Grazhir :: Crossover :: Hisui :: 12

12: 2015

They were having breakfast at Nana’s house when the subject of the recent attacks came up, with Nana asking, “Is there something wrong at Nami Middle? There was another assault case, wasn’t there?”

Tsuna turned his focus away from the refrigerator to aim a bleary look at his mother. “What?”

Renato set down his coffee cup and said, “I’m surprised you hadn’t heard, kitten. Eight prefects from Nami Middle were found with serious injuries last weekend. And, for some reason, all of them had teeth extracted. One boy was missing all of his.”

Tsuna had a freak-out half way to the table with his drink. “Eh!? For real!?” As he sat down he added, “Why would anyone do something like that?”

“No idea,” he lied. True, they were unaware of the exact details, but they assumed it had to be the Vindicare escapees causing trouble.

“Hey, Tsu-kun,” Nana said, “maybe you should learn some hand-to-hand fighting skill for defense?”

“What!? Why would I have to do something like that!?”

“Because I’m worried!” she said with uncharacteristic sharpness. “You should learn to protect yourself! Besides, a man needs to be strong, too, right?”

“Absolutely,” Renato said.

“Don’t agree with her! Besides, this has nothing to do with me. This is a fight between gangsters! The victims have all only been prefects, right?”

He sighed, but he had not really expected a different reaction from the kid. It had not touched Tsuna’s family or friends, so naturally he made the assumption that he was divorced from the situation.

They both walked their student to school. The attacks had begun in the evenings, but some of the victims had been targeted during the day. Nono had also asked them to step up their vigilance after reading the most recent report they’d submitted, but not to interfere directly unless they had to.

Renato handed over a sheaf of flyers to Tsuna with a smirk. “If Fūta was here, he could come up with a list of the best fighting styles to suit you.”

Tsuna opened his mouth to respond, but snapped it shut on seeing so many prefects out on the streets. He looked around before saying, “It’s the prefects. Over there, too.”

“Considering just how many of the victims have been prefects,” he said, “is it any wonder they’re a bit jittery?”

“This really is a gang fight or something,” Tsuna said obliviously.

“You’re wrong,” came an aloof voice.

“Hibari-san!”

“Chaos,” Renato greeted.

“Ano… I was just on my way to school…” Tsuna’s hands had gone up in a surrender posture.

“This is mischief with no meaning,” Hibari said coolly. “But of course, these sparks which have ignited must be severed from their origin.”

As Tsuna slid into another meltdown, the Nami Middle school song started to play, and Hibari brought his phone out, woke it, and held it to his ear.

“We—we’ll be running along now,” Tsuna said nervously, “to school.”

“He’s an acquaintance of yours,” Hibari said to Tsuna’s retreating form, “isn’t he? Sasagawa Ryohei … was attacked.”

Tsuna’s eyes went wide, then he took off in the direction of the hospital.

Hisui nodded a thanks to Hibari and followed, putting his earpiece into place. Tsuna was a speedy little thing when he was motivated, and got to the hospital in record time. After getting the room number for Ryohei the kid dashed upstairs and burst into the room. “Sasagawa-san! Are you all right!?”

Ryohei was stretched out on a bed, covered in bandages and casts. “Sawada-san,” he said, his voice muffled by the mask covering his nose and mouth, “you’re quick. I look really pathetic like this.”

“How are your injuries?” he asked, itching to do something to help, even if it would be seen as miraculous healing.

“Six broken bones, seven cracked, and…” Ryohei reached up with his unbroken arm and pulled the mask away. “Look,” he said, then smiled widely, revealing gaps. “I lost five of my teeth.”

Predictably, Tsuna freaked out.

“Having said that,” Ryohei added, “I’ve broken more bones and teeth during boxing. But, the guy who came looking for a fight… Although he appeared careless, he probably really is a strong guy…”

Tsuna snapped back to attention, remarkably. “Eh? You saw the attacker!?”

“Yup. He even knew my name. He wore a Kokuyo Middle uniform, from the next town over… Sawada-san, you be careful.”

“You’re saying that, too!? This has nothing to do with me!”

Hisui slipped out into the hallway to think, then activated his earpiece and said, “Ryohei-kun is missing five teeth.”

“Either he put up a better fight, the attacker or attackers is getting tired, or…”

“Yeah.” He nodded absently as Kyoko dashed by on her way to her brother’s room. “All males.”

“I’m almost there, by the way.”

“Third floor.”

“All right. Hibari took off with a rather purposeful air.”

He sighed, then looked over at fresh movement to see Tsuna emerging.

“Why did Sasagawa-san get beaten up!? What on Earth is going on!?”

“Stop pulling your hair like that,” he said irritably, “and stop yelling. You’re not the only one in a panic.” He gestured at the other students clustered on the floor.

One of them approached. “Oh, it’s Dame-Tsuna. Things are really bad.”

“What’s happened? Who are you visiting here?”

“Ah… It’s a senpai from my club. Mochida-san was attacked. And that’s not all. Since last night, five third years, four second years, and two first years, none of them prefects, were attacked.”

He sighed. He was going to have to try harder to stop Tsuna from going into meltdown so damn often. It made him tired just witnessing it so often. Renato slid into a spot next to him, so he tapped his earpiece. “You heard?” he said quietly.

“Yeah. And the poor boy only just got his hair back to looking semi-normal, too,” Renato replied. “You seen Fūta recently?”

He paused to think back and frowned. “No, actually. I didn’t expect to since Tsuna’s been coming to the house in the afternoons, but… Now that you mention it, he wasn’t there this morning, and he should have been.”

“You said Ryohei lost five teeth?”

“Yes. So, the rankings?”

“I’m thinking so.”

A hush broke out on the floor. Hisui checked and saw two prefects had arrived and every student was bowing.

“It’s the head prefect’s second in command, Kusakabe-san,” someone hissed.

“So, nobody’s seen any sign of the head?” Kusakabe said.

His companion snorted quietly. “Yeah. Like always, he’s probably gone after the enemy’s trail. So, really, it’s only a matter of time before the culprits are totally annihilated,” he said, voice getting softer as the two of them went toward the stairwell.

“I see.”

Something hit the floor, just barely heard amongst the rising swell of voices rejoicing at the idea of Hibari taking care of things.

Renato crouched long enough to pick up Leon’s tail. “Well, that pretty much says it all.”

“Ew, that’s gross,” Tsuna said, having turned his attention their way. “But wait, do chameleons lose their tails?”

He knocked his head back against the wall gently. The kid was so ignorant.

“When this happens,” Renato said ominously, “it’s an unlucky sign.”

He looked up to see that Leon had started changing shapes in an uncontrolled manner. The same thing had happened during their tenure as Dino’s tutors.

“Is he all right?” Tsuna asked.

“Once he loses his tail he can’t control his shape-changing ability,” Renato said. “It’s—”

“Make way!” someone shouted.

Every head in the room turned toward the sound to see a prefect being wheeled in on a gurney by two orderlies. Even mostly covered in a sheet, the person’s hairstyle was unmistakable. Hisui “reached” out to pry open Kusakabe’s mouth enough to see inside.

“Four of them,” Renato said. “There can be no doubt about it.”

“What are you talking about?” Tsuna asked.

“The cause of all this fighting is you, Tsuna-kun,” he said. “Kusakabe-san lost four teeth, Ryohei-kun lost five.”

