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with you. ¤ title
the world ends. ¤ summary

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AU (that connects with canon) - M/Mature/R - Byakuran/Shouichi, hints of other pairings ¤ contents

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"See, Shou-chan, the world ends—"

「 w i t h y o u 。 」

-i.
a prima vista ¤ in spring

The process of registering and clearing security fingerprints before one is able to leave the inner city takes ten minutes—a nuisance for a busy engineer needed to look over blueprints of the territory expansion models, an emergency for a medical agent needed to stitch close someone's jagged cuts, a disaster for a hurrying soldier needed to be at the front lines of battle—but for someone who is not needed anywhere, ten minutes is all but a measure of excess time.

Irie Shouichi makes his way towards the so-called 'natural environment' zone, which is just a fancy word for a place that's undeveloped and untouched by the technology that drives the world's machinations. Unlike people who are deemed 'useful' and 'needed', people like Shouichi can only go inside the inner city's sanctuary for a few hours per week. After those scheduled 'learning sessions', he has to return to the place he hesitates to call 'home'.

He chances a glance to the overhead sky and sees nothing but steam and smoke billowing out from waste vaults and mechanochemical plants. He learned from the compulsory primary education that there was a time when the world wasn't divided into zones and when the sky wasn't ashen with technology. He learned a lot of things from the primary education, comprehensive knowledge that amounted to nothing after the test that segregated the students into their designated paths as adults.

Results of his physical test ensured that he wouldn't be able to enter the military track; findings from his in-class observation rendered him unfit for any roles in the political track; discussions with his professors showed that he wasn't meant for the technology track.

Shouichi didn't mind then and continues to not mind now, for he is able to exist in a world not confined by those titanium-enforced walls, for he is able to go down a path that he actually enjoys, even if just a little bit.

He drops by the Locker Vault, a tall, rectangular building that nearly touches the dull-lit sun. As the name suggests, the building houses row upon row of lockers for commoners like him to deposit their belongings before traveling inside the inner city perimeter. He clears another set of security measures—pin-pricks on his fingertips and an electric buzz on his palms—but it's all routine to him now, after years of living the life of someone not even deserving of the label 'commoner'.

As shown by the letters stashed in his locker, his mother hasn't given up in urging him to submit an appeal to the Inner City Council regarding his placement to the Arts and Humanities' Music subdivision—a career path that gathers all the other rejects and all the other people that cannot perform up to par with the government's standards.

Shouichi doesn't mind, really. The way passersby's smiles dim when they pass by him in the middle of the road, fingers strumming guitar strings together to form a melody forgotten by time... Shouichi doesn't mind now. He has learned to not mind.

But maybe that's all just a lie, all just a comfortable way of not admitting that he's bored beyond his wits with simply attending a music class taught by someone who can't even touch a guitar without creating some ear-bleeding sound, of simply existing in a world where people not-so-subtly mocked him for not being like them.

Maybe it's all just a lie that Shouichi himself is not even aware of.

He makes his way out of the Locker Vault after leaving his practice instrument behind. Another set of security measures he must clear—is it just his imagination, or is the security much stricter lately...?—and he carefully doesn't think about how the rest of the world, segregated into the soldier track or engineering placement or any other track aside from 'Arts and Humanities', doesn't need to get their fingerprints registered and cleared so many times.

He utters a muffled curse when the skies give an ominous rumbling sound. Shouichi runs toward the nearest bus stop, displeased about forgetting the scheduled artificial rain procedure in a few minutes' time. To make matters worse, the bus stop he's at has an empty queue; it looks like he missed the bus and a quick glance at the schedule board tells him that he has to wait for another twenty minutes.

Water droplets cascade down from the artificial rain clouds into the cemented pavements. Shouichi stares at the rain and admires the way it seems to surround the entire area with a dirty grey mist. He wonders if the rain from centuries ago also enveloped the world with this haze.

There won't be anyone else with him on the queue, because the rain is now at its strongest. Not only would the rain easily infiltrate the State-issued raingears, but anyone's vision would be crippled by the grey curtain caused by the steady rainfall. Maybe if the Inner City used a more-distilled version of rainwater and spread the cloud condensation particles over a larger area, the rainfall wouldn't be so heavy?

His musings crash to a stop when a man arrives at the bus stop—a man with pale white clothes that are easily soaked transparent by the rain, a man with unruly white hair that is easily subdued by the heavy droplets, a man with a brilliant aura that shines even in the middle of the dull grey surroundings.

"Haa—it's cold, isn't it?" The young man murmurs conversationally, voice loud and clear even with the constant drumbeat of rain against the roads.

Shouichi swallows the urge to snub the stranger, the urge to retort 'Of course it's cold'. "You don't have your raingear?"

"Mmm, no," the stranger replies noncommittally. Shouichi's eyebrows draw in suspicion. The Inner City might be comprised of bastards who let various prejudices rule their judgement, but they do their job in providing everyone with necessities, raingears included. It's one of the reasons why nobody seems able to complain about unfair treatment.

But does it really matter?

Against his better judgement, Shouichi unzips his jacket and hands it to the stranger shivering beside him. Shouichi ignores how the stranger's brilliant aura appear to glow even more at that gesture.

"Aww, I think this means you're my Prince Charming?"

Shouichi feels his heart thud painfully. He ignores the stranger's fluttering eyes, as well as the stranger's teasing smile. He isn't anyone's Prince Charming—not his family's, not his mother's, not this stranger's.

He is thankful that the bus arrives soon after. At least he doesn't have to be stuck with the white-haired man in a secluded bus stop anymore.

"See you around then, Shou-chan~ " The stranger calls out to him cheerfully, waving at him from the bus stop.

