Disclaimer: Not mine.
"Good evening, Spiral City. Today's top story: Governor Timoteo has been embroiled in a fierce fight against the gaming industry. The governor has stopped sales of Urban Legends and has demanded a factory recall of the game. The public outcry over the ethics and safety of a game that physically enters the body and mind has pushed the Governor to recall the game. However, King Industries isn't going down without a fight. They are crying censorship and curtailment of freedom of speech. Things have become so bad that King Industries has threatened to bring a lawsuit against the city. Already, disturbing rumors about the alleged side-effects of the game have fuelled fierce arguments online and in the streets of Spiral City…"
The newsdump guy then chuckled and continued, "In other words, King Industries is exploiting the notoriety as the Urban Legends fever reaches an all-time high."
Deft fingers clicked on the wheel on the right side of his headphones, shutting the channel just as the man switched to news of an incoming festival for Baccanus, the time of lunar madness. Tsuna slouched down on the plastic chair and wondered if the world was coming to an end. The festival of Baccanus had a dire reputation of tumultuous anarchy. The Tower crumbles indeed.
The hospital's PA issued out the name of a doctor, directing him to several patient rooms. Like a military commander, the voice was crisp and clear and directed the hospitals inhabitants like chess pieces. Tsuna sifted through the medical jargon of the PA and waited for a name.
Then he caught it, "—Dr. Kurokawa, Dr. Kurokawa needed in rooms 069, 057—"
"You want to know about the Cube's side effects?" Dr. Hana Kurokawa paused, five clipboards in one hand and a stained coffee beaker on the other. She stared oddly at the psychic before her.
Tsuna tried smiling charmingly but ended up grimacing. Telepaths always made him nervous. Minds that were tuned to the intricacies of verbal and bodily language (almost as if they were actually reading other people's minds) made them more empathic than most, but Tsuna was uncomfortable knowing that his every twitch was giving something away. Worse Dr. Kurokawa was possibly the most notorious telepathic healer in her field for being the exact opposite of the stereotype. A genius in her own right but…
Dr. Kurokawa scanned him from head to toe then took a sip from her beaker. "Your blond friend is fine. Dr. Shamal cleared him already. And I'm busy." So saying, she began hurrying away again.
"W-wait, please!" Damn, she had a long stride. Tsuna scuttled behind her, deeper into the depths of the "alternative" psycho-medicinal clinic, one who followed the Gestalt school in healing. The clinic supported the theory that both body and mind interacted in health and disease and so acted accordingly in medicine. Most people assumed the mind part of the equation was psychological babble. Psychics knew it was telepathy at its finest.
"Spanner won't talk to me about it. I mean, he says he doesn't remember but I think, I mean, I know he's displaying symptoms of depression. He barely ate last time I saw him. Which I think came from the Cube. He wasn't like that before," said Tsuna.
Dr. Kurokawa glanced back at him and said, "Depression, huh? Could be part of post-traumatic stress syndrome since that was his first in a combat field, especially as the victim of that combat. Either way, his attending physician (which is Dr. Shamal) should be treating him with psychotherapy. Again not my business. Talk to Dr. Shamal."
"I…I just need to make sure." Tsuna gasped as he dodged a troop of panic-stricken interns while Dr. Kurokawa marched farther away from him. "I mean, you're the leading telepathic psychotherapist in Spiral City, right? Please. Tell me what you know."
Her mouth shrunk in vexation. "You can't do much for him, you know?"
"It's practically a default state," and Tsuna smiled, a small resigned quirk of the lips.
Dr. Kurokawa stopped and without turning around, transferred the clipboards into the crook of her arm, then rubbed the free hand into her eyes once, twice. Then she spun around and with a suspiciously raspy voice said, "I'll call that lazy bastard Shamal to check up on Spanner. Meanwhile, don't ever and I mean EVER tell anyone we're doing this."
So saying, Dr. Kurokawa dragged him to a supply closet hidden in a corner and shuffled him into an extra medical lab coat that smelled strongly of feet. Blegh.
Pitching her voice to an appropriately authoritarian level (not that it needed that much adjusting), she started speaking, "You'll begin your first mind dive demonstration today, intern Tsuna. Regulations insist that I give you the standard rules. Don't interact with the patient. Don't touch anything. And don't ever EVER open closets into where we're going." They stopped before a white stark door with the number 069 on it. She typed her password on the keypad next to the door and it slid open with a vacuum-sucking sound.
