The evening after Illumi cut his hair into a chin-length bob, Hisoka said, “I like your hair short. It looks nice.”
For the next two years, Illumi didn’t so much as trim the ends of his hair. It grew out, each and every day, at nearly one inch per month.
Hisoka giggled every time Illumi sat down to comb through his hair at night and Illumi ignored him silently in a way that seemed--somehow--very loud.
“Unfortunately for you, my dear Illumi,” said Hisoka after many months, “I also like your hair long.”
In the two years that passed, Hisoka’s hair changed too--it was now sky blue and combed back with an unnatural straightness; very different from his natural black curls. His body had also changed--out of nowhere, he was 6’1 and broad-shouldered, with defined muscles that tested the limits of his button-down shirt every time he moved. At eighteen, he looked solidly like a grown man.
Not that Illumi noticed.
He was fifteen now and growing too. He was still thin, but rapidly approaching six feet tall.
He also had a new sibling--Alluka--and one on the way, still unnamed. It was hard to care about them, though--because Killua was perfect. His bright white hair sat in fluffy clumps around his head, framing his round face and pink cheeks and mischievous smile. His body was small but strong--and fast. Faster than even Illumi had been at that age, and Illumi’s speed was remarkable.
He sat with Killua in his lap, gesturing to several knives laid out before them. “Look at them. Then copy. Like this,” Illumi said, holding out one hand. It flexed and his nails went rock hard and razor sharp, muscles lengthening.
Killua laughed. “It’s sharp,” he said in his tiny little voice. It was also perfect, that voice.
“Yes,” Illumi agreed. “It is your turn.”
Killua held out his hand--it was so small and pale, with little nails and rough calluses from where he learned to hold a shortsword for the last several months. He flexed like Illumi and his fingers lengthened, but his nails didn’t shift much.
“It is inadequate,” Illumi said.
Killua’s shoulders sank. “It’s not good?”
From somewhere behind them, Hisoka giggled.
Illumi shifted Killua to standing and spun him around so they were face to face. He had the most beautiful blue eyes--vibrant and alive. He was like a light in the darkness of the Zoldyck family. By age three, Illumi’s spirit had been thoroughly crushed. But Killua? He was stronger. Better. The life within him pulsed on, despite the torture, the training, the isolation--
Illumi found himself unwittingly helping protect him from the same cruelty he experienced in his childhood, desperate to preserve the things that made Killua special. He searched for words of comfort, but knew almost none. He squeezed Killua’s shoulders and said, in a blind attempt at love, “You will surpass me.”
Killua blinked a few times. “I will?”
Killua grinned. “Yeah.” The smile bloomed something relieving and warm within Illumi. He would kill for that smile. Well, he had killed for that smile. And would probably do so again.
“Go train with the chains until dinner.” Illumi spun him around again and gave him a push towards the door.
“Okay, Illuni,” said Killua’s sweet little voice. “I love you.”
Illumi stood up and watched him run out of the training room, a storm of confusion pinching his brows together close.
“You know, sweet Illumi, when someone says, ‘I love you,’ the appropriate response is to say it back.”
Illumi turned to Hisoka, eyes narrowed. “I do love him. He is my most precious brother and heir to the Zoldyck family estate. He means more than anything else.”
Hisoka spun a finger in the air. “Too far in the other direction. Just say, simply, ‘I love you.’ You can practice with me. I wouldn’t mind at all.”
“I will kill you.”
“You mispronounced ‘love’ as ‘will kill.’ An understandable mistake,” Hisoka said.
Illumi thought about taking a knife from the floor and slamming it into Hisoka’s trachea. It would crack satisfyingly and a primal part of Illumi loved the smell of freshly spilled blood. Plus, it would keep Hisoka silent for at least a minute or two.
“Your father is going to make him learn nen eventually.”
Illumi’s roaring anger hissed away, doused by Hisoka’s voice. He looked to the knives again.
“If you don’t train him, your mother will. Just as soon as the next baby’s born, she’ll be on Killua, pushing him beyond what’s humanly possible.” Hisoka shrugged. “It’s effective. It worked on Alluka, and she’s barely two.”
“Alluka is a rare circumstance that needed to be dealt with early. Killua is not like that.”
