it separately and specifically. Tsukushi claims he does so as a way of forcing her to take a break, rather than continue exhaustively throwing herself into her work the way she does while abroad. Given the fact that she caught a glimpse of the cute little porcelain clown marionette she had gotten Usui the last time she was in France half-hidden on one of his office shelves, Yako can admit the theory might hold some credence. Maybe. If she ignores the thirty-minute lecture she ended up subjected to before she snuck off with Higuchi.
“No,” she sighs, pausing to chomp into a pastry and ignoring the familiar whispers and stares of the other café-goers. “Neuro.”
Higuchi chokes, quickly falling into a fit of hacking coughs. “H-He’s back?” The older man pounds his chest lightly a few times.
“I’m pretty sure, yeah,” she nods, sipping the iced coffee she ordered. She’s been frequenting this café with Higuchi for years, and the staff have long since learned to just give her an entire pitcher. “He’s keeping out of sight, though. It’s infuriating.”
“Probably why he’s doing it,” Higuchi says, a wry twist stealing over his mouth.
“I’m being ridiculous,” she admits. “I mean, I’ve waited three years; this shouldn’t bother me so much. I know I can be patient.”
Higuchi looks pensive, for a moment. “It’s hard,” he says, “when there’s something you want, but can’t have. It’s ten times worse when it’s within reach and you still can’t have it.”
She goes silent, recalling just how early he had learned that bittersweet life lesson. His own parents had lived with him in only a purely literal sense, so she’s honestly preaching to a choir far more experienced than her in this particular breed of frustrated anticipation.
“So, I just have to be patient,” she says again, to banish the black mood before it can fully settle.
“Being a mature adult kinda sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?” Higuchi seems more than willing to roll with the redirection, even managing to tack on a teasing grin.
“You ritually set fire to a tie at the end of each month,” Yako points out. “I don’t think you have the right to call yourself a ‘mature adult’ just yet.”
“Hey,” he says, puffing up as though honestly offended. “I will have you know I play the stock market and pay taxes and work for the government. I’m totally mature.”
“Two weeks ago you declared a blood-feud with a ten-year-old from South Korea over a video game.”
“That little rat bastard knows what he did,” he sneers darkly, taking another long pull from his cup.
Yako sighs, and they dissolve into relatively pleasant discussion about her travels. She hasn’t had the chance to hit up many electronic stores while meandering through South America, but honestly she learned early on not to bother getting him technology, as he sometimes gets extremely judgy about certain brands or parts, and she doesn’t know enough to avoid his circuitry-based pet peeves. Getting fifteen bags of coffee beans through Customs had certainly been… something, but Higuchi seems honestly interested in trying out the one he received, so she tallies it up as a win.
Thirty minutes after they slipped out, on the dot, Usui rings up Higuchi and nags him until they say their goodbyes and part. After a quick glance at the time, she stops by Mutsuki’s school and catches her just as classes let out—literally, as the younger girl stuffs her unopened umbrella back in her bag, bolts across the front yard and physically throws herself into Yako’s arms upon catching sight of her. She nearly makes Yako drop her umbrella, but she catches her balance before they end up tumbling back into the half-flooded street, through sheer practice.
“Welcome home, Big Sis!” Mutsuki beams. “I saw a few pics on JiffyGram this morning from people on your plane. You looked pretty happy!” She bounces on her toes, and Yako ignores the feeling of something stiff and metallic under her sweater sleeves, through sheer practice. “Did you miss Japan? How many cases did you have this time? What did you bring me?”
“Yes, something like six or seven, and if you let me go I can show you.” She laughs and ruffles Mutsuki’s hair as they head for the relatively dry safety of a nearby shop’s canopy, earning a pout in the process. Eventually, though, the girl reluctantly releases her. After a bit of digging in her bag, Yako pulls out a stuffed Tapir from the airport and a business card. “There’s a company in Brazil—I met their current head at a restaurant Aya-san recommended to me—and they’re looking to import toy brands.”
“Awesome!” Mutsuki gives an excited little hop, squeezing the stuffed animal just like any cute little middle schooler. The next moment she accepts the card, and her sweet smile turns positively wolfish. “This is the best one yet, Big Sis. I’ll definitely bring it up at the next Board meeting; we’ve been looking to break into new markets for ages.”
“Happy to help.”
“Hey, hey, so back to your cases—did you make any new friends?”
“A few,” Yako lies through her teeth, thinking of the dozens of criminals, activists, victims and military personnel she ended up connecting with. It’s more or less the same wherever she ends up going, like a switch she just can’t turn off. She ends up invested in peoples lives, and now has a social network that spans penitentiaries, police stations, high-class businesses and tiny little villages all over the world. “I had Godai-san make some arrangements for meeting back up with them later.”
Mutsuki, sweet child that she is, doesn’t call Yako out on that filthy, flagrant fib. They meander their way back to Mutsuki’s apartment building through the gloomy weather, chatting idly about her first semester as a middle school student.
“In a few years, you won’t have a single spare minute between social calls,” Aya teases her when she visits her in prison the next day.
Yako pulls a face, but…
Aya isn’t exactly wrong about that.
“That partner of yours will have to drag you away when it comes time for cases,” the singer continues, as if that hadn’t always been Nero’s modus operandi.
“Maybe if he ever shows himself,” Yako grumbles sullenly, resting her cheek on one loose fist.
“Now, now,” Aya says. She looks, not for the first time, like she wants to reach through the glass and draw Yako in for a comforting embrace. “I’m sure he has a good reason.”
Yako thinks Aya is being a bit overly-generous with her definition of ‘good,’ but holds her tongue.
“Maybe it’s the weather,” the older woman hums, glancing at the windows in the back of the visitation room.
The storms have gotten more brutal, even as they gradually shifted, and several cities have already experienced severe flooding and wind-damage near the coasts. Yako woke up to the news that southeast Asia was dealing with hurricanes, and there were several earthquakes shaking up the entire map, hours apart. There were projections for possible volcanic activity popping up ahead of schedule in some regions, and most of the buzz on the radio and news stations had been interviews with increasingly bewildered experts and dotted with warnings from Safety Committees. It’s terribly, gut-wrenchingly familiar, but she hasn’t allowed herself to properly think over the implications just yet.
“It reminds me of three years ago,” Aya comments softly, ruthlessly and good-naturedly tearing through Yako’s desperate attempt at oblivious optimism.
“…yeah,” Yako sighs, because it’s true and it would be a very good explanation for what’s kept Neuro away. They may have cut off the head of the proverbial snake, but she knows the New Bloodline is still out there. They had never gotten an official headcount for everyone that Sicks had recruited and ruled over, like some great and terrible king, so if they tried to stir things up just as Neuro got back, it would make sense that the demon would opt to immediately clean house, for the sake of his future meals.
“I’m sure he’ll come around soon,” Aya comforts her, letting her fingers splay against the glass separating them. “So cheer up, Ms. Detective. I hate to see you so glum, after all this time.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Yako rubs the back of her neck with a rueful little grin. “You’re right. I’m home, and we finally get to talk to each other, instead of just writing letters. I should be happy to catch up, not moping over Neuro being a jerk.”
“You very nearly beat your last letter back, actually.”
“Yes. I’m feeling a bit spoiled, getting so much of your attention in such short order.” She smiles, slow and bright and dazzling in a way that not even three years of self-imposed imprisonment seem to have dampened. “I hope I can expect a little special treatment, even once your schedule fills up with all those new friends and sushi dinners.”
“You’ll be right near the top of my list,” Yako promises.
It’s one that she fully intends to keep, but visits with Aya always leave her feeling heavy and bloated with some emotion or another. This conversation is no different, giving her an unpleasant brand of food for thought, unpalatable to even her. But, it reminds her of another visit she needs to make, all the same. Godai squabbles and yells at her when she asks him to make the arrangements, trying to cite the poor conditions, but the next day, eerily, those same conditions have calmed down. Reluctantly, he clears his schedule and personally picks her up.
“Can’t believe you’re doing this again,” he grumbles, fingers twitching on his steering wheel as he fights the urge to light up. He paid off his old car—may its poor, abused automotive soul rest in peace—and is now in the process of paying off an even bigger, shinier SUV. “Do we have to go so often?”
“It’s been about a year,” Yako mumbles, working her way through an entire duffle bag of snacks she brought for the trip.
“Way too often.”
Yako lets him grouse and complain as much as he likes, since he makes no motion to turn the car around or really stop her. Just like the last few times they visited. He even hikes with her into the woods, hanging back for a smoke at the edge of the clearing in order to give her some privacy while keeping her in sight. Just in case.
Godai might not have spent much time in school, but he can pick up on the possible reasons for such a sudden, coordinated surge in natural disasters just as easily as Aya has.
Yako settles under the forked tree, noticing how it has shot up again since the last time she saw it, and how the dirt underneath it has finally gotten a thick cover of grass. She leans her head back against the bark, and peers up at the gloomy, overcast sky filtering in through the foliage.
“Hello again, Sai,” she says quietly. Her shoulder gives a phantom twinge, and she runs her fingers over the scar there through her shirt. Akane rubs against her cheek soothingly, and a small smile quirks over her lips. “It’s been a while. I went to South America, this time. Chile, Peru, Venezuela… I went all over and in between, even took a trip up to Mexico for a bit. I met a lot of good people, this time, though I guess I’ve probably said that every time I visit. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to any of those places but… oh, who am I kidding? That’s not the news that you’ll enjoy hearing.” She huffs out a laugh. “Neuro’s back.”
The tree, as ever, is silent save for a sudden gust of wind rattling through the branches.
Yako isn’t sure whether she’s disappointed or relieved that her revelation didn’t prompt a hand to shoot out of the dirt and grab her, zombie-style. She lets her eyes fall shut, and her smile grows. “Yeah, that’s definitely what you would care about. I haven’t seen him since the first little glimpse, but he must be busy; apparently the world is falling to pieces, these days.”
“More true than you know, actually.”
Yako’s eyes shoot open, some strange, primal klaxon blaring at the back of her brain and Akane bristling at her throat.
There’s a man in front of her. …No. Yes. No. She frowns, leaning forward and slowly gathering her feet under her. The person in front of her—if they actually are a person—is masculine, with a dapper suit under his sharp trench coat and a pair of obviously expensive, custom-made shoes. They have a checker-print on the toes, to match his gloves, tie, hat, and part of what seems to be a tattoo peeking out of one side of the mask on his face. The mask and part of his hat are metal, however, and Yako feels her hackles raise as she gets to her feet.
The sky above is now a strange, sickly lilac, shot through with the occasional stutter of electricity that makes no move for the ground.
“Excuse me?” she says, her voice firm and casual even as she realizes that she can’t see Godai any more. The edge of the clearing is draped in a sudden, inexplicable fog, like somebody decided to blur reality at the edges.
“I said it’s more true than you know,” the checker-faced… person continues, his tone blithe. “About the world falling to pieces. That demon of yours has put us in quite the predicament.”
“What,” slips out of her numb lips. She should be quicker on the uptake, but something about this man makes her brain twitch and turn in circles, like a dog hearing a sudden whistle from three houses down. There’s something she should be seeing, but isn’t, or something she is seeing that she shouldn’t. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know, but she’s beginning to suspect she’s been drugged, because the fog seems to glow when she looks at it from the corner of her eyes but not head-on, and something like fire is seeping up from the ground beneath her feet. It jags toward her unexpected conversational partner in blur of purple, forcefully stopped mid-air when he idly raises a hand off of his cane.
This has to be drugs, Yako thinks more firmly, deciding to disregard the floating fireball for the moment. Drugs and the New Bloodline, just like last time.
Nope, that primal, screaming part of her brain tells her, with one hundred percent certainty.
She’s so sure.
Nope, that little bundle of neurons insists, firmly.
“What are you?” Yako asks, unable to stop herself.
“What a strange thing to ask a person,” he says, as the gout of purple flames—growing to the size of a basketball out of what she somehow recognizes as indignation—drifts back and makes another lunge for him. It bounces back, before darting in again and again, like some cat single-mindedly focused on a bird behind a glass door. Akane twitches and grows longer, as if she wants to disconnect from Yako and join in on the attack.
“You aren’t human,” Yako says, and it tastes like a lie and the truth all at once. She frowns, and furrows her brow. “You… aren’t like any kind of human I’ve ever known.”
It’s worrying, how right those words feel. Like she stumbled onto some simple, founding principle of the universe, by merely following her gut instinct.
The person—man?—seems quietly amused, and his smile widens. “That is also more true than you realize. But, if it makes you feel any better, I can assure you I don’t have anything to do with that little cult you and Nougami took apart.”
Yako isn’t sure what alarms her more—the fact that he can call the New Bloodline a ‘little cult’ or that he can mention Neuro so casually in the same breath as mentioning his true species. “Then,” she says, and falters. “Then… you’re…?” Friends won’t even fully form as a thought. Not for Neuro. Not even this strange, wrong, sharply dressed man.
“I suppose you could call me a fan of his work,” he says, stroking his chin, idly. “It’s part of why I’m here; I’m especially impressed with what he’s made of you.”
Yako’s mouth drops open, but she doesn’t even know where to begin to respond to that. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to need one, and presses on.
“For now, let’s just call it a ‘professional courtesy,’ hm?” He adjusts the brim of his hat. “With the pleasantries taken care of, let’s get to the heart of the matter.” He shifts, and she finds herself nearly buckling under a sudden, piercing stare. “Katsuragi Yako, if I were to tell you that this world would end in the next ten… no, I apologize, five minutes, would you believe me?”
“No,” she says automatically.
Yes, her brain insists.
“Really?” His smile turns sly.
Yako doesn’t respond.
“I thought so.” He’s practically oozing smugness now; even more than he was to begin with. “Then, what would you say if I told you I could more or less ensure the good health and survival of you and those dearest to you?”
“I’d ask what the catch was,” Yako says, this time without any backchat from her own mind. Both of them are—or rather, all of her is—more or less clear that offers that are too good to be true generally are. Even for fantastical, impossible situations like the one he’s proposing.
“I don’t have much time to explain,” he said, checking a watch he pulls out of a coat pocket. “We’re down to about three minutes and ten seconds. The long and short of it is that the price of survival will be to continue surviving. I’m sorry if that comes off as cryptic.”
He’s not even remotely sorry. Yako doesn’t need sudden brainchatter to tell her that. But, she takes a moment or two to settle herself, and considers the issue as though everything else he’s saying is actually true.
“Two minutes, forty-seven seconds. And still counting.”
“I suppose I’d take you up on that offer,” she says, grimacing. “If the world really was going to… what, just disappear?”
“Crumble and collapse,” he says, now grinning like she just made his day. “That demon of yours really has put us in quite the predicament.”
Yako feels her blood run cold. “Neuro did? You mean, when he came back, he—”
It makes the worst kind of sense, she realizes.
“Well, he didn’t really come back,” the man hedges, as the purple fire grows larger and more aggressive still. “He tried to, and was here for a moment, but the backlash sent him the way he came. Ah, one minute on the clock.”
“He…” She raises her hand shakily, feeling her ears pop as the rumbling of the clouds grows louder. Akane twines around her fingers, comforting and protective. Neuro had said that getting back would be a tricky, twisted business, but she just can’t link him to an act that would jeopardize all of humanity. Not after everything he had put on the line to stop Sicks from wiping them out, after everything he’s shown and taught and told her. But she knows, for all his strength and cunning, he isn’t perfect by a long shot.
Maybe even demons can make mistakes, she thinks uncertainly, but before she can continue to probe that thought—
“Ah, show time.”
The man snaps his pocket watch shut, and everything goes dark.
When Yako opens her eyes, the first thing she sees is the ceiling in her bedroom.
It was all just a dream, she most notably does not think, because the first thing she feels, and the second and third things she sees are, respectively, two bodies sprawled with her under the cover.
“What?” Yako asks the world at large, her voice sleep-muddled as she sits up in bed. When the covers fall back, a breath stutters and catches in her throat, leaving her wordless because—
“Stop being so loud Katsuragi Yako,” Sai huffs, reluctantly lifting their head. They are as whole as they were that day in the forest, before Sicks ripped out their heart and killed them. Which Yako remembers vividly, because she was there. Because she helped bury them. Because she has been visiting that grave on and off for years.
“Don’t talk to her that way,” Yako’s other bedmate insists, narrowing… her? eyes at them, her(?) arms still twined around Yako’s waist. After a moment of uncertain staring, recognition suddenly dawns. The fine, pale features of this person are entirely new to her, but the hair…
She would know that lustrous, beautifully maintained braid anywhere.
“Yes.” Akane squeezes her waist in a tight hug, beaming.
“What?” Yako demands again, but the world at large is still apparently completely unwilling to cooperate. Well, her phone is buzzing furiously on her nightstand, but that’s on the other side of Sai so it can wait until things make sense. Which they may not ever actually do, she’s not sure of anything right now. In fact, to further rub this fact in, a soft knock sounds at her door, and she goes still.
“Yako?” Her mother calls, apparently no longer in Kyoto in the middle of her five-day business trip. “That famous singer friend of yours is here. I’m headed off to work, now, but she’ll be waiting downstairs.”
“Okay,” Yako says faintly, staring at the two should-be-dead, possibly naked people in her bed and silently willing her mother to keep that door shut, for the love of all that is good in this world. “Have a good day.”
Yako flops back into her pillows and stares up at the ceiling. Right now everything is strange and wrong, and it feels as though it will never makes sense again.
“Oh, Aizawa-san also brought pastries, so make sure to leave her one for breakfast.”
Yako sits back up, because maybe she spoke too soon.
Shout out to wyrvel for helping me plot out 90% of this story. I've always wanted to cross KHR and MTNN and I'm finally doing it. Living the dream. /clenches fist
Chapter 2: the kawahira “cake” model of dimensional stability
This chapter was brought to you by the power of creampuffs and the fact that this is the other half of what was supposed to be my outline for Chapter 1.
“I woke up this morning to a warden absolutely convinced that today I was scheduled to be released,” Aya says, sipping the coffee Akane made for all of them after Yako worked up the courage to venture downstairs. “More to the point, all the paperwork was accounted for, and seemed legitimate.”
“Paperwork’s easy to forge,” Sai butts in, munching on a fancy pastry. The entire box is in their lap, and Yako sends it a mournful, longing look. They also stole Yako’s comfiest pair of purple, striped pajamas, and happen to be sprawled lazily over the back of the couch. It’s entirely unfair that they don’t even seem to be particularly focusing on balancing.
“Not for a high-profile case like Aizawa-san,” Akane disagrees, calmly cleaning out the grinder. Despite her every intention, Yako can’t help but think back to the few, confusing moments it took to get her surprise bed-guests decently clothed. Akane is… not exactly a girl, or a boy. From the brief, haunting glimpse Yako had caught, there was no navel or anything in particularly defining between Akane’s legs, as smooth as a child’s doll.
Yako decides that, as she has thought before, Akane is actually just a being who has transcended to the point where she identifies as ‘hair’ above all else, and firmly puts the issue out of her mind. There are more important things to worry about, such as the two walking, breathing corpses and the two murderers in her kitchen, and maybe the fact that those parties overlap and she isn’t even slightly alarmed.
Yako has welcomed shock back like an old friend, mostly because it numbs her enough to get down to business. “That guy seemed really convinced that the world was ending. I’d say time travel as a first guess, but…”
“According to what I recall, all the terrible weather was yesterday.” Aya frowns faintly, tapping an inexplicably, perfectly manicured nail against the rim of her cup.
tink, tink, tink
“What I recall,” Aya emphasizes.
tink, tink, tink
“You can look yourself, but according to the news and websites, all the weather lately has supposedly been entirely mild and seasonal.”
“Of course,” Yako sighs. “So, other than time-travel and Demonic Tools—”
“Demonic what?” Aya asks, brows raising.
“I’ll explain later,” Yako sighs, dragging a hand over her face. “Other than those, does anybody have any clue as to what is going on?”
“Nothing conclusive,” Akane pipes up, having now switched over to checking Yako’s phone, or possibly continuing to work on their joint Candy Crunch high score. “Godai-san is really confused though. He’s left about twenty texts and fourteen—“ The phone buzzes again. “Fifteen voicemails I’m not sure I want to listen through. We should probably assume that whatever happened, he remembers it too.”
Yako heaves a sigh of relief. “I’m glad he oka—uwagh?!”
Sai shoves the empty pastry box onto her head, blinding her as they lean in to swipe her coffee. “He’s got that company, right? Let’s go. I’m still hungry, Katsuragi Yako.”
The sweet, lingering scent of the pastries just adds insult to injury, but Yako swallows back her indignation and goes to raid her closet for suitable outdoor clothes. Akane’s hips are too narrow, so Yako lends her a belt to go with the jeans and turtleneck her secretary settles on, and it goes without saying that the old red PE track-suit Sai settles on fits like a glove. About thirty minutes later—closer to forty, really, because a few feet from the front door, a fan recognizes Aya and begs for an autograph—they’re all in the elevator riding up to Godai’s office.
Godai looks up when they enter, his chest swelling in preparation for what promises to be a lot of yelling, all of it directed at Yako, who is at least eighty percent innocent here.
He takes a look at the people she’s brought with her.
“What the fuck,” he says, quietly but with great feeling.
Yako could very much say the same, she thinks, looking over to where Mochizuki is eagerly watching Higuchi and Mutsuki fight to the death in some video game Yako knows nothing about. The rabbit-looking boxer seems to be beating a creepy-looking robot, but that could mean anything. But what she says is: “We should probably talk.”
“Yeah.” Godai looks from Sai, to Aya, to Sai, to Akane, to Sai yet again. Sai waves, smiling brightly as their hair changes to mimic Godai’s current style and color perfectly. Godai looks like his mind is completely overloaded, like he’s not going to touch that unsubtle mockery with a ten-foot pole, and Yako has never felt more in sync with him. “Yeah, we do. You first, you’re always neck-deep in this shit.”
“Language,” Yako scolds out of pure, belated reflex, glancing at Mutsuki from the corner of her eye.
“I’m in middle school, Big Sis,” Mutsuki scoffs, as the robot sneaks in a last-minute victory and she and Higuchi turn to face the rest of the group. “It’s not like I haven’t heard those words before.”
“…right.” Yako remembers, belatedly, that she too had known those words by middle school, and coughs awkwardly. “Right.”
A glare and some growling from Godai get Mochizuki to mope his way back to his own office, leaving them in relative privacy. Yako, in as few words as possible, tries to explain what happened to her. It takes about five minutes. She opens the floor to questions. It takes about two hours to explain the truth about Neuro, a more in-depth summary of the New Bloodline debacle, the fact that yes, Sai should absolutely and unquestionably be dead, that all of them have actually met Akane before, and that yes, Akane should unquestionably be dead as well.
“I can’t really remember what my face should look like,” Akane admits honestly. “But I suppose this feels right?”
Akane has no explanations about the gender question Godai indelicately raises. …No, that’s wrong—the answer is simply little more than a big, expressive shrug. She’s fine with female pronouns, though, so Yako falls back on three years of habit by default. Nobody asks Sai any questions about gender. Nobody asks Sai anything. Sai is off in an armchair in the corner, carefully shaping themselves into a copy of the man Yako had made her strange agreement with, before the black-out.
That aggressive purple fire was, apparently, Sai’s immortal soul.
Yeah, Yako’s not touching that with a ten-foot pole either.
“That man was…” Yako pauses. “I don’t know. I got a lot of mixed signals about what he might be, but… well, the only thing I was sure of, all the way down to my bones, was that he was telling the truth about what was going to happen.”
They all take a moment to look around at this strange, unended world.
“…Maybe it was a really bad acid trip?” Higuchi offers. “Something like the digital drug?”
Yako shakes her head, simply pointing to Exhibits A and X. “I don’t think so, no.”
Exhibit X finally settles on a nearly perfect recreation, and then stands and adds about thirty kilograms, straining the buttons of their copy of the checker-faced man’s trench coat.
“Oh, now that’s just unkind,” says the checker-faced man himself. They all whip around to stare at him, leaning coolly up against the closed and locked office door. All of them except for Sai, who immediately launches themselves across the room, shifting back to their standard form and warping into something with jagged claws and a few too many joints along the way.
The checker-faced man raises his cane and Sai goes tumbling backwards, landing in a sprawling, unpleasant pile of limbs and laughter.
“You’re fun,” says Sai, but their eyes say I’ll kill you.
“You’re a rude little gremlin,” the man sniffs, adjusting his gloves. “But, since the rest of you have been so patient, I figure it’s time I give you a more descriptive… well, description about what the price of hauling you out of a sinking ship of a world was.”
“Hauled out,” Higuchi starts to say, rising up from the couch.
“I was going to fixate on the ‘more’ part of ‘more or less’ ensuring the safety and good-health of those closest to me,” Yako says at the same time. She shares a look with Higuchi and dips her head. “…But I guess the price is the right place to start.”
“Excellent.” The man tosses his cane up and catches it, darkness dissolving around them as his fingers curl around the dark, polished wood.
When light floods back in, they all find themselves in a strange space, each of them settled in a plush, red velvet movie seat.
Sai’s seat has a roller-coaster harness on it, which they can’t seem to squirm or claw their way out of. Yako decides that it’s actually a fair deal, considering Sai’s attempts to assault their… she tentatively decides to call the man their ‘savior’ for the moment.
“No popcorn?” she asks, mainly as a joke.
“Iiiit’s coming-oming-oming~!” A cheerful, new voice calls out from behind them. A tall, almost cartoonishly gangly man trots out an honest-to-God popcorn machine, like something out of an old-time carnival. “Doncha worry, Katsuragi-chan. Wonomichi’s got you covered, hee hee hee!” Wonomichi is also kitted out in a checkered tie and gloves. Yako takes a moment to be grateful Neuro never insisted on a matching dress-code for her. And then resentful that he never insisted on a matching dress-code, because in retrospect a lot more people might have taken her seriously if she wore a three-piece suit on the job instead of her school uniform.