“Before Ryohei was Moriyama. He lost six. Oshikiri before that lost seven. Yokomine lost eight. Do I have to keep going?” Renato asked. “The first person to get beaten lost all twenty-four teeth. It’s a countdown.” He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and showed it to Tsuna. “Once I realized there was a countdown, I found a correlation.”

“Namimori Middle’s fighting strength ranking? Eh…? What about it…?”

He rolled his eyes. “Tsuna-kun, please try to remember you have a brain and use it?”

“The order of the victims matches the ranking list,” Renato said slowly. “Fūta’s ranking list.”

“I don’t get it,” Tsuna said. “What is going on?”

“The mafia has a code, the Omertà. It’s a code that says under no circumstances should a person reveal the secrets of his organization. Fūta’s ranking lists are the entire industry’s top secret. There’s no way an ordinary person would have access to it. In other words, to get access to this ranking list means—”

“Ah!” Tsuna said, and for a moment there Hisui thought the kid finally saw. “Since the fourth-ranked Kusakabe-san was beaten, then the third-ranked would be targeted next!”

‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘but also that Fūta must be a prisoner, and there’s a mafia connection here.’

“Wh-what should we do?”

Renato stared at the kitten. “You go deal with it. I need to check out something that’s bothering me.”

Tsuna flung the list at them and ran. Hisui glanced at it long enough to get the information he needed, then tucked it away and followed. He disillusioned himself as soon as he could, and shadowed Tsuna on his flight. Along the way the kitten was caught in a net by Haru.

“We did it!” she cried happily. “Tsuna-san secured!” Lambo and I-Pin jumped up and down, flushed with success.

“You three!” Tsuna cried. “What are you doing!?”

“Haru heard lots of students in your school got targeted, and it’s getting dangerous,” she said earnestly. “Haru thought that if we got Tsuna-san before the villains did, we could save you!”

“That makes no sense at all,” Tsuna complained. “Now’s not the time to be playing games!”

“This is not a game,” she growled.

“Gokudera-kun is in trouble,” Tsuna yelled. “I need to go warn him! Now set me free!”

Haru blinked, then rushed forward to untangle Tsuna from the net. Lambo helped by making it worse, but his heart was probably in the right place. Tsuna was quickly enough on his feet again and racing away.

At the school Tsuna freaked out over learning that Hayato had left the school early. He raced back out and found a public phone, then slammed it back into its cradle thirty seconds later. “Damn it! Why is Gokudera-kun’s cell phone unreachable at a time like this!”

Two high school girls walking by jerked in surprise when they saw Tsuna and adjusted course. “It’s a Nami Middle student,” the darker-haired one said. “Don’t look, don’t look. We’d best not get too close.”

“We don’t want to get caught in anything strange, right,” her companion replied.

“Is that what people are saying now?” Tsuna whispered.

“Did you see what was happening in the shopping district earlier?”

“A fight broke out between a Nami Middle student and a Kokuyo student, right?”

Tsuna took off again. They were almost there when he could hear explosions, which was a likely indicator that Hayato had been targeted, but was still on his feet and active. Tsuna edged around the corner of a building. “Gokudera-kun!”

Hayato was sitting there having a smoke, but nearly lost his hold on the cigarette. “Jūdaime! Why are you here!?”

“I—I heard a rumor that said … you were being targeted by the Kokuyo Middle guys…”

“Wha—? You came especially because of that!?” Hayato jumped up. “Sorry for the trouble! I just took care of the guy!”

“It was true!?”

“He’s down somewhere over there,” Hayato said, turning to look. “Eh? He’s not there?”

“You saved me a lot of time.” Out of the smoke came a figure. The boy was bleeding fairly badly and his Kokuyo uniform was singed and shredded in places.

“Hiiiie!”

Hisui face-palmed and threw out his gravitational net, to keep an eye on anyone approaching the street.

“Please be careful,” Hayato warned. “His weapons are yo-yos.”

“Even if you say that, I’m too scared to move,” Tsuna admitted in a whisper.

Kokuyo flicked his hands out, but Hayato moved faster, and shielded Tsuna with his body. “Jūdaime, please escape,” he choked out before collapsing.

He sighed as Tsuna went into another meltdown over all the blood his friend was leaking. ‘Maybe aversion therapy would work?’ he mused, noting that someone was approaching at high speed. ‘It’s tempting to just shoot the kid, but I suspect… Well, if I’m wrong, I can cause the attack to fail, give the kitten a second chance to do something.’

“He’s broken,” Kokuyo said. “Now come with me.”

Tsuna stood there like a deer in the headlights.

“Let’s finish this quickly,” Kokuyo said, holding up his hands to reveal his weapons. As he went to attack the incoming presence rounded the corner and revealed itself to be Takeshi. Hisui relaxed slightly and watched as the baseball player did a perfect slide as the Kokuyo student lashed out with his yo-yos, and hauled Tsuna out of the way.

“This is called sliding into base!” Takeshi cried. “Safe!”

“Yamamoto-san,” Tsuna murmured with relief.

Kokuyo just stood there while the two talked, as Takeshi explained how he had come to be there, then said, “You’re in my way.” He lashed out again.

Takeshi pulled the baseball bat from his back and swung it. It was the same bat Renato had given the boy some time ago, so the speed at which Takeshi moved it morphed it into sword form, and the strings of the yo-yos were cut, rendering the pair useless.

“I see…” Kokuyo said. “Namimori Middle 2-A, seat number fifteen. You’re Yamamoto Takeshi.”

“So what if I am?” Takeshi said, eyes narrowed.

“You’re Ken’s prey,” Kokuyo said as voices sounded nearby, telling of the police on their way. “It’ll be trouble if I intervened…” He turned and started to walk away, saying, “I need a shower.”

“Is Gokudera-kun going to be all right?” Tsuna asked.

“Hey, hang in there!” Takeshi said.

Hisui stepped out of concealment and lifted Hayato up. “We’re going to the school. There’s too many people already at the hospital.”

“You’re really strong,” Takeshi commented admiringly.

He sighed and handed Hayato to the baseball player. “Let’s go,” he said, then pulled his phone out. As the boys started off he dialed Shamal and started to follow. “Yo, Shamal,” he said once the call connected. “I need a favor.”

“I’m kind of busy…”

“If you ever intend to enjoy my cooking again, you’ll get un-busy.”

“Uh, yeah. What do you need?”

“Get an infirmary bed ready for Hayato-kun at Nami Middle. I’ll explain once we get there.”

“Right, on it.”

The line went dead so he thumbed the side switch and pocketed the phone, then tapped his earpiece. “Heading to Nami Middle infirmary.”

It took a minute, but Renato eventually responded. “I’ll meet you there. I think I have everything I need. Had a conversation with Nono, too, but I’ll explain when I get there.”

“All right.”

Shamal had a bed ready and waiting when they pushed through the infirmary doors. He and Shamal shooed the boys out while they extracted the needles from Hayato, got him cleaned up, changed into a spare uniform, and into a bed. “So what the hell is going on?” Shamal asked. “Is this about those escapees Renato mentioned?”

“Yes. Hayato-kun was ranked third best fighter for Nami Middle, which is why he was attacked. They started at the twenty-fourth. They’re after Tsuna-kun. No real idea why, though.”

“If he’s third, who’s above him?” Shamal asked, checking Hayato’s pupils.

