Who: Gokudera, Mukuro. Others are mentioned.

When: somewhere around five years into the future.

What: gen, humour, occasional creepiness.

Summary: a right-hand man has many duties, and not all of them are fun.

There were times when Gokudera wished he were someone else – preferably, someone living in a far-off country, doing a nice, friendly job, like dinosaur dentistry – and it usually happened whenever he had to deal with Mukuro Rokudo. Quite possibly, it was the only thing about being the Tenth's right-hand man that he abhorred from the bottom of his heart; and unfortunately, it was also the only thing that he could never dump on anyone else.

It wasn't even that no one wanted to help. Yamamoto, for example, was the epitome of helpful, sometimes to the point where Gokudera became so annoyed with the freak, that he had to stifle the urge to wrestle the infamous baseball bat from him, and beat him up until he stopped being so damn nice. Ryohei would undoubtedly volunteer as well, and so would the Tenth himself, because the Tenth was noble like that, and never thought about his own safety when it came to those around him, especially the members of the Family. Gokudera, however, couldn't help thinking that Vongola might be better off without some people. He kept those feelings to himself for the most part, though, because he knew it would upset Tsuna.

The Tenth was the greatest treasure in Gokudera's life, and the greatest luck, but sometimes he was a little bit too trusting and tended to see nothing but good in thosee who wouldn't know good if it came up and spat them in the face.

Sadly, delegating Mukuro to the other two was most definitely out of question.

Dealing with Mukuro even at the best of times required a considerable amount of intelligence and cunning, something that both Yamamoto and Ryohei lacked, however gifted they were otherwise. In fact, Gokudera, who had always believed he was more or less the brains of the endeavor, wasn't entirely sure if he understood half of what Mukuro said when they met.

Mukuro was never simple unless it was absolutely necessary, and when it was, he would still do his best to complicate simple so much that people needed a very big dictionary if they wanted to get to other end of his speech. Yamamoto would be lost in a minute, and Ryohei even sooner, if such a thing was possible; and this couldn't be allowed, because Mukuro, sick and twisted though he was, also happened to be useful to Vongola, when he chose to be. You couldn't just boot out the guy who ran an efficient network of spies and provided tons of essential information. Not even if you hated his guts. Not even if he threatened you on a regular basis. Someone reasonably smart had to interact with him, which, in Gokudera's opinion, absolutely excluded Yamamoto and Ryohei, and, of course, Lambo, but that went without saying.

Besides, Gokudera considered himself quite lucky that at least it was Ryohei, and not him, who had the dubious pleasure of keeping in contact with the Varia. He would never admit it if anyone asked, but in the privacy of his mind, Gokudera knew very well that he wasn't fit to deal with the Assassination Squad. To him, they seemed to inhabit a completely separate universe – the one gently roasting on the never-dying fires of fury and hatred, with a lot of blades and blood all over the place. Gokudera had once or twice seen glimpses of the inferno inside, and was thankful to have escaped alive. It was an insane place, and they were clearly insane people, and he wanted nothing to do with them. Not to mention that the mere sight of Belphegor freaked him out; Squalo's voice made his ears bleed; and Xanxus was the the closest thing to a chthonic monster that Gokudera could think of.

He had no idea how anyone could tolerate them, but he suspected that Ryohei was thick enough to simply ignore or misinterpret their craziness and take displays of animosity for friendly concern. What he didn't ignore, he forgot, and that was more than Gokudera knew he was capable of.

But that still left him with Mukuro.

There had been a brief moment when he entertained the idea of saddling Hibari with this unpleasant task, but he had discarded the notion almost immediately, because not only did the Cloud Guardian have a very personal grudge against Mukuro, but he also listened to no one and had about as much respect for any authority that wasn't his own as Hibird had for songs other than Namimori Hymn. And on top of that, Gokudera had no desire whatsoever to get bitten to death. Hibari wasn't known for his sense of humour.

That was why on the 5th of July, which was accidentally a very nice, warm Sunday, the sort meant to be spent with one's family, he was standing in front of the forlorn ruins that had once been Kokuyo Land.

