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Down the Stairs

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He awakens to smoke and dust and a ringing in his ears.

Immediately he takes in a deep breath—and coughs. This action triggers the awareness of other, even less pleasant sensations. The burning in his eyes as the smoke tickles them raw. The ache in his head from where it must have hit the floor when he fell. The sharp, bleeding edges of the broken glass he's lying on, grinding into his back as he doubles over to expel the dust from his lungs.

With a groan, he finds the corners of the nearest half-wrecked piece of furniture and pulls himself to his feet.

…What happened?

Dimly aware that he's probably not looking much better than the room at the moment—and the room looks like a bomb went off, which can't be too far from the truth—Gokudera Hayato stumbles to his desk and gropes around for a button on the underside. He has to pause and think for a second, his brain still fuzzy in the aftermath of the blast. There are two buttons there. One of them triggers a silent alarm. The other patches him through directly to the base's security.

He looks around, recalling the impact of whatever force just slammed into him, and decides he probably doesn't need to bother with the first button.

He pushes the second: "This is Gokudera—what the hell is going on?" He waits.

And waits.

Ten full seconds pass, and then he slams the button again. "Oi! Someone answer me! What the hell just happened?"

Again, no response. He curses, hitting the button repeatedly, then pauses as his ears belatedly pick up on the static wheezing through the comm when he holds the button down.

Shit. He casts about for the phone that had been sitting on his desk before, and spots it lying on the floor nearby, but even as he reaches to pick it up, he sees that it's useless; the line is clearly disconnected. With another curse, he turns and makes his way to the door.

Outside, red lights flash on and off through yet more smoke, giving the hallway the look of a particularly seedy night club, and confirming Gokudera's earlier suspicion: the alarms have indeed been activated. Waving his hand around in a futile attempt to fan some of the smoke away, Gokudera starts down the hall, pausing as he hears approaching footsteps.

A moment later, a group of men in suits comes running by, and without hesitation, Gokudera staggers out and grabs one of them by the collar as he passes, slamming him against the nearest wall. The man gawks at him, a little stunned.


Gokudera all but spits his words out, having discovered he is running dangerously low on patience. "What the fuck is going on here? I want to know, now."

"S-sir, we're not quite sure! There was a large explosion—"

"I know that!"

"Yes, sir… and then the alarm sounded—it's an attack."

"Who's attacking?"

"I—we're not—I don't know, sir, we were heading to the south wing to investigate—"

"The south wing?" A block of ice suddenly lodges itself in Gokudera's stomach.

"Yes, that's where the blast came from, sir—"

Gokudera is on the move before he can even finish the sentence. Racing down the hall, hardly even noticing his aches and pains or the fact that he could barely stand two minutes ago, he rounds the corner and keeps running.

The south wing. Where the base's training facilities are located. The same training rooms where the boss had headed off to spar against the sword idiot. That had been just after dinner, not twenty minutes ago.

Please let them be fine, he prays as he runs. Please don't let anything have happened to the Tenth. Please, please, please…

Barreling down a flight of steps, he veers another corner… and comes abruptly to a halt.

Two huge piles of rubble frame an enormous hole in the outer wall of the building. All around, he can see and hear men engaged in combat, trading bullets back and forth from behind half-crumbled walls and overturned furniture.

And outside, through the gaping hole in the wall, he can see jets of orange flame interspersed with flashes of lightning. It's pouring rain. The ice in the pit of his stomach grows colder, sharper. If it's raining outside, and if their enemy is who he fears it is… this can't be a good thing.

Scrambling up the rubble and over the other side, Gokudera hurries toward the source of the orange flames, determined to help his boss. Another flash of lightning illuminates the area, and that is when he spots the bent figure over by the side of the building. The cold feeling in his gut spreads throughout the rest of his body.

The Vongola Rain Guardian sits half-crouched, half-collapsed in the mud, hunched over in such a way that for a moment Gokudera can't tell if he's even conscious. His sword lies some two meters to his left, abandoned in a puddle. That its owner doesn't seem to notice or care is the first indicator that he's been seriously wounded. The other is the dark red stain that's slowly forming beneath his feet.

"Fuck," Gokudera curses vehemently as he runs over. "Fuck—are you—?" But before he can get any further, the other man raises his hand to cut him off. His eyes are fixed on the figure in the sky above. Gokudera follows his gaze, and is hit by sudden and profound relief—the Tenth, the Tenth is alive, he's still alive…!

That relief is abruptly cut short as he spots the other figure in the distance. "Shit…" With a look of grim understanding, he turns back to his fellow guardian. "It's him? He's the one who did all this?"

A curt nod.

"And your arm…?"

With a furious glare, Squalo finally turns to look Gokudera in the eye. "One more word and I'll rip yours off to match, brat."

