"I never used to believe in this stuff. Ghosts and that kind of thing..." Tsuna said as he looked at his ring. It was a mildly glum observation, but not like a sign that he was feeling seriously downhearted - just something thrown into a lull in their aimless conversation. He looked up with an expression of interest. "How come you've always believed in it, Gokudera-kun?"
Three important things were happening.
- Tsuna had asked a question.
- It was rare for him to ask about this kind of thing - something that had to do with the past. He'd asked about Bianchi when she first arrived in Namimori, but at that point it had really looked like they'd need to know how to counter-attack, and even then Gokudera remembered volunteering most of the information. The Tenth let him get away with mentioning hardly anything about his life before Namimori, and as time went by Gokudera appreciated it all the more.
- The setting sun was putting little lights of gold in Tsuna's hair, and he didn't have a clue about it even though Gokudera really, really did, and he still expected an answer.
"When I was a kid..." Gokudera blurted out the beginning, and then swore at himself as his voice failed. He lit a cigarette for something to do with his hands. "I found out something. About my family." He cleared his throat. "Families."
"O-oh," Tsuna said, a startled noise, and looked at him properly.
Gokudera considered his options - too late. Now he'd started, and Tsuna nearly looked panicked about the way the conversation was turning out, because he had a good sense for when things might hurt, and always preferred to avoid that.
Then again, that was probably why the first words had come easily. The Tenth never wanted to hurt anyone, if it could be avoided - that was so great. And it wasn't as if Gokudera wanted to keep things from him, it was just that there was no point to sticking his mind back in the rut of his past, now that he was part of the Vongola.
Gokudera looked out at the Sawadas' yard from his seat on the edge of the porch, a sight as familiar as if the property belonged to him, as familiar as Tsuna beside him. The past, he'd learned despite his best efforts, had a grip like a bulldog biting down, but the present... It was quiet right now, with even Yamamoto having gone home to help at the restaurant and Reborn taking a nap. It was just the two of them.
The present could hold its own. Gokudera took a breath and began.
"Tenth... My family's ... pretty much a mess. I might have mentioned that before..." He ducked his head a bit to look to the second floor corner of the house, where Bianchi had taken over a guest bedroom. "You might have noticed, too. So, uh, keep that in mind. It's why I'm going by Gokudera Hayato - I didn't want anything more to do with the Italian side of my family. I went looking for information about the Japanese side, and I took that name."
He was proud of it, he remembered. Finding out all that information, making his own way. Then finally finding this family.
Tsuna said, very softly, "If it's something you don't feel like talking about..." and Gokudera smiled at him and shook his head, re-feeling the depth of the relief of being here, and with him.
"If my genealogical research is correct, then it's nearly ancient history! So don't worry, Tenth. And it gets kind of interesting."
Against his better judgment, it seemed, Tsuna looked interested. "Oh? Okay then... So there was ... some kind of ancient magic?"
Gokudera took in Tsuna, how he was tucked up in his hoodie against the cooling of the afternoon, the hood up and both hands in pockets, the ring now hidden away. It felt okay to tell him. He ought to know about this stuff, really. Gokudera nodded and made a sweeping-away gesture with the hand that held the cigarette, like none of it mattered, and told the story.
"You will love wrongly."
"They just said it! Just like that!")
The boy stared at the unfamiliar faces. The librarian grinned, apparently relishing the shock her announcement had caused, and turned to the man seated near the counter. "Isn't that how it goes?" the librarian said. "He asked for information about Lavina Gokudera. That's how it goes, I'm sure."
The old man nodded. He had a newspaper open on his lap and appeared to have dragged his armchair over from the reading area so he could converse with the librarian, more comfortable than a library patron should really be. This friendly arrangement seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, and maybe it wasn't - this small town seemed to be the kind where everyone knew each other, and mostly knew how to work around each other's quirks.
"That's what everybody said, years ago." The man straightened his newspaper importantly, pretended to read again, and instead started speaking. "That girl," he said. "That Lavina ... is she dead yet?"
"Of course she is," the librarian said, rolling her eyes. "It was a few years ago, but your memory isn't that far gone."
Both of them jumped when the boy shouted. "HEY!" His fists thumped against the front panel of the desk. He was too short to read the top of it comfortably (and too teary to see the dismay now on the adults' faces).
The man cleared his throat with an embarrassed noise, and the woman shushed the boy kindly. "Rules of the library, little pianist. Come now. I'm sorry we've upset you - you must be a big fan of Ms. Gokudera's?"
