Title- Birds of a feather
Rating – PG-15
Pairing- 1896 for part IV, Gen. for the rest.
Warnings- Spoilers for ch. 169
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Amano-sensei
A/N: This was originally posted as a separate, but I edited it (see if you can still see traces of the original) and now it has been incorporated into the Kokuyou fic of massive proportions that I am doing. Don’t like 1896? Don’t read Part V. Also, it is now in 2 posts because it’s too long.
N i g h t i n g a l e
Nine is a tenuous age to be. Nine is when you’re supposed to know how to stay in the lines when you color. Nine is when you’re still too young to go anywhere on your own, but too old to be piggy-backed when you’re tired of walking. Nine is when you’re too big to fit in your favorite hiding spots, but too small to run away from bullies. Nine is when you’re terrified of the dark, of waking up from a nightmare in a cold sweat and realizing you can’t run to curl up in bed with your parents because they’re too tired or not at home in the first place.
It’s no surprise then that Nagi’s parents didn’t know she, like every other nine-year-old, was afraid of the dark. (She corrects herself mentally. Mother and stepfather. But they were to always be addressed as mom and dad.) She wakes up often in the middle of the night with the vague sense of horror that leaves her a petrified ball under her covers. Superstitiously, she keeps still, trying to breathe as little as possible. Maybe then the ghosts will leave her alone. Sometimes she sings softly, a light and high and feathery note. It sounds weak and thin in the darkness that has a palpable texture and weight. As ephemeral as the ghosts she fears.
She has her first music lesson when she is nine-and-a-half. Not just nine; the half-years are important at her age. She receives voice lessons from a gaijin, a friendly woman with a strong voice although she’s so fat, it’s disgraceful, mutter her parents. The teacher is always referred to as the gaijin; her parents deem her too unimportant to remember her surname. Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Anderson or something equally vulgar. (Mrs. Taylor, she remembers although everything else is blurred). No matter how much her parents scorn the teacher under their breath, they are relieved that she is out of the way. The money spent on music lessons is a small price to pay, chalked up under necessary monthly expenditures. Shrewdly, they also hope that her voice would develop richly, and she would be the next pop diva. As any entrepreneur with good business sense would say, spending money is inevitable if you want to earn money.
In hindsight, “first music lesson” is a misnomer. The first time she steps into the studio, the vibrancy of the room overwhelms her. Used to the sparse black and white and different tonalities of gray that constitute her house, her eyes hurt from the visual stimulus. She stands awkwardly by the door, her parents smiling and waving goodbye and out the door already to their next business meeting. She is politely invited to sit in perfect Japanese. She does so carefully, perched on the edge of a bright pink ottoman. The teacher offers her tea and she accepts politely. Their entire exchange is filled with social conventions. Nagi wonders when it will all break apart and unravel into something ugly. It doesn’t. She peers at her tea and listens to her teacher make small talk.
A brush of fur tickles her legs and she nearly spills her tea. Mrs. Taylor switches briefly to English.
“Nightingale! Down! Bad kitty.”
Nagi sets down the cup of tea gently on a nearby table, and scoops up the cat. From her arms, a pair of green-brown eyes peer out balefully. The cat’s ears radiate a feverish heat.
Can the nightingale sing? A song that charms the uncouth peasant and irritates the royal emperor.
The other music lessons blur together, one leading into the next so it becomes impossible to tell if she is merely repeating the same day over and over again. Her parents tell her one day that she is to sing at her grandfather’s eightieth birthday celebration. A simple “Happy Birthday” would not do, not when she is receiving voice lessons.
She doesn’t remember the day (or at least she tries her hardest not to), except that it was a disaster and disasters always come back to haunt you when you least expect it. She stands in the center of a large crowd of people, facing an old man in a wheelchair. The world spins and blurs until black suits melt together into a shapeless expanding blob. She opens her mouth and the music is swallowed by that great expanse of rustling silk kimonos. She closes her mouth again and leaves.
Fragments of speech. The high-pitched voice is surely her mother’s. Her father stands back, an immobile rectangular block.
“You’ve dishonored us! Go to your room!”
“Yes, Mother. Yes, Father.”
She does not apologize and make things worse for herself.