A sudden rushing sound catches their attention, and both men instantly turn back to the battle. Sawada Tsunayoshi hovers in the darkened sky, his forehead emblazoned with the dying will flame, his eyes coolly regarding his opponent below. The other figure shifts back into a stance, then brings his sword up and around in a wide arc, its motion forming a giant wave in the curtain of pouring rain. Tsuna flies forward to attack, and the man disappears under the cover of another wave.

A moment later, he emerges on the other side of Tsuna, sword raised over his head, ready to bring it down in a killing blow. Tsuna dodges, leaping back—

—and just barely turns around in time to avoid the strike coming at him from behind.

"A reflection," Squalo mutters, almost approvingly.

Gokudera blinks, then squints his eyes through the rain. Reflection…? Yes, he can see it now; the first strike had been nothing more than the attacker's form reflected in the water. The real attack had come from behind.

"Ha! Not baaaaad!" Squalo cries, and not for the first time Gokudera wonders at just how fucking insane the swordsman is, cheering on the man who just cut his fucking arm off.

Then the man in question, having apparently given up on his attempts to attack Tsuna—That's right, you're no match for our boss, and don't you ever forget it, Gokudera thinks fervently—turns to look at them, and Gokudera feels a shiver run down his spine. He can't help it; it's that look in his eyes, that cold, sharp, fearless look. That killing look.

And then he smiles, and somehow that's the most terrifying thing of all.

"Take care of that arm," he says. And then his blade is slicing in front of him again, and more waves are there to obscure him, and when they vanish, Yamamoto Takeshi is gone.

And Gokudera can't help but think they have a real problem on their hands.

"For the last time," Tsuna says, voice patient but also just slightly strained, "I'm telling you, he's not the person you think he is."

They're standing in what used to be Tsuna's study, and technically still is, except that right now it looks less like an office and more like a storage room in the back of some run-down library. Stacks of books and files line the walls, temporarily stranded because the shelves that had previously housed them were overturned and destroyed in the explosion. Numerous sheets of paper are strung up in front of fans like clothes hung out to dry because yesterday's fire had caused the sprinkler system to go off, drenching them. And because the cleanup and repair effort has so far been focused in the south wing, much of the floor and furniture in the study (which Tsuna insists is a low priority) is still coated in dust and debris.

It is very much in Tsuna's character to defend the person responsible for this attack even as he stands surrounded by direct evidence of the damage rendered by it. Normally, it's a trait Gokudera greatly respects, even admires. But right now, his nerves are still frayed close to their ends, and he's quickly losing his own battle with impatience. "Tenth… he tried to kill you."

Tsuna rubs the back of his head. "Yeah, well… he's not the first person."

That the statement is true is bad enough, but the nearly casual way Tsuna speaks it is almost more than Gokudera can bear. "He blew up half the base!" he reminds his boss urgently. And then, because he knows that material damage will always come a distant second in Tsuna's mind: "He cut Squalo's arm off, for fuck's sake!"

That second, targeted blow seems to hit home more than any of his arguments so far. Squalo is still recovering in the base's infirmary, and even though it was the same arm he'd already lost years ago (Gokudera never asked him how), the limb was severed close to the elbow this time, and the wound is a grievous one. Tsuna looks pained for a moment.

"I don't like it either. …I'm not saying it's not a problem," he finally relents.

Seeing the opening he's been looking for, Gokudera presses further. "Tenth, we have to deal with him. He's a threat. If we leave him alone, who knows when he'll attack next! You know how many people he's killed!"

There's a long silence as Gokudera's words, again aimed toward what he knows is Tsuna's primary concern, hang in the air. Tsuna rubs his forehead, looking more profoundly stressed than any eighteen-year-old should rightfully ever look, and for a moment Gokudera regrets pushing him so much. But he needs to hear it, he tells himself firmly. Something has to be done.

When Tsuna finally speaks up again, though, he doesn't give in. Instead, he changes his argument tactics. "…I could say the same for you. Or Squalo, or any of the others."

Gokudera frowns, not liking the turnaround. "That's different."

Tsuna fixes him with that look he gives him sometimes, the one that Gokudera hates because it makes him regret everything he's ever done prior to meeting him. "How?"

"The Varia is a professional assassin squad under the direct command of the true Vongola boss," Gokudera insists. "Not some sick fuck who murdered his own brother to try to get the spot."

"But we're not talking about Enrico. We're talking about Yamamoto."

"It's the same thing! If you talk about one, you might as well be talking about the other!"

"That's not true." This time Tsuna is more adamant, leaving no room in his tone for dispute. So even though Gokudera disagrees—there are few statements he's ever disagreed with more in his life—he respectfully falls silent.

"I used to know him, you know," Tsuna continues quietly. "I mean… we weren't friends or anything, but he was in my class, back in Namimori." He takes on a distant look for a moment, an expression he often gets when talking about his life back in Japan. "…He was a good guy. Always smiling, always friendly to everyone… even the losers like me."