("Just with a look she could tell my brat self played the piano..."
"I really don't think it's something to be this embarrassed about, Gokudera-kun.")
"She was really good," the boy said, and nothing more. He did want to yell at them, but it would have to wait until the raw lump in his throat went away. He swallowed hard.
"Do you want to hear the rest of the story about young Lavina?" said the man. "It's a bit of a scary one." He raised and lowered his eyebrows impressively.
"I want to know everything about her."
Now they were both placated. The man folded his newspaper and put it on the armrest of his chair, and settled in, leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees.
He said that it was a curse: You will love wrongly.
It was a story that got told a lot of ways, usually with a lot of nudging and winking. How'd it ever get out? Grandmother Gokudera told it, bitterly, to people who didn't care and barely bothered to understand her accent. A long time ago someone in her family line had angered someone they shouldn't have, and was cursed. That was what she'd always been told, and what more proof did she need than her own long life? That was why she was here with her stupid son and his stupid wife, in a town that didn't want them.
The town did question why one of its daughters would come back with such an outlandish husband. Once the story of the family curse came out they snapped it up, taking all the examples the old woman gave and making up their own. Some people thundered the words of the curse dramatically, and some said it like the silliest thing ever heard - it wasn't much of a curse at all, not a good one like having wild animals attack you or your land struck barren. They watched the children of that marriage (some muttering things about 'half-breeds'), and over the years the stories got quieter.
"After all, everybody was surprised. It looked like the curse was real." The old man couldn't have asked for a better audience than the little boy, who gaped at every word. "Why make up stories? We could see it happen in front of us. There was the one boy ... he ran off with an axe-murderer! It was in all the newspapers, we were on TV."
"Lavina Gokudera was in the newspapers too, with that mafioso - but not for long, of course," the librarian said. "The circumstances were too suspicious not to be hushed up soon. She was the child who lived the longest." She hushed her voice for the boy's sake. "Two of them had taken their own lives by then...One was in an accident, along with her lover. Of course, no one knows what happened to the other two, the sisters, who disappeared."
"Now they're all gone," said the old man, sitting back with a sigh, as if realising it was sad after all. He'd enjoyed the story too much to be believable. "I wonder how many generations it had been, since that curse, before the family finally came to nothing?"
The librarian smiled. "But that, of course, is not all the information we have about Lavina Gokudera. She did make our town famous with her career. Why don't you sit down, and I'll bring you some of the newspaper articles we kept about her?"
She took the boy a mug of sweet, milky coffee too, and was pleased to see colour come gradually back to his drained face.
("It gets better!"
"I ... I ... really hope so..."
"Um, when I say better, Tenth, I mean ... ah, let me just tell you what they told us.")
Reading through the articles, and for a long time afterwards, the boy thought about bedtime stories.
There was one his sister absolutely adored. Wouldn't shut up about it. Told it to him all the time when she'd managed to stuff a vat of poison into him and was 'nursing him back to health', yeah right.
It was an old story. He didn't care about it because it was stupid (and because his sister kept telling it; he hadn't minded much when Dad told it the first time, even though it was boring).
There wasn't much to the story. The boy's sister, who'd asked their father about it, said that it was probably a way to explain why their family had lived on the same ground for so long. It was only a possibility that something had really happened to give a basis to the legend.
His sister didn't tell it that way. She didn't smile much, but the boy remembered, through a semi-catatonic haze of nausea, that he'd watched her smile as she told of the woman, long ago.
The woman had been tall, and beautiful, and one of three. She and her sisters swept into the halls of the lord and lady - squat, ugly buildings, the shape of which could still be made out off the centre of the castle that stood today - and no one was sure who they were, even though everybody in the area had been invited to the Christening party of the landlord's child. The women had smiled graciously and bent over the crib to whisper gifts into the air the infant breathed. Their blessings sounded as if they were the same kind anyone else would have left, but somehow held a different quality...
Two of the sisters' gifts were wealth and strength, the story said, wished upon the child and his family. The last woman looked around the hall at the subjects with careful hands on weapons and their eyes on the child, and looked satisfied and surprised at this loyalty. "It is good to see the strength of the bonds within this house, and on this land," she told them. "To receive such a thing means that one must never be afraid to give it." To the ancestor of the boy and his sister - and of course their father - she said:
"You will love strongly."