The drapes are down, shutting out all light from the city outside her windows. She closes the door softly, walks over to part the heavy curtains with one hand. Softly, she hums to herself, music spilling out of her mouth from where it has been kept inside all day. Her voice hasn’t changed that much. It lightly brushes by before drifting away again. Nagi removes her hand and the room is dark once again. She goes to sleep.
The nightingale is best heard at night, when there are no other birds to compete with her.
S p a r r o w
Chrome finds it difficult to remember “nine years old” most days. There is a line at twelve, or maybe it is thirteen. Before that, everything is a comfortable haze. What is “Nagi”? A word. What is “Nightingale?” A word. String together a sequence of words and maybe they’ll start making some sense, but she doesn’t place too much hope on that. What she has now is enough.
Walking slowly through an unfamiliar school, she senses thoughts darting at the edge of consciousness. Almost but not quite, a word stuck to the tip of the tongue before it can be uttered. There is something about the school that makes her want to run down the hallway and out, away. But at the same time, the walls dare her to, wait and see what happens when there’s a breach of discipline. She is rejected by this place. Her body tingles as everything screams at her that she doesn’t belong here.
The two boys flanking her cut off her retreat. The silent one, Chikusa-san, is, if possible, more withdrawn than usual. His eyes reflect only her one scared eye back at her. The other one, Ken-san, is also strangely quiet. He fidgets uncomfortably but remains silent apart from the occasional growl. As if there were something sacred about this place.
At the end of the hall is the gymnasium. There is a feeling of liberation, and Ken-san kicks open the door. Tense frowns. They enter before her. She follows, catches the last words spoken. “Rokudou Mukuro!”
Chrome laughs, tosses off her jacket. It is a bit overdramatic, but Mukuro-sama likes his drama. After all, the world’s a stage filled with players, and he is the puppeteer. She speaks a few words of Italian, the first she ever learned. Lo nego. No. Il mio nome e Chrome. My name is Chrome.
While they argue over her identity, she counts. One two three four five six seven. Scowling, smiling, faceless. One two three four five six. She makes seven, but that number seems mismatched. As if number two is really only one and a half. But she’s number four.
She holds the trident nervously, a young priestess carrying the sacrificial knife for the first time unsure if she is capable. Her insecurity shows. None of them take it favorably, except for the skinny boy in the center with untidy brown hair. A voice tells her he is important. He defends her, and the rest grumble but quiet down. She doesn’t notice when her feet decide to take her closer to him. It feels right. She leans over and kisses him on the cheek, and words come naturally.
“Thank you, Boss.”
For an instant, she sees a premonition. (She realizes later it was the complete opposite). There is an orange flame burning on his forehead, streaming from his hands. It is warm, and it is real. His eyes reflect the light, the fire that swallows her whole and leaves her untouched. Then that moment’s lost, washed away by the flow of life like so many others. He blushes. The others are on the verge of fighting, tearing each other to pieces. Not over her. She asks the Boss directly. It is settled.
Kufufufu~ Well done, my dear Chrome.
The voice in her head breaks briefly out of his silence.
“Thank you.” It’s spoken aloud, but meant for two. She glances back over her shoulder and counts again. One two three four five six seven eight nine.
Sometime between the crackling of the forming ice and the white puff of breath (like life, some manifestation of her soul perhaps) streaming from her trembling lips, she realizes she is in trouble. Marmon’s words are unnecessary. The ice is numbing her legs, burning her at the same time. She had been forewarned of the deadly consequences of losing control. The suffering is worse the second time. Dying, that is. She wonders abstractedly how Mukuro-sama manages, admires him for his courage, and apologizes for her weakness even as the last breath is leaving her body.
You did well, my cute little Chrome. Rest for a little while.
She smiles a little, peaceful now.
When she wakes again, she is back at Kokuyo Land, although she does not remember how or when she returned. There is a dim light filtering in through the dirty windows, so she guesses it is daytime. Her limbs are heavy and tired. Movement and pain are one and the same. Her mouth is dry, and she forces herself to sit up. The soft couch, missing some of the springs, provides no support but she manages to get to her feet. She takes a few unsteady steps, then collapses on the ground with a dull thud.
Lying on the ground, she feels the light vibration of the floor as someone’s footsteps approach. She is lifted coldly, impersonally, placed down on the couch with an exaggerated gentleness. A glass of water is placed on the ground beside her, within reach.
