Gokudera is three: he looks up to his father, asks for his mother, and adores the lady in the white and blue dress.

Gokudera is six: he denies his father, mourns for his mother, and runs away from the house that was all he knew.

Gokudera is eight: he lodges his first bullet into a man's head, into the forehead, and through the back, where it shatters the occipital and sprays the grand divan with blood.

Gokudera is nine: he soaks his hands with the red life of men, warmth and darkness – how many he murders, he loses count.

By the time Gokudera is ten, he is madly and ravingly psychotic.

-

-

i'd storm heaven for you, if i knew where it was
let's go against the capturing spiral, and walk this path for ourselves

-

-

Inside Takesushi is a beautiful rendition of hell, with splatters of darkening red on the walls, and pools of it staining the floor. The metallic stench fills his nostrils as he steps inside, heedless of the blood but mindful of the bodies. Some of them cut open on the tables, remains of whoever under the chairs. Detached limbs on the counter, sake mingling with the red – a testimony, a toast to the dead.

The cuts are clean, recognizably by a nihontou, a Japanese sword – behind him, Ryohei chokes, falters. The whiteness of the bone against the red of the flesh and brown of the blood; it's too much for a weak mind.

"Stay out, and keep the Tenth out," Gokudera orders, voice a flat line of authority.

Ryohei all but pitches through the door – the door that had welcomed them every time they wanted some down time, some good sushi, some good conversation – Hibari steps in. Gokudera ignores this; Hibari could handle himself.

Pushing further into the decimated shop, he steps over limbs – impolite, but he isn't of the Eastern culture anyway – and skirts around more dead bodies. No more than an hour or two; the blood is fresh-flowing, still red, still saturated with these fuckers' last breaths. Cracked bottles crunch under his not-all-too-immaculate-anymore Armani shoes; the bar stank with the sharp tang of alcohol.

Tables upended, chairs crushed under some phantom weight; the same booths they used to sit in as children – just a month, too long ago, it seems – now stained, never the same again. His eyes flicker and catch a faint glint of metal on the ground – a sword, but not Yamamoto's.

And looking over it is the man, the boy, the child – Yamamoto, on a surviving chair, eyes dull and dead. Before him is his father, splayed and gutted, like an animal to be sacrificed, only abandoned halfway. Before him is his model, his pillar, his family. Before him is his world – was his world, and it was very, very dead.

-

-

His first kill – uneventful, a bullet through the head. He's a frighteningly accurate shot despite his age; it isn't all too hard to finish the job. It's for warm food, and enough money to afford a flat. Filthy, but a flat nonetheless – he isn't one to complain, given his circumstances. That he had taken a life never really registers until far, far later, when his eyes are reopened to the value of it, and the Tenth's kind light shines through his darkness.

He kills again – a quick scuffle, but he pins the target to the ground anyway, and drags the butter knife through flesh, snagging bone. The warmth of red, seeping through his fingers – life-giving, life-sustaining, life-itself blood – from then on becomes an item of his dreams. He doesn't call them nightmares, because they aren't really – not when he isn't scared.

The third kill is his first kill with a bomb; he is tremendously proud of it, a feat he had engineered all on his own. Never mind that a life had been lost; it was just another dirty mafioso anyway. It had taken him weeks of experimentation to complete the explosive, days of stakeout to time his kill perfectly – but only seconds to detonate and kill his target. This one is (relatively) bloodless, and he rather likes it that way, if only because there's less clean-up required.

Sometimes, though, when he's cold and hungry, alone – he kind of longs for the warmth of fresh-flowing blood, that precious red life he's grown to love to cup in the palm of his hands.

-

-

The police come and go; they find nothing and all in all its better that way. The Vongola creed, instead of subscribing to some abstract ideal (say, justice), prefers something concrete and tangible (such as finding the fuckers and gutting them all the same way they did Yamamoto's father). Investigations begin; the newly allied Hibari clan most gladly accepts the job of hounding the trail left behind by the trespassers who dared encroach upon their territory.

Despite being a crushing blow to their morale, Gokudera recognizes this as a political victory for the Vongola. Any trespass and assault within Namimori territory inevitably incurs the wrath of the elite Hibari clan – one of the most influential yakuza clans in the entirety of Japan. Yamamoto Tsuyoshi's murder now served as the final seal upon the alliance between the Vongola and the Hibari clan.

Gokudera fears, though, that by the time they finish investigations and find their perpetrators, it would be too late.

-

-

The funeral passes, a day of drab grey and a murmuring wind. It takes far too long for the rest of the public to leave, in his opinion – he can't stand the pity in their eyes, pity for the son left behind. Neighbors offer their help and condolences; Yamamoto doesn't say a word, just nods. His eyes, usually bright brown and smiling, are blank, and probably unseeing; that night was a shock, a revelation, an epiphany.

This isn't a game, the bodies told him, and you can't pretend anymore.

So Gokudera mourns – not for Yamamoto Tsuyoshi, but for Yamamoto Takeshi. Because there is nothing sadder, after all, than the death of an illusion.

-

-

He doesn't really know why at that point in time, but he remains after everyone has left, standing beside – behind – Yamamoto, and says, "Stay with me."

And Yamamoto does.

-

-

In his dreams there is a swath of blood as his paint, and a blank of black as hiscanvas. He washes the black with red, and though there is no light, he can see. In his waking, there is his job – of being a mercenary, now hailed as one of the rising best – and when there isn't the job, there are the thoughts. They race, fast and furious, within his mind; neurons crackle back and forth, forming ideas that would have been incomprehensible to anyone else.

But there's no one else there, no one else to see him. No one else to tell him that he is very, very sick. So he continues to swim in his madness, endless thoughts streaking through his mind like shooting stars. They're too fast sometimes, and he fails to catch them – but that's alright, because there's many more to come.

There is a particular kind of elation and terror involved in this kind of madness. When he's high, it is tremendous. There are solutions to where there were roadblocks; there are interests in the dullest and boring things. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, euphoria seeps into the flesh, digs into the bones. Stays there, in the marrow, deep, deep, where the body will always remember. He invents, improvises, one gadget, one bomb after the other. The productivity is stellar, no other word to describe it, and he feels every single string of success as the universe unravels all around him.

But then it changes.

