(in which the terrible power of the written word comes into play)
It was yet another wonderful Sunday, mostly due to the fact that, for once, the weather lived up to the hopes of the majority of the population and rearranged itself into a perfect combination of temperature, humidity and sunshine. It hadn't gone unnoticed by the inhabitants of Namimori, who immediately proceeded to bundle up kids, blankets and lunch baskets and speed out of town in search of a leftover piece of untouched nature. By midday, the streets were almost completely deserted safe for a few lonely losers, drooping around the corners because no one wanted to invite them anywhere, and Hibari Kyouya, who had a highly complicated relationship with Sundays and holidays of all sorts.
Technically speaking, Hibari wasn't out in the streets, of course. It was too hot and dusty there, and besides, it appeared that the members of the Disciplinary Committee were doing just fine on their own. They were presumably quite busy, patrolling the town and ensuring that nobody got any clever ideas and decided, for example, that this was the kind of morning to indulge in a bit of good ole burglary.
There would be no burglary in Namimori unless Hibari authorized it. That was what the order and discipline were all about, things being kept under control by someone who knew right from wrong and wasn't afraid to stand their ground in times of trouble. It was a lamentable fact that the whole pool of someones who fitted the criteria consisted of Hibari alone, but life was never supposed to be all roses and rainbows.
Lying on his back on the sunlit terrace of the old house that used to belong to his parents and which he now occupied alone, Hibari launched another valiant attack on the book he had been trying to read for over three hours now. It was high time he'd made some progress with it, after all.
Unfortunately, so far, he'd been unable to get past the prologue.
It wasn't his fault though. He certainly wasn't stupid. It was simply ridiculous that anyone could have been allowed to compose a volume that weighed more than a brick and contained over four hundred pages of text. Any message that required so many useless words to get across simply meant that the author had a uniquely undisciplined mind and an unhealthy excess of free time on his hands – two qualities that could result in nothing worthy of Hibari's attention. Less talk, more do; that was the proper way.
The accursed book originated from the library – not the public one, certainly, that was for students and housewives – but from Hibari's personal collection of books which he'd inherited from his parents along with the house itself, as well as a great deal of other things, including a significant amount of money; his father's infatuation with the order; and, in the backyard, a small garden of miniature bonsai trees. Hibari was still in two minds about that last one, and while he cogitated, Kusakabe had been appointed responsible for cultivating it. After all, no one could predict Hibari's final decision, and it was better to be safe than sorry.
The library occupied the largest of the eight rooms and consisted mainly of two types of books: those meant for reading (old, tattered, occasionally with a missing page) and those bought for the sole purpose of being there. The books of the second type were all beautiful and had a richly decorated, sometimes gilded, cover. They were in perfect condition, because very few people ever get excited when faced with a philosophical treaty five hundred pages long and with no plot or dialogue whatsoever to speak of. No one had as much as attempted to open them.
No one except for Hibari. And he was already regretting it.
He closed the book firmly and put it away. The were other matters that required careful thinking in his life, highly important matters he had to attend to.
And after all, didn't they say there was no time like the present?
A plaintive sound came from under Hibari's left foot. To a more imaginative pair of ears, it might have resembled the last dying squeak of an artificial mouse finally coming to realize it would never reach the much desired piece of artificial cheese; but Hibari, who wasn't given to useless fantasies – that was for people like Dino Cavallone – only bent down slightly and inspected the remains of an old, dirty plastic bottle he'd stepped on. Further examination revealed the origins of the bottle – once upon a time it used to contain yogurt.
Hibari didn't scowl, not exactly (it was only a measly bottle, after all) but, although his face remained unchanged, irritation bubbled in the back of his mind. No matter how minor a detail this might be, it annoyed him. It appeared, above all, to indicate that already this particular endeavor of his was off to a bad start; and it also reminded him of how being careless could easily cost him his life. And the bitter truth was that he did seem to become more and more careless lately, otherwise Reborn wouldn't be able to trick him and the Varia monkey wouldn't have managed to come so dangerously close to killing him – yes, that was the word, he had to face it – and for the second time in a row, too. That alone, that disquieting tendency, truly rankled. He had been lucky so far, but there was nothing that Hibari despised more in the world than the idea that he might owe his wellbeing, his life, his anything to dumb luck and, in one unfortunate case, to Dino Cavallone.
