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The Fight Is All We Know

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By virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is how Tsuna meets Kratos. And given the man’s holding a bloody war-axe at the time, blood dripping from the blade and splashes of it all across his uniform and face, he can say it’s a meeting he doesn’t easily forget.

Kratos lays eyes on him, and Tsuna’s legs go out from under him as he pants like a wounded thing, wide eyed and more aware of his own mortality than he has ever been. Reborn had told him he had enemies. But there’s a difference between hearing and seeing, and with this unfortunate twist, realization has finally sunk in.

There can be no going back now. His fate has been written down in stone and despite Tsuna’s resistance, enemies are still knocking on his door. He still has Reborn scheming up Guardians for him. Nono is still expecting him to take the throne at some point.

He expects that axe will bury itself in his collarbone and that will be that; that seems to be how a majority of the death-wounds have gone so far. But the man - legend - does not move from his spot near the exit to the alleyway, and so neither does Tsuna. There is something in the man’s eyes that might be seen as consideration, might be judgement.

It might also just be pity. And Tsuna can’t blame him there.

But eventually, after what feels like an eternity, Kratos pulls a cloth from out of his belt and wipes the excess blood off his weapon, and then resheaths it in the holster on his back, and walks away. No words, no threats, no attacks.

Just there, and then gone. Like a nightmare, or a predator that had already sated itself.

At some point, Tsuna’s legs find strength enough to jerkily guide him home, and though he knows he must look strange stumbling home like a baby deer who has found its legs for the first time, he can’t bring himself to care.

He just met the God of War, and survived to tell about it. There’s not enough drugs or alcohol in the world to make him forget that.

He hopes it never happens again.

0-0-0-0-0-0

The God of War is a figure spoken of in legend, in myth, and yet who continues to walk the lands as a mortal despite being over a well over a thousand years old.

Stories say he came from the time of the Greeks, a time of conquerors and warriors. They say he slew the Gods - Zeus and his many children - and then slew himself.

Others say he comes from the Vikings. They say he helped some Gods, and hindered others.

Then there are those that say he came from the Greeks, killed the Gods, killed himself, came back to life, and went to the Vikings, and now roams, always hungry for more bloodshed.

Tsuna doesn’t know which story is true. But he knows when he carefully brings the man up to Reborn - not the meeting in the alleyway, but a simple, “Have you ever met the God of War, Reborn?” the conversation is quickly shot down. Reborn seems to have a healthy fear - although on him it comes across as more snappish, less fear response - of a being so capable of killing.

He doesn’t know which story is true, if any. But he knows the God of War has likely earned his namesake, and that they will cross paths again. His intuition tells him as much, murmuring little hints and whispers here and there on strange days when the sky seems to darken and clouds roll in out of nowhere. He comes, he thinks, and quickly hustles Gokudera and Yamamoto away, towards his house where he pushes for sleepovers and keeps the windows closed and the curtains drawn.

He doesn’t know what the God hunts. He doesn’t want to know.

(He does know. He knows he is being trailed, being hunted, being measured. But he also knows if he flinches, he is dead. He must be as brave as he can even as he tactfully ushers his friends away.

He knows.

He just wishes he didn’t.)

0-0-0-0-0-0-0

They meet twice more before Mukuro’s trial, him and the God.

Once, they pass each other on the street. He is with his mother holding a bag of groceries, helping her pick mandarins for their next meal when he feels eyes on his back. He doesn’t turn his head, or acknowledge it, because he knows there is no point.

He waits for the terrible blade to sink its teeth into his flesh, to end him. But it doesn’t come. He thinks it will, as he moves about the stalls, and the God follows behind him, a great predator at his back. Nobody bats an eye at the strange pale man clad in red markings and armor following a young boy around - Namimori is renowned for its strangeness, after all. But this is one time Tsuna wishes someone would notice.

He doesn’t ask, “ Are you going to kill me?”   (Though some part of him wishes to.)

The God doesn’t tell him, “ you are Hunted, I your Hunter.” (Though he knows it to be truth.)

They walk, the God and he, from one stall to the next, breathing the same air, sharing the same space, and when Tsuna is at last done with his shopping, the God slides away as if he were never there at all. Tsuna thinks to turn his head, watch the man vanish once more until the next time.

