Disclaimer: Not mine.
AN: To Deeper than Darkness. Sorry it's a bit late.
Words are power.
And by that definition, it implied that names are tools of power.
It was a ship, coming on the wave of cumulous clouds. Triangular flags the size of houses weaved and swayed, controlling the direction of the ship. The topsails held fast and furious against the breath of the wind. Its figurehead stood proud and unconquered. It was a galleon treasure ship from the West and it had come to the cluster of floating islands for trade.
Tsuna watched on the harbor, as it pulled up against the turbulent sea-sky. It had been a smooth sailing for the ship, as not a single scratch could be seen on its hull. Other villagers were also waiting, most of them shop-keepers and traveling merchants. He checked the horizon of the sea-sky and found none of the Fish trailing the ship. He breathed a sigh of relief then refocused his gaze on the sailors and traders coming down from ship, named Flyfast.
He gazed intently into each face, willing for the appearance of a familiar friendly face that had curly sideburns, spiked black hair, and that ridiculous gecko tribal tattoo curling around a right eye. Nothing, no not that one.
For three hours, he stood there as a make-shift market sprang up on the harbor, travelers and natives mingling for news and barter.
He hadn't been on the ship.
Tsuna glared at his fists and hated his trembling heart.
The sailors hadn't heard any news of the Dragon. They were sorry and apologetic and pity was heavy and thick in their words. Tsuna could see in their minds, another one. But Tsuna couldn't find it in himself to be angry with them.
It was well known in the Skyseas of Reborn's cold-like detachment to everyone he encountered. True, Reborn wasn't heartless, but he viewed the people around him with a sort of distance between himself and those who called themselves his friends. So it was unsurprising that Reborn often left many friends in different places with nary a glance backward.
And then he'd disappeared.
So, every time a ship pulled into the creaking harbors of the Spice Islands, Tsuna stood in the shadows of the tropical trees and watched and waited.
"Remember, useless student, there is no greater force on the world than words shaped by will."
He heard it then, a sign, a spark. A merchant spoke of the new city being built in the Western continent, full of libraries and thick books and scrolls the size of streets. As the words reached his ears, his hair prickled and something underneath his skin moved, excited.
He'd gone home, gathered his savings and bought a ticket from the captain of Flyfast the very next day.
Words are powerful. And by that definition, stories which are constructs of words are even more powerful as each word is fixed firmly into place by bindings of thought and emotion.
There had been a story among the many stories and legends about the Dragon that was often forgotten and trivialized. It was a very odd tale that even though many didn't understand its significance, still everyone liked to hear it whenever a storm hit. It started thus that on the tenth island Reborn had stopped at, he'd found a small young child kneeling in front of the ashes of a burnt villa.
He'd asked, Why are you here?
The boy clenched his fingers in the gray dust and said, I can't move.
And Reborn nodded and understood that those words made the weight of grief and loss heavier on bony shoulders. He picked up the boy and made him his student, the second one in his life.
Reborn often tore strips off the pages of old books and stirred it in with the oatmeal in the pot. Words and ink bled into the mass of mashed up grains and Tsuna was always forced to eat them, to learn them. Some tasted like excitement, others like bitter hate, and many more that felt salty with fearful paranoia. Tsuna can't remember the number of books he's had shoveled into his mouth and into his head. And they stuck in his mind, like glue and dry paper.
Dragon is not Reborn's real name. He whispers this to Tsuna, in the dead of morning, full of stillness and silence. My real name is Reborn, and the words are soft and clear in Tsuna's ear. Because each day, it was as if I was reborn and no past shall confine me. No past, no regret, no attachment.
Tsuna had whispered back, isn't it lonely?
His teacher had reared back, as if bitten.
The next day, he was gone.
Flyfast's captain was called Naito and he laughed and talked in with such speed and excess that Tsuna looked at him with wonder. It seemed especially careless to spout word after word, even for an ordinary civilian. Later on, he would learn that Naito could do this because he was of the tribe, Blank.
Naito knew of course. Naito knew Tsuna's voyage to the West to look for the man Dragon. He'd visited these islands before and had heard the story. He warned the child, it's a very foolish dream. For every step you take, you will be stepping on broken glass. Obstacles will come your way, the greatest of which is Dragon himself.
And Naito continued, Think of the ocean you have to cross.
Tsuna did not speak.
And Naito said, Think of the desert you have to cross.