He couldn't even decide which was worse. They were both unpredictable and hectic, and Hibari wanted to have as little to do with them as he could. The fact that he now had an outstanding debt to Dino left a sour taste in his mouth and made him come very close to fuming. It was humiliating. It was plainly unacceptable. Hibari Kyouya would not drag some stupid moral obligation behind him like a sack of rotten potatoes, he would pay Dino back as soon as the circumstances allowed, and then he would find a way and pay the orangutan back too, although in a different way, because it was now twice that he'd been made to look like a fool by the Varia boss, and he wouldn't stand for it. He would figure it out, somehow and settle the score once and for all.
But before he properly concentrated on those things, there was another person out there who had long since been number one on Hibari mental To-Bite List.
Rokudo Mukuro. The sleazy coward.
All yogurts in the world and all regrets forgotten, Hibari straightened up. This time, he wouldn't give the illusionist even a sliver of opportunity to get away. This time, he wouldn't be taken in by clever wordplay that Mukuro was undoubtedly going to use on him. This time around, he would most definitely have his battle and no one would stand in his way.
Hands already itching to take out the tonfa, he resumed walking, carefully weaving his way through the rubble toward the main building of what used to be the Kokuyo Land Amusement Park and which now served as a den for Mukuro and his gang of misfits.
It was a pathetic and disgusting sight, truly it was, and one glance at it made Hibari want to bite to death whatever negligent herbivore was responsible for the territory – it was clearly a disaster and a health-hazard, what with its walls, dark and slimy; its empty windows; unidentifiable pieces of brick and old plaster falling off it with a dull thud whenever a gust of wind hit it a bit too hard; and all manner of rusty metal parts sticking out of the ground around it. In short, it was begging to be demolished. If it wasn't done soon, it would crumble down anyway. One didn't have to be an expert to make that conclusion, not in this case. This one was obvious and let its pitiful state speak, or rather, scream for itself.
Later, Hibari promised to himself as he strode toward the gaping black hole that marked the entrance to the building, after he was finished here, he would see to it that the former Kokuyo Land was taken care of and turned into something more befitting of his Namimori. That he wouldn't tolerate any longer. It was an abomination and it only made sense that people like Rokudo Mukuro had come and made a nest inside. Vermin always bred in places like that – forgotten, abandoned places that no one else wanted; and nothing but trouble ever came of it.
Hibari wasn't going to let it go on like this. He would uphold the standards, even if the rest were all pathetic no-good losers that couldn't prioritize if their miserable existence depended on it.
But first, the cowardly herbivore was to be dispatched and cast into oblivion. The vermin had to be exterminated. Preferably forever.
Feeling perfectly self-assured and resolved, Hibari entered the building, stepping over the old door that had long since fallen off its hinges and by the looks of it, had been peacefully rotting away for the better part of the decade. Several big wasps flew from under it and zoomed around Hibari's head angrily, only to be ignored. As he ducked into the darkness, they didn't follow.
Inside, the air was still and damp and had an unpleasant tinge to it, a hint of sourness, perhaps, like water gone bad. It smelled of silent things that grew in the dark, away from sun and warmth. It was colder too – almost chilling after the summer heat that rolled over the country outside in lazy undulating waves.
A lesser man might be intimidated. Hibari Kyouya pressed on calmly, ignoring the disgusting squelching sound that something under his boots produced as he walked over it. He didn't pause to look what exactly it was though, and not only because he didn't want to lose any more time. A suspicion was creeping up on him that whatever it was, it had been alive before it found itself being mercilessly squashed; and nothing that chose to inhabit that hell was bound to be good-looking. Rokudo Mukuro was another proof of that.
As Hibari made his way toward the main stairs, he kept an eye open for hidden traps of any kind – wires positioned specifically to sever the head of a careless intruder, holes in the floor, covered by rotten planks of wood or dirty cloth, anything that a sick mind of a person afraid of a fair fight might come up with. He found nothing. The silence was that of any decaying construction; a sleepy silence made of a million tiny noises – rats scurrying away on their business inside the walls, plaster peeling off and falling down on the floor, water dripping from the rafters n the nearby corridor, wood creaking, birds chirping faintly outside. There was nothing at all suspicious going on. Kokuyo Land appeared to be devoid of human presence.
Quite unexpectedly, Hibari found himself missing Hibird and wishing he had remained in Namimori to read his father's boring old book. It might be full of stuff he couldn't even begin to understand or appreciate, but it was undoubtedly better than chasing ghosts of the past in a place that even Rokudo Mukuro seemed to have left for good.
Feeling slightly disconcerted, Hibari slowed down and, making another turn, came to a halt as yet another corridor opened before him.
He couldn't remember it.