"You're not a loser, Tenth," Gokudera corrects before he can even think about it.

Tsuna laughs slightly. "Haah… well, I was back then. And you can't say I wasn't," he puts in quickly, giving Gokudera a knowing look. "You didn't even know me yet."

"Well, people do change, then. You're admitting it yourself."

Tsuna looks like he wants to continue arguing the point, but then unexpectedly, he heaves a sigh and slouches back into his chair.

"…Maybe. I guess I can't deny I never thought a guy like him could kill people."

Gokudera thinks of the Yamamoto Takeshi he knows: the deadliest assassin in Italy, the man who's been slowly chipping away at the Vongola and their allies for years now. The man who they say strikes like a shadow, killing his enemies before they even know he's there. The master of Shigure Souen Ryu; the one swordsman Squalo has never been able to defeat.

And Enrico's right hand.

Gokudera thinks all of these things, and finds once again that no matter what the Tenth says, no matter what person Tsuna may have known all those years ago, in his mind there is no doubt at all as to what kind of person Yamamoto is now.

"But then…" Tsuna continues, cutting into his thoughts, "I never thought someone like me could be a Mafia boss, either."

Despite himself, Gokudera can't help smiling. "…You've come a really long way."

And there's a statement he does truly believe, because four years ago when he'd first met Sawada Tsunayoshi, he would never have imagined that the naïve, terrified boy he'd known then would become the calm, thoughtful man he is today.

Ironically enough, they actually have Enrico to thank for that.

After all, if the eldest son of the Vongola Ninth hadn't staged a coup and murdered his younger brother Federico and his adopted brother Xanxus, Tsuna would never have become the next in line to be the tenth boss. And if Enrico hadn't also sent an assassin to kill Tsuna himself, Tsuna would have never come to Italy. For that matter, if Enrico had sent someone other than Belphegor to do the job, and if Bel hadn't been killed by Tsuna's father in the attempt, Gokudera would have never been recruited by the Varia in turn, and he would never have met Tsuna or become one of his guardians.

Fate works in mysterious ways sometimes, and for that much, he's grateful. As strange as it all is, meeting Tsuna changed his whole life.

But thinking about all of that only serves to further remind him of everything that's on the line now… everything he needs to protect.

Tsuna is rubbing his head awkwardly, looking pleased but sheepish at Gokudera's praise. "I guess so," he says at last.

Watching him, Gokudera feels a fresh surge of loyalty and protectiveness. "Tenth…" he tries one last time, giving him the most imploring look he can muster because this is important, there's nothing more important, not when his boss's safety is on the line. "I just don't want anything to happen to you."

Tsuna looks back at him for a long moment, then turns his eyes downcast. At last, looking up again, he asks in a very soft voice: "Do you trust me?"

"Of course," Gokudera answers without hesitation.

Tsuna meets his eyes entreatingly. "Then please let me deal with this my own way."

Gokudera swallows back his response, because as much as he'd like to, there's no way he can deny him that request. He closes his eyes… then nods.

"I don't want to have Yamamoto killed," Tsuna continues. "But if it turns out there really is no other way… I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

Gokudera nods again. Not what he'd hoped for… but it'll have to do for now.

For a long moment there's nothing but the sounds of paper flapping up and down and fans whirring in the air. Then Tsuna speaks one last time, his tone a little wistful, and far too sad.

"I just can't help thinking… if things had gone differently, maybe we would have been friends instead of enemies."

It's not that he can't see the similarities between himself and Yamamoto; far from it. They're both assassins, they both joined the Mafia at a young age, and they both serve as consigliore to their respective bosses. And Gokudera knows Tsuna has a point; for all that Yamamoto is a killer, Gokudera is hardly innocent himself. He made his first kill when he was just fourteen, as part of his initiation to join the Varia. He has blood on his hands, a fact he's long since come to terms with.

Yamamoto isn't all that different. He became a hitman at the same age Gokudera did, joining Enrico shortly after the coup that left the Vongola so divided just four years ago. Back then, there were still a lot of men who saw Enrico as the legitimate heir to the bloodstained Vongola throne. He was the Ninth's eldest son, and they saw Timoteo's decision to pick an unknown Japanese brat over him as insulting at best and insane at worst. Not a surprise, then, that it led to a conflict. And if Enrico hadn't made the mistake of assassinating the Ninth's other two sons, the history of Vongola might well have been written differently.

But unfortunately for Enrico, he failed to take into account that of everyone whose loyalties he was trying to sway, the Varia were by far the most important. And needless to say, killing their boss Xanxus didn't do much to endear him to them. Using another of their own, Belphegor, as an unwitting tool in the third act of his coup—and getting him killed in the process—did the rest. Once he'd managed to make an enemy of the Varia, the majority of the family had realigned themselves against him, and Enrico had found himself running short on allies. The Vongola civil war had been rapidly nearing an end.

Then Yamamoto had entered the picture.