Hisoka hummed. “I could train him.”
“You are not an adequate teacher.”
“I’m better at nen than you.”
Illumi pivoted slowly so they were standing face-to-face. “You are uncontrolled.”
“I disagree. I think I exercise a considerable amount of restraint every day.” He smiled fangedly.
Illumi watched his mouth for too long.
They still had never kissed. Illumi stopped asking; stopped wondering. Perhaps Hisoka decided he didn’t need a kiss after all. Perhaps Hisoka didn’t want a kiss from Illumi. Nonetheless, he held up his end of the bargain: he was an effective butler for the Zoldycks, especially Illumi. Gotoh still lodged complaints against him at least once a month, but Hisoka had never reached a point where he had to be removed from the family.
And now, grown--still growing--he was starting to take shape into the sword Illumi knew he could become.
Still. No kiss.
“Something on your mind?” Hisoka asked.
Illumi had been staring at his lips. He blinked away. “No. Come on. We need to pack.” They had a job; an assassination scheduled on the other side of the planet.
Illumi’s hand was captured between the muscles of the girl’s abdomen and crushed tightly. So tightly that he couldn’t pull away.
Who were these people?
Illumi was sent to kill a member of this powerful gang--a gang that rarely made public appearances, and so this was their contractor’s last shot to knock one of them off. They were known as the Phantom Troupe and bore an icon of a spider. Illumi appreciated their aesthetic. Simple, dark, and clean. He felt a kinship to their power and ruthlessness, in truth, but a job was a job.
Illumi was sent in his father’s stead and was now so tightly pinned that he couldn’t move--yet. In the dark of this massive hotel, he looked for Hisoka. Illumi found him a few feet away, looking nonplussed.
Hisoka held some young man’s decapitated head between his hands. His hair had been blonde, eyes blue, and his smile already faded in death.
Hisoka looked over to Illumi, yellow eyes glinting in the dark. “Oh? You couldn’t kill yours?”
“I could,” said Illumi.
The woman who held Illumi scoffed. “Kid--” Her voice dissolved as she collapsed without warning. Illumi stepped away from her, hand free of her chest now. He flexed his fingers. Two were broken. These people really were powerful. Illumi had gotten strong, however, in the years since he finished the Hunter's exam. He could finish the job, no problem.
“You’re hurt,” Hisoka said, not sounding particularly concerned. More impressed than anything. “And she’s not dead.”
“She’s not my target,” Illumi said. He wasn’t in the business of killing for free. Not like Hisoka--obviously. The blood splatter upon the marble floors of the lobby said as much.
No, this girl--with her pink hair and cat-eyed look--would regain consciousness in a day. She seemed stronger than average--perhaps she would awaken sooner.
“We still haven't found the target,” Hisoka pointed out--unhelpfully. He looked over to the fallen woman and smiled again.
Illumi had seen that look on Hisoka’s face before, but never directed at someone else. No, Illumi was intimately familiar with that particular grin. He loathed that suggestive, appraising grin, truthfully.
But he especially loathed seeing it directed at someone that wasn’t him.
That feeling filled him with a pulse-pounding disgust. Determined to ignore it, Illumi spun on his heel. They needed to regroup elsewhere--his mark, named Pakunoda, wasn’t where they expected her to be.
The lights in the hotel lobby came back with a roaring flash and it only took a second before there were screams of terror--first from that man’s headless body, then from the woman’s slumped, bleeding form. Illumi and Hisoka were already gone, zipping through the doors and out into the night, silently, hastily.
The wind ripped around them on the large cliff that overlooked the dry desert below. Sand fogged the air, making it hard to breathe, but nonetheless, Illumi stood unmoving, looking unaffected.
“You’ll stop for money, won’t you?” the man asked. He tilted his head. “I don’t want to kill you. So maybe I can pay you instead.”
“I already have a contract with the man who wishes to see Pakunoda dead,” Illumi said.
“I’ll double it.”
Illumi gave it some thought. Truthfully, it was a pain to fight out in the open like this. And the man, with his long black coat, piercing black eyes, and silky black hair, looked to be a substantial threat. He hadn’t opened himself to an attack once in the minutes they stood there. It was impressive. And his aura was dense and strong in a way that almost reminded Illumi of his father. But he was young--maybe Hisoka’s age. “Very well. Deal.”
