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Tsuna isn't a primary character in Black Sky and what happens to him isn't relevant to the main plot unless it affects Dorea and Xanxus in some way, but I wanted to write this so people could see how things have changed. Besides, well... it is relevant to various minor characters despite not requiring a centre stage presence.

Beta'd (as ever) by Insane Scriptist.

Yesterday's Tomorrow

Tsuna blinked rapidly as the clouds of distinctive pink Ten-Year Bazooka smoke dissipated, leaving him lying on his back in total darkness. Reaching out gingerly on both sides, he found a smooth, faintly grainy surface. Cool to the touch but not cold; wood?

He wasn't sure what he was lying on but it was uneven, springy and smelled very strongly floral; unpleasantly so in fact. There was also the very faint sound of birdsong coming from somewhere nearby. Reaching up revealed the existence of another smooth wooden surface; he was in a box. An unsecured box, thankfully: as soon as he exerted a bit of pressure the flat wood above him moved, sliding sideways with relative ease. Sitting up and squinting at the sudden light, Tsuna looked around.

It was a clearing in a wood. There was nothing anywhere in sight except trees, shrubs, sunlight and the box he was sitting in.

Why had his future self been in a box? Why was the box full of lilies of all things? He didn't even like lilies; they smelled very strongly and the pollen got everywhere. Glancing down his back revealed at least a dozen stains and he hadn't even got up yet.

Tsuna sneezed, rubbing his nose on his sleeve and getting up onto his knees. Well at least–

–it was a coffin. Not a box. A coffin. A shiny black lacquered coffin with an 'X' and the Vongola crest on the lid.

Why had his future self been in a coffin?! No wait, Future Lambo had said all futures were maybes, right? That meant this wasn't truly real. This was a possibility. He just had to wait out his five minutes and he'd be back home and able to do something to make sure he wasn't dead and in a coffin before he was twenty-five.

Tsuna side-eyed the coffin lid, shuffling his feet as he edged backwards and tried to open his ears to his surroundings; he could only hear birdsong but that at least meant there probably wasn't anything nasty lurking nearby. Why did his coffin have an 'X' on it? He'd lost the Ring Battles, he wasn't Tenth, would never be Tenth; Xanxus had made that much abundantly clear.

If this was a maybe-future, it was definitely a very unlikely one since the only way for him to be Tenth after losing the Ring Battles was for Xanxus to be dead and all the Sky relatives Grandma had mentioned to be dead too.

Tsuna bit his lower lip hard; actually, that didn't help. He wanted to go home now and call Grandma, so she could call Xanxus and he could make sure this future never happened. Tsuna didn't want to be Vongola Tenth, especially not if it had only happened because half his family got murdered in the decade between his now and this now!

There was a rustle of something moving through long grass and Tsuna spun to face it, hand digging automatically in the pocket where he kept his Sky Ring and sliding it over the tip of his finger. He might have deliberately buried the gloves Reborn had given him under the edge of Takeshi's family dojo so he didn't have to look at them anymore, but he was getting pretty good at using Flames without them so long as he was wearing his Ring. Xanxus's casual use made it clear that with enough practice he wouldn't need the Ring either, but he wasn't that good yet. Then again, he'd only been using Giotto's Ring for ten days and Xanxus had made it fairly clear that he had nearly twenty years' experience with using Flames; Tsuna had time.

Well, he should have had time. "Who's there?" He might have to learn in a hurry if things kept happening like this.

A man stepped out of the trees, sunlight gleaming on messy silver hair and playing softly across the shoulders of the very expensive-looking fitted black Western suit. He was tall –easily twenty centimetres taller than Tsuna, maybe more– but weirdly familiar.

"You're–" the man said hoarsely, face haggard and jade green eyes wide as he stumbled unsteadily closer to Tsuna and the coffin and fell heavily to his knees.

Closer to the stranger's face was even more familiar, making it clear he wasn't actually a stranger at all.

"Tenth!" The ten years' later version of Gokudera said desperately, grabbing Tsuna by the shoulders. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

This wasn't real, Tsuna reminded himself firmly as the silver-haired man shook, his grip on Tsuna's upper arms painfully tight. This wasn't real, this hadn't actually happened yet. It was an illusion, a maybe, a possibility. He wasn't going to be Vongola Tenth and Gokudera wasn't going to be his right-hand man. He'd lost the Ring Battles and was permanently disqualified from the succession. This was a glitch or something; Giannini-san had messed up the Ten-Year Bazooka when he'd visited to tune everybody's weapons in the summer, so maybe he'd messed up the bazooka again while fixing the mess he'd made and now it only accessed impossible futures? That was honestly more likely that this actually being a real potential future. It would explain why he'd seen an unscarred Future Lambo right before the Lightning Battle too… and why this Gokudera had no scars that he could see.

"Can you let go?" He asked hesitantly. "You're hurting me."

Future Gokudera instantly flinched back, instantly letting go of Tsuna's shoulders. "Sorry," he muttered again, eyes never leaving Tsuna's face.

"Um, I mean," Tsuna rambled on, wondering how much longer he had left before the bazooka's time limit ran out, "this is probably really hard to believe, but I was hit by Lambo's Ten-Year Bazooka by accident."

"I see," Future Gokudera murmured, "only five minutes…" he closed his eyes, jaw tightening; Tsuna got the brief but distinct impression that the man was ruthlessly crushing abject despair. "Listen carefully Boss," Gokudera said, voice tight and quiet, "please, when you return to the past, you must remember this moment and do exactly as I say."

"Huh?" Tsuna wasn't going to promise anything –he also certainly wasn't going to tell this rather scary older version of Gokudera that he wasn't going to be a Vongola Boss– when he was pretty sure this wasn't his future. Some kind of illusion maybe? Mukuro had been explaining more about Mist Flames to him on Sunday and Territories had come up; they'd sounded terrifying and Mukuro's palpable enjoyment of his nervousness had made it worse. Could this be an illusion tied to the Bazooka rather a real possible future?

"There's no time for details," Future Gokudera went on, tone soft and flat, "when you get back, you have to eliminate this person immediately!"

"Wha?!" Tsuna wasn't going to get rid of anybody! He wasn't going to ask Xanxus to do that either! Especially not just because a theoretical future version of Gokudera told him to!

"This is a current picture of him," Future Gokudera went on, words speeding up as he pulled a Polaroid print out of his suit jacket and pushed it in front of Tsuna's face, "you should recognise him from your first year in middle school."

"Who is it?" Tsuna asked, freaked out. Why was any version of Gokudera urging him to get rid of somebody?! Shouldn't his friend know he wasn't that kind of person at all?!

"There's no need to hesitate," Future Gokudera finished shortly, ignoring his question. Tsuna realised that his friend's eyes looked bruised, as though he'd not got enough sleep lately.

"No but, wait a minute! By 'eliminate' you mean 'kill,' right?" Tsuna pointed out, stalling desperately. Surely his five minutes would be up soon…

"If that guy didn't exist, white orchid wouldn't be like this," Future Gokudera said heavily.

"White orchid?" Tsuna echoed hesitantly. Did Gokudera mean it as a name? Was he talking about a somebody or maybe an organisation called Byakuran then, rather than referring to the actual plant? What had happened in this weird not-future for the Gokudera in it to be so, so serious?

"This next thing is just a precaution," Future Gokudera went on, but Tsuna didn't let him finish. He had a question of his own he wanted answering.

"Um, one thing that's been bugging me," he interrupted firmly, "why am I in a coffin?" He couldn't have been dead, right? The bazooka didn't work like that. Future Lambo had made that fairly clear. So why would his future self have been in a coffin full of these awful stinky flowers? "Why is the future me in a coffin?"

Future Gokudera's face twitched, forehead creasing in pain. "That is…" he breathed, voice hitching, "because…" he swallowed hard.

Tsuna waited.

"You…" Green eyes filled with tears and the man hunched forwards, hands gripping the edge of the coffin so tightly his knuckles went white. "Tenth, you…" A quick, harsh breath. "You died."

As the tears started trickling down Future Gokudera's face, Tsuna shuffled forwards and tentatively wrapped his arms around the man's shoulders. The future version of his friend shuddered, whimpered and then collapsed forwards onto him, clutching tightly at his jacket as he shook almost soundlessly.

Tsuna held on, gingerly stroking his older friend's hair as wetness seeped across his shoulder. Wherever this was, it definitely wasn't a possible future. It couldn't be, not if he was dead here. But saying that wouldn't get him anywhere –not when Adult Gokudera was part of the whatever-it-was– so his best bet for getting out would be playing along.

Five minutes had definitely come and gone by now, but he was still here. That wasn't good.

Wait, Reborn had vanished yesterday. Had that been bazooka related? If so, was Reborn here somewhere? If he was, how could Tsuna find out? Would Mukuro come looking for him here, wherever 'here' was, if he got stuck?

Those were things to worry about later though; right now his main problem would be getting details out of an adult version of Gokudera who thought he was the Vongola Tenth. Tsuna wasn't Vongola Tenth, but in this case it might be smarter not to say that right now.

Hopefully there were adult versions of Takeshi and Chrome around here somewhere too. Heck, even an adult Hibari would be reassuring right now…

Tsuna's stomach rumbled; Adult Gokudera pulled back abruptly, sleeve scrubbing across his face as he looked around sharply.

"I, erm, that was me," Tsuna admitted embarrassedly; lunch had been a long time ago.

"No," Adult Gokudera said, reaching back for his suitcase and flicking it open, "there's somebody else here."

"Hello there," came a stranger's voice as a dark-haired person wearing a red visor and a long cape stepped out of the trees.

"Lal Mirch." Adult Gokudera closed his case and got slowly to his feet, but didn't seem inclined to attack. Not an enemy then?

"Who's this?" Lal Mirch asked; they were nearly as tall as Adult Gokudera and their voice was fairly low, so Tsuna wasn't entirely sure if they were a man or a woman. The cape made it impossible to tell.

"This is Tenth," Adult Gokudera said firmly. Tsuna slid a hand back into his pocket to grip the ring that had slid off his finger back when the grown up version of his friend had first grabbed him; he had a bad feeling about this.

"Is he strong enough to survive out here?" Lal asked, tone light and idle.

Tsuna slipped the ring onto his finger and reached inwards for his Flames; that didn't sound good. In fact it sounded an awful lot like the beginning of a shōnen manga, when the mysterious mentor was gearing up for a training montage but was planning on wiping the floor with the hero first, to make sure he knew how outclassed he was.

"It doesn't matter, because I will protect him," Adult Gokudera growled.

"Because you've done so well there so far."

The grown up version of his friend choked, stricken. "I, I will," he protested, abruptly turning his back on the stranger to look down at Tsuna, eyes wide and desperate. "I swear Tenth, I'll protect you!"

"I kn-know you will, Gokudera-san," Tsuna said tentatively, not wanting to set off another breakdown, "b-but wouldn't it be smart if I was more trained t-too? S-so I'm not a liability?"

The man swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing. "Later," he decided firmly. "When we're somewhere safe."

"On your head be it then," Lal Mirch said quietly, tone disapproving. "Let's get moving." They produced a short length of chain from under their cloak. "This is a Mammon Chain; wrap it around your Vongola Ring, Tsunayoshi."

Tsuna did not have a Vongola Ring, but he still accepted the chain and wrapped it around his hand and ring. Whatever was going on, he didn't want to give away anything that might get him into trouble later. Lal Mirch was wearing several rings, but they hadn't bothered to wrap them in anything. They hadn't given Gokudera anything to wrap around his rings either, which suggested the problem was only for Vongola Flame Rings. Which he wasn't actually wearing, since Xanxus had them.

Why did Lal Mirch have a chain for hiding Vongola Rings at all? If Adult Gokudera had been wearing a Vongola Ring, surely he'd have –or need– one too? If he didn't have one, then how come he was calling Tsuna 'Tenth'? To be Tenth Adult-him have to have a Vongola Ring, which would mean Adult Gokudera would have one too, being his Storm Guardian.

This made no sense at all and rather confirmed Tsuna's suspicion that this wasn't a potential future he was seeing. Had the Bazooka been booby-trapped while nobody was looking? Xanxus had mentioned other people poking around Namimori during the Ring Battles, so it might not have been Giannini messing up at all…

As Lal Mirch moved ahead Adult Gokudera fell back behind Tsuna, forcing him to trot to stay in the middle of the group. Whatever was going on and wherever they were going, hopefully he'd get some answers soon.

Adult Gokudera had some cereal bars and a water bottle in his jacket which he gave to Tsuna to eat as they hurried through the woods; Tsuna wasn't sure how long they were going for but it felt like a long time. Especially since nobody spoke.

Eventually they arrived at a river where Lal Mirch crouched down, took off their visor and pushed their cloak down from their face so they could drink, revealing that they were in fact a she. Tsuna also knelt down to drink –he was so thirsty after all that running and the water bottle had already been half-empty– and as he did he noticed Mirch-san –she was probably European and Europeans put surnames last when introducing themselves, right? Besides, 'Lal' sounded more like a woman's name than 'Mirch'– take a vaguely crystalline box out of her cloak, open it with one of her rings and pull something out of it. A something which turned into a little fire balloon with a few dangling threads hanging from the indigo flare keeping the balloon aloft; Tsuna glanced at Adult Gokudera, but it seemed the weird thing was harmless since he just glanced at it then went back to watching their surroundings.

"Now we have a little breathing room," she said firmly, turning back to face Tsuna, "it's past time I got to see what you're made of."

Tsuna got up quickly and took a few steps back from the river, lifting up his hands and letting his Flames dance over his Ring. The chain didn't stop him from using it, but it did muffle things heavily: like he was reaching through water.

Adult Gokudera quickly moved out of the line of fire. "Boss, take the chain off and put your gloves on!"

"I didn't have them on me when I got hit by the bazooka," Tsuna said truthfully as he pocketed the chain, not wanting to mention that he'd got rid of them as soon after losing the Ring Battles as possible. He'd asked Chrome about the translation of the words on the backs of the gloves and it had been so embarrassing that he'd got rid of them at the first available opportunity. No wonder Xanxus had been so offended by them!

The grown up version of his friend winced, but stayed well back as Mirch-san tossed her cloak aside entirely, revealing a heavy gauntlet as the rings on the fingers of her other hand lit up. "Let's see what you're made of then, Sawada Tsunayoshi."

Tsuna swallowed hard and prepared to dodge. Fighting Xanxus had been a lesson in how raw power was no match for skill and that wasting his Flames by flaring them all over the place would just get him killed faster, but he'd not had much time to work out different ways to fight yet, or even to really work out how to conserve his energy better. Yes, the ring did make it easier to keep his energy contained than his gloves had, but that was because the ring required a whole lot more precise focus to shape his Flames with. It was a pinpoint tool after all, completely unlike his gloves which had made pulling out his Flames incredibly easy. If he wanted to coat both hands with Flames without the gloves, he had to think about it a whole lot more. Well, he had to begin with; he was getting better.

He'd not tried Zero-Point at all since his abject failure at using it against Xanxus, but if it came to it he'd do his best. Even though Xanxus had said he was doing it wrong and might hurt himself. Better hurt than dead.

The bullets were easily dodged once he could feel his Flames under his skin. It was easy to perch on the side of a tree too; in the Sky Battle he'd used Flames to keep himself up, but Xanxus had just stood on the wall of the school like Sky Flames meant he could ignore gravity, so Tsuna had experimented a little last week and determined that yes, gravity could be ignored so long as he stayed confident.

Takeshi had thought it was very cool.

"So why are you testing me?" he asked quietly. Even if she didn't answer, Tsuna had determined that when he was in Dying Will Mode he could read people better than normal. Not necessarily accurately, but better. Even if she didn't answer out loud, he could still pick up clues.

Mirch-san ignored his question entirely. "The next bullet is different and even Flames cannot stop it."

Tsuna dodged, but the bullet followed him. Turning quickly, he dived into the river, snuffing out the Flames outside his skin as he plunged through the surface; the bullet was on fire –possibly with Flames– so even if the freezing river didn't extinguish it, it would hopefully slow it down.

It worked –the bullet whizzed past his nose and slammed into the river bed, throwing up silt and rock shards– so Tsuna called on his Flames to launch himself up into the air again and dry off. Keeping his Flames burning under his skin had prevented him getting too cold, but he'd still felt the chill and you couldn't breathe underwater.

"–or breath," Mirch-san said softly, probably not intending him to hear her. "If you die here you would only have been a burden. If you want to live, you must survive!" She launched something else at him; four more homing bullets.

These ones Tsuna let come in close, then slipped out from under them at the last minute so they all collided with each-other rather than hitting him, dropping briefly into Zero-Point in an attempt to disrupt the Flame tracking aspect which he was mostly sure the bullets relied on. There were missiles which targeted heat after all, so why not bullets which target Flames?

"Minus point," Mirch-san muttered; "Reborn!"

She knew Reborn? Knew of Reborn at least? Ignoring that for the time being, Tsuna emitted Flames from his hands to fly forwards, got in close and punched Mirch-san in the gut, aiming at her spine rather than her skin. Ken had taught him that; well, 'punch through your opponent if you want to hit them properly!' had been shouted at him in passing when Tsuna was sparring with Takeshi one time with Chrome refereeing, but it had still been good advice.

Mirch-san landed awkwardly on the far side of the river. "Well, you certainly have potential, Sawada Tsunayoshi," she said wryly. "Even at my full strength I can't match your power. But times have changed; even at those levels you can't survive in the here-and-now!"

This was feeling more and more like a videogame. Or maybe like that movie that had come out a few years ago, where 'real life' was a computer simulation? If so, he'd like a red pill now, please.

