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Fourteen

“When you’re sure the world’s against you, it’s hard for the world to prove it doesn’t know you exist.”  –Will Shetterly

 

He says, “Tsuna, look at me!” He says, “Tsuna, play with me!” He says, “Tsuna, help!”

Tsuna, Tsuna, Tsuna. I need you. That’s what he says. And he says it constantly.

“Lambo, we have to go get big brother back, okay? And Large and everybody. We won’t be gone long, but I need you to stay here with Mom.” Tsuna refuses to drag Lambo into the nightmare that this is undoubtedly going to be. He knows Lambo wants to fight, but this isn’t a normal fight. These are the Vindice, and, well, Tsuna would be happiest if the Vindice would just forget that Lambo exists.

And he’s tired of seeing Lambo covered in bruises. He’s tired of watching a tiny kid get thrown around by people ten times his size. He’s tired of worrying, he’s tired.

“I’m coming, too!”

“No, you’re not.”

“I am! If you try to leave me, I’ll, I’ll—”

“Shut up, stupid cow,” Gokudera snaps. “What’ll you do, huh? Short circuit the microwave?”

“Shut up!”

“Thank you, Gokudera-kun!” Tsuna says a little desperately. He really doesn’t need anyone giving anyone else ideas, here. “Lambo, I need you to protect Mom.”

Lambo blinks, thinks about that, and stands a little taller. “Protect Maman?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Tsuna sees Gokudera turning away to hide a smile. “That’s right. You wouldn’t want to leave her here all alone, would you? It could be dangerous.”

“That’s right!” Lambo proudly declares. “I’m tougher than you, anyway, Tsuna. I’ll save Maman from the weirdos!”

Gokudera abruptly leaves the room. Tsuna assumes he’s gone off to laugh himself silly in private.

“Thank you, Lambo,” Tsuna says seriously.

* * *

All Tsuna wants is a normal life. Friends, family, school. Not to suck spectacularly at anything, but not to be fantastic at anything. He never wanted to stand out, not in either direction. Is that really too much to ask? He’s not asking for great! He’s asking for normal, normal.

Apparently it is too much to ask. Apparently it’s always going to be all or nothing with him.

“I just want a normal life,” he tells Yamamoto, who seems like the sort of person who ought to understand that.

“Haha! What’s that supposed to mean, Tsuna? This is normal.”

Yamamoto seems like he should understand. Unfortunately, the truth is that he wouldn’t recognize normal if it smacked him in the face. Tsuna sighs at him, then turns pointedly to Mizuno Kaoru, who’s following them with the same whipped dog posture he’s had since…

Well. Since.

The point is, they have a guy trailing slavishly around after them trying to slump his giant body into the smallest possible space. Performing little services for them. Never making eye contact.

The point is, this is not normal.

Yamamoto glances at Kaoru, then leans close to Tsuna and whispers, “He’ll get over it,” which he immediately undercuts by adding, “I think.”

Having a huge, scary guy follow you around school attracts a lot of attention. People are staring. People are whispering. People are running to avoid them in the hallways. Except for Gokudera, obviously, who is, at the moment, running toward them, but that’s. That’s Gokudera.

Tsuna just wants comfortable anonymity, for God’s sake. How do so many other people manage that? Why does he always have to overshoot or undershoot, but never hit the mark?

Argh.

Gokudera is talking a mile a minute before he even gets properly within hearing range. Then he does get within hearing range, and Tsuna immediately wishes he hadn’t.

“…and Reborn says the Vindice are definitely coming after the Shimon,” Gokudera concludes. “Mukuro’s the only one who’s ever broken out of there before, and look what happened to him.”

Tsuna winces, and Gokudera frowns in sympathy. They didn’t try, this time, to break Mukuro out. Everyone else was held in the minimum security section (still a lot of security, given the prison in question), but Mukuro…

Even Chrome couldn’t figure out where he was. There was no way to get to him. But then, Mukuro is a violently insane person who claims to hate them all, so why does Tsuna feel so guilty?

Because Mukuro agreed to be his Mist Guardian, for whatever reason. Because he agreed, and because he’s been Tsuna’s Mist Guardian, as best he could be. He helped at the battle for the rings, he helped against Byakuran in the future. He saved Chrome.

Tsuna feels guilty because he should, and not just about Mukuro. He feels guilty about Enma, who won’t speak to him, and Chrome, who won’t speak at all. Yamamoto, who’s pretending he’s not in pain. Suzuki, who won’t meet anyone’s eyes, which is horribly not like her. Katou, who jumps at small noises and then shakes for an hour.

He feels guilty because he took responsibility despite knowing that he can’t handle responsibility for anything. And a lot of people got hurt. What else did he expect to happen?

In a way, this disaster is more Giotto’s fault than Tsuna’s, which doesn’t make it any less painful. Tsuna swore that Giotto wouldn’t have betrayed a friend, but that turned out to be not exactly true. Giotto should have killed Spade when he had the chance, but he didn’t. Giotto betrayed the Shimon family by being too attached to the idea of keeping his hands clean.

There’s a lesson there, an awful lesson. A lesson that’s about as far from normal as you can get.

“We’re the ones who broke the Shimon out,” Tsuna says sharply, cutting off that train of thought before he bursts into tears or flames. “Why are the Vindice going after them instead of us? They never went after Ken and Chikusa.”

“I don’t know why the Vindice do anything, Tenth. I’m guessing they’ll get around to us eventually; they’re probably just starting with the prisoners. We’d better be ready for them. And you guys had better be ready,” he throws back to Kaoru with a disapproving frown.

Yamamoto may have forgiven Kaoru. Tsuna may have forgiven Kaoru. Gokudera will never forgive Kaoru, and he won’t let him forget it, either. It’s charming, for some reason. Maybe because it’s nice to be reminded that you live on the inside of Gokudera’s outrageously clannish view of the world.

Kaoru nods silently, but doesn’t look up. No surprise. He never speaks unless asked a direct question, and rarely even then.

Yamamoto, on the other hand, laughs. “I guess we’ll be keeping busy, then!” Gokudera snorts in disgust and hits him.

Tsuna thinks, And this is normal.

It’s too late to run screaming now. Maybe it always was. He tried it before, and it never helped. He thinks he was probably already beyond help when he was born.

* * *

Fifteen

“He’d learned a long time ago that great fighters are only good for one thing. Fighting. At pretty much everything else, and at waiting in particular, they’re fucking useless.”  –Joe Abercrombie

 

He says, “It’ll be EXTREME!”

He’s right, of course. And yet so very, very wrong.

“Brother, we’re not blowing up the base that we just started building. I have no idea why you’d want to do that; why do you want to do that?”

Ryouhei stares at Tsuna, incredulous. “Obviously to see what it can handle!”

Well. Obviously. “There has to be a better way.”

“This is the EXTREMEST WAY.”

“Okay, but—”

“Gokudera could use bombs! Cheer him right up!”

“What? Why does Gokudera-kun need cheering up?”

“Uh…”

“Why!?”

“Well, it’s nothing to get all freaked out about, I don’t know why he’s—”

What did you guys do!?

“You don’t need that machine Spanner made, anyway! It was a piece of crap!”

“Please not the laser.”

“Maybe.”

“You blew up. Spanner’s laser. After he’s been babbling about optical phased arrays—or whatever—for months.”

“Gokudera’s totally depressed about it. You ask me, it’s for the best! If it blew up that easy, it’s crap, and we don’t need it in our base!”

“Which is why you want to blow up the whole thing.”

“Exactly! Blow it up to the EXTREME! And then we’ll know what’s crap and what’s—oh, whoa, whoa, Sawada, you okay? Breathe, dude!”

* * *

In hyper mode, Tsuna loses all doubt.

The advantages to this are the same as the disadvantages, which is a problem most people can’t see. Basil can, of course, but what Tsuna’s learned about Basil is, he doesn’t have much respect for society’s rules at the best of times. Probably comes of being trained by Tsuna’s dad.

Of all his friends, Tsuna thinks Chrome might come the closest to understanding, shaped as she is by what other people want from her. He doesn’t dare mention it to her, though. He doesn’t dare start a conversation about regret with Chrome.

The advantage and disadvantage to hyper mode is that when he’s in it, Tsuna acts with the total, blind conviction of a fanatic. He’s the temporary leader of cult Tsunayoshi. A horrific enough shock will kick him out of it—he’s still himself, and he is still making his own decisions. But he’s making those decisions in a vacuum; most of the things he usually cares about are tossed completely to the side. It’s disturbing.

It’s scary.

And now he’s facing a traitor. A man who worked for Ninth, but was selling information on the Vongola to an unknown triad in China. They’re going to have to change passwords, locks, safe houses; they’re going to have to recall a lot of people and relocate a lot of bases. They’re completely pulling out of China for the foreseeable future. There are already ten dead because of this man, though thankfully no one who worked for Tsuna.

A few people he knew, though.

He breathes in and feels very small and very young. By rights, Ninth should have taken care of this, but he didn’t. It officially became Tsuna’s responsibility once the traitor made it to Japan.

Gokudera, Yamamoto, and Dino all offered to handle this for him. Even Hibari offered, though that was less altruism and more blood lust. Tsuna refused, and Reborn supported him. They both know he can’t get into the habit of letting other people do his dirty work. Letting people shield him from the things he’s responsible for. That would be a very slippery, dangerous slope.

No, he’s the one responsible for the lives of his friends. He got them involved in the first place. He has to do this himself.

When he goes into hyper mode, he’ll kill this man. It’s a decision he made sober, calm, and careful, but he can’t actually do it without that perfect (terrible) conviction. He’ll feel weightless. Every limit society has ever placed on him will burn away, and the only thing left will be his will. (And Gokudera whispered to him once, Thy will be done.) He’ll throw away the world.

And he’ll murder someone.

When he comes out of hyper mode, it takes a while for his socialization to settle back to normal levels. Sometimes hours, sometimes days. Sometimes he wakes up crying in the middle of the night a week after the fact, horrified by what he’s done, what he’s had to do. By how little he cared at the time.

It’ll be no different this time. Today he’ll be grimly satisfied, but eventually it will occur to him that he never wanted this job, that no one should live like this, that he’s fifteen years old and has a body count of two. He can already feel the horror, though it doesn’t quite belong to him yet. He’s waiting for it; it’s waiting for him.