(But in the end, his courage deserts him. He stares ahead, and wishes he had molten fire in his veins all the time instead of the blood of dead men.)

0-0-0-0-0-0-0

The second time, they speak to one another, as much as Hunter and Hunted can.It’s evening. The sun is setting, casting a beautiful assortment of rich colors across the sky. Tsuna sits in a swing at his childhood playground, watching the clouds cross from one side to the next and trying to relearn how to breathe.

Today, more of Hibari’s men have been attacked, and Hibari himself has been on the warpath. Tsuna knows it's come down to the wire. Soon, he will have to do something.

Just as before, there is no sudden breach. He just knows the God is here now, that he is approaching with soft footsteps, slow and steady. Tsuna closes his eyes, and when he opens them again the man is crouched before him on the edge of the sandbox, watching him patiently. Tsuna watches in turn, taking in the structure of his body, the crimson lines of paint, the clothing - all of it points to a warrior.

This time, he asks the question that has been on his mind for a long while. “Why haven’t you killed me yet?”

He doesn’t raise his voice. He doesn’t need to. He knows the God can hear more than he lets on. More than Tsuna can. The silence sinks a bit, deepens, and then lets go.

“Because,” the God says, and his voice is just as quiet as Tsuna’s. “You are a child.”

“Yes,” Tsuna admits. “And no.” He swallows, looks down at his feet on the swings. When was the last time he had a day like this to himself? No cares, no worries, no fears driving him? No concerns about recruiting someone for a “mafia game” that will likely end his life in the first year. “I’m a child only in age, now.”

“Are you now.” The voice sounds closer. Tsuna does not flinch.

“I’m thirteen. I suppose - if the rumors are true, coming from your side of things, I imagine that’s nearly a man. My father certainly thinks I’m enough of an adult to throw me into a crime syndicate and have me run it. He thinks I’m enough of a man to let his boss corral my Flames for several years. Reborn thinks I’m enough of a man to find people my age to lead and act as my Guardians.”He looks up.The God is in front of him now, still crouched. Still patient. Still listening.“So I guess, in some ways yes, I am a child. In others, not so much anymore.”

He doesn’t know why he is admitting this to the man who will be his killer; if being a child prevents his death, he should want to stay one in the God’s eyes as long as possible. But he can’t lie to himself and he can’t lie to the world around him. He hasn’t been a child since Reborn shot him with a magical bullet that made the world so much more than it had been before.

He expects the axe to raise, to come down.

For the third time, his expectations are not met.

“You are a child,” the God says slowly. “Because you think, act, move, and judge like a child. It has nothing to do with the burdens others have placed on you. You do not know the world around you. You lack control of yourself, of your temper, of the path before you. If one is pushed off a cliff, their natural instinct is to save themselves. That’s all you are doing. So no. You are not a man. Not even close.”

It makes a disturbing amount of sense, and in the face of the craziness the mafia seems to run off, the logic breathes a bit of strength into Tsuna’s tired body. Not much. Not enough to make tomorrow any easier, or the weeks after.

But as he faces down Mukuro, as he listens to the boy rationalize his decision to destroy the mafia by possessing ‘Vongola X’, all he can do is remember the swings and the God crouched before him, speaking in the quiet, self-possessed manner of a man who has made up his mind.

You are a child. It has nothing to do with the burdens others have placed on you. You are not a man. Not even close.

(And later, much later, when the world is raining down misery and blood and sadness and the expectations of the dead are piling onto his shoulders, he will remember this God, this bringer of death, and be happy for his involvement, for his words.)

Now, he listens to the God, and finds a small kernel of boldness. Enough to ask, “Do you have a name?”

The God does not smile. But he does answer.

“Kratos.”

“I’m Tsuna.”

“I know.”

Kratos leaves him there the same way he found him, and Tsuna finds himself going home not long after. It’s odd, but he feels more at peace now.

That peace lasts only until he gets inside the door, and suddenly Reborn is on him, demanding, “Where did you go, Tsuna?”

“Um. To the swings?”

“Tell the truth.” He squeaks as a gun is pointed at his face. “I was just there. You weren’t. So. Where were you?”

He tells the truth, again and again, but Reborn remains unsatisfied. In the end, he’s forced to run laps around the block for ‘lying’, but even as he runs he continues to proclaim his innocence.

