PLEASE let me know if this chapter is, you know, readable. Because this is my third attempt to get fanfiction to actually upload the doc in a legible form rather than just a long stream of "/.,mnfbdiklhgdf" garble.

Author's Note: Okay! Finally finished A chapter of Ballad. No, it's not the one with Hibari in it, I'm a bit (a lot) stuck on that one and this chapter was actually TALKING to me, so I decided to work on that instead. WARNING, this chapter has a lot of angst. It's also kind of ... dark. I mean, this is basically about how the Varia figured out that Skull's title of The Immortal was literal so ... yeah. There's a little bit of fluff at the end though. Review responses will be at the bottom!

Also, totally random, GUESS WHO JUST DISCOVERED THE REPLY TO REVIEW BUTTON? Seriously. I've been on this site how many years and I never saw...? Whatever. Hopefully after this discovery, I can go back to my original plan of using the Review Response to answer to guests and use the Review Reply button to answer everybody else. Hopefully.

Copyright Disclaimer: I do not own Katekyo Hitman Reborn, Transformers, or any references made in this story. Only things I own are my OCs, my interpretation of Skull, and the plot.


Eighth Stanza: An Immortal's Scars

Year: 2010. Season: Fall. Country: Italy. Age: Cursed. Timeline: FTNW.


Looking back, Skull was … surprised that it had taken as long as it did for the secret to come out. She was the best at what she did, but Varia missions were difficult to the point of insanity, especially when it was a mission given to one of Xanxus's Elements rather than any of the lower ranked members. Considering the danger and just how many ways things could go wrong on any of those missions, it was bound to come out sometime. From that perspective, it was impressive that she lasted as long as she did. Just a little over a year past her Harmonization with Xanxus.

The way the secret came out was a surprise as well —even though it shouldn't have at that point—. Not on a mission, but just … a simple misstep, a consequence of mafia life.

But to start from the beginning; the scenario was simple. It started with a Lussuria-mandated vacation to Mafia Land for Xanxus and his Elements. A break after a particularly teeth-grinding slew of missions for Decimo, assassinations and threats of assassination against a famiglia that refused to acknowledge Tsunayoshi's legitimacy because of his new way of running things. The vacation had been … nice. Even though Colonnello was on the island somewhere, Skull had yet to see him and watching Bel and Squalo fight over which attraction to go see next was hilarious.

Then, in the middle of Xanxus sizing up Squalo's head as the target of his latest wine glass, the explosions started. The Varia had rallied in an instant, weapons out and senses alert, trying to pinpoint the reason —the person— behind the disturbance. The invasion klaxons went off a few minutes later, but by then the Varia already knew about that because there were people gunning each other down in the streets. The attackers were hard to pinpoint, none of them were wearing a famiglia uniform, but rather an assortment of plainclothes or —infuriatingly— staff uniforms of Mafia Land. The latest invaders actually had brains, and had infiltrated Mafia Land rather than simply bombard the shoreline like so many previous attempts —the infiltration must have taken years of practice and patience to get so many inside—.

The Varia quickly carved out a corner of the battlefield and began expanding it with extreme prejudice, Xanxus's fury —how dare they interrupt his vacation— and glee —free targets to shoot— pounding through their veins like a second heartbeat. Skull flitted back and forth, sometimes in her Femme Fatale form, sometimes just as Skull Di Mort. Death followed her, either in the form of lethal illusions and expertly thrown toothpicks or in the blunt force of a Cloud swatting aside an annoyance.

Then she felt it, a spike of adolescent Flames in the midst of the chaos, distinct in its immature, frightened note. She gravitated toward it without thinking, Cloud instincts screaming to protect-protect-protect- because mafia or not, assassin or not, no child should be left alone and unprotected in this kind of nightmare. She ran, fury in every line, driven by instinct and memory both —memory of burning tents and broken screaming, of an orphan with no one to save her—. Enemies fell with broken bodies and crushed skulls as she honed in on the lost child and memories stung the back of Skull's throat —it didn't help that it was late evening, it didn't help that there were fires everywhere, it didn't help that today was The Anniversary—.

The child came into view, tiny Rain Flames flickering as he cried beneath a fallen piece of carousel, ankles trapped and bloody. Skull heaved the debris away with a flicker of Cloud Flames, reached for the child to carry him to Lussuria for protection, saw a bomb land at their feet from where some amateur idiot was throwing them with poor aim.

It took less time than a thought's lifespan to coat the child in a protective shell of Cloud Flames and throw in Lussuria's direction —nevermind he was three blocks away and couldn't see her, she was a Cloud and she could throw as far as she wanted— with a warning, Cloud-enhanced scream of, "Luss, catch-!"

