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La Squadra Celebration Week 2019

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Guanciale is rubbing his temples. This stupid blond kid has been in his office for nearly twenty minutes now and the likelihood of him cutting into Guanciale’s lunch with his nonsensical dribble is growing exponentially. Not that Guanciale’d actually let that happen. He knows this boy is an attention seeker and that he’s been on this particular soapbox for a number of months now and that he’s gotten under the skin of every managerial member of his staff at some point or another. He figured it was only a matter of time before he showed up at the door of his office to make the same tired accusations.

Guanciale’s got an eye on the clock and, at best, the director’s only going to give this kid another three or four minutes before he cuts him off and sends him out. He’s debating on which restaurant he’ll go to. He’s in the mood for something extravagant...and then maybe he’ll just excuse himself for the rest of the day. He’ll have his secretary reschedule his afternoon meetings and then he’ll treat himself to a nice, relaxing stroll through the city...then, maybe he’ll go home and sleep for a bit, after which he’ll take his wife out to dinner, but certainly not to a place anywhere as lavish as his lunch destination...no, he’s the sort of man who reserves the best things for himself and justly so. Then he’ll take her home and wait for the tired old biddy to drink herself into a stupor and then he’ll head out again and find some real women and some real good times. 

Guanciale smiles, despite himself.

The blond’s response to this involuntary motion is instantaneous. “You think this is amusing, sir?” There’s a hard edge to this young man’s voice that Guanciale finds exceedingly disrespectful. He’s not going to dignify this question with a response.

“You’re obviously very fixed on this idea of yours.” Guanciale begins, shifting himself to a more comfortable position in his seat. “And you’re making some very serious and frankly outrageous claims against one of our chief surgeons…”

“Please, sir. I know where you’re going with that and I’m begging you not to put me off.” The blond’s eyes have suddenly grown wide. “I’m not doing this out of personal animosity or because I like the attention. People are dying and have been for months. And I’ve gone to every single person beneath you and no one has believed me...my word’s not good enough for them and the few times they looked into things they said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ and now they won’t even talk to me about it anymore. But I’ve got irrefutable proof now and I mean to do things right this time. That’s why I came to you. I wanted this to go straight to the top.”

Guanciale sighs. Just two more minutes. He can get through two more minutes.

“And which particular patient death is this so-called evidence related to you?”

“Well, it’s not pertaining to a death this time around, actually. But it’s an obvious case of him deliberately harming a patient to-”

“Forgive me for the question, but, as an orderly, do you think you’re really qualified to pass that sort of judgment on one of our most medically brilliant personnel? Do you even begin to grasp the reputation this man has? He does what most surgeons have only ever dreamed about in their dizziest daydreams. He’s successfully performed surgeries that were considered medically impossible and which no one else has dared attempt since. He has single-handedly put this facility on the map and, without a doubt, he does the riskiest and most difficult work of anyone in this hospital. We send the very worst cases to him because he’s the only one who can even come close to saving them...but people who are that bad off don’t always make it no matter whose hand the scalpel is in.”

Two minutes is up and Guanciale is getting to his feet. 

“You can leave whatever it is you want me to look at on my desk. I’ll get to it if and when I find the time. Now, I don’t think we have anything further to discuss here so-”

“He killed them on purpose.” The blond’s on his feet now too and is stepping directly in his path. “And he did horrible things to them first. I saw...I saw him do it. How do you not understand? He wants the worst cases. He likes to see people suffer. It’s probably the only reason he’s in the profession at all. And what better cover could he ask for? If his patients have already got one foot in the grave, how hard are you going to look at their case if they die?”

Guanciale is folding his hands and pressing them to his lips. He would like nothing more than to wring this boy’s neck.

“I’ve been told a lot about you.” He says slowly. “I’d hoped that people were exaggerating, but I’m very disappointed to find that they weren’t.” He’s shoving past the boy and heading for the door.

“I’ll take it to the press...and the police!”

“You think they’ll believe you? Because no one else around here does and I doubt you’ll be any more successful in convincing them of your little stories. Besides, if that’s what you really thought would accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish here, you’d have done it already. You probably figured that it would be your word against ours, though, and given the fact that you’ve got nothing to back your claims up…”

“I didn’t before...no, that’s very true. But, with all due respect sir , if you’d been listening to what I’ve been saying at all, you’d know the whole point of my coming here is that I do have concrete evidence now and I want to be fair and offer you one last opportunity to address the situation yourself. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt because if you’re even a half-decent person, you’ll do the right thing.”

Guanciale pauses at the door, his hand curling into a fist. “Is that a threat?”

“I’m being honest with you. I will take my proof elsewhere and if you try and defend him, it will ruin you...all of you. I’ve reported his behavior over a dozen times and every single man and woman working under you has collectively refused to even entertain the idea that I was telling the truth. Some people here are convinced that it’s enough to bask in the glow of someone else’s ‘greatness’ and that their lives are all the better for it. As to the rest of them, though...I think in their heart of hearts, they know what’s going on, even if they’ve not seen it first-hand like I have. But it’s not for ordinary people to confront monsters, now is it?”

“Whatever evidence you think you have seems to have made you forget how people like you are supposed to talk to their superiors.”

“Have I really said something wrong...or just something you don’t want to hear?” The blond’s crossing to Guanciale’s desk and reaching into his pocket. He’s hesitating. “I want to trust you with this...I really do. But you’ve made that very difficult for me.”

“Just leave it on the desk...whatever it is.” 

“The whole case hinges on this...I don’t think it would be inappropriate for me to insist I watch it with you...just to be sure the tape stays safe.”

“Tape?”

The blond nods. He’s got a small camcorder tape in his hand and is holding it out for Guanciale to see.  “He likes to record his work. This is his latest ‘project’.” 

“Just set it down, then, and I’ll-”

“No.” The blond interjects. “You tell me when you’d like me to come back with this. I’d rather hold onto until I can be sure you’ll watch it. I get that it’d be much easier for you just to destroy it and pretend like nothing’s going on. To erase the problem, as it were, and just keep attributing all the bad things that have happened here to severe medical complications that were beyond any human ability to reverse. I mean, that’s worked for him so well that even his victims’ families weren’t suspicious. They all just ate up every word he said and thanked him for trying so hard. No...I’ll keep this until you tell me you’re ready to listen to me. I’m not going to make the mistake of putting this in the wrong hands and, as it stands, you haven’t got me convinced that yours are the right ones.”

The blond’s put the tape back in his pocket and is heading over to the door too now. “So what’ll it be?”

Guanciale narrows his eyes. If this fucking prick wants to play games with him, so be it.

“Be back here at four this afternoon. I’ll have my secretary have the necessary equipment brought in for a viewing.”

The blond is nodding slowly, but his look indicates that he’s still distrustful. Really, the gall of some people…but if this is what it takes to keep this jackass’ mouth shut…and to get Guanciale back on schedule with his meal…

They’re finally both stepping into the hall and Guanciale’s locking his door behind them.

“I only stuck around here as long as I did because there needed to be someone to stand between him and the patients.” The blond’s saying suddenly. “I can’t say I always did a very good job of that, but I did try...for what it’s worth.”

Guanciale wonders if his face betrays how little he gives a shit right now because the blond is furrowing his brow and frowning at him as if he’s done something offensive. 

“I’ll be back at four then.”

As the blond’s walking away, Guanciale forms his decision. He’ll go to the Ristorante Floriano today. And he’ll make sure that malicious little blond orderly regrets trying to stir up trouble in his facility. 

—-

When the blond knocks on the door at precisely four, Guanciale has to make a real effort to keep his voice steady. 

“Let yourself in.”

He’s not even gotten fully through the door when he stops dead in his tracks, his eyes fixed on the occupied seat across from Guanciale.

“Well, well, well, well, wellllllll….” The seated man is saying with far too much enthusiasm. “Gelatoooo. Please come in, won’t you. The director and I have been expecting you.” 

Gelato’s face has gone white as a sheet. “This wasn’t the agreement…” He’s stammering.

“There was no agreement. I told you to be here at four so we could view the tape. That was all.” Guanciale shrugs nonchalantly. “But I figured that it wouldn’t be sporting not to let the accused party know what was going on and what was being said about him. Luckily, Ciocciolata was very understanding and since he had the afternoon free, he offered to come and clear this whole misunderstanding up.”

Gelato’s hands are hanging limp at his side. Cioccolata’s grinning from ear to ear as he crosses one leg over the other. 

“You’re rather sharp for an orderly.” The latter’s saying. “I like smart people. They interest me a great deal. And I can tell you’ve really put a lot of thought and care into your investigation of my conduct. Though, I must say...I don’t appreciate your breaking into my house to steal that tape from me...especially when it’s so vital to my research.”

Guanciale’s instantly furious. “You broke into his house? I think you forgot to mention that detail.”

“I-I had to...there was no other way…” The despair in Gelato’s eye pleases Guanciale, but not enough to calm him down.

“He didn’t do too much damage, fortunately...but that tape is very special to me. I’ll openly admit, I record most of my operations because I like to go over them afterwards. It’s useful to be able to see what was successful and what wasn’t and where I can improve in the future. You can’t ever better yourself if you don’t look at your work critically and that’s exactly what I do. So of course I have tapes of my best operations as well as my less favorable ones. And any time I try some new or experimental treatment...it’s only natural I’d want to document that as well. And so I’d be very grateful if I could have my tape back after this whole little ordeal is over.” 

Cioccolata’s words are reassuring. This is a smart, professional man who says and does things that make sense. 

“I’m starting to question whether it’s even worth my time to look at this tape.” 

“It is rather long.” Ciocciolata remarks. “I’m very thorough in my documentation. The only good research is complete research and if something’s incomplete...well, then it’s useless to me. And I didn’t become as good as I am at what I do by...pardon the language...half-assing my work.”

“You said you’d watch it…it’s your job! If I’m reporting that one of your staff is intentionally harming his patients...”

“Those are such ugly words.” Cioccolata cuts in. “It’s not the sort of thing an orderly should say about a doctor they work with so regularly. We’re on the same team here. We both want the patients who come here to receive the treatment they need. So why don’t we work together on that? You don’t need to start making accusations simply because you don’t understand the necessity of my actions.” Cioccolata is supremely calm as he speaks. In this moment, he strikes Guanciale as the sort of man most people aspire to be. One who is both capable and hardworking and who is exceedingly tolerant and even-tempered, even in the face of unjust slander. Of all the people, Guanciale has known in his lifetime, Cicciolate is perhaps the most faultless.

“Look. I’ve got no hard feelings. You’re young. And you feel driven to help people which is...admirable. So let’s say you just give my tape back and we put this all behind us.” He’s extending a gracious hand.

“You said you’d watch it…”

“You’re starting to repeat yourself, which means you’ve run out of things to say.” Guanciale replies. He’s folding his hands on his desk and trying to muster, from deep within himself, something close to Cioccolata’s divine patience. “But since you’re going to make an ass of yourself over this anyway…” He’s opening his palm. “I’ll humor you.”

Gelato looks between Guanciale and Cioccolata.  

“I want what’s best for our patients just as much as you do.” He’s continuing. “So why don’t we do as Cioccolata suggested and work together on that?”

Gelato’s shaking his head. “I know what you think is best for our patients...and it’s not me, is it? You’re mistake is in thinking that I’m the problem here. I’d rather take it to the police. I’m sure they’ll be in contact in a few days.”

“Is that what you really think?” Cioccolata’s eyes are glistening. “Then go on.” He’s gesturing toward the door. “If you’re feeling that compelled, then who are we to stop you?” 

Gelato’s edging toward the door, as if to test whether either of the men will pursue him. Neither one moves. Guanciale’s taking his cues from Cioccolata. The surgeon wouldn’t be this cool and confident without good reason. He has nothing to worry about. Let the stupid boy go and waste the police’s time. It’s not his concern.

The moment the blond has left the room, Guanciale turns to Cioccolata and a long overdue apology is spilling out of his mouth. But the other man’s holding up a hand to stop him.

“Young people are excitable. You’re not to blame for that. Now if you’ll please excuse me...I’m scheduled to perform an operation later today and I’d like to go prepare for that.”

“Of course.”

“You’re an excellent director. I appreciate how you’ve handled this situation. Thank you for keeping me informed.”

“How could I not...it was such an outrageous allegation…”

“I’ll admit...it’s a shame about the tape...there was some very important research on there. But I’ll make do without it.” He’s getting to his feet. “But, who knows! Maybe the police will give it back to me once they’re done with it.”

“Will you turn him in for breaking and entering?”

“Ah, no...no, I don’t think I will. I’m not the retaliatory type, you see. There’s no point in ruining a young man’s life.” He’s flashing an extra wide smile at the director and Guanciale’s inclining his head in acknowledgement of the surgeon’s noble sentiment. He’s more sure than he’s ever been that his patients are in the best possible hands.

—-

When Cioccolata rounds the corner down the hall from the director’s office, the first thing he sees is a figure in a hospital gown and cap pinning a second figure to the floor.

“You get the tape for me?”

The figure in the gown is nodding furiously. “Y-yeah.” 

“Excellent. That’s excellent! You’ve done beautifully, Secco! Just beautifully!” 

He’s crouching down next to the pair and tilting his head in an amused way as he gets a good look at Gelato’s face. Secco’s got one hand over the blond’s mouth, but even so, Cioccolata can tell that he’s grimacing. There’s a wild desperation in his eyes that’s part anger and part fear and Cioccolata feels a twinge of regret as he remembers that his video camera is downstairs. 

“Your face is really extraordinary when you’re in distress. Secco, love, dig your knee into him a bit...or maybe twist his arm further. I want to see what he looks like when he’s in pain.”

“Ah...ah...ah…” Secco’s shaking his head.

“Of course...how inconsiderate. I’m giving you a second task without rewarding you for the first.” He’s reaching into his coat pocket and bringing out a handful of sugar cubes. “Is five enough?

“Y-yeah!” 

He’s offering his hand to Secco and the latter’s eating them straight from his palm. He can’t help but smile at this absolute treasure of a human being...his finest...his best work…

“What a lovely, lovely creature…” He murmurs. 

Secco’s nuzzling his empty hand with his cheek. He’s reminded of the fact that this the only person he’s ever held himself back from killing. Of course, he’s already hurt him a great deal and will likely do so again...but Secco understands...Secco will always understand...because he knows Secco’s just as obsessed with him as he is with Secco...and that’s all that either of them needs to be happy with one another.

Secco’s jamming his knee into Gelato’s lower back with a vengeance. His eyes are positively glowing. 

“That-that good?” He still needs the reassurance. It’s one of the things Cioccolata finds most endearing about Secco. 

“More than good.” He replies. “It’s too bad the camera’s downstairs.”

Secco cries out, his face screwed up in a charmingly fretful expression. “I’m sorry...I didn’t think-”

“We’ve got the tape. That’s what was important.” He’s laying a hand on the top of Secco’s head. “You know, it was your tape Secco. It has everything on it...from your first operation to your last…now wouldn’t that have been a devastating loss?”

“Uh…” Secco’s bobbing his head up and down. 

“As to you…” He’s turned his attention to Gelato. “I’m not going to do anything right now because the timing would be much to suspicious. But I’m going to make you a promise. You are going to meet a very, very bad end one of these days. I will personally guarantee it. So enjoy what time you’ve got left in this world because I’m not planning to give you all that much.” He’s straightening up. “We’re going to leave now. And don’t think you can fight us because if you even try Secco will snap your neck and he will take the utmost pleasure in doing so. So I dare you...make his day.”

Secco’s climbing off Gelato’s backside and stepping carefully over to Cioccolata’s side, where he seats himself on his haunches, poised and ready to pounce should the need arise.

Gelato takes a moment and then pushes himself up and starts off down the hall without looking back. The next moment he’s around the corner and out of view.

Secco curls an arm around Cioccolata’s leg. “Can...can we watch the tape when we get home? My tape?” 

“Yes...yes, of course we can.”

—-

Five minutes later Gelato’s walking out the doors of the medical facility into the later afternoon sunlight. He’d like to start sprinting down the street and to keep sprinting until his lungs and legs give out on him. He wants to throw his fist into a wall until he’s reduced his knuckles to a bloody mass. He’s on the verge of screaming and tearing out handfuls of his hair. But none of that will change the reality of the situation...the reality that there’s no one to stand between Cioccolata and the patients anymore.

He’s setting off down the sidewalk at a controlled clip. He’ll find another way to deal with all of this...in time...somehow.

As he’s heading home, his mind is racing with a thousand impossible and improbable schemes. He’s so distracted that he fails to notice the scowling, dark-haired silhouette following him with his eyes and whispering into a phone that he’s got visuals on the Stand user from the hospital and is about to make his move and ‘introduce’ himself.



Chapter Text

It all starts when Pesci can’t find his shoes.

“What do you mean you’ve only got one pair?!” Prosciutto’s barking as he sifts through yet another heap of the younger man’s laundry. 

“I didn’t ever think I’d need more than that. I just use ‘em till they wear out and then buy a new pair and-”

“I don’t care about any of that right now. We’re supposed to be heading out in an hour and I swear, if you end up staying behind over a pair of fucking shoes…”

“I’m sure I could just borrow a pair. Someone here probably wears the same size...don’t you think?”

“I sincerely doubt it. But even if you were that lucky, you’d have a hell of a time talking someone into that. When people don’t have all that much to call their own, they get possessive over what little they do have...even shoes.”

They make a cursory sweep of the entire headquarters and look in all the most obvious places. Pesci keeps insisting that he placed them at the foot of his bed the night before, which is what he’s always done, but either he’s mistaken or someone else moved them, which seems more likely with every passing minute. 

Once they’ve covered all the obvious places, they start searching the less obvious places. They meet with just as little success, though. 

Prosciutto’s making his way down the hall of the second floor towards Pesci’s room to make the umpteenth check of the afternoon when something catches his eye. The door to Sorbet and Gelato’s old room is ajar. It’s an unsettling sight because that door hasn’t been opened in months and the fact that someone has had the audacity to touch it now…

He’s on the point of shutting the door and continuing on, but something compels him to check and make sure that nothing in the room has been disturbed. 

It only takes him a second to catch sight of the obvious and unacceptable transgression that has occured. Someone has taken all of Sorbet and Gelato’s old shoes and tossed them all across the floor. As he flicks on the light, he can see that, right in the middle of the mess, there are two shoes that look out of place...that are much bigger and much more worn than all the other ones. Pesci’s shoes, no doubt. 

That night Prosciutto announces at dinner that the little prank with the shoes was both inappropriate and exceedingly disrespectful to Sorbet and Gelato’s memory. He continues by saying that, in order to prevent anyone from defiling their former teammate’s space and possessions, Risotto’s agreed to keep the door to their room locked from here on out. No one comes forward and confesses to the prank, although everyone looks fairly shocked by the idea that anyone would go into that room, let alone touch anything inside it.

—-

Two days later, the squad is just sitting down to dinner when they hear a loud crashing sound coming from upstairs. Illuso mutters something about Formaggio’s damn cat knocking over furniture again, but when Formaggio goes to his room to assess the damage, all the furniture is in tact and Polenta is curled up on his owner’s pillow, his tail twitching in his sleep.

When Formaggio reports this to the rest of the group, they each go to check their own rooms to see if perhaps there was a dresser with a bad leg that finally gave out, but this doesn’t seem to be the case either.

At some point, Polenta gets out and is wandering around the hall. The large blue-grey cat seems to be looking for a new room to take up residence in, but he’s shooed away the moment he starts getting comfortable.  Illuso comes across him lurking at the end of the hall and takes it upon himself to corner the cat and return him to his owner. 

It takes a bit of doing to catch him, but once the cat’s in his arms, he’s perfectly docile and settles into Illuso’s grip and immediately starts purring. He’s pretty sure that, aside from Formaggio, he’s the only other person this cat trusts...well, tolerates...since cats don’t really trust people as much as put up with them.

Illuso’s heading back to Formaggio’s room when Polenta suddenly digs his claws into his shoulder and begins first to growl then to hiss. His first instinct is to set the cat back down on the ground and just let Formaggio deal with his moody pet, but Polenta’s got a death grip on him and it takes the joint efforts of Pesci and Melone to remove him. 

Formaggio saunters along at the last moment. Melone’s holding the cat aloft and Polenta’s flailing, all claws extended.

“That’s not how you hold a cat, dumbass.” But Formaggio’s making no move to collect the animal. 

“Then why don’t you show me how to hold your psychopath cat.” Melone shoots back. “At least shrink him or something so he’s not so damn hard to hold. I swear...this cat has doubled in size since you got him.”

“And whose fault is that?” Formaggio is indignant.

“Uh…yours. Dumbass. You’re the one feeding him.”

Illuso’s headed into the bathroom at Pesci’s insistence.

“Cat scratches can get infected if you don’t take care of them right.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah...I know...I just don’t get why he flipped out on me like that. He was perfectly fine one second and the next…”

“Maybe it’s because you were right in front of the door.” Pesci’s rummaging in a cabinet for antibiotic ointment and bandages while Illuso turns on the tap and removes his shirt.

“Damn...stupid cat got me pretty good. But which door do you mean?”

“The door to Sorbet and Gelato’s room.”

“Is that supposed to be significant or something?”

“I don’t know…don’t you ever feel weird walking by there? Like at night. It just kinda makes you feel uneasy, like you want to walk just a bit faster just to get by. And the thing with the shoes the other day...”

“That was a real shitty thing, whoever did that. Risotto told us to leave the room the way they’d left it...out of respect to them…” He’s rubbing his shoulder down with soap and water. “I’m kinda thinking it was Formaggio, but that maybe he was drunk or something and forgot that he’d done it. He says he wasn’t drinking the night before it happened, but he’s lied to me about that before. Could have been Melone, though, because I know he has drinking problems too...Ghiaccio insists that it wasn’t, but I wouldn’t put it past him to cover for Melone.”  

Pesci’s holding out the ointment and bandages for him to take.

“Thanks.”

“Maybe it wasn’t either of them.”

“Hmmm?”

“I don’t think Formaggio or Melone would do something like that...even if they were drunk.”

“Then who do you think did it?”

Pesci shifts uncomfortably and makes no reply. 

“No one isn’t an answer Pesci. I know it’s shitty thinking anyone on our team would walk in that room and start throwing their stuff around like that, but-”

“We never found the thing that fell over.” Pesci pipes up.

“What?”

“The thing we heard fall over while were downstairs. But we checked all the rooms.”

“Yeah. We checked everywhere.”

“Did we check their room?”

Illuso stops halfway through putting on the bandages. “That room’s locked. So probably not.” But the more he thinks about, the more sense it starts to make. “Maybe whoever was in there the other day damaged something and it’s just fallen over...hold on...where’s Prosciutto?”

Five minutes later, a small group of them have clustered in front of Sorbet and Gelato’s door to watch Prosciutto unlock it. Sure enough, the dresser’s face down on the floor. Except it’s not just that it’s fallen over. It’s contents have been strewn about the room and its back kicked in.

“Who the fuck-”

Prosciutto’s marching into the room ahead of everyone else and is snatching up a crumpled shirt with a shaking hand. He’s livid.

“I swear to god...when I find out who did this…”

“We were all at the dinner table.” Pesci’s hovering at the back of the group.

“He’s right.” Illuso’s nodding. “When we first heard the sound, all of us were in the same room.”

“And this door was locked. So...”

“What the hell are you getting at Pesci?” Prosciutto stamps an impatient foot.

“Just that...it wasn’t any of us...and I think maybe we shouldn’t come in here anymore...no matter what we hear.”

—-

The next week, Risotto stays up late to work on reports in the downstairs study. He finishes just after one in the morning and is heading back upstairs. He told Prosciutto not to wait up for him and he’s debating whether or not he should go to Prosciutto’s room, as the latter expects, and risk waking him or if he should just head to his own room instead. It’d just be for this one night and he doubts Prosciutto would mind all that much. 

When he reaches the second floor he lays a hand on the door frame of the first room on the left and whispers “Tomorrow, amato…” before starting down the hall. Even before he’s gone very far, though, he can see that about halfway down the hall, one of the doors on the right side is wide open. 

He’s mentally running through whose rooms are on that side. He’s always been bad at remembering these things. He knows that his is the last, the fifth one and that next to him is Illuso...or at least he’s pretty sure it’s Illuso... because he’s so quiet. Of course, it’s not uncommon for people to switch rooms without him finding out. Prosciutto usually handles those sorts of arrangements and he’s never really needed to know where people are because whenever he needs to talk to someone, Prosciutto’s always the one to go get them for him. Though, it’s not as if he’s not asked or that he’s not been told this information before...it’s just something that he’s filed away in his brain as less important, which makes recalling it all the more difficult.

