Battle over, the voice of Checker Face’s goofy assistant comes from Fon’s wristwatch. He barely has time to mourn the expanse of his lungs and the sheer amount of air they can breathe when he’s like this—standing tall and proud and alive for the first time in eons—before he remembers that he ought to be looking forward.
It’s too late. Mammon’s body has already shrunk to child-size, pink and round and monstrous like his is. They’re still bleeding from their mouth and nose. The sight doesn’t bring any relief compared to that of their real face; they’re shaking, Fantasma wrapped around their disproportionately big head, and their stubby fingers are closing on nothing the way Fon’s are.
He doesn’t even feel the pain of his own injuries. Physical pain is a concept he’s mostly overcome over the ages. It doesn’t stop the ache in his heart from seeing Mammon like this.
No one among them hates the curse more than Mammon does.
He says their name, under his breath. They don’t even grant him the satisfaction of a shiver of acknowledgement. The boy-killer of the Varia is picking them up from the ground like they’re a toy rather than a human, and Mammon freezes up but complies.
Fon’s never let anyone touch him like this. He barely lets I-Pin hug him as it is. He closes his mouth and licks the blood from his gums and makes himself look to his side where Kyoya is seething, blank eyes fixed onto Xanxus.
Fon considers his options. He could tell Kyoya not to go after him—could keep his own shot at being human again—or he could let the boy do as he wishes and watch as Varia tears him apart. He could guarantee an easy win for Mammon.
Cavallone’s Dino barges in before he can decide to speak or stay silent, and with him news of the most problematic aspect of this contest: Reborn’s existence.
Really, Fon thinks, bitter, everything would be so much simpler if Reborn wasn’t a player in any of their games.
He fades into a shadow of the room and holds his breath until he hears nothing but the rush of his own blood past his ears and the rhythm of his heartbeat. The room dissolves around him, and with it the last of Mammon’s shackles on his brain. Their anchors detach with a pang of regret that he resists the urge to examine for fear of losing himself to it. Silence fills his mind and air fills his body; on top of his head, Lichi quiets too, furls into herself until she’s still as lakewater. Fon crushes the knot of energy in his chest until it’s gone but to a flicker, only warm enough that he doesn’t start shivering, only bright enough that he’s not in complete darkness.
He opens his eyes.
Everyone else is long gone now. He takes in the damage that the hotel room has taken because of them all, the faint scent of cooked meat emanating from deeper inside the building. The tug on his scalp from Lichi showing him where to go.
He wishes he had something to link him to Mammon’s location—something more substantial than his gut feeling and decades-old affection. But those links are meant for the destined rather than the cursed; and Fon’s never been one to think he was worth more than what luck and hard work have given him.
Fon was the only one who hadn’t heard of any of them when they met in the shack that day. The rest of the group knew at least one other by name, and some, like Reborn and Verde or Colonello and Lal Mirch, obviously knew each other personally. Even the boy who told them to call him Skull had heard of Reborn through some rumor or another. Reborn seemed to take a great amount of delight in terrorizing the kid once he learned.
In return, one of the others knew who Fon was except Luce. Fon accepted it with little unease—his sister was the one involved with the Triads. He mostly stayed by himself, in his home, away from the city and where he could feel the mountain sun beat on his skin like a drum every day. Where the air was heavy with damp, so much so that he could smell water, feel it drown his lungs with every inhale and drip from his nose with every exhale. His wasn’t a known name. He cultivated his strength for himself and his isolation for everyone else.
“So who are you?” Luce asked him on the first day. She was the only one without bitterness in her, face and body glowing, one delicate hand bracing the span of her belly like something come out of a painting.
Fon smiled at her warily. “I’m no one special.”
“You wouldn’t be here if that were true,” she replied, agonizingly gentle.
Fon looked up at the ceiling. On the other side of the room there was only Viper, sitting in the only comfortable armchair, bone-white knuckles clutching the velvet as if he wanted to rip it off the wood. Everyone else had gone outside. Fon didn’t know a way that he could escape the smell of tragedy on Luce without being rude.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he said at last. “I don’t go out of my way to make a name for myself.”
“They said you were one of the strongest people in the world.”
“Yeah, like all of us. For all the good that does to any of us now,” Viper spat out from under his breath.
Fon looked at him, trying to catch a glimpse of his face the way he had since coming here hours ago, but Viper’s hood was low, and light could only hit his chin and the line of his jaw.
Predictably, Luce spoke again, in her all-accepting voice: “You’re angry.”
And Fon considered walking out of the shack right there and sparing himself the need to suffer Luce’s sermon, but Viper replied, “Oh, cut it out.”
