... and despair! (hieronymousb) wrote,
... and despair!
hieronymousb

dusts off LJ some more.

GOOD EVENING! X) I just finished my last in-class final of the semester on Thursday. All that remains is submitting paper+online final on Monday. Otherwise, viva la winter holidays. A small assurance, although I'm nursing the head cold from hell and still have grad stuff to worry about next semester. X( X( X( I'm still not ready to be an adult sometimes.

ANYWAY, I come bearing 'fic.

Title: per aspera ad astra
Author hieronymousb
Rating: PG, maybe.
Characters: Rokudo Mukuro, Chrome Dokuro, Sawada Tsunayoshi. HINTS OF ALL POSSIBLE PAIRINGS THERE. you know my inability to resist the 6996, but. it's also pretty gen-ish I guess.
Warnings: Hm. Nothing, really? A little dream violence. NO ACTUAL BURGERS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS 'FIC.
Summary: Tsuna and his ordeals with his Mist Guardians, post-Spade fight, pre-Arcobaleno arc.



[ through the thorns to the stars ]


The shuttered, drawn stillness of a hospital room, a resting patient, and another by the bedside who lingers with immovable persistence, and Tsuna doesn’t know why he’s come, but it was only to make sure that they’re all right, but yes, he’s all right; he’s only sleeping, and maybe he ought to go let a little light inside or maybe he doesn’t like light or wouldn’t it hurt his eyes after so long, and would it be all right to bring something, but flowers seem kind of wrong, and anyway –

“Sawada Tsunayoshi.” The red eye cracks open, a weary gaze. And the way Mukuro says it, it could mean anything: why are you here or did you come to apologize again or what are you bothering me for or even please do come closer so that I may possess you. “Do you remember?”

“—when I was here and Haru and I-pin-chan tried to perform an exorcism and the nurse got angry at me and then Gokudera-kun brought me bloody flowers because he got run over trying to come see me?”

Chrome tilts her head one way and stares. Mukuro tilts his in another way and sits up, a little. “No,” he says, flatly. “As interesting as that may be.”

Interesting as if he is taking notes for amusing ideas to enact later, but Tsuna really hopes he’s just imagining that; picturing Mukuro, covered in illusory blood, lotuses in hand --

“Then – no,” he answers honestly, sheepishly. “Sorry.” A moment, and he tries: “Er, what am I supposed to be remembering?”

Mukuro sits up more properly. Chrome adjusts the pillow with such immediate precision that a person has to wonder if an unheard request went between them (it’s a little confusing sometimes, but), but Chrome is just kind of smiling in a winsome happy way at their visitor, as if there’s not anything weird about this at all. Mukuro laughs (like a weirdo), and reaches, awkwardly, for a glass of water on the bedside table; knocks it over with an elbow, and Chrome hands him that, too, and his inhale is a low hiss.

“Your dream,” he says, with strange finality.

“I dream about lots of things."

Like that time he was here and Haru and I-pin-chan tried to perform an exorcism and Gokudera-kun brought him bloody flowers, or about Kyoko-chan stepping out of the shower and reaching for a towel (and he’d felt really bad about that and turned away until she was done, even in the dream), or about being a giant robot, or about Enzo eating the house –

“I shouldn’t think,” Mukuro continues, “that I am so unmemorable."

And then he knows, and his eyes must show it, and Mukuro smiles in a way so that this little sliver of sunlight catches in his eyes, and Tsuna thinks inappropriately of 3-D glasses in a movie theatre, and Mukuro says, "Or perhaps I simply traumatized you too severely for you to recall."

"No," Tsuna says, definitively, and shakes his head. "You didn't -- "

"I must try harder next time, then."

"Er." Throat clearing. "Are you all right?

He doesn't know why he asked or why he's even here right now (and it'd been sort of awkward convincing the hospital staff he was a friend), and Reborn probably won't like it when he finds out, and he should be going to see about Enma-kun and Lambo and everyone, but maybe it's just that everyone seemed happy with everyone else, Enma-kun with his family, Vongola with Shimoun, but Mukuro had been lying there in the dirt, alone besides Chrome, and also, your hospital bed says "Corpse" on the patient name, and isn't that kind of sad?

"What a sweet, naive child, as always," Mukuro says, "but shouldn't you be worrying for yourself?"