Somewhere, it changes – and the thoughts he could all catch suddenly go too fast for his grasping hands. Everything becomes muddled. Trains of thought grind to a halt, memory disappears. Confusion replaces clarity, and all that was once wonderful becomes meaningless, dull. Where there were walking spaces, now there are suddenly holes. He falls through – and there's no knowing how long the stay is, for madness carves its own reality.

-

-

Perhaps it's because he recognizes those eyes. Those eyes he used to see in the mirror, all those years ago – he doesn't want to be reminded of them. Because whenever he is, he remembers his canvas of black, his constellations of thought. Long after the psychosis settles down, the images remain – something one will remember forever with an overwhelming Proustian melancholy (1).

Yamamoto moves in with him soon after the funeral; the flat is big enough for the two them, though there's only one bedroom and one bed. Yamamoto's clothes go into the closet, where Gokudera has prepared space for them. The shoes go into the shoe rack; the laptop sits on the desk; the picture frames go up on the living room shelves.

It doesn't take too long to get Yamamoto settled in, and soon they're finishing up their meager dinner: ramen takeout from the nearby store. Gokudera later lets him stay in the bed, snug in between quilts and pillows.

"Sleep," he tells him, and it takes a little while, but Yamamoto murmurs back, "Thank you, Gokudera," with a small, sad smile.

-

-

At night, Yamamoto is restless, talking in his sleep. Incoherent murmurs at first, but they turn into words soon enough – or maybe they don't, only that Gokudera understands the language Yamamoto is speaking. Light and darkness, red and white and black. Surging, receding – he still remembers the dreams, the same dreams he used to have, the same dreams Yamamoto now suffer – the beautiful strobes of lights, the stars and planets, so achingly close

Then Yamamoto turns over, burying his head under the pillow, as if to block out whatever it was that talked to him, whispering into his ear. Gokudera knows that phantom feeling too, heavy and fluid over the skin, always there yet not really there. Annoying.

This is all proof, though – of Yamamoto's descent. Gokudera had hoped – fervently hoped – that he was mistaken, that he was seeing things. But it seems he wasn't – he isn't. For the first few nights he had strived to ignore Yamamoto's whimpers, to pretend that there wasn't incoherent mumbling, to give the man some semblance of privacy in his mourning –

But then one night he finds the man, crouched over the basin in the bathroom, scrubbing his arms raw. "Washing away the blood," he says, "but it won't come off."

It's then that Gokudera acknowledges, against his own denials of it – Yamamoto is sick.

-

-

The cycle continues – up and down, up and down. His flights of genius – his floridly psychotic manias – are accompanied always by a crash – a long and lacerating black suicidal depression. They're mild, at first – sudden bursts of energy followed by sudden downturns in mood. They don't affect his daily life much; he thinks of it as puberty's fucked up welcome gift. He has other urgent matters to ponder, such as how to get in and out of his next target's house without getting killed.

He never thinks of himself as sick – the thought of psychosis never even crosses his mind. He knows his dreams are particularly disturbing at times, but what's new? Everybody has their own share of strange dreams.

It isn't until the mania begins creeping into his job that he takes notice; he doesn't wake up one day and find himself mad. Life should be so simple. Rather, he gradually becomes aware that his life and mind are both going at an ever faster and faster clip until finally they both spin wildly out of control – brutal kills, murders that would make his name infamous among the mafia's ranks before he even hits twelve years – by all rights, they could be called massacres. Entire factions die by his bombs, or by his hands, painfully, with the commissioned knives he so treasures (he can afford that much, now). He carves his opponents into art, into something beautiful, into something they were not.

He doesn't remember much of them – there are lapses in his memory, blemishes, black holes in his constellations. Sucking up everything and leaving nothing behind. They're particularly destructive to his peace of mind, sets him on edge. It chafes him when he cannot remember all the details of his mission; he might have already compromised himself without knowing anything about it. All he remembers are flashes of red, screams, flesh underneath his fingertips, euphoria.

And all he is left with: blood and grit underneath his fingernails, clinging tenaciously, like the stains on his soul. Caked blood on his skin, his face, his back, his arms – whose, he didn't know. The same matting his hair, no longer the beautiful silver of his mother, but an ugly filthy brown.

And his mother, oh, his mother – what would she think of him now? Her child, a murderer. Her child, a demon. Her child – no longer hers, robbed by his own father from safety and warmth and comfort and love – what is love?

Whatever it is, it's something he surely did not deserve. Life's rather meaningless, he gathers, if this is all there is to it – endless killing and fighting and death – so what's the point of living? There's no one else to live for but himself – and why he's striving, he can't even begin to guess. No one cares should he disappear. No one cares – so why should he care?

On the eve of Christmas, on his twelfth year, he attempts his first suicide.

-

-

That's the one thing he doesn't want Yamamoto to come to – suicide. That's the one thing he wouldn't wish on anyone, no matter how much contempt he has for them. There's something about having already experienced it first-hand – it's never quite the same as how they describe it in the books. Yamamoto is a precious friend to the Tenth and a valuable asset to the Vongola – hence, he is to be protected and provided for until he's better again.

The whitewashed walls of the recently finished underground Vongola base's medical ward offer him no comfort at all as he scales the halls, footsteps quick and decisive as he looks around for the resident head physician. Shamal would know best what to do – and he would also be able to prescribe lithium, if necessary.

Gokudera is a staunch believer in medication – it worked for him, and though he knows that psychosis manifests itself in various ways from person to person, there's no reason for them not to try it for Yamamoto. They would just have to monitor him closely, and watch the reactions.

He stops short before a door that has Shamal's name on it, praying that the man was in. Knocking quietly, he waits, and when a quiet, "Yeah, come in," echoes from inside, he steps in.

-

-

"You know what I'm here for," Gokudera states in plain. The fluorescent overheads are painfully dim, but the yellow lamplight is on; notes, experimental drafts for poisons and cures, are methodically scattered over the table. Cigarette smoke is heavy in the air.

Shamal sets down his pen, reclines in his seat, and looks up at him with measuring eyes. "Yamamoto-kun."

"He needs treatment. He's far from stable. He's having hallucinations, sometimes delusions – he's showing early symptoms of psychosis –"

"— and you aren't the doctor here, Hayato, so stop for a moment, and listen," Shamal interjects with a sigh. "He doesn't have the same thing you had. He's depressed, Hayato – not manic-depressive – and that's normal. He saw his father, dead, gutted – anyone would suffer trauma."