Inside was the comatose man from the Troll Spindle incident. The nameplate read Mukuro Rokudo.
The door automatically closed behind them and Dr. Kurokawa flipped through the papers on her clipboard as she gestured for Tsuna to take a seat. She continued lecturing even as her hands scribbled something on her clipboard. "Mind dives require an A-class license for practicing physicians and are strictly limited to telepaths—"
"Ah—I'm not a tele—" said Tsuna.
"I know." Dr. Kurokawa gave him a look, whipping him into silence without lifting a finger…"This is a demonstration. I'll pull you in with me. Hopefully, by the end of this, you'll have your answers."
"But what exactly is a mind dive?" It sounded painful, to be honest. Tsuna stared at the man on the hospital bed. Only a few days ago, he'd been on that kind of bed. And this man still hadn't gotten up. If only Tsuna had been faster, somehow. Better, even.
"It's a way for us to diagnose what damaged them mentally. You 'dive' into their 'minds'. Can I make it any simpler for you?"
Tsuna gulped but soldiered on. "Is it…painful? What does it feel like?"
"It's different for everyone. I've heard that for some, it's like rising out of the water. For others, it's just like waking up." Dr. Kurokawa shrugged and held out her hand. "For me, it's always walking through a door."
Tsuna took her hand and opened his mouth to ask more—
For Tsuna, it was like falling. Falling over the edge. A sick sense of vertigo gone out of control, his stomach climbing up his throat to vomit itself out. Just like the day a lick of fire had first baptized of his fingers and devoured his life from before the Numbers Circus. Falling through a sky gone grey with smoke and ash.
Tsuna heard a small mechanical voice say something in his headphones.
Squeaky violins fiddled to a lullaby. - - Twins were we, a matching set - -
Dr. Kurokawa's immaculate designer Uni boot poked at Tsuna's cheek. "Wake up, I said. I don't have much patience in lugging children around." Tsuna rolled over and hugged the offending shoe, mumbling, "Five more minutes, mom…"
Disgusted, she stomped on Tsuna's hand in retaliation for the slight drool dripping down the smooth black leather of her boot.
"Aargh!" Tsuna wriggled away again, looking like an odd earthworm stuck above ground. He sat up in time to see Dr. Kurokawa's smirk before she turned away. He stuck out his tongue at her. Girls in his life were always laughing at him. At least, it was never mean laughter. - - And they came, scum of the earth - -
"Come on, get up. We need to get going." Dr. Kurokawa extended her hand again.
The violins pleaded oh - - Sliced neatly, my dwindling life - -
"Where are we? And what's that…noise?" said Tsuna as he took her hand and stood up.
"This, my young initiate, is Mukuro Rokudo's mind." She swept out the other hand to the side to show him.
Tsuna looked around and then rubbed his eyes. Mukuro's mind was starkly in chiaroscuro. All depthless black and blinding white. As if Tsuna had gone colorblind, even to gray. They were standing in a cavernous hall of mirrors, ridiculously tall mirrors whose peaks disappeared into the impermeable shadows of the hall's impossibly high ceiling. They reflected each other back and forth, an endless pathway of reflections upon reflections circling eternity. And the floor was a carpet of perfectly corpse-white jigsaw puzzles, some missing. Black and white. White and black. Tsuna suppressed a shiver. It was so hollow here. - - Then you judged, your rule was death - -
That creepy voice.
"And that song, only Mukuro can tell us what it is," said Dr. Kurokawa. "I suggest we adapt ourselves before any of Mukuro's mental defenses activate." She leaned down and picked up two jigsaw puzzles. She ate one and gave the other to Tsuna. With a raise of an eyebrow, she said, "Eat."
It tasted like a thin wafer crisp. - - Salvation, your cup empty - -
- - Cruel Judge, or Vile Sinner - -
Tsuna doubled over, coughing, his lungs seizing. Black shadows crawled over him. When he finally clawed his way out of them, he was in full jester's regalia with leggings, bells ringing on his bracelets and anklets. His harlequin dress extended a hood over his head and the tail of it swung three rope-like liliripes behind him, ending with more silver bells. He held up his hands found the letters XXII tattooed over his palms. He tried pulling off the hood but it stuck like superglue.
Dr. Kurokawa clicked her tongue at him. "Figures. Girly in the real world, girly here too." She tugged unmercifully at the edge of Tsuna's dress a few inches up his knees.
