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Even The Best Laid Plans

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If Kurapika had known beforehand that Kuroro Lucifer would be sneaking on board the Black Whale as one of the Kakin princes' bodyguards—

... Well, he wouldn't have changed his decision to accompany the expedition to the Dark Continent. In fact, he would have welcomed the chance to resolve one of his unfinished businesses. Convince Prince Tserriednich that relinquishing every last pair of Kuruta eyes he owned to Kurapika would be the best decision he's ever made in his life, arrest the mole seeded within the Zodiacs and stop Beyond Netero from escaping and causing uncontrolled chaos in a land crawling with things that could literally wipe out the entire human race, and find a way to permanently strand Kuroro Lucifer in said land, in no particular order. In fact, it would be the best thing ever if he could successfully accomplish all three.

No, it was the events that followed after he attempted to put his plans into motion that were almost, almost not worth getting out of bed for the day Mizaistom crashed his office and made him an offer he couldn't possibly refuse.

*

Actually, as far as plans went, the first one he came up with was simple, if a bit roundabout. It needed very little participation from him, and all he had to do was be as much of an uncaring asshole as he could possibly force himself to be when the time came.

There was just one small problem.

*

Or maybe two problems. One was the Dark Continent itself—everything about it just screamed sheer absurdity and horror better described with words like eldritch and primordial and things-best-left-undisturbed-forever.

The Zodiacs were fully aware of the danger the Dark Continent's biology presented even to prepared expeditions, of course, and Botobai had warned that its brutal eat-or-be-eaten ecology would have produced predators with extremely keen senses. And the Great Calamities notwithstanding, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that they'd also have to deal with the more "mundane" critters—such as mosquitoes with blood-scenting abilities that could put sharks to shame.

Make that fist-sized mosquitoes with insane blood-scenting abilities that swarmed like furious bees on a suicide run.

Kurapika had no idea what Kuroro Lucifer was doing so far out of the forward camp's relative safety, but it didn't really matter to him; all he cared about was confirming the moment the bastard succumbed to blood loss—which had to happen any moment now; Lucifer was bleeding heavily from several wounds. The mosquitoes were fast, ferocious, and seemed capable of punching through nen-reinforced defenses. They weren't invulnerable—several dozen mosquito bodies crunched and squished underfoot as Kuroro twisted and dodged and smacked them out of the air, but there were a lot of them, like a flock of homicidal crows converging on a target, and for every one Kuroro killed, five more seemed to buzz into existence.

Getting killed by mosquitoes was an ignoble way to go for someone with the Geneiryodan head's notoriety, and Kurapika could maybe admit to feeling a bit of unease; hiding and waiting for something else to finish the job for him was far from the vengeance he'd vowed to wreak. He had to keep reminding himself that this was only practical, and a fate Lucifer deserved—it wasn't as if the man was being murdered in cold blood. He could fight, he had a means of defense, and if he was stupid enough to strike out into dangerous territory on his own and piss off a nest of giant mosquitoes, then he only had himself to blame.

At that moment Kuroro shifted, ducked to avoid a smaller flock of mosquitoes trying to spear through his head, hand low on the ground. Kurapika's gaze flitted quickly to where he'd placed his hand, presumably to help him keep his balance, but something about it felt off. Lucifer's stance was almost protective, covering that patch of ground with his own body, and Kurapika startled when he found himself staring at a person under what he'd dismissed as a mound of clothes: a face, terrified eyes—a woman, bleeding from a gash on her forehead, arms protectively wrapped around something she was cradling to her chest.

A baby, reedy crying just barely audible under the angry buzzing of the mosquitoes.

Kurapika cursed.

His fingers hit the release on the door hatch.

*

That was the second flaw in his plan, and in the three seconds it took for him to wrap Dowsing Chain around the woman, Kurapika realized that he’d just made the decision to self-destruct.

The transport pod he’d ridden out in only had room for one passenger.

*

The woman continued shrieking in his face even as he stuffed her and her wailing infant into the pod, which Kurapika thought was rude; she was fine, her baby was fine, he was saving them from being bled dry, and quite possibly would be taking their place in a moment. He punched in a code, shut the hatch, didn't stay to watch the pod shoot off into the undergrowth, and turned around to face the mosquitoes that had followed, drawn by the lingering scent of blood from the woman's head injury.

Dispatching them was a simple matter of sniping at them using his chains from a distance. He didn't know why Lucifer was having so much trouble fighting the mosquitoes; he had to have a skill in that book of his he could use to take out whole swathes of them. And why was Kuroro Lucifer out here in the first place, protecting a woman and a baby, of all things?

Kurapika gritted his teeth. There were too many unknowns and questions for him to just up and leave without trying to find out what was going on. And being an asshole wasn't an option anymore for someone in his position; now that he understood the Association's position more, he could not in good conscience engage in actions that would cause problems for the Zodiacs. And that woman—now that he'd had time to think instead of just reacting—she was wearing robes traditionally used by household members of Kakin royalty. Kurapika didn't have a clear view of the baby, but he was willing to bet that it'd be wearing robes meant for Kakin royalty.

With his luck, saving a Kakin prince but not their bodyguard might just result in consequences that could sabotage any attempt to approach Tserriednich unnoticed.

So, he had to get rid of the mosquitoes, essentially saving Kuroro, beat the information out of him, and then decide on what to do next based on the answers.

*

"What," Kurapika said, and he'd meant it as a question, but considering who he was talking to, it was impossible to moderate his voice to be anything other than flat and dangerous.

"I have to stay here," Lucifer repeated, giving Kurapika a look like he was the crazy one. "You scared them all off, so now I have to go look for their nest." He waved a hand around at the destruction Kurapika's chains had caused, and distractedly flicked blood off his forehead.

The blond itched to push him into the nearest body of water; Botobai's warning was still ringing alarm bells at the back of his head.

"Why--what would you even need with a mosquito nest??"

"I need blood drawn from the stomach of a breeding female," Kuroro explained with amicable patience wholly unbecoming of someone meeting an enemy who'd trussed him in chains the last time they'd seen each other. "What, did you think I was actually getting overwhelmed by these things? I was trying to draw out their females."

By acting like weak and easy prey and—killing just enough to enrage the entire nest? Kurapika surreptitiously inched back so he could get a better view of the massacre by Lucifer's feet without taking his eyes off the man; judging by how much of the ground he couldn't see, Kuroro had managed to kill nearly a hundred of the things.

"It's a mission. Woble has to complete it to prove her worth as a candidate to the throne," Kuroro continued as he picked his way to the fringes of the mosquito bloodbath, maybe orienting himself to look for the direction the insects came from, "But since she's a baby, I'm allowed to undertake the trial as her proxy, which is fortunate with you stepping in and sending her off somewhere—speaking of, where did you send her and the Lady Oito?"

Kurapika stood in place, watching Kuroro watching him and waiting for his answer, and it was only then that he noticed the expression in the man's eyes, something knowing and expectant and confident. And so faced with that casual familiarity and presumption, it was all too easy to jump to particular conclusions; Kuroro was talking to him like they'd just seen each other in the camp yesterday, and not years ago on a dusty wind-swept plateau in the middle of nowhere.

Cheadle and Mizaistom had done their best to keep his particulars from being exposed too much, but Zodiac appointments were matters of public record. It would be foolish, and even arrogant to believe that he’d be safe from surveillance.

That didn’t mean he was just going to graciously accept realizing that Kuroro Lucifer might have been stalking him for the past few weeks, however.

“I could kill you right now,” Kurapika said, voice still relatively level, but his throat felt tight with the strain of keeping his fury in check. If Kuroro noticed that he was close to snapping, well—he certainly wasn’t bothering to take care not to set him off.

“You could,” the man conceded agreeably, “but you haven’t yet. And you could have left me after grabbing Oito and Woble, but you didn’t. I’m going to make an educated guess and say that you’re concerned about closing off options you would otherwise have at your disposal by not ditching me.”

Kuroro paused, cocked his head, and gave Kurapika an assessing gaze that made the blond’s hackles rise. “You’re after Tserriednich, aren’t you? I can get Oito to give you an in, if you help me.”

*

His original plan wasn’t completely shot to hell, in retrospect—about half of it was actually quite salvageable.

For example, learning how to be an uncaring asshole? That was still very much on the table. And once he decided that he’d had enough of Kuroro’s bullshit, making the decision to turn around and leave the bastard turned out to be surprisingly easy. But now he had to deal with this thrice-damned continent, and for any stranding to happen, Kurapika needed to make his way back to the forward base by himself, on foot and unequipped for a long trek through hostile, unexplored territory, and without dying, being eaten, running into anything that could dismember him in horrible ways, or getting turned into a self-cannibalizing zombie.

*

Unfortunately, it was all easier said than done, as Kurapika’s ill-luck saw fit to force him to find out the hard way; instead of finding the path back to the base, he ended up stumbling into a nest of the very same mosquitoes Kuroro had been harassing.

Or maybe these were a different species since their sizes looked a bit smaller, but Kurapika was starting to suspect that the entire bog might be infested with the things. He’d be fascinated by how the insects had basically turned the area into a blood bank if not for the realization that he’d essentially landed himself in the same situation Lucifer had been in earlier, with one key difference: he was dealing with more. A lot more than the few dozen Kuroro had killed, and karma was a stupid blind vindictive little thing with the worst sense of irony ever, and Kurapika might have to reread a few of his entomology volumes if he could manage to make it back alive because these things were behaving more like vampiric bees than mosquitoes.

He wasn’t losing, not really; Dowsing Chain formed a living, rattling, rotating cage around him that stopped most of the dive-bombing insects from getting to him. He could keep it up indefinitely, or rather, he thought he could—the mosquito cloud around him remained frustratingly dense, and he was starting to worry about the racket he was making. He’d already attracted a pack of larger predators, vaguely feline in size and stature except for the limbs that ended in simian fingers. He’d run them off easily enough, but sooner or later he was going to catch the attention of something too large and too hungry to beat back with just a few swipes of his chains.

He could simply kill everything around him, or at least, push the mosquitoes back far enough, create an opening for him to slip through while they were regrouping and then somehow lose them, but he was right in the middle of a cloud of mosquitoes and couldn’t quite tell how big it had gotten and how far he’d have to press his attack to get rid of everything in one go.

He was just going to have to push Dowsing Chain’s trajectory as far out as he could in one burst and see where it got him—except he never really saw, because just as his chains expanded explosively outwards, and he started feeling the impacts of his nen smashing through hundreds of insect bodies, something flitted through the opening he created, snagged him around the waist, and then he felt squeezing, heard the pop of air abruptly getting displaced—

*

He landed on his back, in wet earth, and if the cold muck slipping down the back of his neck didn’t make things even nastier than they already were, there was also the heavy, solid weight of a person lying on top of him.

Kurapika opened his mouth to yell bloody murder, only to have Kuroro clamp a hand over it.

“Don’t move. We’re trying to lose them, right? So don’t move, don’t even make a sound—“

The command didn’t register right away. Kuroro’s other arm was a bar across his chest, bearing down hard enough for it to be painful, and he couldn’t not struggle against being held down, at least until the thinking parts of his brain caught up with his instincts. Kurapika stilled eventually, breathing hard, straining to hear through the blood pounding through his ears.

The angry buzzing of the giant mosquito-bees was still audible. They were probably only a few meters away.

Somehow—and he had no idea exactly how—he managed to kill the urge to lash out long enough to take stock of their surroundings and assess the likelihood of Kuroro breaking his neck the moment he lowered his guard—and god help him, Kurapika realized that it was actually pretty low, and becoming more and more unlikely with each second that passed with Kuroro merely restraining him without doing anything else.

If Kuroro really wanted to kill him, he’d have done so by now. He’d already had plenty of chances to deal a fatal blow, and for whatever reason hadn’t taken any of them.

He wasn’t going to lower his guard (that was a mistake he was never ever going to make) but his death-grip on Kuroro’s clothes loosened infinitesimally.

And his shoulders may have dropped back a bit.

Kuroro raised an eyebrow at that small sign of capitulation and returned the favor by easing back just enough so that Kurapika didn’t feel like he was being smothered anymore, but he didn’t move either of his arms.

The blond narrowed his eyes in warning.

Kuroro gave him an amused look, and a small huff that sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and continued talking in a low murmur before Kurapika could try to bite his fingers off. “I used one of my skills to get us out of there, but the range actually isn’t very far. We’ll still need to make a run for it. Can you think of a way to cover our tracks?”

Maybe he did, but he wasn’t going to be able to give a snappy response just like that, because, one, what the hell, and two, when did they grow comfortable enough with each other for Lucifer to start using the word “we” in reference to the two of them?

“We’re both bleeding,” Kuroro pointed out, quite unnecessarily, or maybe he was mistaking Kurapika’s incredulous stare for one of incomprehension— “And they’re going to home in on us the moment they catch our scents again, so if you could just—”

Kurapika bit back a growl. He was angry, not stupid, and he wasn’t going to stand for anyone—least of all Kuroro Lucifer—talking to him as if he was a dumb beast who needed to be coaxed into seeing sense.

He fumbled for the ground by his left hip, grabbed a fistful of mud, reached up, and smeared it all over Kuroro’s face.

*

This. This is temporary,” Kurapika reiterated in a near-hiss, an emphatic finger drawing a line in the air tracing the imaginary (and temporary) link between Kuroro and himself. “It ends the moment we get to Tserriednich.”

Kuroro had the gall to blink at him in baffled good humor. “Of course. I was never going to push for anything more.”

Which implied that the asshole had planned to push for this much, but that was fine, he could let it go. He wasn’t as young or as stupidly reckless as he was before, and Kurapika had learned that flying off the handle for every little actual or perceived slight the Geneiryodan presented wasn’t particularly efficient, or even remotely reasonable. They gave offense simply for existing, so was he going to simmer about that as well, even without the subjects of his hatred nearby?

No, he was going to burn himself out if he couldn’t keep a lid on his temper.

In any case, he had other more pressing matters he needed to prioritize at the moment—and if he’d just focused on those instead of getting distracted and running off to deal with this extra errand, he’d still be safely ensconced in the forward camp and not stuck out here with Kuroro Lucifer.

Hindsight truly was 20/20.

“You’ve grown,” Kuroro observed, unknowingly echoing some of his thoughts, and Kurapika paused in his disgusted examination of their mud-caked forms to find the older man watching him with a thoughtful gaze.

There was something almost calculating in that look that the blond decided he didn’t like.

“Yes, thanks to what you and your group did to my clan,” he replied in the most caustic tone of voice he could bite out, and was rewarded with the sight of Kuroro looking taken aback, and the earlier intense regard broken for the moment.

Just because he’d agreed to a ceasefire in the name of mutual interests in survival didn’t mean he was going to make any particular effort towards being civil. Besides, being nasty was a healthy coping mechanism, considering the fact that his only other alternative would be resorting to repeated murder attempts until he finally succeeded.

“We need water,” Kurapika declared brusquely. Kuroro gave him a blank look. “For washing. Cleaning our wounds.” Honestly, that should have been obvious, but maybe he was expecting too much. Kuroro had rolled them about in the mud far too enthusiastically after figuring out what Kurapika had meant with the act of smearing the stuff all over his face. He wasn’t displaying even a single whit of the caution the other Zodiacs had drummed into all of their staff.

“We’re still bleeding,” Kuroro exclaimed, before hastily replacing the mud he’d scraped off one of the gashes on his arms.

“Anticoagulants,” Kurapika surmised. “Those were mosquitoes, so it’s only to be expected, but now we have open wounds, and the last thing either of us needs is pathogens in the mud making their way into our bodies.”

It might already be too late as it was—and he’d count them extremely lucky if they hadn’t caught anything yet. Either way, he could probably expect to be hustled into quarantine the moment he got back to the Black Whale.

“We passed a stream coming here, but…” Kuroro cocked his head, gray eyes glinting with dark intelligence. “By your logic, wouldn’t any body of water pose the same risk of infection?”

Kurapika twitched and tried to tell himself not to read too much into every single gesture or tone of voice Kuroro adopted; his sanity wasn’t going to last if he started second-guessing everything.

“We’re not going to soak in it, are we?” Kurapika retorted irritably. He didn’t give Kuroro a chance to reply and immediately demanded, “Well? Do you remember where it is?”