He rose from the chair; even like this he was the shortest among them, and though he was standing out of reach for either of them, Fon knew that if they had been standing next to each other the top of Viper’s head would have only reached to his nose. Viper turned to face them with a flourish of his black robes.
“You can’t be happy about this,” Viper said to Luce. “You’re pregnant.”
Luce stroked her belly with an angelic smile. Fon felt nothing but unease at the sight. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“So what, are you getting a special treatment, then?”
The question was rhetorical. Luce felt it and didn’t answer; and Viper let out a sigh that sounded like a curse and turned his back to walk out as well, into the sunlit mountains where they were kept, watched, confined. “Your seer crap might work on Reborn,” he growled, “but I don’t have to play any goddamn role with you. I don’t know you.” He opened the door wide, his silhouette cut black into the light, and he left.
Fon walked out after him.
He followed Viper as deep into the mountain as they were allowed to go. The metallic circle around his ankle started burning only five minutes into their walk, and before they reached a full kilometer his movements slowed by themselves as if his body was suddenly refusing to obey his brain.
“Stop following me,” Viper panted in front of him. He had his back turned, the top of his head still covered with his hood despite the heat. At least the air was dry enough that he should’ve only worked himself into a light sweat.
“Just taking in the sights,” Fon replied. Not that there’s much to see. He eyed Viper again.
“You’re so full of shit.”
But Viper stopped not a second later. He fell onto the dry grass and hissed out every breath, holding the side of his ribs above his robes. The edge of his chin shivered as he winced.
Fon propelled himself forward despite the shackle breaking the skin of his leg into blisters; Viper tensed when he was close enough to touch him, but all Fon did was make himself go one step further than the other had been able to and then fall to the ground with more grace than he had.
He placed a hand above the anklet; it was red now, glowing like iron would coming out of the fire. Thankfully it wasn’t that hot. Just enough that he felt it to the touch, from the magic escaping it.
Trinisette, they had called it.
“So you’re a physical kind of fighter, then,” Viper muttered. “Big deal.”
“Quite,” Fon replied.
Viper seemed to bristle at his answer. “Well, you’ve made your point. You can go now.”
“Are you always this amiable, or is it just us specifically?” Fon asked with a smirk.
A pit of black nothing opened under him and swallowed the grass and rocks and ants surrounding them. He saw Viper scream and fall, felt his own body be sucked into the void and panic flare inside him like an open flame—
Fon dug his fingers into the metal circling his burned skin and closed his eyes.
It took him an embarrassingly long time to recover. He didn’t have a notion of time while the ground was gone under him, gaping like the mouth of a giant, like what he pictured a black hole in space must look like; but he counted his breaths and made the fire inside him choke almost completely, and when he managed to convince himself that he wasn’t falling—when he finally opened his eyes to the grass and the rocks again—Viper wasn’t panting anymore.
Fon didn’t speak. He almost had to use his hands to unlock his legs from their fold and extend them in front of him. They were shaking.
Viper waited another minute for effect before talking to him.
“If you’re done trying to get acquainted,” he said, and he sounded smug.
And Fon ripped a smile out of himself and said, “So you’re a psychic kind of fighter, then.”
“Jesus,” Viper said. He turned around, one pale hand spread onto the dirt—his nails were clean but bitter raw, his skin dry from lack of sleep and dehydration—”What do you want with me?“
“You seem like the most interesting person here,” Fon replied. He kept smiling, despite the fact that he couldn’t see above Viper’s mouth.
Viper shouldn’t have been able to see him through his hood. But he stayed as he was for another moment, torso twisted to look sideways and back, and for all that he had no idea what the man actually looked like, Fon felt scrutinized.
But then Viper turned back and said, “None of this matters.”
Fon nudged him lightly with his foot. He didn’t react, but at least he was solid. “Why?”
“Don’t play dumb”—Fon smiled—”our lives are over.”
“I thought, on the contrary, that we would be made to stay around for a very long time.”
Viper tried to be swift enough to grab Fon’s foot, but Fon evaded his hand easily, jumped into a crouch right behind him and tried to touch the fabric of his robe—but although the body he had felt a second ago was tangible and warm his fingers only slipped through ink-black smoke, cold as fall rain.
Viper rematerialized a few meters away. His hood had slipped up a bit, revealing his nose and the flush of his cheeks.
“I’m not here to play,” he growled.
Every breath Fon took felt like ice. Around his feet the grass had frozen, its blades breaking with a soft sound every time he moved.
“I don’t want to waste time fighting,” Viper continued. “You couldn’t pay me enough to give you this much attention.”
“I can’t pay you at all,” Fon replied. “I have no money.”
Viper sneered at him.