“Takeshi-kun and Hibari-kun. Hayato-kun lost a fair amount of blood, but he shouldn’t be unconscious like this. Poison on those needles, you think?”

“Very possibly. There is one thing I can do, but there’ll be side effects for a while.”

He looked at Hayato and frowned. Bezoars were not something he normally ever carried. There were not a lot of people who used poison as their weapon. Perhaps he should purchase some on his next trip, just in case. Even then, he wasn’t sure if they would work on mundanes or flame-active people. ‘It’s not like I intend to deliberately poison someone to test it,’ he thought.

“Side effects?”

“Episodes of fever, weakness, things like that,” Shamal replied. “The infection would take care of the poison, but there’s always a price to pay.”

“How long would it run for?”

“Eh, a day, maybe two.”

“Ren-kun should be here shortly. Technically he’s the boy’s guardian, under an alias.”

Shamal nodded. “How’d this happen? I know he was attacked, but…”

“He got these defending Tsuna-kun. The kitten froze up in fear, so Hayato-kun shielded him.”

Shamal sighed and shook his head. “I would have preferred that Hayato pushed Tsuna out of the way rather than allow himself to be hit. Silly boy is always ending up hurt.”

“He’s a bright kid, but I’m not sure Hayato-kun will come to the right conclusions on his own about why you stopped mentoring him,” he pointed out. “Maybe I can figure out some way to lead him there. Or Ren-kun.”

“Or me what?” Renato asked from behind him.

“One of us being devious enough to lead Hayato-kun to the realization that if he doesn’t protect himself, too, he’ll end up too hurt to continue protecting anyone else. That his life has value, too.”

“I’ll give it some thought. So what’s the deal here?”

“He’s been poisoned,” Shamal said. “I can infect him with something that’ll neutralize the poison, but it will have side effects for the next day, maybe two. Nothing too horrible, but certainly occasionally inconvenient.”

“And you’re technically his guardian.”

Renato pursed his lips. “Well, while we’re still mostly alone… Talked to Nono. He’s officially given this as a mission to Tsuna and his guardians. Expect another meltdown. That being the case, I think you should go ahead with the ‘cure’.”

Shamal nodded and got out his case.

Renato turned to him and said, “Dino doesn’t seem to think that all eight of the escapees are here. Only three were reported as heading to Japan, but I have my doubts. I’d rather expect all of them.”

“So would I. But, do we give the kids a proper report, or let them learn about things as they come. This isn’t a job in the usual sense and if we tell the kitten too much he’ll keel over.”

“Only the initial three who came to Japan,” Renato said. “But considering how well at least one of them fights…”

“The one who attacked Hayato-kun said that Takeshi-kun was ‘Ken’s prey’, so they’ve been taking turns, I suppose, which means those two are good, and Rokudo-san is probably better. Your point being, we take along whoever we can get, because you and I aren’t part of the offensive team.”

Hayato shifted and let out a soft, pained moan.

“He’ll be reasonably fine soon enough,” Shamal commented, “but I’d prefer you don’t set out on this jaunt until morning, to give him a good head start on healing.”

Renato nodded. “Shamal… Because we can’t be certain how many of them came, will you keep an eye out on the town while we’re away tomorrow?”

“Sure, sure.”

“If something—”

The door slammed open and Bianchi burst in holding a basket of questionable baked goods. “Why is Hayato here instead of the hospital?” she demanded.

“Bianchi~chan!” Shamal sang, and lunged.

She shifted her weight and nailed Shamal in the face with her foot. “Back off!”

Shamal cradled his face and smiled, undeterred. “Aw, come on. The hospital is packed right now and it’s Hisui who made the decision to bring Hayato here. I don’t treat guys, but getting a bed ready … it’s okay, isn’t it? Come stay with the good doctor,” he purred at her.

Her response was to punch him. “So not okay! I will attend to Hayato’s recuperation! If you’re going to get in my way, step outside!”

“Bianchi-san,” Takeshi said quietly from the open doorway. Tsuna echoed him.

“If you say so,” Shamal said, back to cradling his face. “He’ll recover from one thing and die from the other,” he muttered, eyeing the gift basket.

“Yeah,” Tsuna murmured.

Takeshi chortled. Perhaps he thought it was some kind of dry wit and wanted to be sociable?

“Yamamoto Takeshi, just what is so funny?” Bianchi asked, staring daggers at the boy. “Depending on your answer, I may kill you.”

Tsuna approached the bed and gazed sadly at Hayato, then left the room again. In that illusion of privacy he remonstrated himself. “I’m an idiot! Why couldn’t I move!? It’d have been fine if I’d just moved!”

Hisui moved to the doorway as Renato went out into the hall. Tsuna looked up and gawked at the state Leon was in on Renato’s hat, then pointed. “What the heck is that!?”

“Leon settled down into a cocoon state.”

“Cocoon…? Anyway, things have gotten really bad here! What have you been up to!?” Tsuna demanded, almost accusingly.

“I was investigating an incident that happened in Italy. Two weeks ago a jailbreak happened at a high security prison reserved for mafia criminals who had committed the most heinous of crimes. The escaped convicts killed several of the wardens and other prisoners. The ringleaders were tracked by the mafia’s information network. A young man and two subordinates came to Japan. Following that, three students ‘returning from abroad’ transferred into Kokuyo Middle, and not long after that, a gang of hooligans was formed. That was ten days ago. The gang leader’s name is Rokudo Mukuro.”

“Why’s someone so frightening targeting Nami Middle!?” Tsuna cried, then paused. “So these guys are mafia?”

“The opposite,” Renato replied. “These people have been exiled from the mafia for their crimes.”

Tsuna crouched down against the wall and clutched at his head. “Things have gotten very, very bad… What should I do?”

“These people are after you, kitten,” he said. “What should you do? You have no choice but to take down Rokudo-san and his gang.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! There’s no way we can beat guys like these, right!?”

“Still with the yelling,” he muttered. ‘Must not smack the kitten. Or kick him. Or give him a senbon to a tender spot.’

Renato shrugged carelessly and produced an envelope from his pocket. “Even if you can’t do it, you have no choice.” He opened the envelope and slid a letter out, pocketing the envelope. He flipped the paper open and rattled it. “This is the first time the Vongola Nono has written a letter to you.”

Hisui noticed it was the printout of an email with the originating address blacked out.

“ ‘Dear Vongola Decimo Capo,’ ” Renato read. “ ‘I have heard of developments at your location from your tutors. As the highest ranking member of the Vongola Famiglia present, I am giving you this order. The time has come for you to take the next step. By midnight of ninth September, you are to capture or kill Rokudo Mukuro and his gang of escaped convicts. You are also to rescue the hostage at the same time. Best of luck, Nono Capo.’ ”

Tsuna freaked.

“ ‘P.S. If you refuse your mission you will be branded a traitor and put to death.’ ”

Meltdown commenced. Tsuna’s hands went up to cover his ears as he chanted, “I didn’t hear that! I didn’t hear anything! This has nothing to do with me!” He dropped his hands and fled down the hallway.

He sighed and followed, making sure the boy got home safely, planting a tracker on him as well. He could not prevent a single person from leaving the relative safety of the house—not without going in to manually manipulate the wards—so a tracker would have to do. If Tsuna left the assigned space on his mental map, he would know.

