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The Domestication of Yamamoto Takeshi

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To change one’s life:
1. Start immediately.
2. Do it flamboyantly.
3. No exceptions.
— William James

The spring he turns thirty-four, Yamamoto Takeshi buys a house. He doesn't bother telling anyone that he's doing so, more because he doesn't want any advice than anything else, and the ink is dry on the contract long before anyone realizes what he's done.

The man who sells the house to him is old. Sestieri-san was born in one of the upstairs bedrooms and brought his wife home to it, raised children there and has grown old under its roof. His kids have grown up and gotten married and moved away now and his wife had passed on, leaving him to rattle around the house alone. Takeshi hears the whole story of it, sitting in the sunshine with the man and drinking coffee with him, pretending not to see the way Sestieri-san's eyes film over with tears every time he speaks about his Sofia.

The house has character. The dim light in the rooms downstairs comes in through windows of wavy glass, already tinged green from passing through the trees surrounding the place. The furniture is sturdy and comfortable and so ugly that Takeshi can't help liking it. The floor slopes in the hallway and stairs creak under his tread. The garden is mostly overgrown now, save for the small patch that Sestieri-san has kept up with for his own purposes. It's a good house. That Takeshi says so is probably why Sestieri-san sells it to him. When they're talking about it, after Takeshi has been all over the house and the grounds, he doesn't nod his head and say, "Yes, I think I'll let you have it" until Takeshi says that he isn't interested in remodeling it.

Sestieri-san is going to live with his youngest, a financier in Verona, and he's taking a few mementos with him. His daughters have come and carried away other things: china from the cabinet in the dining room, certain pieces of furniture, an entire closet full of photographs and linens trimmed with delicate handmade lace the color of old ivory, but the rest they leave to Takeshi, his to deal with as he sees fit.

"It's a good house, boy," Sestieri-san tells Takeshi when they meet for the final time to transfer the keys. They're standing in the front yard and Sestieri-san looks around himself, supporting his weight on the two sticks. The sticks are what have forced him to sell the place. The financier daughter's flat has everything on one floor and can be reached by elevator. Sestieri-san's gaze lingers on the bench that sits beneath an arbor overgrown with roses for a while. Then he sighs and shakes his head again. "A good house," he repeats, looking at Takeshi. "Good for raising a family."

Takeshi nods. "Yes, sir. I see that."

Sestieri-san looks at him and then presses the ring of keys into his hand. "Take care of it."

"I will," Takeshi promises him, folding his fingers around the keys and feeling the bite of them against his palm, sharp edges and angular teeth. Sestieri-san nods and makes his way down the path for the last time, stooped over his sticks while his daughter hovers at his elbow, a restless figure in a precisely tailored skirt and smooth hair. She stays close to her father, hands ready to help him if he should falter, and she hasn't spared a single moment of that focused attention for Takeshi. He watches her settle her father in her car, letting him go at his own pace and following his peremptory commands patiently, and smiles a bit. He holds up a hand as they drive away and hopes that Sestieri-san will be well in his transplanted home.

 
 

Takeshi has lived all his life in places furnished by other hands; he sees no need to change this at this late date. He does alter a few things, purely out of necessity. He orders new mattresses for the beds to replace the old lumpy ones, acquires linens to go with them, and fits up the kitchen with the things that he needs it doesn't already have—a rice cooker, a good tea kettle, some odds and ends in terms of utensils, and a couple more good knives to round out his set. He has someone in to deal with the leaks in the roof and the places upstairs where the flowered wallpaper is peeling off the walls. But the rest he leaves alone.

He makes the move in an afternoon, once the roof has been dealt with and all the deliveries made, once the cleaners have come and gone and before anyone knows that he's planning on doing it. Takeshi moves himself alone, carrying boxes down to his car while the house staff give him sidelong looks.

It doesn't take all that much work. His worldly possessions fit into a few boxes. One is for the old-fashioned tea set, the dark, glazed cups that fit the hand just so and the earthenware pot that goes with them, its handle cracked in a few places. The places where the bamboo splits apart are as familiar as the creases of his own palm. When he unpacks the set and arranges it on the counter of his new kitchen, it looks both out of place and like home.

The rest of his things hardly matter. There are the dark suits to hang in a line in the closet of the room that he's decided will be his, ties assembled in a sober rainbow to contrast with black and pinstripes and crisp, business white, shoes to go in a neat row beneath that, and belts to hang over the closet door. The closet still looks empty even after he's arranged things to his own satisfaction. Suits and ties and polished black leather: he's going to have to go shopping if he wants to do anything about the neglected garden without spoiling his wardrobe.

It's a done thing before anyone finds out about it, but that doesn't stop people from weighing in with their opinions about what he's done. Hana tells him that he paid far too much for it. Haru speaks of a housewarming party, her eyes gleaming and her hands sketching eager plans in the air. Hayato frowns over how isolated it is, out in the countryside where it would take a long time for help to arrive if it were wanted. Tsuna doesn't really say anything at all. He just looks at Takeshi, a frown deepening the lines on his forehead, while Haru and Kyouko launch into an animated discussion about redecorating. Takeshi looks back at him and smiles until Tsuna nods, slow, still frowning just a bit, and says, "Of course, we'll keep your rooms here for you as long as you want them."

"I thought you probably would," Takeshi says, because he's known Tsuna for the better part of his life and that's how Tsuna is. Then he interrupts Haru and Kyouko's conversation about curtains to break it to them that he's already settled things to his liking.

 
 

The Vongola house never really sleeps. It's where the Vongola Tenth lives and works with his family and his Family. Many people live and work in the house, actually. It's staffed not only by an army of people to keep the place in order and its occupants fed and clothed, but also by another small army of hard-eyed men and women whose jobs are to keep the Vongola Tenth and his family safe. The house, therefore, is always awake: Takeshi has prowled its corridors in the small hours of the morning and exchanged glances with the ones standing guard over the slumber of Tsuna's children, and he has descended to the kitchen where the scent of yeast hangs in the air as bread rises for the breakfasts of those upstairs. Tsuna knows that he has done this; every movement in the Vongola house comes to him sooner or later, if it seems important enough (and sometimes even when it is not). "Is everything all right?" he asks the mornings after these nocturnal wanderings. His eyes rest heavy on Takeshi then, weighing down him, or making Takeshi feel like he's being weighed, even though he's not sure what it is that Tsuna is measuring out.

"Of course it is," he tells Tsuna. They let it rest there.

Takeshi's house is very quiet at night.

But that's not true. It makes sounds, the creak and sigh of old timbers as they settle, and the murmur of the wind when it whispers through the branches of the trees and the overgrown garden, plus the clang and gurgle of the water that runs through the ancient pipes in the walls. Takeshi stays awake for a long time the first night he lies in his new bed, listening to those sounds. They aren't human sounds, at least not directly human sounds. When he wakes in the morning, the house remains still, quiet but for the sounds of his own movements.

He has to make his own tea, his own breakfast. He eats it standing up, leaning in the frame of the kitchen door as the sun burns the dew off the garden, before it is time to shower and shave and drive to the Vongola house.

Yes, he thinks, rinsing out the dishes and stacking them next to the chipped white porcelain of the kitchen sink, this will do.