With an acrobatic leap, Mirch-san fired something at him; Tsuna dodged both Flame-covered projectiles –they were purple did that mean she was a Cloud– then gained height to dodge again as they both came back around again, rapidly growing in size. What was–

–Aaagh! A centipede! Lots of giant centipedes!

Tsuna tried to dodge again, but suddenly there were dozens of centipedes wrapping around him. He had to do something! Centipedes bit! He didn't want to get bitten by a two-metre centipede!

Focus. He had to focus, concentrate on what result he wanted or else he was just wasting his energy and time. He wanted to burn the centipedes, wanted to turn them to ash

–closing his eyes, Tsuna focused, making an effort to keep his Flames close and as intense as possible despite lack of practice hindering him.

Don't think about the wriggly legs…

The heat under his skin heightened and Tsuna felt his hoodie disintegrate, leaving him standing in his shirt and uniform trousers. Well at least he was wearing his Leon-made Flame-resistant clothes today…

Opening his eyes again, Tsuna touched down on the bank and let out a relieved breath at the sight of the various dismembered centipede pieces strewn around him and floating in the river, all alight with orange and purple and most of them disintegrating into nothing.

"Not bad," Mirch-san said from the far side of the river, her shoulders softening briefly before she turned away to survey their surroundings. "It's getting dark; we'll camp here tonight."

"We should get to safety!" Adult Gokudera protested, coming closer and dropping his suit jacket over Tsuna's shoulders.

"Tsunayoshi can't see in the dark and there're all kinds of things out here," Mirch-san said bluntly, leaping across the river to join them on the near side again. "Better to eat and get some rest first."

"Erm, what are we eating?" Tsuna asked tentatively, letting his Flames die away again and wrapping the oversized jacket around himself more firmly to ward off the chill. Mirch-san had Flames –she'd used them to throw the centipedes at him– but he couldn't feel them now so not using them all the time was probably important for hiding.

"I'll get you food, Tenth," Adult Gokudera said briskly, opening his briefcase again and removing a panel to reveal a small first aid kit and a whole load of bits and bobs. "There's fish in the river; I'll catch some."

"Th-thank you, Gokudera-san."

The grown up version of his friend looked down, briefly meeting his eyes. "No need for suffixes, Tenth," he said gruffly. Tsuna hadn't noticed before, but he had several piercings in the cartilage of both ears.

"Gokudera, then." Tsuna was just grateful the man hadn't requested that they be on first-name terms; that would have been very uncomfortable. Even though he had noticed that Adult Gokudera seemed to look through him a lot of the time, like he was seeing somebody else. Probably Tsuna's adult self. Who was apparently dead, despite Lambo having said that the Bazooka couldn't send you to a potential future where your ten-years-later self was dead.

Unless that was a safety feature or something and it had gotten broken somehow? Who even knew, considering Tsuna wasn't sure Lambo had used it on anybody except himself since the Weapons Tuner had messed with it and the likelihood of the five-year-old noticing something was wrong was rather slim. Had his friends at home figured out what had happened to him yet?

By the time they were sitting around a camp fire two hours later eating freshly roasted fish, Tsuna had a bit more of an idea of what might be wrong with wherever the bazooka had dumped him. For one, when Adult Gokudera had rolled up his shirt sleeves while fishing he hadn't have any scars on his hands or wrists. Which could have been due to plastic surgery or something like the doctors had talked about, but Tsuna was sure there'd be some scars left even after that.

He wasn't going to draw attention to that though, not when he had more obvious questions he could ask.

"S-so, who are you?"

Mirch-san swallowed. "I belong to the Vongola's CEDEF."

"You work for my d-dad?" Tsuna had not expected that.

"Hm." She glanced at Adult Gokudera, who was sitting a way away from the fire with his back against a tree, eating his fish with most of his attention on the darkness beyond the little clearing they were in. "The whole of the Vongola is currently in a state of emergency. I agreed to investigate the situation and verify the condition of the Tenth's family."

"A state of emergency?" Tsuna asked cautiously. What had happened?

"Correct. Vongola headquarters fell two weeks ago and was destroyed."


"Currently there are no known survivors from Headquarters and the Ninth is still unaccounted for," Mirch-san continued relentlessly, raising her voice slightly and staring across at Adult Gokudera, who was resolutely ignoring her, "the CEDEF team hurried to the rescue, but we lost contact."

"Who?" Tsuna asked, feeling lost. Who could possibly have defeated Xanxus?

"The Millefiore Family," Mirch-san stated calmly. "Their boss's name is Byakuran."

Byakuran; that was the same person Adult Gokudera had mentioned earlier. Weird that the boss of an Italian Mafia Family had a Japanese name though; were they like Tsuna? A cadet heir who hadn't even known about the Underworld until it was sprung on them later? Or maybe they just had a Japanese non-mafia parent?

"W-what about Reborn? Where is he?"

"Reborn and the other Arcobaleno are all dead."

Tsuna flinched. He didn't like Reborn, but the baby was incredibly strong and had been serious about bodyguarding him over the past few weeks, even if he wasn't doing any tutoring anymore. But if his here-self was dead and he was here, maybe Past-Reborn was here too? Since he'd vanished after Lambo shot the bazooka at him? Tsuna had initially thought that Reborn had used the opportunity to get out of the house and away from the whiney five-year-old for a day or so, but Grandma hadn't thought that was likely when he called her. Maybe he was here too? But if so, where could he be? He could be anywhere really.

"The keys to dominating the current war are the rings," Mirch-san continued. "By stealing rings and their boxes, the Millefiore got a boost in power. That's why they raided the Vongola."

Considering Tsuna didn't have a Vongola Ring, that didn't help much. Well, he didn't have an official Vongola Ring; Xanxus had said retired bosses had used these rings before though, so maybe they still counted?

"The importance of the rings is beyond that though. They've existed since the beginning, before the Mafia was even born. They're thought to be a symbol of our predecessors joining forces with the powers of darkness."

Tsuna suspected that if anybody told Xanxus that the Varia boss would laugh rudely in their face; he'd been told his rings had been made for Giotto as a gift when he was a teenager and that didn't sound like it had involved any powers of darkness at all. The official set that had been made to look like the original set might have a different history, but his rings were entirely benign.

"That's why the Mafia Rings must be protected," Mirch-san concluded, glancing sharply at Adult Gokudera again. "They contain a power beyond human understanding."

Tsuna was getting the impression that something bad had happened to the Vongola Rings here, something that Adult Gokudera had been involved in and Mirch-san was angry about. "I know the rings help me channel Flames," he ventured tentatively.

"That's not their only power," Mirch-san said easily. "See the balloon flying over there?"

Tsuna looked up at the fire balloon still floating overhead; a tiny indigo flame was keeping it aloft, but one of the tapers hanging underneath it was also smouldering.

Mirch-san leapt to her feet, throwing her cloak over her shoulders and kicking a pile of dirt over the fire. "Enemies!" She hissed. Adult Gokudera also leapt upright, grabbing his briefcase and pulling Tsuna up and away towards the trees, making sure his jacket was settled properly over Tsuna's shoulders. "They're strong; if they find us it'll probably be all over."

Tsuna swallowed hard, but paid attention to the little voice in the back of his mind complaining about how very shōnen manga this all was. Or like a videogame; there'd even been helpful exposition and a revelation of collectable power boosts.

Life was not this straightforward, he was pretty sure.

There was a low rumbling from overhead, above the leafy canopy.

"Scout," Mirch-san murmured as Adult Gokudera came up so close Tsuna could hear the man's heartbeat. "Stealth Ring should get us past."

A Gola Mosca landed barely a few metres away, wearing a rucksack and with a number twenty painted on its helmet.

"Gola Mosca?" Tsuna asked as quietly as he could.

"Second-generation Mosca shell," Adult Gokudera corrected him softly.

"Strau Mosca," Mirch-san agreed; "the military has been selling the secrets of its black projects to families other than the Vongola lately."

The Mosca turned their way, a square over one eye gleaming redly.

"Can't it see us?" Tsuna whispered nervously.

"Strau won't find us," Mirch-san said firmly. "Its internal sensor is looking for the power of the rings, but the Mammon chains have sealed their power."

But, but Tsuna had an entire box of rings in his trouser pocket! Never mind the ring Lancia had given him around his neck!

The Strau Mosca started walking ponderously towards them.

"You're not carrying any other rings are you Boss?" Adult Gokudera asked urgently.

Emergency or not, Tsuna was not going to mention the box. Not when Xanxus said they were a family secret. "I got this ring from Lancia?" He unclipped the chain from around his neck and held it out. It wasn't a Vongola Ring, so it didn't count, right? Even if the stone was orange, like his family Ring?

"Why didn't you say anything?" Mirch-san hissed furiously.

"You only asked about Vongola Rings!" Tsuna pointed out, doing his best not to squeak in fear.

Adult Gokudera shoved his way forwards, something dark clamped over the top of his shirt sleeve and wrist. "We're still a way off the base, we'll have to fight," he said grimly.

Mirch-san grunted. "With you and me, we might make it," she conceded grudgingly. "But we have to be quick, or else it will call for reinforcements."

The Strau Mosca raised its arm, finger-gun-barrels dark and ominous as a targeting circle gleamed in the reddish square over its eye. Tsuna hunched down behind Adult Gokudera, feeling unpleasantly helpless; if they died now it would be all his fault.

A shadow moved behind the Strau Mosca, then a deep gash appeared in its helmet and its eyes went dark. Tsuna blinked. Who could…

"Attacco di Squalo," said a deep, warm voice. "I wonder if I can get a point off this guy?"

That sounded like…

"The pinch-hitter has arrived!" The tall swordsman said cheerily, walking past the misfiring Mosca and wearing a suit that was identical to Adult Gokudera's apart from the colour of the shirt under it and the fact that the shirt neck was unbuttoned and the tie was loose. Kind of like Xanxus wore his ties, really.

"Oh, it's you," Adult Gokudera grumbled, lowering his arm and moving to one side again, giving Tsuna a better view.

"Takeshi?" Tsuna blurted out, utterly confused. "W-wasn't that Squalo's technique?"

"Oh well, isn't this a bad joke?" The grown-up version of his best friend said airily. "I came here to pick up a CEDEF agent and found you guys. Except Tsuna seems to have shrunk; is this an illusion? Demons maybe?"

Okay, this was definitely Takeshi.

"Erm, there was a mix-up with the Ten-Year Bazooka!" Tsuna offered; his hindbrain making a note that Adult Takeshi hadn't seemed to realise he was dead. That was odd. Really odd. Especially when Mirch-san had said Vongola Headquarters had fallen two weeks ago, which implied his adult counterpart had been dead about that long.

"Ah! I see! From back then!" Adult Takeshi said brightly. "Of course; I should have known." He sighed, suddenly looking much more melancholy. "No wonder you're looking so well, Tsuna."

Oh, so maybe he had known.

"Anyway, let's go," the cheery swordsman went on, the sorrow immediately buried under a smile once more. "Having guys like these as our opponents is no laughing matter." He had a scar on his chin and was a lot taller, but otherwise he looked mostly the same.

"You always laugh anyway, idiot," Adult Gokudera muttered, but dropped back behind Tsuna regardless and nudged him forwards to follow Adult Takeshi.

"So, ten years ago," Adult Takeshi mused as they zigzagged through the trees and underbrush. That would be about the time Mukuro showed up, right?"

"Yeah," Tsuna agreed, wondering why he didn't mention the Ring Battles. Surely those were far more memorable..? Takeshi clearly knew Squalo to copy his attack and they'd only met because of the Ring Battles.

"How nostalgic!" Takeshi said cheerfully. "Since then," his face fell and his eyes drifted to focus on the middle distance, "many things have happened." Then the bright smile was plastered over the seriousness once more as he dropped back slightly and leaned an elbow on the top of Tsuna's head. "Oh yeah! You've been awesome these past ten years, Tsuna!"

Tsuna dropped his eyes; he really didn't think that was true if he'd somehow been forced into being Vongola Tenth here. He had a feeling that was something he'd been completely terrible at.

"Shouldn't we be running?" Mirch-san asked abruptly. "It'll take until morning if we walk."

"The information the CEDEF was given about the location of the base was false," Adult Gokudera said abruptly. Tsuna didn't think that made sense; weren't the CEDEF part of the Vongola somehow?

"Yep, we're almost there!" Adult Takeshi added with another careless grin. "Stay close and don't lose sight of me now." He tugged a chain off from the rings on his hand, produced another of those faceted boxes from his jacket and touched the box to the ring, like Mirch-san had done during the fight.

The box opened, erupting in pale blue light that spiralled around them in ever-increasing circles.

"It's defensive camouflage," Adult Takeshi explained, glancing back to meet Tsuna's eye; "don't look away."

A drop of water landed on Tsuna's head, then they were suddenly standing in the middle of a heavy shower.

"Idiot!" Adult Gokudera hissed, stalking forwards past Tsuna and twitching like a wet cat as he vanished through the rain.

"This way!" Adult Takeshi called out, voice just barely audible through the rush of water; Tsuna hurried towards it, then almost stumbled as he arrived at the top of a staircase leading down into the ground, his Rain Guardian leaning against the wall just under the porch. "We're going down," the swordsman added laconically.

Adult Gokudera was already vanishing into the gloom; Tsuna hesitated on the threshold. "The base is underground?" He asked.

"Yup!" Takeshi agreed easily. "There are six similar entrances to this facility. The base serves as an important military node for the Vongola. Construction was rushed, so as a result there are six ways into it."

Tsuna wondered where they were exactly. Was this Italy? Or just somewhere remote on mainland Asia?

Then Takeshi switched on the lights and Tsuna gaped in awe. This place was huge! "Amazing! The Vongola built this?!"

Takeshi laughed. "Want to hear something sweet?" He asked, eyes gleaming as he reached out to ruffle Tsuna's hair. "You're the one who built it, Tsuna."

"Whaaa?! Me?!" That made no sense!

"Yeah, when you get a bit older," Takeshi agreed warmly as they turned a corner towards a door with some wide bands of light crossing it.

"What's that?" Tsuna asked, meaning the light.

"Giannini the mechanic made it," Takeshi told him, as though it wasn't alarming that the weapon tuner guy was building parts of the base. "From what I can tell, it's some kind of disruption barrier." He walked through it easily though, so Tsuna followed after him, Mirch-san at the rear.

The moment they were through the barrier Mirch-san shuddered, choked and keeled over.

"W-what's going on?" Tsuna asked franticly as Takeshi knelt down beside the worryingly still woman.

"Don't worry about it," Takeshi said confidently. "Her body just went into shock from the big change in atmosphere, since for her kind of people this artificial environment is different from outside. She'll wake up in a bit." He picked up Mirch-san in his arms and set off along the corridor.

"Her kind?" Tsuna echoed quietly as he trailed behind, wondering if this was more videogame-style weirdness.

"Come on, we're here," Takeshi added, grinning as he turned into a side door.

Tsuna followed him in and paused at the sight of Adult Gokudera blocking the way, shoulders tight and fists clenched.

"You're late," a shockingly familiar voice said; Tsuna dodged around the silver-haired man to see if it really was who it sounded like. "Ciaossu."

It really was Reborn. Wearing a really strange outfit. Even for him.

Half an hour later Tsuna's head was spinning. Apparently they were from 'only' nine years and ten months in the past –did that mean it was September?– and this was Namimori, not abroad? It still sounded fake to him; clearly somebody had fiddled with the Ten-Year Bazooka. Also all the Vongola's bases around the world had been attacked simultaneously and there was a hunt on for the Vongola, with the Millefiore planning to kill every single one of them.

Tsuna didn't ask about how come Gokudera and Takeshi were still alive when Gokudera had confessed that the Adult Tsuna was dead; his instincts were insisting this was a set-up of some kind and he was reluctant to give the game away. "If they're hunting Vongola and associates," he asked warily, "then who's left?"

"The Family's Guardians haven't been confirmed as dead yet," Takeshi said shortly, glancing at Adult Gokudera. There was something dark there; was Takeshi angry at Gokudera about something?

Did it have something to do with Adult Gokudera being alone in the middle of the woods with Adult Tsuna's coffin? Because from what Xanxus had said about the duties of a Vongola Boss and what Grandma had said about Family, a Right Hand shouldn't be out alone on the opposite side of the planet from the Family's recently-destroyed Headquarters with the dead body of their Boss. The fancy coffin full of flowers just made it even clearer that Adult Tsuna hadn't been randomly murdered while visiting Namimori; especially since Takeshi hadn't known he was here and Takeshi seemed to actually be officially assigned to this base.

Tsuna didn't want to think too deeply into the implications there, but they weren't good.

"If you want to survive this Tsuna, you'll have to gather your Guardians," Reborn said seriously.

Tsuna did not protest that he wasn't the Vongola Tenth, or that these adult strangers weren't his Guardians; if he wanted to find out what was going on then he needed to go with the flow for a bit. He'd also have to find somebody who wasn't invested in him being Tenth to ask questions about stuff that was being suspiciously omitted, like the Ring Battles. Gokudera's lack of scars and Takeshi's silence implied they hadn't happened here, which meant this definitely wasn't his future. But if he was trapped in an enemy's Territory, then his best bet was to sit tight and play along. Mukuro and Reborn had both made that clear: Territories were the domain of incredibly powerful Mists who liked to play with people, so the best way to survive was to play along and be entertaining. That way if you survived to the end they might let you go without you needing to be rescued.

Tsuna really wasn't looking forward to that, but at least so far it was just him and Reborn trapped in here.

Hopefully he'd manage a private chat with the baby hitman in a bit, so they could straighten things out.