The scariest thing is that the gap between dying will Tsuna and everyday Tsuna is getting narrower all the time. People say it’s good to be sure of yourself, but they don’t mean sure the way dying will means sure. Society imposes restrictions for a reason. There are reasons people don’t normally live like they have nothing to lose.

Where will it stop? Will he even notice when he’s gone too far? Will anyone dare—or, in Reborn’s case, bother—to tell him?

He wonders if Giotto ever worried about this. Maybe not. Tsuna gets the impression that Giotto was always insanely confident, dying will or no. Forever the leader of cult Giotto, and look what came of that. The creation of the Vongola: a hundred years of crime, murder, and pain. Giotto meant it for the best. Just like Tsuna; Tsuna always means things for the best, too.

Tsuna’s scared. He’s terrified, but there’s no way he can stand back and let this man go free. Look what happened when Giotto spared Daemon Spade.

No alternative. No choice.

“Prepare yourself,” he says. The man scowls, but Tsuna isn’t talking to him. Tsuna’s trying not to even think about him. About who he is, what drove him to this, whether there’s someone he’s trying to protect or avenge. No. Tsuna closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, he’s looking through flame.

And he doesn’t understand what he was so worried about, before.

* * *

Sixteen

“We’re all image. Signs tacked up in empty air. That’s why we respect each other’s illusions.”  –Haruki Murakami

 

She says, “I don’t want to be in the way.”

He says, “Actually, Chrome, I mean. I’d kind of prefer it if you did get in the way sometimes, because then at least I’d know where you were. Um, maybe that. Didn’t make sense. I mean—”

She smiles, and in one of her unpredictable, uncomfortably intimate gestures, reaches out to gently run her fingers down his cheek. “Thank you, Boss,” she says lightly, as if something’s funny. As if he is. But funny or not, she needs to know he’s serious.

The base is mostly finished: a safe place for Tsuna’s family, or as safe as it’s possible to be. Now all he has to do is convince his stubborn guardians to use it.

“I mean it, Chrome. We never see you. Not that you have to be around! If you don’t want to be. But if you do—I mean, you’re always welcome.”

She’s frowning at him now. “But Ken and Chikusa,” she says, as if that explains everything. Maybe it does.

Tsuna thinks that what he needs is more practice. He could understand Chrome better if he got more practice at it. But she’s never around, and he doesn’t want to put any kind of pressure on her to be around, because that might make her unhappy, which is absolutely the last thing he wants.

It’s hard to know what he can do for her. If anything.

“Okay,” he agrees. “Ken and Chikusa. They can come too, you know. Because you…please don’t ever think you’re in the way. That’s impossible. This is your home.”

She blinks. “But…”

He reaches out and grabs her hands. “This is your home. We built a room just for you, and it’s yours. Yours. You can do whatever you want with it, you can keep everyone out or let anyone in, you can paint the walls purple with green polka dots. We can put in extra rooms for Ken and Chikusa if you want them. This place is yours, too. You’re my family.”

“Until,” she says, “I’m weak. Then I’ll hurt you, Boss. I’ll hurt you again. And Mukuro-sama…”

Tsuna’s hands tighten slightly on hers. Her bones feel like a bird’s, impossibly delicate, impossibly light. Surprisingly efficient. “It doesn’t matter. You’re still family. Anyway, that was one time. One time two years ago, and Da—” she doesn’t react well to that name “—that guy was a special case. You won’t run into anything like that again.”

“And if I do?” she asks, clear-eyed, straightforward, daring him to throw her away.

Begging him to.

They’ve done this dance a hundred times over the last two years. Chrome thinks she’s going to wear him down, but she won’t. Tsuna will keep it up as long as she needs him to.

“Then we’ll get you back,” he insists. “The same as last time.”

She studies him for a moment, then abruptly twists her hands, easily breaking his hold on them. She must have practiced that. Tsuna’s proud of her; Tsuna wants to cry for her. The normal state of affairs with Chrome.

“You can’t be weaker than I was,” he insists. “I know you’re nothing like that weak. If you need to be stronger, that’s no big deal. I’ll help.”

“You trust people too much, Boss,” she murmurs. “Too many people.”

He says, “I’m not wrong to trust you.”

She smiles at him, bright and sweet, slightly pitying. “That’s why Mukuro-sama likes you so much.”

He has absolutely no idea what to make of that.

* * *

It’s spring, and there seems to be an undue amount of academic panicking going on. Kurokawa has declared that now is the time to start thinking about college, that entrance exams begin here, so on and so forth. Tsuna thinks she’s ahead of her game, but it’s pretty amazing that she’s managed to drag everyone else down with her. All anybody talks about these days are rankings, tests, cram schools.

“How many funerals have we been to this year?” Tsuna asks idly, watching one of Kurokawa’s friends frantically flipping through a notebook and hyperventilating. Tsuna suspects they may have a test today. He wonders which subject it’s in.

“Five,” Gokudera answers, staring belligerently in the same direction. “And it’s only June.”

“Haha! That’s not fair, you guys,” Yamamoto says.

“How is it not fair!?”

“I don’t even remember what it’s like.” It’s creeping Tsuna out. “It’s only been two years, and I can’t remember.”

“Two years, huh?” Yamamoto’s gazing at nothing, smiling his default smile. “Feels longer than that, doesn’t it? Like this is how it’s always been.”

“Yeah, well, for some of us, this is how it’s always been,” Gokudera snaps, but the look he gives Yamamoto is uneasy.

Yamamoto catches the look, and his smile warms from habitual to happy. “That’s not true.”

Gokudera ducks his head. “Whatever,” he says. “Fine. Things are actually looking up for me, that what you wanted to hear?”

Yamamoto beams.

“Jackass,” Gokudera mutters.

Tsuna’s just starting to relax, just starting to think, I’m not so weird, at least I still understand Yamamoto and Gokudera—which, if he’d really been thinking, would have terrified him on its own—when someone actually bursts into tears over a textbook. Over this test they’re probably taking today.

Bursts into tears.

“I don’t understand them,” Tsuna murmurs, disturbed. “They don’t even seem real.”

Yamamoto laughs. “Maybe they’re not.”

“And you’re a freak,” Gokudera declares. “Never speak again. Holy shit, you are so fucking creepy sometimes.”

Tsuna thinks Yamamoto is probably just messing with them, at this point.

* * *

Seventeen

“I took her by the hand and smiled the bravest smile I ever smiled and it was real, even though it might not have been one hundred percent sane.”  –Meg Rosoff

 

She says, “If you ever leave us behind—again!—we will never forgive you. And I know you think you won’t mind that, but, Tsuna-san, you have no idea. It’s going to be an active lack of forgiveness. And we won’t stop there. We’ll follow you wherever you go, and you won’t be prepared, and we’ll end up dying. It’ll be messy and horrible and all your fault.”

“I don’t think,” he says carefully, “that it would actually be my fault, Haru.”

“You’ll blame yourself anyway,” she announces with a triumphant smile, decisively folding her arms.

Unfortunately, she’s right. “Why do you even want to come along? If I could get out of these things, I would!”

“Yes, but that’s you. You have no sense of adventure.”

“Wha—”

“Besides, I’ve seen what happens when we leave you boys on your own. People end up in jail, that’s what happens. Last time you ran off, you had to break Kyoko-chan’s brother out of jail!

“I know, but that was—”

“Chrome-chan didn’t speak for a month!”

And Enma didn’t speak for six months, but Haru doesn’t know that any more than she knows the name Daemon Spade. It’s possibly not the moment to bring any of that up. “I know. I know, but that wasn’t—”

“She spoke the whole time when we were around!”

“Yes, but—”

“Yamamoto-san tried to cripple himself like an idiot!”

“Haru, nobody can control Yamamoto.”

She tips her head to the side thoughtfully. “Reborn-chan?”

“I doubt it.”

“Hm,” Haru allows. “But I’m right about the rest of it!”

Tsuna studies Haru’s determined face. She’s serious about this. He’s pretty sure she’s not giving him her honest reasons, but she’s definitely serious. And that’s a problem.

“Haru,” he says, “this life is…there’s no reason to involve you in this.”

She scowls at him. “Then find me a reason, or I’ll learn poison cooking from Bianchi-san.”

Tsuna says, “Ah.”

“Kyoko-chan and I agreed we’d wait until high school was over. But once it is, Tsuna-san, you’d better find us jobs. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with the guilt of our horrible deaths forever.”

“Haru—”

“Forever and ever and I will haunt you so hard—”

“Okay. Okay!” Tsuna yelps. “Fine!”

And once again he has caved. This is exactly why he questions the sanity of people who think he’s boss material.

“Kyoko-chan’s brother is going to hear about this,” Tsuna informs Haru. “And then he’s going to kill me. And you’ll have to live with the guilt of my horrible death.”

She says, “I think I can handle it.”

Tsuna should nominate Haru for boss. She can be boss, he can make coffee or file paperwork or something. Everyone will be happy.

The more he thinks about it, the more that seems like a perfectly reasonable idea.

* * *

This is not, Tsuna reflects, their best fight ever. It wasn’t their best fight even before the bombs, but now it’s become…well, not their worst fight. No one’s died. But probably their most embarrassing one, inasmuch as they, nominally the scariest of all mafiosi, are currently hiding in an especially dubious corner of Parco Verde, huddled between a giant pile of trash bags with some kind of mold growing on them and a ratty couch with some kind of rodent living in it.

The ground is damp, vaguely orange, and smells weird. Tsuna hopes never to find out why. The graffiti up above them reads POLIZIA—PRIMO NEMICO, but actually, just this once, Tsuna wouldn’t mind running into some police.

“Yamamoto,” he says. “Stop laughing.”

“I’m not laughing,” Yamamoto snickers.

“Yes, you are. We could still die, you know. We could die at any moment, and you’re laughing.”

“Well…at least…we’ll look happy when Ryouhei finds us?”

“That is just—Gokudera. Oh my God, Gokudera. Stop laughing.”

“Sorry!” Gokudera gasps. “I’m sorry, Tenth! It’s just, it’s just…”

“Tsuna, he tried to kill us with Hello Kitty dolls.”

“He almost did kill us with Hello Kitty dolls! Hello Kitty dolls with bombs in them. Would that have been funny!?”

“…Yes.”

“Yamamoto!”