 
 

Hayato thinks he's crazy, but this is nothing new. Hayato has thought that for as long as Takeshi's known him, and Takeshi isn't sure but that he doesn't have a point. There are all kinds of ways to lose one's mind, and none of them are poster children for sanity. Takeshi's mostly made his peace with that, he thinks, though sometimes he's not as sure. These days less so than he's been used to.

Tsuna watches him more closely than usual. The weight of his eyes rests on Takeshi's shoulders, heavy like a hand, but Takeshi just holds his shoulders straight under that gaze. The day's coming when Tsuna's going to ask, him and Takeshi in his office and Tsuna turning clear, worried eyes on him to say, What is it, why are you doing this?

They haven't reached that point yet. Not yet. But Takeshi can feel it coming.

Normal people get up in the morning and go to work, walking or bicycling or driving or riding a train or a bus during the hours when the sun is still coming up and waking the world. They clutch cups of coffee and hunch over newspapers or simply blear into space, preoccupied by their individual cares. Takeshi has seen them, has mingled with them while pretending to be of their numbers. Now he is one of them, after a fashion. His house lies well within Vongola territory, but not close enough to the main house that he could safely walk the distance. (Nothing is actually that close anymore, not for any of Tsuna's inner circle, but there are risks and then there are risks. But none of the houses that close to the main house suited Takeshi as well as this one does.) He leaves the radio off when he drives himself to the house—to the office, in a sense—and it's just him in the silent bubble of the car, him and the purr of the engine and the hum of the tires on the road. It's a good kind of quiet, one that allows for the gathering up of his thoughts, even though it's such a short drive that it's hardly worth the name.

 
 

In the evenings, Takeshi stops the car on the way home at the little market that serves the village he drives through and buys something for his dinner: vegetables, whatever looks freshest after a long day sitting out, maybe a small, round loaf of bread and a bit of fish or meat, anything that seems good when he stops in. The lady who owns the place knows him for what he is. The first time he shops there, she won't take his money. Takeshi has to leave it on the counter; it's still sitting there under her wide-eyed stare when he takes his groceries and leaves. He almost doesn't bother trying again—better to take his meals at the house than scare people who want nothing to do with the Vongola—but he grits his teeth behind his smile and keeps going back, being sure to keep careful track of his purchases and pay for each one accordingly. He has to leave the money on the counter at first and suspects that Degrassi-san is collecting it and saving it up for when someone sweeps down on her to demand an accounting, but he doesn't let that deter him.

The evening that she accepts his money and puts it into her till, each movement carefully exaggerated and her eyes saying that she's just waiting for him to call her out on it, Takeshi wants to dance. Sing. Something. Instead he nods at her and goes out, swinging the bag of pears and cheese and bread like it's a trophy.

It gets easier after that. He still keeps track of what he owes, just in case, but Degrassi-san takes his money, first with a tight jaw and a gaze that never leaves his face, then with a narrowed gaze and pursed lips, and then finally with no real expression at all, because it's become normal. That's the way it should be, though Yamamoto guesses that's not the way it is, not always.

This is the Vongola's territory, and that's not how it is.

He reflects on that as he stands at the sink, staring out the window and over the tangle of the garden. The moon's just rising, heavy and full, and it outlines the shaggy rows of beans and tomatoes and herbs run rampant despite his best intentions of doing something about that.

Impossible to say where it all went wrong, whether it was all at once or a creeping slide, the slow accretion of little things building up over time, little things next to meaningless taken on their own that form a larger, nastier problem in aggregate. Or maybe it was just flawed from the start.

Takeshi grimaces at the garden and finishes doing his dishes, scooping up the cup and bowl and rinsing the suds from them. He leaves them in the dish drainer to dry overnight and wipes out the sink, dries his hands and drapes the towel over the side of the sink before he turns the overhead light off and makes his way upstairs to bed.

It's a long time before he's able to find sleep.

 
 

One evening he unlocks his front door and finds that Squalo is sprawled on his couch, all akimbo and out of place against the faded floral pattern of the upholstery. "What the actual fuck are you even doing?" he demands without moving. He's got his hair twisted out of his way; it spills over the arm of the couch and grazes the floor, and as far as Takeshi can tell, he's not injured.

"I thought I was going to make some dinner. You hungry?" Takeshi smiles at him and keeps going, past the living room and down the hall to the kitchen, where he probably has some stuff in the refrigerator and his cupboards to supplement the bread and salami he picked up on the way home.

Squalo moves almost soundlessly; Takeshi takes that as a good sign and drops the bag on the counter as he takes inventory. There are still some olives, plus fruit from a few days ago, but he's embarrassingly unprepared for entertaining. Squalo's actually the first person who's managed to need entertaining, if only by dint of not waiting on an invitation.

Takeshi supposes that means he ought to do something about that, either stock up on groceries or invest in better security, and meanwhile washes and slices the pears. Squalo props himself against the doorframe and scowls at him as he works. He doesn't say anything else until Takeshi hands him the bowl of olives and the loaf of bread and the cutting board stacked with plates and utensils. "You've lost your goddamn mind, haven't you?"

"I think I would have noticed doing that." There's a bottle of wine that Chrome gave him for a housewarming gift, too. Takeshi tucks it into the crook of his arm, balances the glasses in his fingers and manages to juggle the pears and the salami on top of that, and tells Squalo that the dining room is down the hall and on the left.

He's never used it till now. Normally he takes his meals in the kitchen, eating breakfast at the sink and watching the sun come up, or outside, sitting on the patio and nibbling on his dinner as the sun goes down. The dining room table has a thin skim of dust on it, collected since his last weekend cleaning spree. Squalo continues to scowl as he plunks his handful of food and dishes down and yanks out a chair. As Takeshi pours the wine, deep red in the evening gloom, Squalo folds his arms across his chest and says, "So what the fuck is this, if you haven't lost your mind?" Before Takeshi can even open his mouth to ask for clarification, he raises a warning finger. "Don't play dumb, either, or I swear to God I will punch you so hard your grandmother will feel it."

Takeshi pauses for a moment, tempted, but hands Squalo a glass of wine instead. "I wanted a house." He pulls out the chair opposite Squalo and sits, passes a plate and fork across to him, and tears off a hunk of bread for himself. The crust crackles and shatters, shedding crumbs across the tabletop.

Squalo stares at him like he's waiting for Takeshi to go on, say more than that. Like there must be more.

Thing is, there isn't.

"You wanted a house." He enunciates carefully, pronouncing each syllable like a student learning a new language. He makes no move to touch his wine or the food laid out between them, and his eyes glitter behind the fall of his hair. "What the fuck for?"

He's actually the first person to come out and ask. Tsuna has looked it and Hayato has muttered about it, but neither of them has been able to bring himself to ask, and so Squalo is the first person Takeshi tells. He looks around the dining room, the white plaster walls and the two narrow windows that rattle when the wind comes from the east, the glow of sunlight across the table, and says, "I needed something that would be mine."

When he looks back, Squalo is studying him. Takeshi shrugs at him and bites into a slice of pear, sweet and mealy on his tongue.

At last Squalo shakes his head and stretches out his hand to pick up an olive. "What's next?" he asks. "A dog?"

"You think I should?" Takeshi frowns. "I'm gone an awful lot of the day."

"I don't know why I haven't killed you yet," Squalo informs him, reaching for his wine, too.