"I wouldn't," Gokudera grumbles disagreeably.

Shamal gives a gruff noise of assent. "Well, of course you wouldn't. You've seen and done worse – but this is Yamamoto we're talking about."

A heartbeat of silence, and then Gokudera entreats, "At least look him over and make sure. He has been having hallucinations, and night terrors."

The plea in his voice is plain for everyone to see – but there's no one else in the room, apart from Shamal. He gets himself a flat glare from the doctor, who gives in, sighs, and nods. "I'll stop by tomorrow afternoon, then. Try to get him to walk outside a little bit. It'll help. Change of scenery, whatever."

"Yeah," Gokudera echoes. "Whatever." He has a frown on his face as he turns to leave, but stops at Shamal's voice.

"You know," Shamal calls after him as he faces the impersonal and ascetic white walls, "that he's healing you too, right?"

If only, Gokudera scoffs, walking away and leaving behind him an open door.

-

-

He overdosed – one of the most peaceful ways to go about killing oneself. He still has some remaining consideration about pain, and a very morbid concern over the condition of his remains. At the very least he wants a decent burial, or a cremation – it would be nice if his father actually found heart enough to attend.

Shamal, though, is a pesky bastard, and finds him very quickly – the doctor's panicked face is the last thing he sees before succumbing into the swirling darkness. He'd swallowed close to twenty of a very strong kind of sleeping pills (acquired illegally, of course) – it's very quick, and relatively painless. He's had worse.

The next thing he sees isn't hell, but light – he's in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV drip and a multi-parameter monitor. Shamal keeps him down for a week of recovery, asks him a bunch of questions he can't even remember. He isn't too pleased with the doctor's intervention, but he can't bring himself to do anything about it. In fact, he can't bring himself to do anything about anything at all.

This is, of course, only until the endless questioning finally grinds to a halt, and Shamal sidles up to him and tells him, "Manic-depressive illness," with no ounce of uncertainty in his voice.

-

-

He refuses to let Yamamoto sink into the grim and brackish existence he had to suffer, years ago when he battled with his own illness, his low points and depression. True to Shamal's suggestions, he takes Yamamoto out for dinner. They spend afternoons walking around in the numerous parks around Namimori, and occassionally, they head out to shore, whiling the evening away on damp sand with some well-deserved Chianti.

Once or twice they go to a baseball pitch, when school practice is off and they aren't disturbing anyone. He lets Yamamoto coach him – a shadow of the old carefree sunshine smile graces Yamamoto's face, his eyes, and that's more than enough to please Gokudera despite his disinterest for the game.

He strives to give Yamamoto what he didn't have during his long bouts of depression in Italy. He cooks meal after meal, does the laundry for both of them, cleans up and shoulders Yamamoto's share of paperwork. This subtle support, this quiet guidance, is what he missed when he went floundering in his own little box of darkness – and it's just about the least he can do for someone else who is floundering in theirs.

The tumult of delusions and nightmares, the dark moods, soon calm after Yamamoto begins taking Shamal's prescribed sleeping pills – these days, it's more of a problem to wake him up than to get him to sleep. The black depressions are deep and pervading, bordering on suicidal, very nearly there – at one point he has half a mind to ask Shamal for a prescription of Prozac. But he binds his hands. Yamamoto's growing dependence upon the pills is a concern for him. There's no other choice but to medicate him when he begins to scream at night, so the sleeping pills are a must, but Prozac – well, Gokudera doesn't think he'll be able to hide that, and it'd worry the Tenth.

And the Tenth is already worried enough. So are the girls – they keep on asking of his condition, if he's any less morose, if his old cheer is back, if he could come at this trip and that. In the end, though, they aren't willing to handle Yamamoto's depression. They can't stand to see the darkness and despair in his eyes, can't understand his bone-weary pain, his almost arterial level of agony. In the end, it's Gokudera who's left to pick up the pieces, because he's the only one who has a clue how to put them back together into something that would resemble a whole.

Except, in the fine likeness of china that's been broken, a person – a mind – can be put back together, but will never be quite the same.

-

-

The healing process is a bitter bitch, fickle and condescending, always uncooperative. Shamal gives him a steady dose of lithium while a more lasting (and possibly permanent) concoction could be made to suppress his extreme moods into a threshold. Lithium works well for him, eases out the pointed peaks of mania and steep pits of his black depressions. There never was any question for the drug's efficiency from the beginning – but the drug strongly affects his mental life.

He soon finds himself beholden to medication that causes severe nausea and vomiting. He might as well have taken a pillow to the bathtub and slept there instead. Shamal only modifies the dose when, at one point, he becomes highly toxic and begins walking into walls.

The blurred vision, though, doesn't go away even when Shamal lowers the dose; he finds that he can't even read anymore, and being robbed of his literature is probably the worst punishment the world can give. He is an intellectual, thriving on his words – what could he ever be without them?

The one thing that remains within his grasp, thank whatever god watching over him, is his music, for which he needs no guide, no notes, no sheets. His fingers are a little clumsy, and a lot unpracticed – but music is music, and for what it's worth, he gives it his entire heart.

Throughout the dark eighteen months of recovery, music remains his one true companion. The blank canvas of black is replaced by music sheets, and his swath of blood as paint becomes a pencil to draw out his notes. The suicidal depressions are held at bay by regular doses of antidepressants, and the mania, when it returns, is much milder.

He's dead to the mafia for a whole two years of recovery – until that one day when Shamal gives him a letter of recruitment from Reborn and a one-way ticket to Japan.

-

-

An unexpected call to Italy disrupts the peaceable harmony he's built with Yamamoto and the depression. Italy can't be good; Italy holds nothing for them but discord and death. Granted, his opinion is rather biased, and probably not the best one to take when seeking compliments about his homeland. But it holds truth for him – Italy is red and cold and warmth and lost breath and despair – Japan is the complete opposite. He doesn't want to go back there, and he sure as hell doesn't want to take Yamamoto there, not in his current condition.

But they had no choice, did they? The fifth creed of the Cosa Nostra prevents them from denying the call of their family. One must always be available for service, personal circumstances notwithstanding.