*

The stream Kuroro led them to looked clean, had sheltering foliage growing along its banks, seemed to run through a relatively secluded woodsy area, and most importantly: it was located a fair distance away from the mosquito-infested bog.

A few minutes of scouting in a wide circle around also revealed a gentle bend, where the stream widened into shallow pools of clear water, and a cave-like hollow nearby about ten meters deep and wide enough for two human travelers in need of a place to spend a few hours away from the enterprising eyes of the local wildlife.

Kurapika glared at the entire setup with no small amount of suspicion and wondered if he should get them to move before the Dark Continent sprung another trap at them.

“Do I want to ask why you’re making a scarier face than usual?”

Kuroro seemed to have decided to try putting more of an effort into avoiding provoking him; the question was nearly bland with how carefully he’d worded it. Kurapika scowled at the cave some more before shooting Kuroro another irritable look. “This place. It’s too—”

“—good to be true.” Kuroro nodded, for the first time mirroring some of the jumpy hypervigilance stretching all of Kurapika’s senses into taut lines. “But there’s water, and it’s as good a place as any. Upstream or downstream doesn’t matter if the entire continent is as dangerous as everyone says.”

Kurapika exhaled deliberately as he gave the quietly gurgling stream another once-over. He could see straight to the sandy bottom, and the sleek bodies of finger-sized fish darted like quicksilver amongst the rocks. He really could not find any fault with the spot except for it being perfect for his purposes, and therein lay the problem. The words “perfectly human-friendly” did not exist as far as the Dark Continent was concerned. To believe otherwise would be just as bad as physically putting blinders on for the rest of their hike back to the base.

But Kuroro had a point, however difficult it was for him to agree with anything the man said, and Kurapika nodded tightly in lieu of verbally declaring the location to be acceptable. Kuroro grinned, then stepped right up to the edge of the stream. He observed his reflection on the rippling surface for a few seconds before dipping a finger into the water.

“… Well, my finger’s not melting off. Or erupting in boils.”

Kurapika gave that flippancy the unimpressed reply it deserved. “Stick your entire hand in and wait a few seconds just to make sure that those fish aren’t ferocious man-eaters lying in ambush.”

Kuroro looked at him askance, but obeyed his order readily enough. The mud on his left hand sloughed off to reveal several cuts that immediately left lazy trails of pink in the water.

“These should have clotted by now,” Kuroro murmured.

“The mud couldn’t have masked our scents for much longer.” And what tempting targets they would have made then, walking around stinking of blood-moistened earth. Kurapika would have to think about bringing some samples back for the medical team. If for nothing else, the anticoagulant properties of these mosquitoes’ bites were potent enough to merit at least some form of study. “Hold your hand up,” he instructed.

He was still half-expecting Kuroro to be contrary, but only because he himself wouldn’t be obeying so easily if their positions had been reversed. To see the man following his orders without protest was disconcerting. Then again, his statements had been mostly mundane up to this point—perhaps rude by acceptable social standards, but nothing truly threatening.

Kurapika brought his own hand up—making sure that Kuroro could see and read his intention clearly and have more than enough time to react if he wanted to—and called on his nen. His chains shivered into existence.

Kuroro only blinked and continued to wait.

“You’re being awfully compliant,” the blond observed slowly, suspiciously. “I could be planning to place you under zetsu again.”

There was the weighty pause of someone trying and failing to come up with an answer that wouldn’t anger, and Kuroro shrugged after another moment, apparently having decided to go for broke.

“You’ve been acting like you have a plan to deal with our injuries,” Kuroro reasoned. “Just that is enough for me to trust that you know what you’re doing, considering how capable you are, but my real reason is one you probably won’t like.”

Kurapika gave no outward sign that he didn’t want to hear this reason he wouldn’t like, but unease prickled down his spine like how his instincts would brace him to receive bad news he knew was coming.

“You told me that you’ll work with me, and you don’t strike me as the kind to treat their given word lightly by breaking it, especially for a promise that must have been hard for you to provide in the first place.”

Lucifer was right; saying that Kurapika didn’t like it was an understatement. He was hearing proof that Kuroro could accurately read him to an unexpected degree, and he felt horribly exposed and vulnerable.

It was a much-needed slap to the face. His preoccupation with everything that could possibly go wrong burned away to leave only the bright, hard reminders of who he was with, and what he needed to do, and if that meant jumping straight into decisions that would otherwise freeze him with apprehension and worry over the possible consequences of his actions, well.

Kurapika had always done his best work on the fly, anyway.

“And you’re not stupid,” Kuroro continued. “Your hate, and your anger—I’ve always known that they’re not the only things that define you. I just didn’t think that you’d have moved past them enough to act reasonably in front of me.”

He was nearly done, in any case. Tserriednich had the last pairs of eyes he needed to gather, and he was so close to completing his mission. At this point he didn’t really care anymore if the Geneiryodan learned everything there was to know about his abilities and weaknesses.

“You’re right,” he said quietly, deceptively calm tone betraying none of the anger he’d sworn never to forget, “I haven’t.”

Kurapika flicked his wrist and sent one of his chains to wind around Kuroro’s hand. The man watched it warily for a moment and then looked back up to meet his eyes—which turned red between one blink and the next. Surprise flickered through Kuroro’s expression. Kurapika didn’t give either of them time to react, or think twice about impulsive-actions-to-be-regretted-later, and felt for Kuroro’s nen, pulling at it, calling for it to come out and follow and serve its wielder in a way it hadn’t been built to work.

The cross-tipped chain flared a gentle green, and the cut running diagonally down the back of Kuroro’s hand and all the smaller scratches around it closed in five seconds flat.

And the gleam of interest in Kuroro’s unblinking stare returned in full force. Kurapika ignored it through sheer force of will as he began to give more instructions in a clipped tone. “Clean everything as best as you can before I heal the rest of it. Make sure you don’t leave even a speck of dirt; I swear I am going to leave you behind if you get an infection and fall ill because your skin healed over a cut that wasn’t cleaned properly. And wash the blood from your clothes while you’re at it.”

Kurapika didn’t stick around to see if Kuroro obeyed him, although from the splashing that immediately followed as he turned around to head for the cave, the prospect of getting clean and getting his injuries healed so conveniently was apparently too tempting for Kuroro to ignore.

*

“Could you stop staring so blatantly?” Kurapika demanded, raising his head from where he’d pillowed it on his arms crossed on his knees. Kuroro didn’t even try to hide what he’d been doing for the past few hours, and met his eyes boldly (shamelessly) with a none-too-innocent blink.

“But there’s nothing else to look at.”

“Then stare into the fire, for god’s sake,” the blond snapped. “Maybe you’ll do us both a favor and fall asleep.”

Kuroro raised his hands in a placating gesture and shook his head. “I was being serious. You’re—interesting.”

There was just the slightest hitch in Kuroro’s delivery that gave Kurapika the feeling that he’d been about to say something else, but whatever it was, he didn’t want to know. Being called “interesting” by the Geneiryodan leader was bad enough.

Kurapika narrowed his eyes and hunched his shoulders against the cool air wafting in from the mouth of the cave. “You mean my nen ability. Are you going to steal it?”

Kuroro canted his head to the side without letting up on that unnerving stare. “I don’t think I can, and even if I did, and I used it, its effectivity would probably be so far reduced as to be useless. It’s tied to your bloodline, isn’t it?”

Tied to your Kuruta blood, to your eyes, hung in the air between them. Kurapika would be impressed that Kuroro had enough delicacy to avoid using the more damning ways to describe how his nen was able to defy conventional limits. However, he was too busy trying to decide if he should feel insulted at his hatsu being called useless, even as a result of being stolen from him, or surprised that the man had even thought that far.

“It won’t be worth fighting you for,” Kuroro continued sagaciously. “Since you’d rather die than let me steal anything from you, and I’d much rather avoid all that trouble. It’ll just be a waste all around.”

Kurapika gave the older man a withering glare. “You keep forgetting that dying isn’t the only alternative I have to suffering your company.”

Kuroro laughed quietly, and ran his hands down his bare arms to warm his palms over the fire. “Of course. I’ll try to remember. But you should also keep in mind that I won’t be surprised so easily anymore, now that I know what to watch out for.”

They were exchanging subtle threats while half-naked and huddled over a campfire he’d built. Kurapika spared a moment to wonder who he’d pissed off in his previous life.

“Where did you learn about my ability to steal other people’s nen abilities, if you don’t mind my asking?” Kuroro’s questioning tone was mildly curious, more academically probing than trying to confirm if there was a leak in his vicinity that needed plugging.

The blond regarded the older man for a moment and considered simply not answering, just to see if he could wipe out that curiosity and have it replaced by the same kind of frustration and aggravation he felt on a regular basis. “One hears things,” he said primly. The question was all but rhetorical, anyway; they both knew who it was.

Kuroro cocked his head again. It was a distracting habit—Kurapika kept being reminded of a dog trying to home in on the source of a sound. “Hisoka told you, didn’t he?”

“Yes, the same way he went off and found a nen exorcist to unseal your nen after unknowingly helping me seal it.”

Kuroro blinked and grinned, the tilt of his lips teasing and merry. “Have you been stalking me?”

Kurapika twitched, fingers involuntarily flexing as if seeking something to wrap around and squeeze. He threw the man a dirty look. “No.” Then he paused, and grudgingly, resentfully added, before Kuroro could think to call him out on it, “Only after I found out that you were on board the Black Whale. And I wasn’t stalking, I had someone alert me if you started acting suspiciously.”

… Which was, of course, also stalking even if done indirectly. Kurapika hurriedly answered the unspoken question of how he knew about Hisoka’s involvement in the lamentable negation of all his hard work in York Shin. “My friends were in Greed Island. They ran into Hisoka, who was logged in under your name. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he was doing there.”

“And they told you,” Kuroro mused. “That was a while ago, though. If you already knew that I was taking steps to break your seal, why didn’t you try to prevent it?”

Kurapika felt his lips curling into a mocking facsimile of Kuroro’s earlier grin. “And run headlong into any traps you might have laid out in anticipation of me hunting you down again?” The blond shook his head derisively. “I had more important things to do by then.”

“Considering the way you went after us in York Shin, I can’t think of very many things you’d find more important than stopping us from regrouping.”

“I was laying my brethren to rest,” Kurapika replied slowly, incredulity over the man’s piss-poor attempt at questioning his priorities making him forget his anger for the moment. “Not that it’s any of your damned business.”

Kuroro hummed wordlessly, looking both puzzled and pleased by turns. “So you’re really not going to come after us anymore?”

“I could always go back to picking you off one by one if you keep pushing the issue,” Kurapika ground out; Kuroro would be audacious enough to pose the kinds of questions his group had no right to ask, let alone to the sole survivor of a massacre they’d perpetrated.

The questions stopped after that, as Kuroro moved his focus to fussing over his clothes—maybe realizing that Kurapika’s patience for their version of civilized conversation was starting to wear thin. The blond passed his hands over his own clothes, placed as close to the fire as he could risk it, and halfheartedly fingered the fabric of his trousers: still damp, as expected. And he’d probably have to throw his jacket out after this. His shirt, however, cut from a thinner, lighter cloth, was more or less dry, and most importantly, clean of both blood and the vegetable-rot-slick of the mud they’d used to mask the scent of their injuries.

He pulled it on, fastening the buttons with no small amount of relief. If he was petty enough to note privately that he was now halfway clothed while Kuroro was still sitting on bare rock in nothing but his black boxer shorts, he was at least not so crude as to overtly gloat about it.

*

Their clothes dried, the fire eventually died down to a pile of glowing embers with no more wood to keep it going, and sometime during the night, they both felt secure enough in their position to start nodding off where they sat, Kuroro slouched against the cave wall and Kurapika curled up over his knees.

It was Kurapika who first woke with a jolt, light doze disturbed by something that felt wrong to his senses. It could have been the soft shuffle of movement his ears picked up, the faint stirring in the air over his head that meant there was someone or something looming over him, or maybe the dry slither of scales against his ten shield. Whatever it was, it woke him up, and he looked up to find himself staring straight into a mouth sporting blunt teeth the size of his clenched fists, opened wide and seconds away from closing down over his head.

He jerked back with a strangled yell and reflexively punched whatever it was he’d interrupted trying to eat him whole. Across the now-cold remains of their campfire, Kuroro came awake with a snort and only just managed to throw himself to the side before the thing slammed into the wall he’d been leaning against.

It gurgled, rattled, writhed in a futile struggle to turn over, and then finally expired with a hiss like a deflating balloon. Kuroro stood waiting for another moment, weight balanced on the balls of his feet and clearly poised to kick the thing in half if it showed any signs of not being fully dead. After a few more seconds of strained silence, he turned wide eyes to Kurapika.

“What the hell,” Kuroro mouthed.

Kurapika shook his head and stepped up to the older man’s side. It was actually light enough to see—a greenish tinge instead of the midnight blue darkness of night under the forest canopy, most likely bioluminescence from the vegetation outside the cave. The blond was glad to note that the glow here was just as violently green as the light that came from other samples of bioluminescent plants he’d seen in his travels. He wouldn’t have been particularly surprised if it had been an ominous red or violet instead.

He toed at his unidentified assailant, gingerly turning it so that they could take a better look. It rolled and flopped like a particularly fat snake. It could have been a snake that had swallowed something big enough to distend its middle, but it was too short and too squat to be one; it was about as long as a human child was tall.

And instead of an arrow-shaped snake head, it had a round skull, and a gaping mouth that took up nearly eighty percent of its facial real estate pushed a squashed nose and eyes that were merely thin slits up to the very top of its head.

He couldn’t have created a more grotesque face if the godfathers of York Shin gave him leave to rearrange Zenji’s face with a baseball bat.

“That is one ugly worm,” Kuroro whispered with the morbid fascination of the thoroughly grossed-out.

“There are more outside,” Kurapika announced abruptly in a terse undertone, head tilted to the side to better catch the faint sounds of bodies crawling over the pebbled wash of the stream. “Most likely headed straight for us, if they heard this one die. We can’t stay here.”

Kuroro sighed his disappointment as they moved to the mouth of the cave in tacit agreement of their temporary rest stop no longer being safe. “And I was just starting to get comfortable.”

*

“That was… easy,” Kuroro said with a puzzled frown minutes later, after they’d mowed through the pack (flock? Or pod?) of death worms like hot knives through butter. Or like Geneiryodan through an army of mafia grunts armed only with pistols and machine guns.

“The mosquitoes aren’t really that hard to kill, either,” the man added, “even if they’re bigger than I’m comfortable with. I’m not sure what all the warnings are for if most of what we’ll be dealing with are only at this level.”

As distracted as he was with berating himself for unbending, even for those few moments, and treating Kuroro Lucifer almost like a normal companion, Kurapika still couldn’t allow that comment to pass unchallenged. It was exactly the kind of thoughtless overconfidence that got people killed.

“Those were E-class beasts, at best,” the blond scoffed as he checked his person for anything nasty that might have transferred over while he was busy with worm extermination. “You’ll definitely feel it if we run into anything rated B or higher. I want us to turn around and run the other way if that happens.”

“Aren’t you being far too cautious about this? You’re fighting just fine,” Kuroro pointed out bemusedly. “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble taking down even a B-class beast by yourself.”

It was too dark to see the older man’s eyes clearly, but Kurapika thought that he heard something almost hesitant in Kuroro’s question, as if he wanted to be honest about his opinion but didn’t know how it would be received.

Kurapika took a grounding breath. The careless comment Kuroro had just made was, to Saccho’s extreme consternation, an aggravatingly common sentiment among the settlers Kakin had somehow duped into migrating en masse to a continent that had been explicitly declared taboo for the last two hundred years. They’d tried to get the organizers to educate their people properly, of course, but Kakin refused to let anyone release information that would contradict their propaganda of a “bountiful land with voluminous resources and an overflowing food supply.”

“You’ve been operating based on information that’s been collated from conflicting resources,” Kurapika started, shoulders and back stiff with tension as he struggled to keep his manner informative instead of reverting to annoyed disdain over having to explain at all. “You mentioned ‘warnings’, so you must have gotten your hands on some of the rumors being circulated by information brokers.”

