"In consequence of inventing machines, men will be devoured by them." – Jules Verne
A soft, consistent rhythm of synthesized beeps drifts in the air amongst faint whirring from various machines and moving contraptions. Slim fingers type rapidly on a blue holographic keyboard; the lettered keys light up white when they're pressed and fade just as quickly. Streams of code fill up three large monitor screens: numbers, slashes, brackets—an entire language of its own.
"Tsuna," a boyish voice says through the lab's speakers, "the artificial insulin carrier project for Aria-san is due on March 21st, which is in two days. Your progress is only at 43% and hasn't changed since you started three months ago."
The young man doesn't register what the A.I. just said. Shoulders hunched, he continues typing in more lines of complex code into another set of parameters. He's nearly done and his fingers tremble for a second at the thought of this incredible breakthrough. Suddenly, a heavy weight knocks against his leg, making him yelp. The green text cursor pauses in the middle of the second screen, blinking repeatedly without a care in the world.
Hissing in pain, Tsuna rubs his shin and reclines on his chair as far it can go until he faces the gray-paneled ceilings. He hugs his aching leg to his chest. Having a chunk of metal slam into you isn't the most welcoming feeling in the world. "Natsu," he says, swiveling around, "what the hell?"
The small lion-droid follows the motion and looks up at him from the floor, his tail swishing idly behind him. "You didn't respond to my set reminder," Natsu says, his mouth unmoving.
The structure makes it difficult to move smoothly like a human's so Tsuna had left it alone. Natsu's steel fangs make a nasty bite though. The lion-droid's voice continues filtering in the lab instead of switching to the speakers in his throat. That's never good news. "I went with a physical stimulus to get your attention. It has a 98.17% success rate and works well as usual." Natsu tilts his head, his orange eyes blinking once. "You should focus on Aria-san's project instead of this one, Tsuna. Also, it's been 4 days since you ate and 3 days since you slept."
Sighing, Tsuna swivels back to face the monitors. Being aware of his current state makes him feel even more exhausted than he realizes. Still…
"I'm fine, Natsu. And really? Only 98.17%? That's almost offensive."
Natsu bounds towards his feet. "You sleep, as humans say, like a log. Maybe you should consider checking your ear sensitivity when you get the time."
Tsuna massages his pounding temple, his fingers cold and shaking. "When did you get a sense of humor all of a sudden? My ears are fine. I'm fine. I'm almost done with this anyways."
"Project Assistant is at 71%," Natsu says. "I think it's good to focus on something else. Should I show you the priorities list to reinforce—"
Before, Natsu would've accepted the command and leave Tsuna be, but he's grown past that now. A document pops up on the center monitor with a list of all the projects, pending and in progress, that Tsuna's working on. "Tsuna, Aria-san's project needs more attention than the current one. It has a deadline that you need to reach. You've missed 4 before already."
Tsuna can't really deny what Natsu's saying, so he just sighs again and finishes up one more line of coding before saving and exiting the program; the monitors return to the generic blue and white display, but the list of projects remains thanks to Natsu.
"Humans might be able to go for more than three weeks without food, but your lack of appetite is still alarming. It has also been 5 hours since you last drank water. I suggest you eat a healthy, nutritious meal and not the usual takeout order."
Slumping against his chair, Tsuna rubs his eyes with his palms. Dizzying fuzzy colors swirl in his head. "Yeah," he says, "I know. Two minutes."
"I don't understand."
"Two minute break."
Natsu ducks his head, the only movement he can emote to indicate disappointment. "That's not good, Tsuna. You're already experiencing symptoms of sleep-deprivation. There are mistakes in some of the coding for Project Assistant I picked up on."
The A.I. realizes too late that it's the wrong thing to say when Tsuna bolts up with a loud, "What?", and re-opens the program. The brunet skims through the parameters but doesn't get too far when it exits again. "Wait, Natsu, what did you do? Bring it back!"
"I've gone out of my way to highlight your mistakes so you can view them later when you're more alive," Natsu says, lightly head-butting Tsuna's leg. "First, you should eat a proper meal, drink some water, and go to sleep. It'll take time for you to regain a consistent sleep schedule but it's possible if you try."
Tsuna collapses on his chair and runs his hands through his hair. His stomach makes a point to growl then, too. "I'm…"
"Currently not in any state to continue further. It's now 11:32 AM and sunny with a temperature of 5 degrees Celsius. There's a 23% chance of rain in the evening."
Leaning his cheek on his fist, Tsuna tries to restrain a yawn. "Is there anything in the fridge?"
"There's 3 bottles of water, an expired milk carton, and an unopened jar of homemade marmalade from Nana-san."
"Oh." Standing, Tsuna stretches his arms out as he walks over to an empty slot on the wall that had the generic food and water symbol glowing blue above it. It's a small thing he made so he didn't have to go up to the kitchen himself. His brother calls it lazy, Tsuna calls it convenient. "Get me a bottle, please. And give a call to Shimizu Ramen."