 
 

Takeshi doesn't know the first thing about plants—why should he? Gardening has been largely outside his experience all his life, something that happens elsewhere and produces food that appears on the table or in the market like magic. Nevertheless, he has a garden now, a fairly large one by his standards, so he buys some jeans and a couple packs of t-shirts and settles down to figure out what the heck he ought to be doing with it. He spends a lot of time on the internet, too, reading about gardening and trying to identify what it is that he's got running rampant in the flower beds and vegetable garden, and just which plants are actually weeds and what he should be doing about them. Some of the stuff he can recognize readily enough, like the vegetables and the herbs. Some of the flowers are pretty obvious, at least the ones in bloom. He doesn't know their names, not yet, and most of them are overgrown and shaggy, full of seedpods and dead leaves and stuff. But the rest of it—God and the internet alone know what he's got on his hands.

Takeshi rolls his sleeves up anyway and gets to work trimming back the worst excesses of the garden, pinning back vines of runner beans and staking the tomatoes and pruning back the herbs that have gone gleefully berserk. He takes to doing a few hours of work in the evenings after he gets home, if he gets home early enough that there's still light, and on his weekends when they are not otherwise taken up with Vongola business. They are, more often than not, so he only makes progress in fits and starts.

It's not like any other work he's ever done. It's hot work, though he can cope with getting sweaty. It's dirty—quite literally dirty; Takeshi gets dirt under his nails and ground into his skin, sticky sap on his clothes and bug bites all over, mud on his shoes and the less said about the adventure with the manure, the better. It's quiet, nothing but him and the bugs and the birds singing in the trees and the occasional traffic along the road. Takeshi can't decide whether he likes it or not, but he keeps on stripping off his suits in the evening and pulling on the increasingly grubby gardening clothes so he can fight back the encroaching weeds (the weeds! The war against the weeds never ends. They pop up overnight and bewilder him with their profuse growth). The garden can't look anything like it must have during its heyday, but little by little, he imposes a new sort of order on it, after his own fashion.

The things he takes from the garden, his garden now, his own tomatoes and herbs, the cucumbers and the peppers that astonish him with their fiery heat, the beans he figures out how to prepare through trial and error—they taste different, somehow, than other vegetables he's had. Better somehow. So Takeshi keeps at it, figuring that's reason enough to persevere.

Hayato comes by one weekend after he's gotten the vegetable garden more or less under control and has begun making tentative efforts to do something about the flowerbeds. Takeshi is in the middle of trying to figure out what a particular plant is—it's got a pretty flower, but it's flourishing with a vigor he has learned to distrust on principle, and besides which, having taken over its own bed now seems to be trying to colonize its neighbors' beds as well (and is succeeding admirably). He's got his tablet out on the grass with him and is working on making some kind of ID on it—and giving some serious thought to just posting a picture to one of the friendlier gardening forums he lurks on to ask for help—when Hayato's car pulls in.

So, Takeshi thinks, watching from his peripheral vision as Hayato swings himself out of the driver's seat and looks around himself. Hayato takes it all in, the tangled flowerbeds and the wilting piles of weeds strewn along the path, evidence of Takeshi's work so far this morning, and Takeshi kneeling among them, dirty and sweaty and puzzling over a possible stealth-weed. Hayato's only reaction to all this is to draw his eyebrows together a bit.

Takeshi's known Hayato for just about twenty years, though, and reads that just fine.

Hayato comes to him, since Takeshi doesn't move. Stealth-weed or not, he doesn't want an entire garden of the stuff, he decides, so he pulls his gloves on again and begins uprooting some of the colonists from the nearest bed. He shakes the dirt from the roots and drops the plant on the path just as Hayato comes to a stop next to him. Some of the dirt from the roots hits Hayato's shoes, which Takeshi feels is exactly what Hayato deserves for not calling ahead and for deciding to loom.

"Hey," he says as he roots up the next plant. "What's up?"

Hayato's back on the nicotine patches; it shows in the way he curls and uncurls his fingers, like he wants something to do with them but doesn't know what. "Nothing much. I was in the neighborhood. Thought I'd stop by." He takes half a step back as Takeshi drops the next weed-in-potentia on top of its brother. "See your place. See what you're up to."

"Should have said," Takeshi notes. "I would've planned something for you." He pulls up one more of the maybe-weeds and strips the gloves off. He retrieves his tablet and stands, watching Hayato take in the jeans (starting to be properly broken-in now, and the most comfortable clothing Takeshi owns, bespoke suits notwithstanding) and the t-shirt and his bare feet. "I was thinking about taking a break. Come on inside, I'll get you something to drink."

Hayato follows him around to the kitchen door and doesn't say anything while Takeshi rinses his hands and gets the lemonade out of the refrigerator, but Takeshi knows he's looking around, taking in every detail he can soak in—the old-fashioned appliances and the striped ruffle of curtain hanging in the window over the sink and the warm terra cotta tile of the floor beneath their feet, a hundred little things to take back to Tsuna. Though Tsuna will probably want to see them for himself, in due time.

There is a pair of chairs on the patio, which is where Takeshi heads next. He stretches out in his and grins a little at how gingerly Hayato, already looking flushed in the sun, lowers himself into his. Well, Takeshi thinks, Hayato was the one who decided to wear a full suit for this casual little visit. He sips his own lemonade and waits for Hayato to come to it.

"This is it, huh?" Hayato says, finally, less direct about coming to his point than Squalo had been. He looks around, at the garden and the butterflies hovering over it, up at the house behind them, and back to Takeshi. "Looks nice."

Takeshi smiles at him over the rim of his glass. "Guess it's not much, but it's mine."

"No, really." Hayato, whose own rooms are furnished in spare lines, in steel and white and modern, minimalist style, looks around at the overgrowth of the garden and the weathered siding of the house, the curtains that hang in the windows in all their unabashedly floral glory, and he says, "It's nice. It suits you." Takeshi has to raise his eyebrows; Hayato gazes back, all sincerity until he can't keep a straight face any longer and snickers. "It's very you. Especially the chintzy curtains."

"I happen to like the curtains." He's much better at keeping a straight face than Hayato, always has been, but it's too late now. They've been friends and Tsuna's hands for too long, and Hayato just laughs at him in earnest. Not that it hurts anything to let him laugh. Takeshi drinks his lemonade and lets him get it out of his system before they get down to business and whatever it is Hayato has deputized himself to figure out here.

"Really." Hayato wipes his eyes eventually, red-faced from his laughter and the sun. "Really, this is what you're doing with yourself?" He waves his hands to encompass the garden and Takeshi's muddy jeans and his house. "Chintz and pulling weeds?"

"Guess so." Takeshi stretches out his legs, sinking down into his seat. It ought to be comfortable, but it makes him feel something like a turtle pulling into its shell. "The weeds thing, it's therapeutic."

Hayato catches himself on that and repeats it. "Therapeutic." He doesn't look quite as amused as he was just a moment ago; he looks more like himself, the self that sits at Tsuna's right hand in meetings and extracts treaties and negotiations from other Families. It's too bad; he's a lot easier to get along with when he laughs. "If that's all you want, you should have just asked Kyouko. I'm pretty sure she has a flowerbed or two she'd let you mangle."

"I guess I didn't think of that." Takeshi shrugs. "My mistake."

Hayato opens his mouth, always ready to make a retort where Takeshi is concerned, probably something about Takeshi thinking, but stops himself. So he's taking this seriously enough to keep himself from falling into their usual amiable bickering. Hayato must be awfully worried, Takeshi thinks. It's almost a warm feeling to see him do it, though it probably shouldn't be.