Kuroro nodded; Kurapika shifted his weight and looked away to avoid what he now knew was the man’s default expression of intense interest. “But as a Kakin prince bodyguard,” the blond continued, “you would have been given information that’s closer to what’s been broadcasted to the public. I’m sure Hui Guo Rou and some of his children have access to texts detailing what actually happens whenever humanity sends expeditions to the Dark Continent, but I wouldn’t put it past them to give their men watered-down versions of that information to avoid scaring off their own protectors.

“You’ve been fed lies. Half-truths, at best. I’m not afraid of beasts we can defeat purely with physical strength, which the ignorant believe are just about the most dangerous things we can run into out here. I’m cautious,” Kurapika asserted, all but spitting the last word back at the older man, “of things with abilities we can’t defend against. Like the five Great Calamities.”

“So the Calamities are real.” Kuroro’s voice was pleased, surprised, the reaction of someone who’d heard about something fantastic and wanted to believe it but didn’t know if he could. “Shalnark will be delighted to know.”

“Shalnark?” The name sounded vaguely familiar, like a word he’d heard while eavesdropping on a conversation about someone else.

Kuroro grinned, sharp and shrewdly. “My ‘information broker’, to borrow your term. In any case, I know now why you’ve been so twitchy ever since we got away from those mosquitoes. I’ll try not to be obnoxious about it.”

“I wasn’t being twitchy,” Kurapika muttered, and seriously, the existence of the five Great Calamities wasn’t the kind of information any sane person would be excited to hear being confirmed.

He opened his mouth to say that they needed to move to somewhere that wasn’t so exposed, as they were literally just standing under the low-hanging branches of a large tree they’d stopped by after what remained of the pack of worms they’d decimated decided to cut their losses and flee—but the gunshot-loud crack of a branch snapping in half had him dropping into a defensive crouch instead, ren shroud up, aura eagerly gathering at his fingertips and ready to receive an attack that—

—didn’t come.

But something four-legged and about the size of a Great Stamp pushed its way out of the bushes a dozen meters away and stopped, luminous pink eyes regarding them with bovine curiosity. They stared back warily, watching and waiting for any sign that it might turn violent, but it only ambled forward a few more feet, turned its massive head to the side, ripped a patch of bark and luminescent moss off a hapless tree, and started chewing.

Neither of them made a sound. For all that the creature seemed to be an herbivore, it couldn’t be completely harmless. It had wide, powerful shoulders set behind a large, heavy skull ringed by a crown of jagged spikes, and broad feet ending in hooves that wouldn’t look out of place on a shovel supported a body that could probably bowl trees over effortlessly. But it wasn’t its size, or its sudden appearance that so mesmerized them now, it was the wicked beak that methodically, ponderously mashed vegetation and chunks of attached wood into a pulp.

It eventually moved off after ripping into a few more trees, but Kurapika and Kuroro stayed frozen for several more minutes after that, just to be sure that it wasn’t going to come back. The blond eventually exhaled, slow and steadying, and turned to find Kuroro looking at his red eyes with sardonic amusement.

“Like I said,” the older man murmured pointedly, “Twitchy.”

Not. Another word,” Kurapika growled.

*

Kurapika refused to continue with their mosquito hunt while it was still too dark to clearly see past a few feet away. Or have anything to do with the hunt, really, unless Kuroro could come up with a more solid plan than “play live bait, kill everything, wait for the females to come buzzing by, and hopefully identify and capture them alive before they got crushed along with all the males.”

It was a stupid, haphazard, and idiotically lazy plan, and they’d just be rehashing the disaster of the previous day if they went with it again, so Kurapika demonstrated exactly how he might be able to contribute with his abilities and told Kuroro to figure out the rest himself.

*

“You were wrong about one thing, though,” Kuroro remarked without preamble, two hours after the sun rose and thirty minutes after they settled behind a fallen log to wait for the heat of the day to draw the mosquitoes out of their nests.

Kurapika frowned absentmindedly—he was a bit distracted with trying to figure out, from their encounters yesterday, if the facts he remembered about normal mosquitoes could also apply to these ones. Were they day-biters, or did they prefer to feed during dusk? Were they exclusively drawn to the smell of blood from injured animals stumbling within their territory, or was Kuroro putting them both at risk of discovery by talking and expelling more carbon dioxide than was strictly necessary?

“About what?” the blond muttered after an awkward pause when he realized that he was supposed to respond.

Kuroro raised an eyebrow at his obvious preoccupation; Kurapika deepened his scowl in reaction and as encouragement for Lucifer to continue.

“About my employer lying to me. Since I don’t think she’s even aware that she was giving me incomplete information.”

It was such an… uncharacteristically optimistic assumption that even Kurapika felt compelled to give Kuroro his full attention, however skeptical.

“She’s the newest wife, with the youngest child,” Kuroro explained with an amused huff at the face Kurapika made at him. “No matter what they say in public about the king’s wives and his children holding equal rank, her access to resources and intel is still minimal compared to the rest, and Woble has almost zero influence and the lowest odds of winning the succession game.”

“So why are you working for her?” Kurapika couldn’t keep the suspicion out of his voice. “No, forget that, why are you even working? I didn’t think your kind even understood the concept of work.”

“Okay, that was nasty,” Kuroro said, more startled than offended if the utter lack of anything resembling hurt in his expression was any indication. Kurapika sneered back unrepentantly. Kuroro shook his head, looking both amazed and baffled, though over what, the blond couldn’t say for sure. His rudeness wasn’t anything to be surprised about—it wasn’t as if the bastard didn’t deserve all the contempt Kurapika was capable of mustering for him.

“Hey, it’s honest work, even if it’s not a regular job according to the definition you prescribe to,” Kuroro continued in a tone that could almost be called admonishing, but Kurapika wasn’t about to consider that the other man would have the gall to scold him about anything, least of all how he dished out his insults. He was actually managing to hold himself back from flying into murderous rages by dint of continuous exposure to the primary trigger, and it would be such a shame if he were to relapse now.

Kurapika tossed his head in a dismissive gesture and turned his eyes back to the front. “So did you extort her? Demand all the kingdom’s jewels in exchange for your dubious protection?”

“I asked for just one artifact, actually,” Kuroro admitted. “And I’ll only get it after Woble—and by extension Oito—gets full access to the treasury and can legally pass ownership of the artifact to me. Which means I’ll only get paid if she wins the succession game.” The man shrugged. “To start with, Oito barely had enough money to hire even one bodyguard, since the other princes kept jacking up their prices. She couldn’t compete. I told her to keep it for supplies and just accept my offer. It’s a pretty good deal considering her situation.”

“Oh, yes. So good that one could almost believe that you’re helping a young mother and her infant daughter out of the goodness of your heart,” Kurapika retorted, reply fairly oozing with sarcasm with how saccharinely he’d delivered it. A sidelong look showed the older man blinking—which he was starting to suspect was Kuroro-speak for getting caught off-guard. “You took the job to get at that artifact, don’t make it sound like an afterthought in the face of your sudden magnanimity. What are you after?”

There was a small smile curving the line of Kuroro’s lips now, of surprise and pleasure and an anticipation sharp enough to cut through his belligerence. Kurapika ruthlessly quashed the urge to shudder under the weight of that regard and narrowed his eyes, silently daring the other man to refute his accusation.

“I don’t think they have an actual name for it. But it’s a pot,” Kuroro answered after a beat, head inclined in acknowledgement of his challenge, “passed down the royal lineage since the establishment of the Kakin monarchy. It’s rumored to have the ability to give people guardian beasts, even if they don’t know anything about nen and can’t use it.”

If the information had come from someone else, if he wasn’t learning it as part of a crash course on Kuroro’s reasons for indirectly screwing with his three-step plan for solving all of his problems in one trip, Kurapika would have jumped at the chance to learn more about something so esoteric. But, left with the memories of how his village had been mercilessly looted of lives and almost everything that could be turned into profit in the wake of an entire clan getting wiped out overnight… He found it impossible not to take umbrage on behalf of a woman who couldn’t have known of the devil she had entered into a deal with.

“So you’re basically angling to rob a nation of one of their most important cultural artifacts. That’s just on par for course for you, I suppose,” Kurapika muttered with a long-suffering sigh. Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention before Kuroro could respond—Kurapika tuned him out and focused, homing in on what may as well have been black dots in a dizzying field of brown and green.

He couldn’t really confirm that what he was staring at were the insects they wanted, not at this distance, but—he tugged on that ever-present itch at the back of his eyes, switching them to their full brilliance. The dots were suddenly a lot easier to follow, as perception beyond the limits he’d originally set for his abilities kicked in and allowed him to see.

The dots flitted, moving through the foliage like fast-drifting spots of soot, and jerked occasionally and changed directions abruptly, as if swerving past unseen obstacles in the air. The movement was exactly like that of the mosquitoes they encountered, except maybe more leisurely and less of the enraged dive-bombing from yesterday.

He spared a quick glance to the side to check on Kuroro and see if he’d picked up on what was about to happen, and found the man watching him avidly. “Do you see something?”

“Your targets,” Kurapika replied, quietly taking note of the observation that both his vision and hearing seemed to be better than Kuroro’s—if Kuroro wasn’t feigning not being able to see the mosquitoes, anyway, and hadn’t feigned failing to hear the sounds of the giant worms converging to attack them earlier.

“Don’t screw up your part,” the blond growled in an undertone as Kuroro moved into position. “I might just ditch you on principle if we have to roll around in mud again to escape a botched capture.”

Kuroro didn’t botch his part of the plan he’d ended up proposing, which, while not quite as lazy as the one before, still demanded a blood sacrifice from either of them. They still needed a controlled way of drawing enough of the female mosquitoes out and within striking range, after all, and simply finding another animal to offer as bait left too many variables that could go wrong. There was no guarantee that they’d manage to find a suitable substitute, for one thing, and even if they did, there was no way that it would stand still long enough to get swarmed by giant mosquitoes. They would have to kill it—and Kurapika didn’t know if a rapidly cooling corpse would entice the mosquitoes as well as a live source of blood would. They might accidentally attract other predators and scavengers, as well, and neither of them felt particularly up to dealing with more at this point.

So, Kuroro wadded up his jacket, using one sleeve to wrap it into a lumpy ball and leaving the other sleeve tied around a good-sized rock. Then Kurapika laid his and Kuroro’s forearms open, and healed the cuts once they’d bled into the cloth just enough to saturate it but not leave them reeling from blood loss. While the blond was retrospectively grimacing over sharing what nearly amounted to a blood pact moment with Kuroro Lucifer, Kuroro threw his bloody jacket into the bog, as near to the mosquitoes as he could manage without startling the things into flying away.

And then they settled back down to wait.

Ten minutes later, there were at least half a dozen fat mosquitoes obliviously sucking at the blood they’d dripped all over the jacket, and Kurapika could see more coming.

“I didn’t think that would actually work,” he grumbled, mentally bemoaning the unfairness that would see Kuroro’s idiotic ventures succeeding while his failed.

Kuroro hadn’t stopped smiling since the first mosquito alighted on their makeshift bait. He was obviously very happy to see that he was close to fulfilling his mission, and Kurapika had to keep reminding himself that giving in to the reflexive urge to punch the grin off of Kuroro’s face wouldn’t really do anything except stay the urge for another couple of hours.

“I was counting on the mosquitoes remembering what our blood smelled and tasted like,” Kuroro explained. “Mosquitoes that know how to hold a grudge would definitely fit with the whole hostile theme the Dark Continent has going, don’t you think?”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“But it worked,” Kuroro pointed out mildly. “And now you’re up.”

He’d have to get a bit closer to the mosquitoes to carry out his part of the plan, though, so Kurapika climbed over the log and crept forward at a low crouch, muttering under his breath as he went, “Luck of the devil, seriously.”

Sabotaging his enemy’s efforts never even entered into Kurapika’s considerations. He promised, he’d deliver, and he really, really wanted to finish this and get back to civilization. And maybe there was just the tiniest part of him, oft-neglected, that stretched and purred with satisfaction at getting to carry out the intricate maneuver he told Kuroro about. Hundreds of hours of practicing with Dowsing Chain, honing its accuracy, manipulating his aura to the point that he could send it out and hit something fluttering to the ground using his chains—he wouldn’t describe himself as an adrenaline junkie, but even the most indifferent of nen users wouldn’t deny the joy to be felt at successfully applying their techniques out in the field.

He accidentally killed the first two—too much force, too much irritation in his swing, but he was nothing if not quick to adapt. By the time Kuroro caught up to him, Kurapika had the rest of the mosquitoes grounded for easy gathering.

*

The problem of how to transport live samples when they had nothing at hand to secure the mosquitoes with was… well, resolved. By Kuroro materializing his book and pulling out one of his techniques. He piled the insects into the middle of a blanket-sized square of cloth that then shrank into a small twist. The next time he opened the cloth twist and expanded it, the mosquitoes would drop out, hopefully none the worse for wear and still alive despite the shock of Kurapika ripping off their wings with Dowsing Chain.

It was a fascinating technique. Kurapika watched it—and the resulting tiny twist of red cloth, and Kuroro’s book—the way a feral cat would eyeball a rival trying to encroach on its territory. Kuroro took one look at his eyes and wordlessly took the lead back to the forward camp, thumb and twist wedged into the page that opened up to the skill he’d used.

*

Of course, with Lucifer literally holding what amounted to a massive handicap in his right hand, it fell to Kurapika to protect the both of them from every manner of Dark Continent beastie that seemed suddenly intent on making sure that they never found their way back to the expedition. First was a pack of reptilian bipeds, looking like what Kurapika thought a lizard would grow into if a mad scientist with more time than what they knew to do with fused it with a bucketful of serrated teeth and forced it to balloon into the size and posture of an adult human bent at the waist.

One of them managed to rake its claws down Kuroro’s left arm before Kurapika kicked it away and into a conveniently sturdy tree trunk hard enough to break its back. The rest scattered after, helped along by Kurapika pushing his aura out in a wave of bloodlust.

“Stupid,” the blond snarled as he lashed Healing Chain around Kuroro’s forearm and yanked at the man’s aura to speed up his healing factor. “Who goes on a hunt with nothing to store their loot in? Not even a knapsack or bottles for storing the blood—”

“Oito was carrying vials and syringes,” Kuroro protested. “I was supposed to use them to extract the blood, but someone butted in and sent her away.”

He held his hands up—one still holding his nen book open—in a gesture of surrender even as Kurapika flashed his scarlet eyes at him.

“Speaking of, you never answered my question,” the older man hurriedly continued, “about where you sent her and Woble.”

Kurapika kept his stink eye on Kuroro for a long moment as he mentally debated between answering, and withholding the information as punishment for the man’s idiocy. Eventually, he pulled his chain back with a flick of his wrist and turned his gaze to the corpse of the giant lizard he’d killed.

“I set the pod to return to base on auto-pilot mode. It would have gone straight back to the Association’s transport garages, and the other Zodiacs would most likely detain them for questioning once they realize that I didn’t return with the pod.”

Kurapika hadn’t allowed himself to think of the Zodiacs up until now, of Mizai and Cheadle and the fact that he was basically MIA and being derelict with his duties. They’d know to expect him to try to make his way back on foot, but Leorio was probably already worrying himself up to a froth at this point—especially if they somehow manage to glean from Oito just who it was he’d gotten stuck out here with.

“She and her daughter will be safe for as long as they remain under the Association’s custody. On the other hand, you,” he whirled back around, voice rising into a shout, “should be more aware of your situation! Dodge, or—or put some distance between yourself and threats instead of doing something stupid like using your arm as a shield! I did not just spend the last two days putting up with you only to have you break our agreement by getting yourself killed!”

Kuroro’s eyes had widened sometime in the middle of his outburst, and Kurapika had thought that it was in reaction to getting dressed down, but the man was now looking up, and behind him, and there was a groaning, cracking, rustling noise, underscored by the shrieking of birds and other animals getting displaced from their roosts.

Kurapika’s mind helpfully identified the cacophony—it was the sound of something very large breaking through the forest canopy, too large to beat back physically, or scare off just by snarling aggressively at it. So large, in fact, that he couldn’t get a good look at it even when he turned around to gape at it—he got the impression of tentacles, or maybe they were actually multiple necks, ending in heads the size of trucks, attached to a main body the approximate size of a building. He had no idea how they missed it, but there were trees and clumps of dirt tumbling off its sides, so it had to have been burrowed underground until now.

