I don't own Katekyo Hitman Reborn!
Warnings:
Drama, drama, some vague sexual references, mild language, more drama, total angst. Pretty tame for me, guys!
Soundtrack:Forever - Papa Roach

I don't like clichés. Let's get that out of the way. In fact, I hate clichés. I think if someone can't come up with something original, or at least too old for anyone to remember, then they shouldn't be wasting the air of those who can. That's the worth of society—its creativity, invention, resourcefulness. That is the measure of how well a civilization will survive. Without innovation one group of people will fall behind another and eventually die out or be swallowed up. I wasn't really raised to think so, but in a way I was—I was taught that one needs to be clever to survive, and that's what I always was. Clever. But on top of that one needed to be ruthless, perhaps more importantly than being smart. A ruthless man will triumph over a soft one no matter how devious they are.

My point is that I'm not going to overdramatize or exaggerate; I'm not going to try to make this poignant. Maybe the lessons I've learned on my own don't apply to everyone (though some, I'm certain, do). I don't intend to dwell on things. The very fact that I've written them down means that I've dwelt much longer than I ever intended—every one of these things I wanted to put past me. And in doing so, somehow the very things I did to forget, became my tourniquets and my reminders. I'm fully convinced that I'm an idiot now, that if I was for so long without realizing then it must be in my nature and I will forever be an idiot, even though I'm now aware of it. I guess that's just something to overcome with ruthlessness, isn't it?

I'm already breaking my promise. I'm not going to dwell. I intend to finish this in peace and hope that having committed it all to paper, so thoroughly examined every moment (although I've already done so a million times in my mind), that hopefully this is the charm to continue. Not forget, perhaps, no—I don't want to forget. I shrink from the idea that three hundred years, my entire inhuman life has been so vain that I would not even remember it, and most of all that I would lose all the lessons I've learned. I wonder if I would make the same mistakes, or would be given the opportunity to. Who knows? I don't want to find out.

Illusionists love confusing people, but in my experience, we hate being confused ourselves.

-x-

Let me start with some background.

The city of Naumburg in the seventeen hundreds was a bustling place, but a place split. It was an old place, from the eleventh century built, which had grown steadily as trade expanded. Trade was its life force; it was founded upon two trade routes and fed upon the crossing. In the sixteenth century Leipzig began to grow nearby, another trade city, and there began a rivalry between the two towns that seemed rooted in the blood of the people there.

It was also a religious place, like the majority of Germany. The monarchs of Naumburg were on the whole Protestant, and this was evident in the common and upper class of the city. Noblemen attended mass and their wives followed behind. Alcohol was as much in abundance as one would expect in a German town, but society frowned on things like promiscuity and atheism. This didn't mean it didn't abound, of course, much like any other religious place. Having rules tempted people to break them.

This was especially obvious in my family.

-x-

My father was born to a successful merchant family and eventually inherited the business although his father lived into my own adulthood. My mother was the daughter of a lord from Dresden, a major nearby city, and his mistress, to whom he married after the death of his wife. My mother was then named his rightful daughter and gained the proper title as a lady rather than a washing woman's daughter (and the fact that the lord had married a washer woman was not lost on the local aristocracy and its constituents, perhaps why she decided to wed a man in another city).

She was a woman of the world, sharp as a tack and eager to help with the business, but also easily distracted by the delights of society. Helene was a gorgeous woman with black hair like silk and skin like alabaster even into her thirties, which at the time was middle-aged, and after four children; while my father did not age particularly gracefully, with hair that went dark grey quite early and cleared away at the top of his head so it seemed he wore a shiny helmet that was simply his bald pate. He grew fat and tan, the very picture of a merchant man, with a penchant for silk clothes and gold embroidery, while my mother enjoyed practical garments that only made her stand out in her lack of garishness compared to the rest of the upper-class, which reveled in its extravagance. She still enjoyed parties, never missing an invitation, and time to time hosted one in our own large home in the very heart of the town. Father did not choose to attend unless there was a potential client to charm, and only invited someone to the house to discuss business. Heine was a gravely practical man, rigid in his sensibilities, and incredibly traditional.

On the other hand, his father, who lived in the same manor, was a very jovial man of great charm and charisma. I loved Grandfather Kaspar dearly. He was imaginative and would cook up some of the cleverest ideas to expand our trade as ever one would hear. In his lifetime he had nearly tripled the size of the family business and yet was not arrogant (or at least too smooth to make it obvious). He was a man who could persuade the Pope to curse if the idea ever had struck him, and just as mischievous. His very presence could lift the spirits of a room almost visibly. On the other hand, he was merciless. When a client would fail to pay an agreed amount he would invariably collect the sum, no matter their protests or threats. Some of these people I noticed never showed their faces in the town, nor did their family, and it was obvious that they had cleared out. Other times I overheard him in the home discussing these matters with others who were loathe to pay in low voices, and the steely undertone of his playful words were enough to make me shiver as a teen. This was the man I wanted to be, I decided early on. Forget Father; Grandfather was the man I looked up to, listened to, and respected. Somehow I think Heine sensed this, but he didn't care. Or else it was too little to matter.

There were twins born before me. Rafael was born slightly before his sister Sofie. According to Mother she was a gorgeous child with the face of a porcelain doll and golden spun-silk hair that forever outshone her brother's stray-yellow locks. They had the same blue eyes, though, bright blue eyes that I always envied in Rafael. I only barely remember Sofie—she died at eight years old of consumption, a disease that marred her beauty but made her seem all the more angelic in the patient martyrdom of her expression. Or at least, that's how Rafael put it to me twelve years later, when I was sixteen and he twenty and about to go to a parish school to train to be a priest.