The last five years had only added to the overall decay. The walls were shabby and covered with graffiti and lichen and grime and who knew what else, and looked ready to crumble down on the head of anyone who dared as much as breathe in their vicinity; the roof had fallen in in various places; the doors and windows gaped at the world like empty eye sockets, black and hopeless. Every inch of the ground around the building was littered with rusty tin cans and broken bottles, dirty plastic bags and cigarette stubs, and all sorts of garbage. Some of it stank severely. Weeds had grown everywhere, wild and free, but it only made the contrast sharper. The house was like a dead man walking, or rather barely standing. It didn't belong here or anywhere; but it remained; and Gokudera suspected that it was Mukuro's doing that no local authorities had ever demonstrated any interest in bringing it down.

Gokudera wondered how he'd done it. He also wondered what possessed Mukuro to continue using this decrepit place. The illusionist didn't strike him as sentimental. Surely, someone as resourceful as him was capable of arranging better, more comfortable lodgings? Suddenly he wondered if Chrome still lived here, along with her goons. The girl came and went and did her job, and as far as he was concerned, the rest was up to her, including any financial arrangements. It had never really occured to him before that she might need money, but now the thought wouldn't leave him alone. Considering how shy the girl always was, she would probably rather starve than ask for help. He felt a little ashamed that he hadn't cared enough to find out - she was family and didn't deserve to be ignored, even if he disapproved of her connection with Mukuro. It wasn't her fault the bastard had chosen her body when he was looking for a temporary abode.

It also occurred to Gokudera that, in a way, Mukuro also was family, and the idea did nothing to improve his mood. If the guy was family, he was the proverbial black sheep, and there was no changing the fact.

Picking his way very carefully through the filthy chaos that was the former Kokuyo Land, Gokudera headed for the main entrance. Mukuro would be inside and wouldn't come out – he never did, for some reason – so there was no point in just loitering about, wasting time. The sooner they were done with this job, the better; and with any luck he wouldn't see the other Guardian for at least a couple of months.

It was dark inside, and the smell of decay was stronger, because it was also the smell of damp, and abandonment, and things gone wrong forever. Gokudera pointedly ignored the crunching little sounds that his boots made as he walked toward the stairs that led up to the second floor. He tried not to think of bones being smashed and ground to dust, or about his own very short stay in this building more than half a decade ago when Mukuro had only just appeared on their horizon.

He tried not to think of Mukuro inside his head, a cold, poisonous presence, slithering in like a lazy snake, taking over, effortlessly appropriating of his body as if it were an old bicycle.

He had come here to do his job, learn important news, if there was any, and go away. He wasn't going to charge at Mukuro, no matter what he said or how he chose to provoke him this time.

There was little doubt that Mukuro would do exactly that.

Among the many things that Gokudera disliked about the Mist Guardian was the way he talked. It wasn't that Mukuro talked down to him, although he did. Gokudera had vast experience of being talked down to – his father and sister had done it for years when he was little; Shamal, and Hibari did it all the time, the former in a drawling, benevolent manner, the latter with an indifferent look on his face; and whenever he had the occasional misfortune of meeting the Varia, they all talked down to him at once; and they sneered a lot and used very bad language.

Mukuro, on the other hand, was polite, and somehow that was substantially worse. His voice was always quiet and smooth, and he never used a rude word. He didn't need to. Instead, he used long, sophisticated words, and he arranged them into long sophisticated phrases and sentences, and he spun them like webs so that the victim only realized it was trapped and outdone when it was too late to change anything.

Conversations with Hibari tended to leave Gokudera angry, but a short verbal exchange with Mukuro never failed to make him feel like an idiot who didn't know how to speak properly, or walk straight, or probably even brush his teeth, and who most certainly couldn't hope to understand the simplest truths about the workings of the world. Their meeting usually took form of lectures – with Mukuro doing the talking, of course, and Gokudera, inwardly seething with indignation, listening, because somewhere among all the lacy words and overblown metaphors, was the very information the illusionist worked to acquire.

It was always important information, by all means worth a little discomfort; but every time Gokudera left Kokuyo Land behind, he felt cheated and outsmarted, and he really hated it.

This day, he could tell, was going to be no exception.

When he entered the dark, spacious room where they had defeated Mukuro in the past, the Mist Guardian was already there. He was lounging on an old couch of unidentifiable color, one leg thrown over the other, and he smiled his creepy little smile when he saw Gokudera.