"E-Eh? You're not going—?" Shouichi's confused question is cut off by the bus doors sliding shut, separating him from the bus stop and its lone occupant. His confusion lasts the entire ride—why did he wait at the bus stop if he's not taking this bus anyway?—and Shouichi doesn't even think about how the stranger knew of his childhood nickname.

-ii.
—cadenza ¤ in summer

In preparation for a long summer of staying outside the Inner City with only himself for company, Shouichi brings back the contents of his locker. He doesn't exactly have high hopes for his musical instruments to help alleviate his growing boredom, but it's not like he has any alternatives.

Aside from treating citizens living in the Outer City as filthy beings that need to be monitored, the Inner City also takes great care in limiting the news and information that traverses its walls. Shouichi only knows that there's a security threat and that the Inner City is busy combing its streets and buildings to find the culprit. He doesn't have any knowledge on what kind of security threat is that, or whether there's a possibility of war breaking out. The only information disseminated to them is a sealed letter that orders them to stay in their designated homes until the situation has been taken care of.

Shouichi leans against the closed glass window of his home, a room smaller than the ones they had when they were at the education camps. There are piles of ash outside, look-alikes of sand dunes that are rumored to have existed in certain parts of the world in the past.

He considers sending a letter to Spanner, a friend from the primary education camp who is now working inside the Inner City as a mechanic. Their last meeting had been more than two years ago and Spanner had been on the verge of being promoted to the elite class of Vongola. It's very likely that Spanner is now a high-profile engineer, possibly working under Professor Verde from the Inner City's High Council. It's very likely that his letter wouldn't even reach inside the Inner City.

He carefully places his guitar by his bed. He's not in the mood to practice his guitar—he's already convinced that the instrument will not lead him to a future but it's not like he can do anything about it now. He enjoys listening to music, but creating music on the other hand...

Shouichi busies himself by doing a quick inventory of his food supplies. He does it efficiently, even if his desk has music sheets strewn all over. He arrives to the conclusion that he needs to get some supplies from the distribution depot.

After clearing the security lock on his room door, after grabbing a stamp that authorizes him to enter the depot and grab some necessities, after exiting the residential complex that has Princess Uni's pictures plastered all over—he makes his way to his destination, barely noticing the darker color of the sky above.

In fact, he barely notices his surroundings to the point that he crashes into a person in the middle of the dirt road. He prepares to apologize, an ingrained action, even though he's pretty sure that the person shouldn't have been loitering around for people to bump into them. The apology dies on his lips as soon as he takes in the person's appearance.

"Y-You—!"

"Yep, it's me." The white-haired stranger from two months ago grins at him. "My, this is such a coincidence, isn't it?"

Shouichi has an inkling that this encounter is anything but coincidental.

"It's good that I brought your jacket with me, ne?" The stranger continues when all Shouichi gives him in reply is a suspicious stare.

"You're wearing it." Shouichi himself is surprised at the dismay evident in his tone.

The stranger shrugs. "It's very comfy~ "

"Well, then, may I have it back?"

Purple eyes lock with his before Shouichi looks away and before the stranger bursts into laughter. "Of course you can...not have it back~ "

"Y-You're such a—"

"Such a...?" The stranger prompts with a tilt of his head. His white hair appears much wilder now that there's no rain to smother it with droopiness. His all-white outfit still stands out in the middle of the dirt road, of the dark ashen sky.

"Such an infuriating person," Shouichi says with resolve after a moment's pause.

"Mmm, that's good."

"How is that good?"

"That Shou-chan is not holding back now."

Shouichi stops walking toward the depot, noticing that the two of them have fallen into a comfortable pace already. "Stop calling me 'Shou-chan'."

"Why not?"

There's a lot of reasons—not all reasonable—of why a total stranger who claims to find Shouichi's cheap, worn, starchy jacket comfortable shouldn't address him with a name that's supposedly used by only his mother and sister.

"Because I don't even know you," Shouichi says at last and he doesn't even need to listen to the stranger's next words to know what he will say next.

"Well, we can fix that, can't we?"

-ii.
—dolcissimo ¤ in summer

Shouichi spends the entirety of summer without touching his guitar or his music sheets. There's no time or interest for those, not when he's busy preventing Byakuran—the white-haired stranger—from wrecking not only Shouichi's cramped room, but also the walls that are carefully constructed around his heart.

It's a valiant, but ultimately futile effort. Since the day Byakuran followed him to the distribution depot and back to his home, the two of them have been inseparable.

Shouichi learns that Byakuran is everything the world is not—filled with bright laughter and acceptance. The resignation from being thrown away by the Inner City and the boredom from wasting away in the Outer City: those feelings are all washed away by Byakuran's presence. Not that Shouichi will admit that to the other man, though he has a feeling that Byakuran already knows about this.

He's a cautious person by nature, but Shouichi finds himself not caring about how suspicious Byakuran is—not when he deduces that Byakuran isn't from Inner or Outer City, not when he realizes that Byakuran possesses knowledge that doesn't exist within the constraints imposed by the High Council, not when he infers that Byakuran has a link with the revered psychic princess protected by the elite Vongola.

It's not like Byakuran is a harmful person. It's not like Byakuran does things that Shouichi doesn't really want.

"I love Shou-chan," Byakuran whispers against the shell of Shouichi's ear.

Shouichi feels his heartbeat speed up, but he continues to feign sleep. The warm afterglow of what they just did isn't enough to lull him to sleep, not when Byakuran's voice is vulnerable and soft, not when Byakuran's confession is painting Shouichi's cheeks pink. Shouichi didn't think he would trust anyone enough to sleep with them, to actually fall for them, but the person cuddled up to him is different.

Too different.

"I really love Shou-chan," Byakuran insists, as though he's waiting for a reply, as though he's waiting for a confirmation. "Even if Shou-chan isn't..."

