Disclaimer: Not mine.
Dream but do not drown;
For the raven king with careful fingers
Search through such men's lives
For lost hidden things,
Blank souls asking that eternal question
What could they live for?
What should they live for?
Thus they lived for nothing and for no one.
Like a gardener
Plucks his weak and wilted plants, he sows them
Here, his world of dreams
Until they are found.
And some left, a second life finding them.
Some with death in hand.
But worse still, some stayed
For so long to be found that they forgot
How to be human.
Like the Mum Keepers
And the Fortune Teller, growing deeper
Roots into his world.
-Of Mr. Reborn, lord of all that's lost and hidden.
Rightful Tithe to the Lord
By the second Spanner had finished his story, the musicbox stopped in time with his mouth closing. His metallic audience looked at each other in knowing glances and clapped enthusiastically in thanks. Again, with the unrealistic laws of this world, Spanner thought sourly. A story had solved the mechanical failure whereas his years of experience as a genius engineer hadn't been. This place was fast becoming intolerable.
Mr. 43 then asked, "Well, how very fitting. Your brother found an exceptionally strange plant and you, yourself, are looking for one. Tell me…why do all this?" He struck his hands outward, a gesture of bafflement, "Why go to such lengths for a complete stranger?"
Spanner shrugged at him and stared straight at Mr. 43's eyes. "I finish what I start. Tsunayoshi may have come to me first but it was my choice to accept him and to give him my home and my protection. And I'll finish it." And really, it was only this conviction that kept him going, kept him grounded in a surreal wonderland…this conviction of duty to a young brown-haired tomato who had looked up at him almost like he was a god. It wasn't vanity (for he distrusted pride) nor was it love, for how could he when he had barely exchanged a bare few sentences with the sprite? Lust could happen in an instant but love took years to build like any good engineer knew with his constructions. So it was the only excuse Spanner could give, for he had taken the duty and responsibility like his older brother had.
Mr. 43 scowled. "Mr. Reborn means no harm to Tsunayoshi."
But Mr. 72 only looked thoughtful and asked, "You don't…know? Why Tsuna ran to you or why Reborn was so furious that you had stolen his hat? You really…don't know?"
The engineer could feel a slight flush rising up his neck as whenever an accusation of ignorance was pointed at him. In a slightly sheepish defense he said, "I haven't really have had the time to ask Tsunayoshi questions, what with him being an incomprehensible tomato most of the time." Still, it was a weak defense, Spanner knew.
"I suppose Mr. Reborn wouldn't have told you the truth no matter how much you pulled his feathers," mused the now calmer Mr. 43 while Mr. 72 nodded along and said, "It can't be helped. The story we'll give you is of the reason why the musicbox never ceased—"
"Didn't I say that Mr. Reborn warned us to keep mum on it?" Mr. 43 asked already irritated again.
Mr. 72 clapped a placating skeletal hand against Mr. 43's shoulder and said, "The mortal has stopped the musicbox with his tale. By the raven's own rules, he deserves to know, even if only from our own mouths."
"Oh very well." Mr. 43 shook his head and grumbled while his companion selected two piano keys from the five on the floor and handed him one. Spanner watched as they slipped it in through their ribs and flicked it lightly against the pendulums swinging inside. This time the sound was soft and sweet, reminiscent of the musicbox lullaby and it seeped into Spanner's mind like the warmth of small hands.
Today, the child had thrown a fit. More or less, a very dreary fit that had less screaming and more crying. Reborn had dragged the tomato sprite back from his excursion into the world of men. But now at least, Tsuna had stopped and tiredly retired to the couch, curling up on it and Reborn was left to fuming against his bemused ravens.
The child was a complete pest.
