Federico sat back in his chair, eyes fixed on the harshly lined face of the man across from him. “I see why you insisted this meeting be so secret,” he finally said, mildly.
Irie’s tightly clasped hands twitched. “I know it sounds insane,” he muttered, but Federico waved that off.
“I hold fire in my hand and it doesn’t burn; we’re used enough to insane-sounding things, I think. And we’ve been watching the Millefiori for a while now. Some of my people are very suspicious of coincidence.” He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. “How sure are you that this will work?”
“I’m not sure at all,” Irie said, low and harsh. “But this is the only thing that has a chance. Sawada is the only factor that holds Byakuran back in this world, but even he can’t do it alone. It has to be both of them.”
Fedele stirred at Federico’s back, where he’d been listening in what Federico suspected was frozen horror. “Boss, Xanxus will… I mean, he’ll…”
Federico winced, thinking about it. “I know. You’re sure that bullet won’t kill me?” he asked Irie.
Irie nodded silently.
“Good.” Federico smiled with no amusement at all. “Xanxus and Tsuna deserve the chance to kill me themselves, afterward, for doing this to them.”
Sunlight fell gracefully through stained glass and into the open coffin.
Fedele had known it was going to be hard. It couldn’t be any other way when the Vongola’s Boss had been killed—not killed, the back of his mind whispered, clinging to that but he couldn’t let it show or it would all go for nothing—killed by an ambush no one had seen coming. He had forbidden anyone to tell Federico’s wife or son, saying it was for their own safety in hiding, which was true enough. But the fury and pain in the eyes of the other Guardians, the stripped, blank looks on the faces of the two kneeling by Federico’s coffin, sliced his heart like a knife.
“It was the Millefiore, wasn’t it?” Tsuna said at last, a little sense coming back into his eyes as he looked up at Fedele.
Xanxus’ head came up, too, though it wasn’t sense that was creeping into his expression.
Fedele took a breath and dropped the last pebble on the poised mountain face. “Yes.”
Tsuna nodded and he and Xanxus stood as one, and their people stepped towards them, out of the small crowd of Vongola leaders, drawn into the sudden, silent tension.
“Don’t get in my way,” Xanxus growled, shreds of brightness already crawling over his clenched hands.
“Don’t be stupid,” Tsuna cut back, cool and level with the rising of his Will. “We’ll go together. Otherwise Byakuran might get away.”
Fedele could almost hear the click as those words locked around Xanxus, and he could tell Xanxus felt it too even though he bared his teeth. “Fine. Hurry up, then.”
“Wait.” Fedele swallowed as both of them turned to stare at him; the weight of their combined focus was like running into a steel wall. “One of you has to take the Ring.”
Sandro spun around to stare at him. “Fedele, what the fuck?”
Fedele met the Lightning’s outraged look evenly. “Ricco is too young to lead, even if we all support him. Not if we’re at war. It has to be one of them. They’re the only two with the strength and the right.”
Before anyone else could start arguing Xanxus made an impatient sound through his teeth and stooped down to Federico’s body again, drawing the Sky Ring off his finger. He straightened to the sound of breath being taken in all through the church.
And threw the Ring at Tsuna.
Tsuna’s hand closed around it, though he never looked away from Xanxus. “You’re sure?” he asked, low.
“The Boss can’t lead the Varia too. We’re wasting time. Take the damn Ring and let’s go,” Xanxus bit out.
After a long, still moment, Tsuna nodded and slid the Ring onto his finger, closing it in a fist. He raised his chin and his Flame flared up in his hand, running over his glove to shape the Vongola crest. That was all Fedele had time to see before the light of Tsuna’s Flame turned brilliant, actinic white that etched people’s shadows behind them as they flung up hands and arms to shield their eyes.
When the light died and he could look back up, he found Tsuna on his knees, hands braced against the stone of the floor, breathing like he’d just run a marathon. “Anything,” Tsuna, whispered, as if he were answering someone’s question. “Anything.”
“Boss?” Gokudera asked quietly, kneeling beside Tsuna with a hand under his arm.
Tsuna looked up and smiled, wry and serene. “I’m all right.”
Fedele took a deep breath as Gokudera got the Vongola’s new Boss—sort of the back of his mind pointed out, not helpfully—standing. One more thing to do. “The Vongola Ring has accepted Sawada as the Eleventh,” he announced, completely unnecessarily but it was tradition to say it out loud, and pulled the Storm ring off his own finger, holding it out to Gokudera.
“Um. Fedele?” Giancarlo wasn’t as loud about it as Sandro, but he managed to convey what the fuck do you think you’re doing? just as well.
“The Guardians are the members of the Family closest to the Boss, most trusted to watch his back.” Fedele kept his eyes locked on Gokudera’s. “We’re the Tenth’s Guardians, not the Eleventh’s.” Gokudera’s eyes darkened and he nodded slowly and reached out to take the ring.
Giancarlo made a sound like someone had punched him in the gut and Fedele stifled a flinch at the acid rush of guilt. His fellow Guardians were going to pound the shit out of him for this, after, and he was going to deserve it. Giancarlo stepped past him, though, and held the Rain ring out, steadily enough, to Yamamoto.
“Great, fine, now can we go?” Squalo snapped, once the transfer of the Rings was complete. Fedele started to give him an evil look but noticed the way Squalo’s eyes flicked toward Xanxus, who was glaring murderously at thin air.
“Someone has to stay and guard the headquarters,” Tsuna started, and Fedele lifted his hand a little.
“We’ll do that.” Guarding the mansion, and Federico’s body, would keep his fellows from doing anything too rash, and he saw the knowledge of it in Tsuna’s eyes as he nodded.
“Very well. Let’s go, then.”
Xanxus stalked out immediately, his squad leaders swirling after him like a kite’s tail. Tsuna followed, slower, with a word to this or that underboss, a sharp beckoning gesture to Giannini, a hand on Yamamoto’s shoulder sending him after Lal Mirch as she started to slip away.