He’s pretty sure the first room on the right is Formaggio’s because whenever Polenta makes one of his infamous escapes, that’s always the door Risotto sees him pawing at when he’s had his fill of wreaking havoc in the house. He’s not quite sure about the second one though…

It can’t be Pesci’s because Pesci’s is just across from his...and it’s not Sorbet and Gelato’s because that one’s next to Prosciutto’s...which leaves either Melone or Ghiaccio...except now that he counts...there’s actually nine rooms...not eight...which means...

And then he remembers. Gelato used to have his own room. And it was across from Sorbet’s, which is the one they both ended up sharing later on...which means the third door is…

The room looks dark as Risotto reaches the open doorway. He’s fairly certain now that it’s been unoccupied for a number of months, so it strikes him as a bit strange that someone should find any reason to go in there.

As he looks in the door, though, he can see that the curtains are open and that there’s moonlight spilling in from the window. The light just reaches to the edge of the bed and it’s enough for him to see that there’s a form lying under the covers. The figure’s quivering and a small, breathy sniffling sound tells Risotto whoever this is is upset. He’d like to say its Pesci...and that would make sense given the crying...but whoever this is is much smaller than Pesci. No doubt someone had a spat with someone else and the hurt party rushed off here...for whatever reason they thought it was a good idea to rush off here. 

“You should probably go back to your own room.” He tells the figure. 

The figure freezes, as if suddenly self-conscious that someone’s overheard his distress. The next moment, though, he’s sitting up. The lights not good enough that Risotto can make out any definite features, but there’s something about the silhouette that almost looks like…

Something like a gust of wind slams into his chest and Risotto’s lifted off his feet and flies backwards. His head strikes the wall and instantly everything goes dark. 

When he opens his eyes, Melone and Ghiaccio are standing over him. 

“You alright?” Melone’s asking.

“We heard something hit the wall outside the room and when we came out your were just kinda sitting on the floor.” Ghiaccio explains. 

A few more doors are opening and Illuso and Pesci have appeared behind the first two. 

“Something wrong?” Illuso’s stepped to the fore. 

“There was someone in Gelato’s old room...in the bed...and then…” He’s considering his next words carefully. He can’t be sure he’s remembering everything very clearly right now and if he’s hit his head, he could be a bit confused and there’s no point alarming everyone over nothing.

“And then?” Pesci’s hanging on his every word.

“And then I fell. It was dark. I probably caught my foot on the rug or something like that.”

Ghiaccio’s heading over to the room with the open door. “There’s no one in here now. Whoever it was probably wandered back to their own room. But if we’re all here...that only leaves Prosciutto and Formaggio. And I highly doubt Prosciutto-”

Illuso interrupts him with a small agitated noise. “I swear to fucking god...if that jackass is drunk again…” He’s off down the hall, presumably heading towards Formaggio’s room. 

“Calm the hell down!” Melone’s calling after him. “You’re getting way ahead of yourself here!”

“Was it Formaggio?” Ghiaccio’s raising an inquisitive eyebrow.

“I...don’t know. It was too dark to see really.”

The last thing he’s going to say right now is that, for the briefest moment, if his memory serves him, he thought it was Sorbet.

—-

The door to Gelato’s old room stays open for the rest of the week, despite being repeatedly shut by multiple people throughout the following days.  No one opens the door while anyone’s watching, but Prosciutto discovers that if he walks around the corner and then immediately turns around and walks back, the door will be wide open as if he never shut it in the first place. This, of course, leads him to suspect that whoever’s opening the door is using their Stand...which is an incredibly inappropriate use of one’s ability.

Risotto’s called an impromptu meeting at Prosciutto’s request because the latter is going half out of his mind over the ongoing hoax with the door. 

“Look...I know that we’re all here because we work on the same team and not because we decided that we’d all like to move in together...and I get you don’t always like the people you work with for one reason or another or that you have your disagreements...but I have to be very honest with all of you. What’s been going on with Sorbet and Gelato’s things and their rooms...most particularly that fucking door...it’s unprofessional and frankly very spiteful. Regardless of how you personally felt about Sorbet and Gelato, they put their necks on the line for us time and time again and the fact of the matter is that now that they’re both gone, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to be damaging their things or messing with their rooms because, even if there are people in this room who still feel animosity towards either Sorbet or Gelato, there are people here too who were deeply affected by their loss and who find these actions extremely upsetting and hurtful.”

Five pairs of eyes are looking up at him from the chairs around the table with a mix of emotions ranging from surprise to irritation.

“However…” Prosciutto goes on. “I’ve also considered that someone might be doing all this because they feel resentment towards one or more of the individuals who did care for either Sorbet or Gelato and that this someone might be using their old things as a way to hurt or frighten or distress a particular person or particular people...which is possibly even more spiteful than the previous alternative...so if there is some issue that any of you have...either with Sorbet and Gelato or with someone else on this team...I really hope that we can talk this out like mature adults instead of playing these childish games. At this point, the decision’s been made to keep the doors to both Sorbet and Gelato’s old rooms locked until further notice. We realize that that won’t prevent an individual from using their Stand to enter either room, but I would like to warn you that if either Risotto or myself catch any of you using your Stands to do so-”

There’s the THUD THUD THUD of footsteps overhead. 

Prosciutto’s putting an exasperated hand to his forehead. “It would seem that one of you is not taking any of this seriously…”

Risotto’s getting to his feet and stepping in. “Summon your Stands. All of you. Right now. We’re getting to the bottom of this.”

There’s a moment of hesitation as everyone at the table exchanges glances, but then they’re complying one after another. 

“You too Prosciutto. It’s only fair if we all do it.” Risotto’s extending a hand as a small colony of tiny white beings rise from his palm. 

Prosciutto’s nodding and the next moment Grateful Dead is hovering at his elbow.

The THUD THUD THUD continues overhead. Risotto counts seven Stands in the room. 

“Not to single anyone out...but would you mind turning your laptop around, Melone?” 

“You think I’ve got a Junior running around upstairs? Is that it?” He looks offended, but he’s spinning his laptop around for the whole table to see. “Well, sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not. Sadly, suitable hosts are in short supply around here. Of course, I’ve never tried it out on a man, so if there are any volunteers-”

“Sick fuck.” Formaggio’s making a disgusted sound. 

“We don’t get to pick and choose what our Stands do, Formaggio. If that were the case, I’m pretty sure you’d have gotten a Stand that makes things bigger instead of smaller.”

Formaggio’s on his feet as if he means to dive across the table and pound Melone’s smug little face into his skull, but Illuso’s caught hold of his arm.

“Drop it, Forma!”

“Would you like to fucking see what my Stand can do, you little prick?!” He’s yanked himself free of Illuso and climbed on top of the table, but Ghiaccio’s gotten to his feet and placed himself between Formaggio and Melone. 

“You lay a finger on him and l’m gonna start freezing body parts and snapping them off. Capisce?”

“THAT’S ENOUGH!!!!” Prosciutto slamming both fists on the table. “ALL OF YOU!!!”

THUD THUD THUD.

Risotto clears his throat and the antagonistic parties all throw a last hostile glance at one another before resuming their seats. All eyes turn to the capo.

“So now that we’ve ruled out everyone in this room as the culpable party...”

—-

The last thing Prosciutto will entertain is the idea that there might be something dead wandering around the house. If it’s not anyone on the team it’s certainly some other individual...perhaps some disgruntled Stand user who tried and failed to join their squad...or someone who has a personal vendetta against one of them, but doesn’t have the balls to be direct with their confrontation. But it is NOT, as Pesci insists, some lost soul reaching out and trying to be heard or to finish their unfinished business or whatever other nonsensical bullshit Pesci was going on about. No, there is a rational explanation behind all the weird, and at this point frankly very irritating, shit that’s going on in the house and he just hasn’t hit upon it yet. 

It’s the end of a long week and most of the squad have gone out for a night on the town and won’t be back until much later. Pesci’s still there...and Formaggio too, much against his will. Illuso insisted that the latter skip this particular outing since he’d already gone on several spontaneous ones earlier in the week and Illuso only has what is in the ‘best interest of his liver’ in mind. Formaggio’s been unusually quiet all evening, though, which leads Prosciutto to believe that Formaggio is either abnormally fascinated by the activities of his cat...or that Formaggio, unlike Illuso, does not have the ‘best interest of his liver’ in mind.

Prosciutto’s just stepping into the bathroom. It’s a rare occasion that he has this much time to shower without someone pounding on the door two minutes in either to inform him that the other two are either occupied or unfit for use...whatever that means... or to insist he immediately address some petty squabble that any reasonable, mature adult could settle on their own…but neither of these nuisances are likely to plague him tonight so... 

He’s out of the shower thirty minutes later feeling much easier than he did when he got in. He’s thinking that he might actually go to bed early tonight. Better to head off to sleep so that he’s unavailable to resolve any grievances the returning drunken party might have. Just this once, he’ll leave that to Risotto. 

He’s stepping up to the steam-covered mirror and reaching up to wipe the glass clear with his arm. He pauses mid-swipe, though, because he can see right at the edge under the thin layer of condensation…

He’s laughing, despite himself. 

“You back already? Well, you’ve got wonderful timing.” He remarks. “Except if your intention was to happen across a certain other individual...well, I think I better just let you know now that you’ve got the wrong one.”

The dark shape in the mirror doesn’t move, which is a bit annoying. 

“You could really try showing just a little respect, Illuso.” 

No change. 

The left side of the mirror is starting to fog up again which is just fine with him because if Illuso is going to insist on being an ass about this, he’ll just turn himself around and-

He’s confronted with a pair of narrowed pitch-black eyes. The jolt of surprise makes his whole body freeze. 

“Where the fuck did you-”

A hand’s flying up seemingly out of nowhere straight into his face and his head is flying back into the mirror and he hears the thing shatter and there’s a ringing in his ears but his vision is going out and he’s going down and he still has no idea who the fuck-

He’s roused by a pounding on the door and the sound of Pesci’s panic-stricken voice. It takes him a moment to register that there’s no one else in the bathroom...and that Pesci is frantically crying for him to please, please, please unlock the door.

—-

Melone wanders into his room and closes the door behind him. He’s still fairly tipsy and he’s debating whether it’s even worth trying to undress or if he should just flop on top of the covers and go to sleep. He’d really like to undress because he can see by the faint light coming through the window that Ghiaccio’s already in bed and he’d like nothing more than to crawl under the sheets and sidle up to him...but all the buttons or zippers or straps or whatever the hell it is he’s wearing make him give up pretty much right away and he’s sighing in an overexaggerated way and then leaping onto the bed. The next moment he’s got an arm around Ghiaccio’s waist and is nestling his cheek into Ghiaccio’s back.

“‘You’re cold as fuck, Ghia...you stop temperature controlling when you get drunk, huh?” He giggles to himself. “You were really, really, really wasted. I’ve never seen you put away that much booze. You trying to impress me or something? ‘Cause it’s workin’...” He grins and plants a small kiss on Ghiaaccio’s back. “Damn...you’re seriously gonna make me freeze my ass off tonight, aren’t you? Jerk.” 

Ghiaccio’s completely still and makes no reply.

“So you’re a quiet drunk now...I see...m’kay...m’kay...I gotcha, ice man...But at least you were having a good time...you only yelled at like...what, eight people for the stupid shit they were sayin’...that’s like...so much self control there...I coulda cried, I was so proud of your stupid ass…” He’s giggling again. “Am I annoying you? I’ll shut up if you want.” 

There’s no response.

“You asleep already? You must have been really damn tired…’course you certainly hauled ass to get here so fast. I thought you were way behind while we were coming home, but you still beat me to bed. You cheat with your Stand or something so you could hog all the blankets. Guess you need ‘em more than I do but anyway-”

He’s closing his eyes and is just starting to drift off when Ghiaccio shifts under his arm.

“Gelato…” His voice is hoarse, quiet.

“ ‘Xcuse me?”

“Where’s Gelato?”

Melone feels his whole body go rigid. He suddenly feels a bit less tipsy. 

“Ghia…”

“You were always hanging around with him...so you should know.”

“Shit...you’re a forgetful drunk then...but that’s a hell of a thing to forget...ummm…”

“Melone?” His tone is urging Melone to continue.

“Gelato...uh…Gelato died about eight months ago...both he and Sorbet…” Melone has never said Gelato’s name and the word ‘died’ in the same sentence before. And even though it’s a reality he had to come to terms with a long while back...there’s something about saying it out loud for the first time…

“I know that.”

Melone feels a pang of anger and irritation in his chest. “Then what the fuck are you doing asking a question like that?!”

“I want to know.”

“Know what?”

“Where he is.”

“He’s dead, you asshole. And I’ve told you before...I don’t like talking about it, so-”

“I know.”

Melone sits up in bed. “You know? Look, I don’t care how fucking drunk you are right now, but that’s -”

Ghiaccio rolls over to face him. It’s much too dark for Melone to see anything but his silhouette, though.

“Melone. You need to tell me where Gelato is. It’s important.”

Melone’s shaking his head. “This is unbelievable.”

“Just answer the question.” Ghiaccio’s voice has a hard edge to it.

“This isn’t funny.”

Ghiaccio’s hand suddenly closes around Melone’s wrist.

“Answer the question.”

Melone’s ripping his hand free. “Fuck off, will you? I don’t know what the hell’s gotten into you. But if you’re going to be like this...well, I’m not sticking around for it.” He’s getting to his feet and heading for the door. Fuck Ghiaccio and his stupid, drunk ass asking stupid, drunk ass questions like that to get under his skin when he damn well knows...he damn well knows....

Melone can see there’s some sort of commotion down at the end of the hall near the bathroom. Risotto’s leaning out the door to say something to Illuso who’s standing just outside the doorway with his arms folded. He can hear Pesci’s unintelligible, anxious voice talking a million miles a  minute.

Usually, he’d wander down and ask what’s going on. But he’s just realized he’s starting to get a pretty bad headache and really it’s pretty obvious. As payback for getting left behind, Formaggio probably took it upon himself to get so plastered that he’s ended up passing out in the bathroom or some shit like that. Probably made a mess all over himself too which some unlucky bastard is going to have to clean up. 

Melone’s shaking his head. Typical. 

“Go to bed.” A voice behind him makes him jump. Formaggio’s coming down the hall, heading in the direction of the bathroom. He looks surprisingly sober. 

“What-”

“We’ve got things handled.” Formaggio ruffles his hair in a patronizing way. “Your drunk ass would just get in the way.”

“Pfffft. As if-”

“Melone.” Formaggio gives him a serious look. “I mean it.” He’s continuing on.

Melone waves a dismissive hand after him...but he’s not gonna get in the middle of their stupid little social gathering in the bathroom or whatever’s going on. No, he’s gonna march himself straight down the hall to Ghiaccio’s room...since the asshole has taken up residence or whatever in his own and-

“Melone.”

He looks back into the room. There’s a long shaft of light spilling in from the hall almost to the foot of the bed. It takes him a moment to make out that Ghiaccio’s sitting up in bed now, that side of the room being nearly completely enveloped in darkness by contrast.

“What?” His voice is sharp, but he doesn’t really care.

“Melone…” There’s an almost pleading edge to Ghiaccio’s tone. Fuck.

Ghiaccio never gets this drunk...ever. And really, it was Melone who kept handing him drinks. And if he’s saying all this stupid shit now...hell, he’s probably not gonna remember any of this in the morning...and as much as Melone’s pissed off and upset with all the crap that’s coming out of his mouth...he’s not doing it because he’s genuinely vindictive...his head’s just fucked up right now and he probably has no idea what he’s saying or why Melone’s mad at him...

“Oh, fine!” Melone’s walking back into the room. He can see Ghiaccio getting to his feet to meet him. “Look. Ghia. Can we just...just go back to bed and go to sleep? I’m tired and I don’t really want to talk about stuff anymore. Okay?”

Ghiaccio’s stopped up just short of the end of the bed. Melone can’t make out his expression, or really any other detail for that matter. 

“Okay?” He repeats the question. “Let’s just go back to bed.” He’s holding out a conciliatory hand.

Ghiaccio’s head tips down as if he’s looking at the hand.

 Melone feels a flutter of confusion...uncertainty...he’s not really sure what to call it. There’s something about the shape of Ghiaccio’s silhouette that suddenly looks off...but he can’t quite put his finger on it…

Ghiaccio’s extending his hand to meet Melone’s, but as his hand enters the shaft of the light spilling in from the hall, Melone recoils, his breath catching in his throat. The hand is covered in a series of oozing, bleeding grooves, almost as if it’s been hacked to pieces and then put back together again, and as his arm hits the light too, Melone can see that it’s the same situation with the arm and his heart is pounding because all this is taking him right back to that day and the packages that wouldn’t stop coming and the line of thirty-six frames and-

Ghiaccio steps into the light. Except it’s not Ghiaccio...it hasn’t been Ghiaccio this whole time…

Melone can feel the scream building in his throat, but any sound he might try to make is cut short by the hand Sorbet’s clapping over his mouth as he slams him into the wall and jams his forearm over his throat. Sorbet’s only halfway in the light now, but Melone can see the glint of hatred in the specter’s eye.

“I’m going to ask you one more time...and I swear...if you won’t tell me, there will be severe consequences.” The jagged crimson lines extending from the corners of Sorbet’s mouth and around his head stretch open each time he speaks, making it almost seem like the whole top of his head is at risk of coming off with each word. “Where the hell is Gelato?”

Sorbet’s hand and arm are wet and Melone can feel the blood from his open wounds trickling down the lower half of his face, his neck…

Panic takes over and Melone’s adrenaline kicks in. His instinct tells him he needs to fight back or he’s going to die. This thing in front of him is clearly not his teammate anymore and won’t hesitate to crush his windpipe or tear open his throat or whatever it is vengeful spirits do...no, if he just stands here, he’s pretty sure he’s gonna die. But then, it flashes across his mind that no one on the squad ever would have dared to go head to head with Sorbet in any kind of physical confrontation. Even Risotto would have hesitated. And that thought’s almost enough to deter him and make him plead for his life instead. But then again, that sort of thing was never effective with Sorbet either.

Melone’s shoving Sorbet back with every ounce of strength he possesses. He expects that he’ll meet with resistance, that he’ll probably get shoved back into the wall and that he’ll need to struggle like hell if he’s even to have a sliver of a chance at getting away. 

But he’s not met with resistance at all. Instead, Sorbet’s mutilated body is going to pieces and spilling across the floor as Melone shrieks and heads for the door. 

—-

Melone’s just stumbled into the hall, shouting incoherently.

“Formaggio. Can you deal with that?” Risotto’s calling back to him. He’s kneeling on the bathroom floor with Prosciutto’s head in his lap and a towel in his hand which he has pressed to the back of the other man’s head. Pesci’s at his side and they’ve been trying for several minutes to stop the bleeding. Prosciutto’s been flickering in and out of consciousness. They’re not exactly sure what happened because none of what Prosciutto’s saying is making much sense and Pesci doesn’t have much to add, but they’ve gotten out that someone or something was in the house...except whatever it was completely vanished from the bathroom after its attack, which means it was very likely a Stand, possibly a long range one. Risotto’s already had Pesci perform a full search of the house with his fishing line, but he didn’t detect any extra life forms in any of the rooms, so it would seem that if the user was there, he certainly isn’t now. And the chances of this user coming after such a large group of them on his own are very low. 

Formaggio’s nodding. 

Illuso, who’s leaning up against the bathroom’s doorframe gives Formaggio a half-smirk. “We’ll see just how much fun you have babysitting a raving drunk. Almost feels a bit like karma.”

Formaggio bites back the snarky reply forming on his lips and merely shrugs and starts off down the hall toward Melone. 

He can see down at the very end of the hall, Ghiaccio’s just come up the stairs and is leaning against the top newel. Even from this distance, Formaggio can see that the latter’s in fine form and is having a private rant to himself. 

So now he’s got two drunks on his hands...lovely.

He’s starting down the hallway towards Melone when he sees what at first appears to be a Stand manifesting at the other end of the hall behind Ghiaccio. He’s got Little Feet out and right on his heels.

“Oy! Ghiaccio! Behind you!” 

But Ghiaccio doesn’t seem to hear him over the sound of Melone’s shouting.

The thing at the end of the hall is just a large, dark cloud at first, but it’s slowly shaping itself into a human-shaped figure that looks rather like-

Formaggio freezes in his tracks, his eyes wide. Little Feet dissolves at his side. The thing down the hall isn’t a Stand…

He can hear Illuso’s startled voice behind him. “What the hell is that?!”

Formaggio’s reflexes kick in and he’s moving. 

“Ghiaccio! BEHIND YOU!”

But Melone’s still going at it. Fucking loudmouthed-

Formaggio slams into Melone and is attempting to get a hand over his mouth. He hesitates for just a moment, though, when he sees that Melone’s got blood smeared all over the lower half of his face and neck...but he’s not acting like he’s hurt as much as scared so he just tells himself he’ll figure all the rest out later.

“Shut the fuck up for two seconds! Will you?! GHIACC-” 

“S-SORBET-” Melone’s out of control and is attempting to push Formaggio away. He clearly hasn’t noticed the situation down the hall, so Formaggio strong arms him.

“I FUCKING KNOW!” But the dumbass is still fighting him. “GHIACCIO! GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE! NOW!”

Ghiaccio is still slumped over on the newel and he gives Formaggio a vague, uncomprehending look and then mouths something that looks like ‘go fuck yourself’. 

And that’s when Melone catches sight of the figure at the end of the hall and falls silent. He goes limp in Formaggio’s arms. 

The latter’s mind is racing. Something bad’s about to happen and he has no fucking clue what to do. Shit! If this was a person or a Stand, he’d have made his next move already. But a ghost?

Sorbet’s stepping forward slowly, almost as if he’s walking underwater. Formaggio wonders if he’d fall to pieces if he were to move too quickly or if ghosts are just much slower than everyone thinks. Or maybe he’s waiting for something. 

He seems to be looking at them rather than Ghiaccio. Which could be a good thing...or a very bad thing. 

Melone, with a surprising amount of strength, suddenly pulls himself free of Formaggio and he’s taking a few halting steps forward. Sorbet tracks him with his eyes. If Formaggio didn’t know better, he’d say it almost looked like they were squaring off with one another.

Melone’s shaking his head, slowly at first and then more vehemently. “No...NO!!!” He’s full on sprinting and Formaggio is too without even really knowing why.

It all happens in less than a second. They’re both flying down the hall and suddenly Sorbet’s hands are on Ghiaccio’s shoulders and the latter’s been yanked sideways and is tumbling down the stairs and Formaggio’s swearing and Melone’s swearing and suddenly Sorbet isn’t even there and Illuso’s shouting something behind them but all Formaggio can hear is the THUD THUD THUD THUD coming from the stairs and he’s thinking he never even really liked the angry little shit, but please God don’t let his neck be broken...don’t let anyone else on this squad die...not like this... 

He and Melone both come to a skidding halt at the top of the staircase just in time to see some invisible force shove Ghiaccio off the landing and down the remaining flight. 

He’s a step ahead of Melone and he’s pounding each step as he goes and trying to keep his footing. 

He’s just gotten past the landing when he hears another THUD. Something or someone’s just hit the stairs behind him and it nearly makes him jump out of his skin but he keeps going. 

Ghiaccio’s curled on his side at the bottom of the stairs. Formaggio’s on his knees in a second and he’s carefully turning him onto his back. There’s a small trickle of blood running down his right temple and both the lenses in his glasses have shattered. Formaggio can see that he had the good instinct to squeeze his eyes shut as tight as he could.

“Hey...Ghiaccio…” He puts two fingers on the side of his neck and breathes a small sigh of relief. There’s a heartbeat. Good. That’s a good start at least.

Ghiaccio emits a soft groan and he starts trying to push himself up, but Formaggio’s placing a light but firm hand on the center of his chest. 

“Hold on just a minute now. Don’t sit up just yet. Just...wait...okay?”

Ghiaccio meets Formaggio with a bleary glare, but he lets himself drop back down to the floor. 

“Here…” He’s taking off the ruined glasses and tossing them aside.

“Need those…” Ghiaccio drawls. 

“Don’t think they’ll do you much good anymore. They’re in worse shape than you are.”

“Pffft.” He pauses and then blinks a few times in obvious confusion. “So’d I fall or something?”

“Yeah.”

“Was it ‘scus I’m drunk? ‘Cuz Melone told me...he told me...fuck...Melone, what’d you tell me again?!” He’s talking much too loudly and Formaggio would tell him to pipe down a bit...except he’s turning around now to see where exactly Melone is because he’s just realized he never made it all the way down the stairs and that THUD from earlier…

Melone’s lying face down on the landing. Sorbet’s above him with one foot on his back, pinning him to the floor.

