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For the Love of the Game

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“Why do you hang around with that guy?” Kenji asks, eyeing Gokudera with the exaggerated horror most teenage athletes have for smokers. “He’s a total psycho, Yamamoto.”

“Haha, don’t say that. He’s a great guy!”

“…He’s a psycho, man. They say he blew up half the campus once. He’s weird.”

“Nah, he’s not so bad once you get to know him.”

“Whatever, you like everybody. Even that Mizuno guy. Whatever happened to that giant freak, anyway?”

Yamamoto’s eyes narrow and he goes very, very still. His whole focus is abruptly on Kenji; it feels like they’re the only two people in the world. And it’s scary as hell.

Kenji’s always thought of Yamamoto’s eyes as a warm brown, but now that he’s really looking (can’t help but look), he can see that they’re actually sort of yellow. The kind of eyes that make you think of snakes and hawks, of being torn apart by giant cats. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it, they’re the same eyes, so what…?

He’d like to step back, he’d love to step back, but he can’t. He’s frozen, hypnotized, and his own breathing seems horribly loud. It’s the weirdest thing, because this is Yamamoto, but he can’t help but think, This is it, I’m gonna die. I’m going to die right now.

And then Yamamoto smiles and turns those eyes away. “Oh, Kaoru? He got hurt pretty bad, you know? But I think he’ll be okay.” Without waiting for a response, he wanders over to the fence to chat with the terrifying Gokudera, who all of a sudden seems downright reassuring.

“So it finally happened to you, huh?” Taniguchi murmurs, clapping Kenji sympathetically on the back.

“What…?”

“The Yamamoto thing.”

“It’s…it’s a thing? I thought he was a nice guy!”

“Yeah, no, he is. He’s a really nice guy. Just, like. Don’t ever make him mad.”

Kenji stares at Yamamoto, who’s laughing at the terrifying Gokudera. “…That doesn’t really happen every time he gets mad, does it?”

“You kidding? It’s legendary,” Taniguchi says. “Happens to everybody at least once. Far as we can work out, it’s like: don’t mention his mom, never ask why he missed practice, don’t ask him about that time with the roof—”

“Roof?”

“Oh yeah, you hadn’t transferred in yet. Well, what you don’t know won’t get you that look, right? And let’s see…it’s okay to say his friends are weird, but not to seriously trash-talk them. Or even to go on about them too long. Way we figure it, it’s getting to the point where it’s easier not to mention them at all, especially not Sawada. You saw how he got about that Mizuno guy. And don’t talk about hospitals, don’t talk about yakuza movies, don’t talk about seppuku or even swords, don’t—do not—mention time travel—”

“Okay, stop. What can you talk about?”

“Baseball and sushi. Pretty much. And class is safe. Uh, most of the time.”

“…Baseball and sushi?”

“Yeah. You wanna get that look again?”

Kenji doesn’t. Ever. In his life.

So, baseball and sushi. Luckily, he knows a lot about baseball.

* * *

As far back as Takeshi can remember, it’s just been him and his dad. Well, him and his dad and a bunch of people who didn’t count. They weren’t bad people, but they weren’t quite…real. They were customers, distant relatives, friends his dad was trying to lose touch with.

And then there were the enemies.

Takeshi used to sneak out at night to watch his dad practice the sword. Dad had a tiny dojo built into the back of the shop, and he’d spend hours there after he thought Takeshi was asleep, the sword dancing like something alive, like a part of Dad’s body. One move flowed into the next, smooth and perfect, light flashing on the blade. The coolest thing ever.

Sometimes, though, other men came to the dojo, and those times, Takeshi knew he shouldn’t watch. But he couldn’t help it. Where practice was beautiful, this was fascinating and sickening; men making awful, wet noises, bodies falling with heavy thumps, blood running along the floor, tracing out branches and pools until Dad cleaned it all away.

Takeshi learned about a lot of things before he learned the vocabulary for them, and it took years to pick up the two sets of words people could apply to Dad. Honor, protection, the way of the sword. Violence, crime, cold-blooded murder. But the thing was, neither of those sets was right. Takeshi noticed that again and again, and not just with Dad—two sets of words on opposite sides of the truth, but neither of them true. He doesn’t think you can get at truth through words. Maybe all you can do is edge in close.

Dad didn’t enjoy what happened to those men; he didn’t like it when they came to challenge him. And those men, they were so scared when they fell, broken like gutted fish. Takeshi always wondered if they had kids, too, waiting for them at home. Why did they show up and make it so Takeshi had to lose a dad or their kids had to lose a dad? It was stupid. It was sad.

None of the words covered the way the whole thing was sad and stupid, the way everyone looked grim or afraid. There wasn’t glory in it, but there wasn’t evil in it, either. It was too pathetic for either one.

Takeshi didn’t want anything to do with it.

When he was ten, Dad caught him watching practice, and he got about as mad as Takeshi had ever seen him. It was obvious why: he didn’t want his son to see those other times, the times when he wasn’t alone. Takeshi felt guilty that he had seen. He’d always known it was something his dad wasn’t proud of; he shouldn’t have watched.

But he could pretend he hadn’t, if it would help. So he pretended. He pretended not to notice when Dad dismantled the dojo in the shop and converted it to storage. Pretended not to wonder where Dad practiced now. Pretended not to miss watching. It was easier that way.