She felt the explosion rather than heard it, felt the wave of power and fire slam into her back and side and send her flying. She twisted, struggled to land in a way that would reduce the incoming damage to just broken bones —too late already, she could feel the concussive damage to her organs, taste blood in her mouth—, hit the ground rolling-

Came to a sharp stop in an upright position, legs and arms sprawled, back pressed against warped metal of an attraction's fence. She felt it before she saw it, knew what had happened before she registered Silhouette's wail over their bond from the hold of the Varia's mega-yacht. It was too familiar to mistake for anything else. The way her lungs felt like they were scraping something with every breath she took, the pulse of agony —dulled by experience, sharpened again by bitter dread— where her stomach should be, the taste of copper on her tongue. She didn't even need to see the long, warped piece of iron fencing sticking out of her —tiny, toddler-sized, she'd lost her Mist form— torso to know it was there. Being impaled felt pretty distinctive and recognizable, once a person had done it enough times. She slammed her bonds shut from the agony and dread and resignation —not again, she hated this, hated-it-so-much-but-she-couldn't-stop—, only keeping it open long enough to send a pulse of, "I'm fine, keep kicking aft," to Xanxus and the others before she snapped them shut and closed her eyes.

She hated being impaled.

The fighting raged on around her, but she didn't bother to care. She just focused her Mist Flames back into her adult form, forced her lengthened legs to curl beneath her against the pavement, ignored the scream of pain that bubbled unspoken amid the copper on her tongue at the motion. Her fingers dug furrows in the concrete as she kept her silence, purple fire sparking across her fingernails as she took a deep breath —shouldn't have done that always made that mistake it-hurt-it-hurt-it-hurts— and pushed with her legs.

For once, she was grateful for the deafening ring in her ears. She'd always hated the sound her body made when she freed it from this kind of predicament, and it was a small mercy that she didn't have to hear it this time.

She caught herself with her arms before her face could hit the pavement, spat out the mouthful of copper taste that had built up. Picked herself up and half staggered, half crawled to cover by literal force of Will. Her Flames surged through her, pushing and creating and fighting —prolonging really, for better or worse that was all it ultimately did— against the injury while also trying to sustain her adult form. Once she reached cover, the adult form vanished, leaving her there, a tiny body in an unnoticed pool of shadows and growing red.

She lay on her side and ignored Silhouette's angry, frantic pushing against the bond shield, ignored the way Xanxus was slowly becoming worried by her prolonged silence over their bond. She lay there and breathed. And waited. Grey had taken over two thirds of her vision before she became aware that silence had fallen only to be broken by a demanding, "Voi! Skull, where are you? Get your *ss out here!"

She didn't answer. Couldn't. There wasn't enough air in her lungs by this point and if she opened the bonds they would feel her agony and she couldn't let them suffer too —not now, not when the element to element bonds were so new and novel, not when this would be their first time seeing this and that was terrifying enough—.

It was Belphegor who found her, nosy little blood-obsessed thing that he was. She could tell by the leer he sported as he poked his head into her cover that he'd been following the blood trail in hopes of finding an overlooked enemy to finish off. She watched, distant and numb, as the leer froze on his face as recognition hit. Then fell as realization set in.

She didn't think she'd ever heard Belphegor scream for Lussuria like that before. All glass-brittle composure and desperation instead of his usual arrogance and tantrum-threatening demand. There was a blink of time —darkness encroaching, ready to swallow her whole yet again— and when her eyes opened again she was in Belphegor's arms, Lussuria's large palms pressed tight against her torso, Sun Flames creating heatwaves of desperation to fix what she knew was too great for them.

The others were crowded around, shouting and furious —at her for not saying anything, at whoever dared do this to one of them—. Only Xanxus was silent, hovering by Belphegor's elbow, the closest of them all save for Lussuria's frantic face and Belphegor's trembling arms. He was staring at her with a frozen expression, red eyes tight and gleaming with an emotion that could only be fear.

The agony was gone now, replaced by familiar numbness, and so she risked opening her bonds again. Silhouette had gone silent, just radiating sympathy and comfort as best she could. Everyone else's bonds were a clamor of panic. She reached out mentally to her Sky, felt the way he clutched her back over the bond, a stubborn, silent snarl of, "Don't you dare. Don't you f*ing dare. You stay right here. Right-"

"It's okay." Her thoughts were hard to catch and organize now, let alone narrow down to one bond, so the message wasn't just sent to Xanxus, but all of them, "I'll be fine." There was a flicker of disbelief, —grief, despair from Lussuria as he felt her falling—. She smiled and ignored the cold creeping up her limbs for as long as she could, "I'll be fine," she repeated.

The world got darker and the cold was suddenly wrapping around her bonds, strangling them until she could barely feel them. For the first time in a long time, Skull felt afraid of the coming black. Her Flames shuddered under the loss of warmth from her Sky and she latched onto the frost-coated bond in a sudden fit of desperation the likes of which she hadn't had in decades, "Xanxus!"

Sky surged back, angry and desperate, a lion's roar of, "No-no-NO-SKULL-" Echoing to her before the black snapped its jaws shut and Skull knew no more.





The first half of the trip back to Varia Castle was made in silence. They'd left Mafia Land behind in smoke and more ruins than normal, their fury at the infiltrators swift and brutal all the way back to Xanxus's yacht —because like h*ll were they going to deal with idiots on a slow ferryboat—. Normally they would have stuck around and helped weed out the traitors, maybe racked up a few favors from the other famiglia's —like the famiglia of the baby Rain Skull had saved—.

