It occurred to Chrome that she hadn't made plans for the future. She wasn't good at that, admittedly – she was always someone who preferred to act and live in the present. The ghosts of pasts haunted her too often – sometimes too literally, given her experiences – and the future was always undetermined, to be determined, as the time travel back then had proven.

Chrome lived in the present because it was the only thing she could affect. With her Dying Will.

She had assumed that Hotaru would come with her. That was kind of the natural thing – the Vongola thing, to not leave behind an ally – and unlike some other allies of the Vongola, Hotaru hadn't even fought them to near-death, which was incredibly reasonable and absolutely a point in her favor.

It was a rookie mistake she made, too caught up in the transient happiness that came with Hotaru, to not follow up and see the why.

Why was Hotaru helping her ruin her father? A man connected to her own life – her only remaining family? Other than the vague 'he is unethical', why?

And more importantly, what? What was she going to do after, when there was nothing but rubble and wreckage left of her life?

Chrome hadn't asked, but more importantly, neither had Hotaru. Hotaru, who was smart enough to have figured out Chrome's goals despite not being told, had not asked about what would happen to her after, about plans to make to ensure her own safety and well-being.

'Can we talk?' Chrome typed into her phone and sent it without any hesitation.

They met in the park, the day just cold enough that there weren't many outside, but not so cold that they would freeze as they spoke.

Sitting side-by-side on a bench, Hotaru fidgeted with the end of her scarf.

"You saw," she said without preamble. The direct honesty of someone who did not have time to waste with social niceties.

Chrome preferred this straightforwardness, anyways. "Not directly. But I got the gist of it."

Only the abridged version, what she heard from the Storm Guardian.

Hotaru nodded. "I never saw them myself," she said. "But I can guess as to what those files contain. He did keep meticulous notes on my case."

She spoke with a detached casualness, like it wasn't her own self she spoke of. As if she was differentiating, compartmentalizing.

Chrome didn't know if it would be sadder for her, if Hotaru wept. That she separated her experience like this, with ease as if it was completely natural for her, broke her heart.

"I'm not his favorite case," Hotaru added. "A bit of a failure, so. But – I'm the one he's worked longest on, so there's some value in that, I guess."

A soft sound escaped her lips, but Hotaru continued like she hadn't heard, never once turning her head the ninety degrees needed to look at Chrome. Her eyes continued to gaze forwards, and Chrome –

Chrome dared not interrupt the monologue of someone who had been silenced and alone for so long, not when she finally began to speak the words that had been forcibly buried within her.

"I don't have any doubts over it now, but back then I really thought that maybe it was because he loved me," Hotaru said. "That it was love, twisted as it was, and him doing everything he could to keep me alive. To try and make me – better."

It wasn't, was the unsaid but obvious statement.

She exhaled. "And by the time I realized that, I didn't know what I could do."

Phone monitored, mobility limited, Hotaru was in a cage, with no one she could trust. No one she knew how to trust. Ingrained into her was the fear that she would not be able to leave, that there would be nowhere for her to go. Fear was present for her here, in her father, in her life, but bigger was the fear of the unknown beyond. The crippling worry that everyone outside would be just as cruel.

Hotaru didn't know how to make that blind leap of faith.

Chrome thought about how, in those odd days of time travel when they helped the boss save the world from Byakuran, she had always been tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop, unable to accept the kindness of everyone for the longest time.

Because if such a thing was natural, then it was so sad, to her, that she should have not known it.

I-Pin had broken the cracks in Chrome, made by Haru and Kyoko and Bianchi, and from then on it had been easier. Not easy, but – easier to accept, nonetheless. Nothing in life worth it was easy, but they had taught her love, taught Chrome how to not crumble.

Hotaru didn't have a patient Haru or Kyoko knocking at the walls she'd put up in fear, did not have a Mukuro to pull her away into a new world, a boss to believe in her.

Even Fujiwara Nagi, for what she may have been worth, had died.

"Then I saw you."

Until Chrome Dokuro came for information, a ghost from a time past.