Dad didn’t need to know what Takeshi had seen, what he would always remember. Dad’s bleak, disgusted expression and the terrified faces of the men he killed. The way none of it made anyone happy. The horrible difference between the words and the truth.

(Silver light sliding off the edge of a blade.)

I don’t want that.

I don’t ever want that.

* * *

Gokudera is unconscious, bruised and dirty and limp on the ground, terrifyingly small like that. Tsuna is missing; the last thing Takeshi heard from him was run, run. And there’s a dead man at Takeshi’s feet.

He’s sixteen, and he’s just destroyed his last hope of a life different from his dad’s. He thought he’d be more upset about it, but it is what it is. He never wanted this, but he couldn’t let this man kill Gokudera—it’s as simple as that. This is the only choice Takeshi could live with.

It strikes him as weird that he’s had to struggle not to kill people, that it’s been such a challenge. He’s pretty sure that for most people, not being a murderer is way easier than being one.

He can feel his mouth pulling into familiar grim, bleak lines. He knows exactly how his father must’ve felt back in the dojo, blood painting the floor. He’d been afraid he would.

“A born killer,” Reborn murmurs into the silence. “As I always said.”

Takeshi throws his head back and laughs. He laughs and laughs and can’t make himself stop for a disturbingly long time, and it feels just like screaming. Born killer? There’s no such thing. Killers are made, and Reborn did at least half the work on Takeshi. What a joke. It really is, Squalo’s right, it’s all a fucking joke.

Reborn is smiling at him.

* * *

“It’s a clean feeling, isn’t it?” Reborn asks later, sitting with Takeshi in a coffee shop, holding a tiny cup of espresso that somehow makes him look even more tiny. “A job well done.”

They found Tsuna and took Gokudera to the hospital and generally saved the day, but that’s not what Reborn’s talking about.

“…Yes,” Takeshi agrees, because it’s all he can do. “I hate it.”

Reborn nods thoughtfully and takes a careful sip from the tiny cup. “That fades,” he says. “More slowly if you’ve killed the wrong man. Pointless—it’s too late by then. I don’t waste much time worrying about it either way, anymore.”

And that, right there. That’s the real problem. “Reborn—”

“You’ll turn out the same.”

“I don’t think so.” He does think so. He and Reborn are too alike for anyone’s comfort.

“We’ll see,” Reborn murmurs, smiling indulgently.

“We won’t.”

“You’re young.”

“Haha! Um, yeah, I am.”

“You think I’m wrong? Let’s make a bet.”

“…Yeah? Something like the Arcobaleno thing?”

“You’ll find out if you win.”

Takeshi knows exactly what Reborn’s up to, but he has to love the hilariously Reborn way he’s going about it. Nobody understands Takeshi’s insane competitive streak like Reborn does. Add to that the quality of the last prize, and Takeshi’s going to make damn sure he wins. The Arcobaleno thing was a great secret, and it was one he didn’t have any right to. To have it freely handed over anyway…

Yeah, he’ll play again. “Deadline in ten years? I mean, eight years from now, but ten—”

Reborn smirks and tips his hat. “Ten years is reasonable. Assuming we both survive until then, this time around.”

“Wow,” Takeshi says, grinning back, “you’re so cheerful.”

* * *

Death is the framework of Takeshi’s life—beginning, ending, and the binding between.

He killed his mother coming into this world, and the way things are going, he’ll kill someone going out of it, too. He doesn’t blame himself; there’s no point blaming things for their nature. You might as well blame rain for falling, or Hibari for attacking you. It’s a waste of time worrying about simple facts, so he doesn’t. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know.

It’s not all terrible. He made one of his best friends while trying to kill himself, and another two while they were trying to kill him. (Well, Gokudera wasn’t too serious about it. But Squalo definitely was.) Maybe that was why it didn’t bother him too much when Kaoru tried to kill him. It fit the pattern.

The death thing works out for him sometimes, and he’s basically okay with it. Or maybe it’s more honest to say he’s gotten used to it. He’s still fighting the idea that that’s all there is to him, but he’s way less freaked out about it than he used to be.

He went out for baseball because people don’t die of baseball. Baseball is blue skies and cut grass, running and shouting, the adrenaline rush of being part of a team fighting for one goal. Baseball is life, and Takeshi wanted it to an extent that, looking back, was maybe a little crazy.

He got what he wanted, too. For a while. But then he plateaued—and he panicked, because stopping is like decaying is like dying. If you’re not climbing, you’re falling, and Takeshi knew exactly what was waiting at the bottom. (He still knows.)

When he broke his arm, that was it. He was the first kid on the team to break a bone, but that was what he got for trying to be something he wasn’t, trying to have things he couldn’t. Why would the baseball god take him when he was already claimed?

So he gave up. If death wanted him so much, it could have him. He wasn’t going to fight a losing battle for decades. What would be the point?

That was when Tsuna showed up, panicking and yelling and shining way too bright for his own good. Sawada Tsunayoshi: life and sunshine and one more chance.

Takeshi reached out to Tsuna, and Tsuna saved him.

New game. New rules.

* * *

People never understand about Tsuna and Gokudera. Of course, people don’t understand Takeshi most of the time, either, so it probably figures.

The way Takeshi sees it, your friends match up to all the different parts of you. If you know every friend someone has, you pretty much know everything about him, like each friend is a key to working out a different secret.

When you think about it like that, Tsuna’s got to be a really complicated guy.