And then she swings back to gratitude, because Wonomichi hands her what is basically a cardboard barrel of popcorn.
“You know, I think I like you, Wonomichi-san,” she tells him honestly, beaming up at him.
“Aw, you’re gonna up and make me blush, ho-ho!” Wonomichi waves a hand in front of his admittedly pink face. “And there’s no need for an important lady like you to stand on ceremony for the likes of me; just ‘Wonomichi’ is fine.”
“Quite,” the checker-faced man says, stepping out of the darkness that surrounds their little home-theater set up. “And, for the record, you may call me Checkerface.”
“…Like the Radio Lala song?” Mutsuki asks carefully, taking a handful of Yako’s popcorn when she offers, because honestly all of them—except maybe Sai—are thinking it.
There is a short, cold pause.
“You may call me Kawahira,” the man says, raising a hand and shucking off his face like…
Well, not at all like Sicks, actually, so Yako can continue to eat her perfectly buttered and salted popcorn without gagging on any visceral, horrified flashbacks. Kawahira slides out of his face, jacket, and suit like they’re some cheap rubber costume, revealing an unassuming white-haired man in a kimono and glasses. He looks almost disappointed at their lack of any perceivable reaction, but they have all just spent the better part of two and a half hours locked in an office with the inestimable Phantom Thief X. This is pleasant by comparison. This is nothing.
“Nice to meet you,” Yako says out of habit and the better part of a lifetime spent living in Japanese society, and a few of the other members of the group chime in with their own formalities. Godai sets his jaw and glares, arms crossed. Sai is laughing again, and she very deliberately does not look at their eyes this time. Wonomichi is humming cheerfully as he uses a metal scoop to shovel normal-sized portions of popcorn into checker-patterned paper bags, which he then passes out to everybody. Except Sai, who tries to bite him.
Wonomichi carefully wedges the bag between the harness and the arm-rest, and retreats with his popcorn machine, still humming all the while.
“…So he seemed nice,” Yako ventures, before an awkward silence can settle.
“Yeah,” Higuchi says, tossing up a piece of popcorn and catching it in his mouth. “A real ray of sunshine. Why are we here again, exactly?”
“I’ve thrown together a short, educational film about your situation,” Kawahira tells them, polishing his glasses. Once done, he holds them up, peers at them through narrowed eyes, and sets them back on the bridge of his nose before drifting back into the darkness. The lights go out again, but a large rectangle of light appears in front of their seats.
Ah, Yako thinks. Showtime.
A rolling, black and white countdown starts right after, clicking and whirring like some old movie projector before giving way to a cheery theme and sparkly, bright pink text against a (naturally) checkered background.
“…Oh, what the hell,” Higuchi says, off to her right. He hisses as somebody—Mutsuki—elbows and shushes him.
“Quiet, it’s starting.”
“…Why are your elbows so pointy?!”
“So!” Wonomichi’s cheery voice blares out at them. There are small, cutesy-deformed renditions of both him and Checkerface-style Kawahira on the screen, in front of a cartoon depiction of a PowerPoint screen. Yako takes another handful of popcorn, intrigued despite herself. “Your world up and ended, huh? Well, that sure does suck a whooole lot!”
Somebody chokes off to her left. Yako can’t see very well, but she tentatively guesses it was Godai.
“Now, now, Wonomichi, it’s not that bad,” Little Checkerface wags his little finger, before tapping his cane against the screen. “You see, we saved them.”
“Gosh, really?” Little Wonomichi claps his little hands to his chubby cheeks. “Does that make us… heroes?”
“Well, maybe not.” Little Checkerface shakes his head with a sigh as the PowerPoint screen zooms up to cover most of the movie screen, displaying an animation of a cartoon globe. With a bit of transition, it slides apart, leaving two identical little Earths on the screen, a thin, red dotted line between them as they spin in sluggish unison. “You see, their world was collapsing because of pressure from a certain person, and that ended up making it, well…”
One of the earths begins to gradually crack, drifting closer and closer to the line.
“It ended up breaking against a more stable world.”
“Ours?” Little Wonomichi asks.
“That’s right, Wonomichi!” The scene zooms out as Little Checkerface nods and grins. With another tap of his cane, the little PowerPoint screen rolls up with a showy flutter, revealing what appears to be two kitchen counters out of a cooking show, piled high with ingredients. Little Checkerface and little Wonomichi trot off-screen, and reappear behind the counters, each sporting a cute, checkered apron.
“Seriously, what the hell,” says Higuchi once again. Then, “—OW. Seriously, do you have metal spikes on your elbows or something, kid?”
“Yes she does,” Yako murmurs. “Now shh, I think they’re setting up a metaphor.”
“What do you mean, she does—”
“To help make this as simple as possible,” Little Checkerface is now saying, “I want you to imagine your world and mine as cake recipes. Now, I want you to imagine somebody spilled something on your recipe, and my recipe is on the next page. Your world took the most damage, but a little bled through to mine, and at the end of the day we have a bunch of ingredients and some cakes that need to get baked. So, luckily, most things fit together. In some cases, ingredients for my recipe are expired or missing, so you’ve even up and helped us out by having this little accident. And some of the ingredients are… let’s call them ‘regional products’ that didn’t make it to one world or the other, because of various circumstances.”
“How lucky!” Little Wonomichi gasps.
“Well, maybe not,” Little Checkerface says, shaking his head with another little sigh. The kitchen set disappears in a small floury puff, and when the white fades away from the screen it’s been split into three segments, each with a rainbow-swirl background. It gives Yako a jolt, after all that monochrome, featuring what appear to be two sets of seven rings and a set of seven small figures, shadowed and with the same proportions as Little Wonomichi and Little Checkerface. The only real details about them are the colored, oddly shaped pendants hanging around their necks. “You see,” Little Checkerface says patiently. “In order to make those cakes stay together, we’ve got to bake them—we’ve got to make sure the universes will stay as one new universe. And the way we do that is something called the Tri-ni-sette.”
“Is that… what, Latin?” Higuchi asks, this time safe from concealed weaponry or small, deceptively bony joints. It’s a pertinent question.
“Italian,” Yako, Akane, Aya, and surprisingly Sai correct him.
“The Tri-ni-Sette is comprised of three parts these days: the Vongola Rings, which can access the power linked to traveling up and down the Space-Time Axis!”
“The what now?” Godai asks.
“The Mare Rings, which can access the power linked to traveling straight across the Space-Time Axis, like you all have!”
“Oh, is that what he means we did?” Akane, at least, seems to be catching on. Yako could not possibly be blessed with a more capable secretary, and though she never forgets that fact, Akane always seems to find new and surprising ways to remind her, all the same.
“And finally, the Ciucci Arcobaleno, which can access the power linked to becoming points across the Space-Time Axis!”
“Oh, it’s like math homework,” Mutsuki muses. Yako grimaces, as much as from the callback to the hellish academic standards her school had subjected her to as from the fact that her fingers are now grasping at empty, buttery cardboard. “But sort of not?”
“…Well, you don’t need to worry about any of that,” Little Checkerface says, with a wave of his hand. “Essentially, as long as seven of those twenty-one items are attained by and attuned to people that transmigrated over from your world, this universe will properly meld together, and all of us will be able to continue surviving. That is the price for your rescue, ladies and gentlemen.” He gestures grandly with his little cane, bows, and a luxurious cartoon curtain falls, overlaid by a loopy ~Fin~. The screen goes black, and when the lights go back on Kawahira is seated in its place, settled comfortably in an armchair.
“Well,” he says. “I’m sure that answered most of your questions.”
“…are you fucking with us right now?!” Godai snarls and attempts to stand, but sometime during the show he too had been given a harness.
“No, I most certainly am not,” Kawahira denies. “That’s really more or less all that you need to worry about for the moment. If you have any other questions, Wonomichi will give you his contact information on the way out. I will be napping for the next few months, barring any emergencies, because this little act of benevolence has dragged me closer to Flame Exhaustion than I’ve been in a thousand years. Best of luck.”
He adjusts his glasses once, then flickers out of sight, like a TV on the fritz.
“What kind of exhaustion?” Aya asks, tilting her head to one side.
“How many years?” Higuchi asks, at the same time.
“Wait,” says Yako, holding up a hand as the room dissolves around them, leaving the entire group back in the office and unfettered. “Wait. Did he say… if there was a time limit or not?” Survival and the cohesion of the universe happen to be pretty high stakes, so she’s sure that it is certainly implied, but a definite timetable would be much more comforting than this uncertain, vague mess of an ultimatum.
“I’ll ask,” Akane volunteers, stepping forward to pluck a small, metal, checkered card off of the nearby coffee table. “If it suits everyone, we should probably do our best to find out more about this Tri-ni-sette collection, and… well, whatever ways this world is different from the one we know. Does that sound good?”
They all murmur their agreement, except for Sai, who ignores them entirely and walks right out the door.
Yako is torn, terribly, between chasing them down for the sake of public safety, and checking to make sure that all the people she cares about are okay. After a moment of indecision, she thinks about how fond Kawahira seemed to be of the phrase ‘more or less’ and finds her decision made for her. She pulls out her cellphone, and punches in the first contact.
“…Pronto.” A smooth, deep voice greets her. “Do you have any idea what time it is in Paris, Dolcezza?”
“Antonino!” Yako drops onto the couch, a frantic weight slipping off her shoulders. She does her best to reign in her giddy excitement, and actually does check the clock. It’s roughly noon, now, which means… she called him at four in the morning. “Are you prepping at the restaurant now?”
“Where else would I be?”
Absolutely nowhere, thank God. Yako laughs, delighted, before something occurs to her. “Yeah, rub it in. I’d love to be there with you. Hey, even as an expat, you’re Italian, right?”
“Unless they changed my citizenship without notifying me, yes,” comes the dry answer.
“A-Ah, right. So, a word came up in a case, and I’m reasonably sure it’s Italian and I’ve heard it before, but it’s just not clicking.” She takes a breath. “Vongola? Is that a word?”
“It means ‘clam,’” Antonino tells her, briefly tilting the phone away to yell something at his poor, beleaguered sous-chef. “Why am I not surprised at you calling me up before dawn to ask about food?”
“Because you’ve known me for years?” Yako ventures.
She earns more than one exasperated sigh at that answer, and only one comes from the cellphone in her hand.
When they reconvene later on, with an entire feast of takeout spread out across Yako’s living room because her mother is pulling an all-nighter to arrange a spread of an entirely different sort for her magazine, they have managed to pile together some important facts.
1. All of Yako contacts are still alive and well, from Antonino all the way to little Zvezdana, and mostly seem completely up-to-date with what she recalls, barring the end-of-the-world weather fluctuations.
2. Yako actually has about fifteen more contacts than she actually remembers forming, but she more or less managed to suss out their stories while phoning in.
3. According to Wonomichi, they are now all capable of using one of seven different types of… of magic, which is why Sai was a ball of purple death flames when the worlds were converging.
4. Also according to Wonomichi, Akane’s body is a special kind of puppet created by some magic-flame craftsman, and with practice Akane should be able to make it shift to female or male forms at will. Akane is not particularly bothered about this.
5. Due to the aforementioned magical flames, the cartography and composition of the entire criminal underworld and Blackmarket has been rearranged. Godai is particularly unhappy about this.
6. Due to the aforementioned magical crime-world, which for some reason does not extend very deeply in Japan, the police keep a much more weathered eye on the comings and goings of domestic criminal syndicates, which means the Cyber Divisions work larger, more detailed case files. Higuchi is particularly unhappy about this.
7. Takeda Keitaro, the man who killed Yako’s father, was brutally murdered in a locked prison cell mere months after being arrested, and his case is still unsolved to this day. Yako is… Yako does not actually know how to feel about that, so she tables that particular discrepancy for the moment in favor of more pressing details.
“There isn’t a single trace of Neuro in this entire city,” Sai reveals as they meander down the stairs, despite not being in the house at all when the rest of them arrived.
“He’s right!” Mutsuki agrees through her video chat. “I looked up a bunch of old articles about you, Big Sis, and they all look the same—except, he isn’t mentioned, or in any of the pictures.”
“And there’s nothing about the New Bloodline tragedies, either,” Aya says, her chins cupped in her palms. “Though, I can’t say I’m unhappy about that. Perhaps they’re the ‘regional products’ that Kawahira-san alluded to?”
“Well, we can chalk that last part up as a definite bonus,” Yako hums, cautiously optimistic. “We already knew Neuro wasn’t going to be here, at least—” She decides to try and assume the words will stop stinging if she says them enough times. “—and if the other world didn’t have Sicks and the rest to begin with, all the better. Maybe the mafia stamped them out before they could breed all that much.”
“It’s not impossible,” Godai says, sipping his beer. “This new underworld has a bunch of rule-keepers, apparently, which is entirely besides the damn point if you ask me.” He shrugs, scowling down at his feet. “But apparently they’re real tough shit, and can pop up wherever they want, whenever they want. Nobody wants to mess with ‘em; they’re called the Vindice, or… Vendicare, maybe. One of the two. I had to be cagey so I looked like I actually knew up from down, here. I might have a lead on that clam thing, but I’ve got to wait until tomorrow to follow up on it.”
“Every little bit helps,” Yako smiles brightly, patting him on the shoulder. “At least it’s a more distinctive phrase than ‘mare.’ Did anyone find out something about those, or were they all just results related to the sea?”
“Zip.” Higuchi sigh. “Zilch. Nada. Did that chef help you translate the other part?”
“He did, but…” Yako hesitates, frowning uncertainly. “We might want to ask Wonomichi for the proper spelling, because unless I totally butchered it seven of our options are called ‘rainbow pacifiers.’ So, honestly, either it’s an old in-joke, a metaphor, or we’re looking for something really strange.”
Yes, says Yako’s brain firmly, which does not actually help her at all right now.
“Well,” Higuchi says, pushing his glasses up to rub at his eyes. “As fun a way as this was to spend my day off, I’ve gotta clock in tomorrow. I’ll let you know if I find anything worthwhile at work once I’m off, though.”
The rest of them break off, Mutsuki signing out of her messenger system, Godai stuttering only very slightly as he offers Aya a ride back to her hotel, and Sai had wandered back up to lay claim to the guest bedroom as soon as they had said their piece. Yako had texted her mother with the news that a few friends were visiting and between housing, and had gotten ‘permission’ for Sai and Akane to stay over, so she no longer has to worry about her mother getting any strange ideas.
Well, she mostly ends up not needing to worry, since Akane can’t be dissuaded from leaving Yako alone in her room when there is a serial killer who had once kidnapped her for the better part of a week down the hall. Hearing it put like that, Yako would be lying if she says she isn’t glad for the company, even if her brain is dead sure Sai won’t be really trying to hurt her any time soon.
It turns out to be a moot point all around, because the next day starts just the same as the last, except this time nobody is naked and Akane managed to properly shift into the ‘Akane-chan’ form of her new body in her sleep. Yako carefully squirms out of their honestly suffocating, clinging embraces, still very determinedly Not Thinking About Any of That, and slips down to the kitchen. She tosses on her apron and decides to do something worthwhile to start the day off right.
She’s almost done with her pancake batter when her mother finally makes her way downstairs.
“Well, somebody is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed today,” Haruka says, kissing her daughter on the cheek and filling her mug from the fresh pot of coffee Yako had brewed. “A new case already?”
“Not really a case,” Yako hedges. She thinks of her mother’s particularly successful, wide-spread magazine, and swallows back the reflexive distaste that wells up at the mere thought of pressing her own flesh and blood for information.“You know how sometimes you hear a word, and it’s really familiar, but it could be familiar for a bunch of reasons and you keep second-guessing yourself?”
“I’ve known a few otherwise extremely talented writers who trow very expensive computers off their desks when the opposite happens,” Haruka muses. “But yes, I think I know what you mean. What’s the word?”
“Vongola,” Yako says, honestly not expecting much.
“Oh!” Haruka laughs and sets down her mug. “Yes, that would be vaguely familiar to you. I know exactly where you heard it before.”
Yako blinks. “Really?”
“Yes,” her mother nods. “It hasn’t come up for years, but that’s the surname of the boss at the construction company your uncle works for.”
“My…” Yako nearly drops her mixing bowl, because as far as she’s aware, she should have only ever had one uncle, and he should have died in a car crash with her grandmother way back when Yako was two. “You mean Uncle Iemitsu?”
“The one and only,” Haruka agrees, moving to the refrigerator. “…Hey, Yako, what do you think about spicing up that batter, since we have guests? We could toss in some potato chunks, or maybe those nice coffee beans you brought back!”
“I already sliced up some bananas,” Yako refuses immediately, even as she stares numbly down at the bowl in her hands.
“And some of the ingredients are… let’s call them ‘regional products’ that didn’t make it to one world or the other, because of various circumstances.”
Kawahira, Yako decides as she moves to dump the bowl of prepped bananas in with stiff, jerky movements, is a cryptic asshole with no sense of what counts as important. In a few months, she is going to have quite a few things to say to him.
Yes on all counts, her brain agrees, deciding to be slightly more cooperative today.
Yako takes it as a good sign, and begins to stir the batter with a new fervor.
Chapter 3: family matters
Tsuna came out to have a mediocre day at school, and multiple people are feeling very attacked right now.
“Oh, by the way,” Nana says, the morning after Tsuna has to… sort of just deal with Bianchi’s grand entrance into their lives. “Yacchan is going to be coming to visit for a while! Isn’t that exciting?”
“…What.” Tsuna says, his butterknife slipping from suddenly limp fingers and plummeting into the jam jar, knocking it over entirely. He pays no mind to the sticky mess he’s making, even as raspberry preservative spatters across the front of his shirt and a custom Size 0.5 loafer slams into his temple.
“Don’t be such a slob, Dame Tsuna,” Reborn chides him, cocking a gun and jamming it in the soft underside of Tsuna’s jaw, even as he flagrantly stands on the table and swipes Tsuna’s half-jammed toast for himself. “A proper Boss can never breach etiquette at meal times.”
“Please tell me you have a disguise,” Tsuna blurts out as his mother drifts upstairs to check and see if he has any spare shirts left. Normally, naturally, he would protest the ‘Boss’ thing yet again, but his priorities have suddenly and violently shifted, all with one single drop of a name. “I don’t care how silly or ridiculous it is, please tell me you have something ready for when my cousin gets here.”
“…Your what,” Reborn says, going quiet and still in a way that makes every hair on Tsuna’s body stand on end.
“My cousin,” he repeats, the words tearing straight out of his mouth, not stopping to even check in with his brain. The Stillness does not abate, and more words gush out, desperately. “I-I, um… we had the same grandma?”
The Stillness shows no sign of breaking. Tsuna can feel himself riding the edge of his old familiar friend, hyperventilation.
“My dad’s… my dad’s brother’s daughter?”
“His what,” Reborn hisses, and Tsuna’s mind completely whites out in self-defense.
“K-Katsuragi Yako!” The words never feel quite real, and it isn’t like he ever expects anybody to believe him. But Reborn had rolled out a simplified Sawada family tree—in his Dad’s handwriting, even smudged and with the parchment fake-aged with a cheap coffee-soak—so Tsuna feels like none of this should be much of a surprise. Except, it comes to him suddenly that Uncle Seiichi hadn’t been anywhere on that tree. But he had just assumed that Yako was completely out of the running for any sort of Mafia inheritance, given… well, given just who she is.
“The world-famous detective?” Bianchi asks, drifting out of the kitchen. She’s bright-eyed and holding something that looks like it might be a wrapped bento, except Tsuna is reasonably sure he can actually see the bright, frog-printed cloth start to age and decay. But again, despite all natural inclinations, he doesn’t focus on that. Instead, he focuses back on the fact that his detective cousin is choosing now, of all times, to burst in on his ridiculous, insane mafiosi-infested life.
“She’s your cousin?” Reborn demands, fixing piercing, beady black eyes on Tsuna like there’s any reason, at all, for him to lie about something like that.
“She is!” Nana agrees, beaming as she sweeps back in. “If you saw her with Iemitsu, you wouldn’t doubt it for a second! Ah, I found another shirt for you, Tsu-kun; it’s laid out on your bed. Go get dressed, or you might be late again.”
“Actually, Maman,” Reborn says, still not shifting his magnetic, terrible, dark gaze away from poor, innocent Tsuna. “It’s a reverse half-day today, so the teachers can prepare new materials. He has another hour and a half before he can leave.”
An hour and a half to explain this, those dark, fathomless eyes make perfectly clear.
It’s all that Tsuna can do to make a creaky noise of agreement. He is escorted back up to his bedroom with the barrel of the gun pressed against the back of his knee, like Tsuna has any way to run from this. Or even the inclination, actually, because for once in his life Tsuna actually has something he can adequately explain. Actually, he can explain it more than adequately—nothing short of a miracle—because one of the last, only projects he ever received full marks on had been a family tree. It takes him a few minutes to carefully dig it out of its place of honor: a nice, safe drawer where one of his meagre triumphs can avoid his the klutzy ruination he just exudes as a natural byproduct of existing.
Part of the reason he got full marks is because it, too, is on coffee-aged paper—to add a bit of artistic flair at his mother’s starry-eyed insistence—and both of his parents had helped him with the complicated kanji in the names of his apparently Tokugawa-obsessed forefathers on the Sawada side. Tsuna had pulled his own weight, in shocking retrospect, so its easy to spot the clumsy, childish strokes that spell out the names of his uncle, aunt, and cousin.
“Different fathers,” Reborn murmurs, one pudgy little finger tracing just above the dotted lines connecting Sawada Satoko to Katsuragi Seiji and the angry, careless black brush-stroke that had replaced the name of Tsuna’s biological grandfather and kept him two measly points away from academic perfection.
“Yeah, uh, Dad…” Tsuna falters, recalling the flinty look that always slams up behind his father’s eyes when either of those men come up. He sighs, rubbing his neck. “Um, Dad says neither of them are worth the breath it takes to talk about them, and that Uncle Seiichi was a hundred times better at being the man of the house, anyways.” The fact that his father had essentially been raised by a single mother and a half-brother five years older than him… explained a lot about how he turned out, actually. More and more, Tsuna found as he got older and looked back on it.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Tsuna might be a lot more upset with his father if it weren’t for Uncle Seiichi, actually, but Tsuna is not about to bring that up. Not only is it even less of Reborn’s business than his grandmother’s life choices, but it feels… wrong. Back when Uncle Seiichi had died, his dad had come directly home from the funeral, and then spent the next six hours sitting in the back yard, still and silent. His mother had urged him to go out and have ‘a talk between Men,’ which Tsuna had no idea how to even start. What with being a ten-year-old child and all, at the time.
For once, however, there hadn’t been any boisterous maxims about how Tsuna should be working hard to become a fine Man, or cheesy attempts at bonding. Instead, his father had let him uncertainly sink onto the grass beside him, and then he had reached over and pulled Tsuna into a hug for the first time in what had been edging into multiple years, at that point. His father hadn’t been scruffy and disheveled, for once, but clean-shaven and dressed in a sharp, neat black suit that smelled like things Tsuna didn’t have the vocabulary to even attempt to describe back then. Sadness, his brain had provided sagely at the time, and so he had instinctively wrapped his twiggy little arms as far around that hard, broad back as they could go.
(Sandalwood and myrrh, actually, he learns while candle-shopping with his mother months later. But he thinks both answers might still be right.)
Back then, the shine of having a father going off on purportedly fantastical, Manly adventures only to pop in randomly over spans of months and years had been beginning to wear through to resentment, but something in Tsuna had settled in the cool breeze of that grief-scented evening. They had stayed sitting together like that late into the night, and at some point his dad had just started rambling about Uncle Seiichi; stumbling, awkward sentences not unlike Tsuna’s pathetic attempts at public speaking, but each one more honest and fascinating than any of his tall tales from overseas.
It won’t make any sort of sense if he tries to say it out loud, but something had dawned on him then, an obvious truth that had never seemed to properly fit into Tsuna’s worldview before that quiet moment. His mother called it ‘a Man’s understanding’ afterwards, but even if he held his tongue at the time, Tsuna still knows that isn’t right.
Sawada Iemitsu is a man, not a Man.
It’s startling, to think that he hadn’t actually realized that his father is an actual person for the entire ten whole years of his young life, but he can’t feel too bad. Uncle Seiichi’s death seemed to remind his dad that Tsuna is an actual person too. They’re better for it now, he thinks. …Well. They’re okay. Okayish. He doesn’t hate his dad, is the important part. The fact that the reason why he’s been spending all his time away from them is tied to keeping them as safe from the mafia as possible helps now, too, but is also something he is one hundred percent going to yell at his dad about.
Settle it like Men, Tsuna thinks, only vaguely snide. It’s hard to be too bratty, even in his own head, because right now Reborn is still boring holes into that head with his beady, hellish eyes.
“That’s… that’s it?” Tsuna tries, hunching his shoulders. “She’s literally my cousin. I’m not… I’m not really sure what else you want me to say about it?”
“…Get changed and leave before you end up any later than you are already, Dame Tsuna,” Reborn orders, turning on a tiny heel and marching out of the room. “If you slack off while I’m on my phone call, I’ll double the number of practice tests you have to take tonight.”
Tsuna grimaces, puts away the family tree, and starts unbuttoning his sticky shirt.
“Ah, Reborn, are you all done?” Bianchi’s voice drifts up from the stairwell. “I was going to give you a love-filled lunch, but if you’re busy I’ll just pass it off to that boy.”