The man exhaled in relief. “Good.” He took a step forward. “What’s your name?”
“I am Illumi Zoldyck.”
“Ah, the Zoldycks. I’ve actually met your grandfather.”
“Indeed. You don’t much resemble him.”
Illumi pulled out his phone and pulled up payment information to give to the stranger. “I will give you coordinates to wire five hundred thousand jenny.”
“My name is Chrollo Lucilfer. It’s nice to meet you, Illumi.”
Illumi looked up. Blinked once. “What is your number?”
Chrollo laughed and approached, pulling out his phone, too. “Here.” He held it out and Illumi accepted it.
On the airship parked behind them, Hisoka popped a bubble of gum from where he was leaning against the doorframe. He watched, yellow eyes razor sharp, as Chrollo and Illumi made their deal.
“If I have an assassination I need completed, could I contract you?”
“Yes,” Illumi said, pocketing his phone. “What did you need?”
Chrollo’s smile softened. “Nothing yet, right now. I was thinking more hypothetically--in the future. You seem useful.” He tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “You know, because you killed Shalnark, you qualify to join the Troupe.”
“I did not kill anyone,” Illumi said. He pointed, without looking, at Hisoka, in the middle of blowing another bubble. “My butler did.”
Pop. Hisoka waved, wiggling his fingers in the air.
Chrollo tilted his head. “He doesn’t seem strong enough to have killed someone in the Phantom Troupe.”
“He is, and he did. But he cannot join your gang, Chrollo Lucilfer. He belongs to my family--he’s my butler.” He was shaping up to be Illumi's very powerful sword. Illumi felt so close to achieving his goal of harnessing Hisoka as a true weapon that it put him on edge to even consider losing him now. Not while so close to being done.
Chrollo turned back to Illumi. “Lucky him.”
Illumi blinked, eyes flat and blank. “Is this everything?”
Chrollo's smile faded and he stepped back, nodding. “I believe so. Pleasure doing business with you.”
Illumi walked away. He passed Hisoka as he boarded the airship. The halls were red, covered in sound-dampening fabric. It was a private ship licensed by the Zoldycks, so Illumi was able to let down his guard enough to roll his shoulders and loosen the tense muscles at his neck. He'd been awake for a few days; it was only natural. He looked forward to going home and bathing in the hotspring below the castle.
“Nice work out there, Illu,” Hisoka said, voice rumbling and low, following at Illumi’s heels, his shiny black shoes silent on the red carpeting. “This was a surprisingly blood-free assassination.”
“I am in the business of assassination; the business is key. I just made the family a half million jenny for a half day’s work. Father should be pleased.”
Illumi looked over his shoulder to Hisoka, windswept hair askew across his face.
His eyes widened. “What?”
Hisoka stalked close as Illumi turned to face him, until they were nearly touching--Illumi could feel the warmth of Hisoka there, like a radiant shield at his front. “I am requesting my first kiss.” They were backed up, against the far wall at the entrance of the ship. Thankfully, alone, or else Illumi would have to kill Hisoka.
He wasn't going to kill Hisoka. He was going to--
He was going to kiss him?
Illumi nearly asked why. Why now? And then he almost asked how. How should he do it? He agreed to Hisoka’s terms years ago but hadn’t given thought to the logistics of the exchange. Well, that wasn’t true--
He thought about it a lot, kissing Hisoka.
But Illumi had never kissed anyone before, except Killua, and mostly at the top of his soft, fluffy head. Hisoka didn’t want a kiss like that.
There was no point in thinking it over. Illumi closed the gap between them both and pressed his mouth to Hisoka’s. The warmth he felt crashed into him like a hot wave on a summer’s day, pouring through him, and his eyes shut without him even realizing.
Hisoka smelled like citrus candy. Tangeripops, maybe. Did he sneak some in his luggage?
Hisoka’s sharp fingers combed through the length of Illumi’s hair until they reached his midback--and then stopped.
Illumi’s eyes opened. He blinked and pushed himself back, out of Hisoka’s hands. He wiped his mouth with one palm and straightened his shoulders.