Fedele felt dizzy, head stuffed with what was true and what was apparently true and what might or might not happen. But in the midst of all that he was, at least, grateful that Tsuna seemed to be fit for the role he had to play. Whatever the truth of it wound up being.
Tsuna didn’t bother with an office, and certainly didn’t even consider taking Federico’s; if they came back from this alive he’d think about it then. Besides none of the office rooms were big enough.
Instead he took over the reception hall.
Maps and lists scattered over the tables and the parquetry floor as Gokudera pulled reports together and called in the people who kept observation on the Millefiore headquarters. Some of the reports were written in Chrome’s neat hand, and he sent Lambo to find her with a question about the underground entrances. Ryouhei and Squalo argued at the top of their lungs in one corner, pulling the blueprint of the Millefiore main building back and forth between them, stabbing at access points and each other’s chests with stiff fingers. People swirled in and out under Xanxus’ silent, brooding eye, as he leaned against the wall, and Tsuna could barely remember their names though he knew them all. The world was in freefall and the only thing holding his feet down was the promise he’d given to those who’d come before, in the no-place where they’d judged him. He would do anything it took to protect his Family and his Family’s heart.
Lal stalked in, snarling over her shoulder at Yamamoto, and Tsuna wrenched his thoughts onto yet another track. “Lal,” he cut through her protest and Yamamoto’s inexorable smile, “have any of CEDEF heard from my father yet?”
“No, nothing,” she snapped.
Tsuna breathed out, torn between cursing and giving thanks. “Then you’ll have to lead them.”
She folded her arms, giving him a stony look. “We’re not part of the Vongola.”
“This is an emergency. You are,” he rapped back.
“Besides, where else do you expect to find the one who killed Colonello?” Reborn rolled into the room with a motorized purr and Tsuna’s mouth twisted with the mix of affection and relief and pain he’d felt for most of a year.
They hadn’t been fast enough for everyone. They hadn’t been fast enough to save Verde or Skull. Or Colonello. Even the other arcobaleno didn’t know what had become of Fon, and none of them would speak of what had happened to Uni. But they had, at least, understood the non-trinisette radiation in time to save Lal and Mammon from most of it. And to save, at least, Reborn’s life.
He had insisted the protective suit be tailored into a proper, black mafia suit, and had only agreed to the wheelchair after Giannini motorized and armed it. But he was still with them, and looking up at Lal with black eyes as unreadable as ever as she whirled on him.
“Who?” she demanded, voice dark and hungry, and for one moment Xanxus glanced over at them.
Reborn shrugged. “Who knows? But we know who’s doing this, and we know where they’ll be.”
“The foot soldiers we take with us will clear the way,” Tsuna said, eyes running down yet another list as Gokudera handed it to him. “But we need CEDEF to secure our retreat. Will you do it?”
“I’m not staying in the rear,” she said flatly, arms folded.
“I wouldn’t expect you to.”
“Fine.” She turned away and stalked out, and Tsuna’s mouth quirked up for a moment at the way Yamamoto drew smoothly back out of her path and winked at him before following her. If any of them were sane by the time they left, it would be thanks to Yamamoto, he thought.
“I suppose you’re coming too?” he asked Reborn.
No other explanation was forthcoming, and Tsuna hadn’t really expected any. He just nodded and turned back to the maps and hoped that Xanxus’ version of patience would last as long as he needed it to.
Details ticked through Tsuna’s mind, past the eye of his focus, and in the back of his mind one of the voices he was currently ignoring was busy cursing Byakuran for placing his headquarters in a city. “Lal, open up a corridor to the south to get the bystanders out,” he snapped into his headset.
“Basil is taking care of it,” she snapped back. “You’re a fool. We have to have lost surprise by now.”
Tsuna’s eye measured the fire coming from the buildings that surrounded the headquarters, channeling his people toward that massive, central building. “He knew we were coming already.”
A final explosion sheared the front off one of those firing galleries and Gokudera’s voice said flatly, “We’re clear.”
“Then let’s go.”
Byakuran’s front door was locked, the entrance barred by a wall of something that probably wasn’t just steel. On the surface it looked like a good tactic, just the place to pin the attackers up against, but… “Xanxus,” Tsuna called.
A column of raging Flame licked out over his shoulder and struck the wall, flaring, eating into it, and it was only a breath before it burst.
Tsuna’s eyes narrowed, intuition ticking over. “Byakuran has something in mind,” he stated. “Keep alert.”
The strongest box and ring holders, and their support squads, fanned out to clear the building.
Ryouhei jogged at Lal’s shoulder and worried just a little. He wasn’t normally one to complain about anyone else’s single mindedness, but the darkness in Lal’s eyes made his nerves twang. He respected Lal’s professionalism, though, and when she stiffened and shouted “Down!” he dove for the floor without hesitation, along with the rest of the squad.
Lal was the only one hit.
“Lal!” He reached for his secondary box.
“Ah~h, just like that the stupid flies walk into my web,” a light voice sighed from the darkness of the ceiling. “I expected better from Lal Mirch. Colonello was thinking about you in his last moments, you know. Can’t you try to be more worthy?”
“Ginger Bread,” Lal grated, hand pressed to her shoulder.
“Quick, before you go after him,” Ryouhei muttered, eyes fixed on the floating thing in the corner that looked like a kid and talked like a devil.
Lal elbowed him back. “No. This fight is mine.”
Ryouhei had his mouth open to protest when she turned her head just a little and looked at him. Her expression made him sigh and step back. “All right. It’s yours,” he agreed, resigned; he couldn’t deny her determination or her right. He waved to their support squad, drawing them back as Lal’s rings lit with Flame, and prepared to wait.
To witness for her.
Yamamoto’s mouth quirked and he stuffed the map they’d made of the Millefiore headquarters into his pocket and called Tsuna. “The building is moving.”
“Yes.” Tsuna sounded calm, but he always sounded calm when his Will was roused. “Can you still find your way?”
“I’ll manage. I got cut off from my support squad, though, and they were pinned down by some Millefiore foot soldiers. Think anyone can get to them?”
Yamamoto accepted that as philosophically as he could and moved on down the hall, snorting a little at the doors that opened ahead of him and closed behind. “A simple invitation would have done, you know,” he called out.