“Smiling, happy death,” Chrome coos, smoothing out a scrap of charred cloth that might once have been a Hello Kitty face. And then, in Mukuro’s voice, “Is that an observation, or a philosophy?” And then in Chrome’s, “Both.”

They don’t need to speak aloud when they’re talking to each other, obviously. They do it, Chrome once explained, so that other people can follow the conversation. Otherwise, she said, it would be rude.

God, Tsuna is tired of this day.

“He’s back,” Gokudera hisses, peering over the arm of the infested couch. All four of them—five if you count Mukuro—quiet down, hold still, and act serious.

For all of thirty seconds.

“And this time,” Gokudera continues in a strained, trying-his-damndest-not-to-laugh tone of voice, “he’s got…Care Bears.”

“Very international!” Yamamoto says brightly.

“He’s from Italy, he’s in Italy. Why the hell isn’t he using anything Italian?” Gokudera snaps, amusement overwhelmed by irritation. “At least throw me a Molotov cocktail in a limoncello bottle, asshole! Have a little pride in your culture, Christ.”

“Um, Gokudera? I think Molotov cocktails are Russian.”

“Yamamoto, did I ask for your input?”

“Maybe they’re anthrax Care Bears,” Chrome puts in hopefully. “Do you think that would work?”

“Anthrax is not Italian.”

“We’re going to die here, aren’t we?” Tsuna asks mournfully. “We’re going to die, and it’s going to be stupid.”

* * *

Eighteen

“Eyes ready to believe that anything is possible but knowing, too, that nothing can be undone.”  –Roberto Bolaño

 

He says, “It’ll work, Tenth!” and Tsuna sighs.

“It’s not about whether it’ll work or not. It’s about the fact that using our allies as cannon fodder is wrong.”

Gokudera frowns. “Test subjects,” he corrects.

“Gokudera!”

“They can handle it!”

“Oh my God, that is not the point—

“It’s exactly the point! How do we know what they’re good for unless we test them?”

“The point is, you would never do this if you didn’t hate them. You’d never do this to the Shimon, or to Dino, or even to Longchamp. And that’s not fair.”

“…I don’t hate them.”

“Gokudera. Yes, you do.”

“If I did hate them, it might be because of the time they were supposed to be backing us up in Namimori and instead fucked off to goddamn Kobe and started a free-for-all for absolutely no reason that I could see, unless it was to piss off the Yamaguchi-gumi, who barely knew we existed before that. But I don’t hold a grudge!”

Tsuna lets his head fall to gently thud against his desktop.

“I don’t, Tenth! I just want to check and see if they’ll pull that shit all the time, or if that really was…what did they call it? An ‘accident.’”

Tsuna lifts his head up enough to prop his chin in his hand and study Gokudera. Who. Okay. Actually makes a good point.

He’s also wearing his glasses, which means he’s been awake for so long that his eyes couldn’t stand contacts anymore. Plus, he seems to be under the impression that glasses hide the dark circles, and Tsuna doesn’t have the heart to tell him he’s wrong. What all that means is that Gokudera’s not as blasé about this as he’s pretending to be. He’s agonizing over it.

So.

“We don’t have to kill them to test them, you know. Testing them to death seems like it would defeat the purpose.”

“If this kills them, they’re worthless. If they run, they’re worthless. Best to know now. Best to know before our lives depend on it.”

Gokudera loves the family. He values people who are firmly allied with the family. He sets drastically less importance on the lives of strangers, let alone potential enemies. It worries Tsuna, sometimes.

“Remember,” Tsuna says, “how angry Enma was when he thought our family had done this exact thing to his family a hundred years ago.”

Gokudera shakes his head firmly. “It’s not the same.” Which is true, if only because that was actually the least of Enma’s problems with the Vongola. But still. “We’re telling them flat out that they’re doing this on their own. We are telling them no reinforcements. It’s not a betrayal, it’s just a tough request. They can take it or leave it.”

“I’d leave it,” Tsuna points out.

“At least you’d be honest,” Gokudera insists.

“So it’s okay if they refuse…but not okay if they accept but don’t go through with it?”

“Right.”

“And how are they meant to work that out?”

“They’re not meant to work it out. They’re meant to do what comes naturally, and then we’ll know what they’re like.”

“Gokudera…if they actually do go and then get themselves killed…”

Gokudera sighs an extraordinarily put-upon sigh. “Well, Yamamoto and I can follow them, I guess. We can take Lambo and I-Pin; I haven’t seen what they can do for a while. And you might mention it to Hibari; it’s his territory anyway.”

Tsuna folds his arms on top of his desk and tucks his chin behind them to hide a smile. “So now we’re telling them we’re not sending backup, but we actually are sending backup?”

Gokudera scowls at him. “I’m telling you, they’ll run.”

“What does Yamamoto say?”

“Why would I have talked to Yamamoto about this!?”

Because he talks to Yamamoto about everything. “Mm. What does Yamamoto say?”

Gokudera sighs and collapses into the seat across from Tsuna. Finally. A little less Right Hand Man, a little more Gokudera Hayato. Tsuna’s friend. “Whatever,” Gokudera huffs. “He says they’re not that bad. He says that about everybody, though, including people who’ve tried to gut him. His opinion counts for shit.”

“Mizuno’s never going to live that down with you, is he?” Tsuna murmurs. Gokudera just looks at him. Hah. It makes it strangely easier for Tsuna to forgive Kaoru, knowing for a fact that Gokudera never will. “We’ll try it your way. With backup.”

Gokudera sits up and beams.

Tsuna tends to agree with Gokudera’s plans more and more often as time goes by. This either means that Gokudera is mellowing, or that Tsuna’s spent so much time motivated by dying will that he’s irrevocably skewed his moral compass. He’s counting on Yamamoto and Kyoko to keep track for him.

“Lawn Head won’t like it,” Gokudera points out, and he’s right. Ryouhei doesn’t like gray areas. Tsuna should probably be relying on him to be the moral compass, but. Well.

“Probably not.”

“He’ll argue. What are we telling him?”

“That you and I agree on this.”

“And we agreed all along, huh?”

“Gokudera, everyone knows we’ve never had a moment of disagreement about anything. Ever.”

They gaze at each other across the desk with very serious expressions.

Gokudera breaks and starts laughing first.

* * *

The funny thing, Tsuna thinks, is that if Ryouhei were to ask him to join the boxing club now, he would be all over that. These days, he spends more time with his punching bag than he does with his mother. They have a relationship. A blood bond, in fact, courtesy split knuckles.

He could wear gloves to do this. He could tape his hands, at least. But really, really. Where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, it’s nice to be free of the gloves. Nice to see his actual hands, every now and again.

This isn’t the most helpful kind of training he could be doing, he knows. He could be sparring with Hibari. He could be practicing with his gloves. He could be spending time with Spanner and Giannini, working on technical improvements. Any of those things would be more useful than beating the crap out of a completely indifferent bag of sawdust. (Gokudera vetoed sand as a filling. “Tenth,” he said, “you will break your hands.”)

Any of those things would be more useful, but they would all require thinking. Tsuna is not in the mood for thinking. He’s really come to appreciate the therapeutic value of beating the hell out of inanimate objects.

Soothing, repetitive, mindless. Thump-thump, thump, thump-thump. Keep at it long enough, and you stop properly registering pain. It’s just a low burn, spreading from knuckles to wrists, forearms to biceps, traveling over his shoulders and down his back, until his whole body is on fire, but not properly hurting anymore. And once he gets to that point, he can just keep going until he drops.

He knows he’ll be feeling this for days. He doesn’t care.

He might, he reflects, be growing into a slightly strange adult.

The reason he’s attacking the punching bag is that this week, he let four of the youngest Vongola get themselves killed. They were only fifteen. Just kids. And he sent them out alone.

They were only three years younger than Tsuna, of course, and actually a year older than he was when he became the Vongola successor. Years older than Lambo and I-Pin. But still…they’d seemed so much younger.

Now they won’t get any older.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

He’d sent them to negotiate with a low-level Cosa Nostra boss. The boss had been taking construction contracts in Vongola territory, but Tsuna had thought it was a mistake—or at least, he’d thought the boss would pretend it had been. He’s Cosa Nostra, for God’s sake, not Camorra. Tsuna had expected reasonable behavior. He’d expected the job to be easy for his Vongola-trained kids.

Instead, they died.

Thump-thump.

Tsuna is going to take that family down. All of them. He’s going to find every single person responsible, and he’s going to kill them with his own hands. He will. He will.

…God, he’s thinking about killing other human beings like it’s fun, he’s looking forward to it.

What happened to me?

And really. Really, if he plans to kill everyone responsible, shouldn’t he start closer to home?

Thump. Thump.

Shouldn’t he start with the person who sent a bunch of baby mafiosi to negotiate with a hostile boss in the first place?

Thump-thump. Thump.

Don’t worry, Gokudera, he remembers that jackass saying. It’s not a dangerous job. It’ll be good practice for them.

Thump.

That jackass, Sawada Tsunayoshi. Always knows best. Trust me, I’m the boss. I know what I’m doing, hyper confidence! Loser Tsuna? Never heard the name.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump.

Ah, he’s bleeding again. He punches twice more in the same spot, once with the bleeding right, once with the sound left. It makes an interesting splatter pattern. He’ll have to clean that up before Gokudera or Yamamoto sees it, because Yamamoto will get that scary, stern look, and Gokudera—

“Tenth. Stop it.”

Gokudera has been spending too much time with Yamamoto, clearly, because he’s got his arms wrapped around Tsuna and is dragging him bodily away from the punching bag. There was a time, Tsuna thinks wistfully, when Gokudera wouldn’t have dared touch his boss so casually. Whatever happened to that?

“You’ve got to stop this,” he’s saying, holding Tsuna across the chest, pinning his arms to his sides, frog-marching him toward the door. “It wasn’t your fault. Everything that goes wrong is not your fault.”

This coming from Gokudera. Haha.

“You told me not to send them,” Tsuna reminds him in a voice rough as if he’s been screaming. Which is strange. He hasn’t been screaming.

Has he?

“Yeah, I did at first. But I didn’t argue with you much because I thought you were probably right and I was being paranoid. Which means your point was valid. You couldn’t have known.”

“Maybe not. They’re still dead.”

Gokudera releases Tsuna outside the practice room, but keeps a wary eye on him while he slides the door shut.