They managed to get away from it, but only because they were too insignificantly small to be of any interest to it.

Talking in raised voices joined not bleeding on their list of Things to Avoid Doing while on the Dark Continent.

*

By the end of the fourth day, Kurapika had to resort to treating the entire thing like one of his bodyguarding jobs, only with three times the complexity and disagreeability and only a small likelihood of return at the end. Comparing Kuroro to the most troublesome, most obnoxious clients he’d ever had the misfortune of serving amused him at first, but that mindset eventually became a necessity, if only to stop him from losing his patience altogether.

Kuroro wasn’t completely defenseless; he still had his legs for kicking and a free arm, but the one tied up with maintaining the storage skill holding his samples was his dominant hand. He’d also explained that he needed to keep the book opened to the page where the activated skill was kept in, which meant that he couldn’t use any of his other abilities at the same time—interesting information to learn about the workings of his enemy’s hatsu, to be sure, but right now it was an inconvenience, and frankly annoying to hear about.

So rather than waste time trying to figure out what that meant in terms of Kuroro asking him for his help (because like hell he was going to ask for a clarification like they were colleagues in a legitimate partnership), Kurapika went ahead and expanded his responsibilities beyond the original parameters of the mosquito mission—up to and including bringing down a fowl of some sort just so Kuroro would stop eyeing the virulently-colored mushrooms dotting the path they were taking.

*

“Where were you keeping those?”

Kuroro’s voice was an almost gratifying blend of baffled and wary, and Kurapika couldn’t quite resist turning his wrist over so that light glinted off one of the pair of throwing knives he was using to gut the carcass of the vaguely turkey-like thing he’d killed.

“In my shoes,” the blond replied, deadpan, and before Kuroro’s eyebrows could shoot up into incredulity he added, tone as impassive as ever, “or in hidden pouches sewn into the lining of my jacket. Try to guess which.”

The truth was that he had several of the small-bladed knives squirreled away in both, but he was still too wired from having Kuroro actively and continuously using his hatsu in such close quarters to feel like cooperating. The sense of it translated into a faint buzzing at the back of his head, the tingle of static zipping over his skin that meant another nen user was close enough to turn into a threat if they chose to attack, and Kuroro’s nen was not one he considered friendly, or even remotely familiar. He had to consciously ignore it to avoid being driven to distraction, but not forget that it was there, which, coincidentally, just about explained how he was managing his anger around the older man.

Kurapika watched, eyes narrowed, as, instead of continuing the conversation, Kuroro stood and backed up a few steps. He held the cloth twist about a foot above a clear patch of ground and expanded it, leaving the mosquitoes to tumble out of it in a sorry pile. The large square of cloth billowing out should have been awkward to handle, but Kuroro was somehow able to yank it into order before it could do more than ruffle his hair. It faded from view the moment Kuroro snapped his book shut.

“What are you doing?”

“Resting,” Kuroro replied mildly, and knelt to check the mosquitoes over. From here Kurapika could see that most were still alive, and either fluttering feebly or gamely trying to crawl away. He went back to his task, maybe slightly surprised that Kuroro could choose to dump the mosquitoes out whenever he wanted to stop using his hatsu and take a break.

And then he vaguely wondered if the thing he’d dragged back was avian or reptile even as he cut strips of meat for cooking or curing—it had spines down its back. And extra fin-like appendages, and teeth where he expected the beak to be smooth. The only reason he’d identified it as a bird in the first place was because it had wings and feathers.

“You really do have pouches sewn into the lining,” Kuroro exclaimed, boyishly excited at finding the stiffer strips of fabric sewn into the inside pockets of Kurapika’s jacket. He’d wandered over to inspect it—Kurapika had removed and folded it to the side before beginning with the bloody work of disassembling their dinner—and was fingering the outlines of the knives he hadn’t taken out, maybe trying to figure out how to push them out without damaging the cloth. “You don’t accidentally stick yourself with these if you sit or move wrong?”

Kurapika sighed and quietly prayed for fortitude in the face of Kuroro’s shameless inquisitiveness. “No.”

“But you’re a conjurer, aren’t you? Why carry knives when your chains already make for an effective weapon?”

It… wasn’t a trick question, Kurapika decided after a moment of careful thinking. Kuroro sounded honestly curious about why he’d carry extra weapons, and didn’t seem aware that the answer would reveal one of his ability’s greatest limitations, and at the same time explain the potency of his hatsu when brought to bear against Geneiryodan members.

Either way, Kuroro was just going to have to settle for a deflection, because he wasn’t getting the actual answer that easily.

“My hatsu isn’t an all-purpose tool. Nobody’s nen is.”

“Yours is the closest I’ve seen to it being multi-purpose, though.”

The blond shook his head. “I developed my hatsu to serve my goals, just like everybody else, and my goals didn’t account for getting stuck out in the wilderness. There are tools for these mundane tasks, like knives for butchering game. Or matches and flint for starting a fire.”

Kuroro stood, and—perhaps reminded by Kurapika’s statement—started poking around their immediate vicinity for tinder and suitable pieces of dry wood.

“I’m just saying,” he asserted, “you’re strong, and skilled, and versatile. If our circumstances were just a bit different I would have tried to recruit you.”

He’d delivered that bit so lightly and so casually that for a second Kurapika wasn’t sure that he’d heard correctly. And then it sank in, the most outrageous thing he’d ever heard, even more ridiculous than everything Kuroro had been telling him the past few days, and it just—completely failed to register.

“Recruit me,” Kurapika repeated slowly, as if by drawing out the syllables he’d give himself more time to parse the words properly. “You mean into the Geneiryodan?”

Kuroro looked back at him, measuring, weighing, gauging his reactions, and not exactly giving him the verbal confirmation he wanted, but—he had half-remembered bits of a conversation about the Ryodan’s structure, and its leader’s duties and role as a glorified hiring manager. It couldn’t be for anything else.

It was just as well that he was having so much trouble understanding what was happening—a statement with that kind of gravity, that meaning, all the implications and conclusions that came with it, should have been made in a more appropriate setting, perhaps with Lucifer’s dying breath, across a battlefield strewn with the bloody remains of the rest of Ryodan, while the sky darkened and thundered and wept a eulogy for the souls of his avenged clan. Instead he was hearing it in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, while Kuroro was cobbling together wood for a campfire to cook the turkey Kurapika had hunted down for the two of them.

Bastard had finally broken him; he couldn’t knock enough brain cells together for getting angry anymore.

“You qualified for it, you know. When you killed Uvogin,” Kuroro added.

“You actually considered recruiting me into the Geneiryodan.”

Maybe blankly parroting it a third time would do the trick, but no, where the anger should have been was just dismay and disbelief—dismay that there could be someone so divorced from reality, disbelief that Kuroro would even dare suggest such a thing given their history. A partnership of convenience was still tolerable; it was temporary, conducted between individuals, and done out of necessity. Membership was permanent, required interaction with the rest of the group, and needed him to believe in and prescribe to the ideals and principles of that group before anything else could happen.

So, no, a thousand times no—he didn’t—couldn’t understand why—maybe Kuroro had gotten his hands on some of the hallucinogenic mushrooms, after all?

But the man looked annoyingly clear-eyed and all the more perceptive for it, not that it was difficult to see that there was clearly something wrong with Kurapika’s utter lack of reaction. Kuroro had both hands up to placate, and voice pitched to something he probably thought was soothing. “I only thought about it. I’m not really going to do it. After spending the past four days with you, I’ve decided that it’s best that I refrain from insulting you, which I’m pretty sure would be the least of my offenses if I actually went through with the offer. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Kurapika heard himself saying, and there was a lot more he wanted to say—scream, and rage, or flat-out refuse the offer Kuroro just admitted was never going to come—but words failed him for once.

The silence stretched, until there was nothing else for him to do but bend his head, fiddle with his knives, and slowly, almost gingerly resume hacking through the last of the meat. Kuroro took the dismissal for what it was and busied himself with starting a fire.

*

Later on—much, much later, long after they’d managed to make their way back behind the security perimeters of the forward camp, after they’d made the return trip back to the mainland and Kurapika’s high-strung nerves had settled enough for him to continue their conversation without him wanting to gouge Kuroro’s eyes out with his bare hands, he’d ask.

He’d ask about the extent of Kuroro’s delusions, that would see him entertaining the possibility of recruiting the sole survivor of a massacre into the very same group that carried out said massacre.

(What the hell are you thinking? How can you act like York Shin never happened? Why are you so certain that I won’t try to stab you in the back?)

There would be no correct answer, or at least none that he’d be happy with, but there would be an answer—one that he’d have to deal with one way or another.

*

The next two days were spent skirting and avoiding almost everything that crossed their paths, and then running away if they failed to slide under the attention of the more aggressive predators. Kurapika also went from brazenly confrontational to stubbornly reticent, not inviting conversation and answering only when Kuroro directly addressed him.

“As much as I appreciate you going out of your way to avoid risking me in combat, I kind of liked watching you go on a rampage. Are you sure you don’t want to…?”

No.” Kurapika winced at the volume he’d accidentally used, and hastily crouched lower, pulling Kuroro down along with him, as the seemingly innocuous tree he’d been eyeing with suspicion shivered and—

“No,” he repeated in an undertone, and emphatically gestured at the monstrosity that had replaced the tree. It had literally unfurled in response to sound, gnarled branches opening, like a fist uncurling, to reveal a humanoid head and upper body, pale green skin, its lower half a mass of tendrils stabbing into the ground. “Did you see that? I have no idea what that thing is and we’re not fighting it.”

“I think you can take it, though,” Kuroro whispered back.

Milky white eyes swept over the clump of bushes they were hiding behind, and a circular mouth ringed with needle-like teeth opened wide to issue a hissing shriek. What they’d thought were purple leaves adorning the thing’s limbs detached and scattered into the air—and revealed themselves to be winged slugs.

Kurapika hastily crab-walked them back and out of range of both tree-monster and slugs, and he didn’t stop even after they’d lost sight of the purple wings.

“I can’t tell if you’re honestly that confident or if you’re trying to goad me into overreaching and killing myself,” the blond muttered once he felt that it was safe to talk again.

Kuroro gave him a baffled look. “You’re grossly underestimating your own strength and ability to adapt. That thing was rooted and couldn’t have moved fast enough to dodge if you aimed one of your chains at its head.”

Hearing someone telling him what he could or couldn’t do was, of course, annoying as all hell, and that had to be the reason why he was feeling uncomfortably confused. That statement had the sound of an underhanded compliment, but then again, Kuroro could also be insulting his intelligence. Kurapika frowned.

“And what about the flying slugs? They’re clearly in a symbiotic relationship with that tree. I couldn’t have gotten rid of all of them and the tree fast enough without being attacked.”

“You could do that thing you did against the mosquitoes,” Kuroro suggested.

“Not without causing a ruckus! Which would have attracted more things we’d need to fight off and—” Kurapika swallowed the rest of his rant and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “I’m just trying to conserve energy. We haven’t been eating—or sleeping enough the past few days, and the last thing we need is you collapsing from exhaustion or running out of nen and losing your mosquitoes.”

… Which he knew was an overly paranoid concern, even as he blurted it out, and besides that, the goddamned leader of the Geneiryodan would be the last person he should be worrying over, let alone for something like his well-being. Kurapika tried not to fidget as Kuroro subjected him to a surprised stare.

“What,” he snapped tetchily.

Kuroro smiled at him uncertainly. “It’s just that you went from ditching me to mothering me in less than a week. It’s nice, but I’m a bit—worried?”

Thank the gods; his anger was still working, and he could still shut Kuroro up with a glower. “We’re circling around. Don’t fall behind,” Kurapika bit out, completely ignoring Kuroro’s observation and his own unforgivable slip and hopefully putting an end to the topic before it could take hold, but Kuroro’s pleased half-smile remained firmly in place even as they set off on a wide detour around the approximate area of the tree’s territory.

It was this damned agreement; the longer he went thinking of it as a job and a job he needed to do well, the more he’d keep slipping into the mindset of tolerance and collaboration, which were good attitudes to have in order to succeed at a partnership, but were not particularly healthy for his rage. The problem was that he needed to set his anger aside for the moment, because allowing his hostility to run unchecked was actually mentally exhausting. He had to see their deal to completion and get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and being rude and periodically wishing death on the older man was hardly going to help.

*

There was never any question of what he needed to do, though, at the end of the day, because there was only one reason why he was even on the expedition in the first place.

*

The fact that it was right after the giant lizard ambush that Kuroro started seeming… weaker to him, presence more diminished somehow, more drawn-in and harmless and pliant, should have been enough to trigger Kurapika’s normally overactive paranoia, because this was Kuroro Lucifer. The man survived getting ganged up on by Killua’s father and grandfather, while simultaneously orchestrating the one-sided slaughter of hundreds of mafia underlings; keeping his nen book and a single skill materialized for nearly a week should not have been enough of a drain to tire him, even with them going with little food and inadequate rest.

Instead, he saw Kuroro backpedaling from an ogre after the lizard incident and thought, good, the idiot was taking his advice seriously, and never even suspected that Kuroro could be faking his defenselessness on purpose to bait Kurapika into protecting him. He’d fallen for the act completely, slotting neatly into the role of protector, which he’d have smacked himself silly for if he’d realized, because the person he’d automatically decided to protect should be at least half again as strong as he was—and that was after setting aside the rather pertinent point that this was Kuroro Lucifer, leader of the fucking Geneiryodan.

(But for that one point, Kurapika had only himself to blame. He was the one who’d decided to punt his anger to the background until he got what he wanted from Tserriednich, after all.)

In any case, if Kurapika had known, or suspected even an inkling of the real reason behind Kuroro’s sudden vulnerability, he would have happily left the asshole to be eaten by the swarm of giant spiders that suddenly descended on them on the evening of the sixth day. As it was, he was very sorely tempted to just go—they were only a handful of hours away from the forward camp, and he really, really didn’t want to have to face up to the horror of dealing with spiders as big as backhoes.

On the other hand, he wouldn’t get to mock Kuroro about getting kidnapped by live giant versions of the Ryodan tattoo obscenely adorning his hip if the man really did die from this, and he’d already set his priorities straight. Not that he didn’t have any other choice, but all his actions up until now had kind of… locked him into that one path. To suddenly swerve his way to the alternative when he was already so close to the finish line would be the height of stupidity.

Still, gigantic spiders. Horrifyingly hairy and massive spiders, like the biggest tarantula he’d ever seen but enlarged a thousand times, possessing the hunting instincts of pack animals definitely more advanced than invertebrates, and maybe he could afford to cut Kuroro some slack because the man did start and react when the first spider crashed into their clearing. It’s just that Kuroro tried to leap back, only to smack straight into the glob of webbing that a second spider coming from the opposite side had shot at him.

Coming from these spiders, the strings of webbing were disgustingly, proportionately thick and heavy and sticky. The first shot had entangled and immobilized Kuroro’s legs. A second and a third glob took care of his arms and completely wrapped him in a cocoon of the stuff, and Kurapika, dodging his own trio of web-shitting arachnids had just enough time to see Kuroro’s eyes widening in uncharacteristic alarm before even his head was encased in white.

This was the point when Kurapika realized that he was going to have to stop trying to be discreet, because he had no idea if the webbing was permeable and the mere thought of Kuroro Lucifer dying via asphyxiation was as laughable as it was unacceptable. Worst case, assuming that Kuroro hadn’t lost his head just then and was still keeping his cloth twist materialized despite getting wrapped up like a mummy, Kurapika would have only a couple of minutes to rescue the man before he passed out from lack of oxygen and forever lost their mosquitoes.

He made it to Kuroro’s side in less than a quarter of a minute, weaving through stabbing spider legs and dodging the cable-thick threads of webbing getting shot every which way, and just in time to see Kuroro’s free arm punch through the cocoon and scrabble at the webbing covering his face. The spider manhandling him wasn’t having any of that, and pulled him close to the butt end of its abdomen to shoot more webbing over the tear.

Kurapika was having none of that, and he zipped up a nearby tree, leapt clear at the apex of his run, and right as he sailed over the bulging abdomen of the spider, hurled Dowsing Chain weighted with the full force of his nen at it.