Tsuna did not speak.
Think of the Dragon's indifference. What will he give you if you find him? Do you think you can tie him to you so easily?
And still Tsuna did not speak. Even though, indignation and furious righteousness bristled inside him like thorns.
Naito shook his head. That day that Reborn had left, this child spoke less and less, as if robbed of the joy of his words. He silently cursed Reborn in his mind for being aloof, for being distant even when he gathered people around him.
He did not want to tie Reborn to himself. It was a stupid thought, reprehensible and vile.
No, Reborn had done that already, tied and bound and locked Tsuna in knots and tangles. When he'd picked up Tsuna and day by day, when he'd stood and laughed and talked with Tsuna, he had built link after link himself of the bond between them. And when he'd left, he'd taken the other end and it grew ever tighter with strain, distance and time.
So, Tsuna would come to Reborn.
He stared at the incoming streams of feathery stratus clouds. Riding on that current was a pair of fleshy fangtooth Fishes, each half the size of the ship. Their long teeth glinted like swords and their pale, translucent flesh looked wrinkled with hunger. The captain was already shouting the crew into position and the guests into their rooms for safety. Three rows of cannons readied their aim in the gunports along the side of the ship.
It was rare to encounter Fishes on the Skyseas.
But they always brought death with them.
Tsuna stood in his room, looking out the small porthole. He started mumbling in his breath, a riddle slowly rising like smoke from his mouth. No legs have I to dance, No lungs have I to breathe, No life have I to live or die. And yet I do all three…
He dug his fingers into his left hand to make sure the thing underneath his skin did not escape his mouth. Underneath his fingernails pressing into skin, there was a tattoo of a tail wriggling frantically to escape the weight of his fingers. Its body trailed off into the shadow of his sleeves and Tsuna knew it was thrashing, because he could feel it.
He repeated the words, over and over again. Outside, the fangtooth Fishes swam ever closer. Cannons had gone off, blasts of sound and curses tearing the air. Four did damage to the nearest one, exposing the skeletal form underneath the Fish's flesh. Enraged, it swam faster towards the ship most likely intending to capsize it or to take a bite out of it.
His mouth finally opened with the answer for the riddle he'd built, Fire.
It sparked with an explosion and flames engulfed both the swimming monsters and their screeching vibrated the very air the ship swam on.
The sailors were whispering that a Wordsmith had come aboard and had killed those fangtooth. There was awe and disgust and fear in their voices as they spoke carefully.
And their words tasted like ashes in his mouth.
Because words were weapons, could hurt and kill, even when spoken by ordinary people.
The Dragon collected rumors and news among the many markets and bars of cities and islands. It was important to track them as they often distorted themselves as they passed from ear to ear. That day, he overheard two fishermen's wives gossiping about a boy called Tsuna who was searching for the notorious Dragon. He listened intently, gathering these new words sprouting from the gossip-vine of Tsuna's encounter with the Fish and his victory over them.
He clicked his teeth against each other and thought that his student was very stupid.
They docked on one of the islands edging the Western continent. Tsuna waved his farewell to Naito and went into the village market for supplies and news of this new city.
He stopped by a stall with a variety of colored glass bottles with corks as stoppers. Inked words twirled in the space inside each bottle. He could feel them, the tension and energy waiting to be released. They were good quality, considering the climate here. He picked several with the words, Energy and Sleep.
As the writer counted up his purchases, he saw a bottle that said A Few Days of Travel. What's that, Tsuna asked. All the while, his fingers gripped the lashing tail in the skin of his palm.
The merchant looked at where Tsuna was pointing. Oh, that? It gets you across the desert in a few days' time.
Tsuna asked for a price.
Fifty cents, the man replied. But you don't look like you have a lumpfish. You should buy it with a lumpfish.
Oh, Tsuna said. Then how much with the lumpfish?
Eight-hundred and seventy silver coins, the merchant enunciated clearly.
Aghast, Tsuna asked, Why?
The writer stopped and squinted at him and said, Eh, would you buy a saddle without a horse?
Tsuna nodded resignedly and the writer went to the back of the tent, partitioned from the rest of the store. He ambled back out, with a large clear green jug with a lid of leather stretched across the mouth. Tsuna could see a small bloated lumpfish swimming around in it. It looked like an old man's floating head with very puffy lips and fins on each side. The writer nodded at him and gave him the usual warning of not overdosing on words. Then he took out a colorless bottle from a box hidden behind one of the stacks and gave it to him. It had A Few Days of Travel dancing inside.