Once he was at home he cast a locating charm for the Kokuyo student from earlier. The general direction was that of Kokuyo itself. He got out a map of the surrounding territory and started plotting. Renato joined him once he got home, but quickly diverted to his laptop, where he started checking satellite feeds for the area. There were decided advantages to being highly trusted associates of the Vongola, and that included back door access to a number of things. Renato’s hacking skills were nearing legendary, but every little bit helped.

“All right. I have a very good idea where we need to go,” Renato said as Hisui set the map aside. “There’s been activity in an abandoned amusement park called Kokuyo Land over the past week or so, whereas before there was nothing. I’m willing to bet they’re there. Plus the heading you worked out. It fits.”

He nodded and got up to prepare dinner. “I have a tracker on the kitten in case he decides to do something stupid and leave the house,” he informed his lover, then got to work. “So we have, what? Tsuna-kun, Hayato-kun, Takeshi-kun, and probably Bianchi-chan. I can’t see her staying behind, and she’s not restricted the way we are. Hibari-kun is probably already there, and Fūta-kun has been captured. Assuming they don’t just dogpile us, we might be all right.”

Renato hummed. “I don’t think it’d be against the rules too much for you to impart a little gravity to the situation, just to ease things if it comes to it. A medical team has been arranged for. I just have to tell them where to cool their heels.”

“I’ll check after dinner, just to be certain.” And he did, disillusioning himself and speeding off on the heading from a location charm. Once he found Kokuyo Land he sent another locater and smiled to himself when it returned back a strong hit; that “student” was within, and that was good enough for him. He sped off again until he was a fair distance away, then apparated home. “They seem to be there,” he said. “I considered extending a net, but for all I know one of them could sense the flames.”

Renato nodded. “I’ll let the team know where to set up, then. Since the new highway went in there isn’t a lot of traffic past there, so they’ll have to be careful. Should be all right, though. They can go in tonight, use night vision to navigate rather than lights, get situated and camouflaged.”

The next morning they headed to the Sawada home. Tsuna was still freaking out, which meant he recognized that he was not getting out of things. “There’s no place left to feel secure,” Renato observed as they watched Tsuna pace around his room.

Tsuna jumped and spun around, finally noticing that they were perched in the tree outside his window.

“Not to mention,” Renato continued, taking a moment to jump inside, “the guy that attacked Gokudera knows you’re the boss. They’ll come after you directly next.”

Tsuna dropped onto his bed and clutched at his hair as Hisui jumped inside. “Hiiiiiie. What should I do? I’m scared.”

“You already know what you should do,” he said. “I thought Nono made it pretty clear.”

“And don’t forget what those guys have already done in order to get to you,” Renato added. “If you keep running from this, the number of victims will only increase. Do you want them to come here next? Go after Mama?”

Tsuna got a flinty look to his eyes for a second. “Even so… Even so, I think what those guys are doing is really strange. Why get everyone into trouble…? That Rokudo guy really pisses me off!” He looked down uncertainly. “But, even Hibari-san hasn’t come back… There’s no way Dame-Tsuna can go up against a guy like that… It’s impossible…”

“That’s not what the others think,” he said, nodding toward the bedroom door.

“Let me go with you!” Hayato said. “This time, I’m gonna kill that spectacles freak!”

“Gokudera-kun!” Tsuna shot to his feet. “But what about your injuries?”

“What, those little scratches?” Hayato said, a smirk on his lips.

“I’m going, too!” Takeshi slipped into the room with a smile, the container for his bat slung across his back. “They told me all about the matter with Kokuyo Middle. It’s an inter-school mafia role-play, isn’t it?”

Bianchi slid in between the two boys. “I’ll be there. I’m worried about Hayato.”

Hayato unfortunately looked sideways and immediately hunched over. Hisui sighed as Renato offered Bianchi a set of tinted goggles to wear, and wondered if there was some bizarre enchantment he could work that would more or less permanently obscure part of Bianchi’s face to Hayato’s eyes, so they did not have to go through this every damn time.

“Right,” Renato said. “We’ll all go to the enemy grounds together. If there’s anything you want to take along that you didn’t already bring, go get it now. We’ll leave in an hour.”

Takeshi took off, saying he’d be back shortly, and Bianchi headed downstairs, even as Tsuna started protesting. Once the boy realized he could protest until he was blue in the face and get nowhere, he got changed and they headed downstairs.

Nana was just putting food on the table when they walked in, so they took seats. “What’s this?” she asked. “You changed into your favorite clothes. Are you going out to play?”

“Ano…”

“Maybe not today, hm? Nami Middle students are still getting attacked, right?”

Nana was distracted by Lambo and I-Pin scrambling into the room.

“Everyone’s going about peacefully in ignorance,” Tsuna muttered, watching as his mother indulged the two children, then went off with them.

“It is for that purpose that we’re going to take those people down,” Renato murmured, his hat still adulterated by a cocoon-state Leon.

“You make it sound so easy,” Tsuna complained, then looked over and gawked again. “Is Leon seriously all right?”

“You really should be worrying about yourself, and not Leon,” Renato replied. “Every time Leon gets into this state, it means my student is going to face something life-threatening.”

“Don’t—wait, even Dino-san? And why would you say something like that before we leave?”

“Yes, even Dino,” Renato said, finishing up his meal. “And just as a reminder, we can’t fight your battles for you, so you’re going to have to try your hardest.”

“What!? For real!? But they’re escaped convicts,” Tsuna hissed.

“What part of the mission being given directly to you did you miss?” he said.

“The rules say the most we can do while we’re there is shoot you with a Dying Will Bullet,” Renato said.

“That’s the worst rule ever!”

Renato shrugged and got up, bussing his and Hisui’s dishes to the sink. “Oh, yeah, there’s only one left,” he lied.

They had plenty of them stocked, but Tsuna didn’t need to know that. Leon usually had one incubating at any given time, unless they purposefully prevented him from nabbing any. He had ingested one not long before he swallowed the gloves intended for Tsuna, and had yet to cough it back up. It was true, however, that a bullet left too long unused reverted to normal, so they made it a practice to check them every so often to weed out the no longer viable ones.

“Eh?”

“Dying Will Bullets are formed inside Leon’s body,” Renato explained. “But, he can’t make any when he’s like this. Besides, it takes several days for each bullet, in a process similar to an oyster creating pearls.”

“I—I had no idea Leon was such an important pet,” Tsuna said quietly.

“The point being,” he said, “don’t count on more than one of them.”

“I should be glad I won’t be shot more than once with one, but… This is bad either way! What do I—”

Takeshi rushed in, bag in one hand, large thermos in the other. “It’s finally time to go!” he said cheerfully. “I brought sushi and tea.”

“Are you looking for a fight, Yamamoto Takeshi?” Bianchi said from the doorway. “Is what I prepared too stingy for you?” She held open a box filled with, no doubt, Poison Cooking.

“We can bring both, right?” Takeshi said reasonably. “There’s a lot of us!”

“So it’s just Gokudera-kun now,” Tsuna said. “It’s unusual for him to be—oh. Is he still upstairs?” He rushed off.

“Bianchi-chan,” he said. “Please put on the goggles.”

“What? Oh.” She replaced the cover for the box she was holding and slipped them on.

Once Tsuna and Hayato appeared Renato said, “All right. Let’s be off.”

Kokuyo Land was a mess. Behind the closed and locked gates it rose upward along the hills, a wasteland of broken buildings and encroaching flora, a place left to degenerate under the effects of weather and time.