Taking a deep breath, Hibari raked through the unpleasant memories of his stay in the Kokuyo Land and the subsequent final fight with Mukuro. He was sure that he knew the layout of the place quite well, and he had a good eye for detail; and his intuition kept telling him that this corridor couldn't be here.
Not only that – it simply couldn't be. At all.
For one thing, it certainly looked too long. A corridor that long wouldn't fit, at least not on this side. Had he gotten sidetracked and lost? It seemed impossible, but the building was asymmetrical, so maybe that was the reason. And it had windows – the whole row of them, glass unbroken if slightly dusty, sunlight streaming through, flooding the corridor with blinding brilliance. Could it be that he had wandered off the route he had intended to use and ended up where he hadn't been before?
Something moved at the other end of the corridor, an impossible distance away. Something white.
Hibari squinted. The light was so bright that it hurt his eyes and made them water. He wiped his face with a sleeve of his shirt and squinted again, trying to discern the details.
The movement repeated, and the place... changed. Later, when Hibari tried to remember that moment and put his finger on what exactly had happened, he would never be able to do so. The floor, the walls, the windows – all remained the same; and the flash of white at the other end didn't move away, nor did it come any closer. The distance didn't shorten. The sunlight was still pouring through.
But suddenly, without any obvious explanation, he could see.
At the opposite end of the corridor stood a girl, the whiteness he had seen but been unable to identify turning out to be her dress. A light, carefree sort of dress that women wore when they intended to do no real work and were dead set on being a nuisance.
He recognized the girl, though.
Hibari's eyes turned to narrow slits. So that was how it was. Chrome Dokuro, an artificial life, an excuse for an independent existence. A marionette created by Mukuro on the ruins of a crippled body to pull the strings from the dungeons of the Vindice prison. A sad doll with a made-up name and a made-up future that no one but her believed would ever become reality.
She stood there, barefoot, arms hanging by her sides, an expression both sorrowful and unreadable.
It crept Hibari out that he could now see her face as clearly as if she were only a few paces away from him, when until a moment ago he'd been unable to tell it was a person at all. And neither of them had moved a muscle.
Ahhh. But of course. It was all an illusion. The damn corridor didn't truly exist in the Kokuyo Land, that was why he couldn't recognize it. It was probably a figment of Mukuro's imagination or a copy of a real place somewhere else entirely.
Only Chrome was real.
Well, it wasn't like he cared. If the girl was here, Mukuro, the bastard, must be as well. Hibari smirked.
"Did he send you here to meet me?" he asked, raising his voice enough to carry all across the distance. He doubted it was really necessary, seeing how they were inside the illusion, but who knew.
Chrome looked at him impassively – or looked right through him, it all seemed the same with her. Her lips moved.
"Please follow me." Then she turned and began to walk away.
Hibari hurried after her – the last thing he wanted right now was to let her disappear and find himself dashing around the decrepit place like an idiot, looking for her. He noted that she spoke quietly, almost inaudibly, which was her usual manner, but he heard her anyway. Another proof everything was fake around them.
He was going to get a lot of satisfaction out of beating up Mukuro. Hibari hated fakes.
The long corridor turned into a narrow passageway, which in turn ended up in a flight of stairs, winding up into the gray shadows that dissipated as Chrome began to ascend. Another corridor followed, wider this time, windowless but relatively clean; then they crossed an enfilade of rooms, where old toys mixed with shards of glass and crumpled cigarette packs littered the floor – a perfect symbol of a run-down amusement park.
Another staircase swam into view.
Hibari stopped, eyes boring holes in the girl's back.
"Where are you leading me?"
Not turning around, she beckoned for him to follow her.
"Come. Master is waiting for you."
"We're going in circles," Hibari said flatly, not moving from the spot. "Do you think I'm so dumb I won't notice that? And I know it isn't even real, so what's the meaning of this?"
She remained silent for a moment, then sighed. Or at least that was how it sounded.
"Please. Don't make Mukuro-sama wait."
Hibari decided he'd had enough. And Mukuro-sama could wait as long as was necessary. In a split second, he closed the distance between himself and Chrome. His hand shot out, grabbing her thin wrist, and he spun her around to face him. She didn't resist at all, letting Hibari pull her near enough for him to see her every eyelash.
As she looked up at him, almost placidly, Hibari was reminded of another time when he held her like that – a time that, for him, was both in the past and in the future, a memory that he'd received from his older self. On that other occasion, he had helped to save her life after her precious Mukuro-sama was defeated by Byakuran and the link between them was cut, making her illusionary organs evaporate like morning dew. That gaze, that resignation to accept whatever fate was going to befall her, along with the feeling of her hand held in his was the same. She smelled faintly of something flowery – he could recognize that too. Only her breathing was not shallow now.