Now, my family as a whole was not religious despite the societal standards. Behind closed doors Kaspar was openly condescending of the entire concept of religion, which was quite an odd thing in those times, and my father disparaging of the Christian traditions (mostly of the tithe). The fact that Rafael had chosen to be a priest sent Heine into a rampage through the town, apparently escorted out of several taverns before he stumbled home and collapsed in the foyer, drunk to hell and unconscious for nearly a full day. Grandfather merely shook his head, looking for all the world as if he'd foreseen such an event, and let his son tirade at Rafael until he'd stormed out. Rafael sat looking miserable but determined, with the light in his eyes of a man full of faith, and with a little smile at our younger brother and I left the room. He never returned home.

He had claimed to me earlier, when he told his brothers separately from our elders of his decision, that Sofie's death had been something of a wake-up call to him even as a child of eight years old and he'd harboured a desire for the church ever since. I was skeptical, seeing as in his teen years he'd been the devil of the town, forever the scamp with the angel's face. The tavern women swooned or hissed, depending on whether he'd already bedded them and then left them. Even a few noblewomen seemed taken by him, or had already been taken, if you catch my meaning. But if he ever had children this was never brought to the knowledge of the family and would have been deemed illegitimate and thus unworthy of the family's title anyway. So I never learned what his actual motivation was, not that it much mattered to me. Rafael had always been a bit odd, always at one extreme or another as if he could not operate on a normal level. Mother adored him.

Then there was Izaak. He was my younger brother by two years, forever petite, with mother's piercing amber eyes and an eternally curious expression. He seemed to slide through life, never finding his niche but never listless, simply inquisitive, always enjoying a book or making small talk with a beautiful woman with whom he never became enamored and eventually drifted away from. He was always well-behaved, polite and courteous, though not particularly compassionate. Were he ever to stumble across a dog bullying a kitten, I think he would have watched to try and figure out why the dog hated it so instead of trying to save it, a lack of passion which was somewhat unnerving in a younger brother. He should have seemed boring, yet somehow he had the aura of a man to be reckoned with—like Grandfather Kaspar with forever a blithe smile. When he was fourteen father betrothed him to a young woman whose father was a business partner of his, though I don't think it ever really bothered Izaak. I imagine his lack of interest probably infuriated his wife, though they did have five children. Somehow that always struck me as amusing.

I was the apple of Grandfather Kaspar's eye. The business was a passion of mine, not for the profit but for the work of it. I loved to work with people, to negotiate and to haggle and, frankly, to trick people into thinking that they were coming out of a deal on top when in fact I was selling things for twice what they were worth. It wasn't that I liked ripping people off; I liked to play tricks, to figure out what made people tick and how to use that to my advantage. Above all I loved the satisfaction that came with making people dance to my tune, even if all I was doing was hawking wares. Kaspar shared the same passion, the exhilaration that came with manipulating someone so well they never knew that an idea was not their own. Quite simply, it was fun. He took me under his wing, taught me all there was to know about the merchandise and the running of the business even after my father had inherited the reins. At Kaspar's advice my father named me the heir. It thrilled me. But I wasn't humbled by the experience; rather I was emboldened, arrogant, perhaps in a way that Grandfather never was, but he didn't chastise me for it. Somehow he egged me on.

When I was thirteen, Mother left us. As I've said, she was a modern woman with a love for frivolity, and had met a young lord eight years younger than she who'd captured her heart, or so she said, and so she'd left Heine with a kiss on the cheek and her sons with a heartfelt hug, though Izaak's had been a little longer than mine or Rafael's. I think Izaak exchanged letters with her for years, as well, but I never found the proof, nor was it my business. Heine went into a three-year long sulk and everyone walked on egg shells around him. He was a heartbroken man as only a woman can make.

But we were old enough to raise ourselves for the most part, her sons, with the guidance now and then of Kaspar or the gruff punishments of Heine, so we made it by fine.

As it turned out I was nearly as much a scamp as Rafael in the town. I had a taste for blonde women and they seemed to have a taste for me; I wasn't like a tramp who went out every night for a different woman, but I certainly never took one seriously, either. I'd always thought that somewhere in my twenties I'd take a wife simply to have children and at some point we would decide we'd done our duty for the next generation and take lovers. That wasn't particularly an odd tradition, after all. I disdained the way that Father had become so enamored with Helene and allowed her to have such sway over him.

-x-

I wasn't much of a party goer, though before Mother had left she'd taken me to a few soirées. There was an Italian trader, named a duke in Germany for his influence, with whom we had business commonly, and at times he would attend as well. When he came, he brought his daughter.

For a long time I wasn't really smitten, or at least I didn't realize it.

Elena had a broken German that was cute with her lilting accent, the fact that she couldn't make the guttural sounds of my language with her clear, sweet voice. I had a problem with the smoother parts of Italian, and we practiced with each other both languages, able to communicate and endlessly amused by the effort it took to do so. She had hair that reminded me of my sister, of whom I had only vague memories, since I had been four when Sofie had passed. Sometimes I imagined that they would have been identical had Sofie lived. Elena had clear blue eyes like the sky and a wide smile with little dimples that made her look even younger than she was—two years younger than I and yet intelligent enough to hold a decent conversation. That was what set her apart from the other girls in the city. Somehow I'd never looked at her as I had at those women, who were only good for some idle entertainment and nothing more.

Sometimes our times together were years apart, others only months. Once Mother left it was a long time until I went to another party, which Kaspar urged me to do so I didn't seem standoffish to the people with whom the family did business, and I was inclined to do so anyway. Frankly, I was bored. I loved the business but I was running out of things to do to entertain myself, and was too embarrassed about it to ask Grandfather what he did in his spare time. It was a surprise to realize I didn't know, anyway.

So when I was twenty I met Elena again after seven years. I hadn't thought about her since I was thirteen. At first I didn't recognize her, then with a start she had walked towards me with a huge smile on her face and wrapped me in a hug that scandalized the entire room. And I knew little Elena was the only woman who would have done such a thing and returned the hug, laughing at her gall, pleased to see her and a little surprised that she was so fervent in her greeting. I held her back and looked at her face for a long moment, noticing the new things about her that had come with age and recognizing the features I'd known before, right down to the little dimple at the right side of her mouth and the way her blue eyes caught the light and made it dance. And despite her beauty I never once thought of her like a woman from the town.