Natsu doesn't move away when the brunet picks him up. His arms tremble from the 35-lb lion but he manages somehow. He could only reduce Natsu's weight so much without screwing up his original design and inner-mechanisms, and that's something Tsuna didn't want for his long-time friend. "I know," he says, adjusting Natsu in a more comfortable position. "I'll order some groceries soon, stock up the fridge, and keep to a better schedule. We've been through this before."
"And there hasn't been any improvement."
Tsuna huffs before the blue food slot slides open, revealing a bottle of fresh water. "At least I'm trying."
"Maybe this time with effort."
"I'm going to break you apart."
Natsu looks up at him. "You can, but you won't."
Tsuna rolls his eyes. "Don't underestimate me."
Smiling despite himself, Tsuna pets Natsu's faux fur and sets him down on the drafting table. A large piece of paper is pinned to it—Tsuna prefers the old-school pencil and paper to a screen and stylus; he likes the physical feel of making progress rather than just staring at a monitor 24/7, which makes it harder on his eyes—with the detailed schemes of his personal project. It contains detailed sketches of a tall man in a lab coat with spiky hair and glasses: full-body views at every angle, a close-up of his face and head, and even his hands and fingernails. Tsuna had gone through several other designs before deciding on this one. It just…clicks.
"I can't tell if you're trying to help me or enable me," Tsuna says, taking big gulps of water. The cool liquid soothes his parched throat and he feels refreshed within seconds. He might be dense but he's not stupid enough to run himself to the ground—Okay, sometimes.
"I'm just making sure you don't die," Natsu says a little too happily for an A.I. "Also, reconsider your meal choice. There are some nearby restaurants with healthier options."
"What's wrong with ramen?" Tsuna raises his hand before Natsu can respond. "No, never mind. Forget it." He scratches the back of his head. "How much are those household bots again from Tomaso?"
"I remember you saying that the Pantera bots looked terrifying."
Tsuna grimaces. "You're right." He rubs his face. "Are there any other household bots in the market that look like they won't gouge your eyes out?"
Natsu sits back on his hind legs. "Maybe you should learn how to cook instead. Many people online have said that it's therapeutic."
"You just want me out of the lab. Besides, the last time I was in the kitchen, I almost burned the house down."
"Practice makes perfect." Natsu suddenly tilts his head. "Giotto-san is currently outside your door."
Tsuna blinks. "What? Really? Why?"
"Would you like me to ask?"
Tsuna rubs his face, feeling the brunt of his exhaustion weigh heavily on his palm. His brother doesn't visit as much as he used to, not with Estraneo causing trouble across international borders. Giotto's elite task force, Primo, had been dealing with the terrorist organization for a couple of years now but there hasn't been much progress on dismantling the group. Even though Giotto rarely goes into detail about what he's doing, Tsuna can tell that he's been quietly suffering from the pressure. They're brothers after all. They know each other like no one else does.
"Just let him in," Tsuna finally says, picking up Natsu. "And let him know I'm in the lab."
"I don't think he'll go anywhere else," Natsu quips. Tsuna just rolls his eyes and let the lion-droid hop down to the floor. "He is currently coming our way. ETA 2 minutes."
Rolling his shoulders, Tsuna plops back down on his chair and does a little spin before the entrance to his lab slides open with a small beep. His brother, clad in his impeccable blue uniform, gives him a little wave and a warm smile. "Tsuna, it's good to see you." He frowns immediately when he looks Tsuna up and down. "When's the last time you slept?"
Tsuna sighs. "I don't look that bad." He huffs when Giotto quirks a brow. "Seriously…"
"It's been 4 days since Tsuna ate and 3 days since he slept," Natsu says unhelpfully, making Tsuna duck from Giotto's unnerving gaze.
"Tsuna," his brother says, grabbing him before he could bolt. Not that Tsuna could. Walking felt like wading through quicksand, which he never did before. He did act it out in simulation for some video game a few years back but he digresses. "We've been through this already."
"Yeah, yeah." Tsuna tries to shrug Giotto off but he doesn't budge. "Since when did they bring back steroids in the military?"
Giotto sighs. "You need to take better care of yourself. Do you want to move in with Mama?"
Tsuna grimaces. "No." Other than being sensitive with people meddling with his stuff, Tsuna prefers being alone, and his mother's the type to get nosy. Plus, he had pretty much settled down in this house, which his father had bought for him five years ago as his graduation gift. He's not about to go anywhere.
Giotto shakes him a little by the collar of his sweater, like he's an unruly cat. "I get that you want to have your space, but you can't keep living like this. If you can't take care of yourself, then I think it's best you stay with Mama for a while."
"You can't tell me what to do," Tsuna mumbles under his breath. "I'm 25-years-old, a legal adult."
Giotto huffs but his lips curl into a small smile. "You're still my baby brother."
Tsuna pulls a face. "Oh my God, Natsu, take him out."
Natsu sits beside Giotto's feet. "Considering our body masses and—"
"Forget it. You're both terrible." Tsuna wiggles out of Giotto's hold and falls onto his chair with a small thud. He rolls away before Giotto can grab him again. "I know what I'm doing isn't healthy for me and others, but I'll—"
"Do my best from jumping over my limits and make sure that I'm 100% functional all day, every day," Giotto finishes in a perfect imitation of Tsuna's voice. He chuckles. "You might want to change that. It's not as good as the last one."