Hotaru gestured, and there was something helpless about the action. "You were one of the few really good things in my life. Maybe 'thing' isn't the right word but – one of the best parts of my life. I think you would have even if my life wasn't so weird, but you were, even if the end was so . . ."

She choked on a sob, and had to bury most of her face into a handkerchief Chrome pulled out to offer her.

"I just," she whispered. "I just wanted to be able to stand before you knowing I did everything I could. I didn't want to be this – this follower of evil that just stood by while knowing terrible things were happening, not in front of you."

It was shame Hotaru confessed, the shame of a victim who did not deserve fault or guilt on behalf of the abuser.

Chrome reached out and wrapped Hotaru in a hug, as tightly as she could.

"Don't say that," she whispered. "It's not your fault, I wouldn't-"

Wouldn't judge Hotaru, because she wasn't some angel of mercy and kindness. She was Vongola, and while the boss was changing what the Vongola meant, bringing them back to vigilantes rather than what they had become, it didn't change the fact that they were in the grey.

"This still feels like a fever dream," Hotaru mumbled. "Any day I'm going to wake up on the table and it'll be cold and hard, and I'm going to wish that I never woke up."

Chrome tried her best to stifle the sob, but she could not stop the tears from tracing paths down her face.

"This is real," said the illusionist. "This is all real."

Chrome recognized this as a cry for help, even as Hotaru didn't.

Friends, Chrome has learned, are those who stay to listen when the illusions over people, the masks they wear to pretend they are not tormented by the constant sufferings of life, are torn away to expose the ugliness underneath. Friends are those who do not flinch away, do not leave when the wounds are uncovered. Wounds that hurt so much and scream to be seen even when it also fills the bearer with deep, ugly shame.

She and Tomoe Hotaru were never friends, maybe, Chrome thought. Because they never did know each other, not fully, not truly. There was what could be noticed even on the surface, and recognizing the shadows of familiar sufferings within each other behind the veils they cast pretending they were fine, maybe, but they weren't truly friends back then, even as they yearned for a kindred soul that could reach out.

They hadn't been friends – yet. They understood each other without knowing, and they could have been friends, maybe, but there had just not been the chance, or the time because Fujiwara Nagi died, and Tomoe Hotaru had no kindred souls that could have been friends anymore.

And back then they had been two awkward girls who didn't know how to reach out beyond the swamp trying to swallow them, unaware that quicksand could be escaped from, that it wasn't a pit of endless despair, that they didn't have to be resigned to their pain and accept it.

Back then they had been hesitant souls, unsure and too scared to try reaching out lest they be injured.

Nagi had been too scared, and so had Hotaru. But Nagi was dead now, and Chrome was stronger, no longer alone in the dark, trembling in fear that there was a monster worse than her loneliness lurking out there.

Chrome knew just how dear salvation in the form of a hand reaching out could be, and this time she could be the one to offer it.

She reached out, refusing to ignore the courage it had taken for Hotaru to jump for hope, rather than despair -

("Come with me," she said. "When your father falls, come with me to Italy.")

And Hotaru took it.

("Okay," she whispered, not a 'can I' or 'no' or 'I couldn't possibly' – and that told Chrome she wanted it, so very much, and it was as pleasing to her as it was heartbreaking.)

("You don't think this is creepy?"

Chrome thought about her missing eye, her lacking organs, and smiled, because they were missing parts, but that didn't mean they couldn't come together.

"Can I tell you something about me?"

Hotaru cried for Chrome, but her tears stopped when Chrome made it clear her worth didn't decrease with something like missing limbs, just like Chrome's didn't for the want of an eye and intestines.

"You're perfect," Chrome said, and Hotaru flushed, and Chrome thought that the pink filling her pale face was the loveliest color she'd ever seen.)

The evidence was gathered, as were the witnesses. Through the contracts that Chrome had established with Mukuro's aid, the 'whistleblowers' began to testify through different channels, and the Vongola kept them from being silenced until the sparks caught fire and grew to a blaze that could not be stopped, even by all the strings of influence Tomoe Souichi could tug at from his web.