And Tsuna doesn't know what to say to that; he's just standing in the doorway, not entering, as if there's a magical spell cast on the dim hospital room, where Mukuro has been changed out of the clothing he wore in Vendicare and into the thin papery white of a hospital gown, the white of sheets and pillows, fish belly pale sunlight-deprived flesh, looking too small for the gown and bed, his fingers thin, tapping the covers, bending, creeping like white spiders, and his hair is all messy, and his eyes are tired, and there's no way you could possibly think he looks threatening.

Not like this.

Reborn said, but --

"W-well, I just wanted to say thanks, I guess." Which is kind of not a lie because Mukuro did help some during everything, when he wasn't complaining or talking about how naive and stupid Tsuna was, which he mostly didn't even hear over Spade trying to shatter his bones. "And also to Chrome."

She perks a little, visibly, at the mention of gratitude, and adjusts the stems of the ikebana on the bedside table, anemones and Italian ruscus from the flower shop down the street -- Chrome's idea, though Tsuna half-expects lotus flowers, or even roses or something.

English roses, from all the way over the sea, once upon a time.

"Thank you," she says, warmly, fully, as though she doesn't notice or care that she returns thanks with thanks, not with you're welcome: Chrome, proper but awkward in her courtesies, like long ago cheek kisses.

She busies herself with the thin green lines, smiling to herself like an ancient mystery, all the focus in one eye on what's small and simple and alive.

Mukuro laughs, and it's a river current, ebbing and flowing, familiar like a nightmare, when they met ages ago there, inside of one, and it's the kind of laughter which used to make Tsuna shudder with dread, and now it makes him tense with exasperation, not again, and Mukuro says, "But isn't that backwards? It's you I should be thanking, Vongola. After all -- "

He feels like he should put his hands to his ears, like there's a crashing reverberation somewhere inside of something -- the night in the gymnasium, a pulsing flash of tubes and wires and water, or on the island, a feeling of his coming presence, but no --

There's just the bed, and flower stems, Chrome's index finger and thumb against them, and white, and Mukuro. There's just laughing. Like an incoming shot. You expect it to hurt, but it doesn't at all. Not really even a little.

"I'm in the most opportune position, presently."

Hushed. For what: you know. It doesn't need to be said.

He knows what Mukuro would say because he knows what he always says.

He could know something more of his mind, maybe, but not right now. Please don’t show it to me now.

Chrome opens the window, a little. Sunlight and dust. A blue sky.

Mukuro's eyes half-close in half-shadow, and his mouth forms syllables, a word, arrivederci -- said to someone, to no one, said to a dream.

~*~


There are those dreams even she does not know.

The next day, Boss brings a card with a smiling face on a yellow sunflower, signed in blocky, scratchy print, large and clumsy kanji, the words -- “Um, sorry I almost destroyed your body!!!” -- hanging over the signature.

Chrome matches it with another card, this depicting a sleeping teddy bear with a bandage over its forehead. She attempts anonymity, slipping the bear next to its cheerful companion of a sunflower while Mukuro is sleeping, no signature and no note but that message which has been prepared by the card company, pleasantly generic well wishes.

“It was here,” she offers, when his eyes open once more.

“I suppose it wandered inside, drawn by the scent of ink,” Mukuro says, and casts a sideways glance at the table of ikebana, sunflower, and bear; small bright things incongruously pretty and at odds with the stark shadows, the flattened white of the hospital.

“Someone brought it,” Chrome tries.

“Honest girl,” he says, and then, distantly, “I told him already that he needn’t apologize.”

Chrome doesn’t know what to say to that, but it makes perfect sense to her why Boss keeps apologizing, and why he hasn’t returned bodily (because Mukuro-sama told him to get out).

Maybe it isn’t her place to speak for him, for either of them, even though she thinks maybe she does understand.

“Isn’t this all nostalgic,” Mukuro says, changing subjects again.

Chrome sleeps in the hospital chair, so straight it hurts her back and cramps her neck, and Mukuro asks her if she dreams of it, of that time when she was in such a place as she now finds herself again, but she does not dream of it. She does not clearly remember the brilliance of pain or the sticky mental fuzz of anaesthesia.

“It feels like an ocean sometimes,” she tells him, referring to that interval of temporal time and space.