Somehow, in spite of his age and inexperience, the teenager had proved to be very nearly a one-man army. He never lost a fight, regardless of the odds, and his reputation for coolly cutting down anyone who crossed his path soon began to precede him. He single-handedly helped Enrico to regain his foothold in the Mafia world, even as Tsuna's legitimacy was established and he became the official Vongola Tenth. And so the war had continued.

Four years later, Enrico is still a threat. All because of this one guy, this one idiot with a sword who picked the wrong fucking side.

But Gokudera doesn't hate Yamamoto because he's a killer, or because he's good at what he does. He doesn't even hate him because he works for Enrico, the traitor.

He hates him because while their professions may be the same, their backgrounds couldn't be more different. Gokudera was born and raised in the Mafia, born into this world of murder and betrayal. But Yamamoto comes from Namimori, the very same town where Tsuna was born and raised. And Tsuna is the kindest, gentlest, and most forgiving person Gokudera has ever met. Even though he's a Mafia boss, he hates killing. But Yamamoto seems to revel in it.

The reason why Gokudera hates Yamamoto is because as far as he can tell, he has no excuses. He wasn't born into this, but he seems to have been born for it. He kills simply because he can and is good at it, and Gokudera has known people like that all his life. Had thought he'd never be able to break away from people like that, until he'd met Tsuna.

So it's not that he can't see the similarities. It's that he can't forgive the differences.

For all the likenesses between them, though, the fact that they would just happen to go to the same bar on the same night, so soon after the attack on Vongola HQ, almost stretches the limits of coincidence.

Yamamoto is sitting on a stool at the end of the bar, hunched over a bottle of sake, a bamboo sword slung over his jacket. That's how Gokudera first recognizes him—the bamboo sword. They say it turns into a real one when he fights. Gokudera's never seen it in person, but he's seen too many strange things to discount it, either. You can do all kinds of shit with technology.

He himself is seated at a small corner table, keeping his distance from the main crowd, both so he can keep a low profile and so he can smoke without anyone bitching about it. From his position, he's pretty sure he can see Yamamoto but Yamamoto can't necessarily see him.

His hand unconsciously starts to reach for the Beretta in his coat pocket, but before he can so much as twitch, he stops himself. Please let me deal with this my own way, the Tenth had asked. To do something to Yamamoto here would be nothing short of stabbing Tsuna in the back.

…But all the same, is it just coincidence that both of them are here tonight? More than four years of Mafia infighting, and he's never once met Yamamoto face-to-face. Now of all the times for them to chance across each other, it happens here, where Yamamoto has no one else from Enrico's side to back him up?

Because he's sure of that much; Yamamoto came to drink alone tonight. Gokudera wonders just how drunk he is. Enough to slow those deadly reflexes of his…?

You can't do this, a voice inside him cautions. The Tenth asked you not to kill him, you said you wouldn't…

But if you let him leave this bar alive, you'll regret it, another voice urges. Another attack like the one last week, and the Tenth might not be around to protest.

He curses silently; either way it feels like a betrayal on his part.

And then Yamamoto straightens, hands the bartender a few slips of cash, and rises from his seat, heading toward the back exit. Gokudera's breath tightens in his chest, and all of a sudden he finds that his hand has clenched around the gun in his pocket, his instincts having apparently made his decision for him.

I'm sorry, Tenth, he thinks, and steps out into the back alley, gun pulled and safety off.

Except that its target is no longer in sight.

He has just enough time to swear a storm up in his mind before a soft voice behind him speaks.

"Sorry, but you're going to have to put it down. Or else I'll make you."

The tip of something sharp and blade-shaped pokes into his back to drive the point home. Slowly, all the while berating himself for being such a fucking idiot, Gokudera raises his arms, and reluctantly lets his gun hit the ground with a clatter. Then he turns around, because if he's going to die, at the very least he's going to do it facing down his killer.

The first thing he notices is that sure enough, Yamamoto's bamboo sword is gone, and in its place is a long steel katana. So the rumors were true. His second thought is that Yamamoto himself is oddly human up close. Unnaturally composed, perhaps—there's no mistaking how coolly steady that hand holding the sword is—but now that he's not in the midst of a battle, it's startling how normal he looks overall.

It's always the ones you least suspect, a part of his mind reminds, and immediately he remembers that this is still Yamamoto Takeshi, the Shadow Sword, and probably the last person he'll ever see.

"Huh… I didn't expect to ever meet you like this," Yamamoto says out of the blue, and with a rush, Gokudera recalls the raid and Squalo's arm and the way this man's blade had come close, so close to cutting through his beloved boss, and a surge of pure hatred swells through him.

Yamamoto smiles faintly. "I guess you're still mad about that attack on your base, huh?"

Fucking son of a bitch, taunting him, even now. "If you're going to kill me, get it over with already," Gokudera growls.