No point, really. Tsuna’s not going anywhere. Now that Gokudera’s made him stop, he’s noticed that he’s aching and gasping, sweating and shivering. He’s exhausted.

This is why he shouldn’t stop when he’s in the middle of something. It’s only when he stops that he realizes what he was doing was impossible.

It’s a strange thing; Gokudera spent his childhood running full tilt, convinced that if he slowed down, he’d crash. Tsuna started to understand how that felt around the same time Gokudera finally stopped running. They’re always out of synch, but Tsuna thinks that’s why they get along so well now. Each in a position to understand the other.

Gokudera seizes the back of his shirt and pushes him toward the baths, steering with an occasional shoulder nudge.

Very Yamamoto. It’s pretty funny.

“This is ridiculous,” he’s saying indignantly. “You’ve got to be destroying your hands. Just wait until Sasagawa sees this. For God’s sake, too much piano playing will fuck up your hands, and you’re spending hours beating the crap out of them. What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to have arthritis by the time you’re forty, Tenth!”

Tsuna doesn’t say any of the horrible things that cascade through his mind in response to that. Instead he says, “Gokudera, you can’t save me from myself.”

“Why, you think you’ve cornered the market on that?” Gokudera snaps back, grim and bleak. “Watch me.”

Tsuna laughs and lets his head fall back onto Gokudera’s shoulder out of sheer weakness.

“Okay,” he breathes. “Okay.”

* * *

Nineteen

“There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help.”  –W. Somerset Maugham

 

He says, “If it keeps up like this, there’ll be another drug war in Campania by next month.”

Sawada Iemitsu, serious and grim. And so…professional. Completely unlike the father Tsuna once thought he knew. He wonders if Mom’s ever seen Dad like this.

She probably has.

“I thought Ninth was supposed to handle this,” Tsuna says. It may not be particularly friendly, but it’s true. Ninth should be handling this. Ninth should handle a lot of things that Tsuna seems to end up handling.

The older he gets, the more he wonders about Ninth. How has he managed to survive this long? That kind of thing.

Dad responds with a somewhat frightening smile. “He finds himself in need of help. Will you refuse to help?”

Great, now Tsuna’s own father is handing him oblique threats. How is this his life? “Of course I’ll help.” He wouldn’t need to if Ninth would just do his job, but here they are. “What kind of help does he have in mind?”

Dad launches into a list of allies, enemies, and possible weak points. Gokudera is listening intently and taking notes, so Tsuna tunes out and just watches for a while.

Dad never looks as happy as he does when he’s talking about the mafia. Oh, he’s all smiles at home. Cheerful, friendly. But he’s not happy; he’s not really paying attention to what’s going on around him. The mafia seems to be his whole life. It doesn’t seem like a life much worth living to Tsuna.

Of course, he and his dad have pretty much the same job; the difference is that Dad enjoys it and Tsuna doesn’t. It’s obvious which of them is the more failed human being.

Dad slides a blue folder across the conference table to Gokudera, who flips it open. Tsuna peers over his shoulder. Faces, names and aliases, affiliations, last known locations. Dear God, it’s a hit list.

It’s always struck Tsuna as surreal that everyone treats this line of work exactly like a business. Desks, meetings, paperwork. So what if the corporate espionage sometimes involves semi-automatics? Just like business, only louder.

No, not like business. It is business. It’s business with every restriction, legal or moral, stripped away. Business at its rock-bottom ugliest and worst. The absolute triumph of capitalism.

And Tsuna’s father is a very successful evil businessman.

“We’ll take care of it,” Gokudera says firmly, nodding to Yamamoto. Yamamoto nods back. Later on, Tsuna’s going to have to remind them both what he is and is not willing to let his family do for the benefit of the Ninth.

“That’s everything, then,” Tsuna decides, before anyone else has time to bring up something awful. “Thank you. Haru?”

“I’ll have your plane tickets by next week,” she says, smiling. With any luck, she’s forgotten that he was supposed to give her the receipts from the last trip, um, a month ago.

Who does he think he’s kidding? She never forgets anything.

“Next week,” Tsuna agrees, and resolves to go looking for those receipts before he leaves or Haru kills him, whichever comes first.

Everyone sits back and sighs; people start packing up.

“What about you, Dad?” Tsuna asks. “Are you staying in Japan for a while? Mom misses you.” This is Tsuna’s ongoing Dad experiment. He doesn’t know why he keeps doing it; no matter how many times he sees the results, he still doesn’t know what they mean.

Dad turns sharply, every inch the intimidating mafioso—then he smiles, slumps, and the entire impression changes. From assassin to goofball. “Worrying about your old parents?” he asks jovially. “Such a good son! But stop it, kiddo. Plenty to worry about besides us, huh?”

And with that, he leaves, to take the most charitable interpretation. Tsuna’s inclined to think he’s actually more…running away.

“Why does he do that?” Gokudera asks, baffled and annoyed.

Tsuna shakes his head. “I don’t know. But I’m going to figure it out.”

* * *

Tsuna cries at the funeral. He honestly hadn’t thought he would.

It’s the funeral of Timoteo, Ninth Boss of the Vongola. The Ninth, who used and manipulated and trapped Tsuna and all of his friends. The Ninth; the main reason Tsuna is living this life.

But as he throws a flower into the grave, onto the casket, all he can remember is a smiling man with gentle hands and a soft voice who made Tsuna laugh.

People are never only one thing. People are never all good or all bad. Tsuna wishes he could train himself not to see it.

Xanxus is here today. Tsuna had wondered if he’d come. He’s surrounded by his Varia, who for once look more like a shield around him than a pack of wild dogs. Xanxus himself seems to be mid-nightmare. Tsuna wonders what it feels like, to attend the funeral of a father who loved you and imprisoned you, a father you twice tried to kill.

Well. Like a nightmare, apparently.

The Varia may become a problem, with Ninth gone. There’s not much Tsuna can do about it right now, though, apart from watch and wait. It’s tomorrow’s problem; he hopes it won’t be tomorrow’s disaster.

Someone steps up beside him, interrupting his brooding. He’s surprised, because his new…status means that people don’t usually stand beside him; they stand behind. He turns, expecting Gokudera or Yamamoto.

It’s his dad. His dad, who’s crying, too, though he’s trying to pretend he’s not. Tsuna’s never seen him cry. Dad’s not normally big on showing honest emotions.

“What are you going to do now?” Tsuna asks abruptly, mind still half on the Varia, question out before he weighs it. Before he stops to think how cruel it might be.

Dad’s eyes go wide with hurt for just a second before he looks away and smiles like someone who’s never taken a single thing seriously. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says lightly. “Retire?”

Oh.

In his entire life, Tsuna has never once been able to read this man, but for some reason, this one time, he knows exactly what Dad’s thinking. He wants to be Tsuna’s outside advisor. He wants to stay.

But he won’t ask. He won’t ask because he won’t be able to handle it if Tsuna says no.

It makes no sense, it makes no sense. He’s hardly had anything to do with Tsuna, he hardly knows Tsuna, and now he wants to work with him? That’s crazy, and Tsuna tries to talk himself out of thinking it’s possible, but…

But he knows. He knows, because this is exactly the way he’d behave in the same situation. He must have…gotten it from his dad. Which is the weirdest idea.

“I was hoping,” Tsuna says distantly, “that you’d stay for a while.” He hadn’t been hoping anything of the kind, but he can make himself. “I mean, if you want to retire, I won’t try to stop you, but. At least finish training Basil to take over for you?”

Dad’s looking at him, but Tsuna is staring into the grave. He can’t look back. It’s too scary to think he just deliberately made his dad’s day the way he does with the people who work for him, because that would mean, what, that Dad is one of his people, and that’s just. That’s too much, on top of everything. His own dad should see right through him, the way Reborn does. Shouldn’t he?

“Maybe I’ll stick around then, kid,” Dad says quietly, and Tsuna can hear the happiness in his voice. “For a while.” Tsuna closes his eyes and nods, listens to Dad walk away. He doesn’t open them again until he hears someone else coming.

Enma. The irony of having to deal with those two one after the other while standing above the Ninth’s corpse is not lost on Tsuna.

“Tsuna-kun,” Enma says, polite, impassive, slightly bitter or maybe just sad. The same as always. “Congratulations.”

There’s no good way to respond to that, but then, Enma doesn’t seem to expect a response. He studies the casket with his hands in his pockets and keeps talking quietly, almost to himself. “So you’re the boss after all. Even though you never wanted to be.”

“I wouldn’t be,” Tsuna points out, carefully stripping any emotion from his voice, “if it weren’t for you.”

Enma flinches, and Tsuna instantly feels horribly guilty. “Anyway,” he continues hastily, “that was years ago.”

“Five years ago,” Enma agrees.

“…That long?”

“Mm.” Enma pulls a slightly crushed flower from his pocket. A white rose; strange choice. He twirls it in his fingers a few times, ignoring the thorns, then tosses it down onto the casket. A white rose and a little Shimon blood. He didn’t do that deliberately, did he? “I met you five years ago today.”

Happy anniversary, Tsuna thinks, slightly hysterical. This is Enma’s problem: this, right here. Why does he keep track of things like that? A memory that good could make a person crazy.

“I’m surprised we’ve survived this long,” Tsuna says, and it’s true, but he immediately realizes it was a really stupid thing to have brought up.

“I wouldn’t have survived,” Enma murmurs, “if not for you.”

The way he says it, Tsuna doesn’t know if he should answer you’re welcome or I’m sorry. He looks away, around, for inspiration. He doesn’t find any.

He does notice that the priest is starting to look annoyed that they’re still standing there. In fact, the priest seems to have very limited patience with mafiosi in general. Tsuna doesn’t blame him.

Enma must notice the priest, too—or at least, he turns and walks off before Tsuna has a chance to say anything. Which is just as well. Tsuna has no idea what he should have said.

Something. He should have said something. But he didn’t.

The real tragedy of the Vongola and Shimon is the tragedy of missed connections, lost chances, avoidable sadness. Maybe they should just stay away from each other. Maybe it would be less painful that way.

At least Enma didn’t call him Decimo.

Tsuna turns away from the grave, too, and walks briskly to his own people, his own friends, his own guardians. To the people who know him, and don’t expect him to be anything other than himself.

He passes Reborn, who tips his hat with an odd sort of respect that Tsuna doesn’t have the energy to try to understand. He nods back and keeps walking.