“This is really ominous,” Tsuna said quietly.

“Is the whole area just ruins?” Hayato asked.

“Long ago it was an entertainment resort called Kokuyo Land,” Renato said.

Tsuna hummed thoughtfully. “I’ve been here before, years ago! That’s right. There was a karaoke club, a cinema, and even a small garden zoo here.”

“There was a plan for renovation,” he said, “but two years ago a typhoon came through and caused a mudslide. Since then, it’s been in this condition.”

Hayato walked to the gate and examined it. “The lock’s all rusted. It doesn’t look like those guys used this entrance. What should we do?”

‘Seriously? I can think of half a dozen ways in off the top of my head.’

“We’ve already decided, right?” Bianchi said, lifting her hand. “We go straight through the front door.”

“W-wait, Bianchi-san!”

“Poison Cooking: Sakura Cake!” she cried, and pasted the lock with her creation. It melted, and Hayato gingerly pulled the chains free so he could push the gate open.

“All right,” Renato said briskly. “Since we have no idea where they are, let’s do a thorough search of the buildings all the way to the summit.”

Takeshi laughed. “This is really cool! This mafia role-play is super real!”

“I’m telling you, Yamamoto-san—”

“Tsuna,” Renato interrupted sharply, “since you’ve been here before, you should lead the way.”

Tsuna stuttered a lot of nothing for a few seconds, then protested, “The last time I came here was a really long time ago!” At Renato’s stern look he gazed around with a frown of effort. “Eh… From what I remember, right after we entered the gate there was a glass building housing the garden zoo.”

Takeshi started walking forward slowly, head sweeping back and forth. “There doesn’t seem to be any such thing here. But… Hm.” He crouched down and touched the ground. “This looks like some animal’s tracks. It’s fresh, too. A dog, perhaps? But no, it’s way too big for that.”

Bianchi crouched down as well. “The part where the claw is … has blood.”

“Hiiiiie,” Tsuna quietly squeaked. “Could the animals from the zoo still be around?”

“No way,” Hayato said.

Bianchi got up and started looking around, then went over to a nearby tree and ran a hand along the surface. “The tree trunk here has been badly gouged.”

“Reminds me of fangs,” he said.

“And those cages over there,” Hayato said. “Remains of the zoo? The bars are broken…”

He sighed as Tsuna went into another meltdown and idly wondered if Leon could eat that sort of reaction—when he wasn’t incubating oddities, anyway. Even if he could, would there be a point in forcing the kitten not to flip out, rather than finding a way to train it out of him? It made him want to send an email to Nono asking if the man had been like that in his youth, or if Iemitsu had been.

“Behind us!” Hayato yelled. “It’s coming!”

Takeshi turned in time to catch a wolf a mere inch from his face. His mean grip crushed the creature’s lower jaw. “This thing…! It’s already dead!?”

Two more came running in, but Bianchi and Hayato downed them while Tsuna clutched at his hair and was generally useless.

“I’ve got you now,” was snarled, and then a blond male with clawed hands and feet leaped into view, right at Takeshi. Takeshi went flying, landing on his back, and a split second later vanished from view. The blond jumped and disappeared, as well.

The group rushed over to the spot to see a hole in the ground. “Yamamoto-san!” Tsuna called down.

“The mudslide must have buried the garden zoo,” Renato observed, staring down inside.

“We’re standing on the roof!?” Tsuna said. “Yamamoto-san, are you all right?”

“He’s … laughing?” Hayato murmured, then shouted, “You idiot! You’re holding us up!”

“To your right!” Tsuna shouted. “Yamamoto-san, be careful down there! There’s a beast or something in the shadows!”

“Welcome, Yamamoto Takeshi,” said a voice from the shadows. They could only hear it because of the echoing effect of the buried building’s shape. “Kaki-pi’s asleep, you know. I’ve got no orders and nothing to do, so I’m really bored. Then, here comes my prey, all by himself. That makes me—” The blond stepped out of the shadows. “—super happy.”

‘So this is the Ken the other one referred to,’ he thought.

“Oh?” Takeshi said.

“Eh? It’s a person—he’s human!” Tsuna said. “In Kokuyo’s uniform, too!”

He exchanged a long-suffering look with Renato.

“Are those guys above your friends? Just wait patiently there,” said Ken. “Because you’ll be next to die.”

Takeshi started laughing. “Hey, you. You’re quite skillful despite your appearance, aren’t you? Those zombie dog puppets earlier were damn real!”

“That idiot,” Hayato muttered.

“…Is this guy for real?” Ken said. “Well, doesn’t matter. All righty, then.” Ken launched himself forward and used the wall like a springboard, nearly hitting Takeshi on the rebound. That he missed may have been on purpose. He did it again, but as he jumped, one hand came up to his mouth briefly. On the rebound he spun and flipped mid-air, and rebounded off another part of the wall, to head back down, straight at Takeshi. “Feeeeding time!”

Takeshi’s hand went straight to the container at his back, to bring forward his baseball bat at a speed fast enough to morph it into a sword. The blond landed on Takeshi, who barely managed to keep standing, and shattered the blade with his teeth before springing back to land on the ground in a crouch.

“The next thing I gouge out will be your neck, yo.”

He exchanged another look with Renato.

“I see,” Takeshi said, staring at his broken weapon. “This mafia role-playing game is adjusted accordingly until the opponent is beaten, eh? So, that’s the rule, then?”

“Doesn’t he get scared of anything…?” Tsuna asked quietly.

“He’s not the sort who likes to lose,” Renato replied. “But he’s not as calm as he looks after seeing his bat get broken.”

“Before we continue, can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“You weren’t suddenly replaced or anything, right? When did you put on your disguise?” Takeshi asked.

“Huh,” Ken said almost disbelievingly. “He is for real… Doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll tell you. You know how you can change game cartridges to play different games?” He reached into his pocket and produced several sets of upper teeth. “This is the same thing. When I change the cartridge…” He removed a set from his mouth. “I can adopt the abilities of various animals.” Another set was clicked into place, and a transformation took place. “Kong channel!”

“No way!? That’s impossible!” Tsuna cried.

“Whoa, that’s cool,” Takeshi said. “Is that the newest type of doping?”

“That’s not it!” Ken snarled, then launched himself forward to slam his gorilla-like arms into Takeshi, sending the boy across the room to slam into the wall. “Come on, come on. Don’t be taking a break now. No matter where you run, I’ll find you in an instant. The scent of those dogs’ blood is all over you. When I’m in my wolf channel … I can sniff you out right away!”

“Damn it,” Hayato cursed, getting some of his dynamite ready. “I can’t see.”

“Don’t,” Hisui said sharply. “You send that down there and you’re likely to collapse the building, and bury Takeshi-kun.”

“He’s at an overwhelming disadvantage with his sword broken,” Bianchi commented. “He has no reach and he can’t get close to the enemy. There’s no way to strike a winning blow.”

“Look,” Renato said, his eyes cutting toward Tsuna slightly. “He’s shielding his body. It’s as if he wants to defeat his opponent without causing injury to himself.”

“You keep running away. Are you purposely drawing out this fight?”

“Oh, no,” Takeshi replied. “It’s nothing like that at all. I have other important things to do this autumn, besides the whole mafia role-playing game, you know.”