"You look nice too," Tsuna said even while defending his legs from her. And she was, wearing white nunnery robes with large gothic crosses on her shoulders and front. A tilting papal hat with long swathes veiled half of her face and another number tattooed across her palms: II.
- - This unstable world of yours - -
"Is this normal?" he asked.
"Normal?" Dr. Kurokawa said with amusement. "What the hell is that anyway? No mind is ever normal. Comatose minds are even more irrational, believing themselves awake and alive in their dreams no matter the evidence." The singer crooned to them - - Conviction, for your own death - - but she ignored it, continuing.
"Here, we'll investigate on whether it was the Cube or it was trauma from his injuries that caused Mukuro to go under. While information on Cube technology is scanty and most of the time, untrustworthy, the field of psychotherapy allows one to scientifically document any supposed side-effects."
She walked down the corridor not even bothering to look if Tsuna was following behind her. Tsuna glanced around, bells chiming. Then hurried after her as the singer ended with these last sinister words - - A parade, of sinners hung…
Begets your own stygian prison - - even as the violins played on unceasingly, a vigil against the silence.
Every now and then, they came across swarms of black splotches on the jigsaw ground as if it had rained henna ink.
They met a man in a hooded tunic bearing six cups on a tray and who'd just bowed to them and then walked past without saying anything. Dr. Kurokawa had tried to interrogate him but the man shuffled away quickly and went back to what he'd been doing: pouring white paint from the cups onto the black stains on the ground.
They saw another hooded man with a shovel next to him. As they got closer, Tsuna saw seven pentacles embroidered on the man's robes. He bowed to them and resumed in digging out stained puzzle pieces off the ground. When Dr. Kurokawa moved to speak with him, the man resolutely ignored them.
"I'm starting to think they're not allowed to speak to us," said Dr. Kurokawa. "You noticed how poorly made their clothes were, compared to ours?"
"You mean there's a class division here?" Tsuna asked as he plucked at his clothes, studying them closer.
"Could be," she hmm'ed as she ran the tips of her fingers along a gap, empty of any jigsaw piece, on the floor. While the individual pieces surrounding the hole were thin as cardboard, they were solid-stiff as if made from concrete. The ink blotches here were larger, like strange tribal stars with numerous gangling spines.
"They were trying to clean these. These," she pointed at the stains, "They were trying to bleach them up. Stains often symbolize an individual's idea of a short-coming or a wrong-doing."
"So, Mukuro's trying to clean up his act?"
She nodded, "You could say that. It's just a bit odd that there's so many…Most people have at least a little bit of a defense mechanism." Defense mechanisms were a type of mental immune system that was built gradually by life experiences and strengthened with months of meditation like the Number's basic training. But like all systems, it occasionally crashed and burned.
"Sawada? I think we need to talk with Rokudo." She stood up from her crouch, wiping her hand on her front without regard.
"How are we going to do that?"
Just then, from ahead of the corridor, came a clanking and a clashing storm of sounds. A knight appeared around the corner, charging with a sword. He stopped at the sight of them, gasping and then bowed, "The High Priestess! Forgive this lowly one—"
Dr. Kurokawa pulled herself up even straighter as she muttered at Tsuna to ham it up. "Yes, yes. Enough of that. Why are you…?" She stretched out the pause waiting for the knight to fill it.
He did so. "I've been ordered to catch the scum who've escaped the prison cells, your Grace."
"The scum?" asked Tsuna simultaneously as Dr. Kurokawa asked, "The prison cells?"
The knight looked at them, head tilted to the side, an inquiring look even through the slotted holes on his helmet. "The ones who killed the Star of course," little fool. How could you have forgotten? Tsuna frowned at him. He touched his cap-and-bells, the part covering his ears. Odd. The knight hadn't mouthed the insult, he was sure. Nor the question. But they had popped into Tsuna's head like weeds.
"Since the day the World (XXI) trembled, all the prisons are disintegrating one by one." The knight looked up just as rusted metal creaked above their heads and with a teeth-grinding screech, broke and fell to the ground, metal dissolving into a black smear on the white sickly puzzle floor. A stain in honor of the dead, the Star—The knight's bereaved thoughts seeped into Tsuna's mind like bitter poison. "…Those prisons hanging over our heads, your Grace."
Under the guise of thick shadows suspended above them were, distinguishable after a few moments of searching, thousands and thousands of mangled birdcages, every single one empty.