Shouichi turns on his bed to return the other man's embrace, embarrassed but happy, and hopes that for now, his embrace is enough as a reply.

-iii.
—duolo ¤ in autumn

Autumn brings a wave of change and grief to Shouichi's life, for Byakuran tells him that he's going to disappear and Shouichi doesn't press him for an explanation. It's not about stubbornness, really, it's about letting Byakuran do what he wants, when he wants, because Shouichi has no reason, no power to control the other's actions. Or maybe it's because Shouichi knows that it is too easy for Byakuran to simply brush off Shouichi's questions with a lilting laugh or a carefree chuckle.

The security lockdown to enter the Inner City has been lifted and Shouichi continues to attend and not fully grasp his music lessons. His displeasure with what he's supposedly learning is more pronounced now, because the summer spent with Byakuran taught him that music isn't for him.

Shouichi's mind is meant for something greater, that's what Byakuran taught him. Whatever that 'something' is, he doesn't know, but there's a strange sense of solid confidence in Byakuran's words, so Shouichi believes him, somehow.

Shouichi is in the middle of such thoughts when sharp knocks resound from his door. He isn't expecting any visitors and he doesn't think that it will be Byakuran returning from wherever he went to.

He is right.

When he opens the door, it is to the sight of someone who he hasn't seen for a couple of years, to the sight of Spanner proudly wearing an elegant all-black suit, with the golden badge of Vongola on his gloves.

"Spanner?" They haven't talked to each other for a long time, long enough for them to be considered strangers, so why is Spanner here? "What are you doing here?"

"Sawada Tsunayoshi, you remember him?"

Trust Spanner to not even bother with greetings and go straight to the point. "...From primary education camp? How is he?"

"He's now the head of Vongola."

There's a tinge of pride there. Shouichi has always suspected that Spanner favored Tsunayoshi, despite the other's apparent failures and naiveté. Shouichi doesn't even waste a moment doubting Spanner's words. He's a bit surprised at someone like Tsunayoshi now leading the elite Vongola, but Spanner doesn't know how to lie.

"That's... great news," Shouichi says his congratulations, slowly, carefully, but he still doesn't see the point of this surprise visit.

"Shouichi, he wants you to work for Vongola."

Byakuran's words about Shouichi being meant to do something far greater than the sham music lessons echo back to him. "Me...? But I'm on the Arts and Humanities track, you know."

"Sawada Tsunayoshi believes you can help us." Spanner shrugs. "I believe you can, Shouichi."

Such words are something that Shouichi hasn't heard from anyone but Byakuran. Belief in a nobody like him...

"...You need my help?"

"The security lockdown was because of someone threatening to rip apart the space-time barrier." Spanner's gaze is intensely blue. "Vongola needs you to help prevent that, Shouichi."

-iii.
—lugubre ¤ in autumn

Working inside the Inner City, with the infamous elite group of Vongola, is a far cry from the life he spent outside the Inner City walls. He has a purpose here, because he's part of the technology team that's supposed to create an additional barrier over the original space-time barrier. He's part of the group that will save the world.

It's definitely something greater than performing half-heartedly on the streets and listening to record upon record of songs that humans from centuries ago created.

He doesn't forget about Byakuran though; rather, it's the opposite. He thinks of the other man at practically every waking moment, which irritates him greatly. He isn't clingy or dependent, so there's no point in pining away for a person who won't come back for such petty thoughts.

He is worried though, because from the information he gathered while working in the Technology Division, the threat of the space-time rift is growing ever closer, and an attack now will easily lead to the control of the world spiraling down to chaos. If Byakuran is not within the Inner City's protective walls, who knows what will happen to him when war breaks out?

Shouichi shakes his head to get rid of his growing anxiousness. His stomach gives a discontented growl, so he swallows another pill of antacid. Lately, his stomach has been hurting at an alarming frequency, usually coinciding with his worries regarding Byakuran.

To distract himself from his worries and his work, he ends up dialing his mother's extension number. His mother picks it up after a couple of rings and Shouichi lets himself be the model son that she wants him to be. Her voice sounds a tad lower than he remembers, but she tells him with a familiar laugh that she's just sick and her throat isn't that well. Shouichi accepts the explanation.

"Has your memory been fixed, Irie Shouichi?"

Shouichi whirls around in time to see one of the most elusive Vongola members, Hibari Kyoya, march down the corridor. He is as intimidating as they all say, and since Shouichi has already met Reborn and Xanxus, that's saying something.

"...My memory's fine," Shouichi replies stiffly, a bit concerned about the nature of the strange question.

Grey eyes narrow.

"I see."

And just like that, Hibari leaves him be.

-iii.
—morendo ¤ in autumn

A year passes inside the Inner City, where Shouichi can't see the darkening of the skies, where Shouichi can't see the face of the one he considers most precious to him.

The boredom, the restlessness, and the resignation from the time when Shouichi was still living in the undeveloped lands return full-force now, after a year of living with the Vongola and doing jobs that now hold no meaning. Spanner continues to reassure him every single day that the things Shouichi is doing are all important in preventing the attack on Inner City, and subsequently, the world's order. But, nearsighted as he may be, even Shouichi isn't blind enough to not see that what he's doing are mere menial jobs that are not related to saving the world. At all.

Why the Vongola wants him to stay inside the confines of the Inner City, he doesn't know. But he knows that he wants to break free from this cycle of uselessness, he wants to be able to choose whether to pursue music or technology or Inner City or Outer City or—

He starts a habit of playing CHOICE, an addicting computer game that Byakuran taught to him. It was made by a person that has undeniable genius, Byakuran told him back then. Shouichi eases the feelings of jealousy and competition by winning every CHOICE game against the computer, by tinkering with the specifications and modifying the program to include more options.