“I don’t get you, fool,” Ken snarled, making another swipe at Takeshi.

“This is bad,” Tsuna moaned. “I shouldn’t have brought him to a place like this!”

Renato rolled his eyes slightly. “If you’re so worried, why don’t you give him a hand?” he asked, then kicked Tsuna in.

“What the hell did you do that for!?” Hayato demanded.

“Shut up and watch.”

Takeshi’s focus jerked around to the disturbance. “Tsuna-kun!”

“Eh? Who’s that? Some small fry friend of yours? Okay, then. While you run, Yamamoto, I’ll hunt this rabbit down first.” Ken launched himself again. “Feeeeding time!” He changed direction mid-air and hit the ground when Takeshi nailed him with a rock. “What!?”

“You were fighting me, weren’t you?” Takeshi asked with a goofy smile. The fight went quickly at that point. Takeshi lured Ken in using his arm as bait to get the guy close enough for long enough to jab the hilt of his broken sword into the side of Ken’s head to knock him out.

“I’m sorry!” Tsuna said. “It’s all my fault. Your arm was… What about baseball!? What about the tournament!?”

“Oi, oi, give me a break,” Takeshi said with a laugh. “Didn’t I say this before? The person who would treat baseball as something more important than friends is no more, after that dive from the rooftop you did. Besides, this injury is nothing. I can still play baseball.”

Even from his vantage Hisui could see that there was a lot of blood. With the fight over they were free to lower ropes down, one to tie up Ken, and one looped at the end, to haul the two up. Hisui set about cleaning and wrapping the injury as Renato pulled a photograph from one of his pockets.

“The one Takeshi just defeated was Jōshima Ken. Look.” He held the photograph up in front of Tsuna.

“This… This is the group of three we’re facing?”

“The one in the middle is Rokudo Mukuro.”

As Hisui finished with Takeshi’s arm, Tsuna turned away from the image to mope. Takeshi went over to Renato holding the remains of his bat, so Hisui went to Tsuna and smacked the back of his head. “Stop thinking such stupid thoughts.”

“But I was too scared to move again,” Tsuna whispered.

“And at some point you won’t be,” he replied. “It just means we have to torture you more often, kitten.”

Renato hauled a brand new bat out of nowhere—his enchanted pouch, of course—and handed it to Takeshi, who accepted it happily and guided it into the “sheath” for it.

“Well, anyway,” Hayato said gleefully, “looks like the spectacles freak is still out, and we’ve beaten the animal freak. I didn’t expect bringing Rokudo down to be such a breeze.”

Laughter came up from below. “You silly bunch! You know nothing! I was faking so that I didn’t have to confess anything to you. I used my opossum channel! But, I’ve thought about it. No matter what I tell you guys, there won’t be a problem! Because there’s no way you can defeat Mukuro-san! All of you are going to die before even seeing his face!”

“What did you say!?” Hayato shouted down the hole. “Eat sand!”

Bianchi rolled her eyes and wandered off for a moment, then returned with a large rock. “You’re too soft, Hayato.” She dropped it through the opening. “I wonder if those twitching movements are him faking death, too.”

Renato sighed and shook his head. “Let’s not underestimate Rokudo. The jailbreak happened on the eve of his execution. He and his fellows killed both prisoners and wardens in their escape. Don’t take what they say lightly. When they threaten to kill, they most likely mean it. So stop freaking out, or calling this some game. Take it seriously, or you’re guaranteed to die.”

“Let’s go.”

Some time later Tsuna was the first to speak. “We’ve been walking quite a while. Can—can we take a little break?”

“That’s true,” Takeshi said. “I’m getting hungry.”

“Let’s use this opportunity to eat, then,” Hayato said.

‘I suppose the fact that we aren’t currently under attack counts as an opportunity,’ he thought.

“How about over there?” Tsuna suggested, gesturing at a grouping of picnic tables.

“Then allow me to distribute the sushi and tea,” Takeshi said, setting things down on one of the tables.

Bianchi hip-checked him and said, “Get out of my way, Yamamoto.” She got her own offerings on the table and held up a clear plastic container. “Here, Tsuna, your cold soup of green-yellow wild bugs.”

“Bugs!?”

“It’s cold and refreshing—better than sushi.”

A second later the soup started bubbling and frothing over the top of the container. Bianchi let go and snatched her hand back with a wince. “Hot!”

“Hot, hot, hot! What’s this?” Tsuna said, clutching his head. “Some new type of Poison Cooking?”

“It wasn’t me!”

Takeshi hummed. “The bentos are…”

“Oh shit.”

“Duck!” Takeshi yelled, and every dove out of the way.

Hisui ignored all the panicking and cast out a net, trying to figure out where the attacker was. Just as he pinpointed the disturbance Hayato said, “This noise… There!” and threw handfuls of dynamite.

“What lame weapons,” came a female voice. When the smoke cleared they could see a girl sitting there. If her hair and eyes were anything to go by, she was a Sky, but Hisui sincerely doubted that. She had a clarinet cradled against her. “I wonder how a bunch of guys like you managed to get both Kaki-pi and Ken.”

“She’s wearing a Kokuyo uniform,” Tsuna said.

“But our enemy should have been a team of three,” Hayato said, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“If it weren’t for Mukuro-chan’s orders, I wouldn’t have dressed up like this!” she said. “But, you guys are pretty shabby-looking, even for mafiosi. All I see are men with no brains. How sad. Men are money, yo. In the end, only Mukuro-chan suits me the best.”

‘I wonder how Bianchi-chan feels about being called a man,’ he wondered, recognizing the girl as one of the escapees, M.M. to be specific.

“Well, it’s time to totally mess you up. I’m going to send you to the afterlife. Then you can look for proper bags and suits!” She raised the clarinet to her mouth and blew. The already destroyed food on the table frothed again and exploded. And again.

Bianchi finally stood up, tired of listening to the boys argue about how to respond. “I’m going in.” To the girl she said, “Hey, you’re wrong. Money is not the most important thing. Love is.”

“Huh? What’s with this woman? How annoying.”

“That weapon is constructed like a microwave oven, isn’t it?” Bianchi said. “When a substance is exposed to radiation, it’s water molecules will start vibrating, causing its temperature to rise.”

M.M. shrugged. “So what if you know that? If humans were to bask in this sound wave, they would also boil with a boom!” She laughed delightedly.

“I’ve allowed you your impertinent talk. Time for action.” Bianchi raised both hands, palms up. “Poison Cooking: Large Scale Meals! All you can eat!” She dashed forward, toward the girl.

“Not a bad tactic,” Renato murmured.

“And it looks as though the girl doesn’t have a clue,” he replied, nodding.

“All right, bring it on, you annoying person! I’m going to microwave your brain matter up!” The clarinet went back into position, and she blew.

Despite the food on her platters frothing madly, Bianchi kept going, which visibly surprised the girl. Bianchi got close enough to hurl one of the platters, though M.M. dodged.

“Close quarters combat—” M.M. twisted her clarinet and revealed it to also be a set of nunchaku. “—is also a specialty!” She lashed out and hit the other platter, that Bianchi raised as a shield, and tossed her back with the impact. “What ‘love’! Nothing beats money! Come on, it’s time to play my finishing number. Let’s watch your brain matter boil!”

“It’s already over,” Hayato said, one hand on Takeshi’s shoulder to restrain him.

