For All That Once Was
Author: Jusrecht

Diclaimer: KHR belongs to Amano Akira.

Warnings: Angst, some mature stuff (but nothing too explicit), fluff, angst, sap, ANGST.

I. NAMIMORI

Loyalty, you reflected, was a little like blood in the way it defined a life and sculpted its purpose. Otherwise, a vacant soul lay dormant within a mortal shell and little else survived. Loyalty—or rather, a paragon of one—had neither a beginning nor an end, neither overture nor coda. It was a song with verses, chorus, and many bridges, each entwined with their formers and latters as they wove a story longer and longer still, and was endless.

Your first verse told a story of many summers ago, a sweltering night and a red-eyed boy, a demon who took up the mask of a child. It was a poor disguise, for you found him in a basketball court but in the steady grip of his hands was not the simplicity of a ridged, curved ball. Instead, his fingers curled around a pair of tonfa, polished steel that bore marks of battles far beyond his years. This was no court to play; this was a scene of purgation. The tall rings and white nets were untouched spectators for once, as still as three bodies that lay unmoving beneath his feet. There was blood on his face, lips, teeth, and his feral eyes found you.

Namimori used to be a battlefield, before. You had led one faction against two others for a place to call ours, before. She had been pustular with bedlams, before. There had been fights of fists and broken bottles and splintered glasses as you littered her with bent bodies, spilled your own blood, lost too many comrades. That act, as you would discover much later, barely warranted the name; a fight had a cause with every blow delivered and every ragged breath inhaled. A reckless show of brute strength was a desecration, he declared flatly, shoe flat on the back of your head as he slowly ground your face to dirt and hard earth.

Your second meeting was no coincidence. Humiliated, you sought for the trail of his shadow four days later, with stitches on your jaw and left eyebrow and a throbbing ache that refused to subside deep within your muscles and bones. A transfer student, one of your friends—minions, more like—reported, face spotted with bruises himself. But you caught the stifled reverence in his voice, and if a story, if this story must have a beginning, then it was the moment you saw him at the top of the school roof, alone, his jacket black and an emblem red scribbled with gold pinned to his fluttering left sleeve.

You remember thinking, a god.

Namimori had history on the turn of her soil, on every pebble and dirt that broke down softly to dust and merged with moist earth. But she spoke no language you understood; you could not ask her where he came from and why, whether his face belied his age or there were secrets deeper still.

Curiosity had its uses, but as of now they mattered but little. He came, ruled with an iron fist, and dispensed punishment for those either brave or foolish enough to challenge his regime. And for that Namimori had never been more peaceful, the streets more alive with people who no longer feared of being caught up in a fray. Namimori did not give it to him. Hibari Kyouya fought for everything and he won that right, wrestled it from her coiled, unwilling fingers, and for that she loved him forever.

The Disciplinary Committee was another invention that sank his claws even deeper into the place. He started alone; you followed him, offered your help, and for this impudence he beat you into the ground. But you came back, offered your service, and he regarded you for the first time, with disdain sharp against the careless indifference that caged his eyes. You thought him lonely; he thought you useless, and then turned around.

"Kusakabe Tetsuya," he said on the next day, and you found yourself proudly wearing his badge. The school was his, just as the streets and city were, and in this little kingdom he lay in wait. For what you were not quite sure, but you believed that he was destined for greater things, beyond Namimori and her fragile arms. There was nothing to bind Hibari Kyouya here, but for the moment he was content, sitting on this pedestal with everyone at his beck and call, waiting.

You wanted to see him fly, but just as a boy who saw a falcon in an august flight, you also wanted to keep him close, here—and name him mine.

Sawada Tsunayoshi, you thought, was the third verse.

No, that wasn't correct. Sawada Tsunayoshi was a bridge, for a verse yet to come, that terrible verse. He was a weed that grew under your shoes, too small, too insignificant to command anything but your most perfunctory attention. You turned away, content to ignore, and the next time your eyes found him, he was as tall as trees, imposing if not quite alarming—and he had one root tangled around Hibari's feet.

You saw him at the hospital in front of Hibari's door, arguing with Gokudera Hayato whether or not to knock and announce their visit to the Head Prefect. Yamamoto Takeshi noticed you first, a basket of fruit in the crook of his left arm, and his smile was accompanied with a polite nod; it was this reaction which informed the others of your arrival.

Sawada used to flinch at your presence, your height. Now his eyes widened, but he also attempted a tremulous smile. "Kusakabe-san," he greeted, anxious but no longer terrified.

You should have known since then. These people—kids, for it was all they were, had been once—had not existed before, neither in the scope of your sight nor his notice. Hibari recovered fast, and you did not ask about the wounds and the splits that made him grit his teeth, or about the little yellow bird that fluttered about from one shoulder to the tip of his finger. But he watched them now, Sawada and his friends, and as with everything, you found your eyes following his gaze.

There was trouble brewing, but you did not realise just how much it would affect him, nor in what manner, until you came looking for him one day and found the school roof harbouring not one, but three persons.

The third verse, you decided, that terrible one, was Dino Cavallone.

"I'll be gone for a few days."

You stared at him. He left the key on his desk where his documents and papers were stacked. They were all his, not yours, never yours, but you nodded and took the key, shouldered the responsibility that came with your badge while deep down you wondered, what would become of Namimori in the few days of his absence.

He left with the foreigner, a glimpse of gold next to his solemn black. Everyone noticed his absence, but very few knew the real difference. You stood at the gate, an imitation, a poor one by any standard, but either they didn't notice or they pretended not to. Duty felt like chains around your neck. There were always the shuffles of trepidation, in your ears, in your head, for fear of failure and disappointment. You walked his halls and your steps were dragging, your feet slipping in shoes that were not meant for these ungainly limbs. Too big, you felt, even if he was much, much smaller.

At the end of the first day, you braved the sanctity of his office. There was little to be done and so you stood by the window, as was your custom, at his right shoulder. The sky bled red beyond the glass, ruthless hellfire to a day's demise. In your hand was an opened file, the list of today's absent students, and the colour cast on the paper was hollow. But those names, one by one they dropped like puzzle pieces in your mind—Sawada Tsunayoshi, Gokudera Hayato, Yamamoto Takeshi, and one Sasagawa Ryouhei from third year—each with different colours and blurred lines that made very little sense. But you suspected, you knew: there was a bigger picture to assemble from all these, if only you could find the cornerstones.

Shadows grew longer, and with them, your hazardous guesses. You did not worry. To worry about him was an insult, a violation against fealty and conviction so true and so strong that they were impossible to name. They had no shape to perceive or touch, but they were in you, in thick dribbles of your blood, in the deep marrow of your bones. You had never believed in God, and lack of experience in this field made you wonder—perhaps, just perhaps, this was how faith would have felt like in a heart as small and hardened as yours.

He returned eight days later, a storm gathering between his eyes. You did not ask what was troubling him, neither the where's nor why's that had plagued your mind for days. Instead, you returned the office key to his rightful hand, and breathed a little easier.

Once classes ended, the foreigner was there again with his sunny grin and vicious whip and the black-suited shadow which followed his every step. His face bore bruises that looked achingly familiar. You still remembered how they felt on your own battered flesh and muscles, that summer night almost a year ago. He nodded and smiled at you when Hibari made no reaction toward your presence, and you returned them, tentatively.

But your foundations shook a little, when you heard him say, "Kyouya."

He looked small, you thought, and couldn't help but feel a little betrayed.

The sterile smell of the hospital was much too sharp in your nose, bitterly familiar, a reminder of broken bones and painful stitches. You had never seen him not awake, this state so vulnerable, so weak that even light shied away from his supine, bandaged form. Under slips and swathes of white cotton, fresh cuts and old bruises drew maps on his skin. At the window, blue curtains fluttered gently, yielding to capricious wind; you could smell the rain, could hear his brusque, snide comment inside your head, a trailing echo of someone stronger, and suddenly there was the crippling urge to smash the glass in your clenched fists. This was not him. This was not the ruthless god you worshipped and anchored the whole institution of your faith onto.

But turning a blind eye had as thick savour as betrayal, and so you watched him. He was sprawled on the bed, the angles of his shoulders and elbows awkward, the rise and fall of his chest shallow. The soft mattress and pristine sheets followed the contour of his body, accommodated him with ease—just a boy, too slight, too young, and you had never found out how young he really was. Your eyes reached the juncture of his neck, the curve of his jaw, soft still, the pale rise of his cheeks, and found yourself staring into his eyes.

You hardly dared to breathe.

He held your gaze, steadfast, but you couldn't read his expression. The hospital room was too dark; outside the window, clouds gathered to herald an impending storm. "Kusakabe Tetsuya," he said, slowly, and he sounded different, voice slackened by disuse, consonants thickly chorded together.

But nothing short of death could bend his knees, or tear him asunder, or destroy the unconfined soul that he was. Sustained by this belief, you nodded, donned a wooden mask that told no story except that which he wished to see. You would have smiled, let relief soften your face, but he would have hated it.

Coming from him, silence was a mark of acknowledgment. You stood by the window, cool wind on your face, on the damp back of your neck, and he allowed your trespassing.

Dino Cavallone came around the next day, the footsteps of his men a harbinger of mayhem into an orderly life. There was rain on his hair, on the fur of his jacket, on his eyelashes. He was grinning when he ruffled a predator's hair and you remember thinking how anyone could see Hibari in that light, ever.

"I'll bite you to death," came the snarled response; he looked different somehow, younger, less of a god and more of a boy.

Cavallone didn't laugh. He smiled, placid, in full possession of himself, and neither hands strayed into the interior of his jacket to fetch a trusty whip. "One day," he answered, said it like a vow. "I promise."

You saw it coming.

Sawada Tsunayoshi and Gokudera Hayato were the first. Their absence from school would have amounted to nothing, if not for the watch that Hibari subsequently arranged on Yamamoto Takeshi. As if eager to confirm this theory, Moriyama returned the day after with a story that would enthral only the most gullible child. Hibari was neither gullible nor a child, but he responded only with silence—and you began to believe, against any basic understanding, common sense, or life's experience, that Yamamoto Takeshi had truly disappeared in a blanket of grey smoke.

You watched him then, every day, more closely than usual as ghosts of suspicion swelled into ripples of unease. Most likely he knew what you did, but not a word passed his lips to dampen your vigilance. You noticed his silent, speculative glances at Sasagawa Ryouhei. You watched his fingers, again and again, absentmindedly playing with a ring which hung from a chain around his neck. You heard his voice—indifferent save for a hint of vehemence reserved solely for one person—answering occasional phone calls in short, clipped sentences. You witnessed his frown, a crease when he heard of the continued absence of two female students from second grade, one of them Sasagawa's younger sister. You sought for signs, and found many.

You saw it coming.

His disappearance, when it came about, did not beget surprise as much as turned your world upside down. You saw him going up the stairs—to the school roof, one of the very few places you couldn't follow—and he did not return.

Panic was slow to unfold. You waited, the ticking of the clock too sharp, too slow, but you waited and only looked for him once you had enough reason to. No one answered your tentative knocks. It was empty when you slowly pushed the door open but for a key and the fierce glare of the sun. The weight was familiar in your hand.