Getting Takeshi to leave so he could have a private chat with Reborn was easy; getting Adult Gokudera to leave was impossibly frustrating because the man insisted on being present as Tsuna's 'Right Hand'. In the end Takeshi had stuck his head back around the door, winked at Tsuna and darted in to drag his colleague off by the sleeve, slamming the door closed behind them.

It didn't do much to muffle Adult Gokudera's loud ire, but at least they had some privacy.

"You have to gather the six scattered Guardians," Reborn said as soon as they were alone in the room. "All previous bosses have done this: when a crisis hits the Family, the Sky must gather all six of his Guardians to triumph over the predicament."

"Except I'm not the Vongola Boss," Tsuna pointed out flatly, "and I don't believe this is the future."

Reborn considered this. "What is your reasoning there?"

The hitman was actually listening to him? That was a first. Not wanting to waste the unexpected opportunity, Tsuna immediately tried to explain: "Gokudera-san doesn't have any scars on his hands or wrists and when Takeshi was talking about when I was from, he mentioned Mukuro's first appearance but not the Ring Battles. Surely the Ring Battles would be the big memorable event to reference? Besides, Adult Lambo said the Bazooka only shows possible futures and we're just nine years and ten months ahead rather than ten years. Doesn't that mean this is a possible future from two months ago?" Two months ago was before Basil had showed up with the fake rings, setting the whole mess with the Ring Battles off. "I mean, you've only been here a day, right?"

Reborn paused. "I have been here for ten days, Tsuna," he admitted quietly, "and when I arrived I was two months earlier than I should have been. Now we are nine years, ten months and a little over a week into the future from where we were, since according to you I was only missing for twenty-four hours when you were shot. Are you sure Yamamoto didn't mention the Ring Battles?"

"He used one of Squalo's attacks," Tsuna admitted, "but he never mentioned the Ring Battles. Gokudera-san said I died, and Lal Mirch said you died too, but Adult Lambo told me way before the Ring Battles that it's only possible to visit a potential future where you are alive. So this can't be a potential future." He paused. "I thought it might be like you and Mukuro were telling me about last week, with Chrome." He didn't want to talk about Territories out loud, in case this was one and the Mist was listening.

Reborn hummed. "An interesting theory, certainly," he agreed mildly, "but all the more reason to play along: there are standards to be met after all and gathering their Guardians together has always been the first step for every Vongola boss wishing to strike against the Family's enemies."

In other words, he didn't get a choice. It was going to be like a videogame, where he had to complete various tasks and would probably face an increasingly challenging series of mini-bosses along the way. While having to act as Vongola boss to everybody around him.

Well, at least it was just him and Reborn in here; that was something. He didn't really have to worry about other people when they weren't actually real, beyond worrying about whether he'd need them to make it to the end of the 'game'.

"Do you know who we're looking for and where?" Tsuna asked. Since Reborn had been here a while, he probably knew quite a bit.

"I-Pin and Lambo are here, along with a few others from Italy I've not met before," the hitman told him, "but they went out looking for Miura Haru a while before Yamamoto left to find Lal Mirch. Mukuro is still in Vendicare and nobody knows where Chrome is, but Hibari is supposedly around Namimori somewhere. Ryōhei is in the wind, but will probably show up once news trickles out that the Guardians are gathering. Other allies will likely converge here too, such as Bianchi and Fuuta."

"What about Kyoko-chan?" The adult Kyoko-chan, anyway.

"Nobody's mentioned her, so I assume she's not in danger," Reborn replied calmly. Well, that was something?

"The Varia?"

"Nobody's mentioned them either, interestingly," Reborn mused, "despite them likely being present at the fall of the Vongola. Your mother was in Italy with your father when the Vongola fell as well, but they were reportedly on holiday at the time so they might well still be at large. Takeshi's father however is dead; the Millefiore has apparently been targeting everybody with even the most tenuous Vongola connection."

"So what now?" Tsuna asked helplessly.

"Now you sleep," Reborn said firmly. "Whether or not you are right about the current situation, you will need to take part in tracking people down and strategising tomorrow."

That was sensible. Reborn had already said there was some radiation here that meant he couldn't go outside, which meant he couldn't do any bodyguarding while Tsuna was outside. Which in turn meant the hitman would probably want to tutor him some more, to make sure Tsuna was able to protect himself enough to not get killed here.

Wherever 'here' really was.

The next morning was a bit awkward, because Reborn had decided the best thing to do right now was to find Hibari –Adult Hibari– which Adult Gokudera was offended by because Reborn worded it as 'finding the strongest person who is ready to fight'. Takeshi got the conversation moving again while Gokudera was snarling angrily, producing a photograph:

"This is the only lead we have; I've been away for a while, so I've got no idea where he is exactly."

So Takeshi had only arrived in Namimori after the fall of the Vongola? Tsuna wondered where he'd been before that and what he'd been doing. There being nobody else around seemed to imply that Adult Tsuna had only had Adult Gokudera with him when he died, which had either been just before or just after the Vongola fell. Seeing as Adult Gokudera didn't seem to have any news about the Vongola's fall, Tsuna got a feeling it had been just before; why had Gokudera been on the run with a dead body? That… he'd barely seen Squalo-san and never really talked to him, but Xanxus had been detained by Vongola Ninth for seven years –or was it six years? He couldn't remember exactly– and according to Lancia-san Squalo had run the Varia efficiently and productively in his absence. That was what a Right-Hand man apparently did: made sure everything was as their boss would want it to be.

Running to the opposite side of the planet with a corpse in a coffin without telling anybody wasn't very responsible behaviour, to Tsuna's mind. No, he didn't want to be Vongola Tenth, but a person shouldn't abandon their family if they were responsible for looking after everybody in it. That wasn't right.

Tsuna peeked at the photograph Adult Gokudera was holding. "Hiee! Isn't that one of Birds' birds?" Birds had been one of Mukuro's minions when he first arrived in Namimori and had been super super creepy!

"Hibari's taking care of it now," Reborn said airily. "It seems to be called Hibird."

Who'd come up with that? It was terrible name!

"A long time ago, Haru saw it riding on Hibari's shoulder," Takeshi said cheerfully, which said exactly where the name had come from.

"This is our only clue?" Tsuna asked plaintively.

"Well, considering how much he loves Namimori, there should definitely be a clue in the town somewhere," Reborn pointed out logically. "Seeing as I can't go, you keep a level head and come back soon."

"Boss, I will scout the outskirts," Adult Gokudera said firmly. "There's a lot of ground to cover and an adult alone is less noticeable. Yamamoto will accompany you into town."

"Isn't it still dangerous?" Tsuna asked, biting his lip. "I mean, with people out there hunting the Vongola?"

"There's nothing to be afraid of!" Takeshi coaxed brightly. "After all, aren't you carrying an amazing power which this era's Family has lost?"

Tsuna blinked. "Lost? Amazing power?" He repeated.

"A hope that you brought with you," Takeshi explained, voice softening. "I mean, the Vongola Ring."

Those are your rings, brat; don't give them to anybody unless you want to, and you can and should take them back if they misuse the privilege. You don't owe anybody your birthright.

Xanxus's words echoing in his ears, Tsuna knew all of a sudden why he and Reborn had been abducted. He also knew he wasn't going to play.

"I d-didn't want to mention it before," he said as firmly as he could, "b-but in my time, I'm not Vongola Decimo." Adult Gokudera and Takeshi both flinched in shock as he hurried onwards, "T-there was a Ring Battle, you see, and I lost, so…" he trailed off lamely.

"But, but you have the Sky Vongola Ring!" Adult Gokudera protested. "I saw it!"

"T-that's a bloodline heirloom ring, a personal ring," Tsuna insisted, refusing to bring up the box still hidden in his trouser pocket. "Xanxus said I needed one to be able to defend myself, even if I wasn't the Vongola Tenth, because I'm still a Family Sky."

"Yeah, that sounds like Xanxus," Takeshi agreed as Gokudera sagged back aginst the kitchen cupboards like his whole world was collapsing. "So, he beat you in a Ring Battle?"

"The Varia b-beat all of us," Tsuna mumbled. "Lambo nearly died and Gokudera –my Gokudera– is still in hospital."

"I wonder how the bazooka brought you here when you're not from our past," Takeshi mused.

That was a good question to ask, but Tsuna had no idea what the answer was. "Maybe Giannini didn't fix it properly," he muttered bitterly; dealing with the weapons tuner at the same time as those invisible assassins had been a nightmare and he'd not really got a chance to deal with it, not when that mess had been followed by Mukuro showing up and then the Ring Battles.

Takeshi laughed. "Aaah, yes, he used to be a bit of a disaster, didn't he?" He rubbed the scar on his chin. "Oh well, you're here and we'll just have to work with it, I guess. I'm sure they'll work things out on your end soon enough, and then you'll be home safe. Let us take care of you until then though, please?"

"O-okay." Takeshi was Takeshi, Tsuna supposed; they were friends after all.

"And we'd be really grateful if you did help out," Takeshi added with a hopeful smile, "since we really don't have any rings as good at the one you're wearing. I'm guessing it's one of the Vongola's spare sets, like Ninth's Guardians wore after handing over the main rings?"

"Y-yes," Tsuna admitted warily.

"Yeah, those are good rings; not as good as the proper Vongola set, but still really good." The adult version of his friend met his eyes earnestly. "So, please? Help us get everybody together so we can strike back against the Millefiore and not lose anyone else?"

"Okay," Tsuna agreed, remembering that Takeshi's father was among those who had died already. He hadn't really thought admitting to not being Vongola Tenth would get him out of fighting –especially not if this was some kind of live-action videogame thing, as videogames had limited plot pathways and you had to stick to them in order to advance– but it felt good to clear the air a bit.

"But Boss! Does that mean Xanxus is Tenth?" Adult Gokudera demanded, hands waving. "He doesn't care about the Family at all!"

Tsuna wanted to say that he didn't care about the Vongola either. "Xanxus won the Ring Battles," he repeated steadily, "and he knows a lot more about the Vongola than I do."

"But still!"

"Maa, that's not our problem, is it though?" Takeshi pointed out mildly. "Let's all head out and see if we can stumble across Hibari."

"S-so," Tsuna asked tentatively as they emerged from another of the base's exits, this one in a derelict part of the factory district, "what did happen to the Vongola Rings? H-here, I mean?"

"Oh, they got smashed and thrown away a while back," Takeshi said cheerfully. "Come on, Nami middle school is this way."

"What?!" Tsuna had nearly died for those Rings due to his father being stupid and somebody had destroyed them? "Who would do that?!" Xanxus definitely wouldn't! You, you just didn't do that to family heirlooms!

Takeshi tossed a smirk at him over one shoulder. "Our Boss did."

"Me?!" Well not him obviously, but still! Why would any version of him do that?!

"There were some Guardians who objected," Takeshi conceded, striding on ahead and forcing Tsuna to trot to keep up, "but you refused to give in."

"B-but why?" Tsuna asked plaintively, doing his best not to trip on any of the rocks and rubbish lying around.

Takeshi laughed, not looking back. "So you don't know either? Tsuna spoke of destroying the Vongola Rings in order to change us. There was a lot of fuss about the importance of rings in the Mafia; another battle over them was looming closer. You, well he I guess, was probably thinking that it was best not to fan the flames of war, right? That's just the kind of man you are, even to the point of doubting the purpose the Vongola exists for."

Tsuna could see that, maybe. He didn't like fighting. But still, destroying the Rings sounded like the sort of thing that would start a war, not end one, what with how much of a fuss dad and everybody else had made over them. Xanxus and Grandma had both said the Vongola was an alliance of multiple Families who had all agreed to follow the Don Vongola, so would destroying the Rings count as breaking that alliance? Since the Rings were an important part of making somebody Don Vongola?

"Still," Takeshi continued, glancing back, "even now we do rely pretty heavily on rings. Don't worry though Tsuna; we'll train you up like baseball camp!"

"By the way Takeshi," Tsuna asked, grateful for a change in subject, "how's baseball..?"

The adult version of his friend didn't get a chance to answer, because right at that moment there was a massive explosion in front of them.

Barely a minute later Tsuna was surrounded by more older versions of people he knew –Lambo and I-Pin that he recognised from previous Bazooka incidents and Chrome who mostly looked taller but still rather frail– plus a strange girl about the same age as I-Pin, all of them sheltering behind a huge barrier made of water that Takeshi had conjured up out of a box to protect them from the two guys with Flame-powered rocket boots that Takeshi had called Black Spell. Whatever that was.

"Hi Tsuna, glad you could make it!" Adult Chrome chirped.

Tsuna wanted to point out that the local version of him hadn't made it and was never going to, but didn't. The girl standing behind Adult Chrome rolled her eyes with a sigh; she was almost as tall as Lambo with round violet eyes, rather pale skin and curly black hair twisted up in buns on both sides of her head like Princess Leia. She looked very foreign, with a high, straight nose and sharp cheekbones as well as long, curling eye-lashes. Somebody else from Italy, maybe?

"How dare you ruin my shirt that matches my brother's!" The younger rocket-boot guy shouted angrily.

"Hey Tsuna, remember this okay?" Takeshi said, turning to catch his eye. "The ring you have –all high-end Flame-rings really– have the power to open these boxes."

"So you just touch the ring to the box and it opens?" Tsuna asked, because if this was anything like a proper videogame there'd be a test later and if he missed the full tutorial he'd lose horribly when a fight happened.

"There isn't just blood in the human body," Takeshi said seriously, which seemed to indicate Tsuna had in fact activated a proper tutorial, "there are things you can't see with the naked eye. We also have life energy coursing through us in the form of pulses or waves. There are seven types of energy wave–"

Like the seven different colours of Vongola ring?

"–and when you harmonise with a ring, your life-waves pass through it and are converted into high-density energy. That is Dying Will Flame." That said, Takeshi demonstrated by opening another box, launching the tiny blue fiery thing he'd used yesterday to make a rainstorm at the two Black Spell attackers, where it buzzed around them like an angry mosquito.

Tsuna made an effort to memorise the instructions; if he'd got exposition, there was definitely going to be a test later. He needed a Flame Ring and Dying Will Flames to open the special boxes; okay. He could remember that.

I-Pin looked around. "Haru is missing!"

What, Haru had been here too?

"Tsuna, you go look for her," Adult Chrome said firmly, producing a very familiar trident out of nowhere. "I was trying to lie low, but they've already recognised Takeshi as a Guardian so I may as well join in."

Tsuna did his best to smile; Chrome liked it when he smiled. "Have f-fun," he told her, then turned the way the group had come from and ran off away from the fight.

He ducked as fire flashed in his peripheral vision, but the immediate explosion threw him off his feet and through a window into one of the nearby buildings. Luckily for him, a pile of junk broke his fall; it still hurt though.

Takeshi and Chrome were out there; I-Pin and the others would be fine. Tsuna just had to find Haru-chan. She'd probably been blown away by the earlier explosion like he had been by this one, so she should be around in here somewhere. He got to his feet and set off, looking around the cavernous space for doors she might have walked through and corners to check behind.

"Haru-chan? Are you in here?"

Hopefully she'd be okay. She wasn't Kyoko-chan –and it was a relief that Adult Kyoko-chan didn't need finding or rescuing; she was probably with Onī-san– but she was still a friend. Sort of.

Then he turned a corner and almost ran into her. "Waah!"

"I knew you'd show up in time to rescue us, Tsuna!" Haru-chan –Haru-san?– said triumphantly from where she was sitting on the floor. She looked… pretty much the same really, despite being ten years older. Maybe a bit curvier and more maturely dressed, oh and her hair was much shorter, but that was all. Still Haru.

"I'm sorry, but I think I've sprained my ankle," Haru-san continued with an embarrassed smile. "I've tied my other sock around it, see? But I still can't walk like this." Indeed, her right ankle above her shoe had a stocking tied tightly around it and her left foot was bare in her shoe. "I might be able to hobble though." She paused. "You look very young dressed like that, you know."

Tsuna glanced down at himself; he was wearing a borrowed hoodie that Adult Gokudera had got for him, saying it was one of Lambo's, which was green and white and didn't exactly suit him. It was also a bit big, but it fit better than Adult Gokudera's jacket that he'd ended up borrowing yesterday, which was something.

"I don't take prisoners," said a deep male voice from behind him, "so I'll make this quick."

Tsuna spun around; the older guy from outside had followed him!

"After all I can't keep my main meal, the Rain Guardian, waiting," the older guy continued, dropping slowly down towards the ground and twirling his giant Flaming scythe as he did so. This close to, Tsuna could see he definitely wasn't Japanese; not with skin that shade.

Tsuna did not want to fight. However he also did not want to die, especially not in some terrible Matrix-style death-game to somebody who probably wasn't even a real person! This wasn't real and he refused to lose a fight to a, a videogame mini-boss!

There was a puff of pink smoke in his peripheral vision. "Hahi! Tsuna, there you are!"

That did not sound like Adult Haru! Glancing sideways, Tsuna saw Haru-chan, the Haru-chan he'd seen yesterday in her Midori Middle uniform when he'd asked her to help him find Reborn. Actual, real Haru-chan!

Oh no!

"Where were you? Chrome-chan, Yamamoto-kun and I have been looking for you for hours! It's dinner time, hahi!" She paused. "Wait, where are we?"

Tsuna abruptly remembered the guy who'd just promised to murder them and yanked the chain off his Ring entirely, reaching for his Flames and hurriedly shoving Haru-chan aside. "Look out!"

The blast hit him in the face, launching him back and away. Tumbling through the air, Tsuna managed to catch himself before he slammed into the far wall of the factory hall and floated in mid-air for a moment to catch his breath.

"… think killing a little girl is just like cutting grass?" The enemy guy said, looking down at Haru-chan. "You don't feel a thing as they're cut down and it's over before you know it."