"...What are you doing, Shouichi?"

Spanner looks horrified at the sight of the CHOICE game screen. Shouichi almost snorts—yes, he is slacking at work, but did Spanner have to look that horrified?

"It's a computer game," Shouichi mentions casually, "it's called—"

"You shouldn't," Spanner's voice breaks, splinters into their friendship and camaraderie, "you shouldn't play this game."

"I finished my work already," Shouichi retorts almost petulantly. It's amazing how his childishness is more pronounced now that the childish Byakuran is not with him.

"Playing computer games while at work isn't—"

"What do you think you're doing?" Shouichi grabs Spanner's hands, hands that used to belong to a quiet but reliable friend, hands that are now angrily taking the portable computer away from him. "Hey—!"

"Shouichi—"

There's something in Spanner's voice, something that speaks of an anxiety that can never be wiped away, of a concern that goes deeper than anything towards a mere colleague, of a worry that is far greater than procrastinating at work. There's something there, but all Shouichi can see is the culminating point of his irritation with the way time flows around him. All Shouichi can see is the end point of his patience with the way he is kept inside the Inner City's walls.

His sudden display of strength surprises him even more that it surprises Spanner; Shouichi takes his chance and pulls his laptop roughly away from the other's grip. He doesn't waste any time on thinking too much and simply runs away from the laboratory, not thinking about the way Spanner barks into his communicator about a surprising Code Red.

He's panting by the time he reaches the nearest bus stop, fifteen minutes away from the underground laboratory; he remembers the dismal results of the physical examination that deemed him unfit for any military duties. He remembers and curses his body that is simply not strong enough.

Shouichi spots a couple of security guards with eyes darting left and right, metal detectors extending from their wrist packets and surveying the area. He pats his pockets, looking for anything that might possibly give his location away. Another set of hands join the patting and he almost screams, almost forgets that he's supposed to be quiet, but he doesn't. It's admittedly weird, so he doesn't dwell on it too much, but the hands are familiar, the scent is familiar, even the scenario is familiar, and he doesn't even need to turn around to recognize the person who manages to find the Employment Registration Pass chip tagged on the edge of his collar.

"Did you miss me?" The voice is coy and sweet and alluring and everything Shouichi is not. Everything this world is not. Warm lips tickle his ears as the person behind him edges impossibly closer. "...Shou-chan?"

-iv.
—obbligato ¤ in winter

"This project will revolutionize the world."

Even though Byakuran's lips are busy lavishing his collarbone with kisses, the words still ring out clear, unmuffled. The promise of a purpose, of a reason, of logic into Shouichi's existence entices him more than it probably should. Shouichi shivers, both from the smoldering kisses and from the honey-sweet words.

"I can't do military work." Shouichi remembers the subpar grades and the steel-faced comments on his performance, "Or any research work—"

Byakuran's laughter shakes his entire body, the vibrations humming from his throat, to his chest, everywhere. Shouichi can feel each movement and he closes his eyes from the onslaught of sensation. It has been a year, a terribly long time since he has last seen this man, but it doesn't feel like they've grown apart at all. The memory of spending a year inside the Inner City and doing the menial work from the Vongola's Technology Division, the memory of suffering through a year without contact from Byakuran... Shouichi easily forgets about it all now.

Too easily.

"Silly, silly Shou-chan " Byakuran chastises him with a nip to his throat, lips curved into that eternal grin. "We will revolutionize the world."

The bedsheets crumple-fold-slither around his limbs and Shouichi tries to think about guitar lessons and f-clefs and his mind comes up with a blank. There's really something to be said about the effect Byakuran's presence has on him. There's no reason why he should accept Byakuran's offer-of-sorts, in the same way there's no reason to reject it as well.

The Inner City has already branded him as a person without much worth, but maybe his mother is right in that there really is something in him that can shine, given the proper chance. Maybe Byakuran is speaking the truth when he tells Shouichi that he's meant for greater things, instead of those being just words uttered to get into his pants.

"Is this your job-hiring process?"

"I think it's very effective," Byakuran murmurs, straddling him and applying pressure on his thighs, "don't you agree, Shou-chan?"

"Sexual harassment on the very first day of work isn't so great, Byakuran-san."

"I'm glad."

"...That you're getting a sexual harassment complaint?"

"Fufufu. That Shou-chan is not holding back now."

Shouichi feels a wave of something, like this has happened before, in a time that is in-between the distant and forgotten past, but he can't pinpoint it. It sparks his irritation, but only for a moment, since Byakuran's purple eyes are staring straight at him. Shouichi feels a little weak in the knees, and a tad dizzy as well, and he's thankful that's he's already lying down on the expansive bed inside a fortress away from the Inner City's shackles.

"Okay," Shouichi breathes instead into the sliver of space that separates the two of them, "Byakuran-san."

Byakuran's smile is wider now, wider than Shouichi has ever seen.

"I'll work for you."

-iv.
—scordatura ¤ in winter

Unlike the twelve months, one week and four days spent in the underground research laboratories of Vongola, the year of working at several bases stationed around the 'natural environment' zone colonized by Millefiore passes by in a blink. Working for big organizations always comes with a healthy amount of scandals and headaches, but Shouichi enjoys it: enjoys the challenge of proving himself to people who have been graded by the Inner City with near-perfect scores, enjoys the trials of being a young adult that has zero experience in a technology-and-politics-driven working environment, enjoys the problems brought by working in a research laboratory that functions under his command.

He doesn't pay attention to the gossips that follow his trail every time he is called by Byakuran to his private office on the top floor, nor does he pay attention to the giggly comments his Cervello assistants whisper to him whenever Byakuran calls him—(public calls in widescreens shown at every floor, sound feeds that can be heard from every line, surprise checks from the emergency communicators installed in the bathrooms)—in the middle of his work.