The ball at the end smashed through the spider’s abdomen as if fired point-blank from a cannon and slammed into the ground underneath, just narrowly missing Kuroro and sending up a small spray of earth. The spider shuddered and toppled onto its back, spurting and splattering brown-yellow ichor everywhere as it flailed its legs. Kurapika yanked his chain back and landed in a crouch beside the cocoon encasing Kuroro. It hadn’t escaped getting soaked in spider gunk, and Kurapika made a face as he reached out and tore handfuls of the webbing away to expose Kuroro’s face and free his arms.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted the brown edge of Kuroro’s nen book, with a thumb still firmly wedged between its pages, presumably also still holding on to the cloth twist containing their precious samples.

Kuroro blinked up at him, at the ruptured abdomen of the now dead spider behind them, at the rest of the swarm malevolently clicking scythe-sharp fangs in response to one of their fellows being dispatched so easily, and grinned like a man about to hear the greatest private joke in human history.

“Do I get to see you fighting seriously now?” he asked, all anticipation and good humor wholly inappropriate to their current predicament.

Kurapika leveled the older man with a flat look as he vigorously shook his hands to get rid of the webbing clinging to his fingers. “I can fight you seriously whenever you want.”

“But watching from the sidelines is a lot better than being on the receiving end,” Kuroro said with an aggrieved sigh, as if getting challenged by vengeance-seekers was an inconvenience he dealt with on a regular basis. He sounded so put-upon that Kurapika nearly moved to smack him, until Kuroro tilted his head and added, disarmingly, “And I want to watch you. You’re breathtaking when you fight.”

What part of Kurapika that hadn’t scrambled to figure out if Kuroro had any ulterior motives in trying to compliment him stolidly, stubbornly refused to be moved or affected by the statement. Of course, Kuroro could be referring to his eyes, which had turned red the moment he clapped them on the first oversized spider, but he had the vaguest, most unsettling feeling that that wasn’t all there was to it, especially with the particular wording Kuroro had used.

There was no time to stew on his uncertainties anymore, though, because the spiders had apparently collectively decided to rush them from all directions. He had to go fight them off, all the while distracted by the discomfiting feeling that he was unintentionally giving Kuroro a show—or would that count as intentional, now, after hearing Kuroro expressing his intentions to watch him fighting?

It was a wonder he didn’t get caught with how much he was minding what Kuroro had told him.

*

Kurapika managed to kill three more of the spiders before the rest abruptly stopped in their tracks and began backing away, mouthpieces chittering and clicking in high alarm. It was rather late for a reaction to his resistance, so he knew it wasn’t because he’d pounded the fear of humans into them—this was a reaction to something else, something they’d inadvertently called over with all the racket they were making, and damnit, wasn’t this the point he’d been parroting to Kuroro ever since they got stuck with each other out here?

“What’s going on?” Kuroro asked lowly as Kurapika joined him, manner grave for once, although his eyes still gleamed with that strange, fascinated sort of hunger, by turns predatory and calculating. It made his insides squirm with unease and anticipation whenever it was directed at him—or maybe that was his stomach protesting over the stench of spider guts clogging the air and clinging to Kuroro’s clothes.

The blond didn’t reply, but grabbed at Kuroro’s arm to get him to stop moving, stop speaking, as he strained his senses in search of whatever it was that was causing the spiders to freak—

His grip tightened. The spiders were… gone, just up and ran, melting into the trees as suddenly as they’d appeared, and in no order that he could see. The one pattern he could make out was the way they’d scattered, and the direction they didn’t run off to. More ominous was the heavy silence that had fallen over the area like a suffocating shroud, as if the very jungle had frozen against its will. His heartbeat thudding through his ears was deafening; the nearly inaudible sound of Kuroro shifting his weight in readiness grated like nails down a chalkboard.

And there, in the half-twilight shadows between the trees, the darker outline of what had looked like another tree trunk oozed forward, bringing whatever it was more fully into the light. A thick arm followed, with no recognizable elbow or fingers but sprouting tubular growths that writhed and flopped and exhaled a green mist. Broad, curving shoulders, no head or anything resembling sensory organs—no organs, period; the entire body was a transparent green, and they could see clear to the trees behind it.

It didn’t look that dangerous compared to everything they’d had to fight off so far, and it was slow, almost flowing from one step to the next with ponderous speed, but the green gas surrounding it was not constrained by a physical form, and Kurapika watched with mounting alarm as leaves started to rot wherever the gas came into contact with low-hanging branches. Wood shriveled, and grass wilted under its feet, as if the very life was being sucked out from the plants around it and added to the expanding cloud of green.

If the gas could rot vegetation within seconds, what would it do to other kinds of organic material?

“We have to go,” he whispered, tugging insistently on Kuroro’s arm.

“Kurapika—”

Now. We can’t fight this thing.”

Kurapika had prepared to resort to drastic measures if Kuroro decided that he wanted to do more “watching” at this juncture, but maybe the older man was finally realizing the danger they were in. This was a Calamity-level being even if they hadn’t seen and didn’t know everything it was capable of doing, and he wasn’t planning on sticking around and finding out.

They crept off with as much haste as they could manage under the circumstances. The green thing (golem, Kurapika thought, suddenly remembering pictures from an old storybook he’d read years ago) didn’t pursue them, thank god, and seemed more interested in the bodies of the dead spiders. Kurapika looked back only once, before the thickening foliage completely cut off their view of the clearing he’d wrecked with his chains. The golem had reached one of the spiders, and was holding a spindly leg aloft. Distance and the intervening trees made it hard to see exactly what it was doing, but Kurapika would later swear to seeing the leg sinking into the thick arms like a stick being dropped into the brackish waters of a swamp.

*

Kurapika kept them out in the wilderness for another day before exasperation drove him to take pity and heed the increasingly beseeching looks Kuroro kept giving him. He wanted to make sure that the golem really wasn’t going to come after them, and he wasn’t about to risk it following them back to the forward camp.

“But what are we going to do if it does come after us?”

The blond pursed his lips and considered the question he wished Kuroro had the sensitivity to leave alone. He already knew what he would have to do, though; he just wasn’t that eager to let anyone else know.

“I’ll lead it away and lose it in the jungle,” he replied, even tone betraying none of the vexation and inward derision he was feeling at the answer he’d arrived at. “You head straight for camp and unload your mosquitoes before they start putrefying in your hammerspace.”

Kurapika pretended not to notice Kuroro’s stare boring holes into his back.

*

Their safe return to the camp was met with relief hidden under layers of consternation and an astonishing amount of activity.

Cheadle hauled them off to quarantine, and then yelled at him about learning the difference between acceptable risks and reckless decisions -> rat. Geru received his clothes, Kuroro’s clothes soiled beyond salvation by giant spider innards, and half of the live samples Kuroro so thoughtfully offered up like a bizarre host gift, as if they’d just handed her a petri dish crawling with infectious, incurable diseases (which they very well may have done), and disappeared into her labs with her team. Botobai and Saccho conducted his debriefing from behind the plastic sheeting of the quarantine examination rooms and muttered between themselves at his descriptions of the tree creature and the liquid golem. Mizaistom gave him a quick update about his preparations to detain Sayu, in an undertone and between reports of what they’d done to root out the temp hunters who’d slipped past Kurapika’s screening.

Leorio saw Kuroro’s face and paled to a pasty white before darkening to a splotchy red.

“Kurapika, he’s—”

“I know.”

“Did he—”

“He didn’t hurt me or force me into helping him, no. I’m all right, Leorio. Hungry and dehydrated, nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Leorio fidgeted and raised a hand, probably intending to scrub through the hair at the back of his head—a nervous tic Kurapika noticed and noted years ago—only to be stopped by the headpiece of the hazmat suit Cheadle had forced him into before allowing him into the quarantine rooms. He seemed ill at ease, and a vague air of guilt made all of his motions feel awkward and jumpy. Kurapika frowned and looked more closely, and realized that Leorio looked frazzled and tired—there was a dull glaze over his eyes and dark circles under them that spoke of sleepless nights and too much work.

“I’m sorry for worrying you,” he said quietly, for the moment chastised by the reminder of what tended to happen to the people left behind to fret after him whenever he went ballistic over the Geneiryodan.

Leorio gave him a genuine grin then, and something clenched tight in his chest uncurled and went limp with relief. “Well, if Senritsu were here she’d give you the kind of disappointed frown that’d make you want to slit your own throat from remorse, but I’m good now. And I wasn’t too worried, I knew you’d find your way back somehow.” Ever the most expressive of his friends, Leorio tried to punctuate his points with gestures, but with the hazmat suit hindering his range of movement, he looked a bit like he was windmilling his arms instead.

“I was more worried that you’d die of thirst! How did you…”

“Streams, mostly,” Kurapika answered truthfully. “And sap from vines and succulents, if they didn’t look poisonous.”

“Did you run into anything dangerous?”

“A few. There were giant spiders as big as this room,” he offered. Leorio knew of his hang-ups with the things and would understand in a way Botobai and Saccho couldn’t, and sure enough, the other man’s eyes were widening, and he was shaking his head in disbelief.

Kurapika smiled weakly. “I may have gone overboard on their extermination.”

“Speaking of—” Leorio lowered his voice, cast a not-so-furtive look at the other quarantined-off section beside Kurapika’s, and shuffled closer. “What are you going to do about, uh.”

Kurapika sighed and picked at the hem of the hospital scrubs he’d been given to wear. “Nothing for now. He’s technically with the Kakin contingent, and I don’t want to cause trouble by adding the murder of one of their retainers to everything else we’re already working on.”

Leorio blinked behind the transparent facepiece of the suit, and gave him an odd look—he’d keep trying to frown but would stop and struggle to school his brows from giving his worry away. His eyebrows almost looked like they were twitching from his indecision.

“… What’s wrong?”

Leorio flailed a bit at getting caught. “No—well—it’s just that—you’re okay right now, with him around. Are you okay?”

Kurapika tilted his head and gave himself enough time to figure out how he felt rather than rush an answer he could use to deflect further probing. The question had been forthcoming, really; Leorio was observant, and far more sensitive to signs of trouble than people gave him credit for. And Kurapika’s hold over his temper had never been particularly solid, but he was okay, if okay meant that he was in control and his surface thoughts were calm and focused on the present.

(Under those surface thoughts was a different matter entirely, with his rage leashed and coiled tight like a spring forced into too small a box. If he poked at it, and set it off at the wrong place and time, he could destroy everything around him along with his tenuous grasp on his sanity.)

“Yes. For now.” Kurapika shook his head. “I might be distracted, you know, happy to be back where I won’t have to worry as much about running into a Calamity.”

Leorio chuckled and went on to ask if there was anything he wanted to eat. Kurapika obliged and listed dishes he knew Leorio recognized and could procure from the canteen without too much trouble. Whether Cheadle would allow him to bring those dishes into the quarantine area, though, was another discussion, but that was fine. It would give Leorio something to do and direct his attention away from the unpleasant matter of Kurapika’s neighbor.

*

“So… ‘rat’?”

Kurapika grimaced, but otherwise didn’t move and didn’t turn his head to look at Kuroro. “It’s my code name, within the Zodiacs.”

“And your friend?”

“Boar,” he supplied, after a moment of wondering how Leorio would react to learning that the leader of the Geneiryodan still remembered him from that hotel lobby in York Shin City.

A wordless hum of acknowledgement, and then: “I noticed that you’re not wearing rat ears and a tail.”

The blond heaved an aggrieved sigh and sat up. “Looking the part isn’t a requirement of the position. The others were… dedicated,” and he didn’t say fanatic, “in their service under the late chairman. Leorio and I are new, brought in to replace the old members who quit.”

Kuroro, sitting cross-legged on his own gurney, nodded in understanding and added, “I can’t imagine you permanently changing your appearance to look like a rat, anyway.”

Kurapika looked at the older man suspiciously, and wondered if there was any point to this line of questioning, which almost sounded conversational. If he didn’t know any better he’d say that Kuroro was trying to make small talk.

“What’s it like, working with these Zodiacs?” Kuroro asked with his next breath, gray eyes wide with unblinking focus, and Kurapika narrowed his eyes as realization struck.

“You’re bored,” he guessed flatly.

“Out of my mind,” Kuroro agreed, as he looked around at the clear plastic sheet walls of the makeshift examination room. “What are they testing us for now, anyway?”

Kurapika briefly considered ignoring the other man, before deciding that the irritation of indulging the endless questions in a normal conversation would probably be less than the irritation of getting hounded if he chose not to answer. Probably.

And he wanted to avoid getting worked up.

Kurapika eased himself to lie back down on the gurney and resumed his contemplation of the ceiling. “We haven’t shown any signs of being infected with anything—while we’re isolated—so now they want to see if anything will happen with both of us in the same room.”

“This is a weird way of going about it if that’s their objective.”

Kurapika… wanted to agree, but he wasn’t about to say that where word of a complaint might get back to Cheadle or Geru.

He heard the creaking of Kuroro getting off his gurney, saw the man step up to his side, and then Kuroro was taking hold of his hand before he could say or do anything to ward against the intrusion.

“There,” Kuroro declared with a satisfied air, “I’m touching you. If nothing explodes in the next five minutes, that should mean nothing’s wrong, right?”

“That’s not how it works,” Kurapika protested, pulling his fingers free—Kuroro had somehow entwined them together while he wasn’t paying attention—before the lab techs noticed, but it was too late; sudden movement beyond the plastic sheet walls showed the medical staff converging and exclaiming at their close proximity to each other.

“Great,” the blond growled. “Now they’re going to want to do more tests to make sure it’s not a parasite making you act outside of their expected parameters.”

Kuroro blinked. “What? Outside of—eh?”

Kurapika had blurted it only half-mockingly, but now he seized it as he would a lifeline. “You should sit down,” he suggested, silently praying that Kuroro hadn’t felt his pulse rate jackrabbit in that brief moment of contact.

Kuroro looked almost embarrassed as he returned to his gurney, although it was probably just bewilderment, an understandable reaction for someone sharp enough to sense that he’d been outmaneuvered but couldn’t figure out how.

Kurapika slowly exhaled, lay down once again, and spent the next hour squashing the urge to curl and flex his fingers against the phantom warmth left behind by Kuroro’s hand.

*

Oito was Kuroro’s only non-medical visitor—sans infant daughter, probably Cheadle’s team insisting that it wouldn’t be safe to bring Woble into the quarantine area, even if they managed to find a suit in her size. Kurapika watched curiously as she and Kuroro spoke, most likely about the succession game if the muffled snatches of conversation he could hear were anything to go by.

He had no idea how Kuroro planned on bringing up the “in” he said he’d ask Oito to provide, but, even as he continued to watch, he saw Kuroro gesture at him—obviously pointing him out, and he straightened from his idle observation of the woman who’d somehow managed to lure the leader of the Geneiryodan into lawful employment.

Oito turned to him, and—seemingly disregarding the partition that separated Kuroro’s area from his—bowed low, and with effortless grace despite the bulky hazmat suit.

Kurapika scrambled to return the bow, feeling oddly flustered. Was she thanking him for helping Kuroro complete Woble’s mission? He was having trouble reading her. Her eyes—or what he little he could see of them behind the facepiece of the suit—were dark, and soft. She was turning back to Kuroro before he could do more than recognize the hints of resolve in her unwavering gaze.

Oito would visit Kuroro several more times, and Kurapika tried to give them a semblance of privacy—he didn’t watch them, and did his best to tune their voices out and avoid accidentally eavesdropping on them. The main topic of their discussions wasn’t information he should be privy to, anyway.

*

Kurapika broke out of quarantine.

… Well, no, to say that he “broke out” wasn’t exactly accurate—he took extra care not to damage any of the infirmary’s equipment, even the metal and fiberglass frames the isolation rooms were constructed from because Cheadle would probably do something a lot worse than kill him if he did break anything—rather, he knew that the medical staff already had other tasks they needed to allot time to and wouldn’t be able to keep their observation up at all times.

So, he simply waited for one such window and timed it with one of Kuroro’s frequent naps. And then he snuck out.

The doors of the air lock weren’t even set to prevent patients from leaving on their own, but it was a lapse of security that he couldn’t really complain about at the moment because it allowed him to walk all the way back to the cabin he shared with Leorio without anyone realizing that he wasn’t supposed to be out and about yet. Kurapika made a phone call, changed into clothes that didn’t scream “potential carrier of infectious diseases”, and then set off on his hunt.

