I own neither KHR nor ES21.

Oh, and a shout-out to reviewer Minirowan for pointing out a flaw I intend to address later in the chapter. Thanks to everyone for following and reviewing.

Sena was benched. Which sucked. He knew he should have seen it coming, particularly considering the kidney shot he'd taken last weekend and had valiantly tried to ignore all week and all week's practices, but it was still a bummer to see half a team of freshmen out in his, Monta's, and the brothers' positions. At least the other second years–aside from Taki and Komusubi–weren't mad at him for getting them benched too. You can be sure that what Sena tries to hide from Hiruma the rest of the second years try to hide from Hiruma. Again, aside from Taki who was, quote, "Too fucking stupid to keep a secret," and Komusubi who was necessary to "Maintain discipline on the line though fanatical devotion, impossibly high standards, and scorn."

Or, at least, so went Hiruma's thought process.

Still: on the surface the brothers seemed to be taking it well. Toganou was reading a new comic, though his fingers twitched and he seemed to be examining the pages down to the smallest ink dot, considering how long he was taking before flipping the page. And Kuroki's constant stream of swearing was either due to repeated losses on his portable game device or due to him being benched. Juumonji seemed to be taking it the best. He was sprawled out on the bench next to Sena, just soaking up the sunshine.


Monta, on the other hand, was taking it the worst.

He was pacing up and down the sideline, treating the game like a grudge match despite the fact he hadn't joined the team the first time the Devil Bats had battled the Cupids; waving his arms and shouting at his replacement, who, if not performing to Monta's standards (who could, really?), was doing quite well in his first game.

It was a good thing we worked them so hard on the basics and on stamina, Sena thought absently and brought a hand up to bite at a broken nail, They're doing particularly well, considering the Cupids have gotten sloppy on their basics. But their freshmen are probably better than ours, right now…

He jumped out of his skin as something came into contact with his thigh, then smiled thinly at Juumonji's smirk. The blond had lifted his legs up onto the bench and scooted down to knock into Sena, leaving his head snugged up against Sena's thigh.

"Sit up and stop bouncing your leg. You're shaking the whole bench." Juumonji scolded, not bothering to open his eyes.

Sena looked down at his leg in surprise and stopped the movement with no little chagrin. "Whatever, Juumonji, if you wanted a lap-pillow you should have just said so." He sniped back easily.

The teasing smirk never left Juumonji's face. "Don't mind if I do." He proclaimed airily and lifted his head onto his teammates lap, startling a laugh out of the running back.

"What's with the cat routine?" Sena gave up on trying to gnaw his nail smooth and instead dropped his hands to lean back further on the bench.

"If it gets you to stop bouncing like a five-year-old, it's worth it." The blond answered firmly.

"No, I meant: why are you so chill about getting benched?" Sena questioned back, and reached up to muss his already messy hair, only to wince when he felt strands get caught on the ragged edges of his thumb nail.

Juumonji folded his arms across his chest and heaved an exaggerated sigh, but deigned to answer anyway. "A few reasons, really. First: I don't have a problem with the Cupids. All their girlfriends are ugly, and I didn't play them last year, so I don't really care. My replacement is well trained, and if he fucks up he knows he'll be destroyed Monday. So, really, why not just nap in the sun?"

Sena snorted and reached down to tug at Juumonji's hair for being rude. The lineman scowled and batted Sena's hand away blindly, still not willing to open his eyes to the over-bright sun.

"Second:" Juumonji continued, "Hiruma's not going to reverse his punishment until he's good and ready, so bouncing around and whining won't help me get on the field any faster."

Sena wasn't sure, but he thought it sounded like Juumonji was stuffing down a note of longing in his last reason, so he dropped his hand to rest idly in the lineman's hair.

"And finally: if your brother's here, then his fan club is here. If his fan club is here, your fan club is here. And it's really fun to annoy the shit out of them." The eldest huh-huh brother's smirk turned wicked.

Sena frowned, not entirely understanding why Tsuna's friends would be bothered about anything. He opened his mouth to question Juumonji, but was abruptly cut off.

"You bastards better be paying attention! I want a full analysis of the first half during half-time!" Hiruma howled from the field as they were lining up for the next play, making a couple Cupid second-years shiver and shy back in fear.

Juumonji lazily lifted an arm into the air and waved, but made no attempt to sit up from Sena's lap or to open his eyes. "Aye aye, captain." He called back sardonically.

Fortunately, the play clock was running out and Hiruma didn't have time for a retort aside from flipping the scarred lineman off.

Sena's lips again tightened into an approximation of a smile, but he dutifully turned his eyes to the field long enough to see his freshman, Kaito, rush through the gap of a sweep, avoid two linebackers, and score. Good boy, Sena nodded in approval.

His attention wandered, however, as Mushashi's kick arched, through Sena's line of vision, across the over-crowded metal bleachers trying to contain the spectators and advance scouts. What Sena didn't see was his brother. He knew Tsuna had promised to come, but Sena was a realist and expected plenty of broken promises–after all, his brother was the successor of a major crime family—which was why Sena felt no disappointment when his careful eyes couldn't find the middle school mafioso in the stands. Gokudera probably had fits about the security risk, anyway. Sena smiled a bit of a darkly amused smile.


Sena felt a sick, cold ball drop to his stomach as some part of his mind acknowledged what was about to happen, and tried to calculate an escape route. Alas, his survival instincts short-circuited once Juumonji's head came into play, the unknown variable forcing desperate equations and risk-benefit recalculation to flash across his mind, freezing Sena into place and causing him to be tackled, from behind, over the bench, face-first into the turf.

Kuroki and Toganou looked up briefly at the commotion, but dismissed the situation as 'not bloody enough', and went back to pretending to ignore the game. Monta didn't pretend to care about anything but the game.


"Owwww, damn it, Tsuna!" Sena cut off Juumonji's rage, and though his instant injury review came up clear-ish (save for his re-scraped elbow), he still didn't move from where he had managed to end up with most of his thigh on Juumonji's chest and his stomach crushing the lineman's face. "That really hurt! Damn!" Despite Juumonji's 156 pounds of mostly muscle to Sena's measly 106, Juumonji didn't immediately throw the running back off. Grateful for Juumonji's caution and consideration at the off-chance that Sena might have been injured worse than he was, and careful not to let Juumonji up too quickly lest he extract revenge, Sena slowly pushed himself up of the ground as far as he could go – read: not very far at all – and twisted his back awkwardly to scold the aforementioned lineman-wannabe sitting on his legs.

"Seriously, what the hell were you thinking?" Sena reproached the still-grinning boy contently chilling on Sena's legs below the knee.

"You're a player; you should have dodged it." The younger mahogany brunet teased.

"No one is going to tackle you sitting down on the field." Came a dry, muffled reply from Juumonji.

"Now, now Tsuna, I know half of the people here want to jump him too, but you haven't even bought him dinner!"

With the barest wisps of a blush floating to the surface of his cheeks, Sena craned his neck farther to see Yamamoto leaning casually upon the backrest of the bench that he and Juumonji had just been occupying. Yamamoto's good-natured grin sparkled in the sun, Sena noted as he tried to decide whether he should be impressed or disgusted by the squeaky-clean and refreshing All-Japanese image the middle schooler seemed to be projecting, but before he could make up his mind, he saw the gleam in the swordsman's eyes belying his sincerity.

Tsuna scrambled to his feet and grinned uncertainly, his arm reaching up and rubbing the back of his opposing forearm in an unconscious nervous tick.

Sena frowned slightly. As uncomfortable–understatement–as it was to be tackled from behind and to be crushed face-first into both his teammate and the turf, it was still the first glimpse of the old Tsuna that Sena had known from when they had played together as children; the mischievous and unrepentant Tsuna, not the downtrodden three-international-incidents-short-of-a-nervous-breakdown,-in charge-of-the-weight-of the-Skies-Tsuna. That was a Tsuna that he had very much missed; not that he disliked the new Tsuna, but Sena just wished he were able lift a little of that weight from his brother's shoulders, and he thought he had managed that to an extent by fighting back as a brother would.

Pushing aside the philosophizing, Sena sat up and mindlessly leaned back, resting against a just-risen Juumonji in a gesture of long-familiarity brought about by hard-earned companionship learned on the Devil Bat's Death March, and opened his mouth to chastise the baseball star for taking that little bit of childishness away from Tsuna, but Juumonji beat him to it.

"That's sick, man." He drawled antagonistically, "I mean, don't project your lust for Sena onto his brother."

Sena tried to mask his smile, grateful that Juumonji had read the tenseness in his shoulders resting against his side, but a little weary of showing too much amusement and humiliating Takashi-kun.

"No, Yamamoto's right, I was out of line –" Tsuna started.

"Sena-senpai, I don't know why you put up with this kind of –" Yamamoto's voice overlapped heatedly.

A loud, piercing whistle cut them off, followed by Yamamoto narrowly ducking to avoid a helmet thrown at his head.