(It never occurs to him what an immortal can learn over the passage of time. Never thinks what Kratos might consider worthy of learning, or that the mafia certainly weren’t the first holders of Flame. And he never considers that just because carrying seven Flames in the mafia is considered rare and amazing and difficult to do doesn’t mean it actually is to someone who has known them from birth.)

0-0-0-0-0-0-0

Mukuro’s situation is a mess and a half, and that’s even before the Vindice get added in. Part of Tsuna wants to quiver under the scrutiny, to back away when Reborn orders him to.

But part of him remembers the swings, remembers Kratos’ words, and all he wants to do is scream.

What he does instead is argue. “He’s just a child.”

The words come out cold and angry. He doesn’t mean them to, but there’s something wrenching in his chest, forcing itself up out of his throat, and once the words start, he can’t stop himself. “The mafia took him and twisted him and now you dare stand here and blame him for the faults of another!”

He broke law, Sky-child.

“By killing his aggressors? By killing the people who took their own children, and basically committed murder and torture? You call yourselves the enforcers of law, but as I see it now you’re no better than the people who put him in this situation!”

Chains rattle. Voices hiss. Reborn is yanking on his arm, trying to get him to shut up.

But Kratos is in his head, solid and steady and telling him you are a child.

“He’s fifteen. He’s not a man. He’s a child that’s been forced into a reincarnation cycle over and over and over again, and both of them have either had their teeth ripped out and their bodies made to accept animal DNA, or their brains have been modified! And yet here you stand, blaming them for killing the very people who made them like that!”

The tiny cloaked Vindice leans forward. You question our decisions?

“Yes.” He juts his chin up, shoulders back, and squares up as if for a fight. “I won’t let you take them.   Any of them.”

There’s a long, awful silence. In the distance, Tsuna hears something like sirens. His body trembles. He’s lost blood and he’s tired, but he’s still so angry.

The tiny Vindice leans back slowly. Then, he - it? - says at last. You will take responsibility for them?

“Yes.”

If they break law after this, it will be on your head. We will come for you, Vongola Decimo.

“My name is Tsuna,” he snaps. “I’m not Vongola’s anything. I’m a thirteen year old kid that’s been forced into this, and I’m tired of hearing everyone’s excuses. I’ll take responsibility for my own path, my own life, and no one else’s. Mukuro will stay with me until he decides what he wants to do with his life. But the mafia won’t touch him. Never again.”

At the time, he is bold, reckless, even. At the time he is filled with a quiet rage that has simmered in the back of him for so long it has burnt itself a hole in his chest. Kratos has opened his eyes, made him realize that no matter what people say, he can’t be a man. And he shouldn’t be expected to be a man simply on the whims of others. And in his boldness, he looks like a leader. He looks like a Sky.

The Vindice leave, and the medical staff arrive. Mukuro stares at him as if he were some foreign creature, and Reborn stares at him in sheer disbelief. His friends are still unconscious, and they stay so as everyone gets loaded up and sent to the hospital.

Tsuna falls asleep at some point, because the drugs are stronger than his willpower, and because the human body, even filled with rage, still has its limits. He stays asleep a long time, and while he stirs once or twice, he doesn’t wake.

(He thinks he feels Kratos’ presence several times, pacing around him in a steady circle. He stirs to say something, to ask questions, but he can’t push past his exhaustion. At one point, he thinks he hears Reborn’s voice, panicked, and then Kratos’ more calm voice. But that might have just been the drugs because when he wakes he can’t feel Kratos and Reborn is as unshaken as he’s ever been. He’s also furious that Tsuna did what he did, and takes no time in foisting Mukuro and the others into the position of Guardians. Mukuro, eager to see what Tsuna can offer him, accepts.)

The letter that arrives from Vongola Nono just adds salt to the wound. Apparently, Reborn had neglected to mention in his report the method Tsuna used to sway the Vindice. Reborn doesn’t say what he did write, but he doesn’t have to - the reply speaks for him. Tsuna’s hands shake as he reads the words, so glad to hear my young heir managed to charm the Vindice enough to release Rokudo to him. He will be useful as a Mist, and he has to stop and take several breaths.