Eventually the illusory ice melted. Either Viper didn’t have the energy to keep it up for long or just didn’t care, but he let the ground go back to what it was, and he didn’t move.
“I don’t want to be here,” he said.
Fon looked at him. “I know.”
Viper lifted his head to look up at him. Fon could see the shadow of his eyelashes now, darker on his skin than that of the hood was. “You’re weird,” he declared.
A laugh. “Thank you.”
“That wasn’t a compliment. I don’t like you.”
Fon didn’t reply. He didn’t very much like himself either.
It was too far from sunset for the sky to be red or gold. Too early to escape into shadows for either of them and especially with their abilities blunted by the band Fon wore around his ankle and Viper around his neck—and he could see it now, purple on his skin like a bruise, like a plague. Fon thought about his life as he knew it and his life as he knew it would go—thought about the bodies of the current Arcobaleno that he had seen for the first time today and felt bile run up his throat and linger on his tongue, bitter, so bitter.
“I wish it weren’t me,” he said out loud.
When he sister asked him why he wasn’t married yet all he had ever said was, Not yet.
Not yet. Not until he found the right person. Not until he could look into someone’s eyes and see his own life stretch inside them, not until he felt his soul open like a sunflower to sunlight, not until all the air inside him rushed out at the feeling of their skin.
He had been naïve to think he would be granted a full life. He had been naïve to take even time for granted.
He was thinking about it when the wind rose and parted around him without ever brushing his skin—when its invisible hands pushed back Viper’s hood completely and bared his eyes to the sun and to Fon. He was thinking of time and longing as he took in the face of this stranger who would share the same destiny that he did; and he thought about how pathetic it was that Viper was only doing this so someone would be around to remember what he truly looked like.
How pathetic it was that Fon refused to blink until he was sure he would never forget.
He could see his life stretching into Viper’s green eyes. It was endless, and it was miserable.
Lichi leads him to one of the rooms. It’s easy enough to knock on the door and avoid receiving it in the face when it opens. Mammon is less surprised than he thought they’d be to see him there, but a lot angrier.
“Get out,” they say, and their voice for all of its unnatural high pitch is the same as it was all those years ago in the sunlight—clear, and even, and with despair pouring out of it like venom.
“I want to talk,” Fon says. He slips into the room before the door can close, but unfortunately, Lichi doesn’t make it. He can hear her whine softly on the other side.
“I don’t have anything to say to you!” Mammon seethes. “Get out!”
“I’m not here to gloat—”
“Good, because you haven’t fucking won,” they cut him off.
They’re too enraged to be reasoned with. Fon doesn’t see them shake anymore, but there’s an air to them, like they’re still trying to get a grasp of this body. It makes his heart ache. He lost himself into the feeling of it earlier as well, and now he only has forty-eight seconds of his presents remaining.
He steps forward and opens his arms, palms facing forward so Mammon sees that he’s unarmed. “I need thirty seconds of your time.”
Mammon sneers at him. “You better talk fast, because I’m calling Squalo if you don’t—”
“You don’t understand,” he interrupts. “I need thirty seconds of your time.”
They fall silent for a moment, the lower half of their face scrunched up in confusion, before they get it.
“No,” they say, voice wiped of all emotion.
Fon isn’t above begging. “Please.”
“What is wrong with you?” They’re louder now, almost shouting, because the astonishment is running off to make way for anger. “What makes you think that I would waste a single second of that time on you—”
“I know you still have tons left,” he says. “I know we only spent about a minute in your mirage—”
“This is all I have!” they cry.
Fon closes his mouth. His chest is aching, the tiny heart inside beating faster than a bird’s and making exhaustion run through his tiny, awkward limbs—awkward only because coming into himself again earlier had erased all the progress he made into accepting his curse.
Mammon is shaking again. With one hand they touch their face, their mouth, and their eyes under the hood, and Fantasma is dangling from their wrist sadly.
“This is all I have left to look forward to,” they say, voice tight, almost choked to nothing. “Four minutes out of this curse. This is all I have left.”
“You don’t know that,” Fon murmurs. “You could still win.”
They laugh, curt and ugly. “Against Reborn?”
Fon doesn’t have anything to say to that.
Mammon inhales loudly. “You and I both know he’s going to win like he’s won every single fight so far. Number fucking one hitman.”
Hearing Mammon curse is unfamiliar but not unexpected. “Someone could still come up with a cure.”
“Oh, please. Even Verde’s given up. Even in that future we both saw, we were still like this.” A pause, and then words, worse than ever no matter how much Fon braces himself for them: “At least we were dead then.”