"If you assholes don't shut the fuck up, I won't miss next time. And fucking baseball-idiot, go pick that up or go back to the stands." Hiruma barked, and threw himself down onto the bench while accepting a paper cup of water from Mamori and ignoring the 'language lecture'.
Hiruma dumped the water over his head and shook it off, much like his devil dog. In the process of soaking his lineman and running back, he caught sight of Tsuna.

"So the fucking doppleganger is back." He said carefully, and stole another cup off Mamori's tray and sipped at it. "I'm glad I took out a life insurance policy on you." The quarterback pointed a creepily long finger at the running back still lounging on the short-cropped turf at his feet.

Tsuna sputtered in indignation at the implication, but couldn't form a complaint before Yamamoto came trotting back with Hiruma's helmet, his good-natured mask firmly in place.

"Here, senpai, sorry for bickering." He apologized sincerely through his insincere grin, and stubbornly ignored Taki's bragging about how no insurance company would ever be able to pay out a life insurance policy for him, and wouldn't want to take the chance, even though he was invincible.

Hiruma grunted and took the headgear back. "I'm changing the line-up."

"Yeah!" Cheered Toganou, dropping the pretense of reading.

"Yeeeah!" Cheered Juumonji, bolting to his feet, and leaving Sena to tumble to the sun-hardened turf without a backrest.

"Awww yeaaaaah!" Cheered Kuroki, tossing his game system onto his duffel and joining a three-way fist bump.

The bench-warmers had snapped to attention like hunting dogs hearing the tread of their master approaching the kennel. Down time was all well and good, but there was fresh meat to be found on the field. The Cupid's freshmen were holding their own against the Deimon freshman, but each of the brothers could already feel the rush of the hunt, the surge of falling upon the untested line and utterly destroying them. The puppies were good at playing with the kitties, but the true hell-hounds would worry their heels and rip, tear, rend, and revel in watching their pack-mate lope through the once-defenses.

"Idiot brothers, you're back on, mini-fatass is benched."
Komusubi let out a heavy sigh of disappointment, but accepted the comforting pat on the back from his master and trudged his way to sit on the turf by Sena's side. At least he'd gotten half a game out of it, and hadn't broken and become the poster-boy for tattling to the team captain.


Monta perked up.

"Is still benched."

Said boy slumped to the ground with a groan completing the Deimon chibi trio.

"Taki's still on." The demonic captain ran though a mental list, and ignored the stupid laughter of the stupid corner back. "And it goes without saying that fucking shorty's still out. Idiot brother's replacements, you're all benched, except for fish-lips'." Hiruma paused to take another drink and eyed the frozen panorama of players surrounding him. He pursed his lips in annoyance as he lowered the cup. "Well? Go warm up! Fucking morons..." He muttered to himself as the scattered.

"You." He turned his burning eyes to Sena. "I don't care if your idiot-doppleganger and his idiot friends hang around, but pay fucking attention this time."

"Why?" Sena sassed back lazily. "There's nothing my replacement can teach me, and now that Juumonji, Kuroki, and Toganou are on the field, you're just going to crush them mercilessly. …Again." He added as an afterthought.

Hiruma crumpled up the paper cup and launched it at his running back's head with enough force that it made Sena sway backwards slightly, despite the material of the missile.

"As fucking bad as that fucking moron." The demonic blond made a vague gesture to the side indicating Taki, making the first years squirm by doing the splits. "Bringing out our big guns will bring out theirs, and if we hit them as a wild-card team in the tournament later..."
Sena nodded solemnly, his light-heartedness dissolved. He should know better than to write off a team for being young or having been weak the previous year.

"Sorry, captain." He apologized gravely.

"Think a-fucking-head. You need to be five moves ahead when they're thinking two moves ahead if you want the Devil Bats to survive next year." He skirted around naming Sena next year's de-facto captain.

Sena nodded. "Kuroki's replacement is good, but he's a show off. Use Toganou's, he's more team oriented."

"Yeah, but also more dependent on upperclassmen." Hiruma disagreed, but didn't look displeased with Sena's assessment.

"Compromise, use Kurita's. He never gets field time, and I think he has real potential." Sena said, eyes on the field but unfocused, turned inward for player analysis. "He's tough, so I don't think he'd do what mine did, but if he does, he's got four of our strongest out there to force him back together."

"I always forget we have that spineless fucker." Hiruma commented idly. "Yeah, this could force him out of the shadows and earn himself a name. Way to not fuck up." He threw the last comment at Sena, climbed to his feet, and stalked off.

Sena glowed at the praise and accepted the back pats of congratulations from his fellow shorties.

Tsuna and Yamamoto watched tamely from the bench as the second half kicked off, but were more interested in watching the trio gradually break off and drift apart; Monta and Kumosubi to yell at the first years, leaving Sena half-reclining with his back on the seat of the metal bench, idly watching the plays.

"So, Sena-senpai..." Yamamoto started with false nonchalance.

"Ciaossu." Reborn cut in with a malevolent sparkle in his eye directed at Yamamoto as he and a grumpy Gokudera joined them.

Sena briefly glanced up, but other than an abbreviated nod, he was focused on the game.

"So, Sena," Reborn started with false nonchalance, "When are you coming to Italy with us for training? Should I pencil you in for this weekend?"

Gokudera watched in vague interest and idly wondered if Sena would develop whiplash as the newest Vongola jerked his head around to the only slightly evil baby.

"I! You! But...!" Sena took three deep breaths, then, on the last exhale, shook his head calmly. "Reborn-kun, it's the first month of school, and more importantly, it's the middle of the spring season. You know I can't just walk off now." He reasoned.

Reborn's amusement soured, despite catching the tail end of Gokudera shoving Yamamoto off of the bench so that he could sit on the boss's right.

"Right now, you're not good enough to join the Vongola." Reborn threw a jab strait at Sena's inadequacy complex, which landed so resoundingly that even Tsuna winced.

"I've already given up so much for football, now you're cutting that out of my life too?" Sena's voice was a mix of plaintive and indignant.

Tsuna jumped blindly in. "I haven't even been to Italy! We can put this off until we graduate, can't we?" Tsuna demanded and pleaded in equal parts, only to quail back from the hitman's intense stare.

"If you want Sena to die in his first 'for-keeps' battle, than that's fine with me. I just wish you would have told me before I had spent so much time and effort bringing him in." Reborn let some heat slip into his voice unintentionally revealing his frustration.

"That's hardly fair -" Sena tried to defend, but was cut off.

"Why not summer?" Gokudera offered in irritation. "Duh."

The other four glared at him.

"Sports training." Yamamoto chimed in.

"Sports training." Sena echoed.

"Not nearly enough time." Reborn growled.

"That's why graduation-" Tsuna protested.

"Gods, you wouldn't know I was the one deprived of nicotine." Gokudera grumped.

"Hey, yeah." Sena realized, "That's great! Good for you, Gokudera-kun!" He enthused.

"... Didn't do it for you." He mumbled and looked away, but a pleased blush crept up his ears unhindered.

"So, next weekend, right?" Reborn tried, casually.

"Listen, Reborn-kun, I knew I would have to receive some kind of combat training the moment I requested to be Tsukun's outside advisor, my only issue is the timing." Sena tried to reason.

"No, you listen. We can't just leave you untrained, what if there's a threat to Dame-Tsuna? What are you going to do, just watch dumb and dumber get their asses kicked? They barely won their last fights!"

Twin choruses of 'Hey!' could be heard from the bench.

Sena let out a weary sigh. "Give me some time to think about it." He conceded finally.

Reborn pressed his lips into a dissatisfied slant, but nodded minutely. "In the meantime, give some thought to what kind of weapon you'd like, or that you think you'd be suited to."

Sena gave him a thoughtful look, then a nod of his own.

"Wait... Since when do Gokudera-kun and Takshi-kun know that I've joined?" The thought struck Sena, just as he was turning back to his own new recruits.

"You think these gossipy little girls can keep a secret?" Reborn nodded to the indignant three on the bench.

"If you're not going to fucking assess, get on the fucking field!" Hiruma raged from said fucking field, hellfires burning so fiercely and the brimstone raining so thickly that it was reminiscent of the end times and even the usually stoic referees danced back and forgot to motion to the scorekeeper to start the play clock, or to penalize Deimon a time-out.

Sena stared at the field. "Gods, please let me have my immortal soul back some day." He muttered to himself, grabbed his helmet with infamous eyeshield, slammed it on and hustled out to destroy what was left of the Cupids.


"So, Reborn wants me to go to Italy." Sena mentioned casually while changing next to Hiruma in the back of the Devil Bat trailer. They really had to start playing on real fields soon.

"... The fuck?" Hiruma responded, arms still tangled up in his mesh jersey that he'd just pulled over his head, a look of perfect incredulous bewilderment on his face, momentarily forgetting the discomfort of sweat dripping down his chest and soaking into the padding.