Mugen Academy, that terrible castle of spider webs, caught fire as the spider was killed. Some cut ties – only to be yanked back into the riptide, because the Vongola did not do things halfway, and proof of their connection, their wrongdoings were also present. Others tried to fight and found themselves against a foe they could not defeat.

The infinite abyss was met with an end.

Chrome – and the Vongola – destroyed everything that Hotaru had ever known. Her life could never go back to what it had been before. Dr. Tomoe's reputation, already teetering on the edge, would never be resuscitated, his name in the ranks of those tried as war criminals. Shortly after he was imprisoned and the public forgot about him, Chrome had no doubt that Mukuro would strike, a spider approaching the fly that had finally been caught in his web. There would be no fame for him, no remembrance. His works would be nothing.

Had Tomoe Souichi's daughter been around, there was no doubt just how much backlash would have fallen upon her, too. The woman known as Tomoe Hotaru could never return to Japan, not unless she was disguised and using a different name, because of sheer association. She might not be guilty of anything herself, but there were quite a few powerful people who had been tied to Mugen, and not all of them had been swept up, but they certainly weren't happy, and with Tomoe Souichi arrested and soon-to-be-dead, fingers wanted someone to point at, to burn at the stake.

By all rights, Tomoe Hotaru should have hated Chrome Dokuro for destroying her life, for effectively putting her under character assassination. For ripping apart the life she had.

And yet.


Chrome shook her head. Unlike Mukuro, Chrome would not be the one to give Hotaru a new name. For one, she wasn't as creative as her saviour, not with anagrams or names, in general. For another, it was different. They weren't one in two, two in one. From the start Hotaru and Nagi had been kindred souls, but they had still been their own, and when Chrome met Hotaru, they had still been separate individuals.

But they could still be together. Together like they were now, coming up with a new name for Hotaru to use in the identities that the Vongola were making for her – because the Vongola took care of their own, and Kyoko and Haru were ecstatic to hear that Chrome's friend-slash-special-person was joining them and even Mukuro sounded interested in meeting her – or together like they would be in the future, because Chrome wasn't going to be like Nagi and slip away.

Chrome was going to hold on.

Hotaru flipped through the pages of the name book. "Jenny?"

She shook her head again. That didn't fit her either, but more importantly, Hotaru herself didn't seem to like it. That was more important than anything.

The book was shut with a sigh.

"I guess I'll just go by 'nameless'," she said wryly. "Nameless here for evermore. What about Lenore? No," she said before Chrome could answer, grimacing. "I'm never going to find a new name, am I?"

Chrome wasn't very good at naming things.

"I can ask the others for suggestions," she said softly. Haru and Kyoko would be glad to help. She just had to keep Storm man from throwing in references to weird things, or Rain man from naming Hotaru after a baseball player, or Sun man from naming her 'Extreme'.

Maybe Mukuro would have an idea for a fitting name that Hotaru would like.

Wait, never mind.

"Or," she hesitated, and then pushed through. "You could, still, be Tomoe Hotaru?"

Halfway across the world, it was probably unlikely that anyone would even make the connection, and eventually, the name Tomoe Souichi would be forgotten, just like other once-infamous names. He hadn't been a fighter or a leader, 'merely' a scientist in a land far away during a time of peace, not war. The connection could be made vague, and maybe she would need a different last name, but a name change wasn't necessary, per say.

Hotaru paused at that, but the silence wasn't one of negativity, but thoughtfulness.

"Maybe," she said.

Chrome nodded, and smiled when Hotaru tossed the book away and leaned her head on her shoulder. The weight was comforting, and she appreciated that Hotaru trusted her enough to maintain the contact.

AN: Coco is a name used in early Korean translations of Sailor Moon for Hotaru. Jenny was an English name that got much complaints and was dropped.

The original idea for this story had Hotaru die in the arms of the infiltrating guardian (since at the start it was a toss-up between Chrome, Yamamoto and Mukuro). But since this fic was to celebrate the Petrichor 1st anniversary I figured I should try to end on a happy note (is that why it took so long to finish it).