That’s enough failed graveside diplomacy for one day. Tsuna now plans to go back to the villa, get drunk, and cry on Yamamoto’s shoulder until he passes out.

He can start being Vongola X tomorrow.

* * *

Twenty

“Brod keeps her own life a secret from herself. Like Yankel, she repeats things until they are true, or until she can’t tell whether they are true or not.”  –Jonathan Safran Foer

 

He says, “Ah, Tsuna. You worry too much.”

He can say that, but it’s an anniversary day, and whatever he did—whatever Byakuran did—wasn’t perfect. It’s an anniversary day, and Yamamoto is hurting. He hurts every year.

Don’t worry. He says.

“I’m not worrying.”

Yamamoto throws his head back and laughs, almost as careless as ever, but…just a little cautious, today. Tsuna can smell wine on his breath. A red; a Taurasi, maybe, or a Lacryma Christi, knowing Yamamoto. Self-medicating with Italy. He always has felt the power of symbolism more than Tsuna.

“Tsuna, you’re always worrying,” he says, fond and easy. “You and Hayato. Stress is bad for you, you know.”

Tsuna and Gokudera conspired together on this, as they do every year. No matter what, Yamamoto finds he has nothing to do on an anniversary day. And he has either Tsuna or Gokudera—ideally, both, though it was impossible this year—to spend it with him.

They’re trying to protect him, which is, of course, ridiculous. They’re trying to keep him safe and whole, even though it’s years too late for that.

But he lets them try. He lets them; he knows what it means to them.

“It’s our job,” Tsuna says. “If we don’t worry, we won’t know who we are.”

Yamamoto laughs. Tsuna did mean it as a joke, even if he suspects that, for Gokudera, at least, it’s literally true.

“Well, you’ve got plenty to worry about even if you stop worrying about me. Right?”

“Maybe. But we’re not going to stop worrying about you, so let that idea go.”

Yamamoto shakes his head fondly. “Have you ever counted all your scars, Boss?” he asks, a casual non-sequitur, leaning over to rummage around in his top desk drawer until he finds the baseball he keeps there.

He says not to worry, and then he says these really worrying things. “Counted? Um, no. Well, not since…”

“Since you were a kid, right?” Yamamoto smiles and tosses the baseball into the air, catches it. “I counted mine yesterday. Just, I don’t know. Because.”

Because he was in too much pain to focus on much else, probably. Tsuna frowns.

“You should try it sometime.”

“Why?” Tsuna asks, wondering where this is headed. Every once in while, Yamamoto will say something horribly profound, come out with a devastating life lesson. It’s always important, but it’s also always hard to figure out what he means. Tsuna’s never sure if Yamamoto knows quite what he means, himself.

“Oh, it’s funny. You remember getting every one, but there still seem to be a lot more than there should be.” He does a series of impossibly graceful tossing-and-catching tricks with the ball. “You know, I tried to count Hayato’s once.” Toss, catch, twirl, toss, catch. “Couldn’t do it. Too many. And with burns, sometimes you can’t tell where one ends and the next begins.”

Tsuna carefully accepts this, and all that it is. He silently promises Yamamoto that once he understands what it means, he’ll try to help.

Apart from anything else, he knows this is probably the most romantic thing he’ll ever hear Yamamoto say. It’s sad and beautiful and sick, but that’s true of most of the last six years.

“Hey, the Hanshin Tigers are playing the Red Sox today,” Yamamoto announces in an abrupt shift of mood, tone, and posture. He tucks the baseball back into its drawer and closes it. “Pre-season. Want to watch?”

“Will it be a good game?” Tsuna asks, refusing to let his voice waver or catch. If Yamamoto can do this, so can he.

“Mm, maybe not, but the fans are crazy.”

“Okay.” Tsuna’s smile is only slightly stiff. “Let’s watch the crazy fans.”

* * *

Someone has stolen the Lightning box weapon, or at least, that’s the working theory. Not that Tsuna will be remotely surprised if it turns out that Lambo just forgot it in, say, a candy store.

Hibari, though, in a curious show of confidence in Lambo, is certain that it was indeed stolen. He’s even picked out a likely perpetrator, assigned him a laundry list of additional crimes against order, and proposed hunting him down and killing him immediately. Tsuna hasn’t seen any evidence, per se, of any of this, but that’s not slowing Hibari down at all. He’s in his this-man-is-guilty-of-something mode.

This is a sign that Hibari is bored and Tsuna really needs to find him something to do. Most of the time, Hibari keeps himself occupied, but it can be a real disaster when he doesn’t.

“We’re not killing him,” Tsuna says calmly.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking you control me, Sawada Tsunayoshi,” Hibari says, equally calmly.

“Don’t think I’ll let you get away with mouthing off to the Tenth, asshole,” Gokudera says. Not calmly at all. Hibari looks mildly interested, as he always does when there’s a fight in the offing.

Yamamoto laughs and Tsuna sighs. “Hibari-san, I’m saying it’s not a good idea to kill him. We’re not sure he’s responsible. Please wait until we’re sure.”

“You herbivores are always so worried about the lives of every other herbivore,” Hibari drawls, deadpan disgusted.

“He’ll always be there to be killed later,” Tsuna insists, a little queasy. “But death is a mistake you can’t fix. You can’t make up for it. You can’t change your mind later. Herbivore or not, I don’t like making mistakes, and I especially don’t like making irrevocable mistakes.”

They wait for Hibari to respond. They wait quite a while. Gokudera visibly chokes back any number of things he’d like to add.

And then Hibari, in a supremely disturbing gesture, bows slightly and leaves the room.

“…Whoa,” Yamamoto says, summing up Tsuna’s feelings nicely.

“That’s the Tenth for you,” Gokudera announces, satisfied. “So what are we going to do with the guy if he actually did all that stuff?”

I’ll feed him to Hibari. “Let’s figure out if he’s guilty before we start coming up with punishments, okay?”

“You got it, Tenth!” Gokudera turns to his computer screen with a dedicated vengeance, looking up…well, who knows?

Tsuna’s pleased with how that went. It’s hard to talk to Hibari and Gokudera at the same time; they want such different things from him. They want different sides of him.

Tsuna and Gokudera have recently changed leads when it comes to ruthlessness. They both know it, but Tsuna tries not to rub it in. (He vowed to stop using hyper mode as soon as he noticed. Predictably, that resolution didn’t last a week.) Hibari, on the other hand, finds Tsuna most interesting when he’s being ruthless.

It’s tricky to keep them both happy at once; a kind of sleight of hand. But Tsuna did it, and he even has an appreciative audience of one to witness his success.

Yamamoto, official manager of Gokudera, is smiling at him.

* * *

Twenty-One

“Why do you laugh? Is it because you hate the sound of laughing?”  –William Faulkner

 

He says, “You’re a fool, Sawada Tsunayoshi.”

“You’re welcome, Mukuro,” Tsuna sighs, gazing around at the soothing green lights and listening to the regular beeps of the machines in the base’s hospital room. “I’ll break you out of prison any time. How do you feel? Better, I’m guessing.”

Mukuro eyes him, suspicious and confused. Not a typical Mukuro expression at all. It’s very wrong to find it funny.

It would be funnier, of course, if Mukuro weren’t weak and washed out, almost swallowed by the too-white sheets of his bed. He looks horribly fragile. Ken and Chikusa swear he heals quickly; Tsuna hopes they’re right.

Tsuna knows this isn’t a particularly safe attitude, but he has trouble seeing Mukuro as a threat. After all, none of Mukuro’s mind-wandering chaos has ever harmed the Vongola in any way, and it just seems like…if he really wanted to take down the Vongola, he could have done it by now. He could at least have tried. Or, you know, refrained from going out of his way to help them.

Tsuna doubts that anyone really knows what Mukuro’s after. Mukuro least of all. Tsuna won’t underestimate a deadly, possibly hostile illusionist; that would be a terrible mistake. But he doesn’t feel the need to actively worry about him, either. For now.

“I had my own reasons for helping you escape,” Tsuna says. “I needed you free.”

Mukuro relaxes. He’s decided Tsuna’s just using him, and that, he’s comfortable with. He has a very warped view of personal relationships, and it makes Tsuna tired.

“Your own reasons, hm?” Mukuro murmurs, smiling faintly.

“I need another illusionist. I can’t ask Chrome to do this alone.”

“Yes, you always take good care of my dear Chrome, don’t you?”

As Gokudera will never forgive Kaoru for stabbing Yamamoto, so Mukuro will never forgive Tsuna for allowing Spade to capture Chrome.

“No,” Tsuna admits. “I try, but…no. I always let her down.”

Mukuro frowns, more off-balance than angry. He doesn’t know how to deal with honesty.

“I’ve tried to make sure she can take care of herself, instead. And now she can.” Tsuna would almost like to see what Chrome could do to Daemon Spade, at this point. Or he would if not for the lifelong nightmares that watching such a thing would undoubtedly cause.

Hibari would love to see it, though. Hibari would buy tickets. He’s spent years training Chrome to trash enemies, after all. And Chrome, in return, has spent years teaching Hibari to fight illusionists. Tsuna doesn’t plan to mention any of that to Mukuro, who may already know, in any case.

Mukuro narrows his eyes thoughtfully and considers Tsuna and his feeble justifications. Without sharing his judgment one way or another, he changes the subject. “Chrome mentioned that you wanted a mist type. But she couldn’t explain why, instead of using Fran or Mammon, you chose to break me out of prison.”

“Mammon says there’s no money in it. Fran says it’s against his principles.”

Mukuro blinks slowly. “Fran has principles?”

Tsuna shrugs. “It was a surprise to me.”

“What could you possibly want someone to do that would go against Fran’s…principles?

“Cross-dressing. He says the hat was bad enough. He’s never actually worn the hat, but apparently he remembers having to wear the hat. I don’t know. I figured you wouldn’t care; you’ve been sharing a body with Chrome for ages.”

Mukuro is staring, unreadable and a little unnerving. “Sawada Tsunayoshi. You broke me out of the highest security prison in the world so that I could cross-dress for you?”

Yes. No. Tsuna owes Chrome quite a bit, is the thing, and at this point, he owes Ken and Chikusa, too. And Chrome and Ken and Chikusa need Mukuro.