"What did you do to Tsuna-kun, hahi?!" Haru-chan demanded loudly, pointing an accusing finger up at the floating man, face flushed red with fury. "How dare you!"

"You've got fire," the guy said, chuckling, "but it'll be over in a second." He hefted his scythe again.

Tsuna called his Flames over both hands and propelled himself forwards at speed. He needed to rescue Haru-chan! Yes she was annoying, but he didn't want her to be dead!

Carrying her out of the line of fire, Tsuna quickly set her down by the wall near a door she could escape through. "Stay back please," he said hurriedly, "and let me protect you!"

"Of course Tsuna-kun!" She was blushing; oh no she was going to think he was being romantic how embarrassing.

Embarrassing was better than dead, Tsuna told himself firmly as he gathered his Will and reminded himself of the feel of Zero-Point. He had to end this fight as quickly as possible, so he wouldn't be too exhausted to escape at the end of it.

"Your Flame, its colour is the same attribute as the Sky," scythe-guy mused; "that's kinda rare, kid. But I'm not playing with you anymore. I can't leave such important prey as the Guardian of the Rain out there waiting any longer."

Scythe-guy hadn't recognised him? Okay, that was good; he wouldn't expect Tsuna to know Zero-Point or stuff like that. Dealing with the scythe itself would be tricky –and so would the rocket boots– and he still didn't know if this guy had a box like Takeshi and Mirch-san, but he'd sparred against Chrome a few times and Takeshi as well since the Ring Battles, so hopefully some of that would carry over.

Quick. He had to be quick and decisive. The fewer messy attacks, the less likely Haru-chan would get hit or that something would spill outside where the others were.

He had to be focused.

Tsuna sat bolt upright, trying not to panic. What had–!

"Ow ow ow!"

"Careful Tsuna! You've been injured; try not to move around too much," Takeshi said soothingly. "You're in the hideout, in the infirmary."

Tsuna blinked, rubbing his sore shoulder, then stared at his friend. His teenage friend. "Takeshi, you too?"

Takeshi scratched his head sheepishly. "Yeah, me and Chrome and Lambo and Haru; Kyoko was with us too, but I've not seen her here."

"Not I-Pin?" Tsuna tried to remember when he'd last seen I-Pin around before arriving here.

"No, she went home early."

Well that was one less person in the line of fire. Wait…

"Takeshi, if you're here, how did you fight off the guy with the rocket boots?" Takeshi couldn't use Flames like Adult Takeshi!

His friend chuckled. "Chrome protected us so I-Pin and the other girl could take him down; I felt really useless!" he admitted candidly.

"So, how did you get here?" Tsuna asked; everybody might be okay so far, but this was starting to feel like a hostage situation. "Oh, and what day and time was it when you left?"

Takeshi gave him a very thoughtful look. "It's Tuesday evening, Tsuna; the day after Reborn went missing. We all split up to look after school, remember? But it was coming up towards dinnertime so we stopped looking for him and started looking for each-other, so we could all go back to your house for dinner together. But we couldn't find you, so we went on looking for another half-hour and then we were shot from behind with the bazooka." He paused. "But it looks like late morning here."

"I've been here over a day, I think," Tsuna explained, "and Reborn's been here a week and a half."

"Oh, so time's all wonky," Takeshi realised. "Well, at least Dad won't worry that I'm missing for a while."

Yeah, his mother wouldn't worry either; that was a relief. Tsuna hoped whoever was doing this didn't think to use her as a hostage too. Having his friends stuck here was bad enough!

"Reborn explained a bit about what was going on," Takeshi went on, "and how we're probably going to have to fight."

Tsuna opened his mouth to say that nobody was going to have to fight when the door opened to reveal Chrome and Haru. Haru was crying.

"This future world," she sobbed, "it's full of destruction!"

Chrome silently offered her a handkerchief; Tsuna wondered if it was real or Conjured. Chrome was getting very good at Conjuring things.

"It isn't the future," he said firmly. "Haru, listen: this isn't real." Comforting her was more important than maintaining secrecy at this point, since they should all stick together and them being here at all said there was somebody in Namimori hunting his friends. "This is a fake future; it's some kind of Matrix-like live-action game that we've all been kidnapped into, and time is running faster for us than on the outside. I've been here a day already but Takeshi says I was only missing for an hour or so. We just have to hang on until we get rescued, okay? But in the meantime we will have to play along, because otherwise we might die."

"But, but why us?"

"Because of the Mafia thing," Tsuna admitted unhappily. "I think the person who set this up wants to steal the Vongola's Family Rings, the ones Xanxus won in the contest we had a fortnight ago."

Haru sniffed, but looked less like she was going to break down and wail which was a relief. "Who's Xanxus?"

"He's the tall scary-looking guy with the red eyes and the feathers who showed up with all the other guys in leather," Takeshi interjected, "but he's Tsuna's cousin or something and pretty protective of him."

"He's not!" Tsuna objected. "Not protective, I mean." He was definitely Tsuna's cousin, which had been awkward to discover: Grandma's sister had married the Vongola Ninth.

"He kinda is," Takeshi countered with a wry grin: "he threatened my dad to keep an eye on you for him or else."

Tsuna squeaked. Haru giggled wetly, but she did look less upset so that was something. "So we just have to hold out for rescue?" She asked.

"Well, we do have to play along with the game," Tsuna admitted, "because that's how videogames work: if you don't follow the plot, bad things happen and you die. And we might really die. But the way the game is set up, only people with rings like mine" –he raised his right hand to show her– "can actually fight with Flames, so you're mostly a hostage to make sure the rest of us participate. I think."

Haru firmly wiped her tears away. "That's not nice at all, Tsuna-kun!" she said hotly. "I can fight!"

"I know you can!" Tsuna said quickly. She'd fought him and he remembered it vividly! "I mean, the people running this weren't planning on having you fight! The older version of you that you replaced wasn't a fighter!"

"Well I am going to fight!" Haru said fiercely, turning to Chrome. "Chrome-chan, will you teach me?"

Chrome ducked her head. "Erm, I'm not sure how to get you started?" She admitted quietly, glancing at Tsuna.

Oh. So this was why Adult Takeshi had explained about calling on Flames with rings and using boxes right in the middle of a fight… "Er, I can get you started?" Tsuna offered tentatively. "I mean, Takeshi too since Chrome already knows how. I can't promise you'll be strong enough to fight though; different people have different reserves." Grandma had explained that to him over the phone, while also explaining that their family had far more than most, which was why he could do such flashy moves while wasting energy all over the place without dying halfway through.

That had been very embarrassing to hear. Tsuna had immediately started working very hard on using his Flames without flaring them as much after that.

"Show me then, hahi!" Haru demanded, walking into the infirmary and sitting decisively on the edge of his bed.

"Er, okay!" Tsuna looked around wildly. "Um, Takeshi, where are my trousers from earlier?" He was wearing pyjamas and bandages now, which while more comfortable meant he didn't know where his other rings were.

"Here Tsuna!" His friend tossed them at him. Tsuna tugged them off his head, fished in the pocket and pulled out the box and opened it on his lap.

"Okay, these are my personal family heirlooms," he explained seriously, "so I am just lending them to you for as long as we're stuck in here, so you can defend yourself. After that I want them back, because they were personally gifted to my great-great-grandfather four hundred years ago." No need to mention that said ancestor had been the first Don Vongola…

Takeshi, Chrome and Haru all nodded immediately, understanding perfectly how important that was. "We promise," Haru agreed firmly, "don't we, hahi?" The other two nodded solemnly.

"Okay. Good." Tsuna removed the Mist Ring and gave it to Chrome. "You already know how to use this, right?"

Chrome put it on and ignited it with a quick burst of indigo. "Like this, boss?"

Tsuna blushed; Chrome calling him that was teasing him, unlike Gokudera who was upsettingly sincere. He quickly turned to Takeshi, removing the Rain Ring from the box.

"Here; put it on. Your adult counterpart said everybody has Flames and there are seven different types, and his were blue so yours probably are too."

"How do I get it to light up?" Takeshi asked.

"Resolve; you have to be really, really determined," Tsuna tried to explain. "Think about something you really, really want, more than anything else in the whole world."

Takeshi hummed. "So, like… this?" The Ring instantly lit up blue.

"Yes, like that." Tsuna heaved a sigh of relief at how straightforward that had been.

"My turn, hahi!"

Tsuna looked at her. "Er, I'm not sure which colour would work for you?" He admitted helplessly.

"Try green," Reborn suggested from the doorway. What, Haru was like Lambo?

"Green it is!" Haru neatly snatched the Lightning Ring, threaded it on her finger and scowled thunderously. A few seconds later it ignited in a shower of bright green sparks. "Yes! Take that, hahi!" She pumped a triumphant fist.

Tsuna flinched. Okay, Haru was scary

"Boss?" Tsuna looked over to the door, where Adult Gokudera was standing. "I didn't find Hibari, Boss," the man went on, face blandly impassive but eyes falling to the ring box in Tsuna's lap before flicking over the other three teens in the room, "but I did find somebody else." He stepped aside, revealing–

"Kyoko-chan!" Oh no! No no no no no no no!

Tsuna poked disconsolately at his lunch. It was very nice –excellent in fact– but it was all Western food and he'd been hoping for something more comfortingly familiar after the morning he'd had. He might have won his fight against the scythe-wielding mini-boss, but it had been very close and he'd fainted shortly after.

"Tsuna, if you don't eat up the cooks will be distressed," Viola-san said dryly from where she was sitting opposite him. Tsuna flinched, looked down at his plate and stuffed a large piece of fish into his mouth; Viola-san was scary. Very pretty, but scary; partly because he'd just noticed she had Xanxus's eyebrows. She didn't look much like the Varia Boss otherwise –other than in general foreign-ness– so Tsuna thought she might be another cousin. She'd already demonstrated a proficiency with the same red Flames that Adult Gokudera had, so even if she was a Vongola she definitely wasn't in line to inherit the Family.

"So, who cooked this?" Kyoko-chan asked curiously. "It's very good." The food had been on the table when they all walked into the kitchen, ready to eat with no trace of who had been hard at work preparing it.

"Household spirits," Viola-san said blandly, sipping her water.

Older I-Pin giggled and Adult Gokudera rolled his eyes, but neither of them commented; a running joke maybe?

"So, who will be training with whom?" Reborn eventually asked, finishing his portion and setting his child-sized cutlery aside.

"I-Pin has agreed to tutor those of you with rings, get you through the basics," Viola-san drawled, her accent also uncomfortably similar to Xanxus's despite her voice sounding totally different, "and I have agreed to teach Lambo some useful basics." A major part of the similarity was the complete refusal to use any suffixes whatsoever, regardless of how impolite that was. Wait, what had she just said?

"Lambo?" Tsuna asked, surprised.

"Hmm," Viola agreed, purple eyes lidded over the edge of her glass. "I won't have my favourite minion getting killed before he has the chance to grow up interesting."

Tsuna choked. Favourite minion? Lambo? Who was this girl?!

"Mwahaha! Lambo-sama is the greatest!" The five-year-old cackled, then squeaked as Viola-san turned to smirk at him.

"Not yet you're not," she countered calmly, "but you will be after a few lessons, I promise." Her smirk widened into a toothy and uncomfortably familiar grin. "Then once you have the basics, I-Pin can teach you to kick grown-ups' heads in."

Lambo looked dazzled. "So cool!"

Tsuna grimaced; Lambo was still all over livid red scars from his run-in with Lektor the Varia Lightning Officer. Older Lambo hadn't been though, now that he thought about it; more proof that this wasn't their future, because he'd seen several Older Lambos with scars over the past year. Was the difference really just that in those futures with unscarred Lambos, Xanxus simply hadn't bothered to oppose Tsuna's ascent to Vongola Tenth? If so, why not? That felt important. Also, his Chrome looked much healthier than Adult Chrome had. Had Adult Chrome not had her organs replaced?

Adult Gokudera kept glancing at Lambo's scars too; he looked disturbed by them. Maybe it was the proof that Tsuna wasn't a younger version of his Tsuna that he was finding upsetting?

"So, where did you arrive, Kyoko-chan?" Tsuna asked instead.

"I was in the graveyard," Kyoko-chan said easily, "in front of my grandparents' plot. I suppose my older self was paying her respects; Gokudera-san was there and he told me that this was the future and you were waiting for me here, so here we are!"

"It's not exactly our future," Haru said quickly, "more like something the future might become. We're all stuck here for the time being though, hahi." Tsuna almost missed her sharp glance at Adult Gokudera; Haru evidently didn't trust him to have their best interests at heart.

"Would you like to learn a little self defence too, Kyoko?" Viola-san asked mildly. "It's rather dangerous around here for pretty girls and your brother would be terribly disappointed in us if you got hurt." She smiled. "Besides, if you can take care of yourself Tsuna will worry less."

Tsuna blushed scarlet. Was he that transparent?

Kyoko-chan looked shocked. "Can't we resolve this without fighting?"

"No," Viola-san said simply, cutting up what remained of her rather bloody steak. "The people we are fighting want to kill Tsuna and steal his family heirlooms. If you don't fight, you will just die, or get your friends killed trying to rescue you." She paused to turn a coolly challenging stare on the other girl. "If you can't defend yourself against people who want to kill you to hurt Tsuna, you have to stay in the base. It's at least mostly safe here."

"Only mostly safe, hahi?" Haru demanded, looking worried. 'Mostly safe' wasn't very comforting…

"Nowhere anywhere is completely safe, Haru," Viola-san said dryly. "You could drown in the bath or choke on a fishbone. Or slip on the stairs and break your neck. But training will at least teach you to fall safely and notice potential hazards, as well as how to run away."

"There's a right way to run away?" Takeshi asked, looking bemused.

"Oh yes." Viola-san raised a challenging eyebrow, and that was such a Xanxus expression that Tsuna had to wonder if maybe she was a close cousin of his rather than a distant one. He didn't think Xanxus had a little sister; surely somebody would have mentioned Vongola Ninth having a daughter, even if she wasn't a Sky? She was much too old to be the daughter Lancia had mentioned; she looked about I-Pin's age or possibly even older. "You have to mark your exits, have a good sense of timing, be aware of cover and know how to delay your pursuers." She turned back to look at Lambo. "Once you've got some practice I'll see how you measure up against Kyōya."

Kyōya? Hibari Kyōya? She called Hibari–?!

"You know where Hibari is?" Reborn asked.

"I know how to find him," Viola-san said agreeably, "but I promised not to tell so he'd agree to spar with me regularly."

Viola-san was very scary! Hibari-san was, well, he was Hibari!

"Well, at least we know he's around here somewhere, right?" Takeshi said cheerfully. "I'm sure he'll show up next time there's a fight, he hates missing those."

Well, that was true… Tsuna finished his fish and scraped his plate of vegetables. He was about to stand up and put his things in the sink when Mirch-san marched into the kitchen, looking resolute.

"I've decided," she announced, "that I'll hammer basic knowledge and fighting methods into you boys' heads."

"Ah?" Tsuna hadn't expected that! She'd been against it earlier after all, and privately he'd been relieved to learn from I-Pin because he at least knew her a bit. She'd never been anywhere near as bratty as Lambo and had always tried to get him to practice stances and moves with her.

"Me and Tsuna then?" Takeshi asked as Adult Gokudera got up, put his plate in the sink and stalked out of the room.

"Yes: for some reason, the enemy has sent much more powerful squads here than I anticipated," Mirch-san said grimly. "The Black Spell that you fought –if the whole squad had been there, you'd have been dead in an instant."

"Oh yes," Tsuna remembered wondering about that earlier. "What is the Black whatsit?"

Mirch-san stood at the end of the table, hands flat against the surface between Chrome and I-Pin. "The Millefiore is a merger of two separate families. The up-and-coming Gesso Family, led by Byakuran, and a Family with as much history as the Vongola: the Giglio Nero Family, led by Yuni. Those who came from the Gesso are now the White Spell, who wear white uniforms. Those who came from the Giglio Nero are now the Black Spell, and wear black uniforms."

"Right," Tsuna leaned on his Flames slightly, to make memorising the information easier. Another tutorial? Definitely important.

"Incidentally, it's said that the White Spell specialise in precision and cunning battle tactics," Mirch-san added, "whereas Black Spell have more fighters and are more directly confrontational." So the Black Spell guys would be the tougher enemies and the White Spell would be the sneaky ones. Less powerful than the Black Spell, but in videogames the tricky opponents could be harder to beat than the strong ones.

"You're being really helpful now, thanks!" Takeshi said cheerfully, getting up and clearing away all the remaining plates into the sink.

"Don't worry, if you fall behind even once I will gladly leave you behind!" Mirch-san said ruthlessly. "With me now, you two! Your first lesson will begin immediately." She then turned and left the kitchen.

"Don't worry about Chrome and Haru; I-Pin knows her stuff!" Viola-san called after Tsuna and Takeshi as they scrambled after the older woman. Tsuna was grateful for the reassurance, but he would have liked to learn alongside the other two in this. Especially since they were using his rings.

Oh well. Reborn had said that Mirch-san had taught Colonnello, so she had to be really good.

Hopefully no more of his friends was going to get trapped in here…

The next week passed in a blur of training for Tsuna; Mirch-san was worse than Reborn had ever been and her explanations were just as incomprehensible; lots of words he didn't know and references he couldn't follow, making it hard to make sense of anything. Their only breaks were for meals and to sleep, but meals meant being able to talk to the girls and Chrome and I-Pin were actually really good at explaining things to him in ways he understood: so as long as he remembered the words Mirch-san had used, they could break it down for him and make it understandable. Viola-san sometimes volunteered an explanation when Chrome and I-Pin's attempts fell short; Tsuna rarely asked her directly, because she was really very scary even when she wasn't smiling like Xanxus.