Even on a normal basis, the child was exhausting to be with. Reborn was constantly pestered with twiddling thumbs and sloppy manners and constant sleeve tugs for attention. He could barely play any songs on the piano anymore. And now this. This, this…horrific event. He glared at the unrepentant musicbox on the piano, playing a lullaby on an unending loop. It would not stop. It could not stop. Ever since the tomato brat had seen that blond-haired mortal on that field of corn…
Then Tsunayoshi murmured sleepily, shivering in the dark. Reborn sighed as the idiot had kicked off his blankets again. He walked over to drag the worn comforter from the ground to cover the child…And found that it could barely cover Tsuna's ankles. He stopped and stared, slightly surprised. He thought distractedly that for mortals, this speed of growth was quite normal, especially for their extremely short lives. He tried adjusting it but finally gave up and took off his own coat to help. Dragging the worn comforter down to Tsuna's feet and covering what was left, Tsuna's arms and neck, with Reborn's coat sufficed to stop the child's trembling.
Or should he say young man?
How many years had it been…? Since he'd picked up this little seed? How long…did he have?
Reborn rubbed his fingertips on Tsuna's hat, wondering. The edge of the hat…was already growing into the boy's skin. Cloth and skin were melding into one…It was beginning to be too long a wait. Lost things must often be found…and if they didn't… they would wish they could have died instead.
Could he take that chance?
And hadn't he already? Hadn't he already intercepted in that field of corn before Tsunayoshi could rightly be found by that blond-haired brat? Hadn't he gripped fate by its neck and ripped it from Tsuna's hands by tearing his child away from the form of that dying plant, held so gingerly by a young mortal?...Because it had been a sight that had struck quick to Reborn's heart—Tsunayoshi looking with wide brown eyes up at someone else.
Because it had always been him whom Tsuna had looked up at.
And Reborn had gotten used to it, those soft brown eyes on him with that damning unconditional love of a child. And he had learned, oh yes, he had learned to love back, in as much as a spirit of the Old Tradition could love a human. And now, Reborn thought bitterly, now he knew first-hand the taste of selfishness, of wanting to keep someone close.
When Spanner woke up on the cold floor of the lamp, alone with five more piano keys, there was now no doubt. That image of the green threads of Tsuna's hat melting into skin…it had made him sick to his stomach. It was a certainty that he knew tasted like grey ashes…Tsunayoshi had to be found. Staying lost too long twisted people up. And even if now, Spanner knew a little of Reborn's motivations, it could not justify what he was doing. It had to be by Tsuna's choice, not anybody else's. And Spanner would make damn sure the tomato could make that decision.
Nobody else had the right to decide Tsuna's fate but Tsuna himself.
So thinking of that, Spanner took the five keys from the floor and because there were too many already in his pockets, he had to carry the new additions by hand. His usual guides, the two bluebottles, emerged from the wreckage of the lamps with a third in tow and he followed after the trio on the path leading back into the forest of strangler roots choking.
It was with rising trepidation that Spanner realized the trio of bluebottle butterflies was leading him back to the beginning, to the broken piano and the mirror surrounded by a tableau of a mock living room scattered with leaves and books. He needed five or more piano keys to be added to the fifteen in his possession. Spanner didn't think Reborn would keep the last keys as insurance of his victory. No, the raven king would never stoop so low. He most likely had something else in mind, using the last piano keys as bait. And Spanner couldn't help but think of that rhyme, a little wicked hook in a bowl full of apples.
Then the sight of a page ripped from its book greeted him on the path. He bent down while the bluebottles spun around him in a flurry of grief.
It was a music sheet inked carefully with looping and overlapping notes. Tracing and counting them, Spanner hazarded a guess that this was the lullaby the musicbox had been set to. But why was it here? He squinted further down the dark path and saw more pages on the ground like victims of a storm. The blond hurried forward and gathered them up, following the line of destruction back to the source, the place of Reborn's piano.
Spanner stopped dead at the edge of the clearing.
Tattered pages dominated the floor, elegant scribbles now indiscernibly wet with dew. Underneath them, the books were spread out as if hurled there, their spines uncomfortably stretched wide open and their covers stained from the wet grass. The black leather couch was lying on its back, visible rips along its now-mutilated surface. The mirror too, which hung in the air, had taken a painfully large spiderweb crack on its bottom right, marring and fragmenting Spanner's reflection over and over. Only the piano had survived without any scars, if only because it was already so worn-down.
