Disclaimer: Neither Katekyo Hitman Reborn nor Tarzan is mine
Credits: The story wouldn't be as it is today without the help from Scratchy Wilson's fantastic job inbeta reading & HistoryLights' wonderful suggestions; also, many thanks to all the reviewers who contributed towards the improvements of this fic
Warnings: Although containing no explicit smut scene, this AU is clad with shounen-ai theme through and through
Consorting Tarzan has been rewritten into two versions with extended plot: Consorting the Jungle King—a loftier style and heavier vocabulary presented in Victorian English of over 7 K words longer than the old version (on this page)—and Espousing Tarzan—even longer by 1 K words than the posh version for those who love crack and can't be bothered to open a thesaurus (on the next page).
Italian rank of nobility: re (king) & regina (queen) – duca (duke) & duchessa (duchess) – marchese (marquess) & marchesa (marchioness) – conte (count/earl) & contessa (countess) – visconte (viscount) & viscontessa (viscountess) – barone (baron) & baronessa (baroness) – cavaliere (baronet) & dama (baronetess/lady) – patrizio (patrician) & patrizia (patrician).
By the way, the jungle where Superbia 'Tarzan' Squalo resides isn't in Africa, but in an imaginary isle somewhere in west Australia; hence, the animals here are given Aboriginal names instead. Despite the pseudo-Australian ambience, the setting is by no means accurate. And don't blame me for the absence of African faunas like elephants, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, etc.
The saltwater or estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the largest of all living reptiles. It is found in suitable habitats in Northern Australia, the eastern coast of India and parts of Southeast Asia. A crocodile shot in Queensland in 1957 was reported to be 8.5 metres (28 feet) long, but no verified measurements were made and no remains of this crocodile exist; still, large (6 metres +) specimens are common in this area. Saltwater crocodiles generally spend the tropical wet season in freshwater swamps and rivers, moving downstream to estuaries in the dry season, and sometimes traveling far out to sea.
The giant grouper / brindlebass / brown spotted cod / bumblebee grouper / Queensland groper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) is the largest bony fish found in coral reefs. It reaches up to 2.7 m (8.9 ft) in length and 400 kg (880 lb) in weight.
There are two species of cryptids mentioned in this story: Australian 'Phantom' Panther and Bush Ape, a.k.a. yowie (basically, the Australian version of Bigfoot). Let me emphasise that Australian bush apes are closer to yetis than to normal African apes.
A male kangaroo can have sex five times a day.
Gallivat / Galleywat = 18th-century small ship propelled by 40 - 80 oarsmen and 1 - 2 sails, typically used by the Angria pirates in the Indian Peninsula, particularly the Malabar Coast (but if 5 of One Piece crew can handle the caravel-type Going Merry that is supposed to be operated by at least 15 crew in RL, so can the Varia handle a gallivat, right?)
Crow's nest = a basin-shaped lookout point in the upper part of the mainmast of a ship
The humpback grouper / panther grouper / Australian barramundi cod (Chromileptes altivelis) is a species of carnivorous fish in the Serranidae family that can reach up to a size of 50 cm (20 in).
Davy Jones' locker = realm of the dead for pirates
This fanfic uses British English (some spelling and punctuation differences, such as single quotations for normal speech).
Consorting the Jungle King
A century ago, there lived a king with a heart of gold in faraway land across the sea. So old King Vongola IX had grown with no heir to his throne, and thus he bade his herald to announce throughout the land that whoever rightfully attained the largest amount of treasure for the glory of the kingdom would be appointed his successor. Thus, lords and peasants alike competed to set forth in their own journeys to find gold.
Most prominent of these contestants was Marchese Ira Xanxus Alfero, a nobleman whose name alone very few Vongolians could hear without quailing. Shortly after celebrating his twenty-fourth birthday, he gathered a hundred of his followers and set sail to an unknown land beyond the sea. The men climbed up the gangplank with great alacrity, soon-to-be seafarers loaded a cargo of food supplies, then heaved out, away in their wood-wreathed ship.
Alas, while they were at sea, an impetuous tempest tore Marchese Xanxus' ship asunder. Amidst the tumult of the sinking ship, the sailors were separated from one another. Most sank into the bottom of the ocean, while others perished later, after the cruel hand of fate had had its way with them. The closest island within sight was inhabited by fearsome beasts, the next island grew poisonous vegetation and the third one contained nothing but rocks. Therefore, the choices for these doomed men were to be devoured by wild beasts, mortally poisoned by plant consumption or death by starvation.
Fast asleep, Marchese Xanxus could not hear the cacophony of the falling masts. Nor had he been made aware of the peril that befell the ship, for every man aboveboard minded only his own safety. The aristocrat thus remained in the land of slumber until the sloshing of the rising water sprayed him and he was awoken by the sudden cold of his limbs. One moment he rose above water, and the next, he was swallowed up by the relentless billows. He found himself quite alone in the vastness of the ocean. His splendiferous ship had been reduced to pieces of driftwood.
The scarred man expended his precious breath to swear at the top of his lung—an action that, later, he deemed regrettable, for it left him athirst whereas the multitude of brine around him could do nothing to quench his dry throat. Looking at the absence of humanity in his surroundings, he surmised that his underlings must have nestled in the depths of the ocean or even inside the piscine bellies.
Xanxus, however, would not allow his life to end so unstylishly. Long through the inclement embrace of the dark grey water he swam, with the stars as his only guide. Alone he swam, alone he strove. Hour after hour, he battled against the furious lash of the salty waves, urging all the strength left within his limbs to carry him ashore while being tossed about amidst the ocean brine like some insignificant patch of foam. It was water, water, water everywhere, yet not a damn trickle to soothe his thirst.
Shortly ere daybreak, he reached the rock-fanged shore of an islet. Depleted of energy, he crawled onto the sandy beach and drifted off to sleep immediately; exhaustion seemingly chased consciousness out of every single cell within his body.
When Xanxus reopened his eyes, the sun was already high in its zenith, smiting him with its scorching glare, while the clouds paraded above him like odd-looking creatures. He found himself reposing on a tremendous field of jonquil sand that was dusted over with patches of alkali and intersected by occasional weeds. The undulating, arenaceous ground was dotted with a trifling number of beach casuarina trees. Like a colossal amphitheatre, the sea was begirded on the extreme verge of the horizon by a long chain of mountains of which rugged summits were veiled with thin mist.
With such ample sunlight, it also became apparent that the coral beds on the shoal were as red as blood. In fact, the water in this part of the shore was imbued with the same incarnadine colour. His first thought was that some sharks or other carnivorous large fishes had just finished their meal. Nevertheless, after observing that the waves which crashed against the rocks and spewing their spray in the air were white instead, Xanxus realised that the redness of the water was probably caused by the sanguine algae that grew at the bay.
He shared no fondness for such a creepy island—this unknown ocean's nurseling—and the sooner he got himself out of there, the better. But first, he needed to replenish himself for such a long journey.
Carefully, he took a few steps into the shoal, until his knees were immersed in the blood-red liquid. The sand was soft beneath him, but the occasional rock and small shellfish jabbed his feet. Never taking his gaze off the water, he searched for any passing fish betwixt the swaying algae and the unappetising limpets. The fishes discernable to his eyes, however, were too miniscule for consumption; each was smaller than his finger. It was not until a good ten minutes later that he noticed an approaching lobster with succulent, dark green carapace.
Xanxus surged forward to pick up the lobster by grabbing its back, just above where the tail connected to the body, so that the lobster would not be able to bend its claws back far enough to pinch him. Nonetheless, at that moment, the sea floor beneath the lobster roused. A large fish leapt to ambush the prey from below, capturing the crustacean with its strong jaws in a tenth of a second.
The fish had a prominent long snout in the appearance pertaining to a saw, a flattened body, a pair of pectoral and pelvic fins each, two dorsal fins and a shark-like tail that propelled it through the water with smooth undulations. Of brownish grey colour perfect for a camouflage, the sawfish had previously buried itself into the sand and mud at the bottom of the ocean floor, with only its spiracles poking out to draw water to the gills; it had remained heretofore unnoticed by Xanxus.
'Crusty dragon!' swore Xanxus. Why did this terror-provoking fish have to appear when hunger dominated his stomach, especially considering that most bottom-dwellers were known for their nocturnal habits?
He looked at the creature again. This one was not fully grown; it barely stretched a metre in length. The famished blighter had the chance to catch it and the singular chance he had would last ephemerally.
The shark-like ray had not finished gulping the corpulent lobster of which pincers were partly protruding from its predatory mouth. Without a second thought, Xanxus grabbed its slim tail. Allowing the ferocious creature no time to turn around to bite his hands, he hurled it shoreward.
The fish landed stentorianly on the sand, some nine yards away from where Xanxus stood, raising clouds of dust over the waterless grains. It was still thrashing around in futile attempt to return to the sea when its triumphant captor, having waded back to the sandy beach, set its flat body ablaze with his Flame of Wrath.
In the course of waiting for the fish to cool down slightly, Xanxus removed the encumbrance of the wet attire from his body. After laying his clothing articles on the sand to let the sea breeze blow upon them, he gazed at the clump of trees and shrubberies that bordered the beach. The forest stretching beyond would be his to explore after meal—such was what his mind urged him.
The fish was overcooked in the outside, though still partially raw inside. Hence, Xanxus decided that he ought to roast the meat with a stake over the fire rather than burning it straightaway with the brutal power of his Flame of Wrath the next time he prepared a meal. Regardless, hunger compelled him to consume the unpalatable dish presently.
He was halfway with the repast when the bushes rustled. Amongst the foliage, something moved so swiftly that Xanxus failed to recognise its form until it stopped near the fire. It was a man.
The man seemed to be a couple of years younger than him, with long, unkempt silver hair flowing to his hips. About his waist he wore a loincloth made of wolf pelt, which was his entire accoutrement, and a dagger of sharpened flint was tied onto his left forearm, extending to his knuckle. Squatting, he sniffed at the smoke and coughed. Then, he touched the flame for a couple of seconds ere removing his scorched hand and dipped it into the sand, howling in pain from his exposure to the fervency of the fire.
Xanxus eyed the mysterious wight before him. Why on earth would someone touch a flame? It was as though this stranger had never seen fire heretofore. But then, what kind of grown man would not know the nature of fire? Then again, the figure with the loincloth growled and glared at the firelight, as if it were a living thing to be intimidated by such deportment.
At length, since the fire did nothing to him, the silver-haired man turned to Xanxus, who was still chewing the sawfish.
The long-haired man emitted what sounded like 'ooh-ooh-ooh' in varying lengths and intonations. Veritably, this was a reproach for endangering the sawfish population. Not only did the species mate bi-annually with an average litter of around eight, but they were also sexually immature before the age of ten. Given the sawfish's low reproductive rate and slow growth, which thus made them especially slow to recover from overfishing, the islander thought it best not to consume the fish while other options were available.
In no likelihood could Xanxus comprehend the stranger's intention. 'FIND YOUR OWN VICTUALS, SCUM!' he bellowed, fending off the silver-haired man's hand from the meat.
The man in a fur loincloth drew back with a long growl. He no longer looked like a boisterous monkey, but a ferocious wolf now, especially with his new posture, standing on both feet and both hands. The look in his eyes grew savage and the aura around him exuded imminent danger.
Without further warning, he leapt at Xanxus, tackling him into the ground. The marchese retaliated, grappling with all his might. Like beasts of the jungle, the two men rolled violently, scattering sand, shells and pebbles as they whirled in circles. Struggling each other, they contested for dominion—muscles met with muscles, sweat with sweat, and skin with skin.
Gradually, Xanxus' annoyance faltered into excitement. No cuss in the Vongola Land had ever defeated him in a dogfight. Yet, this untamed beast stood on par with him in terms of power. Would what had remained unconquerable for years lose today?
The long-haired man's flint blade went for Xanxus' jugular. As it tore down hard and revelled in the gush of rich, coppery, viscous heat, the taller one brought his fist hard and fast. The wild man's blade released his neck as the knuckles sank into his opponent's abdomen, driving upward, and elevated him to ankle-high above the ground. It served too feebly for a finishing blow aimed at a fighter of this standard, but at least it hampered him briefly. The islander collapsed against the newcomer, failing to ignore the fierce flames of hell within his broken ribs, panting laboriously as he tried to work around this all-consuming agony.
The pain did a curious thing to the beast. It focussed him, utterly. Somehow, it put him in a clear space where everything made perfect sense. He made a better judgement on what he had to do next.
The adversary sprang forward, reaching down, trying to seize his opponent's legs. The two grappled with arms coiled around each other. One lifted the other in an attempt to throw him to the ground, but the long-haired primitive man landed on his feet with a feline grace.
For a moment, the two fighters circled each other warily. They did more grappling and twisting, but neither man could throw the other to the ground until the radiant orb of the effulgent sun declined to the western horizon. It was a growl that put an end to their fight, but this time, the growl was a hunger-induced borborygmic one instead.
Xanxus reached for the untouched portion of the sawfish. 'Here.' He tossed it to the wild man's lap.
For a few seconds, the beast eyed him with doubt and suspicion, but the next moment, the silver-haired man sniffed the chunk of meat and ravenously shovelled it into his mouth. Hastily he ate in precaution lest other creatures might come to snatch the meal from him.
Xanxus gathered his raiment. They were still damp, but being so exposed in the company of another man instilled him with discomfiture. He refrained himself from donning his boots, for the discomfort from their excessive wetness was beyond tolerance.
Before Xanxus finished draping himself, however, the primitive held the shirt. Xanxus, who assumed that the beast desired another round, prepared himself to fight once more. Instead, the islander leapt behind him and licked the wounds on his back. Xanxus stood rigidly. Even though he could guess as much that this was the way the beast thanked him for the meal, it did not change the fact that this beast was a man.
When senses found their way back to him, he pushed the silver-haired man aside. 'Cease that!'
The uncouth bloke pushed him back and repeated his words, 'Cease that!'
'Do not repeat my words, scum!' hollered Xanxus, wearing a glower.
Again, the man in loincloth imitated his words with louder volume.
Scowling, Xanxus balled his fists. It was evident that this beast knew nothing of the language of man. Finally he glanced sideways at the fish bones lying on the sand. He met this wild islander whilst eating a shark-like fish, why not call him one then?
'Squalo.' He pointed at the beast's chest. Then, he pointed at his own and said, 'Xanxus.'
The primitive understood his intention. This time, he pointed himself as 'Squalo' and called 'Xanxus' with his index finger pointing at his speaking adversary.
Thus, for the first time in his life, forced by need rather than goodwill, Xanxus learnt how to teach.
The next morning, the combined force of the bird chirps, spider bites and glaring sun roused Xanxus from his sleep. He studied his surroundings; no matter where he rested his gaze, his eyes saw nothing but trees. Had he remained in his comfortable mansion in the Vongola Kingdom, he would have only needed to ring the bell to command one of his servants to bring him breakfast. Here, in the midst of this uncivilised jungle, it became imperative for the aristocrat to hunt for his own meals.
The verdant grass was sparkling with matutinal dews and the fresh scent of the wet soil was truly pleasing to inhale. Even so, to Xanxus nothing could be more pleasing than the sight of a lardy wombat gnawing over the sedge some ten yards ahead. Saliva dribbled from Xanxus' mouth as he eyed his prey, its short, stubby tail and rotund rear were facing him. Although the hungry man approached the seemingly oblivious creature as furtively as he could, the rustle of the dead leaves on the forest floor gave out his presence and the sandy brown marsupial was quick to slip into its burrow in spite of its short legs.
On an empty stomach, Xanxus ventured deeper into the forest. He set his eyes on a cloud of flying-fox bats roosting in trees. They were hanging upside-down from the arboreal boughs with their wings wrapped around their body so that only their grey heads and the upper portion of their sienna torsos were visible. A deep sopor closed their eyes, giving Xanxus more confidence to capture at least one of them. Yet again, this turned out to be a false hope, for the chiropterans were far more sensitive to sound than the wombat was and flew higher than a mere man could reach.
Xanxus' next target was a termite-eating numbat, its prominent bushy tail moving slightly as it was digging the soil with its front feet. Xanxus was so surprised to discern the numbat's tongue stretching out to half the length of its body while extracting numerous termites from the mound that he decided to scrutinise the creature for a while. Beneath the mammal's reddish brown coat banded with white stripes and a paler underbelly were rather small and delicate limbs.
Mayhap it cannot run very swiftly, surmised Xanxus upon seeing the numbat's frail-looking substructure.