“I told you the consequences would be severe.”

“You fucking bastard…” Melone snarls. 

“Sorbet!” Risotto and Illuso are standing at the top of the stairs.

“Well, look at this. We almost have the whole crew.” Sorbet lets out a small snort of laughter. “It’s almost like a family reunion, huh? ‘Course we are missing a few…” He directs his gaze to the top of the stairs. “So...Risotto...did he die?”

“I don’t know who you mean…”

“Prosciutto.”

Risotto doesn’t respond.

“No? Guess I didn’t try hard enough. Then again, I am out of practice. But I can fix that…”

“He’s not here!” Melone seems to have passed the point of being afraid. Now he’s just pissed off.

“Hmmm?”

“Gelato’s not here! He was never here! He never came back!”

“No, he didn’t, did he? And who’s fault is that?”

“No one’s!”

“Is that what you all tell yourself so you can sleep at night? Figures.”

“What is it you want exactly?” Risotto’s taking a few steps down toward the landing.

“I want to know where Gelato is.”

“He’s dead. Just like you. I can’t tell you what happens after you die or where you go or don’t go because I don’t know. So what else do you want?” 

“Well, I think I’d like to see some of you dead...just for starters.” 

“Any particular reason for that?” Risotto’s voice is completely calm and businesslike.

“I think it’d make me feel better.”

“Have we done anything?”

“No actually. And that’s the whole problem. You didn’t do anything. None of you. You let Gelato and I pursue all those leads, but not once did a single one of you step in to help us. Oh, no...you all stayed out of it because you were willing to risk our lives to find out what you wanted...but not your own. And then, the moment we need you...you’re all nowhere to be found. Convenient, huh?”

“If any of us had known …”

“You have a fucking tracker right here.” He’s gesturing at Melone. “And all you needed was a miniscule bit of DNA from a hairbrush or any other damn thing from our room and you’d have been set. You have no excuse for not being able to find us in time.”

“By the time we realized there was a problem…”

“We were still alive when you figured out something was wrong. That was a fun little tidbit I picked up after I died. Those fuckers didn’t kill us till the following day. Meaning, if you’d sent the whole damn team out that night and used your fucking Stands instead of waiting till the next morning...” 

“Prosciutto and I did go out that night…”

“And it was such a thorough and successful search, too.” Sorbet claps his hands together derisively. “No, you failed to pinpoint the most obvious solution and Gelato and I died because of it.”

“I’ve never asked Melone to use his Stand for something like that...so it didn’t cross our minds to-.”

“But the point of this all is that Gelato and I didn’t have to die and the only reason we did was because we put our faith in incompetent people who expected us to put everything on the line...but not the reverse.”

No one says a word.

“And then we die…” Sorbet’s suddenly got a strange look in his eyes. “And it’s just me...on my own in some sort of limbo thinking about all these things...and then suddenly I’m back here...in the middle of our room...and it’s exactly how he always kept it...but it’s still just me...and I look everywhere...I feel disoriented...I try to get people’s attention…I keep searching...nothing makes any sense…” His body’s shuddering ever so slightly as if his words...or the memory of these things is having some effect on him. There’s a venomous edge to his tone. “And then I’m standing in the bathroom and Prosciutto’s there and something in the back of my head tells me to hurt him...to try and kill him...and I do...and that’s when it all starts coming back...not all at once, but in pieces. And I realize, bit by bit, that it’s not just Prosciutto who needs to die...but every single damn one of you bastards who wasn’t there when we needed you. And wouldn’t that be ironic if I were to start picking you off one at a time in front of the people you’re in love with. It’s not like you could stop me. I mean, what would you do? You can’t kill me again. And if I had to lose Gelato because of all of you...why should I be the only one? Why don’t you tell me that?” Sorbet’s literally shaking with rage now.  “I only wanted one thing in my life...and it’s all of your faults that he’s gone...and that I’m never going to see him again...not for all eternity...it’s just going to be me...it’s always going to be just me...on my own...here...and I’m not going to watch any of you enjoy what we wanted...what we should have had...not for a second…”

“S-Sorbet.” Pesci’s appeared at the top of the stairs behind Illuso. He’s taking in the whole scene. Formaggio still crouched at the bottom of the stairs next to Ghiaccio. Melone on the landing with Sorbet’s foot still planted firmly in his back. Risotto halfway down the stairs, trying to intercede while Illuso hangs back, a mirror shard hidden in his palm. And Prosciutto, who’s not here, but who’s still lying on the bathroom floor clutching his aching head, insisting he just needs to rest for a short while and then he’ll be right out.

“I-I don’t understand why Gelato’s letting you do all this to us…”

“Excuse me?” Sorbet’s eyes are like daggers. 

“Why does he want to hurt us?”

Sorbet looks a bit thrown for a moment.

“I mean, if he didn’t want you to hurt us...he would have told you that. Right?”

Sorbet narrows his eyes. “Gelato’s not here.”

“Then where is he? And why aren’t you with him? You were always with him no matter what.”

“You think I’d be here if I knew where he was.”

Something clicks in Risotto’s mind. Something that might fail spectacularly and that he’ll probably regret for the rest of his life...but it’s something that might be effective.

“Don’t kid yourself, Sorbet. I think we all know why you’re here and Gelato’s not. And I’m sure you’ve figured it out too, but your pride won’t let you admit it.”

“Oh?”

“He’s clearly crossed over to whatever’s next...because he was ready...and you weren’t. And you’re never going to be ready because you were always too angry and too bitter at the world...and because the hatred grounds you...but mostly because, as much as you say you want to see Gelato again, you’re afraid to see him, in your heart of hearts. Because you know that means facing the fact that you failed to do the one thing you always promised him. You said you’d take care of him...that you’d protect him. Let’s be honest here...you always acted like you didn’t need us...your team...and we respected your independence. You always told me you didn’t need to work with other people and that you didn’t want to either. You thought you were enough to keep Gelato safe...but you weren’t. And that’s why you’re holding yourself away from him. You’re not sure if he’ll forgive you and you certainly can’t forgive yourself. And you have no idea what’s on the other side of things...and if it’s something horrible... if you’ve both been damned for the lives you’ve led...well then, doesn’t that mean it’d be your fault for having brought Gelato to that so soon…” Risotto’s taking a few more steps down. “You’re absolutely right when you say that you two should have been happy. Because if you want to know what I think...I think that for people like us, this life is the only time we have to be happy. We’re never going to be considered good people and so we’re never going to be rewarded as such in any hereafter. And you and Gelato had that one chance...and he trusted you with it. And look where you both ended up.” Risotto’s on the landing now. “I asked you two in particular to pursue those leads because I thought out of everyone on this team, that you were the only ones who could complete that assignment and live to tell about it. You say you put your faith in incompetent people...well, we put our faith in the most competent members of our team...we thought, just like Gelato must have, that that was a safe thing to do. I guess we were all mistaken there, though.”

Sorbet’s removed his foot from Melone’s back and is stepping over him and squaring up with Risotto. 

Melone scrambles down the stairs to Ghiaccio and Formaggio, but Sorbet doesn’t seem to notice or care. 

“How dare-”

“Think about it, Sorbet. If we’re incompetent...and you weren’t... supposedly...then how is Gelato still ended up dying?” He hates this. Every word of it. But he has to keep going. “You can’t expect us to do something we’re not capable of. And if you thought we’d be useless...well only an idiot would trust us to be otherwise when it came down to it.”

“You always said the most important thing was for us to be able to rely on one another.”

“You never believed that. And you never upheld that in your work. It was always you before everyone else and then you and Gelato before everyone else. We just assumed you could handle yourself.”

Sorbet’s clenching his fists. There’s a strange, livid expression on his face. It’s the sort of look people get when they’re so upset they’re not sure whether to cry or to hit something.

“And maybe this is your personal hell...your self-induced punishment for what you did...or didn’t do, I should say.” 

Sorbet doesn’t say anything. Some part of this is getting through to that sliver of insecurity that he’d always hid so well in life. 

“So what will harming any of us do about that? It’s not going to change what happened. And if anything, I think Gelato would resent you for it. If he blamed us for his death, he’d be right next to you right now to tell us so. But he’s not and I think that’s rather significant. He was never shy about confrontation. But…” An idea’s come to him. He’s looking Sorbet in the eye. It might be enough to break him. “...another thing to consider is who Gelato thinks is to blame for what happened. And if he thought you were responsible...and given how well he knows you...what do you think he’d conclude would be a more effective way to get back at you for that? Would he be direct and risk giving you the opportunity to bend things around and try and exonerate yourself...or would he leave you to stew on it and drive yourself crazy with the guilt? I mean, haven’t you done that already?”

Sorbet’s fingertips hit the ground. And then the middle section of his hand, followed by the section going up to his wrist. His body’s starting to fall to pieces. 

“But go ahead and kill us if you’re so inclined. What’s seven more hits for someone like you? Then you can be responsible for the deaths of everyone on your squad...in one form or another.”

“Gelato loved me.” His upper arms have just hit the floor. 

“‘Loved’? Or ‘loves’? That’s an important distinction. But you seem to have answered your own question, so…”

Sorbet’s upper half is slipping forward and it crashes to the floor and goes to pieces while the rest of him crumbles where it stands. 

Nobody dares move and then Risotto says, finally. “We’re leaving this house in fifteen minutes. We won’t be coming back.”

—-

A half hour later, they’re on the road heading out of the city. They’ve stolen a second car just for the occasion. Illuso’s elected to drive it. Formaggio’s sitting in the front seat with both hands pressed over his mouth. He’s not spoken a word or cracked a joke since they left the house, which Illuso finds unusual, but he’s not about to say anything. Melone and Ghiaccio are curled up together in the backseat. Ghiaccio keeps mumbling sleepily about his glasses and not being able to see a damn thing, but Melone’s cooing to him softly and, not long after, they’re both fast asleep. 

Risotto’s taken charge of the first car which has their few belongings packed into it. They even managed to fasten Melone’s motorcycle to the back. Pesci’s sitting up front with Risotto while Prosciutto dozes in the backseat. Periodically, Risotto looks back over his shoulder...just to check that Prosciutto looks alright. 

No one in this car has spoken since their departure. 

Risotto’s mouth feels dry and he can still hear his words drifting through his head on repeat. He feels filthy and horrible inside...but he tells himself there was no reasoning with Sorbet...there’d never been any reasoning with him in life either...and if it was to protect the team...

Pesci’s clearing his throat.

“Did-did you really believe what you said to Sorbet back there?”

Even in the dark, Risotto can see how wide Pesci’s eyes are as he waits for the answer to this question.

“No...I didn’t. But he did.”

The topic never comes up again.

—-

“Hoo boy...this is a MESS! They really didn’t take care of this place.” Mista’s just stepping across the threshold of the former hitman’s team headquarters. “You really think Don Giorno will want to use this place for anything? It looks like a lot of work.”

“We’re just here to collect information for right now.” Fugo replies. But mentally he agrees. The place has been trashed. But there’s always the possibility that someone vindictive individual broke in between now and the last time it was occupied.

“Well as long as I don’t end up on clean up crew.”

Fugo resists the urge to roll his eyes. Even a promotion didn’t convince Mista that he should take things more seriously.

“So what kind of things we looking for?”

“Nothing specific...Don Giorno just wants to know who these guys were. So anything that you think is noteworthy or interesting.”

“Well, you can write down ‘slobs’ in your little notebook there...just in case you weren’t sure where to start.”

“That’s very helpful, Mista.”

“I know, isn’t it?”

“You mind heading upstairs and just taking a count of the number of rooms for me? Just so I can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”

“Sure.” Mista shrugs and is heading for the staircase.

Fugo crosses through the foyer and into the downstairs hall. This is going to be a long day.

Neither of them see the dark figure at the top of the stairs that’s been watching...and waiting.



Chapter Text

Illuso’s just stepping out of his room when he sees something strange down the hall near the stairs to the attic. The new guy is on all fours and he’s got his head in the little nook in the spandrel under the stairs. There’s a few shelves in the nook...Illuso thinks that it was supposed to be a closet at some point, but it ended up being too shallow and so the architects had just left the door off...but they don’t really store anything in there, which makes it odd that the new guy would be in there at all, let alone crawling around on all fours in there.

“You...uh...need some help there?”

The new guy hits his head on the underside of one of the shelves and lets out a short string of expletives. 

“We don’t got anything stashed in there if you’re looking for drugs or some shit like that.”

“Ah, no...no…I just dropped my...uh...thing.”

“Thing?”

“Yeah...and it rolled into the nook and so I was just...um...picking it up.”

“Well, do you have it now?”

The new guy seems to think about this for a second. “Um, yeah. Actually I do. And so I’m just gonna be on my way and…”

“You weren’t hiding anything in there, were you?”

“Wha- no...no...I’m not the kind of guy who has things to hide.” He’s giving Illuso a very wide and very unconvincing grin. 

“You mind if I check?”

“Oh, you don’t need to bother...you’d get your, uh, lovely white, uh, quilted vest thing all dirty...really, it’s kinda filthy down here. I don’t know if you guys have housekeeping or anything like that, but if you do you should fire them and get better ones because it’s a terrible mess down here and-”

“What’s your name again?”

“Formaggio.”

“Formaggio, can you very kindly move out of my way.”

“No really. There’s nothing down there.” He’s thrown himself in front of the nook and has both arms extended outward.

“Which is why you’re blocking me from getting into it? Right?”

“Right? Er, well, you see, I, uh…”

“Move.” Illuso’s shoved Formaggio aside and he’s on his knees and is peering under the bottom shelf. There’s a small space that leads into a larger crawlspace under the stairs and even though the lighting’s not all that good, Illuso can see a pair of small, reflective eyes hovering in the dark.

“Is that a cat?”

“I mean, you could just be seeing things.”

“Formaggio...”

“It is pretty dark in there.”

“Let me guess...this is your cat?”

“Well, it’s a cat. Whether a real or imaginary one remains to be seen…”

“So you snuck a cat into headquarters?”

“I will neither confirm nor deny…”

“I’m sending in my Stand. This little guy’s way to far back for me to reach.”

“Hey...hey, there. Be careful. Don’t hurt her!”

“Her?”

“Uh...the imaginary cat could be a girl for all we know.”

“Right…” Man in the Mirror has manifested inside the larger crawlspace and is shooing the cat towards the opening. The cat can’t see the Stand, of course, and she jumps each time the Stand places a gentle hand on her to keep her en route to the exit. When the cat finally squeezes herself out from under the bottom shelf, Illuso can see that she’s both fairly large and fairly old...and dirty now that she’s been rolling around in the years and years of dust collected in the crawlspace under the stairs. 

“Well, look at that. There was a cat after all. Guess you weren’t crazy.”

“Guess not. The next question, of course, is how it got inside in the first place, right?” Illuso’s stroking the cat and she’s sat down and started purring.

“Obviously cats are just good at that kind of thing. Probably snuck in when someone had a door open. You know, like, she hid under someone’s coattails or something.”

“So the cat’s a master infiltrator now?”

“I wouldn’t put it past a cat. But you know, I’ll just go put her back outside where she belongs and-”

“Is outside code for your room?”

“Not sure where you’d get an idea like that, but-”

“What was that thing that you dropped earlier, by the way?”

“Oh, that...that was...uh...my...uh...oh, my lighter!” Formaggio reaches into his pocket triumphantly and holds out a small silver lighter. 

“So your square lighter rolled into the nook?”

“Yeah!”

“Your square lighter rolled?”

“Yeah?”

“Were you planning to smoke or something? Inside?”

“I would never...I mean…” Formaggio looks flummoxed. 

“Look. I’m not stupid. I know this is your cat, so I don’t know what the big deal is-”

“What if Risotto tells me I can’t keep her?” Formaggio says rather suddenly. “He didn’t say anything about pets during recruitment and so I kinda just assumed...I mean, Mascarpone’s been with me for ages and she’s really old…”

“Wait, wait, wait. How long has this cat been here?”

“Since I moved in last week.”

“Hold on...you’re telling me you’ve had a cat in your room for a whole week...and no one’s noticed?”

“She was being really good and quiet...but then this morning I had the door open for a few seconds too long and she just bolted down the hall…”

“Well, I don’t think hiding her is gonna win you any points with the guys around here. Just tell them you have a cat and let them do what they will.”

“You don’t think Risotto will tell me to get rid of her?”

“I’m pretty sure that cat’s better behaved than some of the guys on this squad.”

“Wait, really?”

“You’ve obviously not seen Melone and Gelato when they put their heads together. It’s...uh...it’s really something. Or when Ghiaccio goes into a full blown tirade.”

“Oh, you mean like that thing he did the other day at breakfast where he stood on the table and started screaming about...oh, what was it again?”

“The phrase ‘crying over spilt milk’.”

“Oh, yeah. And he was saying that what’s his face...uh...I’m blanking...the mammoni guy…”

“Pesci.”

“Yeah, Pesci! And he was saying that the only people who would cry over spilt milk are people like Pesci and that it’s a stupid phrase because it means nothing because nobody cries over drinks and shit. And then Melone went around saying it for the whole rest of the day and Ghiaccio ended up flipping him out of his chair at dinner. That was the fucking best!”

“Glad to hear you find their antics amusing.”

“Don’t you?”

Illuso shrugs. “Depends on the day and if I have things I need to concentrate on.”

“I think Mascarpone likes you.”

“Hmmm?”

“Mascarpone. See, look.”

Illuso looks down. The cats in his lap and to be very honest, he doesn’t remember when she moved there. 

“Guess you’re gonna be stuck there forever now. That’s the rule with cats. Once they choose you as a perch, you’ve been chosen and there’s no going back, even it means you starve to death waiting for them to move.”

“Very funny. Come get your cat.”

“No can do. You’ve been chosen. It was nice knowing you and...oh, Mascarpone, you ruined it.”

The old cat’s just stretched out her legs and gotten up and walked over to Formaggio. She looks up at her owner and gives him a disapproving look.

“Ah, what’s that face for? You’re the one who ran off and got all dirty. I can try and brush it out, but this might mean a bath.” He’s bending down and lifting Mascarpone up. “I better get her back to the room.”

Illuso follows him. “If you want me to go with you to talk to Risotto about Mascarpone...you don’t have to make it a big thing...you know, just casually mention you’ve got a cat and then start talking about something else and he’ll just nod and say nothing...which is about what he usually does, but-”

“You’d do that?”

“I mean, unless you want to talk to him on your own.”

Formaggio takes a moment to picture Risotto’s dark, judgmental eyes. “Yeah, no. I’ll take you as backup. Don’t want people thinking I’m full of myself or anything.”

“Right…”

“Well, uh, thanks for helping me catch the old lady then.” He holds up Mascarpone just in case Illuso’s not sure who the ‘old lady’ is. 

“Want me to get your door for you?”

“No, no...that won’t be necessary. I have a very special way of opening this door and, uh, maybe someday I’ll teach you what it is. But for now, I will, uh, stick to opening my own door. So...thank you for your absolutely invaluable, uh...help with my lovely...uh, filthy cat...and let’s leave it there.” 

Formaggio’s placed Mascarpone under his arm and opens the door just a crack and peeks inside, then very slowly slides his foot in first and then his leg and then his torso, making sure that his body is blocking the opening the entire time.

“Formaggio? You...don’t have something else in there, do you?”

Formaggio’s just gotten inside and he’s set Mascarpone down and pulled the door inward so it’s only open an inch. 

“No...not at all...just, umm, getting in the habit again of going in and out my door...in a, uh, way that won’t let Mascarpone escape again.”

Illuso gives him a look and yanks the door wide open without a moment’s hesitation. Two dark heads pop up from the bed.

“I thought you said you only had one cat.”

“I never gave any numbers, and you didn’t ask, so...”

Illuso’s trying to look inside the room. “How many cats do you have in there???”

Formaggio put himself in the doorway. “I’ll let you know after I count them...which I probably should because otherwise I won’t know if one’s missing. So thanks again and I’ll see you ‘round.” Formaggio slams the door in Illuso’s face. The latter hear’s the lock click. 

Illuso’s about to pound on the door and demand that Formaggio open it and give him a more thorough explanation of his pet situation when Illuso sees, out of the corner of his eye, an orange tabby...just sauntering down the hallway.



Chapter Text

“Get down!” Formaggio’s slung an arm around Illuso’s neck and pulled him down behind one of the warehouse shelves. Something’s just gone whizzing through the air where Illuso’s head was a moment ago and is crashing into the shelf just beyond with a loud, metallic clang. The thing hits the ground and is slithering back along the ground back toward their unseen pursuer. 

“Fuck. This guy’s getting smarter. It looks like he’s made some kind of line out of metal and now he’s shooting crap at us.” Formaggio’s tracking the end of the line with his eyes as it disappears around a corner. “There’s something real nasty and jagged on the end of that thing. We get hit with that and we’re gonna be in a lot of trouble.”

“Have we even seen the user yet?”

“No...unfortunately.” 

“So how do we kill it?” Usually this would be the question Formaggio asks Illuso...but the latter feels out of his depth right now. They were just supposed to be collecting intel...there wasn’t supposed to be a Stand user here, let alone one this dangerous. 

Formaggio’s thinking out loud. “The thing can re-shape metal into whatever it wants...and this place is chock full of metal...so we’re kinda fucked there. I think at this point he’s just screwing with us because he thinks he’s got us cornered...which is half true. He’s in no rush to finish us off.”

“So you don’t want to fight him?” 

“Well unless you can magically locate the user…”

“If we can find a mirror, maybe…”

“You find a mirror and we’re getting the fuck out of here. Screw the intel. I’m not dying over it. We don’t need that shit all that bad anyway.”

“There was a mirror down one of the aisles...I saw it earlier.”

“You remember which one?”

“It was on this side of the warehouse...somewhere near the middle…”

“Well, shit…”

“I don’t think it’s all that far.” 

“Yeah, but we step out from behind this shelf and that thing’ll come after us.”

“Not if it can’t see us. If you were to shrink us…”

“Well, first off we’d be walking miles to get to that mirror. And second, it’d take a good several minutes for you to shrink down to anywhere near small enough to get by unseen. I don’t think this guy is gonna give us that much time.”

“You could shrink yourself and I’ll carry you. There’s no sense in both of us stepping out there and putting ourselves at risk.”

“You’re talking stupid. Come on. Think about it. If you give that guy one target he’s gonna home in on you and do you in just like that. But if there’s two, we got his attention divided.”

“So we make a run for it?”

“Right. But zig-zag. He’s been shooting his little harpoon-y shit or whatever it is in straight lines for the most part, so that should make things a bit easier for us. How big is this mirror by the way?”

“Pretty big. It looked like something they might put over a bathroom vanity. We won’t miss it.”

“I’m gonna keep my Stand out. It might be able to knock that thing away if it gets too close…”

“We don’t know if that metal has any special properties now that that Stand’s re-shaped it. I’d try not to touch it if it can be helped.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Formaggio pauses a moment and takes a good look at Illuso’s face. “Hey.” He’s reaching out and squeezing Illuso’s hand. “Don’t worry so much. Everything’s going to be fine. Okay?”

Illuso nods half-heartedly. “Yeah...okay.”

“You ready to outrun me? I’ve heard about this thing…if you’re being chased by a wild animal that wants to kill you, you don’t have to outrun the animal, just the person you’re with at the time. Same thing could apply here, right?” He’s grinning. 

“That’s not funny.”

Formaggio gives him a look of mock exasperation. “Why do you never think anything I say is funny? You are one tough customer.” Formaggio’s still got a grip on his hand. 

“How about this. You don’t die and I might consider laughing at one of your jokes.”

“Only one? How generous of you!”

Illuso can feel the ghost of a smile creeping up his face.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh, actually. So I’m going to hold you to that.” 

Formaggio’s got his Stand out now and it’s hovering just a bit behind them so that it can see around the shelf. 

“It looks like we’re clear for the moment.”

“You think we should go now?”

“It’s as good a time as any.” Formaggio drops his hand. “Don’t forget to zig-zag.”

“Right.”

“You ready?”

Illuso bobs his head once. 

“Let’s go.” 

They’re racing along between the rows and rows of shelves. There’s no sign of the mirror yet, but they have to be close. And so far, there’s no sign of their enemy either, which might mean he hasn’t noticed they’re on the move again...or it could mean-

“Here!” Formaggio calls, just a bit too loudly for Illuso’s liking. He’s grabbed Illuso’s arm and pulled him into an aisle. The oversized mirror is propped up against  the very end of one of the shelves just a ways down.

“Finally! That’s our ticket home.”

Illuso can sense a presence hovering at his back. He turns his head ever so slightly. He sees Little Feet in his peripheral vision. That stupid bastard’s behind him and he’s covering the back of the guy in front. He’s gonna give Formaggio hell for this later. 