Lambo was surprisingly happy considering he was spending so much time with Viola-san, and babbled gleefully about how he was learning to be 'super awesome!' The five-year-old bragged about what he was learning at meals, so Tsuna was learning a few things there too. Maybe he could use the 'how to run away' lessons to escape bullies when Takeshi was busy?

The only person who seemed less than happy was Kyoko-chan, which Tsuna wasn't sure what to do about. He didn't know if she was joining in and learning from Viola or I-Pin, but he remembered Onī-san saying that Kyoko hated fighting and had made him promise not to, so maybe she was uncomfortable that they might get hurt?

She never actually voiced her concerns though, so Tsuna wasn't sure what to say. He ended up saying nothing, partly because he was so focused on learning to protect his friends and use his ring properly that he didn't have much space left to think about other things, so generally only remembered about Kyoko-chan looking pale and quiet right before going to sleep at night, when it was too late to do anything about it.

He didn't see much of Adult Gokudera that week either, which was rather a relief; Tsuna really did not like how the older version of his friend looked at him. It was exactly like how younger Gokudera had looked at him before losing the Storm Battle to Belphegor, but creepier because Adult Gokudera was a grown man and being looked at like that by a grown-up was terrifying.

If Belphegor doing that to Gokudera meant Gokudera would never look at Tsuna like that ever again, then Tsuna was grateful. And felt horribly guilty about it, because what Bel had done to his friend was awful. Gokudera was still in hospital!

Adult Gokudera showed up at meals and occasionally talked about the surveillance systems he was manning and the repairs and improvements Giannini –who was here and apparently less incompetent now– was installing, but otherwise mostly kept to himself. He sometimes mentioned training, generally while looking at Tsuna like he was hoping he would join him, but Tsuna didn't want to fight a scary older version of Gokudera who would probably be comparing him in his head to the dead older Tsuna, so he always changed the subject. Even though it made Adult Gokudera irritable and miserable.

Then on the morning of the ninth day after he'd had been hit by the Ten-Year Bazooka, while he was sitting with Adult Gokudera and Giannini in the surveillance room for a lesson on how the base's security systems worked and where Black Spell squads had been sighted outside, a really loud alarm went off.

"What's that?" Tsuna asked, looking around desperately for the source of the noise.

"It's an ally's distress signal," Adult Gokudera said briskly, bent over a keyboard and typing frantically.

"An ally?"

"Someone Vongola," Gokudera went on grimly as his hands flew across the controls. "It's a highly secure frequency, doesn't get used much so that –got it!"

The screen zoomed in on the edge of the town centre, the map dissolving to reveal surveillance camera footage of a familiar yellow bird.

"That's Hibari-san's!" Tsuna squeaked. What could possibly have happened for Hibari to be calling for help?! "It's Hibird!"

"So the bird must have a signal emitter attached to it," Gokudera muttered, hands flying over the keyboard again. "Trajectory…"

"The signal's getting weaker!" Giannini exclaimed as the bird turned and left the camera view.

"Switch to radar," Gokudera muttered, pressing a button and changing the view himself as the surveillance room door burst open behind them and Chrome and Takeshi rushed in, Mirch-san at their heels.

"What's the alarm?"

"What's happened?"

"Is something the matter?"

"Big trouble!" Tsuna blurted out. "We got an SOS from Hibari-san's bird!"

"Oh, Hibird!" Chrome said brightly, indicating Haru had probably named it already back in the past.

"Where?" Mirch-san demanded.

"Seventh district currently, speed thirty-seven kilometres per hour, altitude decreasing," Giannini said worriedly as to one side Adult Gokudera continued to type furiously. "Twenty metres…"

The soft pings stopped abruptly, along with the alarm.

"Lost it!" Adult Gokudera hissed, slapping the desk with his palm. "About five metres short of Namimori Shrine."

"Why would Hibird be there?" Takeshi asked, sounding confused.

"The signal was fading right from the beginning, so the battery might have died," Gokudera replied briskly, turning in his chair to face Tsuna, "Or else somebody might have caught it and switched it off. Either way, for Hibird to be sounding an emergency alarm right through town something's definitely going down with Hibari. Or else it's a trap."

"A trap?" Tsuna bit his lip. What were they supposed to do?

"It's our only lead on Hibari, so we've got to do something," Adult Gokudera said, scowling irritably. "Bastard should check in properly according to Family protocol rather than acting like he's above it."

Giannini pressed a few more buttons, changing the display. "These are the rings presently at that location," he explained, pointing at the various coloured dots. "So that's the minimum number of enemies at that location."

Tsuna squeaked. That was a lot.

"See that double circle, boss?" Adult Gokudera said grimly. "That's a Captain-class ring; above A rank."

"It's probably Gamma," Mirch-san said quietly.

"I'll go then," Adult Gokudera said, getting to his feet. "I'm the only one left with experience using box weapons."

"Hey, We've been training all week too!" Takeshi said, grinning sharply, "and we've got good rings, so we should help out."

Adult Gokudera glared at Takeshi, then turned to Tsuna. "Boss, if you lend me a Storm Ring I'll be just fine."

"No," Tsuna said, trying to sound firmer than he felt. "Y-you should take somebody with you, Gokudera: w-what if you get swapped with your past self while you're out, like Takeshi, Chrome and Lambo were?"

"Fine, I'll take I-Pin," Gokudera said impatiently, getting up and looming over Tsuna. "I just need a ring and there won't be anything left of Gamma once I'm finished with him."

Tsuna steeled himself; he wasn't going to hand over a ring to Adult Gokudera, not when the man could easily be an illusory fake. "No, I won't give you m-my ring," he said flatly. "Y-you're not my Gokudera, I d-d-don't know you. Takeshi or Chrome should go with you."

Adult Gokudera looked stricken, then furious, then sullen. "As you say, boss," he muttered bitterly; "I'll take the baseball idiot then."

Tsuna was just opening his mouth to ask why not Chrome, who was actually better with Flames at the moment, when the door slammed open again and Haru-chan rushed in.

"Tsuna-san, big trouble!" she gasped. "Kyoko-chan is missing!"

"Have you looked everywhere?" Takeshi asked.

"Checked the toilets?" Adult Gokudera added quietly, slipping into his jacket, opening his briefcase on the surveillance desk and sliding various boxes into his pockets.

"She left a note," Haru said, visibly distressed as she produced a piece of paper. "It says, 'I need to go home, just once. I'll bring some grape sweets back for Lambo-kun too.'"

Adult Gokudera went grey, swaying on his feet. "Boss! We have to find her! The Sasagawas don't live in Namimori anymore!"

Tsuna felt his stomach drop into his shoes.

Everybody expected Tsuna to make the decisions, so he'd confirmed that Adult Gokudera, Takeshi and older I-Pin would investigate the Hibird situation –carefully, while trying to avoid fights– and he would go looking for Kyoko-chan with Mirch-san and Chrome. Mirch-san because she had experience in this time and Chrome for her illusions, which would make it easier for them to avoid notice in town and bring Kyoko-chan back even if she didn't want to come. Which was uncomfortable, but Tsuna would rather have Kyoko-chan be angry with him than kidnapped by enemies or dead.

Adult Gokudera and I-Pin both had communication devices, so they could stay in touch with the base, but Takeshi and Lambo's had vanished with their older selves and Adult Chrome hadn't had one, so they couldn't keep in touch with each-other.

Tsuna took a moment to find Viola-san and tell her where everybody was going, as well as to ask her to make sure Lambo was okay. The foreign girl had sighed irritably, eyes going flat in a very Xanxus-like fashion as she declared Kyoko-chan to be a selfish twit, but she did agree to look after things at the base and to make sure the infirmary was well-stocked for their return.

Which wasn't massively optimistic of her, but Tsuna could accept that. Her being mean to Kyoko-chan was harder to accept, but going out was very unwise. Especially when he'd explained why it was important not to!

As they left, Tsuna thought of something he should probably ask Mirch-san: "I-if Kyoko-chan has been captured, what should I do?"

"You're still recovering," Mirch-san said bluntly, "and while you are better than you were, you still don't have sufficient training to be able to afford facing your enemies just yet. But if you do get into a fight, I'm afraid I won't be able to step in." She paused. "My advice is, make sure you are wearing your ring and go into Hyper-Mode."

Okay. Tsuna could do that.

"I'll be right behind you, boss," Chrome added quietly. "I'll focus on recovering Kyoko-chan, so you can just fight."

"Thank you, Chrome." That was encouraging to know.

As Adult Gokudera had said, the Sasagawa house had different people living in it. However there were still mafia-looking people in black suits standing around outside it, talking to neighbours and one of the new inhabitants. Kyoko-chan wasn't there though, which was a relief.

"W-where do we check now?" Tsuna asked quietly.

"We could try Hana-chan's house," Chrome offered softly. "If Kyoko-chan came here and realised her parents didn't live here anymore, she would try her friend's house next."

Tsuna had no idea where Kurokawa-chan lived. "Lead on then," he said, glancing at Mirch-san to see what she thought of this plan. She seemed fine with it, so they set off.

It wasn't very far to Kurokawa-chan's house and there wasn't anybody hanging around outside, so Tsuna rang the bell while Chrome made sure nobody noticed them and Mirch-san stood quietly to one side.

The door was yanked open by Kurokawa-chan; teenage Kurokawa-chan. "Sawada! I just know this is your fault somehow!"

Tsuna squeaked. "I'm sorry! Is, is Kyoko-chan–"

"She's here and safe," Kurokawa-chan interrupted briskly, stepping back and waving them inside, "and I'm coming with you! I spent half this morning being questioned about you and Kyoko-chan, then I got hit in the back on my way into school at lunchtime and found myself in this weird place, so I'm not about to let either of you out of my sight!"

"Qu-questioned?" Tsuna asked, quickly taking off his shoes.

"An older man who said he was your great-uncle, two self-proclaimed cousins and another man who called himself 'Clown' of all things," Kurokawa-chan said irritably. "How many foreign relatives do you have, Sawada!"

Tsuna flushed. "Erm, lots?" he ventured weakly. "Grandma had two sisters and three brothers, and they all had at least three children each, and those children are our parents' ages so most of them have children too. I've got more than twenty-five second cousins." That had been an overwhelming conversation, but thankfully one he and Grandma had had in person while she was visiting. She'd since posted him a stripped-down family tree and some photos but there were a lot of names; he was trying to memorise them but it was slow-going.

It didn't help that Xanxus was one of those second cousins, if only by technicality since Grandma's sister had married the Vongola Ninth but died about forty years ago; clearly the man had remarried at some point, to have another son –no wait, Xanxus had said he was a bastard. Well, Vongola Ninth might still have remarried; just not to Xanxus's mother. It was uncomfortable to realise that the three dead heirs Reborn had talked about when he first showed up had been family. Not close, but still family. Closer than Vongola Ninth was; that was more like fifth cousins four times removed on his grandfather's side or something, which barely counted at all.

Kurokawa-chan looked like she'd not expected that answer. "Well," she managed, "okay then. At least they care. Still, I'm definitely coming with you, so please wait while I pack. Kyoko-chan's borrowing some of my clothes too, so it shouldn't take us very long." Glancing at Mirch-san, she seemed to remember her manners. "Would you like some tea?"

"I'll make the tea, Hana-chan," Chrome said quietly. "You go pack; we don't want to linger here."

"Empty the fridge too; there's no point leaving it all to go off," Kurokawa-chan replied, then vanished upstairs at a run.

Tsuna helped Chrome pack the contents of the fridge into some cool bags –assisted by Mist Flames to make everything fit– and Mirch-san raided the cupboards for good measure, packing into shopping bags everything that had a use-by date inside the next two months. That seemed a bit excessive to Tsuna, but he wasn't going to complain. Hopefully they wouldn't be here in two months' time since the Alliata were definitely looking for him now, but there weren't any guarantees. How had they arrived in Japan so quickly though? Going by what Hana-chan had said he'd not even been missing a full day yet, despite being here over a week.

Reborn had been missing almost exactly twenty-four hours when Tsuna arrived here, and Reborn said he'd been here ten days. If that stayed the same, then ten days here were the same as one day at home. It would take a few more days at least for people to find whoever was doing this, which meant they'd probably be stuck here for another month. Possibly a month and a half.

That was a lot of time for things to go wrong in.

Tsuna was helping Chrome to clean the kitchen surfaces so no mould grew while Kurokawa-chan was away when Mirch-san turned to lean out of the window. "Tsunayoshi, you should see this," she said grimly. Hurrying over, Tsuna peered through the glass.

"B-but, that's Namimori Shrine!" There was smoke rising from the hill, two distinct plumes coming up through the trees. Something bad had to have happened!

"What are you going to do about it?" Mirch-san asked challengingly.

Tsuna tried to think. "Chrome, you stay with Kurokawa-chan and Kyoko-chan; all of you carrying bags and heading out together can pretend you're going for a sleepover or something," he improvised desperately, "and your illusions can make sure nobody recognises you on your way to the entrance. Mirch-san and I will head up to the Shrine; we'll meet up again back at the base."

"Yes boss," Chrome agreed, lips firming as she nodded decisively. "Take care."

"I promise." Tsuna quickly put his shoes back on and headed out of the house with Mirch-san, having to make an effort not to run and draw attention to himself. What had happened to Takeshi and the others? Had they run into Gamma? Were they okay?

Tsuna was uncomfortably aware of how excruciatingly slow it was getting up to Namimori Shrine without drawing attention from the many Black Spell people in the area. Well, Mirch-san said they were Black Spell; they just look like regular mafiosi in suits to him. Was there any difference? Or were all the suit-wearing people around here Black Spell, and that was how Mirch-san knew? He'd not seen any White Spell people yet that he knew of, and if he had, would he be able to tell the difference?

They could move a little quicker once they were into the woods, since there were fewer people about, but they also had to be even quieter and stealthier because their being in the woods at all would be a dead giveaway if anybody saw them.

The distant crashes and splintering noises drifting down on the breeze really were not remotely comforting, and neither were the crackling explosions. Those sounded like lightning strikes!

Tsuna wanted to ignite his Flames and blast his way up, but that would make everybody notice him and he couldn't help his friends if everybody was attacking him before he found them. So he had to run uphill and not trip over in the undergrowth and duck behind rocks and bushes to avoid random wandering Black Spell members patrolling the perimeter.

He reached the top of the hill and pushed through the bushes just in time to see a blond man impaled on the side of a gigantic spiked ball floating in the air and Hibari-san –ten years older but very definitely Hibari-san– charging the stranger with tonfas drawn.

"That's!" Tsuna squeaked.

"You two are really late," Hibari-san commented as he leapt up towards his pinned victim.

Hibari-san's strikes shoved his opponent backwards, pushing his body up the spikes and forcing multiple large holes in his body. Tsuna quickly looked away and closed his eyes, breathing shallowly and trying not to throw up. Yes, he'd seen blood before –this wasn't anywhere near as gory as finding Gokudera after Bel finished with him had been– but he'd never seen anybody impaled before and the smell was awful, blood mixing with the sickly sweet scent of rot and something acidic, along with the pungent odour of human waste.

The blond guy was dead. Very definitely, permanently, messily dead.

Tsuna shakily opened his eyes to the sound of Hibari-san's feet hitting the ground; the spiked ball was gone –a box weapon maybe, like scythe-guy's circular saw blades?– and the corpse hit the ground with a thump.

Hibari-san turned. "What have you been up to, Sawada Tsunayoshi?"

"Hibari-san!" Tsuna exclaimed, relieved beyond words that the Cloud –because now he knew more about Flames he knew that Hibari-san was most definitely a Cloud– was still ruthlessly trouncing all enemies who came his way regardless of how scary they were. Everybody else's future selves had changed in variously uncomfortable ways, but Hibari-san was exactly as he'd ever been.

"Yamamoto Takeshi and Gokudera Hayato are in the forest over there with I-Pin," Hibari-san continued, which was more words from him than Tsuna had ever heard at once. He –wait, Takeshi, Gokudera and I-Pin!

Dashing off, Tsuna skidded to a stop barely a metre past the tree line, gaping in horror at the blood and crumpled bodies at the far end of the wide gouge carved in the hillside.

I-Pin was the only one conscious; she had one arm in a sling made of somebody's jacket and some nasty bruises on her face, and was sitting with her back against a snapped-off tree stump, a visible lump on her head and one foot propped up on a rock, the shoe bloody.

Gokudera was his Gokudera, young and horribly pale with bright red scars standing out against his skin, wearing only a hospital gown. His legs and hands were bandaged and confined by metal braces, and he was lying on his side with his spine curved backwards, like he'd got a cramp or a muscle spasm. It looked horribly painful, but so far as Tsuna could see he'd not picked up any new injuries since arriving.

Whoever it was sending people here had snuck into Namimori Hospital and shot Gokudera as he lay helpless in bed. Tsuna could see the bleeding pinpricks on his arms where the IVs had been. That was just..! Gokudera had been very visibly in no shape whatsoever for fighting and they'd sent him here anyway!

Takeshi was worse though. Tsuna recognised guiltily that he was focusing on Gokudera because Takeshi looked so much worse. He had electrical burns –Tsuna had nightmares about electrical burns now, he could recognise them anywhere– swollen purple-red bruises on his face and chest and his hands were twisted and swollen so badly they looked mangled.


"It's all right, their lives are not in danger," the suited man kneeling beside Takeshi said, glancing up at Tsuna. Tsuna tried to focus on the vaguely familiar guy's face, but was mostly distracted by the huge pompadour. It had to be thirty centimetres long! How much hair gel did he use?