"Ah, here is the fearsome right-hand man of the tenth boss of Vongola," he said mildly, as if to himself, which also was one of his trademark moves.

Gokudera let fearsome pass, because he knew that worse was yet to come. There was always room for the things to get worse.

"Well, what news do you have this time?" he asked, hoping against hope that for once Mukuro might forego small talk and proceed straight to the business.

"What, no hello? Not even a how's life? Aren't you going to inquire about my health?"

Gokudera gritted his teeth. "I can see you smirking at me, so I bet you're doing fine."

The soft sound of Mukuro's laughter – an insult to Gokudera's ears – drifted through the room and hung in the warm summer air.

"Indeed," he said, and if his amusement could be any more obvious it would crystallize and chime like a million silver bells. "I trust Tsunayoshi Sawada is well? He should be, with all of you, strong, loyal friends watching his back day and night."

How is he doing it, Gokudera thought morosely, what's the trick?

Again, there was nothing wrong with the words; quite the opposite, in fact, they were rather flattering, or at least they would be, if they came from anyone else. But when Mukuro opened his mouth and spoke, every damn syllable seemed to become a window into the abyss of double meanings and ambigous hints.

"Why do you ask?" Gokudera snapped irritably. "Don't tell me you care, because I'm not buying it. Besides, what's the point, it's not like you don't know the answer already."

Mukuro steepled his fingers and gazed at Gokudera, still smiling. "There is no need to get so agitated," he replied soothingly. "I was merely observing formalities. Being marginally civil to each other will do us no harm." He shifted slightly, making himself more comfortable. "And I am genuinely surprised to find out that you doubt my intentions. How many times do I have to repeat that the well-being of Tsunayoshi Sawada is in my best interests?"

From the bottom of his heart, Gokudera wished he were dealing with Hibari instead. You knew where you were standing with Hibari: in a bad place, certainly, but at least there was ground under your feet, metaphorically speaking, and it wasn't going anywhere. Talking to Mukuro was like tap-dancing on a barely frozen lake – you could hear the ice creak, and it was only a matter of time before you found yourself in the water.

He frowned at the illusionist.

"You'd better not try anything with the Tenth, you creep. Because if you do, I swear I'll make sure you stay with the Vindice for the rest of your life."

If I can stop myself from wringing your neck first, that is, he added in the privacy of his mind; but the object of his resentment appeared quite unfazed.

"Oh?" Mukuro's smile widened a fraction, white teeth gleaming momentarily in what little light came from the window. "Don't you think it might be a little too late for that sort of threat?"


"I'm simply suggesting you redefine your meaning of scary if you want to frighten me, Hayato Gokudera."

"You mean you're real? You escaped?" Concentrated on the illusionist as he was, he didn't immediately notice the fine tendrils of mist crawling up the walls and swirling just beneath the ceiling. Mukuro laughed again, and this time the sound was somehow hollow and full of echoes. "Hey! It's true, isn't it? Why didn't we know? Wait, you–"

"I am always real, my poor dimwitted friend. Do take care of my future vessel for me, please. If something happens to Tsunayoshi Sawada in my absence, I will be most despleased."

His voice faded into silence, as the mist filled the room, coiling around Gokudera like a semi-transparent serpent, and when a few seconds later it started to dissipate, the couch was empty safe for a lonely file folder which, upon closer inspection, turned out to contain Mukuro's usual report. Gokudera stared at it for a moment.

Then he spun on his heel and walked out of the room.

It was still warm and sunny outside, and Gokudera blinked owlishly as he exited the ruins of Kokuyo Land, the papers stuffed into a briefcase. He shook his head and headed toward his car.

Enough was enough. As soon as he got back to Namimori, he'd ask Ryohei to swap places with him. Lawn-head wouldn't mind, surely. He would probably act as if he and Mukuro were best buddies or something. And he, Gokudera, could try the Varia. If he took care to plug his ears, stayed clear of Xanxus at all times, and didn't forget to dodge those annoying knives, he'd probably be right as rain.

Oh yes. This was a good plan.

A/N: This story has been sitting on my hard drive for several months. Now it's finished. Yay! Go me.

If you leave me a review, it will be much appreaciated. I luv 'em, y'know.:)