He said yes and thanks and paid for them with the last of his money. The words were polite and warm like milk and even Tsuna could feel their effect, even though he wasn't the recipient.
Riddles were Tsuna's usual weapon of choice. They were fast to say and easy to remember. But its power, though, came from misdirection. The more confusing a riddle was, the more powerful its effect. It was a bit of a childish weapon, to be honest. The results varied and it was also easily beaten if the other person knew the answer to all the riddles that you had.
For Reborn, it had been commands, short, clipped words full of domineering will. Because words of power were often the simplest ones.
It was easy to see the differences between them.
He bent down and uncorked the jug and the lumpfish squeezed out, its fat making a plup! sound. It stared at him blankly. He shooed it to sit on the desert floor. It stayed there looking at him, a little crabby now.
He took out the bottle of A Few Days Travel and opened it.
It slipped and the bottle and the words tumbled down. He tried grabbing for them in mid-air but they slipped through his fingers and then the wind blew cruelly against them, flying the words in the air like a kite. Tsuna ran after them, jumping up and down to reach. The fish made no move, watching the human.
A few feet away and the wind stopped and the words floated down to the sand. And then the sand started sucking the words in, slowly sinking line by line of letters.
Panicking, Tsuna darted to the pools of quicksand and kneeled down to reach for letter after letter, stuffing them into his mouth as fast as he could. Sand was mixed in with the letters and Tsuna could feel the crunch of salt and grain among the slimy raw words, uncooked by paper and pen. Some were still missing and he started digging into the sinkhole's walls, even as he felt himself going under.
He was losing them, he realized. The sand was already up to his hips and he was still short on three more letters. He tried scrambling his brains for a riddle, any riddle but the hourglass was slipping, sliding granules of his life away.
He found one, stuck underneath one of his nails. He bit it and swallowed.
The lumpfish stared at him from where he'd left it, bored like a lump.
Up to his shoulders now, and then he dug up another one and ate it.
Hot, searing sand was filling his mouth and his breathing and darkness was slowly stealing Tsuna's vision. This was it. This was his end. Tsuna would die here and Reborn would never tell him that…He gave one last cough and swallowed sand as it poured over his head.
Mixed in that last gulp, was the last letter, T.
The lumpfish flopped up and down and grew bigger. It flew in the air and its jaws unhinged and it bit through the sandpit where Tsuna had drowned. It swam lazily then through the air towards the hazy horizon of the Western continent.
The Dragon this time was collecting leftover words from the wastelands because words would rot if left alone for a long time. And that hot afternoon, he heard the passing words of two axolotl on the road. There had been a young boy called Tsuna struggling and fighting the sandpits, eating the sand right off the ground. Then the axolotl exclaimed of how a lumpfish devoured both sandpool and child. Saved by a lumpfish! They laughed.
Dragon clicked his teeth together and thought his student very stupid.
A few days later, Tsuna woke up in the desert where the lumpfish had deposited him. It was gone already.
The sound of distant cursing reached his ears and he hurried towards it, thinking it might be Reborn. He saw a figure hunched over, past a large rocky formation pockmarked with holes and dry weeds. He ran towards it, now realizing whoever it was needed help.
He came to a man with a thick iron-plated helmet that covered his entire head. It displayed a deep blue cross from the top of his forehead to the bottom of his chin. It struck Tsuna that the helmet didn't provide enough protection since there was a ring of needle-like teeth pushing against the man's neck. It connected to a length of chain to a hangman pole, rusted with blood.
The man saw him and cried out, Help! Help! This blasted thing caught me while I was asleep!
Tsuna nodded and approached the pole warily. Inscribed on it were the words:
I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils
O red fruit, Ivory, fine timber!
The loaf's big with its yeasty rising
Money's new minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples
Boarded the train there's no getting off.
There were nine blank spots underneath the words and already etched on it was an a and an e and an r. There were already five x's around the riddle and that meant the man had already made five mistakes guessing the rest of the letters. One more mistake and the man would die by the hangman.
Um, Tsuna bit his lip, it's…
Yes, yes, the man gestured impatiently at him. What is it? Do you know the answer? For god's sake, spit it out.
It's pregnancy, Tsuna answered.