When he arrives at the drafting table, Tsuna rolls his eyes. "It wasn't my fault Mama was there to hear it. Besides, I don't think I'll be using it anymore." He gestures at the sketches. "Remember the project I told you about? I'm almost done. I just need to get the parameters down into the mainframe and expand the processing power so that it doesn't feel too restricted for him to learn new things."
"Him?" Giotto walks up to stand behind Tsuna's chair and peers over his shoulder. "You already chose its gender?" Although Giotto can't understand everything Tsuna's talking about when it comes to his work, he tries to at least humor him and keep up with his jargon. It's better than anything Tsuna can ask for, but it can get lonely when no one's there to actually engage with his ideas.
"It's been months since I did," Tsuna says. "I already got a functional Hollow ready for him. All I need is his chip and he'll be up and running in a few weeks. Maybe a few days if I get to push through it." He ignores the disapproving look on Giotto's face.
"I estimate it'll take 4 more months for his coding to be complete, Tsuna," Natsu says. "And that's if you don't focus on Aria-san's commissions, which I believe should be your top priority. With the way you're acting now, I doubt you'll be even alive to bring your project to life."
Giotto sighs. "Tsuna."
"I know." The brunet swivels on his chair to look up at his brother. "But this is a good thing, Nii-san. Once I get Verde operating successfully, he can help me around the lab. Not that Natsu's useless or anything, but it'd be nice to get an extra pair of hands to help. Don't worry, I still think your paws are cute, Natsu."
"You could've hired an assistant," Giotto says patiently. "Tou-san and I will vet them for you."
"It won't work out." Tsuna drums his fingers against his armrest. "We'd be the same age and they wouldn't like taking orders from someone like me."
"You haven't even tried yet."
"I went to school. Best lesson I learned is to keep my distance from the rest of the human population." Tsuna avoids meeting Giotto's gaze, focusing on the generic blue screensaver on his monitors. His school life has always been a touchy topic in the family, and he didn't want anyone's pity. He's just happy enough to push it all behind him for the most part. "I also think this will give everyone less of a headache."
Giotto frowns, and Tsuna hates seeing his brother look miserable on his account. Smiling slightly, he lightly jabs Giotto's stomach. "I'll be fine, Nii-san. I'm being serious. So don't pull that face. What will the girls think?"
"While it's nice that you're worried about my life, I think it's better if you put that focus on your own," Giotto says dryly.
"How does G-san handle you? You're impossible."
"Look who's talking."
"Natsu, bite him."
The lion-droid blinks at Tsuna. "Giotto-san is listed as Precious P—"
"Shut it!" Tsuna quickly hugs Natsu with a sheepish laugh. "You need another maintenance check. Your voice box hasn't been in tip-top shape lately."
Giotto raises a brow, but there's a teasing smile on his lips. "Oh, but I think Natsu's working perfectly fine."
"I believe so, too," Natsu says, his voice unmuffled through the lab speakers. "My data system isn't—"
"One more word and I'll donate you to a children's center."
Natsu wisely refrains from speaking. Tsuna huffs and looks up at Giotto, who's trying hard not to laugh. "Right, why are you here anyways? Not that I don't mind a visit. You must be busy with…all that's happening."
Giotto sobers up a bit though his smile remains. "Yes, well, I came here to pick you up but I guess there are other things you should be doing now."
Tsuna blinks. "What? What do you mean pick me up? For what? I don't have anything on my calendar."
"When do you ever?"
"Seriously though, what is it?"
"It's nothing you have to worry about. You should eat something and go to sleep."
"It's really nothing, Tsuna."
"As much as I'd like to think so, I highly doubt you came here just to say hi."
Giotto purses his lips. "Do you really think so?"
Tsuna rests his head on his fist. "Yeah. You have your hands full. Just tell me."
A bout of silence passes until Natsu pipes up, "I believe it has something to do with an event later today at the Ukiyo Convention Center."
Tsuna furrows his brows. "Event? What event? I didn't sign up for anything."
Giotto pinches the bridge of his nose. "It's really nothing, Tsuna."
"Shall I play the audio of the conversation you and Giotto-san had two months ago?" Natsu says. "Though I doubt it'll refresh your memory."
Tsuna gapes at him. "What?" He scowls before Giotto can say anything. "Alright then, play it."
"The conversation was made on Wednesday, January 9th, at 3:21 PM."
A low intonation beeps softly through the speakers before Giotto's voice comes through, "You promised that you'd come with me to the conference last week!"
Tsuna's voice cuts him off, "Well, I'm sorry but I got backed up, okay?" The sensitive mic catches his grumbling. "I don't get why I have to go when you have G-san."
"You're always backed up because you keep putting off work."
"Are you trying to tell me something? Then you can just say it to my face." Tsuna cringes at this. He's pretty sure he was lacking caffeine that day. It's worse that he really doesn't remember this conversation.
Giotto's recording sighs. "All I want is for you to come with me to a conference. It can even help with your research."
"I'll just look it up online."
"These are non-recorded sessions."