Takeshi isn’t much better, though. Sweet, worried friends on one side and chain smoking, antisocial friends on the other. And then there’s Squalo. People at school don’t even know about Squalo. Haha, thank God for that.

Most people—not Tsuna, not Reborn or Squalo or Dad, but most people—only ever see the negative image of Yamamoto Takeshi. They see the pattern left by things he’s decided not to do, but they don’t see what he is. It’s not their fault; he doesn’t let them see. It tends to freak people out when they see by accident.

Gokudera acts like he only sees the negative image, but Takeshi doesn’t think that’s possible anymore. So is he just refusing to admit he sees anything else? Why?

Why. God, that’s the question of the day every day with Gokudera. But at least it’s always an interesting question of the day.

“Remember when we used to have to talk him into everything?” Gokudera asks. He’s been in a reflective mood lately. No wonder. They’re staying at some CEDEF villa in Positano, and it’s been raining for days. They’re seventeen, and Takeshi’s killed three people by now. Tsuna’s killed a lot more than three people. Nobody’s sure how many people Gokudera’s killed. It’s been a bad year.

Gokudera is staring expressionlessly out at the rain, cigarette smoke curling up and wreathing his face. It’s picturesque, really. Though Takeshi worries that it’s picturesque in a Gothic horror story kind of way.

“Remember,” Gokudera murmurs, “when he wouldn’t do anything until we convinced him it was okay?”

“Yeah. I remember.”

Gokudera stabs his cigarette out on the windowsill; Takeshi winces. “I miss that.”

Takeshi misses it too, but Tsuna probably misses it the most. “Growing up, I guess.”

Gokudera sneers halfheartedly over his shoulder, like he only hears the surface of that statement, nothing underneath. That’s definitely starting to get annoying. Tsuna always understands what Takeshi’s saying, and Gokudera could too if he would try.

Or Takeshi could just come out and actually say what he’s saying. At least half of his irritation is for himself, because he doesn’t have it in him to flat-out say, “Be grateful we won this future. Be grateful we haven’t lost him completely.”

He’s not brave enough, and besides, when he gets serious, Gokudera panics. Takeshi’s fault. He doesn’t like to be serious if he can help it, and Gokudera’s trained to expect catastrophe when he is.

“At least,” Takeshi says quietly, “he still needs us for something.”

Gokudera turns to him with that wide-open, shattered expression Takeshi’s only seen twice before. And that’s the thing. It would’ve been a disaster if Takeshi had been honest, because Gokudera might have cried, and then he would have had to blow up the building to eliminate witnesses.

“You’re saying he’ll outgrow us?” Gokudera asks, open and broken for just a second. But he’s always recovered fast. “Fuck you. No, seriously, fuck you. Maybe he’ll outgrow you, but speak for yourself, you—”

“Gokudera!” Takeshi hates this, he hates it when he sets Gokudera off the wrong way. “That’s not what I meant. He’ll always need us, just…not the way he used to.”

Tsuna’s grown into the strongest person Takeshi knows. No one will ever break him, but hurting him is still the easiest thing in the world. “We need to be what he needs,” Takeshi says thoughtfully, trying to put words to a series of impressions that are obvious to him, but apparently not to Gokudera. “He doesn’t need us to push him anymore. I think he needs us to pull him back.”

Gokudera’s turned his back to the window, hands gripping the sill behind him so tightly his knuckles are white. Takeshi must not be explaining this well, which is crazy, because it’s simple. Before, Tsuna was lagging behind, so they had to pull him up. Now he’s trying to run ahead, so they need to drag him back. He needs to be between them—his right and left hands, right? So he doesn’t fall over. But it’s okay if he lags behind, and it’s okay if he runs ahead. Everything’s okay as long as they hold on to him.

“I don’t,” Gokudera says, rough and scared, “I don’t know how to pull him back.”

Takeshi smiles because Gokudera has no idea how good he is at his job. “Yeah, you do. You do it all the time.”

Gokudera ducks his head and stares at the floor, still with that death grip on the sill. Anyone can see he didn’t exactly grow up showered with praise. It seems like on the one hand, he likes it, but on the other hand, he’d like a hole to open underneath him so he can disappear into the center of the earth. He handles being yelled at better. He trusts it when people yell at him.

So, change of subject.

“Tsuna says you’re moving out of your place?”

Gokudera looks back up with a scowl and finally lets go of the sill. “Yeah, fucking landlord’s kicking me out.”

“Haha, did you blow up the kitchen or something?”

“It was just a goddamn sink, I told him I’d buy a new—shut the fuck up, stop laughing, you are such a fucking asshole! It’s not funny. I’m gonna be homeless in two days, which, let me tell you because I know, is no joke. I can store my shit, but short of sleeping on Tenth’s floor like every other damn parasite, I don’t know where the hell to go. Still laughing?”

He’s not laughing. He’d only laughed in the first place because he’d been picturing Gokudera crammed into Tsuna’s tiny room with Lambo and Reborn and everyone. It hadn’t occurred to him that Gokudera would refuse to go to Tsuna. It should have.

Everything is hard for Gokudera; it’s hard for Gokudera just to live. Takeshi doesn’t get why that is, if it’s fate or karma or something Gokudera does to himself as a punishment or what. But it’s true, and at this point, that’s all that matters. Everything’s hard for Gokudera; he always expects to have to fight. He’s so used to it that he freaks out when people try to make things simple.