It’s cold and distant and it feels like being in the middle of the ocean, when she thinks back to it.

Like being on the moon. It’s dark and forever and empty. Is that what you’re feeling right now, Mukuro-sama? (She hopes not.)

“No, not anymore,” he says, their conversations in whispers in the middle of the night, and his smile is moonlight. “But shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

~*~


What do you do when the dream feels real and the reality feels like a dream?

Once she has placed a cushion behind her aching back, Chrome sleeps upright, head lolling to the side, and dreams of a field of sunflowers with smiling faces. A bandaged bear offers her a ride through the hulking stalks.

“No, thank you,” she says, shaking her head. Implicitly: I can walk.

So she walks, gently weaving through a road which gradually opens itself, one foot after another on the smooth pathway between the flowers.

In the subconscious sphere, in dreams or in illusions, her mother and step-father are dim figures who scarcely existed. Somewhere, they are living in a beautiful house; somewhere, at some time, they said words which made her heart go cold and forget them.

The truth is, Chrome’s forgiveness is instant, but her attendant forgetfulness is absolute. She can shut someone out without another thought, if it’s necessary.

It’s dark behind her, but their house is lit and lovely, a somber blue tint to the walls, a haunt of maturity. Inside, their voices are businesslike, satisfied; they are structured life in a world of jewelry boxes and fur coats against the snow and ordered furniture in room after room of steady overhead light, an eternal Christmas of the mind.

She passes on.

“It’s what they told me to look forward to, as well,” Mukuro explains, drawing her back into the net of his attention with the strength of voice, and then he is there, too (she is used to this), whacking off the sunflower heads with a particularly large set of hedge clippers and grinning maniacally, as he used to.

The frozen yellow smiles become frowns when they touch the earth, and Mukuro walks over them -- approaching, heedless. Chrome swallows. Bends down and collects them with her fingers, finds that she has a basket to put them in, from nowhere, and inside it, the flowers grow tiny feet and run about like giant insects. Their faces disappear.

“They?” she asks, automatic.

In her dreams, Mukuro-sama is omnipotent, omniscient, exquisite in an ethereal way; a watercolour painting. They live in a land of Monet and soft voices, a little girl’s fairytale.

It’s amazing that anyone could be made of such perfect lines and angles, such gentle smiles and eyes. His clothing does not rumple here, nor does hers.

She sees what he wants her to see. But she knows that. It does not matter.

“Hm.” He avoids direct answer, habitually. A sun hat appears on Mukuro’s head, an ominously perfectly-fitting image, and he doffs it in the direction of the blue-shadowed houses, the quiet Christmases that Chrome has remembered from beyond the years and from beyond the ocean, before her mother and step-father returned to Japan, where her ancestry shows in her skin, eyes, hair. “Although, you know, many people do not own their own houses in every economy. Do you suppose there are ghosts in the attic?” Laughing: “Or flowers? Or children?”

In Chrome’s dreams, Mukuro is impossibly disconcerting, should-be-frightening, but always somehow welcome, like a person you have known from before knowing, like a person to whom you can tell anything, any words.

An illusory environment is a soap bubble of safety, free from the fear of reproach. She can say whatever she wants, here. There will be no rebuking tones.

She banishes the houses – her past and her (their? whose?) implicit future – and walks forward.

~*~


There’s Boss -- running out, crashing sunflowers to the ground around him, tripping and falling and scraping his knees and panting, and then rising again, and behind him, Chrome sees the bear.

“Someone make it stop!” he screams. “I don’t want to be eaten or to get accused of animal abuse if I make sure it doesn’t eat me!”

His loudness is different in this place, where it’s usually just been her and Mukuro-sama. Chrome says, “Boss, it’s a dream.”

Mukuro is still gardening, to the side of the others, as well as behind them now, though he pauses to laugh -- clearly, happily, and add, “What’s wrong, Vongola? Don’t you like my rendition of Shakespeare?”

“I made an F in English anyway,” he sobs, raucously but without tears, only that sound in the throat, and the bear paws Tsuna to the ground, and Chrome reaches out and touches its snout with her open, flat palm, at which point it turns with a squeak into a soft stuffed toy.

She reaches beneath it and helps to extract him.