You'd think the blessing would have been enough to cancel out the curse. It might have been, he'd decided when he'd needed to think it all through again - holding that box of love letters Bianchi of ten-years-later had given him, all the letters carefully placed back in their envelopes. His mother and father would have gone away together if they could, and that might not have been any more of a mess than normal people could make of things. But his mother had already been sick, so even the blessing couldn't help.
"And there were nights," Gokudera said contemplatively. "Spend a lot of time outside at night, and you start thinking..." He'd believed stuff that probably didn't exist, that had no decent data to back it up. He'd been such a fucking kid.
"Anyway. Mostly, I started to believe in the supernatural because of the curse and the blessing."
"That's ... that's completely unbelievable."
Gokudera chewed at the butt of his burnt-down cigarette. "You're staring right at Bianchi's bedroom window, Tenth," he pointed out. "See? If the stories are true, they even make some sense of her!"
Tsuna turned his wide, half-suspicious eyes back to Gokudera, but his gaze wouldn't hold, darting back and forth in nervous embarrassment. "But those stories are so..."
"I wasn't sure about it either, at first. I did a lot of research, with family trees and everything. I couldn't find out who did the curse or the blessing, though - not even what kind of being they were."
"It couldn't possibly..." Tsuna's fists bunched inside his pockets, and his head moved distractedly to look at the right pocket, where the ring that had started the conversation would be. "You think it's true?"
"I think it makes sense." Gokudera blew out a sigh, and felt tired. Just from talking... Huh, maybe it was a sign he ought to train more. "You see the kind of things my families got up to - they might be coincidences, but they still make the family stories look really believable."
Tsuna looked hurt. Staring at Gokudera, he brimmed with it. And briefly, a fighting expression crossed his face, and Gokudera grinned. The Tenth would fight for him - well, of course. He was that kind of guy, who hated to fight and would still jump right into one about something this small, unimportant and important at the same time. Gokudera knew he should look away but didn't, exhilarated within his tiredness.
"I've known about this stuff for so long, already," Gokudera said. "It's not that bad. Don't worry." It worked to an extent. Tsuna's hurt on his behalf and anger both toned down a few notches. He screwed out a smile when Gokudera lay a quick, reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"So, um, which side of it did you get? Does it even work that way?" Tsuna asked hesitantly, and glanced towards Bianchi's room again before meeting Gokudera's eyes. Even though there wasn't anyone to fight so this could be fixed, he looked like he was willing to try and find someone. "Do you think you got ... the blessing, or the curse?"
"You tell me."
Gokudera said it while looking Tsuna right in the eyes, words flying out with the meaning dragged behind them.
Tsuna watched him back, straightening as if surprised.
It was the easiest, truest answer, so he'd just given it. It shouldn't have been so easy. How could it be?
He couldn't move, and thought that might save him, with the part of him that could still think. What he'd said wasn't that clear. It didn't have to mean, I might love you. Does it matter?
Tsuna looked like he didn't know if he should be confused, or worried, or if he wanted to ask another question and actually find out what the answer was. Saying You tell me could be as simple and stupid as it sounded. (Incredibly, breathtakingly stupid.) Just a stupid question about his non-existent love life, maybe, as if Tsuna was supposed to pay attention to something like that. As stupid as the fact that he kept staring, until it was up to Tsuna to look away.
For long lifetimes they sat on the porch, silent and shifting around. Several times there was a little sound from Tsuna like he wanted to start speaking, his lips parting, but he didn't. Evening came in streaks of shadows and doors banging as the house gained its collection of people from outside; in the background I-Pin yelled something, Futa laughed. If Gokudera left, he'd have to say goodbye and it would come out weird. He didn't know why Tsuna didn't go, because while he was kind, he had to know he didn't deserve this kind of discomfort. So Gokudera watched stars appearing until Tsuna did finally leave, and then folded his hands together and didn't pray. He hadn't bothered believing in that for a long time.
"I got this!" Tsuna said a few minutes later, and Gokudera fell off the edge of the porch.
"SSHH." He was pretty sure Tsuna was being much louder than he was, and also that Tsuna should be ignoring him forever, and scrambled upright. He looked into a face that was shiny with nervous sweat. "I - I got this. Um! And I got..."
Tsuna put down a mug and one of the kids' juice bottles for school. "I grabbed whatever I could find," he said, "so we could," he said, and finally pulled a bottle of saké out from under his hoodie. "It's Dad's. He always hides it in the same place. So, so I just got it."
He poured small measures and Gokudera stared at his shaky hands. Finally Tsuna put the bottle down, next to a bush by the porch so that it was hidden, and then stared at their drinks.
"It seemed appropriate," he said determinedly, and drank.