Formaggio’s laughing. Adrenaline’s always made him a little giddy. “We’re in the clear, baby!”

And for just a moment, Illuso believes this. 

They’re a few strides away from reaching the mirror when there’s a metallic whooshing sound behind them. He’s reaching his hand behind him and Formaggio’s just grabbed on when Illuso hears the impact.

“Go.” Formaggio insists in a strained voice and the next moment they’ve both tumbled through the mirror and are on the other side.

“Shit! What happened?! Are you-” Illuso’s turned around to look at him. Formaggio’s fairly crushing his hand. There’s a sizeable hole in his chest. “F-Formaggio!”

Formaggio looks dazed for a moment and then he’s dropping to his knees and starting to fall forward. Illuso’s right there to catch him.

“No, no, no! Hold on! Formaggio! Hold on! Please!”

“Sorry…” Formaggio’s voice is barely a whisper. He’s dropped Illuso’s hand and his head is slowly tilting to one side.

“Shit! Why-why didn’t you have your Stand covering you? Why did you have it behind me?! Y-you know better. You damn well know better!”

“Had to…had to...”

“Had to what?”

“...keep you safe…” Formaggio’s eyes drift up to meet Illuso’s. "You said you were gonna laugh at my jokes if I didn't...didn't…guess I fucked that up…"

"You didn't fuck that up...I'm still gonna-"

Formaggio's shaking his head. "They weren't funny anyway...it was just my stupid way of… of trying to make you smile...you hardly ever smile, Lu...it makes me worry you’re not happy...and I just wanted...I just wanted you to be happy…”

“Then don’t fucking die on me!” He knows this is unfair. He knows this isn’t the kind of thing you put on a guy who’s already at the end of his rope. 

“I’m sorry, Lu…” And he really does look sorry. “There’s...nothing I can do…”

“You stupid bastard! Don’t you just give up like that! You told me you weren’t gonna die on me! You said-”

“I say a lot of stupid shit...don’t I?” Formaggio’s grinning up at him. There’s pain behind his expression, but he’s trying to make light of things one last time...like he always does. But the next moment, his eyes have gone vacant and the corners of his mouth have frozen themselves in place.

“F-Forma?” Illuso’s shaking him. Formaggio’s gone completely limp and he’s suddenly much, much too heavy. “FORMA!!!!”

---

Illuso sits boltright up in bed. It takes him a moment to realize he’s shouting. Out loud.

He claps a hand over his mouth. He’s breathing hard, his heart is racing, and he’s soaked in sweat. 

It was just a dream. Just a bad dream. He repeats this to himself over and over again.

But he’s still shaking and the tears are welling up in his eyes. 

‘Calm the hell down…it wasn’t real. Everything’s fine...it wasn’t…’

But it’s like he’s about to crawl out of his skin. He’s throwing off the covers and stepping out of bed. He’s heading for the one place he feels safe.

Slipping through the mirror is like passing through water, but coming out dry on the other side. He shivers slightly as he steps into his room...his other room. It looks exactly the same, but it feels much more homey and the tension inside him is already starting to ebb. 

He’s wandering out into the hall, which is what he usually does when he can’t sleep...or in this case, when he doesn’t want to. He’s thinking he might go up to the attic to his favorite window seat that overlooks the street and watch random objects float by. There probably won’t be that many this late at night, but it’s something to do at least. 

He’s heading for the staircase when he finds himself drifting to a stop in front of one of the other bedroom doors. Formaggio’s…

He considers that it might actually make him feel better to just step inside for a minute and-

Illuso’s crossing the threshold into Formaggio’s room. It’s a mess, as he expects, with clothing and towels strewn across the floor as well as yarn and food bowls and other superfluous cat trinkets. Illuso can’t see Formaggio, or any of his numerous cats (he's not actually sure how many there are and he sometimes questions if even Formaggio knows), but Illuso can see from the raised bedsheet that's slowly rising and falling that his teammate is both alive and sound asleep.

Illuso's turning to go when he catches sight of the cracked mirror on the wall. Reflexively, he approaches it. He can see Formaggio’s sprawled out on the bed on his stomach. Polenta, the blue-grey cat Illuso got him after his old cat Mascarpone had died, is curled up next to Formaggio’s head.

‘See...just a bad dream...everything’s fine...everything’s…’ He feels a tightness growing in his chest and a sudden, overwhelming urge to-

He’s standing on the other side of the mirror now. A small tabby perched on the dresser lifts its head to glance at him. 

He knows this is stupid and that it should be enough to look out the mirror and see that everything’s fine, but for once it doesn’t feel real enough and he just wants to be absolutely sure…

Illuso’s at the bedside. 

‘You see? Idiot. There’s no hole in his chest...it was just a bad dream...you’re overreacting and making an ass of yourself so you need to just get over your stupidity and leave.’

Polenta has woken up and fixed a critical pair of eyes on him. Illuso meets the cat’s gaze and the next moment the cat’s yowling at him for no other reason than because it can.

“Oh, shit…”

Illuso’s skittering back towards the mirror when he hears Formaggio’s groggy voice behind him muttering, “The fuck-?”

And that’s when a dark shape on the floor which he thought was a crumpled shirt moves and he’s swerving to one side to avoid stepping on what can only be another one of Formaggio’s damn cats, but his right foot lands on one of the many pieces of discarded laundry at just the right angle and the thing goes sliding across the floor and he’s going down too and landing on his side. The fall doesn’t really hurt, but he still doesn’t get up right away because he’s mortified that he’s been caught and if he could do anything in the world right now it would be to crawl into a mirror and never bother with people again. 

“Illuso? What the hell are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”

“I-I-....” He’s sitting up. He doesn’t dare look behind him. 

“Is this like a thing you do? Just creeping around in people’s rooms while they’re asleep? Because that’s really fucking weird and-”

“No..no, I wasn’t. I…” Shit. He’s crying. 

“Whoa, there. Come on, now. Did something happen?”

“No...I mean, not exactly...I was just…”

Formaggio’s gotten out of bed and seated himself on the floor next to him. 

“You look like a fucking mess. What’s the deal?”

“I just...couldn’t sleep...it’s nothing, really…”

“Nightmares?”

Illuso ventures to look at the other man. He can tell from Formaggio’s expression that there’s surprise painted all over his face.

“What? You think you’re the only one that gets them? Nah...the kind of work we do...it gets into your head and really screws with you sometimes. But...uh...any particular reason you ended up in my room?”

Well, that question was inevitable. He could try and make something up...but he’s always been shitty at that sort of thing. And the truth makes the most sense anyway.

“I had a dream you died.”

Formaggio blinks a few times as if he thinks this is an odd thing to say, but then he’s grinning. “You making sure I was still breathing in here? Is that it? I mean, I guess that’s fair. Every time I have a bad dream about one of the cats I can’t get back to sleep until I go check and see if it’s okay. I guess I should be flattered that someone gives a shit whether I live or die, eh?”

Formaggio’s nudging him half-playfully. Illuso doesn’t look amused.

 “No? Well, aren’t you one tough customer. I was just trying to cheer you up.”

“What?” Something about what Formaggio’s just said makes his stomach turn over, but he can’t pinpoint what...or why.

“Well, I guess this beats you running off to the mirror world, though...you know, you coming to talk to an actual person. You spend way too much time hiding out in your little alternate reality or whatever it is. If you’re not careful, people are gonna forget you exist.”

Illuso can tell that this last is meant to be a joke. “That wouldn’t be so bad...if it means I get out of writing reports every damn week.”

“Oh-ho. The man does have a sense of humor! And here we all thought you were just a moody stick in the mud like Sorbet.”

“God help me if I was like Sorbet.”

“Ah, but who doesn’t want a reputation for being a First Class asshole? It’ll probably win you lots of friends. And then you’ll get blond guys sitting in your lap all that time and, I mean, what more could you ask for?” Formaggio’s cracking up at his own joke and clapping Illuso on the back. “Come on. That’s funny, right?”

“Hilarious...”

“Putting up that mental brick wall, I see. M’kay. I gotcha. Oh, hey. You at least dream up a cool way for me to die?”

“That’s a horrible question.”

“And I’m a horrible, curious person. ‘Cause if it was something lame, I’m gonna be real disappointed and we’re gonna have to have a little talk about having nightmares that are both properly horrifying and complimentary.”

“So if I were to say you tripped over one of your stupid cats and fell down the stairs…”

“Hey, I thought this was a dream! That’s actually something that might happen. Huh, Polenta?” He looks back at bed. Polenta’s glaring at them. “You ever get the feeling that the bitchy cat the mirror introvert got you is out to get you? ‘Cause I get that all the time.” 

“Mirror introvert? That’s flattering.”

“Right?” Formaggio’s slinging an arm around Illuso’s shoulder. “Now, come on. I want to hear all about my heroic demise.  I was probably doing something pretty badass...”

“Your modesty’s really astounding. You know that?”

Formaggio shrugs. “Eh, it’s a gift.”

Illuso’s smiling, despite himself. 

“So spill it already.”

“It’s actually not all that exciting...we were in a warehouse and there was this Stand user shooting this make-shift harpoon thing at us.”

“Projectiles. Not bad.”

“And you were covering me with your Stand...even though you were behind me and it would have made more sense for you to cover yourself. And then the thing got you in the back and that was that. We escaped into the mirror world, but it didn’t matter because he got you too good.”

“Sounds like the kind of stupid shit I’d do.” 

“What? Fail to strategize?”

“No. Die covering your stupid ass.”

“Right…”

“I’m serious. We’re a team. You put yourself out there for your team no matter what happens.”

“Even the mirror introvert?” He cocks a disbelieving eyebrow.

“Especially the mirror introvert.” He’s give him a friendly squeeze, almost a half-hug.

Illuso’s stomach is suddenly in knots. That’s not exactly the response he expected.

“I really meant it when I said I think you spend too much time hiding out in the mirror world. You might try coming out and talking to people now and again. You know, people like me.”

“We’re talking right now.”

“Yeah...cause you had a nightmare. You can talk to me at other times too, though. Not just when you’re upset. You can talk to me when you’re happy too...that is, assuming you are happy...at least from time to time. I don’t know how many of us can say that we wake up every morning with a smile on our face.”

“You seem like the kind of guy who would.”

“You don’t know me too well, do you? Which I find a little bit surprising given all your snooping around in my mirror.”

“I guess I could try and fix that.”

Illuso’s aware that something has changed in the way Formaggio’s gripping his arm. His touch is much softer now.

“You gonna come out of your mirror for me?”

Illuso says nothing and simply nods.

Formaggio’s putting his other arm around him and pulling him in close. He can feel the Thud Thud Thud of the other man’s heart through his shirt. Formaggio’s started stroking his hair.

“Glad to hear it.”’

Illuso’s mind is racing. It’s the first time in a very long while that the real world seems better than the mirror world.  



Chapter Text

Prosciutto’s leg is on fire. Literally.

He reflexively starts beating at his leg, but his fingers are instantly singed. That was stupid. That was really, really stupid. 

His brain is stalling. Shit. What does he do?! What does he do?!?!

“Get down!” The voice comes out of nowhere and so do the pair of hands that are shoving him onto the ground and throwing something over his leg and pounding it with their arms. It hurts like hell, but this individual seems to know what they’re doing at least. 

A minute later, his rescuer is uncovering his leg. He realizes now that they were using one of the weatherproof coats that they were each given at the start of the games. 

The burn is throbbing and stinging in the open air. He looks down at the red mass on his thigh. It already looks bad. There’s a twinge of panic twisting his gut as he wonders how much this is going to affect his mobility. 

“You got any antibiotic ointment in your pack here?” The voice nearly makes him jump out of his skin. He’s twisting himself around to look at its owner. There’s a tall boy with silver hair pulling on a coat that looks slightly worse for wear now. He meets him with a pair of dark eyes. The other tribute from his district. Risotto.

“N-no…”

“Well, you’re going to need to track some down. And you’ve got to get that thing clean right away. You let that get infected and you’re gonna die. You remember what Formaggio said?”

Prosciutto nods. In one of his few sober moments, their mentor had warned them to watch out for the less obvious killers in the arena...things like exposure, dehydration, and starvation...and infection. 

His mind is racing. Risott’s right. He has to treat this as if it’s a matter of life and death...which it very well could be if-

“I could try the cornucopia...find some way to distract the careers and-”

“And hobble in on that leg and give them an easy target?” He’s shaking his head.  “Besides, they might not have any.”

“You have a better idea?”

“Not yet, no.” 

“Then don’t shoot down mine.”

“Just trying to help.” 

“Not sure what’s prompted that, but okay.” He knows this sounds a bit sharp, but he’s in a precarious position right now and he doesn’t exactly trust the other boy not to capitalize on that.

Prosciutto’s moving to push himself up, but as he tries to bend his leg-

“Shit!” He’s back on the ground on his ass.

Without a word, Risotto’s bending over and lifting him off the ground. Prosciutto’s about to protest, but then he’s really not in a position to be turning down help, if that’s what this is. Not even if it’s from someone who’ll probably end up killing him later.

---

A half hour later, they’ve arrived at the stream and Risotto’s setting him down on the bank.

“We need to clean your wound. I have a bit of experience with injuries like this, so if you don’t mind…”

Prosciutto’s pride makes him want to decline, but he finds himself nodding and not saying a word.

“You can hold onto my arm if you want. If it starts to hurt, you can squeeze it as hard as you like...and if at any point, you need a break, just tell me and I’ll stop. Okay?” His voice is almost unnaturally matter of fact.

“I think I can handle a little pain.” Prosciutto replies with a hint of indignation. 

“We’ll see.”

The moment the water touches him, though, it’s all Prosciutto can do not to cry out.

“Not a sound.” Risotto warns. 

Prosciutto’s digging his nails into Risotto’s arms and gritting his teeth.

“You want me to stop?” 

“No…”

But the next measure of water is even more agonizing than the first.

“Fuck...okay...that’s enough. That’s enough! I can’t-I can’t-” He’s got tears of pain in his eyes. “Please…”

Risotto seems completely unphased, which is actually fairly surprising given how hard Prosciutto’s gripping his arm. “Alright then.” 

Prosciutto’s lifting his leg as far away from the water as he can manage, as if this will make it all feel better. 

He’s covering his face with his hands. He doesn’t want people to see anymore of this than they already have. If he had to guess, they’ve probably got a half dozen cameras trained on him right now and are broadcasting his pathetic display across every single television in all eight districts. He imagines there are some people who feel bad for him...hopefully the sponsors...but there are probably others who are shaking their heads right now and mumbling about how the ‘spoiled little rich kid’ won’t last much longer because he has no pain tolerance to speak of. 

He hates that people can see this and he hates that, if he ends up dying, this is how people will remember him. They’ll talk about how pitiful he was and how he should have known he wouldn’t stand a chance. It’ll take away from the nobility of the sacrifice he’s made and turn it into a stupid, futile gesture. 

Something else is nagging him too, though. Pesci’s watching this. He knows Pesci is. And it’s probably tearing him apart. Which is unfair. Much like everything else in this fucked up world.

He’s picturing Pesci standing in the back of one of the public screening areas with his hands on his face, ready to cover his eyes should the games suddenly take a violent turn. He’s never had a stomach for violence and the mandatory viewing of the annual hunger games has always been a source of distress for him. More than once he’d broken down and wept on Prosciutto’s shoulder, especially when tributes from their own district, District 5, had died. Pesci knew a few of the previous tributes, but he’d never been as close to any of them as he was to Prosciutto. Which, really, is why Prosciutto’s in this mess to begin with.

---

The reaping had always been an incredibly stressful time for Pesci. The people of District 5, particularly the lower class ones, had always been a pretty tight knit group, and at first, it was just that Pesci hated seeing his peers sent off to their untimely deaths. And then, when he’d reached reaping age himself, it had just gotten that much worse. He’d only had his name in the selection pool one time that first year, but then his family had fallen on hard times and he’d exchanged extra entries for extra rations. He’d been lucky for a few years...but that luck had finally run out. 

This past reaping had started like every other one. The capitol’s people had paraded in un-applauded, while the inhabitants of District 5 spent the morning with their loved ones. The rules for the reaping had changed in recent years. Before, the tributes had been chosen from all the young men and women between the ages of 12 and 18, but now it was only the young men who marched into the games. There’d been too many instances of male and female couples, either from the same districts or from different districts, getting together during the games and refusing to kill one another. The capitol assumed that these so-called relationships were only formed as a ploy to win sympathy from sponsors and give the individuals a better chance at survival, but they caused undue upset in the various districts whenever the gamemakers had to strategically kill off one half of the pairing to ensure that the couple didn’t end up as the final two survivors. So their solution had been simply to eliminate the girls from the equation altogether.

Prosciutto was up early to get ready for the day. Reapings made him just as nervous as anyone else because, even as the mayor’s son, he wasn’t exempt from having his name in the pool.

His father was in an unusually good mood that morning, though, and was strolling about the house humming. His mother hadn’t stopped smiling since she’d woken up, which was odd. 

They’d just sat down to breakfast when his mother could no longer contain herself. 

“I’ve ordered an extra special lunch for today. For after the reaping.”

“That’s assuming I’m still here.” Prosciutto knew the chances of him getting picked weren’t high, but really it all came down to luck in the end.

“Oh, you will be.” She gave him a knowing look.

His father made a small coughing sound as if asking her to please shut up.

“‘How can you be so sure?”

His mother was beaming. 

“How can you be so sure?” Prosciutto repeated.

“Oh, can’t we tell him?” His mother started pleading.

His father slammed a hand on the table. “It’s my neck on the line if this gets out. So can you just-”

“What did you do?” Prosciutto demanded. 

His father was glaring at his mother and then fixing his gaze on Prosciutto. “I took your name out of the pool. Last night. They were putting in the cards with all the names...you had seven...one for each year you’ve been eligible to participate. I was performing my usual last minute inspection and they were about to put the bowl with all the papers away in the Hall of Justice...and it crossed my mind to reach in and pull your cards out.”

“There’s no way they won’t notice-”

“Of course they won’t notice. As long as your name is on the check-in list, that’s all the capitol’s going to look at. They’re not going to go back and tally all those papers. They get their tributes and turn their attention to the games. All they want are two names and neither of those are going to be yours. It’s the last year you’re eligible, so I wanted to be sure that-”

“That’s not fair!”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s not fair to any of the other families out there who have kids with their name in that pool.”

“Did you want to get picked?! Because I don’t think anyone wants to head off to some godforsaken death arena just to-”

“Of course I wouldn’t want to be picked. But it feels wrong to-”

“Look. I don’t care about other people’s families. My own family comes first. Period.”

His father had thrown down his napkin and left the room and that had ended the conversation.

Prosciutto had gone to check-in that morning feeling disgusted with himself. So he was safe. He was going to go home after this and sit down to lunch with his mother and father as usual and that night he’d be sleeping in his own bed and the next day he’d be going about his usual routine...but two others wouldn’t be. Two other boys would be headed off to the capitol and wouldn’t be coming back. District 5’s tributes never came back. 

“Prosciutto!” Pesci’d just appeared at his side.

Prosciutto couldn’t help but smile. Ever since they’d met six years ago, Pesci’d been like Prosciutto’s second shadow. He’d come to him at first looking for someone to help him learn basic math and things had gone from there. He’d become Prosciutto’s little brother in a sense. He was the kid Prosciutto looked after and fretted over. He’d taught him, as best he knew, how to make his way in the world and how to use information to his advantage, the way his father had instructed him. He’d helped Pesci figure out how to make the most out of the few things he had, especially his clothing. He’d shown Pesci how to wear his clothing so that it looked more becoming and how to fix the many tears he often accumulated. His mother liked to sew things by hand as a sort of pastime and she’d taught Prosciutto this skill in case he should ever get bored enough to want to try it out himself. She’d also taught Prosciutto to read a bit, even though she hardly knew herself, and Prosciutto had, in turn, tried to teach this to Pesci. They’d spend afternoons pouring over old books (those few deemed acceptable by the capitol) and trying to figure out the meaning of the words. When they got bored of that, though, they’d try copying the fancy lettering. Pesci had been terrible at it at first, but, in time, he got to the point of being able to write short, but legible notes.

Pesci’d always admired Prosciutto for how intelligent and put together he was, but secretly it had been Prosciutto who admired the other boy’s pure intentions and his gentle spirit. He was a rare gift in an ever-darkening world. 

“How you feeling?” Prosciutto asked. 

Pesci shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. “I-I’m okay.” But he looked anything but okay.

“Pesci…” 

“I-I did the math while I was walking over here and I figured out...well, I figured out I got my name in that pool at least 30 times between all the extra rations my family had to ask for the past few years and-”

Prosicutto’s stomach turned. He’d offered them food (without his father’s permission), but Pesci had always insisted that his family was okay. That they’d stopped having to ask for extra food…that-

“Pesci...you said...I kept asking you if...ah, Pesci...if I’d have known…”

At least 30. There was a good chance Pesci’s name was in there more than anyone else’s. 

“I had to do what I had to do...but, I don’t know...I kinda have a bad feeling about things…”

“It’s fine...you’re going to be fine….” Prosciutto wished he sounded more reassuring.

They’d made their way into the square in front of the Hall of Justice. Their district’s bubbleheaded escort, a rather vain individual who went by the name of Mel and whose fashion choices were always considered questionable by the inhabitants of District 5, was bouncing around next to the stage waiting for their entrance. There was a short man with blue curly hair standing next to Mel. He was alternating between making last minute adjustments to Mel’s garish and inappropriately cheery attire and writing furious notes on a clipboard...very likely he was editing one of Mel’s infamously long speeches into something a bit more palatable to the average viewer. Mel was considered over the top, even by capitol standards; they seemed to have fundamentally failed to grasp the capitol citizen’s beloved notion that brevity is the soul of wit.That’s why people think this guy had been hanging around Mel for the past couple games. Mel was a popular enough escort, but they certainly needed the management. Cue Blue Hair.

The usual capito video played and then it had been Mel’s turn. The crowd got their first full look at Mel as they ascended the steps of the Hall of Justice in a shimmering pink piece that was not quite a dress and not quite a suit. Mel’s hair was done up in a tower of curls and half their face obscured with some sort of scintillating violet head wrap. Probably the latest fashion in the capitol. 

Mel’d gotten through their breathless nonsense speech in record time and before they knew it, Mel was dipping a dainty, manicured hand into the glass bowl of names. 

They’d stepped forward to read the first death sentence. 

“Pesci Spaventato.” Mel trilled. They were scanning the crowd, trying to put a face to the name.

Prosciutto felt his heart drop. It was like he couldn’t breathe. No...this couldn’t be happening...not to Pesci...there was no way...no way...he’d be dead on the first day of the games...he wouldn’t defend himself...he could never kill another living being...it’s not fair...it’s not…

He caught sight of Pesci’s ashen face as he started toward the stage. Pesci knew what this meant...knew that this was the beginning of the end...but knowing Pesci, he was probably thinking that if those extra cards in the bowl meant his family didn’t go hungry...then this was okay.

But it wasn’t even close to okay. 

“I volunteer!” Proscuttio’d shoved the boy next to him aside and darted forward to step in front of Pesci. “I volunteer as tribute!” 

Mel had blinked a few times as if they weren’t quite sure what they were hearing, but then they were beaming.

“District 5’s first ever volunteer!”

“What are you doing?” Pesci’s voice was in his ear. 

“Get the hell out of here.” 

“Why would you do that?” He was already in tears.

“Get out of here.”

“I still got at least another 29 cards in there. They could pull my name again. You shouldn’t have-”

“Pesci.” Prosciutto’d placed a hand on the younger boy’s shoulder. He didn’t know what to say or how to explain himself. Suddenly, though, Blue Hair was pushing his way through the crowd and had grabbed Prosciutto’s arm. 

“Come on.” He snapped and he was dragging Prosciutto along to the stage. The people who could see him were already murmuring.

Mel was extending a welcoming hand as Blue Hair ushered him across the platform.

“You have a name?”

“Amato Prosciutto…” The whole crowd was buzzing. 

“Our very first volunteer and the mayor’s son no less!” Mel was ecstatic. “And what, if I may ask, was your motivation for volunteering today?”

“He’s like my brother...he’d never be able to hurt anyone…”

“And you think you will?” Blue Hair scoffed.

Mel gave Blue Hair a look that said ‘knock it off’, but Blue Hair just shrugged and sauntered off toward the edge of the platform. The microphone hadn’t picked up his commentary so no harm done, right?

“And now for our second tribute…”

Mel was gliding back over to the bowl and their hand was already halfway in when another voice called out.

“I volunteer!”

Mel looked as if they were about to burst with joy.

“A-another volunteer.”