It meant nothing. His voice was even and unaffected as he said, “You have four more.”
Together, they walked down the halls of the airship to the sitting area. Illumi slid into one brown leather-wrapped chair and Hisoka took the one beside him.
“What did you think of Chrollo?” Hisoka asked, after some time.
“He is very wealthy for being very young.”
“Yes, he is, isn’t he? You can amass quite a bit of personal wealth when you don’t have to pay into a family pot.”
Illumi’s brows pinched close. He shot Hisoka a curious look. “What do you mean by that?”
“Chrollo Lucilfer is famous where I’m from; he was an orphan. Like me.” Hisoka smiled, teeth glinting white in the low light of the airship. “He’s used his gang to become exorbitantly rich.”
“He is not more wealthy than I am.”
“You don’t have a penny to your name, dear Illumi.”
“The Zoldyck name has many pennies.”
“That money belongs to your parents. Not you. In fact, if we think about it--” Hisoka drew a circle in the air with one sharp finger. “I’m more wealthy than you. I’m given a weekly allowance that’s sat in a savings account, growing every week. Has been for years.”
An unconscious piece of glass that framed Illumi’s reality cracked in one corner as Hisoka’s logic sank in. Illumi had no reply. He pulled out his phone.
“What are you doing?” Hisoka leaned over and Illumi shoved a hand into his face, to keep his distance. Hisoka laughed, the warmth of his breath against Illumi's palm.
Illumi 14:52: Hello.
Chrollo Lucilfer 14:52: :) Hi, Illumi.
Illumi 14:52: Please let me know if I can assassinate anyone for you. Thank you.
Chrollo Lucilfer 14:53: I will. It was nice meeting you.
Illumi 14:52: [Read.]
Illumi sat back and clicked his phone shut. He looked at Hisoka, who was straightening his hair where Illumi's fingers had mussed it. Illumi said, “You make a valid point. I will take on side jobs; I should start saving, personally.”
"You're welcome, then." Hisoka slouched in his chair and pulled out a deck of cards. He shuffled through them idly, but he still continued to wear his fanged grin. “What did you think of the kiss?”
“It meant nothing to me.”
Hisoka laughed and didn't look up. “It was your first, wasn’t it?”
That meant nothing. It meant nothing that they were together, shoulders nearly touching, heading back to the Zoldyck manor where they shared a suite.
And the game that Hisoka played--it meant nothing, too.
But when they got home several hours later, and Illumi was finally sequestered alone in his room, Hisoka in his, Illumi sat upon his bed, and touched his lips, and said it out loud, because there was something wrong with his internal voice. It couldn't be believed.
“It meant nothing to me.”
He tasted like candy--
"It meant nothing to me."
Illumi shook his head to clear it. He had many other things to consider, anyway, beyond the fluttering in his throat, his belly, his buzzing lips. One of the first: why did Hisoka ask for a kiss now? It had been years since they reached their deal. And what was different this time?
Nothing. Nothing changed. Was Hisoka waiting to hit some arbitrary date? Perhaps he wanted to throw Illumi off-balance somehow. But--there had been assassinations where Illumi killed no one. There had been assassinations where Illumi exchanged information with potential clients. This trip, by all accounts, was unremarkable. Was it the Troupe? Did Hisoka find them compelling in some way?
Illumi had heard, in passing, of a "goodbye kiss." Perhaps Hisoka was considering the Troupe after all. If that were the case, Illumi might just kill him. It would be a pity, but Hisoka represented years of hard work, and he wasn't just going to let his roughly edged sword go. No, if necessary, he'd even kill Chrollo.
Illumi decided to take a shower so the white noise of rushing water could drown out the thoughts in his head. He undressed, fetched a clean towel from the cupboard, and turned the faucet. He waited until fog filled in the gray stone of his washroom before slipping between his shower's glass doors.
The water pressure beat down on him and the noise did its job--he had no thoughts in his head. He sighed, relaxed for the first time in weeks, as scalding water poured over the pale skin of his back.
But the plan backfired as soon as Illumi departed his bath a half-hour later, because in the foggy, destressed part of his mind, a question came to him unbidden, and unwelcome.
Would Hisoka ask for another kiss soon?