Disclaimer: Not mine.
"Look, your friend is missing right?"
Tsuna's heart leaped to his mouth and he steadied himself against the door from collapsing.
"I know where he is! But you have to let me in. You have to let me in, now!"
Tsuna threw the door open, ignoring the million warning bells in his head, ignoring the tell-tale shiver up his spine. The man knew where Xanxus was. This was enough for Tsuna, enough for him to bolster his courage and open the door.
A man with impossibly long silver hair tumbled in and beyond, Tsuna caught a glimpse of the pier, its planks hurtling into the air, one by one as if something giant was swimming underneath. Tsuna stood there shocked and the man closed the door with his boot.
The stranger started to climb to his feet.
The man was wringing the strands of his hair. "Thank god you let me in," the man said. "Else I'd be fish-food."
Tsuna shook his head and demanded, "Where is Xanxus?"
"Name's Ego," said the man, blithely ignoring him. "Your name, right?" Ego continued, eyes keenly blue. "Something about fish."
Tsuna stared at him, mutely, knowing somehow he wasn't supposed to give his name to this man. His skin was prickling. Something was wrong about this man. Something very wrong. This man, in a sleek leather coat held together by four belts across the chest, slouched as if to hide his entire frame in his coat. His slacks came down to the floor and two marred leather shoes peaked out from underneath. His white gloves stretched over pianist' fingers, tapping and dancing in the air in gestures. And there was his hair. It was such a bizarre color. Silver! Like an old man's but shinier.
And the heart of the matter, how did Ego know?
Tsuna reached out with his right hand, a little flustered. "You can call me…Rabbit."
Ego guffawed loudly and Tsuna's cheeks reddened even more. It had been a stupid nickname by his mother, a long long time ago when she still told fairy tales to him at night. Why had it slipped out? Then Ego started to shove him. "Quickly, we need to go."
"Eh? Why? Where is Xanxus? How do you—"
Ego slashed his hand in the air, cutting Tsuna off. "No time for questions, Rabbit. Time to go. We'll be late. The troll king dislikes tardiness."
"I promise." Ego's blue eyes drilled down into his own. "I promise, I'll explain it to you on the way there. I promise I'll take you to your Xanxus. I promise that Xanxus is right now the safest bastard that there is in this whole stinking place."
Tsuna stared back and then nodded. Ego grabbed his wrist.
He turned back to the door he'd slammed shut and turned the knob. Tsuna began to panic, remembering the pier but Ego ignored him, turning the knob…once, twice…thrice. Three whole turns, three whole rotations the knob made. There was a click as the final circle was finished. And Ego pushed the door out into a darkened hallway, lit by candles in crevices in the wall. Ego stepped down here and water splashed around his ankles. This hallway was a couple of inches lower than the house and seemed to be flooded with water.
Tsuna followed, his hands cold with sweat.
Through the hallway, trying to keep pace with the agitated Ego, Tsuna listened to his companion.
Your Xanxus…has been stolen, and no—don't worry. As I said, he's fine right now. The troll king…will help you get him back, for a price, Ego said. He was fiddling with something inside his coat and then he took it out and put it on his face.
It was a mask, bone-white, with a box-like jaw that seemed to dominate his face now. Ego fixed it into place and turned back to Tsuna. So, how does it look?
It's fine, Tsuna said in a faint voice. He did not say that it made Ego look hungry.
Anyway, Ego continued, you'll be fine—
Why was Xanxus stolen? Tsuna asked.
Ego paused at this. In a careful voice he said, I don't know. Most likely, he was still outside when the sun went down.
Tsuna wondered at the man's voice. He thought to himself, you're keeping something from me. And it's something important that I need.
L-listen, Rabbit. The man stuttered as they came to the end, the open mouth of a cave at the end of the hallway. Outside, Tsuna could see that the rain had stopped. Ego lifted a hand to his mask, his index pointed upwards while the rest stayed curled into a fist. He tapped it against his mask. Beware the troll king, the maker of masks, he said.