“Hey,” Takeshi says, easy and casual, “you can stay with me and Dad while you look for a place.”

Gokudera goes into orbit.

It could’ve stayed easy. He could’ve answered, Sure, or he could’ve answered, Fuck off, I don’t need you. Easy either way. So of course here he is, trying to go both ways at once. Loudly. Takeshi can’t even work out if he wants to stay and feels like he shouldn’t, or if he doesn’t want to stay and feels like he should. In Gokudera’s world, the instant he wants something for himself, it becomes wrong to want it. There’s no way to win with him.

On the other hand, you never exactly lose.

Takeshi lets Gokudera chew on things for a while without input. Sometimes input helps, but most of the time it just ups the pressure, which makes him panic harder.

Life is generally easy for Takeshi, and even when things go wrong, they go wrong in straightforward ways. The solutions are simple—as clear-cut as live or die, sometimes.

Everything in Takeshi’s life is easy except for Gokudera. Gokudera is pretty much his favorite thing in the world. There’s something off about that.

“It’d be nice,” Takeshi says into a pause for breath, “to have you around.”

Silence, awkward this time, stretched between the spoken and the unspoken. Do you really hate me? Or am I one more thing you won’t let yourself have?

“Okay,” Gokudera says finally. “I’ll stay with you.” Then, “Don’t make a big thing of it, asshole,” to keep things normal, to keep hold of what he knows.

Takeshi lets all the silent words go, rattling in his mind like beads as they fall to the floor. Someday someone’s going to trip over those. He smiles anyway. “Cool.”

* * *

Whether it’s nature or nurture, Takeshi doesn’t know, but Gokudera’s habit of making things harder than they need to be definitely runs in the family.

“Get out of my way,” snarls Bianchi, elbowing past him to get line of sight on this guy Reborn wants them to kill.

“Okay,” Takeshi agrees. The only two words he’s used today have been hello and okay. Anything more, and he runs a serious risk of being poisoned by his partner.

“I don’t know why I got stuck with you for this job,” Bianchi mutters.

Takeshi’s pretty sure it’s because Bianchi is way, way better at finding and following people than he is, but he’s a way better shot than she is. What he’d like to know is why Reborn isn’t doing this, because he could’ve handled everything by himself, and then Takeshi wouldn’t have had to use guns (which he hates), and Bianchi wouldn’t have had to deal with Takeshi (who she hates).

He just hums agreement, though—it’s safer. He’s not sure why Bianchi hates him. It could be that she thinks he’s stealing Reborn from her, or Gokudera from her, or, hey, maybe she just doesn’t like the fact that he can cook edible food. Whatever caused it, it’s pretty dire, and Takeshi tries to stay out of her way. But sometimes he really can’t help it.

Bianchi’s staring at the mark through binoculars and ignoring him at the moment, so that’s lucky. Boring, though, which is why he finds himself absently studying her, looking for Gokudera in her. Maybe it’s because he’s an only child, but siblings have always seemed really cool to him. With Gokudera and Bianchi, it takes a second to believe they are siblings—they don’t look much alike, except that they’re both pretty. It’s there, though, in the way they hold themselves, the way they move, the way they are about the people they love. Bianchi is Gokudera-tense right now: careful stillness and white knuckles and tight lips. Wow, she is really mad.

“If you don’t stop staring at me,” she growls, not looking away from the binoculars, “I swear to God I will kill you and eat you and tell Reborn you never showed up. Pick up that rifle—we’re never getting a better shot than this.”

Takeshi bites his lip hard because he doesn’t feel like suicide by smile today. He’s not sure if she meant all that, but he’s not interested in finding out. “Okay,” he says, picking up the rifle and shouldering it, slowing his breathing and getting ready to up his murder count by one. Bianchi’s right, it is an easy shot. The mark’s even holding still, leaning against a wall with his arms folded, maybe waiting for someone. Easy.

Takeshi wonders if Tsuna knows about this job. He hopes not.

The good news is, Reborn still hasn’t won the bet. But in a way, that’s the bad news, too, because it means it still makes Takeshi sick to do this, no matter how much he wants to protect his family. And it’s not the killing itself that makes him sick, though it definitely should be. It’s the fact that he’s so good at it, that it’s so easy. He’s trying not to lose the bet, but it feels like fighting gravity.

“Yamamoto,” Bianchi says, quiet and strained, as he lines up his shot. “Thanks for keeping my idiot brother alive.”

Takeshi blinks in surprise. “Um, selfish reasons,” he tells her, doubling his word count for the day.

“Yeah, I know,” she snaps, then pauses. Takeshi takes a breath in the silence. “That’s why I trust you with him,” Bianchi mutters, sounding pissed off about it. Haha, she’s Gokudera’s sister, all right.

And the thing about this guy they’re hunting is, he’s got a personal vendetta against the Vongola’s Right Hand. They both know why Reborn sent them, really.

Takeshi breathes out and pulls the trigger.

* * *

Once upon a time, when they were decorating for some festival or other, Takeshi’s dad pointed out that decorations used to involve a lot more fire before electricity was a thing. Like, paper lanterns always had candles, same as Christmas trees did in the West. It was all really pretty, prettier than electric lights, but not what you might call safe.

Once upon a time, Tsuna said, “Enma will be fine,” smiling bright and steady, just like fire in a paper bag, fire balanced on the branches of a dry evergreen. One mistake away from being destroyed by the very thing that made him beautiful.