The man stared at him, gob smacked. Tha-that's right! He turned to the hangman pole standing ominously and shouted at it, Pregnancy!
There was a click and the ring of teeth fell off and was dragged back to wrap itself around the hangman. Tsuna grabbed the man's hand and ran before the hangman started another game.
The man in the helmet called himself Giotto. He slapped Tsuna's back and laughed and thanked the young boy. He said, You saved my life back there. If there's anything I can do to return the favor…?
Tsuna nodded and asked, Do you know where I can find the Dragon?
What? You're looking for the Dragon? The man nodded, I see. You must be Tsuna. Well, friend, I can do a lot more than just point you to where that man went off to. That Dragon owes me quite a big favor. Come, I'll show you.
The man walked off and Tsuna followed after him.
They stopped at a flat stretch of desert and Giotto took out an old-fashioned lamp. He tipped it over and water poured out of the spout onto the dry cracked ground. As the water poured and poured, Tsuna could see it wash away a layer of dirt and sand and underneath it there was glass that shined in the blistering sun. Giotto kept pouring and Tsuna was a bit amazed that there was so much water coming out of the small lamp.
Two hours passed and Giotto finally stopped and tucked the lamp back into his robes.
Underneath their feet was a clear glass floor that hid an empty inverted city.
Tsuna could see buildings composed of several small square rooms that jutted out at different angles, as if someone had stacked different sized concrete boxes in piles. And there were windows, large rectangular holes carved into each room and through them, Tsuna could see books piled in stacks and towering stacks. Beyond the buildings, he watched goblin sharks slowly swimming in the thick blue Skyseas.
The city was on the wrong side of the continent.
Giotto tapped at the floor with his foot.
Then a man came out of one of the cubicles and Tsuna dropped to his knees, banging at the floor with his fists. It was Reborn! It was his Reborn sweeping an eye around the underground city. And it felt as if the air was sucked out of Tsuna, so great was his joy. He wanted to scream out that he'd found him, he'd found Reborn. He looked different though, Tsuna noted. There were more lines on his pale face and his cheeks were hollowed out and his eyes were dim black. Tsuna wanted to cry at that. Even his gecko tattoo seemed grayer.
But his Reborn still retained those sleek muscles brimming with tension and hair that stuck outwards as if electricity ran through them. And the sideburns! Tsuna held his mouth, for fear of laughing hysterically. They were as curly as ever, those spiteful things.
Giotto picked up Tsuna from the floor and whispered to his ear, Calm yourself. Now is no time to panic.
Tsuna gulped several breathes and after having calmed down, nodded at Giotto that he was ready.
Giotto gave him a mischievous grin and said, Watch this.
He pressed the tips of his fingers against the floor. And he pushed and then his whole hand slid through to wrap around Reborn's ankle and he yanked. There was a noise like thick soup splashing and Reborn flew out of the ground, cursing and stumbling into Giotto.
Why exactly did you pull me from my research, Reborn asked with his usual clear-cut voice.
He barely gave a glance to Tsuna who was watching him with large eyes.
A match, and Giotto slapped Tsuna's back and continued, I want you to have a match with Tsuna. I owe him my life and I want to give him a chance. He wins, he gets to keep you by his side. You win, well…I'll take him away—from bothering you. He winked at the other man and tightened his hold on Tsuna's shoulder. He leaned down and mouthed the words into Tsuna's thin shoulders, You know the rules.
Reborn watched them with a glare.
He pushed Tsuna towards Reborn.
I choose the game, Reborn said. I pick Let go.
Stunned, Tsuna could only nod. It made sense in a way, as it was one Reborn's more favorite games, more psychological in nature. And if he lost, it was all too easy for Reborn to cut him off forever. He felt his chest hurt that Reborn disliked him enough to choose this one. Because Tsuna could not ignore the implication that the game paralleled their situation.
Reborn held out his hand and Tsuna took it and squeezed it tight.
He did not squeeze back and held Tsuna's hands limply.
And then Reborn started the game.
A snake hissed and slithered in Tsuna's grasp. It was cold and furious and it bit him but Tsuna did not let go.
His hands were on fire because Tsuna was holding a burning stick and blisters from the heat had started forming on his soft skin and Tsuna was already moaning from the pain. But he did not let go and his fingers clutched on, knuckles white.
Silver gleamed and a stream of scarlet blood stained it as Tsuna gripped the serrated knife between his fingers and the pain was beginning to throb dully. Burns littered his skinny fingers and the bite from before was turning a sickly green. Tsuna did not let go, could not let go.