Outside, you'll find the troll king's court and his highness himself, seated on the top. Bow down to him, Rabbit. He is a selfish one...Ego said with a vaguely ill tone.
They stepped out onto marshland. Tall soft reeds reached up to his knees and drowsy fireflies glided around them, their reflections on the water dragging along. And a little further from the cave that they'd stepped out, was a church roof sticking out of water and mud. It was tilted sideways on the ground and several other people wearing the same jarring white masks sat on it in clusters, whispering. All of their heads was angled towards them, masks giggling and talking in soft voices. There were different designs, some with strange protrusions at the cheeks and others with elongated noses or chins.
Tsuna looked back at the cave, the end of the hallway. A small hill of soil formed the walls of the hallway. Behind it, Tsuna could see the tiny outline of the wooden house. They were on the other side, then…the other side of the lake.
Ego strode forward, with his hand tightly gripping Tsuna's.
And there, on top of a broken bell tower, sitting like a royal, was Xanxus.
Tsuna felt his breath hitch, felt himself tense to run, to tackle his lover and Ego pulled harshly on his wrist.
Your majesty, may I present to you, Rabbit, Ego said while bowing down, pulling on Tsuna to his knees as well.
Tsuna peeked through his bangs at his lover, his chest constricting his beating heart. And then he saw the crown, atop his lover's head and he realized it wasn't Xanxus. It was the troll king, the only one in his court who did not wear a mask. Tsuna tried looking for differences between him and his lover and after a few seconds, gave up. They were physically identical, the two of them. This king had the same slanted cruel eyes, the same arrogant nose in the air. This king had the same wide shoulders and predatory grace. And the scarring…the scars from all those burns…it was exactly the same. But Tsuna knew a terrible certainty in him, like bones clicking into place or teeth clenching, this one…was not Xanxus.
The not-Xanxus made a hand motion, gesturing them to rise.
They did so and the king jumped down from his perch to lope towards them. A small swarm of fireflies trailed after him, swirling behind him, some nesting in his clothes.
So, it is the dweller on the lake, the king said. He dismissed Ego with a wave of his left hand and the man complied, disappearing into the gathering crowd around them.
Tsuna dipped his head in agreement. Yes…your majesty.
You've come because of your Xanxus then, the king said, while walking around him, appraising his shivering form.
The king stopped in front of him and said, A price, I'll set on this. Before the sun rises, three tasks you'll do for me. Agreed?
Throughout the court, the grandfather clock chimed eleven beats.
A troop of goblins have stolen something of mine. A set of keys, you'll retrieve. They've taken residence near the well in the woods.
The well, Tsuna thought. There isn't a well near here. I haven't seen a well, driving to this place. It must be a bit farther off the road. And that left…practically a hundred acres still to look into. A well, Tsuna thought. And two hours had already passed. Hadn't he looked at a map of this place before? But, for the life of him, he couldn't remember a well anywhere near the wooden house. This was going to be impossible—
-it's impossible! Tsuna-chan, he's older than you by eight years! Eight years, damn it. Don't you think that…he could be just using you? You're just fresh off college; you don't know what love is! And his temper, god…Gokudera's voice trailed off, fists white from clenching.
Yamamoto piped in, putting his hand on Gokudera's shoulder in support, Tsuna, I know you don't really want to hear this…But Xanxus is a bit…aggressive. And you're too…nice. We think that sometimes, he…well…
…treats you like a goddamn doormat, is what he does, Gokudera said darkly. He's fucking spoiled, he never…
Yamamoto tightened his grasp on Gokudera, stopping his tirade. Tsuna, we think that…ever since Nana died…you've been too dependent on Xanxus. You…sometimes, let him do whatever he wants…and you never stand up to him—
-Tsuna swallowed something heavy in his throat. He could do this. He could save Xanxus, without anyone's help. All he needed to do was to follow the troll king's requests. That was all. Xanxus was safe, as long as Tsuna did what the troll king told him to do. It would be okay. Tsuna wondered why it felt as if he was lying to himself.