Takeshi sips his lemonade, cool and tart on his tongue, just sweet enough, and decides that really he's only feeling guilty that he doesn't feel more guilty about worrying his Family like this.

Hayato treats this like dealing with business and takes some time to pull his thoughts together, the way he does when he wants to be very sure of his ground before committing himself. Takeshi watches the butterflies and the wind that shakes the trees and his garden until Hayato says, "So this is therapeutic, huh?"

Takeshi knows that tone; it's the first cousin to the way Tsuna sounds when he's pulling out the Vongola intuition and using it to peel someone apart to see what makes them tick. Maybe it should be surprising, having Hayato turn it on him, but he's been braced for this since the day he mentioned that he'd bought a house. He takes another drink of his lemonade, listening to the clink of the ice against the glass, and watches Hayato from the corner of his eye. The lines are showing on his forehead and between his eyebrows; he's serious. "Guess it is," he says as he lowers his glass and rests it against his knee. The condensation beading on the glass soaks through the denim, cool against his skin.

If anything, that just makes Hayato's frown turn deeper. Makes him nervous, maybe: he can't sit still in the chair, which creaks under him every time he shifts his weight and toys with the buttons of his jacket or the cuffs of his shirt. "Awfully expensive kind of therapy," he says, taking refuge in sarcasm.

Takeshi tries not to begrudge him that, though it's difficult. Yeah. Difficult. "It's my money to spend." He shrugs; the motion feels easy. Practiced—very practiced. He's shrugged off a great many things in his time. "I wasn't spending it on anything else." Not really. It's not really true what they say—crime does pay, quite well, and the money mounts up fast when a guy lives in his Family's house and has simple tastes. Or something like that. "And you can't take it with you."

There's the hit, a solid one. Hayato's good at hiding his tells when he's in negotiations, but he relaxes them when he's in safer company. Takeshi sees the moment when Hayato's fingers still in the act of fiddling with the button of his jacket, arrested in the act of unbuttoning it, and the moment when he narrows his eyes just a bit, and the faint flattening of his mouth. "That's true enough." A bland platitude to serve as vocal placeholder while Hayato's brain starts turning in a higher gear. Takeshi answers it in kind and takes another drink while Hayato processes his answer and begins to form his next comment. It takes less self-control to keep himself from jumping in with a joke or a diversion than he'd expected it to, which feels something like progress.

Hayato looks away from Takeshi, glancing over the garden before he tilts his head back, surveying the house that rises up at their backs. Knowing Hayato, he's taking in each detail all over again, from the new roof to the inroads Takeshi has made on the garden, and the solid age of the place, sunk into the earth like a tree's taproot, anchored. Then he settles again, chair creaking as he returns his gaze to Takeshi. The next thing he says has nothing—and everything—to do with the house. "You wanna talk about it?"

Takeshi swirls the lemonade in his glass; the condensation drips off the side and splatters against his jeans—cool, not body-hot or sticky. When it dries, there won't be anything to show it was ever there. "Not really."

Hayato snorts. "Big surprise." He reaches for his own lemonade and takes a first, cautious sip, and then another when the drink meets his approval. He doesn't add anything else until he's set the glass down again. "You don't have to if you don't wanna, I guess. Just tell me—you doing okay?"

The question is Gokudera Hayato all over, Takeshi reflects, wondering whether it's giving Hayato hives to ask such a touchy-feely question. "I'm fine," he says after the quiet has stretched to its breaking point. "Just fine."

"You are a shitty liar," Hayato tells him, but doesn't push him for more than that. But then, Takeshi doesn't expect him to—that's not the role Hayato takes in their Family and never has been.

 
 

Takeshi has absolutely no doubt that Squalo was only being sarcastic when he asked whether Takeshi was going to be getting a dog, too—Squalo wields sarcasm like a second blade, and it's almost as dangerous as actual steel when he puts himself to it—but the thought lingers with him, hanging around in the back of Takeshi's mind like another of his ghosts.

He's been in his house long enough for the newness of it to have worn off and is beginning to feel comfortable there, like a set of jeans fully broken in, when he sees the sign as he drives into work one morning. It's just a piece of cardboard, ragged on one edge like it's been torn from a box, and it has a single word scrawled across it: puppies. Takeshi drives past it almost before he can really register that word and all it suggests, and the sign is receding fast in the mirror when he checks it. Puppies. It summons up the memory of Squalo's comment.

It's a stupid thought. He has a dog, sort of, already, loyal Jirou who fights at his side whenever Takeshi feeds Flame into his box, but—it's not really the same, is it? Jirou doesn't have an existence outside the box, doesn't seem to want one the way Hayato's Uri does—well, it's weird that Uri spends so much time prowling around. (That's Hayato, though—guy's always gotta be the odd one out, somehow.) Jirou's real, and not real, in a strange complicated way.

The Vongola house comes into view while Takeshi is still wrestling with the question of how real Jirou actually is, whether he counts as being a dog or not. Takeshi shakes his head at himself for thinking about things that don't matter and tries to put it out of his thoughts.

But it returns to him at odd points through the day, in between meeting with Tsuna and Hayato—mercifully, things have calmed down significantly since the winter, that orgy of violence past them now, which is very nearly a comfort on the good days—and from time to time as he sifts through his paperwork and spends his hours in the gym, running through kata and then just running. Even so, he doesn't think anything of it, not until he's driving home with the sun at his back and sees that sign flapping lazily in the breeze ahead of him.

He finds himself braking and turning in at the lane marked by the sign.

He can very nearly hear Hayato's voice, expostulating with him as he drives along the lane, up to the house, and parks in the dusty yard out front (Yamamoto Takeshi, what the hell are you doing?) and says out loud, "It doesn't hurt to look, right?"

His mental Hayato says something very rude in response, but by then it's too late—someone comes out of the house, summoned by the sound of his car's engine. The guy is in his forties or fifties, maybe, with hair gone mostly grey and his face tanned and weather-beaten. He stands at his door and looks at the gleaming grey curves of Takeshi's car with open wariness. This is, Takeshi thinks, probably not a great idea—he should have at least gone home and changed out of his suit—but it's too late for that now. He gets out of the car and pretends not to see the look the guy gets then, tight and worried. Afraid. "Evening," he says, as friendly as he can manage to make it. He keeps his hands loose and open at his sides—nothing to see here, just another ordinary guy stopping by for a quick visit. "I saw your sign, the one about the puppies?"

It both does and doesn't help. The man brightens a bit, probably at the hope of being able to get a puppy off his hands if Takeshi is any judge, but he's still tense, shoulders tight and eyes narrow. "What would you be wanting with a puppy, then?"

"I don't know." Takeshi lifts his shoulders and surprises himself and maybe the guy too with his own honesty. "I saw the sign and thought I'd take a look, if you don't mind."

The guy doesn't move, but he shifts his weight where he stands, uneasy. "They're not anything fancy," he says. He's got his hands stuffed in his pockets; the shape they make suggests they're in fists. "They're just mutts. You sure you're really interested?"

Between the lines, it's clear what he means—Takeshi's wearing a suit that costs more than some people make in a week and his car looks like an alien spacecraft, parked here in this shabby, faded farmyard. Takeshi doesn't have any business being here, and yet—here he is. So he shrugs again. "No harm in looking, is there?"