It's an unpleasant job they're called to, him and the Tenth, Hibari, Yamamoto, Mukuro; Ryohei and Lambo are both left behind to protect the girls and provide support for the Japanese headquarters. A cold war is currently underway within the community, and the high tension between their allied families is only worsening the situation. This was the prime reason why they were unable to pay attention to the local conflicts in Japan, why Yamamoto Tsuyoshi's murder had come about. This is the problem they deal with now. The relatively new but firm alliance they now have with the Hibari clan offers relief; at least, this time, they have someone watching the backlines as they surge into the forefront of the battle.

Two of their allies, the Corleonesi and the Nulla, are teetering precariously on the brink of an outright drug war, and while there's little problem in restraining the Nulla, a relatively quiet and amiable clan, the Corleonesi bastards are an entirely different matter. Always disgruntled of their inability to usurp the Vongola from power, they're well-known for seeking trouble at every opportunity. Add to that, the fuckers run a handful of underground brothels within continental Europe, and are also known to dabble in sex trafficking – the least preferred method of business within the Vongola circle.

It gives Gokudera a vindictive sort of pleasure when he thinks of what must have happened to the Corleonesi clan in the future from where they returned – Byakuran must have crushed them into oblivion, looting their assets and leaving behind liabilities.

Speaking of which – it's also an enormous lift of burden to have both the Gesso and Giglio Nero within the Vongola circle. It took some magnificent persuasion on Tsuna's part to entice Byakuran into a partnership, and a truckload of charm to win Uni over Gamma. And of course, it takes him, the consigliere-to-be (the Ninth had yet to formally step out), a lot of intricate political maneuvering to have the details in the fabric smoothed out. Couple that with taking care of Yamamoto's troubles, and by all rights and reasons it's a living hell.

He can't complain, though. There's no backing out of his duties in the Vongola, but he's not about to drop Yamamoto – not now that he needs someone beside him. So he takes one on each shoulder, grits his teeth, and bears it through. He can do this; he'll be a pillar to both, so neither will crumble. He's pretty sure he needs both Tsuna and Yamamoto for his sanity anyway, and he's willing to suffer through anything as long as he doesn't return to the old black and red.

He can do this.

-

-

Or so he thinks.

Italy welcomes them with the smile of a demon, fangs bared and claws unsheathed. The Varia are practically useless in matters of politics – Xanxus has no restraint to speak of, Squalo no patience, and Belphegor no propriety or sanity; the rest of them more or less the same – so it's up to them, the true Guardians, to help ease the kinks out of the family's troubles.

But politics is a simple matter of strategy, and strategy is child's play for Gokudera. What's troubling him isn't the familial troubles existing that very moment – it's the troubles that could rise up in the future. How does one hide regular doses of Prozac and its side-effects from people when mingling is inevitable? It's a near impossibility.

He tries his best to hide Yamamoto anyway – in front of people, a black depression is not as presentable as, say, a white mania would be. But Yamamoto's not manic-depressive – he's just depressed, nearly suicidal, and though that's supposed to make things easier, in this case it doesn't.

Gokudera's only consolation is Squalo's ever-frank and merciless presence. It knocks a semblance of reality and normality back into Yamamoto's head. Squalo is terribly direct, which is terribly important – Gokudera understands this. Squalo slaps Yamamoto around, telling him he's sick, telling him he needs to snap out of it, telling him what pathetic a shell of a creature he's become. It's all the truth – harsh and chafing, but the truth.

It's almost like watching a play of his and Shamal's (almost entirely one-sided) conversations long ago; it was the desperately optimistic, condescending and idiotic things Shamal didn't say that kept him alive back then. All the compassion and warmth couldn't have been turned into words – still can't be, today. All the intelligence, confidence, and time spent healing, the granite belief in the value of life – words are not enough, and Squalo seems to understand and acknowledge this. Squalo has always known Yamamoto's warrior spirit better than anyone else, after all.

The one instance wherein Squalo's help is invaluable – and unavailable – comes too soon.

-

-

He spends the last month of confinement within Shamal's small rented house in Cannes, the extremes of his moods dying down. Relief is all he can feel whenever he thinks of saying goodbye to the stark darkness, the painful lethargy, the dead and dull reality. And he's happy, too, that the manias are over – though he still longs for the darkness, now that he's sober, he doesn't think all too well of his uncontrolled rages. His kills – no, massacres – they're despicable acts of violence, of such dark, fierce, and damaging energy – of a ruthless, raw Id breaking away from the hold of a fragile self.

The rages are discrepancies in his consistency – to the extent that he had any. They seem a very long way from the cultured, graceful society he grew up in – a far cry from silk dresses, of grand pianos and tall-windowed houses, of gentlemen and ladies, of smooth ivory keys underneath the pads of his fingers and the crisp smell of music sheets and ink.

The manias, too, are discrepancies – but he doesn't think of the two the same way. For the most part of his childhood he was raised in a straitlaced society, raised to be thoughtful of others, to be wary of strangers, circumspect and restrained in any action. But the manias, they don't respect those borderlines – they trespass. And maybe because he's a teenager and he's supposed to love a brilliant rebellion, he finds this simply stellar.

Admittedly, they turn destructive far too often, and alienate people around him. Is any of it real? Well, certainly not, not in any traditional definition of the word "real." But it stays, burrows deep into the marrows, so that even when the brain is dead by the grace of lithium, when the neurotransmitters cease to function the way they should – the body still remembers the sensations, and it revels in it.

Make no mistakes – he doesn't miss the deaths. No; what he misses are the fights of genius. The universe blooming within him, before him, around him. Even now, staring out towards the open sea, he can see in his mind's rather peculiar eye the shattering and shifting of light, strobes of them grouping and separating, forming the strangest serpentine shapes, inconstant and ravishing colors laid out across circles spanning miles. During his now past manias he saw and experienced what was only a fitful of imagination, a handful of dreams.

Now, he doesn't have them anymore. The manias are mild – the universe still blooms, but its pallid and slow compared to the old. Now that he is back to his "normal" self he feels detached from where he had been his liveliest, most productive, most intense, most effervescent. In short, for himself, he is a hard act to follow.

And he misses his constellations of thought very, very much.

-

-

There is a function, an impressive gathering of the Vongola circle, within the manor's grounds, where the Ninth is entertaining the guests. Ladies – beautiful wreaths, they seem – glide around; his fingers run over elegant gloves that slid over the elbows when he guides Bianchi into the crowd. The pearls on his stepmother's necklace gleam dimly in the half-light; he immediately backs out, content to watch from the sidelines, lest he be asked to a dance.