You saw it coming, but you were expecting the unexpected.

"Where is he?" Moriyama asked the next day, at the end of the fifth period. You had no answer, and your vacant look told him so. The key was heavy in your pocket, cold silver that shunned your touch—unworthy.

But he had left it behind, had he not?

You gathered the prefects at lunch break, impatient to mend your oversight. Blank faces accepted your vague explanation—a few weeks possibly, or more. No details were offered since you knew none and Sawada Tsunayoshi had failed to return thus far, his imprints in this world cold and fading. They imagined hearing his voice in your rough timbre; you pretended. It was the same voice which had won you the vice-president spot, the first time he had ever let you see that cruel, bloody thing he called a smile. Hibari recognised loyalty, but first and foremost he lived for himself. If he appreciated your voice, then you would be there at his side, treasuring this only gift your nameless father had left you with.

The school was a foreign place without him, his shadow in the halls and grounds but never real enough. You held everything together with two bare hands, silently hoping that nothing would fall apart in his absence, not a rule would be broken, not a decree bent. They did not question, and for this you were shackled. Trust was such a heavy burden, you fathomed now, leading the blind with blindness and groping hands.

But this was the way it went, the way he wanted it. You locked yourself in his office and tried to breathe his presence. When the clock struck midnight, you began to think of fairytales, beings not of this world, a messiah. He had always been far too strong.

After one week, time had become an absurd measure of nothing. You lived with this slow, impregnable dread, a fortress ugly but unshaken. As the rest paled into white and grey, discipline thickened into the only thing that mattered: a legacy, along with the school, and the city that owed it all to him. You still held your head up high for this purpose, still walked the same path as he did every morning, noon, evening.

After one week, you saw him again.

No one entered Hibari's office without your permission, but the trespasser was there, a flash of sun striking gold. He stood by Hibari's desk, fingers trailing over wood, cluttered thoughts scrawled all over his face.

"He isn't here," Dino Cavallone said, maybe to you, maybe to one of the five men who stood vigil along the wall. "Where is he? Reborn? Tsuna?"

You listened to these names—Sawada Tsunayoshi, Gokudera Hayato, Yamamoto Takeshi—falling from his lips like ashes, and with each your anger grew. You stepped closer, took his lapels only to find guns pointed at your head, his men snarling and glowering like beasts finding their territory encroached.

You had seen your fair share of weaponries in life; this sudden display of many made you flinch but once. Your hands did not let go and he looked at you, steel guarding his eyes.

"I don't know either."

"What is this," you spat out. "You. Sawada Tsunayoshi. All of you."

His lips thinned; his fingers were firm around your wrist, enough to hurt. "If he does not tell you," he said steadily, his calmness nearly an insult, "then I have no right to challenge his decision."

You hit him on the face, tried to, but your knuckles never scraped his cheek.

Then came eternity.

The foreigner had come and gone, no trace of his presence save for what you could feel; but it meant little, worth even less. You resumed your role in Hibari's office, waiting, waiting, like chipping paint and plaster off a wall of impossible breadth and thickness. You went to Sawada Tsunayoshi's house, out of morbid curiosity, and found his mother's smile. She wore naiveté freely, openly, not at all the picture of a wrought-up mother, and if she hesitated before answering your polite query—a study overseas for a few months, his father is with him—it was probably due to your intimidating look. Gokudera Hayato lived alone. Yamamoto Takeshi's father still opened his shop every day, as if his son's whereabouts were not unknown.

It taught you to do the same, somehow. There were rules to uphold still, and Hibari imposed no heavier discipline than that toward his own committee. One unfastened button and you wouldn't only kiss your prefect badge goodbye, but also a few teeth and most likely your entire dignity. When he returned, if, might he return one day, he would at least have someone waiting for him, for as long as needs be.

But eternity was no measure of time; it had no other shore, no bell's toll to signal the end of a journey. You knew, despite trying to believe otherwise, that it didn't exist.

This one denied it. You had been so used to waiting and seeing less than all of him that his return was a surprise which immobilised, robbing you of everything but the very shell that stood rooted to the ground. You heard Moriyama's voice, and then Nakamura's, weak, agonised whispers that filled your chest to the brim. He looked at you but once, a hand extended for the millstone that hung from your neck. You returned the key, and then allowed yourself the little luxury of welcoming him home, with the tiniest smile but no more than that—and if your hands were twitching at your side, at least no one was looking.

It was Dino Cavallone who came two days later to stare at him, slack-jawed, blood pulsing fast, and then put his life on the line by pulling him into his arms.

The marks of his whip on your body burned.

You did not sleep in the eve of your graduation.

Moonlight spilled through the open window, across your arms, casting shadows on empty hands. Three years was a long time, long enough to mould raw, senseless power into something entirely different. Purpose you named it, and your thoughts wrapped around the word, familiar to feel, alien to identify.

You waited for him in the cold dewed morning before the school gate, thin blanket of mist still pooling in Namimori's streets. His footsteps were soft amidst hushed sounds of a stirring city, and when you raised your head, his eyes were looking past your unwieldy form, never at you.

A few words left your mouth, awkward as stunted growth. You could see his lips curling in distaste; companionship, devotion, pretty things that mattered to all except him.

"I don't need an herbivore."

You swallowed, shrinking slightly from his tone. "I will do my best not to disappoint," your voice answered, faltered.

His smile was not a pleasant sight. "I don't need an herbivore."

"I will not disappoint," you promised and found courage in your words, purpose an armour that slowly thickened under his penetrating gaze. Then you added, very quietly, "Kyou-san."

His eyes narrowed, and if there was any surprise, then disdain had had it clad perfectly. You held your breath, waiting, knowing what you waited for. His tonfa issued forth a challenge in beautiful flashes of silver and slaughter, death in each swipe that ruptured cold, stagnant air. You fought him, for him, against him, beside him, your fists relentless. You were never better, and the knowledge was both haunting and bittersweet—but perhaps you were just good enough. He struck your chest; you fell but your feet reclaimed the earth, just as quickly. He kneed your stomach; you fell but your feet reclaimed the earth, a little slower. He battered your face; you fell but your feet reclaimed the earth, slower still.

He crushed your jaw; you stumbled but your feet did not succumb to a fall. You stood your ground, meeting his gaze head on, your purpose bared. Following him was no longer a choice; it was a way of life and you knew it was—yours.

Hibari Kyouya needed no one, but he turned around without a word, and you finally breathed life, blood in your nose, in your mouth, and your limping steps carefully matched his.

–––

II. DINO

"Italy, isn't it?"

You held your tongue as a matter of habit, but Sawada Tsunayoshi read your silence as easily as the turn of his hand. He smiled, an equivocal expression, and asked no more.

"The plane."

"Stand-by at the airport, Kyou-san."

Hibari's lips quirked into a faint, aloof smile—not a gift for you, but it was still a thing to behold. "He contacted you about the plan."

"Romario-san did."

You still remembered a younger time, when he had guarded his expressions as jealously as his school, his city. Now he tilted his head, one hand outstretched to tempt the surcease of Hibird's flight, the gold-threaded collar of his yukata a loose purchase around his shoulders.

"We'll leave in half-an-hour."

His voice was as smooth as ice. You bowed your head and slid the door shut, without a sound.

The presents arrived in gift boxes, piled atop one another so high they obstructed your sight when you brought them in, arms bent at all awkward angles around rigid corners. Cavallone was known for his bouts of extravagance, and never once had they amused Hibari.

"Send them back," he ordered, enmity a fence around his voice.

Hibird fluttered in and caught one tiny foot in a tangle of red ribbon; he disagreed.

.

Hibari donned the black suit much like how he took everything else, with poise but little interest or regard to reasons. You thought it suited him. You thought he was born to wear it—or rather, it was meant for him to wear as it stained blood to nothing. You admired the comparison it made to his eyes, to his hair, darker and darker still until edges blurred and his lips stood out sharp in a mocking curve.

Sawada smiled when he saw him afterwards. Reborn was more vocal.

"He looks better in it than all of you combined."

Tentative smiles and generous laughter admitted to this, and perhaps a scowl in Gokudera's case. No one asked what had brought the change.

The Foundations had been a design born in the future.

You remember the lined frown on his face when he had briefly spoken of one, two, many hideouts which revelled in the elegance of polished wood and tatami floor. He thought it was only a matter of verity to surpass his future self. You thought it was only a matter of time.

Two years you had spent chasing his shadow across Japan, then Italy. You watched the world grow into his playground and his footsteps leave tracks on the sand. He set his course, conquered what aroused his interest. You navigated yours, found intricate ways through alleys and hidden paths. Every time he looked back, you made sure to be there, just in the periphery—a shadow, a follower, oftentimes a ghost that spoke naught unless spoken to. You liked to think that you were his reminder of Namimori. For all that he was destined for greater things, she had always been his beginning.

Money was a different matter. A base was concrete, timbers, bricks, and nails for a start, and these things blood could not always pay. You knew who had guided his hands, who had taught him to familiarise himself with the ways of currency. Hibari did not take kindly to instructions, but Dino Cavallone also recognised this fact all too well. His confidence was as cavalier as the crack of his whip, his smile as audacious as his knowledge. It would take time, effort, and sweat, but he was a patient man.

"How old are you again? Nineteen?"

Hibari's tonfa answered for him, fast, vicious, but for once without an edge to kill. You saw this; Cavallone saw this, and grinned.

The recondite art to survive around Hibari Kyouya was not yours alone.

It was not unlike building a new Family, you explained.

The Mafia was a closed community. The carmine of blood ran thicker in the streets of its history than any other annals. Competition was an assured death sentence unless one possessed enough strength to thwart these deep-bound laws. Very few emerged at the end, and even most of these select were floundering fishes in a sea of bigger sharks.

But Vongola could not claim him; not his strength, not his freedom, and certainly not his followers' loyalty. You swore not to Sawada Tsunayoshi's name. His footsteps were not those you unconditionally followed. You belonged not to Sawada, not to Vongola.

Moriyama laughed when you spoke of the danger and challenges. "Tetsu-san," he spoke openly, the slanting scar on his face sharp under the pale, haughty glare of artificial light, "do you think I lost my right eye for a cheap contract?"

Nakamura didn't laugh; instead he looked insulted, arms folded defensively in a tight, sullen silence. The rest either followed his example or stared at the linoleum floor with brow knitted. You read the face of your brother-in-arms and frowned at your own inadequacy. You had been born rootless, all of you, the sky your roof and the strength of fists and limber legs your only testament of a drifting existence. Namimori did not pamper her wayward children; not until Hibari had come and made her his could any of you have claimed to belong in her bosom.

You were not the only one.

"I don't want to assume," you gave your reason despite its inadequacy, nearly as thick as the taste of bile in the back of your throat.

"Because we don't have any bond," Nakamura's words stung, his voice bitter and callous. "Because we haven't gone to hell and back together, all of us, and here in this room, we're nothing but ghosts pretending to speak with each other. Understandable that you have so little faith in us."

You deliberately mistook discomfort as irritation, evasion as righteousness. "I wouldn't share this news with any of you if faith was the issue."