Dr. Kurokawa cleared her throat and asked, "Have you captured any of the convicts?"
"No, your Grace," then the knight looked nervous and added, "—but the last prisoner is still there. XII. He did not try to escape."
The knight smashed his iron gauntlet against a mirror, shards falling like silver rain.
He bowed to them one last time as farewell, pointing inside, through the wall of mirrors, where XII was kept.
After walking in darkness, they came to a byzantine ironwork door with the inscription—XII. The Traitor.—
His cell was a life-size antique birdcage, similar to the ones in the hall of mirrors. And hanging by a thread in the middle of the room, was a painting revolving around the thread. On its back, was another painting like two faces of one coin.
The first was of a young girl holding a blank tarot card with a background of simply, a large intricately knotted star with seventeen spines.
The painting's other face, the second one, was upside-down. In an exact mirrored stance of the girl, a copy yet its complete inverse, was a boy holding a rectangular mirror with a background of a tidal wave.
Twins were we…
With gut instinct pressing down on him, Tsuna stepped forward and spun the painting round and round until the colors bled into each other, two faces blurring into one, and then it stopped.
The star had lengthened, its spikes reaching the edges of the frame and puncturing through the inverted boy-now-man. Card and mirror were left as debris on the bottom and the thread on which the painting was hung, had been extended into the painting itself, now hanging the Traitor by his neck. Behind him, feathered stumps on his shoulder blades twitched their fleshy pulp grisly with blood.
The hanged man opened his mouth as more blood trickled down his chin, "Why, if it isn't my copycat cards, all polished anew." Embossed on his cheeks like scars were XX and XII on each side. Judge/Traitor, one whole. "You're late. It's quite impolite to make me wait."
Mukuro hadn't opened his eyes at all.
"Then you know why we're here?" asked Dr. Kurokawa tartly.
The traitor spasmed, his whole figure shuddering on his self-made cross. His throat throbbed violently, his mouth a perfect o of wretchedness, and then he vomited out a dead dragonfly onto the floor of his painting. His smile reached his ears, all bloodied teeth, and said with a giggle, "You mean this?"
Tsuna clapped a hand to his mouth, dry-heaving as Dr. Kurokawa paled and clenched her clammy hands.
"What an ephemeral feeble insect, that Troll's Spindle," Mukuro's tongue lapped at his cracked lips, savoring what Tsuna could only guess at. "They say dragonflies are the souls of the dead. My own little ghost," his teeth clacked in shivering at the mention of the dead. Abruptly, he changed the subject, "—I know why you're here. Reborn that lizard man, had five of us, the best of the mind manipulators, hunt down the trigger system of the Cube as a debt repaid to him," and Mukuro's voice pitched into a sing-song baritone, "Sweet insidious irony. The Cube hunted down those who were hunting it."
"Is that why? Why you're in a coma?" said Tsuna, trying to breathe evenly. That explained why it had first attacked Spanner.
"No oh no, it is much more pernicious than that," Mukuro said with relish, "It sends out a pulse, psychic in nature. Like an electromagnetic seizure in the general schemata of people's minds. Like a convulsion of static, it disrupts and it disturbs. It unhinges a person at their most vulnerable—their own ghosts—manifested in form of the monstrosities of a trivial videogame." Again his voice seemed to slip and slide over the word.
"What the fuck! Who? Who fucking abuses the mind like that?" hissed Dr. Kurokawa, advancing on the painting with every intention of ripping the answers from Mukuro.
Laughing raggedly like a hyena, Mukuro leaned forward, ignoring the good doctor, pressing the star's spines deeper inside him with a sickening squelch as he tilted his face at Tsuna. "Why, Tsuna's predecessor, Iemitsu Sawada, the tarnished Golden Lion."
Tsuna felt his blood freeze, felt his mind stutter and blank out. It couldn't be. It just couldn't. He would never—
Mukuro tut-tutted and said, "I know what you're thinking—" he raised his voice to a falsetto, "—oh, he couldn't have done it, oh sir-ee no! My father was such an honorable man, he couldn't have!" He broke out laughing again, a lunatic kind of sound one with shrill tones. "How could you ever forget, executioner's little son?"
Tsuna sucked in a pained sob.
Very few knew. Very few.
Iemitsu had been on a killing spree against his mother's killers right before he disappeared.