Still, she was helpless and useless, like before. And light, as if her bones were empty like a bird's.
A thought popped up in Hibari's head.
"Why are you here?" he asked, curiously. "Now that he's free, you two are no longer linked."
She said nothing, only stared up at him intently.
"Can't you go on without him now? What's in it for you?"
She gave a small sigh.
"Hey. Have you forgotten how to speak?"
Not answering his question, Chrome extended her free hand to the side and pushed the door open.
Hibari gave a start. Since when was there a door? He couldn't possibly have missed...
Hibari let go off her wrist, all his attention focused on the door as it creaked slowly open. He gave it an additional push and stepped inside.
The room that lay beyond was... revoltingly ordinary. It even bore semblance to normal apartments inhabited by normal human beings. It had a low table with cushions strewn all around it, a bed, a couch, some chairs and a wardrobe, as well as a number of other, smaller items of furniture. It was all mismatched, but it was clearly a place used to live in, not an abandoned cave. There were clothes lying in a heap on top of the bed covers, and a lamp on the table was lit, happily illuminating unwashed dishes.
Of Mukuro there was no sign.
Hibari turned around to face Chrome, ready to demand an explanation.
Except that she was no longer there. The doorway was empty, and he was completely and utterly alone. The girl had disappeared.
Trying very hard to be rational and not get irritated, Hibari walked toward the door and peeked out. Where there used to be a misplaced staircase, there was now a shabby-looking wall. The corridor was the one he remembered with painstaking accuracy, except it was now slightly cleaner. No weird rooms or halls were to be seen anywhere.
So. The illusion had been dispelled. How nice. Which left open the main question: if someone was making those tricks – and obviously it was Mukuro himself – then where was the pathetic herbivore hiding?
Moving back into the room, Hibari cast another glance at its contents. Not that he really expected to find Mukuro under the bed, of course, but still. There may be a hint or a clue of some sort.
There had to be at least some sort of logic present, because whatever else Hibari might think of Mukuro, he didn't believe the illusionist to be an idiot.
As Hibari's gaze swept over the table, he noticed something lying there in the pool of yellow lamplight. He approached cautiously and peered down at it with a measure of suspicion.
A sheet of paper. A message? Or a trap? There was only one way to find out.
A feeling of unease stirring somewhere in the pit of his stomach, Hibari reached down and took it from among the dishes and began to read:
Hibari Kyouya, my talented if slightly fixated friend,
If you're reading this, it means that yet again my observations have been proven correct, for I've expected you to come. Congratulations.
Hibari stared at the words in disbelief. Congratulations?
As the hard facts stare me in the face, I find myself unable to deny that your persistence does indeed know no bounds. And neither does your impatience – to think that you would choose to come and pay me a visit in my humble abode immediately after you have been so uniquely unlucky with both the Arcobaleno Reborn and Dino Cavallone. I sincerely applaud you spirit and willpower. Hold on to these useful qualities and treasure them – through experience (although not mi own) I know that it may be occasionally possible to use them instead of practicality and intellect with the minimum difference in the ending result. Quite a cause for celebration, isn't it?
Hibari inhaled deeply, suddenly overcome by the memory of the book he'd left back home. This... this whatever written by Mukuro seemed to have been taken straight out of it or at least composed by the same hateful herbivore who had an incurable case of verbal diarrhea and seemed – to Hibari's great chagrin – unable to stop writing.
People like that deserved to be executed on the spot for disrupting the mental discipline and inner harmony of those around them. Well, at the very least they had to be taught a lesson and put under arrest.
He reread the paragraph. Then he reread it again, slowly, letting the implications sink in. He didn't like them one bit.
The letter went on:
Regardless, I believe that by now, I have a sufficiently decent insight into your infinitely fascinating personality which has enabled me to foresee your visit and leave you this note in hopes that this way, you will not take it personally and will not be discouraged from seeking my company – it is a thought that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling I would absolutely loath to lose.
Hibari's right hand clenched around the handle of the tonfa. He wished dearly there were a skull to crack around, preferably one adorned with a ridiculous pineapple-shaped haircut.
But back to business. I assure you, I deeply regret being unable to come out and greet you in person. However, we are currently very busy with the affair known to you as the Battle of Representatives. My boss watch is still intact and I feel obliged to continue. Also, this pathetic little tournament has turned out to contain some people who are very special to me – the Vindice. We have a relationship that dates further back than ours, so kindly forgive me for choosing them over you for the moment. I do have to stick to my own priorities.