"Nii-san, people sneak in recorders all the time." There's a brief pause of uncomfortable silence that makes Tsuna shift in his chair. He keeps his gaze on his worn sneakers. "Fine. When's the next one?"
Giotto sounds a little too cheery. "March 19th. Some people from Vongola will be attending, too. I think you'll enjoy it."
Natsu stops the recording there. "If you'd like, I can let it keep going."
Tsuna raises a hand weakly. "No… I think I'm good." He massages his temples. "Okay, what time does it start?"
Giotto steps forward to rest a hand on his shoulder. It's a little comforting, not that Tsuna would admit it. "You need to rest. I can go alone. Maybe next time."
Tsuna waves him off. "What time and how long?"
"The conference starts at 1 PM and ends at 2:30 PM," Natsu says. "There will be refreshments served after as well."
"Okay, here's the plan. You're going to get me some food and I'll take a small nap on the way. Sound good?"
Giotto deadpans. "You don't actually care about the forum or yourself."
Tsuna smiles cheekily. "What are you talking about? I wouldn't pass the chance to spend time with my favorite brother."
"I'm your only brother."
"Yeah, well, I also want some good burgers so there's that, too."
Tsuna yelps when Giotto flicks his forehead, but there's a tiny smile on his face. "Okay, but first take a shower. I'm not taking trash out in public."
It's sad when Tsuna couldn't even land a hit on his brother and trips over his feet instead. He chalks it up to his lack of sleep. "I hate you."
Giotto smiles cheekily, the bastard. "Come on, stop lying to yourself."
Tsuna mutters curses under his breath on the way to the lab's bathroom while Giotto laughs behind him.
After stuffing himself with some fast food burgers and fries from Joy-O's, Tsuna makes himself comfortable in Giotto's sleek gray car. The inside is similar to older models way back when, with leather seats, a steering wheel, and a GPS monitor. The only differences were the more sophisticated auto-drive function and a special identification chip for people in military, government, and public sectors. A driver's license can be brought up on a police's data-retrieval system with just a scan and the roads had built-in scanners that constantly check on the citizens' whereabouts every 10 minutes.
Tsuna dozes off to the lull of Giotto's radio, which plays a random lo-fi playlist from his phone, before his chair reclines as a response to his neurons switching off the signals in his brain that keep him awake. It's easy to fall asleep, nice too actually, but it's really a sign that he needed it, badly. His nap is dreamless, and there's no sense of time until Giotto gently shakes him awake. "Tsuna," he says, his voice faint, "we're here."
Muted, distorted bass booms softly in the background while Tsuna groans and tries to turn away from his brother; the seatbelt makes it difficult to move. "Five more minutes," he mumbles.
Giotto chuckles. "As much as I want to, I can't leave you in the car. It's only for an hour or so. I'll take you home right after, and you can sleep for how long you want. Ah, I should get you dinner beforehand." Tsuna's eyes flutter open to see Giotto viewing a red holographic display of his calendar on the dashboard. "Yes, I have some time later before the meeting."
Blearily, Tsuna blinks a couple of time and rubs his eyes. The parking lot's low lighting is a small blessing. He stares at the dark ceiling of the car, vaguely wondering if this was a good idea at all. To be honest, he rarely leaves his home unless he has to, which doesn't present itself too often. This is probably the third time he ever left this year. The longer he thinks about it, the sadder his life seems.
"Tsuna." Giotto's gentle voice snaps him out of his thoughts. "You'll be fine. Come on."
Tsuna wrinkles his nose. "Whatever. Let's just get this over with."
After they climb out of the car, the two head for the elevator and ascend inside the building. Tsuna takes a moment to peruse each floor that whizzes by through the one-way glass. The Ukiyo Convention Center holds some of the major technological forums in the country, with countless panels of specialists and experts coming in from all over the world. The building is constructed like a large gray-blue dome that has several blue holographic displays of events, room numbers, and time. There's even advertisements of various tech and products playing on the walls' long strips. The bustling of people on each floor provides more life in the air.
"G is already there," Giotto says when the elevator stops smoothly on the 8th floor.
"Oh, so does that mean I can just stay in the car?" Tsuna says. He ignored Giotto's pointed stare. "I was joking."
He grunts when Giotto suddenly ruffles his hair. "Behave."
"'m not a dog…"
Still, Tsuna shoves his hands in his pockets and follows his brother down a hallway, shrinking a bit when he notices the large crowd. Immediately, he feels out of place, with his jeans and worn brown coat, in a sea of well-dressed businessmen, military personnel, and professors. He unconsciously steps closer behind Giotto's back and keeps his gaze on his loafers. Everyone's chatter and booming laughter make him just a tad dizzy.
"Sawada!" someone shouts.
Tsuna doesn't have time to react when some stout man in a military uniform whisks his brother away into the crowd, laughing and patting him on the back like they were good buddies. For a moment, Tsuna remains rooted to the spot, a little stunned. Some people jostle past his shoulder, reeling him back to reality. He blindly follows the crowd, ignoring a few whispers aimed at him.
"He's the spitting image of him!"
"I never knew Giotto-san had a brother."