“This is an invitation.”
Yamamoto looked up and smiled, slow and hard. “Genkishi.” He lit his Ring and opened his boxes, not rushing. Genkishi might or might not be a true swordsman, but he was close enough to open a duel formally, properly. Shigure Kintoki sang in his hand, delighting in the purity of Flame the Vongola Ring provided to wrap around it. “Squalo’s still really pissed at you, you know.”
Genkishi flicked his fingers before resting his hand back on the hilts of his swords. “Superbi Squalo’s temper tantrums mean nothing to me beside my duty to carry out God’s orders.” His eyes fell on Jirou and he lifted a brow. “So it’s true. You use four blades. Perhaps there will be no need to hold back, then.”
Yamamoto set his stance and sent Kojirou winging above them with a flick of his Will. “It will,” he murmured, letting the stillness of the sword wash over him, “be my pleasure.”
Lambo was not in a good mood. First his support squad had gotten locked behind one of the sliding walls, and then he had wound up in company with Lussuria (and really, Lussuria was the kind who gave all of them a bad name), and now they were facing four piles of mobile muscles and a really disturbing woman who needed to figure out what the zipper on her top was there for.
It was not a good day.
And those muscles were really hard to do anything about.
And when Lussuria vanished into one of the piles, knee first, Lambo had had enough.
He shot the scary woman’s weapon out of her hand to give them some time and hauled out his Bazooka, groping for the trigger. Ten years from now, he was probably going to be pretty annoyed with himself, but only until he remembered how important this was.
Squalo was muttering evilly under his breath as he watched their backs and Tsuna found himself amused, inappropriate as it seemed under the circumstances.
“…fucking Yamamoto gets all the goddamn fun…”
Xanxus didn’t even seem to notice his second’s seething, and Tsuna wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, or even if he truly cared right now. No closing door or shifting wall had stopped them, and the Millefiore foot soldiers seemed to have finally drawn back from their path. Tsuna was distantly glad for that. It was Byakuran he wanted, and he would go through whatever was in the way, but the weight he could feel building up behind his floating fury would be less heavy if he didn’t have to go through stacked bodies.
There was someone ahead of them now, though. Someone leaning against the wall, tapping a crop against his leg.
“And here are the little Vongola,” the man sneered, straightening up. “Didn’t you learn from your burned fingers last time?”
“Glo Xinia,” Tsuna identified him. This one he would feel little guilt about.
“Indeed. And if I alone could kill your precious Rokudou, what makes you think any of you will survive to reach Byakuran?”
Tsuna glanced aside at Chrome, who had been following him quietly the whole way, and frowned. “Chrome?”
“We will deal with this,” she said, soft voice sweet and cold as she stepped forward and her trident flashed between her hands.
“But…” It was true, Tsuna hadn’t seen Mukuro for a little while, but that wasn’t uncommon and he hadn’t worried until now.
“Boss.” Chrome looked over her shoulder and smiled, and the smile had a dark quirk to it that was very familiar. “Go ahead. We’ll take care of it.”
Tsuna heard what she said, this time, and nodded slowly. “Very well.”
He would, after all, feel little guilt about Glo Xinia.
Gokudera swore as half the room suddenly fell away and the floor rose under him. It had been a risk to let him scout ahead, and now it looked like he’d just have to trust that nothing would stand against both Xanxus and the Eleventh until he got back to his boss.
Uri’s growl recalled him to his own risks and he slid under cover just as a small, heavy ball crunched into the wall where he’d been with a nasty, final sort of sound.
“I almost wish we didn’t have to do this,” a whimsical voice echoed through the room.
“Gamma,” Gokudera said quietly, watching the ball spark and pull itself out of the wall, soaring back over head. He flipped his jacket back from his belts. He’d read all the reports on this man, and this wasn’t going to be fun.
“Unfortunately, the princess sent me a message. Or a puzzle. Hard to tell which. Either way it was orders to go all out, I’m afraid.”
Gokudera’s hands flicked through his boxes and he sent his defenses spinning out just in time to meet the lash of lightning that hammered down in a column on all sides. “Then we’ll just have to go all out,” he said, loud enough to be heard, and rolled out from under cover, slamming home the Flame Arrow cartridge and sighting on the blocky blond man above him.
Gamma smiled wryly as he watched the shot come.
In the end, the Millefiore squads hadn’t fallen back, they had just prepared an ambush for the moment when Tsuna and Xanxus were alone, the moment when Squalo had finally been drawn off by an attacker who looked disturbingly like Belphegor and separated from them. Tsuna supposed he wasn’t surprised, but he did wish there weren’t so damn many foot soldiers hemming them in. He kicked another Millefiore away and fell back beside Xanxus. He couldn’t put this off any longer.
“Cover me,” he shouted over the snarl of Xanxus’ guns and the screams around them.
Xanxus’ lip lifted but he shot the attacking squads away from Tsuna as Tsuna closed his eyes and started to build his Flame carefully.
He’d always had to be careful; he’d broken more than one ring before he learned how to feel for the limits of the one he was using. This time the process was strange. The Vongola Sky ring didn’t seem to have any limits, no matter how he built up his power. So he let it grow and breathed through it and fought to balance the Flame reaching outward with the softer Flame that would brace him. Finally, from the heart of the conflagration he lifted his head and spoke, quiet and sure.
“Xanxus. Look out.”
He stepped past his companion and released the shot, and bodies and walls blew away from them, floor after floor and room after room.
As debris rained past them, Xanxus brushed himself off and eyed Tsuna with something besides rage in his expression for the first time in days. All he said in the end, though, was “Let’s go.”
Tsuna nodded and they climbed through what looked like some labs and maybe the communications hub unopposed.
Irie waited until the footsteps faded away to cautiously lift his head and look around his shattered control center. His mouth quirked as he looked at his smoking box weapon. He wasn’t sure any of the Vongola had realized exactly what this building was, but they’d stopped Melone’s ability to move just the same.
Now it was time for him to move.
