"I hope that love is strictly platonic," Venus said warningly, and Saturn nearly choked with embarrassment. She settled for covering her mouth with her gloved hand.
"One, she's like a niece to me, and two, I'm asexual," deadpanned Kawahira. "It's a familial kind of love, I assure you."
"Noted. You fear what you love?"
"It's a common trait found in those who live a different time to those around them. I've lost too many to not fear those I love. Loss is painful, even when you're familiar with funerals."
Some may not have pressed the point, at this personal revelation of pain from loss. Venus was not one who fell into the criteria.
"Hotaru isn't mortal."
"Conditional immortality," corrected Kawahira. "She can still be killed. Even the sailors of the stars can come to meet their ends. The only thing eternal in this world is the conflict between Order and Chaos."
Venus – and Saturn, from afar – silently agreed with that. They knew that all-too well.
"And," he added. "I've lost those like myself as well. It's not an unfounded fear."
"But that's not why you fear the rest of us," noted Venus. "Because you might care for Hotaru but I don't think it extends to the rest of us, not in the same way."
Kawahira didn't deny it, but he'd also apparently reached his limit for giving answers upfront for the night.
"Perhaps the subject of my fears is something best left for the next night," Kawahira suggested. "I imagine Sailor Saturn would like to be there in person as well, for this conversation, instead of hearing it over a communicator."
Saturn's heart felt like it had stopped. When it – finally – started to beat again, the sound felt loud in her ears, as if each thud was a confession of guilt.
". . . How did you know?" Venus asked the question that she had received not long ago.
"It was a guess," said Kawahira. "And something I would likely do, in your shoes. We really are similar, it seems. Good night, Sailor Venus, Sailor Saturn."
Takeshi's voice broke her out of her thoughts, and she looked up. He looked concerned, and while there was light spilling from her hand where it touched his skin, there were no light particles drifting from him. He was completely healed, and she had been too distracted to notice.
"Are you okay?" he asked worriedly.
She shook off the memories of last night's overheard conversation, and nodded. "I should be asking you that."
He winced, which was good because it meant he was aware of what he did wrong.
Not calling Saturn in the middle of his match, Hotaru could forgive. Sort of. He did win, and he didn't know what that would actually mean so she would have to give him that.
But not calling her until morning for the wounds he got, she had no reason to be happy about at all.
"What part of call if you get hurt did you miss?" she scolded.
Takeshi raised his hands in surrender. "It wasn't that bad!"
Not that bad, he said. Hotaru felt herself swell with anger, but an inner voice asked if the anger was truly justified, at least in being pointed at Takeshi.
Because there was a true target that deserved it, wasn't there? Because this anger was a mechanism of self-defence, her trying to cast the blame off of her and avert her eyes from the guilt.
I watched you get cut by a sword, Hotaru wanted to say. I watched, like a crowd at the colosseums looking down into the arena where gladiators fought for their lives and the entertainment of the masses, and even when you bled I didn't step in, didn't do a single thing and now I wonder, would I have stepped in even if you called. And you told me to trust you, but I think I didn't trust you so much as I trusted the words of artificially intelligent fruit that has limited precognition. I think I'm a terrible friend for watching you bleed and not doing a thing about it except heal you when all's said and done.
Was this her fault? Was her being around enabling him into a sense of invulnerability? What if one day, he got so hurt that she couldn't get to him in time, and he died because of that? Because of her?
Her eyes grew wet, and while she held back the tears, Takeshi's eyesight was too good to miss that.
"I'm sorry," he apologized immediately, a frantic light of panic alit in his eyes. "I shouldn't have made you worry."
Hotaru swallowed the words on her tongue, that what made her worry was more than Takeshi, and that the main source of her anxiety was probably herself.
She asked, but it was more than that. Hotaru asked if he could give her an excuse, just to know. A little like laundering money, she wanted a valid reason for knowing what had happened last night, so she could do something, say something.
Hotaru wanted to tell him that his opponent hadn't been eaten by a shark, in case Takeshi blamed himself, because the weight of a life was too much for him when he didn't deserve to carry it. She wanted to tell him that she'd been watching, maybe just spill out the shame like lava spilling out from the cracks in the ground, pushed out by too much pressure into the air, release the heat and the weight inside in a confession.
And yet, contrarily, she didn't because she was afraid that he would be frightened by her. Maybe not scared of her in the way Kawahira had confessed to being, but in a different way. That this would be the final line to be crossed and she would truly become a freak in his eyes, and it would hurt her far more than any other time she'd been called such because this time it was from someone who mattered.