"Yeah," Sena replied with faux-nonchalance and grabbed a can of spray deodorant off his locker shelf, "Tsukun's gotten mixed up with some weird stuff, and Reborn wants me to go to Italy to learn how to fight." He fiddled with the lid covering the nozzle of the deodorant and looked up through his lashes trying to gauge his captain's reaction.

Slowly, Hiruma lowered his arms and flawlessly flicked the jersey into the dirty laundry bin across the way, then pulled off the padding contemplatively. "How do I put this?" Hiruma muttered to himself as he rummaged through his locker for a cleanish smelling towel. "No fucking way." He finished and wiped down his defined chest. That sweat was getting really fucking irritating.

Sena's jaw and deodorant dropped. "Why not?" He demanded.

"Disregarding the fact that you just implied that you've committed yourself to something that's putting your golden legs—the legs that I still have use for, incidentally—in harm's way, why the fuck can't you learn how to fight in Japan? Those fucking moron brothers have been offering for at least half a year." Hiruma calmly argued, rubbing his golden hair vigorously with the towel.

"This is completely different." Sena tried to resume his earlier facade of nonchalance by swooping to retrieve the can. He rose and sprayed on the deodorant, replaced the lid, and replaced the can on the shelf methodically, before pulling on one of his jogging shirts he had shoved into his bag this morning. "For one thing, it's not exactly street brawling that I'll be learning." He hinted.

Hiruma looked down at Sena with an intense, measuring gaze, the captain's towel now idly slung over a shoulder. "I think you should know that I have your phone tapped, before we go any further."

Sena smiled weakly. "You really think I'm a freshman? I even heard you hang up. That was sloppy." Even his jokes were weak.

"You'd be surprised how much you can learn about someone, and their family, just by having a unique last name. And, of course, a crest." Hiruma returned carefully. A lion circling a gazelle, wondering if it was weak or sick enough to minimize the energy output and maximize the caloric intake.

"No I wouldn't, not if it's the name of an internationally renowned crime family." Sena retorted looking Hiruma directly in the eyes.

Hiruma exhaled sharply and made an abrupt motion with his hand. Suddenly pulled out of the silent war, Sena noticed that Hiruma's hand motion had lead to the rest of the original eleven, who were rushing the clueless and protesting freshmen out the door of the trailer and straggling over to a bench nearby to stare at a half-changed Sena and their shirtless quarterback.

"Team meeting." Hiruma said simply.

"So." Sena started awkwardly. "I joined the mafia." No big deal, he added mentally with dark humor.

Silence reigned.

It was a long reign.

Finally, as the old king was about to pick a successor, Komusubi carefully looked around the crowded and stuffy semi-trailer and evaluated his teammates faces. Aside from Sena's awkward-sardonic-wreck, Komusubi couldn't really get good read. He looked directly into Sena's eye, and grunted out one word.


Anarchy erupted in the well-ordered kingdom.

"Wait-wait-wait." Juumonji protested. "Are we talking Yukuza, or are we talking fedora-wearing, spaghetti-eating, 'You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder - for money,' mafia?" He insisted, ever practical.

"No, wait, before that, the fedora—and the suits—could you describe them, so I could sketch them?" Togano demanded, a manic gleam in his eye that suggested a new manga project coming to mind.

"No! Before that! Damn it; we offered to teach you how to fight! Why would you go to some other punk-ass kid and beg, dumbass?" Kuroki raged.

"I don't think that's a very funny joke, Sena." Yukimitsu frowned disapprovingly.

"It's… It's not a joke." Sena returned, quietly.

The king's frail, charred hand emerged from the rubble reaching for his once cherished thrown of awkward silence. Only to be kicked down again by the rebels.

"Bu… But Sena…" Kurita wibbled, "Isn't that… dangerous?"

"Well, yeah… kinda." Sena admitted, reaching up to scratch at his neck and catch a glance at Hiruma out of his peripheral vision.

No help there, though. Hiruma was staring down at his running back's back as expressionlessly as Shin.

"But, well, I guess he hasn't told you, and I don't know that it's my right to… but…" Sena stumbled.

"Spit it out, you damn bastard!" Kuroki huffed.

"Well, someone really important to me is really tied up in the Italian mafia, and I just… really want to protect that person." Sena dropped his arm to his side and stood firmly.


Eleven heads turned to look at the speaker, having forgotten anyone but the starting lineup was in the trailer.

"No. I've watched you get hurt on the field. I've watched you limp home from practice and I don't say a word. I can't watch my little brother hurt himself anymore. I can't. Don't ask me to.

Mamori had risen from her seat where she had been valiantly attempting to enter data and stats into the team's laptop, and was standing, trembling, watching Sena with hurt, pleading, determined eyes.


The manager's back stiffened ramrod-straight at the gentleness of her younger brother's tone, and she stalked off to the double-doors of the trailer, refusing to listen to the excuses that usually followed that tone.


She paused with her hand on the latch. It was the same gentle tone, but with a backing of steel.

"I'm not asking." Sena said quietly, though it echoed and rang off the trailer-slash-locker room walls.

The door slammed behind Mamori on her way out.

Torn, Monta whipped his head around between his damsel in distress and his best friend.

"I had wondered why you were acting off lately." He aimed at Sena, though kept his eyes on the door. "And while I can't approve of you hurting Mamori-san this way, I can't disapprove of something that you're so determined to protect; something that you'd face even that devil down for.

"So what's going to change? Are you going to drop out of school and chase people around on motorcycles? Are you just going to develop an overwhelming desire for pasta and cultivate a bad Italian accent?" Monta teased weakly.

"I… I think I need to go to Italy." Sena's voice trembled, but he still stood firm. "To learn how to terrorize people on motorcycles."

Monta nodded in acknowledgement of the joke, but was cut off by Kurita's cry.

"Italy! Italy, Sena-kun! But it's so far away! And what… What about football?" He voice trailed off, hampered by tears gather in his eyes.

"I have to learn how to fight if I want to protect… the people I want to protect." Sena answered. "I won't half-ass it, but I think-I just think, mind, I still have to talk it over, but I think I can get it done over the summer, the training- fight training, by then." Sena replied haltingly.

"So you'll be back in time for the fall tournament?" Toganou demanded more than asked, not stopping to glance back at his exiting teammate.

"Even if he is," Hiruma cut in, "he wouldn't play." He held a hand up to forestall the cries of protest already involuntarily wrenched from his team. "It was the same last year in the death march. If you can't or won't practice with the team, you can't play with the team. "If you're willing to risk dying just to become stronger, tear up your tickets to heaven and come with us to hell," remember?"

Sena let out a sharp exhale and turned away. "That's fair." He said, tone calm but voice thick.

"No, damn it, it's not!" Juumonji jumped in. "What if one of us had summer lessons, huh? Would you cut us out of the team then?" He demanded.

"Yes." Flames surrounded Hiruma, and brimstone hailed from a non-existent sky, leaving the team captain a mere silhouette against a backdrop of hell. And effectively prevented the team from reading his expression.

"No. I agree. Monta, you'd better head out if you want to catch up with Mamori-nee. I think she'd prefer to talk to you than me." He tried a sad parody of a smile, before giving it up as a bad job and instead adopting a more serious look, and reached into his locker to stuff his duffle-bag full so he could leave. He pushed away a stray thought asking if he still had the right to call her that after how badly he'd hurt her.

Monta looked at Sena's back, but Sena determinedly ignored him so he grabbed his packed bag and went to the double doors himself. "I don't really understand." Monta admitted with a bit of a sigh, "but there's a lot in life that I don't, so I won't let that get me down. Come to me whenever, Sena, when you want to talk." He offered, before swinging himself down to find his lady-love.

"Your call." Mushashi offered blandly, shouldered his duffle, and followed Monta out with a stony look that implied judgment but concealed the verdict.

Sena smiled a creaky, hopeful smile and moved to follow his friends to the doors.


Sena froze in dread at the call of the one person who hadn't yet weighed in.

"Be careful in Italy, I made a few enemies last time by refusing the position of 'Godfather'." Taki advised in a tone meant to be wise.

Sena angled his head down to hide a hopeless grin at his good-natured idiot-friend. "Thanks, Taki." Sena offered sincerely, and dropped out the doors.


The next day began with Sena losing the battle with his hair as usual, and an unusual email on his cell phone.

"Sena meet me at the café at 10"

Now, the message itself wasn't that unusual, nor the sender—Juumonji would often meet up with Sena in the morning outside of club activities, just to hang out. The location wasn't that unusual either, just a small café halfway between their two residences that they'd meet at when they had plans, or just wanted someone to sit and drink a cup of coffee with, but, really, considering the note upon which they'd last seen one another, it did make the request slightly unusual.

With a last exasperated headshake, Sena snagged a messenger bag from beside his bed and carefully tucked Yamamoto's present away before he headed out for the day.

He clomped down the stairs noisily, and called out a greeting to his parents as he bypassed the kitchen to get to his shoes.

"Sena, don't you want breakfast?" His mother asked in concern as she peeked her head out of the kitchen doorway and frowned with worry at her son.