Tsuna blanches, and starts changing more hastily.
Tsuna manages to arrive halfway through his Literature class, unfortunately, but Gokudera is practically frothing with worry at this point all the same, so he reluctantly chalks it up as a good thing he that he opted not to drag his feet after all. He also gets extra assignments for tonight because he forgot his homework in the rush to hit the road before Reborn could find fault with him for any of the other genetically immutable truths fate had bestowed upon him. Really, if seniority is taken into account, it’s more like Tsuna is her cousin, so it’s even less his fault. Tsuna never asked to be born into a family of people deeply entrenched in the criminal world, one way or another.
At the very least, Tsuna consoles himself, Reborn never attacks him over the fact he was born at all, for all that this mafia-training sometimes feels like it.
He recalls, all at once, that he has Science with Nezu after lunch, and he has also neglected to bring that homework with him. So, somebody will certainly pick up the slack on that front soon enough. He lets his head fall against the cool surface of his desk and wallows in his own misery for the two and a half seconds Yamamoto and Gokudera give him before bee-lining for his desk, while the rest of the class starts putting books away or rearranging their desks.
“Tenth!” Gokudera is practically vibrating with worry. “Is everything okay? Did something happen? Did another assassin show up?” He looks ready to leap out of the window and hunt down the hypothetical, not-his-sister hitman at the slightest indication that something untoward has occurred. He is, at least, conscientious enough to keep his voice to a highly-suspicious, hissing whisper rather than a panicked wail.
“No,” Tsuna sighs, reluctantly straightening up. “My cousin is coming to visit, so I had to explain some things to Reborn.” Please don’t tempt fate, he wants to beg. The situation is ridiculous enough without hardened killers swooping in to muddy the waters even further. God. There are too many killers in his life already. He will be so happy if that number just does not go up any more than it has already from here on out.
“Oh, really?” Yamamoto perks up. “I didn’t know you had a cousin, Tsuna! Do you get along well?”
“Ah…” Tsuna scratches his head. “We… haven’t really met? I mean, I pretty much always stay in Namimori, and she grew up over in Tokyo. She travels a lot these days from what I hear, but it’s for work, so…” He’s never actually met his cousin, is the thing. He has an idea of her—some photographs swapped between his mom and Aunt Haruka, a few photo spreads that sometimes catch his eye while cued up for check-out at the convenience store—but nothing about Katsuragi Yako particularly feels like she’s an actual, real person, possibly because the truths of her work exploits are actually stranger and more fantastic than the fiction his dad has been spinning for years.
“…Oh.” Yamamoto gives him a brief, unreadable look, but after a beat the unwavering smile on his face creeps back up to reach his eyes again. “Well, I hope she’s nice!”
“She is,” Tsuna says automatically. He doesn’t know her, not personally, but somehow that has been ingrained as fact somewhere in the twisted catacombs of his unconscious. His cousin has blonde hair, and brown eyes. She’s always hungry. And she’s always nice.
Everybody says so, even the criminals she ends up catching.
(Tsuna may have a bad habit of binge-reading those convenience store magazines without paying, when he can get away with it.)
If she can get along with actual, earnest criminals, she can get along with Tsuna, right? …He hopes so. If it turns out she’s offended by lukewarm or unmotivated people, then Dame Tsuna is going to have a very uncomfortable family visit to weather. Whenever that is. He had been dragged off and then driven away by Reborn before he could bother asking his mother for any specific details, naturally, so he has absolutely no idea how much time they have to create a sham of normalcy insidious enough to fool a world famous detective.
“Excuse me?” A gentle voice cuts across the chatter of the classroom, paired with a soft rap against the half-open door.
The room goes dead silent, and the fine hairs on the back of Tsuna’s neck stand up—not out of fear, which is far more common—but as though somebody has just rubbed a balloon against the back of his head and let it cling to his nape. Slowly, as though moving underwater, he turns.
“I’m looking for my cousin,” says the woman once known as the High School Girl Detective, peering into the classroom. “Is Sawada Tsunayoshi he…re…” She blinks slowly when her gaze lands on Tsuna. “Oh.”
‘Oh’ more or less sums up exactly how Tsuna feels about meeting his cousin in the flesh for the first time too.
“If you saw her with Iemitsu, you wouldn’t doubt it for a second!”
His mother, for once, isn’t exaggerating at all. Aside from his dad’s swarthy tan and the lack of any particularly European-sized proportions—she can’t be more than ten centimeters taller than Tsuna, even with those heels—Yako has the man’s exact coloring; Tsuna vaguely recalls that somebody once told him the pair of them took after his grandmother in the looks department.
…their. Their grandmother, because bizarrely enough, he can see bits of his own face in Yako’s that he never has while flipping through the magazines; as though somebody had made the executive decision to airbrush any trace of… tangential Dame-ness out of those glossy photo-spreads. Maybe they had. Or, maybe the angles had just been off, since she hasn’t exactly ever posed for any of those photos to begin with, caught mid-speech or meal or laugh, from around some corner or down a street. She’s smiling at him now, warm and hopeful, confident but with some strange aura of tentative hesitation, and he feels…
“Hey, Tsunayoshi.” She steps to one side, opening the door fully. He stares at the massive, tiered boxed-lunch that she hefts up. It spans from chest-height to just below her knee. “Auntie told me that you forgot your lunch today. I was wondering if you maybe wanted to eat together, while we catch up? Ah, of course, if your friends don’t mind me intruding on you.”
She smiles at Gokudera and Yamamoto, like it’s an actual request. Like they could just refuse, with the entire class watching, utterly gobsmacked.
Gokudera makes a strange, wheezy sound, his eyes huge.
“…okay,” Tsuna blurts out, hurriedly shoving his class materials probably the exact opposite of where they should go, but by God he is determined to get out of here before any of the others can start to pick their jaws off the floor and bury him under questions he does not even remotely feel like discussing today. It would be a lie to say Tsuna has never fantasized about this exact occurrence, up to and including the gigantic meal, but he is nowhere near prepared to face the reality of it. “Y-Yeah, um, let’s…”
God, where to go? Where to go? He can think of one place, but his eyes dart over to Yamamoto’s uncertainly, and—
“We can go up to the roof!” Yamamoto declares brightly. Tsuna feels gratitude hit him like a shot to the gut, heavy and a little breathless in the aftermath.
“Sounds good to me,” Yako agrees, smiling back just as brightly. As he scrambles across the room, semi-catatonic Gokudera drifting along in his wake, for a moment Tsuna feels inexplicably as though he’s been caught between two mirrors. The feeling passes once all four of them are in the hallway and the door is shut. They are halfway to the staircase before the sound of complete and utter bedlam breaking loose started up behind them.
Tsuna walks faster.
“You have a beautiful campus,” Yako says. Tsuna thinks it might be small-talk, which he’s terrible at, but luckily enough even with Gokudera still out of commission Yamato swoops in to save them all from an awkward silence.
“Yeah, we’ve got a really devoted Disciplinary Committee,” he says, like the background character in the first chapter of the dystopian novel Tsuna actually had read for Literature class, and then Yamamoto grins down at her.
Down at her, because despite having such a huge media presence, Katsuragi Yako is really short, in person. Tsuna barely even has to lift his chin to look her in the eye as they walk, not that he’s dared to try again just yet. He lets his gaze drift safely to the floor, watching the pretty, obviously expensive, utterly feminine heeled sandals tap, tap, tap their way across the linoleum.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Yako says as they push open the door to the roof. Luckily, there are no upperclassmen around to squabble over the right to be here, because it looks like Gokudera is just about finished rebooting. “A friend of mine is probably moving here when the new school year starts, and since I was visiting anyways I told her mother I would check out the academic options. Midori looks pretty elite, and I’ve heard some… mixed reviews about Kokuyo, to put it nicely.”
They pause to actually sit down in a shaded corner, and Tsuna watches those pretty shoes neatly tuck under the skirt of an equally pretty red dress, his eyes reluctantly skittering up a black cardigan to the hands that are offering him an honestly delicious looking bento off the top of Yako’s unwrapped stack.
“Thanks,” he murmurs, dipping his head once. Yako doesn’t let go until he actually looks at her, and Tsuna feels himself get caught up again.
“It’s no trouble at all,” she says, and he feels it all the way to his bones. His throat goes dry. He feels—
“I-It’s such an honor to meet you?!” Gokudera finally bursts out, his voice cracking halfway through. “I’ve read a bunch of reports about your work, Katsuragi-sama, and I should have guessed that such an amazing person was related to you, Tenth!”
“Tenth?” Yako asks, her tone mild and inquisitive like any normal person hearing a nickname for the first time. And, also for the first time, Tsuna desperately wishes that Gokudera were more in the habit of thoughtlessly calling Tsuna ‘Dame’ like the rest of the school, barring Kyoko and Yamamoto.
“I! Have! Terrible grades!” Tsuna butts in, gripping his chopsticks like a lifeline. The words jerk out of him as they pop into his head, messy and off the cuff. “So, um, G-Gokudera calls me ‘Tenth’ to, uh, encourage me? To shoot. For… Tenth. L-Like, the Top Ten scorers for tests.”
Shoot me now, he internally begs, because spontaneously stripping and screaming his head off might actually be an improvement at this point. Except not at all, because that would go directly against Tsuna’s desperate plan to hide the entire mafia from his cousin, which is already in shambles. Either way, in a stunning betrayal, Reborn does not suddenly pop up out of the aether to snipe Tsuna and his social anxieties.
“Y-Yeah!” Gokudera nods furiously, his enthusiasm finally catching up with the fact that Yako is…
Not actually in law enforcement, Tsuna is pretty sure. But pretty instrumental in handing criminals over to them. Either way, it’s just a bad idea all around to get her involved in any of this, even if Tsuna still resolutely does not want anything to do with the title of Vongola Decimo. He wants her to like him, he realizes with a small shock. Tsuna doesn’t usually have the energy to really, desperately want somebody’s good regard in particular, but if his own blood decides he’s no good right off the bat…
“Oh, I totally understand,” says Yako, nodding as she sets her first, meticulously emptied box aside. “When I was in school, my scores were all over the place. In some subjects I eked by with just barely enough points to pass. Granted, the standards of my high school were a little…” She mulls over what word she wants to use, apparently oblivious to the way she has set Tsuna’s world on its ear. “A little imposing, let’s say. But I knew what I was getting into, so I had to grit my teeth and deal with it. Auntie said you have a home tutor, though he was out running personal errands when I stopped by to make my greetings. Maybe he’ll be what you need to meet your goal!”
“But you’re a detective,” Tsuna blurts out instead of the relieved ‘Thank GOD’ reverberating through every single cell in his entire body.
“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” his cousin says, pausing to munch down a croquette the size of a fist in two bites. “It’s not like crime scenes involve standardized tests or knowing how to analyze a poem from the late Meiji era versus the styles prevalent in the Showa era.” She frowns ruefully, stacking her second cleared box on top of the first. “…usually. Usually those things don’t come up at crime scenes. And if they do, the police have usually already called in an expert for advice, anyways. It might not be the most responsible thing for me to say, so maybe don’t tell Auntie, but… I think some people just aren’t suited for a normal educational experience. If you’re having trouble now, you might just need a different approach, or you might be more suited to some hands-on work you haven’t even thought of trying yet. I happen to know somebody who never even completed all nine years of mandatory education, and he’s the Vice President of an extremely successful company these days. I certainly never thought I’d end up as a detective when I was your age, after all.”
He looks up, honestly startled. At some point over those scant few sentences, she’s added two more empty boxes to the pile, and her current one is halfway to joining them.
“What did make you—“
“So!” Tsuna cuts in hurriedly, mentally apologizing yo Yamamoto. He’s glad that the other boy is so willing to keep the conversation going, but he isn’t going to let him blindly stumble into that subject just because most people only started paying attention to her career after that whole thing with that famous singer. “Ya-aaako…” God, what does he even call her? He can’t call her Yacchan like his mom, he might literally combust on the spot. “Yako-nee,” he settles on. “How long are you staying?!”
“I haven’t decided yet,” she says, tapping her lower lip with her chopsticks thoughtfully. “It would be nice if I could see Uncle Iemitsu before I leave, though.”
Good God. She could be sticking around for years.
Tsuna hums, strained and noncommittal, and begins shoveling his (startlingly good) food into his mouth as a way to forestall any reflexive smartass comments. Somehow, inexplicably, Yako still finishes before him. She cleans up, chattering with his eager, more sociable friends the entire time, and then inexplicably follows them right back to the classroom. There’s another stranger waiting there, sitting on Tsuna’s desk and tapping away at a tablet, wearing glasses and a black graphic t-shirt promoting some old energy drink.
“Hey,” says the man, standing up before Gokuders can too much more than bristle. He tosses a laminated visitor’s pass to Yako, a matching one swinging from the lanyard on his neck. “Akane got a bit hung up with something after we met with the principal, so we’ll all meet up at your Aunt’s place for dinner, apparently.”
“You didn’t have to play messenger, you could have—” Yako stops short, hangs her head and sighs. “…Akane has my cellphone.”
“Yeah.” The man nods. “It’s the cost and benefit of having a super…” He glances at Tsuna, hovering uncertainly by his own desk. “Super-dedicated secretary. They’ve got everything you need, when you need it. Usui-san always ends up in a huge bind if Tsukushi-san is unexpectedly busy.”
“I’ll bet. This is Tsunayoshi, by the way,” Yako introduces, lightly laying a hand on his shoulder. In that moment, Tsuna abruptly understands how his cellphone feels when he plugs it in and why cats like to lie on windowsills, but it only lasts a beat before she withdraws and gestures behind him instead. “These are his friends, Gokudera Hayato and Yamamoto Takeshi.”
“Higuchi Yuuya, Katsuragi’s friend,” the man says in return, his hand going to his chest reflexively before he halts it and grimaces.
“Business cards?” Yako asks, knowingly. At his grudging nod, she laughs and explains. “Higuchi-san’s boss can be a real stickler for etiquette, sometimes. Ah, speaking of etiquette…”
She glances over her shoulder, and Tsuna looks past his starstruck classmates to see Nezu frozen in the doorway, just as starstruck. She then proceeds to drag Higuchi over to introduce themselves with the intention of staying to observe the class, as if that doesn’t go directly against Tsuna’s desperate plan to hide his terrible reputation from his cousin, which is already in shambles. It’s been in shambles since the lie he used to cover up that ‘Tenth’ business, but honestly speaking he’s becoming more convinced by the minute that he should aim to either be a criminal or an incompetent in her eyes, rather than both. And historically speaking he’s much better at being incompetent than being a future mafia boss.
He even allows himself the fleeting hope that Nezu might actually lighten up on the criticism, now that Yako is watching.
As ever, Tsuna is dead wrong.
Nezu starts the class off by handing back their last quiz grades, and his comments are more theatrically cutting than ever before. He lauds the high-scorers like newly-crowned kings, shakes his head disapprovingly and tuts at people whose scores have dropped since the last time they all had to weather this trial by fire. He works his way down the list alphabetically today, as if to pretend he is actually unbiased in any way, shape, or form.
And then he gets to Tsuna.
“At this point, I honestly have to wonder what it is you even do here, Sawada,” kicks off the opening salvo, paired with a mock-despairing flourish that ‘accidentally’ flashes his big red ‘2’ for the entire classroom to see. “Because you certainly aren’t listening or learning. At this point, I honestly have to wonder how you expect me to even believe that you’re trying. I have only the deepest sympathies for your family.” Nezu shakes his head despairingly. And then he looks back, past Tsuna, and the bottom of Tsuna’s stomach drops out.
So, Tsuna realizes grimly. This is how it’s going to go today.
“And to think that such a brilliant mind could come from the same family as this… Really, it makes him even more reprehensible, don’t you think?” Nezu sighs, and shakes his head, slapping the failed test onto Tsuna’s desk. Face down, of course, like shutting the door to a barn not only after it’s empty, but vandalized and looted by the local hooligans. “Sawada, I feel it’s reached the level where you may even owe Katsuragi-san here an apology. I can only imagine how terrified she is for your future.”
He’s going to make Tsuna apologize for his own worthlessness. There’s a deep chill in the place where the bottom of Tsuna’s stomach used to be, and its starting to creep up little by little, like frost on a window pane. He’s going to make Tsuna apologize to his own cousin for being worthless, the very first day they really got the chance to meet.
“Oh, I totally understand,” a soft voice says kindly, and the coldness jolts, flashing through his veins in the short span of time it takes for those syllables to hit his ears and register. He turns, and finds Yako smiling earnestly at Nezu with bright, bright eyes. Higuchi is about half a meter further to the left than he had originally been and looks to be attempting to scoot even further without being seen, very obviously hiding behind his tablet as he goes.
But Tsuna doesn’t care about him, because Yako is still talking, and she’s not even looking at Tsuna. Just Nezu.
“There’s tons of things that worry me about his future,” she says, shaking her head. “His test scores are bad right now, but that’s not set in stone. Now, if the pressure gets to him and he drops out…” She sighs, crossing her arms. “That’s where the real trouble could start. He could become a total shut-in, after middle school, and refuse to leave his room. He could force his poor mother to slave away looking after him for nearly three years, until threatening to cut him off and dump him on the streets.”
Some of the coldness abates, and Tsuna’s brow wrinkles in bewilderment. Yako has met his mother. She knows how likely that very much isn’t. His mother would urge his father to take him out to work on an oil rig if things really got that dire.
“And then,” Yako continues on. “Then, when he has no other choice but to head to the only fourth-rate high school that will take him, he’ll probably struggle just as much there, and maybe he’ll spend four, or five, or maybe eight years at some fifth-rate college. And by then, who knows; maybe his mother will die.”
Yako would never lightly toss something like that out there, Tsuna knows. He knows very, very little about her, but he knows that, all the way down to his bones. He finds he can breathe again, and also that the color is beginning to drain from Nezu’s face. Eight years, Tsuna thinks apropos of nothing, is an oddly specific number.
“Then,” Yako presses on, “then, after painting himself squarely into a corner, maybe he’ll even use half his mother’s life insurance money to forge university transcripts. And after that, who even knows where he might end up? He could become a bitter, twisted old fraud, teaching a class he is vastly underqualified for and bullying children in the exact same place he started out.”
Tsuna slowly turns to look at Nezu, his jaw dropping open. The man is visibly swaying on his feet and sweating bullets. Tsuna thinks the soft choked noises he’s hearing could either be Nezu choking on his own spit or Higuchi trying not to laugh. Or both.
“Ah,” Yako says, and he glances back to see her wave her hands hurriedly, her eyes still wide and glittering with a hard, intent light he hadn’t properly identified the first time around. “For the record, it’s the bitterness, hypocrisy and lying I’m the most worried about. As long as he’s happy and healthy, I don’t really care about fourth- or fifth-ranked schools.”
Tsuna stares at her, feeling something nameless—something warm and a little scary—burst inside of his chest.
And then Hibari-senpai and a man who could pass as his older brother tumble in through the windows, scattering the glass and upending at least five chairs and seven desks.
By manga-canon, I think Nezu is actually supposed to be dealt with before Yamamoto is introduced, but this is far from the only deviation that World Meld Checkerface Ex Machina will have caused. You are officially warned.
Chapter 4: the criminal whisperer
Tsuna gets to see a little more of his cousin—the woman, the myth, the legend—and how those aspects seem to bleed into each other and blur a bit more than he expected.
“Oh,” says Yako, as the terrified screaming peters off. “There you are, Akane-chan.”
What, thinks Tsuna. He doesn’t say it, though, because the larger Hibari-senpai looks up from where he’s pinning the normal Hibari-senpai to the floor and beams at Yako. Tsuna wasn’t even aware that that particular face is capable of making that particular expression. It’s soft and gentle and bright, and it sort of makes sense that it’s directed at Tsuna’s cousin, really, but it still strikes him as all sorts of wrong.
“Sorry for the delay, Yako-chan,” the other Hiba—no, Akane says. His voice is soft and a bit husky, as though he’s been running for quite some time. He stands, leaving Hibari-senpai inexplicably immobile but visibly seething. Akane pats a large, red leather purse that he had been protectively curled around during the sudden entry, and his long, glossy black braid bounces behind him with the motion. “For some reason, this boy decided to be really persistent about finding out who I was, even with the visitor’s passes we received. I think a few people might have called you while he was chasing me, but I haven’t had the time to check.”
“That’s fine,” Yako assures him, standing and effortlessly picking her way through the chaos and broken glass as if she does it every day of her life. “…Wow,” she says, after she gets a clear look at Hibari-senpai’s face, death glower and all. “What an uncanny resemblance. Do you think…?”
“It might be a coincidence,” Akane says, but something passes between him and Yako, some silent conversation that none of them except Higuchi can parse out. “…Anyways, what class is this?”
“Ah.” Akane bobs his head, sending his braid swinging from side to side again. The sunlight catches it as it sways, and for a moment Tsuna can’t tear his gaze away. On the floor, Hibari-senpai gives a dangerous twitch before going still again. “This is one of them, then?” The look he gives Nezu, Tsuna notices, is something that an especially grotesque insect might merit. “I don’t envy all the interviews that principal is going to have to deal with, come tomorrow.”
“What… what…?” Nezu seems to be in shock. For once, Tsuna does not blame him. Much.
“You’re going to get fired,” Yako explains. Her tone is disinterested now; she’s apparently far more invested in pawing through the purse on Akane’s shoulder. She looks up with a smile when she pulls out a few snack bars and a smartphone in a cute, rhinestone-dotted cover, which she passes over to her secretary. “We had a background search done on the whole faculty as a favor to the family of a prospective student, and handed our results over to the principal. You and a few others aren’t… as good a fit for this school as he had been led to believe initially.”
“You also might be getting sued,” Higuchi chips in helpfully. “…Probably. Definitely. Parents get pretty mad about frauds messing up their kids’ education these days, from what I hear.”
“Oh, yes, Godai-san tried to check in on us a few times.” Akane sighs, cradling his cheek as he looks at the phone. “Apparently your aunt is watching a little boy, and he put a hole or two in one of the walls, so Godai-san went to the hardware store for her and is fixing it now.”
“He’s had to plaster up more than a few holes in the drywall in his time,” Yako remarks dryly. “Looks like his odd-jobs man experience is paying off yet again.”
“Mm.” Akane swipes over the screen. “Ah, it looks like Aya-san’s train is on schedule. Should we head over now?”
“Probably a good idea. Is this kid going to be okay?”
“Mm. It’s just a bit of acupuncture that I picked up from that case over in Taipei. It should wear off in ten minutes, probably. He didn’t really leave me much choice.”
Hibari-senpai is bleeding shallowly, which Tsuna doesn’t think is indicative of any sort of acupuncture, but he’s been wrong before. Just because he personally can’t conceive that it’s possible to thrash Hibari-senpai this soundly, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. But Tsuna can conceive that the look in Hibari-senpai’s eyes right now could cut glass, and he doesn’t envy Akane one bit for catching that degree of attention, even if it seems like he can handle it.
“Well, it looks like I’ll see you later, Tsunayoshi,” says Yako, tucking away the now empty snack wrappers and bending over slightly so she can card her fingers through his hair. It’s a surprisingly forward gesture that makes him feel surprisingly pleased, at least until he realizes that everybody is staring again. Luckily, it turns out that there were a few glass shards on his head, so Tsuna can at least pretend he wasn’t preening over being publicly spoiled, if that was even Yako’s intention to begin with. Maybe she did just want to brush away the glass.
“See you,” he says, almost missing his cue. “Um, it was nice of your friend to help Mom out like that. Thanks.”
“You can thank him yourself,” Yako tells him, accepting her purse from Akane and heading for the door. Higichi is already in the hallway, idly jiggling his heel. He gives Tsuna a lazy wave when their eyes meet. “He’ll be over for dinner too.”
Oh good. Tsuna can only watch weakly as Katsuragi Yako and her entourage sweep out, like a storm, leaving silence and devastation and an angry, Disciplinary time-bomb in their wake. So. That’s something to look forward to.
Godai sounds nice and normal, he thinks hopefully.
Mercifully, an announcement crackles over the audio system calling all teachers to dismiss their classes and gather in the faculty room before Hibari-senpai recovers full mobility. It only give Tsuna about a minute and a half head-start on getting the heck out of dodge, but every second counts with Reborn suddenly deciding to take a hands-off approach. Yamamoto has time to kill before practice, so he and Gokudera are kind enough to play decoy and allow Tsuna to escape a second, even more savage interrogation about surprise relatives.
He’s a bit less grateful when he finally gets home, and finds a rough-looking blond vagabond who is not actually his father near the front door as soon as he enters.
Godai does not actually look nice, or normal, or like any sort of odd-jobs man Tsuna has ever seen. He looks like—like a—
“Loanshark,” Higuchi supplies, sprawled out on the couch and playing one of Tsuna’s video games on the living room television. When Tsuna turns to gape at him, he merely shrugs a shoulder, eyes still riveted on the screen. “That’s what he was before he met Katsuragi, since you were obviously wondering. Nowadays he’s the VP of a company and doubles as her manager for cases, too, most times. He’s been with her… basically since she started out, come to think of it.”
This is the six-year drop-out?
…Actually, Tsuna can sort of believe it, looking at the bleached hair, the piercings, and the vibrant pattern on the shirt the man has, rolled-up to his elbows while he repaints the repaired entryway wall. Lambo is perched on his shoulders and is laughing obnoxiously as they go. Godai is grumbling, but apparently has enough patience to let the little would-be hitman natter on however he likes. Speaking of diminutive hitmen, however, Tsuna hasn’t seen Reborn since he stormed off this morning and he’s starting to get a little—
“Ciaossu,” a squeaky voice calls.