In spite of the faces he made, he actually topped up his mug after that, and started to relax. He explained his logic again. "Seemed appropriate... But it's stupid, huh?" he said, grinning at himself. "But you know, Gokudera-kun. Telling stories. And confessions--about old stuff! If you watch movies and things, it seems to go together, with the drinking. And."
He patted Gokudera on the shoulder, then gripped it. "All that stuff, with you, your family, it's not fair. And we're practically adults, right? So, this is okay."
Gokudera had had one juice-bottle tot and was still nursing his second. Every sip made him imagine Shamal when he got into the beer, leering and spouting whatever the hell came to mind. Although he suspected that it was partly an act, Shamal was such a good actor that Gokudera was terrified of getting under the influence of alcohol. Certainly the saké was making the Tenth act differently. Normally Tsuna wouldn't put a commiserating arm around his shoulder. Definitely not when Gokudera had said something weird earlier. The Tenth was compassionate and wanted the best for his friends, and it was natural for him to want to reassure Gokudera - but he wasn't like this, and if Gokudera did what he wanted he might ruin this.
Just an arm around his shoulder and it felt like he'd goddamn die, like he could start to hope and that it wasn't a shitty idea.
"Tenth," Gokudera said, breaking a vow not to speak until he trusted himself again, but it was too soft to be audible. He closed his eyes as if that meant this wasn't happening and laid his head on Tsuna's shoulder, heart stuttering at the warmth of his skin.
Tsuna patted him vaguely on the arm. "Really unfair," he said, indignant again. Gokudera was quiet, thinking about blessings.
That was the last time they spoke for four days.
On that day of storytelling, Tsuna had been concentrating on not letting his mother know he was drunk and Gokudera had tried to help him, so that they hadn't even said goodbye. After that day, silence, because Gokudera wouldn't make the first approach and Tsuna...
Well, if the Tenth didn't want to say something, then there was nothing to say.
Tsuna didn't wait to walk to school with him, and talked to absolutely anyone else whenever Gokudera was nearby. When he stopped doing that, it was probably because Yamamoto started saying things like, "Are you guys—?" and it was difficult to keep interrupting him. He was persistent. So Gokudera and Tsuna started speaking to each other again - but not about that evening. Tsuna avoided mentioning anything to do with it - like he'd stolen that saké to try and avoid really talking about anything at all to do with stupid, ancient family histories. Gokudera got that now.
Sometimes he still looked so worried. Gokudera would catch him looking, and Tsuna's expression would become apologetic. He still wanted to make things okay, and couldn't. He still hung out with Gokudera, but not alone. They could talk like they were friends, but there was a feeling to it like walking blindfolded around familiar ground, prospecting for landmines.
It was unbearable. The situation had to be fixed. Gokudera had a plan - it was something he'd kept at the back of his mind for a long time, just in case.
When he worked up the courage to approach the topic, the way it weighed on him was obvious. That whole day he was a distracted mess, and he was aware of Tsuna becoming more and more nervous. He probably had an idea of what was coming.
Still - when he asked for it, Tsuna agreed to walk with him when school let out, after all. They were alone again, and it had almost been easy.
"Remember when I said—" Gokudera began, and Tsuna said "—What!?" in a flat panic.
"Wait, Tenth! This is about something..." Deep breath. He didn't look at Tsuna's hands strangling the strap of his schoolbag. "I'm talking about something else." They both knew what they were avoiding. "Something from a few years ago. Remember back in the first year I was here, when I said ... there are things that could be done within the Vongola, to get things ready for you, when you move to Italy? It was the Ninth's idea, but that time, I told him to go to hell."
"I ... I remember that."
"That stuff - I'd still do it."
Tsuna had been sitting on that same back porch, Gokudera remembered, the same on that night at the end of summer as on the recent autumn night they'd shared.
"I'd still do it," he said. "It wouldn't be hard to arrange. Going to Italy for the sake of the family. It would actually be useful."
Back then Tsuna had said he'd be relieved if Gokudera went, and yet, that he really wanted him to stay. So for the next few years Gokudera had stayed, sometimes thinking with pleasure about all the plans by the old Ninth Generation fogeys and the Cavallone, disrupted by his siccing Yamamoto on them.
Now, the two of them kept walking, and Tsuna stared at the ground. "Uh-huh," Tsuna said in reply; acknowledgement, agreement, avoidance. It sounded like he tried hard to keep any interest out of his voice when he said, "You would?"
He left, and Tsuna let him.