And then Tsuna heard it, the garbled sounds of laughter and talking, deep and gravelly. It sounded as if teeth were chewing on rocks and sand. Tsuna hurried faster to the sounds and he walked right into a clearing full of goblins.
There was about a dozen of them, all watching and laughing at the three playing…jump-rope in the middle. They all had beady black eyes and short corpulent bodies. And they had horns! Some were huge and ringed with black, others short and curling. And their voices, it grated on the ear, as if they were all sneering in contempt. Tsuna couldn't understand any of the words they said. And the three playing jump-rope…they were using a heavy, rusted chain, and Tsuna winced at the dark stains on it. It swung in the air with a heavy whistling and Tsuna immediately realized it could hurt, badly.
And it was the right troop of goblins, because right behind the three players was the well.
One of them jumped in front of him and gabbled in quick short bursts.
Tsuna didn't understand at all but strange words popped into his head, lo and behold, it is the troll king's toy!
The crowd laughed in unison, and Tsuna flushed, you…what do you mean?
The goblin who spoke, shook his head in pity and continued with his strange language that seemed to only make sense in Tsuna's head. You want those keys? You'll play with us, then. You'll jump the chain for a hundred times and if you don't miss, well, you'll get them keys.
And the crowd laughed again at this.
Tsuna looked at the chain they'd been using and shuddered. Unwieldy links of bronze and the whole thing seemed to have come right out of a torture dungeon. And he was right, because at the ends of that chain, were two manacles. He nodded yes and they started.
It was a very curious game. Tsuna jumped up and down, avoiding the grave sway of the chain. Sometimes the two goblins that held the manacle ends would slow down their rhythm and then speed up quite quickly, almost ruining Tsuna's jumping. But they never did it completely, as Tsuna kept a close eye on the chain. And the others, the others in the crowd would boo and hiss in resentment and others still danced in front of him, hoping to distract him.
But they never did as Tsuna kept his resolve complete. And the hundredth was passed and they gave him the set of keys with bitter annoyance on their wrinkled cheeks.
And the goblin who spoke the first time, whispered to him again as the rest of his fellows had started to vanish into the maze of trees: Beware the troll king, the maker of masks. He tapped his face, reminiscent of the gesture Ego had made.
The second task, you'll do in your house. There is a locked blue door in the second tower on the left. Open it with one of my keys. Say not a word as you'll wake the seven sleepers. Fetch the silver needle.
The set of keys the goblins had gave him…it was the same keys for the wooden house. Their actual house key from the city with the black handle on it, the brass key for the wooden house, and the key to their old apartment with a sheen of patina on it, and Tsuna remembered that Xanxus had been cursing at the keys. Why had the troll king called them, his? They were Xanxus' keys. Maybe…
And Tsuna heard the third hour of the grandfather clock.
He hurried to the cave that led to his house, near the court of the king, which was empty. No trolls about.
Another good question was which of these three keys was to open the blue door. Tsuna didn't think he'd ever seen a blue door either. But then, he hadn't completely explored the house. Tsuna found himself stepping on water again through the flooded hallway.
It was a deep blue door, the kind of midnight blue one would see at the edges of night. Engraved on it, were scenes of a story, going from the left bottom side of the door and to the right bottom, going in an arc, so that the sequence touched the top part of the door. There were lines on each picture, lines telling a story. Once upon a time, there was a troll king who demanded three drops of blood for sacrifice…It was his right, his toll and tax on his people. He was a selfish king, the maker of their masks. And he was as heartless as stone could be…
At length, he found a child that had been abandoned by its mother. And it was a sickly child, dying of grief and sadness. But it was so very lovely that the troll king said unto it, I'll save thee…as long as three drops of blood, you'll give me. I'll save thee from the pain of life, from the terror of memories, as long as you'll pledge me those three drops of blood.
The boy shook his head. No, never will I give.
The troll king, incensed, asked again, Three drops of blood, just three.
The stubborn child said again, No, never.
The king asked once more, This time is the last, the last that I'll ask. Give me three drops, by your will. My kingdom is great, my magic shadows all. My power will raise thee from the depths of thy heartbreak. It is just three drops.