This volunteer didn’t hesitate or wait for Blue Hair to fetch him. 

Prosciutto recognized him in an instant. Risotto Nero, the district’s premier illegal hunter.  He was the heart and soul of the black market and he and Prosciutto rarely spoke. Prosciutto’d spent a few weeks with him a couple years back when he’d asked the latter to teach him how to shoot a bow and arrow, more to spite his father than out of any real need for the skill. Risotto had been a very quiet and very patient teacher. He remembered that they’d gotten along fairly well, but his father had figured out what he was up to and threatened that he’d turn Risotto in to the Peacekeepers if Prosciutto didn’t cease and desist with his new hobby at once. 

Prosciutto had decided that it would be best not to spend too much time with Risotto after that. Best not to incur any more of his father’s wrath than he already had. 

Of course, a few weeks with a guy wasn’t going to do anything to save Prosciutto from him now.

Risotto’d just mounted the stage and Mel could hardly stand still, they were so beside themselves.

“This is unprecedented. Not one...but two volunteers from an outlying district. And what is your name?”

“Risotto Nero.”

“And what was your motivation for stepping forward and becoming this district’s second ever volunteer?”

“I think I’d be good at killing things.”

And this was the story he’d run with for nearly their entire promotional tour. 

---

Things were a blur after that. Prosciutto was allowed to say goodbye to his friends and family one last time. His mother had had to leave the room after less than a minute because she was too upset to face him. Pesci had clung to him and bawled until a pair of Peacekeepers had escorted him out. A small group of acquaintances had showed up to shake hands and give hugs, but they all seemed too shocked to say anything meaningful. His father had been the last to stop by the room and he had walked up to his son and slapped him across the face and then left without another word. 

---

The train ride to the capitol made Prosciutto feel even more uneasy. Their mentor, a middle-aged former victor and self-proclaimed drunkard named Formaggio, gave them little useful advice and seemed more interested in talking to himself than them and spent most of his time in his compartment. 

Mel was beside themselves at Formaggio’s behavior and had taken matters into their own hands in terms of coaching. They’d talked a great deal about past tributes...mostly about how they’d died and how heartbroken Mel had been over their loss...but maybe Risotto and Prosciutto could learn something from their deaths and not repeat the same mistakes. Mel’s favorite things to talk about was winning the hearts of sponsors...though unfortunately any gifts from sponsors would have to go through Formaggio before it got to them... which was always a disaster...But Mel couldn't stress to them enough how vital self-presentation was in bettering their chances of surviving...or at least suffering a little less.

Mel declared themselves thrilled with Prosciutto. It was every escort's dream to work with someone so likeable. He was attractive and well-brought up. He spoke eloquently and knew how to take direction. Prosciutto was the sort of tribute and escort didn’t need to hover over or worry about because he could be relied on not to make an ass of himself.

Risotto was a different story and Mel made it very obvious they were decidedly less thrilled with him as a tribute. Mel spent a great deal of time trying to get Risotto to do basic things like smile or not put his feet up on furniture or respond to questions with words rather than unintelligible and dismissive sounds. Mel chided him for coming off as surly and unapproachable,  but Risotto simply fixed Mel with a hard stare and cocked a challenging eyebrow. This particular coaching session end with Mel storming out of the dining car in a huff with Blue Hair on their heels as they very loudly lamented what an intolerable person Risotto was. The latter didn’t seem to notice or care.

---

Training in the capitol went a bit better than Prosciutto expected. He discovered that he’d not lost all of his skill with a bow and arrow and that his aim was passable. He wasn’t terribly good with any of the other weapons, but he hoped to make up for this by being smart. That was one of the pieces of advice that he’d finally gotten out of Formaggio after much pestering and prodding. You don’t have outfight the other boys if you can outthink them. 

Prosciutto’d kept an eye on the tributes from the other seven districts, just to see what they could do. District 1’s tributes were a pair of careers who went by the names Dire and Straizo. They were large and good at just about everything. It was obvious they had trained together a great deal because they read each other’s every move and played off each other’s strengths. They weren’t as boastful as other careers from this district had been in the past, but they were certainly very confident in their abilities. They’re only fault, perhaps, was that they were a bit too reliant on one another and a bit too willing to take risks that most people would consider reckless. 

District 2 only had one career this time around. He was a loud and rather abrasive blond boy named Stroheim. He was physically imposing and very dedicated to the idea of winning to bring ‘honor and glory’ to his district, but he was almost a bit sloppy in his strength.The other career who had been set to volunteer for District 2, much to the horror and shame of the district, had lost his nerve and a name had been pulled instead. The second tribute was a much more diminutive boy named Mark. He was a figure of great sympathy.  He’d just turned eighteen and had proposed to his sweetheart, never imagining there was even the wildest chance that he’d end up in the hunger games through someone else’s failure to the ‘right and honorable’ thing. 

District 3 was a mixed bag and popular opinion was that District 3’s tributes were ‘disappointedly uninteresting’. The first tribute, Chaka, seemed polite and laid back, but the second you put something sharp in his hand, he turned into another being entirely. His fellow tribute, Nukesaku, was clueless and if Prosciutto had to place bets, he bet that Nukesaku would die on the first day.

The tributes from District 4 were both quiet, but in different ways. Kira was the sort of quiet that’s unsettling. His performance was average, but he gave the impression that he might be holding back. He made it very clear that he wanted to be left alone entirely, even by his escort and mentor. Mikitaka, on the other hand, was quiet in an observant and curious way. He seemed quick-witted enough and seemed to do well with everything he tried, but he struck Prosciutto as the sort that might try to outlast rather than outfight his opponents.

District 6 was also a mixed bag. The first tribute, Donatello Versus, made a point of showing off his capabilities from day one. He liked yelling at the other tribute from 6, a much more reserved and apprehensive young boy named Rikiel, in front of the entire training room on a semi-regular basis. He would ruthlessly berate the other tribute’s mediocre performance and once or twice even threatened to target him in the arena if he chose to embarrass their district so badly.

Both the tributes from District 7 were popularly referred to as ‘The Outcasts’. They were unpopular boys in their home district, but this made them all the more fascinating to the capitol citizens. The first, Sandman, was incredibly dexterous and nimble and he seemed to have an inhuman amount of stamina. He was definitely the type who could pick and choose whether he wanted to outlast or outfight. The other, Axl Ro, seemed a bit more focused on self-preservation. He seemed capable, but he spent an inordinate amount of time on the non-weapons training. He gave the impression of being more interested in trying to outlast rather than outfight his opponents.

The last two tributes, from District 8, were named Jobin and Aisho. The former was strong and intelligent, but a bit prone to overestimating himself. He was ambitious to the point of being childish and reckless, which became especially clear in how many times he almost seriously injured himself in his attempt to perform showy stunts that were clearly beyond him. Aisho proved exceptionally paranoid from the start and this only increased as time went on. He showed himself to react a bit too hastily and too emotionally to anything that provoked him and Prosciutto felt certain that, if anything, this would be his downfall in the arena.

The only tribute he didn’t end up watching was Risotto, partly because he’d seen him in action before, albeit briefly, and partly because was afraid he’d be intimidated by what he saw. He worried, too, that if he ended up interacting with the other boy it’d just make it all the more difficult to kill him later. Not that Prosciutto actually felt confident in being able to do something like that...but confidence was half the game, right?

--- 

Prosciutto regretted his decision to shut out any awareness of Risotto’s performance when their training scores came out. Most of the tributes had scored between 7 and 9, with the only exception being the careers who’d managed solid 10s. Even Prosciutto had scraped an 8, which he counted as a miracle in itself. But the whole room had fallen silent when Risotto had been awarded an 11. Prosciutto’d been watching the announcement of the scores with Mel and Formaggio and Blue Hair; Risotto hadn’t bothered to join them. When the number flashed across the screen, Mel had placed a hand on Prosciutto’s shoulder and assured him that he still had the interview and that if he could get enough sponsors these kinds of numbers wouldn’t matter at all. 

Prosciutto was the one who went to Risotto later to inform him that he’d earned the top score out of all 16 of the tributes. Risotto had tilted his head to one side as if this were an interesting but ultimately unimportant piece of news. 

---

The interview went about as well as Prosciutto could have expected. It was the usual host, an affable blond called G, who was known among television personalities for his refusal to change his hair color every other week, as was common among the capitol residents, but stuck to his characteristic blond do, accented only with a pair of gold earrings. Of course, the color and cut of his suits was up to the wild imagination of any stylist who thought they could work make something that met his standards. 

Prosciutto counted himself lucky that his and Risotto’s stylist, Lu, was one of G’s old favorites. He turned out to be a calming presence amidst everything. He’d come up with outfits that were both flattering and which seemed to fit their personalities. Prosciutto’s suit was a flowy, light-colored piece with pale yellow embellishments, while Risotto’s was dark and had sharp lines and metallic ornamentation. Lu had told Prosciutto to talk about Pesci. That would garner the most support. It wasn’t everyday that a boy who had everything threw it all away for a boy who had nothing. People had been moved by his gesture and if he could play that up…

Lu told Risotto to give the audience a glimpse of what was under the cold exterior. But only enough to make them want more. 

When Prosciutto’d watched all the other interviews in his room later that same night (skipping his own), he’d been fascinated by Risotto’s performance. He’d maintained the cold exterior and made light of G’s praise of his exceedingly high training score. It had seemed like he meant to simply establish his reputation as an unsympathetic force in the arena that had no other object than to survive at all costs... but the turn had come when G asked him why he had really volunteered on the day of the reaping.

Risotto had taken a moment and then folded his hands and said in a very quiet voice, “I was afraid for someone.”

G had been all over this. “Who exactly?”

Risotto’d given him a small smile. “I’ll tell you all when I get to the arena.”

“Oh, you tease!”

“But you’ve got to keep me alive until day three. I’ll tell you all on day three.”

Mel had described it as a brilliant strategy...possibly the only thing that could have gotten the sponsor’s emotional support.

“Because, you see, “ Mel had been fairly gushing the next morning, “Now they’re all invested in a mystery and you sure as heck can bet even the gamemakers are going to make a point of not throwing anything unnecessary at him. You can’t disappoint your audience like that!”

---

It strikes Prosciutto now as he sits on the bank of the stream, his burnt leg still smarting and stinging, that this is day three. It feels like it’s been much longer, but he supposes that that’s how it goes when you want the time to pass more quickly than it is. He’s spent the last three days keeping away from the other tributes as much as possible. He’s seen a few of them darting by, here and there, but none of them have seen him. 

The weakest ones exited the picture on the first day. Mark. Nukesaku. Rikiel. Aisho. And yesterday, there had been some kind of confrontation in the middle of the day, likely between larger groups who had temporarily teamed up. He’d heard shouting in the distance and that night there had been two more faces in the sky. Chaka and Kira. Meaning all of District 3 was gone and half of Districts 2,4, 6, and 8. Which meant that Districts 1, 5, and 7 were the ones to watch out for.

“You ready to try again?” Risotto’s regarding him with an intent look. 

He wants to say no...but he feels like he doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

“Sure…”

This is all still terribly confusing to him. He’s not sure how Risotto managed to find him, and at just the right time too, or why he decided to help him. They’re not allies in this. They’d not spoken once about teaming up and it doesn’t make sense that they’d do so now. If anything, Prosciutto would just be a burden to him. Unless, of course, Risotto’s playing for sponsor support. Do a good deed now, win a few wealthy hearts and the extra help that wealth provides, and then murder everyone later. It’s actually a sound plan.

The water hurts as bad this time as it did the first and it’s the same pathetic display all over again.

“You think the gamemakers were bored?” Risotto asks suddenly.

“What?” Prosciutto gasps through the pain.

“Raining fireballs down from the sky. Kind of a cheap move if you ask me.”

“They’re probably just trying to get us to move or do something so we’ll run into each other. It’s probably been a quiet day.”

Risotto’s pouring more water on his leg. Prosciutto’s sucking in his breath.

“You surviving?”

“Shut up.”

“If you get pissed off at me, it might help, actually. It’s a good distraction.” But Prosciutto is crushing his forearm instead and cussing. 

“I can’t- I can’t do this anymore.”

“You have to.”

“I can’t--god, I can’t-”

Risotto’s chosen to ignore him.

“Please...please, just stop…”

“Shut up.” 

“You bastard. You said-”

“I said to shut the fuck up.”

Prosciutto’s instantly irritated. “Why the hell are you even-”

“Are you crying? That’s gonna look terrible on camera.”

“No! What’s going to look terrible is you being an ass-”

“And saving your life, you ungrateful-”

“Fuck you, you horrible-”

“There! Done. I told you if you got pissed off at me it’d distract you.”

Prosciutto’s blinking at him uncomprehendingly. Risotto smiles at him.

“You got something you can wrap this with in that pack of yours?”

He’s shaking his head.

Risotto sighs. “I guess I could do with losing a sleeve.” He’s slipping off his coat and pulling one arm out of the thermal he’s got on underneath. 

“No…” Prosciutto finds his voice. “I should use my own stuff if it’s my-”

“Too late.” Risotto’s drawn a knife out of his waistband and cut the sleeve from the shirt. “Now hold still.” He’s wrapping it around the wound. “It’d be better if we had something a bit longer, but this’ll have to do for now. Just don’t get an infection and die on me before I have a chance to kill everyone else off.”

Prosciutto scoffs. “You got a special death planned for me or something?”

Risotto gives him a curious look. “I’m not going to kill you. If that was my intention, I’d have done so already.”

“Give it a few days and let the competition get a bit more serious and we’ll see what you say then.”

“I mean it.”

“Right. What was that line of yours from the reaping day? ‘I think I might be good at killing things?’”

“I didn’t really know what else to say then. And it sounded good. People remember things that sound good.”

“It certainly gave you an endearing image.”

“Oh, did it?” Risotto’s grinning. 

“It’s like you’re not even trying to get people to like you. You’re just going for shock-value or whatever.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Yeah, actually. It is.”

“Hmmm.” Risotto’s folding his hands and resting his chin on them. “Can I tell you something?”

“Do you even need to ask permission at this point?”

“I thought it’d be polite.”

Maybe he does care about his image more than he lets on. “I suppose. Go on then.”

“You almost died yesterday.”

“What?”

“You were up in a tree about a quarter mile north from here. You’d fallen asleep.” How does he know this?! “Chaka saw you. He had a bow and arrow. And his aim’s not all that bad. I saw him do a bit of shooting while we were training. He’d have shot you dead if I hadn’t intervened.”

Prosciutto wants to believe him because that would mean that Risotto might actually be on his side. But then it would mean that the boy in front of him has killed another human being and is discussing it as calmly as one might discuss the weather. 

“How’d you do it?” He’s half hoping that Risotto will say something implausible that’ll convince him that what he’s heard can’t possibly be true, but Risotto just pats his knife as if that says it all.

“It was quick. I don’t think he felt much.”

Prosciutto feels a chill run up his spine. “So you weren’t bluffing…about being good at killing things.”

“I don’t say things I don’t mean.”

Prosciutto’s mind is drifting back to Risotto’s interview with G and there’s question burning in his mind and spilling out of his mouth before he can stop it. “Why did you volunteer?”

Risotto pulls up a small clump of grass. “I was afraid for someone.”

“Who?” It’s day three, damnit, and you told everyone that if they kept you alive until day three, then you’d-

“I was afraid for you.” He says simply. 

Prosciutto feels like his head is spinning. 

“That’s...that’s bullshit.” He says weakly. But all the things Risotto’s been doing that didn’t make sense before...when put into that context...well, they suddenly don’t seem so random and disconnected.

Risotto’s laughing. It’s a deep, warm sound. “You remember when I taught you how to shoot?”

“Yeah...yeah, of course.”

“You really made an impression on me. I thought we’d become good friends after that. But your father...well, I suppose it wouldn’t be fair of me to be all that critical of him. He knew trouble when he saw it.”

“That was almost three years ago.” 

“Two years and four months.” 

“Right…”

“And I don’t normally like people all that much. But I liked you. You...weren’t anything like what I expected you to be.” 

Prosciutto’s suddenly aware of the fact that there are cameras on them. Which means every word that’s passing between them is being broadcast live to every screen in every district. That makes him more than a little self-conscious. 

“So you volunteered because of me?”

“You’re not cut out for this sort of thing. And I don’t say that to offend you. You’ve had an easy life and I’ve watched you long enough to know that your instincts are to fight with your words and not your hands. And I’ve done enough hunting in my life to know what happens if you hesitate, even for a moment. If you’re the hunter, you lose your chance of ever killing your prey, and if you’re the prey...you die.”

“You think I’m the sort of person who’d hesitate?”

“I think you’re a good person and that you’ve always had your heart in the right place. Good people always hesitate. They feel sorry for the prey or they hope the hunter has more humanity in them than they actually do.”

Prosciutto should be indignant that Risotto thinks he’s basically inept and that he can’t handle things on his own...but it’s true. Isn’t that why he’s been hiding up trees and avoiding the other tributes at all costs?

“So now what?”

“We get you somewhere safe. We’ve been out in the open too long as it is.”

---

Fifteen minutes later, Risotto’s setting him down at the back of a small cave. He’d run across it on the first day and had felt secure enough sleeping in it the past two nights. 

“The entrance is hard to see, even if you’re really looking. And the terrain around it is so rocky and difficult to navigate that it’s really very off-putting.” Risotto’s straightening up as if he means to leave.

“You going somewhere?”

He nods. “Food. I’m guessing you’ve not had much since the games started.”

“I’ve found things here and there.”

“That’s about what I thought. Well give me about an hour or two and I’ll get you something more substantial than ‘here and there.’”

Risotto’s true to his word and it’s the first night of the games Prosciutto doesn’t go to bed hungry.

---

He’s woken in the middle of the night. Risotto’s hovering over him.

“You have a fever.”

“What?” He’s groggy and everything aches. His leg especially. 

“This is bad.” Risotto’s pressing the back of his hand to Prosciutto’s forehead.

But Prosciutto just wants to sleep and he’s pushing Risotto’s hand away and putting an arm over his face to indicate as much. 

“We need to-”

“No, we don’t.” He’s grumbling. 

“Prosciutto…”

“It’s cold.” He says suddenly. And it really is. So much so that he’s shivering.

“You’ve got the chills.”

“It’s cold…” Without even really thinking he’s reaching up and inside Risotto’s open coat and latching onto him for warmth.

“No. You’ll get too hot and we’ve gotta-”

“It’s cold.” He insists.

Risotto’s sighing and laying himself down next to Prosciutto and wrapping his jacket around him. The latter’s got his arms around the other boys torso and he’s burying his face in his chest.

“If I think you’re getting too warm…”

“Mmm...yeah...okay…” 

“I’m serious.”

But Prosciutto’s already starting to drift off again.

---

When Prosciutto wakes the next morning, the first thing he’s aware of is that his leg his stiff and painful. The next is that he’s enveloped in Risotto’s arms. The other boy’s fallen asleep and Prosciutto’s trying to hold himself as still as he can so as not to wake him, It’s only a matter of  minutes, though, before Risotto begins to stir.

Once the latter’s opened his eyes, they take a moment just to look at each other. Neither makes a move to disentangle himself from the other.

Risotto’s the first to speak. “You’re still too warm. Not as bad as you were, but it could get worse again. We’ll need to get our hands medicine or…”

“Later. Please.” He’s thinking back to those shooting lessons of two and a half years ago and the handful of times they’d been caught out in the elements and had to find shelter and huddle together for warmth until the weather quieted down. This reminds him of that. He’d always been comfortable around Risotto then too. But there’s something more to it now. It feels almost like coming home after having been away for a very long while. It’s that realization that you’ve been missing something without even being aware.

“I’m not going to let you die.” Risotto says quietly. “I didn’t come here to let you die.”

“I think I’m starting to believe you.”

Risotto’s started running a slow hand up and down Prosciutto’s back. “I was always meaning to talk to you...back home that is. I’d come up with things to say, but then I’d see you walking by and I’d just kinda clam up. You’d think I’d have gotten over that after two years…” 

“You’re not doing half bad now.”

Risotto’s tightening his embrace just the slightest bit.

It strikes Prosciutto in that moment that only one of them will be going home. Whatever’s going on between them now is only temporary. The gamemakers will find a way to take it away in the end. So they shouldn’t be in any rush to go anywhere or do anything. Let the other tributes have a day to themselves to kill each other off. 

“You think we could just stay here a while?”

“I don’t see you running around anytime soon.”

“I mean, can’t we just hide out here until they flush us out...either the gamemakers or the other tributes.”

“We’ll need a better strategy than that.”

“I just feel like there’s a lot of things we should catch up on before…”

“Before things get to the critical point? I’d agree.”

They’re both startled by the soft, melodic whistle that marks the approach of a sponsor’s parachute. 

Risotto’s instantly disentangling himself from Prosciutto and getting to his feet.

“Wait…” Prosciutto’s grabbing onto his hand. There’s a sudden fear nagging him that if Risotto goes outside and another tribute is nearby...if he’s seen…

“I’ll be back before you know it. It can’t have landed too far off.”

“Be careful.” He’s squeezing the other boy’s hand. 

“Of course.” 

The early morning sun’s a bit glaring compared to the darkness of the cave, but Risotto’s eyes are adjusting. He’s scanning the rocks for the little silver parachute. It takes him a moment to locate it, but once he does he’s scrambling to get to it as quick as he can. 

He’s grabbing the whole thing, both parachute and canister. It’s important they hide all traces of their whereabouts for as long as they can and he’s seen games before where tribute’s forgetting to properly discard their sponsor’s parachutes led to their untimely ends. 

He’s picking his way back to the cave entrance when it strikes him that he should open the canister now and see what’s inside. If there are any instructions it’ll be easier to read them out here anyway. 

There’s a small silver tin. He’s unscrewing it...hoping...praying...there’s an opaque whitish substance inside. Medicine. He suddenly feels a thousand times lighter. Things are looking up. Things actually might be okay.

There’s a card jammed in there too. No doubt from Formaggio. He picks it up and turns it over and reads:

You’ve got their hearts. Don’t kill the momentum.  -F

---

The President’s just entering the ornate living room of his lead gamemaker’s private apartment. It’s night and as he makes his way in, he’s tapping his cane on the floor to announce his entrance. 

A blond head pops up from the couch. It’s G. The games’ lead host and commentator.

“I wasn’t aware that Sorbet had company.”

“I always come here when I get off.” G’s saying with a grin. “The night host just went on about 30 minutes ago.”

“You should be careful who you get entangled with.”

“Of course, Mr. President.” But G doesn’t really look like he’s taking the President’s words to heart. 

Sorbet’s just come in from another room and he stops up short. 

“Good evening.” The President is smiling. “You mind if we have a private chat...just very briefly?”

“Of course not.” Sorbet’s nodding at G and the latter’s popping to his feet and making his way out of the room. 

“I’m going to come straight to the point here, Sorbet. You are aware of the situation with the two tributes from District 5, yes?”

“How could I not be.”

“And you will be taking steps to remedy this issue before it gets out of hand?”

“Of course.” 

“You’ll have to be very careful about this, you know. The public’s already very invested in this sudden romantic development. They’ve been starved for that sort of thing for quite a few games now.”

Sorbet nods.

“Whatever you do...it has to look like an accident.”

“I’m open to any suggestions.”

“In that case...you need to kill Risotto Nero first. The other won’t survive without him. If either of them win, it’ll be a tragic story that’ll hover over us for years to come. I wouldn’t put it past either of them to try and stir up resentment in honor of the other’s memory and that’s something we absolutely can’t have.” 

“I understand.”

“And in case you’re lacking in motivation or inspiration...it’s either you or them. And if you go down...I’m sure there will be some collateral damage.” His gaze is looking off into the next room where G is no doubt waiting patiently for the President’s departure. “I can replace people anytime I want. No one’s invaluable. But maintaining peace and order in society...that is invaluable. I hope you have a good night.”

The President’s tipping his head at the gamemaker and in another moment he’s gone.

---

It’s midnight in the arena and Risotto’s wide awake. He’s just heard the cannon go off, marking the death of another tribute. Prosciutto’s nestled up against him, still fast asleep. His leg’s already doing much better and his fever finally broke during the latter part of the evening. 

He’s mulling over Formaggio’s note in his mind.

You’ve got their hearts. Don’t kill the momentum.  -F

The gamemakers will likely come after them with a vengeance for what they’re doing. But that doesn’t matter now. There’s nothing they can do to change how things are. But even if they die...if they’re both killed...it’ll have been worth it, he tells himself. At least they’ll be dying for the sake of people they care about. And in a world where there’s so little meaning in doing anything, that at least feels likes something. 