"Thanks, but I'm meeting Juumonji-kun at the café. I'll probably pick up something there." He smiled up at her as he tied his shoes.

"If you're sure." She replied, but her brow was still drawn up in concern.

"Mihae, leave the boy alone."

Sena smiled at his father still seated in the kitchen.

"Thanks, Dad!" He called back and straightened up while adjusting his bag's strap so it hung across his shoulders more comfortably. "And I'll probably be out for the rest of the day, Tsukun's friend is having a party for his birthday, and I'm going to eat there."

"Oh? He's feeding you?" Mihae tried to dig subtly, but was miserably transparent.

"Mihae, for goodness' sake…" Shiyuma sighed, and appeared behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her. "Run, Sena, quickly, while I distract her!" He urged dramatically, with a fond smile.

"Shiyuma!" Mihae scolded with a matching smile.

"Who knows? Maybe with our beloved son out of the house for the rest of the day, we could go out on a date." He teased.

Sena held back a smile at his father's intervention and their obvious affection, and instead pulled a bratty grimace. "Gross! At least wait until I'm out of the house."

"Go on, then, shoo!" His mom laughed, leaning into her husband's hold.

Sena was still smiling as he pulled the door shut behind him. It was nice to have his home life normal, at least in the face of the recent chaos.

As he pulled the gate shut behind him, his phone chimed with a second message from Juumonji, a terse follow-up to the original email asking him to instead head to the park a block down from the coffee shop, and promising a latte and pain au chocolat in return for the change in plans.

Sena sent back the all-clear and picked up the pace. He'd do much, much worse things for French pastries.


He arrived at the park with at least ten minutes to spare. Juumonji had anticipated that—either because Juumonji knew that the park was marginally closer to Sena's house, or because he knew that Sena's default speed was 'insanely fast', or simply because Juumonji was known to be holding a white bakery bag and a thermal cup of bitter-sweet coffee, Sena wasn't sure.

As Sena approached the bleach-blond lineman, Sena slowed. Something was off about his fellow Devil Bat. He took in the scene as he slowly approached the bench upon which Juumonji sat. The scarred ex-delinquent was sprawled out over most of the bench, like usual, arms over the back, legs akimbo—but one tapping a fast-pace random tattoo, fidgeting with high-strung nerve like… And the blond head wasn't watching Sena approach, it was, instead, looking off at the distant playground, scowling and glaring at the hoards of noisy, running children and death-glaring at any children unlucky enough to come anywhere near him to retrieve a mis-thrown or kicked ball.

"…Juumonji, what number is that?" Sena asked, nodding to the cup dangling in Juumonji's right hand, referring to the café's refill policy.

"…three or four. Maybe five." Juumonji didn't look over at the shorter brunet, but his glares were more a mask of his embarrassment now.

"That's like, between 36 and 60 ounces of coffee, right?" Sena commented far too innocently as he finally seated himself beside his friend and reached for the other cup and the bakery bag sitting on the bench between them.

Juumonji grunted.

"Have you slept at all?" Sena accused suspiciously, taking in the dark bags under his eyes and silently estimating how long it would take for his teammate to gulp down that much caffeine.

"Yeah. But I've been up since about four." Juumonji answered carelessly.

"Well, then, let's get this over with." Sena fished out the pain au chocolat and bit into it with a blissful sigh, "What about the mafia do you want to talk about?"

"Are you really quitting the team?"

Sena's dry mouth made it difficult to swallow the buttery pastry. Well, directness begets directness, he dismissed sardonically and sipped at his coffee.

"If I must." He finally admitted. "I want to be there for Tsuna."

"But!" Juumonji snapped his mouth shut and instead glared at the distant kids some more. Finally, he tried again. "I think you're taking this too lightly. This is the fucking mafia. This is 'bang-bang shoot 'em up' coke deal gone bad'. This is you dealing with more weapons than even Hiruma handles in a day. This is killing kids who have seen too much. This is…" Juumonji threw himself upright off the bench and started pacing agitatedly in front of a surprised and mildly worried Sena.

"Alright. Let's say there's a man: this man is a horrible, horrible person. He was married and had a couple kids, but he beat his wife and abused the kids, until the wife wised up and ran away taking the kids. This guy also has a heroin addiction and a collection of guns that he has been heard talking about using on his ex-wife and kids if he ever finds them. This man is also employed by his best friend. He is absolutely, implacably loyal to his best friend. His best friend says 'kill yourself', the man asks how his best friend wants him to dispose of his body. The man has never shown up high to work, never back-talked his best friend unless it was in his friend's interest and has killed for and would die for his best friend.

"Your job, given to you by your brother-boss, is to kill him."

Juumonji stopped directly in front of Sena and his dark eyes drilled into the running back's. Sena felt a chill down his spine, as though the lineman were trying to read his mind or his soul from the weight of the gaze.

"Can you do it, Sena? Can you kill this contemptible, admirable man? Can you kill a man who is your aspirations of loyalty and the incarnation of the dregs of society? Can you carry out a hit for your little brother, Eyeshield?"

Sena tore his eyes from Juumonji's intense stare and started tracing the rim of his cup with a finger. He was quiet just long enough to make the scarred lineman wonder if he was going to receive an answer at all.

"I…" Sena paused to clear his throat. "I don't know." Sena said firmly, and raised defiant eyes to his friend. "And I don't think I will know until I'm looking that contemptible, admirable man in the eyes. I don't think it's possible for me to know until I know."

"That kind of thinking will get you killed." Juumonji reminded him quietly.

"That, I do know." Sena replied gently, and nodded at the bench beside him, hoping the bleach-blond would take the hint so he wouldn't have to keep craning his neck up. "I understand that. And that's why I have to take Reborn up on his offer. I need to learn how to fight, to see if I can learn how to kill. I need to learn whether or not I'm even an acceptable candidate for an outside advisor."

Juumonji dropped down onto the bench with a grunt and was silent for a long time.

Sena didn't dare to look up and try to read his face, not with such a half-assed answer.

"Well…" Sena peeked over to his friend as he heard him breaking the stretched silence, "well, I guess I prefer 'I don't know' to a too-quick yes or no. I would have doubted you or hated you, I think, if you had answered too quickly.

"But leaving the team, Sena?" Juumonji said plaintively. "Leaving the team for murder and INTERPOL's most wanted?"

"I know." Sena answered in a quiet voice, eyes on his coffee rather than the blond. "The team has been everything to me. Given everything to me. Friends, real confidence, skill... everything." He looked up, eyes burning fiercely, "It hurts like hell, but I must do this.

Juumonji's gaze was less intense, but no less earnest. "We don't want you to leave. Sena-" He halted to make sure that he had Sena's undivided attention and eye-contact.
The running back almost couldn't bare the gentle, sincere expression on the usually gruff linebacker.

"Sena, I don't want you to leave."

"I... Uh... do you mean...? You do mean...? Oh." Sena said wonderingly. "Oh. Oh, wow. I don't even... Can... Can I take some time to think about this?" He asked frankly, physically looking at Juumonji, but his thoughts obviously turned inward, face set in the same mask of determination he wore every time he had a challenge to puzzle out on the field.

Damning the hope that bloomed at Sena's understanding expression and open-minded words, Juumonji laughed an awkward laugh, and stood.

"Don't feel pressured, just because… I mean, I just wanted to say, in case you really did go…" the bleach-blond ran a hand through his hair and sighed in aggravation. "Well, thanks, I guess, for not being an asshole about it, at least." He settled on. "Yeah, I'm just going to go, uh, get more coffee, then."

Sena nodded, and watched Juumonji stalk off, silently hoping that he wouldn't really go for coffee. Couldn't caffeine blow up your heart or something?
Physically and in his thoughts turning away from the blond, Sena settled down for some serious introspection.

Well, huh. That just smashed his stereotypes to bits. But Juumonji? The gruff ex-delinquent that had been the bane of Sena's very existence as recently as two years ago? Could any one person be any more contrary to the image of a feminine man with a lisp that flirted with creeped out straight men?

As Sena stared off into space, he could feel his cheeks heat with a blush. How embarrassing to have thought of all gay men as flamboyant queens, when by his side this whole time was a rough, tough, former delinquent who had his eyes on, and out for Sena?

Step one: Reconcile my idea of "gay people" to who "gay people" really are. Sena absently stuck out a thumb to begin counting steps on his "How the Hell to Deal With This" list.

Step two: How do I feel about this? He ticked on an index finger.

Out of the gate, Sena couldn't shake a feeling of dread. Am I going to lose one of my precious few friends because of this? He wondered. And, to be brutally honest with himself, is it alright to be a little... grossed out? Sena wondered. Would that make me a bad person? It's not like I know a lot about being gay, most of what I know comes from—ironically—locker room humor, but the physical reality just kinda... squicks me. He physically squirmed in place a little bit contemplating it. Not that regular sex wasn't messy, but gay sex seemed kinda... graphic, for lack of better word. With a surreptitious sweep of his surroundings and a glancing, paranoid thought of mind-readers, he tucked away that thought, filing it under 'things to think about when I have complete privacy and maybe a browser I can wipe after I research'.