Byakuran tells him that now Millefiore's growing territory has been recognized as the Outer City, in the same way the Inner City is just a fancy term for Vongola's turf. That knowledge comes with five folders' worth of information about new projects that need to be initiated before the Vongola makes their next move, and with three hard drives' worth of data that Shouichi needs to synchronize for his current project. More than that, it also comes with one pure white ring that Byakuran slides gently onto Shouichi's ring finger, along with two badges in his collar—one that establishes his position as the head of the Research and Technology Division and one that cements his place as Millefiore's second-in-command.

The responsibility is heavy, but it also fills him with a wave of something like confidence and familiarity, even if he has spent most of his life without the power of making any major decisions. It really feels like he has done this before—standing beside his lover, standing over a group of people who will unflinchingly follow their orders, standing before the world that will change because of them—even though he's been a normal person all his life.

Shouichi pushes back those thoughts when he reaches his private laboratory, back from his daily report submission. He enjoys being here, even though he spends most of his days with a headphone that pounds rock songs in his eardrums while slaving away at the new projects that Byakuran requests. He enjoys being here to the point that he can't even think how he managed to survive a year without Byakuran, to the point that he can't even remember what made him join Vongola upon Tsunayoshi and Spanner's request.

He easily loses himself in the calculations that are scribbled all over the papers on his desk, in the simulations of the new defensive cannon's effectivity radius on one of the monitors, in the procurement documents that require his seal and signature of approval. He needs to work even more efficiently now, since Byakuran has told him that the Inner City is yielding to the renewed security threats and they don't have a moment to lose if they want to save the world. After finishing the defensive cannon's recalibration, Shouichi needs to move on to the assembly of the space-time dimension manipulator prototype. He hasn't scrutinized the blueprint's details that deeply yet, but something about the project causes his stomach to churn anxiously.

He shakes his head, chuckling a little about how such worrying should be done by the leader and not him, and he almost convinces himself that everything is fine.

Almost.

Almost, since by the time his chuckle subsides, there's already a gloved hand holding him warningly from behind, bulky rings pressing uncomfortably against his neck. There's a sharp object pointed at his right temple; a quick glance at the dull reflection on his computer screen shows Shouichi that it's a three-pronged spear. The face of the intruder looks both familiar and unfamiliar to his adrenaline-ridden mind—blue hair, red right eye, rings on his hands...

Shouichi's fingers tremble against the auto-wipe button he has installed below his desk. He didn't think he'd ever have a use for such a function before—for he is the head of the Research and Technology Division and information is everything in his job. Deleting all that data is admitting defeat and Shouichi is a sore loser, whether he's inside the Inner City or not.

"Kufufu, deleting all your hard work?"

Even the velvety voice and the lilting laughter feels terribly familiar. It creeps Shouichi out, for a good reason. Byakuran entrusted him with this responsibility and Shouichi finds the thought of letting the other man down to be unpleasant. Really unpleasant.

"What do you want with me, scum?"

"Oya, I didn't know that you could speak with such..." The spear's sharp edge makes a small puncture, but Shouichi doesn't give in to the hiss that almost slips out. He stares defiantly ahead, his breathing calm amidst the whirring sounds of his machines. "...Venom, Irie Shouichi."

Beneath the scientific terms and the arrays of numbers on his physical examinations, Shouichi is simply a weakling. But there's something to be said about a person's desire to protect his honor, to protect what he considers most important, and Shouichi relies on that, on his desire to protect the place that Byakuran entrusted him with, when he draws out the gun that he hides on the underside of his swivel chair, when he unhesitatingly shoots the other guy twice—once on his left shoulder and once on his right elbow. It all happens in a blink of an eye and by the time Shouichi sees the first droplet of blood hit pristine white tiles, his gun is already aimed at the intruder's foot, ready to stop him from running away.

Shouichi's mind is free of thoughts regarding the possibility of killing a person, because this is his job.

"Sawada Tsunayoshi is going—"

Another empty bullet cartridge clinks down on the floor.

"—to be very disappointed to hear about this," the intruder continues smoothly as though he hadn't been shot midway through his sentence.

Shouichi aims at the intruder's left knee this time, a bit miffed at the other's nonchalance, a bit annoyed at how the intruder isn't kneeling on the ground in pain. This is his first time shooting an actual person instead of just holograms and simulations, but he's very sure that the bullet connected with the other's right knee just now.

"What connection do you have to Tsunayoshi?"

The Sawada Tsunayoshi he'd known when they'd been in the same primary education is now vastly different from the Sawada Tsunayoshi leading Vongola and the Sawada Tsunayoshi that didn't continue searching for his whereabouts when Shouichi disappeared a year ago. But still, there's a connection between them, a connection that Shouichi doesn't like being dangled in front of him by a stranger with a strange laugh and even stranger mismatched eyes.

"Sawada Tsunayoshi is merely my target," and even without a lie detector, Shouichi knows that the haughty statement is a lie, "but for now I'm doing what he wants."

"And that is—?" Shouichi's voice gains a dangerous edge to it. His arm regains its steadiness, recoil forgotten.

"To tell you that you're making a big mistake, foolish child."

Yet another empty catridge joins the three others on the floor, and the intruder still isn't reduced to his knees.

"I've placed a present in your computer," the intruder smirks at him, "sealed with a high-level security encryption. But you should be able to crack the code easily, Mr. White Spell Captain."

With those words the intruder disappears, no trace of his dizzying laughter and dirty bloodstains, no trace of the last ten minutes. No trace of the other's existence, except for the information folder now in his desktop, ready to be decoded. But even without decoding, Shouichi already knows what its about.

After all, the filename is Inner City Security Threat - Millefiore.