Nakamura's scowl deepened, the one step he took forward abrupt, just as the door swung open and brought with this entrance a plunge of cold, hard silence, too familiar to your unbending bones. It was the kind which ruled kings' halls and courtrooms, and like a heavy gold sceptre that fell from the lofty throne on a marble dais, it sank unchallenged in the midst of faithful subjects.

Hibari wore surprise much like the knot of his tie, not an ornament, even less a testimony for lesser eyes to decode. He carried it folded in disdain, mockery splayed high to mislead and scorn.

"A family gathering? Obviously I didn't give you all enough work."

An involuntary flinch rippled like waves among the crowd, your rigid shoulders one of the stones paving its path. Heads hung, bowed, stilled. Moriyama spoke up first after the stiff, awkward hush, braver now after losing an eye and proudly so.

"Tetsu-san told us about this plan for a new hideout and we're discussing it," he explained, paused, words a quiet stir on his lips yet without voice; and then, "uh, Boss."

It was a brittle, sibilant word to your ears, one syllable sustained on loose, vulnerable consonants; but if spoken right, if voiced true, it might prove powerful enough. You swallowed, breathed out slowly, your eyes intent on Hibari's face for there would judgment cede or slay. You did not think he needed a dais to stand above you all.

"Did he."

But his eyes were not on you; they flickered from face to face, seeing and appraising what you could not tell. Your brothers struggled not to cower, stripped bare of their shell and shield by his incisive gaze, and you were proud to see that they did not. None of you were rootless now.

"Namimori Shrine," he spoke at last, tone subdued, eyes heaven-bound. "That is where our first base will be."

Fealty, it had been said, was impossible to gauge. They would have given him their right eye; Moriyama would have given him his left; you all would have given him your life, and still it would not measure.

Italy's sun bargained a different sort of touch with her vassals—warmer, gentler, a seductress that betrayed all too quickly and turned a blind eye at what prowled behind her back. Their nights belonged to the ancestry of the Cosa Nostra, deep-seated traditions and vicious silence; locked in dusk's embrace, it proved an entirely different country.

And here, in the heart of Italy Hibari set his gaze and the spread of his wings. The Foundations's third base claimed a spot in the outskirts of Rome. You had never liked the country much, or the people—with wine on their lips and sweet tune about their words. You liked them even less when they approached unannounced and impinged on territories not rightfully theirs.

Hibari had more than tonfa or teeth to speak his displeasure; likewise, Cavallone had more than whips or smiles to answer for it. That a man held himself on the same apex as Hibari unsettled you, but then again Cavallone had unsettled you for long. You did not think he was what he seemed.

"You're not welcome here."

"Kyouya, Kyouya." He looked different under Italy's sun, the gold in his hair a crown, brazen, as arrogant as his city that named herself Caput Mundi. "Such callowness. It's only nice to let your tutor see how well you're doing."

He flung these words only to ruffle Hibari, who knew this and yet did not care. A challenge never came to him and went away unanswered. "You hardly deserve that lofty title, Bucking Horse," he said, a glint of silver under his sleeves. Cavallone laughed.

"You don't need a reason to challenge me, Kyouya. Just ask and I'm at your disposal."

Romario greeted you with a nod and a curl of smoke, standing away from the battlefield and Hibari's distaste for cigarettes. Your feet remembered their course, your cheeks their vaguely polite smile. You moved to his side, more out of habit, and settled yourself in a murmured conversation of mundane nothing. There were times when words traded between you and Cavallone's second had lives and deaths at a juggler's fingertips; this was not one of those times. Your ears mostly listened to the sound of Cavallone's whip and Hibari's swift feet, a smidgen comfort of something well-known in the vast unfamiliarity of tempered air and docile breeze.

Hibari won after thirty-two minutes of swipes, cracks, parries, ripostes, and endless circles. His tonfa sank victory into the skin of Cavallone's neck, the curve of his lips brutal. In return, Cavallone was grinning, mindless of defeat or titles or grass stains on his white shirt. With bare hands he reached up, fingers pale in tangles and knots of Hibari's black hair, and kissed his smiling mouth.

You thought you saw Romario's hand shake. More ashes fell from the burned tip, path unvarying, mere grey specks that obscured his shoes' polished shine. His departure was wordless, abrupt, and you followed the shadow of his shoulders in likewise silence—and did not look back.

You could bear much for Hibari's sake; this was one of the harder ones.

Cavallone walked these shadowed halls of a new building as if he had the right to do so. You could not read the tension coiled in Hibari's muscles, whether he found fault or leniency in this newest of impositions. You could not understand why he chose to endure so much impertinence. One explanation seemed as improbable as the next, but you kept these questions and counsels to yourself, as always.

There were other means to satisfy your curiosity—later, much, much later.

"...it was an impossible scheme, but the thing is, Kyouya, everyone believes that Sfolgorante did it and holds him responsible. There isn't much he can do against such reckless suspicion, but I'm not so sure about his culpability..."

Cavallone's voice poured as constant as a rippling brook, the silence not in the least daunting to him. You thought he was a very good liar. He saw the worst in everything, and then glossed it over with a dash of optimism and a grin, pretending the world was a brighter place, pretending his world was not a brutal, unforgiving place better fitted for monsters with bloodied teeth.

"...I must do something about it. No one deserves to suffer that fate. No one."

His men loved him. You hated to see yourself reflected on the precision of Romario's glasses, in the bare wisdom of his aged eyes and the staid calmness of his footfalls. For all your prejudices and personal sentiments, Dino Cavallone was still a man who led thousands, worthy of such amount of love and devotion from those who called themselves his.

And Hibari, for all his uncaring and mask of apathy, knew this.

It would end, one day. It must.

In many ways, knowledge was poison, and familiarity an enemy rather than a trusted ally. Your role at his side had grown into such that you had no beginning but the root of his hair, and no ending but the tip of his fingernails. For all that it was dependence, a brand of a slave, you never thought it pitiful; you thought it, instead, an honour.

Knowledge, then, was inevitable. There were points and details to acquaint, trivial habits to notice. Perchance you did it for a smile, whereas smiles had never been the reward he deigned to give. Familiar to the taste of disappointment, you decided that it was his disappointment you could not bear.

You kept silence behind his door, measured time only by each word and phrase he cared to give voice. Hibari never questioned your presence. Your name came from his lips as a matter of fact, your presence expected and valued for what it was. This was flattering, in a sense, and in return you made sure to provide in advance what he might, could want—by whatever means, even through the onerous learning of pattern and cadence of Cavallone's speech. The door was an entrance as well as partition, too lofty still if paper thin.

You wondered if Cavallone knew what sort of loyalty was kneeling behind this painted screen. He was always too generous with his reactions, as if he did not care, as if you did not exist. You fisted your hands on bent knees and pretended not to listen.

Hibari's were stilted, hushed, an exercise of restraint rather than that of release. Your ears caught them all the same, each sigh, growl, moan that travelled hardly any distance to your ears. You began to see him, the kind of expression he might expose in such unguarded moments, and these treacherous images behind closed eyelids proved an unmatched temptress. But to leave was to give away your desire—and this could be a betrayal for all that you held sacred. You remained silent, even with desire thick in your loins. You could bear much for his sake.

"Kyouya, Kyouya, Kyouya."

"Is that all you've got, Cava—ah. Ah."

This was the hardest one yet.

The girl was not pretty. She made a poor companion to Nakamura's inborn good looks and strong features, but her fearlessness rendered such shortcomings nothing but mere trifles. All the men adored her, each in his own way for this was a novelty: females who braved their intimidating company. You doubted the merits of this change, what lasting effects it would inevitably bring to your close brotherhood, but this was no place for you to speak.

"She loves him," Moriyama said, laughingly although the remnant sadness that lingered about his remaining eye communicated a different story. He thought it was hilarious to see Nakamura cowering before Hibari, a venture to seek his permission under immaculately pressed black suit and faltering speech.

"My permission."

"Yes, Hibari-san."

"To court a girl."

"...yes."

"Get out of here."

It took your combined effort with Moriyama's to convince him that Hibari found offence neither in the courting nor the girl in question, only in the trivialities of the matter. It nevertheless pleased you to see this proof of his loyalty—and that it held no second place to a newfound love, prone to frivolity and caprice still.

Some bonds were stronger than others. They were destined to last while the rest withered with time or under the feet of pressure.

This, you continued to wonder—and perhaps also wish, to a certain extent—might similarly be the case with Cavallone. Nakamura was a foreman, one of the ship's towering masts; Hibari was the keel, from bow to stern one and without locum. No one could have him replaced and expect the craft sailing still. Cavallone was in a league way beyond Nakamura's girl. You did not think he was aware of the threat his smiles and easy manner possessed, but so far, frivolity and caprice proved no acquaintance of his. He always returned, always, as constant as sunset at every turn of the day, tireless.

Until.

Dim and veiled by night, the winding halls were a labyrinth. You hid yourself amidst silent ghosts lurking in the shadows, one finger drawing illegible patterns on the palm of other in a vain effort to distract your rebelling impulse. Your eyes glimpsed only the hauteur of Cavallone's back, erect with tension and swelling fury.

"For all I know, Kyouya, your silence may mean a thousand words," he said, near spiteful, emptiness echoing his frustration, "but I only have so many different ways to explain that the rumour is a lie. What else do you want from me?"

You could not see Hibari's face, hidden past the broadness of Cavallone's shoulders; only his clenched fist was visible, knuckles white, wrist taken prisoner by Cavallone's unyielding grip. You had to wonder why. Refusal to respond was not usually his weapon of choice, but it proved potent enough, its unfamiliarity cutting, its triumph in the opponent's ire, rising to heights you had never seen before.

"You're impossible to love." Who would have thought Cavallone's laugh could sound as contrived, the release of his fingers as slow, deliberate, bruises traced by last touches so gentle they could only equal a travesty. You kept your presence unnoticed, inert, listening to Hibari's silence and these words which trespassed into its hallowed shroud. "It isn't me you hate. It's what I'm doing to you."

His silence broke. You did not make your apposite retreat, your feet firm and unmoving as his voice rose, higher still until half-sentences hurled at each other bore an intent no longer to speak, but to maim.

And they did, ceaseless, the cuts deep enough to scribe a finale.

"It was a rumour."

You ignored Moriyama's protestation. He was always too sentimental, you reflected; he was not aware of the danger, blinded by melancholy of love robbed and fresh wound barely healed. He thought truth took precedence over everything. He thought it was his duty to restore happiness to whom second chances were so freely given.

But he mistook fleeting interest as love. He misspent sympathy on a party who had no use for it, who shunned it even. He miscast himself as a bringer of aid when none was needed. He did not know, he did not know Hibari as well as you did. The rumour might be just that—a rumour—and Cavallone might be no more married than you were despite whispers of the contrary, but for him to bound himself in the unbreakable was best, better, preferable. If it meant the sake and longevity of your brotherhood, no price was exorbitant enough; the invaluable never had any to begin with.

An attempt to explain Hibari's association with Dino Cavallone was as much an exercise of futility as piercing the clouds. But the fact stood, unshakable: it was not nothing. It was never nothing, for an argument, a quarrel bared its fangs only toward things that mattered. To pursue the end now before it ran too deep was wisdom, if not exactly honour.