He found his guns mostly intact in their cabinet and put a tranquilizer into each of the Cervello, just to be sure. He slipped down into the mechanics lab and dragged an unconscious Spanner under a desk where he’d hopefully have some shelter from whatever happened next. He closed the eyes of the three technicians who hadn’t lived through the demonstration of the Vongola Eleventh’s power.
And then he started stripping off his uniform.
He was down to the, in his slightly light-headed opinion, incredibly ugly boots when a voice spoke from behind him with no warning.
“Turning your coat literally and hoping to escape? How improper.”
Irie looked up, wide eyed, into the narrow, predatory gaze of the Vongola’s most dangerous and unpredictable man. “I… I can explain,” he gulped, setting his ring down and raising his hands slowly.
“Indeed?” Hibari Kyouya leaned lightly against a broken wall. “Make it fast, then. I don’t like to leave Namimori for longer than necessary.”
Once the building stopped moving, Tsuna’s people started regathering, and some of Xanxus’ with them: Gokudera scorched and limping and tight-lipped; Yamamoto in company with Squalo, laughing as he obligingly described a sword fight for Squalo’s growled critique and moving a little stiffly with a bandage across his back; Ryouhei looking battered but carrying Lal Mirch, who flatly refused to be evacuated, and guarded by Reborn and Viper despite their unremitting contemptuous jabs at each other; Belphegor waited for them, perched in a broken window, covered in blood and giggling, to say that Lussuria was busy making sure Levi survived and that Lambo was watching over them; no one knew exactly when Chrome rejoined them, but she was there, stepping silent as a shadow over the creaking floors with a soft, full smile on her lips.
They seemed to have left the Millefiore squads behind, as they gained the upper floors, and if they’d left their own support squads too, Tsuna only thought, distantly, that it was just as well. The next thing they found should be Byakuran himself.
So he was more than a little surprised when the form that stepped out of a side room and into their path was child-sized—a girl, looking weighed down by the Millefiore cloak over her shoulders.
“Sawada Tsunayoshi, Vongola Eleventh?” she asked, quietly.
His gaze caught on the ribbon around her neck and the familiar shape hanging from it. “Uni,” he murmured.
“You’ve come,” she said, with an evenness he recognized from his own voice these last few days, and that tugged at his heart but he stifled it; this was one of the two bosses of the Millefiore. She was still speaking, though, and her next words caught him entirely by surprise.
“I am the boss of the Giglio Nero, and on this day I dissolve the alliance between my Family and Gesso.” She took a step closer, level gaze turning pleading. “I am also the boss of the Arcobaleno, and as the keeper of the pacifiers I ask for the Vongola’s protection.”
“You what?” Tsuna managed after a moment, feeling like his brain was spinning.
She looked down. “Byakuran doesn’t care about my Family. It’s only my heart he wants, to control the pacifiers. I went away, inside, to protect my heart and my charge, and sacrificed my Family because of it. There was no other way. But now,” she looked up, biting her lip. “Now you’re here, and you’ve won this far, and this is the time! Please.” She lifted her hands, and he started, seeing they were full of the faint, colored glow of the lost pacifiers. “He must not have these.”
“She is correct.”
Tsuna looked around sharply to see Hibari climbing the last stairs with a rather bedraggled man Tsuna recognized after a moment as Irie Shouichi in his wake. “This,” Hibari announced coolly, “answers the questions I have had for the past five years. Byakuran must not have the pacifiers and the rings.” He beckoned peremptorily and Irie stepped forward, fidgeting.
“I have to tell you. You see, ten years ago…”
Turning the things Irie had told them over in his mind, Tsuna was unsurprised to find another of those impressive-looking and yet entirely insufficient metal walls blocking their way up to the top floor. It was the kind of mockery he was starting to recognize as Byakuran’s manner. Xanxus fired once at it without breaking stride and Tsuna gathered his Flame in his hand and punched it viciously to shatter the weakened metal, sending shards flying through the ceiling and walls above.
His anger was sizzling on the edge of his ability to control it.
He was also unsurprised to find Byakuran smiling at them, bright and cheerful in the middle of his blown-out top floor. “What a good job!” The congratulatory tone was gruesome, considering the bodies scattered behind them, and Tsuna clenched his jaw and closed a hand tight on Xanxus’ arm. They needed to know what Byakuran thought he had up his sleeve before they moved.
“What a shame you had to waste all that effort, too,” Byakuran sighed, and turned a little, crooking a finger at the one door still standing. His smile turned smug and chill as six people Tsuna had never seen or heard of filed out to stand behind him. “These are the real six Funeral Wreathes, you see.”
Gokudera made a choking sound, indignant for his opponent as much as for himself Tsuna thought. Xanxus just spat on the smoking, broken floor. “So what?” he growled.
Byakuran tapped a finger against his lips in a way that would have been playful under other circumstances, and Tsuna held back a sick shudder. “Well, I don’t want to be unfair. You’re all so tired out. So how about this! We’ll have a round of Choice.” Poison-cold eyes turned to Irie. “You’ll like that, won’t you Shou-chan?”
Irie stepped forward, faint ravaged hope showing in his eyes. “For what stakes?”
“The Trinisette, of course!” Byakuran spread his hands, the image of reasonableness. “If you win, you get all the rings and pacifiers I’ve gathered. If I win, I get all of yours.” His gaze brushed over Uni as if casually, and she shivered and moved closer to Reborn, pacifiers gathered protectively to her chest.
“Irie,” Tsuna said quietly, eyes not leaving Byakuran. “What does he mean by ‘Choice’?”
“A battle,” Irie explained, low and quick. “There are rules to it, that would limit him. It’s a game we invented years ago—”
Tsuna held up a hand to stop him. “I see.” His other hand tightened on Xanxus’ forearm and then let go. Xanxus smiled.
“You’ve mistaken us, Byakuran,” Tsuna said, lifting one hand and letting his Flame start to build. He dropped the other hand behind him and met Byakuran’s eyes, levelly.
“This isn’t a game.”
Xanxus drew and fired in one motion, and Tsuna had one moment to see rage twist Byakuran’s face before one of the six newcomers was in front of him, meeting Xanxus’ Flame.