It takes Shouichi one hour to completely remove all the security gates placed on the file, but the shock and the betrayal that result from reading its contents take much longer to subside.

Painfully long.

After all the technical jargon and highfaluting words, one thing rings clear: Byakuran is merely using Shouichi to get what he wants.

-iv.
—smorzando ¤ in winter

A wise person once said, "Once someone learns something, it can never be forgotten", and Shouichi dearly wishes that he could forget, even just this once. The intruder's file has been thoroughly wiped out from his computer's memory, the feeds from the security cameras have been completely erased and it's like those ten minutes have never happened. All traces of that surreal meeting are gone; all traces except for the painful talons that are now preying on Shouichi's mind.

The stable reason and logic that Byakuran had promised him a year ago now looks fragile and questionable to his eyes; the challenging environment that he has thrived in for the past twelve months now seems monstrous and unwelcoming; the research laboratory that he had believed would be able to save the world now appears as muddy and tainted as the dirty skies overhead.

His mind feels burned and his body feels weighted, but he has to make things right because his hands have just made the most grievous mistake he could have possibly committed. There are a lot of things that he doesn't understand, doesn't connect, but what he does understand is enough to tell him succinctly that Byakuran is the security threat to this world, a threat not just to the Inner City's walls, not just to the Outer City's existence.

Shouichi checks once-twice-thrice for security feeds on all corners of his base and fails to pinpoint the area where the intruder slipped into his private laboratory. It chills him, to realize that there's someone out there who can infiltrate Byakuran's fortress just like that; chills him, until he remembers that he's not Byakuran's loyal dog anymore, until he recalls that he knows the painful truth now.

Shouichi knows.

But he doesn't attempt to contact the Vongola yet, even after a week spent on tracking down the intruder's identity. Shouichi stays inside Millefiore's snow-white walls and continues to walk down the pure-white corridors with determined steps.

He makes sure to keep everything normal—everything as though he hadn't received a visit from Rokudo Mukuro, one of Vongola's incredibly strong and very questionable allies, as though he hadn't learned of the most painful betrayal imaginable—at least, to the eyes of the security cameras trained on his every movement, to the eyes of the backstabbers planning to usurp his place as the second-in-command.

Normalcy is hard to uphold when every single time he sees Iris' Deathstalk Squad, he sees the amount of damage they can cause to the Inner City's defenses; every single time he passes by Gingerbread, he hears the amount of anguished cries of the Outer City's occupants; every single time he meets Genkishi's eyes, he feels the helplessness of the Inner City's citizens who will die without even seeing the form of their killer, without even understanding the evils of Millefiore.

Every single time he is called 'Irie-sama' in a twin chorus, he remembers the projects that he has helped develop and complete, he recalls the projected damage said projects can cause based on his simulations.

Every single time he stands rigidly in the middle of Byakuran's expansive room—amidst the extravagant bouquets of sweet white flowers, amidst the sugary scents of soft white marshmallows—all Shouichi can think about is how nothing that happened between the two of them—(a coincidental meeting in spring, a splendid vacation in summer, a fruitful relationship in autumn)—has a shred of truth in it. All Shouichi can think about is how he'd give anything and everything for the knowledge he's harboring now to be removed from his mind as easily as he deleted it from his computer. All Shouichi can think about is how his 'anything and everything' won't be able to turn back time or change the future.

"How is Shou-chan doing?" Byakuran asks him, voice rough at the edges from sleeping in the middle of the afternoon, and all Shouichi can think of is how Byakuran probably wasted his entire lunch break laughing hysterically while torturing an Inner City spy, how Byakuran probably found his desserts much sweeter with each cry of anguish he inflicted.

"I'm... fine," Shouichi manages to grind out, unconvincingly, but Byakuran simply hums in assent and pats his lap. Shouichi swallows, before gingerly sitting down on the couch. Their knees are touching together, their thighs are pressed tight together, their shoulders are brushing together, but they've never been further away from each other.

"How's our revolutionary machine doing?" Byakuran asks after nuzzling Shouichi's collarbone, words warm against his skin. Of course he's asking about the machine—that's the only reason Shouichi is here: hidden talent regarding manipulation of building blocks, engineering machines that can change the course of history—and Shouichi replies, business-like and without a trace of his heartbroken state.

Shouichi's throat is parched. "It will be ready in three weeks."

Byakuran's expression is genuinely happy, pleased, and Shouichi can't help but see the twist at the edge of his lips, can't help but see betrayal painting those lips an enticing, malevolent pink. "I look forward to it."

Shouichi can't ever forget about it, so he does the only thing he can.

When he closes his eyes, welcoming sleep while in a lavish private chambers courtesy of Byakuran's blatant favoritism, he sees the familiar-yet-not face of Sawada Tsunayoshi, along with the serene smile of the Princess who is protected by the Vongola.

"He's just using you," the Princess tells him with teary eyes and gentle words, "to get what he wants."

She bites her lip, uncertain whether she should continue. Her voice echoes in Shouichi's head.

"He wants to end the world."

"I know," Shouichi replies in the dream, face an odd mixture of resignation and determination, words bouncing on nothingness and echoing on encompassing shadows.

And I can only wish to forget.

-iv.
—tempo giusto ¤ in winter

—When does a memory start being more than just a recollection, when does a dream start being more than reality itself?

It takes Shouichi another year to gather enough courage to take a step out of the snow-white palace and out of his grand prison, and the two years that he has spent without any contact with the Inner City's finger scanners have brought back his real memories.

As expected of a technology that he developed himself, his memories fall into place seamlessly, without any conflicts on the correct sequences or on the real truths, akin to building blocks easily locking into each other to create a formidable wall.

—When did his memories start and when did his dreams fade?