We talked late into the night that evening, a glass of wine in hand and leaning on the balcony. She was a passionate woman with a bewitching stare and a mesmerizing voice and sometimes I wondered if she was like me, a manipulator, a trickster, but the purity of her gaze always sent that thought scurrying away like a scalded pup. I was surprised to find that she didn't actually like these gatherings, just came for her father's benefit, who was now trying to marry her off to whomever would take her but she resisted furiously. I could only imagine how many suitors she had turned down, as beautiful as she was. But it would have been a pity to waste her intelligence on the life of a housewife.

I started going to parties more often, needless to say. At first I wasn't even in love with her. I found myself declining to go into the town to find a woman, thinking how boring it would be if they couldn't hold my interest. I didn't connect that with my meeting with Elena for a long time. Other women had just taken on a staleness that no longer tempted me. Later I wondered if those old myths of faeries' food and gods' ambrosia were inspired by women like Elena, the food which kept humans, once having tasted it, from ever partaking in common food again. She was my ambrosia, but more than that. Very soon she was my very world.

I'd never been much a fan of the society around us, with all its paradoxes and overwhelming hypocrisy, but I hadn't thought much about it. It was the only sort of life I knew. I disdained it, to be sure, the way that it was set up-that the weak ruled the strong with money and bribery, that society could not continue as it ought to with the right people at the reins. Elena told me about Italy and about great groups of people which would disdain profit for the sole purpose of helping the people which did not have the privileges of the people in the group. It was dizzying, the idea of nobles busying themselves improving the lives of common people, and actually, it was something I would not much have cared about if it weren't her that was telling me of it. She could make anything sound good. And I found myself falling in love with the ideas she put forth to me just as much as I was with her. I found myself waiting eagerly for the next soiree to be scheduled, and eventually became impatient. I asked her how I could meet with her elsewhere and she smiled one of her beaming smiles that blinded you to everything else and told me the estate where she and her father stayed when they were in Germany, which was most of the time. How dearly she missed Italy, she told me.

Her father seemed wary of me but eventually approved of our spending so much time together. And then she invited me to come with her to Italy.

I was dumbstruck at first. To me, Italy was a land that of course existed but was forever a world away from me, which I would never see. The very idea of leaving Germany was as frightening as it was exhilarating. But I was not one to back down from anything and I would have gone to the ends of the earth for that woman anyway. We set sail the next month.

The trip in itself was nothing extraordinary, but to me it seemed a milestone in my life. I was leaving Germany behind, even if for a short time, and most of all was going to become privy to this formerly unreachable piece of Elena's life which before I had barely fathomed. Italy dazzled me with its very difference. I couldn't understand so much of what was happening around me, though I was fluent in the language. She seemed to understand, perhaps from having lived so long in Germany and being surrounded by our culture, and led me like a toddler through Venice. It left me dazed. The swooping cathedrals and the sensuality around us side-by-side was as enticing as it was incongruous. I was drawn to art that had never before interested me. She loved to point out the different facets of life there, of the little market stalls crammed side by side and the gondolas that served both the noble and the poor. Artists' apprentices scurried underfoot through half the city. I loved the canals, the sheer alien feeling of traveling by boat rather than by foot or horse.

Then she took me to Milan. I didn't get to see much of the city there, though—all of our time was spent with a man named Giotto.

Giotto di Vongola was a man that reminded me a little of my Grandfather Kaspar even though we were the same age. He was not wily like Grandfather, not so mischievous, but there was something in the way that he could look at you that made you respect him. It unbalanced me at first, this feeling of respecting someone I'd never before met, but I got used to it quickly with Elena's urging. She adored him in a way that would have made me jealous if it weren't for how distracting his presence was.

They told me about the Vongola together, this group which served the people in a way that none ever before had. They told me about the way that crime was organized in Italy and made it hard for the common person to survive, and why it was necessary to have the Vongola, and how it would spread as it became stronger so that it could help more people. And it would rule as a peaceful, generous organization to better serve its cause. I liked it. But I wasn't sold.

Frankly, I didn't have much interest in this Robin Hood-esque dream. I thought that people should fend for themselves and people should mind their own business. But I was caught. I couldn't say no to Elena, who looked at me so proudly as she explained these things to me, while Giotto smiled serenely and watched me with sharp brown eyes. And I agreed to help, somehow. At first I didn't realize what this meant. I thought I was going to donate money or to form some branch of the Vongola in Naumburg. And then Elena mentioned going home to tell my father and grandfather about my intention to return to Italy, and I was floored.

Leaving Germany. Not only that, but leaving the business which I'd worked so hard for, which I was going to inherit, which would then be passed onto Izaak by default, who had no interest in it. It took my breath away. Leaving Grandfather Kaspar. How disappointed in me would he be? I couldn't imagine telling him, or Heine, who had already felt so many disappointments. But even more so I couldn't say no to Elena. I was a man driven by love, and this I had realized even before coming with her across the ocean. She could have told me to go to the moon for her and I would have spent my life trying to fly.

-x-

I met the rest of the Vongola early on, though it wasn't yet complete. Giotto had only gathered a few men to the group, and Elena. There was G., a fiery man with a quicksilver smile whose life he had obviously dedicated to Giotto and to whatever pursuits Giotto chose. Lampo was rarely present, forever lazy and with a languorous stretch that suggested he'd napped through any conversation but a fairly pleasant man nonetheless, if impatient. And lastly, there was Knuckle, a lively, loudspoken man forever in his priestly robes. It seemed a fit thing for a priest to do, to spend time in something like the Vongola, though his proficiency in what he called boxing was always curious. I never asked him about it, or why he'd become a priest. And no one asked me from whence I'd come or why I was there, though it was probably obvious that I was there for Elena.