“Mukuro,” he says at last. “Is not my Mist.”

“Of course he is,” Reborn states, steamrolling over him as ever. “Loser serves winner, Tsuna. Basic mafia rules 101. You won, so he serves you.”

“I don’t want anyone to—”

“You don’t have a choice.”

Tsuna’s mouth snaps shut so fast he nearly bites his tongue. Reborn’s gaze is cold and furious, and more than that it is pinning him like a butterfly to a corkboard. “After the stunt you pulled, do you really think you can get out of this anytime soon? You don’t have any kind of voice in this, Tsunayoshi, and you haven’t for a very long time. If you run, it’s just as likely you or your mother will be killed. Do you want that?”

The sense of despair that rolls over him then, the utter knowledge that he can’t do anything, that he is truly as Kratos said just a child with no control, leaves him breathless and on the verge of tears. He can’t fight this. He can’t… can’t run. He can’t do anything.

“If you behave yourself, it will all go that much smoother. So be a good boy Tsuna, and don’t go pulling stunts like that again. Alright?”

Reborn’s voice softens a touch towards the end. It doesn’t matter. Reborn isn’t here to be his friend, or his comrade, or his mentor. He’s here to keep Tsuna in line, to keep him alive, to keep him obedient.

When his Guardians — never his friends, never again will he call them that — come rushing in and cry and say things like thank goodness you’re okay, and talk to him, Tsuna remains silent, and unresponsive. He lets them talk, and they don’t appear to care that Tsuna isn’t putting up his usual fight to their comments, their names, or their own bickering. Reborn watches him, and eggs his Guardians on.

“You need to eat, Tsuna.”

So he eats the food the hospital staff brings him. It’s mushy and tasteless, but Tsuna doesn’t care. It’s not like it matters.

“You should sleep, Tsuna.”

So Tsuna rolls over and closes his eyes and feigns sleep even as he stays awake. Reborn, if he knows the truth, says nothing. He stays in the room through, with Leon nearby. Probably to prevent Tsuna sneaking off.

Tsuna doesn’t care, and when light returns to the room, he goes to bathe. He takes his time, because this is probably the only sense of privacy he’s going to get. The tears that slip down his face aren’t a surprise, and the utter pain that swamps him isn’t either. The knowledge that he’s nothing more than a puppet dancing along to someone else’s tune, that the man who calls himself father would sit back and let a bunch of criminals kill his son and wife, and do nothing—

“Come on Dame-Tsuna, if you bathe any longer you’ll prune up. No proper mafia boss walks around looking like a prune.”

He wishes Kratos would hurry up and kill him.

0-0-0-0-0-0

Day after day after that, in and out of existence Tsuna drifts. A few times he surfaces from the void his mind has become, the endless repetitive routine, simply to see if maybe it was all a dream. But it never is. His Guardians chase him, Reborn chases him, more mafia are always showing up. It never ends.

When he sees Kratos again, nearly a month after the incident, he asks, “Will you kill me now?”

Kratos looks at him, as sure and steady as the rising sun. “No,” he says.

“If I ask you to—”

“The answer is still no.”

Despair overtakes him; he shouts, “I’m trapped here! How am I —”

“Then,” Kratos doesn’t look back, “Become strong. Strong enough to shatter their traps, their barriers, their strength. Bend them to your will. There is no other way, because doing that is simpler than gaining the courage to kill yourself.”

It’s not the answer Tsuna wants, and he hates Kratos for that. When the weeks stop blurring together, and his mind begins to whisper, lie, and he finds himself lying to people about where he’s been, testing little lies against Reborn, and learning from the smacks and the “ you’re a thousand years too early to be lying to me, Dame-Tsuna.”

He learns, and he hates Kratos as he does. It would be so much simpler to just give up, to die and let the world go on without him.

But Kratos won’t kill him, so he’s being forced to learn. And he hates Kratos even as he masters his Dying Will state, as he learns Hyper Dying Will state up on the mountains, as word comes that the Varia, the Ninth’s private assassins, are coming for him. Even as he trains and learns and betters himself, he hates Kratos.

Until the Varia arrive, and threaten him with death, and that blaze that Kratos has kindled in his chest with the words you’re just a child, and built them higher with the order of become strong rage into a wildfire within him, and he finds himself striking a bargain, a brief ceasefire between himself and Xanxus, to make the battle all the sweeter.