But the child died, without saying his reply.
And the king was robbed of his sacrifice.
Underneath the arc of pictures and lines of writing, there was a warning. Beware the troll king, the maker of masks.
It was the same warning given to Tsuna from Ego and that goblin. What did the three drops of blood mean? And why hadn't the king asked him three drops of blood? He'd only asked for three tasks. Was it even the same troll king? And why did he look so much like Xanxus?
Tsuna shook his head and decided he needed to finish this quickly. He inserted the first key, the one with the black handle. He tried turning it but the door knob didn't budge. He tried the second key, the brass one. Again, it didn't move. So, it was the third one, the one from their old apartment room in the building that had burned down—
He opened the door and bit his lip as he saw the room inside.
Seven bodies underneath seven white sheets lay on the beds. Tsuna could see the faint shadows of their eyes that was closed and the outlines of the ribs of their gaunt bodies, breathing softly, sleepily—
-Which one is it? the policeman asked. Xanxus gripped his left hand, and god, he was still in those bandages, still hurting from those burns and why hadn't they thought to check the other room, why had Nana stayed behind from the party in the other room without telling them and it was all Tsuna's fault and could he even tell which burnt body underneath the hospital sheets was his mother's—
And in the middle of the seven sleepers, on a desk, he could see the glint of the silver needle among other rusted needles. Around on the floor, heaps of cloth were scattered about, with bristles of hair still attached. They were different shades of brown, some light caramel, others to darker tanned. Tsuna's own hackles began to rise. That wasn't…cloth. Even the floor, he could see, was sticky with blood, some parts of it, crusted brown, others a vivid red. It was all leaking from those piles.
All the while, the seven breathed tenderly.
The smell was overpowering, like copper in his mouth. He tried not to gag and remembered the order from the king. Say not a word as you'll wake the seven sleepers. He closed his mouth and swallowed the bile rising up. He would not fail.
He walked gingerly towards the desk. And he picked up the needle, the silver needle among so many others that the king wanted so much. Even when it pierced his skin, his closed mouth did not utter the whimper of pain. And before the drops of blood could fall, he stuck the injured finger in his mouth again. They would not wake. He would not fail Xanxus…
He stepped towards the door, wanting to leave quickly.
He slipped on the floor, sticky with blood—
-he slipped and all around him, the fires roared higher and the smoke circled the room and Tsuna thought, he was going to die. He would die and never see Gokudera crack a joke or Yamamoto hit a home-run or Nana kiss him on the nose and Xanxus…The door flung open and there was Xanxus, looking wild and feral, and he wrapped a wet sheet around Tsuna and bodily carried him on his wide wide shoulder and Tsuna remembered his lover's skin had started to burn from the heat and he remembered the tears running down his cheeks because Xanxus had not failed him—
He hit his head on the floor with a sickening thud and the seven sleepers had stopped breathing.
Sheets rustled with movement as the sleeper's forms crawled down their beds towards him, their hospital sheets dragging along, still hiding their tortuously thin bodies. He panicked; slipping once more, before deciding to move on his hands and knees towards the door.
He could feel their stick thin fingers closing down on his left ankle and it burned painfully and he kicked out of its grasp and his hands finally latched onto the edges of the door and he hauled himself outside into the hallway and finally, finally, he slammed the room shut.
Tsuna could hear them scrabbling at the door, their nails making shrieking sounds against the wood. All the while, their silky breath seemed to fill Tsuna's ears. He raised a trembling hand to his face, and felt himself crying and wheezing from fear. He could barely breathe.
On his left ankle, was a ring of white scars, the shape of fingers closing in.
He could barely breathe.
For the third task, you'll have to come back to me. Back to this court with both needle and key and only then, will I give you my third request.
The troll king stood on the wetlands, and behind him, loomed the sunken church roof. The rest of his court of masks had left and only Tsuna and the king stood there, among the reeds and bulrushes. The light from the fireflies weaved around them in loops. Tsuna could hear the susurrations of their tiny wings beating. And the king stood in the middle of his court, with a cloak as dark as the water in the lake, his scars vivid white like maggots against his tanned face, and two eyes as red as wine.