She lit up our lives. I can't say how hard it was sometimes, with all our differences to stay together and to work together, to keep the Vongola going and to continue as a group. But somehow she managed to be the glue between us all, and she was my Elena. She met a man in Naples and talked to him for weeks, it seemed, before bringing him to the group. The trip had been a trip to meet her father, who had been displeased when she refused to go back to Germany, and try to make amends, and she lengthened the stay to speak with this Frenchman. When he came to Milan with her I was surprised. He was stoic and impressive, a self-assured man with a pretty face and commanding voice who seemed used to being in charge, always curious but never telling us why. And as was the tradition, no one asked. All that mattered was that we were there now.

Lastly came a Japanese man who G. had been communicating with for a couple of months. He had an odd way of looking at the world and when he heard music being played there was a wistful longing look on his face that made Giotto gently pat his shoulder before continuing with whatever was at hand.

I can't say I was touched by the camaraderie. But there was something that made me fond of every one of them in a way that was completely new. So I stayed, and of course there was my Elena.

-x-

But before the different people, there was another shock that was revealed to me by Giotto. It was called the flame. He told me about it with Elena's help, how it worked, how each of us had our own and how it was divided into seven different kinds. I learned how to control my Mist flame and found how much I enjoyed it. I never thought to ask Elena whether she had one, though.

As the Vongola grew, there became more members than these "original" eight. Elena's younger brother even joined, a handsome brunette by the name of Savio. He was one of the first to join the group which Alaude put together, the CEDEF, a rather impressive "intelligence agency," as he called it. I didn't know him very well and he and Elena didn't seem very close, although they were amiable.

I proposed to her after two years in the Vongola. She was excited as could be expected. Her smile was even brighter than usual for days. We were inseparable, always by each other's side. It seemed like this was never going to end, this contentment, this group and the odd but pleasant satisfaction that came with being in it. Somehow once we were engaged it was as if the idea of marriage was just some sort of abstract; for some reason, we never made that leap. Maybe we'd reached some subconscious decision that it wasn't necessary to do something so drastic, just to know that we were in love. After all, we didn't care about proving it to others—it was obvious enough as it was.

Italy was so much freer than Germany. Lovers walked arm-in-arm down the road without a worry about scandal. Neither of us was religious so we didn't abide by the strictures of the churches, like many young people at the time, so we moved in together not long after the engagement. I'd been cut off from the family money but she hadn't, and I worked in town whenever I could, so we had enough to buy a little villa not far from the main headquarters of the Vongola. It was like something out of a fairy tale; something in me had surrendered that I think had never done so before. I am a skeptic at heart, a pessimist. I had never believed in something so good; had she not bewitched me so thoroughly I would have believed it was too good to be true.

But the problem was…I got bored.

That's not to say I did not appreciate what I had. I did. But I wanted to do more. Even when Giotto had forged the Vongola rings, and I practiced with my flame whatever chance I had, I was becoming restless. I urged Giotto to be more proactive, not simply to respond to things near us but to actively pursue expansion of the family, which by then it had become. He seemed reluctant to become aggressive, but after a couple of weeks of speaking with the entire group, the seven Guardians of the Vongola, he agreed. We were going to go directly to the man in charge of a group of criminals who had been extorting money from the people in their city, which was side-by-side with our home of Milan.

They were waiting for us.

It was our first defeat as the Vongola. When we entered the city we were ambushed by ten men, each with their own flames. It seemed as if we were the stronger, but they had numbers and they had the advantage of surprise, and frankly, none of us had really been used to fighting with our powers. It was a quick, fierce battle. Another Storm flame user injured G.'s cheek dearly, nearly rendering him unconscious, and we all retreated. They chased us halfway back to Milan. Elena was waiting anxiously for us and started to work helping the medic we had on hand in the infirmary to treat all of our wounds. She had a hot meal ready for all of us as if she'd known we'd be back early. I think none of us were quite so grateful for her being there, ready to care for all of us, as we were then.

But the experience has us worried. If they were ready for us, was there a leak? But more than that, were they going to come after the Vongola in Milan? We'd never worried before about enemies in our city, about actual danger, but now that was on our minds. I started to worry for Elena. She was a caretaker, not a fighter, and if a battle came to us we were not ready to protect anyone. For several days I didn't confide this is her, just stewed on it myself. We began making preparations for such a situation, starting shifts where members acted as guards. There was always someone on the perimeter of the property and we paid more frequent visits to the people in town who would have known if someone odd was coming around lately. But that didn't assuage my fears, at least not by much. If someone really wanted to take us down, and they had plenty of reason, then they would get to the headquarters and it would be a brawl. Considering our ability to fight in the ambush, none of us was very confident in our abilities. We trained every chance we could, even challenging each other, honing our abilities against other types of flames, learning strategies from each other. And the fact that we needed to do this only made me all the more nervous for Elena, who always sat on the sidelines to cheer us on, to help clean scrapes and scratches, and to make sure we all took time out to eat and to sleep.

Finally, fifteen days after the ambush, I waited in the bedroom for her so that I could speak with her about it. I thought that she could go to her father in Venice for a couple of months while we built the defenses around the Vongola. For her own safety. I would miss her dearly but she would be safe, and that was what was most important. I was home early, in our villa, since for the last week and a half I'd been staying late at the headquarters and helping to fortify it, or training with another of the Guardians.

I heard her enter the home and was about to go out of the room to meet her when I heard her say something aloud. At first I was amused, that she spoke to herself when she was alone. It didn't particularly surprise me. But she sounded a little agitiated, as if something was trying her patience, a state that was rare for her to be in. And then I heard the second voice.

It took me a moment to realize it was her brother Savio. I'd thought he was on a mission with Alaude's agency but supposed he was back early. I realized I could make out their voices, if barely.