Takeshi considered the question, and then smiled for her. "I won."
"You won," she repeated. Two words that, from her perspective of last night, wasn't inaccurate and yet held no lie.
Just – kept out a lot.
He nodded. "I got my revenge match."
She waited, and Takeshi misunderstood her silence. "I'd show you the ring I won for a prize, but it's with Ts – it's somewhere else right now. Honestly, hybrid sumo's hard. Nothing beats baseball, I think."
And Takeshi continued to speak, without ever giving her an opportunity to launder information. Unintentional, but.
Hotaru should have been relieved that the rejection she feared so much never had a chance to happen, so she didn't know why she wasn't.
Technically, this could be considered betrayal.
Oregano and Turmeric were holding their own, shooting with discretion, aiming to maim rather than kill. So far, no deaths had occurred.
The other side was less willing to show the same stay of hand, and if it weren't for the wall they were hiding behind, or Lal covering their backs from the middle of this shootout, there would be two corpses on the ground, losing blood and heat.
And yet not one of them were backing down or reluctant to put their lives on the line for the sake of a distraction, covering Iemitsu. If Lal was to be cynical, she could chalk it up to the age-old adage -
What Xanxus implied could have been a threat, Lal had pointed out, playing the role of the Devil's Advocate. But not with much feeling, because she – like the rest of CEDEF – agreed that there was something deeply suspicious.
The signal from the CEDEF's leader somewhere deep in the bowels of the castle went off, but only Lal noticed. The other two were focused on their opponents. As they should be, because when one didn't keep their head figuratively, they soon lost it literally as well.
Lal hopped down from her perch. "Iemitsu has entered the innermost area."
She accompanied him up to a point, but there were some secrets that should remain the secrets of the Family. She was technically a part of CEDEF by some rather generous concessions made by the Vongola Nono, so she'd pay the man some respect and not snoop. For now.
"He should be fine." Iemitsu was a survivor. He could handle himself.
Turmeric sighed like a weight had been taken off his chest.
"As expected of an Arcobaleno," said Oregano, relief loosening some of the tightness in her face.
The goggles she wore hid any change in light that may have flickered in her eyes.
"Don't call me that," said Lal stiffly. But given that was just how she spoke on a regular basis, it would hardly tip off her dislike of the term to them, and in appearance alone, with the pacifier stone forever around her baby-like neck like a growth or brand, she could hardly correct their perception.
It wasn't as if she ever opened up about her personal sides in CEDEF. They were a good team to work with, to train, but things like feelings and past experiences and the vulnerable, soft parts of her that could be weaknesses were just –
Well, it was hard to bare for another's eyes to see. Hard in this body, hard in general even before this.
Though there had been some that, admittedly, made it easy.
Two different pairs of blue eyes flashed in her memories. One like the skies and the seas, and the other like a lake. Both curving in smiles, fools with hearts too big for their own damn selves.
One was gone and the other, Lal was too much of a coward to ever go see again.
"I'll go around their back and knock them out," said Lal, trying to turn her thoughts away from delving too much into the past.
"Lal." Oregano's voice didn't stop her from hopping up the side of the building, up to the roof. Those not of CEDEF, apparently, had not learned to look for assailants on rooftops. At least, not assailants smaller than the average size.
A mistake on their part, and one she planned on fully utilizing for her own benefits. Let this be a lesson for them.
She gave a brief, quick wave of her hand, dismissive in nature. It didn't matter. It didn't.
The usual response, when having a meeting right after being exposed for eavesdropping on the revelation of a secret, was shame. That was the proper, decent response, emotionally, and the correct action to take would be to apologize.
It was definitely Saturn's response and plan of action when she entered the viewing room, Mercury following her in.
"I'm sorry for listening in," Saturn said, after greetings were exchanged and Mercury pulled out her computer to begin typing something. From the way that the screens flickered, like the cameras were being moved, she could guess that Mercury was hacking into the system.
"Don't be," replied Kawahira with a fond smile. "I would have done the same."
He probably would have, too. Saturn sighed, that he decided to try and diffuse guilt she had this way. It didn't work, for one. For another, it made her feel worse because he probably would have told her to her face if she'd asked.
In a way that was a betrayal of trust, and Saturn made up for it with upright honesty in the next question. "You're not mad?"
"Not really. Curiosity is a good thing, despite what some might try to teach," he said with a hum. "If Pandora hadn't been curious, how would we have known of Elpis?"
Hope. Saturn wondered if he chose that particular example to make reference to her.