This time, the hunter did not conduct a clandestine operation. He sprung and dashed, hoping to overwhelm his prey with speed. And at last, his efforts were rewarded. The numbat made a frantic attempt to flee, but as a creature with the maximum velocity of thirteen kilometres per hour, it lasted only as far as the tortuous stretch of the nearest stream before Xanxus overtook it.
After his meal, Xanxus gathered some flexible Acacia twigs to fashion a net to aid him in catching small preys. His handiwork, which happened to be the first craft his hands ever produced in his lifetime, was crude. Still, its creator nursed a certain pride of its robustness—at least those knots appeared to be strong enough to withstand the gnashing teeth and claws of typical modest-sized creatures. After completing the final touch to this makeshift net, Xanxus repressed a sigh; no matter how bored he felt, no jester, dancer, musician, juggler or other entertainers were available on this secluded isle. He was yawning with his arms outstretched when the king of the jungle paid him an unexpected visit.
Squalo's tanned skin glimmered in the late afternoon sunlight. With one swift motion, he snatched Xanxus' newly made net and carried it with his teeth as he ran.
'RETURN IT!' bellowed Xanxus, spurring his feet on to chase Squalo. For a moment, he forgot that the islander had no comprehension for human language.
The wild man began to ascend a very tall tree.
Having no other way to convey his meaning, Xanxus reissued his command, 'RETURN IT TO ME, I SAY!'
The primitive climbed higher, and the enraged Xanxus was tacitly coerced to follow. Although the newcomer clutched the tree as strongly as his arms permitted, but hindered in his advance, for tree climbing had never been a pastime amongst Vongolian noblemen. Minute by torpid minute crawled with glutted sloth, and still he made infinitesimal progress. On the contrary, the other man climbed so effortlessly.
How many curses left the pursuer's mouth during his slow course, he himself did not know. But Xanxus was aware that Squalo paused each time the scarred man nearly lost his grip on a bough. There was even an instance when the long-haired man climbed down, almost reaching his chaser, when Xanxus nearly missed his footing and fallen backwards. It piqued his curiosity why the islander purposely waited for him.
Xanxus acquired the answer when they reached the treetop. Squalo gave him back the stolen net with a grin as he noticed the impressed look in Xanxus' visage. From this altitude, they had the panoptic view of the entire isle as though a colossal map had been spread out beneath them.
To their far left, the specks of multi-coloured shrubs of banksia, dryandra, grevillea, hakea, waratah and pea-flowered legumes had almost taken the place of grass, each species conflating its fragrance with the aroma of the others. Beyond, stretched a marsh that was bordered by hummock grassland resembling an emerald green wedge of land. To their right, thickets of allocasuarina trees were dotted hither and thither with the reddish columns and the sheltering umbrage of the sequoias. A river ran sinuously through the terrain and was lost beyond a narrow gorge. Every now and then, those streams wound along the green carpet of plants like thin ribbons. A ravine occupying a major portion of the island was full of bushes and presenting a deep tangled cleft on the high side spread itself out on the other into a shallow depression abutting on a small strip of sandy shore. On the far background, mountain ridges, which marked the extreme limits of the idyllic land, speared the sky, where the effulgent solar disc, larger by far than any gold nugget Xanxus had ever seen, crept towards the vermillion skirt of the western horizon.
Euphonous music filled their ears. Xanxus looked around to find its source and Squalo gestured towards a neighbouring tree, in which perched a congregation of golden whistlers. The avian symphony calmed Xanxus' mind; gone was the fatigue of the day's hunting, the ruefulness for his stranded state and the longing for his homeland. He had left the Vongola Kingdom in search for gold, and now a stranger presented him with another form of treasure.
The descent from the gigantic tree, as Xanxus had foreseen, was thrice as hard as the ascent. For one reason, there was his lack of experience; for another, the twilight sky offered scant illumination. The bark was treacherous to his bare feet and the arboreal faunas posed new threats to him, the most perilous of which came from a venomous black snake with yellow bands. Xanxus' flailing foot caught something coiling around a bough as he went down. He might have met his end right here had his companion not caught the tiger snake and flung it away.
Alas, the impulsivity of the act did not grant Squalo time to consider that the snake would then land on the next tree, from which bough dangled a beehive. Both men heard fricative buzzing and soon a tiny flying object skimmed across Xanxus' cheek. One quickly became two, and two multiplied into ten; within seconds, the air around them was filled with winged bodies and the spirant sound of their wrath. Stirred by the thudding vibration of the snake against the tree, the hymenopterous insects swarmed out of their home, pursuing the disturber of their peace with punitive intent.
Just as a millworker carried a sack of grains, Squalo placed Xanxus over his shoulder and climbed down the tree with astonishing rapidity. Even upon reaching the ground, he did not unload Xanxus, but escaped the apian fury whilst carrying the burden of a full-grown man.
Each man jolted at the first stinging pain, promptly followed by the second, then a third, then—they lost count. Their exposed skin mutely received the excruciating punctures; even the haughty Xanxus did not voice his disapproval of being humiliatingly rescued in this fashion, in precaution for an apian invasion down to his throat if he opened his mouth. Moreover, try as he might, he would not be able to run with Squalo's speed under this dusky welkin without bumping into the trees—the jungle king, it seemed, was relying on his sense of smell and hearing more so than sight.
With the lapse of the minutes, some of the wounds on Xanxus and Squalo's bodies went numb and started to swell; the savage diminutive bastards would not relent until their ire was abated and the menace annihilated. The two men's minds were in unison: they had to find refuge. Quickly.
Squalo smashed his way through sclerophyllous bushes, treading down the plants while brushing away the leaves that thwarted his way at the same time. Upon seeing the swarming battalion of bees, two wallabies, nestled in shrubland, took flight. Since Squalo slung Xanxus facing backwards, it was he who had to witness how the air behind them was darkened with the whirring colony. So overpowering was the horror that he did not realise Squalo had plunged themselves into a swamp until he heard the bog squelching under the primitive man's intruding feet.
The jungle king squatted to allow Xanxus to disembark and the two men wasted no time in diving beneath the surface. The brackish water splashed around and closed over them. There, in the mud-swirling darkness, they swam through the sludge; they needed to approach the cluster of cattails so that they might still conceal themselves amongst the reeds upon surfacing when their breath ran out.
Xanxus felt his arm brushing a small lump as he moved forward, but the murky water, fortified with the crepuscular sky, hindered him from seeing what it was. A new dread seized him. From what his elbow told him, the object was hard in an armour-like fashion. There was no definite improbability in case it turned out to be a portion of crocodile's skin. The Vongolian man could not wait until he reached the cattail reeds. Emerging above water as far as his neck, he saw to his alleviation that a short-necked tortoise was swimming under the malignant beam of the sickle moon.
At the end of the day, after staying in the marsh for a nigh hour until the water wrinkled their skins, the men came out unharmed, as the bees yielded on their pursuit.
Only after Squalo had left for his own den did Xanxus agnise the full extent of the mortification that had befallen him that evening: another man had saved his life.
No one had ever saved the young Marchese Alfero. The aristocrat had hundreds of guards in his disposal; yet, all of them were hired to protect his estate. Even when he brought some of his guards while journeying, they were there to defend his horses and carriage from robbers or to run his errands for him.
One of the strongest men in the Vongola Kingdom and even known as 'the harbinger of death', Xanxus Ira Alfero was a man who was perfectly capable of defending himself. The battle scars etching his body attested his feats.
And yet, this uncouth primitive from a jungle in an unknown land, this stranger, this … man … had accomplished no other man before him had ever managed. And without seemingly any ulterior motive at that.
The following day, the first thing Xanxus saw the moment he awoke took him by surprise: a pair of protruding rounded eyes and a poking elongated azure tongue from a reptile, which Squalo was holding right in front of the sleeper's face. To this credit, the Vongolian aristocrat managed to limit his surprised expression to hitched breathing without emitting an unmanly screech, albeit his eyes opened a little too wide for dignity.
This blue-tongued skink seems to be caught during the scum's progress hither, deduced Xanxus as the islander shoved the dead lizard, slit on the throat and was still dripping fresh blood, into Xanxus' mouth for his jentacular meal.
After spitting out the reptile, Xanxus berated Squalo in a rigmarole that a proper repast ought to be cooked first—a waste of breath, since the brute from the jungle had yet to grasp the language of men.
Such were the days, sinking one by one into the past. Life was harsh to Xanxus, who missed the convenience of civilisation, most especially the sparkling champagne that used to fill his crystal glass. Even so, necessity taught him to appreciate nature. Had he never relinquished the Vongola Kingdom, he would never have been aware of the beauty of the splashing water when a kingfisher clawed a struggling fish from the river. Or how the splotches on a goanna's body moved as their owner climbed down from a rock to prey upon a centipede. Or how a Ringed Brown Snake reared its fore-body into an S-shape form when threatened. Or how Squalo's silver hair glistened in the rain.
When the sun had climbed loftily in the vault of heaven, the stranded man spent his time with the islander. As Squalo showed Xanxus how to gather food in the jungle, the more civilised of them taught the primitive how to speak.
Taking delight in Xanxus' teaching, Squalo treated every new word with the same innocent wonder as when a child received a new toy. His fondness for oral communication far exceeded his teacher's expectation—and the gadfly continued to pester the explorer with questions all day long. The twigs and the ground became their quill and paper. Under other circumstances than those which invested him, it would not even be possible that Xanxus could retain such enormity of patience to teach. It was Squalo's rambunctiousness, in the face of anything, which fended forlornness off Xanxus; only when the king of the jungle had retired into the abyss of the night did loneliness remind Xanxus of his frustration.
Being a very accomplished learner, the next day after the stranded man first taught him, the islander came with a large grin. He was beaming with pride when he told his tutor that he alone, amongst his tribe, could speak.
The scarred man snorted.
Although the primitive's grammar and vocabulary were still deficient to convey his feelings, his gesture—beating his chest with head held upright—made up for what he lacked. It was apparent that he was swelling with joy of his superiority over the primates.
'They good. Squalo more good,' declared the primitive.
'Wrong!' corrected Xanxus, 'You should say: "I am better than them."' Apparently, he was quite oblivious that the grammatically correct version would be: 'I am better than they are.'
Since Xanxus did not give up teaching the islander despite the primitive's potty mouth and loquacious habit, Squalo had been able to speak almost like those who were raised among other humans rather than wordless creatures five months later. Every day, he rapidly descanted upon matters of little importance—his neighbouring bush ape falling from a tree, mosquito bites, the change of weather and so on. Sometimes, he struggled for words, but those were limited to new vocabulary.
One morning, the earth-shattering sound of 'VO-OOO-OI!' from a distance roused Xanxus from his sleep. This was Squalo's cry of victory; he always made that sound whenever he conquered a formidable enemy—poisonous serpents, wolves, and the like. Xanxus himself had killed a panther, whose pelt became the loincloth he currently wore. Having no spare vesture, he only wore the one he had to protect his shivering skin against the wind which frequently blew at its full strength at night.
'Need that scum be so vociferous?' groaned Xanxus. He approached a stream nearby to wash his face. As he scooped the water in both hands, he noticed how pale the inner part of his forearms compared the outer part. It was a brumous morn, but the tropical sun had tanned his skin to a significant degree and made his scars less visible. He then contemplated his reflection on the calmer part of the stream, wondering what colour his complexion would show, had he still stayed in the Kingdom of Vongola.
'Cease moping.' A hoarse, raucous voice emerged from behind, along with the swing of a vascular plant. The figure of a young man of great thews and stature that was Squalo landed next to him. 'I used to be immersed in grief, too. But you are just as unsightly as I am, so you are not alone.'
The fog was rapidly dispersing and in its exiguity, the perilous narrowing of Xanxus' eyes could not be more conspicuous. Nobody called Ira Xanxus Alfero unsightly. Ever.
He crushed a pebble nearby, and then, standing to his full height so that he towered above the primitive man, he growled, 'What?!'
'You are just as unsightly as I am,' reiterated Squalo in an insouciant manner, 'It is perfectly understandable why you are depressed. It must be frustrating to see how handsome your friends and relatives are with their thick hair all over their body while you are so hairless like a reptile yourself. Maybe you even feel not worth living having such small nose and mouth compared to theirs. I used to feel that way, too. But this form gives me advantages as well—there are things that I can do but the other yowies in my tribe cannot.'
Xanxus looked at Squalo with disbelief. Finally, deciding that it was too bothersome to delineate the difference in standards between bush apes and humans, he asked instead, 'Do you still live with your tribe?'
'Yes. Papa would be displeased should I fail to return to our den at night.'
'Papa?' Xanxus cocked his eyebrow.
'Yes. He is the biggest yowie I have ever seen and he leads the tribe. His name is Apari.'
'And who is your mother?'
'Kanyini, Apari's mate, a big and beautiful yowie.'
'Will you take me to them?'
There was a slight pause, in which Squalo seemed to be weighing his options, before he eventually stated, 'No. The tribe hates strangers and papa gets angry easily.' Then, not being desirous to disappoint his human friend, he quickly added, 'But I can show you another great place. Follow me.'
Squalo led Xanxus to the other side of the isle, wherein many a gigantic tree covered with thick foliage ran rampant. Squalo climbed one of these trees and parted its cumbrous vines. Behind them, a log cabin, profusely overhung with vascular plants, perched on the tree's massive boughs. After fiddling with the door locks, he swung the door open. 'Come inside!'
Staple objects rested in that tree-house: a bed for two, a cradle, a desk, shelves of books and bric-a-bracs, chests of a man and a woman's daily necessities and a broken rifle lying on the floor. All the furniture was made of wood with crude cuts by a man of urgent need, rather than of skilled carpentry.
The bones of a human's hand lay upon the wooden floor next to the chair, its bony fingers grasping a truncated axe handle, of which the blade was likely to have been broken during a struggle and was now embedded in the floor. Furthermore, there were stains of dried blood on the floor and bed sheet. The bones of the thorax were located by one foot of the bed. The rest of the skeleton, still bedraped in shreds of apparel, lay in disarray all over the house in pieces that were too small to be identified without forensic expertise. Judging from their number, however, these bones belonged to more than one person.
Another skeleton was located under the cradle. It was not vested in any garment, but still complete. Based on its bone structure, Xanxus hypothesised that this smallest skeleton did not appertain to a human child, but to a primate youngling.
The human couple had placed a primate under their cradle, while Apari and Kanyini raised Squalo as their child—was this coincidental? With the unanswered question haunting his mind, Xanxus rummaged the books on the shelves. The subjects covered by these documents ranged from weaponry to children literature, but was dominated by botany. All of them were printed in Vongolian, except for one. This one book had a leather cover and inside, it was handwritten instead of printed; it was a journal written in the language of a far eastern country called 'Japan'.
Xanxus began to read. The first few entries had weeks or sometimes even months of interval from one to another. As he progressed, the intervals narrowed, and towards the end, the journal was written in almost daily basis.
17 May 1890,
On this very day, King Vongola IX appointed me to find new species of plants for the global garden contest in a new land. With some luck, I shall be Conte Umberto Silvestri no more, but Marchese Umberto Silvestri upon my homecoming. As for Simonetta, I am sure she will be overjoyed. 'Marchesa' Simonetta Silvestri sounds decidedly pleasant to the ear.
18 May 1890,
Today, the ocean was gleaming like turquoise as we hoisted sail. With dearest Simonetta and fifty men in the crew, I depart. Farewell Vongola, the land of my fathers. See you next month, God willing.
22 May 1890,
The sea had an implacable temper today. Every impediment which Nature could place in the way—had all been overcome with Vongolian tenacity. Yet, the long journey and the accumulated terrors had shaken the hearts of even the stoutest among us. The seamen and I had never dreamt of peril, for indeed we saw not the slightest reason to apprehend it. Nevertheless, the ship shook so violently that many of us vomited. There was not one who did not sink upon his knees in heartfelt prayer, yet our voices were drowned by the crashing waves.
24 May 1890,
Because of the tempest that arose last night, the captain steered the ship on a different course from my supposed destination. He did his best—I knew that. But then, in the unknown route, we faced a tremendous whirlpool. Our escape was narrow, and still, we were not safe from danger. All hands on deck, every man rowed with all their might to get as far and as fast as possible from the eddying water ere it swallowed our ship.
As the ocean swell rolled the ship back and forth, we paid very little attention that the ship hit a sharp rock of considerable size. Hereupon the crack became a grave leakage and the sea water that had immersed the bilge kept rising. We lowered all the available lifeboats, but after that, the turbulent billows of the sea singled out our puny boats and never again have I set my eyes upon the rest of the crew ever since.