And there was no sign of Reborn or the ravens.
There wasn't much Spanner could do but pick the couch back up and gather the pages and books together into a small pile onto the upright couch. Then he slid all the piano keys but one back into their places in the gaps of the piano mouth, knowing that the order wasn't important. Of course, he came up short by seven, even counting the one he hid back into his pocket.
Because the future cast a brooding shadow through the gap at the bottom of a closed door and Spanner was careful to take heed.
Spanner turned back to the bluebottles but found them on the floor of leaves, curled up in death. He tried to pick them up but they crumbled into a fine white dust when he touched them. So for the last seven, he would have no one to rely on but himself.
The chill of loneliness pierced through and Spanner found himself humming frenetically along to the measure of the musicbox lullaby that kept pace with his frantic breathing. Unbidden, like secrets wanting to be told, the words of the lullaby sprang from his mouth and Spanner began murmuring, "…raven, raven; finder's keepers, losing's full of weeping…raven, raven; my skin I'll stake, blood on pins and needles…" Over and over the words poured out of his mouth in a thin drizzling smoke, drifting low on the ground. Goosebumps began appearing on Spanner's arms and neck as the temperature dropped fifteen degrees. Then more words surged out as Spanner could only watch horrified as his voice echoed around the clearing, "…raven, raven; your prize I'll thieve from you—"
Slick pointed claws pressed into Spanner's vibrating throat and his mouth immediately stopped, halting the flow of the words. Reborn answered him in an ominously quiet voice, "You have a lot of nerve to come before me short of seven piano keys." Around them, the fog had risen to swallow even the tops and tips of the strangler trees enough that colors began to fade into grey.
Thinking quickly, Spanner remembered the three bluebottles that had died in this clearing. "—You have the last seven." He was sure now, where they were just as he had known what words to challenge Reborn from before.
The claws squeezed once then let go while Reborn replied, "Oh? Well, why don't you show me where I am hiding them?"
Spanner jerked around and slammed one fist holding a smooth bleached piano key upward into Reborn's abdomen. It hit with pin-point precision as feather-shaped ridges sprouted over Reborn's neck and face and clothes as he crouched on the ground, coughing and hacking. The whites of his eyes bled black from the pupils inside and out. But it was the triumphant grin on his pale blue lips that unnerved Spanner.
Like bone sticking out of a fresh wound, one perfectly symmetrical piano key emerged from Reborn's mouth. Then another. Another. His throat bulged unnaturally like he was choking as the keys fell out of his mouth and then Reborn spat out four more. All seven piano keys spotted with black blood.
"You've drawn blood from me, mortal." The raven king straightened up, the rough ridges lengthening into the blue-black feathers. "By all intents and purposes, you have forfeited the game and your life."
With unbelievable speed that Spanner still could not see, Reborn had grasped him by the neck and was strangling him like before. The lightheaded feeling of déjà vu snaked across Spanner's mind as he could feel his blood waning, his breath gasping in small bursts. He could faintly hear the sound of paper crumpling and the leaves whispering raven raven, finder's keepers.
Reborn's face contorted in an ugly grimace, teeth flecked with blood growing longer and longer into ever sharper needles and pins. He clicked his teeth, a shudder-inducing call. From the pile of ripped pages exploded layers and layers of angular archaic letters, box-like with the sound and smell of feathers. The black gothic letters flew in the air and melded with Reborn's skin, following the dip of his muscles, overflowing through into Spanner's own throat. Reborn dug his fingers further in, increasing the force of letters. "Before, you were protected by Tsuna and then by your words of challenge from my claws. But if I rip your tongue out, you certainly can't use your words now can you?"
The strange inked words formed a thin ring around Spanner's neck and arrows and arrows of more words pointed up to his face. The ring of arrows circled around and around, cinching tighter and tighter.