It's the same cheerful tone he uses when he's trying to annoy Hayato or set someone at their ease, and if it doesn't quite do that here, it at least causes the guy to unbend a little, step down from his porch and jerk his head. "They're around this way."

Takeshi follows him and keeps his posture loose and open, casual and all just-friends-here, in case that will help. It might, or might not, but he picks his way through the dust without worrying about the polish of his shoes and introduces himself anyway. Sometimes, pretending that everything is okay and normal is enough to make it so. "Takeshi Yamamoto. I moved in up the road a bit, few months back."

The guy casts him a glance, sideways and half-squinting. "Yeah? You the one who bought the Sestieri place?" When Takeshi nods, he frowns and looks again—Takeshi's the alien piloting that craft, after all. "Huh." He brings them to a barn and slides the door open. "In here."

Takeshi follows him into the gloom, stepping around farm equipment whose uses are a mystery to him, and hears the puppies before he sees them: the sound of soft scuffling and high-pitched, squeaking complaints. There's a box tucked away in the corner, a blanket half-hanging out of it and a mid-sized brown dog of indeterminate heritage reclining in it. She has the patient, harassed look of all mothers with small children, and her puppies scramble around and over her, yipping as they tussle with each other. They're all in motion, a brown and yellow and black scramble that makes it difficult to count how many there are. When the first one catches sight of the two humans, it sets up a racket that they all take up, high-pitched barks of greeting as they tumble out of the box to investigate.

"Well, here they are," the guy says, but Takeshi is already stepping forward and crouching to offer the onslaught of puppies his hand. Their mother watches him and clearly decides he's no threat; she lays her head down with a soft whuff as her puppies swarm Takeshi. Within seconds he's got puppies tugging at his shoelaces and cuffs, one pup licking his hand and another raising itself up on long legs to lay oversized paws on his shoulder. It's distressingly clear that he should have stopped off to change clothes before this.

Takeshi laughs anyway and presses the one puppy down, rubbing its ears; the pup growls and tries to wrestle with him, though it doesn't seem to hold many convictions on that score. Nor do its brothers and sisters. They're round-bellied and floppy-eared, with outsized paws that suggest they'll grow up to be mid-sized dogs like their mother. They smell quite penetratingly of dog, the air is full of a fine blizzard of their fur, and Takeshi can't help grinning as he watches them play. "How old are they?" he asks, since he has a vague idea that such things matter.

One of the puppies scrambles up onto his knees; he catches it and holds it in the crook of his arm, or tries to—it just takes that as a chance to wriggle close and lick his chin. The guy clears his throat as Takeshi laughs and lifts the puppy—mostly yellow, with brown-black patches on its back and across one ear—away from his face. "A couple of months," he says. Some of the frost has melted out of his tone. "They're just about ready to go home, if that's what you're asking."

"Guess I am," Takeshi says. The puppy is slobbering all over his hand now, laving it with all the determination in the world. "You asking anything for them?"

He looks up when the guy laughs. "For a pack of mongrel puppies? No. I'll probably have to pay people to take 'em off my hands." But he's on the verge of smiling. "Didn't mean to have 'em, but this one slipped out when she shouldn't've. She's not a bad dog, though. One of the best I've ever owned." He steps around Takeshi and the puppies turn some of their attention to him, milling about his feet and wagging their tails madly. The one in his arms doesn't seem inclined to wriggle away from Takeshi at all. It—she, Takeshi sees upon investigation—just wants to get closer and bestow her attention on whatever part of him she can reach.

The guy crouches and rubs a pair of ears as he glances Takeshi's way. "Could let you have one, I guess. If you're interested."

Takeshi juggles the puppy and says, "Yeah. Yeah, I think I am."

 
 

He doesn't actually know anything about adopting a puppy and so the garden goes neglected for the next few days while he triages everything the internet can tell him about adopting, raising, and training a puppy and sifting it for the stuff that's probably true or at least applicable in this case. There are things to buy, toys and collars and food and leads and a dog bed, a vet to find and a house to dog-proof, and probably half a dozen other things that he's overlooked and will have to find out about the hard way. Takeshi finds that he's looking forward to it.

He doesn’t mention anything to anyone, but Tsuna stops him the afternoon he's planning on going by Giovanni-san's to pick up the puppy (he hasn't figured out what to name her yet). He levels a look on Takeshi that arrests him as surely as a hand on his shoulder would have and tilts his head to the side. "You've been in a good mood this week."

It's not a question, but Tsuna acquired the trick of making statements that come out like questions not too long after they came to Italy. He mastered it during the first crisis with the Pozzo Nero, which happened not long after that. Takeshi finds himself drawing up, ready to report in, and makes himself relax again. "I guess I am."

He wonders whether this is it, the point where Tsuna decides that they need to talk, when he will tally up Takeshi's behavior and Hayato's reports and ask him what it all means, but Tsuna simply looks at him for a moment longer and nods. "I'm glad to see it."

It's on the tip of Takeshi's tongue to do something, laugh and pass it off with a joke, maybe. He doesn't. It would be too easy, or something like too easy, the habits of half a lifetime holding him in their pattern. He nods instead, acknowledging the point, and Tsuna lets him go on his way. That's Tsuna's way: he knows when to push and when to pull and when not to do anything at all.

 
 

The best reaction of all comes from Hayato, as Takeshi suspected it would. He stops short just inside Takeshi's door, stares, and says, "What in the name of fuck?" Pithy, succinct, and with the additional virtue of being the first direct response to the puppy lying in the basket next to Takeshi's desk that he's had all morning. (The staff who've been in and out with coffee have pretended not to see the puppy; Pietro and Enzo looked but, being underbosses, hadn't said anything.)

Takeshi pastes the blandest smile in his arsenal across his face and turns it on Hayato. "Beg pardon?"

Hayato drags the glasses down his nose and glares at Takeshi over the top of the lenses. Well, it's been a long time since he could fool Hayato with that smile. "Have you lost your ever-loving mind?"

"Not that I've noticed." Takeshi keeps smiling at him, all innocence, though the way Hayato is beginning to puff up makes him want to laugh. "Though maybe I wouldn't notice... I dunno. Why do you ask?"

"You know damn well why I'm asking!" Hayato stomps away from the door and slams it behind him, loud enough that it wakes the puppy, who's had a busy morning chewing on one of Takeshi's shoes and eviscerating a stuffed ducky and exploring every corner of his office and has been sleeping off her excesses since. She bounces awake, realizes that there's yet another new human to make friends with present, and bounds out of her basket to greet Hayato with a series of gleeful barks.

Takeshi can't even pretend he's not laughing when Hayato dances back, juggling his files and swearing in slightly panicky tones. "What the hell, Takeshi—augh, stop it, dog, this is a new suit!" He's going to treasure the sight of Hayato trying to escape the attentions of a determined puppy for a long time, but goes to rescue him anyway, coming around the desk to scoop her up and away from Hayato's trouser cuffs. She's just as happy with that and wriggles in his hands ecstatically as he carries her back to his seat and rubs her tummy.

Hayato drops the files on his desk, slides his fingers under his glasses, and grips the bridge of his nose. "Why the fuck do you have a puppy in your office, Takeshi?"