Lichi is scratching at the door softly. Fon doesn’t talk to her through it to reassure her. The only thing keeping him from feeling the bite of his own disappointment is knowing that no matter how bad he feels, in this body, Mammon feels worse.
So he simply repeats, “Please.”
He watches Mammon struggle with an answer. They touch the thick watch at their wrist with awkward fingers, press on the skin of their forearm, bite their lips. Fantasma slithers down onto the floor and takes refuge under a radiator nearby.
“Okay,” they say.
Fon has his mouth open, calling for his present before Mammon can do more than look down at their own wrist and speak. He feels the rush of magic from earlier invade him and his body disappear before reappearing, tall, strong, with space in his chest to breathe again, to live again.
Mammon is standing in front of him. Short as they always were. Their face is only bruised now, with no sign of blood.
“Now what?” they say, voice aflutter.
Fon walks toward them and extends his hands forward; this time, when he touches Mammon’s robes, they feel like fabric under his fingers. He pushes down their hood and touches their face, lightly, then firmly, palms bracing Mammon’s jaw and cheeks and thumbs stroking over the markings there and fingers scratching into their hair.
Fon wastes one more of his remaining forty-two seconds looking to electric green eyes before he leans forward to kiss.
He waits long enough to make sure Mammon’s stillness isn’t rejection; it takes a moment for Mammon’s hand to catch the back of his head (thirty-nine) and grab, fingers digging into the knot holding his hair in place, and then they sigh against his lips, tilting their head, pressing forward.
Fon’s never known a better texture than that of Mammon’s skin under his fingers. He’s never known a better heat than the one at the crook of their neck where their real heart beats or that of their mouth, and it’s not his best kiss, because he hasn’t kissed anyone in decades, but it’s the only one he’s wanted this way.
It’s his last kiss.
He licks into Mammon’s mouth when it opens and breathes onto their skin with a sob lodged in his throat; he tangles the fingers of his left hand into soft hair and rubs the right against softer skin, and he hasn’t known a warmer thing in his life, not one, not ever. Mammon responds with the same intensity. Their hands are into his hair and then onto his face as if to burn the feeling of humanity to memory the way Fon is trying to.
“Fuck you,” they say, but they don’t stop kissing him; the words feel like another buzz of electricity over his lips and face, where all the blood in his body is rushing.
He would fuck Mammon if he could. He knows Mammon would as well. He’d brand his own skin onto their’s if it meant that he could never forget this anymore than he could forget the color of Mammon’s eyes or the shape of their jaw; but they don’t have time for it. They’ll never have time for it. Fon runs his fingers through tangly hair and knocks his teeth against Mammon’s on his way to trying to breathe the air straight from their lungs.
Mammon makes a noise that is a lot closer to a sob than it is to laughter.
And this must be the love that he waited for when he was human instead of trying to seek it; this must be his soul expanding through his skin to radiate against Mammon’s, and his heart settling for one and one only, forever.
He’s done waiting for fate to hand him what he wants.
Mammon doesn’t stop after the thirty seconds. They’re surely keeping count, just like Fon is, but thirty becomes thirty-five, becomes forty-three. Two second before his time is up Fon closes his mouth and lets it rest against Mammon’s, still, just so he can feel hot skin and hot breaths, just so he gets to be framing Mammon’s face with both his hands against before it has to stop.
His entire being is throbbing.
The magic rips him out of himself and shoves him back into the cursed body. It wipes clean any hint of sweat and saliva from his skin and douses his insides in cold. The pain he felt when it happened earlier is nothing compared to the brutal lack of heat and proximity and the hazed knowledge that he’ll never get it again.
He hears Mammon call off their own time in a shaking voice. For a striking second, he hates himself entirely, for making them go through this pain twice in a day.
The silence stretches for a long moment. On the other side of the door, Lichi has stopped scratching.
“That was very selfish of you,” Mammon says softly.
“I know,” Fon replies.
He can’t see their face at all. It’s night, the sky he can see through the window next to the bed is pitch black, only a bedside lamp is lit; Mammon looks like another shadow in the room rather than a person.
Neither of them look like people anyway.
“I love you,” Fon says.
Mammon doesn’t answer.
Fon files the memory of Mammon’s skin alongside that of their face. It creates a new picture in his mind, one that rises the smell of grass and summer in his nostrils, one that sounds like the distant rush of a stream. In it Mammon is facing him down on the path. In it Fon doesn’t just walk past them and back to the shack where Luce is waiting and Reborn is hanging to her shadow, lovestruck; no, he stops in front of Mammon. He forces open the metal around their neck and rubs the red skin under with his thumbs, and instead of despair crushing the life out of Mammon’s eyes, all he sees is relief.
All he sees is freedom.