Enma will be fine. That was the first time Takeshi noticed it, though it had probably been true for a while. And Tsuna’s only gotten brighter and scarier since then.

The real job of the guardians isn’t to be strong, though that helps. Their real job is to keep Tsuna from burning himself to nothing. It’s a hard fight, and sometimes it takes all of them working together, with Kyoko and Haru and Reborn dragged in.

It’ll probably take all of them this time, which is why Takeshi is at Hibari’s place, sprawled on his back in a room that could have been snagged straight from an Edo period castle, studying the ceiling and trying to think faster than Tsuna can burn.

“Gokudera says we need to make the De Stefano ’ndrina disappear,” he tells Hibari. “And we need to make sure Tsuna doesn’t know it was us, because you know how he is. You want to take care of that? I hear they’ve got some tough guys.”

“How urgent?”

“He’s not sleeping.”

Hibari scowls. “It annoys me when he makes himself weak.”

“…Uh, I don’t think he’s doing it to annoy you?”

“I’m not convinced,” Hibari insists, and Takeshi laughs. “I’ll leave tomorrow. Drug him.”

“Sasagawa’s on it.”

“Sasagawa Kyoko.”

“Yeah, Ryouhei doesn’t like it when we drug him. He’s got a point—it’s not like it’s a long-term fix.”

“Chrome.”

Aw, Chrome only gets one name. It’s kind of cute. “I think she’s already in Calabria. Anyway, he always figures out what she’s up to inside a day; he’s great at busting illusions. Because you taught him how.”

Hibari’s lips thin at the implied criticism. “The baby.”

“Yeah,” Takeshi says thoughtfully, turning to study the ceiling. There’s a water stain in one corner. How did Hibari let that happen? “Reborn…isn’t as good at Tsuna as he used to be.” It’s not Reborn’s fault; Tsuna’s gotten a lot trickier. They’re all struggling to keep up. “I’m about a week away from asking you to knock him on the head, drag him into the woods somewhere, and lock him in a shed for a while.”

“If I’m finished with this in a week,” Hibari agrees, indifferent.

Takeshi rolls his head to the side and considers Hibari, who’s sitting in front of a weirdly appropriate painting of angry tigers in dark gold that would make any Tokugawa proud, staring straight ahead, probably trying to pretend Takeshi isn’t in the room.

Hibari is serious, obviously. Hibari’s always serious.

Takeshi reflects on the dark smudges under Tsuna’s eyes and the way his skin seems so delicate these days, easily bruised and much too pale. The way you can count his ribs when he takes off his shirt. The way he always smiles, never cries, never asks for help anymore. Takeshi decides he’s serious, too. “Okay. If Gokudera and I don’t have this under control by the time you get back, it’s up to you.”

Hibari nods, and Takeshi rolls to his feet and moves to clear out before he overstays his shaky welcome. But he pauses in the doorway, one last worry hitting him. “You know what happened last time. The future, I mean. The whole death-faking trick.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let it happen again,” Takeshi says firmly. “Don’t let him cut the rest of us out.”

Hibari’s eyebrows climb. “Do you expect a promise from me, Yamamoto Takeshi?”

Takeshi laughs. “Can I have one?”

“No.”

“I figured.” But it was worth a try. “Then I’ll just say…if you let him do it again, I’m not going to be happy with you.”

They stare at each other across the room, both still and composed, but there’s that undercurrent with Hibari, always. So calm on the surface, but the possibility of violence hovers beneath everything he does, like static, white noise. Like the hiss of rain.

“I’ll remember,” Hibari murmurs eventually, turning away. No fight today, so Takeshi is dismissed.

He walks out of the room smiling. Hibari’s a funny guy.

* * *

“I hear your boss is losing his shit,” Squalo announces gleefully.

“Tsuna’s fine, Squalo.” Tsuna will be fine, anyway. They’ll make him fine. That makes it true enough.

“Brat, you are such a fucking liar.”

Takeshi doesn’t lie. He’s just…optimistic, is all. “Haha, how’s Xanxus?”

“VOI, WHAT’S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?”

“…Nothing? I just heard he killed a bunch of people who were kind of allies of ours, and, you know, that doesn’t seem like him, so—”

Takeshi stops talking because this isn’t a conversation anymore—it’s a swordfight, instead. Funny how that works, because Takeshi could really use a fight. Nothing major. First blood, maybe. (Or second blood, third blood, until one or the other of them can’t walk, whatever.)

It’s just that he’s sick of feeling…caged. He’s sick of watching Tsuna burn himself out and Gokudera twist himself into knots and Reborn pretend not to care about any of it. There’s a lot he’s sick of, in fact, and Squalo’s obviously in the same boat. Beating each other up might not actually help anything, but it’ll feel like help. The illusion of accomplishing something—fighting until you’re exhausted.

An honest day’s work, haha.

Cut open the skin and let the blood run out, the same color as panic and hatred and fear. And yeah, it’s not actually panic and hatred and fear running out of him, but it almost works that way if he pictures it with enough determination.

The fight only stops when they’re sprawled side by side in Ninth’s garden, gasping for air, both too worn out to move. Takeshi keeps trying to blink the blood out his eyes, but it’s not really working, and he’s too messed up to move his hand high enough to wipe it away. Maybe they took it a little far, this time.

…Nah. They’re both still alive, right?