The following day, the sea still heaved in mountainous billows from the aftermath of the tempest. Nonetheless, at the due hour, Simonetta and I sighted a landfall—sunlit cliffs, wild stone spires, sheer crags and looming headlands. We moored our boat in this very islet and stood upon the soil yet to be known. It was a blessing that she managed to gather my rifle, an axe, some attire, one-day supply of dried victuals and some books and loaded them in the boat.
I laughed at the irony of fate that I, a nobleman, had to build my lodging with my own hands. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Thee, Lord, as Thou still allow dearest Simonetta, myself and our babe in her womb to live.
31 May 1890,
I have finished making our small castle—a wooden lodge for the both of us. No more sheltering under the leaves and, hopefully, fewer mosquitos. For the nonce, I shall start fashioning the bed frame.
5 June 1890,
Our necessary furniture is completed at last. Artless as they are due to my inexperience with carpentry, such wretched carvings are still better than none. This I vow: If I ever return homewards, I shall pay the Vongola carpenters with handsomer sum of earnings.
9 June 1890,
Dearest Simonetta has been vomiting every morning for three days in a row now. When I mentioned this to her, she beamed with joy and told me that I would have become a father by next March.
Before Xanxus could continue reading, Squalo interrupted him, 'So, what does it say?'
'I shall tell you later. Now let me finish reading, scum.'
On and on Xanxus read. When he reached the particular entry he needed, he read it twice.
13 March 1891,
Lord, I thank you that I was not born a woman. It pains my heart to watch dearest Simonetta writhing in agony; I venture I could not endure the torture of childbirth myself. Nevertheless, I am also very, very relieved that both she and our son are safe and sound. We name him 'Superbia'. He is a healthy baby boy that looks rather like his mother, especially in the ears, nose, forehead and his silver hair, albeit his eyes, mouth and chin resemble my own. He has his grandfather's cheeks, but hopefully, not his arrogance.
Xanxus put down the book and began turning the objects within the small cabin upside down, ransacking every corner.
'What are you doing?' enquired Squalo.
'I am seeking a photograph. A picture with humans. People like you and I.'
'Can this … photo-gruff … assuage your need?' Squalo asked just a few seconds later, pointing at an opened locket amidst the disarrayed bones on the bed.
Xanxus crept closer and examined the locket. One of its sides bore the portrait of a lordly man with thin moustache whereas the other side, that of an elegant woman with silver tresses. Xanxus took a good look at Squalo. It was true that some of the facial features of the couple in the locket were similar to Squalo's at certain degree.
'Compared to Apari and Kanyini, do you not reckon these humans look more similar to you?'
'What of it?' replied Squalo. Considering the absence of surprise in both his face and voice, such a notion was unlikely to be entirely unfamiliar to his ears. His tone, howbeit, was not at all friendly. In fact, his physiognomy bore such grim expression that could only be interpreted as 'offended'.
Yet, Xanxus continued, 'Can your addlepated brain not guess that these humans, rather than those bush apes, are your true parents?'
'NO!' This time, Squalo positively snapped, stomping his foot as he bawled, 'The little ones jeered at me because of this trait, but I have trained myself for years of tree climbing and beast fighting to prove that I am a worthy son of the tribe leader. Small though I am compared to the fully grown yowies in the tribe, not one of them is stronger than I am. How dare you not to acknowledge my prowess!'
Squalo jumped from the window onto a tree, swinging from bough to bough with the rapidity that had begun to embed its familiarity in Xanxus' eyes.
Although irritated by the primitive man's tomfoolery, Xanxus returned to his reading. The journal switched to describe the weariness of a father who was roused awake by the sound of his baby's cry. At other occasions, there was also description of wild beasts, which, upon hearing the new-born babe's cries, trying to devour him. The description of how Umberto strengthened the locks on the door followed. On one of the later pages, Xanxus found the fingerprints of the infant.
The police had developed a new method of identification in recent years. Through the application of the same principle, Xanxus was certain that if he could get the adult Squalo's fingerprints compared with the infant's, his identity would be revealed, yet the probability for such a feat would be naught unless they managed to return to civilisation.
The last couple of pages with Conte Umberto Silvestri's handwriting had bleak content and the last page even was bedecked with spatters of blood.
15 February 1893,
Lord, what am I to do? Dearest Simonetta's fever refuses to abate; she even suffers additional headache behind her eyes, as well as muscle and joint pains, and even a rash. I reckon reading materials in regards to similar symptoms before, and if my memory doesn't deceive me, the name of the disease is 'dengue fever'. With the multitudinous of mosquitoes here, the possibility that Simonetta has been infected by dengue fever is quite high. But more importantly, I do not know how to cure her ailment. Please, Lord, do not take her yet.
16 February 1893,
Dearest Simonetta breathes no more. Why, o Lord, dost Thou cruelly take a mother from her little son and a wife from a man who truly loves her to the depth of his soul? How
The last sentence remained unfinished, for what followed was blood instead of ink. Since no weapon was found on Umberto's skeleton, Xanxus guessed that, in his distress, the conte was unprepared for some wild beast's ambush.
What of the baby, though? Did the ferocious beast kill Umberto, but another beast arrived and had they engaged in a fight for food ere the first predator had a chance to devour the youngest Silvestri? Even so, this did not impart how the primate's skeleton was in Superbia's cradle, unless…
In his mind, Xanxus pictured the dolorous Umberto neglecting to lock the door, enabling a wolf or a panther to enter the unprotected cabin. The conte attempted a resistance by means of an axe, but his grief-consumed state stood no chance against such a beast so desirous of fresh meat. The predator then ate the conte and contessa, scattering their bones haphazardly throughout the cabin. When it was about to consume baby Superbia, Apari and his own son appeared on the scene.
Apari managed to triumph over the carnivore in the end, but not without paying for the victory: his opponent's claws mortally wounded his son. The leader of the bush apes was lamenting over the death of his son when he heard the cry of a human baby from inside the cradle. He hesitated, but, thinking of how desolated Kanyini would be upon facing the demise of their only child, he placed the lifeless form of his youngling under the cradle and took the human babe home.
One thing Xanxus could be certain of: Superbia was still safe and sound until Umberto's death; otherwise, the conte would have written what had befallen his son. The reader inhaled deeply as he closed the book. 13 March 1891. That was twenty-two years ago. Squalo seems to be of that age.
Xanxus descended from the tree, pushed his way amidst the thicket of the sylvan foliage and commenced hunting for his noontide meal.
After his hunger was satiated, Xanxus headed for the deepest river in the jungle. It was Squalo's habit to take a daily dip there when the torrid noonday sun was at its peak. The freshwater fishes and platypuses did not mind his presence so much; they were accustomed to his hunting preference, which was inclined to challenging creatures, like snakes or crocodiles. That day, Squalo did not pay his regular visit tither.
Xanxus did not see Squalo again until the next day, when he was considering fishing for his afternoon repast. Today, the water was suffused with carmine, not only from the coral and algae, but also from blood colourisation. He saw, not very far from the shore, Squalo wrestling against one of the island's greatest predators.
The estuarine crocodile attempted to execute its death roll, its tail flexing to a significant angle relative to its body. The seven metre creature grabbed onto its prey and rolled powerfully, throwing the struggling Squalo off balance and dragging him deeper into the water to drown. Even though Xanxus was convinced that Squalo was an excellent swimmer, he was still a human who was not equipped with gills and hence six minutes was the maximum period he could hold his breath underwater. Furthermore, from this distance, Xanxus could not tell whether it was Squalo or the crocodile that was bleeding; perhaps they both were.
At once, the scarred explorer rushed into the sea, plunged himself into the red water and swam to the jungle man's aid. As the distance between them closed, Xanxus perceived that Squalo's sharpened stone had wounded several places of the monster's lengthy body. Nevertheless, Squalo's back, limbs and left shoulder were themselves not without cuts. How acute the pain from those wounds had to be, immersed in sea water!
Xanxus resurfaced to take a deep breath ere diving again. Breaking the surface of the water, the raven-haired man leapt onto the beast, struck, bit, tore. There were no words, and no movements but the laniating of teeth and claws. Squalo did not waste the chance to emerge to the water surface, giving his lungs the temporary respite they craved. He returned soon afterwards.
After another journey above water to relieve his need for air, Xanxus stationed himself right in front of the sea monster's open maw with Dying Will X Guns in both hands. These did not work surrounded by water as well as on land, but the guns did not fail to produce the Scoppio de ira. The unleashed barrage of dense flame appeared to fuse together into one large super-powerful blast that scorched the beast's throat.
While the estuarine creature's attention was focused on Xanxus, Squalo seized the opportunity to slice his target diagonally, from side to side, tearing away the water in front of him. More blood gushed from the enormous beast; its thick and hard skin provided it no protection against such powerful enemy. At the completion of Scontro di squalo, the sea was redder than ever. Perished had the saltwater monster by the combination of Xanxus' Burst of Wrath and Squalo's Charge of the Shark.
Both hunters rushed to the shore, swimming side-by-side with their trophy nestling between them. Most of the little fishes and crustaceans had fled from the battlefield due to the flame-heated water temperature. Some ten metres behind them, however, three brindlebasses, which had smelt the blood from the deeper parts of the sea, whipped past the cyclopean reef behind them and were unrelenting in their pursuit. It was a matter of sheer luck that the humans reached the sandy beach a few seconds ere the tip of the sea predators' jaw touched them. One brindlebass managed to nibble a portion of the dead crocodile's tail nonetheless.
Exhausted from his wrestle with the crocodile, Squalo sprawled on the sand, catching his breath. Xanxus, on the other hand, tore two large leaves from a nearby tree, which he then employed as containers for the disassembled parts of his guns—he had to make sure that each tiny piece dried completely and could still function properly in the future.
The high meridian of the day had passed as they sat in silence around Xanxus' built-up fire. The crocodile meat made an excellent lunch for them. Still, they were unable to finish the entirety of the beast, so Squalo decided to bring the carcass as a feast to his bush ape tribe later.
For the nonce, the jungle man was content sitting on the sand, burping and stroking his full stomach. It was not until several minutes had passed by until he noticed his companion's sullen expression.
'Homesick?' Squalo scuttled and seated himself on the sand next to Xanxus.
'Why would I miss that corrupt Vongola Kingdom?' Sometimes it hurt to lie, but at other times, it hurt even more to acknowledge the truth. Even so, Xanxus did not bother to hide the snappish tone of his timbre.
Squalo sprang to his feet and disappeared suddenly behind the thickness of the tall araucaria trees.
Was this the extent of Squalo's concern for him? Wouldn't he care at all for a comrade's troubled mind? Xanxus picked a nearby cockle shell and broke it into two. Then he picked another and broke it again. Then another. And another.
How might Squalo dare leave when he needed him most? Curses!
Need Squalo? That vexing anserine boisterous ignoramus brute devil-may-care insufferable loud-mouthed buffoonish ape?
Xanxus threw the broken shells into the sea, not knowing for whom the bigger portion of his repulsion went—Squalo or his own weakness for thinking of needing Squalo. Just because this jungle man had wrestled with him, saved his life, showed him wonders his eyes had formerly refused to see, taught him how to hunt and climb trees, shared meals with him and made his stay on this isle less unbearable did not mean the Marchese Ira Xanxus Alfero had any need for such a primitive man. Absolutely not.
The abhorrence of this very notion caused Xanxus to grit his teeth.
Neither the breeze whistled low in the noontide among the tossing casuarina trees nor the sound of the waves hitting the corals could not calm his furious mind. Nonetheless, the sound of another man's footsteps on the sand could.
Squalo reappeared from the shadows of the shrubberies, carrying a heap of pear-shaped red berries. Singly, they were smaller than a finger phalanx and, covered a single seed. Neither men knew that these fruits would be called 'riberry' and their fame would spread far and wide in years to come.
'Voi, try this. It tastes tart and tangy with a hint of cloves.' Squalo handed one of the fruits to Xanxus.
For the briefest of seconds, their fingers touched and Xanxus noticed Squalo swallow. The younger man could just be gulping down the fruit he had just masticated rather than having any deeper meaning—the older one was fully aware of that—all the same, he refused to let go of the long fingers that were sticky with the fruit juice. He seized them, squeezed them and knitted his own with them. The riberry fruit dropped, forgotten, as its soft flesh hit the ground.
The heady combination of the sweet scent of Squalo's mouth, the fruity fragrance of the riberry and the lingering aroma of the sea became a perfume too potent to resist. Xanxus had never tasted a man's kiss, but with Squalo, its prospect was luscious, and so he decided to take a chance. Squalo opened his mouth, ready to question Xanxus' action, but the explorer loomed over the shorter man and pressed their lips together.
For five seconds of absolute stillness, Squalo let him be. Afterwards, the silver-haired man pushed him away, with a flustered look and a series of bombarding questions. 'Voi, what did you do? How did you hide the firmament and the crashing waves a moment ago?'
Xanxus blinked. Nigh he opened his mouth to ask what Squalo was talking about, but then realisation dawned on him. He could not help grinning—if this untamed beast enjoyed his kiss so much as not to be able to perceive the world around him…
'Scum!' Xanxus snarled to conceal the soaring happiness inside him, 'If your petty brain cannot even comprehend what it was, I shall show you again.'
With that, their lips crushed together once more. Instead of just freezing on the spot this time, Squalo opened his mouth wider. He imitated whatever Xanxus did, causing both men to struggle for the domination of the kiss.
When Xanxus' tongue darted into Squalo's mouth, however, the inexperienced youth shuddered. Although the older man was aware of the sudden sharp intake of breath that the untamed beast took, he calmly resumed his kiss—their kiss—until the silver head's eyelids covered their dilated pupils in an unspoken surrender.
'So, what is it—this thing that we have just performed?' Squalo panted at the parting of their lips.
'It is known as a "kiss",' answered Xanxus as he rimmed the shell of Squalo's ear with his tongue. 'This is how humans greet each other in my place of origin,' he quickly added ere the curious primitive had the chance to enquire on what a kiss truly entailed.
Even as he commented, Squalo was licking his lips, savouring the taste of the kiss. 'Hmm, an odd way of greeting.'
'It is perfectly normal,' insisted Xanxus, 'Henceforth, I expect a proper greeting whenever we meet.'
Instead of replying, Squalo became immersed in his own thoughts. At times such as these, Xanxus felt how sluggish the roll of the waves on the shore could be. At last, he could not bear it any longer. He had to ask Squalo whether the younger man would mind kissing him again—and to convince him to, should he really not.
'You answer, scum?' demanded Xanxus.
The expression on Squalo's visage was too subtle to read, but when the man of the wilderness spoke, no word had ever held such sway against the aristocrat to oblige. 'I still have trouble comprehending. Show me more!'
Their third kiss was far more heated than the preceding two. It leapt to new heights, an unknown plateau that neither man had been cognisant. Scarcely aware of his own deed, Xanxus' hand moved to embrace Squalo on the back, and then down, down they went. If he could just squeeze those bountiful twin mounds of Squalo's rear…
'What are you doing?'
Xanxus' eyes widened; why indeed were his hands stroking another man's upper thigh!
Now Xanxus—a slave to wine—understood why he could endure to live months without it. Now he held the answer as to what made the dense jungle seem inviting. Now, and only now, did he realise that Squalo of the wild had inflicted him with an incurable disease called 'love'.
The dark-haired man quickly invented an emergency explanation. 'It is another common gesticulation exchanged among relatives, friends and allies.'
'Oh, your herd undoubtedly has most peculiar habits,' mumbled Squalo, but then he caressed Xanxus' upper thigh in return.
Thus, from that moment on, there had never been a day when Xanxus and Squalo met without groping each other.
Two lunar cycles had come and gone since Xanxus and Squalo had first crossed paths, but however more adept in speaking Squalo became, Xanxus was still not proficient enough in climbing up or down the trees with even half of Squalo's velocity.
That afternoon, following one of those routine tree-climbing practices, Xanxus felt multiple pricks on the ball of his left foot as he landed. He lifted his limb to inspect the cause and perceived a minuscule yellowish-brown lizard with prominent spines and tail pointing upwards moving jerkily at a slow pace.
It did not actually hurt that much, but Xanxus could not repress a scowl when Squalo jeered at him, 'You stepped on a moloch? What luck!'
'Fret not; that thorny devil is only a harmless reptile,' assured Squalo, while still convulsed with gleeful laughter.
Damnation! That expression again!
The longer Xanxus spent his time in Squalo's company, the weirder the habits he developed. One of these habits was that his heart raced faster immediately following the smile evinced by the jungle king. Another involved an exorbitant amount of pining for this winsome man's presence almost every time they were not together. And yet another required a variety of creativity to invent excuses to touch the islander whenever the opportunity arose.