There were times for ethics and scruples, rules and principles; you decided that this wasn't one of them.

Hibari found diversion in Hong Kong and its vicious triads, in the metallic tang of blood and threats' jagged end. For once you were grateful for the ready supply of dangers at every turn. The game of preys and predators held a lure like no other, and Hibari thrived in it. You thought he was most alive swarmed by havoc and conflicts, living with near abandon and very little care, if any. You did not like the constraints Cavallone put on his existence. He was not made to love, or to be loved. His faculties were to conquer, never to be conquered for there could not exist a soul in a mortal coil strong enough to do so. He was a fulcrum, a lynchpin, a god, and never would he cease to be one.

You were closest to him. You felt it was your duty to make sure of this, and so you swallowed the memory of Moriyama's bitter smile, lesser things that made way for their better.

His cell phone rang, once, twice; the hand that hurled it across the picturesque Chinese garden was remorseless. You bit the inside of your lips when it hit the smooth face of a rock and unshapen fragments disappeared into the depth of moss-walled pond.

"I hate the sound," was all Hibari said, his mouth a firm, flat line. Your current host, the Vanguard of Jin Hu, refrained from commenting and offered only a tight smile which spoke both of tolerance and wariness. One did not rise in the Mafia underworld without stumbling upon Hibari's name once or twice and forging some sort of acquaintanceship with the tales that girdled his title. He was one of two black spots in the legend of Vongola Tenth's benevolence, the other still chained deep in the cold gloom of Vendicare Prison.

"Shall we return?" the man asked, his Japanese poor and sparsely intelligible. You glimpsed a flash of displeasure in Hibari's eyes to hear his language so carelessly mangled; foreign tongues had proven insufficient and maladroit far too often, with Cavallone being one of very few exceptions in his list. It was the vibration of your phone that allowed him momentary distraction from reacting toward this dishonour, him standing close enough to your person to notice.

You didn't miss the tension that gripped his jaw and squared his shoulders, and retreated only after Moriyama had stepped up to take your place on his right. Grey eyes followed your guarded movement, a silent watcher that knew, even before you spared a glance to identify the caller. The name told you everything you needed to know; your void of expression told him everything he needed to know. You saw him turn away, his footsteps light on cobblestones, and then picked up your phone.

"Tetsu," came the voice, strangely tentative in contrast to the easy poise burning brightly in your memory; but the timbre was unmistakable. Your first thought was of his presumptuous cheek, to call you by your given name when no such consent had once been conferred. "Is Kyouya there?"

You watched him, read his determination to ignore in his turned back, and replied, "He does not accept any call from you, Don Cavallone."

There was a pause, so thick with disbelief and astonishment you would have smiled had you been alone. You thought it was time for Cavallone to understand—some mountains were simply immovable, some seas impassable, and some things just beyond reach no matter how long the extent of his arm, how great the strength of his willpower.

"Then," he was still adamant; you obliged these last few attempts of a desperate man with ease, almost pity, aware of the impossibility of the task, "may I ask for your help?"

"It depends on the request, sir."

He was probably smiling, or fighting back tears, watching the approach of his end. Even Cavallone must have a limit somewhere. "Please tell him..." he began, stopped, began again, tangled in the winding complexity of converting emotions into words. "Tell him that I'm sorry, what I said was... no. The hell with that. Just tell him," he breathed in, a sharp, shuddering sound, "please, that I love him."

Your clasp on the cell phone tightened. "Is that all?"

If he at all took offence in your brusqueness, his voice conveyed no hint of such. "Thank you," he said instead, composed enough for a man in the precipice of defeat. The words echoed in your head for a long time as you retraced Hibari's steps back into the Chinese clan's headquarter.

You tried to carry out your promise—you really did. The look on Hibari's face never allowed you to finish that sentence.

The next few weeks proved your theory entirely wrong.

Cavallone had no limit, at least none that you could perceive. His calls were an exemplar of constancy and endurance, so invariable within count of hours, barely days that you sought relief in the obscurity of a new number. Hibari might have seen through your petty explanation as regards this sudden change, but no word passed his lips to confirm your estimate. Before this lack of interest you found yourself relieved and disconcerted both, doubt a ghost pale still in the recesses of your mind and yet there.

He carried himself aloof as his Hong Kong base slowly sank its teeth into insular soil. Sawada Tsunayoshi had promised him independence in return of the title he now donned, a matter of formality more than anything else; if anything, Vongola wore his badge, not the other way around. It was mutuality, what their relationship was built upon. Sawada bore for Hibari no love but that born of plain trust and necessity, unlike which he cherished for his closest family.

Cavallone was another matter entirely. 'Love' was perhaps an apt name, for 'obsession' would have tickled anger where in him only sadness lay. You had never quite understood if it was love or something else—so different with one you treasured close to your core, until you saw the flawed and ugly of it.

Hibari carried his newest injury with indifference, so used to the sting and ache of the flesh. He sat unmoving on the hospital bed as the doctor applied needle and thread to a splitting gash above his left eye. You watched him, savoured the intensity of his close presence, and sent your wordless prayer to a nameless god. As much as you thought it impossible that a blade or a mere bullet could sever his life thread, a narrow escape was oftentimes too narrow not to rattle faith. He kept his eyes shut, any expression locked away behind neglected muscles. You very nearly convinced yourself that indeed nothing would change, when the door flung open to admit the only person who would make that change, hopelessness be damned.

"Kyouya."

You knew then; the change was there all along, under your nose and yet past your notice. Hibari's face contorted into rage unlike any you had ever seen, a mass of glacier, ruptured and disassembled to expose the slow burning inferno underneath. Cavallone didn't seem to notice. The jumble of his features smoothed into pronounced relief, even the beginning of a feeble smile.

"You're alright."

"The report seems to exaggerate a bit," Sawada Tsunayoshi said, close on his heels, looking far less concerned than his admittance would have others believe and more intrigued instead. You didn't miss the sound of Hibari's sharp exhale, followed by the doctor's squeaked protest at his patient's abrupt leave, white bandage unravelling about his hair. It was Cavallone who prevented his exit, quick enough to clasp fingers around Hibari's elbow, his face pleading.

"Kyouya, please–"

You saw the flash of tonfa, the snarl that curled Hibari's lips, the resentment, and finally the grit of Cavallone's resignation to accept the blow. His head jerked backward at the force of the strike, but it scarce lessened the firmness of his grip, the stubborn line of his mouth unchanging. Angry surprise stretched across Hibari's face like spilled ink on paper; this Cavallone noticed, and with a wry twist of the lips he threw caution to the wind, his arms a tight wrap around rigid body, white on black.

"Listen to me," he spoke it half like a command, half like an entreaty. His lips rested on a proud arc of brow, mindful not to agitate the fresh stitches. "Just a few words, please listen to me, and then I'll be gone forever should you wish it."

Other motions ceased but the slow heave of Hibari's chest, so slow it looked as if each was dragged through pain. 'Please' was a cheap word coming from Cavallone, so freely delivered that it was stripped of any significance. Perhaps this sentiment showed on your face, for Sawada touched your shoulder and indicated the door with a nod of his head, eyes so very kind but with resolve unshakable. The doctor had fled without a second thought, but you obeyed only because you could read nothing from Hibari, the set of his shoulders stiff, spine unbending, tonfa for once poised without aim.

"Thank you," Sawada Tsunayoshi said softly after closing the door behind him, in the presence of your brothers and many Cavallone's men. No one answered, either blessed by ignorance or confined still behind thick mire of frustration. You saw yours mirrored in the strain of Romario's fisted hands, his back to the wall directly opposite of the door. His grim silence twisted into something sharper when commotion coming from within rent the hush without; you both had too many reminiscences of their spars, what Hibari's vicious edge could do to Cavallone's willing submission. But apart from a twitch at the corner of his eyes and whitened knuckles, Romario remained unmoving, chained by direct order from his one and only liege.

"It will be alright," Sawada's assurance rang hollow in the background sound of metal against flesh and fabric. He stood on guard before the door, his only anxiety in the turned-down edges of his mouth. You began to hate yourself a little—for not standing up against him, for not daring to do so despite your clamour of loyalty. Your reprieve, marginal and vague, was a tiny voice that whispered: what if, what if your reserve stemmed from within. Might you think a confrontation best for Hibari at the moment, whether to tear his guard asunder or have it buttressed unshaken?

What Cavallone asked of him was love at its most selfish, most demanding, most reliant; the weakest and frailest of all. Without devotion love was flimsy and fickle, but devotion required acceptance and Hibari would never be a subject to such disgrace, to be reduced to tolerance where he only ever settled for dominance. This story was supposed to be lost before it could begin.

But when Cavallone emerged from the room, it was with split lips, bruised cheeks, and swollen left eye, enough to start Romario from his rigid calm—and then there was tiniest of smiles, enough to nullify all pains and skin-deep flaws and flaunt his confidence aloft. "They say in the end love forgives and time takes care of the rest," he said, with each word conceding to a grin; his right sleeve was dappled with red, blood swept from his nose and mouth. "Tell me it is so, little brother, for I will not give up. Ever."

Sawada smiled, a tentative but kindly smile; you wondered if he considered Hibari his, for him to steer and give away as he pleased, and your blood seethed at the thought. Hibari Kyouya belonged to no one—not to you, not to Sawada Tsunayoshi, and most certainly not to Dino Cavallone.

But the die is cast. You returned inside and saw Hibari standing by the window, face tilted downward, away from your eyes. He did not turn around; his silence was heavy with nuances that lingered outside your understanding, but you could see, the thin strip of bandage around his head was the work of careful hands.

Clearly this wasn't a gamble Cavallone intended to lose.

"He's here again."

Nakamura sounded troubled, his face bent into a frown. Moriyama did not respond but for a hum that trembled in the surveillance room like a whistle toned down by prudence. He was pleased, this much you could tell even if his scarred face showed less than a weathered face of a rock would. You did not think you had ever felt so detached to a brother who had lived and eaten together with you under one roof. He sensed this, and the look he gave you then was sad, tinged with sympathy so alien that you found an excuse to flee from the room.

You met Cavallone on his way to Hibari's quarters, deliberately so, each step measured that he was only ten steps away from the door when you made your presence known. He was not smiling, but the fire had not left the field behind his eyes. The way it set alight the gold in them made you coil your hands; you were not confronting a dying man, but his will might be that of one, as clear-cut and overpowering as his Sky. Hibari's rebuffs and coldness every day only served to inflate his hunger, the same need that paralleled the wild thrum of your heart. This, he, meant more, much more than the ache that rode on the coattail of slights.

But you did not think Hibari was any less for you than he ever was for a lord of five thousand men. You held Cavallone's gaze and he read your animosity just as easily, a smile, a sort of comprehension finally blooming on his lips. He thought he understood.

"You find me unworthy."

An opening of affront, in perfect line with his style. You did not smile in return. "And you find me interfering."

He did not deny it, lies as far removed from him as the chasm of his stumbling childhood; instead he said, "I cannot help but wonder why. Perhaps you think he should be with, say, a woman?"

Your lips curled, not a smile. These walls were paper thin and Hibari knew your footsteps well enough, his ears sharp enough. "I think you should be with a woman, Don Cavallone."