Remembering is the first step to understanding, but Shouichi isn't there yet, still not fully comprehending the whys and the hows, but still knowing that his role isn't just that of a mere commoner's. That his role is undoubtedly one that can tilt the future of their world to tragedy or peace.

He now knows the reason for the extensive security scans that cause pin-pricks on his fingers and palms—a thousand micro-injections that he himself developed in order to suppress his own memories of being an officer of the Inner City, a thousand micro-injections that entangle him further inside the web of intricate plans and bold gambles.

He now knows the reason why his very being rejects the idea of being a helpless, useless person; he now knows that Byakuran is right in that point—it's not just arrogance. It's the truth, and he's definitely meant to do—(he has already definitely been doing)—things that are much greater.

It is Princess Uni's decision, for him to be locked away from the truth, for she can see things that don't belong in any human's visions, events that don't belong in any of this world's timelines. It is Princess Uni's decision, but it is ultimately Shouichi's fault that he's still enamored with Byakuran, by Byakuran who is everything this world isn't.

It was part of the gamble, for Tsunayoshi to not chase after Shouichi when Byakuran infiltrated the Inner City two years ago just to retrieve the engineer that could breathe life into the gears of his plan, for Shouichi to be closely intertwined with the development of the tecnology that could bring down this world to its knees.

Shouichi knows that his feelings have never been considered in the gamble.

After all, what did one person's foolish dream matter, in the face of the world's reality?

With a heavy heart and even heavier footsteps, Shouichi sneaks out of the Millefiore Headquarters, sneaks back into the place where he originally came from, leaving footprints that will gradually be covered by more snow, that will eventually melt away when the battlefield starts incinerating everything. He wonders whether his... feelings, his foolishness, his mistakes will be like his footprints—things that will be forgotten in the course of history, things that will never leave a lasting mark on anything.

His memory tells him that he's supposed to meet Tsunayoshi along with his Guardians on the Locker Vault, a place where he hopes to completely lock away little thoughts and little emotions.

Shouichi's journey is mostly silent: the overhead sky is dirty white with snow and the roads are empty because of the late hour. Nobody is around to see a young man walking slowly to his destination, hands shoved in his jacket's pockets—left hand gripping an encrypted phone that links him to Vongola, right hand wearing a white ring that binds him to Millefiore.

He may not know the exact reason why he is an important key in Byakuran's plans, but he knows about Byakuran's betrayal. He knows, but he's still Irie Shouichi, and he can't change that, no matter how much he wishes otherwise.

He's still Irie Shouichi, and it's only fitting, in a forlorn sort of way, for him to stop dead in his tracks, the Locker Vault looming in front of him. However, his gaze isn't on the Locker Vault, nor on the Vongola members that are possibly already waiting for him. His eyes are focused on the bus stop nearby the building, a bus stop that Shouichi remembers too clearly, even after the years he has spent away from this place.

"It's cold, isn't it?"

Shouichi's lips, cracked, open, close. His breath comes out in misty puffs, despite his slow pace.

"It is," Shouichi shakily replies. The entire area is silent, so his voice traverses the distance between them easily, clearly. Fingers tremble when they brush against the encrypted phone that held a coded message for Hibari Kyoya's Research Team.

"I wonder," lavender flashes, snow falls, "what is my Prince doing here?"

If only the snow could freeze this moment, this moment before Shouichi admits the words he never wants to escape from the seal of his lips.

"I'm here to meet Sawada Tsunayoshi, Byakuran-san."

There is no rage, but Byakuran's eyes narrow all the same. There is no rage and it just breaks Shouichi's heart all the more.

"And Uni-chan too, I suppose?"

A betrayal that he spent a year agonizing about is here, laid out between the two of them, and Byakuran doesn't even look surprised in the slightest. The lack of anger, of shock, freezes the words on Shouichi's lips.

"I think," and it shouldn't matter what this greedy, bastard of a man thinks, but it does, even if only to Shouichi, "that it's because I know Shou-chan very well."

"Do you really?" And anyone else will look at the way his arms shiver and the way his lips falter, and say that Shouichi is angry at the man in front of him, but Shouichi only feels anger against his own feelings. Anyone else will listen to his question and answer with a taunt, but maybe this man really does know him, and maybe—

"I do," Byakuran insists in a typical Byakuran-fashion, childish and impudent and oh-so-bright, "I really do."

And unlike the villains that Shouichi knows and expects from studies, mission protocols and his own common sense, Byakuran's brilliance remains shining through, despite the shadows of war that oozes out from each of his actions. Unlike the villains that Shouichi has no problem treating as such, Byakuran is different.

Very different.

It's that difference that allows Byakuran to swing his legs carelessly, kicking away some snow in the process, while speaking in a voice not cooled by the falling snow. "I do know about Shou-chan being with Vongola all along~ I even know about Uni-chan's real powers~ And of course, I know all there is to know about this world~ "

The flames of war have already started to spread, ash-like snow falling down around them, camouflaging Byakuran away from the attacks of the arriving Vongola.

Incinerating everything in its path, Byakuran's goals push Shouichi back to his old self, helpless against the world. Helpless and without understanding his real worth and without understanding anything at all—that's what he is.

That's what he, Irie Shouichi is, so he doesn't comprehend the next words, the last words from the person he (still) considers to be most important.

"See, Shou-chan. The world ends—" and he doesn't see anything aside from the death of his own dream "—with you."

i.
—tempo rubato ¤ with you

A game is only as enjoyable as its overwhelming victory—and Byakuran likes winning a lot. There are two other players that can possess the encompassing sky, but instead of a warm orange or a reassuring gold, Byakuran prefers to dye the sky with pure, snow, white. A white so pure that it effectively hides away any blemishes, any dark spots, any menacing intentions.

A game is composed of goals, rules, challenges and interactions; but to Byakuran who has long tired of the world and its nonsensical confines, the game is only composed of him and his victory.