The present dilemma forced Xanxus to clench his jaw. In his eagerness to change the subject, he testily asked, 'In any case, how did you climb a tree with such a speed, scum?'
'Well, it requires years of practice. At first, I was much clumsier than the other little yowies in the tribe, but now I am the fastest and strongest in the tribe. The key is to become part of the nature.'
'How?' demanded Xanxus, 'Truthfully, I have donned this panther skin.'
Sartorial matter was, of course, not what Squalo meant by becoming part of the nature. Withal, he did not know how to put his answer to words.
Xanxus inspected his own body. 'Do I need more accessories?'
Looking at the scattered bird feathers from the ground, Squalo enjoined Xanxus to wait. Shortly afterwards, he had collected some of the feathers, remarking jokingly while he attached them to Xanxus' hair. 'There. Now you have become part of the nature.'
Xanxus took a few steps forward, drawing himself closer to the edge of a nearby water puddle. 'This is ludicrous!' he spat at his own reflection on the water surface.
'Ho? I think they suit you. Fine, I shall remove them.' The man of the wilderness approached the aristocrat with extended arms, ready to pluck the feathers from the strands of dark hair.
The taller man shifted, emitting a low grunt, 'Leave them be.'
'Really, there is no need to force yourself to wear those feathers if you dislike them that much,' insisted his adversary, following the direction of his body.
Yet, Xanxus halted Squalo, gripping the latter by his forearms. As expected, the silver head struggled to break free, and, as always, the older man would not let him without putting up a fight, which resulted in their bodies being aligned so closely together, while their faces was only a palm apart.
Xanxus' instinct commanded him to close the gap between them. He growled possessively and kissed Squalo hard, sucking the primitive man's breath away, his tongue forcefully plundering his partner's mouth. The scarred man felt the jungle king's torrid breath of anger, followed by the younger man's ferocious tongue slithering down his mouth. The older man knew that he should cease—further action would only fling him deeper into the pit of emotions with walls so steep that he could not climb them. Still, he was unable to refrain from taking every second that he could steal.
When the kiss ended, Squalo leaned back in confusion and affronted his adversary, 'Voi, I greeted you properly earlier, this morning!'
'So what? I greet whomever I want as many times as I like.'
'You are weird. Your civilisation is weird. And now you have implanted a weird feeling inside me.'
Xanxus raised his brow. 'What sort of weird feeling?'
'The one that makes me think I am falling from a cliff into a ravine with lots of sharp rocks with nothing to hold onto. And when those rocks almost split my skull, you came swinging on a liana and grabbed my hand to return me to safety.'
This was adequate to render Xanxus speechless, except that Squalo would not stop there.
'For goodness' sake, stop staring at me! It is your eyes that make me feel I fall from such a drastic height anyhow!' Then, the long-haired man looked away. 'And … and when your lips touch mine, I feel safe … well, sort of.'
The scarred man's flame-coloured eyes narrowed. He could tell that the islander had never encountered another human before and, thus, had never been acquainted with, let alone nourished, the notion of romance. And yet, the symptoms Squalo described could lead to none other than a singular conclusion: the jungle king had fallen in love with an entity known as Ira Xanxus Alfero.
With a minimum effort, Xanxus tilted Squalo's chin so that he found the other man's visage again, delighting in the tints that encrimsoned those beauteous cheeks. It was only after he had finished kissing him once more did words leave his mouth, 'At last, you unwittingly admit that you love me.'
'Love? You?' Squalo's eyes widened. 'Ugh! Your brain is far worse than your taste in fashion.'
Pushing Xanxus' shoulder, Squalo walked past the older man. The mélange of horror and disgust still had not forsaken his eyes.
Without further warning, Xanxus aimed a punch at Squalo's upper back. The wild beast's ears, howbeit, had been trained to anticipate hostile movements from a prospective enemy. He turned and grabbed the petulant man's fist, rolling him in the air, and flung him onto the ground.
The silver head placed his foot on the raven's chest next with a full intent to trample him, but Xanxus caught it. A mighty yank was all he needed to bring Squalo to the ground, lying next to him. Then, grabbing the shorter man by both wrists, he pinned him down.
'YOU LOVE ME!' vociferated Xanxus.
But Squalo hollered even more loudly, 'THERE IS NO SLIGHTEST POSSIBILITY I CAN LOVE A MAN LIKE YOU!'
'Then you know what "love" is?'
'Naturally. How many years do you reckon I have lived?! Love is what drives the animals to stay together even after they finish mating. It involves lots of troublesome things, including raising the younglings; in fact, not many of the animals choose to do so. It is far more practical to just leave after the need is satisfied. Female spiders and praying mantises even consume their males after consummation… Love happens between males and females—not between those with the same sex!'
Xanxus opened his mouth again and for a split second, Squalo assumed the taller man was going to retaliate, but instead, the marchese rose to his feet and stalked away.
Squalo did not see Xanxus the next day, or the day after that. He did not have any urgent need to meet the explorer, so he let it be. Nevertheless, after three consecutive days without seeing so much as a glimpse of the grouchy man, even the freewheeling jungle king began to suspect that this was no coincidence.
The isle was not expansive enough to make two men miss each other at every meal, to begin with. Furthermore, with such fighting prowess, it was unthinkable that Xanxus had been felled by a tiger. It was, therefore, far more likely that he purposely avoided Squalo, especially considering that strange-looking expression when he left: the sort of expression that one made when contorted with pain.
Hence, Squalo searched and searched and kept searching until he found his prey's whereabouts. There was not much to do in an uncivilised isle; when the islander found the explorer, he was creating an image on the ground by means of a twig beneath the verdurous shelter of a tree. No wonder Xanxus chose this place! It was the leafiest part of the forest—a rough, dark-skirted wilderness wherein the many tall beefwood trees around him filtered the ground from excessive penetration of sunlight.
Unsophisticated though the drawing was, Squalo recognised the long hair, slightly slanting eyes, high cheekbones, prominent nose, thin lips and pointy chin; they all bore resemblances to his own.
As much as Xanxus noticed Squalo's presence, he showed to symptom of willingness to brush aside his lingering reticence. When the islander stepped closer, the scarred man even walked away.
'Voi, what is this?! How come you draw my face on the ground, but storm off as soon as I come without letting me greet you first?'
'You have no need to greet me anymore. Not now. Not ever.' Xanxus stayed true to his course despite the pursuing recalcitrant beast at his heels.
The taller man spurred his feet even faster, no word slipping from his lips.
Squalo grabbed one of the vines dangling from a nearby tree. With just a single swing, he hung upside down like a bat right in front of Xanxus. He had tied his ankle down in a knot with the vine to secure his grip. His long hair spilled from his upturned head, cascading in mid-air like the pendulous branches of a banyan tree. His face was level with Xanxus'.
Just one leap—one leap was all it took to snatch a kiss from the surprised explorer. The look of bewilderment in Xanxus' eyes looked very much like the one Squalo displayed at their first kiss. But then, the older man withdrew as quickly as he could.
'What is the matter with you? Why have you shunned me all these times?'
His heart pounding so loudly as though ready to leap out of his ribcage, Xanxus cast a defiant look at Squalo. How dare this primitive man intrigue him like no one ever could! He snarled, 'Go away!'
Nonetheless, the wild beast was never an obedient blighter. He quickly untangled the vine from his ankle and landed right in front of the vexed man, no less gracefully and deadly than a puma before its prey.
'I refuse to leave you. What are you going to do? Fight me to death?' challenged Squalo.
Xanxus leapt at once.
Assuming that the taller man was going to engage him into another wrestling duel, Squalo strengthened his footing and opened his arms, ready to push his opponent's rushing body. The raven, however, did not come to contend him. Instead, his mouth claimed Squalo's in a rough kiss.
Squaloremembered none of his effort to argue, his mind blanking completely until the other man withdrew with a gentle sweep of tongue on his lower lip.
With a violent push, Squalo tore himself from his the kisser. 'Voi, what is that all about? Why is today greeting different from the usual?'
Xanxus punched the tree next to him. The bole shook so tremulously that several of its leaves fell. 'If you remain by my side, I will do more than a mere kiss.'
Out of ignorance, Squalo cheerfully replied, 'All the more reason to stay then. I like kissing you.'
'YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND!' Xanxus bellowed truculently.
Squalo's eyebrows furrowed in confusion, but then he shouted his counterblast even louder than Xanxus' broadside. 'WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING, CRINKUM-CRANKUM? IF YOU BELIEVE I LACK COMPREHENSION, EXPLAIN IT.'
Another profane imprecation gushed forth from Xanxus' mouth, for his temperament left him with no resourcefulness to convey the abstruse nature of promiscuity. Afterwards, he spoke in a calmer tone, but deeper and far more sinister, 'What will you do if I mate with you?'
Squalo laughed heartily. 'How ridiculous! It is not mating season this time of the year and males can only mate with females in any event.'
'Allow me to demonstrate, scum.' This time a big grin graced Xanxus' visage. At times like this, he would sooner have expected a cassowary flying over the mountains than restraining himself.
Heaven's ethereal canopy peered down at the two humans, but refused to offer its care when the various noises from Squalo's mouth reverberated in the air—from mild chiding how Xanxus' touches tickled him to blatant exclamations of pain. No resident of the jungle could be at peace during the following hour, for shriek after shriek came from their king.
When the hour had lapsed, the two young men lay side by side on the ground with their chests rising and falling with their breaths. Squalo's hair was spread on the grass like an unfolded fan, its silver strands shimmering in noontide sunlight.
'What did you do to me anyway?' He looked at the towering trees instead of his adversary while asking the question. 'It hurt tremendously.'
Xanxus took his time to respond, closing his eyes first, while replaying the sensation of glorying himself in the pleasure he had never allowed himself to experience ere he met Superbia Squalo—the forbidden pleasure of taking another man. Then, without bothering to conceal his smugness, the raven-haired explorer asked back, 'Is pain the only thing you felt back then?'
'No,' Squalo replied truthfully, 'There were some strange and pleasant feelings, as well.'
Never had the silver head's veracity failed to amuse Xanxus and he smirked again. 'Good. That means we can do it again.' Xanxus reached for the indocile beauty beside him, but Squalo rolled to the side, and then made an attempt to stand up.
Before Squalo could leave, Xanxus hit the younger man's calf with a sweeping kick until the islander fell atop his body.
'VOI, I SAID "NO"!'
'Quiet! Just stay with me.'
The older man stroked his mate's long hair and the king of the jungle fell silent at once. When Xanxus' fingers found Squalo's jaw line, neck and shoulder blades, the tamed beast even purred. Then without being asked, he slept there, curling to the taller man's body.
Something within Xanxus reminded him to push the other man away. He was not a man easily swayed towards affectionate gestures, and had never allowed himself to be drenched in the exuberance of post-coital embrace in retrospect. In fact, he had always chased away his partner as soon as their limbs were no longer entangled. This was a routine he had done unapologetically and so it had become a mutual understanding that no one—be it maiden or wench—would ever be admitted to Xanxus' bed twice. But today, not only he had carnally acquainted himself with a man, but he still also sought for his mate's company notwithstanding the satiation of his need.
Comforting himself with the thought that he was left with no other option, Xanxus inhaled the earth-kissed scent of Squalo's hair and closed his eyes to sleep. He refused to acknowledge the roiling affection he felt for the other man with every modicum of the nerves residing within his being. Still, his volition could not affect the fact that regardless of how many Vongolians shuddered at the mere mention of his name, he was nothing more than one puny mortal before Love's divine hands.
Xanxus woke up alone the next morning. Sensing no trace of Squalo's warmth, he guessed that the islander must have set out for the bush apes' lair at the mesonoxian hour of the night. Did this not entail that Squalo held the bush apes in higher regard than his lover? No, the scarred man would not have it!
'Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!' He kicked a nigh small rock and it hit the bole of a tree ere landing between the knotty roots and sending the procession of ants scattering about.
Had Squalo not been the one responsible for Xanxus' transition from a cold man in bed to a lover of immoderate passion? Was not their intercourse a perpetual web of the sincere affections and of the keenest infatuation, which, even in its intricate eccentricity, bore the stamp of the highest rapture? Had the time they spent together not tasted better than the other enjoyments within mortal grasp? Why then, could the lord of the jungle not be more considerate? Even the pair of squirrels on the tree bough yonder was sharing a macadamia nut; they were eating it together whilst facing each other, just like a couple on their honeymoon.
Honeymoon? That's it!
Arriving at the conjecture as to how the bliss of honeymoon would incite the awakening of Squalo's romantic tendency, Xanxus scoured the isle. He searched high and low for the possibility of a part of the isle as yet unknown to the jungle king.
The following week, Xanxus led Squalo to a leafy path that wound sinuously away through the deep forest. In a few moments, the glade and the familiar rocks were lost to sight behind the heavy foliage. Through the profoundness of the trees and the most rugged of wildernesses they went, until they arrived at the summit of a cliff.
A vista of the phantasmagorical panorama opened before their eyes. After searching for days, Xanxus had found an unadulterated sanctuary from the quotidian kerfuffle of the cacophonic world in the tranquillity of the deep lagoon, with its rocky walls of towering escarpments hung with the resplendent draperies of clouds. The chinks and crannies of the steep defiles were nestled with wild anemones nestling in their depths. A sequestered patch of blue floated below, hosting a picturesque arrangement of rocks cut about by a chain of luxuriantly wooded vertical gorges. The trait of exquisite cleanness where the bank dipped into the water prevailed—not one token of the usual river debris. Daylight illuminated the lagoon, providing it with the brilliancy of blue which would bear comparison with the gradating tint of the purest turquoise to aquamarine wherein crystal-clear water was as becalmed as a vast mirror.
Xanxus broke off two branches of a tree and handed one to Squalo. Without further explanation, he rolled his hips forward to create a flat back posture and flung himself from the precipice.
'A diving challenge?' replied Squalo, his mouth curving upwards.
A moment later, the splash of his body against the water followed Xanxus' example.
As Squalo emerged from the depths of the lagoon, with water sprinkling from his long, fair silver hair, Xanxus momentarily forgot that merfolk were supposed to live in saline water. He caught the islander and dragged him underwater, wherein he claimed the possession of the enticing siren's lips.
The surface of the water rippled above them, but in this deep blue, nothing occupied the jungle king's mind except the jolt that run through him the moment Xanxus' mouth touched his own. While the kiss itself was expected, the sensation was not. Xanxus' lips moved against his own demanding a response that Squalo was more than earnest to reciprocate.
Kissing Xanxus back, Squalo pried the older man's mouth open with his own and searched his partner's lips with his tongue. Instinctively his arms rose around the dark-haired man and drew his adversary towards him as their kiss deepened—lips against lips, tongues teasing each other, bodies pressed together. As Xanxus' hands slid down Squalo's side to his hip, continuing to roam every bit of the curvature they could savour, the younger man shivered, not of cold, but of concupiscence. The tender gesture was uncharacteristic of Xanxus' usual arrogant, nigh cruel disposition.
Whilst Squalo wrapped his limbs around Xanxus, the taller man's hands roamed down his lover's back, spending just sufficient time on the jungle king's waist and sides before cupping the voluptuous buttocks. He loved how full and firm they were. His hands worked it over, squeezing and releasing and he had no doubt that if they had not been underwater, the silver head would have moaned into his mouth. The mere thought about this overwhelmed him with the insurmountable need to spend himself between Squalo's thighs.
'Have you been here before?' asked the raven-haired man after they had resurfaced and caught their breath.
'Once only. This area is magnificent to behold, but yields no promising result in regard to hunting.'
'Follow me,' enjoined Xanxus. He swam closer to one cliff wall, inhaled deeply and dove underwater.
The edges of the lagoon were shallow enough to reveal copious number of small alabaster pebbles; howbeit, the part of Xanxus' choosing was so deep that as far as the eye could fathom it, no floor reposed underneath the watery abyss. In its stead, they encountered underwater cavern. Due to the deprivation of sunlight, the reef-like rocks which were the base of the cliff seemed blacker than their upper portion. Nature manifested itself in their ancient surface by chiselling sporadic holes and reliefs.
For a seemingly endless moment, a rocky canopy swathed them with its benighted quietude, during which even the foolhardy jungle king was alerted lest a poisonous aquatic snake might swim his way. They swam with the arboreal sticks held ahead of them, for their eyes delineated nothing but swarthiness, and in this fashion they managed to avoid collisions.
Afterwards, the two men found themselves in a cove pool with a vault of stalactites looming above them. They were inside a cliff that stretched about one tenth of a furlong in circumference. The rays of the sun perforated through the small holes on the ceiling of the grotto, bathing the interior with its glorious light. At one corner of the bed of rocks, there lay a heap of meat and fruits.