“Brat,” Squalo wheezes, “someday you’re gonna jerk the wrong guy’s chain, and you’re gonna die waving your hands around going, ‘Whoa, hey, I didn’t mean it like that.’”

“Thanks,” Takeshi gasps, “for worrying about me.”

There’s a long pause, silent but for the sound of breathing. The sun is warm on Takeshi’s face, the breeze keeping it from being too hot, and the grass is scratchy against his back. Almost too good to be true. He hopes Tsuna’s enjoying his Hibari vacation as much as Takeshi enjoyed his Squalo fight. He kind of doubts it, though.

“If I could stand up,” Squalo says eventually, “I would beat the shit out of you.”

Takeshi’s still pretty out of breath, but he laughs as best he can.

* * *

They’re in Palermo, in a tiny restaurant that wasn’t worth the near-death experience of crossing the street to get there. It’s been a very long day, Gokudera is refusing food in favor of working himself into a drunken rage, Takeshi is tired and frustrated, and if the evening doesn’t end in a property-destroying brawl, it’ll be a real surprise.

A man marches in, all swagger, the beautiful woman at his side gazing adoringly up at him. The man calls out a bunch of demands to the owner in Sicilian, which Takeshi can only half follow—not that it matters. The owner’s angry, frightened face says it all. Yep, Takeshi thinks. There’s our fight. Straight on delivered.

One of the waiters brings Takeshi’s pasta course and another round of that clear drink Gokudera loves that tastes like paint thinner. The waiter nods knowingly at Gokudera—taking him for local, just like half of Southern Italy seems to—and glances back at the swaggerer, drawing a line down his cheek with a thumbnail, tracing an imaginary scar. Mafioso or, alternatively (synonymously), scumbag.

Gokudera snorts and rolls his eyes. The waiter grimaces agreement and wanders off. It’s a weird world in which Gokudera gets pegged as sympathetic to how annoying mafiosi are. But then again, he and Takeshi have been studying crumbling mafia cement and unsafe mafia housing all day. Neither of them is feeling particularly warm toward their colleagues at the moment.

“Is that Chrome?” Gokudera demands as soon as the waiter’s out of earshot.

For a second, Takeshi doesn’t understand what he’s asking, but then he turns and takes a longer look at the woman who came in with the thug. Her body language is all wrong—bold and confident, nothing like Chrome’s—and her hair is too long. She’s also overdoing her makeup to the point of tackiness—Takeshi can see people in the restaurant disapproving of her taste.

But even so. “It’s definitely Chrome.”

“What the fuck is my life?” Gokudera moans, head thudding down onto the table.

Hilarious, mostly. “…Should we leave before we mess up her scam?”

“Oh no,” Gokudera growls. “If she can ignore us, if she can set this up without a goddamn word to us, then we can ignore her right back.”

When he regresses to grade school logic, that’s when you know he’s had too much to drink. “Hey, don’t be like that. Tsuna probably sent her, right?”

Gokudera promptly levers himself upright like a zombie rising from the grave, and who knows, Tsuna’s name might have that effect on him when he really is dead. “Can’t bother Tenth,” he mumbles, trying to stand, and wow, he’s had way too much to drink. Takeshi grabs his arm before he faceplants, puts hopefully enough money to cover them down on the table, and glances questioningly at the waiter. Who waves impatiently—go, go—without even checking how much Takeshi’s left. Because that’s how it is; people are super-nice when they think you’re on their side.

Anyway, it’s pretty weird to see someone actually drunk in Italy. Drunkenness, not a done thing (probably because it’s disrespectful to the booze). So if someone’s drunk, everyone assumes his heart is broken and his life is over, and they take pity. It’s convenient, but…not right. They wouldn’t be so nice if they had all the facts.

Takeshi steers Gokudera outside and isn’t overly surprised to find Hibari lurking there, miserable as a wet cat. Hibari hates cities in general, Italian cities in particular, and Palermo and Naples with a fiery, personal loathing. But Chrome is here, and Hibari has occasional fits of, um. Being where Chrome is. “Hibari,” Takeshi says, carefully not laughing. “Didn’t think we’d see you around for a while. How’s Tsuna?”

Hibari scowls alternately at Takeshi, Gokudera, and the greeter guy standing by the restaurant door smoking a cigarette and ignoring them. “Find out for yourself.”

“Haha, okay, but he’s in Japan and we’re—”

“He’s here.”

Takeshi blinks and Gokudera rouses himself from his drunken stupor enough to point accusingly at Hibari and mumble something angry and incoherent about irresponsible guardianship. Takeshi grabs Gokudera’s hand and tugs it back before Hibari bites off a finger. Gokudera snarls. Takeshi talks over him. “Oh yeah? Where’s he staying?”

“Chiavarone,” Hibari says dismissively, already wandering toward the restaurant. Conversation over. It was too much to expect an explanation from him when he’s busy tailing Chrome.

“Dino has a place here?” Takeshi murmurs into the still-snarling Gokudera’s ear. “So…why didn’t we stay with him?”

“We were undercover,” Gokudera insists, struggling to get away from Takeshi, apparently unmoved by the fact that if he succeeds, he’ll fall over.

But they were undercover, he’s right about that. And unlike Chrome, they can’t just make themselves invisible when they leave a place. “Well, we’re not undercover anymore, so let’s stop by Dino’s tomorrow.” When Gokudera will be so hungover it’ll hurt to look at him. “Or the day after.”

* * *

They wait the two days. Gokudera definitely needs them both.