He trains, desperately, because at some point he’s realized that these people he calls Guardians are children too, that Reborn is a man, simple right down to his bones, and that these people will not go away simply because he wants them to.

And so he becomes strong, and one night he walks to Namimori Middle, and the first battle between himself and Xanxus begins.

 

0-0-0-0-0-0-0

 

He’s been dreading this since Xanxus first laid the challenge down; that doesn’t make this entire event any easier to stomach. When he’s not feeling like he’s going to shake out of his own skin from nerves, he’s gritting his teeth hard enough to fracture them, muffling noises of shock and horror against the inside of his cheek. The Varia assassins are going up against school children, but they’re not holding back. Every avoided jab of the fist or swipe of the sword keeps his heart beating, and every bead of blood drawn makes his breathing hitch.

 

“Calm down,” Reborn orders, irritated by Tsuna’s constant twitching and bitten-back noises. “A boss must be composed, even when things look dire.”

 

“I’m not the boss,” he grinds out, and then hiccups as Belphegor’s knives find Hayato’s shoulder. They aren’t his Elements, but they’re people, and he--

 

He can’t bear to see them get hurt. Especially not for something so stupid - and he wants to walk over to Xanxus and demand to know who the heck told him school children were any kind of challenge up against adult assassins? He wants to demand his father take his lunatics and go back to Italy and stay there, and stop dragging his chaos in with him simply because he can, and nobody is brave enough to tell him to stop.

 

He wants--

 

He wants--!

 

“Become strong. Strong enough to shatter their traps, their barriers, their strength. Bend them to your will. There is no other way.”

 

The decision clicks in him just as the intercoms overhead crackle. “The time limit for the Sky candidate battle has begun. Skies, to the starting point.”

 

“That’s you, Dame-Tsuna.” Reborn nudges him sharply. “Get going.”

 

He walks to the starting point - really it’s just the biggest open area on the school - and as he walks he finds himself growing steadier. Calmer. The anxiety falls back in place of resolve, and he finds himself thinking of Kratos. Of a man that refused to kill a child, and told him become strong, and opened his eyes in ways he never would have done otherwise. A man who has become his stone in this mess.

 

He looks across the field as Xanxus strolls over, sneer on his face and guns ready. Drinks in the image presented before him, and tries to find an emotion in him that fits the image. He doesn’t.

 

He doesn’t hate the Varia. Not even Xanxus, for all his proudness and crowing about victories, is hateable. Because at the end of the day, he is just a man.

 

And men can be killed.

 

“Battle, start!”

 

The fight is a blur. Tsuna knows his resolve; and he knows Xanxus. Xanxus fights like a mad dog, ripping through him with fire and claw and gun. Tsuna reciprocates, that he knows with dead certainty. But he also knows the fight is one-sided, because Xanxus is older and bigger and stronger, both in Will and Flame, and Tsuna is fighting to survive while Xanxus is fighting to win. And while he can hear Reborn and Iemitsu shouting encouragements, it does nothing to fan the fire inside him any higher. He’s reached his limits.

 

In the end, he’s pinned beneath Xanxus’ foot, tired and struggling to get back up. He has to. If his friends die--

 

“Stop,” Xanxus says, and he’s out of breath. He doesn’t sound so haughty, anymore. “Stop. They’re alive, so stop struggling. Let me have the ring.”

 

Human, Tsuna thinks, even as he looks up at Xanxus, red eyes meeting his own. Human, and one that doesn’t bother lying. He closes his eyes, and goes still beneath Xanxus’ foot.

 

“Good boy,” Xanxus murmurs, and reaches down, tugging the chain off from around his neck. Tsuna closes his eyes, and breathes. It’s a victory, he tells himself. Even if Iemitsu or Basil or Reborn won’t see it as such. His team is alive. He’s still breathing. And Xanxus is apparently sane enough to know beating up a bunch of kids is not okay.

 

“Team Varia has captured the Sky Ring. The winner of the Sky Scramble is Xanxus.”

 

He expects to hear roars of victory, but there are none. There’s just a grim sense of duty as Xanxus steps off him and away, letting Tsuna slowly get back to his feet.