It would have been perfect, had there been an entire legion of his men present to hear it, to see how their expectation and hope for security so crushed by a smile and a heart too weak not to love. But only Romario was present and his fealty to Dino Cavallone was not to be challenged by questions of heirs, no matter how deep disappointment bowed his head. He looked at you and his gaze was devoid of presumption—a loyal dog, the spiteful thought came at an unguarded moment, but you could not disagree.

"I think so too."

Cavallone was still smiling. You thought it was inappropriate, the effortless ease with which he admitted this treacherous opinion – but he did not let you take satisfaction from a wavering pause. "The rumour did make me reconsider a few things. I would have married a woman," he said, unashamed, unflinching, "but I cannot love someone in halves and Kyouya, Kyouya he deserves everything. I will not do him the dishonour of being only second to a wife."

"And yet he is impossible to love, or so said your mouth to his face." You found accusation on your tongue, helplessness rolling over you in waves. You could feel your lord slipping away, little by little, farther and farther from the tip of your fraught fingers, the sensation not unlike being flayed alive. If Cavallone noticed this, then he met it with heartless composure.

"Oh yes, he is." He stepped closer, eyes alight with sharpness for once born of ice, not fire. "But you know that better than anyone else, don't you, Tetsuya? And yet here you are still, at his side."

You froze and he walked past you, the whiff of his cologne filling your nostrils, encroaching, violating. He was taller, a distant part of your mind noticed, and envied, but you did not turn around until he had reached the door and stepped into Hibari's room. Romario remained behind the threshold, his expression carefully inscrutable, his opinions prudently hidden behind age-wrought mask when he chanced a look at your pitiful face. Challenged, you held his gaze purely out of defiance.

"He's a good man," said Romario, a matter of fact founded by the earth of his allegiance. In bitterness you did not reply, and in silence you listened, out of habit, to the only voice you had ever listened.

"You're a fool."

Cavallone said nothing for a long time. You crept closer to the door, playing ignorant of Romario's perceptive eyes on you, of the thoughts and perchance pity which would be crowding their depth should you dare to look—until you could see Cavallone, face shadowed by fringes of golden hair, and farther still was the irritation that sculpted Hibari's stern expression. This scene was familiar enough, but you knew better, had learnt so well, so hard, than to trust your judgment where Cavallone was concerned.

"Do you hate fools, Kyouya?" he asked at last, softly.

Hibari's lips curved haughtily. "They're annoying," his response was quick and cruel, as sharp as his teeth's bite. "And stupid. And stubborn. And thick–"

Cavallone moved and kissed the last word silent. Hibari flinched, his left hand a claw on white-clad shoulder, prepared to maim, the other firm on Cavallone's chest, prepared to repel.

For a long time, neither followed their intent.

.

There were six of his men and not one as much as raised an eyebrow at Romario's announcement, as if this was not the first time such had occurred, as if night had not always barred Hibari's gate and kept outsiders away. Cavallone had never stayed the night, not once; it was best—had been—for all parties concerned and you had so foolishly thought it would remain so.

"We'll be staying here tonight," Romario said and nodded his gratitude at your offer. You did not wonder why he used Japanese to speak to his people, or why they understood, the inflection, the phonetics so removed from their own language.

"I will have the rooms prepared," you told him instead, and left.

"Who would have thought?" These words, teasing and such tone hideously unsuitable, broke the sanctity of the sunlit room much as their predecessors had so many laws and boundaries girding Hibari's existence. Cavallone smiled against the bitterness of tea in his mouth. "You, a merchant of information. Who would have thought?"

Hibari said nothing, eyes closed, fingers resting on the rim of his tea bowl. The smell of new tatami, as it quietly mingled with the scent of brewed tea, was a polished frame apt for this picture of serenity—and it would have been perfect, if not for the audience of golden hair, stark white suit, and eyes entirely too drunk with life to be modest. You did not think this solemn, high-bred tradition was at all suited for Cavallone; neither for his tongue, too used to the crassness of wine and stronger brews.

"I heard you bargained the location of a traitor in the Carriola Family with twenty lives," he was still speaking, smiling in idle nonchalance. "Very steep price you exact, Kyouya."

"It's the price of their self-esteem." Hibari set his bowl down, the fire in his eyes subdued in the wake of the ceremony. His black kimono made such a contrast to Cavallone's choice of attire that you had to steel yourself against the incongruence. "One man only equals to one man. Carriola owed the price they paid to their own ineptitude."

"Nevertheless you saved those twenty lives; it was no small feat."

Hibari's smile held ridicule and something akin to disdain. "It wasn't altruism, Bucking Horse."

"Of course not." Cavallone raised his half-filled bowl, impudence all but restrained. "I wouldn't dare entertain such thought about you, the deadliest of guardians. I simply wonder why."

The pause was unintentional. You felt indecision within its silent ticks, a surprise coming from Hibari who had never vacillated once in his life. "Someone," he finally said, after a prelude of soft, resigned sigh, "told me about the merits of information."

"And you listened?" Cavallone's grin was edged with something sharper; you wondered if he found himself not at the recipient end of jealousy for once, rather the bearer. "Inconceivable. This extraordinary person deserves all the credit in the world."

"Hardly," Hibari replied dryly but offered no further details to confirm or deny your suspicion. Ever incorrigible, this reticence only served to spur Cavallone on.

"You avoid a description – it must be someone I know."

"On the contrary, I don't think you will ever have the chance to know him."

"A man?" Cavallone leant forward, close enough, brave enough. "Ah, then it must be Reborn. He's the only one whose advice you're likely to listen."

Hibari was watching him, eyes half-lidded, lips curled slightly. There was certain kind of finality in his voice when he spoke, "You will never know him."

.

Cavallone had a gift of loquacity—this you had known since the day he had first used torrents of words to break through Hibari's apathy. Whether he found more use of it in the true sense of the pursuit, or in the deceptive purpose of beguiling and lowering one's guard instead, was not a part of knowledge within your possession, even after a long period of studying him. Probably both in equal measure. There were times when he seemed to genuinely take pleasure in talking, while other times it was merely an instrument on his virtuosic fingertips.

Today, Hibari's continued refusal to reveal the name of the person responsible was strong enough an incentive for him to resort to old tactics. His first guess, Reborn, had since then been followed by every other name acquainted to both of them, all met with indifference from Hibari's part. You thought you almost saw a smile on his lips when Cavallone eventually departed for a meeting with the Vongola Tenth, a promise of further interrogation echoing still in your ears.

"It has nothing to do with him, and yet, he persists."

His remark was addressed to no one, now the room was empty of opinions. You kept a wry smile to yourself, behind lips too often reined by strictures of speech. "Does it?" you murmured instead, just loud enough to caress the surface of his notice.

It was the first time, you thought, that he had really looked at you, eyes narrowed, sharpened—and, you remembered, always painfully would for the rest of your life, it had something to do with Cavallone.

.

"Fine, the Ninth then. You met him when you travelled to Italy and a man such as he would have been able to command your attention. He knew that you were Tsuna's Cloud and difficult to control..."

The pause was abrupt, unexpected. You raised your eyes, startled out of your own contemplation and found Cavallone's expression twisted into a cross between horror and amusement. "Please don't tell me that it was Xanxus."

"You know Xanxus," Hibari's voice was dry, his tone clipped. The game had exhausted his patience; what little stock he had retained was thoroughly spent by Cavallone's endless chatter over dinner, one theory after another introduced to appraise and then scour the implications shelved within his reaction. It was admirable, in a way, but after thirty different scenarios, any possible admiration from your part was now clouded by irritation.

"Not well enough," Cavallone argued still, tireless. One hand moved to rearrange folds of dark-blue yukata, the breadth of his shoulders unused to so little means holding the cloth together. "But if not Xanxus, and I doubt you would listen to Squalo or Lussuria or any other Varia for that matter, the higher-ups in Vongola–"

"It was you," Hibari spoke the true answer like a curse, the lash of his tongue vicious. "Years ago, in the future, but this is no credit you can take because he was not you."

Strange that you found no satisfaction in having your estimate verified, as if the truth mattered but little at this point. Dino's raised eyebrows, on the other hand, were sceptical. "Are you saying this now only to shut me up?"

"I don't need words to silence you, Cavallone."

The rejoinder prompted a small laugh. "No, you don't, Kyouya," he admitted, much too easily, and then applied another pause with equal proficiency. Much like words, pauses were likewise a tool for Cavallone. This one was subdued, a withdrawal, only long enough to smooth his expression into pensive calm. He was skilful, oh yes—very much so. You only wondered if Hibari ever noticed.

"It was me?"

"He was not you," Hibari repeated coldly, but no tone he used would have any effect on Cavallone's upturned lips. He was very much like the sun, all his joy and misery inward, selfish, absolute.

"I'm glad," he said softly, leaning in to kiss a lock of Hibari's hair. His smile was the most content you had ever seen.

Footsteps on marbled halls echoed aloof and strident, a discordant sound for ears much too accustomed to solid, deeper qualities of a wooden passage. But this was Sicily, the heart of a bloodstained kingdom where money was paramount and notoriety a winged creature that would carry one aloft. Many rose and fell, and on the fringes of its winding streets, Cavallone's predecessors had built palaces of white carved stones and lofty pillars upon bedrock of arrears.

This story was not unfamiliar to you or any worthy member of the mafia, but few had the privilege to learn much of the oblique details, of survival and a miraculous return from debt's spiteful clutches. Dino hid them all behind an endearing smile and played the part of a man harmless in both deeds and speech, as if the world did not know better. Sometimes you thought it was indeed his true nature; other times you were not so sure – perchance he himself wasn't either, too often had he assumed both roles with such flair and credibility. To forget oneself was oftentimes too easy, then a matter of habit.

Hibari navigated his way inside the mansion with careless ease born of familiarity from a handful of prior visits. The swimming pool came into view at the end of the archway, slivers of shimmering blue in quaint openings between columns. The sun was heading west, vivid gold on Cavallone's tattoos and the sprays of water from his powerful strokes. Hibari walked the length of the pool and you followed, two steps behind and two steps to the right, as was your custom.

Cavallone's smile was as bright as the sun that shone aslant into his face when he looked up, height sustained by the raised footing. "Kyouya," his voice pealed smooth above water's light ripples, "you didn't tell me you were coming."

"I want your sources," Hibari declared, one step away from the edge of the pool. Cavallone sank deeper into the water, now only his gold-crowned head above the rippled surface.

"I can't hear you."

"Stop playing this stupid–"

He was quick, and Hibari was not at his most alert—he was used to being so careless of late, so carefree in Cavallone's presence. Your hand reached for him but it grasped thin air, only a slight brush of his sleeve and then naught. Robbed of balance, he fell into the water's embrace and Cavallone's waiting arms, a furious splash in his wake.

You took one step back on reflex, only half aware of Romario's entrance with a pile of towels in hand. Hibari emerged with a rush of vengeance and a scowl heavy on his brow, hand a clamp on the juncture of Dino's neck.

"You have a death wish, Cavallone."

Dino winced, once but no more, the etched lines replaced instead by a smile. His arm was firm around Hibari's waist, as unyielding as the boldness in his voice. "The fact that I love you should be clear enough a proof that I have such predilection, yes?"