But normally Belphegor wouldn't have been clutching a tiny, unmoving body to his chest the whole time, dried tear tracks barely visible on his pale skin. Normally the Varia wouldn't be in shock at the loss of one of their own.

It wasn't until they were on the ramp of the yacht that the silence was broken by Belphegor's breath faltering. The boy came to a dead stop, head snapping down to the body in his arms —they hadn't been about to leave one of their own behind, even if she was no longer alive—, and fingers twitching before he hissed, "Lussuria."

The Sun looked over his shoulder, concern rising to the surface of his tightly leashed anger —over his failure to realize Skull had been caught in that blast, his failure to find and help in time—, "Bel?"

The faintest flutter of Cloud Flames brushed against their senses, warming the frozen tips of the bond they'd assumed was dead and broken just as Belphegor rasped, "She's breathing."

Lussuria was in front of Belphegor almost before the prince finished speaking, his hands perfectly steady despite the wild disbelief everyone else could feel radiating off him. He peeled away the blood-soaked purple fabric of Skull's ruined jumpsuit. He stared. Took a shaking breath that sounded distinctly strangled, "She's breathing."

The confirmation from the Sun unfroze the others and they began to crowd until Xanxus snapped, "No! Everyone on the yacht first. We're headed home." It isn't safe here. Everyone accepted the unspoken reason and hurried onto the boat. Levi steered them out of port and back toward Italy as Squalo cleared the small dining table with an aggressive sweep of his sword hand.

For once, Lussuria didn't comment on the destruction of everything that had been on the table. He was too busy coaxing Belphegor into laying the tiny Cloud down on the marbled surface so that he could examine her properly. Deft hands peeled away Skull's jumpsuit again, revealing snow white skin slowly growing over the gaping hole in Skull's torso. The hole itself was already coated with the faintest shimmer of Flames, and as Lussuria ran tentative Sun Flames over it, the faint sensations of Cloud over their bonds increased in response even though the healing skin remained at a crawl, "Her organs are growing back," Lussuria breathed, "I think … her Flames are keeping anymore blood from escaping while her body heals itself."

Squalo was still, dangerous and coiled like a snake about to strike despite having no enemy in sight, "You said her heart stopped."

Lussuria glanced over his glasses at Squalo, "It did."

"Then how the F*CK-!"

Xanxus growled, deep and warning, and everyone stilled, "It doesn't matter. She's breathing now. Lus, Viper, keep an eye on her. Squalo, help Levi. Bel,"

Red-stained hands twirled twin knives in a nervous but stubborn gesture, "The Prince stays."

Xanxus paused, then dipped his head in permission. He stared down at Skull for a long time, watching the rise and fall of a tiny chest, clinging to the barely shivering —but alive— Flame bond. Then he turned and left without a word, aiming for the back of the boat where they kept the emergency vehicles.

He needed to have a long talk with Silhouette.





Dying was always the same. No matter how it happened, darkness always came and swallowed her whole, after which she would … drift. Not really gone —there was a precipice in the black, just off to the side, one she always skirted, true death as she perceived it— but not aware of the world outside either. Her only link to life were her Flames. Purple and indigo light, diffuse and ineffective at lighting her way, but comforting all the same. Her path back to the rest of the world, once whatever had killed her was healed enough that waking up would not send her straight back into shock from the pain.

There was no time in the black. There was just … existing. Waiting. Fighting the lure of the black.

She didn't know how long it was before the glow of her Flames brightened and drew her out of the black. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours —there was always a moment, right on the edge between dying and waking where Skull would feel afraid that it had been years, that everything around her would be gone and have left her behind—. Then she pulled free of the black and became aware of her body and reality again.

She breathed, felt the steady push and flow of air in undamaged lungs, listened to the thrum of her heart in her chest, beating a steady note. A silent twitch through her fingers and toes proved that her spine was alright and she didn't feel the thick, angry fog around her thoughts that came from a brain injury or broken skull. It took another few seconds to remember how she'd died this time, and another second after that to blink her eyes open and tentatively open the frosty gates to her bonds.

Silhouette radiated sad calm and loving welcome like always, but it was almost drowned out by the flood of angry-confused-relieved-angry-angry- that erupted from the other bonds in time to a sudden cacophony of shouting. The emotions and shouting jolted through her body like adrenaline and she made to sit up only to be held down by a large hand that radiated Sun Flames and concern and … guilt?

Skull's hands clamped on the fingers of the one holding her down and opened her eyes the rest of the way. She stared. She was in the Varia medical wing, one of the luxurious private rooms reserved for Xanxus and his Elements, all of whom were crowded around her bedside like reverse-vultures. Lussuria was hovering over her, a round of meaningless babble that flowed from soothing to scolding to soothing again falling from his lips as he pressed his Flames deeper into her body.

She shivered at the intrusion —usually the only Flames around were hers or an enemy's when she woke up, she'd never been near friendly Flames after "dying" before—, then gasped when Xanxus's Sky coiled tight around her like a possessive dragon, "Chibi," growled Xanxus as his Elements went silent, "we need to talk."