The fury Tsuna had held back, channeled into his Will, not given in to, built and built, and now he let it go, called it up, fed it to his Flame until his burned and raged like Xanxus’. He tracked the shouts, the explosions as their people hemmed in Byakuran and his six Wreathes, and he pressed against Xanxus’ shoulder and shouted, “Together! Both of us!”
He could feel the vibration of Xanxus’ snarl, but Xanxus stopped his fire and set his feet beside Tsuna, and his Flame started to build too. “For our world,” Tsuna murmured. “For our Family.” He heard Reborn calling for everyone to get back, and whispered, “For Federico.”
Xanxus screamed as he fired, raw and agonized, and Tsuna stretched out his hand and drove his own heart and Flame out, after the thing that had twisted their world and their lives, the living person he could not allow to continue living. He met Byakuran’s eyes one last time before they disappeared in the wild fusion of Flames, blank and somehow surprised.
And then they really were in freefall and Tsuna barely had the strength left to keep himself on top of the rubble instead of underneath it. The jagged ruin still stole the world away when he landed.
Tsuna woke up with Reborn’s shoe in his ribs, which was comforting. Hazily, he decided that said something about his life. “Gokudera,” he rasped, and coughed. Dust hung thick in the air.
His right hand appeared in his field of vision, leaning over him. “Here, Boss. We’re all accounted for. Ryouhei has broken bones and Chrome is still unconscious. Mammon’s protective suit tore and he’s been evacuated back to headquarters. Squalo has a concussion and Irie has internal bleeding; we’re waiting on immobilizers to move him. Everything else is minor.”
Tsuna sagged back against the rock with a sigh of relief. “Thank you.” After this long, Gokudera knew what was most important to him. He looked at Reborn. “Uni?”
“I’m fine,” Uni answered herself, coming to kneel beside him. “Thank you for doing this.”
“You’re welcome, though we didn’t have much choice.” Tsuna waved a hand and Yamamoto stepped in to helped him up. Once he was standing, Xanxus left off growling at his people and stalked over, attitude only slightly impaired by an exhausted stagger every now and then. Tsuna couldn’t help a tiny smile.
“Is he dead?” Xanxus demanded, hard eyes tracking over each of them. A ragged edge of tension still ran through him.
“Not like you left any bodies to check,” Gokudera pointed out dryly, but Uni shook her head.
“He’s gone,” she said with certainty.
“Gone.” Xanxus looked at them, and then around at the rubble that was all that remained of the Millefiore. The tension in him wavered uncertainly.
Tsuna took a long, slow breath. “All right. It’s over, then.” He let the breath out. “So it’s time to go home.”
A murmur of relief ran through his people until a raw crack of laughter broke it. “Home?” Xanxus swayed on his feet. “What for?”
Tsuna flinched. “Xanxus…”
“Um?” Irie edged cautiously closer. “He… he isn’t dead. Federico.”
Tsuna just looked at him, completely unable to make sense of the words. “What?”
“The bullet he was shot with. It was one of the special bullets. It didn’t kill him; he’s only suspended.” Irie’s words came faster in face of their stares. “It was the plan he agreed to, for the sake of defeating Byakuran. He’s still alive.”
Tsuna’s stunned thoughts worked through that slowly. A plan. For defeating Byakuran. That required Federico be dead. Only not. He looked around at the flattened ruin he and Xanxus had made of the building and thought about the constant pain at the back of the past few days. Finally he bowed his head. “It worked,” he whispered, which was all the forgiveness and blame he could possibly afford his boss.
His head snapped up again at the sound Xanxus made. Xanxus was staring around too, eyes wild and wounded. “Boss…” he whispered, harsh, and sank to his knees like the strings holding him up had been cut.
Maybe they had.
“Xanxus!” Tsuna slid to his own knees in front of Xanxus, grabbing his shoulders. Xanxus wrenched away from him in wordless denial, but Tsuna didn’t give way
Xanxus was one of his Family.
He reached down into himself even though his Will and spirit felt scraped raw and pulled up strength out of the oath he’d given.
He leaned his forehead against Xanxus’, and wrapped his Flame around memories of Federico, and and pressed them against the void of Xanxus’ pain. He held Xanxus’ Flame in his, held on to the knowledge, the memory, that Federico loved them. “He wouldn’t have done it for anything less than our world, for anything less than the life of our whole Family. You know that!” And he knew it, because he’d given the same promise himself.
Eventually Xanxus sagged in his grip, whole body shaking. Tsuna sighed softly and leaned against him. “I know,” he whispered. “I know.” Slowly he levered himself to his feet again. “Come on. We need to get home.” He looked over at Uni and Irie. “You too.”
He was careful to put Irie in a different car than Xanxus, though.
Federico had believed Irie when he said this was the only way, that Federico himself had to be out of the picture so that the Sky ring could go to Tsuna, that only rage at his death would drive Tsuna and Xanxus to do what had to be done and see it through to the bare, blasted end. He would never have agreed if he hadn’t believed it.
When he saw Tsuna shepherding Xanxus toward the mansion, though, and saw the broken slump of Xanxus’ shoulders, that didn’t really help.
Chaos surrounded them as the wounded were unloaded and the dazed looking prisoners-turned-allies of the erstwhile Black Spell were led off to one of the emptier wings, and all of it required his attention, his direction, the reassurance that he lived. But the idea of betraying the pain and need in Xanxus’ shuttered eyes, again, made him sick. Xanxus hesitated as he came to them, turning his head away, and Federico bit the inside of his lip hard.
Tsuna made an exasperated sound and gave Federico a stern look. “Until tomorrow morning,” he said, and held up his ring hand. “Until then. Just go.” He pushed Xanxus firmly toward Federico and turned to march off toward the knot of Vongola underbosses gathering around the young Giglio Nero boss and her second, Gamma.
Federico blinked and his mouth quirked. “Well. I suppose we’d better do as he says, then.” Xanxus didn’t answer, and Federico’s heart twisted again. “Come here,” he said, softer, and closed an arm around Xanxus’ shoulders, leading him into the House. He could feel the tremors running through Xanxus and cursed himself and fate and Byakuran impartially.