"Isn't the story of Pandora about the origin of evil?" Mercury questioned, the other person in the room who saw the pragmatism of eavesdropping on a conversation for information outweighing issues.
"Propaganda and slander by those with an agenda," insisted Kawahira, getting unusually fired up. "The struggles of Order and Chaos existed long before the birth of Earth, and certainly didn't originate from a divine plot to punish mortals. Pandora's only 'sin', if it could be called such, would be that she was curious when those around were too scared of gods to question or See the suffering of life, and dared to name and define what she saw as evils. Such are the qualities of philosophers, scientists, inquirers. Revolutionaries who lead change."
He sounded fond of her. "Did you know her?"
Kawahira made a face as if he was hurt by her question. "I'm around two thousand years old, Hotaru-kun. I'm old, but not that old. She's more of a role model for me."
Ken didn't like this.
Mukuro was in jail, in even deeper confinement because they were too weak to be of use to him. He spoke through the Chrome girl, but only intermittently. He had to make a deal with the Vongola, because they were too weak,
And now, the one responsible for putting the only man Ken would ever follow into the Vindice's prison was unconscious, after releasing the stupidest scream he'd ever heard. And he had heard a lot of screams.
"Stop it already, Ken," said Chikusa, but Rhino Channel was already active. The horn sprouted, and power flooded his body. "Right now we have other things to do."
"Shut up!" The rage of a creature that charged at its foes head-first filled his head. Ken was a beast in the body of a man, Mukuro had said once, but that hadn't been all. A man who wore the souls of beasts. "I'll kill 'em! This kid and the Vongola, too!"
"Tsuna's a contrary one," said the Arcobaleno, like an afterthought. As if he hadn't been making fun of Chikusa, calling him a hippo in this mode. "I thought he'd be completely delighted to see you both again."
Chikusa's hand lightly landed on his shoulder, but the physical reminder wasn't needed to make Ken stay.
Why the hell would this stupid kid be happy at seeing them again? Was he a masochist that got off on people trying to kill him? Or was he puffed up on some dumb pride, thinking that he was better than them?
"After the battle at Kokuyo Land he was always asking about whether you guys were alive. 'Haven't you gotten new information?' or 'They haven't been killed, have they?'. Acting so worried whenever the battle was mentioned, and then acting this way when he finally sees you all in person again." The Arcobaleno shook his head, the image of disappointment.
Ken might call upon the power of beasts, but he was, at base – as Mukuro said, and as he hung onto the words so tightly like they were his greatest treasures – a man. A human being.
It could have been a lie, Ken tried to tell himself. The Arcobaleno wasn't obligated to tell them the truth. Words meant nothing.
But action, the thing that Ken lived by, did. And this dumbass that fainted upon seeing both him and Chikusa, had the stupidest scream ever, had never tried to fight them.
And Ken still remembered the light in his eyes, back then.
The rhino's power drained from his muscles as Ken released his hold. Ignoring the familiar ache of the shift's repercussions, he roared, annoyed.
"Being around this guy is real irritating! Let's go, Kaki-pi."
Chikusa didn't say anything, but Ken heard him move.
Back turned on both the Arcobaleno and the dumb idiot who was stupid enough to worry about the people that tried to kill him, Ken made his opinion clear.
"The Guardian of the Mist is too good for the likes of you. Tell that to the Vongola!"
And then, just in case they were dumb and didn't understand that despite both Chrome and Mukuro being too good for them, they would still be there, he added, "see you tonight."
The boy that had been with Tsuna's dad brought Tsuna in on his back, and gently lowered him onto the floor of the gymnasium. Saturn had only seen the insides of Namimori's gymnasium once, back when Haru had her gymnastics event there. There was a whole new event about to take place in the very same place tonight, and now she'd never be able to look at it the same way again.
Tonight's battle was special in two ways. One, it was a battle of illusionists, and for Saturn it was a first, seeing illusions of the type Kawahira specialized in from someone other than him. Mercury had expressed her interest as well, having up to this point only been able to hear from her what kind of magic the priest used. Second-hand information would never be something satisfactory for Mercury. Because of illusions requiring extra focus if they were to be seen on camera, they were behind the Cervello, in the area that Kawahira had marked with chalk.
And two, it was the reincarnation of the one that Kawahira hadn't told them much about, the one he called annoying.
"Was today's -" Saturn hesitated before settling on a word. "Reincarnated soul an illusionist in their previous life as well?"
"Oh," said Kawahira, like he'd just remembered a forgotten detail. "No. Well, whoever they are, they'll be an illusionist, but. They're not the reincarnated soul of the first Mist Guardian."