Besides, Tsuna’s never liked the idea of Mukuro being stuck in one of those vats. Mukuro is his Mist Guardian, and even in the unlikely event that he turns traitor, Tsuna would prefer to be betrayed by someone he hasn’t abandoned to float alone in a vat. If Mukuro betrayed him while trapped in there, well. That wouldn’t be so much betrayal as just vengeance.

Tsuna hates the idea of those vats, and, by logical extension, of the Vindice. They call themselves a police force, but Tsuna never agreed to support them or to live by their rules—whatever those rules are. Nor does he see that his family derives any particular benefit from their existence. That adds up to the Vindice being less police, and more the most powerful, unquestioned mafia family of all.

Tsuna likes to remind them sometimes that they don’t hold all the cards. He likes to remind them that he may eventually get tired of their so-called laws.

Reborn likes to remind Tsuna that this behavior will probably get them all killed. It’s a point of debate between them.

The cross-dressing isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse. Tsuna has reasons, but they’re confusing and at least half of them are irrational, and he doesn’t have the strength to go into it. Mukuro wouldn’t believe him anyway. So in response to the question, all he says is, “I guess.”

Then he settles back and waits for Mukuro to stop laughing. He expects it will take a while.

* * *

“We’re not doing anything until we know for sure,” Tsuna says. He feels like he spends a lot of time saying that.

“Yes, Boss,” Chrome answers meekly.

“That would be wrong. And dangerous. And wrong.”

“Okay, Boss.”

“This isn’t as funny as you think it is.”

“Boss,” she says, “it really, really is.”

Chrome has cheered up a lot in the months since Mukuro escaped. Compared to before, in fact, she’s positively giddy. If Tsuna had known this would happen, he would have engineered a prison break much sooner. And the cheer stays strong even when Mukuro mysteriously (disturbingly) vanishes for weeks without a word of warning. Well, presumably he’s still in touch with Chrome.

It’s nice to see Chrome happy. It’s really nice. But at the same time, the cheer can be sort of…not creepy, he wouldn’t say creepy. Unexpected, though. Scary, even.

At the moment, he and Chrome are sitting in a bar in Shinjuku, trying to act like a couple (with limited success), and trying to eavesdrop on the high-level yakuza two tables down (with rather more success). It’s not as easy as it would be in Italy, but it’s doable.

The yakuza in question is a member of the Goto-gumi, which has fallen on hard times. They split in two at one point, and were all but absorbed into the violent, unpredictable Kodokai. Now even the Kodokai has fallen on hard times. Both groups are wildly unpopular with the police, and their Yamaguchi-gumi overlords, though thriving themselves, are apparently unable or unwilling to rescue them. They’re falling apart, and flailing as they go.

And last week, Hibari encountered a lowly Goto-gumi member in Namimori, apparently intent on expanding territory. Whatever happened to that poor chinpira, Tsuna doesn’t know. He very much doubts the man ever managed to report back to his superiors.

His superiors, who must be desperate to try setting up shop in Namimori, of all places. Hibari was predictably outraged by the very idea, and dove into finding out who-why-how with single-minded ferocity. He got his answers in short order, but luckily for the greater Tokyo area, he was feeling too protective of Namimori to leave. So he demanded that Tsuna and Chrome take care of it.

He actually hunted them down and delegated the job to them by name. It was surreal. Tsuna was touched. Gokudera had a fit. Chrome started laughing and hasn’t really stopped since.

According to Hibari, Nakamura Seiji, the yakuza two tables down, is the mastermind of the Namimori expansion plan. According to Hibari, if they eliminate him, they eliminate the entire problem.

Tsuna spent around three hours convincing Gokudera that he and Chrome would be fine handling this on their own. After all, no once could plan an ambush if no one knew they were coming.

He spent the entire train ride to Tokyo convincing Chrome that they didn’t need to kill Nakamura, and also that they should try to firmly establish his guilt before they took him down, because Hibari’s rage-motivated information gathering wasn’t always as meticulous as, say, Gokudera’s or Basil’s. Chrome was shockingly resistant to (though amused by) both suggestions, but Tsuna wore her down in the end.

Tsuna’s only been to Tokyo twice before, once on a school trip. It’s distressingly telling, the places he’s been. All over southern Italy, but never far north—Naples, Palermo, Rome. He’s been to Yokohama and Kobe, Bangkok and Vladivostok. Select cities, and select parts of those cities. He only gets to see nice places when he’s not working. Or at least, that was true until now.

He’s been to Tokyo, but he’s never been to this bright, sparkling, lively section of Shinjuku before, and it’s making him nervous. Though it is, he thinks, oddly safe-feeling. Despite the yakuza in the room.

Chrome has clearly spent a lot of time in Tokyo, though Tsuna can’t imagine when or why, and she refuses to tell him. She effortlessly navigated her way here, and now she looks…not like she belongs, exactly. She never looks like she belongs anywhere. But she’s comfortably not-quite-present, as usual. As if she can only be seen out of the corner of the eye; as if she’s never inhabiting the same space as other people. She would make an amazing ninja.

Tsuna knows he’s meant to be eavesdropping, but he’s actually spent most of the evening trying to copy Chrome’s don’t-notice-me aura. He can’t get it right. It’s more than just posture, but she doesn’t seem to be using mist, so what is it? State of mind?

“There,” she whispers.

Nakamura is loudly complaining about poor business, useless underlings, and the cold welcome in a little pisshole of a town called Namimori.

Nice to have confirmation. It seems shockingly blatant, but then…Nakamura could be talking about any kind of business. He could be completely legitimate. After all, he has all of his fingers, no visible tattoos, and he’s wearing a suit. A real latter-day, keizai yakuza. The kind that makes the old gambler’s generation weep for the state of modern criminals.

“What do you think, Boss?”

“Heights,” Tsuna says. He thought about this on the train, in between quiet arguments with Chrome. It should work whether Nakamura has a specific phobia or not. Everyone has a little bit of a problem with heights. Especially unexpected heights.

“Okay,” Chrome whispers, staring intently at Nakamura.

Who leaps to his feet, knocking his chair over, and starts screaming hysterically.

“Edge of a cliff,” Chrome informs Tsuna, “that’s crumbling away.”

Tsuna shudders. Yeah. Everybody has enough of a problem with heights for that illusion to bother them. And most people have no defense against this kind of attack.

So there’s a man backing across the room screaming, smacking people violently out of his way in a panic. This isn’t Kabukicho or even Ikebukuro; someone’s bound to call the police soon. It should make their day when they see who they’re picking up for public disturbance. Once they take him in, they’ll find enough on him to hold him for months, if not years. By that time, with luck, he’ll have forgotten all about Namimori.

If he hasn’t, well. They’ll have to do this again. Chrome’s way next time.

In the midst of the commotion, Tsuna and Chrome disappear—from sight, at least. They have to stick around long enough to make sure Nakamura actually gets arrested. Otherwise, Hibari will maim them.

* * *

Twenty-Two

Sophie: You will not be afraid of all those rough men?
Clarissa: No. As far as I have seen, apart from mere brute strength they are no more formidable than we are. Less so, indeed, since most have that dog-does-not-bite-bitch rule deeply engrained, while nothing of that kind applies to us.   –Patrick O’Brian

 

She says, “Tsu-kun! I have good news.”

She’s speaking in a curiously soft voice. Despite her claims of good news, this is not a good sign. “…I’m glad to hear it.”

“No one’s infiltrated the Chiavarone family after all. Romario-san and I are sure of it. So we can stop worrying about that.”

“That’s a relief.” It is a relief, though it would be more of a relief if Kyoko weren’t whispering.

“Um, I also have some bad news.”

Here it comes. “Oh?”

“Well…someone has infiltrated the Tomaso family.”

Oh. Shit. “Kyoko, you were staying with the Tomaso family.”

“Yes, I know. The infiltrator is calling himself Nunzio, he may be from the Nuvoletta clan. He’s, oh, slightly taller than Gokudera-kun, dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, a diagonal scar through his left eyebrow. Dresses badly, likes pea-green. Please have Bianchi-san and Fuuta-kun look into it.”

“Kyoko, where are you right now?”

“Did you write that down, Tsu-kun?”

“I’ll write it in a second—”

“Write it down right now. All of it!”

Tsuna dutifully writes, trying to remember details through the static of panicked screaming in his head. “Okay. It’s written. Where are you?

“Make sure to tell Giannini these earring headset things are really useful. Nobody even noticed I had them. And tell Haru I’m fine. And don’t tell my brother anything.”

Kyoko—”

“Nunzio panicked. He thought I’d seen through him before I actually had, and, well. At least he hasn’t gone after anyone but me. Tsu-kun, I let that creep sneak right up to me, and I didn’t notice. Hibari-san’s going to make such an herbivore face when he hears about this. And then he’s going to hit me in the face.”

Tsuna thinks it’s a little premature for Kyoko to be worrying about Hibari. “Where—”

“Don’t scream, Tsu-kun, they’ll hear you. Gosh, this is so embarrassing. I’m tied up in a…shed? I think? It’s on Tomaso property, which tells you how desperate the man is. I mean, he doesn’t dare kill me and make the Vongola angry, but what does he think he’s going to do with me? By which I mean, he hasn’t done anything to me, Tsu-kun. Calm down. Anyway, from what I can tell, it’s only about two hundred meters south of the main house, in that little woodsy area. You know it?”

“I know it. I’m on a plane.”

“Tsu-kun! Just call Dino-san!”

“I am calling Dino, and then I’m getting on a plane.”

“I knew you would overreact. Next time I want a headset with more than one number programmed in!”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Kyoko.”

She gives an annoyed sigh and cuts the connection, and despite everything, Tsuna smiles. Only Kyoko would hang up on her one hope of rescue.

Actually…no, that’s not true. Probably half the people Tsuna knows would hang up on their one hope of rescue. That’s just the company he keeps.

He tucks the phone between shoulder and ear, punches Dino’s number in with one hand, and pulls his gloves out of their drawer with the other.

He’ll have to talk to Haru next. He wonders if he should tell her that her lover is fine, as instructed, or if he should, more honestly, tell her that her lover’s been abducted and imprisoned in a shed.

Honesty is probably the best policy, since she’ll see right through him either way.

He plans to run away to the airport before he encounters Ryouhei. Or Kurokawa, for that matter.

* * *

Reborn has decided that Tsuna needs to learn about Italian tax law, presumably so that he can help Haru evade it more successfully. Tsuna wasn’t under the impression that Haru needed any help in that department, actually.