To ensure overwhelming victory, Byakuran must understand his power first, gather all of his pawns second. He's already aware of his ability to communicate with all the other Byakurans living their boring, monochrome lives on different worlds.

The Cervello girls, such charming pink-haired mistresses of power, didn't say anything about rules or challenges—but despite not being considered as a genius by the (disinteresting) education system, Byakuran is smart. He knows how to read between the lines—a white ring with outstretched wings, coupled with his power to synchronize thoughts across space-time-universe boundaries that no other human could ever even dream to cross, with two other major players that possess the same potential...—he knows how to read between the lines indeed.

The dreams and memories he receives in bits and pieces now form a clear picture—auburn hair, green eyes, Irie Shouichi—and it's time to gather the pawns that should feel honored that their lives are about to become interesting, all thanks to him.

A thought from a far-away dimension makes it way to him, a thought that gives him an odd twinge in his heart, a thought that delivers an unknown blow to the apathy that he regards the entire world with. He recognizes the feeling as betrayal, as anguish in response to a betrayal.

He's Byakuran.

He's Byakuran and he's been betrayed by an odd, fragile boy with shaky hands and solid conviction. Betrayed by a weak, common plebian who is crushed by the betrayal even more than he will ever be. Betrayed by a pawn that reaches the end of the board and becomes a powerful black queen that hunts down his white king.

Irie Shouichi is nothing special, but he betrays Byakuran, betrays him in different pasts-presents-futures, betrays him in ways that make him look forward to the other's ingenious plots and foolish bravery.

It's his first time setting foot in this Japan, in this Namimori, in this timeline.

He learns Japanese from a world where he lounges lazily on his bed, dipping one slender finger in some sticky chocolate mixture and drawing lines of words on a certain redhead's back. He learns the Japanese accent from a world where the Gesso Family starts its world domination by doing arms trade with underground Japanese yakuza, where Byakuran personally supervises and monitors the deals while listening intently to the mob members who don't even notice his vicious curiosity.

The Namimori air is dusty with construction materials—soon, the underground mall will be finished and then he can install a base in that area, hidden away from the commoners' eyes. He walks with hands in his pockets, his loose white shirt nearly falling off his shoulders with each step. The permanent smile on his face brings rosy blushes and excited whispers from the crowd of people he passes by. He's aware of their interest, but he's not interested in them.

If he remembers correctly, Irie Shouichi has already made contact with the Vongola Decimo, the most successful resistance force in most of the worlds. And by successful resistance, he means that they're the ones who perished last.

Irie Shouichi has already made contact with the people who he will side with, and the thought of yet another cleverly-done betrayal brings a grimace to Byakuran's face, followed by the urge to laugh maniacally in the middle of Namimori's roads.

Byakuran makes his way to Namimori High School, immediately going for the Principal's Office. There's a package in his hands, a package filled with brochures and pamphlets regarding different universities in America and appealing scholarship offers. He doesn't bother forcing the connection in other worlds, but maybe something more entertaining will happen because of his meddling in this timeline.

The 'Shou-chan' of the other worlds is always confined, with his talent in engineering always locked underneath society's order, but things will be different now.

Byakuran grins. He doesn't bother covering his thick accent, as he speaks brittle Japanese, words about inviting a promising student to study in America, about the school gaining prestige if one of their students gets sent to an overseas university that specializes in Engineering and Robotics.

His flight is not for another twenty-four hours, so he takes his time exploring Namimori's roads, takes time following a young bespectacled redhead home, takes time inching spidery fingers closer to his favorite pawn.

He takes time to wait for Irie Shouichi to fall asleep, before he taps into the knowledge of another world's Byakuran (one who studies in Namimori University as an exchange student and asks a certain redhead to conduct study sessions at his house) to find the spare key hidden underneath an old flowerpot. He spends a moment to control his breathing—lately, he's been needing more energy to synchronize his thoughts.

He shrugs off that minor obstacle and continues with his plan to break in—visit Irie Shouichi's bedroom.

Irie Shouichi—
Shou-chan.

This person—sleeping underneath thick covers because he gets cold easily, snoring lightly from fatigue in catching up with his studies—is still his Shou-chan.

This is the only Shou-chan left in all of the parallel worlds.

"It's all Shou-chan's fault, you know?" Byakuran repeats his words to the sleeping Shouichi, but unlike the Shou-chan of other worlds who reply with angry snarls, this Shou-chan continues sleeping.

"...You always betray me first." It's unfair how Shou-chan would rather sleep than listen to Byakuran's legitimate complaints. The fragment of memory from a far-away world brings another wave of that odd twinge. Inner City, Outer City and the two of them—Byakuran doesn't want to think about sad things. He wants to enjoy this dull life as much as possible, but Shou-chan always spoils his fun in the end with those green eyes glaring htefully at him. "You always start out as my white pawn, but you always become a black queen once you reach the end of the board."

Always.

This is the last world that will fall into his hands, his last chance to grasp that thing called the tri-ni-sette, his last opportunity to take hold of Princess Uni's power.

This is the last world, and as always—

"This world too—" and his voice breaks the tiniest bit, like the cracking balance of space-time-universe, his words existing in this moment that will be stolen by time, forgotten by everyone, "—will end with you."

end ¤

notes ¤ heading titles are based on Italian musical terminology (listed below)
( a prima vista = first meeting | cadenza = solo performance | dolcissimo = very sweetly | duolo = grief | lugubre = mournful | morendo = dying| obbligato = indispensable| scordatura = out of tune| smorzando = extinguishing | tempo giusto = strict time | tempo rubato = stolen time )

notes 2 ¤ originally posted in my LJ last SEPT 2010. The LJ version has a better formatting, so if you have time, please take a look at that version! :)