Saturn raised an eyebrow, because then it didn't seem to make sense that they'd fight for the second chance Kawahira had spoken of a few nights past, but just then entered three people she hadn't seen before.
Although she recognized the army green uniform they wore. "Students from Kokuyo Junior High?"
Hotaru didn't go around Kokuyo's surrounding areas, because she never had business in the area or any reason to, but they all looked hard to forget. The wild-haired blond had a wild, almost animalistic look about his face and eyes, and the other boy was pale, with what looked like a barcode on his left cheek.
The last one, and also the only girl of the trio, had an odd hairstyle that was shaped in a way that reminded Saturn of a pineapple. One of her eyes was covered with an eyepatch, black with a skull on it. In her hands she held a trident.
"I thought my life was odd in middle school," said Mercury under her breath. Kawahira heard and his shoulders shook with laughter. Despite Kawahira's reassurances that they would not be seen and heard – even if they were to step outside the chalked area, which was for the sake of the Cervello more than anything – everyone was keeping their voices down. It was an odd feeling, almost like being a ghost among people – that she could see them, was technically in the same space as them, but could not be seen or heard by them.
The opponent stepping up, however, made both Saturn and Mercury look at Kawahira in disbelief.
"That is a baby," said Mercury, pointing to the – though the term made Saturn want to cringe – 'fighter' on the side opposing Tsuna and Takeshi. Though they wore a cloak that hid most of their features, the one thing that could not be hidden was their size.
"Physically, yes," agreed Kawahira. "Did Sailor Pluto not tell you of a curse she witnessed?"
"She did, but that doesn't change the fact that right now, a baby is about to fight in what we know to be very physically demanding battles."
Mercury wasn't a violent person. None of them were, really, but a doctor as a civilian, and a scholar by nature, Sailor Mercury was not the first person that came to mind when Saturn thought of frontline fighters by far. She shone brightest in the role of support and tactician.
Right now, however, Sailor Mercury looked ready to drown Kawahira with her bare hands if she received an answer that rubbed her the wrong way.
"I understand your concerns, Sailor Mercury," said Kawahira, which meant that while he might have understood, he would not be changing his stance or backing down. His next words confirmed Saturn's prediction. "But believe me when I say that were it not for the foretelling of the Cervello, it would be the other illusionist that I would be concerned for."
For all that he liked to avoid straight answers like they were plagues, Kawahira, to his credit, did not look away until Mercury let out a sigh.
"I don't like this," she said. She was a doctor, and not just because she was smart. Sailor Mercury, Mizuno Ami, was someone who cared for others. Wisdom was not mutually exclusive with empathy, and definitely not in the case of Sailor Mercury or Mizuno Ami.
"I agree," said Kawahira. His eyes fell on the form of the cloaked infant, and his face darkened with something heavy and old. "I really don't like that curse."
Fujiwara Nagi would never have done – this.
'This' being a multitude of things. Coming to school late at night. Fighting. Casting illusions over reality. Kissing a boy she had met for the first time (in reality or otherwise) on his cheek in gratitude. Calling said boy 'Boss' – or really, calling anyone 'Boss' and meaning it.
Fujiwara Nagi would never have done this, but that was okay.
(After all, Fujiwara Nagi was dead.
And from her death rose Chrome Dokuro like a phoenix from its own ashes, reborn. A vessel with a purpose.)
Chrome Dokuro stepped away from the enthusiastic one (loud voiced, fire in his eyes, he was a little overwhelming, if she was to be honest) when he wanted to pull her in for a group cheer.
Fujiwara Nagi was dead, but Chrome Dokuro didn't enjoy such things either. Mukuro had made it clear to Chrome that she was his first and foremost, and so that was all that was.
(The boy with fluffy brown hair looked at her with eyes clear of distrust or wariness, and interrupted his friend to say that no, she wasn't Rokudo Mukuro.
No, she wasn't. She wasn't him. She was his vessel.
But he looked at her, saw her. Saw her.
Boss was the second to ever do so, when it was so easy to just look over her like everyone else in her – in Nagi's – life had done.
"Then," he said, when she asked if she wasn't worthy of fighting as the Mist Guardian. "We'll leave it to you."
No 'win or else', no 'prove yourself', no 'you aren't worthy'.
All Chrome could manage in response to that trust was a quiet 'thank you' that didn't give away the sheer significance of his actions to her.)
This was a battle she had to win for Mukuro, who gave her a new life, a new name, but –
But also for Boss. Who would likely never know, because Chrome would not share the impact, but that was a debt to be repaid nonetheless.