Higuchi glances over. He then very carefully pauses his game and sits up, loosely holding the controller between his knees. His eyes are riveted to Reborn, who is perched on Bianchi’s shoulder. “Hello,” he says slowly. “Who are you?” What are you, his expression seems to imply. He slides his glasses down off his forehead, ostensibly to help him parse out the mystery of Reborn’s existence.
“I’m Reborn, Dame Tsuna’s home tutor. You’re Higuchi Yuuya, the young ace of the cyber-crimes division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.”
He’s who, Tsuna wants to scream out.
“…Hey, Godai?” Higuchi calls out, still not looking away.
“Yeah?” Godai grunts without turning, apparently having already met Reborn and inexplicably capable of taking it in stride.
“Katsuragi’s going to freak out when she gets back, isn’t she?”
“Little bit, yeah,” Godai says. Tsuna thinks there might be a sigh mixed in, but the older man’s voice is gravelly to begin with and he’s facing the opposite direction; it’s hard to say for sure.
“Does Katsuragi Yako have some bone to pick with my Reborn?” Bianchi demands, puffing up slightly.
“Not him,” Higuchi mumbles, turning back to his game. “Not yet.” He heaves a big sigh. “Man, I’m gonna have to put in for that vacation after all… ugh, this bites. Usui’s probably not going to let me off any time soon.”
“Not like we’ve gotta rush,” Godai says, putting down his roller and stepping back to inspect his handiwork. “Oi, mouthy brat; how’s it look to you?”
“Godai-ji didn’t miss any spots this time!” Lambo announces to the entire house, at full blast. “We finished, Mamma!”
“Excellent work!” His mom beams at them, ducking her head out of the kitchen for the first time since Tsuna got back from school. “Thank you again for all your help, Godai-san. You really didn’t have to go to all the trouble…”
“Nah,” Godai shrugs a shoulder, making Lambo cackle gleefully and cling all the more firmly. He picks his way past Tsuna and kicks at Higuchi’s legs until the younger man moves over enough for both of them to sit. “You’re the kid’s aunt, and it’s not like there’s anything else I was doing. S’fine.”
“It’s so nice that Yacchan has such reliable friends,” she sighs, glancing at the clock. “Do you think she’ll be back soon? I didn’t expect Tsu-kun’s school to get out this early, so I’ve only just begun cooking.”
We literally just ate lunch, Tsuna does not say, because now he has seen his cousin’s legendary appetite with his own two eyes. If his mother had begun cooking directly after breakfast, it still might not have given her enough time.
“Depends,” Higushi says, a faint grin stealing back over his face. “Does she actually know how to drive that car you lent her, Godai?”
“Taught her myself,” Godai says, with a glare that could chip marble. It’s only somewhat mitigated by the presence of the small child still bouncing on his broad shoulders. “Wasn’t going to run the risk of losing this one.”
“Well if there’s a sudden breaking news bulletin involving a high-speed chase culminating in a massive car-fire and a miraculous lack of injuries, I’m not going to be surprised, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Surprised about what?” Yako asks from the entryway, probably carefully toeing out of her heels. She pads out into the living room with Akane and one other person in tow, and tosses Tsuna’s mother a bright, warm smile. Then the moment Tsuna has been dreading happens, and her eyes land on Reborn. At roughly the same instant, he casts about for anything—literally anything—to focus on besides the way that smile goes still.
His eyes land on her as of yet unintroduced friend, who turns out to be a woman who needs no introduction.
“…that’s Aya Asia,” he squawks very quietly, goggling at the world-famous singer, songwriter, and convicted murderess standing in his house, casual and beautiful and stunning in at least three different senses of the word.
“…that’s a baby in a three-piece suit with a giant glass pacifier,” Yako says very mildly. Then, without turning her head or changing her expression at all, she raises her hand. Akane slips her cellphone into it in an unnaturally fluid follow-up, and his cousin very quickly punches a number onto the screen, still not looking away from Reborn even as she nestles the smartphone against her ear.
“…—ira Realtors!” A sudden, muffled greeting just barely makes it into Tsuna’s range of hearing as whoever it is picks up.
“Put him on the phone, Wonomichi-san,” Yako says without any preamble. Her voice is gentle, but something about it makes Tsuna want to either bolt for his room or scoot closer to get a better spot to watch from, like that moment back in the classroom.
There’s a long pause, and a quiet, fully unintelligible answer.
“I do remember what he said,” Yako says, her voice and expression somehow growing more pleasant by the syllable. “And with that in mind, I would be so grateful if you could kindly. Put him. On the. Phone.” She covers the receiver for a moment and grimaces apologetically. “I’m sorry, I’ll take this outside.” Tsuna’s mother waves her off, and his cousin carefully picks her way past the frozen peanut gallery, tossing Godai a set of keys before she smoothly exits through the sliding door and heads into the yard for some privacy.
Run, Tsuna wants to tell this mysterious man, whoever he might be.
“Ha,” Godai barks, a nasty grin spreading over his face as he shoves the keys into his pocket. Lambo laughs along with him, stubbornly refusing to be left out, probably.
“What business does she have with a realtor?” Reborn asks, his eyes narrowing slightly.
“Property acquisition,” Akane answers blandly, this time eliciting a lyrical, amused chuckle from Aya Asia, the world-famous singer, songwriter, and convicted murderess. “It seems like we’ll be staying in Namimori a bit longer than we initially expected.”
Strangely, Tsuna no longer has the confidence to say for certain that Yako’s secretary is really a man. Certainly, the eerie, terrifying resemblance to Hibari-senpai is still as strong and panic-inducing as ever, but something about this person—something in the jaw, or maybe the shoulders—seems a bit softer and more rounded than it had when glass was flying through the air and Tsuna’s heart was trying to beat its way out of his throat. The dark, ribbed turtleneck they’re wearing and the fact that their voice is pleasant but still slightly husky even without being chased around the school campus are also distinctly unhelpful when it comes to pinning down the truth of the matter. After a bit of internal debate, Tsuna decides that Hibari-senpai’s presence had been what had initially caused him to assume Akane was male to begin with.
Tsuna is also just self-aware enough to know that he will absolutely bungle asking about this issue if he tries to bring it up, and resolves to avoid exposing his own rude ineptitude for as long as possible. Maybe if he’s lucky somebody else will ask first, he thinks, with dim optimism.
“How wonderful!” His mother beams, clapping her hands together.
Tsuna hangs his head, mostly in defeat but also so that he won’t have to see the look on Reborn’s face.
“So, Reborn,” Yako says, as she washes her way through the mountain of dishes she had emptied, and filled, and emptied and filled to some degree of her heart’s content. She had politely refused to let her hosts do it. By now the rest of her friends—save Akane, who was busily typing on a laptop while chatting with Tsuna’s mom and Bianchi in the living room last he saw—had all left for the evening, and Lambo is fast asleep despite pitching a royal fit when it came time to say goodby to Godai. “Auntie tells me that you’re Tsunayoshi’s home tutor. Have you been working with him very long?”
“Barely a month,” Reborn tells her easily enough. He’s perched comfortably on top of Tsuna’s head, having volunteered his student for dish-drying duty. The sword of Damocles would be more comforting, right now. “But,” Reborn says in a way that makes Tsuna certain that the tiny hitman is tugging on the brim of his hat, “I have very high standards, and I fully intend to shape him from ‘Dame Tsuna’ into the leader of his generation.”
The plate in Tsuna’s hands nearly slips to the floor and shatters, because what the heck is Reborn thinking, saying something like that, to her of all people? “I-It’s a pretty fantastical ambition, huh?!” Tsuna laughs nervously, carefully stacking the mostly-dry plate with the rest. It’s an unusually smart move on his part, because Reborn stomps sharply against his scalp a split second later.
“Don’t limit your own potential, Dame Tsuna,” his tutor rebukes him.
Tsuna hisses and beats back the urge to assert, yet again, that there’s no way he’ll ever be mafia material. Whatever weaker, lamer complaint he might have said dies on his lips as soon as he raises his head again and catches sight of Yako’s expression.
It’s entirely unlike the one she wore in the classroom, or while making her phone call, or while offering up travel stories while cooking with his mother or eating at the table. It’s no less intense, certainly, but that intensity is completely naked now, not softened around the edges with a smile like a boxer’s glove. It’s a searing, probing look. It’s a look of sudden, quiet recognition so deep and so poignant that he almost feels as though he’s wronged her, somehow, or that Reborn has. It isn’t a very happy look, and something about that last thought niggles at him.
“…I would appreciate it,” Yako says, at length, “if you didn’t insult him like that when you talk to him.”
For no discernible reason, as he looks at her here and now, Tsuna can only think of his father on that night after her father’s funeral. After a brief moment of confused soul searching, he realizes that her eyes are what’s throwing him off. The color, the tired shadows, the lonely regrets, that faint gloss of resentment, they’re all just the same as they were three years ago, the only real difference being that this time they happen to be edged in eyeliner and mascara instead of the beginnings of laugh-lines. Tsuna feels, all at once, that Reborn—Reborn—has somehow obliviously toed a line that is absolutely, utterly, one hundred percent a terrible, no good, very bad idea to cross.
Reborn just treated Tsuna the way he always does—the way nobody ever seems to think twice about him doing—and yet Yako suddenly seems as though she’s on the cusp of honest hostility. She’s looking at Reborn in a careful, calm way, with dark, tense eyes, as though she’s mentally drawing up a list of all the steps she might need to take to get Reborn out of Tsuna’s hair physically and otherwise, if the need arises. And Tsuna…
Tsuna does not actually know how to even begin to react to that.
Luckily—impossibly—he doesn’t have to, because Reborn backs down.
Tsuna feels like the world suddenly started spinning in reverse, because after a brief pause Reborn just nimbly leaps from his head to the countertop and nods. “It’s meant to be galvanizing,” he explains. “It’s a tactic that eventually worked wonders on my last student and his poor self-image. But I’ve never liked to make a lady uncomfortable.” He doffs his fedora to her briefly, and locks with Tsuna’s flabbergasted gaze. “You should remember that a good leader should be respectful of a lady’s opinion, Tsuna.”
A good Boss doesn’t antagonize a world-class detective over something stupid, Tsuna mentally translates, though it’s anybody’s guess what Reborn might actually be trying to convey. He feels a bit shellshocked about how… simple this shift seems. A small, bitter part of himself that he usually tries to keep buried and ignored wonders if Reborn would have immediately dialed back the abuse if anybody else had thought to ask him to stop. He’s unwilling to examine the sudden idea that, from his emphasis on Family and loyalty in these sudden forced lessons, Reborn might well have always been willing to do so, if only somebody had thought to make the request on Tsuna’s behalf.
It’s probably just Yako, he tries to assure himself, and reaches blindly for another plate. Because Dame Tsuna will always be Dame Tsuna, even if the words aren’t said out loud, this one does slip through his fingers and shatter on the kitchen tile.
“S-Sorry!” He immediately squats down to gather up the pieces, but his cousin beats him to the punch.
“No, no,” she assures him, using the dish towel he should have grabbed first to roughly nudge the pieces into a messy pile. “I’ve got it. Can you get a dustpan, if you’ve got one?”
“Yeah,” Tsuna nods and scampers to the pantry closet. There’s a hook high on the inside wall where the dustpan usually hangs, but it’s empty. Of course it is. There’s nothing for it but to start rummaging around his mother’s stockpile of canned food and bags of rice—miraculously, they have not been cleaned out, somehow—even if he’s a bit too unsettled to properly focus on what he’s looking for. Behind him, he hears Reborn speak up again and his shoulders go tense.
“In a certain culture, plate-smashing is actually celebratory,” he says, casual as anything.
Tsuna’s own expression of aghast indignation is miniaturized and warped back at him in the reflection of a fat bottle of olive oil that Lambo’s Family had sent as thanks for looking after him at this flagrant double standard. At any other time, Tsuna would be literally dodging bullets for that sort of slip up.
“A Greek tradition,” Yako agrees, humming faintly. “Ah, but, that actually reminds me of something I saw in Italy. I spent about two and a half days living out of an airport in Naples,” she says. “I went to lunch at an old cafe that had a neat little twist on recycling. They had collected plenty of pretty plates over the years, but so many had gotten broken over time that they started making and selling mosaic jewelry out of them. Eventually, they started buying up old plates from lost or ruined sets with nice patterns from donations or pawns shops just to break them to make more mosaics.” Tsuna stares uncertainly at a vaguely dustpan-looking shadow near the bottom left corner of the pantry, and nudges experimentally at what turns out to be a thick roll of garbage bags with his foot. “What do you think?” His cousin prompts. “All things considered, it can be a pretty smart way to go about dealing with that sort of situation. You just take something small and relatively average and you break it and piece it back together into something you want.”
From the lilt in her voice he thinks Yako might be smiling again, which is… probably a good sign? Maybe a good sign. Tsuna hopes it’s a good sign, at least, as he bends down to investigate the area behind the paper towels. There’s plenty of dust but still no dustpan, unfortunately, and he bumps his head on the bottom of the next shelf up for his troubles when he tries to straighten up again.
“I’m more of a fan of something they do in this country, actually,” Reborn says in a tone that might have been a drawl, if only it were a bit deeper than the average deflating balloon.
“Oh?” Yako sounds honestly interested, from what Tsuna can tell. “What’s that?”
“I believe you call it ‘kintsugi’—the art of repairing broken pottery with gold.” Reborn explains, as calmly and confidently as he does when it comes time to shove Omertà or the basics of chemistry down Tsuna’s throat. “As I understand it, it embraces the past of the artifact, and elevates imperfections into points of value. From a craftsman’s perspective, I have to think that it’s a more elegant solution than smashing five plates to get something that ultimately turns out to be more decorative than functional.”
At this point, Tsuna has to give up. He at least grabs the broom on the way out, so he doesn’t come back a complete failure. To his relief, when he re-enters the kitchen, Yako is smiling again, and it’s with the warmth his mother earned rather than the bright flash of teeth that had ultimately served as the harbinger to Nezu’s public execution earlier today.
“I’m not sure just how many people actually eat or drink out of gold-veined lacquerware,” she laughs. “But I have to admit I do like that sort of thing more myself.” She glances up, and her smile widens. “I thought you might have gotten lost in there, with how long you were rummaging,” she teases Tsuna. “But, you came through in the end so that’s all that matters. Sorry for the trouble, Tsunayoshi.”
Tsuna tracks her warm gaze to the lower half of the broom handle. And, naturally—naturally—the dustpan innocently clipped onto it, as though that was actually where it was always supposed to be. “…No problem,” Tsuna briefly closes his eyes, swallows back a sigh, and then unclips it and stoops to properly sweep the pile of plate fragments into the dustpan. He tosses the load into the trash with perhaps a bit too much vindictiveness, but makes sure the dustpan is put back on its proper hook before he firmly shuts the pantry once again. When he comes back, he finds that the tense atmosphere from before has completely dispersed, and Yako has moved on from talking about broken crockery to… coffee beans?
“From Columbia,” Yako is in the middle of explaining to a visibly interested Reborn. “I’d need the packaging in front of me to tell you the details, but it’s supposed to be roasted to perfection, according to a friend I made over there.” She pauses, wrinkling her nose a bit sheepishly. “I have about six bags left back in Tokyo, but only half of one with us now; Akane-chan can brew it tomorrow, if you’d like a taste.”
“Nothing would make me happier,” Reborn says.
Sometimes Tsuna thinks his tutor would be a total monster if he weren’t a baby, and now is most definitely one of those times.
“What a charmer,” Yako says, shaking her head as she puts the last plate away and moves to join the rest of the ladies. And Akane? …Well, she moves to join the rest of the people in the house who aren’t Lambo, at any rate. Tsuna takes a moment to appreciate the deep, deep irony of Yako calling somebody else a charmer, especially when—
Tsuna’s thoughts screech to a sudden, show-stopping halt before they can reach the end of that tangent. He slowly swings his head around to stare at Reborn, who is looking at the doorway Yako just slipped through with dark, contemplative eyes.
“Oh my God,” Tsuna says very quietly, clutching the counter for support.
It’s enough to snap Reborn out of whatever thoughts consuming him, and also to kickstart his alleged telepathy. “Tsuna,” he says, his tone a warning and a dark promise all in one.
But it’s too late. Tsuna is hurtling towards this impossible, disturbing revelation at mach-speed, and even a Dying Will Bullet wouldn’t be able to stop him in time. “Oh my God,” he says again, but this time his tongue doesn’t baulk at the impossibility of the words that follow. “You like her,” he accuses the World’s Greatest Hitman.
“You like her and you want her to like you too. Oh my God.” Tsuna stares up at the ceiling, feeling that reversed-Earth-rotation sensation again. “The magazines were so right,” he whispers to the sluggishly turning ceiling fan with wide, unseeing eyes. Katsuragi Yako is a force of nature, a living, breathing stormfront of charisma and good will that has swept up loanshark Vice Presidents, Aya Asia, the world-famous singer, songwriter, and convicted murderess, and somehow even Reborn, too. She hasn’t even been here a full twenty-four hours and everything has gone topsy-turvy on Tsuna.
“Oh my God,” Tsuna says to the now empty kitchen, Reborn having vanished while Tsuna grappled with this strange, shocking revelation.
You all thought it was Sai, but it was really Akane-chan! ...also, it's anybody's guess as to how much Reborn is actually going to dial back on poor Tsuna. Especially after this last scene. Man's got a reputation to uphold, after all.
Chapter 5: the nature of the (green-eyed) beast
In this chapter, Tsuna is a very unwilling spectator.
The next morning when Tsuna wakes up and shuffles off to the breakfast table, he is buffeted with two very important realizations. The first is that Akane and Yako might have shared the same room, as the secretary offers him a bright smile while slipping out into the hall, coiling up a phone charger as… they(?) go. Tsuna decides to just completely disregard any implications that discovery may have, whether they be about Akane’s gender or just how close his cousin happens to be with her obviously very dedicated employee.
The second realization, similar to the first, is that somebody heard Tsuna’s earth-shattering revelation last night and came away with the entirely wrong implication. Bianchi is glaring at Yako from across the breakfast table like… well, like Gokudera sometimes glares at Yamamoto, but worse. Like she wants to kill Yako. It’s a look Tsuna is unfortunately familiar with, but Yako either doesn’t notice or is so used this sort of attention that she can ignore it completely without questioning the cause. Or, Tsuna rationalizes, she finds breakfast far more important than imminent danger. Yako probably doesn’t realize that Bianchi is an assassin, or that the younger woman has romantic designs on Reborn, either.
Because Tsuna really can’t go a day without at least three things backfiring in his face spectacularly and because Gokudera’s sister is weird, Tsuna is pretty sure Bianchi thinks that Reborn has romantic designs on Yako, which is more worrying than the Akane question by several magnitudes. And yes, Tsuna probably could have worded his accusation better, but he had been too overwhelmed by the fact that he and Reborn were feeling the same thing to really concentrate on the particulars, or even worry about tutor-obsessed eavesdroppers.
“It’s delicious, right?” Yako is saying to Reborn, cradling a cup of what can only be the coffee she had mentioned last night. She lifts a hand over her shoulder and gently tangles her fingers in Akane’s braid as the secretary moves forward to pick up a small, empty glass carafe. “Akane-chan’s got a magic touch. Not just coffee, either; I’ve had some special tea blends that were absolutely to die for.” She and Akane share a warm, fond smile before she releases the braid and sets her cup down, beginning to cut into a faintly lavender-hued stack of pancakes.
Bianchi’s expression turns from vicious to sweetly victorious, and dread clenches coldly in Tsuna’s gut.
Tsuna has scrambled forward at a pace that only Dying Will Bullets had ever managed to coax out of him, but as he falls into the seat beside her he’s somehow two late. There is exactly one little triangle of fluffy, syrup-coated dead left speared on the fork, already half-way to her mouth. After a confused blink, Yako pops it into her mouth and chews, before setting her fork down and gently patting his head.
“Don’t worry, Tsunayoshi!” She smiles down at him warmly. “There’s plenty of batter left in the kitchen. I’ll go make you some. Ah, right, Akane-chan sit down, sit down. You haven’t eaten either.” With a tug at her secretary’s wrist the two effectively swap places, Yako loading up dirty dishes and ferrying them over to the kitchen. “Bianchi-chan, would you like some?” Yako asks, not looking up as the Poison Scorpion’s expression melts from triumph to puzzlement. “The ones you made for me were so good, I’d love to return the favor.”
“…No,” Bianchi says slowly. “Thank you, but I’m full.”
“Alright,” says Yako with a small shrug. “Well, let me know if you change your mind!”
She doesn’t change her mind, for all that she stares Yako down for the rest of the meal, and Tsuna is fortunate enough to have a completely incident-free breakfast for the first time in what feels like forever. Even Lambo behaves, though that’s probably only because today he had Nana’s full attention, rather than having ‘assassination opportunities’ which she was busy cooking. School has been cancelled for a few days while Namimori Middle deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Yako, so Tsuna has the day to himself… more or less.
“What are we gonna do?” he hisses to Reborn, as soon as he has a reasonable excuse to get his tutor alone for a moment. “You saw that. You saw that! Yako-nee is in danger!”
“Don’t underestimate her, Tsuna,” Reborn chides him, backhanding Tsuna in the face with his own pillow. “Bianchi may very well be the least dangerous person to your cousin on the planet.”
Tsuna isn’t comfortable with hedging his bets on that ‘maybe,’ especially when he’s still clutching onto the hope that Yako is as ignorant of the mafia as his own mother is and Tsuna himself once was. As the day progresses, he feels his stress mount and mount as Bianchi’s ‘gifts’ and ‘snacks’ disappear one by one into Yako’s gullet. So far, Reborn seems to be right, but Tsuna lives in increasing fear of whatever trick Yako is using finally failing her. Yako seems oblivious, if pleased about the sudden windfall of food. His mother sighs happily about how nice it is for Bianchi to get to spend time with a young lady around her own age. Akane… Akane seems to have an inkling about what’s really happening, if the hawkish, intensely Hibari expressions that drift across their face when they look at Bianchi from time to time are any indication, but ultimately the secretary seems about as inclined to interfere as Bianchi.
Godai comes for a short while, then leaves with Higuchi to go back to their respective jobs in Tokyo. Aya Asia, the world-famous singer, songwriter, and convicted murderess, apparently has a new recording contract she needs to finish hashing out the terms of, now that she’s a free woman and has had a month to readjust to time outside the slammer.
By the time Yako finishes a three-tiered cake and the milk tea Bianchi makes for her—the glass looks like it has melted, and Tsuna is aghast—it is discovered that Lambo stowed away inside the trunk and is living it up playing with the President of Godai’s company. Nana frets and apologizes, Yako laughs and polishes off five slices of electric green, faintly smoking pizza, and Akane and his mother end up on a two-day trip to see Aunt Haruka and get Lambo back.
Tsuna wars with the urge to put his head down and scream, and resigns himself to call for back up, as he gets ready for bed that evening.
“…tested out,” he hears Bianchi saying as he reluctantly tromps down for breakfast the next morning.
Oh no, he thinks, and nearly takes a tumble as he rushes down the last few steps. His worry is misplaced yet again, it seems, because as it turns out they’re just talking about why a seventeen year old girl is lounging around a Japanese household rather than in school.
“Impressive,” Yako says, sipping her coffee. “Were you one of Reborn’s students too?”
“Briefly,” Reborn says, topping off her mug and then his own. Tsuna surreptitiously boggles at the way the diminutive hitman can so nonchalantly fan the flames of Bianchi’s delusional ire. “She and her brother are both naturally clever, so she excelled plenty with very little help.” He drains his cup and sets it down. “Ah, speaking of that, I have a meeting I need to go to today. I asked Gokudera to come over and look after you while I’m gone; there’s a stack of practice tests on your desk I expect to be completed by the time I get back.” He pins Tsuna with a stern look, as though this is a completely rational request instead of throwing a match into a gas tank. “Don’t think you get to slack off just because I’m busy and school’s out.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Tsuna mutters. He gets flicked on the shell of his ear for being snide, but privately marvels at the change. It still hurts a lot, but it’s a heck of a lot more tolerable than a gun to the face.
“Excellent timing,” Reborn says, and hops off the table to let Gokudera in.
Because Tsuna makes plans and God laughs, Yamamoto is there too. Gokudera is demonstrably useless when it comes to running interference against his sister’s assassination attempts, so there’s an awkward moment of hurt confusion on the doorstep before he catches sight of Bianchi handing Yako a plate of red-stained onigiri and blanches in horrified understanding. He foams a little and goes weak in the knees, but Yamamoto manages to catch him and help him inside as Reborn leaves them to whatever chaos is going to undoubtedly ensue.
After a hushed, quick, slightly panicked conference in Tsuna’s room which Yamamoto may or may not have understood, the three of them set up in the living room with the practice tests. Gokudera’s back is to Bianchi for the sake of preserving his ability to focus, and they each take turns pulling Yako away from the kitchen to answer questions about the tests, or her travels, or about how she likes Namimori. She eventually makes them stop for lunch, though, and they share a very tense meal where Tsuna stays wildly attentive for even the slightest twitch of Bianchi’s fingers. He now has a whole new appreciation for what Reborn must go through, carefully mitigating how much danger he’s willing to risk exposing Tsuna to during any given assassination attempt-turned-lesson.
A whole new level of bitterness over the obvious effort he apparently puts into making Tsuna’s life an orchestrated, bearable hell too, but that’s to be expected at this point.
Lunch passes by peacefully, though it feels like Tsuna might have shaved a few months off his life from the sheer tension. It comes to a peaceful, sweet close as Yako sets out a plate of some long, chocolate-dipped baked goods for them to munch on while they continue studying. Tsuna has been smelling them bake for the better part of an hour, and he’s honestly touched that Yako has it in her to worry about other people’s stomachs after how much toxic cuisine she’s obliviously ingested over the last twenty-four hours.