Spanner couldn't even lift his arms anymore in protest as his throat throbbed in dull pain as fatigue from lack of oxygen began to set in.
The raven continued, "I admit, you came far...farther than even I would have suspected. The amount of time you have been in here, I thought, would be enough to poison you." Enough to grow the smallest of roots in the world. But Reborn was more wary now. Spanner was…a mortal who knew where he was, knew where he was going, and knew where he had come from. His conviction had been hammered over and over with his own stories and words, repeating them like religious chants that gave power with each retelling. And that iron certainty had protected Spanner like armor from the poison. It was the oldest and simplest of magic, one that even disquieted Reborn, one that was only found in some humans. Spanner was unlike them, the denizens of Reborn's world.
Better if Reborn ended this personally, by blood and fire stolen.
The collar of words stopped and sunk in, blurring into interlocking eternal knots.
Spanner's resolve wavered and he inhaled his last breathe as his body shut down.
This was it.
This was the end.
The end of everything.
In that moment of last seconds, of last breaths before death, Spanner paused and watched. He watched the gleam of low regret in Reborn's eyes, watched the whizzing words slow down to a crawl, watched the fog of the lullaby reach up to swallow the mirror, watched the cracks in said mirror grow larger and longer. And he could have sworn that he had seen two bloodied fists hitting the insides of the mirror, repeatedly disappearing in the fog then reappearing like ghosts to bang into the surface of the mirror, rippling the surface with concentric vibrations from the impact.
Then for a moment, he thought he saw Tsuna's face in the reflection of the fog, wearing a strange look of stricken desperation. Then it dropped out of sight.
He must be imagining it. After all, Tsuna was not that kind of person to defy Reborn, to stand up for himself. That was why Spanner had come here, hadn't he? To make sure Tsuna learned how to decide for himself, how to live on his own will.
But this was it.
Spanner was dying.
But…wasn't Tsuna depending on him? If he died now, he would fail that trust. If he was careless enough to let go now, he would be disgracing all the stories he'd said about taking responsibility—the words tangled more like a torque of roots round and round—but he was tired, so very tired. What was the point anyway? Why was he fighting so hard again? What was he fighting for…? Why not just lie down and die…? Life would end pretty soon anyway. Better to skip ahead, he reasoned with a slightly puzzled look. This…didn't sound like him—more words sprouted like strangler roots to choke and snuff what spark of life there was—better to skip all the tragedies and follies of life and just die. Wasn't it? After all, all endings were the same…in death. Then die, Spanner thought. Just die right now. Stop dilly-dallying.
Then the cracks grew to spread even to the edges of the frame of the mirror.
Spanner exhaled his last rasping breath and then his world turned pitch dark and he could hear the trail of words that glittered like steel, "—that's enough, Reborn. No more."
Spanner blinked awake, his neck uncomfortably sore at a strange angle next to his keyboard. He sat up, wiped the drool from his chin and looked around. The morning light had crept in the office and his cubicle had been in the way, blinding him. He winced at the direct sunlight. He cricked his neck and stretched aching arms over his head and knocked over a tomato next to him, part of his lunch the damn doctor had been demanding. There was something—something he had to do, hadn't he…?
He stared at his screensaver of flying ravens, a sense of having misplaced something drowning him.
Something rapped his head.
Brown eyes smiled at him. It was Shoichi who smiled worriedly at him. "Overworking yourself again?" He picked up the tomato and bit into it then mock gagged. "Bleh. Vegetables. I don't know how you can stick to your doctor's diet."
Automatically, he said, "It's not a diet." Tomatoes…Spanner didn't even like tomatoes. Why did he have one, really? Then strange words tumbled out, "Where's Tsuna?"