When the pink-haired women in masks called for the battle to begin, she slammed the butt of the trident onto the ground, and impressed her will upon reality in the form of illusions.
"What's the matter, Iemitsu?" Timoteo's voice was that of an old man's, but by no means weak. Someone who had commanded power and authority for decades, and sat in his throne as a leader now, not as someone close and personal.
And yet there was something off, every nerve in his body just screamed it. It wasn't because the room was dim, it wasn't leftover adrenaline from the traps he'd come through, the men on guard that his own people were distracting to earn him this precious time.
"Nono, sir," he said. "For the right to succeed you, the young Vongolas are pointlessly fighting against each other every night."
The blood of family spilt over such a thing was a tragedy, and the slaying of family was exactly what Timoteo had always feared. Something so fundamental about the man's makeup that even something like dementia couldn't account for this change of heart.
"I am aware," the old man said, voice a low growl. "I did, after all, send the order. And I've been enjoying it immensely."
Iemitsu felt his heart be gripped by cold fingers.
"Did you come here to ask presumptuous questions, Iemitsu?"
"No," he said slowly, fighting to stay calm despite what boiled inside his chest. The stiff face, the low, growling voice. The words that could not disguise its hatred as the charisma of a leader.
Timoteo, after all, hated being in dimly lit rooms, preferred the sunlight and fresh air.
"I came to rescue the Vongola Nono."
It was the truth, and his statement offered to the man who was the image of the Vongola Nono was a declaration.
The man before him, disguised as the head of the Vongola, slowly pulled the corner of his lips up, and it was impossible to not recognize the fake's true identity, because Iemitsu knew those eyes, knew them not as Timoteo's, full of concern or pride or sorrow, but as another person's. He knew whose eyes they were, what they looked like as a father's – full of love, full of pride, and also full of accusatory rage, and grief – just as they had been, since the aftermath of the time when the hallway had been filled with blood spilled from the elevator stuffed with the bodies of his slaughtered men.
Just as they'd been, ever since Matteo was murdered along with others of CEDEF and left in a gory display.
He knew who wore the face of Timoteo and pretended to be Vongola Nono. Someone who knew Timoteo and his habits, his mannerisms – someone who could put up a convincing act and trick most of even the Vongola.
"Where is he, Gabriel?" Iemitsu asked Nono's brother-in-law, the man who had once been a father figure to Iemitsu but was now one of his most dangerous enemies.
The mask that covered his face couldn't hide the malice glittering in Gabriel's eyes, an emotion he was familiar with and had been for years.
"Waiting for you to join him," Gabriel replied, raising the gun that he had been hiding.
The dim room was filled with the loud crack of a revolver.
"Fascinating," murmured Kawahira. Which was one way to explain the floor breaking apart and gravity losing its hold, as well as tentacles and doubles.
"Is that out of your skill range?" she tossed out, knowing what the answer would be as large snakes spilled out from nowhere. Mercury was distracted by doing something with her computer and goggles, already analyzing the illusions being demonstrated before her and pulling data out like it was going out of fashion. They'd been warned, before the battle started, that the curse made Mammon sensitive to magic, in a bad way.
"Like me, back when I didn't have access to my powers?" Saturn had asked, and received an 'exactly' as an answer. Mercury, having been one of the doctors that could do nothing back then, had been very careful after that, but after figuring out that minor things, like being in a state of transformation or using her devices didn't trigger it so long as Kawahira was taking measures, dove into analyzing the data before her with enthusiasm.
"Hmm? No," he said, distractedly. "But the sheer scale they're managing to fight on is remarkable. Especially since the one named Chrome Dokuro is lasting so well against Mammon. She can't have been an illusionist for very long."
"You can tell how long someone's been an illusionist just by looking at them fight?"
"More to do with her age, than anything, although her execution suggests that she's still a student . . ." he trailed off, and then sighed wistfully as the snakes were blown back by Mammon, whose jewel glowed bright with an indigo light like a star. "I haven't seen someone I wanted to teach this much for centuries."
Mercury looked at him, and it took Kawahira a while to realize that she was giving him a meaningful look. Pillars of fire erupted like volcanos throughout the gymnasium floors at the silent command of Chrome Dokuro.
"I wouldn't," he said, almost defensively. "I'm busy and old and tired. It's just that she has talent. A lot of it."
The gymnasium froze over, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the opposite in temperature. With a lazy wave of his hand, a faint veil wavered on the outlines of their area, following the guide of the chalk, and the ice could not cross. Saturn focused, and saw that it was an illusion, despite how real it felt. Both the mass ice attack and Kawahira's 'veil'.