“Biscotti,” she tells him when he asks. “I have a chef I’m very, very fond of, and he’s Italian, so I’ve picked up a few recipes here and there.” She sighs in a soft, fluttery way that casts doubt onto the Akane Theory Tsuna has been reluctantly considering. “He’s amazing. I’m not nearly as good, but I think they turned out okay!”
“They’re delicious, Katsuragi-sama!” Gokudera assures her enthusiastically, eating his second one with obvious relish. “The chocolate really sets off the subtler sweetness of the biscotti.”
“Ah, you should thank your sister for that!” Yako says brightly, sweeping a few crumbs off the table. “While we were talking, she offered to dip them and put them in the fridge for me.”
Tsuna watches Gokudera gag and go pale, shoulders heaving once as he tries to make himself throw up out of sheer force of will alone. Tsuna would be doing the same, except he can’t feel anything below his neck right now, and across from him Yamamoto is smiling but equally immobile, from what he can gauge. Before Yako can notice anything amiss, however, the cheery tune of her cellphone splits through the stilted living room air.
“Hello?” Yako’s previously bright expression shutters slightly. “Oh. How… quick. Thanks, I guess,” she murmurs, sounding a bit put out. “…Right now? Like, this minute?” She purses her lips, glances around, and sighs. “…Yeah, okay. I’m on my way.” She hangs up and stands, heaving a sigh. “Sorry, Tsunayoshi. I’ve got to go sign some paperwork about the house I’m buying—”
The what, Tsuna wants to yelp, but his jaw is completely unresponsive.
“—So, until I get back, don’t cause to much of a fuss for poor Bianchi-chan, okay?” She tousles his hair and tosses him a wink, before heading for the front door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Just give me a call if anything comes up or if you want me to buy something for dinner on the way back!”
Run, Tsuna wants to tell her. But it’s no use.
“Well, boys,” Bianchi says, after the door has closed behind his poor, unsuspecting cousin. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to stay out of my way for a little while. I have a lot of cooking to do, after all.”
Bianchi, despite what some of her associates and (emphatically ex-)boyfriends might think, is not a fool. A fool would never have survived a year in the upper-echelons of the Italian Underworld, let alone seventeen. From a young age, she has been trained to be poised, analytical, and a consummate actress.
But, at the knee of her aged and ailing Nonna, she had also been shaped into something of a romantic.
Most children born into the mafia—barring certain familiar that went against the grain—received a cautionary Flame-restraint. Bianchi’s talents had blossomed early and with great cost, and while the seal had been quickly applied, Bianchi’s relationship with her mother after the incident had never quite recovered. At such a tender age, she hadn’t been able to cope with the sudden loss of her mother’s affection and had instead found solace at Nonna’s bedside.
Her grandmother had been a great beauty in her youth, and an even greater pianist, garnering admirers of all walks of life. The latter talent had fallen squarely on Hayato’s shoulders, unfortunately, but Bianchi has always been proud of her own inheritance from that striking, stunning old woman: the curve of her nose, the jut of her lips, the green eyes that so many paramours had compared to emeralds or jade in the old stories Bianchi had begged to hear time and time again. The men in Nonna’s stories had always seemed like princes; amazing, charming beings that far outstripped the pudgy, bored, bowtie-clad boys her mother tried to steer her towards, and her father, who even then seemed to have his eyes set on any woman except her mother.
The greatest of them—the one her Nonna still sighed and blushed over, decades later—had a picture to go with the bewitching tale of a short, sweet month filled with romance and adventure. It had been tucked into the corner of Nonna’s mirror before her cough had gotten worse, and then relocated to a frame at her bedside. It showed Nonna and the man, the hopelessly, terribly handsome man, lounging on a piano bench in evening wear. It seemed to be a candid shot, as the man’s face was still half-cloaked by his tilted fedora, but the rapturous infatuation on young Nonna’s face had burned into Bianchi’s young mind from the first glance. He hadn’t left a name, in the end, and had vanished as suddenly as he had come. There had been plenty of lovers after him and then eventually Bianchi’s grandfather, but the man in the photograph had never fully left Nonna’s heart.
Sometimes, Bianchi had pretended that the photograph was actually a peek into the future. Her grandmother’s hair had been more brown than red back then, but the photo itself was in black and white; it only took a small stretch of the imagination to transform the woman in the photo to an older, happier Bianchi, madly in love with a man who made her happy beyond words. Her grandmother was shrewd enough to pick up on the interest, and promised that someday the picture would get passed on to her.
“It’s so important to know how to love, my dearest,” the woman had sighed near the end, cradling Bianchi close. “If you can promise me you’ll never forget that, I’ll give you any picture you like.”
However, when her final appointment came and the young Dr. Shamal regretfully pronounced her dead, Nonna’s precious photograph vanished. When the room had been emptied and the adults had been busy arranging the funeral, Bianchi had slipped into the room that still smelled faintly of Nonna’s medicines and perfumes, and found that the frame on the bedside table had only held a picture from Nonna’s wedding. Distressed, she had asked the maids, her mother, even her father, but each time she received little more than a look of patronizing, distracted confusion. She was almost convinced that she had dreamt it up until the funeral came around and her aunt actually recognized what Bianchi had been searching for.
“Oh,” the woman had said. “Yes, I know the one. The man with the fancy side-burns.” She laughed, faintly, and it was the first time that Bianchi had ever seen her do so. Aunt Ravissa was a woman who, by Nonna’s standards, had long since forgotten how to love, dealing with her own husband’s infidelity with bitterness or alcohol as the severity dictated. “She told me a few more stories than you probably know,” Aunt Ravissa had said, shaking her head. “…When you’re older, I’ll share them, since you can’t find it.” There had been a faint, nostalgic cast to her features that had made Bianchi think that maybe Aunt Ravissa had once pretended to be the woman in the photograph.
Except, not long afterwards, Aunt Ravissa ended up falling ill as well.
Just like Nonna.
In fact, so much like Nonna that Bianchi’s father had insisted on burning all of Nonna’s old possessions and having Shamal come around once a year to check on Bianchi’s health, just in case. The first action had been unbearable, and for years Bianchi had hated Shamal simply for being connected with losing bits and pieces of her beloved Nonna. As time passed, Bianchi found herselfstrugglrng to keep her last promise; her mother began grooming her for her eventual matchmaking ploys, and Hayato began shying away and then outright avoiding Bianchi entirely. Her oasis, her haven, had been packed up and fed to the incinerator. Her seal had never been quite enough to keep her innate talents at bay, but eventually so much pressure mounted that she shattered it entirely.
Shamal was called again, and with him had eventually come Reborn.
Bianchi had known him on sight, even as a baby, and something within her had finally relaxed. More than that, every time she looks at him, she sees the photograph as clear as day in her mind’s eye—sees that happy, beaming face, so similar to her own—sees her Nonna, alive and well.
So no, she isn’t a fool. She isn’t in love with Reborn, to be brutally technical, but she loves him more than she can put into words. He’s the last lingering connection to every happy memory from her childhood. He’s the man who made her beloved grandmother so happy that even decades later she was still smiling and in good cheer. He’s an utterly precious existence to her, and she likes to think when he looks at her he sometimes sees the beautiful, smiling ghost of her grandmother instead. Bianchi doesn’t want to lose him; doesn’t want him to vanish into some other woman’s memory or disappear in a burst of flames.
She couldn’t possibly bear to lose Nonna a third time.
Katsuragi Yako hasn’t done anything wrong, and she’s such a vibrant, caring person that Bianchi can’t help but believe that Nonna would have liked her. But Bianchi lasted seventeen years in the Underworld, and part of what steered her through those troubled waters was the stubborn, unyielding decision to put herself and her desires first, because obviously nobody else was going to.
“Sorry about the wait,” the woman apologizes as she finally re-enters the house. She toes out of her boots absentmindedly and sighs, folding her jacket over her arm. “I had to sign so many papers my wrist went numb. But, I guess it’s never easy to—oh!” She stops in the doorway, and an honest smile breaks across her face, warm and startled. “Wow! There’s so much… what’s the occasion? Is it somebody’s birthday?”
“It’s for you,” Bianchi says, fixing up a smile even as Sawada Tsunayoshi struggles against the Paralytic Biscotti’s normal side effects from behind the kitchen counter. Reborn isn’t interfering, thankfully, which means he’s either willing to let the chips fall as they may, he approves, or he thinks that this, too will fail and Bianchi will have calmed herself down. And, truthfully, if not even this works Bianchi really will back down, at least for a while. “Since you seemed so happy to try my food.”
It makes something warm and a little bitter flutter in the pit of Bianchi’s stomach, but she kills the feeling before it can grow. There’s a reason people avoid eating Bianchi’s food, no matter how much effort or skill she puts into making it. A very good reason, one that helped make a name for her and very quickly destroyed any plans of using Bianchi in merger-marriages. No man wants to risk getting into a loveless match with a woman who can turn anything she touches into a murder weapon, after all.
“Bianchi-chan, that’s so nice.” Katsuragi Yako’s smile widens and warms, as pretty as any picture as she steps up to survey the feast spread out across the table. Her hands clasp together under her chin, and her eyes turn dreamy. “You’ve really outdone yourself. Thanks!” She turns and tosses her arms around Bianchi, pulling her into a tight, brief hug. It can’t last more than a few seconds, but for Bianchi time stretches on. She can’t actually remember the last time another woman touched her like this. Even Sawada Nana, kind and motherly as she is, has restrained herself to gentle touches to the hand and shoulder.
“…You’re welcome,” Bianchi says, hesitantly patting between the young woman’s shoulders once before she pulls away. “It’s the least I could do, for somebody Reborn seems so interested in,” she continues, trying to shake off the sudden, inexplicable moment of uncertainty.
“Mm,” Katsuragi Yako hums agreeably, letting her hands slide down to gently hold Bianchi’s now that the hug has been shaken off. “I’ve been thinking this for a while, but you must really love babies, huh, Bianchi-chan?”
“Just Reborn,” Bianchi corrects. “I don’t really have many feelings about small children in general.” The Bovino child, for example, only inspires envy, honestly. She would have done any number of things to be allowed the degree of freedom he is.
“Really?” Yako blinks, then laughs, squeezing her hands a little tighter. “Gosh, I totally misread things then.” She shakes her head, a warm, amused look flitting across her face. “And here I was, thinking it was some sort of misplaced guilt over making your mother miscarry so violently it left her barren, back when you were younger.”
The breath freezes in Bianchi’s lungs. There’s a faint noise of surprise, possibly from Hayato. She hid him behind the couch, but he can probably still hear every word. Her throat closes up for a moment, words utterly beyond her.
“Ah, but, I guess you don’t really care about your mother, do you?” Katsuragi Yako continues, swaying their linked arms from side to side like a child, as if Bianchi were just a doll to play with. “The only time that grandmother of yours ever yelled at you, it was when you said it would have been better if your mother had died rather than your brother’s, wasn’t it?”
Bianchi rears back all at once, her eyes narrowing to slits. “How do you know that?”
“Oh, I’ve got my ways,” Katsuragi Yako says with offensive ease. Try as she might, Bianchi can’t seem to yank her hands away, and the benevolent, gentle smile on the detective’s face seems more sinister by the second. “But, if you keep trying to kill me like this, you’re only going to hurt my feelings, Bianchi-chan. What was it Nonna said back then?” The blonde tilts her head to one side, her bangs falling into her eyes as she wracks her brain. “Oh, right. ‘Chi rispetta, rispettato sara.’ Those who show respect will be respected.” Katsuragi Yako’s smile finally slips away. “Should I return your ‘respect’ Bianchi-chan?”
The hair on the back of Bianchi’s neck stands on end and she stares at this stranger in front of her in wordless, confused dismay. It shouldn’t be possible, but the cadence, the accent, the softness—that was practically Nonna’s voice she just used. Katsuragi Yako is barely two years Bianchi’s senior and has no business mimicking a woman more than a decade dead so accurately. Something sick and hot ignites in Bianchi’s gut, and her hands begin to warm.
“Oh my,” Katsuragi Yako says, looking at where their fingers are tangled. Bianchi’s are glowing sickly, viciously, and finally, finally she seems to be effecting this terrible, impossible woman. Those slender, pale fingers begin to warp, the skin rotting and sagging around Bianchi’s, and she glances up with vicious triumph. “How interesting,” Katsuragi Yako says, her eyes bright with childish wonder. Then her hands clench down hard on Bianchi’s, and she looks down in time to see the abused flesh warp and melt. Except.
Except, strangely, impossibly, it isn’t like any other time Bianchi has used this great and terrible power. The flesh warps and melts, but not like flesh should; it slackens and oozes, like putty or a chrysalis broken open far too soon by an overeager child. The strange, viscous substance rolls over Bianchi’s hands, sucking them in until she and Katsuragi Yako are joined, wrist to wrist in the sickest, most impossible way.
“How does it work?” Katsuragi Yako asks, her cheeks rosy with excitement. “Is it the skin? The bones? Is it in your blood?” She leans in. “Bianchi-chan, if you don’t say anything, it’s fine for me to figure it out on my own, right?” She tilts her head to one side in a way that should be cute and beseeching, but in this situation only makes Bianchi want to scream for the first time in years. The oozing flesh constricts sharply, all at once, and Bianchi feels a sudden painful crack from her left wrist and a sudden stinging in her palms.
Before she can formulate a response or actually scream, the front door bursts open so violently it nearly slams shut again on the breathless, desperate figure that tumbles into the house.
“Le… let her g… go!” A second Katsuragi Yako pants, half collapsed against the couch as she pants for breath. Bianchi notices, disjointed and calm in the way that only adrenaline can manage, that this one has bare, dirty feet, as though she had been bolting down the road without shoes.
“Is that any way to greet somebody who just returned after a month abroad?” A new voice demands from far too close, and when Bianchi glances back she finds herself in the monstrous grip of an entirely different person; some pale-haired, androgynous youth with bored, glittering teal eyes.
“…Welcome home, Sai,” Katsuragi Yako says, slow and deliberate.
“I’m back!” Bianchi’s captor replies brightly. He hasn’t so much as glanced at Bianchi since the true detective burst onto the scene, but she still can’t tear herself out of his strange, painful grip, either.
“So I see.” Katsuragi Yako edges a bit closer. “Now, please, let Bianchi-chan go. You’ve gotten what you wanted, right?”
“Sort of,” this ‘Sai’ hums uncertainly. “On the way over I heard you were getting bullied by some brat, so I figured I’d be nice and take care of it for you!”
“Normally, people just bring back souvenirs,” Katsuragi Yako says, cool and casual like this is an everyday sort of conversation for her. “It would be super nice if you could not murder the older sister of my cousin’s friend.”
“Ehh…” Sai wrinkles his nose, an unwilling expression floating up. “I don’t know about super nice. Compensate me for the upgrade, Katsuragi Yako.”
“Compen…” Now Katsuragi Yako is wearing a blank, uncooperative expression. “Why would I need to compensate you?”
“I came back to check on you and you were gone.”
“I left you a note! And a map!”
“You know what I sometimes leave with notes?”
“…” The woman rubs her face tiredly for a moment. “I’ll let you pick out which room is yours in the new house, and show you where Kawahira’s place is so you can go play. Does that work?”
“I missed you too, Katsuragi Yako!” Sai beams, bodily tossing Bianchi away and reforming his hands. “Now, be polite and introduce us.”
‘Polite,’ Bianchi sees Yako mouth incredulously to herself as she drops to her knees and begins to gently inspect Bianchi’s hands. The skin is red and raw, as though its been scraped across the pavement, and her left wrist is beginning to swell in a very worrying way. There’s no levity on Yako’s face—her face for sure, this time—only a worried, analytic gleam as she carefully prods and gauges the various responses Bianchi is too stunned to hide.
“Of course,” she says out loud, her voice peaceful despite all other indications of her true feelings. “Silly me. Sai, this is Poison Scorpion Bianchi, and strewn around the room are my cousin Tsunayoshi and his friends. His tutor Reborn is out at the moment, and my aunt is shopping with Akane-chan and Godai-san. All of which you probably already knew. Bianchi, Tsunayoshi, boys, this is…” There is the briefest moment of hesitation. “Well, I suppose the most common name is Monster Robber XI, since two of you were raised abroad, but Sai works just as well.”
“Nice to meet you!” Sai says, cheerfully biting into a poisoned eclair. Because apparently that’s what world infamous serial killer-thieves do after three years of radio silence. They bust in on their nemesis’ family getaways-slash-assassination attempts and eat all their food.
“What,” says Bianchi, very faintly.
“Yeah,” Yako sighs. “That’s… a pretty normal response. Sorry, I thought I had more time before I needed to explain this. Tsunayoshi, can you move?”
“Y-Yeah,” comes the weak, scared voice of the future Vongola Decimo. “Yako-nee, um, what, what should I…?”
“Take your friends upstairs, Tsunayoshi. You can clean and wrap Bianchi-chan’s hands while you’re there,” she says, calm and gentle as she stands and helps Bianchi to her feet. “Sai and I have some catching up to do.”
“Bianchi-chan is bleeding,” Yako says, her tone unceasingly kind and soft. Tsunayoshi snaps to attention like a trained soldier. Hayato crawls out from behind the couch and reluctantly accepts the help of the baseball boys he had hid in the pantry to get to his feet. Bianchi shambles from one cousin to the other like a sleepwalker, and the last thing she sees before the boys uncertainly shepherd her towards the stairs is Yako striding over and sitting at the table beside that thing, pulling up a plate of poison cooking as though it were a normal meal with an old friend.
“So,” her voice drifts after them, fading by the syllable. “How were your plane flights, Sai? Did you find…”
I had another bus ride for the holidays, so this chapter came together sooner than expected. And this time, it really is Sai!
Chapter 6: returnees, wanted: dead or alive
Yako handles Sai, and everything else that pops up. Sort of. She's good at rolling with the punches, if nothing else.
“You’re unbelievable,” Yako sighs, once the boys and Bianchi are relatively safe upstairs and she and her ‘old friend’ have gotten the pleasantries out of the way. Sai hasn’t found any sign of Ai—or, as she might be known in this world, Plane Crasher Imina—but if they’re particularly upset about that fact then they’re either hiding it or, most likely, have already vented their temper elsewhere. Yako makes a very deliberate choice not to follow up on that topic. “How many times do you need to impersonate me before you’re satisfied?”
“If you don’t want me to impersonate you, you should stop surrounding yourself with so many interesting people,” Sai complains, munching on a slice of frittata petulantly. Yako has her own, and thinks there might be a hyper-concentrated dose of Vitamin A mixed into the egg. It still tastes great, though, so she downs it just as easily as she would otherwise and resolves to just deal with the inevitable indigestion later.
Not for the first time, Yako reflects that Akane has become something like the avatar of her impulse control. It had never seemed like an issue, until her secretary suddenly had a body of her own.
“Still, there are limits, Sai.”
“Like Tsunayoshi?” They look at her with a positively angelic smile.
“Exactly like Tsunayoshi,” she says firmly, because that is one fight she is absolutely not backing down on. In life, Yako has learned that confidence is key. And someone, or something, or maybe just the ups and downs of life itself, has snapped Tsunayoshi’s off in the proverbial lock. It jams him up, leaving him immobile rather than spineless. He’s less a coward and more a person who stalls out when faced with confrontation, buckling under his possible responses and the consequences each might bring. Unfortunately for him, he happens to be a prospective mafia don in the making, and that makes him interesting. Even more unfortunately for him, freezing up is one of the worst ways to deal with the chaos and drama currently seated at his dinner table.
“You’re so protective, Yako-nee!” Sai teases, wearing Tsunayoshi’s face.
She levels a finger at them and shakes it lightly. “No,” she says, just as firmly as before.
They shift back to their base state, pouting. “Protective and rude, Katsuragi Yako.” They smack her finger away, and stuff the remaining five muffins into their mouth, cheeks bulging in a gruesomely cartoonish manner. “So, your aunt was that woman shopping around with your mother and that loud child and the rest, right? In Ikebukuro, yesterday.”
“Probably,” Yako said, even if she didn’t know exactly where their shopping trips were taking the group. Akane’s texts hadn’t gone into that much detail. “Did you talk with them?”
“The cow brat wandered off for a bit so I took his place for lunch.”
“Of course you did.”
“We had sushi!” Sai informs her brightly.
“There’s a pretty good place for that here,” Yako says without thinking. “I’ll get some for dinner tonight, since it’s just us.”
“Oh?” Teal eyes gleam. “Us and Tsunayo—”
“No.” Yako’s voice is simple. Clipped. It is short and sweet and leaves absolutely no room for negotiation. “I got the keys to the house while you were literally walking in my shoes, so we’ll leave the boys and Bianchi-chan here for the night and go…” She pauses, turning the word over in her mouth a few times before spitting it out. “Home. We’ll go home.”
It doesn’t even have the decency to taste like a lie. Yako has spent so much time over the last three years traveling around that she can tack that word onto multiple places, and not just the house where she had lived with her parents for sixteen years. There’s the summer house down in Kagoshima, where Grandma Satoko once lived and where she had first met Kanae. There’s the office, of course, though it hurts too much to visit nowadays. There’s Antonino’s apartment just off the Sixieme Arrondissement in Paris. There’s Hye-mi’s house over in Apgujeong, and the church in Pomurska, and something about Namimori puts her at ease, just the way those other places have.
…no, not ‘something’. Yako knows better than that. It’s never things with her, not really; it’s always people that pin her heart across the map.
“You love him already,” Sai says, poking at a blood-red pork cutlet. Neither of them considers it a question.
“Yeah,” she agrees anyways, letting her temple fall upon their shoulder. “Yeah, I do.” She hears a faint shuffled-thump, the sound of a socked foot slipping on a stair in surprise. Sai drapes an arm over the back of her chair, a perfect parody of intimacy as she nibbles at a twist of garlic bread that leaves the aftertaste of saltpeter lingering beneath her tongue. It should unnerve her, just how natural this level of skinship is, but rationally she knows it’s a trained response. Just like how she learned to stop flinching whenever Neuro grasped her throat for one of his customary throttlings, her body had over eighty hours of consecutive, intensive, nonstop brainwashing specifically tailored to ensure that she would be totally at ease and in sync with this particular monster.
Plus, there was the whole ‘died in her arms’ incident. For all that they are terrible, for all that they are unquestionably and utterly terrible, right now there is something terribly soothing about feeling Sai’s pulse bumping back and forth against her own, like waves lapping against a beach.
She licks the buttery, gritty residue of the bread off the pads of her fingers once it’s gone, and freezes mid-lap when she hears the front door slam open. She blinks, staring at a broad-shouldered blond man she has only ever seen in old photographs, and an increasingly familiar, sharply-dressed baby seated on one of the aforementioned shoulders.
In that instant, the house is dead silent. The only thing Yako can hear is the back-and-forth bump of her and Sai’s pulses. After a moment of staring, as she watches the newcomer’s eyes bounce around, categorizing and cataloguing the various threats on and at the table as they both search for a proper way to broach the current stand-off. Eventually, she ends up finding her words first.
“Uncle Iemitsu,” she says, the words feeling awkward and unwieldy in her mouth. “I think we both realize that you have a lot of explaining to do right now.”
Monster Robber X.I. leans their head against hers, snickering.
“…Dad? Dad’s home?”
“Stay upstairs Tsunayoshi!” Yako calls out, relaxing further. All things considered, her deadweight will do very little to hinder Sai, if they’re of a mind to get up. But she makes the effort all the same, to give her cousin a full floor of distance between him, his friends, and the most prolific international serial killer in recent memory for as long as she possibly can.
“Listen to your cousin, son,” Iemitsu speaks, and Yako’s heart gives a sudden squeeze that leaves her breathless. Literally. She cannot breathe.
He sounds so much like his brother. He sounds so much like Dad.
“I’ll be up in a minute and expecting my welcome home hug!” Iemitsu continues, forcing brightness into his tone even as his eyes remain serious and still while he steps out of his shoes. Each motion is careful and methodical, slow and steady even as he begins to close the distance between them, Reborn a silent ornament all the way. It takes Yako a moment before it actually occurs to her that he’s being so careful for her sake. From a logical standpoint, it makes perfect sense that he might suspect her to be a hostage.
But no. No, Sai wouldn’t do that to her; they’ve already played that game with her, after all, and there’s nobody as interesting as Neuro in this new, mixed-up world that she could be leveraged against. Not yet, anyways.
“This wasn’t exactly the welcome I was expecting,” her uncle says, and she forces her attention back to the issue at hand.
“Yeah,” Sai sighs, shaking their head ruefully. “Katsuragi Yako was really rude, not letting you know I’d be coming by. But, I wanted to surprise her for not being home when I kindly took the time to check on her, you know?”
Her throat is still tight with a crippling amount of aged grief and bittersweet nostalgia, but Yako somehow finds her voice again. “Well, I was definitely surprised.”
“You didn’t look surprised when you came in.”
“Believe me, when the shopkeeper across the street told me he could have sworn he had seen me leave ten minutes beforehand, you could have knocked me over with a feather.”
“And then you were so happy you rushed to come see me, even without your shoes!” Sai adds brightly.
“…Sure. Sure, why not.” Yako rubs at her temple, but still doesn’t move. She doesn’t want anyone in this room getting a clear shot at any of the others.“That, and you stole my shoes.”
“Borrowed. They’re waiting for you in the entryway. Be grateful, Katsuragi Yako.”