'Zooks!' ejaculated Squalo, his eyes admiring his surroundings with undisguised wonder. 'You even gathered ample food beforehand. Wherefore? We can consume these fish,' he pointed at a school of tiny white fish that passed them by.
Xanxus replied, 'Those blind gudgeons taste atrocious.'
'Be that as it may, aren't those victuals far too plenteous for our stomach?'
'I gather adequate for our three-day meals,' answered Xanxus, as he shifted closer to Squalo and embraced him from behind, 'Because I have no desire for either of us to leave in due course.'
'Voi, if I do not return to the den during the hours of darkness, my parents will rouse enough commotion to wake the dead.'
'Such is no concern of mine. You are not allowed to leave this place until I give you the permission.'
Squalo gritted his teeth. 'Can you prevent me from leaving?'
With that, their usual brawl commenced and continued by intense wrestling on the rocky bed until the sky was vested in the cinnabar robe of sundown. Squalo once again declared he was leaving, Xanxus held his forearm with a grip of iron. 'You are to spend a honeymoon with me!'
'What is a "honeymoon"?'
Because defining 'marriage' would be too much of a hassle, Xanxus opted for the simplest explication he could think of: 'A period of more mating activities that couples undergo after their first mating.'
'Oh, why did you not say so? Even my parents will not mind my absence if it were for that reason.'
And with that, the problem was solved, only to turn to another problem.
They passed the time with more obstinate wrestling, as each man had not the slightest desire to yield his masculinity to the other. Squalo's recalcitrance made him berate his adversary in remonstration, 'You dirty bounder! It is unreasonable that I am the one who always endures the pain! Your body structure is essentially the same as mine. Let me do the same to you!'
And so, in fourteen out of their thirty-five rounds of carnal intimacy in total during three days, the wild man had managed to triumph over the explorer—neither of them was willing to be content with less than multiple sessions. The cave walls echoed their gasps and grunts a score of times, scaring away any bird who passed above the cliff in their course.
On the fourth day, as the fog of lust had finally dissipated from their brains, they awoke with immense pain in their respective lower regions. They swam with considerable back pain and tottered for the remainder of their homewards journeys from the shore. It was for this reason they learnt that most honeymoons occurred once a lifetime.
'I wish to introduce you to my tribe.'
The words left Squalo's mouth out of the blue, one very late afternoon, ere the vespertine shadow draped the sky with its penumbral blanket. Xanxus could have sworn that the sky was calm just a moment agone, but he felt as though it had started to storm and thunder the moment those words reached his ears.
His stomach clenching, Xanxus gnarled, 'To what end?'
'Just so you know those who are important to me and so that my family can get to know you. You and papa will be fond of each other. You are just like him.'
'Even if the sky tumbles down, I refuse to call you my son,' uttered Xanxus in disgust. How could Squalo regard him as a father-like figure after all those mating sessions!
Xanxus continued to fume until Squalo explained that what he meant was both his father and Xanxus could not convey their emotion smoothly, even though they loved their kith and kin dearly. Under different circumstances, having his alexithymia pointed out would make Xanxus even grouchier; it was not that he had an inability to describe his emotions; he simply chose not to do so—or so he would claim. But now, there was a more pressing matter to ponder.
Most definitely not!
Surely Xanxus missed human's companionship and had his physical needs of the flesh, but to consider himself in love with Squalo was going too far. Definitely. Unmistakably.
Then, a completely different thought seized his mind, causing a lump to appear in Xanxus' throat and darken his countenance. 'Will your father not kill all strangers?'
'What stranger? I see only my mate before me.'
Xanxus' eyes narrowed. As a man who was incapable of falsehood, Squalo stated the words lightly, if not beaming with pride. He was unashamed to have Xanxus as an intimate partner, and this fact, more than anything, lightened the grouch's mood. How many times had they joined in flesh during the last few weeks?
Rumour had it that Xanxus' desire to find his one true love had perished in the search during his many amorous affairs in times of yore. Yet, in truth, his bachelorship hitherto was the result of his hatred for the conjugal tie. In Vongola Land, one could not simply marry without getting involved in the whole family affair of the spouse—if, for instance, a husband felt a little indisposed, the entirety of his wife's relations, down to her cousin's sister-in-law's grandnephew, would hear of it. Hence, many prospective in-laws targeted wealthy partners for their sons and daughters in hope that they themselves could live affluently. With a view to the characteristics of wild forest creatures, there was no ground to suspect Squalo's primatial kin to aspire for Xanxus' pecuniary resources; even so, his prejudiced contempt against the holy-pestiferous matrimony had rooted too deep.
In response to Squalo's demand, Xanxus growled, 'In no wise shall I assent to your obnoxious request!'
'Be ready at this place same time in the morrow!' Squalo began to swing from tree to tree with a wide grin on his countenance. Ere he completely vanished from sight, the last trail of his voice echoed in the lush jungle. 'And make yourself presentable!'
Punching the tree next to him, Xanxus cursed; that sly Squalo just ran off on his own without listening to any objection.
Fool! What are you getting agitated for? You did not even feel nervous when you met the parents of any maiden you courted. These bush apes are not even his true kin. Xanxus took a deep breath and assured himself. There is nothing to fret. They are just bush apes.
What Xanxus had assumed as 'just bush apes' turned out to be 'many, many bush apes'. The cupola of the sky was enshrouded with dark clouds when Xanxus arrived at the primates' lair. Squalo had brought him to the deeper part of the jungle, wherein the foliage made a green canopy high above them, and the boles of the trees rivalled turrets in breadth. The glaring bantam solar disc loomed over the imposing battalion of matted trees.
At the sight of the stranger, the primates, each being two or three feet taller than Xanxus was, attempted to frighten him away whilst relying in the advantage of their number. The visitor, howbeit, possessed the spirit of a predator, and, as such, was not to be intimidated. Emitting his belligerence, the unwelcomed guest stepped forth undaunted into the bush apes' midst with balled fists. The denizens, on the contrary, crawfished helter-skelter towards the shelter of the arboreal fronds, for they understood all too well what it meant to trifle with a creature so vicious, one who bore death in his hand.
The primate tribe exclaimed periodically together strings of enunciation that resembled no sounds of human language. There was a pause of profound stillness, then a bush ape appeared—a body larger than any creature Xanxus had ever encountered, fraught with an untamed soul forged with many hardships. All the other bush apes cowered in both fear and respect at the sight of him. This could only be the chief of their tribe, Apari, one who had guarded his throne for long decades with an alertness never so persistent, a dictatorship never so dominant and a strength never so irreplaceable. Strength lay in the swell of his furry chest and authority sat upon his mighty arms.
The chief proceeded with a halting step, leaning heavily upon his knuckles. Not until he noticed his foster son's companion, did his expression grow grimmer. The bush ape had already been worn with age, but the downward folds of his physiognomy became more obvious with each step Xanxus took. His gaze of unmasked animosity was clearly searching for an enemy—an amalgamation of mistrustfulness and menace.
Squalo made some 'ooh-ooh-ooh' sounds in a diversity of length and pitches. At the end of his explanation, Apari's facial features became, if possible, more sullen. Some of the bush apes looked horrified, while others started to come down from the trees to take a closer inspection at Xanxus. Nonetheless, one particular female at the highest tree branch appeared more crestfallen than the rest.
Xanxus recognised that look. It was the sort of look of a disapproving mother when she discovered that her daughter had fallen to his embrace—only worse … probably because she sensed the devoid of femininity in Squalo's mate. This bush ape had to be Kanyini.
'What did you relate to them?' Xanxus made a query, albeit he could guess the answer.
'That you are my mate.'
'Tsk! They do not seem to be keen about it.'
'Oh, they always do so whenever a yowie acquires a mate from outside the tribe. Notwithstanding this, there is one way to make them accept us.' With that, Squalo bent and pushed Xanxus onto the ground. He quickly held the taller man by both ankles, spreading his limbs to the maximum breadth that Xanxus' flexibility permitted.
Xanxus' eyes widened; Squalo could not be thinking of … or could he?
'Remove yourself from me!' Xanxus tried to land his fist on Squalo's face, but the ape-man dodged it.
Squalo endeavoured to calm the struggling Xanxus—which was by no means an easy task, since the moment he seized control of one limb, the older man's other limb would put up a resistance. 'Now, now, Xanxus, what is so vile about mating here, before the presence of my tribe?'
'As long as I breathe, NEVER!' squalled the older man.
In the midst of their strife, a booming noise pierced the languor of the morningtide. It was a shrill outcry, a stranger to the bush apes' ears that sent them leaping in the hurly-burly. On the other hand, Xanxus had not winked an eye at the clamour. It sounded like home to him. It was the sound of a gunshot.
The foreignness of this gunshot brought the sylvan animals to a confused din—the flapping wings of the distressed birds, the galloping hoofs of panicked deer, the hastened scurry of phrenetic bettongs and the thudding stampede of commoved kangaroos—which lasted a good while, and seemed to pass quite through the breadth of the forest. Thanks to this, all attention was withdrawn from Xanxus.
Letting go of his grips, Squalo rose to his feet. He made another 'ooh-ooh' sound—which in all likelihood was interpretable as 'I shall go and confirm what it is'—and disappeared behind the trees.
Finding it awkward to be surrounded by the primates, Xanxus alacritously pursued Squalo.
Several running and tree swinging moments later, Squalo witnessed some draperies of the highest absurdity—ones that Xanxus had referred as 'raiment' and with which he had donned himself upon setting foot in this isle for the first time.
The wearers were two men in their twenties, a teenage boy and a child. The tallest of them had spiky hair like the needles of a porcupine. Slung over his shoulders was the carcass of an emu—which thus explained the sound of the gunshot from earlier. The one who walked next to him had the bristle of a Little Tern, but green in colour (as opposed to the bird's black bristle). The teenager had the hair of golden foliage when they glinted against the midday sun, encircled by an askew coruscating object. A lad—Squalo could not recognise him at first, due to the quaint covering that made him look like an oversized frog—followed this teenage boy closely.
The bristle-haired man with flamboyant garment spoke, 'I fail to see how our lord could survive months without tequila in such an uncivilised place. Let's look for him in another island, shall we?'
'But have we not just arrived?' queried the boy in the batrachian vestment.
To this, the teenager poked him with a knife. 'I shall hear no complain from you.'
'Ow, that hurts, Bel-sempai.'
By the standard of what was supposed to be a painful exclamatory, the boy's tone sounded too flat, even indolent. 'Hey, what's wrong with humans from your origin?' Squalo, who scouted them from behind a tree, enquired Xanxus. The explorer had improved and become closer at matching the islander in velocity; today, he was only a few steps behind.
Instead of answering Squalo's question, Xanxus stepped out of the boscage and announced his presence to the search party.
'What took you so long to find me, scums?'
'Lord Xanxus! You are alive!'
Tears of joy streamed down the two tall men's cheeks. The youngest one did not cry, but grinned widely, whilst the child remained expressionless.
'Oh my lord, you look astonishingly desirable in that feathered hairdo and panther-skin loincloth!' The green-haired man leapt at Xanxus with open arms—which the scarred man evaded.
The epicene pouted, 'Aww, my lord, wherefore do you have to be soooo stolid? You could at least celebrate our long-awaited reunion with an exuberant embrace.'
As Xanxus continued to fend off the green-haired man persistent attempts at hugging him, Squalo revealed himself from behind the tree. 'Greetings, strangers! Friends of Xanxus are friends of mine.'
The green-haired man ceased from his replicated endeavours to throw his arms around Xanxus' shoulders and turned to address Squalo, 'Greetings to you, too, wild man. We are Xanxus' trusted men, known as "the Varia". Since it seems that our lord has infringed upon your hospitality, on behalf of all my companions, I would like to thank—'
Notwithstanding this salutation, Squalo approached the nearest bystander, who happened to be the child in the frog hood, and bent closer to the lad's face. When his mouth was a breath away from the boy, two knives flew past his head; they would have pierced his eyes had it not been for his swift reflex in dodging.
The king of the jungle directed his gaze at the weapon owner. 'Voi, wherefore are you so upse—'
'HOW DARE YOU DO THAT?!' snarled Xanxus before Squalo completed his question to the golden-haired youth.
Ere Squalo completed his question, Xanxus snarled, 'HOW DARE YOU DO THAT?!'
'I am greeting him. Did you not say this was how people greet one another?' replied the islander defensively.
'Why the froggy? Of all of us here, why on earth did you choose to kiss Fran?' This time, the question did not come from Xanxus', but from the golden-haired young man. Rather than volcanic like Xanxus' rage, his timbre was furnished by an arctic fury. Four more knives nestled in his hand, one between each finger.
'I was going to kiss you all, but he was the closest from where I stood. Would you prefer I start with you?' replied Squalo, still utterly clueless as to the situation, with an expression contorting to pure perplexity.
Without preamble, Xanxus ran up to Squalo and yanked his long silvery hair. 'Hark! Under no circumstances are you permitted to kiss anyone but me, scum!'
'VOI, IT HURTS!' yelled the recalcitrant beast, forcing his assaulter to release him by a smash of fist on the scarred man's chin. An arched brow accompanied Squalo's next question. 'Why should I kiss only you?'
At this, all eyes were focused on them, and Xanxus threw his men a murderous look until they all looked away, though not without suppressing a grin on their lips.
'Because I say so,' Xanxus spoke with an air of finality, fists clenched tight. You are mine and mine only.
Refusing to be treated so inferiorly without a just cause, Squalo summersaulted and, using his hands as propellants, he kicked the taller man with both feet, sending the latter to the ground. 'No!'
Now the mouths of Xanxus' subordinates were positively ajar. No one had ever durst to deny their lord.
Giving Xanxus no chance to get up, Squalo rode the fallen man. 'You belong to me! Your body belongs to me! Your mind belongs to me! Your actions belong to me! There is no part of you that does not belong to me, do you hear?'
'You are a hundred years too early to claim me, scum!' With sheer force, Xanxus rolled the islander over, but his grin was in plain sight. He tried to secure Squalo underneath him, but the wild man's struggle impeded his efforts to obtain such a feat. Again and again, they rolled on the forest floor. One moment, Xanxus was on top. Seconds later, Squalo pinned him to the ground.
'It shall be best if we allow the two lovebirds some privacy for the nonce, I should think,' remarked Xanxus' green-haired subordinate, 'Meanwhile, we'd better gather some food.'
At his suggestion, the hooded child and the flaxen-haired youth began to step away. The tallest man of all, however, remained.
'Levi dear, what is weighing in your mind?'
'Boss … I never knew he … well, I mean … he always courted women before.'
'Come now, people change. Time and circumstances do have the power to turn the most notorious womanizer in town into a homosexual practiser. Let's not bother those beasts in heat, Levi dear.' The man ended his explanation with a most coquettish giggle, and the so-called Leviathan had no choice but to follow.
'Ah, springtime is coming.' The green-haired man hummed merrily as he sauntered.
'It is mid-July. What are you blabbering about?'
'Tut-tut, Bel. It is springtime of youth that is coming. Look at our lord and look at you!'
'Precisely, dear. You threw your knives at our lord's sprunny when he made an attempt to kiss Fran, no? Am I not justified to conclude that you acted out of jealousy?'
'How absurd! A prince's property is not for share.'
A tiny twitch—too diminutive to be noticed—appeared at the corner of the hooded boy's mouth. One of these days, he would make Belphegor concede whether or not the golden-haired youth approved of it.
Thus, the Varia strolled on.
Squalo, Xanxus and the four newcomers had a dugong feast that night, under the pale glimmer of moonbeams that had alighted on the summit of the trees. It was not until after their hunger was sated and the smoke from their campfire retreated into the night that they introduced themselves properly.
'I am Lussuria. Call me Luss, dear.' The green-haired man extended his hand.
Squalo looked at him uncomprehendingly.
'Ah, when one holds out one's hand like this, the speaking adversary—in this case, you—are expected to clasp it. This gesture is known as a "handshake" and it is commonly practised among those who wish to introduce themselves or to congratulate others.'
'Oh.' Squalo took Lussuria's hand, imitating the handshake. Then, as he scrutinised the epicene's countenance, he commented, 'You have extraordinary eyes.'
'These? Ooh, yes.' The epicene grinned. 'They are detachable, as well.'
'As if I could believe you,' snorted Squalo, 'No creature can remove—'
But Squalo's speech was cut short by Lussuria's action. The Mohawk lifted his sunglasses, batting his eyelashes and smiling in triumph.
'Voi, you have normal eyes underneath those fake ones, you beguiler!'