When they get to Dino’s place, Romario meets them at the gate with a smile. That’s a good sign. Takeshi believes in preemptive smiles; he tries to force things to turn out fine through sheer power of positive thinking. Romario’s got a different theory. He only smiles if he’s sure things are already fine, like smiling too soon is a jinx. So if Romario’s smiling, hey, it’s a win.

Apparently Dino’s out on business, but Romario leads them to Tsuna, who’s hanging out in a funny cross between a study and a courtyard. For some Tsunaish reason, there are stacks of paper all over the chairs, but Tsuna himself is sitting on the tile floor, head down on a coffee table, moaning about paperwork and Kurokawa and Reborn. There are birds singing, the sun’s shining, there’s a fountain somewhere out of sight…and Tsuna’s complaining.

Gokudera’s shoulders sag in relief. A complaining Tsuna is a happy Tsuna, and it’s been months since he last complained about anything.

Tsuna’s head jerks up and he stares at them with wild eyes as they walk in. He’s got bruises everywhere, including a really spectacular black eye that was probably tonfa-inflicted. He still looks tired, he still looks too thin.

He smiles, though, when he sees them. He smiles, and his fire is banked to a low glow that’s not a danger to anyone. Hibari is magic, in a really strange and limited kind of way.

“Gokudera! Yamamoto!” Tsuna leans hesitantly toward them, like he wants to touch them and make sure they’re real, but has decided that’s weird. “Did you finish looking into that construction stuff?”

Gokudera and Takeshi exchange glances and silently agree not to go into any of the ugly details of that today. “Yeah,” Gokudera says. “Yeah, we finished up, Tenth. I’ll get you the report in a couple days, okay?”

Tsuna nods, trying to hide how happy he is not to have to deal with another report right now, not succeeding too well. Takeshi reaches out and messes up his hair. Had to be done.

“Tenth,” Gokudera says, glaring briefly at Takeshi for daring to touch the hair, “you should have told me you’d be in Palermo. I had to hear it from Hibari.”

And adding insult to that injury, he’d forgotten about it by morning, meaning he had to hear from Takeshi that he’d heard it from Hibari. He probably can’t even imagine a lower level of administrative Hell than that.

“…I’m sorry, Gokudera. I was going to tell you as soon as…well. I wanted to give you guys a couple days off? You work way too hard, and…but I should’ve—” A brief, self-mocking huff of laughter. “I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

Just like that, Gokudera’s switched from his serious face to his oh my God, the boss is adorable face. Takeshi would laugh about it, except he figures his face can’t be much better. Gokudera catches himself after a second, though, clearing his throat and straightening up. “Um, thanks, Tenth, but you don’t have to worry about me! And even if I did take a break, I wouldn’t want to spend it with this idiot.”

Gokudera’s pretty full of it sometimes. He and Takeshi both know that whenever he walks into a room, he looks for Tsuna first and Takeshi second. They know that for all Gokudera technically has his own place, he’s never really stopped living with Takeshi—first at Dad’s house, then a whole string of crappy apartments. They know how much they lean on each other.

Maybe Gokudera doesn’t realize that Tsuna knows all that, too.

“Um…” Tsuna’s starting to look worried. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Gokudera frowns, confused. “What’re you trying to say, Tenth?”

“He’s trying to say that Yamamoto’s been in love with you since we were kids, apparently everyone knows this but you, and, incidentally, how stupid are you?” Kurokawa announces, barging in the door with two armfuls of paperwork, one of which she dumps in front of Tsuna (who groans), and the other of which she brandishes at Gokudera (whose face doesn’t even know what to do with itself). “Have a personal crisis on your own time,” she continues. “You promised you’d translate these for me, and since you’re here, that’s what you’re going to do if I have to tie you to a chair and make you.”

“What,” Gokudera hisses, “the fuck.”

Takeshi starts laughing, and maybe it’s a little weird that he can’t stop, but it’s just. God, Gokudera. If it’s part of his job, he sees everything, he dissects it, he analyzes it, he works at it until it makes sense. If it’s his personal life, though? He doesn’t even pay attention. It’s hilarious.

Gokudera is staring, bewildered until the moment he decides it’s all a joke. Then he takes off in a huff, Kurokawa chasing after him with a grim paperwork face.

Takeshi can tell he’ll be laughing for a while, so he sits down on the floor next to Tsuna and settles in. Pretty soon, Tsuna puts a careful arm around him, guiding Takeshi’s forehead down to rest on his shoulder. Looking tough is one of the few things in life that Tsuna never seems to worry about.

Which is funny, and the entire Gokudera situation is funny, and Kurokawa’s always funny, and Takeshi laughs until his whole body aches from it. Tsuna doesn’t say a thing, though, not even when Takeshi’s finally laughed himself out and is just breathing.

Tsuna’s shoulder is warm in an oddly soothing way, and leaning on it should probably be a recognized medical treatment. Dangerous. There are times when taking comfort from him feels vampiric—like he’s only got so much to give, and you’re bleeding him dry. Not this time, though. This time he’s relaxed, breathing easy, sneakily trying to hide Kurokawa’s paperwork under a folder with his free hand. He doesn’t seem to be hurting at all, and that’s more comforting than anything else.

“Hey,” Takeshi says after he doesn’t know how long, too long, “how was your Hibari vacation?”

“Oh my God,” Tsuna snaps, suddenly exasperated. “I don’t even believe you.”