Chapter Text

It starts raining around three in the morning. The pitter-patter sound on the roof of the building wakes Pesci up a few hours sooner than he’d planned, but he almost doesn’t mind it since this is his last morning in this room. 

Dinner the night before had been difficult. Pesci’d never been a big talker and so no one really noticed that he was more quiet than usual. Formaggio had been making his usual jokes and there had been a big to-do over Melone having his Stand out under the table. The thing had been crawling around on its odd little limbs and stuffing bits of food surreptitiously into people’s shoes, which was something none of them were aware it could do and which all of them are properly horrified to discover it could...Gelato had been regarding the table with a conspiratorial grin, which made them all suspect that he’d probably been the mastermind behind the mischief, but no one dared accuse him in front of Sorbet, who oddly enough was the only one to have come out the whole ordeal with his shoes still pristine. Ghiaccio was ranting on top of his chair and Formaggio looked like he was ready to come to blows with anyone who looked even vaguely suspicious. Emotions had reached such a pitch that dinner would have descended into chaos if Prosciutto hadn’t threatened to age them all to the point they were physically unable to squabble with one another. 

“And if you lose all your damn hair over it, that’ll be your own fault!” He was shouting over the din. 

This seemed to settle the table down until they were able to have a semi-reasonable conversation concerning who would clean what (Melone, but not Gelato because they had no solid evidence against him and Sorbet was already scowling at the mere suggestion that his beloved would come up with something so childish) and what time frame he would be given to do so (he had until the following afternoon to get the washing part done and then everyone’s shoes would have to air dry for as long as that ended up taking). 

As Pesci watched all this, though, it was all he could do to keep from crying. He loves his dysfunctional little squad. He loves how, no matter how much they bicker, they always come back together again. He loves that they’re there for each other no matter what...that, as much as they might deny it, they’d lay down their lives for one another. But he didn’t feel like he was a part of that. He didn’t pull his weight and he couldn’t expect to be equally valued.

He’d ended up slipping out of the dining room early that night. No one said anything or asked him to stay. And maybe that was best. Maybe it was better that he go out quietly and not make a big fuss about things or get himself worked up over veiled farewells. Maybe the last things he said to these men didn’t have to be meaningful at all. Maybe he should just say something ordinary...or maybe nothing at all.

He was in his room for the night by eight, his door locked just as an extra precaution against the unlikely possibility of unwelcome visitors. After mulling it over in his head for a bit, he’d firmly decided he would leave without saying anything at all. 

But now as he lies awake listening to the rain fall on the roof, his heart feels heavy. He wishes things were different...that there was something he could do...but it’s become abundantly clear to him that he’s exhausted all his other options and that this is all that’s left. 

He manages to drift off to sleep for another hour or so, but his squad fills his dreams, their faces popping up when he least expects them to. He gets up and spends a short while pacing around his room. He tries to focus on something definite, but his mind keeps going blank and he feels anxious. 

Finally, he grabs his clothes, his coat and throws them on and is out the front door before the clock’s even struck five. 

It’s still dark out and the rain outside is light, but the air is frigid. Pesci pulls his coat tight and starts down the street. 

He’s soaked within minutes, but he keeps going. 

A half hour later he comes to the bridge. He’s halfway across, his eyes fixed on the other side, when he pauses. There’s someone standing at the other end looking down over the water. It’s a familiar figure. He contemplates turning back and finding another way across...but then maybe this was meant to happen. 

He keeps going. His plan is to walk on by as if he hasn’t noticed...or as if he’s got somewhere to be and can’t be bothered…

“You taking a walk in the rain too, Pesci?” Ghiaccio’s hair is lying flat against his head. Obviously he’s been out here a while. 

“You’re awfully far from headquarters.” Pesci begins.

“So are you. You going somewhere?”

Pesci feels his heart contract.

“And don’t lie and say someone sent you looking for me. The sun’s not even up yet.”

“I-I couldn’t sleep.” 

“So you decided to go wandering around outside in the rain? That doesn’t sound like you.”

Pesci’s always been bad at lying so he decides not to even bother trying. “I’m going to the train station.” 

“You running away?”

“I’m not...I’m not cut out for this kind of work. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and...and I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favors by sticking around. I’m dragging the whole team down...”

“Is this about what happened last week?”

“I mean that’s part of it…”

“Sorbet been on your ass about that? I’d tell him to go fuck himself if I were you. Shit happens. It can happen even to him. And if he thinks it was your fault...”

“It was though. I searched the whole room with my Stand and told him it was clear to go in...but it wasn’t. And then I just kinda froze up and didn’t do anything while everyone else-”

“How many assignments you been on?” Ghiaccio interrupts. 

The question throws Pesci a moment, but he starts counting on his fingers. “Uhhh...I think…”

Ghiaccio lets out a short laugh. “If you can count on your hands how many times you’ve been sent out for a job, you shouldn’t be kicking yourself for messing up. We all fucked up when we were first starting out. You should hear the stories about what sloppy work Sorbet did when he was a teenager. All passion and anger and no strategy. God, I almost wish I could have been around back then just so I could rub it in his face now.”

“But it was so bad…”

“You don’t gotta tell me. I saw what Sorbet looked like when he got back that night. He was pretty fucked up, but it wasn’t like he was dying or anything. IReally, he was probably just pissed that Gelato had to deal with all that shit that went down without him. He gets a bit obsessive about making sure Gelato gets through the job in one piece. Gelato does such stupid shit sometimes that I think he’s afraid he’ll end up getting himself killed if there’s not someone to watch him.  But it’s not like Gelato was stuck fending for himself. You guys had Prosciutto and Formaggio with you, too.”

“Sorbet says I make Prosciutto look bad...and that if he weren’t vouching for me, I’d have been sent off to a different squad ages ago...”

“Sorbet used to have good judgment, too, but he’s gotten a bit stupid and distracted if you ask me. But Prosciutto actually has good judgment. That’s why Risotto lets him run things so often. He trusts him. Now I’m not gonna sit here and sugarcoat things and try and make you feel better and say you’re good at what you’re asked to do. You’re a pretty crappy Stand user and it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re doing most the time and I personally don’t see you really doing much to try and figure that all out. That being said, though, that’s how most of us were when we were first starting out. We had to fuck up a lot before we got our shit together.”

“I don’t want to hurt people…”

“You think we’re all in here because we think killing people’s fun? Maybe I can’t speak for some individuals, but this is a job and we’re here because we’re the best there is. Well, most of us are, anyway. But killing people isn’t our defining quality. It’s something we do, but it doesn’t really sum up who we are as individuals.”

“Does it ever get easier?”

“You get used to it after a while...you don’t think about what you’re doing as much. I think the trick is to try and focus on the other things in your life. Like Formaggio’s got his cats. And Sorbet and Gelato have each other. Prosciutto micro-manages the shit out of our day-to-day lives. Illuso has his regularly scheduled moping hours in the mirror world. No idea what Risotto does, but I’m sure even he has something.”

“And you’ve got Melone, right?” 

Ghiaccio sighs and looks off across the water. “I keep fucking that up, though.”

“You guys have a fight or something?”

“I yelled at him last night over that stupid thing with the shoes. I know he was just being a dumbass and thought it was funny…and I know he had Gelato egging him on telling him it was a good idea...but it just really pissed me off and I laid into him for it and told him what an idiot he was. Kicked him out of the room and everything. And then, and I kid you not, he sat at the door for a good two hours trying to apologize to me, but I was being such an obstinate ass about it...I’m a real piece of shit sometimes...and I can be really horrible to him and it just kills me once I realize what I’m doing. I’ve still not figured out what he keeps me around for. There’re a lot of days I’m not even nice to him.”

“Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re just looking at the problem and not doing much to try and figure it all out.”

Pesci can tell just from Ghiaccio’s expression that this has struck a chord.

“But at least you’re not trying to run away from your problems like I am.”

Ghiaccio fixes him with a startled look. And then he’s got his eyes back on the water and says, in a quiet voice, “What do you think I’m doing right now, Pesci? You think I wandered all the way out here just to stare at the river?”

“I don’t understand...”

“You weren’t the only one heading for the train station this morning.”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

“I don’t know what else to do…” There’s a quaver in Ghiaccio’s voice. “I keep fucking up and he keeps giving me chances and I just waste them one after another...and I feel like shit for it every day…”

“Prosciutto’s always saying I got potential...but that I just haven’t found a way to reach it yet. Maybe Melone sees the same thing in you and he’s just waiting for you to get there.”

“Except he knows better than anyone that I’m not going to change. I’ve always been the same volatile ass I am now. And that’s not fair to him. He deserves a lot better than that.”

Pesci pauses a moment and then asks, “So which train you catching?”

“Probably the 6:10.”

Pesci nods slowly. “Me too.”

“Any idea where you’ll go?”

“Nah...just somewhere else. You?”

Ghiaccio hesitates and then replies, “Just somewhere else.”

Pesci’s leaning on the rail next to Ghiaccio and watching the river run away into the darkness. “Will you miss him?”

Ghiaccio makes a noise that sounds almost like a stifled sob. “What the fuck sort of a question is that?”

“I think Melone will miss you a lot. We should probably go, though. Or we’ll miss the train.” He’s pushed himself off the rail and is heading down to the end of the bridge. Ghiaccio’s not following...just as he expected. “You not coming anymore?”

He looks over his shoulder. Ghiaccio’s trying to keep his face composed, but Pesci can see his expression cracking. 

“We can make it if we hurry.”

Ghiaccio doesn’t move.

“You wanna just go home?”

“I can’t-”

“Everyone else keeps giving us all these chances, even when we feel like we’re not earning them. Maybe let’s give ourselves one more go at things.”

Pesci’s stepping back onto the bridge and starting back the way he came. 

“You really think we should?” Ghiaccio’s voice is behind him.

He pauses a moment. “I didn’t before...but now...I don’t know...I don’t know that I ever really wanted to go in the first place...I just thought I had to...or that it’d be best for the team...but maybe there’s a good reason for Risotto not sending me away...and maybe I should ask him what that is...and I think you should ask Melone the same thing.” 

Pesci’s continuing on. The rain has stopped. It’s still pretty cold out and the sun won’t be fully up for a least another hour, but he’ll just change into something dry when he gets home. 

As he steps off the bridge, it strikes him how quiet the city is at this hour. How the only things he can hear are his own two feet on the pavement and the frantic footfalls of someone rushing to catch up with him.

 

Chapter Text

“Hey, Gelato. I  need to ask you something important.”

Gelato lifts his eyes from the knife that he’s been meticulously polishing for the last twenty minutes. Melone’s popped his head around the corner and he’s probably hanging off of some fixture on the wall that he’s not supposed to because only his head his visible. As Gelato meets his eye, though, he’s tipping his head so that it almost looks like he’s upside down. The blond raises a questioning eyebrow. 

“You’re going to hurt yourself. And I’m going to laugh my ass off when you do.”

Melone’s tilting himself over even further and his hair is dangling less than a foot off the floor and all the blood is rushing to his head.

“You gonna answer my question?”

“You gotta ask it first and then I’ll decide. But I’m gonna be up front with you, if this question has something to do with you not wearing pants right now…”

“Who said I’m not wearing pants?”

“Who said you were .”

“True enough. I really wish you’d give me those kinds of ideas in advance, though. That’s actually pretty good. It might have enhanced the shock value of my entrance.”

“I don’t think you need that kind of encouragement.” But Gelato’s smiling despite himself.  “So you going to come in here and tell me what you’re up to.”

Melone pulls himself right side up again and disappears momentarily before striding out from around the corner.

“And he’s fully clothed after all.” Melone announces. “Disappointed?”

“Always.”

Melone’s smirking as he perches himself on the edge of Gelato’s work table.

“So what’s new?” The blond is intent on his knife again and so Melone stretches a leg across the table...just to make sure Gelato hasn’t forgotten he’s there.

“I need you to teach me something.”

“Such as?” Gelato is pushing the offending leg back towards the table’s edge and eyeing his friend suspiciously. 

“I need you to teach me how to ice skate.”

“Who told you I know how to ice skate?”

“Who told me you didn’t?”

“Sorry, but that’s not in my repertoire of tricks. I think you ought to ask Ghiaccio-”

“That’s the thing, though. It can’t be Ghiaccio because the only reason I want to learn how to skate at all is because I wanted to surprise him.”

“By what? Falling on your ass a little more gracefully than usual?”

“I want to learn how to ice skate.” Melone repeats. His tone is a bit less playful than before.

Gelato looks up from his knife. Melone’s giving him a pleading look.

“Shit. You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Ghiaccio’s always out there on the ice doing laps or whatever it is he does...and it’s really the only time he’s not hold up in his room. And the rest of the time we’re stuck with the group…”

“So you trying to sneak in some one-on-one time?” 

“I mean how else will he notice me?” Melone’s stretched himself across the table, his movements rather like a cat begging for attention. He's on his side with one hand propping up his head.

 “You’re kinda hard to miss...what with you draping yourself across random shit all the time.”

“I don’t mean I want him to just notice me...I want us to actually get to know each other. We’ve been on the same squad for almost two years now and I can count on one hand how many times we’ve talked...and I mean, really talked. Like heart to heart...man to man...or whatever people call it.” Melone’s managed to ‘accidentally’ knock the contents of Gelato’s polishing kit onto the floor.

“And whose fault is that?” Gelato’s stooping over to collect the scattered items as he speaks.

“I don’t know...I guess it was more fun just pushing his buttons and I never took the time to look at him as a person.” 

“You pushing people’s buttons? Who’d ever suspect your were capable of that!” He’s got his kit back in order and is putting it well out of Melone’s reach. 

“But I want to fix that. I mean...I’m still gonna fuck with him whenever I feel like it, but…"

"...but you're gonna swoop in on a pair of skates and he'll magically find you less annoying."

"Precisely! So when do we start?"

"I told you already. I don't skate. The only blades I'm good with are the ones you use to stab people."

"Well, you know people who ice skate, right?"

"Yeah...Ghiaccio...you...in the very, very distant future."

"Ha! Aren't you funny." 

"Maybe it's just me, but I detected just the slightest hint of sarcasm there. I don't think you appreciate my backhanded attempts to bolster your confidence."

Melone flops onto his back and folds his arms in an obvious and overexaggerated pout.

"Well, what the hell am I supposed to do? I can't just go down to a public ice rink and sign up for lessons like a normal person would! Taking lessons in a public place isn't exactly keeping a low profile. And it's not like I got the money to rent out a whole rink...and if I drag my heels about this...I don't know...Illuso said Ghiaccio took someone skating with him the other night, but nobody knows who it was. And that got me thinking...if I don't step things up... someone else might snap Ghia up…"

"Assuming Ghiaccio doesn't snap their head off first for even being bold enough to approach him."

"There're plenty of people out their crazy enough to take that risk.”

“God knows why.” Gelato’s sighing though as he puts a hand on Melone’s arm. “But if it means that much to you...I might know a guy who I could talk into teaching us to ice skate.”

Melone sits bolt upright. “Really?!” And then it registers. “Wait...teach us ?”

“I don’t think he’d be willing to teach just you...not even if I asked him...but if I asked him to teach me and you just happened to come along...”

“I mean...if it works, it works!” But then Melone narrows his eyes. “You swear this is a real thing and you’re not just pulling my leg right now.”  

“Absolutely real. Cross my heart and hope to die. Now, I can’t guarantee he’ll say yes...but if I butter him up a bit…"

Melone's lips turn upward in a conspiratorial smile. 

"Going to play to your strengths, I see."

Gelato shrugs and grins. "What can I say? I can't help that I'm naturally persuasive."

"So who's the guy? How much am I gonna owe you for this?" Melone leans over and cups  Gelato's chin in his hand.

Gelato's waving a dismissive hand, though. "You know I don't work like that."

"I wouldn't mind if you did."

"I'm sure you wouldn't. But as to the guy... he's a bit of an ass, but, truth be told, I've been meaning to take a crack at him for a while."

"You'll let me know if it doesn't work out." Melone's twisting a lock of Gelato's hair around his finger.

"You'll be the first to know. But only if you'll promise to do the same."

"Deal."

---

"Now push off gently with your other foot. GENTLY!"

But Melone's already lost his balance and overcorrected and is on his ass. Gelato, who’s just a little ways behind him, is digging his blades into the ice as hard as he can to prevent the imminent collision, but he can’t stop himself quickly enough. He goes sprawling onto the unforgiving surface. 

"Shit...sorry. You okay, G?" Melone's trying to push himself up as he reaches for his friend, but a lithe, dark shape cuts between them. 

"Don't fucking move." 

Sorbet is lifting Gelato to his feet and carefully guiding him over to the side of the rink. 

"You hit your head?" Sorbet's voice is suddenly unnaturally soft. He's got one hand around Gelato's waist and he's brushing back the hair from Gelato's forehead to check for abrasions or the like...even though it's obvious even without the gesture that he won't find anything there that needs his attention. 

"I don't think so...but it wouldn't hurt to check." Sorbet is more than willing to oblige. He’s running his hands meticulously over Gelato’s scalp. The latter flashes a grin and a wink in Melone’s direction.

That son of a bitch…

The ice feels cold underneath him, but Melone makes no move to get back on his feet. He’s transfixed by the sight of Sorbet...Sorbet, who doesn't take shit from anyone but certainly takes a hard line on pretty much everything...Sorbet, who has more hits under his belt than all of them combined and who has never once hesitated to kill, maim, or disfigure in the most brutal fashion imaginable...Sorbet, who the entire squad regards with a mix of fear and respect, but mostly fear, because no one in their right mind would be caught dead alone with him...and yet Gelato’s decided, for some reason or another, that this is the piece of ass he wants...except it’s not quite like that because, from what Gelato’s told him, he’s actually really seriously interested in this psychopath. And while Melone will be the first to acknowledge an attractive man when he sees one, there are certain off-putting behaviors…

But, really, the weirdest part is that Gelato's not doing anything particular to win Sorbet over. He’s just carrying on the way he usually does...well, okay,  he is being a bit more of a dumbass than usual, but not so much so that anyone but Melone would notice. And what’s boggling Melone’s mind is that this is actually effective...Sorbet’s giving him attention without him even putting out all that much effort to earn it. Because, realistically, Melone’s fallen on his ass a significant number of times more than Gelato has (and has done so in a far more dramatic fashion), and Sorbet hasn’t even offered to help him to his feet once! But he’s certainly made a point of helping Gelato up EVERY SINGLE TIME and to add insult to injury (quite literally), he’s had his hands all over the blond. If Sorbet thinks for even a second that either of them have failed to notice the way he’s gripped Gelato’s hands just a little too long when he’s pulled him to his feet...or the pointed way he’s latched onto Gelato’s waist to ‘steady’ him…

Sorbet’s spent the last minute or so trying to convince Gelato he should maybe take a short rest after his latest fall, but the latter is waving him away and starting to push off back across the ice.

“Up you come.” Gelato’s stopped in front of Melone and he’s bending over and helping him up again. Even with the extra assistance, though, Melone’s blades are slipping this way and that underneath him and he’s going down again. Gelato drops his hands and lets him land on his ass.

“I’m really shitty at this, aren’t I?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything…” Gelato says lightly. 

Sorbet’s suddenly appeared at Gelato’s side and he’s put a hand on his waist as if he thinks just standing there perfectly still is putting him at great risk of falling. 

“I can’t give you a sense of balance. You either have it or you don’t.” Sorbet says, a bit sharply. “Gelato seems to have figured it out so I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you.”

Melone isn’t one to care very much what assholes like Sorbet think of him, but something about this remark pisses him off. Maybe he’s overreacting or maybe he’s just a bit jealous that Gelato’s doing so well with his romantic interest while he’s slowly but spectacularly failing to learn the one thing that would get Ghiaccio’s attention...or maybe it’s the fact that Sorbet has just very stealthily slid his hand from Gelato’s waist to his hip and, seeing as Gelato either hasn’t noticed or just simply doesn’t care enough to say anything, has now had the audacity (since he is clearly not only an intolerable person, but a bold one too) to move his hand just a bit lower...and that’s just really too much and too far.  

“You want to know what’s wrong? ‘Cause I will tell you exactly what’s wrong here!” Melone is getting to his feet and digging his blades into the ice. “What’s wrong is that your hand is on his ass right now and I’m pretty sure your eyes have been there for, oh, the entire ‘lesson’ or whatever this is supposed to be.” 

Gelato is grinning, as if he’s quite pleased with his success, but Sorbet doesn’t even blink. If anything, he just scowls a bit more than usual. 

“You can’t tell me what I’m doing wrong if you’re not even watching.”

“Just so we’re clear, he asked me to teach him to skate. He didn’t mention anything about you tagging along and then two of you show up when I’m only expecting one...” Sorbet doesn’t even bother to hide his irritation.

“Then you should have told me to fuck off.”

“You want that in writing next time?”

Gelato lets out an involuntary snort of laughter. 

“What? Is that funny to you?” Sorbet’s glaring. Gelato can barely contain himself. 

“God, you were half-serious, weren’t you?” The blond snickers.

Sorbet almost looks flustered. 

“I don’t know what the hell you’re-”

“He’s got a point, though. You have been awfully attentive today. And just a bit handsy too. You going to explain that?”

“What’s there to explain. I thought I was making myself very clear.”

“Physically-speaking, yes. But in the real world, we use our words.”

Sorbet looks uncomfortable. He says nothing. 

“Ah, what a little tease you are! All that and now you’ve got nothing to say! Can you believe this, Melone? Well!” Gelato’s pushing off. He glides a handful of yards across the ice. “You want to remind me how to stop again?”

“Feet together...slide one foot out and turn it in and apply pressure...no, not like that! Damnit, you know how to do this! You’ve been doing it all fucking morning, so don’t start in like you don’t--no, not like that either. You’re going to fall and break something if you--ah, shit. I told you!”

“Oh damn, I fell again. But you know what, the view’s pretty nice down here. I think I’ll sit here awhile. You two go a head and skate without me for a bit.” Gelato’s drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. 

“You’re going to freeze your ass off.” 

“I’ll tell you when I want you to come help me up again. How ‘bout that beautiful? Sound like a good deal?”

Sorbet kicks the ices and makes a small sound of disgust and Gelato’s blowing him an overexaggerated kiss. The dark-haired man circles the ice and comes to a stop next to Melone.

“Right...now, you’re going to push off gently this time…”

---

Two hours later, Melone finally manages to circle the entire rink once without falling. It takes a long while and he moves slowly, but when he finally passes Sorbet, the latter lets out a small huff, but he’s nodding with vague approval.

“I’ve seen worse, but at least you got around. You’ll have to do a lot of practice on your own, though, if you actually want to be half decent. I’d recommend-”

But Melone’s not paying attention because Gelato’s just come zipping across the ice much too quickly and they’re both on the ground. Neither seems to really care though.

“YOU SEE THAT? YOU SEE THAT?!” Melone’s shrieking as he hugs his friend.

“I SAW!”

 “ALL THE WAY AROUND! I MADE IT ALL THE WAY! ALL THE FREAKING WAY!!!” 

“You know if you keep that up,” Gelato’s suddenly dropped his voice to a confidential tone. “You’ll have certain people drooling all over you in no time. Especially if you’re out there wearing these tights again because they really accentuate your-”

“We finished?” Sorbet cuts in. “I’ve got much better things to do than-”

“Oh, are you still here?” Gelato’s giving him a mock surprised look. 

Sorbet’s face is pure vexation. 

“Why don’t you go get yourself out of those skates.” Gelato’s saying to Melone. “I think I need to have a little talk with someone.” Gelato nods over at Sorbet.

“Mmm. Right, then. I’ll make myself ‘scarce’.”

“You’re so predictable…”

“Aren’t I?”

“Ah, but what would I do without you?”

“Well, I could name someone off the top of my head...but I wouldn’t want to put that kind of pressure on you.”

“How considerate. Now clear out, pretty please.”

Melone’s up and gliding across the ice to the side of the rink, leaving Gelato to face Sorbet.

“So...” Gelato’s on his feet too know and he drifts over toward the dark-haired man and comes to an emphatic stop in front of him. “...I’d like to thank you for all your patience today. It really means a lot to me. And I’m sorry if Melone was a bit of a surprise, but he really wanted to come along and I just couldn’t say no.”

“You might give some advanced warning next time.” 

“Ah...well, you see...that’s the thing. There probably won’t be a next time. We’ve both got the basics down and I imagine we can just practice on our own from here on out.”

“Right...right, of course.” Sorbet looks crestfallen for the briefest of moments. 

“Does that disappoint you?” 

“Like I said before...I’ve got better things to do right now.”

“That’s funny because when I first asked you about doing a skating lesson you said you didn’t have anything to do today at all...that your schedule was completely open! But you seem to be in an awful rush to get somewhere and I wouldn’t want to keep you so…” He’s turning his head in an exaggerated way that suggests he’s about to push off.