Chrome wonders why he’s come to visit them tonight. She looks at Boss when their fingers separate, rings brushing against one another in passing, and clutches her hands at her waist, twiddling her thumbs and tilting her chin down even as her eye glances up, and Boss scratches the back of his head. Hears her questions, somehow, and says, “I- I don’t really know, either, but it’s kind of scary. Can I go back home, please?”

Chrome leans forward, impossible in a dream as she would not be in life, a phantom, a sylph of hair and light and lips and slender limbs – and she kisses him. This time, only this time, it is on the lips.

Tsuna, for his part, screams more loudly than when he was mauled by the bear.

~*~


Eyelid brushes eyelid, a fraction of time, and then the girl’s body shifts, lengthens abruptly and relinquishes its softness, and Mukuro’s mouth is mere inches from Tsuna’s, as if he might move a little closer and breathe the life from the figure that is warm even in this place.

“You shouldn’t be here, Sawada Tsunayoshi,” Mukuro informs him, mustering the illusory pretense of comfort; warning. Hushed, hissing voice – the old sibilance, the serpent’s smile. I’m harmless, it says. Come a little closer. Even if your eyes are questioning. It’s fun, you know, when you are the mouse and I am the cat. I just can’t seem to help myself from being stirred when you move.

With one hand, he summons the trident, and with the other, he grips Tsuna’s chin with the vice of his gloved fingertips – yes, Sawada Tsunayoshi again, the invader of Mukuro’s sanctuary, his peace of mind, even now, bleating, “W-wait, Mukuro! What – “ And the boy is looking backwards, sideways. Looking for the girl, no doubt.

“Knowing her, she’s probably conjured a kitten, or perhaps a rabbit, or even your dear delightful comrade of a bear. She’s in the fields, and otherwise occupied.”

He’s still smiling down at him, inhaling the look of embarrassment, discomfort. Such human things as Mukuro has never known, such human things as do not belong beyond the boundaries of Tsuna’s world, and certainly they have no place here, in theirs, in Mukuro’s.

Mukuro is amused, vaguely, at the old game.

“Wait.” Tsuna holds out his hands. And more steadily, as though this is becoming routine: “Did you bring me here? I – I don’t think it’s mine, because I was dreaming about – “

Aborted with a blush, so Mukuro could guess, if he cared to.

Human beings are fascinating.

Mukuro does not tell Tsuna that he has rehearsed this since he was a child. He will not confess that, once, long ago, in the house he shared with Lancia, he would write and re-write intricate mappings of the Famiglia Vongola and its allies, its enemies, its history; he would sketch its blood symbols and discourse upon its leaders’ attributes of weapons and personality, the flame Guardians in their idiosyncrasies, with a little boy’s fascination for comic book heroes and villains. Only Mukuro was the hero, or would be, someday. The mafiosi – the villains, yes, but beautifully, complicatedly -- he feared and hated and loved them with the awe of a child.

“Possession is a matter of becoming,” Mukuro says, when the sunflowers grow thorny vines and wrap around Tsuna’s arms and legs, but the boy does not bleed. Not even here will he release that precious ancestry, the only factor which had originally drawn Mukuro out from that first painful imprisonment, bringing him all the way to the here and now -- sacrificing his energy, his time, his life. Mukuro will not admit that he is tired.

“I don’t understand,” Tsuna admits, looking awkwardly to his right, coming face to face with a sunflower. He isn’t fighting back. Not yet, because it must not hurt. It’s only an image of what ought to be painful, a metaphor Mukuro does not wish to think too deeply into, and he shakes his own head; hasn’t there been rather a lot of fighting? But the soil will drink down the blood for Chrome’s garden --

“It’s exactly as I said.”

The confused look is a reward, each time. Mukuro likes being vague, untouchable. A mystery. A monster beneath the bed. Tsuna is the perfect victim. Compassionate, like Chrome; yes, they’re similar creatures, and Mukuro has considered this, as a means of understanding one and the other, but she is perfectly at ease with surreality, with Mukuro, with this place.

Tsuna battles it with every fiber of his being, attempting to force reality and dream alike into a logical order, precise and known only to him. It’s obnoxious. It’s interesting.