 

Like this, he’s the only one to see Kratos. To see the war-axe in his hand. To see him take aim at Xanxus, and throw.

 

He doesn’t know why he does it. The man has given him no reason to be kind. Maybe it’s Kratos’ lessons, all welling up inside him, telling him he’s just a man, he’s not your enemy, not a demon, he’s a man, or maybe it’s just the fact that Xanxus didn’t pretend he was something he wasn’t.

 

Whatever the reason though, he feels a hoarse noise tear itself out of his throat as he shoves Xanxus bodily away, out of the line of fire. He manages to turn just in time to meet the blade as it sinks into him - the throw lands true. It feels a bit like he’s been punched; he’s lifted off his feet and skids into the dirt several feet away. For a moment, there is no pain, only shock as his body registers the blow.

 

And then blood gurgles up in his mouth, and his nerves are hit with an explosion, and Sawada Tsunayoshi gets his wish to die.

 

The last thing he sees before death takes him is the expression of Xanxus’ face.

 

It haunts him all the way down.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0

 

The dead don’t feel much of anything. At least they shouldn’t. But Tsuna wakes, and the first thing he feels is tired. Even before he opens his eyes, he knows he shouldn’t. Because he should be dead. Kratos killed him - that axe sunk through bone, right into half his body. Almost through him.

 

Oh god, he thinks, as realization hits. They didn’t see that, did they? The kids-- those stupid brats. God, he hopes they didn’t. They shouldn’t be made to watch him die for his failures. It’s too cruel.

 

He opens his eyes, and has to remember how to breath. Because Kratos is sitting at the foot of his hospital bed in a chair, watching him.

 

“I told them you would live,” he says, after what feels like an eternity of silence. “They did not believe me.”

 

He swallows against a suddenly dry throat. “Did they-- are they--?” he can’t seem to wrap his tongue around one question.

 

Thankfully, Kratos seems to know what he means. “No, they did not see. They heard. And they’re fine. Outside, waiting.”

 

Tsuna breathes out, lets some of his weight fall back into the bed. “Why am I alive?” he asks. That seems like another important question.

 

“Because you grew strong. And because you weren’t ready to die. Not yet.” Kratos leans forward. “Why did you save him?”

 

And that is the question of the hour, isn’t it? Why save Xanxus?

 

“I don’t know,” he says. “I just. Did.”

 

“Boy,” Kratos says, and it has the same effect as Reborn saying dame-Tsuna.

 

“I’m not going to apologize for getting in your way,” Tsuna says. “Not when you were the one who told me to become strong.”

 

There’s more silence then, and it’s silence that the door opens to, and Reborn walks in on.

 

“You’re alive,” he states, almost disbelieving. He looks at Kratos. “You can go.”

 

“No,” Tsuna says, and again, it’s a split-second decision he can’t understand. “He stays.”

 

Reborn blinks slowly at that, as if mimicking Leon. “He tried to kill you, Tsuna.”

 

“No, he tried to kill Xanxus. I just got in his way is all.”

 

“Xanxus?”

 

“The head assassin you and Iemitsu and Timoteo apparently decided to pit against me for no other reason than ‘needs to prove his worth’.” His tongue is loose again, the edges sharp. He’s ready to fight, now. “I’m a goddamned fourteen year old child Reborn, and you and those bastards decided that for funsies you were going to pit a bunch of school children against grown assassins.

 

He tries to shove himself up, but can only manage with one hand. His other hand - his other arm - is not there. He lets that distract him for only a moment, and then hops right back on. “I’m so tired of being told I don’t have a voice in this. I just saved his life, and more importantly, I just did your dirty work. And from what I’ve seen, that has cost me an arm, no small amount of blood, and very nearly my life. You nearly killed a fourteen year old kid, and you’re standing there acting like you’ve got the upper hand.”

 

He can feel his Flames burning away inside him, furious and angry and tired. When Reborn’s Sun reaches for him, he violently repels it, and watches the man flinch like he’s been slapped. “Get out, Reborn, and tell that shitty old man to leave me and the others alone. Leave, and don’t ever come back. You’ve got Xanxus now, you don’t need me.”

 

“Actually,” Kratos says, for the first time since he started talking. “They have you.”