"You said it would be taken care of!" Elena.

Her brother: "They got out too soon." He spoke in a hushed voice that I barely heard, so I stepped closer to the door. "It was out of my hands. We thought they'd try to hold their ground longer."

She gave a little hum of agitation. I could picture her mouth pinched into a thoughtful pout, brows furrowed together to make a tiny line between them. She played with her hair when she was annoyed, as if she needed something to distract her so she didn't become angry. "I don't like this. What if they find out it wasn't the Potenza?" The Potenza was the family we had been about to challenge. I was reeling. What was she talking about? She shouldn't have known anything about them.

His voice rose a little. "It's your job to make sure they don't find out. You're the one who handles the information, Elena. You make sure they don't suspect anything and leave the rest to me. Got it?"

I'd never heard her voice get so flat, so challenging, as it had then. "That's exactly what I'm going to do. Now you see that next time we make a move, it gets done, not left halfway! I think Giotto's already suspicious about the ambush. They're not going to step out of headquarters again for weeks. There's nothing I can do about that."

He growled. "Just make sure they don't figure it out. I'll tell Vittorio they're untouchable for awhile, you try to get them to get out there where we can get to them. We'll talk more tomorrow." She harrumphed as I heard his loud footsteps and the front door opening and closing.

I'd sunk down on the edge of the mattress, dizzy. For a moment I wondered if I was dreaming. I heard her walking through the house and realized she couldn't know I'd heard, whatever it was. After all, it couldn't be what it sounded like. I felt bad to try to fool her, but I pulled off my jacket quickly and laid on the bed, as if I was asleep, just as the door opened and she gave a start. For a moment she looked worried, but it faded quickly and she gave me a pleased look just as I rubbed my eyes and sat up, playing the act of having just woken from a nap. "Did I wake you?" she asked apologetically as she walked over and sat beside me. I just shrugged. For a moment I couldn't say anything. Her face was the same as always.

She was so beautiful. It really can't be described in words. Her smile was open, looking as if for all the world she could never hold a secret. "I wanted to talk to you," I said softly. She blinked, looking curious, just the Elena I knew. I reached for her hand and laid mine over it. "I think it would be best if you go to your father for a little while, while we get things set up. It's not safe enough for you for a month or two."

I was more convinced than ever that this was the right thing to do. I needed some time to think, some time away from her intoxicating eyes so I could mull over that conversation clearly, and still I worried for her wellbeing. It wasn't a woman's world there, at least not her kind of woman.

Her eyes tightened a little, creating tiny lines at the corners of them that meant she was worried. She tilted her head, seeming to think, worrying at her lower lip as if there was something grave she had to say that she couldn't yet bring to her lips, and all of a sudden she laid her other hand atop mine and looked into my eyes and said, "Daemon, I don't want to leave you."

It was almost more than I could bear, her pleading expression. "It's just for a little while," I murmured guiltily, unable to hold her gaze, and so I looked down at the wooden floor. "I want you safe."

She hesitated, and then she moved closer so we sat facing each other. She held my hands tightly. "I figured it out a couple of days ago and didn't know how to say it." Her voice had dropped to a whisper. "I'm pregnant, Daemon."

I didn't realize she was in my arms, kissing me, me kissing her, until she already was, and by then I was a lost man. And all I could think was, I had to be wrong, this was my Elena. I'd misunderstood her conversation with Savio, or else really had been asleep and had dreamt the entire thing. There wasn't anything real but the scent of her hair and the softness of her skin; everything else could have faded and I would never have questioned that none of it had ever been the truth. I laid awake long into the night, holding her as she slept against my chest, alternately certain of her and her love for me, for the Vongola, and worried that I'd missed something vital in the time between the long ride to Italy and that moment. And I felt like a traitor that I ever doubted her.

It made me dizzy, to think that she was carrying a child. It had never crossed my mind before, and she had never brought it up, the possibility of having children. I think we'd come to a mutual agreement without ever saying it aloud that we would reach a more stable time a little later in life and settle down together. I should have been even more convinced that to send her to her father for a while would be best for her, safest, but I only wanted to be sure that she never left my side. No matter where we were it felt as if that would always be the safest place. I couldn't imagine letting her out of my sight. And so without ever mentioning it again we had agreed that she would stay with me. We didn't tell the others, not yet. We wanted to wait for a better time, when they weren't so busy.

She urged us to get out of the headquarters sometimes; once she said that she worried that while we worked so hard, the people we cared for on the outside were going to be taken advantage of again before we got out to check on them. It had been a year or more since we'd gone so long without making rounds about the city. And whenever she mentioned getting out, there was a niggling doubt in the back of my mind that reminded me of Savio telling her, "you try to get them to get out there where we can get to them." And it worried me that I could be so distrusting of the mother of my own child but the chill in my ribs never quite went away.

We didn't do as she asked us. We focused all of our energy on training, not for strength, as Giotto would chide us, but simply so we could defend ourselves and others. As time went on I became more and more certain that I had not misunderstood what Elena had said, and a gap was growing between us that she pretended not to notice, as loving and caring as ever she had been, and I became worried that someone was going to attack the Vongola since we had not gone out and made ourselves targets in nearly a month. I wanted us to be stronger, to withstand anything, to quickly put down any threat there was to us. Not a single challenge could be let to slide when someone wanted us dead so vehemently. In my mind I remembered the men who had attacked us, these men who were not the Potenza, who had injured G. And when his face healed, it was badly scarred. A couple of weeks later he got a tattoo to cover it, a rather imposing image like a flame. It suited him but it was unsettling to see nonetheless.

For some reason I couldn't confide to anyone else what I'd overheard. I think I held the hope that I was mistaken. I wanted to believe in Elena. I loved her with every fiber of my being, no matter what I thought, and I knew that I would have given my life for her in a moment. Not only was she the woman I loved but now she was the woman who carried my child, and that endeared her to me even more than ever before.