"Oh, he looks a little…"
Tsuna jumps when a hand grips his shoulder. And just like that, the crowd clears the path for him like receding, and absolutely terrified, waves. "A—Alaude-san," Tsuna says, his eyes widening when he sees the tall, blond man in a dark suit. "I didn't know you were here…"
Alaude guides him with a firm hand towards the lecture hall, unfazed by the sudden hush and hissing whispers. Tsuna's not exactly on the same boat but whatever gets the day by faster is appreciated. The security guards don't even stop them for a body scan. Tsuna glances at Alaude's gloved hand and turns a little red. "You don't have to, um, do that," he says.
"Giotto didn't say you were coming."
Tsuna shrugs half-heartedly. "I promised him and forgot so, yeah. I guess he was pretty busy too, I don't know. But here I am." He laughs awkwardly, hoping he'd just drop dead right then and there.
God, if Giotto had given him a heads-up, he would've prepared himself. Alaude's one of Giotto's squad members with deep ties to the NPA, courtesy of his mother. They had gone to high school in Namimori with the others and are pretty much a legend in their hometown, Alaude more so with his powerful sense of justice. Although, it could be questionable sometimes.
Not that Tsuna really complains though. He still remembers Alaude swooping in and beating the hell out of his bullies when he was walking home from school one day and…yeah. It might be fair to say that Alaude's probably the coolest person he's ever met—not that he'd ever say it out loud. He'd commit seppuku before he did.
The lecture hall is intimidating, thanks to its high ceiling that arches upwards in a sharp point, allowing some sunlight in the room. The gray, cushy seats are high-quality and arranged in neat rows. There are four chairs on the elevated stage with the conference's name and its speakers presented on a large blue hologram above it: Integrating Artificial Intelligence in Military Warfare. Some headshots are underneath the title and the only one Tsuna recognizes is Alaude.
"You can sit here," the other man says, leading Tsuna towards one of the back rows.
"Oh, thank you," Tsuna says. "I didn't know you were, um, speaking today."
Alaude raises a brow. "And what do you know, Tsunayoshi?"
Tsuna flushes a bit before plopping down on a seat and facing the front. He crosses his arms over his chest. "Yeah, whatever," he mumbles. "Sorry for being out of the loop. Good luck, I guess."
Alaude huffs lightly. "Giotto will find you." And with that, he left Tsuna alone.
After that whole embarrassing exchange, people start trickling in the hall, as if sensing Alaude's lack of presence. Tsuna hunches his shoulders, not meeting anyone's eyes, and presses a button on his left armrest. Like a CD-ROM drive, a black strip pops out. Reclining back on his chair, Tsuna clicks a tiny switch before a blue hologram lights up from the bottom. It has the conference's title on top. Tsuna shifts through the brochure, swiping through each page like it's an e-book.
The forum doesn't seem all that interesting. It's old news about A.I. being used in the military; however, they haven't been actually used on the battlefield yet, not since the Cradle Affair blew up years ago. No one trusts the military using any form of A.I. to join humans in combat, which led to them being restricted to more practical units like the bomb squad and traffic control. There also hasn't been a sophisticated set of software developed yet to create the A.I. officials have in mind.
Soon, the hall is filled with people and Tsuna wonders if this is some sort of test from Giotto. Well, if his brother doesn't appear in the next five minutes, he has the right to bolt. As if on cue, Giotto plops down next to him with a breathless laugh. "Sorry, Tsuna," he says with G following suit on his other side. "I didn't expect that to happen. Are you alright?"
"Never been better," Tsuna deadpans, turning off the brochure and slipping it back in the armrest.
"I'll get you bubble tea later. There's a good shop near here."
Tsuna hums to himself in mock-thought. "I want milk tea."
Giotto gives him a thumbs-up. "Okay!"
G snorts in the background. "You do know that you have a meeting in Kok—" He hisses when Giotto jabs him none-too-subtly in the ribs.
"Did you want one, too?" Giotto says, his smile still in place.
Tsuna couldn't help but snicker when G curses under his breath. Some of the attendees glance their way curiously, the women mostly enamored by Giotto's good looks. Tsuna tries his best to shrink in his seat and just disappear. He's not all that bothered that people flock towards his brother instead of him. He finds it less troublesome trying to stay on the same page as others. But sometimes, he thinks maybe it'd be nice to have someone to lean on. Giotto attracts while Tsuna repels. He supposes that there has to be some compromise in the grand scheme of things.
"Just don't forget the damn meeting," G says, scowling ahead.
Before Giotto can say a word, someone walks onstage, eliciting some applause from the audience. A young woman with long dark hair in a low ponytail and wearing a black pantsuit bows slightly towards the audience. "Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Irie Akiko and I'll be guiding the forum today. I'm sure everyone here is eager to meet our special guests so without further ado, please welcome them onto the stage."
Sighing, Tsuna leans onto his fist as the moderator introduces the speakers. He's already dozing off when everyone starts talking, but he knows who's who at least. There's Alaude, the Assistant Commissioner of the Namimori Police Station and Major General of Primo, a special elite task force in the Japanese military dealing with counter-terrorism, both on land and in cyberspace. Next to him is Giannini, an expert representing Vongola's Advanced Defense Research Department, and finally, there's Coyote Nougat, the Corps General of Vongola, who has graced the public with a physical appearance.