He did make one concession in consideration of the possibility that he’d picked up some sort of dangerous pathogen that had yet to manifest its effects: he took a shortcut going to his target. Outside. Up the hull of the Black Whale, using handholds and grating and built-in ladders that were nearly invisible from the docks due to the sheer size of the ship. It was almost like climbing a mountain that nobody knew could be climbed, so there was nobody around for him to infect, and any virus his body decided to transmit would be blown away by the stiff ocean breeze.

He was heading for one of the uppermost decks, most of which had been blocked off for suites meant to house the king’s heirs and VIPs during the expedition. Kurapika had paid close attention to the ship’s blueprints provided for the Association’s use, memorizing the layout and noting possible escape routes and the best paths to take depending on the scenario, and inwardly disapproving of how much bigger the suites were compared to the economy-class cabins on the blueprints, but by far the most ostentatious features he’d identified were the verandas and the fine print at the side saying that these could be extended out into full balconies via elaborate pneumatic-driven mechanisms.

And—how fortunate: the suite he needed to get into had its balcony unfolded to its full length. If his luck persisted as such, he could even finish his business and get back to the infirmary without anyone the wiser. It was highly unlikely, however, and Kurapika distantly wondered at the amount of trouble he was going to get into once the Zodiacs realized what he’d done. He silently apologized to Mizaistom, and Saccho, and Leorio—he wasn’t trying to be difficult, and being under quarantine wasn’t even that unpleasant, but it was too much to expect his unnatural calm to last longer than it already had.

*

It could have been the nightmares he’d started having again, his guilt resurging now that he didn’t have the pressing need of survival to use as an excuse for his unwillingness to give in to the rage that the years had only tempered into a sharp edge. Or maybe it was the surreality of the situation, and the fear that he might feel his anger begin to wane with each day spent watching his sworn enemy getting bullied by their chairman like every other subordinate on the Association’s payroll. It was more likely Oito’s repeated visits, though, and the sudden realization that the eldest Kakin princes were not necessarily the strongest contenders in Hui Guo Rou’s convoluted competition, and that there was absolutely no guarantee of his target staying alive until he could get to the man, not when there were people like Kuroro throwing the balance of the status quo out of whack.

Or it could have been all of those reasons, or a combination of different triggers, because he had issues on top of issues and no healthy way to deal with them. So he’d decided to act, in the hope that he might be able to resolve one of the biggest root causes, rather than keep waiting for a more opportune time, and all the while feeling his ghosts steadily chip away at his eroding self-control.

*

Kurapika landed on the balcony right in front of Tserriednich, who, to his credit, merely gripped the arms of his lounge chair in reaction to a stranger suddenly dropping out of the sky. He didn’t scream, or make a sound, but the two suited figures standing watch and the three more that poured out from the balcony doors pulled pistols from their coats and began yelling at him to back away.

Kurapika ignored them, and slowly straightened from his crouch. Tserriednich blinked up at him—Kurapika could see the man taking in his appearance, the way he was standing, hands harmlessly open but weight balanced on the balls of his feet, and how he’d dismissed the guns being pointed at him without even looking at the weapons. The prince himself was wearing a bathrobe, shoulder-length hair damp from a recent shower. There was a glass of wine on a small table beside the chaise.

The blond pulled his lips back in a humorless smile. “Your security needs a bit of work. I could have killed you even before your men could react.”

The angry faces of said security forces darkened even more at the insult. A couple growled and made as if to lunge forward, only to be forestalled by Tserriednich holding up a hand. “It’s fine, Tayta. I’ve been expecting him,” he murmured to the woman who’d stepped up to the back of his chair, and looked like she was one word away from pulling the trigger on her gun.

Tayta didn’t waver from her stance—neither did the others. Kurapika narrowed his eyes in acknowledgement of the caution they were displaying—not that bullets could do anything against him. He was right in coming as soon as he’d made the decision to act. However loyal or well-trained these bodyguards were, there was not a single nen user in Tserriednich’s contingent. Kuroro alone could decimate his entire staff and assassinate the prince in the span of a heartbeat.

“The Lady Oito sent a note,” Tserriednich continued, the inflection in his voice curious without being overtly questioning—trying to confirm while hiding his disadvantage. “It said that one of the Hunter Association’s Zodiacs wanted to request an audience with me. I didn’t think he’d introduce himself in such an unorthodox manner, however.”

Kurapika canted his head, briefly considering if he should go along with the man’s assumption, or correct it. “The Lady Oito misunderstood, I’m afraid,” he replied after another moment, choosing the higher ground—he did assure Mizaistom that his actions with regards to his mission wouldn’t affect the Association in any way. “I am here for a personal matter, and not as anyone’s representative—Woble’s, nor the Association’s.”

A tiny frown marred Tserriednich’s previously mild expression. “You do realize that telling me that isn’t making me want to grant you that audience. Why should I care about your personal errands?”

Kurapika smiled again, this time lazily, edges sharp and cold. The man was testing him now, threatening to toss him even as he continued the conversation. He’d had people challenge him in the same manner whenever he began negotiations for his people’s eyes, but there was a shrewd intelligence in the prince’s gaze that begged to be answered in kind—even if it meant revealing himself, which was something he tried to avoid doing.

“Because my ‘personal errand’ will be worth your while,” he replied, as he allowed a hint of red to seep into his eyes, turning them wine-red.

Tserriednich’s eyes widened minutely as he caught the change. “You—”

“I’ll cut straight to the chase,” Kurapika interrupted, reckless with triumph at catching the prince off-guard. “I’d like to ask that you return the five pairs of Scarlet Eyes in your possession to their rightful owners.”

Tserriednich looked annoyed at his own slip. By reacting, he’d given away that he knew exactly who Kurapika was, when someone who didn’t have anything to do with the Kuruta would have thought it a trick of the light.

The man crossed his legs—stalling for time, giving himself space to regain control of the situation.

“Return? You’re not even going to offer to buy them off me?”

Kurapika shook his head. Tserriednich raised his eyebrows in mock outrage.

“And why should I? I bought them in legitimate purchases.”

Kurapika barely just managed to refrain from saying exactly what he thought of people who believed they had a monetary right to body parts stolen from the corpses of their murdered owners. “Call it social responsibility,” he answered instead, more blandly than seriously—most of the people he’d dealt with didn’t know what it meant, and half had laughed at him when he’d tried to appeal to charity before resorting to more violent measures. “I’d originally planned to blackmail you, but I shouldn’t have to resort to something so crass, should I?”

Tserriednich stared at him in disbelief for a second, before letting out an appreciative bark of laughter. “You’ve got guts. Out of curiosity, what were you going to blackmail me with?”

Something that probably wasn’t going to work despite the severity of the accusation, if that irreverent question was anything to go by: Tserriednich didn’t look worried at all. But Kurapika’s eyes were still in their half-triggered state, and he could see the smallest reactions, perceive the slightest changes in a person’s emotional state, and one of Tserriednich’s bodyguards just swallowed. Another was surreptitiously shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as if he suddenly couldn’t feel where his center of gravity lay. A third was sweating profusely, and reflexively tightening and adjusting his grip on his pistol.

Kurapika flicked his gaze to the third one, gauging the possibility of sweaty hands accidentally setting off a shootout, before turning back to Tserriednich. “Your Highness has a dangerous hobby. One not suited for someone aiming to become king of a nation whose greatest resource is its people.”

“Oh?”

“People have been disappearing in buildings you own, never to be seen or heard from again,” the blond continued. “None of them were ever reported missing, but the numbers involved, and the frequency—as many as eight to ten in a week, and always during times when you were in residence—one would have to be blind not to notice the pattern.”

Tserriednich gave a wordless hum, and made another gesture that had his guards holstering their guns. “Not blind, but willfully ignorant. And nothing in all the world is more dangerous than ignorance and stupidity. You say that my ‘hobby’ isn’t fit for one destined to be king. But,” he thrust out his arms and swept them to the sides to encompass the entire deck and the vista of the ocean in front of them, “it is exactly the kind of duty a king must undertake. I merely seek to destroy the darkness that is that ignorance.”

The statements were familiar, as if paraphrased from quotes he’d heard before, but Kurapika was too busy trying not to show his surprise at actually getting confirmation of his suspicions of megalomaniac prince to bother identifying where the quotes had been ripped off from.

… Oh, who was he kidding, Tserriednich was clearly enjoying being confronted. “You think you’re doing your country a favor by culling those you deem to be ignorant or stupid,” he concluded flatly.

The prince sighed, heaving his shoulders with theatric disappointment at his audience’s disapproval. “A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.”

Not just megalomaniac, but delusional as well. For the first time since learning of Kuroro choosing to protect the youngest prince, Kurapika wondered if it would be such a bad idea to yield to Kuroro’s unsubtle attempts to maneuver him into becoming one of Woble’s bodyguards. He definitely knew what his answer was going to be if he had to pick between an innocent and this bastard.

“I doubt that what you’re doing is what Friid had in mind when he told people to accept their baser urges,” Kurapika said through gritted teeth.

“Everybody’s a critic,” Tserriednich agreed long-sufferingly as he got up off the lounge chair. “But enough about that—you’re right, you don’t need to resort to drastic measures. We can discuss your… errand, like civilized adults, yes?”

There was an air of… excitement, in the prince’s expression, which had steadily grown the longer they talked, and it had positively sparked off him when Kurapika correctly named the philosopher he’d quoted. It was making him feel extremely leery, and not only because it wasn’t an emotion the people he’d talked to, threatened, extorted or paid off tended to display when he descended on them with all the wrath only the sole survivor of a genocide could bring to bear.

He was one hundred percent certain that Tserriednich could be classed as a serial killer now, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that something very bad was about to happen, that allowing himself to go along with the man’s whims—even if it was to thaw him out some more—was a monumentally bad decision, but Tserriednich was already striding through the balcony doors, calling out to one of his attendants—“Mark! Prepare to receive our guest!”

The guards bowed him through, a complete about-face from their earlier attitudes. Tayta was still eyeing him mistrustfully, and the attendant who responded to Tserriednich’s summons gave him a dubious look and said, “Sir, I don’t think—”

Now, if you please, Mark.”

Kurapika didn’t have time to try to figure out the attendant’s reservations because the man was already backing up out of sight in response to the sharply-delivered order, but—Tserriednich turned to find him standing just inside the doors, straight-backed with tension and dark red eyes cold with censure. He’d matched “Mark” to witness accounts describing a blond, well-dressed man who had been seen talking to most of the missing people right before they disappeared, and it wasn’t that hard to suspect the worst and assume that Tserriednich could be keeping up his preying habits here.

“I didn’t think there were survivors,” the prince remarked after a pause to confirm that he had Kurapika’s full attention once again.

“And you’ll do well to forget there ever was one,” Kurapika growled, warning clear in his retort.

Tserriednich spread his hands in a parody of an entreaty. “But I want to know how you survived. Were you there when it happened? Did you see who did it?”

Kurapika had vowed to do whatever it took to recover all of his clan’s eyes, but that qualifier didn’t include ripping his own wounds open just to satisfy the almost obscene interest Tserriednich was showing in the massacre. It was his turn to give the prince an incredulous look now.

“I really don’t think that’s any of your business, not that it’s even relevant to the matter at hand.”

The prince made a face. “Aw, don’t be like that. You’re the one who came to me with a request. You have to make me believe that granting it will be an investment for me, rather than a loss. There’s more at stake than just those five pairs you want, you know?”

He didn’t know, actually—what else was at stake here, other than the completion of his lifelong mission and the chance to finally lay his demons to rest? Kurapika didn’t think the prince capable of grasping the pricelessness of such an intangible concept, though, and something of his uncertainty must have shown on his face despite his efforts to keep his expression unaffected, because Tserriednich’s mild amusement suddenly widened into a grotesque grin.

“You don’t know, do you?” the man guessed in a near-chortle, black eyes glittering with mad glee. How his eyes could look so dead and devoid of human empathy but still dance with childish excitement and manic desire—Kurapika struggled to ignore the ice forming at the pit of his stomach as Tserriednich called to his attendants to “bring it out”.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t already know—on some subconscious level—that the box they carried out would be canister-sized. If Tserriednich had studied the Kuruta at all he’d know exactly how to rile one up to the point of incandescent fury. So maybe he brought one of his collection with him on the trip, like a toddler who just had to bring his favorite stuffed toy along with him everywhere—did he really think that he could force Kurapika to be more agreeable by making him look at something that had been haunting his dreams and waking nightmares for the past eight years?

*

Of course it would be so, so much worse than that.

*

He must have passed out from the sheer intensity of the emotions (ragegriefpainandloss and ohgodPairono) that hit like a physical punch to the gut, because he didn’t remember attacking and there were bodyguards knocked unconscious all over the room, crumpled to the ground like puppets with their strings cut knocked out by the wave of uncontrollable bloodlust that had exploded out from him after Tserriednich lifted the box covering the canister like an auction house presenter doing an unveiling, and the prince—either hadn’t received the full brunt of the nen attack or had unconsciously pulled on an innate capability for nen that he didn’t know he possessed, because he was still conscious, and shuddering uncontrollably, farther away than Kurapika remembered him being and leaning heavily on a table knocked over as if in a struggle.

“You—what—” Tserriednich stuttered, pointing a shaking finger at him, or his torso, and Kurapika blinked and realized that there was something large, and heavy, and spindly looming over him—eight legs, a massive leering human face, curving black fangs, a long, sinuous, segmented tail that curled up over the bulbous abdomen and—

Oh. So feeling that he got hit by something—

“A spider,” he wheezed, breathless with disbelief and anger and just sheer pique at the irony of finding out the truth of the rumor about Kuroro’s coveted royal artifact in this way—“Your guardian beast is a goddamned spider—”

The stinger nailing him through the stomach pulsed, the venom glands contracting and sending a wave of agony washing through his limbs. His vision blanked out, fuzzed into monotone, and Kurapika moved, trying to deal as much damage as he could before whatever toxin the beast had pumped into him took effect.

*

He was pretty sure he managed to take the tail out, at the very least. Maybe he’d broken a couple of legs, as well. Kurapika could hear screaming, an inhuman screeching, thudding and crashing all blending into a deafening cacophony like nails down a chalkboard, until even his hearing went blessedly buzzy and gray-tinged from the edges.

*

Kurapika found himself lying flat on his back when he came to. He felt cold and clammy, and heavy—as if the very air was bearing down on him. His arms and legs wouldn’t obey when he tried to move into a position that didn’t make him feel vulnerable and completely helpless to defend against any attacks that might come from beyond what he could see of the room he was in.

And he was lying on a table of some kind, paralyzed from the neck down. Or paralyzed, but not insensate, he realized as breathing jarred the wound in his gut. His ears were working, as well—he could hear someone moving about, a door opening, the approaching footfalls of a second person.

Tserriednich slid into his field of vision, looking about as pissed as one would expect of a person used to being in a position of power who valued knowledge and sneered at ignorance and yet had been forced to witness something inexplicable he probably knew very little about—if he knew anything at all.

“You—what was that?” he demanded without preamble. “What did you do?”

Kurapika exhaled and wearily closed his eyes, only to snap them open again, unable to help the punched-out whine that slipped past his teeth as Tserriednich viciously stabbed several fingers into the convenient hole in his side.

“Answer me!”

“… That was your guardian beast,” the blond gritted out after a breathless moment.

A glimmer of recognition flickered through the dead, black eyes, but the furrowed brow and bared teeth remained when Kurapika didn’t say anything else. Tserriednich pushed his fingers in a bit deeper and Kurapika chose to choke rather than give in to the urge to cry out.

He blinked watery eyes and breathed deeply, struggling not to cough and cause the fingers digging around his insides to move any more than they had to. “So much… for your civilized discussion,” he spat.

“That was before you did something and trashed my suite, and knocked all my men out!”

“I already said… that it was your guardian beast. It took the brunt of my killing intent, so you didn’t pass out. Your men did.”

“Killing intent,” Tserriednich echoed, and his displeased frown took on a shrewder cast. “So it’s an indiscriminate mental attack.”