M.M. raised her reassembled clarinet and went to blow, then gagged. The instrument was covered in Poison Cooking, and now the girl was poisoned, too.

“Even a touch works,” Hayato said. “The ultimate Poison Cooking.”

“Bianchi-san is really frightening,” Tsuna whispered, eyes wide.

Takeshi laughed, but Hisui was more interested in the person he could feel approaching.

“It’s actually good that you’ve defeated that greedy little girl,” said the newcomer, an old, bespectacled man wearing what looked like a bucket hat. He was carrying an open laptop. “Please take a look at this. Your friends are my next targets.”

“Kyoko-chan!” Tsuna cried. “Haru-chan!”

Hisui paid very careful attention to the screen, glanced at Renato, and slipped away as quickly as possible. The second he was out of sight he sent a text to Shamal, then apparated. As he raced toward his target he tapped his earpiece, just to keep in contact. Shamal got to Kyoko and her friend first, though he was hamming it up, apparently.

He found Haru a few seconds later and froze the assassin in place, then looked around to see what he had for witnesses. Haru was oblivious, earbuds in place and a book keeping her gaze. With no one else around he “reached” out and hauled the assassin back away from the girl, but still within presumed camera range, then sent senbon through his heart. He dragged the guy behind some bushes and made sure of the kill, then sped off at high speed, dragging the assassin away. Only after he was fairly certain it would not be witnessed did he use a singularity to clean up.

A quick apparation later and he was in time to witness Tsuna hauling off and punching the old man so hard he hit the ground with the breath knocked out of him. He sent another text to Shamal, letting him know the secondary target was taken care of, and a thank you.

“Damn you! This is unforgivable, you little brat!” The old man glanced at the laptop screen. “What are you doing!? Kill them!”

“Good afternoon, Dr Shamal,” Kyoko was saying.

“What’s the health room doc doing here?” her friend asked with a frown.

“I would strongly suggest that you ladies get yourselves home with all haste today. Otherwise, if you witness my fighting prowess, you’d be smitten into insomnia.”

Hisui rolled his eyes; so did Renato.

“Ew, the guy’s a pervert!” the friend said and grabbed Kyoko’s hand. “Let’s go!”

“Let me kiss you next time, ’kay? My lovely little kittens!” Shamal turned back and laughed softly. “Right, shall we, then? I am so done with you. You’ve caused too much trouble for the fair maidens.”

Tsuna sidled up to him and gave him a twisted smile of gratitude and horror.

“Ah, since I’m a doctor, I should point out that you seem to be suffering from vibration syndrome. It would be best if you refrained from moving around too much.”

Hisui’s sharp eyes spotted a mosquito flying around near Shamal.

“But, it’s too late for that.” Shamal turned away uncaringly. “You will now have a seizure.”

The assassin apparently vibrated his way into having the general consistency of jelly and collapsed a second later, dead.

“He is such a drama queen,” Renato muttered.

“Damn it!” the old man cursed. “Those two are serial killers called the Bloody Twins! And they died, just like that… Damn, but Rokudo-san’s missions are always so hard,” he said, and started running.

Hayato pursued, saying, “Where do you think you’re going?” and kicked the guy in the small of his back, knocking him to the ground. “Huh. It only took one kick?”

“The ones giving the orders are never much themselves, huh…” Takeshi obviously did not think that statement through considering who one of his friends was.

Tsuna turned his attention back to Hisui and displayed that twisted smile again, then frowned. “Wait a minute. What’s with this old man, those twins, and the girl? What’s going on? We didn’t hear anything about these assassins!”

“Those were the guys who broke out of prison with Rokudo,” Renato said.

“Hold on a sec! There were more than just Mukuro’s three-man gang?”

“I never said it was just three people. Actually, I didn’t specify how many, and you never bothered to ask. But the data we had only showed three of them coming to Japan. Obviously the others slipped in as well, and met up with Rokudo.” Renato produced more photographs and fanned them out in his hand. “According to the data, the escapees most tightly connected to the gang of three were M.M., Birds, and the Bloody Twins.”

Tsuna sighed. “There aren’t any more, right?”

“Yes, there are,” Bianchi said, staring off into the trees. “Quit hiding and show yourself. I know you’re there. If you don’t come out, we’re coming over.”

“W-wait,” said a familiar voice. “It’s me,” Fūta said, peeking out from behind a tree.

“Fūta-kun!?” Tsuna said. “What are you doing here?”

“Did you manage to escape?” Takeshi asked.

“Anyway… Thank goodness! You look well,” Tsuna said, smiling. “Everyone’s here, so it’s going to be all right. Come on, let’s go home together.” He started walking toward the boy.

“Don’t come here, Tsuna-nii. I … can’t go back to where everyone is. I—I’m following Mukuro-san now.”

“What—what are you saying?”

“Good-bye,” Fūta said, then turned and raced off into the trees.

“Fūta-kun! Hey, wait up!” Tsuna yelled, and raced off after him.

Hisui nailed the kitten with a tracker just in case, and refreshed the listening charm tied to his other earpiece.

“Jūdaime!” Hayato shouted. “It’s dangerous to go deeper!”

Of course, before anyone could do much more, their next opponent showed up, taking out a nearby exposed steel beam.

“What do you think?” he murmured to Renato. “One of us shadows him? Or we both stay here?”

“You know… A part of me says the kid’s an idiot for running off like that. But on the other hand, he is attempting to bring Fūta back. We’re down to two missing people from the group. Kakimoto and…”

“Eh, I’m listening in. I’ll go if it’s necessary.”

The latest assassin was using a massive iron ball to block off escape routes. A heavy-duty chain was attached to it and the man sent the thing out like it weighed nothing.

“The only way we can go after the boss is by beating this guy,” Hayato said to Takeshi.

“But what’s with that crazy strength?” Takeshi asked.

“If we’re hit directly by that iron ball, we’re finished,” Hayato said, then jerked and hunched over slightly. “Let’s finish this quick, you super strong bastard. I don’t have time to play with you.”

“It’s futile,” the man said, reaching up to take the bill of his cap in hand and flinging his hat away. “I’m going to win.”

“Still missing two people,” Renato muttered.

“And they could be anywhere, still.”

“He’s finally shown himself,” Takeshi said.

“What have you done to Fūta?” Bianchi demanded.

“Fūta…? No idea.”

Hayato chose that moment to collapse to his knees. Bianchi rushed to support him and drag him out of the line of fire.

“No idea?” he murmured. “Is this even Rokudo-san?”

“I’ll be your opponent, then,” Takeshi stated, and was quickly slammed in the torso by that huge sphere.

“No path exists for you to live,” the man said. “Abandon all hope.”

“Oi, oi, hold it.” Takeshi pushed himself up to a seated position and grinned goofily. “I haven’t lost it yet. If I hadn’t had this as a shield, I’d have been a goner,” he said, indicating the container for his bat.

Renato brought out his favorite gun and held it ready. “We still have the same problem,” he pointed out. “We need to figure out the trick behind that weapon.”

“It is foolish to resist,” the man intoned. “These useless struggles will only invite your tragic deaths.” He attacked again.

Takeshi got up and ran forward, dragging his bat in the dirt to make the surface dust rise up, then remarked on how that dust reacted to the incoming sphere. He then tripped, narrowly missing being slammed again. “It picked up some wind. It’s like a moving baseball that creates a disturbance in the air current behind it, but this is on a whole other level.”