He doesn’t have the strength to argue about it, though. Sure, tax law. Why not?

People wander through his office all day as a general rule. Today he’s stopped everyone who’s spent time living in Italy and asked them what they know about taxes. They’re strangely expert. In fact, if he’s learned anything today, it’s that tax evasion is the national sport of Italy, possibly beating out soccer.

And, okay, Japan is pretty big on tax evasion, too. But the Japanese don’t do it with the same gleeful, damn-the-man aura as the Italians.

After a couple of hours of legal reading interspersed with happy anecdotes about clever tax fraud, Tsuna has had about as much as he can take. He is now flat on his back on the floor under his desk with the tax book open across his face.

Fuuta (who was the last straw, with his truly upsetting statistics), is sprawled on his belly at ninety degrees to Tsuna, his ranking book open between them. Fuuta’s growing up very dignified, but he’s not so dignified yet that he won’t lie on the floor as long as his boss does it first. He’s also sympathetic, being thoroughly familiar with the problem of too much information.

“So who’s the best at making pizza?” Tsuna asks, gazing up at the comforting, tax-book-induced darkness.

“Romario’s our highest,” Fuuta informs him after a couple of minutes of flipping through pages. “Number five. And then Dino-nii! You wouldn’t think it, would you? Maybe Romario taught him. And then Bianchi. I wonder if that’s counting her poison ones.”

“Hm.” The ranking book logic is a little upsetting sometimes. “How about ping-pong? Who’s best at ping-pong?”

“Kusakabe. And then the entire Shimon family after that. That’s weird.”

Tsuna doesn’t know whether it’s weird or not, but he does plan to make fun of Enma for it the next time he sees him. He defies even Enma to make a conversation about ping-pong sad and awkward.

“Who can hold their breath the longest?”

“Um…no one we know. Too bad; you’d think Squalo-san for sure.”

“Tsu-kun,” says Kyoko, who apparently snuck into the room while Tsuna was concentrating on the serious business of ping-pong. “If you’re going to wallow around on the floor like that, you’d better take off your jacket before Haru sees you. You know how she feels about that jacket.”

Tsuna reflects, as he does every time he hears Kyoko’s voice, sees her, or even hears about her, that it is so, so good to have her safely home. As opposed to locked in a shed somewhere.

But she wants him to move. He considers moving. It seems like a lot of trouble. On the other hand, the wrath of Haru is also a lot of trouble. His life is full of difficult decisions.

“Oh my God, Vongola.” Ah, Lambo. Lambo, who, at the ripe old age of thirteen, is only slightly less uptight than Haru on the subject of clothes. “How could you?

Fuuta laughs, and Tsuna sits up with a sigh, letting the tax book fall into his lap. He struggles out of the jacket and hands it to Kyoko, who hands it to Lambo, who reverently makes off with it, probably on a quest for a nice, fat hanger and a climate-controlled closet.

“You’d better be doing homework after this!” Fuuta shouts after him.

“Whateverrrr,” Lambo calls back. Fuuta mutters unhappily to himself. He’s a far more conscientious guardian than Tsuna. Or at least, he is when it comes to schoolwork.

Tsuna wonders why Lambo came to his office in the first place. Presumably it wasn’t to steal Tsuna’s clothes.

…One would hope. He wouldn’t really pawn that jacket, would he? Surely I-Pin wouldn’t let him.

“Remember that the Varia will be here in half an hour,” Kyoko says, one eyebrow raised in amused disapproval.

Tsuna wonders how much trouble he’s actually in, given that expression. He figures not much, really, and collapses back onto the floor, resettling the book across his face. “Fuuta,” he says, “remind me in fifteen minutes.”

“Okay, Tsuna-nii.”

Kyoko sighs and stands, but the sigh suggests repressed laughter, so there’s nothing to worry about. Except for the Varia, of course. They’re a worry.

But not for another fifteen minutes.

Tsuna waits until Kyoko closes the door behind her. “Happiest romantic relationship,” he asks, out of…he’s not sure. Not bitterness, he thinks. Wistfulness, maybe.

After a long pause, during which Tsuna can feel himself being severely judged by a teenager, the pages start to flip.

“Sawada Iemitsu and Sawada Nana,” Fuuta announces. “They get ranked together whether they’re both in the mafia or not.”

“You’re making that up,” Tsuna says, stunned.

“Tsuna-nii! I never make up rankings!”

“But that’s—he’s never home, how…?”

“How should I know?”

“…Right.” When he puts it like that, how should Tsuna know?

“We know number two, too. Gokudera-nii and Yamamoto-nii.”

Tsuna pushes the tax book away and crawls to Fuuta’s side to get a better look at this crazy, lying list. And there they are. One and two, as advertised.

“It was raining the day you did this ranking,” Tsuna insists. “Wasn’t it?”

“It was not!

Ryouhei and Hana, Tsuna notes in a daze, are number eight. Suzuki Adelheid and Katou Julie are number ten. He’d had no idea they were even together. Fuuta’s only got the list down to ten, but Tsuna would bet anything that Kyoko and Haru are, like, eleven or twelve or something.

It’s not his imagination; he really is surrounded by ridiculously happy couples.

“They fight all the time, don’t they?” Fuuta asks in a wary, confused tone. It takes Tsuna a second to catch up and realize he’s still talking about Yamamoto and Gokudera.

“Maybe fighting makes them happy?” Tsuna volunteers, though he’s not much less at sea, himself.

“Makes sense for Gokudera-nii,” Fuuta allows. “But not for…oh, Yamamoto-nii! We were just wondering what’s wrong with you.”

Tsuna fervently hopes that Yamamoto came in very recently. At the moment, he’s leaning against the desk gazing down at them, lips quirked in a tiny, uninterpretable smile. At Fuuta’s comment, his eyebrows climb. Tsuna smiles back desperately, shoving the incriminating book closed, and wills Yamamoto to understand that Tsuna is not responsible for anything Fuuta says.

Maybe it works, because Yamamoto’s only remark is, “The Varia, Tsuna.”

“I know. I was going to stand up in fifteen—”

“Takeshi, what the hell are you doing? We’re supposed to be looking for the Tenth and you’re just—oh.” As he peers past Yamamoto’s shoulder, Gokudera’s voice lowers from enraged to hesitant. “Um, Tenth? What are you—are you…um. Are you okay?”

Gokudera is absently holding on to Yamamoto’s arm, and Yamamoto has leaned slightly, unconsciously back against him.

Tsuna turns to meet Fuuta’s eyes. Fuuta giggles.

* * *

Twenty-Three

“It was hard to tell, sometimes, if m’lord’s style was the result of single-minded dedication to duty, habits of overweening Vor privilege, or simple insanity.”   –Lois McMaster Bujold

 

He says, “What are you doing here?”

It’s very Hibari of him to have waited an entire week to ask.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Tsuna murmurs, looking out at the garden, Hibird perched comfortably on his head. Hibari’s garden is a work of art, and would probably be featured in magazines if he would ever under any circumstances allow strangers to see it. “I died this year, so I thought I’d visit everyone.”

“This time you’re still alive,” Hibari offers. Tsuna turns in shock. He hadn’t been expecting a response at all, let alone a borderline friendly one. “You must have done something right, despite all indications to the contrary.”

Tsuna smiles uncertainly. Fortunately, Hibird quickly refocuses his attention by digging unhappy claws into his scalp. He doesn’t approve when Tsuna moves quickly; apparently that’s unsettling for small birds. “The year isn’t over yet.”

Hibari gives him a disgusted glare. “You died in early summer,” he says, lapsing into his usual bored frustration. Tsuna’s almost relieved. “It’s fall. You don’t remember the flowers in your own coffin?”

No, actually. But it’s interesting that Hibari does, considering Tsuna never knew he’d seen the coffin. It’s also interesting that that’s how Hibari chose to gauge the season. “They might have been hothouse flowers.”

“I wouldn’t let them—” Hibari cuts himself off and glowers at the garden.

Hibari wouldn’t let them bury Tsuna with hothouse flowers. This must be another of his inexplicable and yet immutable laws of behavior. Tsuna makes a note of it.

“Well,” he suggests, “I wasn’t really dead. Maybe you would have let them, since I was faking it.”

“No,” Hibari snaps irritably. “If you let them put you in a coffin, you were as good as dead.”

True. The reality and technicalities of survival don’t always match up. Would Tsuna lie to his family—to Kyoko, to Yamamoto, to Gokudera—would he let them go through the pain of his death if he didn’t think it was inevitable? Of course not.

“You’re right.” He can hardly imagine being that desperate.

“Real flowers,” Hibari says.

“…Thank you.”

Hibari scowls, of course. “No.”

“No?”

“I don’t want your gratitude. It’s what I owe. You’ve never gotten in my way. You’ve never stopped me from doing what I need to do.”

“I don’t think I could have,” Tsuna points out, bemused.

Hibari disregards this with an impatient (but graceful, always graceful) wave of the hand. “You never tried.”

“And so in return I get…flowers?”

“You get to be real.”

“Oh.”

This isn’t the first Hibari Philosophy lecture Tsuna’s been privileged to, but they don’t get any less odd with the years. Luckily, Hibari’s not looking for understanding. He’s only looking for obedience.

Hibari has never lost a man to anything other than death, and Tsuna knows their devotion puzzles people, knows it puzzles Gokudera most of all. That’s because stability isn’t what Gokudera wants. He wants acceptance, and Hibari doesn’t believe in that. That’s not his charm.

No, Hibari, for all that he claims to be a cloud, is as unchanging as rock. His rules may not make sense from the outside, but they are his rules, and they’re fixed. Once you’ve learned them, you know—know—that they won’t change. And if you obey the rules, Hibari will take responsibility for you, reliable as sunrise. That’s something a person can hold on to, something sure and real.

Hibari’s men must have wanted something to be sure of. And now they’ve found it. Tsuna glances at Kusakabe, who’s obviously completely at peace—a peace no less beautiful for being artificially made. Tsuna can’t deny the appeal of it. The only mystery here is how Hibari can stand that much pressure. How he doesn’t even seem to notice it.

Hibari’s rules, Hibari’s responsibility. Not Tsuna’s rules or Tsuna’s responsibility. There’s peace in that, yes. And freedom.

But he can’t stay. Visits to Hibari’s created world are just visits. For him.