He only waited until a few doors were closed behind them to pull Xanxus against him and hold him tight.
A shudder ran through Xanxus and he clutched Federico’s shoulders. “Boss…” he said, low and hoarse.
“Only to save our Family,” Federico whispered to him, one hand coming up to cradle the back of his head. “Not for anything less than that, I swear it. I’m sorry.”
Someone like Xanxus didn’t cry easily, and the harsh, stifled sobs that wrenched out against his shoulder set Federico to damning Byakuran and his ancestors for ten generations, and himself for doing such a thing to the one most loyal to him, no matter the reason. He held Xanxus to him tightly, and drew in a deep breath. “Never again,” he said, closing his eyes at what he was promising. “Never again, for any reason; you have my word.”
Slowly, Xanxus quieted, though he still didn’t look up. “Your word?” he asked, finally, voice choked and rough.
“My word,” Federico swore, wrung out by the pain he’d caused. Maybe what he promised now would lead him to a betrayal of his greater Family, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t think of doing something like this to Xanxus again.
Xanxus nodded just a little against his shoulder. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Federico murmured again, at a loss because the words weren’t nearly enough but he couldn’t think of anything that would be.
Xanxus shook his head. “Just… let me stay?”
Federico caught him closer, fiercely. “Yes.”
Eventually he pulled Xanxus into the bedroom and down onto the bed, and worked off his shoes and jacket, careful to never let him go entirely. Xanxus watched him quietly, with bruised eyes, and pressed close when Federico settled beside him. It was an hour, maybe two, before the tightness of his arms around Federico finally relaxed a little, and his breath started to come deeper. Federico stayed awake, holding him close, fingers running slowly through his hair, watching over him as the sky lightened.
Never again, he promised in his heart. Whatever it took, never again.
And as Tsuna leaned wearily over a table, drinking the coffee Gokudera brought him as he spoke to Uni about the anti-Trinisette generator, the Sky ring gleamed for a moment on his finger.
Federico called in all the Family’s leaders the next afternoon, and sighed at the way they shifted and murmured among themselves. “All right, everyone shut up and listen.” He laid it all out as clearly as he could, the danger Byakuran had posed, the evidence across time that said Tsuna and Xanxus had to be the ones to bring him down, the stakes that they had gambled against, the Trinisette itself. He watched his people’s eyes move over Reborn, in his wheelchair, and over Uni, with the gently glowing box set between her hands on the table, and over Tsuna and the six who stood behind him.
“We won that gamble,” he told them, putting as much assurance in his voice as years of experience let him, “and the Family is safe.”
“And you’re alive,” Tsuna added, with just an edge of dryness. Federico was sure he’d hear more of it in private. “So there’s something left to do.”
Another stir ran through the room as Tsuna rose. He met Federico’s eyes, mouth twitching just a bit at the corner, and pulled the Sky ring from his finger. “This is yours.” He offered it on his open palm. “Boss.”
Federico took the Ring back, smiling wryly up at Tsuna. “I know you never wanted it,” he murmured, just between the two of them, and then raised his voice for the rest. “You’ve done everything I asked of you and more. Thank you.”
Tsuna snorted softly, covered by the generally relieved rustle in the room as he took his seat again. Behind him, the rustle continued as Tsuna’s Guardians passed their Rings back to Federico’s. Not the way things usually happened, but Federico took a certain comfort in the relief on a few of their faces. At least he could relieve these few from the burden of the last few days.
“Now,” he gathered his people’s eyes back to himself. “We have two last things to deal with. One is our new alliance with the Giglio Nero.” He nodded to Uni, who nodded serenely back. “We will be working together to recover the Mare rings from the Millefiore headquarters and restore that balance.”
A generally approving murmur went around. From Fedele’s quick report, it seemed that some of Uni’s people had impressed the Vongola, who appreciated honorable opponents.
“The second thing is a new member of our Family.” Federico opened his hand at Irie, sitting quietly off to the side. “Irie risked more than his life to bring us news of Byakuran and a plan to defeat him. I have taken him and a few of his own people who survived into the Vongola.”
The murmur was more dubious this time, and cut across by the harsh sound Xanxus made as he pushed half out of his chair, glaring at Irie. Federico had expected that, all things considered, and started to reach out to him, but someone else beat him to it.
“Xanxus.” Tsuna laid a firm hand on Xanxus’ shoulder, and there was compassion but no shred of compromise in his voice. Federico’s brows went up. Apparently this experience was going to have some lasting effects; he’d never heard Tsuna speak like that except in the deepest grip of his Will and in the middle of a fight.
Xanxus glowered at Tsuna, but subsided under his hand.
Another murmur went around the room, this one with a thoughtful undertone, and any protests over Irie were lost in the sudden sidelong looks at Tsuna.
Federico resisted the urge to rub his forehead and curse. Damn, damn, damn it all anyway.
He’d hoped to avoid this.
“So Cienna and Ricco are coming back to the main house soon?” Tsuna leaned back in his hair with a sigh. “Good. That will be the last thing we need to get things back to normal.”
Tsuna cocked his head at Fedele. “What? Is Cienna still upset with Federico?” Not that he could blame her in the least.
Fedele ran a hand through his hair, not meeting Tsuna’s eyes. “It… might not be the best moment for Ricco, especially, to come back.”
Tsuna frowned. “Is he that upset with his father?” He could understand being a little shocked over the whole temporarily-dead thing, but Ricco had always struck him as quite resilient.
For some reason, Fedele was giving him an exasperated look. “No, it’s this thing with you.”
Tsuna blinked, at a loss. “With… me?” Surely no one else had heard him tearing strips off his Boss for this whole affair? And even if they had, who would have told Ricco about it?
Now Fedele was staring. “Tsuna. Are you telling me you really don’t know?”
“Know what?” Tsuna was starting to get irritated with all this obscurity.
Fedele sat back, frowning at him. “That a good two thirds of the Family is saying that you should be the Eleventh, after Federico. That you already are, in fact.”