“Thanks,” she says woodenly, shifting her scuffed and dirty feet on the floor. She’s dealt with far worse aches and bruising, courtesy of Neuro’s not-so-tender mercies, but it still isn’t pleasant. “Um…” She glances up, and the terribly familiar curve of Iemitsu’s cheeks and jawline sends another stab of faded loss through her heart. She forces herself to persevere, all the same. “Right, so, like I was saying, we need to talk.” I’m glad you’re here, sits awkwardly on the tip of her tongue, because while it’s good that he’s alive, that he has a family and a job that may help Yako and her friends save the world, she can think of many other circumstances under which she would much prefer to have this particular conversation.
“About Monster Robber X.I.?”
Yako furrows her brow, briefly confused. “What? No. I know more about Sai than any other living person on the planet, at this point. I meant about Vongola. …And about, you know, the fact that there are currently two and a half mafia assassins in this house.” Possibly three and a half, depending on just what it is her uncle does for the current top dog of this strange new criminal underworld.
Sai laughs into her neck, light and child-like. Iemitsu looks like a death-row in-mate staring down the covered dish of his last meal. Reborn’s face is shadowed by the brim of his hat, and he seems content to merely listen in, idly petting his little lizard.
“Vongola,” Iemitsu says slowly.
“Vongola,” she confirms. “Strongest famiglia in Italy. Last known contractor of the Arcobaleno Reborn, who is, apparently, currently under contract to tutor Tsunayoshi.”
Iemitsu rubs his neck, and she knows the next thing out go his mouth is probably going to be a lie to some degree, feels it in her bones. So she cuts him off before he can even start.
“Why,” she asks softly, carefully lifting her head from Sai’s shoulder to stare her uncle dead in the eye, “does Gokudera-kun call him ‘Tenth’?”
“Well,” Reborn pipes up, but she gently shakes her head without looking away.
“I’d like to hear him say it,” Yako says, keeping every inch of her expression patient and genial.
“…Because he’s the last viable candidate to become the next head of the Vongola,” Iemitsu says, each word like pulling teeth. “A direct descendant from the founder.” There’s something in there that makes Reborn look at him, instead of the serial killer, that tells Yako she needs to keep prodding.
“I see,” she says, tapping the table thoughtfully. “So, does that mean you ended up making amends with your father after all?”
“What?” Iemitsu practically recoils, a knee-jerk, age-old rejection flashing across his face. Truth be told, it’s reassuring to have some father-issue solidarity right now, even if they were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Well,” Yako hums, shrugging one shoulder. “You are shoving his legacy onto your son, aren’t you?”
“That trash had nothing to do with Vongola—” Iemitsu says, his tone heating up, before whatever training he must have kicks in and his mouth snaps shut.
“Ah,” Yako says, her fingers going still against the table. “So it’s a Sawada legacy that makes Tsuna eligible then.”
“Hey, Katsuragi Yako,” Sai chips in, leaning over to stage-whisper into her ear. “Doesn’t that make you a candidate?”
“It just might,” Yako says, very deliberately not examining how this revelation makes her feel. At the very least, it erases any trace of guilt she might ever feel about unleashing Sai on Kawahira’s shop. “Though I don’t know how keen Vongola might be to have their ring on my finger and their men at my beck and call.”
“It was more an issue of us not knowing about you,” Reborn cuts in, not denying that Vongola did in fact have at minimum, one iconic ring. “Iemitsu neglected to inform the Ninth that he had a brother at all.”
“Seiichi had no place in our world,” Iemitsu says, very firmly. “There was no point. He was safer that way.”
Reborn does not refute him.
“You don’t…” Iemitsu starts to say something, but falters when he really looks at her, at the person wrapped around her like a lazy cat, and she can see the moment when he remembers she’s more than just his dead brother’s little girl.
“She doesn’t belong among criminals either?” Sai finishes the sentence for him, sniggering at the thought of her actually staying away from the undesirables of the world. “Hey, Katsuragi Yako, I think he’s trying to kick you out of the room.”
“Sai,” she huffs, taking a sip of orange juice that tingles just a bit too much going down. “Stop it.”
“Stop what?” Sai assumes an air of injured dignity.
“Fine, fine…” Sai lifts up their arms in surrender and leans back in their chair, pouting. “Spoilsport.” Yako sits up as well, turning back to her uncle.
There’s a soft click, and all of their attention falls squarely on Reborn. There’s a green gun in his hand now, aimed dead center between Sai’s eyes. For a moment, silence settles between them all, a room-wide staring contest. The gun is the first to blink. Yako has to take a moment to process that thought.
“Is that the chameleon?” Sai asks, voice soft and eyes shining.
“Leon is my constant companion,” the small hitman says, which is not a no. Yako silently apologizes to him deep in her heart, because there is no force on this earth that will sway Sai away from that little lizard now. Not when its abilities mirror their own, not after how long and hard they searched for some sort of kindred spirit.
“Katsuragi Yako, if you become the Tenth, can you make him give me ‘Leon’?”
“Absolutely not,” Yako denies immediately, regardless of whether or not that actually is within the realm of possibility.
“What if I kill more people for you than him? Can I have it then?”
“What if,” Sai wheedles, eyes still jewel-bright and trained, unblinking, on the reptilian side-arm. “I kill him?”
“What if I kill—”
“Yako-chan, why is there a serial killer at my table?” Iemitsu finally says, cutting in before they can become too entangled in their childish back-and-forth. Something about the tableau, or perhaps Sai’s intense interest, has led Reborn to tuck his magic lizard into his suit pocket.
“It’s a long story,” Yako says, honest even in her knee-jerk attempts to snake her way out of explaining her life, choices, and interpersonal entanglements.
“I died in her arms,” Sai divulges, blithe to a fault. “It was a bonding moment. Then I came back and chased off a creep who was disturbing her while she visited the unmarked grave in the woods she put me in.”
“…What,” says Iemitsu.
“A long, long story,” Yako repeats. She glances mournfully at the table, which doesn’t have so much as one poisoned crumb left to occupy her mouth with.
“So you pretended to be dead?” Reborn asks. “Pulled a zombie maneuver and popped up when it was convenient?”
“That was actually how we met, wasn’t it?” Yako muses.
“Yeah, with that dumb little wannabe.” Sai shakes their head disdainfully. “But I had a body that time. I didn’t after I died. That was weird.”
“The magic fire was a new and exciting twist,” Yako agrees dryly.
“What?” Iemitsu and Reborn demand.
“Magic fire,” Yako repeats patiently, perhaps a bit too pleased that somebody else was finally scrambling for answers instead of just her. “About… this big, floating…” What else? “It was purple?”
“Purple,” Reborn mutters under his breath, apparently finding some meaning in that.
“Yes,” Yako confirms, thinking hard. There had been a lot going on in those ten final minutes, so some of the finer details take a little bit of effort to clear up. “Dark purple around the edges, but lighter on the inside. White, almost.”
“What?” Yako glances up, her eyebrows knitting together.
“If it was white on the inside, rather than uniformly purple, then they were indigo around the edges,” Iemitsu corrects.
“Okay, indigo then,” she says gamely. “Sure. Sorry, I’m not an art student. Big, floating, indigo magic soul-flames. …How are they any different from uniformly purple magic soul-flames?”
“There is a world of difference,” Reborn intones, “between the Cloud and the Mist.”
“…poetic,” Yako praises, her tone uncertain. It seems a bit jarring and out of place, in this moment.
“No, it’s—” Iemitsu breaks off, grimacing. It’s obvious he still doesn’t like the thought of anything in his line of work being exposed to her.
“If you want, I can just go through other avenues and find out,” Yako consoles him. “Godai was thinking about getting me a meeting with the Vindice anyways.”
“Absolutely not,” Iemitsu bursts out. He takes a steady breath, and runs a hand through his hair. “…Fine. Fine, I suppose its better you hear a proper explanation, rather than stumble in over your head.”
Yako desperately wants to laugh at the implication that she isn’t already over her head, but somehow finds the strength of will to hold back.
Sai doesn’t bother, and childish laughter fills the room once more.
“Tsunayoshi.” Yako stands up from where she had been pulling on her shoes, having already cleaned and sterilized her feet in the bathroom when her uncle went upstairs to check on the kids. Her cousin is hovering in the stairwell on the next landing, eyes drifting between her and the direction of the kitchen, where laughter and crashes outline Sai’s latest attempt to get a proper examination of Leon before being dragged off for the night. “How’s Bianchi-chan?”
“Um, we took care of her hands. She’s…” He falls silent, before shaking himself out of it and peering down at her with naked concern. “Yako-nee, you’re really leaving with that person?”
“Sai isn’t…” No, she can’t even finish that sentence in her head. Sai is exactly as bad as they seem, they’re just comfortable enough with her that she isn’t an appealing target most of the time. “Sai isn’t somebody I can leave to their own devices in good conscience, if I know where they are. And it’s not like I’m leaving the city,” she hurries to assure him. “I’m just a few blocks south and east, I promise. Soon enough you might even get sick of seeing me around so much.”
Tsuna shifts uneasily, nodding in a vague way that leads her to believe he isn’t fully paying attention to the here and now. That’s fine, she has the time to be patient; Sai and Reborn are decidedly busy at the moment and her uncle is making a phone call in another room, now that the immediate explanations and urgency have been dealt with. Wonomichi’s earlier explanation had been lacking in regards to the seven types of magic death flames, so now they have a more exact frame of reference. It’s a pity Akane-chan wasn’t here to take proper notes, but just because Yako isn’t supernaturally competent, it doesn’t mean she’s particularly slow on the uptake. Plus, the color coding helps a lot, aside from the strange case of white-purple factoring out to indigo, traditionally the darkest hue of the rainbow.
“You knew the whole time?” Tsunayoshi bursts out at last. He looks helpless now, shaken and upset and something else, something soft and bright just underneath the cracks. “About… about the mafia, about Reborn, about—”
“Not everything,” she cuts him off before he can work himself into too much of a tizzy. “But I had enough pieces of the puzzle to figure out something was up over here. Though certainly not enough to guess that we’re, uh…”
She has to wonder; is there any way to say ‘we’re secret mafia royalty’ without sounding patently ridiculous?
“Yeah,” Tsunayoshi sighs gustily. ‘Uh’ seems to be a very good summation of both their reactions to that little revelation, apparently. “…So.” He sucks in a bracing breath. “What now?”
What now indeed.
“Well,” Yako says. “I have to talk things over with some friends. But I’m even less likely to be leaving town any time soon, probably.” She now knows where two pieces of her twenty-one options for saving the world are located. One of them will be in Namimori for the foreseeable future, so Namimori seems to be the safest place to stay, even though she personally doubts Reborn is any more inclined to let them have his magic giant pacifier than he is to give up his magic shapeshifting chameleon.
“Hold that thought,” Iemitsu interrupts, stepping back into the hallway. His eyes crinkle, honest and fond at the sight of the two of them just beneath the unavoidable tension of this evening. “In the interest of… containing the issue, I pulled some strings. If you really… really want to press your suit as a candidate for Decimo—Decima, sorry—”
“What?!” Tsunayoshi squawks, apparently having missed that implication, or perhaps simply disregarded it since it had been initially put forth by Sai.
“If that’s what you want to do,” Iemitsu continues on, making no attempt to hide how uncomfortable the thought makes him, “then, as the External Advisor to the Vongola, and as a man with some sway in regards to designating the official heir, I… should be meeting with you on neutral ground about it.” He grimaces, as if he had been the one putting away a smorgasbord of killer cuisine today. “Historically neutral ground for the mafia, I mean, not just Japan.”
She has to feel bad for the man, for all that he has only tangibly existed to her for a few hours. It can’t be any easier for him to look at her than vice versa, and he must have bolted straight for Japan at the first sign of her nosing around their family secret. Her original Uncle Iemitsu had never lived to properly wed his sweetheart, let alone have a child. Having to balance Tsunayoshi’s life, one already known to his superiors, against her own—internationally acclaimed—identity and career must have been stressful, to say the least. She can’t imagine he likes any of the possible outcomes available.
“Okay,” Yako nods. “That seems reasonable. What falls in that category?”
“A place called Mafia Land,” her uncle tells her, completely serious. Because apparently that’s just Yako’s life, now, going to a place called Mafia Land to negotiate her eligibility to possibly usurp her baby cousin as mafia royalty. The saddest part of it all is that this development doesn’t even rank when it comes to strange twists in her life.
“Oh, I’ve been there,” the shape-shifting serial killer she’s going home with tonight says brightly, trotting in with Reborn settled comfortably on their head, Leon draped lazily over one shoulder. Apparently, an accord has been reached. “It’s kind of like a resort for criminals.”
“Of course you have,” Yako says, because of course their month of wandering took them to a secret criminal vacation spot. Of course it did. “Am I allowed to bring my friends?”
“Any prospective Guardians and Family members are expected to attend,” Iemitsu nods. “With you serving as the prospective heir and a Sky Flame user, Guardians are specific individuals falling under the other six Flame types, and would serve as your closest confidents, lieutenants, and guards, among other roles.”
“Mm.” Yako rubs her lip, thoughtful. “I’ll need to test it out to know for sure, but something tells me I have most of my bases covered.”
That something being the fact the Kawahira is an asshole, for reasons that seem to grow more numerous by the day.
“I’ll call Aya-san and Akane-chan tonight to get our schedules synced up,” she ads.
“What?!” Tsunayoshi yelps again. “Yako-nee, you… you can’t—it’s not—”
Yako frowns, thrown for a loop. Tsunayoshi has given every indication that he wants nothing to do with the criminal underworld, so—
“She’s… she’s a convicted murderess, Yako-nee!” Tsunayoshi tosses his hands up. “Why would you keep her as one of your closest guards?”
“Yes,” Yako says slowly, a metaphorical lightbulb going off. “I’m aware. I’m the one who handed her that conviction, after all.” Well. It’s more that she read Aya’s heart deeply enough that the other woman had outright stated that she specifically wanted to serve the sentence that Yako’s investigation had landed her with, no matter how simple it might be for her to break out of prison when the whim took her. “She’s still my friend, Tsunayoshi. I have… quite a few friends who aren’t exactly on the up-and-up. It’s okay, really. I mean, Sai’s apparently going to be my prospective Mist Guardian, and my trust there is very, very limited. Aya-san has looked after me quite a bit, these last few years.”
Tsunayoshi seems to choke on his own spit, and can only gesticulate wildly at Sai’s entire being. Why, his haggard expression seems to beg for an explanation. Why would you inflict this upon yourself? It’s a good question. A sane, rational question, that merits a frank and upfront answer.
“Honestly, if I chose anyone else, they’d probably just kill that person and assume their identity,” Yako says.
“It’s true, I would do that at some point,” Sai agrees. Yako is seriously considering just having them steal the Vongola rings once she actually knows where they are and how long they need to be worn for the world-saving criteria to be met, but somehow she doubts such a simple, straightforward plan will actually work. Not when there seems to be a new curveball rocketing towards her head-on every time she turns around.
Tsunayoshi makes a strangled noise of confounded despair that Yako can most definitely empathize with. Life is hard, and the mafia and criminals in general only make it that much harder. And Yako knows a lot of criminals.
“So,” Yako says, clapping her hands together lightly, to get them all back on track. “I’ll gather my people, you gather yours, and we go to…” She has to say the words, with her own mouth. “To Mafia Land, where we’ll really get into the particulars. That sound about right?”
“Yes.” Iemitsu nods, looking tired. “I don’t… as your uncle, I don’t approve at all, I’m going to make that crystal clear. But… as the Head of the CEDEF, as the External Advisor, I’ll do my best to be impartial about this. You have my word.”
“Thank you,” Yako says, and then she shoves all plans and worry and confusion firmly to the back of her mind, so she can take two steps forward and throw her arms around this almost-stranger, hugging him tight. He’s bulkier than her father ever was, with the kind of muscles that wouldn’t have been strange if he really was in the construction industry. He’s stiff and uncertain against her for only a heartbeat before he returns the embrace, his arms gentle and uncertain. Like he thinks she might shatter and disappear if squeezed too tightly. “Uncle Iemitsu?”
Have you ever killed a man in a locked room with a pickaxe, she doesn’t ask. She almost, almost does, but she swallows back the words at the last moment and chooses to nestle her cheek into the shoulder of his jacket instead. It’s well-made; she can’t feel the leather of his concealed holster at all. “It’s good to see you,” she says at length. “I’m glad to see that you’ve been doing well.”
“I’m the one who should be saying that,” Iemitsu says, gradually growing more comfortable with the situation. Comfortable enough to give her hair a slight ruffle, at the very least. “You used to be a normal school girl, and now suddenly I’m reading about my own niece in the paper at the airport. You’ve been working hard. …He’d be proud, to see what you’ve made of yourself.”
Yako wonders about that. She isn’t exactly self-made, after all, and it’s hard to think that her father would be very happy if he knew even a tenth of what Neuro did to make her who she is today.
“That’s the sort of stuff you’re supposed to say first,” Sai complains, as if they weren’t one of the core reasons why this exchange is only taking place now. “Gosh, Katsuragi Yako, your family is so weird.”
The absolute worst part of it all, Yako reflects, is that she can’t actually refute that condemnation.
Magic soul-flame mafia royalty. She’s going to lock Kawahira in a damn storage closet with Sai for letting her just stumble blindly into this, just see if she doesn’t.
Okay, so! A lot of stuff has happened since I last posted, nothing the least of which is the fact that Abraxas now has a TV Tropes page and the fantastic @forgetful-and-forgettable over on Tumblr made me a gorgeous piece of fan art for my birthday. Speaking of birthdays, happy belated, Wyrvel! I wanted to get this chapter up in time for yours, but life got in the way.
Chapter 7: the hangover: mafia land edition
Nobody wants this to be happening, and yet, here we are.
“I know we have this sort of… unspoken agreement, usually. Like you do with your mom.”
“You don’t want to tell me these sorts of things, and I don’t ask. It’s been a solid system.”
“But this? This is big. We need to talk about it. I just came back from a romantic getaway with some fuckboy I don’t even know, from a class I do know I haven’t enrolled in yet.”
“And if we’re going to be talking about this latest nonsense, we might as well trawl back through the rest of it, too.”
“I’m not an idiot, Yako.”
“I picked up on plenty, back then. …Is he back? Is that what this is?”
“No. No, he’s… he’s not really part of the picture. Not… anymore.”
“ Good .”
“I’m not apologizing for that. I’ll be there on the next train I can catch.”
“Like I’d ever seriously leave you in the lurch.”
"Oh, hey, I know that face," says the redhead lounging next to Yako in the seaport terminal.
Tsuna clutches the straps of his backpack, heart in his throat. He can only imagine who this new woman is, what atrocities she might have under her belt. She isn’t somebody he recognizes from the tabloids, and while she’s pretty and there’s something coolly analytic glittering in her eyes as she looks at them, there’s none of the undercurrent of wicked, tangible malice that had flooded his house a scant few days ago. His cousin's arm is looped through hers and her head is pillowed on the stranger's bare shoulder as she texts furiously away on her phone. Yako offers a reassuring smile when she looks up. Tsuna is not even remotely reassured.
Neither, apparently, is his father.
"You do?" Dad asks, his bright smile unfaltering, even if the broad hand on Tsuna's shoulder tightens incrementally.
"Yeah." The redhead nods, prodding Yako with a finger. "This one here went digging through a bunch of old photos when we were little and showed one to me, this one time. You were holding her in the hospital, or right after they brought her home. Something like that.” She gives him another sweeping once over, her expression inscrutably pleasant. "You were a bit scrawnier back then, though."
A booming laugh tears out of his dad, and Tsuna feels him relax. Neither of them are entirely certain that this isn't actually that silver-haired thing that assaulted Bianchi the other day, but frankly Tsuna isn’t prepared to ask. He just has to settle for being deeply suspicious whenever somebody infringes upon his cousin’s personal space, and he has had a lot of practice at being suspicious, these last few days. It’s something he isn’t sure if he should attribute to her time abroad or the aggressively in-your-face nature of her normal—“normal”—companions. He still hasn’t figured the exact degree of intimacy underlying Yako’s dynamic with her secretary, and he’s increasingly unsure that he wants to.
“It looks like you have me at a disadvantage, miss,” Dad says.
“Yeah,” the redhead says, poking Yako again. “This one used her connections to basically make it impossible for people to bug me. It’s pretty neat. I hear the foreigners don’t have much a foothold around here, too, so… Go Japan, I guess.” She twirls her poking finger in a sarcastic little loop, blue eyes still calmly boring into them. “That said, I’m Kagohara Kanae. Pleased to meet you, for the most part.”
“Kagohara?” Dad blinks, a bit taken aback by that for some reason.
Kanae seems to have been expecting it, because she bobs her head. “Of the Kagoshima Kagohara family, yeah.”
“You’re Akito’s kid, then?” His arm comes up, rubbing his neck as he blows out a laugh. “God. I haven’t thought about him in… years. How’s the old dog doing?”
“He’s on Wife Number Six,” Kanae tells him. “So good, I guess. Or bad.” She shrugs, Yako rolling seamlessly against her with the motion. “Depends on your perspective.”
“What’s in Kagoshima?” Tsuna has to ask, feeling a bit out of the loop.
“Our grandmother’s old house,” Yako says, putting her phone away. “Dad took us up there every summer, and inherited it when she passed. And…” she shrugs. “It’s mine now. Technically. I’ll take you to visit, when you get another vacation.” She nudges Kanae in the ribs, a faint smile on her lips. “You in?”
“Have I ever turned down a trip with you?”
Yako is prevented from answering that by a group of people sweeping into the terminal. Most of them are familiar—Akane, Godai, Aya Asia—but they’re now accompanied by a girl, around Tsuna’s age. She’s blonde, a shade that belongs somewhere between the ones sported by his cousin and the the world-famous singer, songwriter, and convicted murderess, and dressed in a cute, fluffy and frilled style. She’s the type of girl cute enough to stand next to Kyoko without losing out, her expression bright and cheerful as she breaks away from the group and bolts across the tiled floor.
“Big Sis!” Jubilation snaps through every syllable as she throws herself at his cousin. Yako rises to catch her in a hug that twists into a half spin, before they separate, Yako wordlessly returning custody of her cellphone back to Akane. “I missed you!” The girl declares, her fingers still clenched in the older woman’s cardigan. “Did you miss me? Are we leaving soon?”
“Hi Mutsuki,” Yako says, grinning down at her. “I always miss you. We’ve still got another hour left, before the ship leaves.”
Tsuna shifts, something going taut and uncertain in his gut at the obvious history these two have. Belatedly, his gut twists further as he realizes that this girl is probably one of Yako’s prospective… ‘Guardians.’ He isn’t sure how to feel about that.
“This is my cousin, Tsunayoshi,” Yako introduces them. “And this is Miyasako Mutsuki, a friend I made during my first year at work.”
Miyasako Mutsuki eyes him with cool contempt, her grip on Yako’s clothes tightening ever so slightly. “…Nice to meet you,” she says, tone bland. She turns back to his cousin, eyes sparkling once more “Big Sis, Big Sis, did that guy really show up?”
“Sai… went on ahead,” Yako says, with only trace amounts of discomfort coloring her smile. “They’re with Tsuna’s tutor somewhere on the ship, probably.”
Tsuna shudders at the thought.
“Will your aunt not be joining us?” asks Aya Asia, one of the last people Tsuna ever wants to hear talking about Mom.
“No,” Yako says. “She and my mom are at an onsen for the week.”
“Oh? Which one?” Kanae asks, a faint gleam of interest in her sharp eyes.
“You remember the one we went to during Golden Week, back in our first year of middle school?”
“Oh, that place is nice.” She nods in apparent approval. “You liked their manju a lot.”
“She likes everything a lot.” Godai scoffs, laden down with at least three people’s suitcases and barely seeming inconvenienced. Lambo reclaimed his spot on the older man’s shoulders at some point, making up for their time apart, but is currently sleeping while clutching his bleached hair for balance.
“Is, uh,” Tsuna hesitates, before pressing on. “Is Higuchi-san not coming…?”
A heavy silence lingers, for a moment.
“He’s a cop,” Godai says slowly.
“You told him all about the mafia,” Tsuna says, fairly sure he’s not in the wrong for making a few assumptions, this time.
“Yes,” Yako cuts in kindly, “and Higuchi-kun is… less concerned about law and order than some of his coworkers, in a lot of ways. …A lot of ways,” she emphasizes. “But, he’s also very competent and his supervisor watches him like a hawk because of some past trouble Higuchi-kun got caught up in, back in the day. So, suddenly leaving Japan to go to a place called Mafia Land is a bit…”
“Also,” Dad says dryly. “There’s this thing called Omertà.”
“I have to ask, what exactly did Omertà have to say about your current organization’s founder?” Yako asks, still smiling. Or rather, with a smile that was still enough to be unsettling.
Dad snorts, shaking his head. “Touché.”
At this point Yamamoto and Bianchi enter the terminal, Gokudera hovering protectively at his sister’s elbow, the way he has been since their terrifying introduction to Monster Robber X.I. the other day. Against all odds, Hibari-senpai stalks in after them, his pompadoured second-in-command in tow. His eyes lock onto Akane, who sighs deeply and begins to speed-walk for the ramp to the private ship his dad had chartered. Hibari-senpai slinks after him, dead silent and unerringly intent.
Tsuna… really does not want to know what any of that is about. Reborn has made some cryptic remarks, but Tsuna has actively put negative effort into making sense of them, for the sake of his nerves.