Step two point five: psycho-analytics, cont.

On the other hand, it was kinda flattering. The guy who tormented him for years and is currently one of his best friends likes him? That's a little awesome.

Step three: The less physical mess. Middle finger stuck out as a placeholder.

On the other other hand, the questions that came with the confession were dizzying. Societal issues, career issues—that one can probably be sub-filed under societal issues—legal issues... Oh, and, of course, what the hell I think of all of this. He sighed deeply. It really was hard to take life as it comes when life stopped throwing curveballs and started aiming for the batter. He shook his head, Too much time around Takashi-kun. And speaking of, how long until he decides to confess to me too? I don't think it's been hero worship since, what, the arcade? He sighed and shook his head. That's a list I can flesh out later.

Step four: When the hell did that start anyway? He ticked off on his ring finger.

He wished he could say that he hadn't seen it coming at all, that he was absolutely blind-sided by Juumonji's stumbling non-confession, but there had been signs—oh, little signs—that Sena had assumed that he had been reading too far into, but couldn't shake the implications of. Just what implications, exactly, he couldn't have told you at the time, but the little things: like treating Sena like 'one of the guys', yet not pulling some of the crueler pranks that he would pull on his other teammates and underclassmen without remorse, buying him the little treats that he knew that the running back liked, even when Sena didn't remember mentioning his preferences; in retrospect, those little things bespoke a lot of silent watching, at minimum.

And if the book he'd found at Mamori-nee's house was anywhere near accurate, there were the hallmarks of male flirting: standing taller, hands on belt, preening... He hadn't thought a thing about it before. Well, he had, but what teenager didn't posture like that? He knew that he stood with an eye to how many more meager millimeters he could eek out sometimes.

Absently, Sena stared down at his pinky finger.

Step five: draw a conclusion.
As he stared down at his empty, fully extended hand he realized with no little wonder that even with the paranoia and without the secure internet browsing, step five might have been the easiest step.


"Hello?" Sena called out as he ducked into Takesushi, "I know I'm a bit early, but I thought I might help...?" He more questioned than offered. He was greeted by the rather mind-bending sight of Gokudera meandering around on the floor of the restaurant, half-assedly tidying the shop in a frilly apron.

Sena tried to choke down his snickers, but the only thing he could come up with was, "At least it's white, not pink?"

"Stupid fucker." Gokudera mumbled, but it lacked the real heat that usually signaled the beginning of the bomber's attempts at murder. "Go bother that idiot's dad if you think you can be useful in any way. He's in the back." He added as an afterthought, slouching on the broom he'd been using more to push dust around than to clean.

"Takashi-kun and Tsukun?"

"The boss is distracting that idiot over at his house so that the dumbass doesn't fuck up his own surprise party." The foul-tempered Italian grumped.

"Right." Sena agreed, mirth still lingering in his voice and causing Gokudera to scowl. "I'll just head on back, then." He nodded, slipping past and heading for the prep kitchen.

"Um, excuse me!" The running back called well in advance, hoping to avoid startling a full-grown man with—theoretically—several large knives.

The teenager rounded the corner wearily, and paused in the doorway. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a quick flash, and some vegetables tumbling to a waiting plate.

"Ah! Sena-kun! My Takashi talks about you all the time!" A tall but slim man greeted with the same cheerful charm of his aforementioned son.

Sena ducked his head modestly. "Honestly, the knowledge that I have fans at all overwhelms me, let alone star athletes and all-around cool guys like Takashi-kun." He deflected. "But putting that aside, I inconvenienced you by showing up so early in the hopes that I could be of some use during the set-up. Especially seeing as you're also being so kind as to feed me and my friends.

"Not at all, not at all!" Tsuyoshi boomed, waving away the high-schooler's formal words with his free hand. "When Hayato-kun mentioned you coming, let alone all of Takashi's favorite team, I was delighted! But I'll have to insist that you let us hang your picture on the wall so we can show off to our regulars a little." He laughed. "And I will shamelessly take you up on that offer of help."

Sena smiled back at the chef's infectious cheer. "I'm at your disposal, Yamamoto-san."

"You'll regret that offer, Sena-kun." Tsuyoshi teased. "There's a recipe on the refrigerator: would you mind setting out the proper amounts of each ingredient so I can just throw it all together after I finish this chopping?"

"Hai, Sensei." Sena quipped, and looked around for a spot to prop his messenger bag.

Tsuyoshi noticed his dilemma and nodded at the door. "There are some hooks mounted on the back of the door; you can hang your bag there and grab an apron if you'd like."

Slightly relieved, Sena stepped in and swung the door around, only to pause at the sight. "…Hayato-kun said you only had one apron left."

Tsuyoshi let out a low snicker. "You really think Takashi would wear a frilly apron? No, an old serving girl left that behind when she went to college; I just like tormenting Hayato-kun."

Sena smiled back and exchanged his bag for a heavy, unbleached canvas apron. As he turned to the counter with the various ingredients, measuring implements, and containers of various sizes, he could have sworn he had again caught a sheen of metal and more tumbling vegetables.

"You know, you really are helping me out," assured Takashi's dad, "anymore, I'm getting old and slow to even chop turnips." He laughed.

"I'm sure that's not true," Sena told the containers, "when you start losing fingers, then maybe it's time to retire, but for now I'm sure you're fine."

That startled a laugh out of Tsuyoshi. "American Football, eh." He changed the subject, "That's a bit of a rarity around here… what led you to it? Did your dad play?"

Sena chuckled to himself trying to imagine his dad facing down Gaou. "No, my dad is just a quiet, efficient middle-manager. He used to be my aspiration: a simple, down-to-earth, steady job to take care of a wife and kid. Seems kinda weird that now I'm wrapped up in this glamour of Eyeshield 21, right?" His chuckle was a little less humorous now. He shook his head and continued in a warmer tone, "No, I was kind of sort of kidnapped and forced into the game."

"…What?" Takashi's dad asked, flatly.

"Well, it's a funny story, really…."

By the time Sena had wrapped up the story of his freshman year of high school, Tsuyoshi had finished the vegetables and moved onto mixing something with rice flour, and Sena had moved onto a nearby stool to watch idly.

"I'm impressed that you have managed to find anything redeeming in American football, let alone finding it to be your passion. If it were me, I don't think I could continue… then again, these bones are getting rather old." The sushi chef joked. "Is this something you're going to pursue, then? Take it all the way to a profession in the U.S.?" He asked conversationally.

Sena froze a little at the question that seemed to do nothing but haunt him lately. "I'm… not sure." He admitted. "I was offered a position in a relative's company, but apparently it's a rather risky venture and I might not have a job for very long if I take it. But, I guess I don't know whether or not I'll be able to continue football for very long either. It's a high-contact sport and my knees are already taking a beating." He slumped miserably.

Tsuyoshi smiled helplessly. Sometimes, he thought, life was too much to throw at adults, let alone kids. "Cheer up." He ran a flour-covered hand through Sena's hair, ruffling it, and grinned at the resulting yelp and the boy stumbling off the stool and dancing out of his reach. "The future will come soon enough as it is, so just go bother Hayato-kun for now, and enjoy tonight's party later." He advised, already turning around to wash his hands to finish up the last few dishes.

Sena ran his own hands through his hair, trying to shake out the white particles with a faint smile. "Well, that was better than my solution of making a living by selling memorabilia to fanatics like your son…." He pretended to muse.

"Hey, I still have more flour left." Tsuyoshi threw over his shoulder, matching the footballer's faux-serious tone.

"I'm going, I'm going!" Sena raised his hands in surrender and wandered off down the hall.

"Hey, good timing." Gokudera greeted from his seat at a table. "That boxing idiot and his sister are here, go get them some drinks." He ordered, one arm in front of him, tapping his fingers impatiently, the other propping up his chin lazily.

"The Sasagawas!" Sena chirped. "It's great to see you again." He continued walking over to them with a disarming grin, but instead paused beside Gokudera. "As for you," he directed at the silver-hair Italian. "Haven't you ever heard that you're supposed to respect your senpais?" He teased, grabbing his underclassman in a headlock and viciously messing up his carefully arranged hair with a noogie.

"Get the hell off me!" Gokudera demanded, squirming like a pissed-off puppy, batting at Sena's arms. "I'll go, I'll go, you bastard!"

"Thanks, you're so considerate, Hayato-kun." Sena let go and stepped back, arms raised in a non-threatening manner once Gokudera surged to his feet and glared at his upperclassman.

"Hey! What the fuck is up with that apron!"

Oh, shit. Sena realized, looking down at the item in question that he had forgotten to remove. "Oh, good point, here you go, thanks for hanging it up." Sena rushed out and shoved Gokudera into the hallway.

His relieved sigh was cut short by a small giggle.

"You two are such good friends." Kyoko smiled behind her palm.

Sena's smile was a little embarrassed and more wavery at the implication that his mild torment was friendship, but he replied gamely: "I guess you could say that. But anyway, come on in. Yamamoto-san is still cooking, but have a seat anywhere." The smile was a little more comfortable now.