 

Tsuna stares at him. The words ring in his ears again and again, but his brain refuses to understand them. “No. Xanxus got the ring. He won.

 

Reborn lets out a quiet breath. “Except you saved his life.”

 

“...No.”

 

Reborn hops up onto the bed, a familiar glint in his hand. The Sky Ring, made whole.

 

No. He shakes his head. No, no, they can’t-- Xanxus won--

 

“Yes, Xanxus won,” Reborn says, and Tsuna realizes he’s been babbling his thoughts out loud. “But you also saved his life. That incurs its own kind of debt, Tsunayoshi. So rather than being indebted, Timoteo and Iemitsu both thought it would be prudent if--”

 

Kratos is moving in the next moment, arms clamping around Tsuna’s body. It takes him a second to realize why; he’s lunged for Reborn, and he’s howling, screaming and kicking as the fury finally bubbles over inside him. His Flames sear the insides of the rooms, his Sky writhing and clawing to get back at Reborn--

 

“Leave!” Kratos orders, and Reborn flees. Tsuna just screams louder at that, because no, Kratos doesn’t get to stop him from tearing the person who’s caused all this pain apart--

 

“Boy.” It’s the harshest, kindest word Tsuna has heard yet. “You will stop this nonsense.”

 

He doesn’t want to. He wants the people who insist on shackling him with a job in the mob to go away, to leave him be with his mother in Namimori to live out his life, to stop trying to loop strangers in him with and drag them all to their deaths. He’s so tired of being toyed with, and he’s tired of seeing a kind of darkness in others that make them rationalize that toying with him is acceptable.

 

God, he’s tired.

 

Kratos lays a gentle hand over his neck. Not a threat. “Boy,” he says again, and this time his voice is quieter, deep enough to rattle Tsuna’s bones. ]

 

(It says a lot, Tsuna thinks, when a god-killer has a kinder hand than his own father.)

 

His rage quells in the face of that knowledge. Falls back to that unshakable sorrow that he had in the hospital, the apathy that refused to let him go until Kratos gave the order. He’s crying, but he doesn’t care. He’s just so tired.

 

Kratos sighs, as if he’s expected this outcome. And then deeper, darker Sky Flames swamp the room, wrapping themselves around Tsuna like a cloak. They’re not like Timoteo’s Flames, or Iemitsu’s. These feel battered and worn, but still strong, like a great stone  that’s been chipped away by time and age. Kratos is older than most - he can feel that much. And there is rage beneath these hands, so much that on some days it chokes him. It feels like Xanxus, but older, meaner. More practiced.

 

But there is also gentleness in him, and understanding. Enough for him to look at Tsuna and see him struggling beneath the nets that have been cast to catch him. Enough for him to understand that even now, Tsuna is just trying to survive.

 

“I don’t want to do this,” Tsuna whispers. “I can’t.

 

“Then,” Kratos says, “You know what you need to do.”

 

He does. He does, and he hates it. “Stay with me, then. Teach me.

 

He thinks Kratos will deny him, or ignore him. He isn’t prepared for the man’s head to dip in a nod. “Very well.”

 

He’s so stunned that at first Timoteo and Iemitsu’s approaching Flames don’t register. But Kratos feels them, and his eyes narrow before his Flames turn from Sky to Storm. They don’t budge from where they’re wrapped around Tsuna though, which is. Nice. He lets go of Tsuna, though he doesn’t go further than the side of the bed.

 

When the door opens, Tsuna is back to laying in bed, and Kratos sitting down. Evidently neither man expects the god-killer to still be there.

 

“Tsunayoshi--” Timoteo starts, but Tsuna shakes his head before he can even start. He has a feeling he knows what Timoteo wants, but he won’t give it up.

 

“He stays.”

 

“C’mon now Tuna-fish, don’t be--”

 

“Don’t call me that.”

 

Iemitsu looks like he wants to argue, or ask where Tsuna gained his backbone from. Unfortunately, Timoteo is still well-versed in politics, and so he gives a discreet look to Iemitsu, and then nods. “Very well then. May we sit?”

 

Sitting with Kratos on one side of him, and Iemitsu and Timoteo on the other, Tsuna feels like a steak a pair of predators are currently bickering over. Kratos doesn’t take his eyes of either man for a moment, and Iemitsu meets him stare for stare while Timoteo does the talking.