“Don’t you dare say that it was unprovoked,” Kurapika hissed. “You knew very well what would happen if you showed—” The words caught in his throat, and remembering the split-second view he had of the canister’s contents before the world fractured into redbloodburneverythingtotheground made his eyes flare—he squeezed them shut and focused on breathing, and ignoring the maddening burn of an injury he couldn’t heal yet because Tserriednich was still mucking around in it—

Okay, wait, keep calm, and push the image of the canister to the back of his mind for now. The first order of things was to get the man to back off, which meant that he’d have to at least act like he was cooperating. He had to remind himself that it was only until he could figure out how to flush the paralyzing toxins from his body somehow, and activate his healing factor without presenting a clear threat and setting off Tserriednich’s abomination of a guardian beast again.

Kurapika swallowed, and continued, “Your room… got trashed… because your guardian beast went on a rampage after I cut off its tail and broke some of its legs,” which wasn’t exactly the best explanation to give to someone he was trying to appease, so he blinked his eyes open, still in their full crimson state, and added, “I don’t see it here. It could be the type to materialize in response to a threat.”

Could be?” Tserriednich’s question was a threatening growl, and excruciating pain rocketed through his torso as the man twisted his wrist—

“It’s a nen construct,” Kurapika gasped out. “The… the damage won’t be permanent. It’ll reform whole the next time you summon it.”

“Nen, huh?” the prince muttered. He finally withdrew his hand, fingers gleaming wetly, and the blond used his relieved whimper to hide the rush of anger as he immediately pulled on his nen—lurking guardian beast be damned—and directed a trickle into fixing the damage Tserriednich had done. He had to keep it down to an infuriatingly slow pace, lest the man notice, but the rest, he gladly cycled through his body. Speeding up healing everywhere should burn the venom out within minutes.

The guardian beast didn’t materialize despite Healing Chain hovering right over his stomach cloaked under in, and Kurapika started plotting angles and speed needed to bash Tserriednich’s nose in fast enough to knock him out before he realized what was happening.

“So you could see it? What did it look like?”

Tserriednich, back to asking probing questions, was examining the blood painting his fingers with detached interest. Kurapika swallowed the first unflattering word he wanted to blurt out—it was easier to think and filter his answers now that he could dull the sting of his injury with nen.

“It’s a chimera, if I had to guess,” he replied carefully, inwardly resenting the feeling of being interrogated. “It’s… mostly spider, with a scorpion’s tail. The head is human. The legs also end in human hands.”

“Human, you say,” Tserriednich repeated with amusement bordering on hilarity. “Now, despite that monstrous description you just gave, would you say that it fits me?”

“I…” Kurapika sucked in a breath, suddenly hesitant about answering with his usual (and often impertinent) bluntness. He wasn’t done healing the puncture wound, he didn’t want the asshole sticking his fingers back in only to find it shallower than it was just seconds ago.

“Come on, don’t be shy,” the prince coaxed, completely mistaking the cause of his reluctance. “You’ve already proven yourself more intelligent than the masses, and you’re obviously a nen user. Be honest and tell me what you think.”

Kurapika narrowed his eyes at the condescension in Tserriednich’s wheedling. He wanted to be circumspect, but the sheer arrogance oozing off the man was making it difficult to hold his tongue.

“There are… surface similarities, with the spider, and the scorpion,” he started slowly, if only because he still wanted to be cautious with the words he chose to use, but he needn’t have bothered—Tserriednich was listening eagerly, hungry enough for information that almost nothing Kurapika could say would be construed as an insult.

“You weave webs to entrap and manipulate; and you have a lethal sting, a hidden ruthlessness that most people won’t see until you’ve revealed it. They’re both resilient creatures, capable of surviving in extreme conditions, and are apex predators within their ecosystems, so take that as you will. And—” A pause, as epiphany struck, and he recalled the man’s earlier amusement, as if he was laughing at a private joke: “The human face, and human hands, imposed over the inhuman body… most likely symbolizes human cunning, and human ingenuity.”

Tserriednich didn’t respond right away, standing still like the stifling calm before a thunderstorm, and Kurapika very quietly began to panic. Did he lay it on too thickly? He wasn’t even lying—maybe he could have used less flowery adjectives, but honestly, the asshole was just asking for it—

Tserriednich was purring.

“Yeesss,” he hissed, and tilted his head back and closed his eyes to better savor whatever mental images he was conjuring, and the enraptured pleasure on his face as he drank in the description was one of the most alarming things Kurapika had seen on this side of the Dark Continent, on par even with the things he’d run into in the wilderness.

The prince stepped back and twirled in place, arms flung wide and robes swishing and flaring out nearly flat to the sides. “Human cunning, human ingenuity—human!” he crowed, snapping a bloody finger down to point at Kurapika. “Not dumb pigs, or vile beasts only fit for the slaughterhouse!”

Kurapika stared, astonished, torn between wanting to ask if Tserriednich had practiced that twirl in front of a mirror and wondering if he’d missed a memo somewhere about the eldest Kakin princes being utterly insane.

Tserriednich abruptly stopped his theatrics then, and, head cocked, regarded Kurapika with unnerving focus. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

The blond looked back, warily, and with no small amount of perplexity at the man’s sudden mood swings. “I think you’re toeing that very thin line between genius and insanity, and may be dipping into insanity more often than not.”

Tserriednich’s shoulders started to shake with barely-suppressed laughter. “Ah, that wit. And your eyes—beautiful! Truly, I feel blessed to have you literally land on my doorstep. What will you look like, mounted on a wall? Or I could watch your reactions as I carve the stars on your skin.”

Kurapika wished that he was merely listening to a madman spouting harmless poetry, but unfortunately, he was getting that sinking feeling that Tserriednich had just marked him down as his next serial murder—not that he was just going to lie still and allow it to happen.

And his request had been shoved completely under the bus, damn it.

He surreptitiously tried to wriggle his toes, and got several twitches in answer. “I have no plans of ending up part of your display, just so you know,” he pointed out, almost pleasantly if not for the promise of retribution underlying the steel in his declaration.

Tserriednich blinked, as if surprised that Kurapika would say something so blatantly uninformed. “But you won’t be just a display,” he assured. “You’ll be a piece of inspiring art, made unique by your experiences. What have you been doing, all these years? What would you have gone on to do, if you hadn’t come to me?”

The use of the conditional perfect tense grated badly—it was as if he was already gone. Kurapika dropped all pretenses of conversation and got ready to yank Tserriednich’s overweening delusions out from under his feet the moment his nen finished flushing the last of the paralysis from his body.

The prince, completely unaware that Kurapika wasn’t as incapacitated as he’d been acting was still waxing poetic about young people and their potential futures. He stopped, grinning, and with the air of someone who knew he was going to get a good answer, announced, with a grand flourish, “I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, and torture it endures.”

“Netze,” Kurapika groaned. “Stop misusing quotes from dead philosophers. You sound like the tacky last boss of a dungeon.”

Several things happened in succession then, the most important of which was Tserriednich opening his mouth to spew some more of his twisted philosophical nonsense, only to jerk and look down, with an almost puzzled expression, at the knife tip that had magically appeared between his ribs.

Only slightly less important was the prince’s guardian beast materializing in the air above and behind him as Tserriednich realized he’d been stabbed, but it wavered like a mirage and faded from existence almost immediately after.

The fourth prince of the Kingdom of Kakin was dead even before he slid to the ground. It was almost disappointingly anticlimactic.

“I prefer Macchibeni, myself,” Kuroro mused as he bent at the waist and retrieved his Benz knife. “Never was anything great achieved without danger,” he added oratorically, straightening, to shoot Kurapika a rakish grin.

Scowling back was an automatic gesture, at this point.

“Did you just—”

“I may have been planning to assassinate him while he was occupied with admiring your many different qualities, yes.”

Unbelievable. Did Kuroro actually stage this with Oito, knowing that there was a good chance of him going off on his own and drawing Tserriednich’s attention long enough to provide them with an opening?

“You used me as a distraction,” Kurapika murmured.

Kuroro shrugged. “We have mutually beneficial goals. Or had, I suppose. Oito will be pleased to have one less threat to her kid’s life.” He pulled out a phone and began tapping out a message, presumably to inform his employer of the good news, and Kurapika…

Kurapika found that he wasn’t even angry at the manipulation. Maybe resigned, cautiously looking forward to it being over, and grudgingly impressed at the upset Oito had managed to pull off against Woble’s rivals. Mostly he was just bone-deep tired, as if the nightmare of the last half hour had stretched into days, but the prince had been dealt with, and all of his staff were most likely also dead. All he needed to do at this point was get up, walk out, find where they’d stashed the canister—

He felt all the tension drain from his shoulders with his next exhalation, and he allowed his head to fall back to the table with an audible thump.

“What happened here?” Kuroro asked, fingertips lightly touching the blood-soaked layers of Kurapika’s clothes over his torso, all that remained of the gut wound he’d slowly but surely healed without Tserriednich noticing.

“Got stung by Tserriednich’s guardian beast. You didn’t see it?”

“I didn’t get a good look.” Kuroro tilted his head, watching, as Kurapika gingerly levered himself upright. “Was it also the reason you were laid out like a sacrifice on an altar?”

“More or less,” he replied faintly, eyes closed to better ride out a sudden wave of lightheadedness. Blood loss, possibly delayed shock catching up to him. Tserriednich had talked about cutting him open, then setting him up like a taxidermy display, and utterly casually as if it was a completely reasonable thing to do. Of course, what mattered now was that it didn’t happen, but that was a puddle of his blood drying on the table, and if the prince had been more ruthlessly practical than entitled and delusional, if his guardian beast had stung to kill, or had the ability to suppress nen as well as physical movement…

“… You’re not angry,” he heard Kuroro say, and while it was understandable that the man would be confused, it didn’t mean that he had the right to ask about it.

Kurapika opened his eyes and glared. “Do you want me to be?”

Kuroro shook his head, and Kurapika huffed out another exasperated exhale. “Lend me your phone for a minute.”

It was… ridiculously easy, sinking back into the mindset he’d adopted when he had only Kuroro for company and miles between them and the safety of the forward camp. He accepted the phone the man handed him without protest, and dialed a number from memory and limped out of the room as he waited for it to connect. Kurapika only distantly noted the bodies of Tserriednich’s attendants strewn about on the floor as he swept his eyes over the suite: the furniture, still broken, in the middle of being set to rights, no doubt, when Kuroro snuck in and killed everyone. Mark was sprawled over the minibar, one hand still loosely cradling a glass of amber-colored liquid. Tayta had fallen in the middle of the hallway leading up to the room they’d come from.

The canister wasn’t in the main room where he’d last seen it, and Kurapika turned around and headed deeper into the suite, feet carrying him unerringly towards what should be the master bedroom. The line on the other end of the call began to ring, barely, before it was immediately picked up.

Silence on the other end. Kurapika was calling from an unknown number—the precaution was as expected. “Linssen?” he said into the mouthpiece.

“Kurapika! How did it go?”

The blond paused, and considered the palpable apprehension edging Linssen’s reply. “I didn’t deal the killing blow, for the record, so you can stop sounding like you’re getting ready to break me out of prison.”

“Just doing my job,” Linssen huffed. Kurapika heard indistinct rumbling in the background and a quiet whoop, immediately shushed, as his second passed the news to the rest of his men. (“Boss ok?” “Thank fuck.” “Tell boss he owes me hazard pay for my ulcers!”)

Kurapika sighed long-sufferingly. “Yes, well, now you need to do the job I actually gave you.”

“Kurapika, wait. There’s something else you need to know.”

Tserriednich’s bedroom was free of both corpses and clutter, so he found what he was looking for right away. Kurapika slowly padded over to the bureau, head feeling like he might float off at any moment and dissipate into nothing, like smoke in a stiff breeze.

“The prince kept a… visual catalogue of his collection. The ten canisters aren’t the only things in his possession we need to grab.”

“I already know.” His voice sounded hollow to his ears, disembodied, as if it was someone else talking, and maybe that was it because it couldn’t be him still giving coherent replies, not with his heart feeling like it was shattering all over again. “It’s here. Tserriednich thought he could use it as leverage.”

The head was intact. Well-preserved. A horrific gash down the left temple indicated a possible cause of death. Whoever had prepared the canister had cleaned it as best as they could, arranging wisps of fine black hair to try to cover it.

“What do you need us to do?”

Linssen’s question was quiet and respectful, and resolved, asking if he wanted them to do more than a simple retrieval mission, if acting out through them could possibly ease some of the pressure bearing down on him. His men would probably relish being ordered to “fuck shit up,” and Kurapika knew that they’d tear Tserriednich’s mansion apart with their bare hands if he asked it of them.

Pairo’s russet-colored eyes looked out at him sightlessly behind the glass of the canister, silently asking if traveling had been fun for him.

“… Stick to the original plan,” Kurapika replied after a long moment, wondering why his voice wasn’t cracking when it should, why his hand didn’t crumble away into dust when he laid trembling fingertips on the metal top of the canister. “I left the agency in your hands because I trust you not to raze it to the ground the moment my back was turned.”

“Your faith in me is flattering,” Linssen said, drily, and most importantly, not in that low, careful register that made his eyes itch in ways entirely different to when his fury called out to them.

“The… catalogue,” Kurapika added, as he stirred and shifted his weight and reminded himself to breathe, “Wipe any digital copies. Scan the pages, send them to the Association’s inbox for general inquiries using a dummy email. They’ll know how to deal with the rest of his collection. Except for—for the head, crop it out if you can, I don’t want anyone knowing—”

“It’s done. I’ll destroy the catalogue, as well.”

“Thank you. Send me an email when you’ve gotten clear.”

Linssen’s parting shot in response to his dismissal was a simple, “Don’t die.”

Kurapika moved to end the call, feeling vaguely like he was running on autopilot. His feather-light contact with the canister slowly spread into something more solid as he flattened his palm over the metal top, then slid his hand down the side of the canister. The glass was ice-cold against his skin. All the canisters he’d ever held were cold, as if their contents sought to burn anyone who touched them from beyond the grave.

Kuroro had followed him, but not into the room. He was standing at the door, watching, waiting. Kurapika finally raised blood-red eyes to meet Kuroro’s gray, expressionless gaze, and it felt like time itself had ticked down to a standstill, all the events of the past two weeks and the actions he’d taken crystallizing and coalescing into this single moment.

Whatever happened in the next few seconds would steer the course of his decisions with regards to the Ryodan for the rest of his life.

“Do you have anything to say about this?”

Kuroro Lucifer looked down, at the decapitated head of his childhood best friend, and back up again to look Kurapika square in the eyes as he answered, “I don't remember him.”

Inhale.

“Granted, my recollection of what happened had gotten a bit fuzzy over the years, but I've started to remember more since York Shin, and—”

Exhale.

“We sold thirty-six pairs of eyes. Not thirty-six pairs and an intact head. I don't remember seeing him.”

The anger didn’t come. The paper-thin walls of his tenuous control didn’t break the way they did with Tserriednich’s taunting. Kurapika closed his eyes and silently apologized to Pairo one last time.

“Okay,” he said, and it should have been the single, most difficult word he’d ever uttered.

It wasn’t. He had no idea what it meant. For now, maybe, it meant that he could move forward instead of wasting his time fighting an enemy that didn’t seem to want to fight, or be his enemy.

“Okay?” Kuroro frowned.

Kurapika didn’t trust himself to speak just yet, so he nodded and turned away to look for something to carry the canister in. In any case, unsure and flabbergasted was a good look on Kuroro, and if the confusion on the man’s face was anything to go by, he could do with more practice on getting blindsided—it was the absolute least he should suffer through for being the cause of all this turmoil.

*

Cheadle grounded him for a month on top of shoving him back into quarantine for an additional week.

The others also tried to confiscate the metal case he was carrying, but in the one and only bid for pity he’d ever admit to doing, Kurapika set the case down, opened it, and introduced Pairo as his cousin.

His horrified audience made themselves scarce after that. It also had the intended effect of making most of the Zodiacs feel too uncomfortable about hounding him for details of his involvement in Tserriednich’s murder. The only ones who dared to meet his eyes head-on after he’d essentially guilt-tripped the rest into leaving him alone were Cheadle, Leorio, and Mizaistom, and he couldn’t even bring himself to respond to their well-meaning concern for the first few days, preferring instead to shut everything out entirely as he went through the arduous process of putting himself back together after realizing that Pairo must have survived the initial massacre, just like he did.