Sorbet takes the cue. “You...uh...busy later?”

“I don’t know. Let me ask Melone.” He’s skating off to the side of the rink extra slowly, making sure to add in a suggestive flutter each time he shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

Sorbet looks like he just might blow a gasket. 

“Melone, dear.” He’s speaking much, much too loudly. Melone is leaning on the side of the rink trying to pull an oh-so serious face, but it’s all he can do to stifle his laughter. “Am I busy later?”

“Well that all depends. Who wants to know?”

“Sorbet.”

They both look over their shoulder simultaneously. Sorbet’s standing in the center of the ice, both hands clenched at his side. 

“Damn...what did you do to him?” Melone’s lowered his voice considerably. “He’s tapping into reserves of patience he doesn’t even have. Is this guy really that desperate?” Gelato swats at Melone’s arm.

“He is letting us get away with quite a bit.” Gelato’s lowered his voice too.

“I’ll say. Well, it’s your move Casanova. You can either tease him and break his heart or you could make him real, real happy. ‘Cause he really doesn’t look very happy right now...not in the normal sense or the other sense either, and I can tell because-”

“Would you stop looking!”

Melone places a hand on Gelato’s shoulder. “It’s my job to notice these kinds of things...because how else will you know if you’re performing up to standards. It’s not enough, winning a guy’s heart. You gotta be able to win his-”

Gelato claps a hand over Melone’s mouth. “Don’t you take your eyes off me. You might learn something.”

He’s turning around and pushing off. Sorbet reads his movements and is skating forward, clearly intending to meet him halfway. Gelato’s moving a bit quicker than he should, though, which is making Sorbet hesitate. 

And then Gelato stumbles. Likely on purpose, but Sorbet has no way of knowing this.

The latter throws out his arms to catch the blond. Gelato’s made a slight attempt to slow down, but not enough of one to prevent him from colliding into the dark-haired man. 

Sorbet topples over backwards onto the ice, Gelato on top of him. They’ve ended up face to face.

“Oops.” Gelato’s tone is light but completely unapologetic. “You know, I might need those extra lessons after all...if I keep falling like this…”

“That’s a very reasonable conclusion.” Sorbet’s voice is pitched just a bit higher than usual. 

“Mmmm. You asked me a question earlier...but I seem to have forgotten what it was.”

Sorbet’s looking up into Gelato’s eyes. He’s more than a bit overwhelmed, but he rallies. “I was wondering if you were busy later.”

“Turns out I’m not.”

Sorbet swallows hard. He’s steeling himself for his next line. “Would-would you like to be?”

“Of course, I’m also not busy right now so…”

The chances of Sorbet suddenly dying of a heart attack have increased tenfold. 

Melone’s watching with a mix of surprise and amusement as Gelato goes in for the kill. Damn. This guy gives no quarter.

Melone lets out a loud wolf whistle. “You’re gonna melt the ice if you two aren’t careful.”

Gelato’d love to make some snarky reply, but he’s got his lips locked with Sorbet and is not about to let Melone interrupt the moment. And so he lifts his hand above his head and hails his friend with his middle finger.

---

Melone continues with his skating without the assistance of Gelato or his new portable chair...er...uh, boyfriend. He figures the pair would be too distracted by each other to help him anyway. Not even if he were to ask really nicely.

He feels like he’s making pretty good progress on his own, though, and after a few weeks of going at it every day, he feels confident enough to show off his new skill to Ghiaccio. 

The other man is pretty predictable in his routines, so it’ll only be a matter of happening by him when he’s out on the ice. There’s a river Ghiaccio likes to go to first thing every morning and if Melone were to just show up…

“Fancy running into you here!” Melone’s calling from the bank.

The sun is just starting to peek above the horizon. 

Ghiaccio comes to a dead stop and looks over to see who has dared intrude on the sanctity of his river.

“Melone? What the hell are you doing here?”

“I thought I’d come check on you...see how you were. You know, the usual.”

Ghiaccio cocks an eyebrow. “If I’m not mistaken, you’re never out of bed before nine. So this doesn’t strike me as very ‘usual’ at all.”

“Details, details.” Melone’s waving a dismissive hand. “Illuso told me you like to come out here every morning.”

“Did he now?”

Melone suddenly has the impression that Illuso’s future existence might be in jeopardy and so he adds. “But it’s like they always say right…don’t shoot the messenger.”  

“First off, I don’t know who the hell ‘they’ is. And second, the phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ means the person receiving the information, which in this case was you, shouldn’t retaliate against the news bearer. So what you’ve said has pretty much no coherent meaning or relevance to me and I will have you know that I can go and maim anyone who is running around and dispersing information about my whereabouts when I SPECIFICALLY COME OUT HERE TO GET SOME DAMN PEACE AND QUIET AND GET AWAY FROM ALL OF YOU LUNATICS!!”

Melone feels his insides flutter. He’s willing himself to keep a straight face, but he’s starting to crack. Fuck. Why is he so damn cute when he’s angry?

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SMILING ABOUT???” 

Melone covers his mouth with his hand and takes a moment to wipe the dumb, infatuated grin of his face. 

“I...uh, just had a thought. But it’s really nothing.”

“Well, are you done bothering me?” 

“For now. But if you don’t mind, I’d love to watch you skate for a bit. I’ve heard you’re really good.” 

“I guess that’s alright.” He doesn’t look quite sold on the idea, though. “And I am pretty decent.” He’s trying to make a play at being modest, but his face very clearly reads: Bitch, I’m not just good...I’m...THE best. Melone is imagining those exact words in Ghiaccio’s voice and he’s got a hand to his face again to cover the small snort of laughter that’s just escaped him.

“You say something?”

“Nothing. Don’t mind me. I’m not even here.”

Ghiaccio makes a small sound of disgust and is off down the river. Melone realizes he’s never really seen Ghiaccio skate before and that he really is good. He moves exceptionally well and while Melone always assumed he’d be an aggressive skater, which no doubt he is when the occasion calls for it, he also has a certain elegance to him that surprises Melone. And on top of that, he has very, very nice thighs. And a very, very nice-

“I don’t like you just sitting there watching me like that. It feels like you’re ogling me or something.”

Guilty as charged. “Not at all. I was just admiring your...uh...technique. But if it really bothers you all that much, maybe you’d prefer it if I joined you instead.”

“Joined me?”

“Yeah. I just happened to bring my ice skates. You see, I was on my way to this little rink Sorbet showed me and Gelato a few weeks back...”

“That rink is literally the opposite direction from here.”

“I was taking the scenic route.”

Ghiaccio narrows his eyes. “You enjoying the scenery?”

“Oh, absolutely. Every bit of it.”

“Well, I guess that might be less annoying than you just sitting here. But don’t think I’m going to give you pointers or help you up when you fall or any shit like that.”

“Of course not.” 

He’s got his skates out of his bag and is putting them on...making a point of angling his legs as he does so, so that they’re looking their very best in case Ghiaccio should happen to glance his way. 

Ghiaccio doesn’t notice. He’s gone several hundred yards upstream and has his back to Melone.

‘Not an issue...not an issue at all.’ He’s telling himself. ‘He just didn’t happen to be facing the right direction. I’ll just wait until he starts heading back and then I’ll get up and maybe happen to bend over to adjust one of the boots and then-”

But Ghiaccio keeps going. He’s actually getting pretty far away, which makes Melone wonder...is this some kind of challenge? Is he wanting to see if Melone can keep up? Well, that’s not an issue either. Not an issue at all.

---

Melone feels a bit exhilarated by how he seems to be flying across the ice. He’s never really tried skating this fast before, but he finds that once he gets a good rhythm going, it’s actually not so difficult. 

He imagines the moment he’ll finally catch up to Ghiaccio. The latter will be startled by the sound of blades on the ice and will turn his head to see what sort of exceptional being has done the impossible and dared match him at his own game. He’ll be struck by the sight of Melone, silhouetted in the glow of the morning sun peeking over the hills, hair flowing and every curve of his lithe body accentuated by the carefully chosen spandex getup he squeezed himself into this morning just for the occasion. He’ll certainly be too shocked by the glorious sight of his teammate to maintain his pace and that’s when Melone will catch him. And once he does...oh-ho, once he does…

Melone’s barely been at it five minutes, though, when his legs begin to burn. Ghiaccio’s nowhere in sight. But there’s no way Ghiaccio could have turned around yet because Melone hasn’t seen him come by heading the opposite direction. No…he’s sure if he just keeps going for a bit longer…

Barely three minutes later, Melone comes skidding to a halt. His legs are going to give out if he keeps it up and he still has to skate back the way he came...somehow. At this point he’s starting to question whether Ghiaccio’s stamina is a blessing or a curse. It’s definitely something he finds attractive...or would if it weren’t such an inconvenience right now. 

He decides to sit down on the bank. Ghiaccio will probably be by anytime now and if he’s just patient…

---

“You tire yourself out already?”

Melone looks up. Ghiaccio’s appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

“When did you-”

“Just now. Obviously.”

Melone rolls his eyes. “Obviously. But how did you-”

“There’s a bend in the river not too far ahead where it branches off in two directions. And you don’t pay attention.”

Melone folds his arms across his chest. “You’ve been gone over a half hour.”

“Well, I’m sorry if some of us can’t wake up and skate forty kilometers every morning and have to sit things out after barely going one and a half…”

“Forty...you’re skating forty-”

“Twenty out and twenty back.You think I stay fit by sitting on my ass all the time?”

“I’d almost say that’s overkill...but if it gives you thighs like that…”

Ghiaccio’s turning crimson, but it’s unclear whether this is from embarrassment or anger. “What did you just say?” 

“You gonna get upset over a compliment?”

“I...no...that’s not the issue here.  That’s a weird fucking thing to say ‘cause it means you’ve been looking me over behind my back and-”

“Do you blame me? You’re easy on the eyes, Ghia.”

Ghiaccio clenches a fist. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“It means whatever will win me more points here.”

“Points? Are you fucking toying with me or something? Is this a game of yours?” 

Melone laughs lightly and rises to his feet, trying his best to look elegant and poised. 

“No games here. Promise.” He’s holding out an arm, almost as if he means for Ghiaccio to take it. “Shall we head back?” He’s gliding over to the other man.

Ghiaccio’s eyeing him suspiciously. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you even out here? You don’t skate.”

“Of course I do.”

“No, you don’t. I can tell from the way you hold yourself when you move. You’ve been at this for maybe a month at best.”

“So?” The tips of Melone's ears are burning.

“Why the hell would you pick up ice skating? Everyone knows that’s my thing. And if this is an ego thing…if you think you can show me up after a month, you got another thing coming!”

“I think you misunderstand…”

“I already got Sorbet coming out here every other week acting like he’s hot shit...just because he taught me how to skate when I first got my Stand, he thinks he needs to check in on me and make sure I’m not getting 'lax with my training'. The bastard thinks he needs to knit-pick the hell out of me like I still don't know what I'm doing. And the last thing I need is another idiot coming out here and prancing around like he knows something."

"Hold on now..." Sorbet? Was the person who Illuso said went out skating with Ghiaccio...Sorbet???? Has he had nothing to worry about his whole time?! “I think I’m about the last person who’d be trying to give you advice in your own area of expertise.”  Of course, he has his own areas of expertise that he’s sure Ghiaccio would appreciate a great deal if he were to give him the opportunity to, ah, flaunt his knowledge.

"I’ll say. You skate like shit."

This remarks stings a bit. “You’ve hardly even seen me except for just now…and I went, what, five feet..." 

Ghiaccio seems to have realized what he’s said, but he’s not about to back down. “What I mean is that, when it comes down to it, you’re either good at something or you’re shit at it. I don’t believe in making people feel better about themselves by letting them think there’s some mediocre, in-between niche they can lurk in indefinitely, until they actually decide to put in the effort to actually improve. And if you’re just starting out, you’re gonna be shit. But I was too a couple years back, so…”

Melone’s grinning a little. “Is that your way of encouraging me to keep at it?”

“Huh? No...no, I don’t care if you get better or not. Why should I?”

“No reason for you to care at all. Just like there’s no reason you stopped here even though you said you wouldn’t help me out if I needed help with anything.”

“I only stopped to tell you not to be such a layabout.”

“Well, it certainly took you a long time to say that.”

“Also, you gotta get your ass back to the start point because I’m gonna unfreeze the river once I’m finished. And unless you want to add swimming to your list of activities this morning…”

“I think I’ll pass on that one.”

---

They’re sitting on the bank and watching the sun slowly drift upward in the sky. The river’s murmuring before them, bits of ice still floating by here and there.

“So am I to assume you’re going to be a re-occuring fixture out here? Is this gonna be your way of getting me mentally ready for all the other shit you’re going to pull during the day...that it, Melone?” Ghiaccio sounds cross, but not entirely unhappy. 

“And here I was under the impression you enjoyed all my little capers.”

“If that’s what you think, you’re not doing much thinking.”

“Ouch. You gonna give me some ice to go with that burn?”

“Am I gonna what?!” Ghiaccio is instantly halfway to livid. 

“Never mind, Ghia. It was a joke.”

“Geeeeeze...sun’s barely up and I’ve already gotta deal with your crap…”

“Am I really as bad as all that?” Melone’s half-joking, half- serious. 

Ghiaccio glares at him, but says nothing. Melone takes that as a positive sign. 

“So you really went to all the trouble of trying to learn how to skate just to be able to fuck with me first thing in the morning?” Ghiaccio asks suddenly. 

“Well, I clearly can’t get enough of you during the day.” Melone teases. “And who wouldn’t want to see your permanent frown lines first thing in the morning?”

“I do not have permanent-”

“You keep making that face and you’re only going to make them worse. People will start asking you what you did to piss off Prosciutto, but you’ll have to tell them that...sadly...that’s just what your face looks like.”

“I knew you were full of shit earlier with your little compliment or whatever. You’re always doing that...saying nice things to people one minute and then slapping them in the face with an insult the next. And you wonder why no one likes you.”

Melone’s got a cheshire cat smile on his face.“Oh, did you hope I meant what I said? Because I did.” Ghiaccio’s scoffing in disbelief. “What? These are nice.” He’s reached over and is running a playful hand along Ghiaccio’s thigh. The latter is swatting his hand away with much less force than he probably should be. 

“Besides, I never said your frown lines were unattractive. In fact, I think they give you a very distinguished look. You know, the sort of look that makes people give you a wider berth than is probably necessary.” 

“You backhanded asshole!”

“What? If people give you a wider berth that means more room for me. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.” He sidles in just a bit closer to make his point. 

Ghiaccio takes a moment to consider all this. “Well, I guess I prefer being left alone, though. So if that’s the price of my peace of mind…”

“I’ll still be around to bother you, of course.”

“Of course.”  Ghiaccio’s digging the heel of his shoe into the earth. “But if you were smart about things, you’d pick on someone who wasn’t likely to hit you upside the head for it.” 

“Oh, but the risk is half the fun.”

“So you say.”

Melone’s leaning his leg up against Ghiaccio’s. The latter either doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind.

“Hey...Ghia…” The words are stuck in his throat and he suddenly feels incredibly nervous. “You, uh, really think I’m shit at ice skating?”

“I mean, you’re not very good...but you didn’t fall either. Then again, though, your stops were a bit shaky.”

“Yeah...I’ve been working on those...I’ve really been working on those.”

“Why, though?”

“Uhhh, so I don’t break my beautiful face or my ass or anything else that matters.”

“Because those are clearly important things...but I mean why’d you even pick up ice skating at all? It’s not like you. You don’t do things that require effort.”

“Yeah...but there were extenuating circumstances.”

Ghiaccio raises an eyebrow. “Like?”

“You like skating...and I wanted to learn to do something you liked.” His heart’s pounding in his chest. 

“Why?” 

“So I could spend more time with you.”

“And why would you want to spend more time with me? We see each other every single day and you bug the crap out of me, oh, every single day.”

“Yeah. But that’s different. That’s when we’re working...and you know I hate working and I get so damn bored...I mean, I wanted to spend time with just you...with no one else around.”

“Why?” Ghiaccio’s eyes are slits. 

“Is this fucking twenty questions or what?”

“I’ll stop asking questions when you start making sense.”

“What part of, ‘I want to spend time with just you’ doesn’t make sense?”

“The ‘why’ part...which is why I asked.”

“Why?! I mean...shit, isn’t it obvious? Hasn’t it been obvious for ages? Isn’t it obvious just from today?”

“No…”

“Do you really think I bother you all the time just because I’m an ass?”

“That’s one possibility.” 

“And what are the other ones?”

“That’s what I’m hoping you’ll tell me.” Ghiaccio’s looking him in the eye and Melone can see there’s a nearly imperceptible glint of something that looks like smugness. And then he understands. Ghiaccio knows. The little shit knows and has probably known for a while but he’s going to put Melone through the agony of saying it out loud just because he can. More than likely this is just payback for all the shit Melone’s put him through...but then two can play at this game.

“Well, I’ll be up front with you then.” Melone’s turned himself sideways to face Ghiaccio. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for a while now. You see, I think we’re compatible. And not just as squadmates.”

“Uh-huuuuh…” 

“And that being said, I think it’s only fitting that if I’m running around partaking in activities you like, it’s only fair if you return the favor.”

“You want me to take up professional lounging?”

“Nah, I’ve got something better.” He’s trying to keep a straight face. Ghiaccio’s bound to have a reaction but it’ll probably be even more satisfying if he has no hint of what’s coming. “I was thinking that we could be doing what Sorbet and Gelato have been doing every night for the past couple weeks...but, I’m thinking we could do it even better.”

Ghiaccio blinks a couple times as if he’s processing what he’s just heard. And then he’s frowning. The slight simper on Melone’s face is falling. Shit...has he misjudged the situation entirely? Ghiaccio should be turning red as a beet right now...but he’s not...so maybe he doesn’t get it. It flashes through Melone’s mind that maybe he’s the only one who really knows about Sorbet and Gelato because Gelato fills him in on every detail down to the size of Sorbet’s- ...well, he’s not going there right now because that’s completely irrelevant and there’s no way Ghiaccio hasn’t noticed those two hanging all over each other. It doesn’t take half a brain to put two and two together so why...

The sound of Ghiaccio’s cackling startles him. 

“Your face is priceless right now.”

Shit...is Ghiaccio playing him? Was that look from earlier just to mess with him and to get his hopes up only to pull the rug out from under him? Has he pissed him off enough for him to want to get even in the most vicious way possible?

“You look like you’ve just been spurned, Melone?”

“Haven’t I been?” He hates how small his voice sounds.

Ghiaccio gives him an incredulous look. “You can’t seriously think I’d be stupid enough to turn you down, can you?”

“What?”

Ghiaccio’s suddenly got a hand on his upper thigh and he’s leaning in much too close. Melone’s heart feels like it’s about to seize up...either from shock or the sudden rush of hormones to the lower half of his body.

“I can’t tell you how many months I’ve been after your ass. I figured after you had your fun with all your little escapades, you’d come around to something a bit more serious.”

“Y-yeah? That so?” Melone tries...and fails...to sound smooth and confident. 

“Don’t tell me you’re losing your nerve. You, of all people?! Otherwise Sorbet and Gelato will just keeping showing us up...and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

“No…” Melone’s found his smile again. “No, I certainly wouldn’t want that.”

---

When Gelato walks into the squad’s common room that morning, the first thing he sees is a single, bare foot hooked on the back of the couch. He doesn’t need to go any further to know who the foot’s owner is or what he’s doing or with who...because he can hear, quite obviously , that-

Gelato gives a long, suggestive whistle. “Hope you two are planning to clean up the couch afterward, Melone.”

The pair are carrying on as if he hadn’t spoken at all, and he’s about to make his exit when he sees an all too familiar hand rise above the back of the couch and hail him with the middle finger.

Gelato’s grinning as he shuts the door behind him. He really ought to go find Sorbet. It’s much too fine a morning not to be-



Chapter Text

“That the last of them?” Ghiaccio’s leaning against the wall, panting.

Sorbet’s standing a few yards away leisurely reloading his gun. Ghiaccio supposes this is his answer.

“I don’t sense anyone nearby, so I’d say yes.” He’s clapping the cylinder shut on his gun. “Never can be too careful, though. The charges set?”

“Yeah. Once we’re clear we can blow this fucker to pieces.” 

Sorbet nods, but he doesn’t look quite happy.

“What? You bitter because you think Risotto’s team will have finished first?”

“We have no excuse for taking as long as we did.”

“I’d say we ran into a few more guys than we were expecting.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Sorbet’s tone is sardonic. “But if we’d been in and out as quickly as we’d planned…”

“We did what we could.”

“Yes, most of us did.” Ghiaccio’s narrowing his eyes at the other man. “You need to teach that bastard how to shoot. You're always covering his ass and that makes it hard to rely on you for much."

"You're one to talk. I don’t see you getting on Gelato’s case for all the dangerous stunts he pulls. We’ve all been telling him for ages he shouldn’t put himself out in the open like he does because it’ll come back and bite him in the ass someday…guess that day was today.”

Sorbet’s lips tighten. 

“Don’t make that face. He’ll be fine. They just shot him up a bit. We’ve all been through worse than that. Besides, he was still awake when Melone took him out, which is certainly a positive. And Melone would have called if anything was really wrong, but he hasn’t so...”

Sorbet makes a small sound that tells Ghiaccio he’s not reassured.

“I’ll have Melone bring the car around to the front of the building.” Ghiaccio’s reaching into his pocket for his phone.

“Is that wise?”

“Well, if you’re going to insist on taking a nice little stroll down the boulevard...out in the open... wasting all that precious time…we can do that too.”

Sorbet’s scowl deepens. 

“No? Does that not appeal to you? Well then…” He’s got the phone to his ear. “Pardon me for trying to take some initiative.”

They’re passing out of the facility’s central hub and into one of the long wide corridors that will eventually wind its way to the exterior. 

“We still clear?” Ghiaccio asks.

“I’d tell you if we weren’t. The facility’s not totally empty, but I don’t sense anyone nearby. And most the reads I’m getting are fear anyway...except one. Someone’s pretty pissed off right now.”

“Haha. So funny.”

“I know it might be hard to believe, but I didn’t mean you. There’s someone else a ways off…” 

“They’re probably pissed about having to make a run for it. I think my pride would be more than a little wounded if I’d got my ass kicked so badly.”

“Maybe…” Sorbet’s closing his eyes and putting a hand to his temple. 

“You really ought to think of a safer way to ‘concentrate’ or whatever it is you like to call it.”

“Shut up.”

“I hope you run into a wall someday.”

“Shut. Up.”

“Oh, damnit, Melone!”

“I swear, you are absolutely impossible to work wi-”

“He’s not answering.”

“What?”

“He’s not answering.”

“Try again?” Ghiaccio can see the flicker of anxiety in Sorbet’s eye. There can only be so many reasons Melone would miss a call, the most likely being that his attention was elsewhere...possibly because there’d been complications with Gelato’s injuries and he was doing what he could to tend to them. Or it could be that the pair had simply gotten bored once Melone’d gotten Gelato out of the building and they’d fallen into one of their usual, friendly bouts of verbal dumbassery. 

“I’m sure Melone would have tried to call if there was a problem.” The phones ringing again. 

“Wait.” Sorbet’s suddenly grabbed onto Ghiaccio’s arm. 

“Oh, now wh-”

“Shhh!!!!” He’s taking a few silent steps forward and tilting his head to one side as if he’s listening. The only thing Ghiaccio can hear is the little trilling sound in his ear...but then there’s something else...faint and higher-pitched and vaguely familiar…

“You hear that?” Sorbet whispers. 

“It sounds like a cell phone.” 

Sorbet’s face is grim. “Does this mean they didn’t make it outside?”

“It might not be-”

“Hang up the call.”

Ghiaccio doesn’t even argue. The ringing in the distance continues for a moment more and then stops. Ghiaccio feels his insides go cold. 

“Call it again. We need to haul ass and find it.” 

They’re racing down the corridor and around the first turn and then hooking a left around the next.

“I really hope for both their sakes that it just turns out that Melone dropped his phone.”

“M-me too.” 

---

A minute later Sorbet puts out a hand motioning for Ghiaccio to stop. The ringing is coming from just around the corner. At Sorbet’s signal, Ghiaccio snaps the phone shut and pockets it. 

The absence of the electronic trill is unsettling. Almost as unsettling as Sorbet’s expression.

“What?”

“There’s three people nearby...two of them feel all over the place and there going on and off my radar...and the third is the pissed off one from earlier. They feel a bit farther away though.”

“Stand user?”

“That’s a strong possibility.”