I began to insist to Giotto that we begin to change our image. We were the protectors, yes, the defenders, but to do so we needed strength, because strength was what our enemies had. He always rejected what I said, telling me with utmost confidence that we were what we needed to be. Our fortifications slowed down. Some of the Guardians began to work on other things than the training, and I began having trouble finding someone to spar with me in the courtyard. I worried about Elena with all of my free time, which was growing rapidly, and the fact that her belly hadn't shown any sign of rounding. Her breasts hadn't swelled as a mother's should. Yet she didn't seem worried. I didn't realize the obvious.

One day what I had feared came true. There was an attack on the headquarters. First there was an explosion in the front of the building, and I went running to find Elena; a second explosion rocked it from the back. I found her picking herself up from the rubble of the courtyard, shaking and covered with dust. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw me and she collapsed. The infirmary was working in overtime when I brought her in, and they said that she was well but had taken a blow to the head. There was a bruise on her stomach, and I worried for her for that, but she didn't wake for a couple of hours. Asari Ugetsu was in the infirmary as well, since a piece of debris had hit him in the head and he was dizzy off-and-on for awhile. It turned out that the attack was very small, almost like a test. I wanted to go to Giotto, to tell him that this was what happened when after he hadn't listened to me, but I didn't want to leave Elena.

I took aside one of the doctors when it had calmed down and asked him quietly, "What about the baby? Elena is pregnant."

He'd shaken his head, looking at me puzzlingly. "I give her herbs every week to stop conception. Besides, she's got none of the signs. Unless it's too early to know, she's not pregnant."

It was over a month since she'd told me. And I knew a doctor would have been able to tell by then, especially if she had a month before. The herbs were a surprise to me; I'd had no idea she was doing such a thing. He looked worried that he'd let it slip when I obviously was unaware, but I waved him away before I let anything slip and I sat beside her again. She woke soon after, moaning softly and looking around with a heartwrenchingly dizzy expression.

"Daemon...?"

I kissed her forehead. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired." She blinked up at me and her hand went to her stomach. "It's..."

"What?"

She shook her head. "I guess I'll know later. Go home and sleep, Daemon. I'll be fine here."

I knew I shouldn't have gone, but I did. I wanted to get away, as much as it pained me to be away from her for even a moment. I didn't go to meet Giotto. Instead I went to the villa. The scent of her on the bed upset me and I ended up sleeping fitfully on the couch, though it was uncomfortable and narrow. In the morning it felt as if I hadn't slept at all, and perhaps I hadn't. I'd thought the entire time. What was she going to say when I next saw her? I wondered if she would meet with Savio during the night. And what would they say? Had she known this was going to happen?

She told me the next morning, tears in her eyes, that she had lost the baby when she had fallen onto a large piece of debris from a fallen wall. I would have believed her if the doctor hadn't already told me otherwise. I don't know how I kept enough control that I could act as stricken and woeful as she; then again, I was stricken and woeful, just not over a child that I knew had never existed. That was when I knew for certain that I was betrayed, and at the same time I rejected it. This was my Elena, who would never lie to me, would never have reason-and here she was, the same woman as always, and I was painfully aware that there was something else to her of which I'd never known. It was painful. And it was enraging.

I'd come to a decision. Whatever she was working for, I would work against, both in some form of bitter revenge and, I told myself, simply because I'd pledged my loyalty to the Vongola. Elena had put us all in danger by having a hand in that ambush, and I was the only one who knew it, so it was my responsibility to try and protect my friends, my comrades in the family. None of them would have believed me had I told them about her, so I kept my peace. She tried to dissuade me, gently, from what I was doing, but I began to urge Giotto even moreso to strengthen the Vongola, that in order to keep our place of peace we needed power to overcome the tides of war. That was the only way to survive. I told him logically; I told him sentimentally; I pleaded with him to see it, following every route I could to attempt to persuade him, and the others, nearly mad with my secret. I went to the villa every night to sleep beside Elena, and all of a sudden, once, I lay there and realized, she hadn't simply put the others in danger with that ambush, she had put me in danger, too. Did she want me dead? Would she kill me as I slept? And as I thought these things an overcoming guilt wracked me at the same time, to think of my sweet fiancee in such terms. I wanted badly to believe everything she'd told me. I would have preferred that we really had lost a child to this.

It didn't matter. I knew what was happening.

Months later Giotto still refused me. He told me calmly, as much the wise fool as he'd ever been, that we did not stand for strength. Peace did not need strength. It only needed the will to sacrifice. He began to look at me with a new, thoughtful expression in his eyes. I hated it. I went to the other Guardians only to find the same look on their faces; and I returned home to a woman with the smile of an angel and what I had begun to think of as a heart like thorns. I thought I would break under the sheer despair of it.

-x-

The sense of impending disaster only got worse as time went on. I was sure that Elena had been aware of the last attack, which we had guessed had only been a test of our defenses. We'd been unable to capture a single attacker, caught by surprise as we had been. We'd failed the test and I knew for certain that someone was going to make their move soon. Giotto refuses to strengthen the Vongola. The Guardians trained, of course, sparred endlessly, but it wasn't going to be enough and I knew it. I even asked him to put together a team of people to fight for us should the need arise. As it was, we had doctors, engineers, a few flame users-people from all walks of life. We were far-reaching but we were soft. That was going to be our downfall, and I was determined to stop it for no reason other than to place myself firmly between the family and Elena.

Everything she did I began to second-guess, but I knew that I still loved her. The fact that I didn't trust her felt more a fault of mine than anything. I was as guilty as I was angry, almost ready to lash out at myself to finish the disgusting drama. Thinking about confronting her, hurting her like that-and somehow I convinced myself that it would have hurt her, this distrust-was unthinkable. I began to lash out at little things, even at the other Guardians, and when I realized it I pulled away, recoiling from the worried looks and Elena's gentle soothings. I constantly wondered what she thought of all this. Was I going to lose my worth to her perhaps and she'd kill me? Or maybe she'd get Savio to do it.