Yamamoto jerks his wrist slightly, and Gokudera doesn't flinch, but he does suck in a very short breath because this is it, now—

—and then the katana in front of him transforms back into a bamboo sword.


"Sorry, but you'll understand if I don't put it away just yet, right?" Yamamoto says, and right about then is when Gokudera's jaw drops open, because this is not just unexpected, it's backwards.

And Yamamoto, apparently not done fucking with him just yet, actually laughs. "Ha, you look so shocked."

A trap? Is it a trap? Gokudera's mind is whirring with the possibilities now, running through them and shooting them down as fast as they come. If it is a trap, then why the hell doesn't Yamamoto just kill him? Or is he trying to make Gokudera drop his guard? But that's ridiculous, because he already has the advantage. Is he trying to win his trust for some reason…? "What the fuck are you trying to pull?" he asks in suspicion.

Yamamoto raises his free hand in a protesting gesture. "Hey, you're the one who was following me."

Gokudera narrows his eyes. "And when the hell did you notice, anyway?"

"You weren't really subtle about it."

For some absurd reason, Gokudera actually flusters at the remark. "Shut up."

Yamamoto smiles again, and Gokudera feels patronized. He doesn't like it. Enough of this. Cautiously, he tries to see if he can catch a glimpse of where his gun fell out of the corner of his eye. If Yamamoto is cocky enough to be teasing him, maybe he can catch him off-guard, make a run for it…

Even as he thinks it, the bamboo sword pokes him lightly in his chest as a warning. Gokudera swears inwardly; so much for that.

And Yamamoto's smile has evaporated once again. "So what now?" he finally asks.

"You're the one with the sword," Gokudera replies distractedly, still trying to come up with some sort of plan. Maybe he can use his bombs somehow.

"But if I let you go, will you really just leave?"

Gokudera glares again. "Bastard, that's my line." Yamamoto's the assassin here, not him. …Well, he is, but Yamamoto's still hardly one to talk.

The assassin in question eyes Gokudera for a long moment, and Gokudera holds his ground. There's a strange look in the other man's eyes; preoccupied, almost considering…

Then, in a quick, fluid motion, he drops the sword to his side and slings it back over his jacket.

Gokudera is ducking toward his gun almost as soon as he sees the sword drop aside, moving reflexively. But just as he reaches the discarded weapon, he slows, as the sheer strangeness of the situation finally catches up with him. He's seriously just going to…?

Taking the Beretta in his right hand, he turns and looks at Yamamoto. Yamamoto just stands there, looking right back.

Do it. That little voice is back again. Shoot him already. Now, while you've got the chance.

He raises the gun. Yamamoto doesn't even blink.

…Fuck. There's just no way he can do it now. He clicks the safety on, and puts the gun back in his pocket.

There's a long silence.

Yamamoto breaks it first. "Thanks, I guess," he says with a wry sort of half-smile.

And because his confusion is finally beginning to outweigh his anger and even his mistrust, Gokudera just continues to stare back. This is the last thing he anticipated; he expected to face a cold-blooded killer in this alley, not someone like this. Someone who'd actually risk getting shot by letting the would-be shooter go. Someone… almost like Tsuna.

Finally, because none of it makes any sense and he can't think of anything else to do, he asks, "Why?"

Yamamoto just shrugs.

Leave, the common sense part of Gokudera thinks to himself. Just leave, before reality snaps back in place and he remembers you're on different fucking sides.

He takes a step back. And then, before he can stop himself, "We'll still be enemies after this, you know." Because this isn't right, after all, and fuck.

"I know," Yamamoto replies, not sounding like he expected any different.

"After what you did to Squalo, and all the others, don't think you can just…"

He stops short. Just what? Become an ally? Of course he can't, so why would his mind even suggest that possibility?

"I know," Yamamoto repeats.

It doesn't feel right. Any of it. The logical part of him still wants to turn and run, but a greater part is becoming louder and more urgent by the second. It's insane, but suddenly Tsuna's voice is there in his head. If things had gone differently, maybe we would have been friends instead of enemies.

"…Come talk to the Tenth."

He knows how stupid the offer is even as the words leave his mouth. And yet, a part of him can't help but think: maybe it is fate, that they were both here tonight. Maybe this is why. Maybe the Tenth was right after all. All he knows is, somehow this is the only option that doesn't feel completely wrong.

He knows it because for the first time tonight, Yamamoto actually looks surprised. And then something else, something almost like longing.

And then his face goes steely again.

"I can't."

Gokudera frowns. "This is a one-time offer," he warns.

Yamamoto nods.

"…Good night, Gokudera."

A moment later, he brushes past Gokudera and walks out of the alley. And Gokudera just stands there.

What the hell just happened?

He should be relieved. Hell, he should be thrilled that one of Vongola's worst fucking enemies didn't take him up on possibly the dumbest offer he's ever made.

But he's not. Instead he just feels vaguely unsettled and not a little pissed off.