“Cheh. Stupid girl.” Ken, standing in the doorway, turns away in disgust. Chikusa doesn’t look back, shuts the door softly. She doesn’t need to ask why, because she knows the answer already. Because of Mukuro-sama. Because of Mukuro-san. Their voices overlap, blend smoothly into one, until she can almost summon up his real voice.
There is a price to pay for everything.
Sparrows are everywhere, hopping along the concrete pavement searching for breadcrumbs, for food. She can hear them outside, cheeping in short bursts of sound. On the other side of the city, their brothers and sisters are feeding out of a boy’s hand. He stays still, looks at the little mob of birds around him with distant eyes. Almost like watching people ant-like from great heights, the details of their interactions distilled down to squabbles and something simpler. He scatters the rest of the crumbs on the asphalt and gets up. The little yellow bird on his shoulder chirrups, a question and a reassurance all in one to the others before taking wing.
She closes her eyes and the sound of birds fades out into white noise. At the edge of sleep, suddenly, the phrase nagging at her comes to mind. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Except that this sparrow will never fall from the sky.
A/N: Runesque asked me what the significance of the sparrows in this part is, so I gave her a long reply that she suggested I add onto the author's notes for this section. Here it is: (goes to show I make weird connections or I think too much.)
Hibari's name can mean both sparrow and skylark, so I've gathered (and yes the boy is Hibari). However, I'd tend to characterize his younger self as a sparrow. I've noticed two things about a flock of sparrows: a) they're pretty much interested only in food and, b)they seem to have a certain presence when they take over a courtyard. Hibari's very much like a sparrow in these two respects; interested only in what's in front of him and what he wants, and his presence lingers in the school even when he's not in front of you. Chrome feels it and gets creeped out because she knows she doesn't belong there.
The fact that Hibari and Chrome are both listening to the same birds is supposed to be symbolic of the fact that there's more similarities between them than either of them realize.
Another layer of meaning is the quote from Hamlet, "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." The line reminds me of Hibari, and it's meant to link the time when Hibari takes on the entire Millefiore. Hibari is somewhat of a tragic hero in his own right...The irony is that he doesn't believe in a god (or at least I don't see him as being religious)
F l o c k T o g e t h e r
Time has become a confusion.
Before. It used to be that it would travel in a straight line, one direction, one plane-that-isn’t-really-a-plane because you can never go left or right or behind. There is no going back and forth. Something is, but in the next instant it becomes something was. Look ahead and see something that can be, that will be.
After. Stare behind you long enough and things melt together into a giant blur of white, when nothing makes sense because there isn’t a past and you’ll just get dizzy staring at all the little pieces that actually make up the past. Or stare behind you long enough and soon things will be in a way that you can go back and change things. Fix your mistakes. Kill the ones you love or hate or both and escape.
That last is not hers, but it is hard to tell nowadays.
She has discussions sometimes, in her head. It’s too bad she doesn’t contribute half of what is said, and remembers even less. But there are some things you can’t forget because time does behave like a straight line after all. There’s the beginning. There’s the end. And really, no one minds if she forgets all the things that slip in between beginnings and endings.
The beginning creeps up to her again and catches her unawares. It’s not until she slips into the space afterward that she can look back and point to it. She is relieved at the ending when her parents (mother and stepfather, she’s still in the habit of mentally correcting herself) reject her at last. The beginning is an ending is the beginning of another cycle. The echo of a voice she doesn’t know. She sits for a while on the hospital bed, an island in a sea of grass.
It is a beautiful place, serene as the day it was created and terribly, terribly old. It is old when the word Khronos takes on meaning. It is old and sad. She doesn’t need to place her feet on the earth before she feels it. She wonders aloud, why do all beautiful things need to be old and sad.
The grass whispers, there is nothing beautiful, sighs, whispers. It tickles her bare legs. She stops, doesn’t know where she is going or how to get there. There are trees ringing a meadow of grass, a deep blue lake shimmering from the sun she can’t see. It must be there, broken into a million planes of light on the sky. She tears her glance away, gives up looking for something that doesn’t exist. Instead, she walks towards the trees. A stand of birches, pale slender graceful rustle who is she, who is she. The oaks and maples reply but are drowned out by the dull roar of the pines.