No, that wouldn't do at all – they would be leaving soon, and he doesn't have the time to socialize. The Varia is present, ever-ready to protect and secure should the need arise. This isn't where they are needed tonight.

His earring – a radio transmitter, disguised – crackles almost inaudibly, and Tsuna's voice whispers to him, "It's time; I need you, now." He runs his eyes through the crowd, and spots Yamamoto across the courtyard, slipping into the shadows and making his way through the gardens, past the old castle's offshoot buildings, and towards the back gates. He follows, and behind him he knows Hibari and Mukuro are also leaving their post.

The night is deep, but the stars are bright; there is no moon, but they don't need it anyway. He approaches Tsuna, who stands quietly conversing with Dino, beside one of the two sleek black cars. As soon as he is within earshot, he scatters all other thought and brings deadly focus on the matters at hand.

"…will need to be pretty quick about it," Dino is saying, "since the Ninth wants us back before this ends." He gestures vaguely towards the lit manor, from where voices carried in the air.

"I understand," Tsuna sighs, adjusting his tie. Gokudera recognizes this as a habit of anxiety; all of them, they know the enormity of this small meet. "Hopefully things will go smoothly."

He watches as his friend takes a deep, calming breath – and his spine stiffens when Tsuna turns to them with the eyes of Vongola Decimo. "Yamamoto and Gokudera-kun are with me, to the Corleonesi. Dino-san will take Mukuro and Hibari-san to the Nulla. We will resolve this tonight; it's best if we take care of matters while everyone else is preoccupied. You already know the plan; refrain from any bloodshed that is not within strict self-defense."

Wordlessly they comply and get into the cars; there isn't much concern in the air – it's just a meet, and they're far from defenseless. Of course, there's also the fact that apart from Gokudera, nobody knows that Yamamoto hasn't taken his dose of Prozac tonight.

The medicine comes with its side-effects, and they aren't pretty. An immediate bout of nausea and vomiting after a dose isn't exactly conducive to a function and a diplomatic meet, so they decide to opt out tonight. Possible strategic glitches that might come up number at around the hundreds, Gokudera realizes this, but there's no choice – there was no pulling Yamamoto out of it, not when the Corleonesi has asked for the right and the left consigliere both to come with the capo.

This is their one shot at ending the cold war – considering they haven't even gotten as far as preventing the eruption of a mafia war, this is a very enticing offer. After much deliberation, they choose to ignore the dangers and the plausibility of a trap. They step in.

The car ride is painfully silent; fifteen minutes in and their radios tell them Dino's party has arrived at their destination. They themselves are still about five minutes away, but time flies fast in anxiety, and far too soon they are walking into a rundown building roughly ten miles off the outskirts of Palermo.

Gokudera assesses his team of three; in his mind he sees Yamamoto's subdued blue flame, and Tsuna's jittery orange. His own, a tight and spitting red fire, churns with unsease. The prospect of battle with Yamamoto unmedicated and free – it's frightening, all truths be told, not because he fears Yamamoto might harm himself and ruin his progress, but because Gokudera is aware of the possibility of his own unquiet mind thrashing free of the hold of sanity. Yamamoto doesn't have the contagious manias, but he might have the similarly contagious red rage – violent energy normally held under by depression, exploding out and unfettered. Because fundamentally, sanity isn't the lack of neuroses – every person has his own. Fundamentally, sanity is the presence of control – without it, reality crumbles.

He leads the way into the building and through the dirty hallways, noting light up the flight of stairs. His heels are quiet taps against the concrete – Bruno Magli, especially commissioned – and he holds one hand over Uri's quietly rattling box. Tsuna follows behind, Yamamoto bringing the rear.

The second floor: supporting pillars, microcracks barely visible; wide blank walls with peeling paint; swept floor, a table in the middle, no chairs; a wide space, and shadows cast by one meager light. Some of the windows must be open; Gokudera feels a breeze lifting strands of his hair. Sandro Corleone, in the middle, puffing on a cigar. His sotto capo behind him, but his consigliere nowhere to be found – probably hiding somewhere in a hole, intent on surviving until everything tides over. Bernardo Rigonat is a sly man, preferring the shadows and power off-stage.

"Buonasera, Vongola Decimo," says the greasy man; inwardly, Gokudera grimaces.

Without a falter in his step, however, Tsuna strides into the den, shoulders squared and confident. His tenure is well-learned and well-earned. Yamamoto follows after, eyes strangely bright tonight – Gokudera bites the inside of his cheek.

Tsuna is still recognizably nervous, and Yamamoto doubtlessly mired within the half-clarity of his own mind – it stands to reason, then, that Gokudera is the first to notice something amiss. From the moment they step out of the car, he's had his senses wide and open, alert to even the slightest dissemblance. They start tingling the moment they step into the landing, so he sweeps his eyes over the room again – shadows, pillars, half-open windows, silver –

"Tenth!"

He jumps into action and shoves Tsuna to the floor. A gunshot rings, and then two, and then three – soon it's a cacophony of chaos, and Corleone is nowhere to be found. One flick of his wrist, Uri is free – he lunges into the darkness and grabs one of the gunmen tight around the waist.

He doesn't have time to look after Yamamoto; all he knows is the lurching of his own momentum. He grabs blindly for the man's gun and throws it away – he thinks it hits someone else; life is good – snaps his leg in a sharp upright, sending a hidden blade up under the man's jaw and into his brain. A plaintive roar shatters the monotony of gunfire, and a satisfying crunch tells him one of the fuckers just got one hell of an Uri-bite.

White stars explode across his half-black vision when an elbow digs into his plexus – breath rushes out of his lungs, wheezing through his throat. He grabs the elbow, though, and twists it, snaps the butt of his palm down on it – the sharp crack, the sharp cry of pain, rings in his ear.

Somebody crashes into the table, and the light goes out – along with it goes the use of his Sistema or his skull cannon. In this darkness black as pitch, he doesn't dare fire aimlessly, for fear of hitting his comrades. Tsuna's voice is suddenly barking sharp words into his ears; Dino responds instantaneously, even before Tsuna finishes speaking. From somewhere else – maybe base control – there is a scramble of noise, a confusion of orders – he doesn't care to listen, so long as they know that the Tenth's life is in danger –

He grabs another man, pulls out one of his favored knives, and viciously stabs into the neck – he doesn't need light to measure his opponent's physique, he's been doing this for far longer than any of them, and fuck Bel, he can use blades too. The warm red seeps into his hands, though – he grits his teeth through the rush of adrenaline, and struggles to keep the cold wash of rationality.