Because it's still on his mind the following day, and because he's slowly coming to terms with the fact that he doesn't know their enemy half as well as he thought, he decides to talk to the expert.

Despite the recent loss of one of his limbs, Squalo is already up and about again, which doesn't surprise Gokudera a bit. He finds the swordsman out on the veranda, stalking around with his bandaged left stump of an arm, looking pissed off (though that much is normal).

"Hey," Gokudera says by way of greeting, and dodges automatically as Squalo hurls a canoli at him, also by way of greeting. It's interesting how within two seconds, Squalo can make Gokudera completely forget any lingering concern he might have had about the other man's recovery. "I see you're feeling better," he says dryly.

"Get lost, bomber braaaat!" Patronizing as always, but Gokudera lets it slide this time; he's known Squalo long enough by now to know he'll never win the swordsman's respect. Which is fine, because it's not exactly like he respects him either.

Besides, he has more important concerns on his mind. "I need to talk to you," he informs.

"Ask me if I caaaaare!"

"About Yamamoto."

A spark of eager bloodthirstiness seems to ignite in Squalo's eyes at the name. "Fuck! That fucking punk—the next time I see him, I'll kill him!"

"Yeah, sure you will," Gokudera replies, making sure to infuse his tone with extra sarcasm.

Predictably enough, Squalo whirls on him in a rage. "You want to say that again, brat?"

"How many times have you fought him now?" Gokudera asks pointedly. "Have you ever even come close to beating him?"

"He just keeps getting lucky, that's all!"

"Or he's better than you."

It's amazing how shark-like Squalo can look when he glares. "Don't think I can't end you just because I'm down one arm, braaat!"

"The Tenth wouldn't like that much," Gokudera reminds him.

"That's not my fucking problem!"

Even four years after Xanxus's death, Squalo still refuses to acknowledge anyone else as his boss. Most of the other Varia are the same; they serve the Vongola and follow Tsuna's orders, but won't outright accept him as Xanxus's successor. Gokudera is the only one who follows Tsuna without complaint (well, him and Mammon, but only because the latter's loyalty is determined by whoever's paying him).

Still, just because he knows Squalo dislikes Tsuna doesn't mean he's okay with it. "You're lucky he tolerates a brainless, disloyal moron like you."

"Voiiiii! You've got it the other way around!"

Rolling his eyes and resisting the urge to punch the idiot in the face, Gokudera instead tries to pull things back on track. "Can we get back to the goddamned subject already?"

Squalo fixes him with a suspicious look. "Why are you so interested in Yamamoto Takeshi all of a sudden?"

"Maybe you don't recall, but he attacked our base a week ago." And it's true that that's one of the reasons for his interest, after all.

"Ha! It wasn't his usual style, I'll tell you that!"

Gokudera frowns. "What do you mean?"

"He blew a fucking hole in the base, that's what I mean! A direct attack!" Squalo takes on a faint, almost approving look. "For a while there, I almost thought he'd finally come to his fucking senses and grown a paiiiir."

Gokudera narrows his eyes, trying to figure out what Squalo is trying to get at. "…It was a risky move," he says, thinking back on it.

Squalo snorts derisively. "I'm not talking about risk, brat. I'm talking about style. A clueless bomber brat like you might not understand this, but swordsmanship is about technique! Precision!" He slams an impassioned hand on the veranda rail. "We don't make our kills from a distance—we're in there up close! Feeling each one! Bombs like yours kill indiscriminately; where's the fun in thaaat?"

Frowning again, Gokudera thinks that he's starting to see Squalo's point now. The raid on the base last week was kicked off by an explosion, and while bombs have always been Gokudera's trademark, the same can't exactly be said of Yamamoto. …Come to think, he is the Shadow Sword, after all; subtlety is his specialty. But the attack on their base was anything but; it had immediately set off an alarm and counterattack. Why would he strike in a way that would alert his enemies so quickly?

"I'm telling you, something was different about him," Squalo continues. "All the other times I fought him, he was always too nice for his own fucking good."

"Too nice?" Gokudera repeats, startled.

"One of those types that still believes in things like honor and fair play and all that fucking shiiit! If it wasn't for that raw fucking talent of his, he'd be long dead by now."

Yet again, Gokudera frowns; he had had a very similar impression of Yamamoto last night.

"But that last fight…" Squalo trails off, a weird glint in his eye. "That was the first time I'd really seen him go all out." He grins, and Gokudera can see the raw, predatory satisfaction there.

"…Why, then?" he asks, not getting what caused the sudden change.

"Fuck if I knooow!" Squalo's grin widens. Then suddenly the expression fades and he turns serious.

"But I know one thing; there's something going on with him. Almost like he's broken loose, doesn't know what he's fighting for anymore." A dark look. "Those types are always the most dangerous. And not just to their enemies. He may have managed to stay alive this long, but at this rate he won't last much longer."