"—ome speculation surrounding the experimental techniques you'll be employing," Akiko says in a placid tone. "You revealed in a press statement in October that you're collaborating with some medical research institutions in China on the possibility of manipulating the brain chemical makeup for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Is there any way you can inform us on the progress?"
Some people in the audience shift in their seats before Giannini speaks up in fluent Japanese, "There's been substantial development in our research, yes. We can't disclose any particular details at this time but when we do, we hope to share what we have in order to assist one another to progress in helping ourselves and others."
"Then are there any less particular details you can share with us?" Akiko says, not missing a beat.
Tsuna blinks and slowly straightens up in his seat. Giannini seems startled for a moment before regaining his composure. "Ah, no, there are no details we can share." He laughs a little shakily. "I don't really have the clearance for that, you know?"
There's a scatter of chuckles in the audience but no one seems at ease. When Tsuna glances over to gauge his brother's reaction, he sees nothing on Giotto's calm face. The same goes for G. It didn't do anything to quell his nerves.
Coyote then breaks the silence gracefully. "Considering the wide breadth of the research, it will take some time until we reach any sort of conclusion. We ask for the public to be patient with the process."
"Vongola isn't an institution that's dedicated to or obligated in researching the medical field," Akiko says. "While it's international influence is impressive, there's no reason for it to reach for any higher than it should."
"I believe we have the right to do so, Irie-san. Our soldiers are human beings, our fellow comrades and brothers-in-arms; we're obligated to help them in their time of need, including those who also suffer from PTSD. That being said, if our soldiers are incapacitated and unable to contribute in full capacity, there should be ways to compensate for their absence, which is why we've been in contact with artificial intelligence companies to consider the prospect of deploying combat androids on the field."
"We're not trying to downplay the soldiers and their abilities," Giannini says, seemingly more relaxed than before. "But we do have to consider the risks that can severely affect the human psyche."
Akiko crosses her legs. "Isn't that what you said about the Varia Unit?"
A hush falls over the room, and there's a stillness in the air that makes it uncomfortable to breathe. Giannini openly cringes while Coyote's face remains perfectly blank. Tsuna has to give it to her though; that Akiko woman has serious guts. He doesn't think there's ever been anyone who had stood up against the top military organization before, but he's awake now.
"The Varia Unit has been shut down since," Coyote responds calmly, "and if we have to, we will apologize again for our indiscretions."
"You're only guilty that you were caught." The words were sharp, but delivered in such a blasé manner, Tsuna didn't know whether to cringe or laugh. He covers his mouth anyways. "If you were truly remorseful, then you wouldn't be pursuing other projects similar to what you did with the Varia. What are your thoughts on the matter, Alaude-san? Some of Japan's death row inmates were discovered in the unit."
Giannini widens his eyes. "This is an already settled matter. We—"
"Prisons were created to reform," Alaude says, cutting him off. "If they don't do as they were intended, then the system has failed."
"Do you think that it was right to have criminals subjected to the Varia Project?" Akiko asks.
Alaude's eyes flicker towards the audience. "I can't say. The intentions were decent at best, but you can't fix what's already broken. Trying to do so makes you seem more foolish."
Akiko opens her mouth but Giannini is the one who speaks again, "From what I've seen, and I'm sure you've seen it as well, Irie-san, our research in the Varia Project has helped advance medical fields in America and other European countries. There have been success cases where mentally ill patients recovered for the most part from, ah, having their brains rewired with some variations in the original technique."
Akiko raises a brow. "Are you trying to justify the reasons behind your initiative?"
Giannini tenses up a bit before Coyote picks up his slack with ease. "That's not what he said, Irie-san. We have already established the fact that we condone the unit's formation several times. There's been—"
A long, shrill beep pierces the air, making everyone yelp and cover their ears, and the next thing Tsuna knows, he's blown backwards onto the ground. The floors are cold, he realizes. A cool breeze drifts in the room, which is strange because there are no windows. The lights are too bright. Tsuna turns to look for Giotto, but his head takes forever to move. A high-pitch noise rings in his ears, making him wince and drop to the ground again. Everything hurts.
Blinking rapidly to get rid of the fuzzy spots in his vision, Tsuna tries to move again before he starts coughing from the smoke. Wait, smoke? Someone turns him over until he's looking up at a blurry face, but he'd recognize that unruly blond hair anywhere.
"Tsuna, stay with me!" Giotto says, his voice distant.
Everything seems to start again all at once. Screams and smoke fill the air, and people were scrambling all over the place. Tsuna can barely think. His head hurts too much, as if he'd been bludgeoned with a hammer. "Hurts," he says, his words slurred. "My head…"
"It's okay, Tsuna. Everything will be okay. Just keep your eyes open for me." Tsuna grimaces. His brother's suddenly too loud, but he can't muster up the energy to tell him to shut up. "Come on, Tsuna, you need stay awake. Do that for me, okay? G, we need to evacuate everyone from the area now! We have 3 minutes before another bomb goes off!"