Takeshi grins, not bothering to lift his head.

“Okay. Okay, fine! I’ll tell you about Hibari-san if you’ll tell me about your construction research,” Tsuna says. “If we’re being totally ridiculous about this.”

That succeeds in sobering Takeshi up. “This mafia game,” he murmurs. “It’s pretty grim sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Tsuna sighs shakily. And then, a little lighter, “So grim you may have to stop calling it a game someday.”

Takeshi lifts his head and looks Tsuna in the eye. “I will never,” he vows, “stop calling it a game.”

Tsuna smiles. “Is it to annoy Gokudera?”

Well. Yes and no. “It is a game.”

“…If this is the game, what’s the real thing?”

“Haha, I don’t know. I’m trying not to believe in it.”

“I hate it when you make no sense but I understand you anyway,” Tsuna mutters, and Takeshi laughs. He’s pretty sure Tsuna doesn’t understand.

He really hopes Tsuna doesn’t understand.

* * *

Of all the children, Reborn has always understood Yamamoto Takeshi best. After all, they’re two of a kind, broken so deep down and so long ago that the damage is hardly visible from the outside. And even when people see it, they don’t recognize it for what it is.

Except for Tsuna, of course, who recognized it almost immediately and then spent years trying to convince himself he hadn’t. Tsuna always has been unique. Also an idiot, but you can’t have everything.

It’s much more common for people to recognize the similarities without understanding what they mean.

“Sometimes,” Tsuyoshi says, leaning aggressively over his counter, “I wonder if you’ve forgotten whose son he is.”

No sane man would challenge an Arcobaleno. Reborn enjoys the fact that Tsuyoshi is not limited in that way. “I’m not interested in stealing your son from you, Tsuyoshi.”

“Mm.” A long, suspicious glare. “It was one thing when you were training him to fight. Now that you’re arranging his love life, it’s harder to buy the ‘I’m just his mentor’ line.”

“That’s damage control,” Reborn corrects. “It’s pure business.” Technically, Tsuna should be handling it, but the whites of his eyes show all the way around whenever anyone suggests as much. Reborn can pick his battles, and this one isn’t worth the trouble.

“And it didn’t occur to you that my son’s private choices might not be Vongola business?” Tsuyoshi demands.

“Don’t play stupid. Of course they are.” If this goes badly, it could destroy the entire Guardian dynamic. That would be inconvenient. Ridiculous, too, not that that’s ever slowed the Tenth Generation down.

“Reborn,” Tsuyoshi growls, but he cuts himself off at the sound of the door. He and Reborn both turn expectantly.

Yamamoto walks in and freezes, taking in the scene, eyes tracking everything like a good assassin. He notes Reborn’s carefully non-combative posture, his father’s grip on a knife, the expressions on both of their faces, the choking stillness of the room. He approaches very slowly and carefully, and stands at the end of the counter, precisely between them.

Then he grins, and Tsuyoshi smiles helplessly back. “Hey, Dad. Hey, Reborn. So…what’s up?”

It’s an honor to fight beside you, Yamamoto Takeshi. “Your father,” Reborn says, “is worried that you love me best.”

Tsuyoshi splutters and turns red.

“Dad!” Yamamoto laughs incredulously. “That’s not even—Reborn, tell him!”

Reborn shakes his head. Some stubborn idiots refuse to listen. Yamamoto smiles faintly in response. Of course he understands—he’s had more than his share of experience with stubborn idiots.

“Dad,” he says again, more seriously. “Reborn taught me how to kill people. You tried to teach me not to kill people.” He pauses, taking in his father’s look of blank incomprehension. “Reborn does what’s best for the Vongola, but you do what’s best for me. Reborn’s my teacher and my friend, but…you’re my dad. That’s kind of a big deal.”

“Idiot,” Reborn adds, because it needs to be said, and Yamamoto won’t say it.

“I wasn’t worried,” Tsuyoshi lies, setting a plate of some kind of sushi artwork in front of Reborn, possibly as an apology. “But thanks all the same, son. Didn’t expect to see you today. What’s up?”

“Oh, you know.” Yamamoto leans bonelessly against the counter, dropping any hint of gravity, just another twenty-something kid. “Had some free time, thought I’d check on you. Make sure you hadn’t burned the place down.”

“Very funny,” Tsuyoshi says darkly. “You’re the one I worry about. How’s the job?”

“Good,” Yamamoto answers, casual and happy. “I mean. I’ve made it ten years.” He casts Reborn a quick smile. “Ten years, right, Reborn? I win.”

What a way to say, It still hurts every time. “You win,” Reborn allows. But there will be no discussion of the prize in front of Tsuyoshi. He’d misunderstand, despite the fact that Yamamoto has visited him five times more often than usual, this tenth year. Tsuyoshi really is a fool over his son.

A fool who grumbles pointedly, almost on cue, causing Yamamoto to laugh and give him a highly edited and only tangentially true summary of their old bet and its consequences.

Reborn listens to their comfortable conversation and reflects on how very much he doesn’t want children, has never wanted children, absolutely couldn’t bear that last, horrible level of responsibility. No. He sees himself in Yamamoto, that’s all, and he sees ways to make the path less brutal for Yamamoto than it was for him.

Reborn doesn’t want a son. He wants to rewrite history, and Yamamoto is willing to sit back, smile, and let him try. It’s a perfect arrangement.