Squalo pauses, then adds, almost as an odd afterthought, "Fucking waste of potential."

Gokudera stares at him, almost as unnerved by Squalo's uncharacteristic sobriety as he is by the grimness of his prediction. "…You can tell all that just by fighting the guy?" he asks at last, just to break the silence.

"Tch! If you don't believe me, then why don't you quit wasting my time and go back to that fucking queer boss of yours already!"

"He's worth a damn sight more than your boss ever was," Gokudera retaliates, and has to duck a viciously launched flowerpot on his way out.

He doesn't bother asking when Squalo plans on getting his missing arm replaced. Somehow he has a feeling it'll be all too soon.

It doesn't occur to him that Squalo might have been right about Yamamoto until three weeks later, when he's called in to Tsuna's study to find Tsuna and Reborn waiting.

"We're going after Enrico," Tsuna informs him. He's rubbing at his forehead and Gokudera can't help but think he looks incredibly worn.

He's too startled by the abrupt change of plans to focus on it yet, though. "What? When?"

Reborn is the one who answers him. "Tomorrow night. We'll be raiding his base in Catania."

"That's…" Good news, he wants to say, but something is nagging at him. "Why so suddenly?"

In response, Tsuna closes his eyes.

"…Yamamoto's dead."

It's like the world suddenly stops short.

Gokudera still remembers, even ten years later, exactly how he felt when he first learned that his father had had his real mother killed, that everything he had ever known about himself was a lie. It was like being pushed down the stairs by someone you trusted; there was a burst of shock, and then a feeling of deep betrayal, a bleak outrage at the knowledge that nothing in the world was truly right or fair. And on top of that, a sort of bitter sense that he should have known all along.

Somehow, this feels almost exactly like that.

"I'm sorry," Tsuna is saying, looking stricken now. "You were right, I should have listened to you all along. I… I let it sit too long, just hoping that things would somehow work out."

Gokudera looks up at him, wanting to say something reassuring, but the words won't come.

"…It's gone on long enough," Tsuna finishes at last. A look of resolve lights his eyes, faint and regretful, but clear. "It's time to end this now."

They commence the raid by blowing the rear entrance in, which Gokudera thinks is fitting. An eye for an eye, or in this case a wall for a wall.

The initial battle is short, bloody, and productive; within ten minutes the first floor of the building is clear, and Gokudera sends a fresh wave of subordinates up to the next two levels. By that point, however, it's clear that they've already won; most of Enrico's men are surrendering on sight, and those that still put up a fight are quickly dispatched.

Enrico himself is nowhere to be found amongst the fighters, though, and he's the only one Gokudera is interested in now. As soon as he gets the opportunity, he breaks away from the main group and clambers up the stairs toward the roof. It's the only way out of the building now; he has a feeling that if Enrico is trying to make a run for it, that's where he'll be.

He reaches the top of the stairs and steps out into the night air, letting the door swing shut with a soft clang behind him.

And that's when he sees the ghost.

Yamamoto is standing near the edge of the roof, his blade in its katana form once more, his demeanor calm but alert. In the still air, it's easy to see why they call him the Shadow Sword; he is almost invisible in the dark, little more than a silhouette. And yet, Gokudera knows instantly that it's him.

"But… you're…" he breathes, eyes wide, the gun he had been planning to use on Enrico still in hand.

Yamamoto laughs, a strangely unsettling sound. Gokudera grips the gun a little tighter, not sure yet what to make of any of this.

And then Yamamoto takes a step forward, out of the shadows into the circle of light closer to the door, and Gokudera realizes that his sword is glistening with something red. He stares, then meets Yamamoto's eyes, which are suddenly grim.

"Rico's dead," Yamamoto says shortly.

Gokudera looks back to the sword again, and the unsaid part of Yamamoto's confession stares him in the face. He looks back, shocked.


"Yeah," Yamamoto replies after a pause.

"…I don't understand," Gokudera says in confusion.

Yamamoto turns his head away. "Neither do I," he says softly.

Enrico, dead. And Yamamoto, alive, and the one that killed him. None of it makes sense. But then, Gokudera's quickly learning not to expect anything to add up where Yamamoto is concerned. Already that peculiar feeling of fate is back, that strange compelling sense of almost. Like this is not where they are meant to be… but it's close.

"So what are you going to do now?" he asks. "Kill yourself for real?"

Yamamoto looks almost thoughtful. "…Maybe."

"Don't," Gokudera says, so suddenly he surprises himself.

Yamamoto glances back at him and smiles. "You want to do it for me?" he asks.

"No." Gokudera takes a step forward. "Look, if Enrico's dead, like you said, then there's no reason for you to be our enemy anymore."

Yamamoto frowns.

"The Tenth… he's a good guy," Gokudera continues. "He's forgiven people for worse than what you did."

Yamamoto steps away, rubbing the back of his head. And suddenly, Gokudera can see how weary he is, that very same weariness he had seen before in Tsuna, and felt in himself.