For a long moment, the words didn’t even make sense. When they did, Tsuna’s chair went over with a clatter.
Federico was trying to find just the right ending to his exquisitely polite letter to the Vendicare, telling them that it wasn’t his problem if they couldn’t keep track of their prisoners and no they could not search his headquarters for Rokudou Mukuro, when his office door flung open with a crash. He had his gun halfway out before he realized that it was Tsuna.
Tsuna, panting and rather wild eyed.
“Have you heard about this?!” Tsuna demanded, before Federico would ask what the hell was wrong.
“About what?” he asked, holstering the gun and sitting back down.
“Everyone thinking I’m supposed to be the Eleventh!”
Ah. Now it made sense. Federico sighed and gave Fedele, just now coming up behind Tsuna, a wry smile. “I’ve heard it mentioned in passing, yes.” No one was quite saying it to his face, yet, any more than they’d mentioned it to Tsuna himself, which just went to show that the Vongola didn’t have any stupid underbosses.
“Sorry, Boss,” Fedele murmured, closing the doors after them. “I didn’t realize…”
Federico waved it off and pointed to a chair. “Sit.”
Tsuna sat, looking thoroughly unnerved. “I mean, when we were at war, yes, I suppose it made some sense. When it was the only way. But I’m not in the line of real descent! I would never take that away from Ricco!”
“I know you wouldn’t,” Federico said, quietly. “But, Tsuna, the fact is you are in a legitimate line. And the whole Family has just watched you prove your strength.” And his leadership, more to the point.
Tsuna downright glared at him, rather the way he often did at Reborn. “Stop helping! You can’t possibly want to see that happen.”
Federico sighed. “No, I don’t. But I have to deal with the facts as they are, and this idea has gained a great deal of momentum. I have to consider the good of our whole Family; an internal fight will serve no one.”
Tsuna’s mouth tightened and he lowered his head. “If it is your judgment that taking the Ring after you is the best service I can give to the Vongola, I will, of course, do as you wish,” he said, low.
Federico winced. The conscience of the Vongola had a way with pointed words. “I’m trying to calm things down. Just give it a little time.”
“I’ll try.” Tsuna sounded dubious, and Federico couldn’t really blame him.
Tsuna did his best to give things time for a month. And then another. He did his best not to fry the liver of any Family member who mentioned the possibility of being the Eleventh to him, and stopped being able to complain about it, either, because Gokudera looked like he secretly agreed with them even while he was sympathizing and Yamamoto laughed and Hibari asked what was stopping him. He held onto his patience with both hands, and his teeth on bad days, and tried not to give Federico too many reproachful looks.
The part that really got to him, though, was the way Ricco had started looking at him.
“He has to know I wouldn’t!” he insisted to Federico, almost pleading. “He knows that, doesn’t he?”
“I’m sure he does, Tsuna, he’s known you for years.” That would have been more soothing if Federico hadn’t had a little frown line between his brows. “I think it’s just that he keeps hearing the edges of conversations about this.”
Tsuna slumped back in his chair a little, contemplating fried livers again. “Boss,” he said quietly, “I don’t think this is going to go away.”
“Not easily, no,” Federico agreed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Not unless we make something of it. I’d hoped to avoid that.”
“I’ll be happy to make something of it,” Tsuna growled, and Federico’s mouth tilted.
“I know it’s an insult to your loyalty,” he said softly. “I’m sorry to have asked you to stand and swallow such a thing. I hope you know that I have no doubts of you at all.”
Tsuna’s temper ebbed away on that assurance, and he ducked his head. “I know.”
The moment of ease was broken by a quick rap on the door. “Dad? Are you… oh.” Ricco hesitated, and Tsuna’s heart twinged. “Well… actually, maybe it’s good if I can talk to both of you?”
“Come in, son.” Federico smiled and held out a hand. “What’s on your mind?”
“Well…” Ricco perched on one of the chairs, shifting nervously. “It’s about this thing I keep hearing, about, um, Tsuna being the Eleventh instead of me.”
Tsuna took a breath and braced himself. “Ricco,” he said as calmly as he could, “please believe me, I have no intention of doing any such thing.”
“Well, about that.” Ricco shifted again. “Um. I think it might work out?”
Tsuna stared at him, caught completely by surprise, distantly aware that Federico was staring too.
“Ricco,” Federico managed, finally, “why would you say that?”
“Well, Dad,” Ricco huffed a little, “if I’m the next Boss then I have to get married, right? And have heirs too, right?” His face wrinkled up like he’d smelled something bad. “And that means going to bed with a girl. And the… the squishy bits.” He didn’t add yuck! but he might as well have.
Tsuna opened his mouth and closed it again, exchanging completely bemused looks.
“I think you might feel differently when you’re older,” Federico started, and for a moment that made sense to Tsuna, but… thinking back he was very sure he’d grown out of the girls-are-icky stage much younger than Ricco’s current sixteen, and so had everyone he’d known.
Ricco had stopped fidgeting and was giving Federico a look of complete exasperation. “Dad. I don’t mean it like that at all.”
As Federico blinked, Tsuna ran Ricco’s phrasing past his mental ear again and started to have a glimmer of suspicion. “Ricco?” he asked, and when Ricco turned that grownups-are-idiots expression on him, murmured, “Am I right in thinking it’s the having sex with girls that’s the problem, and not having sex with girls?”
Ricco brightened up. “Yeah!” And then he glanced at his father and started fidgeting again.
Federico made a couple of tries before he settled on, “I’m sure there are ways to deal with that…”
Ricco crossed his arms and looked mulish. “I haven’t heard of any way to have a kid with another guy, have you? And I don’t have any cousins last I looked. Except Tsuna.” He hunched down a little more and added, “And have you heard what they want me to do?! They want me to marry Mari!”
Tsuna sat bolt upright. “Exactly who has suggested marrying off my daughter?” he asked, very evenly. His two-year-old daughter!
Ricco blinked and edged back in his chair. “That was, um, Filippo Diatto.”