Skull eyed him uncomprehendingly, "About what?"

Squalo looked almost ready to explode, hands gesticulating a crazy storm as he roared, "Voi! The f*ck do you think it's about? You died Skull! You died and then your heart suddenly started f*ing beating again by itself after Lussuria declared you dead! How the f*ck did you do that? Why the h*ll didn't you tell us?"

Skull couldn't stop the laugh —old and broken and bitter— that escaped her as she shifted to her adult form and pushed Lussuria's hands away, "Oh that. What's there to say? I'm pretty sure you just saw everything you need to see, and I did tell you what I am. I've told everyone what I am since the day I walked into that thrice-slagged Arcobaleno meeting for the first time."

She smiled, bright and false as her gaze jumped from face to face, lingering on Mammon who was hovering by Xanxus's shoulder before settling on her Sky, "I am the Immortal. The stuntwoman that Death hates." Xanxus's Flames tightened with emotion and Skull looked away, smile gone, as she murmured, "It's not my fault nobody believes me. Besides. The Arcobaleno knew."

"We did not," snapped Mammon tightly and Skull laughed again.

"You didn't? None of you? You didn't put the pieces together in Dubai? In Rome? In Siberia? I wasn't as good at staying alive back then as I am now. I thought for sure you'd picked up at least that much, even if you still thought of me as the Lackey." Mammon flinched under her cloak, the rest of the Varia grew even more somber and upset. Skull tried to grasp why but couldn't —this was a part of her life, she had never hidden it so even if they hadn't figured it out before, why was it so upsetting to learn now?— and Silhouette's spark-deep sadness didn't help explain anything.

Xanxus's expression was frozen, his entire frame stiff, and it was Squalo who aired the question with a suddenly too-quiet voice, "How many times?"

Skull blinked, not understanding. She could function right after waking up, but really she needed food and a nap —proper nap, not the death sleep— before she got back up to full mental speed —the black always numbed everything, thoughts and emotions and words, even if she hadn't suffered a head injury to get there—. Squalo twitched, then repeated, "How. Many. Times. Skull? How many times have you died?"

"How many times total? Or since joining the Varia?" She blurted without thinking. Xanxus's Flames physically shuddered and Lussuria's hand clamped tight on her shoulder. All of her bonds seemed to keen in unison and Skull resisted the urge to curl in on herself in shame. She didn't know why they were reacting so poorly. She hated dying, of course she did. But she always crawled her way back and Silhouette had always taken care of her until she did, then kept her safe and warm and loved until she recovered the nerve to go back out into the world until death came for her again.

"Answer the question, Skull," snapped Levi on behalf of the still-frozen Xanxus and Skull sighed.

She ran a hand through shaggy purple hair, "Since joining the Varia? This is the first time. Xanxus would have felt it if I'd died earlier. Total…?" She counted in her head, then stopped and admitted quietly, "You know … I don't know anymore. I lost track somewhere, I think. I could give you a rough estimate I suppose, just let me take a quick count…" Skull shifted, fingers touching the fabric of her shirt as she subconsciously traced each line and divot and ripple on her skin, fingers tracing up her spine and neck as she mentally tallied the scars that couldn't be seen except with an X-Ray.

Her mental tally stopped around twenty when Lussuria took her hands and clasped them in shaking palms. Something trembled over their bond, like tears and storms and clouds covering the sunshine, "Skull," he wavered and she mentally sat up at the lack of a cutesy honorific, "are you telling me that all of your scars … are fatalities?"

She studied their linked hands, then looked up at him in bemusement, "Yes? You've seen my healing factor Lus, have you ever seen me scar before?" Lussuria's fingers went white around her hands, Skull examined them with a blank sort of curiosity and wondered if he was going to accidentally break her hands from squeezing so hard as she continued, "My Flames usually heal everything too fast for it to scar, but when it's a fatal hit, they get … too busy. Keeping my blood in, making more blood, stitching up whatever got broken or shot or stabbed this time. Even I don't have enough Flames to do all that and worry about regrowing my skin as good as new. So it scars. My bones scar too. Little lines from fatal breaks and web patterns in the places where they shattered and crushed something important. My Mist Flames push them back into place and my Cloud welds it all back together again good as new except for the little lines."

Squalo made a strangled noise and Bel —who had wiggled onto the bed at some point— wrapped his arms and legs around her like a gentle, careful, but clingy octopus. Xanxus hissed, low and dangerous and agonized, like he was the one who'd been impaled recently and not Skull while Levi just radiated intense discomfort. Mammon settled on the foot of the bed, lips white under her cloak and thoughts racing too fast for Skull to catch over their new bond.

Lussuria though … Lussuria worried her. Somewhere in her ramble —her tongue was always too loose right after waking up, like being tipsy drunk without actually being drunk—, his end of the bond had gone very carefully blank, had shut down so she couldn't feel anything from it. Skull watched as the Sun delicately unwound his fingers from hers, stood, and … left the room. Just … left the room. No instructions, no scolding, no promises to return in a moment. Just turned and vanished out the door. Skull stared after him and wondered what she'd done wrong now. She couldn't think of anything and Silhouette was suddenly too depressed to answer her.