"Ah, you're…" Tsuna trailed off, not being able to think of a name.

"Kusakabe Tetsuya, Hibari's subordinate," pompadour-guy volunteered easily, the grass stem he was chewing bouncing on his lower lip as he talked.

Oh, the assistant head of the Disciplinary Committee. That made… sort of sideways sense? More sense than a lot of other videogame things, anyway.

"Still, we need to get them treated quickly," Kusakabe-san added, getting to his feet; "let's take them to the hideout."

"Too far to carry them," I-Pin pointed out, "and I can't walk either, sorry boss. My foot's broken and I need the bones setting."

"Don't worry about that," Kusakabe-san said comfortably, "we will be using our own entrance."

Tsuna turned around as he heard a weird pinging noise, just in time to see Adult Hibari-san walk through the side of the shrine and disappear.

"However, there is a problem with us taking our leave from here," Kusakabe-san admitted. "The Vongola Rain Ring. It will have shown up on the enemy's radar by now. We can't let the signal disappear from here."

Tsuna bit his lip and looked across the clearing. "Mirch-san, would you?" He needed to stay with Takeshi and the others.

His tutor nodded. "I understand. Leave this matter to me." She took the ring from Kusakabe-san's outstretched palm and vanished back into the trees, probably back towards the town centre. Tsuna assumed she had a spare chain, since she hadn't bothered to grab Takeshi's.

"So, what happened?" Tsuna asked I-Pin as she threw an arm across his shoulders, leaning on him as they hobbled together through the hidden door. Kusakabe-san had Takeshi slung over one shoulder and Gokudera cradled in his arms; it looked awkward, but Gokudera's various injuries meant it was the only safe way to move him.

I-Pin ducked her head. "We made it up this far when Gamma ambushed us," she admitted softly. "Takeshi-kun and I engaged at close range, while Gokudera-san covered us from long range. Takeshi and I both got in solid hits –it looked like his nearly cut Gamma in half– and we got overconfident and thought that was it. But one of Gamma's box foxes bit my foot and then he came at me from behind and threw me into a tree. It took a little while to come back from that, but Takeshi-kun and Gokudera-san were holding him off fairly well until there was a puff of pink smoke and Gokudera-san was replaced by his younger self, who screamed, collapsed and passed out." The Chinese girl grimaced as they tottered carefully down the steps to the underground base. Yet another underground base; clearly this was a theme. "I think it was a muscle spasm or his injuries being jarred from the abrupt change in situation, and he wasn't expecting it so the pain made him lose his balance. Gokudera-kun hit his head hard on a rock as he hit the ground and that was that; Takeshi-kun went from having a partner to needing to protect a target and Gamma overwhelmed him in short order."

That was truly terrible timing.

"Then Gamma demanded Takeshi-kun tell him about you, since Takeshi had reminded Gokudera-san that your orders had been to avoid fighting if possible so we should retreat while we thought Gamma was incapacitated, and he refused." I-Pin looked at him solemnly. "So Gamma started torturing Takeshi-kun, to make him talk."

Tsuna flinched. This was all his fault. Death clearly wasn't the worst thing that could happen in here.

"I tried to intervene, but he broke my arm and threw me into another tree, and I must have passed out because when I woke up again Takeshi-kun was on the ground and Hibari-san was fighting Gamma," I-Pin concluded. "Sorry for not being very helpful."

"I-Pin, you did amazingly well," Tsuna said sincerely. "You were th-there and you did everything you could. It isn't your fault somebody is replacing the Vongola's best fighters with mostly-untrained teenagers. You nearly won!"

"Nearly isn't good enough though," I-Pin muttered sadly. "Master would be very disappointed in my performance."

"How much training do you have with Flames, I-Pin?"

"I can control my own," I-Pin admitted, "but I never pursued it; I'm a martial artist."

That utter disinterest seemed very unlikely to Tsuna, but presumably it was a videogame mechanic. Narrow specialties to make fights more interesting, maybe? "Well, you can learn more now, can't you?" he pointed out. "After all, if you can defend against your enemy's Flames, then you can then beat them up without them being able to blast you from a distance."

I-Pin smiled. "Thank you, boss. I promise I will do my best!"

"I know you will I-Pin." Tsuna looked around. "Where are we anyway?"

"This is one of our Japanese research institutes," Kusakabe-san replied.

"Research?" Tsuna couldn't quite fit 'research' and 'Hibari-san' into the same mental space.

"Various things are ongoing simultaneously," Kusakabe-san said vaguely. "Here we are, look over there."

Tsuna turned, and gaped at the sight of Reborn in his ridiculous outfit standing in a doorway. How?


"Why is Reborn here?" Tsuna asked, baffled. The hitman had said he couldn't leave the Vongola hideout!

"Our institute is connected to your hideout," Kusakabe admitted. "But there is a strict no trespassing rule, so this door has never been opened before." He sighed. "Though Viola-san keeps on getting in despite that; I have no idea how she does it and she refuses to say."

Oh, so that was how Viola-san was managing to have spars with Hibari-san!

"Because Hibari hates crowds," Reborn surmised. "Typical of him."

This was a familiar corridor, so at least it wasn't a long way further to the infirmary; Tsuna hoped Viola would be able to do something about everybody's injuries. Gokudera probably wouldn't be recovering any time soon since he needed a lot of physiotherapy, but hopefully Takeshi's hands were more fixable. If his friend wasn't able to hold a sword or baseball bat again Tsuna would never forgive himself.

Half an hour later, Tsuna perched on one of the sofas in the European-style sitting room, nursing a black eye and glancing from Kusakabe-san sat next to him to Bianchi-san and Fuuta opposite, who had both arrived just as Viola kicked him out of the infirmary. The older teenager had grumbled about how she was 'not trained as a healer, damn it,' but had nonetheless promised to do her best and demanded permission to make a few calls, so that she could get second opinions from people who actually knew what they were doing.

Tsuna had given her permission to call anybody at all she considered appropriate, then been booted out of the room for 'fussing' and had collided with the newly-arrived Bianchi-san and Fuuta. There'd been a lot of confusion there, most of it very loud, which had resulted in Hibari-san showing up and biting everybody to death in short order then leaving again.

Kusakabe-san had stuck around, sharing that Hibari-san had information for them but since he had left, it was up to the taller man to share it.

So here they were: Tsuna and Kusakabe-san opposite Fuuta and Giannini on the sofas, with Mirch-san and Bianchi-san on chairs, Bianchi-san cuddling Reborn in her lap. Haru-chan wasn't here and neither were Chrome and the other girls; Tsuna assumed they weren't back yet. Or maybe they were settling Kurokawa into the dormitory they'd claimed; either way, nobody had said anything was wrong so he was going to assume there weren't any problems there.

"Let me start with Hibird," Kusakabe-san said calmly. "We set it in flight in response to a request for aid from Kurokawa Hana."

"Kurokawa-chan?" She'd called for help? How had she known to do that, when she didn't know anything about the mafia? Or even where she was? Had there been instructions in her house or something?

"That's right," Kusakabe-san agreed, "she requested our help. When we receive an SOS call from specific pre-arranged Vongola channels, we release Hibird to fly to the scene."

"That's unusual." Tsuna couldn't think why anybody would do that.

"It's a backup system for sending a distress signal," Mirch-san informed him dryly.

"Yes, that's right," Kusakabe-san agreed. "When normal communication methods are cut off, we use this. It's one of over ten backup methods we have for sending an SOS."

"So why did the distress signal end at the shrine?" Giannini asked.

Kusakabe-san hunched slightly. "That's a little embarrassing," he muttered; "the contact point with the battery was faulty."

So it really had been a malfunction… well, officially a malfunction. Things malfunctioning like that could be a game mechanic to ensure they didn't spend all their time in the base and ended up in fights. Gamma being right there where Hibird's signal had shorted out was rather unlikely, after all.

"So, what does your organisation do?" Reborn asked.

"In short, we're a secret underground foundation formed from the Disciplinary Committee of Namimori Middle School."

"You're still connected to the Disciplinary Committee!?" Hibari-san would have graduated over seven years ago and he was still doing that?!

"I've heard about them from Tsuna-nii too," Fuuta agreed. "Hibari-san has been travelling all over the world to research and investigate the boxes under the name of the Foundation."

"The boxes?" Tsuna asked curiously. This sounded like another exposition cue…

"Please ask Hibari directly for anymore on that," Kusakabe-san said quietly. "Hibari intends to stay around for a while."

Oh. Yes; Hibari-san had showed up wanting to talk to him, but Bianchi-san fussing over the unconscious Gokudera and Fuuta trying to talk had swiftly irritated him to the point he bit everybody to death and left. He'd have to find Hibari-san later, when it was quieter and he'd calmed down a bit, to get that exposition.

"Really? That's very reassuring," Tsuna said brightly, hoping that was the right thing to say at this point.

"That's all I have to report," Kusakabe-san concluded.

"Then it's our turn," Bianchi-san said; evidently there was more exposition to come.

"We've been gathering information on the Millefiore stationed in Japan," Fuuta continued. "The Millefiore have a total of seventeen squads, but among them there are only six captains who rank A or higher."

Okay, so every squad had a captain, but there were only six captains who were really strong. Tsuna coaxed up his Flames to make memorizing the details easier.

"Furthermore, out of the six, two are currently in Japan."

"That much have been Gamma and Irie Shōichi," Mirch-san said. "Just Irie, now."

"That's right," Fuuta agreed, "It's definitely unusual; something crucial here has caught their attention. What it is is still a mystery though."

"I-Irie?" Tsuna repeated, recognising the name and feeling a whiff of impending doom. "Irie Shōichi? Is he from Namimori?"

"Yes, he is," Fuuta agreed, turning to look at Tsuna. "He was in the same school year as Tsuna-nii, but attended Yumei Private Middle School. His parents are Irie Masatsuko and Irie Ume and he has an older sister called Akiko, who is married to Taniguchi Takeshi."

There was a Taniguchi in Tsuna's class, but Tsuna didn't think his name was Takeshi despite there being two other Takeshi in their class as well as his friend. An older sibling or cousin maybe?

Tsuna bit his lip; this wasn't real. All the people here were fake. It wasn't really his cousin who had joined the Millefiore, just a character based on him. Whoever had done that clearly didn't know that Irie Shōichi's mother had been a Sawada before she married, or that Tsuna knew he was family. If they had known that, then Irie-san would be in the Vongola, not part of the enemy trying to destroy them.

"We also have good news!" Bianchi-san added brightly. "We've located the entrance to the enemy's hideout!"

"The enemy's hideout?" Tsuna repeated; even with Gamma dead his cousin would be there, and Fuuta had said that Shōichi was one of the Millefiore's few captains who was A-ranked or higher.

"It was right under our noses and we missed it," Fuuta agreed ruefully. "Like us, they're underneath Namimori: it's the Namimori station underground shopping mall."

"Th-the station has an underground?" Tsuna asked; he'd never noticed it!

"Construction began ten years ago and was completed three years ago," Fuuta explained.

Oh. Yes! Haru-chan had mentioned that while they were looking for Reborn. Wait, did that mean the Millefiore were already plotting to attack the Vongola in the present? Or was it that this horrible game had built on the fact that construction work was already in progress and stuck the base there for drama?

He wouldn't be able to find out until they escaped, but it was something to consider…

"This information is highly significant," Mirch-san said seriously. "With it we can carry out an attack."

"Attack? Bu-but, everybody's still injured!" Tsuna squeaked.

"Indeed, in our current condition we have no chance of success," Reborn said flatly. "However, the enemy must also be trying their best to locate us and finish us off. In other words, it's a race to see which side can position themselves to attack first. Therefore, the key to victory lies in how much stronger you all can become in as little time as possible."

Tsuna swallowed hard. Gokudera wouldn't be ready either way, but Takeshi might be. He hoped; he really didn't want to be storming an enemy base, fighting various mini-bosses and possibly even an actual boss with just Chrome and Haru beside him.

Tsuna had no idea how Viola-san had done it, but the bones in Takeshi's hands were completely mended by the following morning and the bruising had faded enough that he could hold his chopsticks without fumbling them. The cuts on his face had also healed up, leaving behind fading scars, and the other bruises had gone down almost completely.

I-Pin's foot and arm were also fully mended, although the bruise on her head still looked very sore despite the swelling having gone down. Was this another videogame thing?

"No physical training today or tomorrow," the plum-eyed Storm said firmly, glaring at them both over her natto, "and no over-straining your Flame reserves, either of you; work on tactics and strategy or something."

"How's Gokudera?" Tsuna asked hopefully. She'd somehow mended all their broken bones overnight, so maybe his other friend would be up and about soon as well?

Viola-san huffed. "Gokudera's wounds were already healed," she said shortly; "his problem is that the scar tissue needs stretching so he can recover his mobility, along with countering the muscle wasting from his extended hospitalisation. He needs to move," she elaborated patiently in the face of Tsuna's confusion, "but moving hurts and is very tiring. However if he doesn't move or is impatient and pushes himself too hard, he'll cripple himself. So I have to make him move regularly, which is acutely painful, and I have to do it carefully and gradually so none of his scars tear. Like," she hummed, "like learning to do gymnastics. To begin with your muscles can't stretch very far, but with practice and determination you gradually improve. However doing too much at once would tear your muscles and be seriously damaging."

Okay, that made sense. "Thank you, Viola-san," Tsuna said sincerely. "I'm sorry if he's been rude to you."

Viola-san snorted. "He's a whiney little bitch," she said dryly, "and you need to go tell him what's going on, because he doesn't believe me. Maybe once he knows the risks he'll stop fighting me every step of the way."

Tsuna guessed Viola-san meant that Gokudera refused to believe this was 'the future' and thought he'd been kidnapped or something. He wasn't sure his friend wanted to talk to him, but he should try. If only so he could tell Viola-san he'd tried. She was scary and he didn't want to cross her. "I'll talk to him after breakfast," he promised.

"Good; I'm going to go spar with Kyōya this morning," Viola-san announced. "Lambo, you're showing Lal how much you've improved and if she agrees you're making good progress, I'll take you to challenge Kyōya this afternoon."

"Yaay! Lambo-sama is the greatest!" the five-year-old crowed, bouncing excitedly in his seat even as Tsuna wheezed in shock. Just when he thought he was finally getting used to Viola-san she reminded him of just how scary she was! It wasn't fair!

On dropping by the infirmary, Tsuna discovered Gokudera wriggling and cursing loudly, but seemingly unable to get out of the bed.

"Tenth!" he exclaimed as soon as he noticed Tsuna. "Did the harpy kidnap you too? I'm going to kill her!"

Tsuna wanted very much to pinch the bridge of his nose like Xanxus had done after Tsuna told him about how Reborn wasn't really teaching him anything useful. "Gokudera, we were both shot with the Ten-Year Bazooka," he said firmly, "and so were Reborn and Takeshi and Chrome and Kyoko-chan and Lambo and Haru-chan and Kurokawa-chan. Except whoever stole it from Lambo must have tampered with it, since I've been here over a week now but Kurokawa-chan said I've only been missing at home for a day." Telling his friend not to call him 'Tenth' would be unhelpful at this point; at least Gokudera was talking to him now.

"The harpy kidnapped the baseball idiot too?!"

Tsuna sighed. "No, Gokudera: Viola-san is our ally. She's Vongola; I think she's Xanxus's cousin or something, they have the same eyebrows and she talks like he does. Our enemies here are the Millefiore Family, who are formed from the former Gesso Family and the former Giglio Nero Family." He was secretly proud of himself for remembering that.

Gokudera stilled. "The Giglio Nero? Really?"

Oh, he'd heard of them? "Their boss is called Yuni," Tsuna said, hoping for more details.

"Last I knew the Giglio Nero boss was called Aria," Gokudera admitted, "but I did hear she got married last year. They're an old Family like the Vongola, but much less influential. All I know about them is that they're matrilineal and another Sky bloodline."

Wouldn't that mean that the Giglio Nero boss was a child, if her mother had only married eleven years before now? Well, that did fit the general videogame weirdness; how old was Byakuran then?

"And I've never heard of the Gesso," Gokudera continued, levering himself gingerly into a sitting position using his elbows, "so they must be new. Probably have a lot of money; that way the Giglio Nero get funds out of their alliance and the Gesso get connections and influence."

"Your older self was helping out," Tsuna said, not mentioning that his own counterpart had been Vongola boss, "but you got swapped with him during a fight. His stuff is there," he pointed at the briefcase lying on the bedside cabinet. "I needed to ask him some questions, but I didn't get a chance." Looking back, Tsuna was pretty sure Adult Gokudera had had some exposition for him, but his reluctance to be alone with the man who looked at him like he'd hung the moon meant he'd missed it. Hopefully he'd left clues, but if not they might really be in trouble.

Gokudera dragged the briefcase onto his lap using the heels of his palms and fumbled the lock open. "There're some letters in here," he muttered, bending over the contents, "written in G script? Hm…"

"I have to go train," Tsuna said quickly –Mirch-san had only given him fifteen minutes– "but I'll visit at lunchtime! Please cooperate with Viola-san, she's in charge of helping you recover. Oh, and the ten-years-later version of your sister is here too, so watch out for her!"

"Nee-san's here?!" Gokudera sat bolt upright, face greyish white.

"Viola-san locked her out of the infirmary so you're safe for now," Tsuna added hurriedly, "but she really wants to visit so you should probably explain things to Viola-san if you want that to continue. Sorry!" He dashed out the door; if he didn't arrive in time, Mirch-san might refuse to train him any further!

Five days after Gokudera's arrival, Chrome pulled Tsuna aside after lunch. "Boss?"

"What is it, Chrome-chan?"