The epicene let out a small titter ere imparting that those 'fake eyes' were called sunglasses and terminated his explication with, 'You see, dear, we Vongolians are the best at everything.'
Leviathan and Belphegor were not as amiable. One was resentful for Squalo's relationship with Xanxus; the other, to Fran. Each man clasped Squalo's hand hard, but being accustomed to wild beast fights, the primitive merely nodded and told them each, 'You have a firm grip. You will make a splendid hunter.'
Fran himself did not take Squalo's earlier kiss attempt personally, but deliberately prolonged his handshake with Squalo when he noticed how transfixed Belphegor's eyes were upon their skin contact.
When Xanxus returned to the Varia's ship to procure more whiskey, Squalo kept him company. The gallivat was the most peculiar structure the primitive man had ever seen. To him, it looked like a lofty bulk of wooden planks with two tree trunks on its top, enough to pierce the unblemished sky.
'Why are those trees decked with fluttering white clothes instead of leaves?'
'Those are masts, dear, not trees,' explicated Lussuria, 'And those garments are called "sails".'
The lord of the jungle was excited to see compass, sextant and map, especially when Belphegor explained that the isle they were currently harboured was no more than a tiny dot compared to Europe, wherein the Vongola land laid. Curiosity also bade him to dip his fingers in an ink bottle, only to leave black fingerprints to every single object he touched afterwards—much to Lussuria's dismay. Ignorance actuated him to drop a bottle without even worrying about the sharp glass fragments. He would have broken the beds too, had Leviathan not reprimanded him for jumping up and down the mattresses. None of those commotions, howbeit, was as catastrophic as the incident of nearly setting the cabin on fire by a wick lamp (had Fran not been there, the fire might have devoured the whole gallivat).
'Hey, teach me to read,' Squalo asked upon seeing the scattered books on a desk.
'I shall, but only if you tidy up everything that you have laid your hands upon tonight.'
When time had come for Squalo to bid them good night, he wound his arm around Xanxus' waist and pulled the older man close. Unbothered by the others' presence, the islander claimed the raven-haired man fully on the mouth.
Xanxus' subordinates stared flabbergasted. Although the act was no more than a standard 'goodbye greeting'—according to Squalo, thanks to the courtesy of Xanxus' fallacious indoctrination—all they could see was another man engaging their lord in a searing kiss.
Leviathan faintly murmured, 'In the name of heaven…'
'Our stock of vodka had long gone, but Lord Xanxus still shows no sign of desiring to return to the Vongola Land. Now it is no mystery to see why,' asserted Fran in his usual flat tone. His annotation earned him a venomous glare from Xanxus, though not a single denial.
That night, Squalo had a strange dream about Xanxus twirling and pirouetting on a gargantuan crocodile's back, in the course of singing the Alphabet Song. Three of the Varia members were playing the string instrument family: Leviathan on the cello, Lussuria on the viola, and Bel, the violin. Squalo was asking where Fran was when he heard the child correcting Xanxus indifferently. Instead of wearing his frog hood, he wore a gecko one, and he was hanging upside down from an arched bridge of books that was floating among the clouds in the sky.
Squalo revisited the ship about an hour after sunrise the following morning, waking everyone up with his sonorous holler of 'VOOOIIII!'
Leviathan stopped snoring at once. He craned his neck to see if Squalo had caused another fire or other crisis of similar nature. When nothing happened, he pulled his blanket again and harked back to slumber.
Lussuria lifted the cucumber slices covering his eyelids and said, 'Good morning, Squalo dear. Would you please refrain from interrupting my beauty sleep?' Then, without waiting for any reply, he rolled to the side, backing Squalo, and covered his ear with his pillow.
Belphegor cast two knives with his eyes closed. They landed next to Squalo's right foot.
Only Fran, out of obligation, scrambled to his feet. Without stifling his yawn, the child hopped off the ship, took a dry twig on the sand and drew three straight lines in a nigh triangular way, except that the one at the bottom was raised to intersect the other two about a quarter way up. Next to it, Fran drew an open curve that was concluded by a straight vertical line on its right. 'This is the letter "a" in uppercase and that one is in lowercase. Follow my example and draw as many of them as you can, capisce?'
Thus, following Fran's instruction, Squalo began to scribble the letters on the shore. So eager was he that he did not stop until Fran told him so; by which time, he must have engraved more than a dozen each.
'You have done them correctly. Now we can proceed to letter "b".'
Their lesson was punctuated by the growl of Fran's stomach; to which response, Squalo caught a crab and some shellfish and grilled them.
The abecedarian opened a conversation as they waited for the seafood to cook in the open fire, 'I had never sighted any human before Xanxus came hither, but I can relate that your deportment is nothing like a child's. The little yowies in my tribe require their mothers' watchful eyes. You, on the other hand, are no less than an adult's intellect trapped within a child's physique. Initially, I assumed that you were merely following your elder brother's footstep, but now I see that it was your own skills, not consanguine influence, that recommended you to the notice of the Varia.'
'Thank you. I shall take that as a compliment.' As always, Fran did not smile; in fact, neither elation nor annoyance was hinted within his tone.
After the alphabet lesson with Fran, it became Belphegor's turn to educate Squalo. There was more to a knife than its use as a weapon. His adept fingers working wonders, Belphegor showed Squalo how to carve a tree bough into a wooden effigy. Whilst Belphegor effortlessly produced a mink figurine, Squalo—who tried to do the same—came up with a bizarre-shaped mushroom as a result.
'Ushishishi, let's try a more manageable practice, shall we?'
Thence, Squalo came to learn to cut paper into snowflake patterns.
Lussuria, whose favourite pastime was documenting every silly occurrence around him, showed the black-and-white pictures of the Vongola Land and its citizens. Much to Squalo's amazement, humans built lighthouses taller than trees; female humans had a richer diversity of draping than their male counterparts; and carriages made itineraries less fatigable than travelling afoot. Squalo, who was fascinated by the daedal work of a camera—most especially how the lenses displayed people's figures upside-down—so earnestly nagged Lussuria for explanations that the epicene had no choice but to permit Squalo a first-hand experience with his camera, as long as the islanded swore to treat it delicately.
Even Leviathan had the charitable mind to teach Squalo. He gave him lessons about basic mathematics … though it remained a mystery to Squalo why, from time to time, Leviathan looked at him with the expression of a constipated man.
The following week, Squalo brought his new friends to meet his family. When they arrived at the primates' den, a young bush ape charged at Squalo without warning. He was no match for the man, however, and was defeated through a simple wrestling in a matter of seconds. With no further delay, the bush ape ran towards his mother.
'What was that all about?' enquired Xanxus.
'Oh,' answered Squalo, 'That little fellow said, "Hey mum, remember you told me you would give me fifteen bananas if I could defeat Squalo?" Then his mother nodded and he continued, "Well, the good news is: I can still save you the trouble of finding those bananas.".'
'Why would that bush ape's mother want him to defeat you?'
'Not every yowie approves that I should lead them in place of my father. In our tribe, a leader is chosen based on strength. Many mothers pine their sons to triumph over me. None of those weaklings ever succeeds.'
The Varia members laid the fruits they had gathered on a large, podium-like rock at the centre of the clearing. They had brought these on Squalo's counsel so that the bush apes would welcome them. The advice worked well in general; in fact, other than Apari and Kanyini's discomforted glances at the Varia, the bush apes wrongly assumed them to be part of Squalo's harem, and treated them as such.
During their stay, Xanxus' gaze scarce left Squalo. Even if it momentarily did, those flame-coloured eyes soon found the silver head again and again. And none of the Varia failed to notice this.
As Squalo played with three little bush apes nearby, and Xanxus watched him, Lussuria chewed his lip and made his enquiry, 'Uh, my lord, are we … heading back to the Vongola Land? Or peradventure resume the journey in search for gold?'
There was an unmistakable flicker in Xanxus' eyes ere he could open his mouth to deliver the answer. Of course, he wanted to obtain more gold than his competitors and win the tournament to be the next king of the Vongolians. But then, the point of being a king—according to his standard—was to do as he pleased; had he not lived in this fashion even now?
'I…' he began. Then, there was a pause—an abrupt one, but still, very unlikely to befall someone like Xanxus. 'My vacation does not end yet. We shall hoist our sail when I feel like it.'
'As you wish, my lord.'
Time flew. With each passing day, the Varia learnt the habit of, and even how to communicate with, the bush apes. Although the wild environment with lack of human refinery was harsh at some—well, many—points, they also enjoyed some aspects of this primitive life, such as picnicking every day for lunch.
One day, as they were having meal in the wide-flung umbrage of an ancient eucalyptus tree in the forest glade, Leviathan maintained an utter silence, his gaze fixed to the ground. He held his portion of frill-necked lizard's soft-shelled eggs and spotted wobbegong—a carpet shark—barbecue for a long time without eating them. It could not have been plainer that his mind was somewhere else.
Voice laced with motherly concern, Lussuria asked, 'Levi dear, why do you look so crestfallen?'
'I disapprove that our lord should tie the knot with a sylvan ruffian,' asserted Leviathan.
'As if your approval mattered to our lord's decision. Ushishishishi.'
The taller man clenched his fist. 'At the very least, I wish our lord a gleeful life by the side of someone who merits his affection.'
The other three stared at him with pity in their eyes, for they were sure that whatever Leviathan had in mind would infuriate Xanxus.
Leviathan spoke again, 'If I knew that our lord did not find it distasteful to embrace men, I should have confessed my feelings a long time hence. I held back and pretended to be all right with Lord Xanxus bedding all of womankind because I could not provide him with an heir … but neither can that barbarous slubberdegullion!' He growled deep in his throat before continuing, 'How can I allow such an unrefined primitive to inherit a fair share of our august lord's properties! Just think of those immensurate acres of vineyards, countless livestock, multitudes of servants, splendid summer villas in addition to a luxurious mansion with all those treasure chests in its vault…'
'Aw, you poor thing! But Leviathan, there are as many men in the world as fish in the sea. One day, you'll find your true love and forget this bitter first love by and by. As for the fortune, you should find yourself a wealthy lover to indulge any desire you m—'
Whatsoever the epicene was going to say next was overwhelmed by far louder voices from behind the bush.
'Voi, do not just jostle it in!'
'I shall implant it in your mind to whom your body truly belongs, scum!'
'Cease biting me!'
At the sound of this, the wobbegong bone in Leviathan's hand broke into smithereens. Casting a look of anguish, the tall man rose from his seat and disappeared into the shadows of the trees in the opposite direction.
Lussuria considered pursuing Leviathan and comfort him, but was distracted by a passing butterfly. Instead, he hopped here and there, developing an interest in chasing the lepidopteron and inspiring Fran's curious question, 'How old are you?'
Wagging his index finger, the frivoller replied, 'Uh-uh. Mind your manner, young man. Never ask a lady her age.'
To this, Belphegor taunted, 'Since when have you become a "lady"?'
'Why, since the day I was born, of course.' Lussuria stood in with one hand on his hip and one knee slightly bent, highlighting what he hoped to be the curvature of his body. 'Can you not see how superlative my gorgeous form is, Bel dear?'
Out of the little pity remaining within him, Belphegor decided not to answer. He changed his mind immediately, however, when Lussuria's puckered lips zealously pursued him for a kiss. The teenage boy uttered under his breath, 'I would sooner acknowledge the artistry in a brush-tailed phascogale's dung than the ladyhood in you.'
Belphegor's jealousy concerning Fran was reignited the moment he saw the child holding Squalo's hand. As per their daily routine, Fran was teaching Squalo more alphabets. In this breath of time, it was the proper strokes for 'uma' or 'horse'—a rather complex kanji character. The king of the jungle had been scribbling on the sand for a while, but not with satisfactory result, and hence came the help. Belphegor, who had not been unaware with the situation, was displeased nevertheless.
Determined to show Fran who was better between Squalo and him, the golden-haired youth declared, 'Squalo, I challenge you to a hunting contest. Of course, I am not talking about some defenceless animals like rabbits, but the ones who bite fiercely whilst being threatened by weapons.'
'That sounds agreeable to me,' responded the islander, oblivious of his challenger's fervour.
Squalo remained on the shore, in attempt to correct his kanji writing once more, while Belphegor walked away. Only a few steps later, the golden-haired youth fell into a large hole covered by dead leaves.
'Oh, I forgot to warn you that there have been many holes like that around here of late. Mayhap a colony of moles has recently chosen this place as their new settlement,' said Squalo, who was still scribbling the fourth stoke of the kanji character on the sand.
Leviathan scrambled to his feet and fetched a rope in his comrade's aid. Even as Belphegor climbed his way to the ground surface, he cast the taller man a dirty look. 'Do you seriously think your holes can stop that jungle man?'
The dark-haired man hastily averted his eyes and whistled a happy tune, albeit it sounded rather forced.
Peradventure it is a blessing that Levi has a brain with the size of a pea, Belphegor told himself inwardly as he went straight to the grassland region of the isle. Who knows what Lord Xanxus would do if he finds Squalo dead and gone? Nine lives might not be enough for Levi.
Squalo was scribbling the correct kanji character for the third time when Fran asked why he was not going. He answered, 'Since I have grown up in this island, I should give Bel a handicap by departing fifteen minutes later than he did.'
Soon enough, both hunters had located their respective targets. Belphegor's attention was circumscribed upon a wolf-like wild dog. The dingo's short, reddish brown fur shone brilliantly in the sun, not in the slightest foreboding her imminent mortal peril.
It was the shaft of the knife that had caught the dingo in the bowel, the blade sinking underneath her flesh. Blood dripped from the beast's wound into a scarlet pool of blood near its feet. The eyes of the dingo shone with an amazing lustre, struggling in the face of death; her two cubs were watching from behind the tall tussock grasses in silence. As she expired, she taught her offspring their last lesson: no one—not even their mighty mother—could elude from survival of the fittest.
Squalo, on the other hand, headed to the rock outcrop by the seashore, since he liked hunting venomous creatures better. For this purpose, he observed the fight betwixt a perentie and a coastal taipan—whichever emerged victorious would perish in his hands. Both reptiles were similar in length, which roughly exceeded Squalo's height by a palm's breadth. The goanna had a flattened head, long neck and a stout, robust body ending in a long, tapering tail. Its scales were sand-coloured and overlaid with a reticulated pattern of dark lines and flecks. The snake, in contrast, sported a slender brown body, a paler underside with orange flecks, and a hazel head.
The coastal taipan snake tried to escape first. Speed, however, did not appertain to a limbless creature, especially with a perentie as its contender. Thus, he had no choice but to face the lizard head on. While the snake slithered and coiled, attempting to strangle his opponent with its deadly body, the goanna swatted the snake with the powerful lash of his tail. Baring his long fangs, the snake threatened the goanna.
Luck was not on the snake's side; his opponent's years of superiority in hunting experience had given him the wisdom of ophidian nature. The goanna was aware that the venom the coastal taipan injected was specialised for warm-blooded mammals: one neurotoxin paralysed the prey's nervous system, hence disabling the muscles, and then another toxin prevented the prey's blood from coagulating until it bled to death. Instead, the perentie trampled the snake's body with his clawed toes and sunk his sharp-curved backward-pointing teeth onto the snake's head. Compared to the snake's, these teeth were inferior in length, but superior in number.
The perentie did not live long enough to enjoy his battle spoil. Not a minute had passed since life had departed from the defeated snake when Squalo's javelin pierced through the gigantic lizard's throat.
Belphegor had been brimming with confidence that he would triumph over Squalo. The grin disappeared from his visage the moment he noticed the silver-haired man returning to their agreed meeting point with two enormous preys slung over his shoulders. Even if Squalo only brought one, he would still not be able to triumph over the lord of the jungle. Perenties and taipans were no common sight on account of their shyness and remoteness; in no likelihood would Belphegor manage to find one.
The sun was swinging close above the horizon when a ship came to disrupt the peace of the Varia and the denizens of the isle.
Three men were swabbing the deck, singing loudly in the worst tone-deaf voices they could possibly muster. Roused by the noise they were making, the captain came out of his cabin and shouted, 'By Jolly Roger, stop! Can't ye spare me a few hours to take a caulk?'
'Top o' the mornin' to ye, cap'n,' greeted the three men, touching their knuckles to their foreheads in salute. One of them, who happened to be the cook, asked, 'Would you like any breakfast?'
Out of impatience, the captain roared, 'Arrr, what be wit' yer half-arsed attempt, buccaneer wannabe?! Spake properly!'
The young cook gulped before correcting himself, 'Wud ye be needin' some godforsaken…' He nudged his nearest shipmate and whispered, 'What's the pirate word for "breakfast" again?'