She looked over at the others, "Did I say something wrong?"





Lussuria stayed in control until he reached an empty training room —it hadn't been empty when he got there, but one whiff of his seething Flames and the occupants had fled—. Then he broke.

His fists slammed into anything they could reach, bags, walls, equipment, he didn't care. He threw broken punching bags and embedded disk weights into the walls as his Flames seethed and screamed and Raged. Failed. Hissed something in the back of his head, failed, failed, blind, blind, failed-. Sun Flames surged in and out of his skin like a solar flare as he rampaged across the training room, trying to work off the energy building inside him so that he could think past the fury and shame in his head.

He'd known about her scars. Of course he had. He was the head medic, he saw to all of Xanxus's Elements personally and had their files memorized down to blood-type and date of their last check-up. He'd also known about her healing factor, it was noted down in her file, in the place where he put all the warnings about how his patient's Flames might aid or complicate treatment. "Rarely even needs stitches" he'd written, "broken bones are healed within hours or less". He'd been excited then, pleased over such a strong, durable Cloud to protect Boss and keep up with Xanxus on missions.

So why, why had he not even stopped to wonder how she'd gotten so many scars?

Scars on her neck vertebrae, hairline marks all down her spine and ribs and along her skull, bullet and grenade divots over her shoulders and back. Long-healed gashes over her chest —down her chest from collarbone to sternum like a scalpel don't-think-about-it— and legs and across her waist —bisection, that's why the scar went almost all the way around, she'd nearly been cut in half—.

All of the Varia had scars. Even Mammon had scars littered across her tiny body. Some of them had more than others and since Skull had been alive for decades Lussuria had just assumed they were a consequence of being in the mafia world for so long. They never seemed to bother her despite their number, so he hadn't questioned it. Hadn't even stopped to consider, to put together, that with a healing factor as potent as hers … how had she gotten scars in the first place? How many times and in how many ways had she died before meeting the Varia only to drag herself back and keep going?

Too many. Far too many. Now that he was thinking about it, now that he'd realized-. There were so many ways and the signs were all there. Impalement, slit jugular, shrapnel in the bones and lungs, crushed ribs, shattered spine, near-bisection, burns —smoke inhalation?—, ruptured organs, those scalpel marksafraid of doctors and medical equipment but hides it well, prior negative experiences likely, Lussuria had written like a blind, unthinking fool—.

He couldn't even begin to picture —didn't want to, didn't want to imagine— just how many times it had taken, how many repeated ends that had been healed over and merged so that one scar was indistinguishable from the one beneath it. How many times it must have taken before Skull could adopt that blank, resigned attitude toward it and all the symptoms that came with it —chronic insomnia, lack of self-preservation instincts, touch-wary, mildly touch-starved, nightmares, oh Sky what must the nightmares be like—.

And. He. Hadn't. Seen. It.

Not until Skull's pulse had stopped far longer than a normal human could survive and then restarted itself. Not until she'd gone too-still in Belphegor's arms despite all the Sun Flames Lussuria had been pumping into her. Not until she admitted that she'd lost count of how many times it had happened and she'd woken up from it —alone, always alone, she'd had no real Famiglia until then and Mammon said the Arcobaleno hardly ever interacted—.

Lussuria came to a stop, chest heaving and the room around him ruined. Reached up underneath his glasses to press his hands against his eyes. Tried to breathe past the clawing fury and sense of failure that ate at his insides.

He was the Varia Sun Officer. Head medic and the only thing akin to a therapist they had. He'd always been overprotective, always tried to help those he considered his own in any way possible. When the others had started calling him "team mom" as a joke, he'd joked back that he was too young and handsome to be their mother. But when they'd changed it to various forms of "big sister" instead, he'd taken the title and run with it. Worn it with pride because that was his job. To make them feel safe enough to joke, to keep them healthy enough to laugh. Everyone in the Varia had problems Lussuria couldn't fix —Belphegor's mental instability from childhood abuse, Levi's self-worth issues, his own eyesight, Squalo's hand that the swordsman had stupidly cut off just to name a few—.

They were all messed up, blood-thirsty assassins with issues piled up by the mile, but at least with those problems he could be there. At least with them he could take their minds off it, even if it meant acting silly and wildly over the top. At least he knew about those problems and could plan for them, make allowances for them, do things in secret to make it easier on them because he was their Sun and that was his job. To fix whatever he could and give energy to survive the rest.

He thought he'd done that with Skull. Thought he'd had their Cloud, —their newest, their rookie for all she had decades of experience on them outside the Varia— figured out and accounted for. Skull had insomnia and often worked herself to sleep tinkering with her bike. He'd figured it was a Cloud thing, a way to unwind when she started to feel crowded and it was too late at night to go running off into the countryside, so he'd made sure there were always snacks and spare blankets and pillows in the garage and called it good. He didn't want to crowd her after all, even if she was an Inverted rather than a Classic.