Federico looked like he was getting a headache. “Tsuna, please don’t kill anyone without letting me know first,” he murmured, and sat back, running a hand through his hair. “Ricco. I suppose I can understand why you might be hesitant. But giving this up… do you really understand what this means?”
Ricco looked up at him, serious. “It means that Tsuna will be Boss after you, and take care of the Family. It means I’ll be an underboss, I guess.”
“And under Tsuna’s orders,” Federico added, gently. “Even if you disagree with him. Can you give him your whole loyalty that way?”
Ricco looked over at Tsuna and said, directly to him, “Yes.” He broke into a sudden smile, the same one that melted resistance when Federico showed it. “I trust you. You’ll take good care of everyone.”
“Ricco,” Tsuna said, softly. He reached out and laid a hand on Ricco’s shoulder. “I’m honored by your trust.”
Ricco blushed and ducked his head. When he looked up at his father again, his eyes were wide and entreating. “Dad. Please. I think this would be best for everyone. I mean… if I’d had a sister you wouldn’t have forced her to marry someone she didn’t like, would you?”
Federico shook his head, looking stunned. “No. No, of course not.” He pushed away from his desk and held out his arms. “Ricco, come here.”
Tsuna smiled softly and looked away, giving Ricco’s teenage dignity a little privacy as the two of them hugged each other tight.
“I never intended to do any such thing,” Federico said, a little husky, and Ricco nodded vigorously against his shoulder. He took a deep breath and looked across at Tsuna. “So. Considering this… are you willing to take the Family after me, Tsuna?”
Tsuna took a moment to reorder the thoughts that Ricco had turned upside down and settled his shoulders, meeting Federico’s eyes. “I am.”
Federico smiled that sweet, bright smile for him. “I have no doubts of you,” he said, quietly.
Tsuna bowed his head, giving again, silently, the promise he’d given once before. Anything for his Family.
Ricco straightened up and scrubbed a hand, as if casually, over his eyes. “Okay! I can tell Lambo it’s all okay, then!”
After a moment of silence, it was Tsuna who said, “Lambo?”
Ricco froze. “Oh. Um.”
“Lambo?” Federico echoed.
“Um. Yeah.” Ricco smiled at them both hopefully, edging backward toward the door all the time. “So, that’s all cleared up, right? Great!” He was out the door before either Tsuna or Federico could frame the question hovering over both their heads.
“On the bright side,” Tsuna finally said, a little weakly, “after this, managing the Family should be simple.”
Gokudera leaned back in his chair and gave Tsuna a wry smile across the desk. “Well, at least this time we have a little more notice to prepare.”
“I’m not sure that’s actually an advantage,” Tsuna told him. Staring down the gauntlet of inheritance without a mafia war to distract him was doing bad things to his nerves.
“Well I appreciate it,” Gokudera said dryly, and Tsuna shook himself and smiled at his right hand.
“I know. Most of the re-organization is falling on you. I’m sorry I can’t—”
Gokudera waved a hand to cut him off with a small smile. “Boss. It’s my job, and it’s one I’m glad to do for you. You take care of boss-stuff and leave the rest to me.”
Tsuna reflected, once again, that he didn’t know what he’d done to deserve the friends, and soon the Guardians, fate had given him, but it must have been something pretty stupendous.
“Speaking of which,” Gokudera added, “have you found anyone who might take over—”
A tap at the door interrupted them, and Ricco stuck his head inside. “Tsuna, do you have a moment?”
“We were just,” Tsuna started, but Gokudera shook his head, suddenly smiling cheerfully.
“No, it’s nothing that can’t wait. Go ahead.” He stood and gathered his paperwork and was out the door before Tsuna could do more than blink.
“Well, I guess I have a moment.” He waved Ricco to a seat. “Something on your mind?”
“Only the same thing that’s on the mind of absolutely everyone in the entire Family,” Ricco snorted, and Tsuna had to stifle a laugh.
“So what about your dad’s retirement?” he asked, obligingly.
“Well.” Ricco ran a hand through his hair and took a breath. “I was thinking that I should take the Varia.”
There were still times, even after all these years, when the mafia world shocked Tsuna, and this was one of them. “Why?” he finally managed to ask.
Ricco just looked back at him, eyes dark and serious. “We both know Xanxus is going with Dad, when he retires. There’s no way it could be different. And the knowledge that the leader of the Varia wields the Sky Flame has been one of our hole cards for a long time, hasn’t it? There’s only one person with the Sky who can take the Varia now.” His mouth quirked. “Mari is way too young.”
Tsuna, who had had his mouth open to mention how young Ricco still was, closed it. He was starting to have a suspicion of why Gokudera had left so fast; Ricco had a solid grasp on strategy, at least, if he’d spoken to Tsuna’s right hand ahead of time.
“Tsuna.” Ricco leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I know you don’t like assassination or most of the rest of the Varia’s business. But there will still be times we need it. And when those times come, the Varia had better still be the best. I can do that for the Family.” Softly he added, “And for you.”
Tsuna spread his hands flat against the desk, examining them, looking at the wink of the ring he was using now and remembering the oath he’d given to win the approval of the Vongola Ring. “I know,” he finally said, quietly. “I know you’re right. And I know you can.” He looked up with a wry smile. “I should have done what I was thinking about and asked you to take CEDEF, a few years ago, when my father retired.”
Ricco grinned at him. “I’d still have suggested this instead. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
“You’re your father’s son,” Tsuna murmured, and smiled a little at Ricco’s faint blush. “All right. I want to discuss this with a few other people, but… If you’re willing, I’ll be glad to have you.”
Ricco nodded solemnly. “Thank you.” The grin flashed again and he added, as he rose, “Boss.”
Tsuna watched him leave and thought about the future fast approaching. It wasn’t one he’d expected, when Reborn showed up on his doorstep or when he’d agreed to follow Federico. He’d never wanted to be the Vongola Eleventh. But this was the future, and the Family, that had come to him, and he’d found that he loved that Family too much to refuse.
“Anything,” he murmured again to the waiting shades of those who’d gone before.
They followed along at his shoulder as he went to find Gokudera.