"It seems that weapon is important to you," said the cursed baby, floating in the air, the momentum seized in their favor.
A look of horror crossed the girl's face. "Don't!"
But her cries weren't enough, and the trident, frozen over like much of the gymnasium, shattered.
Chrome Dokuro shuddered, seizing up, before she choked and coughed up blood. It wasn't, despite Saturn's efforts to break it, an illusion, what was happening.
Not even the girl's stomach sinking in, as if her insides were emptied out.
"Impossible," Kawahira breathed, incredulous.
"Explain," said Mercury tightly. "Or I am going out there, right now, magic allergy be damned."
"Her organs," he said, eyes wide with shock. "They were illusions. Real illusions. The sheer insanity of that-"
He broke off, covering the bottom half of his face with one hand, and then slowly exhaled.
"If her organs were illusions," said Mercury, already getting ready to leap out. "Then-"
Mist erupted from the collapsed girl's body, and Tsuna, on one far side, fell to his knees, clutching at his head desperately.
"Rokudo Mukuro is coming!"
And something –
Saturn tightened her grip on her polearm. Mercury wasn't an innate sensor, but her devices were on and she noticed the change, too, as that something made its presence known.
Sinister, Saturn thought, was a good way to describe the presence. It felt like centipedes were crawling up her spine.
From where Chrome Dokuro had fallen now rose a different person. Similar in appearance – the Kokuyo uniform, the odd hairstyle, even the same trident in now-gloved hands, despite them having witnessed its destruction – but different.
For one, it was a young man that now stood, with a lazily arrogant grin, with both eyes intact.
For another, he had a – a presence about him. Someone that had magic, like Rei's grandfather and Bianchi, but his was a kind of magic that put Saturn on edge.
"Long time no see," he greeted, silky voice drawling out words that felt like slithering snakes. "I've returned from the ends of the samsara."
Any and all impressed shock on Kawahira's face was wiped out, replaced with irritation. "Different soul or not, some things never change."
"Explain the thing with the illusory organs," requested Mercury. "And – him."
With one last disapproving look towards the one that took Chrome Dokuro's place, Kawahira did.
"Real illusions have something they're based on," he said, producing a kind of mist similar to the type that had swallowed Chrome Dokuro and spat out – that person. The same kind of thing, Saturn realized, that he'd created the popcorn illusion out of before Gokudera's fight. "It's this – mist, let's call it – that allows the construction of the base of real illusions. Without this as the base, illusions are just illusions, and its impact on reality limited to just how easily affected the person is."
And illusions worked by affecting perception of reality, kind of like an extreme placebo. Illusions themselves were easy enough to break, but when it went to real illusions, that was harder.
Harder but not impossible.
"She had real illusions making her organs," said Kawahira, looking reluctantly awed. "Meaning that it would actually affect her reality, instead of just her perceiving it."
"Isn't that just creation?" Mercury asked, unintentionally echoing a question Saturn had asked before.
But Kawahira shook his head. "If the caster – or in her case, the medium that was the trident – is destroyed, it's unable to be sustained. And it still follows the principles of illusions in its forming, so it can't be considered as creation, due to its lacking permanence. And it's insane, precisely because it follows the principles of illusions. If she's not in control of her perception in allowing the illusions to continue functioning as her organs, then they could fail on her, and she has to do that while keeping a hold of her own reality in the face of the illusions she's fighting."
In other words, Saturn summarized mentally. Despite the fight between illusionists being that of keeping a hold of their own reality, she had a massive handicap in that she had to permit an illusion to continue allowing to affect her.
"And him?" While the organs were impressive, something about the young man that emerged from the mist put Saturn on edge. If Tsuna's words were about him, then his name was Rokudo Mukuro, and the name was just as disturbing as his presence. Six-paths Corpse.
"Very likely Chrome Dokuro's teacher, and here in spirit, not in person."
The battle restarted, a blizzard capable of causing a whiteout washing over Rokudo Mukuro.
"In spirit?" She didn't like the sound of that. Chrome Dokuro being changed, not just in personality but in body, and a new person there, emerging as if there was a metamorphosis, something ripping apart the cocoon to emerge from within.
The thought made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
"A form of possession," said Kawahira. "That's Chrome Dokuro's body, but it's serving as . . . a base for his spirit to move. Like a real illusion."
Rokudo Mukuro froze over, covered in ice, and Mammon, changed into a hammer, rushed to shatter him.