"Oh, I'm just about done." Tsuyoshi's voice filled the room, larger than life, like his own presence. He strolled in with an arm around a tray-bearing Gokudera, stubbornly ignoring the boy's not-so-subtle rolling of shoulders in an attempt to dislodge the arm without spilling the tea. "As soon as my Takashi gets here, I'll take off. No one wants an old man ruining their fun." He grinned hugely.

"Or you could go away right now." Grumbled Gokudera.

Kyoko, on the other hand, bowed politely and thanked Yamamoto's dad.

Ryohei smiled down at his little sister fondly and wandered over to where Sena was sitting at the counter, studiously ignoring Gokudera's pointed glances at his upperclassmen and then back down to the tray he was still holding.

"You'll probably feel extremely alone tonight, senpai, being surrounded by middle-schoolers, won't you?" Ryohei inquired with genuine curiosity.

"Naw." Sena shook his head amiably. "Hayato-kun invited—and the invitation was confirmed by Yamamoto-san—the rest of the Devil-Bat's tonight, since we're Takashi's favorite team. It might be a little awkward, though." He worried his bottom lip, remembering the confrontation that had taken placed after the game and his discussion in the park with Juumonji just this morning.


Ryohei's attempt to voice his confusion was interrupted by a voice fretting: "Am I too early?"

Sena leaned (with no little chagrin) around the younger, taller boxer to see who had just come in.

"Haru-chan!" Kyoko squealed with glee. "Oh, and you brought Lambo and IPin too! You're so clever, how did you sneak them away from Sawada-kun's house without letting Yamamoto-kun know?" She rushed over to her friend and held her arms open in an offer to hold IPin.

Lambo, on the other hand, made a bee-line for Sena. He stopped just shy of the high-schooler's pant leg and glared up at him balefully. "Sweet." He demanded, thrusting a hand forward impetuously.

"Hm." Sena hummed teasingly, and crouched down to be closer to eye level. "Have you been good today?"

"Lambo is always good! Lambo is the best!" The toddler declared, thrusting his arm that had been waiting for candy into the air haphazardly, making Sena sway back to dodge an upper-cut.

Ryohei snorted a little in amused admiration.

"Well…" Sena pretended to think it over, but before he could come to a "conclusion" he heard IPin chime in from Kyoko's arms. "IPin-chan, I don't…" He started to apologize, but was cut off again, this time by Lambo himself.

"Shut up stupid-IPin, those times don't count! And the cat deserved it! Plus, it was three whole shoes, so there!" He stuck out his tongue and was struck from behind by a very tailored Italian loafer.

"No: You shut up, noisy cow." Reborn retorted, and climbed up Sena. "Ciaossu." He greeted, as though there weren't a teary cow baby below him, blubbering out a mantra of toleration. "Don't worry about him, Maman took away the bazooka. So, are you all packed for Italy?"

Sena's head spun at the pace of the conversation.

"Sena! Hey!" Monta called out over the rising din.

Sena straightened and waved back as well as he could. It looked like Monta had just arrived with the huh-huh brothers and Taki. "Where's everybody else?" He called back.

"Oh," Ryohei answered absentmindedly, "Hibari hates crowds, Chrome and Mukuro would only try to possess us, Bi… Oh. OH, you weren't talking to me at all, were you, senpai? Really, you need to look at who you're talking to properly, or misunderstandings like this will happen." He scolded.

Sena stared up at his taller underclassman as balefully as Lambo just had. It really sucked being one of the shortest in the room.

Monta slipped past Haru and Kyoko chatting about what kind of cake Yamamoto-san had chosen and joined Sena's small group. "Kurita-san and Komusubi are coming, Musashi and Yukimitsu too… Hiruma, though," He hesitated, "he's still up in the air, so to speak."

"Why?" Ryohei cut in, "Is he still EXTREMELY pissed about the first half yesterday?"

"What?" Monta questioned. "Oh, no." He answered both himself and Ryohei dismissively. "No, we got our win, and it wasn't even a hat trick like most of our games last year. Usually he's pleased as long as we've won and we're not all banged up."

"So what happened yesterday?" Ryohei asked intently.

"SHUT UP YOU FUCKING MORONS!" Gokudera's evil roar saved both Sena and Monta. "The tenth just called and said he's bringing that fucking baseball moron now. So shut the fuck up and get out of my fucking sight."

Sena cringed a little, knowing that his teasing was part of why Gokudera was so extra annoyed.

"Hayato of course means," Tsuyoshi cut it, yanking the boy in question down off of the chair that he had so rudely stood upon and yelled, "That Takashi is on his way, so let's all be quiet and hide to surprise him!" He finished with a kind of dangerous cheerfulness.

Lambo whimpered one last time before shamelessly attaching himself to Sena's leg.

"Er… Right." Ryohei agreed. "Com'on, senpai, we'll find an extremely good place to hand." He groped at Sena's arm until he managed to grip the jacket's sleeve, still not tearing his eyes off of that smile, while he backed slowly away with the running-back, cow-baby, Italian hitman, and receiver in tow.

Quietly, all the small groups broke up or drifted off out of the door's direct sightline and stood in a tense, awkward silence until they heard the affable whispering of the younger Yamamoto approaching the shop. The group would have breathed a collective sigh of relief if not for the older Yamamoto holding a finger up to lips stretched in an almost deranged manner as a shushing gesture.

Perversely, Sena wished Hiruma were there.

"Daaa~ad! I'm hoooo~ome." Takashi called as he slid the door open.

With a wave of his hand, Tsuyoshi released hoards of his son's friends upon him.

"SURPRISE!" They all chorused, taking even Tsuna, who had known beforehand, aback.

"Awwa," Takashi cooed, "You guys are the greatest! Look!" He called out, wading through the crowd to Sena and slinging an arm around him. "You even got me the perfect present! How did you all know I wanted a running back for my birthday?" He joked amid amused laughter.

"No." A small voice called up, making Takashi drop his gaze to look for the source. "He's Lambo's. He has candy."

"Well," Yamamoto countered gravely, "I'll trade you this guy for some cake, deal?"

Lambo stared at him doubtfully, but nodded.

"Oh, Sena-nii!"

The older brunet looked around for his younger brother, but it would seem that Tsuna shared his curse of a height-deficiency. "…Tsukun?" He asked doubtfully, lifting up on the tips of his toes to stretch for a better view.

There was a small, indignant sound, and Ryohei raised his hands and shifted farther away from Yamamoto to let his boss join their small circle. "There you are, Sena-nii." He sighed in exasperation. "Thanks for ditching me, by the way," he made a face at and elbowed Yamamoto, "Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that Hiruma-san was just a block or two behind us on the way here, so he should be walking in soon." Tsuna provided helpfully.

Sena could feel the blood draining from his face. "Aa." He answered shakily. "T-thanks for letting me know, Tsukun."

"…Did you fight with Hiruma-senpai, Sena-senpai?" Yamamoto asked quietly, leaning in obnoxiously close to Sena's face.

The running back raised a hand and batted away the swordsman's head. "It's fine, it's fine. Go say bye and thanks to your dad; he was talking about taking off soon." He commanded and squirmed out of the taller boy's reach.

Yamamoto let out his usual cheery laugh and squeezed through the crowd. Sena couldn't help but notice that through it all, his eyes showed concern instead of mirth.

"You did, didn't you?" Tsuna asked, eyeing his brother critically. "You fought with Hiruma-san."

"He and Monta-senpai were EXTREMELY worried earlier when they were talking about him." Ryohei cut in, probably more out of curiosity than any real desire to be helpful.

Sena ignored them both, and lifted his leg with a squealing Lambo still attached to it. "You should go play with Kyoko-chan." He told the boy conversationally. "Reborn-kun already left," Though it was probably to gobble up the sushi, he didn't bother saying, "and I'll bet he gets all the cake if you don't hurry."

With a horrified gasp, Lambo dropped to the floor and scampered off.

"Why'd you send him away?" Tsuna asked. "He is Thunder… I thought you'd send, er, well…"

"That's why they're fighting." Monta cut in quickly, moving over to lean against Sena's shoulder. "He told us everything yesterday."

"WHAT?" Tsuna shrieked, making the crowd's noise die down, and heads swivel to them. He laughed awkwardly. "I… I think we should somewhere to sit and talk about this." He offered lamely.

Sena nodded, and moved to the larger booths with Monta at his side. As he made his way there, he noticed Yamamoto ducking his head back in and Gokudera determinately moving to intersect his boss' course. Well, at least the probably meant that Yamamoto-san was gone.

Sena nodded at Takashi and jerked his head over to indicate that the group was moving to the tables, then slid into the booth farthest from the crowd. Monta slid in next to him, and after a moment of hesitation, Tsuna took the seat directly across from with Gokudera next to him. Ryohei shrugged, and sat next to Monta, leaving the last spot of the six-person booth to Yamamoto.