"Then tell me where the fuck it is!" G sounds far away, his voice lost among the screams. Tsuna just can't tell anymore.
His eyes flutter for a moment before Giotto shakes him again. "Tsuna, don't close your eyes! I'll get you help! Stay with me!"
"So tired," Tsuna mumbles, coughing again. "Nii-san…"
He loses consciousness with Giotto's screams echoing hollowly in his buzzing ears.
Dreamless sleep is fine, but this feels more like sinking in sludge, whatever this is. There's no awareness of time, just an uncomfortable sense of the unknown pulsing throughout his body. And when Tsuna finally comes to, he's seized by a numb sort of emptiness. He doesn't move right away, even though there's no pain in his limbs. It takes some time for him to realize that he's even awake.
"Tsuna-kun?" someone whispers from the side.
When Tsuna turns his head—it's easier now—he blinks when he sees his mother holding his hand. "Mama?" he croaks out.
Nana cries out in relief and raises his hand to her cheek. Tsuna's a little mortified when tears start pouring down her cheeks. "I thought you'd never wake up," she says, inhaling sharply.
"Mama, don't cry! I'm fine. Look."
Tsuna furrows his brows when he realizes that he's sitting up in an unfamiliar bed. Looking around, he widens his eyes as it dawns on him. He's in the hospital. The basic biometric feedbacks, with his heartrate and blood pressure, are displayed in red holograms beside him, and the windows are barred by overturned gray shades, casting soft shadows in his room. "I—What happened?"
"Don't you remember, Tsuna-kun?" Nana says, wiping her eyes. "You and Giotto-kun went out to that conference. When he called us, I—I couldn't believe it."
It all rushes back to him—the explosion, the panic, Giotto's screams. Tsuna's breath hitches. "Where's Nii-san? Is he okay? What about G-san and Alaude-san?"
Nana pats his hand. "They're fine." Tsuna rubs his face and takes a deep, shaky breath. That's a huge relief. "You need to worry more about yourself."
The door slides open, welcoming in some bright light from the hallway and a glimpse of bustling nurses outside. "Tsuna!" Tsuna grunts when his father engulfs him in a hug, but doesn't push away. He smells like old spices, which Tsuna finds better than smelling smoke and blood. "Oh God, I thought you wouldn't wake up. How are you feeling? Any pain? Do you need some more medication? I can have you stay here a little longer."
"Tou-san, you might end up crushing his ribs," Giotto says behind him.
Nana laughs and rubs Iemitsu's back. "Dear, you need to let him go. Tsuna-kun is fine."
Iemitsu reluctantly pulls away. He's still wearing his military uniform, which is crinkled from the hug, and there are dark bags underneath his eyes, accentuated even more by the dim lighting. "Are you okay, Tsuna?"
Tsuna nods. "I'm fine. I thought you were in Paris."
Iemitsu gapes at him. "You think I'd stay there when I heard what happened to you? No way in hell!" He smiles sheepishly when Nana clears her throat. "I was granted permission so don't worry yourself over it."
"I didn't think it was a big deal." Tsuna touches the back of his head. There's no bandages or any signs of a wound. "It was probably just a concussion."
"Concussion or not, you had us worried sick!" Nana says. "If Giotto-kun hadn't been there, who knows what would've happened to you?"
Iemitsu squeezes her arms reassuringly. "There, there, he's fine now, honey. It's all minor injuries, alright?"
Giotto quietly walks to Tsuna's bedside. His face is haggard and his uniform looks too new. "Are you really okay?"
Tsuna smiles faintly. "Yeah, I'm fine. How many times do you want me to say it?"
Giotto huffs but his lips twitch into a smile. "Hey, be a little grateful I saved your brain there."
Tsuna rolls his eyes. "Wow, okay. For a second I thought you actually cared."
He doesn't shy away when Giotto gently ruffles his hair. "I'm glad you're okay."
Tsuna nods despite Giotto's screams resounding in the back of his mind. "Yeah."
The door slides open again to reveal a doctor with a slim tablet. He greets them with a friendly smile. "I received an alert that Sawada-san here is awake." He nods at Tsuna. "I'm Dr. Ishikawa, the one handling your case. I'll just do a quick check-up to make sure you're doing alright, but I don't think we'll see any problems." He swipes through his tablet and briefly checks the biometrics hologram. "There aren't any internal or external abnormalities. Your concussion has already healed when we gave you medication after you came in so no issues there."
Tsuna frowns. "How long was I out?"
"Three days," Dr. Ishikawa says. "Today's Friday, March 22nd, and it's"—he glances down at his tablet—"5:17 PM."
Tsuna purses his lips. "If I was only treated for a concussion, why was I out for so long? Was it that bad?"
Dr. Ishikawa laughs. "Oh no, the concussion wasn't the issue. You reacted fine to the medication and we could've discharged you just a couple of hours after you were admitted, but your overall physical condition wasn't exactly ideal. It showed that you hadn't eaten or slept for a few days. We thought it'd be better if you had some proper rest instead of pumping you with some artificial substances. Sometimes the natural way is the best way."