*

He came back to himself in stages. And the first thing he did was crack completely, face contorting in confusion and misery, as his best friend backed him into a corner and enveloped him in what may well be the first hug he’d ever received since the massacre robbed him of both home and family.

*

The second thing Kurapika did was give Mizaistom a proper report on how he handled his encounter with Tserriednich, not that the Hunter Association needed to worry about repercussions with Oito publicly claiming that kill under Woble’s name. But he thought, maybe knowing that he didn’t physically raise his hand against a Kakin dignitary even under the pain of torture would stop Mizai looking like he’d accidentally given away a bad batch of milk.

Mizaistom accepted his report, ruffled his hair, and gruffly told him a way to escape getting flayed alive when Cheadle next dropped by on her rounds.

*

The third thing he did was apologize for the willful insubordination and reckless parts of his actions, but, well, he wasn’t sorry about the actions themselves. It was just something he needed to do, and if that made him more of a liability than an asset, he’d resign from the Zodiacs and surrender his Hunter license if he had to.

(He didn’t really need it anymore, anyway.)

Cheadle, lips pressed thinly in displeasure, didn’t yell or flay him alive, and told him that his offer to resign was neither needed nor wanted. She was grounding him, (emphasis hers, no matter that grounding was something that really only applied to misbehaving teenagers and there should be more workplace-appropriate ways of saying that she was punishing a troublesome subordinate) and taking him out of the field duty roster and stashing him with the medical team, who’d all but taken root at their stations dealing with the overwhelming mountain of information being dumped on them by the survey teams.

Kurapika remembered Mizaistom’s advice just in time and didn’t point out that being assigned to work with Leorio could hardly be considered a punishment.

*

And the fourth thing he did was start wondering why Kuroro had voluntarily gone back into quarantine with him, when the Zodiacs probably wouldn’t have chased after the older man if he hadn’t turned himself in. They were more focused on what Kurapika had done, and might have missed Kuroro if he’d decided to take off with Oito and Woble. And yet—there he was, as well-behaved as a patient could be, and still there even after the mandatory isolation period had ended, hovering in their periphery, watching their operations with benign interest.

To Kurapika, it almost felt as if the Zodiacs had unwittingly picked up a stray they now had no idea how to get rid of. And then the reports started coming in of more princes being assassinated one after another: Benjamin Hui Guo Rou, found dead with a broken neck. Camilla Hui Guo Rou, lifeless and unmarked save for the tiniest cut at the base of her neck. And someone had stabbed a pencil through Zhang Lei’s skull with enough force to embed it so deeply, his attendants had to use a vise to extract it before they could prepare the body for the funeral.

*

Kuroro was taking advantage of the Zodiacs’ grudging hospitality, was the answer Kurapika settled on after several days spent watching and vainly waiting for another explanation to present itself. They couldn’t exactly turn Oito away when she wanted to stay close to her daughter’s sole protector, and Kuroro could literally leave her and Woble behind and be completely assured of their safety as he crept off and killed a few more Hui Guo Rous.

It was… lazy. And disgustingly opportunistic and practical. It was also very quintessentially Kuroro, because those three kills were his even though Oito didn’t claim them for reasons nobody understood—that is, until the other succession candidates abruptly realized that someone had kindly eliminated four of the strongest contenders for them, and promptly turned on each other in the ensuing chaotic struggle over the vacuum created by their unexpected deaths.

Oito and Woble, more or less established within the Association contingent for as long as nobody could kick Kuroro out, only had to dig down and wait as their rivals destroyed themselves.

*

Just as Kurapika started entertaining the possibility that Kuroro might have lost interest in him now that he’d all but confirmed that he was done—with hanging on to his ghosts, and his guilt, and feeding the one-sided rage that sometimes felt like the only thing keeping him tethered to reality—Oito approached him at the canteen.

“May I sit with you?” she asked quietly, jolting him out of yet another useless attempt at trying to figure out why he’d been so irritated lately, and he blinked up at her and automatically shuffled over to make room, before realizing—

“Uh—” Kurapika looked helplessly at the rough workbench, the half-finished tray of rations he’d been brooding over, the paper cup of lukewarm coffee he hadn’t been able to choke down. The smell of burnt grain hung thick and cloying in the air, the disastrous results of someone from inventory experimenting with seemingly edible plants they’d foraged out of the survey sites.

Oito giggled and took the problem out of his hands by sitting down, back against the table. Woble snuffled sleepily in her sling, and Oito calmed her with a hand while using the other to tuck her robes neatly under her knees.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, mortification only slightly mollified. “Is she—would you like something to eat, or drink?”

“We’re fine,” Oito assured with the contentment of someone who’d already had better fare elsewhere. “I apologize for interrupting your meal,” she added, gesturing at his breakfast.

“You saved me from having to finish it,” he couldn’t resist muttering, as he deftly swung his legs over to the other side of the bench to face her more fully. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

Her gaze was steady when he met it, the corners of her lips tilted up in a small, apologetic smile. “You’ve already helped,” Oito replied with a shake of her head. “And this is late enough as it is. I wanted to thank you—verbally this time. And I wanted to ask if there is anything we can grant you as compensation for the invaluable assistance you’ve provided.”

“My assistance?” Kurapika’s brows furrowed. “But you’ve already—the note you sent to Tserriednich, wasn’t that—?”

“That was for helping with that ridiculous mission,” Oito concurred. “This is for helping us secure refuge within the Hunter Association contingent.”

“But that’s… isn’t Kuroro the one who keeps bringing you here? There hasn’t been a formal arrangement.” Even as he asked the question, however, Kurapika realized that it didn’t sound quite right. He’d missed something.

“The Hunter Association has to seem neutral. They won’t publicly offer sanctuary, but they may tolerate, or turn a blind eye.” Oito paused, and regarded him knowingly. “And considering how strict your security normally is, it’s odd that we’re able to slip in so easily, without anyone even attempting to block us from entering. Nobody has tried to make us leave, either, even though we’re not authorized to remain here.”

Kurapika opened his mouth, blinked, and then closed it without saying anything. He could see now the conclusion Oito was pointing towards, but somehow couldn’t make himself say it out aloud.

“Did you think that you Zodiacs wouldn’t be able to drive off a single A-class criminal if you really wanted to?”

Kurapika felt his face grow warm with delayed embarrassment. “I’ve had a bad couple of weeks.”

“I am aware.” Oito smiled understandingly, marginally softening the blow to his injured pride. “But there you have it. Whether anyone had intended for events to unfold in this manner, or not, it is your connection with our protector that allowed him to turn the situation to our advantage.    

The revelation that Oito knew didn’t sink in right away—he was still reeling from the implication that the current chairman—chairwoman—of the Hunter Association might have… what? Realized, like Kurapika had, that Oito had lucked out with her sole hire? Woble was going to win the succession game, get declared heir to the Kakin monarchy, and she was still too young to rule now, but the merits of staying on good terms with her mother could not be denied.

Kurapika wanted to smack himself. “You know what he is,” he said faintly, dizzy, as his mind raced to connect the dots he’d missed.

“And what he did to your clan,” Oito added, making him stiffen in reflex. “I’m sorry. I asked Kuroro to facilitate this meeting, but he didn’t want to. When I asked for a reason, he explained why it would be a bad idea for him to approach you at this juncture.”

“… You don’t seem to be afraid,” he said slowly, after a long, painful moment where he tried and failed to gauge what he felt about Kuroro’s newfound tact, “despite knowing what he’s capable of doing.”

Oito tenderly brushed at the wisp-fine hair curling over Woble’s left ear. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t. But I’ve decided to be merely wary, and hope that he won’t renege on a deal that he brokered. One of the things I’ve learned as a royal wife,” she added wryly, “is that you can always trust in the confident greed of a man who’s used to getting whatever he wants.”

Woble woke then, and began to fuss. Oito carefully lifted her from her sling and adjusted her hold to cradle her daughter close. “He’s also keeping my baby girl safe,” she continued in a low whisper. “I would be a hypocrite if I were to condemn him for his past deeds while making use of his ability to eliminate threats.”

He was… staring—he couldn’t help it. This was far and beyond what he expected of the eighth wife of Nasubi Hui Guo Rou, and he already thought it remarkable that she was able to gain Kuroro as an ally in the first place. And the way Kuroro described her made it sound like he was using her, but considering what the both of them were getting out of their agreement, it was actually the opposite.

Woble must have sensed him staring, because she swiveled her head and aimed huge black eyes at him. The compulsion to offer a finger for her to grab hold of was too great to resist—the tiny hand clamped down, and Woble gurgled and kicked happily and gave a high-pitched squeal of babyish delight.

Kurapika felt his anger-crusted heart melt into a puddle of goo.

*

Half a year after the Black Whale left on its journey, the citizens of Kakin woke up and found themselves faced with devastating news that the Dark Continent had claimed the lives of thirteen of their fourteen princes. Woble Hui Guo Rou was proclaimed sole heir and successor to the throne, and Oito named queen regent over the other older and more influential royal wives.

It didn’t really make what Kuroro had done to his clan go away, but Kurapika disgusted and entertained himself by turns with the secret knowledge that the notorious Geneiryodan leader ended up being directly responsible for one of the biggest political upsets in recent history.

*

In his more generous moments, Kurapika also wondered if Kuroro really was only being driven by greed. It didn’t make any sense to him that the man would put that much thought into securing Woble’s victory, all for the sake of an old pot, however valuable it was. Or rather, how he’d gone about it had been lazy, but it was also brilliantly subtle. And it left Oito in a very good place, with good connections to the Hunter Association, and certainly in a better moral standing than if he’d just gone about killing all of Woble’s rivals.

It wasn’t impossible to imagine that Kuroro may have grown fond of the mother-daughter pair, the way they’d won Kurapika over within the span of a single conversation. But he didn’t get the chance to confirm if that was the case; Kuroro never approached him after that, and Kurapika got swallowed up by work.

*

Work, of course, meant being a Hunter in a land where everything was unexplored territory and previously completely unknown to man—not that there were any criminals to hunt in an uninhabited continent, but the other Zodiacs found more than enough work for him to do. (Read: dumping all their paperwork on him.) That, and keeping the expedition from crashing and burning in flames and bloody body bags.

After the dust settled, Kurapika and Leorio were among the first to volunteer for the return journey back to the mainland. Discovery and exploration was great and all, but Leorio had a medical degree to finish, and Kurapika needed to bring his brethren home.

Stray thoughts of where Kuroro had gone off to were… briefly mulled over, and then discarded without further ado. Imagining the man getting left behind was just a pleasant fantasy; Kuroro had a reward to claim and wouldn’t want to stay on a continent where there was nobody to steal from.

*

So apparently, the previous Rat and the previous Boar were both gigantic dickbags to such a degree that he and Leorio were positively saintly in comparison, even counting his irascibility and sometimes problematic obstinacy and Leorio’s equally expressive temper and inexperience.

The Zodiacs who were present when he tentatively asked if he could resign from the board—because he really didn’t think that Mizaistom’s offer was going to be for a long-term post—gave him these comical looks of horror and dismay. Cheadle flat-out refused to even hear him out.

“You just want me for paperwork, don’t you?” Kurapika grumbled, giving Mizaistom a sour look; easily half of the work he’d logged on behalf of the Zodiacs in the Dark Continent was logistics and documentation.

Mizai’s answering grin was sheepish, but not particularly contrite. “It’s not just that. You and Leorio are young and skilled and likeable. Pariston and Ging were… impossible to work with,” he said delicately, obviously keeping his more colorful opinions to himself for the moment. “And you do have your own opinions, so you’re not mindlessly agreeable, but at least you don’t make us want to commit murder.”

“But…” Kurapika broke off, bewilderment and frustration momentarily scrambling his ability to articulate his protests. “Part of the reason I accepted was because I thought it would be temporary, and specific to the expedition. What would I even do for day-to-day operations?”

“It’s not a full-time job, you know,” Mizaistom pointed out. “Only the chairman and the vice-chairman are more hands-on when it comes to running the organization. The rest of us are free to focus on our specializations, unless summoned.”

The man looked so inordinately pleased that Kurapika at least didn’t sound like he was completely discounting the notion out of hand. If the blond hadn’t grown to respect him as a friend and a colleague, he would have wanted to punch that self-satisfaction out of his face.

Some of his displeasure must have shown, because Mizaistom hurriedly added, “You can always hire more men to help if you’re that worried about dividing your time.”

*

Mizaistom’s suggestions were developing an unfortunate tendency of landing him in the most aggravating of situations, was Kurapika’s first stray thought as he began screening applications for that additional help with his security company several weeks later, because this?

This was just ridiculous.

“You have got to be kidding me,” he said flatly as he glared at the CV on the desk in front of him, and then up at a beaming Kuroro Lucifer.

“What are you doing here??” the blond demanded. “Do you even have a legitimate license?”

Linssen had stopped at the door after ushering Kuroro in, and frozen at the first sign of Kurapika’s displeasure; now he surreptitiously started to inch out of collateral damage range of the carnage he suspected was going to transpire in the room within the next few minutes.

“I bought one,” Kuroro replied, head tilted to the side in that familiar expression of bafflement, as if he couldn’t understand why Kurapika was even asking about something that should be patently obvious. “For an absurd amount of money, I might add, so don’t worry, I didn’t torture or kill anybody for this. The original owner was quite happy with the exchange.”

Kurapika’s throat worked soundlessly for a moment, as he sorted through his initial reactions of what the fuck and can we kill the fucker now and wait calm down we’ve been through this already.

“And you posted a job opening,” Kuroro slowly added. “I’m here to apply for it?”

At any other time, Kuroro’s downward swing into uncertainty would have been hilarious, but Kurapika was still having trouble understanding what was happening. The CV Kuroro submitted was a flat rectangle of white against the dark brown wood grain of his desk, and he hadn’t been able to avoid picking out the most common words people usually tried to include when writing a résumé meant to impress potential employers.

Depending on the result of this meeting, he was going to have to choose between burning the CV and framing the bullcrap Kuroro must have written in his list of achievements for posterity.

“You’re applying,” Kurapika repeated just as slowly, “for a job under me.”

Kuroro watched him with infuriating patience, waiting for him to complete the circuit of his thoughts, and Kurapika struggled against the urge to give vent to the restless frustration that had plagued him for most of the latter half of the expedition.

“Why would you even want to?” he finally managed to ask, tone plaintive with helpless confusion, because what he was seeing was just too outrageous for it to be anything but an honest-to-goodness job application.

Kuroro shrugged, and there was the tiniest hint of something that wasn’t the excitement or playfulness or mild-mannered patience he’d shown so far marring the space between his eyebrows, like he was actually also starting to feel frustrated that Kurapika just wasn’t getting it.

“I liked working with you,” he said simply.

“That’s not good enough!” Kurapika rapped out sharply. “I can’t even stand you, and one of these days I really will lose it and kill you for real—”

“Ask me,” Kuroro interrupted, almost completely apropos of nothing, and so quietly that Kurapika felt his breath hitch at the man’s sudden switch from jocular to serious.

“What—”

The older man exhaled audibly, and when he next met Kurapika’s eyes, it was with his usual unnerving confidence—only there was a defiant slant to the half-smile playing around his lips. “Ask me how I ever considered recruiting you into the Ryodan in spite of our history, and why I never went through with it.”

His heart chose that exact moment to start thundering loudly in his ears, in what Kurapika thought was a wholly inappropriate response to the defiance in Kuroro’s gaze. It was as if something that had quietly gone dormant since their last meeting in the Dark Continent had been unceremoniously jarred awake, and it was now insistently and mightily railing against the unexpected wake-up call.

It was unacceptable. He fully intended to make Kuroro take responsibility for this disturbance. But first—

“I will,” he said calmly, as he made a show of casually glancing down at Kuroro’s résumé. “But before that, tell me—”

Kurapika looked up, narrowed eyes pinning Kuroro with a challenge of his own.

“Why should I hire you?”

Kuroro’s self-assured little smile changed into something surprised, and pleased, and infinitely more welcoming—an expression he could never have expected from the older man, warm and hopeful and full of promise.