"Well," Sena started once everyone had settled, and after he'd managed to settle his nerves due to the instant focus on him. "I told Hiruma—Well, I told everyone on the team—because if—when I do go to Italy I'll be leaving the team for a significant amount of time. And though I know it wasn't my secret to tell, I respect my team too much to throw bullshit at them and hope it sticks." Sena raised his chin defiantly.

Tsuna bowed his head and let out an aggravated sigh while vigorously rubbing his hair, messing it up worse than usual in a visible display of frustration.


The language startled Sena, though he understood just why his brother would use it.

"This is such a clusterfuck." Gokudera agreed.

"I… I can't really fault you." Tsuna sighed into his palms. "The team makes up so much of your life now that if you suddenly disappeared and then came back with scars and weird new reflexes. It would just make more of a mess, especially if we couldn't contain their investigation and they got caught up in the middle of something."

Gokudera stared at his boss in awe.

"At least this way we have the upper-hand in action, even if they have the upper-hand in information."

Gokudera glowed in delight.

"Er, well, I guess. I mean, if that made any sense."

Gokudera gave a little shrug as though to say, 'Eh, close enough,' then stepped in. "Still, it's fucking bullshit that you're sharing our fucking secrets with a dozen fucking people!" Gokudera scolded.

"Hey, Tsuna just said no harm no foul." Yamamoto cut in.

"You would jump to his fucking defense, wouldn't you, you brown-nosing fucker." Gokudera bit back.

"Well, now, I'm not sure that's fair." The swordsman retorted carefully, his eyes gleaming oddly in the light.

"Ah, Takashi-kun, I had forgotten. Your present is in my bag that's hanging in the kitchen." Sena cut in quickly, "Would you go get it for me, please?"

Yamamoto's eyes didn't leave Gokudera's, but he nodded tersely, and stood up. "Sure, senpai. I'll be right back."

Both Tsuna and Sena let out a low breath of relief.

"Uh." Monta said. "I think I'll just go grab some food. Want anything, Sena?" He forged through the awkward silence, and nudged Ryohei.

"I'll give you a hand to the EXTREME." The boxer agreed, and slid out, followed by Monta.

Sena watched them disappear into the crowd for a bit, then dropped his head onto the table with an audible thump. "I really am sorry." Sena told the table. "I just… I couldn't. If it helps, I didn't say it was you. Just someone important. Though, only Taki is too dumb to put 'old friend back in your life' and 'sudden induction into the mafia' together."

"I understand." Tsuna sighed, and reached across the table to fuss with Sena's hair for a change. His scalp was getting sore from his half-hearted attempts to pull out his own hair from stress. "Gokudera, will you find Reborn, please?" He prompted.

"Yeah, boss." The bomber answered gruffly, inwardly delighted that despite the clusterfuck, the 10th Generation of the Vongola was already having its first council of war.

"Reborn?" Sena sighed, knowing he was in trouble now.

"Don't worry," Tsuna reassured, stroking a hand through the hair so much like his own, "Yamamoto will be back with your bag before Gokudera is, so that was pretty much to make him step aside and cool down a little. Don't get me wrong, this is a pretty big issue, but I think he's still over-blowing it a little since he quit smoking."

"Why send him after Reborn then?" Sena glanced up from his prone position sprawled across the table, but didn't bother to lift his head.

"If Reborn didn't already know all about this, I'll eat all of Bianchi's poison cooking. There is next to nothing involving the Vongola that he doesn't know about, and he has an uncanny sixth sense for information. He would have been at the booth before us if the information you just told us was new to him."

"Eat up to the MAX!" Monta offered as he set a full plate in front of both Sena and Tsuna, before turning around to accept a plate for himself from Ryohei. "Yamamoto's dad made so much food that even Kurita and Komusubi are full!" He exclaimed as he reclaimed his seat next to Sena and Ryohei slid in next to Tsuna.

Sena sat up and looked around to attempt to verify Monta's claim, but ended up shrugging and snapping a pair of disposable chopsticks apart.

"Thanks for the food!" They all chorused, then dug in. Yamamoto's dad really was an excellent chef.

"Here, senpai, your bag." Yamamoto jogged up. "I also grabbed a platter of my favorite and a few extra plates, so you all can try it." He grinned, handing over the items and taking a seat next to Ryohei so he could see Sena's face.

"Thanks!" Sena smiled, and immediately opened the bag to find the envelope addressed to the baseball star. "It's actually from both Monta and me," he confided conspiratorially as he handed it over.

Curiously, Yamamoto looked down at the large manila envelope that had his name written on the front in Sena's usual untidy scrawl. His curiosity was becoming all-consuming, so he dropped his chopsticks and carefully broke the seal on the back. Cautiously, he slid out the heavy paper and looked down at the glossy surface. Staring back at him was all his heroes wrapped up in an almost candid snapshot: Sena and Monta were fighting, Sena in a headlock and wiggling furiously, trying to get away. The star running back's face was full of indignation due to Monta trying to squish his cheeks and pull them apart. Monta himself was smiling a face-splitting grin, obviously loving time spent with his best friends and the people he, himself, greatly admired. Almost involuntarily it seemed, Taka Honjou was laughing at their antics. It seemed as though he had brought his face up just in time for the flash, if the slight blur and slighter surprise was any indication. His father, the older Honjou—the national baseball superstar!—had an arm around his son, and the other arm making a peace sign over the struggling boys' head. Perched on the edge of the sofa, just off center, the infamous Osakan Yamato looked off-balanced and amused, smiling a small, fond smile down at his best friends.

Best of all—Oh, yes! It did manage to get better!—was the five signatures at the bottom of the photo, all the way from Sena's shaky, uncertain one to Honjou's polished, professional one.

"I know it was pretentious to have us in the photo, and to sign it too, but Honjou-san was really, really unreasonable, and—"

"Speak for yourself," Monta cut the terrified Sena off flippantly. "Keep that, kid, my autograph will be worth millions someday." He joked.

Yamamoto attempted to dive across the table.

"Hey!" Monta and Ryohei chorused: Monta reaching to save plates and Ryohei trying to hold the birthday boy back.

"Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you…" He chanted with a solemn single-mindedness, arms still reaching to hug more of his hero.

Slightly creeped out, Sena patted one of the arms half-grasping his and smiled slight smile accompanied by an incomplete shrug. "It wasn't that big of a deal… I was a little embarrassed that I was giving you such a cheap present." He admitted with the beginnings of a blush starting to creep up his cheeks. "You're surprisingly hard to shop for, Takashi-kun." He ran a hand over his hot cheeks sheepishly.

"No, it's perfect." Takashi beamed, reaching farther with greedy, grasping fingers.

"You really shouldn't feed his obsession." Gokudera chastised as he approached the table once more. His face was still screwed up in a frown, but it was much milder now that he held Reborn in his arms. If there was anyone other than his boss that Gokudera put his trust in, it was the tiny hitman. The bomber glanced at his rival's gift. "More baseball shit," he scoffed, and set Reborn down on the table.

"Well, as long as he likes it…" Sena hedged, rubbing his face more, as though he could simply wipe away his blush.

"Shut up." Yamamoto cut in, not looking at Sena, but with full ferocity at his abrasive classmate. "Sena-senpai gave it to me and it's perfect, and shut up." He glared.

Gokudera rocked back on his heels, then looked annoyed at having been taken aback. "Well, fuck you too. If you don't take this seriously, why the fuck should I take your shit seriously?"

"Shut UP!" Yamamoto's easy-going façade shattered as he surged to his feet, and ended up directly in Gokudera's space. "I take what I need to seriously; you don't get to decide what those things are for me." He retorted furiously, gesturing wildly at the photo, and narrowly missing an oddly silent, observant Reborn.

"Guys." Tsuna cut in quietly. "Guys, let's take this outside."

Belatedly, Sena glanced around, finally able to drag his eyes from the confrontation, and found that while Tsuna's friends were doing and admirable job distracting Sena's friends and the other miscellaneous guests that had nothing or next-to-nothing to do with the mafia, reassuring them that this type of "bickering" was normal for the two, and doing almost hiding their own concerned glances.

The knowledge that he had caused this blow-up: the escalation from friction to true animosity, made Sena shrink into himself, feeling small and awful. Reborn seemed to notice and nonchalantly patted Sena's arm.

"I won't say that this doesn't have anything to do with you; bluntly, you're the catalyst. This has been a long time coming, but I don't know how it would have exploded if you hadn't come along. See? Even coward Tsuna knew that this was going to happen eventually. Take what comfort you can from that." He informed confidently, before scaling Sena's arm and giving his shoulder a pointed little kick to direct the relatively taller boy to slide out after Monta, wave off his friend's concerned nudge, and follow the Vongola's mainstay trio out.