So that was why she was so on edge. The thought of possession, of someone using her body as their own made her skin crawl.
Vines erupted from the ground and wrapped around the small, cloaked figure, and large lotus blossoms bloomed, bright fragrant petals so out of place in this mess opening up. Entangled in the prison of flowers and vines, Mammon struggled.
"Just who," said Rokudo Mukuro, the ice around him evaporating, leaving no trace of their existence behind. He smiled with teeth, charged with the confidence and luxury of someone who had all the cards, the complete upper hand. "Is an illusion?"
Saturn nearly jumped before realizing that his words were directed towards Mammon, not at them.
"You," deadpanned Kawahira.
Any unease bothering her was disrupted at his childishness.
"Really?" she said, despite herself.
"Well, I suppose he's correct," Kawahira conceded, but towards Rokudo Mukuro's words, not hers. "He's not an illusion, per say. If you want to be technical. I suppose it's a form of astral projection more than an illusion, even if he's using an illusion as the base for it. Astral possession, maybe."
Saturn really hated the word 'possession'. Suppressing the surge of dislike, though, was easier at the sight that happened before their eyes.
Multiple copies of Mammon flew in the air, the real one unable to be distinguished amidst the copies, but that didn't stop Mukuro from slashing at the nearest one with his trident. It was a copy, because the simulacrum popped like a balloon.
The gymnasium distorted and broke apart, gravity losing its hold as Mukuro immediately turned on the next Mammon closest to him, cutting through the fakes like they were made of tissue paper. Beyond the shreds of the torn reality was a dark void that was greedily sucking in everything like a whirlpool bent on swallowing the ships with the misfortune to enter its influence.
Mercury made a nauseated sound, and Saturn winced at the woozy feeling in her head. The distortion never crossed the chalked area, but just witnessing this perversion of reality alone gave them something similar to motion sickness.
"Careful," murmured Kawahira, frowning. "Too much and we'll be at risk of illusion contamination."
"Does that come from exposure to illusions, or when illusions are conflicting?" Mercury asked.
"Technically? Both. When illusionists are clashing and those affected have prolonged exposure."
And Rokudo Mukuro, standing amidst all this chaos, laughed as if he was flourishing and raised his trident. Pillars of fire roared to life, shapes held by the lotuses wrapped around them. Unlike previous pillars, vertical as pillars were, these followed the swirling ground and were chaotic in their directions. The ground, already breaking apart from the distortions, splintered and burned under the strain.
"If you're not careful-"
Tsuna's cry of pain as he fell to his knees, clutching at his head, cut Kawahira off. Mammon froze the pillars of fire, and the illusionist projecting himself upon the body of another easily dodged attacks that came his way, carefree and smirking. There were several Mammon flying around, and Mukuro batted them aside with a casual twirling of his trident until one attacked from the back.
Like water where two predators battled, reality churned and frothed until it was hard to tell what was what, let alone what was going on. When before, the gymnasium had only been distorted, it was now shattering, fragments sharp and broken scattering and following the surging of the space that rippled and churned like a sea at storm.
The bundle began to swell, puffing up like a lumpy balloon being filled with air. The screams of a baby's voice reached a peak, before the bundle, extended beyond its limits, reached the inevitable conclusion and exploded.
Mercury followed something with her eyes, to the window of the gymnasium.
"Is that Mammon?" asked Kawahira.
"Likely so," replied Mercury. Across the visor, mirrored from their point of view, Saturn saw some graphs and target circles, as well as text. "At least, there's some energy levels that I'm detecting, and it wouldn't make sense that there's just energy isolating and moving on its own, especially when the most likely source just appears to have exploded."
"They cut their tail and escaped," Kawahira said approvingly. "Very lizard-like."
He said it like a compliment and yet it didn't quite sound like one from Saturn's perspective.
As reality began to set and the gymnasium returned to its original status, not a sign of the battle that had taken place remaining anywhere, Rokudo Mukuro elegantly dropped to one knee, and then with a slow, deliberate raise of his head, he looked towards the Cervello – and by default, also in the direction they were.
But Kawahira was apparently the better illusionist, because he didn't give any signs that he'd even noticed them.
"Is this enough?" Rokudo Mukuro asked the Cervello, opening up his hand, palm up, to reveal a complete ring. It wasn't a pretty ring in any sense of the word, and even if it had been aesthetically pleasing, by far not worth all the things her friends were going through.
The Cervello announced victory for Chrome Dokuro.
Chrome was anxious. Mukuro soothed her with a whisper as he pushed himself to the forefront of the bond forged between them by contract. It was going to take a lot out of him, but Ken and Chikusa would watch over her so she wasn't vulnerable.