 

“Xanxus tells me I have you to thank for his current state. I will say what you did was reckless, though I’m glad to see you’re still alive.” His eyes flick to Tsuna’s missing arm, and his voice lowers. “We did what we could. Lussuria and my own Sun nearly extinguished every last drop of Flame they had. The arm… by the time had your arteries closed again and most of your blood replenished, the arm was too far gone to save. I’m sorry.”

 

Tsuna shrugs. “Prosthetics exist. Or I’ll learn to get by without. It’s not the end of the world.”

 

“No, but for a young man such as yourself, I imagine it will not be an easy burden to overcome.” By which he means your appearance will be damaged. Tsuna shrugs again.

 

“I’ve dealt with worse. More importantly, why did you and Iemitsu force Xanxus to give me back the ring despite the fact that he won our scramble, but he also has the knowledge, age and ability that I don’t?”

 

He knows there’s no way Xanxus would willingly hand the ring back, even if he saved the man’s life. No life-debt would cover that. Xanxus seems much more the sort to get him and his team to the hospital, and try to keep Tsuna alive. But Timoteo and Iemitsu have proven that once they’ve set their sights on something, they mean to have it. And right now, they want Tsuna as Decimo.

 

Timoteo’s hands tighten minutely on the cane head, but there’s no other reaction. “It was his choice.”

 

“No, it wasn’t.” He makes sure to meet the old man’s eyes. “Stop lying, or I’m going to assume I can’t trust you further than I can throw you, and I’ll do us all a favor and chuck that ring into the river, where it belongs.”

 

“Boy,” Kratos murmurs. Keep your temper.

 

Tsuna’s mouth thins. He sucks in a breath through his nose, flexes his hand a couple times. “You and Iemitsu have been playing puppet master this entire time. Don’t think I haven’t seen it. I’m a kid. What could you gain by having me on the throne that you wouldn’t gain by having Xanxus there? If anything, you lose more by putting me up there than you do than with Xanxus.”

 

Timoteo says nothing for a long while, choosing instead to stare at him as if he’s some strange manner of creature that’s just crossed their path. Iemitsu’s stare has gone flinty, and he’s looking at Kratos as if he’d like nothing more than to reach across the bed and start something. Kratos’ stare doesn’t waver in the slightest.

 

“I must say,” Timoteo says at last, his voice subdued, and tinged with something Tsuna might call regret. “You certainly are different in person than Reborn’s reports.”

 

“You mean I’m not a meek little coward that’s going to roll over when you raise your voice.”

 

More silence. This time however, Kratos’ Flame shifts, still Stormy, but now laced with Rain to pacify Tsuna’s reckless temper. And he knows he’s being reckless, and he knows Timoteo can have him killed, but--

 

I’m not going to let them tell me how to live my life. Not anymore.

 

He knows he can’t change this overnight. It’s not going to be a sudden thing. These chains probably won’t come off for years. But maybe, just maybe if he has someone bigger, meaner, capable of actually teaching him what he needs to know, he can make it out alive. Eventually.

 

In the meantime, he’ll clench his hands and push back what he can.

 

“I think we’ve come at the wrong time,” Timoteo says, his voice gentle. “Clearly, your near-death experience has left you overwrought. Come, Iemitsu. We’ll let your son have his rest.” His eyes flick to Kratos, and for a moment there’s a rage behind those old eyes, terrible, but not as terrible as the rage that Tsuna has felt in Kratos’ hands, years of bloodshed overlaid one right after the other.

 

Timoteo thinks he’s the biggest fish in the pond, but there is an ancient shark in these waters, far bigger than him. He’s a guppy compared to Kratos.

 

Once the men are gone, Kratos looks at Tsuna. “Boy.”

 

“I know.”

 

“If you know, why do you keep making the same mistakes?”

 

“Because I want my freedom.”

 

“Then you must learn to be patient. I know it aggravates you. I know it makes you burn. But patience will lend you strength where rebellion will not. Bide your time, and stop leaping before you look.”

 

Tsuna eeks out a breathe, and leans back into the pillows. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll try.”

 

“Do not try,” Kratos growls. “ Do.”

 

Tsuna just nods.