True to Reborn's words, Tsuna's eyes were resolved even as his body betrayed him by trembling slightly in fear while he watched the duo exit just after him. It came as something of a surprise that one of them hadn't managed to calm down when they consciously faced what they were about to do while heading for the dingy back alley, out of the eyes of friends and friends of friends. In fact, they'd managed to maintain the same level of hostility as they left the restaurant as when Yamamoto had first gotten into Gokudera's face. It might have had something to do with the barbs that Yamamoto was actually responding to for the first time. Every quiet, muttered "baseball freak" was met with a "psychopathic stalker", and every "idiot" was met with an "asshole". Even Gokudera lighting up a cigarette and giving into his nicotine addiction hadn't calmed him.

The alley stunk of rotting fish, both expired ingredients and customer refuse from the bins, and Sena could hear wild urban animals foraging in the semi-darkness, lending a creepy, nauseating air to a situation that was already making him queasy with dread.

Still wretched with guilt, Sena opened his mouth to try to diffuse the situation, but found himself unable to even squeak out a sound, his mouth dry and his heart racing at the danger. Not only was shit about to go down, for real, but between two very dangerous individuals. Sena vaguely knew that they had less than legal skills, but for them to be the top two associated with the reluctant Vongola heir…

"You…" Sena licked his lips and cleared his throat before trying again. He met Tsuna's concerned but resolved gaze, and noted but dismissed the firm, short shake of his head, warning his big brother that this wasn't something Sena should get into. He couldn't see Reborn's matching warning from the toddler's perch, but he could feel the disapproval radiating.

Sena couldn't help it, though, he knew that no matter what, this was going to end badly, and it was his fault.

"I am so sorry."

"SHUT THE FUCK UP." Gokudera roared, rounding on Sena. "Yeah, it is your fucking fault. If you're truly sorry then go the fuck away and never come back!"

"You go away!" Yamamoto's temper finally snapped and he shoved Gokudera back. "You think everything revolves around your stupid fucking mafia honor? Newsflash: you're still a fucking criminal."

Gokudera tried to lunge, but was held back by Tsuna's firm grip on the back of his hoodie.

"So help me, Tenth." Gokudera snarled eyes firmly on the swordsman, whose hands were clenching and unclenching as though he were seeking a sword not on him.

"We need ground rules." Tsuna cut in, fishing through is pockets with a spare hand. He pulled out a little pill bottle but then looked perplexed on how to reach the contents one-handed. The Ninth's heir cast as cautious, suspicious glance at Gokudera, before releasing his grip and shook out a pill. He carefully tucked the bottle away and started rummaging around for his mittens.

"Tsukun wh—"

"I TOLD YOU TO SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Gokudera roared, smoothly rounding on Sena and lighting a stick of dynamite. He reared back to throw it at the running back, but was stunned by a quick and dirty rabbit punch to the back of his head.

"DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE THREATEN SENA." Yamamoto raged, leading Sena to rock back away from the primal, vicious tone. Just in time, too: he narrowly avoided getting sideswiped by a wide attack. It seemed that Yamamoto had found something in the rubbish to use in place of a sword, he noted numbly. Sena cried out as the fuse on Gokudera's dynamite burned ever lower and the unidentified makeshift weapon arced closer to the Italian's temple.

Quite out of the blue, the fuse was snuffed out with one hand, and the weapon was nonchalantly caught.

"I was going to say," Tsuna noted with dry humor, "that we should set ground rules. Like, you know: no weapons."

Sena stared in shock. He'd seen Tsuna in battle mode, once, and while seriously hurting, but this Tsuna was mellow as the sky on a lazy day, his eyes half-lidded and nonchalantly subduing his two closest guardians with one hand each.

"Boss… Don't get in the way." Gokudera hissed.

"No worries." Tsuna had a lazy smirk on his face. "Reborn's right: this has been a long time coming, but seriously. This could get too big, too fast with flames. If you idiots are sure you want to duke this out, then use your fists like big boys. Think of that as an order, if you must." He directed that last bit at Gokudera.

Sena didn't see who swung first, once Tsuna had moved away, all he could see was a blur of fists and if he hadn't had Reborn's tiny fingers digging painfully into his shoulder, he probably would have thrown himself into the thick of it to separate the two.

It just seemed wrong to stand by and watch two of his friends attacking each other like rabid dogs.

What happened to the quiet life I led? He lamented rhetorically, What happened to my fear of pain that drove my life for so long? What happened to Tsuna's peace? He looks so bored. Maybe it's the mafia Dying Will thing, or maybe it's so tame a fight compared to the life-or-death battles they've been fighting. Gods, do I ever want to become so desensitized to this kind of brawl? Yamamoto's lip is split, and Gokudera is favoring his left hand like he's broken a finger. Shit, look at all the blood.

Gokudera got a good shot in at Yamamoto's unprotected stomach, but paid for it with a vicious kick to the Italian's side.

To say the fight was inelegant would be a courtesy. It was a street brawl; two idiot kids throwing punches blindly. Any trace of the polished Mafioso warriors were stripped away by the heat of their blinding resentment. It was stupid, it was more than stupid: it was stupidity and testosterone all rolled up into one fucked up, raged-fueled clusterfuck.

And the lack of form was obvious; more than it simply not being pretty, the wide punches and half-assed kicks were energy-inefficient, burning out the fight as surely as the fighters. The punches grew more and more sluggish, and their forms more and more sloppy until they were both sprawled out, panting, bleeding and bruised in the badly lit, filthy alley way. Despite much of their anger having seeped out with each hit, the sill managed to minimize contact with one another in the narrow space.

"I hate you, you know." Yamamoto commented as casually as he could manage around heavy breaths and aching bones.

Tsuna glanced over at them suspiciously from where he was pointedly ignoring the two idiots and idly explaining Dying Will and Hyper Dying Will to a shaky Sena, and Gokudera tensed, but Yamamoto ignored them and continued.

"I hate that you so casually devote your life to Tsuna and the mafia. Seriously. I used to be like that. I used to live for baseball. Then, eventually, I hit a training plateau. I wasn't losing skill, but I couldn't improve, either."

"Shut up." Gokudera grunted, obviously not wanting to hear any more about baseball.

"No: shut up and listen. I actually talked to Tsuna, for the first time really, about it. He gave me some trite answer about working hard or some shit," it was Yamamoto's turn to grunt as Gokudera kicked at him for the insult. He kicked back and continued.

"ANYway." His glare probably couldn't be seen, but he couldn't hold it back. "So, I took his advice. What could it hurt, right? Well, other than my damn arm." He let out a bitter, humorless laugh. "I absolutely shattered it while doing extra practice. I don't really hold it against him," Yamamoto hastily reassured, "I mean, it could have happened anytime, it's not exactly chess club, but... baseball was my everything. Like mafia is for you now. The next time I spoke to Tsuna, it was on the roof of the school, with the fence between us."

That bitter laugh was back at Gokudera alarmed jolt.

"Yeah. Long story short: Tsuna is literally, physically the reason I can still bleed. I'm... I don't know. Jealous? Scared? I don't know. All I know is I can't devote myself again. Not right now. I... Can't."

Gokudera casually let his leg brush against Yamamoto's.

"That's fucking stupid. You have everything." There was bitterness and raw longing not quite hidden in Gokudera's voice. "You have a team, you have a passion, you have a stupidly fantastic relationship with your dad. You have a million fucking friends, for Christ's sake, why did you go to the boss?"

"You can be alone in a crowd." Yamamoto rejoined. "At the risk of being cliché, you can have dozens of friends and still not have a single person to talk to. Why do you think I smile so much? Even an idiot can't be that happy all the time." He finished quietly. "And dad... Before all this, the sword was a huge gap, an unforgivable, unbridgeable gap between us. I guess the mafia has given me something." His lips twisted into a smile at the irony.

"You've got your arm back, you've got that guy," Gokudera jerked his hear to indicate Sena, "To train you out of your plateau now. You can just go back to sports, full time. No one will stop you." He challenged obstinately.

"I can't." Yamamoto replied quietly. "Not after the sword. Not after learning the difference between the thrill of winning a ball game and winning a fight by surviving. I've always known I was passionate. Too passionate, too focused on things I like. But the rush from fighting, the rush from living rather than just chasing a ball… it's intense."

"The mafia isn't a game!" Gokudera hissed, "You can't just treat it as a new hobby to focus on. We break laws; we fucking kill people, Yamamoto."

A quick, inappropriate smile twisted across Namimori's star athlete'sface before slipping away just as quickly. "I know you don't understand me, just like I don't understand you, but know this: when Tsuna needs me, I will be there. No matter what. Even if I'm pitching at Kyoshin, I'll be there before he even knows he needs help." He vowed.

Gokudera coughed hollowly. "Good enough. For now." He murmured as he levered himself up and turned away. He took a couple steps forward before he hesitated and half turned back.

Before Yamamoto could even raise an eyebrow at the odd behavior, a hand was thrust into his face.

And, under the watchful eyes of the tenth generation Vongola boss and the most promising athlete of his generation, Yamamoto grinned his brightest, truest grin, and accepted the hand up.

I literally cannot believe I have finally finished this chapter. Yeah, this took forever to get out. I REFUSE TO GUILT, THOUGH.