I walked on eggshells for what seemed like an eternity. She started staying by me more, acting worried, sometimes offering to make a favourite meal or even to make love, and this worked on my nerves more than anything else. Once or twice I accepted her offers, hoping somehow to find some sort of solace, as if all of a sudden I would believe that this entire time I had been wrong, or perhaps by lying with her I would wake from some sort of nightmare. Needless to say, it didn't happen, and I felt even guiltier.

Once I wondered if writing down my worries would help me to sort everything out and decide what to do. I tried, and in a matter of an hour I had three pages of a jumbled scrawl that made my head ache to look at. When I thought that she might find it I tore the papers into tiny pieces and tossed them into the fire. The scent of it burning was soothing for a few minutes, in an odd way. I started burning candles around the villa in the evenings. Elena seemed curious but I think she liked it, too, so she never asked about it.

A month later I woke once to find her shaking me, looking worried. "Daemon!" she murmured soothingly, "you were having a nightmare. You kept saying my name." I was shaken, and she seemed to realize it; she returned to sleep with her arm around my back. Obviously this didn't help. I never did remember the nightmares that started around that time. If I had, I think things would have come to a much quicker conclusion.

I tried to know where she was at all times, but it wasn't easy to do so subtly. A few times she met with Savio again, some just normal greetings in public, but twice I caught them in private, discussing something in low voices I could never make out. After the first time Alaude was attacked on the way back from his CEDEF headquarters, but he returned with barely a scratch (as was expected of Alaude at this point). The second time...there was nothing. I wondered if nothing would happen. I went a week jumping at every little sound, my nerves shot, certain that at any moment something awful would happen.

Well, it did.

I was on the training grounds when I heard the first explosion. It nearly knocked me off my feet, fifty metres from the building; I saw half the ceiling of the headquarters' west wing collapse in on itself with the grinding, growling noise of falling stone and brick. I saw a flash of fire from the courtyard and another explosion. There were people entering the ruin, too far to run quickly. I sprinted for the front of the building, Two figures stood on the front steps, arguing loudly over the blasts. At the sight I stopped and ducked around a corner, flattening myself to the wall. Above me they went at it; I couldn't make out words, and the sound of more explosions and yelling made me grimace that I wasn't helping to protect the Vongola. But it was Elena at the top of the stairs, only a few feet from me, and her brother.

Savio stormed off in a couple of moments and I ducked further into the corner. After a couple of moments I headed up the steps, glancing around to be sure no one but Elena was around. She noticed me with a jolt, eyes widening, but quickly turned it into fear and worry. "Daemon! Are you alright?" she cried, stepping towards me. She reached as if to take my arm. I guess my expression was what stopped her.

Her expression dropped slowly, finally an unreadable frown. "You heard us, didn't you?" she whispered. There was something resigned in her voice.

I stepped towards her and she stood still. "You did this," I hissed. I couldn't hide it anymore; after this attack, seeing the two, and now this look in her eyes-and that was the worst part, the way her eyes went from bright and clear to cautious, as if I would hurt her, and that was the guiltiness, that I would have hurt her. "You've taken me for an idiot. What do you want?" I demanded, voice rising. "What the hell do you want?"

She faltered a little, taking a little step back, but I lunged forward and grabbed her by the arms. Elena looked up at me with a suddenly sharp expression and something flashed in her hand. I staggered back, gasping at the pain in my ribs, and looked down. Her ring, a ring she'd worn since I'd met her, glowed orange against her hand. I saw the spark of a flame and she looked at me with a slow, careful expression before taking a step towards me. "Don't do this, Daemon," she whispered.

Anger had me by the throat. Elena had a flame! From the time we'd first met at a soiree in Germany, she'd worn that ring, told me it was a topaz gem from her grandmother. An heirloom. Who's to say it wasn't? Though it was no topaz. That was a Sky flame.

I knew it suddenly. All that worry that had seized me, that somehow I still hadn't quite believed, it was true. Elena would have killed me. I didn't have the presence of mind to try to battle her with my Mist flame. If I'd initiated such a fight it would have taken too long, and I would have had second thoughts.

But she stepped forward and the flame petered out, returning the ring to a simple topaz. She laid her hands on my chest, looking up at me pleadingly. "Don't do this," she repeated softly. So softly. Where she touched I thought should have stung, like some sort of venom, but it was like any other time. This was my Elena.

There was an explosion overhead. I saw the brick over the door begin to shudder and buckle. She started to turn, to look up, expression changing to surprise. I pushed her.

She disappeared in the dust and debris as I staggered back, tripping at the stairs. I hit the cobblestones hard, the breath knocked out of me, one ankle twisted, but I stood anyway, ignoring the shooting pain that made my vision narrow. I staggered up the broken steps and the ankle gave way; I landed on my knees beside a clump of brick. Things were still settling. There was the grinding noise again as the rocks shifted. Gradually the dust cleared and I could see.

Her eyes were open. There was blood on her face where a brick had cut her temple. There was blood on her dress, her favourite sky-blue dress, where a joist had hit her and lay beside her. The blood was slowly pooling around her. There were tears in my eyes I hadn't realized were there. My mind spun. I'm dreaming. None of it could have been happening...

But there she was. Her lips moved, barely enough for me to know. I wouldn't have seen it if the dust on her face hadn't cracked from it. "Daemon..." I shook at the sound of my name. Was that an accusation in her voice? No. Just...Elena. She whispered, brokenly; she sounded choked on dust and blood. "Protect the weak. Together. With the...Vongola..." She shuddered a little, eyes rolling back, and spluttered. Blood spattered her lips. Slowly I was coming to my senses. She was dying, painfully. I would have taken her place if I could have. I laid a hand on her bloody cheek, focusing instead, building an illusion, the best illusion I'd ever made. She relaxed slowly, the pain wiped away, in her eyes her body made whole again, even if she was still slipping away. She knew it every bit as well as I did. "If it's you," she murmured, "I know you can...do..."