Hibari's gaze grew icy cold as his eyes followed the neat lines scribbled by Mukuro. Was the illusionary bastard telling him he could only rank second-best in this infuriating roundabout way? If he was...
Don't let it upset you, though. I know why you have come and what you want; and after I'm done with my current duties, I will be happy to give the old carousel another ride and beat you up like I did back when we first met. Ten or maybe fifteen minutes in the unlikely case that we get carried away should suffice. And we could have a sakura themed setting, I think. I know you like it. Not to mention it would be fitting, considering the reason behind your fanatic desire to have a rematch with me.
The memory of the humiliation he had once suffered at the hands of Mukuro came back in a rush, complete with the slow, soundless cascade of illusionary cherry blossoms, eerie and out of place within the shabby, decaying confines of that building; and Mukuro's soft mocking voice, explaining and explaining things he couldn't care less about all over again; and the bittersweet taste of his own blood in his mouth – the taste of defeat and helplessness and fruitless anger. Hibari gritted his teeth.
The letter continued:
Again, I will allow myself to hope that my little show has not led you to believe that I am avoiding you – quite the opposite, I would very much like to meet you again, but as this seems to be impossible at the moment, I've decided to at least entertain you with a bit of illusion. To justify myself, I will reiterate that I did my best with it. Did you like it? Wasn't the Chrome you saw quite real to all your senses?
A sudden chill ran down Hibari's spine. It was a sensation he had only experienced several times in his whole life; one only a couple of days ago when he saw Xanxus' eyes when the orangutan prepared to shoot him dead in a fight that he hadn't even been taking seriously.
An instinct, the infamous sixth sense, perhaps, was shrieking that he had to pay attention, that something sinister was going on.
However reluctant I may be to admit it, professor Verde knows his job. We're still quite far from being able to create an illusion that would last for any significant amount of time, but we're definitely improving. But one day, my dear dim-witted opponent, we may yet get a chance to have some proper fun. I am going to give you all the illusions in the world to fight and they will be so real, you won't even know the difference because there would be none. Just you wait.
For now, though, run along and play with someone else.
"Hibari-san! Everything is in order in Namimori! No suspicious activities have been noticed."
Hibari turned his head ever so slightly, letting his eyes settle on Kusakabe.
"Good," was all he said as he waited for the man to take his leave.
"Will there be any other orders for today, Hibari-san?"
"Did you own plan go well, Hibari-san?"
Sometimes Kusakabe seemed so thick-headed that it made Hibari wonder if the man was doing it on purpose.
"I will be going then, Hibari-san. With you permission."
As the door slid shut behind his subordinate, Hibari waited a few more seconds, then extracted Mukuro's letter out of his pocket and unfolded it.
Why had he taken it with him? Really, he could have just thrown it away.
I am going to give you all the illusions in the world to fight and they will be so real, you won't even know the difference because there would be none.
This was supposed to make him happy, wasn't it? Happy and eager for a truly fantastic fight. And yet he felt nothing of the sort. On the contrary, he felt uneasy, as if he had somehow managed to crack open the forbidden door and steal a glance at the future that promised things he didn't want to see.
He remembered the illusionary Chrome again – she had seemed so real at the time. And she was there on her own, a product of Mukuro's imagination and whatever scientific breakthrough Verde had made. She had acted alone, almost but not quite independently. And he had been unable to tell that she was a fake. There was no difference at all.
A lesser man might shiver. Hibari Kyouya did not, of course. Instead, he folded the letter and put it into the book he was still trying to read, marking the page (the prologue seemed to go on forever). He didn't actually believe he would ever need it, but he was quite certain that he wasn't looking forward to the future where illusions became indistinguishable from reality. In fact, if he could put a stop to that scheme, he would. It reeked of madness more terrible than anything five Byakurans could inflict on the world and, most importantly, on his Namimori.
He also realized that he no longer wanted to challenge any of his mafia acquaintances to a fight. He didn't want to know what Cavallone really hid behind that stupid facade of his; or if Xanxus was truly capable of cold-blooded mass-murder. And the Arcobaleno's secrets could very well remain secrets until the time was ripe.
It wasn't like he lacked practice, anyway. There were always plenty of fighting going on.
Some things were better left sleeping, and the longer it took them to float up to the surface, the better.
N/A: yesss, the end. It was fun writing Hibari even though he doesn't get much character development in the series (weird that, him being one of the main cast).
Thanks for reading and please tell me what you think - your reviews make my day! :)