Tsuna looks down at his white sheets. "Oh…"
"Well, that's everything," Dr. Ishikawa says. "You're free to leave today if you'd like. If there's any questions you have, feel free to contact me through the communication interface by your bedside. My call code is TOH-3523. Other than that, you're good to go. Just make sure you eat and sleep regularly." He smiles. "I think it's best that we don't see each other again, right?"
"Thank you, doctor," Nana says.
"Of course. Have a good day, alright? Rest easy now."
After Dr. Ishikawa leaves, a hush settles in the air. Tsuna plops back against his pillow, startling his brother and parents.
"Are you okay, Tsuna?" Iemitsu says. "Should I call him back?"
"Don't push yourself too much," Nana says, squeezing Tsuna's hand. "If you'd like, you can stay with me until you feel better. Really, you're just skin and bones. No wonder you're so exhausted."
Giotto furrows his brows. "Don't try to hold in your pain. Let us know if you're not feeling okay."
Tsuna can't help it. He laughs, surprising them. "I'm sorry," he says, rubbing his face. "It's just—This is the first time we've been in the same room together in a while, you know? I don't know…"
He doesn't look at their faces, instead resting his gaze on his steady heartrate. The line beeps at a reassuring pace. Giotto breaks the silence first. "It is," he says softly.
Nana and Iemitsu remain quiet for a moment longer before Nana asks, "Would you like to stay with me, Tsuna-kun?"
Tsuna almost says yes, but he sees smoke, running feet, and Giotto's terrified face. "No," he says. "I think I'm okay."
No one tries to argue.
Giotto had asked him if he wanted to know what happened, tentatively of course, but Tsuna said no. Either way, he's bound to find out. Out of 120 attendees, 31 had died in the attack while 54 were injured. One still remains missing. Giotto, G, Alaude, and what was left of security had managed to evacuate the rest of the people from the venue, and are still lauded for their bravery. Giotto hasn't visited since then.
"—till no traces or known whereabouts on Coyote Nougat," a reporter's voice drones through the lab speakers. "Despite being known as a vocal group, Estraneo has not given any indications of the Vongola's Corps General's disappearance or his condition after claiming responsibility for the attack in Ukiyo Convention Center two months ago. International authorities have—"
"Natsu, change the channel to something PG," Tsuna says, gulping down some cold coffee. He doesn't stop typing on his keyboard, adding more lines of codes in different sets of parameters. He's so close to finishing, so fucking close.
"Will Princess Valoria be alright with you?" Natsu says by his feet.
The news on Tsuna's first monitor instantly changes to some kids show with sparkling beams and shiny dresses. He doesn't give it more than a glance. "Lower the volume to 10. Is the Hollow ready?"
"Are you finished?"
"Just two more lines and I'm…done!" Tsuna sags against his chair and tousles his hair. "We did it, Natsu. Finally…" Briefly, he closes his eyes. There's a slew of high-pitched ringing and distorted voices that rumble in his mind before he presses some keys.
"Well, I guess I'll take the credit, too." A small data chip slips out of a slot on Tsuna's desk. "The sooner this is finished, the sooner you can go to sleep."
Tsuna huffs as he removes the chip and heads for the long biometric table. "Is that all you think about?"
Natsu trails behind his heel. "Since you haven't slept for more than 3 hours a day, I don't see it as much of an improvement."
"At least I sleep."
"Waking up in the middle of the night with cold sweat, elevated heartrate, and nightmares isn't better, Tsuna."
"Yeah," Tsuna drawls, "I think I'm going to work on your voice box next. Add that on the list."
He inspects the Hollow on the table, which is a plain and faceless model of the human body; its skin looks almost translucent like glass. It had been something he worked on before to compensate for actually crafting the android to the original design. A clothes rack is nearby with an outfit it would wear when it wakes up. Tsuna cracks his neck and rolls his shoulders. "You ready, Natsu?"
"As long as you are."
Tsuna rolls his eyes but lifts the Hollow up a little to insert the data chip in a slot behind its neck. "Please work," he whispers. Natsu doesn't say a word.
Soon the Hollow glows green for a moment before it starts to change. Tsuna can't help but smile when he hears the metals clinking and reshaping inside the body, accommodating the position of the synthetic organs he had placed beforehand. The face grows more refined, taking shape of the man Tsuna had designed. A hologram of the body's heartrate appears above, beeping at a steady pace.
Then the eyes of the Hollow flutter open. Tsuna almost collapses over in relief but manages to grip the edge of the table to steady himself. Natsu breaks the silence. "Today is Thursday, May 2nd, 9:43 PM. Project Assistant is now complete and in official initiation."
Tsuna smiles tiredly. "Welcome to the world, Verde."
Loading: Booting system…
Commencing System Check…
Memory Unit: Stable
Adjusting Sensory Logs…
Loading Tactile Function…
Establishing Geographical Data…
Green Box Status: Stable
Initializing Data Network Connections…
Activating Internal Systems…
Activating External Systems…
Body Modification: Complete
System Authentication: Complete
Mainframe Status: 100%
All Systems: 100%