The rest of them trickle onto the boat, Kanae and Yako quietly conversing, Aya and Mutsuki discussing something that sounds political in nature, or contractual maybe, and Tsuna and his dad bringing up the rear with his friends. His hand has not left Tsuna’s shoulder once, in all this time, and Tsuna is grateful for it. It keeps him grounded, even as they weigh anchor, even as Hibari attacks his cousin’s secretary, even as Yako mediates and Aya Asia looks on with fond amusement, even as Gokudera hisses insults at a cheerfully laughing Yamamoto, even as he sees neither hide nor hair of Reborn and the Yako’s serial killer stalker the entire time.
He drifts off at some point, and wakes hours later, groggy and out of sorts. He squints at the late-afternoon sun sinking towards the horizon, glances out the window at what looks to be a normal customs line, and looks back up to find that his father… is wearing a hat?
“Don’t look so surprised, Tsuna,” Dad says, grinning down as he ruffles Tsuna’s bedhead into something moderately more presentable. “Your old man’s a pretty striking figure in these circles.”
…Speaking of striking figures.
Tsuna glances around for his cousin and her entourage, and feels his expression flatten. “…you’re just… going to waltz in wearing sunglasses?”
Aya Asia smiles at him, and he fights back a full-body shudder. “You’d be surprised how effective it is,” she says.
“Reborn went on ahead to… smooth the wheels,” Dad says, feeling the tension hike through his frame. “Normally, there’s a bit of a formality we’d need to take care of before we could go in, but the nature of our business here… isn’t something the Family wants broadcasted. As far as the greater Mafia world knows, Vongola hasn’t declared its next heir yet. We’d prefer to keep it that way, until this dispute is… settled.” He claps Tsuna on the shoulder and moves ahead, leading them down the ramp.
“Also, Yako-nee is a famous detective,” Tsuna points out wryly.
“I’m more in the negotiation business these days,” his cousin demurs.
“She probably has at least three friends inside already,” Kanae says at the same time.
“Kanae!” Yako elbows her friend, shocked and affronted.
“Probably,” Godai grunts at the same time, a slumbering Lambo sprawled in the crook of his arm.
They melt into what seems to be an old argument as they all disembark, nondescript men in suits and sunglasses directing them past a corridor previously blocked by red velvet ropes. There’s a faintly nostalgic look in Gokudera and Bianchi’s eyes as they walk along, but both of them are being weirdly silent still.
“Are you okay?” Tsuna asks quietly, when he catches the eye of his self-proclaimed ‘right-hand man’.
Gokudera’s expression brightens immediately and he opens his mouth to say something, but he snaps it shut before so much as a syllable can squeak out, abashed.
“I think he’s worried he’s gonna slip up and call you ‘Tenth,’ Tsuna,” is Yamamoto’s thoughtful input. “If your cousin’s taking over the title, that’d be pretty rude, right? And your dad said to keep it a secret, too.”
Gokudera nods, looking pained at having to agree with Yamamoto.
“Keep moving,” Hibari orders them, when Tsuna’s pace begins to lag. His movements are stiff, perhaps the result of another forceful paralysis while Tsuna was asleep. Tsuna is nowhere near stupid enough to ask, and instead obediently speeds up. Something tells him that Hibari’s already rare patience has worn impossibly thinner, and that something is the hangdog look of Kusakabe. Hibari’s main lieutenant has never been somebody Tsuna ever pitied before today, mostly because it was usually Tsuna’s job to be pitiful and Kusakabe’s job to put the fear of Hibari into all sensible students of Namimori Middle.
Dad leads them to a fancy hotel off one of the main roads. When he gets to the desk, there’s no check-in that Tsuna can see, just a deferential tip of the head from the concierge as she passes over a stack of card-keys and murmurs something in soft Italian.
“We’re meeting in one of the conference rooms first,” Dad declares.
Iemitsu would give just about anything to not be here right now, which is ironic, because not a month before he had been bellyaching into his bourbon to Turmeric that he’d do just about anything to get some good, old-fashioned family time worked into his schedule.
Sei’s little Yako is… less little these days, he reluctantly admits. She looks a hell of a lot like Mama now, thanks to the hair and the mouth, and Iemitsu half expects her to grab him by the ear and tell him to wash his grubby little face at any given moment. But she also looks so much like Sei when she smiles that his throat tightens with guilt every time he really stops to think about what he’s doing here today. What they’re all doing here today. Selfishly, he’s holding on to the hope that Yako will turn out to be a Sun, or a Rain, or anything at all besides a Sky, but that would only be half of a solution at this point; a lesser loss.
Vongola knows whose blood runs through her veins now, even if it’s only the upper echelons. That’s not going to change, even if he manages to dissuade her from this path.
The Ninth understands why he had done it. He might not have been so understanding if Yako hadn’t gone and thrown herself at damn near every bizarre criminal case that came her way after losing Seiichi, but with circumstances as they are Iemitsu hasn’t gotten more than a light reprimand for his omission. Timoteo has even sent over the old testing materials that were used to ritually confirm Guardian Flame alignment, since he and his were the last to have used them. He had been holding onto them for when his sons would finally settle on who among them would be the Tenth, and now…
Now there are two large, colorless crystals pillowed on velvet on the table in front of his only son and his big brother’s only daughter.
As somebody who was raised a civilian, there are still to this day aspects of Cosa Nostra that he has yet to fully experience, and they always, always seem to catch him off guard. Having to choose between his own family members in a succession dispute is definitely one of those times. Hell, his job as the Advisor is usually to specifically moderate just this occurrence, from the outside. In a terrible sort of irony, he and the Ninth now have their roles in this system of checks and balances effectively swapped.
“Who would like to go first?” Iemitsu asks, arms folded behind him. “Traditionally, Sawada Tsunayoshi and Katsuragi Yako will be tested last.” He wishes he could put it off even longer than that. Even if she isn't a Sky, this test will disrupt her body’s natural seal on her Flames. Tsuna’s had been on a hair-trigger when he was little and the Ninth had properly applied a seal to prevent him from hurting himself or the other civilian children around him, but the Dying Will Bullets he's taken have now allowed him to start gaining control over them. He had been a natural, something that Iemitsu has been privately proud and terrified over for years.
The school prefect steps forward, and glares death at his niece’s secretary until they too step forward with a light sigh.
“Very well.” Iemitsu steps forward himself, and lays out a sheaf of packaged, sterilized needles. “Prick your finger and pick up the stone.” The hands have a high degree of sensitivity, and stimulating them with a small incision is a tried and true way of getting the smallest spark of Flame to catch and magnify through… whatever the crystals truly were. They are some invention of Talbot, and Family heirlooms, but beyond that Iemitsu doesn't know enough to say.
The two eerily similar would-be Guardians comply with his directions and find immediate results, each one glowing a violent purple and a nearly blinding, glimmering yellow.
“Hibari Kyouya is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Cloud Guardian. …Akane,” who had not provided a last name of any sort, and does not seem to exist on paper, “is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Sun Guardian.”
The Hibari boy looks even more furious, but returns to his seat. The secretary, who hadn’t stopped calmly smiling, returned to Yako’s side and jotted down the results in a little notebook.
After Iemitsu sterilizes the crystals and disposes of the used needles, the next volunteers are the Smoking Bomb and the serial killer, who has Reborn perched on his head and ready to shoot him—her—it at a moment’s notice. They both comply with the instructions, Gokudera’s eyes warily trained on ‘Sai’ the entire time. Smart boy.
The result is half-expected; Sai’s crystal glows a pulsating white that undulates indigo around the edges, which Iemitsu can’t look at directly for too long without feeling distinctly motion-sick. Gokudera’s is primarily red, with smears of blue, green, purple, and yellow; surprising, but not unexpected. Secondary Flame alignments are more normal than excessively pure Flames, in lesser-ranked Families like the one his father leads.
“Gokudera Hayato is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Storm Guardian.” Iemitsu declares. He hesitates, but duty dictates he has to acknowledge the other result as well, no matter how much he’d prefer otherwise. “…Monster Robber X.I. Is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Mist Guardian.”
He pauses to take a drink of water and rinse the last of those terrible words out of his mouth, as the next two step up. This round, it’s the Bovino boy and his niece’s pet yakuza, who grouchily helps the child prick his finger with minimal waterworks. Once that’s taken care of, Iemitsu finds himself looking at a vibrant green, and a red so violent it looks likes it’s about to burn right through the man’s hand.
“Lambo of the Bovino Famiglia is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Lightning Guardian. Godai Shinobu is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Storm Guardian.”
“Gahaha! Godai-jii is the same as Stupidera!” Lambo cackles, pointing at the fuming teenager.
“Can it, brat.” Godai grunts, carefully applying a grape-patterned baby bandage to the child’s finger. Once that is done, he carts the boy off by the scruff of his jumpsuit before Gokudera can blow his top. The teenaged hitman looks furious, but also understandably worried; Godai, unlike the rest of his niece’s retinue, would actually be a fairly good, traditional fit as a Guardian. He’s a strong candidate to be set against.
The boy and girl who step up next, all smiles and sunshine, lack any such tension. Their results—a strong cobalt blue, and a green that fizzles with sparks around the edges—obviously fascinate them.
“Yamamoto Takeshi is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Rain Guardian,” Iemitsu dutifully records. “Miyasako Mutsuki is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Lightning Guardian.”
“I don’t know what the position means, but I’ll do my best,” Yamamoto promises cheerfully.
“I’m going to be the one protecting Big Sis,” Miyasako says quietly, apparently to herself. Her smile has vanished, and her hands tighten into determined fists beneath her long, frilly sleeves. She gives a short, determined nod and marches back to her seat. There are any number of reasons Iemitsu could think of for a cute little girl to keep stiletto blades hidden in her clothing, none of them good, but it’s… a little reassuring, to know she seems so dedicated to Yako.
His niece’s other serial murderer companion drifts up, elegant and unruffled. For a moment, he thinks that will be it, but the Hibari makes a motion and the boy with the impressively large pompadour moves forward as well. The results are immediate—a deep, glowing purple that nearly seeps out of the crystal, and a blue streaked with smaller flickers of yellow and green.
“Kusakabe Tetsuya is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Rain Guardian,” Iemitsu rules. “Aizawa Aya is officially recognized as a contender for the Tenth Generation’s Cloud Guardian.”
With that, old one more match-up is left since the Poison Scorpion and Kanae don’t seem inclined to step forward. Iemitsu hates every second his son and niece take as they approach. When they take the crystals in hand, Tsuna’s glows the same deep, warm orange that Reborn had reported. It’s a comforting color, similar to Iemitsu’s, but the feel of it—even in such a small dosage magnified for study purposes—is comfortingly similar to that of the Ninth. Not nearly enough research has been done to determine whether the person who applies a mafia child’s cautionary seal will impact the traits of their Flame later in life, but if that is the case then Iemitsu is glad that Timoteo had been the one to do it.
Conversely, Yako’s crystal erupts in Flame.
“Oh,” she says, blinking. “That’s new.”
Like Tsuna’s, it feels warm and inviting. Unlike Tsuna’s, it makes a ball of ice form in the pit of his gut, because damn it all, Yako just had to be a natural too, didn’t she?
“…Sawada Tsunayoshi and Katsuragi Yako are officially recognized as contenders for the Tenth Generation’s Sky Guardian and as candidates for the position of Tenth Head of the Vongola Familia.” The words feel like knives on his tongue, but he forces them out. Yako’s crystal returns to its inert state once she puts it down, and Iemitsu spends a moment cleaning and repacking the crystals in the lockbox they came in and sending the footage of the testing off to the Ninth himself. “As of this moment,” he says as he works. “Candidate Sawada Tsunayoshi lacks both a Sun and Mist Guardian contender. Candidate Katsuragi Yako lacks a Rain Guardian contender.”
“I have a Sun in mind for Tsunayoshi,” Reborn finally speaks.
Iemitsu nods, straightening up and turning to face them. “Understood. As the External Advisor to Vongola, I will allow you both to decide the time and place of your succession trials. Yako, as the contesting party, you get to make the first proposal.”
“Namimori, five years from now,” Yako says immediately.
Tsuna and Iemitsu turn to stare at her, mouths dropping open.
“Five years?” Tsuna gapes. “…Can… can you do that?”
“You’re thirteen,” Yako says, her smile bright and her eyes hard. “Barring any sudden deaths in the Family and your agreement, I don’t see why I can’t.”
Iemitsu can’t say anything to that. As a mafioso aware of the Ninth’s age and burdens he should be a bit disgruntled, but as Tsuna’s father he kind of wants to scoop her up into a tight hug, the clever girl. Reborn will probably grind his teeth over the unplanned extension of his assignment, but too bad. He doesn’t get to make this decision for Tsuna, because this is something only a Vongola candidate can choose. “Tsunayoshi, your answer?”
“Uh… uh, yeah, definitely.” His son lets out a short, bewildered laugh. “Five years sounds… great.”
Ieimitsu diligently records and notarizes their decision, and sends that to Timoteo as well. “Well,” he says brightly, now passing out the room cards. “With that done, why don’t you all make yourselves at home? We’ll meet back tomorrow to teleconference with the Ninth.”
There’s some agreement, some sullen silence, and some disquieting laughter from the Arcobaleno-lizard-murderer corner of the room. Iemitsu officially dismisses them, claps his son on the shoulder, and makes a bee-line for the hotel bar. Turmeric is already waiting there for him with a sympathetic clap on the back of his own. The other man knows better than to say anything at this point, since Lal will doubtlessly give Iemitsu more than an earful once she gets here tomorrow. They drink in silence for a good forty minutes, thanks to a very quiet, attentive bartender.
“Uncle Iemitsu,” Yako calls out at that point.
He turns on his stool to greet her back and stops, staring.
He knows he’s looking at his niece, but if he didn’t know who she was beforehand he might not make the connection at all. Her hair is a dark brown now, and she’s dressed… differently than before. She’s wearing thigh-high boots that cover as much as her shorts don’t, and a tight, sleeveless white button-up, with an honest to goodness fedora perched at a jaunty angle on her head. Dark gloves cover her hands but stop short of the heels of her palms. Her eyes are made up to look sharper, smokier, and her lips are a dark burgundy. Her smile looks different, even if it’s as bright as ever.
Iemitsu takes a moment to thank God that Tsuna came out a boy, because he has no idea how to deal with this situation at all.
“We’re going drinking,” Kanae says. “Yako wanted to check in with you before we headed out, to let you know." When he looks at Akito’s girl, he finds that her hair is now a dark blue that makes her eyes—lined in white—seem paler in comparison. She’s wearing a strapless, shimmering dress, also black, and a ruffled white bolero to match a spindly pair of heeled sandals. They both look like any number of young women Ieimitsu has seen in mafia-controlled nightclubs, which gives him an unsettling feeling he can’t quite put a name to.
“By yourselves?” Iemitsu asks.
“Akane-chan is coming with us,” Yako says brightly, gesturing over her shoulder.
Iemitsu stares harder.
Of the current Arcobaleno, the only one without a proper dossier chronicling their past life and career of some sort is Reborn, who is known only by reputation and word of mouth. The others all have some sort of paper trail, to varying degrees. Lal Mirch had trained Colonello, for instance, and had some photographs of his various physical states throughout training. Skull used to be a famous stuntman. Verde had given lectures at some of the foremost conventions and universities in the world. Fon had been the reigning World Martial Arts Champion, before whatever happened to all of them took place.
Aside from the lack of bangs, Iemitsu feels as though he’s looking at a real-life photograph of that young champion. Albeit in a black changshao, rather than a red one, but the resemblance is uncanny.
“I’ll be the sober supervisor,” Akane promises him, their androgyny cast in a strongly masculine light thanks to the clear resemblance.
“Here,” Iemitsu says, passing over his company card. “Take this.” His niece is nineteen years old. He… can’t tell her what to do, as much as he might like to. By all accounts, she’s been in areas much rougher than Mafia Land, and even once vanished in Calcutta for two months, only to surface in some tiny hole-in-the-wall village in Slovenia, fit as a fiddle. If anything happens, then at the very least he’ll have a paper trail to follow. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Will do,” Yako promises, linking arms with her friends and steering them towards the lobby.
Iemitsu feels like he’s forgetting something crucial, but attributes it to the now-familiar, helpless guilt clogging up his throat. He washes it down with his Old Fashioned.
For the first time, Turmeric speaks. “…So, do you think she drinks anything like she eats?”
Iemitsu freezes. “Shit.”
Yako wakes to a dry mouth, an unfamiliar ceiling, and two small bundles of warmth nestled against her hips beneath a soft blanket. She inhales, slow and deep, and musters the courage to look down.
She looks back up, to where Akane and Kanae are quietly drinking coffee with one of the Hayasaka brothers in the hotel suite’s kitchenette. It’s an unsettling tableau, honestly; it’s the type of scene that normally Yako would give her left arm to prevent. It’s the type of situation that would give her cold chills when purely imaginative, let alone ongoing in reality. That said, she would almost, almost prefer to let it continue, when the alternative is asking the current question on her lips.
“Did I steal a kid last night?” She finally gives in, careful not to jostle the small child as she heaves herself up. The tabby cat on her other side gets no such consideration, but Kingpin’s always been a trouper. He just clambers between her thighs and squirms his way under one of her knees, determined to leech as much of her body warmth as possible. Reluctantly, Yako returns her attention to the child. They’re a young one, probably about Lambo’s age, and with a braid dark and lustrous enough to—almost—give Akane a run for her money.
“Technically, yeah.” Kanae sets her coffee cup down. At some point, she had washed the dye out of her hair, and it’s now the comforting auburn it’s always been. “From the Triads, I think. You said her name was I-Pin before you passed out, but you were pretty sloshed at that point. Fifty-fifty shot that’s what she’s really called, but for some reason none of them seemed inclined to argue with you.”
“Oh,” Yako pats her chest. “Thank God. That’s not too bad, for how drunk I was.”
Kanae picks up her cup and takes a deep drink.
Yako presses a hand over her eyes.
“It wasn’t any worse than Copenhagen,” Hayasaka Yukinori offers, raking a hand through his pale hair. His eyes are still and cautious behind his sunglasses, though, so it’s even odds as to whether or not he actually means that pathetic attempt at either consolation or mockery. If he does, though…
“Copenhagen?” Yako groans. “It can’t be in that league. I refuse to believe it.”
“You used somebody as a chair and had people buy you a bunch of drinks after I cut you off from your uncle’s card,” Akane tells her apologetically. “I lost track of you for about an hour, and after I got you away we met the little girl and… well. Sorry.”
“We’re finding an outlet for this,” Kanae declares. “I mean it. As soon as we’re back in Japan.”
Yako wants to object, really she does, but Drunk Yako has a history of doing a great many things in the span of a single hour, and she’s been ignoring those… proclivities for as long as she’s been aware of them. Something has got to give, and Kanae’s not the type to be easily dissuaded once she sets her mind to something. In the end, all she can say is, “I’m glad we thought ahead on the disguises.”
“You’ve done this frequently enough to create tactics,” Yukinori says flatly.
Yako tosses him an equally flat look, with a bland smile for good measure. “You framed me for a drug deal involving a literal truck and a half of cocaine when I was sixteen. And the other half was military-grade weaponry, hidden under the cocaine.”
He sips his coffee, glancing away.
Yeah. That always does the trick.
“Maybe don’t mention that ‘human-chair’ part to your uncle,” Kanae suggests dryly.
“The only thing he needs to know about last night is I-Pin,” Yako decides, tugging the fancy throw blanket up and tucking it around the little girl more securely. She nestles against Yako with a sleepy mumble, and there’s a damp drool-spot on the belly of her button-up shirt where she’s been using it as a pillow. Yako has already decided to bring the entire force of her own personal social currency and the borrowed reputation of Vongola to bear against anybody who tries to drag her into a life of crime at such an early age.
“You have an illness,” Kanae tells her.
“Shut up,” Yako suggests, pleasant as can be.
“You’re nineteen,” Kanae presses on. “It’s too early to be a nester. Stop collecting children.”
“I am not nesting,” Yako says, affronted at the very notion. “I haven’t been in the same city for more than two months at a time in three years.”
“I blink,” Kanae continues on, relentless, “and suddenly, oh, look at that! You’ve claimed another one.”
“Lies,” Yako lies.
“There was Mutsuki,” Kanae ticks off. “That other Chinese kid, a child genius and her weird tagalong nerd friend, an entire class of tiny, terrifyingly competent ballerinas—”
“—a churchful of Eastern European orphans—” Akane chips in, the cruelest and most unexpected of betrayals.
“—your baby cousin, all of his friends, the big sister of one of those friends—”
“Bianchi-chan is sixteen,” Yako protests. “…And also a hitman!” She adds hastily, as if an afterthought.
“Like that would stop you,” Kanae scoffs.
…it may have honestly been an afterthought.
“I suppose some things don’t change, even if reality does,” Yukinori muses.
Yako’s head snaps in his direction, her eyes narrowing.
“Yes,” Akane nods. “We confirmed it last night; the two of them remember it too.”
“Doesn’t surprise me that the monster went and broke the world,” Yukinori says.
“Allegedly,” Yako says, just to be contrary. It rubs her the wrong way, not being able to honestly defend Neuro, but the Hayasaka brothers aren’t the worst people to have in the know. She doesn’t have to explain the demon thing to them, at the very least.
“Allegedly,” he says, tilting his head with a smirk.
“I’m borrowing your shower,” she declares, carefully shifting her stolen toddler onto a thick, plush pillow and standing up. “Akane-chan, look after I-Pin if she wakes up while I’m gone, okay? I’ll give you a deep conditioning once we’re back at our place.”
“Hayasaka-kun, I’m raiding the wardrobe.”
“A literal truck and a half of cocaine.”
“…Nothing from my brother’s suitcase.”
It’s as good a deal as she’s going to get, so she takes it. Yukinori tends to favor trendier outfits than the elder Hayasaka anyways, so it’s not like she’s coming out worse for the minor capitulation. He’s also tall enough that a simple sleeveless zip-up shirt on him is big enough to be a short tunic on her. She flips it around and finds that there’s a hood attached, and privately decides to keep it forever. She makes her way into the bathroom, flips on the fan, gets the shower going, and then strips and curls into a ball in the tub, her face buried in her hands. She considers indulging in a good old-fashioned whine of despair, but reluctantly rules against it. There’s no telling if she can be quiet enough to escape the sharp ears of her closest friends and the Blackmarket dealer a few rooms away.
Kanae… isn’t wrong, technically. In times of great stress, Yako has a tendency to lock down when a child enters the picture. Colliding worlds, Neuro’s dimensional lock-out, a sudden whole new branch of her tiny family tree, the entire Mafia, the entire Mafia’s bizarre magical soul flames, the entire Mafia’s bizarre magical soul flame politics, Kawahira’s continuing tight-lipped bullshit mystique—
It’s… it’s a lot. They have seven years to basically nail down this new universe, which isn’t bad at all. That’s a lot of time, actually, especially since they’re hot on the trail of 33% of their possible methods for said cosmic maintenance work. 66%, technically, but she isn’t about to consider an artifact that turns people into infants when there are other options available. All the same, Yako has been keeping herself busy. She’s been keeping herself focused, on track, determined, because…
"What would you say if I told you I could more or less ensure the good health and survival of you and those dearest to you?”
Because it still feels like she has made a deal she can’t quite comprehend, for all that Kawahira implied that this would be necessary even if she hadn’t taken him up on his cryptic offer back in Sai’s clearing. And with a deal comes debt, and she wants that hypothetical debt cast off of the people dearest to her ASAP. She watches the dye start to wash out, dripping from her hair to the tub and swirling its way darkly towards the drain.
She scrubs at her scalp with the hotel’s shampoo—different from the one her cousin and the rest are staying at, she notes—and banishes the thoughts away the way she does every morning. It’s fine. It’s fine, they have years to work this out, and it’s entirely possible they’ll find a lead on the Mare Rings and not even have to meddle in Vongola politics any more than they have already. If she’s done nothing else, Yako thinks, at the very least she’s gotten her cousin some sorely needed extra time to sort out his own plans and priorities.
She emerges from the shower in a much better mood, and finds their littlest guest awake and bouncing on Akane’s lap, conversing in rapid Mandarin. The little girl’s face lights up when she sees Yako, and she hops off and toddles over. She offers up a plate of… dumplings, which Yako immediately eats.
“Hǎochī!” Yako compliments her, rubbing her little head with a delighted smile. “Poisoned,” she tells the rest of the room.
“Pay up,” Kanae tells Yukinori, who grudgingly forks over a small fold of bills.
It’s going to be a good day, Yako decides, hefting the little girl onto her hip and heading for the kitchenette.
Hayasaka Hisanori enters the suite, a tray of coffee in hand and his wide, unreadable smile firmly in place. “Katsuragi,” he greets, as his cat slinks over to rub his face all over previously pristine black slacks. “What’s this I hear about you and the mafia?”
…It’s going to be one of those days, she reluctantly admits, and snags one of the cups with her free hand. “It’s a long story,” she says. “But now’s as good a time as any, I guess.”
It's been a while, hasn't it? Well, things are moving forward now, aren't they! Since I'm sure people will eventually ask, no, Higuchi is not a Rain Flame user. He's Lightning, like Mutsuki, and has approximately zero chance in beating her out as a candidate.
Chapter 8: famiglia matters
With a morning like that, how else could the day go?
“I can’t even be surprised,” Hayasaka says, knocking his coffee back like a shot. It’s even-odds as to whether or not it’s a regular brew sloshing around in his sleek travel mug, or if, indeed, there is a shot of something other than espresso mixed in. All of the coffees on the tray he had ferried in were for her, a firm, long-established trade in which she got four cups and not a drop more, on his dime. They’ve done enough business in the past few years for the understanding to pass, unspoken. “This isn’t even the strangest connection you’ve had to date.” Hayasaka muses. “At least they’re human.”