"It's Mukuro-sama," the girl said seriously.

Tsuna paused. "Um, he isn't our Mukuro, is he?"

"No, he's older," Chrome replied quickly, "it's just, well," she bit her lip, "He's still in prison."

"Oh." Tsuna frowned. "But, since back home Xanxus was confident he could get Mukuro out in a few months, shouldn't the Tsuna here have known he could get Mukuro out and done it ages ago? I mean, since he became the Vongola Boss?" The fake older Tsuna had actually been Decimo, so surely it would have been easy for him. Chrome had said that Xanxus was going to pay for Mukuro's release and as a mafia boss, the older him would have had more than enough money, right?

"I don't think he even tried," Chrome said quietly. "He didn't try to get new organs for the older me either; Mukuro-sama was very surprised that I didn't need illusions to keep me alive."

So the older Chrome hadn't been as healthy as his Chrome. "Is he willing to help us win, so we can go home?" Because that was the sticking point; Mukuro would do whatever he wanted to. If he wanted to help they could really benefit, but if he didn't they'd just have to make do without him.

"He dislikes the idea of being a game character," Chrome admitted softly, "but he very much wants Byakuran to lose. So he will help us, even if it means he will stop existing afterwards."

"Thank you," Tsuna said gratefully. "You know the plan so far and once we decide anything more you'll know that too, so anything he can do to help us or sabotage our enemy would be great." Giving orders would be pointless when he barely knew what he was doing anyway, and as a lifelong inhabitant of this game world the older Mukuro would have a much better idea of what needed doing that Tsuna did.

"Tsuna? Where are you? We're starting again in five minutes!"

"See you at dinner bye!" Tsuna blurted out, dashing out into the corridor towards Takeshi's voice. If he was late Mirch-san might stop training him!

Two weeks after Gokudera's arrival there had been no more unexpected swaps, but they also hadn't been rescued yet. Going by the timescale established by Reborn –ten days here to one day in real life– he'd been missing for three whole days; not really very long. Knowing that Grandma had sent members of her extended family to look for him after less than a single day was most of what was letting Tsuna stay calm: this wasn't permanent. They would get out, even if they didn't play this game to the end.

Then Lal Mirch informed him she wouldn't be training him anymore.

"You are progressing," she admitted candidly, "but you have not attained the level I expected of you. I've realised you will not improve as much as I was hoping in the time we have."

This felt like those montages right before the hero got dumped in a dungeon or thrown to wild animals; evidently he wasn't levelling up fast enough so now he got extra difficulty levels as a penalty.

"But this is all the strength I have," He protested. He was doing well! He was so much better with his Flames now! He could summon them with and without his Ring, and do all the things Mirch-san expected of him! He'd only been training properly for a month at most, so he was doing really well, considering!

"Your power is far greater than this!" Mirch-san snapped. Tsuna opened his mouth to protest, then launched himself into the air to avoid the attack headed his way from one side, landing on the wall near the ceiling. The projectile swerved towards him, picking up speed; options flickered through his brain.

Purple. It was purple; running from purple had never done him any good.

Twisting his Harmony so he could stand on the wall like he'd seen Xanxus do, Tsuna reached out both hands and shaped his Flamed into a shield. Harmony made his Flames 'sticky' and a downside of that stickiness was that other Box Weapons could feed themselves on his Flames. He'd had to learn to make his Flames harder, to rein in the Harmony and make his Flames only resonate with him and with themselves, so he could fend off attacks without wasting his strength.

The projectile hammered into his shield and stuck there, a small ball of pointy spikes. A familiar ball of spikes.

"If you don't pay attention, you will die," came Hibari-san's almost conversational tones from down below; the fake-Hibari-san was far wordier than the real one.

Tsuna was still glad to see him though; he still needed to get that exposition and this seemed like a setup for that.

"I'm going to pry open all of your abilities," the Cloud continued ominously as the spiked ball kept shoving against Tsuna's shield. Tsuna tried to push it away, but it was stuck fast and the pressure was increasing. "Exactly as the baby said; this level of power is a far cry from your future self."

Tsuna felt a twinge of annoyance; well his future self had an extra ten years of training so of course he was better! Besides, his so-called 'future self' not only wasn't actually him but also was dead so what good had being stronger done him? None at all, clearly. This was a stupid live-action game he'd been shoved into and now the characters were complaining he wasn't as good as the game's designer thought a ten-years-older Tsuna should be! How stupid was that?

The stupid spiky thing was still pressing against him; did he use ice? Xanxus had said his ice wasn't safe and had proved it by reversing it over him; better not to then.

Instead Tsuna widened his shield and wrapped it around the spiked ball, then pivoted up off the wall onto the covered ball; it immediately tried to follow him, which rocketed it upwards. Tsuna slid over his Flames and around underneath it as it crunched into the ceiling. He quickly used his Flames to 'Harmonise' it with the ceiling, binding it in place.

Purple clouds around him; another attack!

Letting go of the Flames encasing the very stuck spiked ball Tsuna dropped, crushing his own Flames down inside him in an attempt to dodge the attack. He'd noticed a lot of Box Weapons homed in on Flames and him not using his made him harder to track, so he was getting better at switching them on and off again.

Unfortunately he wasn't quite fast enough this time and everything went black. There was a moment of weightlessness –falling– followed by a jarring impact.

"This is the globe of needles form," Hibari-san said, voice muffled by the sphere. "It's an airtight sphere moulded with Cloud Flames, making it completely impervious. You cannot break through with your physical strength or your Flames."

That… wasn't true. The thing about Flames –the thing he'd learned from watching the Varia and listening to what they said when they chatted amongst themselves in a language he understood– was that things were only impossible if you decided they were. So Hibari-san might have decided this sphere was impervious, but it would only stay impervious if his Will for its imperviousness was stronger than Tsuna's Will to break it.

Tsuna had a healthy respect for Hibari-san's strength of Will though.

"It's airtight, so the oxygen within the sphere is limited." Tsuna was glad he'd extinguished his Flames already, even though the landing had been a bit bumpy. "If you don't get out quickly, you will die."

"Why're you trying to kill Tsuna?" That was Takeshi.

"The weak will be buried; that's a given. Even if I had a reason to kill Sawada Tsunayoshi to begin with, there is no reason why I should let him live either."

This was a side-quest, Tsuna realised dimly. He had to earn Adult Hibari-san's respect. To do that he had to break out of this sphere, and to do that he had to overpower Hibari-san's Will. He had to prove he was stronger than Hibari-san.

He didn't feel stronger than Hibari-san.

"We should begin our training too," Reborn said, words muffled but his cheer undimmed. Tsuna didn't think that was fair; he was stuck! He was going to die in here! Adult Tsuna might be stronger than Adult Hibari but he wasn't!

"Hibari is serious," Takeshi said quietly, voice barely audible.

"I know he is. That's why it has to be Hibari."


"Every generation, the Boss has to overcome the Vongola Trial. The Trial cannot be compromised, so a genuine threat is necessary."

But, but he wasn't the boss! He didn't have the Vongola Rings! This wasn't fair! Reborn knew he didn't have the Rings, even! He was going to die and it wasn't fair!

Well, just hitting the stupid sphere wasn't going to work; hitting Hibari never worked and this was Hibari's Box Weapon. As Xanxus had proved, sometimes the best way to win was to bend the rules or think past them. So what did he know? He knew the sphere stopped air getting in or out, so there weren't any holes in it. He also knew it was made of Flames, or at least that the Cloud Flames made it impervious.

Chrome had said that Xanxus had warned her off touching him when he'd been frozen in Zero-Point Breakthrough, because the ice would leech her Flames. If he used Zero-Point against the sphere, could he leech away its Flames?

Well it was worth a try; later though. If he froze himself by accident nobody here would be able to defrost him and that would be really bad.

Wait, did he really need more Will than Hibari or did he just need tighter focus? The sphere was fairly big; Tsuna just needed to poke one little hole in it. The smaller the better, even; punching a balloon didn't do anything but a pinprick popped it.

Carefully calling on his Flames, Tsuna tried to limit them to just over his ring. It was very hard; keeping them from flickering up on his forehead was the hardest bit and he had to breathe deeply and not get distracted.

He wasn't sure how long it took, but eventually he had a glowing spike emerging from his ring. Tsuna carefully pressed the point of the spike against the sphere wall and leaned, all his Will on that single, sharp point.

He didn't want to overpower Hibari; he'd never wanted to overpower Hibari. He just wanted Hibari-san –everyone– to recognise that he was capable. He could do things. And he didn't need that stupid Vongola ring he didn't have to save him!

I am enough. Stop pushing me around!

The spike shifted in colour to a pure, clear orange and abruptly broke through the sphere; Tsuna tumbled forwards, banged his nose and quickly called more Flame to his fingers, pushing at the hole and sawing it further open. It was messy, slow and exhausting but eventually he crawled out of the gap he'd made. On his knees and panting at the sheer effort required to control the intensity and focus of his Flames to such a degree, Tsuna tilted his head back and glared at Hibari.

"I don't have the stupid Vongola Ring," he snapped in between breaths, "because in my past I lost the Ring Battle to Xanxus. I just have a regular focus ring. I'm not Don Vongola and I never will be, so I don't need to take the stupid Vongola Trial."

Hibari-san stared down at him impassively for several seconds; Tsuna realised he'd just yelled at Hibari-san and quailed.

"You have found your strength, small animal," the Cloud said mildly. "You're finally starting to resemble the version of you I know. That you thrills me the same way the baby does." The ripped spiked sphere evaporated as the Cloud turned and walked away across the training room, then turned back to face Tsuna, drawing his tonfas. "Let's begin."

Tsuna scrambled to his feet, bringing back to mind the tight, all-encompassing certainty that had filled him when his Flames changed; the crystalline orange glow covered both his hands and he lifted them up in front of him in preparation.

Suddenly he was swamped with a wave of… intimidation? It was like he could suddenly feel Hibari-san's bloodlust and hunger to crush him.

Tsuna refused to be crushed. He was enough, he would not be diminished!

"There are no rules in this fight," Adult Hibari said softly. "The only choice you have is to defeat me or die."

"I'll defeat you," Tsuna said flatly. He would defeat Hibari, get the exposition, beat this stupid game and go home.

Hibari-san smiled. "Come and get it."

Tsuna charged. Two minutes later he was embedded in the floor, head spinning; keeping his new Flame stable was hard and the crystalline Flames completely overpowered his usual techniques.

"Remember what I said?" Hibari taunted him.

Tsuna narrowed his eyes, clambering carefully to his feet. "I must defeat you, right?" Brute force wasn't going to cut it. Then again, brute force hadn't got him out of the sphere either; guile and thought had. Right now Hibari-san had the upper hand; he was older, better trained and had both his tonfas and a Box Weapon he could pull out at any time.

Wait. The Box Weapon. Mirch-san had said that Sky Flames could open any Box.

Reaching for his Flames, Tsuna charged. If he thought about it Hibari-san would notice, so he had to move–

As before, Hibari-san dodged the Flaming fist aimed at his head and buried a tonfa in Tsuna's stomach, launching him across the room and carving another groove in the floor.

"I'm disappointed in you; I have no interest in weak herbivores. I don't even feel like engaging you directly." The Cloud turned away. "I'll use the box–"

Tsuna dragged himself up on his elbows and pulled the pick-pocketed Box up level with his ring. "Please work," he mumbled before pressing Box and ring together.

An orange spiked ball exploded out of the box in a tight spiral, heading directly for Hibari, who'd half-turned back towards him. Hibari-san instantly produced another box –how many did he have?– and clicked it against his ring, firing another identical spiky ball at Tsuna's. They clashed in midair, orange struggling against purple and neither overcoming the other.

"I've changed my mind," Hibari-san said evenly. "I want to fight you when you're stronger. Until then, I'll stick around a little longer." He paused, face lit by flickering purple and orange. "Now then, do you know how the boxes came about?"

He'd unlocked Hibari-san's exposition!

What Tsuna took away from the new Box Weapon exposition –which Mirch-san participated in as much as Hibari-san– was that they'd been designed a long time ago but only been actually built very recently –as in only in this fake reality; definitely a videogame mechanic– and that Hibari-san found their existence and distribution to be suspiciously coincidental. As in involving a large number of really unlikely coincidences; since this was a live-action game thing, that meant it was probably somehow their enemy's fault.

Oh, and Skies couldn't use all the attributes of regular Flame Boxes, so there were special Sky Boxes. He'd probably have to do a quest for one of those too at some point.

And Hibari-san wanted to fight him again tomorrow.

Tsuna desperately needed to sleep before then –he was exhausted– but it didn't look like Mirch-san was going to let him go to bed early. Not when she'd just seen him do something new.

The next morning Gokudera joined them for breakfast for the first time.

"Tenth! I'm so sorry I'm dragging you down."

"Gokudera, you aren't," Tsuna said firmly as Viola-san piled more eggs and steamed fish onto his plate; he wasn't sure how it worked but the videogame food did seem to be actually nutritious. "You have to recover at your own pace or else you'll hurt yourself, and if you did that then I'd be really worried." Getting Gokudera to stop calling him 'tenth' would have to wait since everybody in this fake place addressed him that way.

"Sorry!" Gokudera ducked his head. "I will be more careful of myself in future, Tenth."

"How are you?" Tsuna asked, wanting to steer the subject away from his friend's ongoing guilt over not being able to participate in training.

Gokudera grimaced, looking down at his plate which had toast and fruit slices on; food that did not require chopsticks. "I can walk now, so long as I'm careful, but I can't grip things or turn my wrists very far. I'm still wearing knee braces too, so I don't overtax the scar tissue. Viola's done some graphs and projections of how I'm improving, but I'm not going to be able to fight for real for months yet."

"Graphs?" Tsuna asked, swallowing a mouthful of egg.

"So he can see his progress," Viola-san said briskly, glancing up from her natto. "Rehabilitation is very disheartening when you can't track improvement."

"I'm nearly three times as mobile as when we arrived here, Tenth," Gokudera said shyly.

"That's so good! Well done!" Tsuna enthused.

"Thank you Tenth!" His friend flushed. "But I've got a long way to go." His expression hardened. "I know I won't be able to fight with you but now I can help out at the computers and won't drag everybody down."

"So long as you stop when you start to feel pain," Viola-san said firmly. "No setting your progress back."

Gokudera huffed, but he didn't argue.

"I'm glad you can help with the security, you're very good with codes," Tsuna said earnestly.

His friend twitched in embarrassment. "Thank you Tenth! Oh, that reminds me: remember you gave me my older self's briefcase? Well his notes were written in G script, so I didn't have any trouble deciphering them: the letter says, 'Gather the Guardians. With the Vongola Rings, defeat Byakuran. Eliminate the guy with the glasses in the photograph. Everything will return to as it was.' That's all."

So that was the game's plotline. There was a problem with that though, never mind that he didn't have the Vongola Rings:

"Gokudera… the guy in the glasses is my cousin."

"You're related to the Irie guy?" Takeshi asked.

"You are too," Tsuna explained: "His grandpa was Sawada Ieyoshi, whose sister Iku married Yamamoto Takehiro."

"Grandma's a Sawada?" Takeshi looked shocked. "Wow, I didn't realise!"

"Baseball Idiot is descended from First?!"

Tsuna groaned. "Gokudera, everybody in Namimori is related to him somehow; it's a small town and he lived here nearly four-hundred years ago! He had six children! My grandpa had five sisters! Five! And his father had eight sisters and two brothers who all married locally! One of Grandpa's sisters married Kyoko-chan's great-grandfather and another one married Haru-chan's great-grandpa! My great-grandpa's wife was a Hibari and his sister married a Hibari! If we looked at the family records of everybody in class then I'm probably related twice over to everybody whose grandparents were born here!"

Gokudera looked stunned. So did Kyoko-chan and Haru-chan.

"We're related?" Haru gushed, going pink.

"Like he said, it's a small town," Viola-san said briskly, clearing away the empty serving dishes, "so it's not so surprising really. The Vongola's much the same: nearly everybody's related a few times over if you go back half a dozen generations."

"So… you're not going to eliminate glasses-guy?" Gokudera asked quietly.

"We still don't really know what's going on or how we got here," Tsuna said quietly, "or what Irie-san is supposed to have done. Yes, we are going to attack their base as soon as we get the opportunity, but I'd rather capture Irie-san than kill him."

"It's a smart move," Viola-san agreed, "especially since Irie is high-ranking in the Millefiore. He'll know lots of sensitive information."

Tsuna thought of something. "Viola-san, Gokudera says the Giglio Nero are a Sky lineage, so Yuni-san is a Sky; is Byakuran a Sky too?"

She smiled thinly at him. "Oh yes."

"Does he have Guardians then?" It seemed to be a theme in the Underworld.

"They're called the Funeral Wreaths; Irie is one."

Useful exposition, only revealed because he'd thought to ask; he needed to ask more questions. That explained a lot though; more game bosses to look forward to then. Wait, Fuuta had said that only six of the Millefiore's captains were A-rank, hadn't he? There were six Flame types other than Sky, so it made sense for those six to be the Funeral Wreaths.

Hibari-san had already killed Gamma, so that was one down; five more to look forward to then.

"All the more reason to capture and interrogate him then, Tenth!" Gokudera said supportively. He still looked desperately unhappy about not being able to join in though.

Tsuna was privately very glad at least one of his friends –other than Kyoko-chan– was going to be out of the direct line of fire, but he knew Gokudera wouldn't appreciate him saying that; the Storm wanted to feel useful. He'd never noticed that before coming here but now he couldn't miss it. It was upsetting but he didn't want his friend to be sad. "Gokudera… if you could help improve base security that would be really helpful," he suggested, "in case we do get invaded. Or maybe long-range support? I know you use dynamite, but Squalo-san said once that the best way to eliminate a close-combat specialist is to snipe them from over a kilometre away."