"I couldn't leave her home alone all day. She's just a baby and she'd get lonely. And then she'd act out and that would be unfortunate." Given some of her initial depredations, unfortunate is precisely the right word. Takeshi tugs on one of her ears gently and beams at Hayato. "We wouldn’t want that, would we?"

Hayato just stares at him. He opens his mouth, closes it again, closes his eyes, too, and tips his head back as his lips move silently—Takeshi squints; it looks like he's counting back from ten—before he opens them again and does his martyred saint impression. "Why would you have a puppy at all? Feel free to explain this to me as if I were five, if that helps."

"She's mine," Takeshi says with every last bit of innocence he possesses. "I adopted her. Her name is Brisket. Isn't she cute?"

The best part is how Hayato clearly can't decide which part of that he wants to tackle first—he repeats the name silently, mouthing Brisket and shaking his head, does it again, lifts a hand, lowers it, and finally spins around to pace up and down the length of Takeshi's office as he gesticulates and mutters to himself. Takeshi lets him get on with it and rubs Brisket's belly until Hayato reaches some kind of equilibrium with himself and plants himself in the chair across from Takeshi's. He pushes the glasses back up his nose and sighs. "Okay. Are you going to keep on fucking with me, or are you done now?" He holds up a hand when Takeshi opens his mouth. "Because don't think I won't fuck right back if you keep pushing it, and I am told that violence often offends."

"No violence, please." Takeshi rubs his puppy's throat. "Brisket is at an impressionable age, you know."

Hayato grimaces at him, but takes it for the peace offering it is. "So you've adopted a puppy. What the fuck, Takeshi?"

Takeshi rubs his fingers through Brisket's fur, thinking about all the nuances of that question, and finally just shrugs. "I wanted to," he says. "It seemed like a good idea."

Hayato doesn't say anything, not at first, but his eyes go narrow behind the lenses of his glasses, thoughtful as he takes that answer apart and adds it to the list of the strange things Takeshi's done lately. "Right," he says, after a bit. "Is this therapeutic, too?"

Takeshi looks down at the puppy sprawled across his lap, a warm, dense weight, paws flopping in the air, on the verge of falling asleep again, and says, "Yes, I suppose it is."

Hayato's sigh is resigned. "Of course it is." But that's all he says, and after another moment he clears his throat. "Anyway, that's the Modigliani file. Take a look at the note on top for me and see what you think."

And that's that.

 
 

When the kids discover Brisket's existence, two things happen. First, Takeshi's office becomes the local hotspot for the ankle-biting set. He's interrupted half a dozen times a day by Tsuna's kids and Ryouhei's kids and (on the days of play dates) Cavallone's kids, and each time they have the same single-minded question: "Uncle Takeshi, can we play with the puppy?" Fortunately, Brisket is endlessly good-natured and delighted to be fawned over. It's not too hard to concentrate on work while the kids tussle with the puppy until they either wear each other out and fall asleep in a muddled pile on the floor or one of their parents or nannies come looking for them. The nannies apologize each time they have to rescue their charges, even though Takeshi tells them that he doesn't mind (and he really doesn't, except when one of the kids forgets to tidy up the toys and he trips over a rubber squeaky bone or something). After the first couple of times, Kyouko just shakes her head and rounds up the kids to shepherd them out again without bothering to comment.

That's probably a consequence of the second effect: the various parents of Takeshi's acquaintance begin giving him looks, ones that are one part exasperation to two parts harassed. At first it's just Tsuna; Takeshi figures it's because of the way he has no compunctions about excusing himself from meetings to take Brisket out for her walks. At least, that's what he thinks until Ryouhei starts giving him the same faintly reproachful looks, and Hana does too. It's not until he overhears Cavallone's oldest campaigning with all her might for a puppy of her very own that the matter becomes clear. At that point Takeshi has to close his office door so he can laugh himself sick.

It's not like adopting a puppy is all sunshine and roses—Takeshi loses three full pairs of shoes and one belt to Brisket's teeth before he manages to convince her that not all leather is her personal property. His living room couch is never going to be the same again, thanks to some particularly vigorous scratching, and training her to wait for her walks outdoors before she relieves herself is an odyssey that involves cleaning up far too many accidents for Takeshi's taste. Even so, Takeshi thinks it was a good decision. The house feels different now that it has Brisket to go galumphing through it (especially as she starts growing into those paws) and there's a lot to be said for the joys of spending an hour throwing a tennis ball so she can chase it, her ears flapping and her tail beating so furiously that it shakes her entire hind end.

Yeah, Takeshi thinks one evening as he pries the soggy tennis ball out of Brisket's mouth so he can launch it across the yard again. Yeah, this is good.

 
 

Kyouya shows up again towards the end of summer, when Takeshi can't quite keep ahead of the plants in his garden and the flowerbeds seem to be going to seed overnight and everything is baked dusty and dry. He's been absent since the hostilities with the Barassi really tapered off in earnest. Takeshi's done his best not to resent that. It's Kyouya's way: he can only handle so much Family time before he starts having allergic reactions and has to find himself some solitude. And there'd been a lot of Family time over the winter. Among other things. Too, Kyouya's never surrendered Namimori. He has to go back pretty regularly to check in to ensure that everything there is as it should be.

Takeshi doesn't hear his approach, not the sound of a car or even the step of footsteps across the grass, so Brisket is his first warning. She's nosing around the yard, preoccupied with some obscure canine business. Takeshi is watching her half-idly, trying to convince himself that he wants to get up and do some more work on the side bed, when her head comes up suddenly and she takes off across the yard, barking joyously. She's not much of a watch dog, that's for sure; she treats each new human she meets like a new friend. Takeshi looks to see what's grabbed her attention just in time to witness Hibari Kyouya being body-checked by a fifty-pound yellow-and-brown-black mongrel who wants to shower him with love and doggy kisses.

(He and Brisket are still working on the whole "You're not a puppy anymore and that's not company manners" thing.)

The thing about Kyouya is that he may be Tsuna's strongest guardian and a stone-cold psychopath besides, but he's also got a weirdly soft spot for animals. He handles being greeted in joyous doggy enthusiasm far better than Takeshi has ever seen him put up with the greeting rituals of other humans, however restrained they might be. He gives her his hand to smell and takes her head between his palms to rub her ears and jowls. Brisket's entire body shakes with how hard she's wagging her tail; when he straightens up she frisks around him, clearly recognizing a soulmate in her new friend, and follows him over to where Takeshi is sitting and watching all of this.

With his usual aplomb, Kyouya appropriates both the other seat and the beer that Takeshi's been working on. Brisket flops down on the bricks beneath them and gazes up at him with love-struck eyes. He doesn't actually say anything, though he does tip his chin to Takeshi in passing.

It's just as well that Takeshi doesn't really expect him to do otherwise. He stretches out his legs instead and nudges his toes against Brisket's ribs, rubbing against her until she rolls over with a happy sigh, and asks, "How's Namimori?" instead.

Kyouya takes a drink from the bottle, fingers pale against the brown of the glass, and licks his lips after. "The same as it ever is."

There's something good in hearing that and knowing that it's true—Kyouya holds Namimori with the fierce protection of a guard dog, watches over the peace of its streets and keeps the worst excesses of the world they live in from touching it. They say it's not possible to go home again, and Takeshi guesses it's true, but even so, all he has to do is think about the continuity of sleepy, quiet Namimori to be comforted. There's something reassuring in knowing that no matter what else happens, one of them is keeping ties with home, watching over it and keeping its order. No one keeps order like Kyouya does.