A hard battle to fight now, when Tsuna lets out a shout of alarm – his name, raw panic, hoarse voice – he dodges in time to see the shadow of a glinting sword whiz by his face, thrown across the room, crushing its way through one man's sternum, through the chest cavity, through the back, pinning the body up against the wall, splattering the wall with blood – the man had been pointing a gun at his head.

Another faceless, nameless man grabs Yamamoto, and Gokudera is mesmerized when his frozen comrade pitches into action, fast as lightning, agile and still ever-graceful. As if in slow motion, he watches – Yamamoto pulls out a gun, and shoots at point blank – the bullet goes through the man's nose, out the back of his head. There is a mad light in Yamamoto's eyes.

He growls an oath, grabs the nearest one to him, and sends a flurry of fists and knees, before slamming his elbow over the back of the man's neck. The resulting crunch is drowned by another roar; Uri fells two at a time, ripping flesh and spraying blood all over the floor. The then off-white paint is now becoming a dark, morbid red – the stench, oh, it's Takesushi all over again, only this time, they're the ones doing the shredding, and –

"Yamamoto, stop!"

He turns after his – how many now? – kill in time to see Yamamoto hack a man into three. And then the next man, too, into however many pieces, and the next –

He wants to go over and pull Yamamoto to him, soothe him, calm the rage, but he can't seem to grab that opportunity, and he doesn't know how much longer he whirls in his small circumference, grabbing and slashing and stabbing and punching – his grip on his knife slips once, and that's only when he realizes his fingers are slick with red. He rounds, and sees a shadow sneaking up behind the Tenth – the red blade rips through the air from his fingers, lodging itself into the shadow's neck – Corleonesi's sotto capo falls down.

This is war now, he realizes, and it's not even between the initial parties, the Nulla and the Corleone. This is war, declared by the Corleone, upon the Vongola, a most idiotic and wasteful thing to do. Do they not realize the consequences that would befall them? Do they not realize the utter destruction the Vongola is capable of?

To think, he mirthlessly grins, as he snatches someone's gun and fires three shots into a man's knee, hip, chest – to think that this was just the three of them, no, actually, the two of them, him and Yamamoto – they're probably two of the kindest of Vongola's ranks. If this was the Varia –

The door – when did it close? – slams open, light floods the floor. Dino comes barging in, Tsuna's name on his lips, and after him comes Hibari, Mukuro, and speak of the devils – the Varia, too. There's no one else left but them, none left of the men who ambushed them. There were thirty, maybe forty – how many by his hands, he doesn't remember, he lost count. His feet stagger to a halt as his brain, ever quick, registers the end of the blitz –

– but Yamamoto doesn't, and at the swish of motion, he turns and charges Dino, eyes unseeing, unsettled, insane. Before he knows it he is lunging forth, grabbing Yamamoto's arms, disabling them and the sword. He spins Yamamoto around, pins him down with his own arms, locking them tight against Yamamoto's struggle.

"Yamamoto," he says, "Yamamoto, calm down." His jaw is tight, he grits his teeth – these words are hard, but they're what he needs. "Ya – Takeshi, Takeshi, come on, it's me. Calm down, it's me, I'm here, you're fine – "

The arms fall, but the fist grips tight – Yamamoto's knuckles are white around Kintoki's bloodied hilt. Inside the wide room is wonderful carnage, a litany to the madness that exists within them – so he pulls Yamamoto down the stairwell and through the halls, because he doesn't need to see that, doesn't need to see the magnificent pair of monsters they've become.

And when finally, the fight goes out of him – when the madness dims in his eyes, and the grip loosens around the blade – they collapse, together, to the floor, with Gokudera and his arms and his gentle murmured words cradling this dormant monster close.

-

-

People go mad in idiosyncratic ways. It's all a matter of perspective, of circumstance, of personality. Sometimes they notice it, sometimes they don't. Oftentimes they deny it; a normal reaction, fueled by fear, anger, hurt, loss. But no matter how it conceives itself, insanity is insanity, and there's nothing that changes that truth.

-

-

In exchange for one night of freedom, they reap a bitter harvest. He takes Yamamoto home, bypasses worried faces as he pulls the listless man along. The function is over, and the news has spread – a few close and concerned allies mill around, and all around them are nothing but shocked eyes as they push through.

He ignores all of them. He ignores them, and drags Yamamoto up the flight of stairs, through the hallways, towards their shared quarters. Never mind that they are dragging footprints of half-red and half-dirt on the otherwise immaculate carpets; Yamamoto needed his medicine, a bath, and sleep.

The man stands there, silent, when he leaves him by the bathroom door, and locks their room. He leaves the sword – still soaked in congealing blood, wrapped in his jacket – on a table, and tugs Yamamoto by the arm into the en suite bath.

He toes off his shoes and nudges Yamamoto's feet to do the same. He tugs off the bloodied jacket, untangles the ruined tie; belts drop to the floor in a dull clatter, metal hitting marble and reflecting the faint light. Buttons slip and slide through their holes, and soon they're both shimmying out of their stained white shirts – the blood mats both of their hairs, and the hot water is a welcome relief when he tugs both of them under it.

There's a reason why he shouldn't be sharing a shower with Yamamoto, but he forgets. All he knows right now is the need to comfort; all he feels is the kinship, a strong bond. He has always valued family above all else, and now Yamamoto has become a true part of his family, closer than ever, closer than even Tsuna is. Because in a way that Tsuna can never and will never do, Yamamoto understands and feels him. His brokenness, his past – the sleeping monster inside him, held at bay by Shamal's grace.

Granted, right at that moment, there is no light of comprehension within Yamamoto's eyes. He's still shrouded in the darkness, though slowly coming to; Gokudera has to help wash the blood off his arms and chest and face and hair. Afterwards, however, when Yamamoto recovers and they're both relatively sane again – afterwards, Yamamoto too will see this kinship. Yamamoto does not know his past, not yet, but when it's safe, and the coast is clear – Gokudera will tell him. If only to let him know that he's not alone.