Possession is a matter of becoming. He became them all. Don’t you see? Every life Mukuro has lived in, even for a little while, is a piece of him now. That man who was his senpai (with the booming, compassionate voice, that had confused Mukuro so), back then, and Chrome now, everyones and no ones alike; the mafia, too, for he’s been them, even now; don’t you see? Now, you’re the victim, ready to bleed. I don’t know when my revenge came to this, because you’re younger than I am, and I’m the one to put you on the table, but I’ve not soul enough to question the irony, I’m afraid.

Possession is a matter of becoming. You’ll understand, soon.

“But Mukuro,” Tsuna says, and it’s something of a yell, but not of fear or even of heightened emotions; it is merely Tsuna’s natural outpouring of vocal effort that he places into almost every word he sees fit to say, ripping cleanly through one’s own focused thoughts. “—you’re free now! From them! A-and from him, too. And – even from – “

Us? Is that what you were going to say?

Tsuna doesn’t finish the thought. He won’t. He’s just staring, utterly sincere in his lack of explanation for what should become of them all now, completely honest in his mute and blank acceptance. Not of this world, no (for his senses are still battering it down, fleeing from everything which is normalcy here), but of Chrome, of Mukuro in spite of the thorns, the wild places in their consciousness – and even Mukuro understands that, sees it on his face, and knits his brow at it. Feels his famous composure loosen, if only in increments.

“You’re no saint, of course,” Mukuro says. “They always think that. Or maybe you are. Maybe they were. I don’t know. Does it matter, in the end?"

You are who you are, but you are also what you are, and I’m afraid to me, the latter is more important than the former. Maybe you can’t really understand, but that’s what and who I am, too. Personality is of little consequence; I find they don’t vary much, in most cases, and yours, while intriguing on occasion in its determination in spite of your abject failure, annoys me more often than not.

All things being equal, we wouldn’t be friends, anyway.

Tsuna beats down the flowers with abrupt finality once he has realized that they are not hurting him; the heads droop and wilt and blossom beads of liquid beneath the faux-eyes, and Tsuna scrunches his shoulders and says, “S-sorry,” as if there is something customary about apologizing to a field of flowers.

Mukuro turns. He’s holding hedge clippers. He’s holding a needle to push through Tsuna’s heart and burst it. He’s holding a parasol. He’s holding a trident. He’s holding a khakkhara.

“It’s Chrome’s dream, if you must know,” he says, understanding that Tsuna has already figured out that there can be no real violence between them here. Mukuro is still frowning, somehow.

“Mukuro,” Tsuna says, wide-eyed, like he’s worried (but for whom?).

Mukuro laughs to himself.

And then Chrome wakes up.

~*~


From her nonchalance, you wouldn’t think anyone had been threatening another within her mind – certainly not two such important individuals – but Mukuro half-wonders, amused, if she has forced herself awake to spare them from conflict. She operates mysteriously, his strange girl.

Chrome yawns, simply, and Mukuro says, “It’s still the middle of the night, you realize.”

The truth is.

She looks over, tiredly.

The truth is he doesn’t like this at all.

Chrome rises and goes to the vending machine for candy, returns with a chocolate bar for Mukuro. He finds himself eyeing it, her, with alien amusement, the charmed vacant smile that is not – and it’s not amusement, either, really, or nothing he thinks you would truly term such, were you being honest (let us pause to laugh, dear ones). It’s a plainly smiling unhappiness.

Look how our roles are reversed, he could say (and thinks, and will never say).

Chrome is too kind to comment upon the irony. Perhaps she is too straightforward.

He’s not dead or drowning or locked in darkness.

He’s breathing the free air.

Chrome watches him, expectantly, as though Mukuro has all the answers (but doesn’t he?), as though she hasn’t herself realized it yet – that he’s lying here, still regaining an ability to move, and in far more pain than he will ever express, and dreaming of what he cannot say, of shadowed places underground and needles and a smell not so unlike what he detects here, if faintly; he’s dreaming of a level of possession of which he had never dreamt.

Before, his body was a prisoner, yes, and then, then he was a prisoner within a body that was not his own. A tiny, almost humourous body; ill-suited to him, while his own –

Chrome focuses on candy and cokes. She struggles in silence with an airtight bag of chocolate puffs.

“Turn on the television, Chrome,” Mukuro says, finally, when he can scarcely bear it any longer.