"You're paying for this suit," Hibari said, vicious only in tone. You recognised his leniency, so quickly bestowed for this slight Cavallone had subjected him to. It was a transgression, but by now there were far too many transgressions for one more to count.

"I always pay for your suits, Kyouya," Cavallone pointed out smoothly, a claim. He was far too close but Hibari no longer minded his proximity—had not for weeks, months, and perhaps would not still for years to come. "You were saying?"

"I want your sources." You thought the depth of his timbre was not made for asking; it was unsuitable, even demeaning in a way, but he held his gaze sternly.

"Ah." Cavallone's corresponding smile was a shade too complacent. "So there are territories you can't breach, after all?"

"Yes or no," Hibari demanded coldly, fingers once more sinking into exposed skin.

"Supposing I say yes, what will you give me in return?"

"I'll spare your life."

The still air trembled with a mock gasp issued from Cavallone's lips. "I may well be murdered tomorrow and you'll regret your callous words, Kyouya. Lately there have been a lot of rumours–"

It was then, you thought; Hibari grasped the back of his neck, sudden enough, hard enough to wrest another gasp out, far more genuine than the first. "If you die by someone else's hand," he spoke in a low voice, grip tightening, "I'll destroy your entire Family."

Cavallone did not answer for a long time, open-mouthed as surprise filtered through his eyes. You felt the effort Romario must exert to deny himself the privilege of protecting his master, felt it echo in your bones just as strongly; never had Hibari bared himself so much before, so painful the sight to your eyes.

"Was that a declaration of love?" Cavallone asked then, his fingers gentle but steady on Hibari's arm.

"A threat," the growl was unmistakable.

"Indeed." He was once more obliging, charming when surprise's debilitating edge had passed—but then, as if to prove himself above your evaluation yet again, he added, "But my answer is no. I'll provide you with any information you want, but not the network itself. It will pose my Family to vulnerabilities of such scale it is unthinkable, unless..." he paused, grinned, quick and sharp as lightning. "Unless, of course, you become a part of my Family. Say, Kyouya, if you marry me–"

Fingers still buried deep in golden hair, Hibari pulled. "My hand is not to be purchased for so low a price."

"Purchased? Nay." Cavallone shook himself free. "Your hand, my love, when I have it, shall be a gift freely given, not purchased."

"To be so certain," Hibari mocked, haughty. Cavallone laughed and lifted himself out of the water to sit at the edge; his body gleamed in dusk's meagre light, the gentle shake of his head sending cool droplets to pepper sun-warmed pavement. Romario promptly advanced to cloak his shoulders with a heavy drape of towel, this acknowledged with a nod.

"I put much faith in love," he admitted, grin widening when Hibari refused a helping hand. "You should too, Kyouya. Will you stay the night? Constanzia happens to make your favourite green tea ice cream for dessert."

"Your house is too cold."

"But my bed is not."

Tonfa flashed. You glimpsed Romario's smile, the reluctant acceptance that graced the corners of his mouth; it would have been a proud arc, had Hibari been a woman able to wear Cavallone's name rightfully at Dino's side.

You never did wonder what yours looked like.

The building rumbled and shook under the explosion's force, a creature howling in pain. Dust bit into your skin, into your wound where blood still freely poured, and the grimace you had attempted to hide was now a wood-carven mask on your face.

"Buried under debris, Tetsu-san," Moriyama spoke slowly, the rhythm of his own breathing on the verge of teetering. "I've always thought that I would at least die looking at the blue sky, if not dream of heaven."

"We're not dead yet," you gritted out through opaque haze of pain. Every inhalation was a struggle, tugging frayed muscles and torn flesh; the bullet had carried its purpose well. Your only consolation lay in the memory of rounded, terrified eyes as the shooter fell to his knees, finally a victim to your marksmanship—but it was no consolation if you were to die here, now, of the same bullet.

"Not for another half-an-hour at most." Moriyama's laughter was shaky. His weight trembled against a heavy oak table, eyes closed, away from the gaping wound in his thigh. "I don't suppose... you have a cigarette?"

You would have lashed out at him, for admitting surrender so easily, for echoing the thoughts you had so desperately kept silent but for the numbness of your tongue. The lure to succumb was strong, sweeter than old promises which had since waned with the recede of consciousness, swallowed by phantoms spun of pulsing ache. Then again, it had been neither for sweetness nor pleasure, these oaths you had taken to follow Hibari's footsteps in the green of your adolescence; it had been pride, need, faith, things that had mattered, should still matter even now when death was close, close enough you could feel its cold ghost-whispers on your face.

Fear betrayed a weak heart. Yours was not a life free of sin, full instead of manmade justice that so freely seized life and freedom of others. Voiceless, afraid, you found yourself at the feet of wishes—not to beg for mercy you did not deserve, no, but to dream, to look upon what-ifs when you could still take such flight, wings delicate and easily rent. If you had pulled the trigger sooner. If you had made clear of the situation first. If you had left the place as soon as Moriyama had obtained the chip. If, if Cavallone had given Hibari what he wanted, then perhaps neither of you would have come to this.

These bitter regrets were of little use now; nevertheless, you wished.

"You're a disgrace, Kusakabe Tetsuya."

You looked up, winced, and then smiled at your imagination, a fecund field even in the onslaught of pain, until Hibari took your jaw and held it there, at that angle, just enough to pierce a new hurt into thickening, old cloud-pain. You gasped, crawled back to life.

His eyes were the first you noticed, the proud arch of his nose, his tightly-pressed lips. "Herbivore," he said disdainfully, the pad of his thumb on the corner of your mouth. You attempted speech merely for the sake of it, with aching sinews and raw scraped throat, a tribute for his presence.

"Kyou-san."

"On your feet." He released your chin, abrupt, careless. "You're not dead. I will not carry you."

The feat was daunting, insurmountable for your quivering legs, but he stood there, tonfa in hand, and waited. You were only dimly aware of Nakamura's presence, bending over an unconscious Moriyama, and you momentarily envied him. Hibari had his eyes on you and you bit your tongue to hold back each scream, the smell and taste of blood now too thick to matter. You climbed slowly beneath his imperious stare, fingers clawing the back of a chair that made your support, and then fell, would have fallen but for his arm, firm on your back, careful of your injury. He said nothing, first step, second step, all to follow in likewise hush.

"Kyou-san..."

"Spare me your histrionics," his voice was a sharp, taut hiss, close enough to caress your ear. You swallowed both shame and gratitude and rimmed your lips with teeth marks as you proceeded, slowly, each aching step carving another well, narrow depth and red water. He persisted; you persisted, pained gasps clogged in your throat.

Red-brick buildings and grey sky were the sight that greeted your eyes once outside. Someone took your other arm, and then you saw him, Cavallone, in his white coat, a statue but none this street, this city, this age could have birthed.

"I told you not to come." You felt the stiffness that lined Hibari's words; he read it as an offence.

"And I promised not to interfere with the fight." Cavallone's reasoning was fluid, graceful—flawless. He approached swiftly, his men on his heels, others haunting lanes in-between houses. "Are they...?"

"Alive. What do you take my men as?"

You saw his fleeting smile. "Good. I have a helicopter ten minutes away and we can reach the landing in five if we hasten now. There's also a paramedic..."

His voice trailed away into a mass of white noise. Colours thickened before your eyes, lines unravelling to forms less exact. You still saw him, and in a fever-hazed dream, you saw him kiss your boss, your god, your life's worth of devotion.

You would have closed your eyes, but to what end? It was a dream.

He was fast asleep, a child's dream crusting his eyelids. From this angle, you could see him clearly, head cushioned by the fold of one arm, legs outstretched toward the open garden. There was weariness about his face which did not depart, a ghost that ever lingered, a reminder; he was Cavallone Tenth, even in sleep, and this you did not, could not begrudge.

In calm, silence was a beautiful song. Hibari sat with his back straight, legs folded correctly underneath. You could not read the set of his shoulders—what lullaby wind and flutters of golden leaves whispered to his ears, what manner of thoughts his mind might allow before this sight. You watched, waited, guessed when he raised his left arm, spine bowed to accommodate the distance, the touch of his fingers feather-light on Dino's hair, cheek, lips, a lover for all that he was not.

You averted your eyes for the sake of decency, just as Cavallone was roused from sleep, gently, not the outcome of a night's alarm. He found Hibari's warmth just as easily, fingers tangling together in an intimate dance, his smile a soft curve. If there was anything to begrudge, then you envied him this comfortable ease with which he took everything, his lips kissing Hibari's hand, wrist, knuckles.

"Tesoro," he whispered softly, "sei il mio amore, la mia forza, sei tutto per me."

You could not see Hibari's face—and a part of you did not want to; any expression, should it be there, was Cavallone's by right, his to claim and harvest and cherish. Your role was no longer that of a spectator and a good servant knew when to withdraw. Hibari moved to climb atop him, and you met his eyes, very briefly, and then bowed your head low, placed both palms flat on cool, polished wood. An excuse, if such was ever required, you found in the uncomfortable itch of a wound not yet healed, another to remind you of a debt for life.

The door slid shut, without a sound. You retreated.

It would have been beautiful.

–––

III. CAVALLONE

The call came past midnight, a manner fitting for all harbingers of ill news. You staggered out of sleep and fumbled around in half consciousness, looking for the source of the sound; a weary thumb found the 'receive' button.

"He didn't pick up," Romario said by way of greeting. He was stalling—your sleep-clouded mind could tell this much—but Romario never stalled.

The reason, the only possible reason pounced on your uncertainty at one unguarded moment, his silence all yours to interpret. You felt the cold that sang through your callous veins, tips to toes, awash with dread and very little hope.

"Romario."

He did not answer; you scarcely needed him to. For a long time you listened to the fragmented sound of his breathing, a man old in age, kingless and broken.

How should I tell him, you would have asked—but this question, an instrument to stall much like its sisters, was one without answer.

His name was Alberto.

Romario told you this, a sudden desire for speech in the lengthy shadow of grief. His was the white, slow-falling flakes in a winter morning, the mellow tapping of a blind man's cane, not the torrent of tears which oft besieged the young. Dino Cavallone's death added a score of years to his wrinkled face, none that distance, waves, or video transmission could cloak. His name was Alberto, he said, and he was a brave man, but not worthy enough, never worthy enough. Where he was alive, safe in the ever grateful arms of his wife, Cavallone Tenth had died and it was his blood which had stained the piazza in the midst of his men.

One man's account differed from his avowed brother's; Romario's duty was to separate each, listen to the accursed tale many times over, and then decide for all that he was not made to lead. Confusion arose whence accord did not—Alberto was at fault, Alberto was not, Boss made his choice, it was his duty, it was too quick, too sudden, too unexpected, too peculiar it did not make sense. He must silence them all for the sake of the Famiglia, now rudderless, a puppet with too many limbs but without the puppeteer.

"His name is Alberto, the one who was supposed to stand in front of the bullet," Romario told you quietly, and with this he held the man responsible. For him, grief was not aimless. Snowflakes never drifted upwards and a sightless man only lacked eyes, not direction.

You did not try to put yourself in his place; meaningless pursuits were not always harmless.