Skull was reckless and had little self-preservation. Most Clouds were like that, she had an enhanced healing factor and she'd survived so far, so he'd assumed she knew her limits. Kept his fussing to normal levels and only ran checkups once a month to make sure nothing serious slipped under the radar. He knew she disliked doctors and medical things, but a lot of assassins did —it implied helplessness and a failure to do their job right—, so he made sure to run the checkups himself and talk his way through the process. Since Skull had never thrown him through a wall for it, he'd thought she was acclimating to it.

Skull was touch-wary and mildly touch-starved. Well, they were the world's best assassins, being touch wary was just common sense. As for being touch-starved, that was a pretty common problem among their field. It came with being always on guard for an attack and not letting other people too close. He'd assumed that, since she was used to them now and her bonds with them had solidified, he'd be able to remedy that like he did with the others via spontaneous affection —everyone knew he was touchy and liked to randomly hug or pat or hair-ruffle the others, just like he knew that they only protested as a matter of course and didn't retaliate too violently because they trusted him and subconsciously appreciated it—.

Skull had nightmares. Well, who didn't? One of the reasons Lussuria took his job as Sun so seriously was because that was one of his own coping methods for it —he also stress cooked. It was always gratifying to see the products of his stress used to keep his fellow Elements and his Sky healthy—. There was nothing he could do about nightmares except make sure Skull had places to which to retreat. He'd offered sleeping medication once, but Skull had turned him down —and oh, how similar was the forced unconscious of sedatives to slipping away toward death? People often called death an eternal sleep after all—.

So many things. So many things that he'd passed off as the usual brand of trouble for those in the mafia. So many things that were worse than he could ever imagine because he hadn't seen that Skull was immortal. Hadn't considered what that meant.

How often was her insomnia triggered by memories of dying? How much of her negligence over her own health and self-preservation was because she'd started taking it for granted that she was going to die either way and then come back from it with only another scar to show for it? How many instincts and flashbacks had he unknowingly almost triggered when he coerced her into a checkup? How much of her touch wariness was healthy paranoia and how much were suppressed memories of being killed?

How many times had his surprise hugs and grabs mimicked a lethal assault and why hadn't she told him? The others always had. Squalo didn't like being approached from the side of his sword hand —didn't want his weapon pinned in case of assault—. Belphegor tolerated hugs from any direction but got violent if hands came too close to his crown and bangs —fear for his eyes, fear for his only proof that he really was a prince and not a reject—. Levi couldn't be hugged at all without a violent panic attack and at most could only tolerate an arm linked with his or someone leaning against his shoulder when on the couch. Xanxus barely tolerated any form of physical affection at all and it was only recently that Lussuria had been able to get away with leaning briefly against Xanxus's side when walking with his Sky.

Everyone had things they could and couldn't handle and Skull had to have more than most —she'd died, repeatedly, if that wasn't flashback fodder nothing was— and yet she'd never said a word. Why?

And how could Lussuria fix his oversights now that the information had been slapped in his face?

Lussuria took a deep breath. Then another. Carefully tucked his Sun Flames away and left the ruined training room. He had things to do. Starting with finishing his conversation with Skull.

Lussuria tracked the location of the others through his bonds. They weren't in the medical bay anymore, but were instead in Xanxus's private sitting room, the one he and his Elements used to relax and watch television without risk of being interrupted by the lower ranks. He entered the room to the sight of Skull's adult form being sprawled on the couch, her back pressed against Xanxus's side and Bel curled possessively in her lap and Mammon perched on her shoulder. Squalo was fuming in a nearby armchair and Levi was brooding in a corner while Skull just looked bemused over their fussing, "-fine now. Seriously. I just need a cup of coffee or something. Maybe a long nap, then I'll be ready for missions again-"

Bel growled and hugged her more tightly around the waist, Lussuria watched Skull carefully for any signs that the constriction was reminiscent of a fatality. Skull didn't react to the royal octopus in her lap, but instead lifted her head from Xanxus's shoulder to watch Lussuria in the doorway. There was a flash of unease in her expression, then confusion and wary regret —usually he had to work harder to decipher her expressions, was that a side-effect of dying too?—, "…Luss-nee?"

Lussuria moved closer and carefully knelt in front of the couch, "I think we need to have a talk, Skull-chan."

Skull made a face, "…Xanxus already lectured me about not keeping quiet when I take a bad injury and making sure I have backup whenever possible and taking my own safety more seriously on the field even though I'm immortal. Everyone took turns yelling at me for that last one. I'll be more careful next time. I know that had to be horrible to feel on your end of the bonds…" her voice trailed off as Lussuria reached under his glasses to pinch his nose, "Isn't that why you're angry at me?"

Lussuria's head snapped up in shock. He wasn't the only one either. Shock was rippling over all the bonds. Skull thought he was angry at her? Lussuria glanced at Xanxus, who's lip curled as he reluctantly filled in his Sun on what they'd learned while Lussuria was gone, "Chibi's not all there right now. Too chatty and obtuse. Says it's a side-effect of waking up after-. After. Apparently all the essential things get woken up first, but the rest of the sh*t, like social skills and reading other people's emotions, take a while to click back into place. She says she usually hides out in a safe house until everything gets up to speed in her head."