What is it, really? The normalcy of the scene? Here, now, Mukuro cannot control how she or others see him; there are no carefully planned slivers, cryptic moments, his appearances only prolonged enough to give a glimpse of the cards he holds. He’s on his back. Laid bare. Like someone could rise and murder him. Like when he was a child, only they – the ones dealing with them then – they didn’t understand him at all. They saw him but never saw him.

He’ll contact Ken and Chikusa. He’ll be gone in the morning.

He tells Chrome so, because at least it’s something to say.

Something that suggests a plan – yes, that’s it.

The news from earlier in the evening is being repeated now, a recording.

"It's not on there," Chrome says, and her features tighten -- pinch with focus.

"Of course not," Mukuro answers, knowing to what she refers. Vendici, towering black-suited individuals with hidden faces, a dead man from a century before, and age old stories, similar to and yet different from what Mukuro might have imagined when he was a child. Of course there's nothing on the television about people turning into birds or giant explosions or any of that rubbish; did you really think there would be, Chrome?

He laughs a little. Exasperated, delighted, exhausted.

"It was -- " Chrome hesitates. " -- pretty."

~*~


Pretty, was it? You mean that man, Daemon Spade, but what you really mean was his love for that woman with the flowing hair, the angelic face. Pretty. Of course you would say that, wouldn't you? Mukuro remembers with a keen confusion. How had she been responsible for coaxing him to do as he did? Beauty in a body is nothing remarkable to people like us, you know; bodies are bodies, an illusionist can inhabit so many, and there must have been more to her. That man was my predecessor, but more than that, he was my enemy. And it's better to be rid of him; a step closer to my own designs. Pretty, you say, of such a cliche tale. Or maybe you mean she was pretty? I suppose I haven't trained you well. Don't you remember what happened before?

Mukuro gives Chrome the remote control. Tells her to change it to whatever she pleases.

She turns it from the news -- the real world of suicides and murders -- to an idol show, full of singing, full of flamboyant costumes. You could make all this, Mukuro might say. Why are you still impressed?

He half-watches, but watches her, more so.

Don't you remember what happened before? Does it haunt you in places even I can't feel from you -- that feeling of being blank and at his mercy? Do you even know what could have happened to you? I saw it and felt it within you at the time, until I was blank, also.

She looks at him, like she hears. Like she understands. But she can't say a word.

Chrome has no language for the traumatic. Mukuro remembers that first day --

Well. We are alike, aren't we?

(It's rueful, thinking of it like that.)

She can't tell him whether she has waking nightmares of the fear of loss of control. He can't tell her, either. It's pointless to wonder, and he doesn't see why he does; doesn't think that he should, after all.

"Come here," Mukuro says -- abruptly, softly.

Chrome rises. Delicately.

Pretty. Of all the things to say.

What am I to do with you, Chrome?

He beckons, and she climbs, with great hesitance, into the bed, where it won't hurt her spine so terribly, but it's funny that she pauses, that she waits and fumbles about, as if they haven't been in close proximity in their world, as if they haven't, for instance, pressed their lips together a thousand times. Of course. From where else would she ever have gotten that idea?

"It's a little different now," she says, by way of explanation.

"Not at all," Mukuro refutes, a little too quickly for them both. Laughs, turns on his side. Sleeps.

~*~


Tsuna doesn't think much about the dream from before. That night, you see, Lambo blows up his room, so he sleeps in the hallway, and then somehow he wakes up in the bathtub because Fuuta decided to rank the top most indestructible tubs for some reason, although he doesn't know why he's in there, but his pajamas are wet, and even though the print is of trains, I-pin comes in and sees him and thinks he's a sewer monster covered in slugs (and then some towels fall on him, so she thinks he's a mutating sewer monster) because she's near-sighted, so then he has to try to convince her not to attack him and then --

Walking to school with Reborn and Yamamoto and Gokudera-kun, and then everything is pretty normal, but then it's math hour and Gokudera-kun looks a little bored, but focused, and obviously has everything down, and Yamamoto is kind of staring hard, trying, and Tsuna yawns even though he knows he's going to need help with this homework; maybe he'll ask Haru again, but then he lays his head down on the desk and --