Hibari did not come to the funeral. He took the first flight to Sicily and by the end of the third day, he had the blood of the shooter dripping from his tonfa, a nameless hitman with no allegiance but that toward the sureness of currency. His eyes still slid past your shoulders, next to the responsible Family, nestled deep in the tangled alleys of Italy. He did not sleep, did not stop, and you guarded his rear and did not ask, as ascribed by his law.

Cavallone would have done differently, you thought. Cavallone would not have allowed him this vengeance, to so pay for one death with hundreds, thousands as wrath's flames would have it. Hibari would have tried to hurt him for this meddling and they would have fought and Cavallone would have had death licking his face a few times before taking Hibari into his arms, holding him close, braving narrow hits and steel-forged blows with little more than skin and flesh and a murmur of his beloved's name.

It would have been long, painful, incomprehensible, but Hibari would have learnt how to cry then, for even gods hid tears, jewels of crystalline blue that with them blood must shed. Anger stood no chance against fortitude such as this and they would have kissed and fucked and made love, and Cavallone would have repeated what he had so often said and whispered, thousands times over—and perchance, for the first time in a field of endless maybes, Hibari would have turned and found reciprocation on his lips.

It would have been beautiful; wrong, weak, and undoubtedly demeaning for one such as he, but beautiful nonetheless.

But Cavallone was dead and that moment, dream, fragment with him, a raw gemstone untouched in his cold, dead hands. And for this, you found yourself in mourning.

"Tetsu-san, this is unnecessary."

It was not Moriyama, you realised with certain amount of surprise, who first voiced this concern. Nakamura carried his worry much like shame, hidden in the untold depth of his eyes. This had not always been his habit, to speak so when no question had been thus far proposed; he had weakened, you thought with distaste, now that his wife was heavy with child.

"That is not for any of us to decide," you told him, ignored the pitiful whimpers of the prisoner from within. Moriyama was white with tension, but kept his back erect when Hibari returned to him the knife, sharp enough, small enough to leak blood onto white, ruthless fingers. Nakamura said nothing, turned his face away from the bloodied heap, carved flesh and flayed skin that coalesced so grotesque an image under the pale floodlight; he would have ended the man's misery but for his master's wrath. You only turned away from the sight when Hibari walked out, expressionless down to the thin arc of his lips.

"Roma," he murmured to your waiting ears, spoke it like a lover's name. Your nod was mute, three things at once: of understanding, of admitting, of defeat. You only left his side to arrange for a flight when he washed himself to remove the permeating stench of blood. The earliest flight possible, you told Nakamura, second only to you in hierarchy, and glared down any doubt that would have put words onto his tongue if allowed.

Hibari still did not sleep. You thought of this, a concept so alien to his domineering nature, and then the answer came to you: he was only ever challenged by his own lack of knowledge. Of many things he had come to understand, how to let go was not one of them. He was, to your eyes, once more a boy, one who had stiffened in Cavallone's arms the first time he had learnt that there existed touches not meant to hurt or conquer. He was static now, suspended, neither moving nor growing—and there was no one to show him how.

You could do many things. You could listen to the sound of his breathing. You could rise to your knees and very carefully open the door. You could slink slowly to where he was lying awake and you could kneel between his legs and coax sleep out of him with your lips and tongue. You could tear down the sanctity of his person with barely anything more than plain guts and a little disobedience. You could do what Cavallone had done—and this, you thought, more than anything–

But you did nothing of such. Silent, you sat outside his door, and waited.

October 15th, three weeks and three days after Dino Cavallone's death, the Famiglia Artiglio was no more.

Their allied families now came to his attention.

Of all people to kneel before Hibari Kyouya, you would have never thought Romario among them. Unthinkable to suppose that a man of his standing, Consigliere to the Don of Dino Cavallone would kneel for anyone but the late Don himself.

"There is no other," but his voice clove to steadiness like grass to the fostering earth, even as his coiled hands betrayed his sentiment. "Dissent is growing within the Family since he had appointed no heir, and only one can rightly claim the chair unopposed: he who with his own hand exacts revenge for this treacherous death. This was the law as laid down by Cavallone Terzo. Without a rightful leader..."

He paused, cleared his throat. Hibari's immediate refusal moments ago hung thick in the closed hotel room. How Romario had tracked you down spoke once more of the supremacy of Cavallone's network in Italy. How he had summoned the courage to put before Hibari Kyouya a proposal such as this recounted the depth of his personal loyalty. You were not a man easily impressed, but for this you would have taken off your hat, had you owned one.

Hibari would have laughed, had he remembered how. Romario would have wept, had his eyes still had tears to waste.

"There is no other," he repeated and yet his head was unbowed. "I would not have asked you, a guardian of Vongola–"

"No."

You perceived stubbornness, much like that of his boss on Romario's face. "This isn't just about succession–"

"Get out."

"Kyouya–"

"Tetsu," he called your name, a callous word in contrast. You stepped away from the shadowed walls, ready to escort the dismissed guest out. Romario rose to his feet but did not move away; his eyes considered Hibari's turned back and you regretted your lapse which let the moment come to pass, when he spoke again.

"He had kept this for weeks." Romario reached into his pocket; your hand drifted to a holstered gun, habit born of circumspection. "I believe it is yours to claim."

So small a box could only keep a number of things. Desperation had driven Romario to means of this scale, but how wrong he was, you thought, to suppose Hibari would likely be swayed by trinkets from a dead lover. When he turned around, you saw his rage, quicker, colder than yours, and with this as propelling force he tossed the box to the busy street nine floors below.

"Get out," this repeat order was softer, deadlier. You touched Romario's elbow, a warning on both ends. This he finally heeded with slow, measured steps, soundless across lush carpet. Neither of you spoke even after you had closed the door and headed to the direction of the elevator, weighed down still by the force of Hibari's response.

"If you can please talk to him..." Romario broke the silence only moments before the elevator door slid open; you stalled the rest of his words.

"Kyou-san has decided. There is nothing I can do that will change his mind."

"No one has foreseen this," he persisted as if you had not spoken a word. "This wasn't supposed to happen, but it did and now I can only ask–"

"Your boss made a choice," you said and held yourself tall, matching his height. Some grounds you would not forfeit on whatever cost. What Cavallone had done lay as thick as poison at the back of your mind, a bubbling cauldron feeding of hate.

"A choice to protect a member of his Family."

"Exactly." You smiled at him, not a friendly gesture.

Romario did not allow himself a hostile reaction but for a trace of coolness in his voice. "It was the right choice."

"Yes, it was."

But there was nothing right or proper about Hibari Kyouya. He belonged to hell, lorded over those who had sinned and fallen prey to his vicious, damning beauty. The Mafia Golden Boy did not suit him.

.

That night, Hibari slept for the first time in weeks. He did not wake when you approached, not even when you let your fingers follow the contour of his face, an inch above his skin. For once, there was no trace of Cavallone on him.

You closed your eyes, but did not sleep.

Persistence, you thought, not without a degree of sarcasm, was a trait alive and well within the Cavallone Family. The second time you met Romario, it was without the constraints of Hibari's presence—or knowledge, since this was an occasion you had so carefully arranged or otherwise risked his long-lasting enmity, right-hand man or not.

It was only natural that the matter of Cavallone succession did not end there. Sawada Tsunayoshi had been calling at least once a day, none of which had been so far returned; for the man to follow the calls was a simple question of when. If it had been in any way beneath Romario to ask for outside help in so domestic a matter, even that of Vongola Decimo, then clearly he had overcome this particular hitch.

But when he appeared before you, on the table beneath the steeple of his fingers was a box twice salvaged—and you must wonder at the depth he was prepared to sink.

"Not for love," he said, in the hotel lounge his low voice still reminiscent of steel, "because I know that romantic sentiments and the greatest of loves cannot move him. So I must ask now to treat it as a debt."

"Rubbish." You very barely restrained an urge to hurl the same box across the room. "Even if there existed one between them, your boss is dead and so it is no more."

"He died," Romario said, slowly, calmly, "because of him."

"If you intend to accuse–"

"A debt, Tetsuya." You almost flinched, not from the pitch of his voice—which was never once raised, not in so public a place—but the ferocity of his expression. "My Don knew that a boss was to live at all costs, even if he had to watch his men die on his stead. For him to go against this sacred law, it was unthinkable. And yet it happened." He paused, inhaled, allowed a moment for the words to etch their intended impact. "Guilt drives even the strongest to madness. His love had always, first and foremost, belonged to the Family. The incident was but a lapse of judgment on his part, but for it he must pay with his life."

"Then he died by his own choice." You looked at him in the eye and refused to budge.

To your astonishment, Romario answered your blatant refusal with a smile. It was a decoration which did not quite reach his eyes, but you saw its authenticity—and this took you entirely by surprise that it must have shown on your face.

"Of course." There was even a touch of pride in his voice. "My Don died by his own choice only, not a decision made by others. All I ask is for Kyouya to hear what I just told you. At least," he pushed the box across the table, "return this to him. Whether he will treat it as a debt or not is for neither of us to say."

You did not take it—not even look at it. "You don't want him, Romario," you said instead, politely if not quite amicably. "In your opinion, he is not good enough."

"I serve only the interest of the Cavallone Family, what I want is irrelevant." He straightened up and rearranged his hands into their original position. "But I will tell you why. Your sort of loyalty is rare, Tetsuya, you and your brothers'; it's tailored from an altogether different cloth, closer, stronger than anything—but this does not work in a famiglia of five thousand men. Kyouya will never be a leader who can embrace them all, and yet his being Cavallone Undicesimo is the only viable solution to prevent bloodshed in the Family."

"The men may not like to see a foreigner sitting on the Cavallone's throne," Romario continued, the flow of his words unceasing as if rehearsed, "but they do know that the smartest course of action is oftentimes against one's own liking. They will accept him if only to keep the Family together—there is nothing more important right now." Again, the smile appeared, pleasant but not quite harmless. "And he has style, I'll give him that. Three days after the shooting, and then less than a month for the entire Artiglio Family. They will hail his name for this, love him even."

"He has no need for those things." You tried to wear his reproach, but your facial muscles were stiff, cordoned by the truth in Romario's speech.

"You never know, the future holds many surprises." The smile slowly withered and once more he was solemn. "The ring, Tetsuya. It's all I ask."

"For now."

Romario did not respond, never a man to burden himself with unnecessary verses. You rose to your feet and left; the small box was a heavy presence in your pocket, as grave as the promise you now carried, too close to your heart.

Of all four Families allied to the Artiglio, three rose to arms. One came with an offer of a truce and a proposal, thickly riddled with concessions and a few concealed threats, delivered on a silver platter. Hibari sent them home untouched, promised nothing, and went after the rest.

Two days after Bernardo Colafranceschi was found murdered in his opulent mansion in Verona, Sawada Tsunayoshi appeared at Hibari's current hideout, a small house in Salerno. Only one person as of now had the power and means to locate Hibari Kyouya in Italy, but never once did Romario's name pass either man's lips.

"This must stop, Hibari-san." It was immediately clear to you that Vongola Decimo did not come to vouch for the Cavallone Family. His eyes were fierce, but they did not belong to a king who sought to rebuke one of his wayward lords; Hibari was his equal, this much he knew, as well as the fact that his diplomatic savvy was a waste of skill when it came to the Cloud Guardian.