‘Trust Takeshi to make baseball analogies.’

“The secret lies in the snakes carved on the surface of the ball,” Renato said after a moment. “The snake-shaped engravings cause the flow of air that strikes the sphere to bend into a spiral. An air current that passes through those depressions is entangled in complex knots, which amplifies its power many times, resulting in a violent gale.”

The man stared for a moment. “Even if you understand it, you still won’t be able to win against me.” He yanked back on the chain and attacked again. Takeshi, despite his better understanding of the situation, was slammed into a tree and knocked out.

Bianchi stepped up next as Hayato collapsed again.

“Kami-sama, I hate just standing here doing nothing,” he whispered.

“Hey you! What are you doing!?”

He looked over to see Tsuna up in the tree line. Even from that distance he could see that the kitten quickly regretted shouting out his presence.

“Come down here, Vongola,” the man said. “Or wait while I kill off this woman.” He yanked on the chain again.

“That pretty much says it,” Renato muttered, and fired. “Come on, kitten.”

“You know,” he said conversationally, as Tsuna streaked down and slammed into the sphere, “for all that Bianchi-chan can be a royal pain in the ass, she has plenty of guts and resolve. She’s one brave lady.”

“Yeah.”

Tsuna slid backward, but he and the ball came to a stop just in front of Bianchi. He looked up. “I will take you down with my Dying Will, Rokudo Mukuro.”

“Apparently he gets feisty when you push him too far,” Renato said. “I guess seeing his friends laid out like this…”

“The boy is capable of that…?” Bianchi said wonderingly.

“So, hm, flame boxers this time. I wonder who chooses them,” he said, “Nana-chan or Tsuna-kun?”

“Looks like I’ll have to use my full power against you,” the man said, managing to stand back up after Tsuna slammed the sphere into his torso. “Let’s go all out.”

“He’s okay even after taking that blow?” Bianchi said disbelievingly. “What the hell is he?”

“Ball-play is a hobby to pass time!” The man flung the sphere upward, then dashed forward toward Tsuna. “My true forte would be meat bullet battles!” he cried, striking at Tsuna’s chest and getting through his guard. He grabbed Tsuna and dragged him up, then kneed him in the face and tossed him into the air.

“I don’t think I’ve ever run across anyone that strong before,” Renato commented. “You will step in and un-crush the kid if necessary, right?”

“Yes.”

Tsuna was caught and slammed into the ground. “Now the finishing blow,” he said, then stepped away, just as the sphere dropped down on Tsuna. “All your hopes have collapsed. Who’s next?” A sound made him pivot.

Tsuna had pushed the sphere aside.

“What!? Impossible… Is this guy a monster?”

“You’re not that evil a person,” Tsuna said.

“There we go,” Renato whispered.

“You… What did you say!?”

“That weak will of yours … could never defeat my Dying Will.”

“…‘Will’ you say? Don’t talk as if you know anything about me! Killing you is my true will!” The man rushed forward, hand extended in a claw.

“That’s a lie!”

“Shut up, kid!”

“I’ll crush you with my Dying Will!” Tsuna got in the first hit, straight to the guy’s torso. The man collapsed and coughed up blood.

“How… How could I lose?”

“When you attacked you closed your eyes, and you didn’t let your iron ball complete the finishing blow. This was all because of the guilt in your heart … conflicting within you.”

“What…?”

“I thought it was strange the first time I saw you,” Tsuna said, the flame at his forehead sputtering out. “It almost felt just like this kid we have at home. I didn’t feel any fear toward you.”

“I see, so this is the next Vongola capo. I admit defeat. No wonder Rokudo Mukuro is cautious about you.”

“Eh!? What did you just say? But you’re the one in the picture! The prison photograph.”

“I’m a shadow warrior,” the man said. “The real Rokudo Mukuro has never had his photograph taken. Furthermore, Rokudo is the one who took everything away from me! Five years ago I was part of a mafia famiglia in Northern Italy. I was an orphan, so the capo and famiglia who brought me up were my life. In order to repay their kindness I served as a bodyguard until I became known as the strongest guy in the area. One day, the capo picked up another orphan. It seemed the capo really liked the kid and had great plans for him.

“The boy became my responsibility. I loved him like he was truly part of my family, just like the famiglia had treated me. Not long after that, the incident happened. I came home to the base one day after playing cards. Everyone had been killed.”

“That was a famous incident,” Renato said.

“I was enraged at the perpetrator, but who was to know that the investigation which followed would lead me to such an identity? It was me! I killed them!”

“How … could that be?” Tsuna asked.

“Since then, how many times have I woken up, remembering nothing, while corpses lay at my feet.”

“But you didn’t intend to kill anyone, right?” Tsuna asked.

“Of course. I thought that I was going completely insane … and decided to commit suicide. But it was impossible. I was totally controlled by him. Yes, it was that kid, Rokudo Mukuro. He had me under his control! I don’t know when or how, but I lost my name and will, and became the fake Rokudo Mukuro. It was hopeless. I did everything and anything for him—I became a killing machine.”

“What sort of guy is this Rokudo? This is not something a human would do…”

“Let’s kick his ass, Jūdaime!”

“Gokudera-kun! You’re all right!?”

“Vongola, you may be the only one who can do it,” the man said. “Listen to me, Vongola. Mukuro’s real objective is—” He stopped, eyes moving rapidly, then slammed a fist into Tsuna to knock him back and stood in front of him. His arm and part of his chest was peppered with dozens of those needles.

“It’s the yo-yo freak!” Hayato said, looking back toward the origin.

“He’s gone,” Hisui said. “Their objective was to silence him, obviously.”

“How could they!?” Tsuna cried. “Please hang on!”

“What a terrible life I’ve had…”

“No… Tell me your real name,” Tsuna pleaded. “You have a real name, right?”

“It’s… I am … Lancia…”

“Please hang on, Lancia-san!”

“Having my name called like that… I remember now, long ago, my family… Now I can rejoin them … right…” Lancia’s eyes slipped closed and he went still, only the bare movement of his chest giving any sign that he still lived.

“He was being used,” Hayato said, “and the moment he outlived his usefulness… Shit.”

“That guy really pisses me off,” Tsuna said, standing up, hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Let’s go. Let’s find Mukuro.”

“We used the last bullet,” Renato pointed out, head tilted to one side.

“I know that, but… But… We have to to do something about Rokudo Mukuro!”

“…I see. Lancia isn’t dead yet, you know. If we get an antidote to him within an hour to counteract the poison on those needles…”

“That yo-yo guy must have the antidote,” Bianchi said.

Hisui went over to check on Takeshi and move him to a more comfortable and sheltered spot. As he did so he noticed Renato fiddling with his phone, probably sending information to the medical team on standby. Once he was finished he fetched out a spare set of clothes for Tsuna and handed them over.

The boys were discussing how to proceed when a canary flew in and landed near Birds’s fallen form, looking for seeds. “Birds was done in!” it chirped. “Birds was done in!”

“Quiet,” Renato said calmly. “Let’s just watch for the moment. It may be trained to call for its comrades when its master is down.”

“Birds was done in!” the canary chirped again, then launched itself and flew off toward a building in the distance, the exterior of which was made up of many glass panes. Some were broken, but a surprising number were intact.

“In other words,” Hayato said.

“That’s where Rokudo Mukuro is,” Tsuna finished.