He didn't lose his smile when his eyes fell on Sawada Tsunayoshi, but a part of him did pause. The boy hadn't changed at all. He was not the person he'd been, when he defeated Mukuro – all calm, certain, secure. He was the anxious boy who was about to walk blindly into hell in life, the darkness of humanity, into a world of blood and death. A lamb to the slaughter.
It was ridiculous. And so was Mukuro, for staking his vessel and his subordinates to this man for security. So very ridiculous.
(Just as ridiculous as the belief that Sawada Tsunayoshi would survive this, come out as the victor. The underdog, the long shot, the side that no one in their right mind would never place their bets on, in a gamble.)
Sawada Tsunayoshi was still every bit the naïve person who worried about the foe in a time when said foe had a blade pointed at his throat. Wide-eyed, as foolish as a lamb, unaware of the dangers around him.
(Mukuro was not in his right mind, not really.)
"Gola Mosca," said Xanxus, when Mukuro confirmed the survival of the Arcobaleno that had fled the battle in fear of death. "After the battles are finished, eliminate Mammon."
The large robot breathed out steam, and Mukuro wanted to laugh in derision at what he saw. Truly the human path was the worst. Sarcastically, he congratulated Xanxus and reassured the scarred man that he would not reveal his dark secrets.
Where was the fun in that, after all?
(What would Sawada Tsunayoshi do, when the truth was revealed?)
Gokudera Hayato reacted as expected – loud, angry, ready to fight. Yamamoto Takeshi started at the noise, but Mukuro didn't miss how he was also ready to react if necessary.
Sawada Tsunayoshi, between them, lacked that concern and caution.
"I have no intentions of joining the mafia," he said, because while some things may have changed, the fundamentals of who he was had not. "The only reason I became your Mist Guardian."
(Guardian. A word with too noble a connotation for anything in that filthy dark.
For him, really, as well.
What a farce this all was.)
"Is to set myself in a better position to possess your body, Sawada Tsunayoshi."
The consistency that was Sawada Tsunayoshi's naivety did not change with a few words.
"In any case," he said, after holding back his loyal hound from actually attacking Mukuro (which would have been problematic because maintaining this connection was becoming too much and Chrome's body couldn't take the damage) "thank you."
Change was inevitable. Inevitably Sawada Tsunayoshi, too, would change, and because he would be surrounded by the mafia, become the head of the mafia, he would not change for the better.
(Mukuro did not want to name the emotion that stirred inside him at the thought of that inevitability.)
He left the ring to Sawada Tsunayoshi, and after a second, Chrome, too.
(Now was not yet the inevitable time)
The connection that maintained his presence over his vessel wasn't so much as withdrawn as it snapped, under the duress that it had been. Whatever interference he decided to dabble in would have to be done more indirectly.
Exhausted, he let his mind slip into unconsciousness back in his own body, held in the inescapable underwater prison of the Vindice.
AN: I don't know if it's just me, but sometimes you have this secret that you want someone to know but you also don't want them to know? Like that time when you have a crush on someone, but you're also terrified of them finding out and the status quo being shattered? That's basically Hotaru right now, in regards to her friends finding out about Sailor Saturn.
Both the name of the series and the title of the opera Acheron / Nicola Fiume wrote (see Interlude II) should have told you the importance of this particular mythological figure in Petrichor but just in case I'm going to name drop her one more time in this chapter: PANDORA.
Kawahira is a terrible person to watch TV/movies with because he's the kind that's always talking back to the screen despite people next to him (AKA Granny) telling him the characters can't hear him so shut up. But that's why he does it, because he'd never do that if it was a live performance. Heckling is rude.
The difference between Saturnine and Petrichor, other than the premise, is that to Hotaru, it looks like Mukuro is possessing Chrome, but in the way that she was possessed by Mistress 9, which means that it gives her the heebie-jeebies. The fun of not having the full story part 2.
Acheron: *Greatest illusionist on Earth before he reached the age of twenty, watching a person he tricked into taking a curse fight a girl who hasn't even been training as an illusionist for a month* Oh that's remarkable.
Saturn: Is she better than you?
Acheron: Hmm? No. *completely matter-of-fact*
Kawahira: Oh, the guardian of Mist's reincarnation, whoever and wherever they are, isn't fighting. This is someone else.
Mukuro: I have returned from the ends of Hades.
Kawahira: And yet the Vongola Guardian of Mist is still a ridiculous edgelord, I can't even.