Shoichi rose an eyebrow at him. "Tuna? I don't have any tuna on me. You can find some in the cafeteria. I keep telling you to stop overworking yourself into sleep in the office. Do it at home. I mean, the guards have already been complaining to me already. And then you have the audacity to have weird dreams while you're at it and you shove it at me to psychoanalyze. Like yesterday and that dream of the cute brunet running around in your apartment building…"
Then Spanner unfurled his fingers from a single piano key from under his desk, hiding it from his co-worker's view. Then their other co-workers arrived with Shoichi wandering off to say good morning to the others. Spanner looked down and slid a finger against the fine surface of the ivory. "—hospital. He was in the hospital. The Fortune Teller had shown me, hadn't she?" Spanner's eyes glazed as he desperately clutched at the remnants of his memories. He whirled on his computer and opened up several tracking programs, intent on finding a hospital near an orphanage.
After a few more minutes, he added strangler trees as a marker to help him find it.
Then he ditched his work and took off.
He'd concocted some strange story of his father knowing Tsuna's dead father and had shown his ID and then he was escorted to room 303 where he was left alone. And there was Tsuna sleeping on the hospital bed, looking a little younger than Spanner.
He'd been bundled tight in disinfected blankets, lying rigidly like a corpse. Only his pale bony wrist laid beside him outside of the covers as it was connected to a long clear line to a medicinal packet on a stand. The walls were glaringly white and even the sides and corners of the room faded into the white haziness as the steady slow beat of Tsuna's heart beeped monotonously in the background.
Spanner stumbled forwards, feeling his own face blanch.
The questions and worries and doubts slipped under the door he'd ignored and forgot and they came fleetingly like the flashes of a broken reel film. That dream from the Fortune Teller where Tsuna had fallen asleep in the hospital, bandages wrapped around his head in winding strips—he'd suspected but had never followed—that thread of thought, unsure of how to cope…Permanent damage? No, no it couldn't be. It hadn't looked that serious, from what he could remember. But Tsunayoshi—in the hospital this long? He'd been young from the first dream…and now…
This had been the gift of deep slumber, the dream of a second life. And it was also the price.
Spanner could feel his own throat closing up.
No, pull yourself up, Sid's voice whispered. There are things you can do. Things you can keep doing. Things you have to do. It's called duty. And what was duty but love and devotion for someone? Spanner grabbed Tsuna's hand, tremors making him unsteady. "…Tsuna? Wake up, Tsuna. Wake up."
The hand was dead in his grasp.
With crazed determination, Spanner began humming the lullaby because the words had already slipped away.
Again and again, he hummed the measure of the notes like a prayer. And still nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. What was he doing wrong? A frustrated sob broke free. Spanner pressed his clammy forehead against Tsuna's bony shoulder, exhausted. This was the end, he thought.
Deathly pale fingers twitched in his hold and curled around his own fingers, pulling him back from the edge.
Spanner felt his smile stretch so far to his ears through blurred eyes. It would be the end of tragic things and the beginning of something new.
Tsuna had recovered gradually, keeping awake for a few minutes then for a few hours. He'd undergone several therapies to overcome muscle dystrophy and depression and disorientation. He could walk now but got tired quickly and today, he was being released from the hospital in a wheel-chair being pushed by Spanner. All the kind nurses had said goodbye, teary-eyed and gossiping how it was so much better than their soap operas. Tsuna had smiled nervously and Spanner had smiled secretively and the nurses had blushed and squealed at the couple.
Along the road next to the strangler trees, they had stopped a long way from the hospital and the orphanage. They had both gotten out of the car and Spanner had pushed Tsuna's wheel-chair along the dirt track. Then Tsuna gave him the new fedora they'd bought and he took it and placed it on the ground next to the edge of the woods. Then Spanner took out the last piano key and dropped it into the hat.
Tsuna had reached for Spanner's hand as they stood in silence under the shadows of the strangler trees. Tsuna began, "All lost things—"
And Spanner finished, "—must be found. Eventually."
And then they gave each other mirthful looks. All lost things…even friendship. They would find Reborn again, someday. Because Spanner could understand and Tsuna could do anything with enough will.
A court of ravens had watched the proceedings and the departure of the couple and then took off in flight, the sound of wings beating in the air.