Maybe Kyouya knows that or maybe he doesn't, but he never fails to tell Takeshi about Namimori when he asks, no matter how uncommunicative he might otherwise be feeling.

It seems like this is one of those uncommunicative times: Kyouya doesn't say anything else, just sits and finishes off Takeshi's beer as the sun sinks in the west. He hasn't changed much over the years, not really, though his features are cut finer now, polished sharp by passing time—honed, maybe, to show the spirit within. He's beautiful—like a sword is beautiful. He's glad that Kyouya nods when he tilts his chin at the door, asking without words whether he'd like to go inside.

He's sure that Kyouya misses nothing of the hundred little rituals that end Takeshi's days now, from calling Brisket in and making sure she has dog chow and water for the night to doing the day's dishes and leaving them to drain in the rack overnight, the walk through the house to check the windows and doors. The ordinary deadbolts and window latches wouldn't do any good against an intruder who knows his business, but he checks them anyway. Kyouya trails after him in silence, observing (and this is the important part) doing no more than that.

He ascends the stairs after Takeshi, his tread soundless even on the steps that normally creak loudest. When Takeshi glances back at him, Kyouya's fingertips rest lightly on the banister and his face is tipped up; he is watching Takeshi. He doesn't say anything, even then, but it makes Takeshi smile anyway.

It doesn't matter that this isn't Takeshi's room at the house or one of a string of hotel rooms seen once and then forgotten: it works the same as it ever has. Kyouya undresses himself, shrugs out of his jacket and hangs it over the closet door, unknots his tie and unbuttons his shirt, shimmies out of his shoes and trousers and folds each item or drapes it over something as appropriate. His movements are unhurried, even though Takeshi can see the hardness of his cock tenting the front of his boxers. He strips his own jeans and t-shirt off and kicks them over to the pile of dirty laundry that's been accumulating in the corner, and tells himself not to be disappointed that it's the same as it ever has been. Kyouya is as unchanged—unchangeable, maybe—as Namimori.

That doesn’t stop it from being good when Kyouya takes the two steps from the closet to the bed, or when he gets his hands on Kyouya's body. Kyouya wraps a hand around Takeshi's neck to pull him close and kiss him, no hesitation to it at all, just the movement of Kyouya's lips against his, the filthy stroke of his tongue against Takeshi's and the lingering taste of the beer, all yeast and hops. Kyouya licks into Takeshi's mouth, strokes his tongue against Takeshi's and makes a sound that means approval when Takeshi finds his ass and squeezes it, tight muscle beneath silky cloth and his hands. It's good and that's what he tells himself as he lets it happen, peels Kyouya out of his undershirt and pushes his boxers down, allows Kyouya to hook his fingers into the waistband of his own underwear and drag it down his thighs. He can't help wanting Kyouya, bare and slim and pale underneath his hands but for the fine dark hairs scattered across his chest that turn thicker below his navel, or the way Kyouya looks when he lounges against the sheets of the bed, splayed out beneath Takeshi's hands and working his fingers against Takeshi's shoulders. He can't help wanting all of it, Kyouya's mouth against his own and Kyouya's skin smooth beneath his lips, Kyouya scraping his nails down his chest and the way Kyouya handles him, the carelessly easy way he wraps his hand around Takeshi's cock, fingering the length of it and smirking at the sounds he can get Takeshi to make. Takeshi wants all of it, like hunger aching and fierce in his gut, and that's why he lets it happen, slides over onto his back when Kyouya gets tired of touching and teasing and watches Kyouya reach behind himself to work himself open. He runs his hands up Kyouya's thighs when Kyouya swings a bare knee over his waist to straddle him and arches helplessly when Kyouya sinks down on his cock. He wants this so much, the rhythm of their bodies as they move together, Kyouya rocking down on him and the hooded, intent look in his eyes as they fuck, the way he shudders as he comes and the unguarded groan that passes between his lips, the way his body ripples around Takeshi's cock and the way he grinds himself down on Takeshi after, still panting, until Takeshi breaks apart under that unrelenting friction and the smug tilt of Kyouya's smile. Takeshi burns with how fiercely he craves all of this.

He feels cold after, just like the ash clogging a hearth after the fire has consumed itself, when Kyouya untwines himself from his lazy drape across Takeshi's chest and unpeels himself from Takeshi's body. He gets up, naked as the day he was born and just as unselfconscious, and pads out of Takeshi's bedroom that way. It's only a minute or two later that Takeshi hears the pipes begin to mutter as water begins running in the bathroom—Kyouya cleaning himself off, fastidious as a cat. Takeshi stays right where he is, staring up at the ceiling, even when the dog takes advantage of the open door and comes in, her nails clicking against the floor. Brisket noses under his hand, shamelessly ignoring the fact that she is not allowed in the bedroom and knows that perfectly well, and Takeshi rubs her ears. He knows what happens after Kyouya cleans up and frankly, he needs all the moral support he can get.

Damn it, he thinks. Damn it, he decided the last time that he was going to stop doing this to himself. So much for good intentions.

It's not long after the water stops running that Kyouya comes back. Takeshi can see him in his peripheral vision; he stands in the doorway. Just stands there. Looking, maybe. Brisket thumps her tail against the floor but doesn't budge from where she's stationed herself beneath Takeshi's hand. He thinks that he hears Kyouya sigh, but that's probably his imagination.

It's not his imagination when Kyouya comes away from the door and drops a damp washcloth on his chest. It's just bizarre enough to jerk Takeshi out of his thoughts. The terrycloth still holds a little lingering warmth, though that's fading fast, and Kyouya stares down at him until Takeshi picks it up and begins to clean up his share of the mess. Kyouya stands over him as he does, looming quite effectively for a man who has stayed on the short, fine-boned end of the height spectrum. (Kyouya's always had a presence that belies how short he actually is.) He plucks the washcloth out of Takeshi's hands once he's done and tosses it aside. Then he climbs back into bed. He steals one of the pillows, punches it into a shape that must be acceptable, and twists himself around until he's made himself comfortable. It's only then that he seems to realize that Takeshi is staring at him.

"What?" His tone is flat. Wary, if Takeshi doesn't know any better.

"You're... are you staying?" A stupid herbivore's question, that, Takeshi knows it, but for once he wants to be sure, to drag the words out of Kyouya if he can.

Kyouya is very nearly allergic to words and may well be allergic to feelings. He wrinkles his nose and gives Takeshi a look that suggests he has very little patience for this. "You said this is what you wanted."

"I said a lot of things." And so he had when he'd woken up and realized where he was and what he'd only just escaped. When he'd realized that he wasn't happy, and then decided to do something about that. "You saying that you listened?"

Kyouya presses his lips together, looking almost as sulky as he does when denied the chance for a fight, though there's no fight here, or at least not the kind that's to his taste. "I always listen."

Takeshi stares at Kyouya's face on the pillow next to his own, the fine hair that hangs in his eyes and fans against the pillowcase, the line of his mouth and the sheer fact of his presence here, staying and not leaving. "Oh," he says, not quite knowing what to say now that Kyouya's given him exactly what he'd asked for (and not expected to receive). But that's not true, either—maybe he does know what to say. He reaches across the little space between them and touches the half-curl of Kyouya's fingers. "Thank you."