Before his colleague could answer, the split-chinned captain had lost his temper and insinuated him, 'Yer as useless as a chocolate taypot dense paddy. A week o' latrine duty fer ye!'
'Cap'n!' This time, the voice had a higher pitch and was yelled from the crow's nest.
'What now, lad?!' The captain cried in reply, 'Be ye sidin' wit' them now, lubber? Be 'tis a briny mutiny, eh?'
'That's not it, cap'n,' answered the watchman in a frightened tone, 'Thar be land ahead.'
'How many leagues to that isle?' asked the handlebar-moustached captain.
'A li'l more than half a league,' affirmed the watchman after he looked through his spyglass again.
'What?! Why didn't ye be tellin' me earlier?' barked the captain as he adjusted his curly wig.
Ignoring the watchman's excuse that the isle is so small that it was hard to make out in this thick mist, the ship's captain skreighed so that his coxswain could hear him, 'FULL SPEED LARBOARD!'
The hearing-impaired helmsman squalled his reply about no less obstreperously as he steered the wheel, 'AYE, AYE, CAP'N.'
Thus, the pirates came ashore on the isle wherein the Varia was staying.
Having entered the Varia ship and made his way to the crew's cabin surreptitiously, Squalo was about to scream his usual garish morning call when the ship shook lightly.
Fran, Belphegor, Leviathan and Lussuria sat upright at once. 'How many of them do you reckon?' remarked Leviathan as he fastened his parabolas.
'It matters not,' answered Belphegor, inserting knives and wires into his holster. 'No matter how many intruders are there, we shall slay them all.'
Adjusting his spectacles, Lussuria avowed, 'I will show them the meaning of disturbing my beauty sleep!'
Fran spoke not a word, but followed the other four rushing out of the room. The five of them split up as soon as they reached the deck.
Having run astern, Leviathan encountered the first unfortunate batch of invaders. With one stunning blow from his parabola, ten pirates lay senseless on the wooden deck. Two of the pirates managed to retreat, but they could only delay the forfeit of their lives for so long; Lussuria was waiting for them.
Thinking nothing of a barehanded, effeminate-looking man, the two escaping pirates charged at Lussuria. One roared menacingly as he lifted his cutlass above his head until the metal flashed in the sunlight. His battle cry transformed into a pitiful groan after he had the first taste of Lussuria's iron-protected knee. His companion did not have the luxury to evade the epicene, for the eldest Varia member swerved quicker than the pirate could flinch and landed a kick to the solar plexus. The second pirate sank to the deck, a pained moan rasping from his lips.
Fran did not assume any fighting stance when a throng of pirates closed in, attempting to overrun him. Instead, the child brought his palm close to his mouth and blew a very fine mist. Confused by the haze, the pirates began attacking one another. Metal crashed against metal, unhesitatingly slicing at their brothers-in-arms' flesh. Before long, cries and confusion mingled with pistol shots reverberated all over the ship. Blood-stained cutlasses fell along with their owners, never to rise again.
Squalo oversaw the battle from atop the main mast. From such height, the seamen appeared as dancing crabs, circling each other and swinging fists. The music of their yelps admixed with the various clangours from the fight. Amidst the sounds of flesh hitting flesh, cracking ribs and the wheezy punched-out breaths of the combatants, Xanxus emerged from the captain's quarters. Ignoring the invaders, he headed straight to the main mast and untied the knot of its large rope. Next, he held it tight like a cascading vive of a tree.
Squalo queried, 'Whither go you?'
'I am going to teach those bastards a lesson never to touch my property,' answered the leader of the Varia as he swung from his own gallivat onto the clipper crewed by the pirates.
'Need help?' offered Squalo, but Xanxus had already swung away. And even though Squalo was certain the older man could hear him, the latter had not as much as turned his head.
Xanxus landed on the furthermost yardarm of the clipper's three masts. Upon seeing the single intruder who had just made a stylish entry, the captain of the square-rigged ship cast him a look of horror. The middle-aged man with handlebar moustache was tricked out in his best finery—an extravagant purple coat, embellished with brass buttons, hung to his knees, and a plumed tri-cornered hat was set atop his head. Yet, no dignity rested upon his physiognomy as he cried, 'Sink me to th' devil!'
'There is no need to involve yourself with this trivial skirmish. Lord Xanxus is furious because of those pirates' evil design to claim this gallivat as their second ship. Pirates do not usually sail clippers; clippers do move swiftly, but they are not the best choice for naval weaponry, and hence, they are more favoured by merchants. In all likelihood, these pirates robbed and killed the merchants after the loss of their original ship and now they target our ship, as well,' explained Belphegor to Squalo. 'In any case, you ought to take care of your own territory.' The golden-haired youth gestured towards the forest, whereunto a group of pirates commenced to enter.
Without further delay, Squalo swung down from the mast and dashed back into the forest. Belphegor's words were vindicated a few moments later in the form of blazing explosion; Xanxus had left no foe unvanquished by burning the pirates' stock of gunpowder. The clipper was engulfed in an enormous flame and its captain and faithful followers lay scattered from stern to stern, bathed in blood.
A few of the seamen managed a narrow escape by plunging themselves into the sea after cutting the hawser that belayed a coracle to their ship. The five of them landed in the water close to each other and to the small boat; every one of them rejoiced to be alive. It was then one of the sailors noticed a passing fish slightly longer than the breadth of his palm.
'Behold, buckos, grub!' he pointed at the young humpback grouper.
His mate, who was yet to acquaint himself with such a species, looked uncertainly at the black spots covering the entirety of the white fish. 'But what about the risk of Ciguatera poisoning?'
'Be ye going to starve 'n visit Davy Jones' locker?'
Their argument, however, was short-lived; a school of larger humpback groupers, up to half a metre long each, swam towards them. Later, all that was left were shreds of motley clothing and a vacant coracle, tossed by the multitudinous blood-red ripples with never-ending wallowing splashes.
Meanwhile, back in the Varia's gallivat, one of Belphegor's opponents was still standing and, failing strength, the pirate opted for intimidation. The knavish man in eye-patch claimed, 'I know yer dirty li'l secret.'
'Ushishishi,' Belphegor laughed maniacally. The pirate spoke in an Irish tongue, but a prodigy like Belphegor had mastered multiple languages and encountered no difficulty communicating with men from at least a dozen nationalities. 'Which one?'
Before the bluffing pirate could concoct some believable story, his head flopped down and rolled onto the deck, having been severed from his neck.
Squalo motioned himself swiftly from tree to tree. In lieu of charging in immediately, he decided to observe the pirates' actions first. If circumstances permitted, he would rather spare these humans, whom he had regarded as rare species hitherto. Furthermore, the Varia had proven to be excellent companions; perhaps he could befriend these pirates.
He let the intruders hunt a couple of animals for their dinner. Howbeit, after the steady increase of prey exceeded even the number of their hunters and the pirates showed no indication of ceasing, the ambuscading king of the jungle made his presence in their midst.
'Hunt no further!' he warned the rascals in the only language he was proficient: Vongolian. 'I disallow you to extort this island's resources to the brink of extinction.'
The majority of the sailors, however, did not speak Vongolian and paid no mind to the islander's gibberish oration.
Ignorant of the language barrier, Squalo noticed one pirate's unsteady feet and made his query, 'It piques my curiosity that you have been careening for a while. Are you by chance inebriated?'
The tottering sailor shook his head, though not without a derisive grin upon his lips, for he found the question in regard to his sobriety amusing. He, as well as the rest of his mates, was Irish by birth; yet, this man was one of the few who understood the Vongolian tongue. 'No, scurvy dog, I be perfectly sober. But ye spy wit' yer eye, after sailin' on a ship fer long periods 'o th' hour, we seamen become accustomed to th' rockin' 'o th' ship in th' deep. Thus, after a long voyage, thar be occasions when a jack tar would have trouble regainin' his "land legs" 'n would swagger on land.'
Another pirate took this opportunity to fire a shot behind Squalo's back; even so, his bullet and merely grazed the native's upper arm.
Squalo sprung and crashed into his assaulter. Slamming the chubby pirate onto the ground, he grabbed his wrist and gave a sharp tug. The king of the jungle flipped his adversary upright, and at the same time, stilled him with a fierce stab of the flint extending from his knuckles—a direct thrust at the lung. The victim coughed once, spewing fresh blood all over his attire, before his pulse completely stopped and his perpetually open blue irises saw no more light.
The other thirteen immediately took position to encircle this new threat, drawing their weapons as they mobilised. When four of them aimed their bullets at the wild man, Squalo's instinct told him to drag the corpse upright and utilise it as a makeshift shield. The silver-haired combatant swivelled around the spot as the pirates slashed their cutlasses and dirks at the defending islander. But their dead comrade's body took it all, his lifeless form receiving blow after blow.
Squalo did not maintain this defensive pirouette for long. With a roar, he pulled the body up higher and threw it straight at three of his attackers. The impact winded them, and sent them reeling and bumping onto the massive boles of the surrounding trees.
The remaining pirates' courage remained only as long as their supply of bullets. When their guns emitted empty clicking sounds, they balked, hesitation clouding their eyes.
'Be we buccaneers or not? There be five of us 'n naught but one o' him,' rallied the captain's first mate, 'Take heart, mateys, 'n let's scrap holus-bolus!'
Yet, the expedition leader's words went unheeded, for immense timorousness had already seized each man's heart the moment they witnessed Squalo's monstrous vigour; no more cutlass or dirk was swung. Fast as horses at the spur, the survivors made good their escape and vanished behind the thick vegetation. Under the canopy of the guileful foliage, among the gnarling tree limbs, the scant number of surviving pirates scurried hither and thither. In the oblique rays, the unfathomed webs of shadow wrought by the flagrant midday sun, the jungle seemed to attend with bated breath the hazardous and clandestine passing of unidentifiable things. What chance did the newly-arriving pirates have against the indweller of the wild?
It did not take long for Squalo to decimate his five fleers. The first one was even less than ten yards away when the capture occurred—his wooden left leg graced him with no agility. The last pirate managed to evade Squalo as far as a third of the isle's circumference. Hearing his comrade's final shriek, the pirate left standing shivered despite the heat from all the running. The man was the tallest among his companion and was now wading through a marsh full of bulrushes, hoping that the wild islander would be divested of the speed gained from tree swinging. Three royal spoonbills took flight as soon as the man treaded ankle-deep into the swamp. He was aware that these birds considered themselves to be helpless preys before a hunter, just as he was to the jungle king. The further he stepped, the higher the murky water reached along his knee breeches. Yet, he could not afford to stop; the distance between him and his pursuer continued to shrink.
The noisome water had reached the very tall pirate's chest when Squalo appeared at last, smothered in blood that was not his own. The pirate's heart sank. The cessation of the wind presaged his death.
The chaser waded in, embracing the swamp water. No matter how doggedly the pirate endeavoured, he could neither move out farther nor faster than Squalo. It was in vain for him to contend in speed with such an adversary. At length, their differences in strength and skill drove the two men closer. Shoulder to shoulder, they struggled on, pushing their limbs forward in adversity to the stagnant flow and pitch of the muddy water. When the shorter man was about to outswim his prey as the stronger competitor of the two, the pirate pushed Squalo's head beneath the surface of the swamp.
The attempt to drown the native man, however, did not go as planned. Squalo pulled his attacker down until the taller man, too, was submerged. The lord of the jungle held still. Before the fourth minute lapsed, his adversary's struggling had ceased. The pirate breathed no more.
Later, when Squalo returned at length to the gallivat, the Varia members were dumping the pirates' corpses into the sea. 'By my faith, the fishes are having a feast today,' remarked Fran in a flat tone, needless to say.
Xanxus sat on an empty rum puncheon and was refilling his goblet with amber-coloured liquid from another barrel, grumbling over how poor the pirates' grog tasted.
'How did you manage to liberate those two barrels from the enemy's ship, given that you set fire to it?'
'I simply belayed a rope around my waist and grabbed each barrel with one arm before biting the yarn and swinging myself here, scum.'
'Oh, that explains the rope marks around your mouth here,' purred Squalo, as he traced the outline of Xanxus' lips with his finger in a slow, sensuous motion. Without minding the presence of the Varia around them, the silver-haired man ensconced himself on the older man's lap. He licked the perimeter of Xanxus' mouth before cooing, 'That was a remarkable feat of strength.'
To Xanxus, the shoddy rum did not taste so base as it had a moment before.
'Let's hunt for dinner,' exhorted Belphegor to the rest of the Varia on the other side of the deck.
Leviathan answered, 'But we have already had enough spotted quolls for today.'
'Then we should just watch the birds for leisure or engage ourselves with another activity away from the ship.'
'Why are you so eager to depart?'
There was no need for Belphegor to explain; a black object flew overhead and landed a couple of yards away from Leviathan's foot. It was a panther skin loincloth. Xanxus' loincloth.
Fran wasted no time to comment, 'Squalo hoicked it from Lord Xanxus' body just a moment ago and currently he is making the preparation to slip between our lord's limbs.'
Through gritted teeth, Leviathan inveighed with a scandalous look upon his face, 'How could Squalo exhibit such salaciousness for such a young child!'
'Well, well, it cannot be helped,' replied Lussuria gleefully as they clambered down the Jacob's ladder to leave the ship, 'Squalo has been raised among bush apes and jungle animals are not covert about their mating, even to their younglings. As a result, he has grown into a man who knows no modesty. The other day, I asked him the reason he covered his genitals with a loincloth and he replied that it would jiggle too much for his comfort otherwise.'
A week later, in a discourse with Lussuria, Squalo queried, 'Why Xanxus has disaffected me of late?'
'Why, of course, he is sulking, dear,' answered Lussuria with a soft titter.
The jungle man raised his eyebrow. 'Wherefore would he do that?'
'Tut-tut, Squalo dear. Lord Xanxus' feelings for you far surpass the sense of what human interest could bestow—is this not plain to see? You are the one that means all to Xanxus and for which his soul ever pines. Since nowadays you spend your time with us more than with him, he is bound to be discontented.'
'Oh, so it is akin to the bitter feeling when a young yowie loathes his baby sibling because their mother's attention is diverted to the newly-born?' enquired Squalo.
Repressing his sigh, Lussuria replied, 'It … er, well, close enough, dear.'
'That is bad tiding indeed. Is there not a way to inspire felicity within Xanxus?'
'Oh, I can think of just the perfect method.' This reply was delivered with an accompaniment of the most coquettish wink Lussuria could muster.
Squalo suddenly had the urge to vomit. Belphegor snorted. Leviathan clutched his own head in frustration. Only Fran showed no significant change of expression.
'Lo, to entertain Lord Xanxus, you must execute your charm into something that is guaranteed to draw his attention. Wait here; I shall give you an example.' With that, Lussuria rushed into the ship, only to return a good half an hour later in a vestment too outlandish for mortal eyes.
The epicene had garbed himself in a fashion that could easily put a carnival dancer's costume to shame. Almost every inch of his vestment was embellished with laces or frills. On top of that, he wore a wide-brimmed hat decorated with peacock plumes. To achieve the maximum desired effect, he promenaded with an exaggerated gait that emphasized his fleshy backside.
'Oh, so this is how I should present myself to Xanxus?' commented Squalo.
Massaging the bridge of his nose, Leviathan, who had been watching since the beginning, along with the rest of the Varia, grunted, 'No matter what you do, do not ever imitate Lussuria!'
Squalo scratched the back of his head. 'Thence, what should I do?'
'Anything other than imitating Lussuria,' reiterated Leviathan—one Lussuria was painstaking enough to behold; how could he tolerate two Lussurias?
'Oh joy, what a helpful admonition!' The snide remark left Belphegor's mouth, laced with his signature sarcasm. Next, he turned to Squalo and queried, 'You have no stash of raiment back in your lair, have you?'
Predictably, Squalo—a man without any regard for fashion—shook his head.
'Ushishishi. Luss had flyabostic flair to fancy himself as a flantum flatherum piebald dill.'
'What?' Squalo raised his eyebrows at Belphegor's vocabulary.
'It means he regards himself as a woman fantastically dressed with many colours. At any rate, you should just go to Xanxus without any covering. Have faith in yourself and you will be fine.' Belphegor grinned. If Squalo were declared worthy to be Xanxus' spouse, in no likelihood would the jungle brute lay his hand on his Fran.
'Is that all?'
Ere Belphegor could reply, Squalo's eyes had caught Xanxus striding among the trees, carrying a heap of starfruits in his palms and leaving a trail of the eaten fruits' seeds on the ground. 'Voi, wait! Do not leave!'