“You’ll have to take the lead. If there’s a Stand, the user’s not going to be in my range and I can’t perform emotional manipulation on Stands...only people.”

“Right. Right, I know that.”

“Just keep your cool. If you start overreacting I won’t be able to read anything.”

“You don’t have to tell me-”

“You’re already getting worked up and it’s really fucking loud, okay?”

“I got it!” Ghiaccio’s stepping toward the corner. So his mind’s loud? Well, Sorbet’s ability is fucking stupid for not letting him be selective in his emotional readings. Either that, or Sorbet just hasn’t tried hard enough to figure out how to block out certain minds but not others and that’s his own damn problem if-

Ghiaccio stops up short. There’s something about the way the light’s hitting the corner…

His hands suddenly feel unnaturally heavy and weak and the next moment, they’ve started shaking so badly some instinct is telling him to stow them in his pockets.

You shouldn’t feel bad. There’s nothing you could have done about it anyway. Absolutely noth-

He’s thought these words before. He’s thought these words before and they’re jamming themselves into his head again, almost like a replay of-

“Why the fuck are you stopping?” Sorbet’s voice is behind him. 

Ghiaccio’s eyes are fixed on the corner. He doesn’t want to cross that line and put himself in a position where he can see what’s on the other side. It’s just like that day...when he knew something horrible was just a stone’s throw away and that he’d have to face it and-

“Move!”  Sorbet’s hands are at his back, shoving him out into the open. 

There are three figures down the hall, each sprawled out on the floor in a different position. And there’s blood. Everywhere. 

“There a Stand out there?” Sorbet’s impatient for the all-clear. His guy’s out here too, but he’s still trying to do things by the book and to not take unnecessary risks...

Ghiaccio’s trying to focus on the third figure that’s further down the hall. It’s obviously not human...obviously a Stand...and obviously at least semi-incapacitated from whatever altercation occurred here. But no matter how much he tries to keep his eye on that, he finds his gaze perpetually drifting down and fixing itself on the mass of tangled, lavender hair and the still, crumpled figure just beyond it. 

“Fucking idiot.” Sorbet’s shoving past him. It would seem someone got tired of waiting. But he’s pausing for a fraction of a second to take in the scene. And then he’s pressing on and giving Ghiaccio a side glance that fairly screams, I hope all that blood is your guy and not mine.

Ghiaccio’s stomach is churning. He never seizes up like this or loses his nerve. Though, he’s not quite sure that’s what’s happening now because it seems more like-

Everything seems to be moving in slow motion. He’s looking up at the Stand except suddenly he’s not looking at the Stand. He’s looking at four men, three of them huddled together and one standing slightly off to the side and the hallway has disappeared and made way for an alley. Yes, the Stand is long gone and even Gelato’s disappeared. Melone’s still splayed out on the ground, unmoving. 

“Just get it over with and just…” The shorter man off to the side is whimpering.

“Just what?” One of the men, a thin, lithe figure with messy straw-like hair, is turning to him and leaning in, suddenly intent. “Come on now. Use your words.”

"Just...just..."

"Would you look at this, Scabbeggio! The little bitch is crying! Unbelievable!" The man next to the straw-haired man is exclaiming.

"You know, Stigg," The tallest figure in the group has stepped over to the whimpering man. "You're a bit of a disappointment. Even your whore-" He’s nodding toward Melone.

"Stop! Fucking stop!" The smaller man is wailing. "I don't want to...I can't...just kill him already...okay?"

The tall man is laughing. "What's wrong, Stigg? You decide you don't want him around anymore? I'm sure he'll be heartbroken to hear it."

"Get it over with! Please..."

"You know, you've been spoiled, Stigg. Thinking you can throw people away like that. But I'm in a good mood.” He’s clamped a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. “So what do you say...why don't we slit two throats today?” He’s suddenly turned his head and is directing his gaze straight at Ghiaccio. The two lackeys behind him are cackling. “What do you say, Ghiaccio...we'll start with Melone so you get to watch and then..."

Ghiaccio feels like the very blood in his veins is on fire. And now he’s shouting and bolting into the alley, except it’s not an alley anymore it’s a hallway in a facility in a completely different city and the only people at the other end of the hallway are Melone and Gelato and Sorbet and a Stand that’s lifting itself up on one arm to answer his call as it raises its other clawed hand and bares its teeth at him, snarling. 

“The hell-?!” Sorbet’s shouting.

Now that he’s close enough, Ghiaccio finally has the whole picture. The blood on the floor. The gash in Melone’s side. This Stand and its talon of a hand. 

For the briefest moment, something in his brain imprints the image of the tall man from the alley...Scabbeggio...and he feels that same drive, that same impulse that he did that day in the alley. 

He’s going to rip this fucking Stand limb from limb.

---

“You think you can hold onto me a moment? I’ve got to get the door.”

Melone makes a small, vague sound.

“Can you get an arm around me?”

Melone pauses, and gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “Sorry…”

“No...no, that’s fine. I’ll just...I’ll just go real slow and if you feel like you’re falling or like I’m gonna drop you or anything…” Ghiaccio’s loosening his grip on Melone and turning his arm over and reaching forward. “I gotcha...don’t worry...I gotcha…” He’s got his hand on the handle and is tugging. “Almost outside. Just give me a second. You still doing okay? Yeah?” He’s hooked his foot on the bottom of the door and is drawing it open the rest of the way and then stepping across the threshold. Ghiaccio pulls Melone in closer to his chest as the door springs push the door shut behind him. 

The sunlight outside is glaring and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust...and for him to realize that there’s no car waiting for them at the curb as he supposed there would be. But then it crosses his mind that he’s not been in communication with Sorbet since the latter departed with Gelato from the scene of the altercation and that perhaps he ought to have established some sort of arrangement there...but it’s much too late for that now and so the best thing to do is just to get to the alley down the street where they’ve got the car parked and where he’s certain the other two men will be waiting…

A number of minutes later, Ghiaccio’s standing at the entrance to the alley with Melone in his arms. And there’s no car in sight.

Usually his first instinct would be to get irrationally upset (though perhaps that wouldn’t be so irrational in this particular situation). But he’s telling himself there may be a very good reason for Sorbet moving the car...perhaps the alley was compromised...meaning that it might not be a safe place to take refuge until he can figure out what exactly their circumstances are.

“Hold on...we’re going to go a little further down the street.” 

But then, will stopping over in the next alley over really make all that much of a difference? If someone is out there looking for them...it’ll only be a matter of time before they find them...and if Sorbet’s idea is just to have the car in motion, then he could be planning to loop back around to them...meaning that establishing themselves elsewhere might cause needless confusion and delays that they really can’t afford. 

“Actually...we’re going to stop off in here. Just for a bit.” He’s putting them back far enough that the random passerby isn’t likely to see them. “I need to call Sorbet. He’s run off with the car somewhere, but I’m sure he’s nearby. So I’m going to set you down.” 

It’s only as Melone’s weight leaves his arms that he realizes how much effort he’s been exerting. The instant sense of relief that surges through his overtaxed muscles almost makes him feel guilty. 

He’s seating himself on the ground. “I’m just gonna make a call real quick, so-”

“Ghia.” Melone’s voice is thin and he’s making a small motion with his shoulder that Ghiaccio suspects is him trying and failing to lift his arm.

“Something wrong?”

“I can’t feel anything.”

“What?!”

“I mean...my side. I can’t feel anything. Where you put the ice.”

“Shit! Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“I didn’t realize…”

Ghiaccio’s putting a hand out and waving away the ice on Melone’s side. The skin surrounding the wound has turned a pale, bluish-gray color. The bleeding seems to have slowed substantially, which was of course the intent, but complications like this hadn’t even crossed his mind.

“How-how could you not have noticed?”

“I don’t know...it hurt before the ice and after...and I was just trying to keep awake...like you said…that’s all I was thinking about…”

“Fuck...this is...this is something else...” He doesn’t want to say out loud that he has no fucking clue what to do...or that he’s starting to panic internally because he knows the gash will probably start bleeding out again as it warms up and that’s the very last thing he needs to happen right now. He just needs Sorbet to get there with the fucking car so they can get to the hospital, but he needs to deal with this too…

He’s peeling off his coat and wadding it up. “I’m going to try applying pressure just to keep things stable for right now. Alright?”

“Alright.”

“You’ll tell me if it starts hurting?” He’s pressing the coat onto Melone’s side.

“Yeah...okay...”

“Is it still numb?”

“Yeah…”

“I’m really sorry about that...I wasn’t really thinking about things...I was just trying to-”

“I know.” 

“Now I’m gonna get Sorbet over here with the car...” He’s got his phone out with his free hand and is punching in the number. “So just...just hang on.”

The phone rings for a good minute before it cuts out. 

“Idiot.” Ghiaccio breathes as he jams the redial button. And then he hears the robotic voice at the other end informing him that his call cannot be connected at this time. It’s a rush of emotions, one after the other in rapid succession. Shock. Fury. Fear. He’s turned off his phone. Just now. He’s got the car and he’s turned off his phone. He took the car...the asshole took their only fucking car and drove off with it because he was no doubt concerned for the well-being of his own fucking partner, who was, admittedly in pretty poor condition, but was not anywhere near as bad off as Melone...and yet Sorbet had the gall to take their only vehicle and leave Ghiaccio to figure out how to get their critically injured teammate the medical attention his life depends on.

Sorbet knows better than any of them that regular emergency services aren’t an option. They’ve no idea who’ll show up or who’s working for who or what they might do to a vulnerable rival. And it’s not like he can just steal a car. First off, he’s not seen a single one since they’ve left the facility and even if he had...hot-wiring shit is Sorbet’s thing...and Formaggio’s...and both of them are conveniently unavailable right now, which means that, for all intents and purposes, they’re stranded and Melone’s running out of time and it’s completely on him to find a way out and even if, at the heart of it all, it is Sorbet’s fault, he knows that he’ll always blame himself if he loses Melone here because there’s absolutely no fucking reason for him to have to die here and this shouldn’t even be happening and he doesn’t understand why things are playing out this way and he’s starting to lose it because this is so infuriating that it makes him want to start breaking shit because how the fuck is this even real and how the fuck could Sorbet leave his own teammate to die like this and-

No. No, no, no. He can’t start getting pissed off like this. No, that’s counterproductive and he has to keep his cool because this is all riding on him right now. Melone needs him to hold it together.

"Is Gelato going to make it?" Melone’s voice interjects.

"Huh?"

"Sorbet probably took the car...Gelato was really not doing well back there...he was probably worried he'd die if he didn't...didn't take the car.”

And he’s not fucking worried about the same happening to you? Ghiaccio’s half-crushing the cell phone in his hand. Does he really think he has the right to decide who deserves a fighting chance and who doesn’t?

“He...he probably didn’t see any point in waiting for us...if I was gonna die anyway…”

“Well, you’re not. And I’d really appreciate if you wouldn’t talk like that because I...I’m gonna call the team and we’re gonna figure this out.”

“Okay. But Ghia…”

“Give me a minute here.”

“No, Ghia...I just want to say...I mean, I think I should...in case…”

Ghiaccio’s shaking his head vehemently. “We’re not going there because there’s no need to. Everything’s going to be fine. Okay?”

“Ghia…” Melone’s voice is breaking and his eyes are filling with tears.

He’s upset...shit! Do something! Don’t just sit there and look uneasy!

“Hey, hey, hey…” Ghiaccio, prompted by some sudden instinct, is leaning over and pressing his forehead to Melone’s. It strikes him as the sort of thing Melone might do if he were in a similar situation. He adopts as soft a tone as he can manage. “I know it looks bad, but you’re gonna pull through.”

“Sorbet didn’t think so.” 

“Well, fuck him.”

“But I think he was right…it’s like a car running on empty...I don’t have anything to keep me going…”

“You’ve got me. And I’m gonna sit right here next to you until I can get someone out here for you. But I gotta-”

“I just feel so heavy...everything feels so heavy...and I’ve got nothing...no strength...no fight in me...and it’s like I’m this close...this close to the edge...and I’m slipping off...and I’ve got no way to...to grab on and I’m just...scared.” His voice is thin and breathless.

Ghiaccio is dizzy with panic. Calm the fuck down. Calm the FUCK DOWN! You lose it and he loses it. So keep your shit together. Keep your shit...together...because that’s...that’s the most important thing right now…

“I’m going to get you through this...you hear me?”

“Ghia...I gotta tell you…I just...want you to know that...that I-”

“Save it. Okay? I’m gonna make my call and then you’re going to tell me what you were about to say. But you gotta stay awake. Yeah?” He’s moved himself back to look Melone in the eye. “You’re gonna do that for me? Melone? Hey, can you look at me a second?”

“I-I’m trying…”

“Shit....did something happen to your eye?” Melone’s right eye is fixed straight ahead, but now that Ghiaccio’s really looking at it, there’s something vacant in its fixedness, as if it isn’t really seeing what’s before it. And it’s not moving with the left eye, almost as if there’s something wrong with the nerves…

“I’m going to kill Gelato...the bastard!”

“It was an accident.” Melone’s straining to lift himself up, as if to make some conciliatory gesture. The frustration of not being able to do so is painted all across his face.

“That fucking Stand of his... the effect always wears off, does it? I’ve been calling bullshit on that for months.”

“He was trying to protect us…”

Great job he did there...seeing as you got the brunt of everything... Of course, the fact that the enemy Stand had still been partially paralyzed when he and Sorbet had arrived on the scene had been helpful and had probably kept the Stand from doing any more damage than it already had...but even so, he’s not in any mood to give Gelato credit…especially if the damage to Melone’s eye ends up being permanent...

But he’s wasting his time with all this and Melone’s getting all worked up...which is a good thing if it keeps him from drifting off...but then if he starts using up all his energy trying to move around and argue…

“Alright...we’ll...we’ll deal with all that later. For right now you just keep thinking about that thing you wanted to tell me.” He’s punching in Illuso’s number. Really, he needs to talk to Prosciutto on this, but the likelihood of the latter answering is slim...and Illuso usually hangs back more and is less likely to be preoccupied...of course, if he’s in the mirror world that would be problematic…

The phone rings twice before a cheery voice answers. 

“You bastards finally finished? Took you long enough.” Formaggio. Lovely.

“No, actually. We haven’t detonated the charges because we’re not clear of the area yet.”

“Well, we’ve been finished for a little while now. Risotto’s just checking in with another capo right now and then we’re going to head back to headquarters, so-”

“We need you to come pick us up immediately. Melone’s been seriously injured and-”

“Ah, sorry, but we don’t have the room and you guys have your own car.”

“Sorbet took it and ditched us.”

Formaggio makes a dismissive sound. “I doubt that’s true, but-”

“Why do you even have this phone?!”

“Illuso handed it off to me while he was in the mirror world and he never asked for it back.”

“Can you give it back to him then? Or Prosciutto, if he’s nearby. Because if something’s not done-”

“Oh, what? Did Babyface get a little scratch over there?”

“Stop fucking around and give the phone to someone who actually gives a shit. Because Melone’s gonna end up dying if-”

“Who the hell are you talking to?” Prosciutto’s voice is in the background. 

“Give him the damn phone!” Ghiaccio’s seeing red and it’s taking every ounce of self-control he possesses not to give the other man the worst dressing-down of his life. He’s squeezing his eyes shut and telling himself to wait. Later. He can wring Formaggio’s neck later.

“Formaggio!” 

Formaggio makes an exasperated noise and mutters something unintelligible. Ghiaccio can hear the phone changing hands.

“What happened?”

---

Barely a minute later,  Ghiaccio’s off the phone. Somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. That’s as fast as they can be there. And then from there Prosciutto will take care of the wound by temporarily aging it with Grateful Dead and there won’t be anymore issues with bleeding until they get to the hospital...which it’s looking like they will in under a half hour...if all goes well...but the more he thinks about it all, the more he’s worrying about how long it’ll be before anything actually useful is done. 

Ghiaccio’s stowing his phone in his pocket and reaching for Melone’s hand. “They’re on their way.” Melone’s hand is completely limp in his. “You want to tell me that thing from before?”

Melone makes a vague little half-groan in reply to this. 

“Hey. Come on now. You had something you wanted to say, right? You gotta tell me, remember? That was the agreement.” He’s rubbing a thumb along the back of Melone’s hand. “Please…”

Melone’s squeezing his eyes shut. 

“Is it starting to hurt again?”

“Burns…”

“Shit...that’s probably from the ice...” He presses the wadded up coat just a little more firmly into the other man’s side. If the area around the wound is warm enough now to have regained feeling, there’s a good chance it’s bleeding again. Maybe not as badly as it was before, but still enough to cause further issues. 

“Prosciutto will be here in about ten minutes.” He wishes there was something more reassuring in his tone, but ten minutes is about as comforting as being told help is ten hours away.   

“It’s cold…”

“Still? But the ice is gone...has been for a while” The remark feels stupid the moment it comes out of his mouth. Of course, that’s not the problem here and he only wishes it was that simple.

“It’s cold…” Melone repeats. “Ghia...it’s so cold…”

Ghiccio grips Melone’s hand just a bit tighter. He hates this. He hates that there’s nothing...literally nothing else he can do for him. He’s got his other hand on the coat and is applying pressure to the wound and that’s doing something at least...but really the rest all depends on whether or not Melone’s body decides to give out on him...and whether or not Melone loses the will to keep fighting. And if he’s already frightened and half-convinced he’s going to die... 

“Can...can you...hold me?” It’s a plea. 

“I can’t risk moving you right now…” Ghiaccio tries to sound pragmatic about it.

“Lay next to me...”

“I have to be able to see if anyone’s coming...to protect you.” He will be damned if he says or does anything that even comes close to a goodbye because that is not the way things are gonna go and he is not going to feed into that fear for even a second-

“Okay…” Melone’s crestfallen tone causes a physical pang in Ghiaccio’s chest. 

I’m not doing this to hurt you… He wants to say. I know how you are and I know how you get when you think you’re going off an edge. You start telling yourself you’re not strong enough and that it’s too much for you and then you just let go because you think there’s no point in doing anything else and that no one cares. But I care. And I want you to hold on...I need you to hold on…

Melone’s closing his eyes.

“Hey! What did I say about staying awake?”

“Just resting…”

“There’s no ‘just resting’. You end up passing out you might not wake up again. You’ll be fine as long as you stay awake. So just...don't…" He's making an exasperated noise that sounds almost like a cry of distress. "Don't do this to me, okay?!” 

He’s kicking himself internally. I sound like an ass...I sound like a complete, selfish ass! Nothing ever comes out right around you. I always say the wrong fucking thing…

“Can-can you please try staying awake...for me?” He’s trying to jam down the self-loathing rising within him and is going for a softer tone again. “Please...it’s really important because if you don’t...if you don’t…” 

It’s hitting him all at once. Ghiaccio could lose him. He could actually lose Melone. It could happen before Prosciutto even gets there. And he’s no longer able to brush it away as some vague unlikelihood...it’s become a very real and frankly very terrifying possibility in his mind now. 

He realizes he’s crushing Melone’s hand.

“Shit...sorry…” He’s releasing his grip. “I didn’t mean to-” 

But as he drops the man’s hand, his eyes fall to the very edge of the wadded up coat. There’s a crimson tinge seeping up into the white. 

His whole body is instantly numb and he’s shaking. 

“Melone?” Ghiaccio’s insides are quivering. “Hey...Melone!” 

No response.

Ghiaccio’s placing two fingers on the side of Melone’s neck. There’s still a pulse. Barely.

He’s got a hand on the side of the other man’s face. 

“Hey...you gotta open your eyes for me. Okay? This isn’t a good time to be drifting off. I told you before...you might not...you’re not gonna...not gonna wake up…and I need you to...I need you to…”

Melone’s completely still.

Shit. This is bad...this is bad...this is bad...THIS IS BAD!

“I told...I told you not to do this to me! You fucking asshole! You can’t die on me like this! It’s not fair, you stupid, stupid bastard! You’re not leaving me like this! You’re not! I can’t...you know, there’s no way I can…” Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry. Don’t you fucking dare. “What the fuck am I supposed to do without you, huh? You wanna tell me that? Because I’m gonna tell you right now that...that…”

That it’ll be hell. That even thinking about it right now makes me want to fucking snap. That I’ll probably...no, that I will kill Sorbet if you don’t make it and I won’t give a damn what Risotto or anyone else says about it. It doesn’t matter if no one sides with me or even if they come after me for it. The only side I want to be on is yours and if you’re dead...well, what’s the fucking point?! I’m only here because I made a choice, even before I really knew you, that your life mattered more than my future. I might not have thought through that choice very thoroughly, but I don’t regret it...and your life still matters to me more than anything I might do tomorrow or the day after. And yeah, I always say that you drive me up the fucking wall on a daily basis...which is something I won’t ever take back because it’s true and I know you do it on purpose because you’re an ass...but that’s everything to me. You and every stupid little habit you have...and all the crazy shit you do that scares me half to death because I think you’re gonna wind up dead over it. But then you’re always putting up with my bullshit and forgiving me when I say horrible things to you ‘cause I’m pissed off. And you’re always coming right back to me no matter how many times I push you away…’cause you get that I’m a fucking train wreck even on my best days...and you’ve always been okay with that and I’ve never understood why, but I’ve been so lucky and maybe I shouldn’t need to know your reasons...but what’s killing me the most right now is that I feel like I could have been better...I feel like I treated you like shit more often than not and there’s no taking that back...and it probably never came across all that clearly how fucking much I cared...and I’m guessing you wanted to have that conversation earlier, but I wasn’t ready and so I put you off. I thought I could change how things would turn out if I made you believe everything would be okay. But you knew better than that and I was the one who fucked things up...I’m always the one who fucks things up...and now I won’t have another chance to tell you what I was never able to say to your face...because I was always afraid of what you’d say. I’ve always been worried that if you thought I was too serious about things...that it’d scare you off. Because who in their right mind would want anything serious with me? And I know that sounds stupid because we’ve known each other well over two years and have had whatever we have for almost as long...but it’s always terrified me that one day you’ll wake up and realize you don’t need me as much as I need you...and I don’t think I’ve ever told you that...that I need you...that you make this fucked up existence just a bit better...but more than all that, that, despite how shitty I am at expressing it, I’m pretty sure that what I feel for you is as close to love as I’ll ever get in this life...and the fact I couldn’t even fucking say that out loud...and that there’s no point in doing so now because you’ll never hear it…

Ghiaccio’s lost all sense of time. It’s as if he’s drowning and no matter what he does he can’t reach the surface because there is none anymore.

He doesn’t hear when the car pulls up at the alley entrance and he doesn’t see Prosciutto stepping out of the car and rushing down to meet them with the remainder of the crew in tow. 

Prosciutto’s on his knees in an instant and is pushing Ghiaccio’s hand and ruined coat out of the way as Grateful Dead swoops in to do its work. 

“Shit…” Formaggio’s rubbing his neck with a single hand. “Is he-?”

“No. Not yet.” But Prosciutto’s face looks too serious for the prognosis to be very good, though.

“We’ll lay him out in the back of the car.” Risotto’s stepping forward to give directions. “Prosciutto will sit with him and we’ll need Illuso up front so we can use the mirror world. I’ll drive.” He’s reaching down and lifting Melone off the ground, Grateful Dead clamped around the latter’s waist. 

“And me and Pesci and Ghiaccio?” Formaggio asks.

“You three steal a car and meet us at the hospital when you can.”

It seems like only a matter of moments before the car’s loaded and vanishes into the mirror world. Presumably it’s hurtling along at top speeds through the mirror world’s selectively empty streets towards its destination. 

Ghiaccio’s still kneeling in the middle of the alley, the bloody coat still clutched in his hands.

“Welp...I’m gonna go find us a car.” Formaggio’s just reached the alley’s entrance when he hears a horrible sound behind him. He turns to see Ghiaccio facedown on the pavement, wailing and shrieking with every bit of strength he can muster.

Pesci looks horrified. 

But Formaggio’s turning and continuing on. There’s nothing he can really do for Ghiaccio except follow orders and get him to the hospital before Melone finally...well….

Pesci’s reaching out a placating hand, but finds himself stopping up short. He’s afraid to lay it on Ghiaccio’s shoulder out of fear the other man might have some violent reaction. He wants to tell him it’ll be okay...that Melone will be okay...even if he’s not all that sure it’s the truth. But if it makes him feel any better... 

---

Risotto’s taking the car around a sharp turn and Illuso’s grabbing onto the door handle to brace himself.

“Everything okay in the back there?”

“Fine.” Prosciutto replies.

“Just two more minutes.”

“Alright.”

Risotto pauses a moment and then asks, “We doing this just to make Ghiaccio feel better or because he actually has a chance?”

“I...don’t know.”

“That’s what I thought.” But he floors it...just in case.