Yako has not told them about the Vongola Rings, for multiple reasons. First and foremost is, of course, I-Pin’s presence in the suite; the little girl is at minimum passingly bilingual. There’s no telling just how much she could comprehend, especially if she has hitman training anything like Lambo does. That little boy is… enthusiastic, in many ways, but he’s also crafty and not above blackmail, as Godai has found out firsthand.
I-Pin can’t use or accidentally repeat what she never hears, is part of Yako’s reasoning.
The other part is that like hell is Yako about to consider putting a politically priceless token of criminal power into the hands of either of the Hayasaka brothers, period. She has other options. In the event that Higuchi is not a Rain Flame user, she will personally track down his corresponding Mare Ring and put it on his finger herself to double up on an alignment. Kawahira has only said that seven connections had to be made out of the total twenty-one pieces, after all, and she may have started to take it a little personally that she can’t find so much as a whisper about the last third of the Tri-ni-sette.
She’s going to find those stupid rings even if they never end up needing them, at this point.
“Well, that part could be debated,” Kanae muses. “I mean, these Vindice guys I’ve heard about might actually be zombie monsters, and Yako found out the other day that they owe her a favor in this world, apparently. They checked to see if she’s ready to cash in a day or two ago. It makes sense that they don’t like to be in anyone’s debt, I guess.”
“What?” Her friend gives her a stern glance. “Guys like them need to remember not to mess with you, Yako. For all you know they could turn around and try to blackmail you with this stuff.”
“They already tried something like that once, and it ended in fire,” Yako explains patiently. “Lots and lots of fire.” Two trucks of guns and hard drugs had served as the literal and metaphorical kindling for all that fire. “Also, I’m about eighty percent sure Uncle Iemitsu would paint the walls with anyone who tried, at this point.”
“You always have such a way with words, Katsuragi,” Hayasaka says mildly.
Yukinori glares at Kanae, arms folded tightly across his chest. “We have a working relationship with her,” he bites out. “You think we’re going to blow a three-year investment, just like that?”
“A three-year investment built on a truck and a half of cocaine,” is all Kanae says as she sets down her empty cup.
Yako, whose cups have long since runneth dry, immediately stands up. “It’s okay, Kanae,” she says brightly. “There’s no need to mince words with them. In the end, they’ll just take the side that’s most profitable to them. And so far I’ve proven to be highly profitable.” She smiles, sweet and unyielding, at all of them. Yukinori and Kanae look away. Hayasaka’s own smile doesn’t so much as twitch, his eyes unreadable as ever behind his dark, reflective glasses. “On that note, we should probably get going. We have a very important conference call to catch, at some point today.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Hayasaka says, as if she had been a highly expected guest who would be missed instead of a surprise couch-crasher. “Yuki, remember to keep a civil tongue around unworldly young ladies like Katsuragi’s friend in the future, won’t you? It’s unseemly.”
Kanae looks, from what Yako knows of her habits and tendencies, to be approximately five seconds away from throwing her empty cup at one of the brothers’ heads for the thinly veiled insult.
“Your uncle texted you twice and Godai called once while we were asleep,” Akane relays, dutifully tapping away at their shared phone and disrupting the mounting passive-aggressive tension. Yako is so blessed to have such competent and focused secretary, she truly is. “I’ve let them know we’re fine, but that we have an unexpected plus one. Ah, Godai says there’s something new about our situation he needs to discuss with us, when we have the time.”
‘Akane-kun’ is still on the scene because that seems to be the form that I-Pin is most comfortable with, so he stands up with the little girl perched in the crook of one arm. Akane fishes out a pair of flats for Kanae from their tote bag as they all head for the door, and receives her heels to tuck away in their place. Yako tosses him her old shirt and squirms back into her boots, tugging them up her thighs with a few dainty plucks here and there.
“Sounds good to me,” she says. Kanae, bless her, has found Antonino’s brother’s old fedora and is now wearing it for safe-keeping. She’s also wearing Yako’s sunglasses, because her poor friend has never dealt with hangovers anywhere near as mildly as Yako has. “Thank you for the hospitality, Hayasaka-kun, Hayasaka-san. I’ll make time for a proper conversation, once we’re all back in Japan. I’m sure you still have… questions.”
“That’s a word for it,” Hayasaka says, still smiling. Always, always smiling.
“There’s a man I can put you into contact with,” she assures him, and her heart warms at the very thought of the Hayasaka brothers pinning down that damnably vague snake Kawahira to get a straight answer. “Ring me up when you’re home, and we’ll hash it out.” She kisses her fingertips and wiggles them at the cat nestled on top of the couch, watching them all with marked disinterest. “Bye-bye, Kingpin! I’ll bring treats, next time.”
She gets a tiny tail-flick for her troubles, before the door shuts behind them.
“I’m sure she’s fine, Tsuna,” Yamamoto reassures him. It’s about the third time he’s done it since they started eating breakfast in the same conference room they were in yesterday, but it’s no more help than the first two times were.
“Yeah, T-…Tsuna-sama, I’ve heard Katsuragi-sama has gotten out of all sorts of situations before.” Gokudera is also doing his best, in various ways, but it’s to little avail.
“You’re right,” Tsuna says yet again. And they are right. It just doesn’t help the general chokehold of anxiety wrapped tight around his throat. It would help, he thinks, if his dad said it; if his dad happened to be here too. Instead, one of his co-workers is looking after them as they munch through food Tsuna isn’t even tasting at the moment. Dad and Reborn are apparently tied up waiting on another co-worker to show up, and Lambo had apparently been taken aside by a cousin or uncle of his for some important ‘Famiglia Talk’ early on yesterday.
Godai is busy elsewhere, Mutsuki is seated across the table and tapping away at her cellphone, the serial killer—terrifyingly—disappeared shortly after his cousin did last night, and…
“Not much keeps her down,” says Aya Asia, the world-famous singer, songwriter, and convicted murderess, elegantly sipping at a teacup. “And even less keeps her away from a free meal, if you’ll forgive a bit of teasing on my part. She should be here soon.”
“Big Sis hasn’t seen much of Kagohara-san either, lately,” Mutsuki finally deigns to respond, not looking at him. “But, Akane-san will keep them on track no matter what.”
“Unless they found a bathhouse,” says the murderess with palpable, fond amusement.
“…True.” Mutsuki nods. “Akane-san could spend a whole day with Big Sis in the bath.”
Tsuna wheezes through the bite of muffin he just accidentally inhaled. His brain jams like an overfed printer, refusing to process those words in that order.
“Are you quite alright?” Aya Asia asks, leaning forward slightly.
“Fine,” Tsuna croaks out, taking a hard swig of his juice.
Mercifully, before the woman could say something else, or worse, try to initiate a conversation, the door to the conference room swings open and Dad and Reborn walk in. Unmercifully, three new babies stroll in as well. Something yawning and horrific begins to crack open in Tsuna’s stomach.
There’s more of him.
It’s official. Tsuna hates Mafia Land.
“Tsuna!” Dad ruffles his hair and leans forward to grab a muffin. “Good to see you up and about. You boys have fun last night?”
Tsuna takes a minute to recall his late-night bathroom panic attack as events finally caught up with him, and the pillow fight that followed as his friends sought to lighten the mood.
“Yeah,” he says. “We sure… sure did. Dad, where’s Yako-nee?”
“The eternal question,” he hears Mutsuki mumble under her breath.
He sees Dad’s smile waver for a moment, before brightening again. “She and her little friends are on their way,” he assures the room at large. “They got a late start this morning. Your cousin apparently… ran into some colleagues of hers, last night, and was a bit busy… catching up.” His tone is halting, but sincere. Tsuna knows what it sounds like when he lies.
“Colleagues,” Tsuna parrots back tonelessly.
“She probably has at least three friends inside already,” her friend had said yesterday. Tsuna hadn’t been sure whether or not she was being flippant, but what little hope he had been nursing on the subject promptly withers away.
“You can interrogate your cousin when she gets here, Tsunayoshi,” Reborn says as he hops onto the conference table. His big glassy pacifier is glowing, as are the ones on the rest of his diminutive cohort.
“I’m looking forward to meeting her myself,” says one of the babies. He’s dressed in red, and there is a forebodingly Hibari sort of cast to his chubby little face. The familiar claws of creeping doom start to prickle at the pit of Tsuna’s stomach, but he takes a moment to feel intensely grateful that Hibari-senpai himself had opted to sleep in today. Kusakabe, staring at the infant and impassively sipping his tea, possibly feels the same way.
Tsuna isn’t going to ask.
“Iemoron should have introduced us ages ago,” is the cold commentary from the only… Tsuna isn’t going to call her a girl, because she looks tough and scarred and willing to punch Tsuna in the face for even thinking it. The only female probably-not-really-a-baby.
“Big Sis has been pretty busy for the last couple years,” Mutsuki interjects. “It would have been pretty hard to make the schedules work.” She sipped at her juice with a little shrug. “I don’t blame you for being curious, though! Everybody likes making friends with Big Sis.”
“Holy shit, kora. That is literally Aya Asia,” says the last probably-not-really-a-baby, staring straight at the ex-convict in question.
She laughs, soft and bright. “A fan, I take it?”
“I had tickets for your scheduled concert in Lisbon, kora!”
“Oh my. I certainly hope you were properly refunded.”
Tsuna rubs his face, unable to tune out her attractive, lyrical voice despite his most desperate attempts. The door opening at that point feels like salvation, until he looks up.
“Morning!” Yako greets them brightly. Her hair is still shower-damp, she’s wearing a man’s sleeveless hoodie and the longest pair of boots Tsuna has ever seen, and there’s an actual small child balanced on her hip. “Sorry we’re late, last night got a little out of hand.” The child, Tsuna notes numbly, is dressed almost identically to the horrifying Hibari-Reborn mashup standing on the table, right down to the way their hair is braided. Behind her, her friend Kanae is squinting at all of them in a sparkly dress, fedora, and sunglasses, and Akane is also dressed like something out of a kung-fu film, for reasons that escape Tsuna.
For a moment, there is silence.
“Oh,” says Yako, taking stock of her audience. “Looks like Reborn brought some friends along today. Hello! I’m Katsuragi Yako, nice to meet you.”
“…Fon,” says the blond ‘friend’ previously focused on Aya Asia. “Fon, is that your kid?”
“Shifu!” The actual small child in his cousin’s arms cries, beaming.
“…Why so it is!” Fon, the Hibari-esque one, replies, smiling in a way that makes him look distinctly less like Hibari-senpai and distinctly more like Akane. “Miss Katsuragi, I can't thank you enough, I've been looking for my student for quite some time—”
“Not that one,” the surly blond one interrupts, for clarity’s sake.
“She was with the Triads,” his cousin says at the same time, her smile serene and her voice soft. Warning sirens blare in Tsuna’s head, but the second coming of Nezu’s downfall never manifests; instead, she kneels to let the child down. The little girl promptly leaps onto the table and nestles into Fon’s embrace, bouncing slightly with excitement as she babbles in a language Tsuna can’t follow, at a speed only Lambo or another actual child under the age of six might be able to rival.
“Is the boy in there?” Akane says, still mostly out of view of the doorframe.
“No,” Yako says honestly, something like chagrinned amusement on her face as she looks at Fon. “Kyouya-kun isn’t in here yet.”
Tsuna’s brain pulls off another quick rebellion at the sound of Hibari-senpai’s given name coming out of his cousin’s mouth. The mental revolution never sleeps, these days, but Tsuna has long since become exhausted from the strain of his own self-denial.
“…Ah,” says Akane, finally ducking into the room and properly seeing the punchline of this cosmic joke. “…You aren’t about to chase me around the building trying to attack me too, are you?”
“Not today,” says Fon with good cheer. It feels sincere. Pointedly so. “But, I’ll have your name, if only to thank you for I-Pin’s safe return.”
“Akane,” the secretary says simply.
“Fon,” says the other, with a short nod. “And these are my colleagues, Colonello,” he gestures to the blond, “and Lal Mirch.”
Tsuna is pathetically grateful to have an alternative for ‘female probably-not-really-a-baby,’ even if he never uses it to her face.
“I work with your idiot uncle,” is Lal Mirch’s introduction of choice.
“I’m contracted here at Mafia Land, kora,” adds Colonello.
“It’s nice to meet you all,” Yako says, which prompts the rest of the room to formally introduce itself to one another, for the benefit of the tiny new arrivals.
“Dad said you met up with some friends,” Tsuna mentioned, once they were all seated and Yako had begun to demolish the luxurious breakfast spread. “What are they, um…” Tsuna isn’t actually sure he wants to know, but it seems as though his mouth has started rebelling too. “Who were they?”
“Mmph,” she raises a finger in the universal sign for ‘wait’ and digs, one-handed, through the large tote bag Akane carries everywhere for her. She chews her mouthful of food thoughtfully as she leafs through the fistful of business cards she comes up with, until she apparently finds what she wants and passes it over to him.
SPICE IMPORT / WHOLESALE
“I guess you could call them the heads of a trading company,” she says, after swallowing. “They deal in… everything and anything, really.”
“You’re acquainted with the Hayasaka brothers,” Reborn notes from his perch on Tsuna’s head. “Interesting.” It’s the first thing he has said since his cousin entered the room.
“I had a very eventful first year on the job,” Yako says. Across the table, Aya Asia and Mutsuki share a fond look at the massive understatement.
“On the subject of acquisitions, I can’t help but notice your hat,” Reborn remarks, turning to Kanae and touching the brim of his own. “It’s fine work. May I know where you purchased it?”
“Ask Yako,” Kanae deflects, inhaling what has to be her second cup of coffee since sitting down. “She got it from the love of her life.”
“It’s on loan from a dear friend of mine,” Yako corrects her, shifting in her chair. Kanae briefly stiffens, as though somebody has just kicked her square in the ankle. “Same as Akane-chan’s outfit. Antonino’s brother used to be a traveling actor, and he collected all sorts of clothes. There’s a whole storage unit of things like that just gathering dust back in France.”
“And ‘Antonino’ would be…” Reborn prompts, probably running a mental cross-reference of every criminal he has ever met under that name.
“The love of Yako’s life,” Kanae repeats.
“A chef,” Yako says firmly, rolling her eyes. “A very good chef, and an even better friend.”
“Oh,” says Tsuna, a connection sparking in his head. “Is this the one that taught you how to make biscotti?”
“That’s him,” Yako agrees. “He’s the best.” Her gaze is warm and soft, now, and trained on some fond memory Tsuna isn’t privy to. It makes something in his gut churn uneasily.
“Why did you need costumes?” Yamamoto asks, munching on his toast.
“Idiot!” Gokudera snaps. “Katsuragi-sama is a public figure! We’re supposed to be keeping a low-profile, remember?!”
“The girls colored their hair last night, too,” Dad mentions, pulling down a projector screen and tapping away at his laptop. “Ah, it looks like the Ninth is just about ready to get started, we should either pause or finish eating.”
Fon and the other two babies filter out of the room, with soft, terrifying promises to catch up later. I-Pin hops up to bow her good-byes to his cousin and company, then scampers after them.
Yako waves her off, and settles back in her chair. The platter of food is about half a meter closer to her than it was previously. Tsuna feels comfortable enough in his limited but ever-expanding knowledge of her to assume it won’t survive to the end of the meet-and-greet. Kanae murmurs something under her breath that merits a soft huff of laughter from his cousin, but they fall silent as the projector and camera flicker to life. A cheery, rhythmic tune plays as the video call attempts to connect.
Tsuna expects a lot of things from Vongola Nono. The man has been a shadowy, ominous, and increasingly sinister figure looming in the wilds of Tsuna’s imagination, growing increasingly sinister and more monstrous with every new lesson Reborn tries to hammer home. He has a vague certainty that the man should be not unlike a classical Yakuza, with bulging muscles and tattoos and various scars from his very dangerous and very illegal life of crime. Because he’s a criminal. A mob boss. The de facto king of Europe’s seedy underbelly.
But—and this point cannot be stressed enough—this is Tsuna’s life.
So of course, when the video connects, what Tsuna actually gets to see is a svelte, dapper old gentleman.
Wearing a sweater-vest. It looks softer and more expensive than anything Tsuna has ever even dreamed of touching. The crisp white shirt and burgundy tie beneath it look sharp enough to offset that softness, and there’s a nonzero chance those shiny braided buttons down the front are actual gold, but still. It’s a sweater-vest.
Tsuna feels inexplicably robbed, which is just, so crazy, but that’s… that’s his life. That’s just how it goes now.
“Tsunayoshi Sawada and Yako Katsuragi, I presume?” The man—mobster—doesn’t quite hit all the right notes to make that a proper question, but his eyes are warm and cloaked in laugh lines. Against Tsuna’s every better judgement, he finds himself naturally inclined to like the Vongola Nono. Something about him is inexplicably familiar.
But, again, the inexplicable is now just a staple in his life. Tsuna ignores it.
“Yes.” Dad says, short and in a lax-sort-of-stiff posture Tsuna can’t ever remember seeing him in. …Mostly. It feels familiar, but Tsuna’s already written the day off. One more thing to the list of things he’s ignoring, that’s all it is.
“A pleasure to meet you both,” Nono says, his eyes so gentle, his voice so deep and soft. For a moment, Tsuna looks at the tan, wrinkled hands folded over his sweater-vest and inexplicably can imagine one of them patting his head, just as gently. “It’s always a joy to welcome more into our Famiglia.”
Ignored. Ignored. Ignored, Tsuna thinks, so far into denial he’s staring to hit zen. None of this is getting remembered.
He can feel Reborn’s gaze burning into the side of his brain, but for once his tutor can’t do anything. Not in front of his Boss.
Not in front of Yako.
Tsuna takes a moment to revel in the rare, doubtlessly fleeting pleasure of being smug at Reborn’s expense.
“Charmed,” Yako says, bright and honest beside him. She pauses, and her face falls a little.
Because this is Tsuna’s misbegotten life, Yako continues talking and sends his stalwart rejection of reality crashing down around his ears.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Timoteo-san,” she says. Her eyes are big, and dark, and she’s not even touching the breakfast tray any more. Her voice is soft and earnest. “I know this situation can’t be easy for you.”
Shamefully, it takes Tsuna a moment to figure out what she means.
Then it hits him, all at once, because Nono’s eyes go dark, not like a shuttered window but like cloth pulling away to reveal an old bruise. There’s something even more familiar in his face and shoulders now, something not inexplicable, something absolutely explicable because Tsuna can never forget the last time he saw it. Can’t forget the scent of sandalwood and myrrh, can’t forget that aching, wounded look, just beneath the surface. Can’t forget his dad gasping out his uncle’s name, a fist clenched in his own tie so tightly the knuckles turned white beneath his tan.
Tsuna has decided to ignore a lot of things to the best of his ability, since Reborn crash-landed into his life. A lot of things. Three of the oldest things rise up now, despite his guiltiest, most desperate wishes.
“The most qualified of the Tenth Generation, Enrico, was shot in a feud.”
There had been pictures.
“The younger second choice, Massimo, was drowned.”
At the time, mixed in with the initial shock of it all, it had been easy to dismiss them as props. None of it had seemed real, not even with his first, traumatic Dying Will experience just a few terrifying moments earlier.
“The favorite child, Federico, was found reduced to bone.”
But it was real, wasn’t it? …It is real. Those pictures… those corpses had been this mobster’s—this man’s—children. The only reason Tsuna and his cousin are even being considered as heirs is because the current head of Vongola has already buried his own sons.
Nono and Yako look at each other for a long, silent moment. Tsuna only realizes he has gripped her hand when she glances at him and squeezes back. He thinks he sees one of Kanae’s hands draped over her other shoulder.
She isn’t smiling anymore. Her face is… he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know how to describe it, but it makes his chest feel hollow and ache. It also reminds him of the night his dad had to deal with saying goodbye to hers. Tsuna tries vainly not to think about it too hard, because if he does he’s almost certain he’s going to end up crying.
“Thank you, my dear,” Nono says just then, fortunately getting them back on track. His smile is a bit smaller now, a bit softer, and so is Yako’s. Tsuna can breathe again.
He doesn’t let go of Yako’s hand. He thinks that might have something to do with why Nono’s smile gradually returns to its previous size.
This man is a murderer, Tsuna tells himself. This man is a murderer, and a criminal. A mob boss. The Mob Boss, the de facto king of Europe’s seedy underbelly. But all the same, now Tsuna can’t stop himself from wondering if there was ever anybody to sit out on the porch with him, after the funerals.
Somehow, Tsuna thinks, as Nono’s soft, dapper voice begins to outline a story about a boy in the slums of Italy a few hundred years ago, somehow, Tsuna is pretty sure there wasn’t.
He only realizes his grip has tightened again when she squeezes back once more, neither of them looking away from the screen.
His niece is a little bit of a monster, Iemitsu finally has to admit. It’s a sour, prickling thought, and he probes at it with all the gingerness of a sore tooth. It’s not that she has done anything wrong, really; if anything, it’s the exact opposite. She’s charming and kind. Smart and determined. Young and healthy. Sweet and willing to negotiate.
He is now very, very relieved it will be years before she and Tsuna duke it out for the title.
He still chafes at the thought either of them taking up the mantle—his son, his son, his boy, Nana’s eyes, Sei’s girl, Sei’s eyes—and worse still, Nono now knows their faces. Tsuna had been a little boy, barely worth noting, the last time around; this time, they both had the entirety of the Boss’s interest. Of the two of them, Yako is settled in her skin, dangerously charismatic, and unsettlingly well-connected to the criminal underworld already. Tsuna, conversely, has the most room for growth; he’s still fumbling his way through the start of his teenage years, and that makes him malleable.
Iemitsu doesn’t like thinking that about his own son, but it’s what he would assess if it were someone else’s son. It hadn’t been nearly so difficult to assess Nono’s sons, for example, the way a properly disconnected, loyal External Advisor was supposed to do.
Nono is an old man, who has lost four sons and three heirs in the span of a decade. If Iemitsu was properly disconnected, he would lean towards the mature, ready-to-rule option on the table. When presented with their possible duties, Yako showed interest and Tsuna showed fear. She’s Sawada Satoko’s first-born son’s only child: the eldest of her tiny generation. She has proven she can keep a cool head in a foreign country, in a negotiation, even in a situation where her life is in peril. If she wasn’t so famous, if she wasn’t so broadly well-connected across both sides of the legal fence, it would be an open and shut choice.
Iemitsu is still unspeakably relieved and hideously sickened by the fact that it isn’t.
“Ah, looks like he’s done,” says the girl in question, as her secretary taps her on the shoulder and lifts up the cellphone. For all that it belongs to his niece, it seems to be more or less fused to Akane more often than not. And Akane never seems to be far from Yako at all, keeping up with her with the same steadfast, hawk-eyed efficiency of committed professional bodyguards.
…Speaking of that.
“Who’s done with what?” Tsuna asks.
“Godai-san, I assume,” Iemitsu cuts in cheerfully. “I introduced him to a possible Guardian candidate, to keep the scales evened out between you two. I believe they were meeting in one of the nearby bars earlier today.”
The candidate is a brutally efficient man, who terrorized his way through Japan’s criminal underbelly before striking out abroad. He’s a man on a mission, hunting for answers. He’s a troubled man, a man with every reason to want Yako’s aid and—more importantly—continued good health. He’s a figure that strikes fear into the hearts of countless information brokers the world over.
Iemitsu almost feels a bit bad, like tossing fresh meat to a hungry beast. Considering his niece’s track record, he’s willing to bet she’ll have him on his knees and in tears in under a minute.
“…Yes.” Akane says slowly. They tap the tabletop, eyes drifting away from Yako. “Yes, he said as much earlier when I spoke with him. There were… certain elements he wanted to investigate, before properly introducing him to you, Yako.”
Iemitsu approves, but something about Akane’s demeanor is setting off bells in his head. There’s a strange sort of delicacy in their soft, husky voice.
“They’re heading over now,” Yako chips in, smiling just the same as ever. She gives Tsuna a lingering squeeze and finally lets go of his hand, smoothing down her borrowed hoodie. Iemitsu very firmly does not contemplate about who she happens to be borrowing it from, because she is an adult woman who went out drinking last night. He doubts there are any answers to that question that he will honestly like, and he wouldn’t be a Sawada if he couldn’t compartmentalize and valiantly reject mental tangents of that nature.
“What’s their name?” Aizawa asks, idly stirring her fresh cappuccino. “Occupation?”
“We’ll be meeting in a moment,” Akane cuts in. Iemitsu feels his eyes narrow. “So—”
The door opens.
Iemitsu would have to turn to see the man enter, but his gaze is arrested by the sight of his niece’s face freezing in its normal, pleasant smile. He sees the color drain from her face, sees her eyes go wide, and glossy. She sucks in a ragged, wounded little gasp and a few tears well over and trickle down her cheeks. She doesn’t seem to realize that they’re there.
“…Did I come at a bad time?” His referral stares back, bewildered. The renowned gun for hire tugs at his black gloves, and glances over at his shoulder to Godai for direction.
It leaves him open to the unnaturally long leg that snaps into his side with all the elasticity of a whip. Sai, no longer in the guise of Miyasako Mutsuki, scowls up at the mercenary with thunderous disapproval.
“Don’t you dare make Katsuragi Yako cry,” the thing glowers. “That’s my job. I work hard at it.”
Against all odds, this seems to jar his niece back into the moment. It startles a laugh out of her and she quickly wipes her cheeks.
“…Sorry,” she says, waving Tsuna’s look of startled concern away. “My apologies, S… Sasazuka-san.” She takes a deep breath, and meets the man’s eyes, as though he doesn’t have a gun trained directly at the temple of one of her avowed Guardian candidates. “You… you look a lot like somebody I used to know, years ago. It startled me.”
Kawahira is in for a whoooole lot of yelling, after this.