And in perhaps the clearest burst of insight he's ever had in his life, a part of him thinks, He's just the same as us.

Yamamoto looks back at him, and something connects.

And then he shakes his head. "I can't."

And Gokudera is really beginning to hate those words.

"Why the fuck not?" he demands, because damn it, there can't be any reason now, the idiot is just being stubborn.

Yamamoto doesn't answer, but instead takes a few steps back toward the edge of the roof. Gokudera catches a glimpse of possible intent, and takes an urgent step forward.


Yamamoto slowly turns to meet his eyes again.

Gokudera reaches for the safety on the Beretta.

In a flash, Yamamoto's sword is in motion, knocking the gun out of his hand. He holds the sword point-out toward Gokudera's chest, and Gokudera has a moment of deja-vu.

Then abruptly, the sword drops to the floor. It turns back into its bamboo form as it hits the ground in front of Gokudera.

Gokudera stares at it, then back at Yamamoto.

"It was my father's," Yamamoto says very quietly.

Still holding Gokudera's gaze, he takes a step back onto the ledge.

Gokudera has a flash of panic. "Don't—"

"Tell your boss I'm sorry."

He takes another step, but nothing's there.

And then he's gone.

"It was a success, as far as these things go," Reborn says matter-of-factly.

"You call it that, but…" Tsuna trails off, looking distinctly unhappy.

"Enrico is dead, most of his men are either dead or captured, and the war is over," Reborn insists. "You should be happy, Tsuna."

The three of them, Gokudera, Reborn, and Tsuna, are back in Tsuna's study. Tsuna is quiet for a moment before speaking up again. "…What about the Ninth? Enrico was his son, after all."

"If anyone understands why we had to do what we did, it's the Ninth," Reborn replies. "Don't worry about him."

Tsuna nods, though he doesn't look convinced, and the three of them sit in silence some more.

"Gokudera-kun?" Tsuna finally questions, and Gokudera gives a start. After explaining to the other two what had happened on the roof, he'd gotten lost in his own thoughts, admittedly not paying much attention to the conversation.

"Sorry, Tenth."

Tsuna looks far too understanding, and Gokudera has to struggle not to squirm under his gaze. He looks away awkwardly.

"The sword that he left you was called Shigure Kintoki."

Both Tsuna and Gokudera glance at Reborn in surprise. The tiny hitman looks unusually somber as he continues. "It's a one-of-a-kind sword passed down to those who master the Shigure Souen Ryu style. Before it came into Yamamoto's possession, it belonged to his father, Yamamoto Tsuyoshi."

"That's right, he said…" Gokudera says vaguely, remembering.

"What happened to him?" Tsuna asks. "His father, I mean."

"He was murdered," Reborn replies.

All of a sudden, a proverbial light bulb turns on in Gokudera's head, and the pieces start to fall together.

"Enrico," he says grimly, and it's not even a question.

Reborn nods. "That's what it looks like. It was almost exactly four years ago. He probably made it look like someone else, and then convinced Yamamoto to join him in the aftermath."

The rest of it finally clicks for Gokudera. "That's why he killed him," he says, remembering Yamamoto's confession on the roof. "He must have found out about it. It was revenge."

Even being as familiar with Mafia politics as he is, he still can't help feeling a surge of fresh shock and anger. Unable to find the words to fully voice his frustration, he sits there with the also-silent Tsuna, just brooding over the whole situation.

"…Well, it's too late to change things now," Reborn finally says. "Death and betrayal are common in this world. Don't ever forget that." And with that, he hops down from Tsuna's desk and exits the room, leaving the other two alone.

Gokudera breathes a reluctant sigh. "He's right." He tries to think of something else to say, something wise, something that will help put it all into perspective, but all he can think about is how pissed off he is. "…The whole thing is just fucked up," he says at last, shaking his head.

Tsuna just nods silently. Gokudera stands, then puts an awkward hand on Tsuna's shoulder, at a loss for anything else to do. Tsuna still doesn't reply. Finally, Gokudera turns to leave.

Just as he reaches the door, Tsuna says quietly, "They said he was smiling… when they found him."

Gokudera turns. Tsuna has the desolate, almost pleading look of a person who is trying desperately to accept something. So he just nods, even though inside all he's thinking is, He sure as hell wasn't smiling the last time I saw him.

Then he turns once more and shuts the door behind him.

Back in his office, he finds the orphaned sword—Shigure Kintoki—laid across his desk. After a moment's hesitation, he picks it up, hefting it carefully.

If things had gone differently, maybe we would have been friends.

I can't, Yamamoto had said. Gokudera thinks about Enrico, about murder and betrayal, and about the way Yamamoto had held his gaze until the very last second, tipping over and down and out of reach.


"You could have," he says softly, but there's no one left to convince.

He sighs, and sets the sword back down.