~*~


It's in the cafeteria, all the tables and the bright lights overhead, and people holding trays and bags, and that sound like a buzz, like a bunch of people are talking at once, and okay but why is he here and wasn't he supposed to be taking notes about the formulas he didn't understand? Tsuna looks down at his tray, but it's empty. He forgot to get anything? And then he looks up and there, across from him at their table, is Chrome, wearing a Namimori uniform and with nothing on her plate but some chocolate puffs, which she's prodding with a fork and rolling about, and Chrome, what are you doing, you don't eat those with a fork --

"Is that all you're going to eat?" he finds himself asking. "B-but you need proper nutrition -- "

"It is certainly better than hospital fare," Mukuro says, beside her suddenly, and what are you saying, are you saying that because of you or because Chrome was in the hospital too or -- I really don't understand -- "Tell me, Sawada Tsunayoshi. Are you familiar with Freudian theory? Chrome is."

And he actually thinks about it for a moment. Remembers something about phalluses, and -- "Oh, no, I can't read adult magazines." He's fidgeting just thinking about the idea, and stop talking about uncomfortable things, Mukuro. You don't even go here, do you? No, Mukuro is his. No, friend isn't right, but -- "Wait. Where's Gokudera-kun and Yamamoto? And why are you two here? Did you transfer?"

"It's quite the cute look on her, isn't it?" he hears Mukuro say. "Even though I'd rather die than wear the attire of you and your mafiosi cronies."

Mukuro what did you just say. I'm not --

But Tsuna looks up, sees that Mukuro is wearing the green Kokuyo uniform again, even though before he had a new jacket and new pants and boots or something, but this is green like a jungle, and oh no, Hibari-san is going to be angry and they're going to fight and destroy the cafeteria and the school probably --

"Psychoanalysis -- " Mukuro continues, while Tsuna blinks, and, "-- or the study of dreams. What do you suppose people would make of this one? It's yours, after all."

"Well... wait -- Mukuro... ?"

And then he notices what's on Mukuro's plate. It's --

At first he thinks it's a chicken, a cooked one, but oh no, no; it's big and it fat and it has wings and feathers and its red and blue eyes are just... staring at Tsuna, glaring, accusing, and then Mukuro sticks a fork in the crown of its head. Dark red blood oozes out, like a wound, and Tsuna feels kind of nauseous, even though he didn't even know you could feel that in a dream.

"I've quite the appetite, after all this time. Surely you understand." And Mukuro is just grinding off chunks of owl with his fork and shoveling them into his mouth, and then Chrome is pouring him a glass of something -- is that juice, is that fruit juice, oh no -- and if this is Tsuna's dream, then why is this happening? ("Well -- " Mukuro says, "Aren't you the one to answer that?")

"Boss," Chrome says. "It's -- nice. Seeing you."

"Oh. Yeah. Nice."

And then Tsuna looks at her plate again (mostly to not look at Mukuro's); sees that it's got a thick, meaty burger (is that beef, though?) on it now instead of chocolate puffs, somehow, and she smiles and says, "Thank you" -- as if he made the hamburger for her -- ? But it is his dream, isn't it? But.

"But I don't know if I can . . . "

She's blushing. Indicating her food with a tilt of the shoulder, like she doesn't know if she can find enough room in her stomach for it all, which is maybe true, because Chrome --

"Maybe you should try a salad -- "

The hamburger sprouts a curly tail and four legs and stands up.

Begins oinking mouthlessly at nothing in particular.

"Oh, no," Tsuna says.

Chrome picks it up lightly. Hugs it to her chest.

"I want out," he goes on, unheard.

~*~


Anxiety positions this dream hemisphere. Freeze it for a moment. Look at the contours, like a picture frame. Mukuro hums a laugh; partakes of the food and drink which Tsuna’s mind has so generously provided. Dubious nourishment, but who would have expected otherwise?

“A cafeteria is a location of socialization,” Mukuro explains, expert-of-dreams; this mind, not so unlike the other youthful ones within which he’s walked. These feelings – this hot, bubbling world – not new, no, anything but; it’s exquisite, like pain, like grief, like tension, which fuels this dream, this world, this thriving human realm. He sits. Sits, watches Tsuna, watches with his knuckles rapping the flat white board of a dining hall table – twisting the fork so that the skin ruptures and the blood spills, red droplets. This meat is not well done.