There were so many implications to that, Lussuria almost needed to get up and leave again. He reined himself in and took Skull's hand gently "Oh, Skull-chan~. I'm not angry at you. Well, I'm angry that you thought it was acceptable to lie and say you were fine when you needed immediate medical help -don't ever do that again- but I'm not… I didn't leave because I was angry at you. I promise."

Skull's forehead wrinkled, "Oh. Alright then." She paused, tilted her head to one side, "What do we need to talk about then?" Her tone was almost childish.

Lussuria took a deep breath, then shook his head. Talking to her in this state wouldn't do much good. She wasn't acting like herself yet, was missing things that Lussuria knew she could normally figure out in seconds, "Later, dear. We'll talk later." He paused, eyed their positions on the couch, then settled on the opposite side of Xanxus. Lussuria kept a very close eye on Skull as he lifted her legs off the cushions to put them in his lap instead, waited for any hint that the touch had negative connotations to her. Instead, there was a flush of surprise and happy contentment from his bond with Skull. He warily settled his hands on her ankles, waited for a negative reaction —he remembered her file, he knew that there were scars on her legs and ankles from who knew what fatality—.

She watched him with a bemused expression and when she saw that he was watching her in return, she smiled, "This is nice. It's a pity that Sil can't join in-." Skull cut herself off, looked around guiltily before pretending to play with the hair on the back of Bel's head —well away from the precious crown that none could touch—.

Lussuria filed the nickname away to ask about later. He was tempted to ask now, to push when he knew Skull was acting borderline drunk and would probably answer even if she normally wouldn't. But a quick pulse of command from Xanxus kept all of the Varia silent on the slip. Still, it was the first time Lussuria had heard the name, and considering the context … perhaps Skull hadn't always been alone when waking up from death? Perhaps there was a contact out there that he could glean more information from about Skull's tells —because apparently he didn't know them nearly as well as he'd thought—.

The Varia settled like that. All missions on hold while they clustered around their Cloud with the possessiveness of a pride of dragons. One of the others turned on the television and Bel, stunningly, didn't demand that someone turn the channel to something bloody and violent. Skull drifted off in minutes, her bond calm and warm. So much better than when it had been icy and still, like a dead thing even as Lussuria had watched her vitals slowly crawl back up to acceptable parameters-.

Lussuria took a deep breath and tried not to think about that. Instead, he began carefully plotting out a new strategy for handling Skull's issues. The others began to join in once he started quietly muttering aloud. It was clear that he'd have to go for the more obvious route for some things, such as what kinds of touch she was alright with. He would have thought that someone as fierce as their Cloud wouldn't tolerate anything truly uncomfortable, but Mammon pointed out that Skull had let the Arcobaleno do basically anything they wanted as long as it didn't involve her bike.

Levi tentatively suggested keeping Skull on team-only missions for a while and playing it off as Skull protecting the others rather than them keeping an eye on her until they managed to beat some self-preservation back into her head. Lussuria added that to the list of ideas right alongside redesigning one of the medical rooms to look as little like a medical room as possible just for Skull. Maybe even build one near the garage. It would be harder to keep sanitized, but being near her Territory and escape routes would probably help with any suppressed flashbacks and it could prove useful for treating any emergencies that came back from a mission.

Bel had rolled up one of Skull's sleeves in her sleep and was idly tracing the delicate burn scars there as he murmured that once Skull was better, it would be time to go hunting. Everyone paused at that, and Bel smiled his biggest not-smile —the one that meant he was too furious to even throw a tantrum— as he pointed out that considering Skull's tendency to let people walk all over her, there were probably still people out there who had … hurt … their Cloud. That those people would have to be taught a long-overdue lesson.

All of the Varia stilled at that thought and Levi made a doubtful noise until Xanxus growled, deep and furious, "Once Skull is recovered. We're going hunting for trash."

The rest of the Varia murmured agreements and Bel gave a quiet but vicious laugh. Perhaps it was petty, or even pointless, to go hunting for people who had caused harm to their Cloud long before she was theirs, but they all needed some stress relief after what had happened.

And if the ensuing rampage both warned people away from touching the Varia's Cloud and cleaned up quite a bit of the trash that had been bothering the Decimo lately, who would protest? Certainly no one that mattered.

For now though, they just clustered around their newest and plotted while she slept onward obliviously, a contented hum emitting from her end of the bond that helped chase away all-too-recent memories of strangled, deathly ice.

Hope you all enjoyed and seriously, let me know if this chapter is readable. Thank you!

Review Responses: Dear AyameKitsune, hello! Well ... you did have to wait a while, but here it is! I hope you enjoyed it!

Dear Cheshire333, hey there! Well, I may get stuck on it for a while, but I've not given up on this story! I hope you enjoyed the latest update too!

Dear NightBringer325, greetings! Honestly, Skull took it EASY on them considering all the stuff she's put up with from them for decades. Still. Just deserts were finally served. Hmm, maybe not quite a beat-down. He is, after all, Tsuna's Cloud and Fon's grandkid, but there will probably be some Cloud vs Cloud action.