'My stomach is not yet satisfied and damned if I care about you, blatherskite!' Xanxus did not even look back, but continued to advance instead.
Squalo went after him, taking off his loincloth as he strode apace. In order to overtake Xanxus, he grabbed the tangled growth of vines, climbed on one of them and swung from one liana to another. When he nigh landed in front of Xanxus, however, the last liana was not adequately robust to support his weight and it snapped. He would have fallen headlong had he not managed to secure his grip on other lianas with his hands and toes. Even so, the haphazard movements rendered his arms and legs spread eagle, and his exposed crotch—each contour revealed in detail, with its sac jiggling temptingly and its length swaying invitingly—was right ahead Xanxus' face.
The scarred man stopped dead in his track, blood spurting from his nostrils. His endurance granted him only three seconds ere he pushed the wild beauty onto the ground and answered Squalo's confused and angry remark of 'VOI, WHY THE SUDDEN TAKING?!' with hickeys as well as thrusts.
'I suppose this means Squalo has successfully seduced our lord, then,' concluded Fran in his constantly bored tone.
In a dreamy daze, Lussuria opined, 'Ah, nothing can conquer the power of love. Look at our lord's eagerness and Squalo's equally enthusiastic responses. They could mayhap surpass Romeo and Juliet in terms of passion.'
The rest of the Varia supressed the urge to roll their eyes at this exaggeration, but Lussuria remained oblivious and averred, 'Of course, when it comes to beauty alone, no one can compare with me.'
'You? Beautiful?' retorted Xanxus in a disgusted tone, despite a hint of satiation in his expression, as he ambled rather limply towards them.
Lussuria batted his eyelashes. 'Aw, my lord, you're too shy to acknowledge how attractive I am … how adorable!'
Xanxus had no chance for stricture, as at that precise moment, Squalo, who had run after him, chose to tackle his leg from behind, tipping his balance. As soon as the older man fell onto the sand, his assaulter grabbed his ankles and elevated both legs so that the calves rested on his shoulders. Towering above his captive with a wide grin and a monstrous stamina reflected on the rigidity of his loins, the islander snarled, 'My bout for taking you.'
The Varia wisely chose to head for the jungle so that they needed not to protect their ears from the gaudy gasps and grunts by the shore wherein the two beasts were mating.
The next day, a pigeon post came to the Varia ship. Sealed with the stamped wax of the family crest, the letter bore a grievous message in the handwriting of Marchesa Alfero's personal scribe, which said that the throne had been inherited by a lad named Sawada Tsunayoshi and that Xanxus' aged mother was calling for her one and only child on her deathbed.
'Must I be bothered by a wench who abandoned me as a child?' annotated Xanxus as Belphegor read the letter for him, 'If she dies, she dies.'
'On the lighter note,' Belphegor continued reading the postscript, 'Your pet liger, Bester, is reported to have been seized with an unaccountable illness, which flummoxes the acquisition of the veterinarians in town.'
Xanxus took a momentary silence, then, with clenched fists and a new resolve, announced, 'Damnation! We shall set sail tonight.'
Thus, the members of the Varia were busy gathering provisions and packing their belongings for the remainder of the day.
When Squalo paid them a visit, Xanxus immediately dragged him into his private cabin and pounced on him without further ado. No matter how many times Squalo queried what had put him in such a mood, the only answer Xanxus gave was persistently vigorous ramming. At last, after four hours of non-stop shagging like kangaroos in heat, Xanxus rolled to the side and announced, 'I shall take my leave tonight.'
In the storage room, Leviathan, who was stashing away the food supply, wiped the sweat from his eyebrow and exhaled, 'Phew, they have finally ceased shaking the ship.'
Back in the cabin, Xanxus asked with an air of impatience after Squalo failed to answer him. 'Are you deaf or what, scum?'
There was a forced cheerfulness when the jungle king replied, 'So, when will you return?'
This time, rather than answering with words, Xanxus gave him a long, silent stare.
'Oh, you are not coming back then?' Squalo tried to make his tone carefree, but he had to look away; suddenly it stung his eyes just to catch a glimpse of his partner. He donned his loincloth as quickly as he could, wishing to leave ere he was caught doing something embarrassing, such as pleading the older man not to go.
It was not ere the silver head reached the cabin doorway that he heard his scarred companion say, 'Are you not coming with me?'
'ZOUNDS?! YOU ASK ME TO ABANDON MY KITH AND KIN, MY HOME, MY EVERYTHING JUST FOR YOUR SAKE?! I HAVE NO PLACE IN YOUR SO-CALLED "SOCIETY"! I BELONG HERE, IN THE JUNGLE!' So thunderous was the storming delivery of Squalo's yell that the Varia members heard him throughout the ship.
On the deck, Belphegor conversed with Lussuria, 'Here it comes, their end-of-relationship quarrel. I bet 1,000 rial that Squalo shall not leave his apish brethren!'
'Oh, but love will conquer all, dearie; just you watch. 3,000 goes to the bet in which he will choose Lord Xanxus over them,' replied the epicene.
But as soon as those words were said, Squalo stumblingly ran past them, chased by Xanxus' audacious bawl, 'You are Superbia Squalo Silvestri—Conte and Contessa Silvestri's son and heir!'
Lussuria gasped and placed both palms over his cheeks for a dramatic effect. But, as usual, nobody paid attention to him.
No word could capture Squalo's expression more accurately than 'indignant'. Deep down, he had already suspected this since years agone. But accepting that he was the son of humans would be tantamount to denying the parenthood of Apari and Kanyini's, who had raised him. The bush apes might be hairy and humongous, but they had been there for him all along.
The islander ran the length of the ship. Upon reaching the forwardmost part of the ship, he leapt over the bulwarks of the forecastle and swam ashore. Afterwards, his tanned body disappeared behind the trees and Xanxus' voice resounded no more.
Squalo kept swinging from one tree to another until he arrived at the Silverstris' tree house. Now that Fran had taught him hundreds of kanji characters, in addition to hiragana, katakana and Roman alphabets, he was sure he could grasp the gist of the conte's journal. There had to be something that contradicted Xanxus' claim. He was born in this jungle. He had to be the son of bush apes, not humans.
Meanwhile, Xanxus plodded alone on the shore. Although the bereft man's gaze never left the ground, he let his feet move without being mindful of where they took him. Instead, his attention was devoted to his shadow, which grew longer as the sun moved towards the horizon. Only yesterday, Squalo's shadow had been by his side, but starting from now on, each of them would be the only one to traverse his own path.
Xanxus had embraced Squalo many times, yet the desire he felt within him was tantamount to an unquenchable thirst fortified with unquellable hunger. The haughty Vongolian might have been the first one to teach the primitive man spoken language, but it was Squalo who taught Xanxus the language to be felt instead of heard—the language of affection.
The tide was coming in and there was only a narrow strip of firm beach betwixt the water and the rock cliff, which had been pitted by the natural course of the sea. Still, the scarred man strolled, mindless of the marine spindrifts that were spraying upon his disgruntled face. Far off along the beach, the Varia discussed their lord's troubled mind.
'No matter how I see it, there is no better word to fit our lord's condition than "pathetic". Why did Lord Xanxus not take Squalo by force? He has always obtained what he desired,' wondered Leviathan.
'Ushishishi, and here I assumed you would advocate for the termination of Squalo's relationship with Lord Xanxus,' replied Belphegor. 'I even heard your yell a few nights ago, "What makes him a better man than I? Why couldn't you choose me?!" And the next thing I knew, you burst through the door of our lord's cabin, partially undressed and in tears.'
Leviathan appeared to be chagrined by this reminder, but he said, 'It is better to have Squalo by his side than having our lord in such a miserable state,' he then added sotto voce, 'Besides, that brute is surprisingly not as contemptible as he could have been once you get accustomed to him prowling about the ship.'
'Ooh, the very corroboration! Lord Xanxus must be profoundly enamoured of Squalo that he even regards his inamorato's wish above his own. Oh, an extraordinary thing, a dash of the divine in it, to be in love,' hummed Lussuria whilst wiping a tear from the corner of his eye.
Fran was about to have his say when they all saw Xanxus crouch down and continually beat his fists into the sand. So foul was the expletive he was roaring that Vongolian dictionaries refused to list it. The marchese punched. And swore again. And punched again. The act was repeated until he ran out of breath, several minutes later. He lay on his back on the beach, with grains of sand soiling him.
In his usual flat tone, Fran reckoned, 'This can be graver than we have feared. As soon as we set our feet at Vongola Land, he will gobble up three or more barrels of ale—upon my word, I have no doubt about the matter.'
In the log cabin, the frustrated Squalo struck the desk with heavy fists, whereupon his true father's journal was left open. Its legs had been ravaged by both time and termites, and with this agitation from him, the wooden desk collapsed. The islander only stared; inside him, his heart was likely crumbling, too.
Based on the late Umberto Silvestri's written account, Xanxus' declaration was no less true than the fact that the sun rose in the east. Furthermore, the absence of siblings had made Squalo suspect for a long time that his foster mother lacked the ability to conceive. The other female bush apes had often confabulated behind Kanyini's back regarding the wretchedness of their chief's offspring, but upon noticing her presence, they would hurriedly console her with a forced grin that having an ugly child was better than none.
Squalo leaned against the wall. An unknown, strange loneliness seized him. No more Lussuria and his amusing deportment. No more Leviathan and his combative spirit. No more Belphegor and his eerie grin. No more Fran and his mechanical voice. But worst of all, without Xanxus—his strong hand, pantherine charm, grouchiness, arrogance and, of course, their wondrous intimacy—Squalo felt debilitated, as though his reasons for living were gone. Before these Vongolians came to this isle, leading the bush ape tribe seemed to be a future firmly set for him—something that could not go wrong. Now, it seemed like a farce how he, a human, could claim the leadership of them.
Looking out from the log cabin's window, Squalo contemplated where was meant to be. Beyond the dense trees and the rocky cliff was the topsail of the Varia's ship, its brown mast blended in harmony with the vermillion sunset. He already missed them; how could he possibly endure another day, let alone a lifetime, without them? With that, his thoughts blended into a decision.
Squalo hugged Kanyini as soon as he arrived at the bush apes' lair, panting out of breath. 'Mama, I am leaving. I may not return, but I will hold you in my heart wherever I go.'
The bush ape froze, wishing that her ears had played tricks on her. Nonetheless, her foster son spoke again, 'Many thanks for everything.'
Only then, the realisation hit her: no longer could she hold what once had been a frail little babe in her arms. Tears began to roll down her cheeks.
Apari descended from a higher branch and put his hairy hand on Squalo's shoulder.
'We have known this all along. From the moment my trembling hands picked you from the tree house and placed the lifeless body of a bush ape baby under your cradle, I had a premonition that your kind would take you away from us one day. When you brought those humans to our lair, a certainty came to me that the day you would leave us was near,' uttered Kanyini between her sobs. Her embrace around Squalo's back tightened.
The other bush apes were now craning their necks from their respective branches. Some of them, especially those who used to be Squalo's playmates during his younger days, looked on the scene with sadness.
Apari's eyes glimmered with misery, but from his mouth, solemn words flew, 'Go, son. Seek your own future. Our blessing is with you.'
After hugging his foster parents one last time, Squalo dashed shoreward. The tribe of bush apes watched him go with unspoken gloom.
When Squalo arrived at the Varia's usual campsite on the beach, the fire was out, smokeless and dead. No longer did the watchers huddle around it, for they had long gone. Next to it, reposed a pile of twigs and dry leaves, still unused. He looked at the sea and noticed the white sail contrasting to the darkening empyrean. Nevertheless, the moving lump that was the Varia's ship grew paltrier in size with every passing second.
The slate-grey clouds had now interred all heaven. Rain tumbled down; each drop pierced Squalo's skin and stabbed hard into his heart. As the last rays of daylight dwindled and disappeared, darkness settled down on the shore. Yet, heedless of the lightning that tore down from the crepuscular sky, the islander plunged himself headlong into the sea.
Squalo swam as swiftly as his limbs could carry him, spurring every motion and forbidding himself to surrender to exhaustion. At this time of the evening, the coldness of the water soaked into his pores and the ferocious whip of the wind was chilling to the bone. Fortunately, the same wind helped to bring him closer to his destination. One stroke after another, the man of the wilderness persisted. Little by little, the distance betwixt the ship and his body narrowed.
In the meantime, from the crow's nest where his post was, Fran noticed something advancing on the water. 'Hand me the binoculars; I need to make sure that thing is not a white shark tailing our ship.'
Lussuria, who was checking his reflection on the binocular lenses for fifteenth time that evening, peeked into the device straightaway. 'Ooh, isn't that Squalo dear? Behold, he is coming this way; love prevails, after all!'
One by one, the Varia crew snatched the binoculars from Lussuria's hand. After confirming that Squalo was indeed approaching the ship stern, Leviathan pulled the sails and Fran stopped the engine. At length, the current was bearing the swift-swimming Squalo and the Varia's gallivat westwards at an equal rate. Xanxus, who came out from his cabin, rushed aft with a sulky expression. 'Blast! What is the matter, scums? Why is the ship halting?'
Then, he turned at the direction whence everybody else was looking. There was a strange tugging at his gut and his sunken heart began to soar once more. He watched breathlessly as Belphegor threw a rope into the ocean and the familiar figure climbed his way onto the hull. Droplets of seawater glistened in Squalo's silver hair and on his tanned skin. No matter how many times Xanxus witnessed such a sight, his mind's eye told him the same conclusion: the man before him was the loveliest creature who walked upon earth.
As Squalo stared back, he shivered; and it was not because of the cold wind blowing onto the ship deck, fanning his brine-drenched body. It was Xanxus. The older man's eyes were fixated upon him as though there had been nothing else in the world that he yearned more than Superbia Squalo Silvestri.
'You want me.'
Squalo could not resist proclaiming those words, for the gleam in Xanxus' eyes told him there was still hope—a fragile hope, one that was beyond the restricting bounds of sanity, but it was nevertheless the most infinitesimal acknowledgement that his existence was indispensable to Xanxus.
Jaw clenching, Xanxus' brown eyes locked onto Squalo's hazel ones, hesitating whether to ward off the accusation or to embrace it.
'Do not just stand there; should you wish for my leave, say so!'
For a few dangerous seconds, Xanxus looked like he was about to punch Squalo. Not a soul amongst those aboveboard alleged that only Squalo, only this man, could turn a curse into a benison in Xanxus' ears.
The scarred man's fists were still clenching. Tremors took possession of his body. How could he tell the silver head that his mere presence sufficed to waken a salvo of rapture inside him? Withal, in lieu of conveying his feelings by means of words, Xanxus employed action: with one smooth sweeping motion, he claimed the younger man's lips.
'From today onwards, wherever you are, there I shall be,' Squalo promulgated with a smile, as soon as their wet and passionate tongue-wrestling ended.
Little did Xanxus know that this man would linger by his side until the day he died.
'Marchese and Marchesa of Simon,' announced the herald pompously. Tonight, King Tsuna and Queen Kyoko were giving a ball to over a thousand guests in celebration for the birth of their first son and heir to the Vongolian throne.
A young couple emerged from the opulent double door by which the herald was standing. Into the grand ballroom of the Vongola Castle, the auburn-haired Enma, arm entwined with his wife's, stepped forward with a benign smile. Marchesa Simon's other arm was gracefully bent and her hand occupied in lightly holding out the gown so that its long train did not trip her on the journey down the stairs.
After leaving the bottom of the staircase, they joined the crowd of guests who immersed themselves in merry chatters amidst the clinking crystal glasses. Under the luminescent glow of the chandeliers, the gems on their attire coruscated no less effulgently than the stars visible from the lofty windows.
The herald's gaze returned to the scroll in his hand and read, 'Marchese of Alfero and…' he paused slightly, eyes narrowing in a squint underneath his knitted brows. There had to be a mistake in this guest list; it had been rumoured that Ira Xanxus Alfero would attend this ball accompanied by his betrothed. How come it was a man's name and title that was listed next to the marchese's?
The herald continued, '… Contessa of Silvestri.'
A raven-haired man whose figure was covered in scars came forth. Despite his resplendent garb, he had the grimness of a dragon roused from sleep upon his physiognomy. On his side, walked another man with waist-length silver hair and breathtaking pulchritude. Upon seeing the herald, the marchese's companion halted. Next, he seized the royal announcer by the collar and lifted the frightened man from the floor as he snarled dangerously, 'Who are you calling "contessa"?'
Readers, it would be helpful if you tell me which version you like better—Consorting the Jungle King or Espousing Tarzan (on the next page). The poll is in my profile page.