Her eyes glazed over. Her body seemed to collapse in on itself as a last breath rattled out of her lungs, setting dust into the air again. And she was gone.

-x-

I don't know how long I stayed there. My hands were clenched in the gravel and rocks, covered in blood and bleeding from my own cuts. The debris was sharp. I couldn't feel my legs when I realized that I still knelt there.

I was angry. I was mad with anger and guilt and despair.

This is my confession. I killed Elena.

The woman who held us together like glue. The woman who brought half of the Guardians into the Vongola, the woman who loved me for years, the woman who wore my engagement ring and slept by me at night. The woman who'd nursed me when I was sick and who I'd nursed when she caught it from me. My Elena, who'd waited for us when we'd finished a rough training day and had bandages and hot soup ready. Who'd lied to me for all those years. Who'd plotted against us. Who'd soothed me as I left Germany for Italy for the final time. Who'd found herbs for me when I had seasickness the first trip. My Elena who'd given herself to me and taken myself in return. My Elena.

Who'd spited me in her last words. I'd known she was an enemy of the Vongola and there she was, with her dying breath...

With her dying breath, spiting me.

The woman I killed and mourned for. Who I would have killed again, or would have given my life for. The woman I would never forgive, and for whom I would never forgive myself.

My eternal Elena. I killed my Elena.

-x-

The other Guardians left me alone for weeks, leaving me to mourn in private. I tore apart our villa, searching for something to prove to myself that she was who I'd killed her for being. There was no sign. No letters, no diary, nothing hidden away. Nothing but the ring I'd taken from her finger and now wore on mine. I couldn't use a ring of the Sky, of course, but I was never going to let it out of my sight. That was my reminder of what a fool I really was.

I didn't want to ever forget Elena.

I decided that if she would spite me, then I would do the same. It was the only thing I had to hold onto. I would do exactly what she'd said-I'd make the Vongola strong. I didn't care anymore about the rest of the Guardians. I wanted the Vongola, Elena's hated Vongola, to be as strong as it could be.

The first thing I did was find Savio. He offered his condolences, eyes watery in sadness for his sister. I killed him painlessly and buried him properly as a gift to her, with her ring on my finger. The ring was to never leave my finger for the rest of my time. I kept the pocketwatch with her picture not to see her face, which would be burned into my memory for eternity, but for the fact that it was the Primos' watch. Maybe a part of me wanted to remember that they'd been my comrades for so long.

Giotto had our souls connected to our rings for the future generations. I didn't care; I let them do it. I wondered if I'd be able to spend eternity strengthening the Vongola to continue spiting Elena, and I was a desperate man at the thought that I couldn't just let it end normally. That my anger wasn't going to end with death at the end.

He saw some sense and strengthened the Vongola, but not enough. Never enough. There was no such thing as enough. I was driven. I staged the death of Cozart Simon for the strength of the Vongola, because no matter my loyalty to Giotto, it would never surpass my determination to build the family. I didn't pay enough attention to the rest of the Guardians to see that they knew. And if I'd known that they were aware, I don't think it would have mattered to me. I came to understand that Giotto would never do what I wanted him to do, to make the Vongola a force that could never be brought down, and so I found a successor for him that I approved of, and forced him to retire his position to Ricardo. I served as the Guardian of Mist for Ricardo, who ruthlessly built the family like I wanted. I manipulated him, seduced him with power, gave him the taste of it with myself before showing him what it would feel in the Vongola. I taught him how to be ferocious.

For a little while I was pleased with the progress, but not satisfied-never satisfied. Never content. I sought my aim viciously.

And I aged. I aged too fast. My power waned with age, when I knew it wouldn't once I resided solely in the ring. When Ricardo decided his successor, the third Vongola boss, I decided to let the Mist ring go to the next Guardian. I stood on a bridge high above a river outside of Venice, breathing the nostalgic air that reminded me of my first visit with her, and I shot myself with a pistol so that my body would fall into the water below. The Vongola ring I left with the next Mist Guardian. Elena's ring, I left in a safe place where I retrieved it in my spirit form.

I realized that I'd hoped it wouldn't work. I'd hoped it was going to end, all my life I'd been looking forward to stopping. But it didn't. And I resigned myself to the fact that this was what I would do for centuries, and I hid my despair from myself by continuing with fervor.

Then the tenth generation came. It felt like eternity had passed. I was a twisted man, bent by my own self-denial and the sight of the ring on my finger. I don't think it was so much the decimo's strength that angered me, but the fact that Giotto himself approved of him. And most of all, it was his eyes. That boy's eyes that made me think of Giotto's, as I first met him and as he refused to strengthen the family and finally as I forced him out of his position. He hadn't seemed betrayed then; he had seemed only resigned. That had driven me crazy with rage, and now it did again.

My hatred for Elena had been the only thing to drive me. The Vongola had been my pride and suddenly I knew it. I didn't try to strengthen the family even as revenge to Elena, I did it because it was the only thing keeping me from admitting that I'd been so humiliated.

When he found the pocketwatch, I was broken.

I wished that he would have killed me. He did, as well as he could. But as long as the Vongola Mist ring exists, so will I. And so I still exist.

The watch I keep with me. The ring I keep on my finger. Not to remind me of her now. To remind me never to be tricked again, especially by myself like I was for three hundred years. Our worst enemies are always ourselves.

I'd never hated anyone before Elena, and never have since. There is only one person that I hate. Not because she made a fool of me. Not because she put me through so much pain. Not because I can't forgive myself for killing her. Because she tricked me so ruthlessly, so flawlessly, that no matter how much I hate her, I can't stop loving her. And for that, I can never stop hating myself.

She was much better an illusionist than I.