This time, Tsuna felt nothing between his fingers but air and space. This was a trick, he knew. It was a trick, a trap. He did not let his hands slacken from their position, clenched on air as they were. Blood dripped to the ground from the way he gripped his hands forcefully on air. He tried not to scream out because it felt so empty, his hands. Tsuna would not let go.
Throughout the night, Reborn shape-shifted forms and still Tsuna clasped their hands together. No matter how Reborn pushed away at Tsuna, again and again in that dark desert, Tsuna's warm hand was still stubbornly wrapped around his.
The sky was lightening from its dark melancholy and soon, the sun would touch the horizon of this continent. Reborn would lose.
This was the last one, as Tsuna tiredly hung on to Reborn's fingers like a vise. He was already on his knees, his hands shaking, a mess of singed skin, scabbed wounds and welts. This was the last one, he reminded himself. The tattoo of the tail on his skin had curled up inside the shadows of his clothes, exhausted.
Even Reborn looked haggard and the man gave him a withering look. He said, I don't want you.
Tsuna didn't let go.
Reborn continued, I hate you. You don't deserve me. I think you're completely useless and stupid. Why don't you just give up and die, you fucking failure?
Tsuna could feel his eyes burn but he didn't let go of Reborn's hands. If there was anything Reborn had taught him long ago, it had been determination.
And Reborn narrowed his eyes and suddenly—
Tsuna followed his gaze to the side and saw a curly-headed woman. She had thick brown braids that fell in waves around her slender shoulders. She was hugging herself in the cold morning and he could see that she was already fully pregnant. Curled around one cinnamon eye, was a matching gecko tattoo. And Reborn was watching her with a small tilt to his lips, which had suddenly become generous and kind. His eyes were larger now, dark black like ink.
Tsuna saw those eyes gazing at the woman and felt his breathe stop.
It was the same intensity he often watched Reborn with.
He let go.
Reborn's voice was crisp and clear like ice, I win.
Tsuna collapsed onto the ground, weak and trembling. His vision was swimming, swaying side to side. And all he could hear was a muffled pounding that was increasing in rhythm and beat. It resounded in his scrawny chest and he could feel it pulsing through his hands and through his legs.
He realized that silence could hurt more than words.
Giotto had walked towards them now and gave a nod of congratulations to Reborn. He picked up Tsuna in his arms and turned away.
More powerful than words that are said, are words unsaid.
Reborn regarded the pair who was walking away. Giotto had Tsuna in his embrace and Tsuna's head lolled on one of Giotto's broad shoulders. Reborn couldn't see his expression.
There were words in Reborn's head, circling faster and faster like whirlwinds. I didn't want him to fail. I didn't want him to fail. Why am I so disappointed? Why I am so crushed? Why did I want him to win so badly? Why is it so hard to breathe now?
He could feel his eyes prickling, could feel the words trying to explode outside to be heard, to be seen. Words that had so much power that they battered at Reborn's iron discipline and then a word escaped, a whisper, barely heard even in that stillness of that morning…
Giotto was still walking, taking Tsuna away.
And like a dam breaking, the words surged out full of Reborn's power and will. STOP. DO NOT MOVE. BE STILL.
Three layers of locking words and even Giotto was forced to stand stock-still.
Reborn was running towards them because Giotto had every right to fight him. He grabbed Tsuna and smashed an angry fist in Giotto's surprised face.
They were alone in the city court.
Tsuna held his arms loosely in a parody of an embrace around Reborn's heaving chest and he pressed his wet face into that strong back.
Reborn could feel warm drops of water plopping into his back but he did not turn around. He scrutinized Tsuna's stick-thin arms and he noticed a tattoo of a tail curling around one arm. He looked closer and squinted. It wasn't just a tattoo but was a mishmash of tiny words written on skin, perfectly forming a matching gecko to the one on his face.
They were wriggling in happiness.
They spelled out love you love you over and over again.
That night he left Tsuna, he'd stormed out of that house, cursing and muttering and ranting careless words that had scattered away into the darkness.
Because when you're in love, your mouth runs away with you.
Reborn thought to himself, So, that's where they went to.
AN: The Fire Riddle is not mine (from the net) and all those fishes are real and the Pregnancy Riddle is from Jim Taylor who says it's quite a famous poem.