He'd said it when Hibari-san was fighting all those Varia after the Ring Battles and followed it up with a pointed statement on how that was why situational awareness was essential if you wanted to avoid getting shot, along with an insinuation that Xanxus was just as good with a rifle as with his hand-guns.

Gokudera stilled, then pulled several odd faces in rapid succession. "I'll ask Mirch-san for a recommendation," he mumbled eventually, eyes dropping to his food. "She was military once; I'll probably need a brace though."

"I can arrange that," Viola-san offered. "You might be able to adapt your Box Weapons to work with a rifle, come to that; you should talk to Giannini."

"I will," Gokudera said, tone firming up. "Thanks for the suggestion, Tenth! I won't let you down!"

"Just no injuring yourself please," Tsuna begged. Giannini had made him some replacement gloves last night –plain black leather with metal plates across the top of his knuckles, treated to be Flameproof like the Varia uniforms– but learning to use them was definitely a work in progress as they handled very differently to his old Leon-made gloves. They did work though, so Tsuna was giving this version of the weapons' tuner the benefit of the doubt.

"I promise, Tenth!"

It was after dinner and Tsuna was exhausted. He'd been yawning through the meal and was looking forward to being able to fall over into bed for the next nine hours. Mirch-san was a slave driver, but unlike Reborn she insisted on him getting enough sleep between training sessions so at least he wasn't constantly dropping off during the day like he had during the Ring Battles.


He turned and narrowly missed banging his elbow on the wall. "Chrome-chan? How's your training going?"

She smiled softly at him. "Well, I think. Haru-chan and Hana-chan are taking it in turns to use the Lightning Ring now and I-Pin is doing very well with her Sun Flames. She was hoping you might lend her the Sun Ring, so she could improve her focus and try opening a Box Weapon; the Foundation have several."

Tsuna bit his lip. "Chrome-chan, you know I don't want to lend my rings to the game characters," he replied quietly. "I don't want to risk leaving them behind when we escape."

"Of course not boss!" she said quickly. "That's why I have a plan to protect then." She glanced up and down the hallway. "Can we…" she nodded at a nearby door. Tsuna realised what she meant and tried the handle; it was unlocked.

Another empty and unfurnished room with only a light fitting and several electrical sockets greeted him.

Shutting the door behind them, Chrome turned to face him. "It's a Mist application," she explained: "Mukuro-sama told me about it. It's used a lot in the Vongola, mostly with personal weapons. It binds an object to your Flame signature, so that when you want it, it appears in your hand. You can use it to summon things from a long way away, or just to keep them in your Flames rather than actually in your pockets. I could Bind all your Family Rings to your Flames, so that the moment you want them back you will have them on you."

"That sounds like a great idea," Tsuna admitted. That way he wouldn't have to worry about them being stolen.

"It only works for people with Mist Flames," she specified, "but Sky is a composite Flame so you shouldn't have any trouble, even if you can't separate out the Mist from your Harmony."

"So what do I need to do?"

"You need to have all the Rings to hand, so I can Bind them to you. The binding uses your Flames not mine, so it might feel a bit odd, but once it's done only you will be able to break it."

Tsuna blinked. "Chrome-chan… I don't have all the rings right now. Can we do it tomorrow morning? Before training?"

She flushed. "Yes boss. That's a good idea."

He smiled at her, then paused. He had a feeling…

"Is there anything else, Chrome-chan?"

She looked nervous. "Boss?"


"Do you trust me?"

"Of course I do, Chrome-chan! I gave you my Family Ring, didn't I?" Tsuna tried to find words past his tired thick-headedness. "You fought for me; you're my friend and you're Mukuro's friend too. We look after each-other."

She smiled again, the expression small but warm. "Mukuro-sama wants me to help him trap one of the Funeral Wreaths," she said very softly. "He's already set the trap and they're on their way; I just have to go and spring it. He was planning it with older me but now I'm here he needs me to step in."

Tsuna did not have the wherewithal to panic or poke holes in this reasoning right now. He was too tired. All he had to go on were his instincts. If Byakuran was his endgame opponent, then the Funeral Wreaths were probably bosses for his Guardians to defeat, right? Like the Ring Battles.

Grandma said he should trust his instincts and Reborn had said things about the Vongola Intuition as well.

"I trust you both," he repeated, going with what felt right. "Just make sure to hide your Ring when you leave, okay? The Millefiore have a scanner too." He paused. What else should he..? "When you win, try and steal any Rings or Box Weapons they have? That way they can't be used against us later." Looting defeated enemies was part of what videogames were about after all and Tsuna did not believe for a moment that his Mist would do this if there was even a small chance he might lose.

Chrome-chan chuckled in a distinctly Mukuro-like manner. "As you command, Tsunayoshi."

The following morning Kusakabe-san showed up to provide another information briefing an hour before lunch, which involved sitting at a long table with pop-up computer screens built into it along with Takeshi and Gokudera, Kuasakabe-san sitting opposite alongside Reborn, Mirch-san and Giannini. Most of it was local movement and details of which Millefiore people had been seen where, but Kusakabe-san finished off with some unexpected exposition.

Exposition that didn't make much sense to Tsuna, honestly.

"M-Mukuro was defeated?" But Chrome had talked to him just yesterday! And last week too! Tsuna opened his mouth to point that out, realised that if he said that the exposition might get cut and quickly cast around for something else. "But Mukuro is still in the Vindice's prison."

"That is also what we believed," Kusakabe agreed; oh good, he'd not messed up then. "Five years ago Jōshima, Kakimoto and Chrome attempted to break him out, but did not succeed. After that we lost track of all three of them, although we heard a strange rumour half a year later."

"A strange rumour?" Takeshi repeated.

"It claimed Mukuro had been defeated," Kusakabe said solemnly.

"What does that mean?" Tsuna asked. Obviously Mukuro wasn't dead.

"The information indicated that the Millefiore who defeated him was the eighth captain, Glo Xinia. One of the rare A-ranked captains, he's known for being greatly skilled and is a man of considerable power," Kusakabe explained.

Tsuna suddenly had an inkling of who it was exactly that Mukuro and Chrome were intending to trap.

"Considering the possibilities, it's highly likely he fought somebody that Mukuro was possessing, is it not?" Kusakabe continued, oblivious to Tsuna's trepidation. "Consider also that, even with Mukuro having been dealt massive damage, there's a very low change he would have died. We believe this because afterwards, in an airport in Italy, a man made contact and we were able to get a photo of Chrome Dokuro."

The picture appeared on the screen, replacing the image of Glo Xinia and the attached vital statistics. In the middle was Adult Chrome, hair covered by a scarf and wearing dark glasses, one arm in a sling and the other towing a suitcase. She was standing close to another man with his face turned away.

"We know Chrome was here three weeks ago because she met up with Lambo and I-Pin in time to help rescue Miura," Kusakabe continued, "but we don't know what she was doing in the time between her disappearance and her being exchanged for the younger Chrome. We also don't know anything about Mukuro and what he has been doing. However Hibari-san suspects that the man she made contact with has a piece of Mukuro within him. We do not yet know his identity and we do not believe it's anybody you guys already know." He sighed. "But here is another thing that leads us to believe Mukuro is at work." He produced a photo print. "This photo was taken."

It was the Hibird from the other week. Except there was something else in the background, half out of frame…

"That's Mukuro?!" Tsuna blurted out. It certainly wasn't a person!

"It's another part of Mukuro," Kusakabe corrected. "When Hibari-san was staying in Italy he had a feeling it was watching him and felt confident there was more to it than the obvious. Fortunately he was able to take a photograph of it with our camera."

"But…" Takeshi trailed off.

"That's.." Gokudera protested.

"We gave it a codename based on Mukuro's own," Kusakabe continued serenely, as though the shadowed, feathered fraction of image wasn't very clearly part of an owl's face.

At that moment the screen on the wall opposite Tsuna chirped, a glowing point appearing on the map for a few seconds before vanishing again.

"What's that, Giannini?" Mirch-san asked.

"It was only for a moment, but we picked up the presence of a very powerful ring on the outskirts of Kokuyō Land," the weapons tuner said.

"Kokuyō Land?" That was probably where Chrome and Mukuro were springing their trap!

"But that area is flooded with very heavy electromagnetic interference," Giannini added, looking uneasy. "It's very likely it's a false alarm."

"It could be a new enemy," Mirch-san said pessimistically.

Tsuna paused. He had the strangest feeling… "No," he said slowly, "I'm sure it's a friend."

Reborn glanced thoughtfully at him. "Analyse the data on the outskirts of Kokuyō Land again," the hitman ordered.

"Roger that!" Giannini confirmed, hunching over his keyboard.

Tsuna didn't think it was Chrome, although he knew it could be; Mukuro wouldn't set a trap on the outskirts of Kokuyō, not when he knew the whole area so well.

Wait, if Glo Xinia really was the funeral Wreath Mukuro was setting his trap for, he'd probably have a high-ranked ring like Gamma did. Except it didn't feel like that. Who could it be?

"As I suspected, we don't have enough data," Giannini admitted eventually, settling back in his seat. "I am unable to determine if the signal our radar detected at Kokuyō is real or not."

Tsuna bit his lip. He had every faith in Chrome, he really did, but even with her new organs and three weeks of intensive training she was still learning. She admitted herself that she had a long way to go before she would be as good as Maínomai, the Mist she'd lost to during the Ring Battles.

The screen peeped again, the map vanishing behind rows of commas.

"It's an emergency coded message," Giannini said, frowning.

"The code consists of rows of commas," Reborn noted. "That means–"

Giannini glanced over at Tsuna. "In Underworld slang, a comma represents a severed head; it's a code for killing. It must be the Assassination Division's code!"

Assassination Division? Tsuna frowned. The only assassins he was aware of belonging to the Vongola were the Varia. Was it them?

"The data contains a video, I believe," Giannini muttered, bending over the keyboard again. "Give me another moment to decode it."

"But well, if it's the Assassination Division," Gokudera mumbled.

"I can't think of anybody else it could be but those guys," Tsuna agreed wryly; maybe he'd get to meet Ten-Years-Later-Xanxus and ask a few questions? Along the lines of why on Earth he'd let this other Tsuna become Vongola Tenth when he wasn't remotely qualified…

"Well, there are many such groups in this era," Kusakabe-san warned them.

"Aha, I think I've got it," the weapons tuner said triumphantly. "Just as I thought, it's a Vongola code. The digital signature matches as well."

"So it really is them, the Varia," Gokudera said, voice small and shrinking in his seat slightly. Tsuna glanced at him worriedly, reaching out a hand to rest above his friend's knee. Gokudera had had by far the worst experience during the Ring Battles; Lambo didn't seem to remember much of his battle beyond having lost. Gokudera however was still recovering physically and Tsuna had no doubt he still had a way to go in his head as well.

"Playing now," Giannini said, pressing a button.


Tsuna flinched back into his seat at the sheer volume.


"It's him!"


"Squalo!" Takeshi exclaimed delightedly.

"Turn it down!" Mirch-san demanded.

"Yes Ma'am!"

"Get this! Fucking lousy brats!" Older Squalo continued, still visibly shouting but the sound levels less painful with the volume having been manually reduced. "Stay where you are! Even if you pick up the signal of a new ring outside!"

"He means the one in Kokuyō Land," Reborn commented.

Another familiar face pushed onto the screen and Gokudera went grey, shivering in his seat and wheezing.

"If you wait patiently, a very simple instruction will come your way soon," Older Belphegor sing-songed, grinning toothily. "Until then, be good and stay put, kiddies!"


"The prince is bored; I came to bug you," the Storm Officer said cheerfully.

"If you interrupt me again, I'm going to kill you," Older Squalo hissed through gritted teeth.

"I dare you," Older Bel replied softly.

"VOOI!" Squalo pounced on his colleague.

"Hehehe –ouch!" The couch overturned in the scuffle, both assassins vanishing off-screen.

Wow, they hadn't changed a bit. Well obviously not, seeing as their characters were modelled on the current Varia.

Squalo's face popped up again, very near the camera with blood splattered across his cheek. "I hope we can meet again in this lifetime!" he shouted. "Until then, make sure you don't die!" The video ended, the screen going blank.

"Those two haven't changed a bit," Takeshi said cheerfully, smiling Tsuna's way.

"They're still scary," Tsuna said, squeezing Gokudera's leg to try and get his friend to calm down. "I wonder what the instruction they mentioned was?"

"I guess they must mean him," Giannini said, looking over their heads with a smile. "He's back from Italy."

Tsuna turned. Standing in the doorway behind them was–

"Sasagawa Ryōhei, gate crashing!" Adult Onī-san announced cheerfully with Chrome cradled in his arms, looking slightly worse for wear but smiling.

"Hey Boss," she said softly. "Look who I found."

Tsuna leapt to his feet, beaming. "Well done, Chrome-chan!" He paused. "Did you?"

Her smile widened, cheeks going pink as Adult Onī-san set her gently on her feet. "We did. He will no longer be a problem. And," she reached into her pocket, "look what I found." She produced two Box Weapons and a winged ring with a blue stone.

"Well done!" Tsuna told her enthusiastically. She and Mukuro had defeated somebody who was as strong as Gamma!

"Thank you Boss." She hesitated. "I would like to keep this one, though," her fingers lingered over the right-most Box Weapon.

Well, she needed one so why not? "Go ahead," he told her, smiling as she pocketed it before handing the ring and other Box Weapon over to Kusakabe.

Then Kyoko-chan charged into the room, throwing her arms around Adult Onī-san, and the meeting ended.

After the near-miss involving his previous communications officer, Byakuran had been pleased to have someone recommended by Shō-chan to replace the unfortunately deceased Luigi. It would have been nice if somebody had noticed Luigi's condition before the man's undead zombie was caught systematically downloading confidential information and stealing hardcopy files, but clearing up that mess had kept his underlings busy and had enabled them to close a few previously unnoticed loopholes, so it had worked out well enough. Despite the chaos the zombie had caused on being discovered and the bruises on Byakuran's arm.

The Sky's fingers tightened around his glass. Why zombies? Where had the zombies come from?! There'd not been any zombies in the alternate realities he'd experienced so far, so why were there zombies here? What was different? What was he missing that all of a sudden his biggest problem in enacting world conquest was not the expected Vongola amusements but kamikaze zombies?!

It had started off with mysterious mass deaths in his Russian base eighteen months ago, everybody just walking out of the building to lie down in the car park and be found dead minutes later. The White Spell investigative team had found the building's hard drives wiped, the physical records missing and all the corpses showing signs of having been dead far longer than the communications logs with other bases implied. Byakuran had thought he'd found the Vongola Mist, except that a month later he was attacked by a man he knew was loyal, suddenly Active despite having reserves that were all-but-non-existent and talking calmly about a 'mistress' in between trying to rip the Sky limb from limb.

Byakuran's men had defended him of course, but his attacker had not stopped despite mutilation and dismemberment; a Black Spell Storm had eventually been summoned to disintegrate the twitching mound of body parts attempting to reassemble itself and Byakuran had a new nightmare that no amount of marshmallows before bedtime could drive away.

Scans, Flame monitoring and verbal checks did nothing to winnow out the homicidal undead from the living; the zombies were indistinguishable right up until they were dealt a fatal blow and kept going. Byakuran had lost six bases, twelve Squads and numberless masses of informants, sympathisers and underlings to the invisible threat so far and it had long ceased to be remotely amusing. Even blood tests were useless and he had no idea how that was possible; it wasn't viral or bacterial, it wasn't Flames, so what was it?! Moving his subordinates into accommodation where they were subject to subtle round-the-clock surveillance seemed to be working as a deterrent, but people still needed to eat so shopping trips and third-party deliveries were choke points that could not be worked around.

He'd instituted strict protocols to send everybody out in pairs and Squads while working, as that way whoever was behind this would have a harder time picking people off, but even that guaranteed nothing. He'd resorted in many places to recruiting teenagers; the zombies could not mimic growth for all their bodies were capable of a degree of regeneration. He was also hiring more women; zombies didn't menstruate either, a tell that he'd lavishly rewarded one of his better analysts for picking up on after the zombie of a career secretary who'd been with the Gesso for thirty years succeeded in decapitating his previous Fake Storm Funeral Wreath with a length of dental floss. Not good news to wake up to, but after that there had been no more obvious attacks on his Fake Funeral Wreaths. Why he had no idea; nothing about the zombies made sense.

Gently encouraging an alcohol culture provided another layer of security, since the zombies couldn't get drunk, and cracking down on people pulling all-nighters had the happy effect of improving productivity as well as weeding out a few more moles; zombies didn't sleep either, although they were certainly capable of pretending to.

However Byakuran was unpleasantly aware that his organisation was too large for there not to be more zombies lurking in it somewhere, partly because the fact that there were zombies infiltrating the Millefiore was something he was keeping as secret as possible to prevent mass panic. Mass panic was not productive and he couldn't rule the world if all his subordinates were cowering in bolt-holes from the ongoing zombie apocalypse. If the zombies had been more easily detectable it would have been different, but right now all the investigation team had to work with were a handful of maybes.

Some people didn't drink for personal or religious reasons; some women didn't menstruate for reasons connected to their health. Some people naturally needed less sleep than others. There was no discernible personality change following death, only a shift in loyalties and a complete assurance that their 'mistress' would succeed in destroying the Millefiore.

All in all, it was a relief to discover that the issue with Leonardo Lippi was that he actually was a puppet for the Vongola Mist Guardian rather than yet another of the restless dead. Byakuran had practice neutralising Vongola annoyances after all.