And Tsuna looks caught between smiling in (earnest) awkwardness or fretting, frowning, crying. Twitch of muscles. Puddling expressions. Are you really, after so long, the one I came to Japan to encounter? But you’re only just a child.

“You live life as nervous as a rabbit. That’s what it means,” Mukuro explains, patiently-sighing-gentle, for now; playing soft again, now; only for the moment. Not annoyed. Not here, where nothing matters. He eyes the faceless, formless masses of students who pack within the room, their own trays in hand. They move about, grey and ghostly. Mukuro hums. “Why should they matter?”

Tsuna starts as though he’s going to attempt to offer an answer, but then he looks down, looking glum, at his plate, at the empty distance between him and the other two.

“I see.” Mukuro shrugs, eyes narrowed, and beneath his hand, bird bones break. Shatter. Wings crushed. Incipient mess. A carved offering – he presses the plate forward, like a sacrifice, smiling. He’s still holding the knife. “You haven’t an answer. But, then, no one does.”

“Um,” Tsuna says.

Mukuro sees him breathe in.

“I don’t know, really,” Tsuna says. “It’s a cafeteria, I guess?”

“Yes, of course.” Mukuro exhales, the not-reply to Tsuna’s intake of air, as if the possession is already complete, as if he answers for Tsuna’s body in some measure. Action and reaction.

Not an epiphany – Sawada Tsunayoshi, the antithesis thereof. Desirous of simplicity, no transcendent truths, no greater meanings.

It’s a cafeteria. You eat within it. It’s not a manifestation of your fears of socializing, teenage isolation, crowds, your half-realized erotic yearnings (is that the girl you like I see at that other table, like the after-image of a scene during a fire -- smoke-haze, blurred eyes, a blurred girl, water-rippled, shimmering distantly, above all?). I’m not going to stand and drive this knife through your ribs, into your chest. That would be crass. More Kyouya’s style, I suppose.

My style is to offer you this knife. A gift. You understand.

Please, take it, in the name of Vongola. Take it, from my hand, when my hand is your hand. When your hand is my hand. And then drive it into your chest (mine).

Traitorously, to whom.

Mukuro has already died too many times.

There are others within the room besides the three of them, though he cannot discern their natures at a glance. You never really know someone until you’ve been within them, and even then, humans confuse you. Puzzling, trivial creatures.

Didn’t Mukuro, the boy he once was (the boy he once pretended to be), when he was living among those adults of the mafia persuasion (but we remember the red with which that life of this boy ended) once attend a school, such as this? (But there were more roses.)

Didn’t he once sit in a place of eating and daydream beneath the high rafters?

“We all must grow up, sometime,” he says. Remembers a sort of transfer, a second school – far in the east, across the ocean in the abundant greenery of Japan. Not a school you could brag of attending. A school of delinquents, rather, and Mukuro, the star pupil (and breaking it down, picking apart the bodies, minds, hearts of the other boys – those days, before the main conquest). “People can be led astray so easily.”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, Hitsuji.

A great, seeping nostalgia, in this haunted dream of a school. The life and deaths of a boy. The lives of boys. The deaths of boys. Toys.

With a slight cracking sound, Tsuna reaches into his mouth, although he is not eating. Has not been eating.

Fumbling, dislodging, extraction: Tsuna pulls his hand away. Cups the tooth in the palm of his hand. Dazed, then a strangled scream; holding his head, wondering (Mukuro hears, though the boy never says it so articulately) why this happens to him. Another tooth, and another. A bloody breaking gush.

Why, though? Because it’s a dream, of course. “It’s a common motif, isn’t it?” Mukuro explains (certain Tsuna has dreamed of this before). “Tooth loss. I wonder – “

He smiles with the force of memories.

Mukuro’s one lingering connection to Namimori Junior High.

The mark of his presence, and it’s fitting that it appears here, in this dream of the location.

But then beside him, beside Mukuro, Chrome is standing, and patiently, unsmiling, without tears, she leans forward, across the table, and collects the teeth like flower heads for a basket. Picks them up, one by one.

As Mukuro touches his chin, and watches, she presses the bits of bone back into the soft indentations of gum. Reaches all the way into her Boss’s mouth without flinching. Feels him out.

Chrome eases the broken teeth back inside, fitting snugly, and wipes the spilled blood from the table.

PART ii.
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