Even as the blood and grit washes away in the steaming water, this thought brings Gokudera a jubilant smile. He smoothes his palm on Yamamoto's bare chest, cupping it around the curling edge of a shoulder, swiping away traces of the blood of whomever.

I'm not alone.

Later that night, he lies down in bed, cradling Yamamoto close to his heart. His fingers tangle through locks of black, his lips press against a warm forehead. When solid arms reciprocate and wrap back around him, he sighs, and thanks whatever deity watches over godless mercenaries, over magnificent and majestic monsters like them. He falls asleep to Yamamoto's scent, and warm red darkness.

-

-

A not-so-fine madness turns into a masterpiece when, in the company of another, he begins to see the universe again. It doesn't unravel like last time – he doesn't think it ever will again – but in the likeness of looking through tinted glasses, every angle and every texture and every form is different, alluring, absorbing.

The healing process is a fickle bitch to both of them, but they tame it, break it. The complexities of what one is given in life – the extent to which it affects – are vast and beyond full human comprehension. He – and Yamamoto too, now – both of them were given an impossibly wild, dark, and unbroken horse. It was a horse without a name, a horse with no experience of a bit between its teeth. Alone is was – still is – impossible to tame it; but together, there is enough strength to love it, and to break it. And, as Alexander had known intuitively with Bucephalus (2), kinship and the realization that one is not alone teaches them that the beast is best handled by turning it to the sun.

They have gained widespread notoriety with their massacre of some of the best of the Corleonesi, and even today as they sit peacefully with each other, sipping coffee, there is a manhunt for Sandro Corleone rampaging through the Sicilian countryside and beyond. The matter seems beyond them, however, and it doesn't touch their calm.

Shamal is disquieted by this startling change in mood, but somewhat understands, and lets it go. Gokudera sees him watching from afar, careful and considerate – he is grateful for that ever-watchful eye. Tsuna and the others only seem relieved, if a bit confused. Mukuro gives them a fathomless smirk whenever their eyes meet, and Hibari remains the same aloof bastard as ever, tamed only by Dino's sunshine smile.

Their Calabrian allies are to take care of the matters in Italy now, so they will soon be returning to Japan. He's glad for this; after all that's been said and done, Japan remains the best place for Yamamoto's healing – away from all this stress and pretention, deceit and familial tension. Strangers will no longer barge into their affairs when they are back in their house in Japan – and besides, university is due to start soon; he's quite sure being able to play league baseball again will help Yamamoto's recovery.

So he looks eagerly towards their return – that is, until Japanese intelligence reaches them: they've found Yamamoto's father's murderers.

-

-

It is three months into Gokudera's new life in Japan. At this point in time, he can no longer think of a life without the Tenth, of a life of aimlessness and endless wandering. Here, he has a purpose – to protect and provide and to guide. The Tenth is pure innocence, something he has never before encountered in his deceptively short life – something worth laying time and life down for.

He hopes, deep in his heart, that with the ushering of a new era, others like him, mired within the darkness of death and the mafia, can be helped. He hopes that Tsuna will be a beacon above the hierarchy – and if that means he has to wade through the wash of blood, if that means he has to rub elbows with the foul underbelly of Italy, then that's alright – he'll do all of it, all of it so Tsuna won't have to do any of it.

It's a small price to pay in exchange for the direction and fire that Tsuna has given back to him. His hands are already stained and dripping with blood, anyway – nothing will change. The red is held back by Shamal's cure – a tether that serves him well. Nothing will change –

Tsuna is worth it.

-

-

And so is Yamamoto, he now sees.

Never would he have thought that he'd protect someone – anyone else – the same way he does Tsuna. But he wants to do it now for Yamamoto, because he doesn't want Yamamoto's bright spirit stained any further. He doesn't want the flame doused out in full – he doesn't want to be alone again.

Yamamoto's first kill was that man he speared with his sword against the wall – Yamamoto's first kill was to protect him. Yamamoto had stained his hands for Gokudera – and in a twisted rendering of fairness, it would only be right to stain his hands for Yamamoto as well.

Rushing into another blitz like that would do nothing but further untangle the already dangerously loose strands of Yamamoto's reality. Rushing into another blitz like that is exactly what he knows Yamamoto wants to do – will do the moment they step back upon Japanese ground.

He can't afford to let that happen.

The plane prepares to touch down on Narita International, and he brings back a cup of water for Yamamoto to drink his morning medicine with – he slips a dose of a very strong sedative into the liquid, and watches as it blends into the colorless clear. He walks up to their row, hands Yamamoto the cup, and makes himself comfortable in his first-class aisle-side seat. When the steward comes to retrieve the cup, it's empty.

-

-

There isn't even time to think, when a bullet – as if in slow motion – grazes his cheek. Instinct kicks in, adrenaline sinking its teeth into his flesh; he snaps his head to the side, the vacuum snipping strands of spun silver from his fringe. The gun is a familiar weight in his hands, the trigger pliant beneath his fingers. The rings, they glint under moonlight, a riveting metallic red, bathed in blood and gore. He ducks behind a table, feeling the thud of bullets against the wood – a heavy patter, like rain on a car's roof – and then it's out again, a shower of gunshots ringing in midnight pitch as black.

It's one against many, but he isn't scared – fuck if he'd be scared, after years and years of endless fighting. His boxes, all seventeen of them, are restless – he has yet to use them, but tonight, he won't be using any of them at all.

No, because tonight is the night of reckoning – and for all the love and blood and life that has been taken, an equal payment would have to be dealt.

-

-

He comes home to Yamamoto bearing the marks of battle on his body – his ribs are bruised and broken at far too many places to count; his face is bloodied, a cut at his hairline bleeding past his eyes; his palm is raw from handling knives and the gun; his ears are ringing from the backlash of his bombs.

Tsuna rushes up to him as he walks into the shrine holding an entrance to their underground base. Yamamoto is furious, eyes alight with worry and – Gokudera smiles – sanity when he half-collapses onto his ass on the shrine's wooden floor. Tsuna is a confused bubble of worry and reprimand, and Ryohei is already pulling out his box to give healing.

That the girls are nowhere to be found faintly comprehends in his mind – ever-thoughtful Tsuna probably told them to back off, and let this one slide. Though Kyoko and Haru now both know about the entire mafia business, they are better off left unrelated. Bad things tend to happen to people who have certain ties, after all, as they've seen well with Yamamoto's father.