Kyouya huffs, as unimpressed as ever with the ways of sheep. "Go to sleep," he commands, so Takeshi puts Brisket back out, turns out the lamp, and settles himself next to the warm weight of Kyouya's body again. It's a long time before he's able to close his eyes and sleep.

But when he wakes up, Kyouya is still there.

 
 

"Takeshi," Tsuna says one afternoon in the late autumn, "Could you stay a moment?"

It's on the tip of Takeshi's tongue to object—it's been a long meeting, as budget discussions always are—but Kyouya plucks the lead out of his hands. Brisket ceases bouncing around Takeshi's feet and bounds over to him instead. There's that responsibility lifted off his hands, so Takeshi says, "Sure," and hangs back. The rest of them file out, leaving just the two of them in this room with its long table of shining wood that's littered with empty glasses and scraps of paper and the remains of a tray of sandwiches. Hayato's the last one out; he closes the door after himself. The funny thing is, it's not until then that Takeshi starts to wonder what's going on.

Tsuna gets up and stretches, pressing his fists to the small of his back and making a series of faces as he works the kinks out of his spine. "Meetings," he says, rueful, looking just like the boy Takeshi first met all those years ago. "I wasn't scared of the right things when Reborn showed up, I really wasn't."

Takeshi leans against the table, stretching his legs out. "Who is, when they're fourteen?" He was terrified of losing baseball, after all, terrified enough to throw it all away before he'd ever even realized how important life was. If that isn't proof that teenagers are real idiots on some fronts, he doesn't know what is.

"That's true." Tsuna shakes his head, smiling, and steps away from the table. He wanders over to the windows and looks out, hands in his pockets, and doesn't say anything more, not right away.

Takeshi gives him time to come to it, whatever it is, and when that doesn't work, says, "So what's up?" Can't be business, not if Hayato's left them alone, or at least it's not likely to be. It has to be something else, but Takeshi can't really think what.

Tsuna turns away from the window and smiles at him again, quick and wry. "Nothing, really. I just wanted... I'm not sure what I wanted, exactly. To talk a bit, I guess."

"Yeah?" Takeshi prompts him.

Tsuna meanders back to the table and rescues his water glass from the detritus. He pours out the last of the water from one of the carafes and sips it. "I was really worried about you for a while there," he says, like it's some kind of secret that he was. "You took what happened with the Barassi hard. Harder than I even realized at first." He looks up at Takeshi, eyes clear. "Didn't you?"

Oh. They're going to have that conversation, finally. Takeshi takes a breath and leans back on his hands. "I guess you could say that."

Tsuna's watching him closely, but he looks less like Vongola Decimo than he does Takeshi's friend Tsuna, and he nods. "Nobody had an easy time of it," he says, which is only the purest truth. "But you... they were your people. Maybe even more so than they were mine."

Takeshi finds that he can't meet Tsuna's steady, sad gaze any more after all and looks aside. He follows the line of the molding that runs along the ceiling instead, following it with his eyes. "Maybe, I guess. They were good people." Luca and Ivo and Oriana, his team, his lieutenants, all three of them gone now, swept away in a hail of gunfire that he'd been the only one to survive. Funny how fast it had happened, how quickly they'd gone from laughing and joking with him to bleeding out on the pavement next to him.

"They were." Tsuna's voice is quiet. Respectful. "They deserved better than that."

"Yeah." Because Takeshi can't do anything more than agree. Maybe he could say that they knew the risks and chose to embrace them, but even so... there's not much good that does, once a person is dead.

"I'm sorry. I know it hurts you to speak of them."

Takeshi drags his eyes off the ceiling and looks Tsuna's way. "Yeah, kind of. They say it's supposed to get easier." He thinks that maybe that's just a comforting lie, thinks that Tsuna knows it is, because Tsuna doesn't try to tell him that it will. And Tsuna has his own reasons to know. "So anyway. Why do you bring it up?"

"I was worried," Tsuna tells him again. "About you." He takes another sip of his water, but his eyes never leave Takeshi's face. "You had such a hard winter, then the spring came and you..."

When he trails off, looking for some polite way to describe Takeshi's behavior, Takeshi supplies it for him. "Started doing crazy things?"

"Not crazy things," Tsuna protests, but he smiles a little. "But unusual ones, maybe. The house..." He trails off again, his eyes shadowed. "I wondered, at first, whether you were trying to find a way out of the Family."

Takeshi opens his mouth and finds that there are no words to come out, not at first. "Leave the Family?"

Tsuna shrugs, half an apology in it. "I couldn't think what else it might be, other than a way to find a little distance from us," he says. "Like a first step. I hoped it wouldn't be, but..." He's the one to glance aside now, the one who can't look at Takeshi. "I decided that if that was what you needed, I wouldn't try to stop you."

Takeshi still doesn't know what to say to that, except—"The thought never even crossed my mind."

Tsuna looks up at that, quick, searching Takeshi's face. His shoulders ease as he relaxes. "Oh," he says. "Oh, I'm—glad to hear that. Really, very glad. Thank you."

Takeshi just has to shake his head, because honestly, what had Tsuna thought he was doing? "I'm not going anywhere. You're not going to get rid of me that easily."

At least Tsuna is laughing at himself now, rubbing the back of his neck and kind of pink at the edges. "Well, I wasn't sure what else it was!" he protests. "I was really worried about you!"

"Yeah, I know." It's Takeshi's turn to be embarrassed. He scuffs a foot across the carpet, idly. "Sorry about that."

"I'm sure you are." Tsuna looks at him, steady again, and finally asks the question that's been hanging over them for months now. "If it wasn't that, what was it?"

Takeshi leans back on his hands, but he's known that Tsuna would be asking him this eventually, and maybe his brain has been working on the best way to explain it all along. "Because," he says, acutely aware that Tsuna is watching him and not quite able to bring himself to look back. "I woke up after it was all over—the funerals, I mean—and I realized that it could have just as easily been me. And I realized, hey, this is my life, so why am I not... why am I compromising on these things that I want? That's not living."

"So you bought a house. And got a dog." Tsuna's voice is calm enough, though Takeshi suspects him of wanting to laugh, maybe. Or something else. It's such a fine line between these things, sometimes.

"And some other things." There's no need to tell Tsuna about that last awful conversation he'd had with Kyouya before Kyouya had cleared out for Namimori. "But yeah." He looks down and shrugs at Tsuna. "You know me. I'm a pretty simple guy, really."

Tsuna doesn't seem particularly convinced of that, and is fighting a smile, but all he says is, "But you're happier now?" For all his amusement, he's serious beneath.

A question like that deserves careful consideration, but—"Yeah," Takeshi says. "Yeah, I am."

Tsuna studies him, probably weighing that against other things, and nods. "All right," he says. "That's all I wanted to know." He gives Takeshi a look touched with asperity. "You might say something next time."

Takeshi ducks his head and laughs. "Yeah, okay. If it comes up again."

"Good. Now, you'd better go find your dog and see what she and Kyouya are destroying now."

Takeshi checks himself just a bit in the act of straightening; the look Tsuna gives him is bland, though not quite bland enough. They look at each other for a moment, then Tsuna inclines his head toward the door, smiling. Takeshi laughs a little, since it's not as though anyone has ever managed to put one over on Tsuna for long.

Then he sets off to find Kyouya and Brisket, because there's no time to waste.