Dear Dreamer Rose, hey there! Better late than never right?

Dear buterflypuss, greetings! Why, thank you!

Dear Smoukii, hi! Glad you enjoyed! It's fine, it was actually really cool getting a review in another language.

Dear SphereShadow, hello! You're welcome! I hope you enjoyed this one too!

Dear robina852, heya! (tips hat) glad you thought so!

Dear Hopeshard, hello there! Aww, thank you for saying that! I hope you liked this update too!

Dear wolfsrainrules, heya! It really would. Xanxus would not settle for any less than a five-course dinner, even if it's eaten out in the middle of nowhere on a blanket. Man has standards. Despite how dark it was, the arcobaleno's deaths were ... kinda fun to write? Hard, but interesting to see how many different ways the World's Greatest could have finally met their end. I also really wanted to show why Lal is so ... intense in the anime. (snickers) has stopped working. That's gonna take a while for his pride to recover from.

Dear Cyber-Kanochi, hi! Happy to hear it! (sighs) I know it's been basically a year since I last update this, but hey, at least is 7,000 words long? Also, yep, that was a Ratchet reference and they are ABSOLUTELY going to be an unholy alliance of awesome when Ratchet get's to Earth. The human patients will have nowhere to hide once Skull's on Ratchet's team (evil laughter). Hopefully you enjoyed it and (hopefully) it won't take me so long to put out the next update.

Dear bloodshound, greetings! (grins) I love it when people get a rush trying my stories at random. I know what you mean, the anime is so painful to watch and the manga's not much better. Still, that's what fanfiction is for, to dispense come-uppance and fix the many problems of canon. Lemme think back on my plot notes ... I believe that Silhouette has only been in Skull's family since her father's time, considering that was around WWII. MAYBE her grandfather's time, but I'd have to check my notes and going that far back would make it ... kinda tricky to hide a motorcycle from space. I'm TRYING to expand the Hibari interlude, but the stupid Skylark won't talk to me. As for the bleeped out curses ... yeah, I preferred those too, but they were a pain to write and enough people complained that I went to a slightly less bleeped version. Oh well. Glad someone enjoyed the retro style.

Dear Jade Celandine, hi! Part 1 is the chapter "What Never Was" and it deals mostly with Skull and the Varia rather than the Arcobaleno. It also gives Skull's death in the future timeline in greater detail. It should be chapter 5 I think.

Dear bookimp, hey! (sighs) Still working on that chap. Sorry. Hopefully you enjoyed this one anyway?

Dear finediviner, hello there! (tips hat) Why thank you, it was a lot of fun to write!

Dear foxchick1, heya! Yep. Hibari's instinct borders on Vongola Intuition sometimes I swear.

Dear natt7, hello! Ummmm ... assuming Google Translate didn't its job for once, thank you! I hope you enjoyed this update too!

Dear mokona-pyuh, hi! You have no idea how flattering it is that someone would prep tea and cake just to enjoy my chapter. NO IDEA. Thanks! I almost threw up my hands and gave up around Reborn's POV, but I figured I'd come that far, might as well go the rest of the way. I'm glad you enjoyed all the POVs and world building (and my OC, I was worried how people would take An-Chen). I literally wrote that entire chapter JUST to get to the part where Skull kicks butt and takes names. Still working on that chapter with Hibari, but he's well ... not talkative. I hope you enjoyed this dose of angst instead!

Dear Bookmeister999, heya! Truly, 'tis one of the greatest mysteries Hibari has ever faced. (chortles) See you next time!

Dear May Eve, greetings! (tips hat) happy to hear it!

Dear gella, hi! Honestly? I think all their Lightning Flames kinda shorts out their long-term self-preservation. They're used to being able to shrug off damage, so they don't stop to consider consequences anymore. At least until Skull reminds them that there's always something meaner than them.

Dear aaa, heya! Ahh, I love it when a review shows that I did my job perfectly. Hope you enjoyed this new chapter too!

Dear FlameGilgameshLover, greetings! Heh, well ... I tried to update soon? Seriously I did. But ... yeah. Hope you enjoyed anyway!

Dear iRaine, heya! Aww, thank you! Skull's become a favorite character to play with, even if she's so hard to write sometimes... Hope you enjoyed the update!

Dear Bikutoria Coco13, hey there! (nods) I know, it's tricky to keep track of sometimes. But when it's the Future That Never Was timeline, I always put that in the chapter rundown right under the chapter title, to help keep track.

Dear kagewolf25, hello! Glad you like it!

Dear huskielover94, hi there! Ehhh, that might be a while. I need to take a break from the FTNW reactions. I tried to get away from the angst entirely but (gestures to the chapter above) this is what the muses wanted so...

Dear AzureLazuli, hello! You're welcome! So glad you enjoyed!

Dear , greetings! Well ... I finally updated? Finally. I hope you enjoyed it!

Dear James, hi! Ehhh, not sure when/if I'll get around to Reborn's POV. He's a pain to write. But maybe someday. Hope you enjoyed the chapter!