Yamamoto takes his shoulders and hisses, "Why did you go?" He turns to meet Yamamoto, and is met with intense eyes, alive and alight with fire. "Why did you go alone? Why didn't you wait for me?"

Gokudera bows his head in a gesture that would look like surrender; the night is still deep, plenty of time for the clean-up crew to take care of the mess he left behind. "You weren't needed." He takes Yamamoto's hand from his shoulder, and pats it gently. "I was enough for them."

"Fuck that!" Yamamoto snarls, and Gokudera jerks in surprise. When was the last time he saw Yamamoto with such fire? He could see fear in those eyes; is Yamamoto afraid of him, or for him? Shaking him by the shoulders, Yamamoto continues, "What if they got you too? Didn't you even considerlook at me, Hayato, and tell me why you just left like that!"

"He is a foolish child, that is why," says a quiet voice; he turns to find Hibari Kikyou, Hibari Kyouya's mother, emerging from behind the shrine's wooden sliding doors. "What have you gained from this pursuit of yours? Nothing but injury."

He dislikes this hag, though he doesn't say that aloud; he finds her much too similar Mukuro for comfort. He sometimes wonders why Hibari is so hateful of Mukuro, when he obviously adores his mother so.

"Not entirely," Gokudera tells her with a lopsided grin.

He takes and turns Yamamoto's hand over, palm up; he digs in his pocket for his other keepsake. Rather morbid and entirely uncouth, but the sentiment counts – you place the severed tip of a pinky finger in Yamamoto's palm (3).

A payment, a mark of retribution.

"Ando Ichirou bids you his heartfelt apologies from hell."

Yamamoto can only gape in surprise.

-

-

There is no easy way to tell other people one has a mental illness, psychosis, more specifically; if there is, then Gokudera hasn't found it. This will remain a secret, buried deep within his heart.

Between the two of them, it is known – Yamamoto will recover remembering everything that's been said and done. But apart from that, it will be kept inside, locked up in their own and very personal Pandora's boxes. There will be no latches, no keys to fit in the lock – it will be a sealed box, keeping within their personal demons, open only to each other, to their opposite monster.

Because in the end, they are but two sides of one, reflections of each other, beautiful broken beasts deep in their eyes. If there ever is any sort of peace he could call between him and his candor insanity, this togetherness – this genuine, human warmth – is probably it.

-

-

Yamamoto hurries after Gokudera, grinning and nodding along to whatever Tsuna is saying. The autumn wind whips past them, crisp and crystal. The body bag over his shoulder weighs light and foreign; it's been a while since he's had a school bag with him.

They're on their way to the university to arrange their papers. All three of them are off to Keio – Gokudera on a full scientific scholarship, Tsuna under the support of the Vongola, and him with a partial scholarship for college baseball and his father's saved-up college money to cover the gaps.

Gokudera hands him a sheaf of papers, with barked orders to fill them out completely. He merely gives a small grin and nods his affirmative; Gokudera tries to act tough and untouchable beyond closed doors, but truthfully, he isn't very good at it. Gokudera has always been quite pathetic at lying, and with the amount of time they've spent (and still spend) together, Yamamoto is bound to notice.

They sit around one of the round guest tables near the Admissions Hall, and begin to fill out the papers. Scanning downwards, he decides to tackle the straightforward ones first – he fills out the basics, almost writing down Takesushi's old address instead of Gokudera's flat; after that, he quickly checks "no" to a long line of questions about history of misdemeanor during middle and high school. The questions on the first and second pages are fairly easy to answer, so he soon finishes those too, and turns to the third page, about Health Information –

He stops.

Are you currently suffering from, or receiving treatment for any disability or illness, including drug or alcohol abuse, that would impair the proper performance of your academic duties at this institution?

And five lines down is the hangman's clause:

I fully understand that any significant misstatements in, or omissions from, this application may constitute cause for denial of acceptance to or summary dismissal from certain academic and extracurricular programs, or with respect to circumstance, from the institution itself.

Yamamoto's hands still over the page – the idle street noise and talk around them blend into a buzz as he continues to read and reread the words – "are you currently suffering from" – until Gokudera taps his hand idly.

He looks up; Tsuna is off to the washroom, apparently, and the two of them are alone under the tree.

"Something wrong?" Gokudera asks him. When he doesn't answer, Gokudera leans over his shoulder and reads – and then smiles. The tone of Gokudera's voice drops as he says, "Write on the space: 'Per discussion with the Dean.' We'll call them up later and ask for an appointment."

Doubt and fear persist within him; he remembers, vividly, the savagery of the red rage, and the hollowness of depression. But then, a gentle hand guides his still ones to form the words – and he releases an inch of breath –

Gokudera is here, upon whom he can place his trust.

He'll be fine.

-


-

FOOTNOTES
(1) The term "Proustian melancholy" refers to the French literary figure, Marcel Proust. It is a double allusion we weren't sure many would catch. In modern psychology, the term is commonly known to refer to involuntary memory (as in a memory that you recall unintentionally, triggered by some other factor apart from one's own will), something Proust coined in one of his works. Also, the second part of the allusion: Marcel Proust's personality is incredibly similar to Gokudera's, in that he was frighteningly intelligent, capable of serious thought, was very intuitive, but at times alienated people with his extremely open emotions. He was indecisive about most stuff, except for his one true devotion: writing. (To Gokudera, this would be Tsuna.) He was a brilliant conversationalist with an ability to mimic others, although some considered him a snob and a social climber. Sound familiar?
(2) Bucephalus was Alexander the Great's beloved horse, and they fought countless together until Bucephalus' death. Bucephalus was a difficult horse to tame, and only Alexander -- by smooth-talking and some affectionate petting -- was able to break the horse.
(3) This custom of the yakuza is called yubitsume, where they cut the tip of their little finger (at the last joint) as a sign of apology, as atonement for offenses made to another, or as punishment. The amputated finger is offered then to the kumichou of the offended party, or the person committed against directly.
(4) The Corleonesi is a faction within the Cosa Nostra that exists in real life. They dominated the community from the 1980s to the 1990s.

-

Inspired by Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, an extraordinary book of painful and brilliant honesty in the face of insanity. Timeset during their last year of high school, so they would be seventeen or eighteen years. Also posted on my LiveJournal, including some music I used to drive the emotion with while writing.

Kia Ixari
Published: 2009.04.26