His majesty accepted the needle and keys Tsuna offered.
The grandfather clock chimed the fourth hour.
In its wake, tiny golden bells began ringing that sounded like rain on snow. The king stepped closer to Tsuna and spread his left hand across the small of Tsuna's back. He tugged Tsuna closer and Tsuna was obliged to put his hands on the king's shoulders. And then they swayed to the cadence of the bells.
The king whispered to him, his mouth barely touching the shell of Tsuna's ear, My kingdom is great, my will just as strong. Power have I, over all things. Will you give me, my three drops of blood?
Tsuna looked up into the king's red red eyes and asked, Is this the third task?
The king scowled at him, I can grant you all the stars that you will ever want. I can force the sun to bow down to you and the moon to worship you. You will never want for anything. For everything, you will have. It is just three drops of blood that I ask.
Tsuna shook his head. Is this the third task?
The king replied again, I can lift you from depths of your grief. I can erase all memories, all of the pain, so that the world will never see your tears. You will never dream about your mother's corpse, never remember the flames that killed your home. And do I not look just as your lover did? I have the same scars he bore, the same wide shoulders that protected you. Just three drops of blood, which I ask. It is just three. Willingly pierce yourself with this needle and let the blood drip onto the keys.
So saying, the troll king handed him the needle and keys and watched him with the same starving look in his eyes. Tsuna watched the king carefully, with the needle and keys in his left hand. The bells rang louder and louder and the whispering of the fireflies became almost distinct, Beware the troll king…
Three drops, and I will love you for eternity, the king said.
Tsuna felt his right hand curl and he smashed it into the troll king's face.
Something dark popped off the king's face and plunged into the waters with a plop. The troll king was howling, like an injured animal, his hands covering his face, and Tsuna could see through the gaps between his fingers, red seething, wriggling things…
Tsuna dove for the mask that the king wore and along with the keys and needle ran for the cave.
He could hear the king still brutally screaming, could now hear him giving chase to Tsuna and Tsuna knew not to look back. It would be a mistake Tsuna couldn't afford to make.
He darted through the flooded hallway, praying to himself, to not to trip, or to fall. He needed to reach the house, needed to get away, to escape. One by one, the candles were flickering off and Tsuna had to contend with running in the dark. All he could hear now was the relentless vicious steps behind him. Tsuna could feel those damnable tears running down and he needed to win, because he would not fail Xanxus. He could not fail him now.
He felt the long talons of the troll king on his shoulder, felt the monster grip his shoulder painfully, and there! The door way was open to the wooden house and the king was heaving him back. Tsuna stabbed the claw with the silver needle and it jerked off of him. And the monster screamed again in pain.
And then Tsuna reached the door and closed it shut.
Tsuna felt a hand on his shoulder and he lashed out.
Tsuna woke up to find Xanxus holding his hand in pain, "Oh! Xanxus!" He felt himself quiver inside and he jumped up and he wrapped his arms around those wide wide shoulders. He found himself crying into the older man's shoulders, "—idiot! Where were you! Idiot, idiot, I was so worried, I hate you—"
Xanxus was left with a weeping Tsuna in his arms as he swept an eye around the room. He saw the flashlight on the floor and he smiled smugly at Tsuna in his lap. "Found my way back 'coz of you, you know."
Tsuna laughed, still crying onto the lummox's wet shirt. Xanxus spread his right hand over Tsuna's small back and smushed the smaller man closer to his chest in comfort. Tsuna laughed again, remembering. Xanxus was right-handed.
Xanxus lifted him like a bride and he stalked off to their bedroom.
He never noticed a bone-white mask in a corner, hidden by a chair. It bore the same scars he did, the same burns.
Tsuna would find it, the next morning and he would then put it in a closet behind a blue door and forget about it, as Xanxus insisted on kissing him silly the whole day out on the pier. It was a very sunny day, that day.