Dr. Kurokawa moved in front of Tsuna, blocking him from Mukuro. She gripped his wrist. They had their information. She couldn't let Tsuna stay any longer. Sometimes digging out the ghost from their grave only made things worse. Then she took them out of Mukuro's mind.
Just as they left, Tsuna heard Mukuro whisper lovingly,
History repeats itself, Tsunayoshi. The victim killed by the sinners. The sinners slaughtered by the executioner.
And then that mechanical voice cheerfully informed him of –Sound Reversed—.
"—Hey, buy me a beer before the parade starts,—"
" –double-faced tradition, we see life and death in one, order and chaos together, past and future—"
" –Folks, we gotta warn you, it's going to be a masquerade right in the middle of Spiral City, with all her lights off, so bring your flashlights and candles and torches—"
"—text her? I wanted a matching metalhead mask with her—"
The constant flux of the crowd on the streets had swallowed Tsuna the moment he had stepped out of the hospital. He'd forgotten about it. The Baccanus was tonight. The time of lunar madness. A time to revel in insanity. Beside him, a gypsy dancer argued with a juggler about city propaganda and in front of him, several pirates began singing an old sailor's song about cabin fever. There was a Loki showing off his mask to an uninterested acrobat and a couple, Hades and Persephone, stopped by to say something of note. Digital billboard screens of the news about Baccanus littered along the walls, newscaster and dj voices mixing with the crowd around him, an unending cacophony. Keep steady.
"—got a temp tribal tattoo on for the Baccanus, isn't it cool? Covers my whole back too, fucking expensive—"
" –Full moon with clear skies for Spiral City's most highly anticipated event, the Baccanus—"
" –Hell no! It's Papa Legba, the voodoo god, how come you can't tell my costume at all?—"
Some people had even copied Number Circus costumes, elaborate affairs of color and texture and style. It was practically Tsuna's home territory. A parade. A festival. And yet, he'd never felt more alone. A skater in neopunk slammed into him and grumbled an apology. A pretend-elf took a picture with his cellphone, laughing. A clean-cut mobster was extolling the virtues of the zodiac carvings on the pillars on the street to his Spock companion. So many games of pretend and yet, Tsuna was misplaced outside of it, looking in through a pair of lenses. After all, pretend games were practically Tsuna's life. Let's pretend Tsuna, that your mother isn't dead, that Reborn isn't disappointed in you, that your father never—
"—They're holding choreographed dogfights in the skies after the fireworks, so we gotta go here—"
" –It's an invocation, you see, to trickster gods, those at the crossroads. It's the opposite of religion, for going wild—"
"—Business is blooming ripe for the parade as tourists are coming in flocks through the passenger zeppelins—"
"—have the spray paint cans. 'S tradition to tag the intersections on the roads—"
The sticky sweet smell of spun sugar burning in the air from the food vendors made Tsuna dizzy. Underneath, like a background tone, were fruity clear-cut frozen popsicles and snowcones. And then ever softer, the powdery floury smell of cakes followed. It made him sick, a riot of sweet chemical compounds in the air. Tsuna's stomach was rebelling while his mind was a pleasant fuzz of muffled memories. This was a balancing act. He was never good at those. A superman bent down and asked if he was okay, looking a bit peaky there, kid.
A wolf and a gargoyle were rolling lines of yellow police tape to funnel the crowd down further the major streets and highways and barred traffic from flowing. They were nearing the crossroads. The throng of people grew even more jam-packed, pressing down on Tsuna—"Careful with the violin there!"—he shouldered his way through the heat and press of shadowed faces—"Idiot, the pipes are what you use for markers in getting around"— he felt like he was burning up—"Don't be such a grump and come with us! We won't be the only buskers around"— he was dying—"Then Mr. Rabbit said, Come down and jump into the hole—"
A callused hand clapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey, Tsuna. Where've you been?"
Yamamoto smiled at him in black hakama pants and a black leather turtleneck with silver zippers running down his chest. Tsuna didn't even have it in him to drool over all the potential unzipping of the zippers. Yamamoto just seemed to infect tranquility everywhere he went. And somehow, even Tsuna's stomachache had ceased. He smiled back, an honest to god sincere smile.
He never noticed, in all the clamor of the Baccanus revelers, with his headphones down on his neck, his voicemail activated.
" - - Tsuna - - are you - - It's Spanner - - That guy, Yamamoto - - trouble - - need to get - - found out - - terrible - - bi - -"
AN: CREDIT awesomeness hall of mirrors= Mangkulas (aka sister/beta).