He stands and thanks Hibari and Kusakabe for the tea. Hibird cheeps and flutters back to his usual perch on Hibari’s shoulder, while Kusakabe gives Tsuna a pitying look. Kusakabe lives here all the time, and can only imagine what it must feel like to leave.

Hibari ignores Tsuna, annoyed now that he’s realized they’re not fighting today. Of course, they fought yesterday, and all of the three days before that. Tsuna feels he’s done his duty by his Cloud Guardian. Besides, Gokudera will be upset if he comes home with any more bruises than he already has.

Tsuna smiles, nods at everyone, and leaves the room. He makes his way back home, taking a little of Hibari’s peace along with him.

* * *

“So,” Yamamoto says, pouncing as soon as Tsuna steps into the base. He’s smiling, and yet managing to give the impression of strong disapproval. “Where have you been?”

“…Been?” Tsuna asks.

“Yes, Tsuna-san,” Haru says, sneaking up on the other side. He’s being double-teamed by Yamamoto and Haru. How weird. “Where have you been? For the past five days?”

“Um, well…”

“I see you’re covered in bruises,” Haru goes on, while Yamamoto stands close, blocking Tsuna’s escape routes. “And bandages. And—”

“It’s nothing serious! It’s—”

“You worried Hayato,” Yamamoto points out.

“Oh, but I emailed him a—”

“You didn’t tell him where you were going, just how long you’d be gone,” Haru announces, which means Gokudera was so worried he showed Haru the email. Tsuna’s in big trouble. “You were with Hibari-san again, weren’t you? Why can’t you just say that?

Tsuna sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “I’m sorry.”

This changes the ominous feel of Yamamoto disapproval not at all, and it drives Haru to outright frown. “But you’ll do it again.”

“You know how Hibari is. There’s a lot of work that only he can do, and if anyone else showed up while I was—”

“Don’t blame Hibari,” Yamamoto cuts in. “We’re not fifteen; he doesn’t attack people for invading his space anymore. Well, he doesn’t attack us for invading his space. What’s the real reason?”

“I’m not saying he’d attack, but he works best if—”

“Why, Tsuna?” Yamamoto demands. Unyielding in a way he so rarely is.

Tsuna drops his head to study the carpet pattern. It’s an interesting carpet. Geometrical. Haru and Gokudera picked it out together in one of their rare fits of cooperation. “I need,” Tsuna says, “to know that you’d be all right. If I were gone.”

Silence. The longer he studies the carpet, the more Tsuna understands what Gokudera saw in it. It’s horribly complicated—a tangle of blues, greens, and reds over a black background—but there’s a nice, clean, repetitive logic to it. Interesting that it would appeal to Haru, too.

An arm drapes itself around his shoulders, steady and comforting. “Well, we can’t tell Hayato that,” Yamamoto says lightly, any sign of disapproval gone as if it had never been.

“I know.”

“I wish you’d worry less, Tsuna.”

“Me too.”

“Let’s feed you.” This is becoming Yamamoto’s response to any crisis. Eat something. He’s totally turning into his dad.

“Okay,” Tsuna agrees, quietly happy.

“Tsuna-san,” Haru sighs, shaking her head. “Someday I’m just going to lock you in a cage in my office for my own peace of mind.”

“Um. I…look forward to it?” Tsuna tries.

Yamamoto laughs at him.

* * *

Twenty-Four

“His voice sounded calm, like the voice of a man who knows that in real life things always turn out badly and there’s no point getting worked up about it.”  –Roberto Bolaño

 

He says, “You have a long way to go,” and Tsuna laughs.

“Yes, Reborn,” he says. “I know.”

Reborn gives him a fishy look. He’s just worked out exactly what Tsuna, Haru, and Shouichi have been up to during the past five years when he thought they were slacking off. He’s just realized how many Vongola businesses are now completely legitimate. In another five years, the Vongola won’t be so much a mafia family as a slightly dubious privately held company with a certain tendency toward vigilantism.

Reborn doesn’t like it. Tsuna understands that—he even understands why—but it’s not going to stop him. And he knows that Reborn knows that.

They know each other far too well; that’s what’s making this conversation so strange. Given the choice between obligation and personal conviction, Reborn has always followed his obligations, while Tsuna has always followed his convictions.

Tsuna is following his convictions now, and Reborn is obliged to disapprove…but he doesn’t really disapprove. The two of them may have the same obligations, but they also have the same convictions. Reborn is, Tsuna suspects, reluctantly proud. And that irritates him, as does the fact that Tsuna knows about it.

It’s all very complicated, or maybe just ridiculous.

“This doesn’t mean the other families will leave you alone,” Reborn reminds him sternly.

“I know,” Tsuna agrees.

“It won’t make the Vongola safer.”

“It won’t make us less safe, either.”

“You’re dragging Dino into this with you, aren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say dragging…”

“I leave you alone for a few months, and look what you do.”

“I stop breaking the law?”

Reborn scowls savagely and hefts a really sturdy-looking tire iron that appeared from nowhere.

“Don’t ever,” Reborn says, “take this lightly.”

This, Tsuna thinks, cringing, is really gonna hurt.

He’s not backing down, though. Reborn doesn’t want him to, anyway.

* * *

Today is Tsuna’s twenty-fifth birthday, and the Vongola are having one hell of a party.

The party’s not really about Tsuna, of course. It’s about making it to eleven years later; it’s about living longer than any of them honestly thought they would. Tsuna understands that in detail.

Still, on some childish, petty, never-admit-it-to-anyone level, he enjoys the fact that his birthday is now a bigger deal than Reborn’s. Or at any rate, he finds it really, really funny.

It’s been an oddly peaceful year, but everyone’s acting the way they do after a fight—worse, even. You’ve survived, that’s the feeling. You’ve survived, so live. Anything goes.

Anything goes. Tsuna makes his periodic sweep of the room, and sees that Yamamoto has Gokudera in a headlock, and Gokudera is laughing; he keeps laughing even when Yamamoto releases him, then pulls him close for a kiss. Behavior that normally wouldn’t be allowed in public. But then, this isn’t public, it’s family.

Just family. Bianchi isn’t wearing anything on her face, but Gokudera looks right at her and smiles. Dino has to steer her away before Gokudera sees her burst into tears. They go to sit beside Fuuta, who nods to them before turning amused eyes back to Kyoko and Haru.

Kyoko and Haru are plastered the fun way. They’re trying to have a conversation, but keep dissolving into hysterical laughter every few words.

Kusakabe and Romario are in a corner getting systematically drunk—on sake, since they’re in Japan. They go for wine when they’re in Italy. Tsuna means to take them to Russia someday and see if they’ll switch to vodka.

Chrome has somehow managed to fall asleep in the midst of the chaos, curled up on the couch, leaning against Hibari. Hibari scowls at her, but turns so that she fits against him more comfortably, and lets her sleep. Mukuro is lurking behind them and watching with an ambiguous smile; he doesn’t interfere.

Tsuna tries not to worry about the many troubling directions that might go in the future. It hasn’t crashed and burned yet. It may turn out all right. Maybe.

Why is it, he wonders, that whenever he wants to know where Chrome is, the answer is invariably, “Beside the most dangerous man in the room”?

As Tsuna watches and frets, Fran drifts over to Mukuro and starts talking in that aimless, reflective, absently abusive way of his. He requires no response. For the most part, he ignores any response. Still, he’s pretty effortlessly pulled Mukuro’s attention away from Chrome and Hibari, and Tsuna is going to buy him something really nice on the next available holiday.

Thanks to Fran, Tsuna feels comfortable turning away from that corner and inspecting the rest of the room. For better or worse.

Ryouhei is standing on a table, holding forth about something that probably wouldn’t have made sense even if he were sober, which he most assuredly isn’t. Hana’s idly throwing popcorn at him, aiming for his mouth. Colonello and Lal are sitting together across from Hana, happily watching the show. They both have a deep appreciation for the absurd, and besides, Colonello adores Ryouhei. Lal is catching the pieces of popcorn that come her way and throwing them back to Hana.

Lambo and I-Pin are on the floor with Spanner, Shouichi, and Giannini, and somehow the five of them have managed to make a pickle glow like a light bulb. Tsuna prays that’s as far as they plan to go; he prays this evening won’t end in blackouts or explosions like the last…three times? Was it three?

Oh God. He’s actually lost count.

At least Gokudera isn’t on the floor with them this time. That probably reduces the chance of explosions.

Thoughts of explosions remind Tsuna that he hasn’t seen any Varia for an hour or so. Where are they? What are they doing? He doesn’t expect them to be up to anything too awful, but the not knowing is scary.

He leans back, giving up on looking around the room as a stress-inducing lost cause, and turns to Reborn instead. Reborn, who’s been keeping Tsuna company watching over the family they made, unusually quiet. He doesn’t seem unhappy, though. Just thoughtful.

The clock strikes midnight, and Tsuna’s birthday is officially over, though the party shows no signs of winding down. Only CEDEF has gone home, so far. At some point, Tsuna thinks, someone is going to have to coax Ryouhei off of that table. He hopes it won’t have to be him.

“Congratulations, loser Tsuna” Reborn says abruptly, turning to him and raising his glass. “You’ve outlived yourself.”

Tsuna laughs. “Thanks. So have you.”

“Hm. Are you proud of yourself?”

“No,” Tsuna answers, surprised. Reborn stares at him. “I mean, I didn’t—I wouldn’t be alive if not for them.” He gestures to the room. To the people who are the reason he lives, the people who own him. “I’m proud of them.” That doesn’t begin to cover it. “And…if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have met them at all.”

“Would you have preferred that?” Reborn asks, gazing into the depths of his wine glass.

Reborn is in a very weird mood. In anyone else, Tsuna might call it…uncertainty. Or regret.

It’s interesting that Byakuran once asked him almost the same thing. Except then, the question was, “Do you regret the last few months?” and now it’s more, “Do you regret your entire life?”

Tsuna can’t imagine existing without these people. He doesn’t want to imagine it. And yes, he’d give a lot to have a life less defined by violence and death, but does he think he could have one without the other? Didn’t everything add up to this?

And doesn’t he still have time to fix what he doesn’t like?

He tells Reborn, “Ask me again in ten years,” and clinks their glasses together.

* * *

“You end up becoming what you see in the eyes of those you love.” –Carlos Ruiz Zafón