"Because you cannot protect your Family, Sawada?"

It was not the mockery in Hibari's tone which stirred Sawada into action. You had heard of the attacks made on the Vongola's territory, for one did not need Gokudera Hayato's genius to figure out the mastermind of the ongoing massacre, so close on the heels of Dino Cavallone's death. Whether or not Vongola Decimo had any power over his Cloud hardly mattered, as long as retaliation was made sure of.

"Your revenge is senseless," Sawada spoke sternly. "The man who murdered Dino-san is dead, and so is the entire Artiglio Family. The ones you're targeting now are innocent. Colafranceschi's son–"

"They are not," Hibari interrupted. His voice carried so much disinterest it would have insulted anyone—but anyone was not a group in which Sawada Tsunayoshi ever belonged, not with his surname.

"Nevertheless, this is madness," he insisted. "What you are trying to do will cause war if continued. You must think of Namimori."

"Don't drag Namimori into this." For the first time, there was a semblance of emotion in Hibari's speech. Sawada noticed and thought that he had found an opening.

"Namimori belongs to Vongola," he responded carefully, "has always been since the time of Vongola Primo and you cannot pretend otherwise. If we ever go to war, then the flames will find Namimori. This is certain."

"The war will come, no matter how much breath you waste here." Hibari suddenly stood up, a flurry of black and resentment. "Go home to your wife, Sawada. She will appreciate your time more than I do."

You held the door open, waiting. Sawada Tsunayoshi rose to his feet, but his eyes remained on Hibari, hard and sad. "If this persists," he said, so quietly it almost didn't sound like a threat, "then you will find me standing in your way."

Hibari returned his gaze unblinking. It was, you thought, inevitable. Many nights ago, you had left the box on his desk, a sieve of choices within his arm's length—and the day after, a ring had suddenly hung from his neck on a silver chain. Il mio amato—you had once risked a glimpse at the inscription within and known then, Romario had spoken the truth. Dino Cavallone had died by a bullet, but the ring, this ring was why he had taken the bullet. Only guilt so strong, toward the Family he loved most, could ever bring that day along.

And Hibari knew this. He did not smile when he finally answered, "As it should be."

It was Sawada who bore the banner of mourning, a white cloth tied around his neck. He bowed his head, the first and last time, his farewell searing.

One more, you always thought; one more. Scartezini was dead, and so was Molinaro. The Colafranceschi Family had crumbled from within, rent asunder by a bloody division of power among the late patriarch's sons. There hardly had been any need for Hibari to lift a finger.

One more, and then it would end.

"But where is he?" Moriyama wondered aloud, had done so hundreds of times. You remembered the skulking gait of Emiliano Frasca when he had come with the proposal, before then vanishing from the face of the earth. Hibari's intent was too sharp; even the blind would have noticed.

You could have used allusion. You could have mentioned, once, the name, the extent of arm of one Sicilian Family ten generations old. It would all belong to him, should he only wish it, any misgiving kept hushed if not forgotten. You could have but you did not, and for this silence, Moriyama paid—you all paid. Three days after he had wondered last, his mouth could speak no more, separated from his neck as were hands from arms, knees from thighs, each nailed to an empty street.

You could not remember the last time you had cried. Tears were the privilege of lesser men, but these were not of sadness, bereft as you were, but of shame too great to manifest otherwise. Nakamura did not attempt to stop his tears and thus, you reflected, he was stronger.

Hibari did not cry. He summoned you after the funeral and said, "Get him on the phone."

It was Romario—it was supposed to be Romario, whom he was referring to—but you realised that it was not. At that moment you knew, looking at his pale mask and smouldering dark eyes, that in the wake of his loss he had forgotten. Thrice had he used the same words and thrice had you called a man now buried so deep within, earth and heart both. Dino Cavallone had always granted Hibari's demand of information.

You stared at the floor under his folded legs, waiting for the horrible moment when it dawned; even now, you still clung to silence so. His breathing slipped, once, twice, the last a gasp nearly loud enough to chase all doubts. You held your gaze fixed to white fingers clawing at covered knees, for gods did have tears but would never show them, not to mortals filled to brim with shame. These mortals were too blind, too deaf, too weak.

Too cowardly.

"Call Romario," he spoke at last, the name entirely without inflection. His face was inclined sideways, but not once did you raise your eyes. You retreated, carried out his order without hesitation because you had seen nothing, and heard nothing.

They said it was easier to forgive a dead man; you found it harder, much harder.

Three days later, the Famiglia Cavallone hailed their Eleventh.

It was not the name; a name did not make the man. It was not the colour; Hibari had worn black since ever you could remember, always, a colour of mourning for all his reasons were practicalities. It was not the ring, or the chain, a silver braid above crescent marks which abused his skin.

It was in the thin curve of his lips when any of his men called him 'Boss'. It was in the red of blood that was swallowed whole by black's grave omnipotence. It was in the knowledge behind the half-moons, for whose marks could they be but his own?

You took notice of these things, bitterly so in your helplessness. Even now, there was Dino Cavallone in the way he slept; curled, knees drawn together to his belly, fingers coiled on a white coat that wasn't there, on the space of the futon that did not belong to him; it would forever mark a ghost that did not leave, like in the way he took a shuddered breath when you knelt and worshipped him in a manner only you were allowed to—except a long time ago, this had not always been so.

He was a vainglorious god; such a god did not fall easily, but Dino Cavallone had never paid much heed to the suitability of his deeds. Like mould to bread, termites to a tree's core, he ate Hibari's heart, little by little, and by the time he took Death's hand, there was scarce anything left. Uncaring of the consequences, he let Hibari fall—but when clouds fell and there was no bed of earth to welcome them, where else could they go?

Your efforts were fool's errands, and yet you still knelt before him and felt the curve of Hibari's feet on your hardness. When you came, you came hard and it was painful, but he laughed—cruel and spiteful and more beautiful than anything you had ever seen.

You thought you could love him forever.

Emiliano Frasca was discovered dead one month afterwards. By then, three other Families had waged war with the Cavallone, slit eyes and accusing tongue toward their incarnadine trail. Whether it was Frasca who had Moriyama mutilated or an anonymous third party was to blame mattered but scant. Hibari did not cease. You did not think he had ever meant to.

Only Sawada, you suspected, had seen the depth of Hibari's intent. It was why he had never spoken a word on the matter of Cavallone's succession. Such dangerous design didn't need another arm—and that of the strength of five thousand men, those once loved and cherished by the sun, now no more than means to demolish.

"He's mad," Romario said, both angry and wretched; you did not reply. He fought down fury with calmness born of long experience, and tried again. "I understand revenge—it's an inescapable part of our life—but what he is doing–"

"You got it all wrong," you told him in a deadpan voice. "This is different. He holds everyone responsible for what happened, yes, including the entire Mafia system, but most of all," you paused, pitied him for a moment, and then shrugged it off, "most of all, it's because the one he blames for this is no more. The one he hates the most is dead, out of his reach. What other vengeance can he have?"

You saw the misery on Romario's face—he knew, he had been there at your side when the fate of the entire Cavallone Family was laid forfeit for the life of one man—but it was too late. Hibari Kyouya kept his promise, down to every word.

One thing you had learned about gods: they were alone, in joy, in tears, in triumph and defeat—eternally. The strongest anger came not from a wounded pride or even anger itself, but sadness so painful it could only find escape through fury, strong enough to turn gods into monsters. Monsters that would forever mourn

"Tetsu," he still called your name. It was the only thing constant left, along with your place, two steps behind and two steps to the right. You put him on that pedestal. You would be there, kneeling at his feet, right to the bitter end.

Such was a way of life, and you knew it was—yours.

Epilogue

Reborn watches, listens, and nurses regret.

Regret begets nothing—a hitman knows this all too well. A hitman does not think of his targets' name, of the quirk of their lips, of the colour of their hair. He feels, instead, the hard curve of a trigger, the firmness of ground under his feet, and the powerful beat that thunders in his chest. Focus, precision, all edges blurred, and then two rapid, consecutive shots.

Of all others in the room, no one understands this better than Xanxus. His lips curl in distaste as arguments soar, and a word from his mouth pierces the noise much as a bullet from his gun.

"Codardo."

Fury twists Gokudera's expression, a hiss lingering about his lips, but for once he does not openly rise to his lord's defence. For all his claim of Hibari's irresponsibility, he takes this betrayal the hardest—as he has earlier named it in a welter of denial, masked behind rage. Yamamoto never utters a word, withdrawn to a corner with a likewise mum Lambo, but Sasagawa Ryouhei always finds something to say. He heaves a deep breath, opens his mouth—Reborn is quicker.

"He will go after you." Words coil around tension, thick, ungainly cords. Reborn smiles mournfully; Iemitsu would have worded it differently, he thinks, regrets once more, but as Outside Advisor he continues. "Hibari doesn't do things by halves. He saves the worst for last, and Vongola was the only reason they had ever met."

No one rises to challenge his reasoning, all thoughts bent inward. Tsuna stares at his laced fingers, grief a cloak around thin shoulders. Reborn thinks differently; it is not for the living that he mourns. He reminisces, instead, of whips and golden grins. Dino was always the weakest among his students, the most vulnerable, and yet never had an heir ascended to so unsteady a throne, near worthless if not for the quickness of his mind. For this he rose too high, sank too deep, lived too bright, and left too much.

The words remain unsaid, but Xanxus's presence speaks enough. Varia is, first and foremost, a sword to kill and there is only one obvious solution for a Guardian who has now become a threat to the Family. But Tsuna raises his eyes, catches Xanxus's gaze, and their silent exchange brings a grimace to Gokudera's face, a bitter smile to Yamamoto's lips.

"He is my Cloud," Tsuna speaks quietly. "I am the one who will stop him."

He rises, then; Xanxus's disgusted snort is a contract that binds them both. Reborn stares, thinks of a ring he sent many years ago—Hibari Kyouya was his vote, his choice, third of six. Likewise, it was his decision to ask for Dino's help.

"He's a troublesome boy, but I think you can take the challenge."

And Dino grinned back then, delighted by his former tutor's trust; Reborn almost wonders why it is the most painful memory of all.

"Tsuna," he says now, his voice coming out hard and yet the weakness is unmistakeable, "I'm not losing another of my students."

Tsuna looks at him, but Vongola Decimo is the one who curbs a reply, who knows better than to do his strongest Guardian the dishonour of so definite a promise. He smiles instead, and with quiet, steady steps leaves the room. The swish of his coat is an anguished whisper—of a man who will sacrifice one of his limbs, and destroy his heart by doing so.

Reborn watches, listens, and nurses regret.

End

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Notes: There are only two possible outcomes here: it's either Tsuna kills Hibari or Hibari kills Tsuna and cue the end of the world. Readers are welcome to choose whichever they find more plausible or satisfying. That said, thank you for reading and please review \o/

Translation for Italian words:
Tesoro, sei il mio amore, la mia forza, sei tutto per me: Dearest, you're my love, my strength, you're everything for me
Il mio amato: My beloved one
Codardo: Coward