She takes another step and finds herself farther away then she started, which is not the point of walking. Someone comes. The water murmurs, a little bird flew in, casts the pebbles and the sand onto the shore before dragging it back again. Someone comes, a boy with a man’s stride and the eyes of a god (or maybe it’s the devil, but where’s his cloven hoofs, forked tail and horns?)
She stands naked before him. He looks at her and doesn’t blink. His eyes don’t dart around her thin form, over the top of her head, down to her feet. His gaze is everywhere at once. When did death become so warm and so intimate, she wonders. Not that she has prior experiences to compare to, at least none she can remember. He laughs. It’s not an unpleasant laugh, but she trembles.
What’s your name, little one?
She opens her mouth. Closes it. Interlaces her fingers together and looks at her feet.
Kuromu. And it’s right, it fits, the puzzle’s finally complete when the missing piece is found. And it’s wrong, the piece jammed into a space that’s not quite the same but close enough not to matter. She’s a corpse, after all.
He holds out his hand to her, asking permission. The hand outstretched is a promise to protect her, to cherish her, maybe to love her. She wonders if the gods are capable of love, or if it is another ugly thing condemned to this realm. He laughs. He never lies, but he never tells the truth either.
She moves, takes the open hand. A body is a small price to pay for what he’s offering. Who’s pulling the doll’s strings from the rafters? It doesn’t count if you can move her to rest in your own palm. But.
You and I, we’re the same.
The ending is a slapdash affair in comparison. There is no grass, no water, no trees, no sun. Above her hangs fluorescence, a color she’s always hated for mocking real light. She’s alive, a medical miracle. She doesn’t care, extracts the IV from her arm. It doesn’t bleed and it confirms she isn’t real. She leaves, carrying a new weight within her. She wonders if this is how pregnancy feels.
Chrome doesn’t know where to go, just out and away. She sits down in a park some distance away from the hospital. The grass is short and coarse, and for a minute she dreams of another field. She doesn’t have to wait long. They come to get her. She’s suddenly shy, knowing things about them she shouldn’t have.
“Che! I don’t understand why Mukuro-san would pick such a weakling, when he has us.” That’s Ken-san’s voice. Chikusa doesn’t reply. They turn to leave and she wonders if they have rejected her. A few steps away, they stop. “Hurry up, byon~ Ugly girl!” She trails behind them at a slight distance.
She stops outside the boundaries of their home, an abandoned crumbling building. The other two, duties fulfilled, enter without waiting for her. She knows the way to the one intact staircase. She knows to jump over the third step from the bottom because it creaks and threatens to cave in at an inopportune moment. She knows to push the door open, instead of pull. As she enters, her sight is obscured by something dark green. She pulls the fabric off her head, looks at it. It is a school uniform.
“Change. You’re dirty.” They are the first words Chikusa has spoken to her.
She pulls off her old clothing, a white sleeveless shift that goes down to her knees. The top fits well, ending in the vicinity of her belly button, but the skirt is too big. Luckily, there is a large belt that she wraps around her thin waist.
“She looks too girly, byon~” Ken again. Chikusa doesn’t reply, goes back to reading a book. She doesn’t know where he gets the knife from, but stays still as he clumsily cuts off her long hair. Sometimes, accidentally, he nicks her and she bleeds a little. Chikusa is finally irritated by the impatient growls from Ken and the occasional squeaks from Chrome and takes the knife and finishes. He parts her hair, pulls it up to a pineapple hairstyle with deft movements that came from practice. They both return to ignoring her.
There is a couch in the center, framed by old dirty drapes. Something repels her. She wants to hide in a corner to rest, even if it is on the floor. Still, she goes towards the couch and sits down. Her head is light, freed of the heavy burden of her long hair. As her eyes half-close, she feels someone else directing her vocal cords, her tongue.
“Ken. Chikusa. Take care of her.” Ken jumps up, and frantically rushes over, afraid to touch her. “Mukuro-san? Mukuro-san?!” She falls unconscious.
When she can see again, it is dark. She rubs her eyes wearily. One hand comes up to meet her eyepatch and the fabric brushes her fingers. She drops her hand onto her lap. She still has difficulty adjusting to the loss of her eye.
Kufufu. I could regenerate your eye, but you look beautiful the way you are. Don’t you agree, my cute Chrome?
“Yes, Mukuro-sama.” She acquiesces, the first of a last lifetime.
For her, closing her eye is merely exchanging one darkness for another. But they're not the same.
<The next part...>