When he was a young child, Tsuna loved to play games. He may not have been very good at them, but he enjoyed them nonetheless. He was always "It" when playing tag, always the first one found when playing hide-and-seek, and he was always the goose in a circle of ducks. He did not always have the most desired role to play, but he was tolerant enough not to let it get him down.
But there was one game Tsuna loathed with a passion: tug-o-war. It was a game for the strong and cunning—neither of which was an adjective people would normally associate with him. But now, instead of the poor creature who was about to receive a mouthful of dirt, Tsuna felt like the even more unfortunate rope that was about to be pulled both ways. It was never the rope's fault who won or lost. It minded its own business until a group of snot-nosed children or testosterone-driven men with too much time on their hands took it upon themselves to disturb it.
No, it was not Tsuna's fault. But he still ended up with the short stick in the end.
"Feed Byakuran to the wolves, kora. I would like to see them rip him apart. It won't hurt him. There's not enough human left in him to bleed," said Colonello as if it was the most obvious decision in the world. He had arrived just as Mukuro and Yamamoto were called back to their respective offices. "Why in the hell are you even thinking about it, kora?"
"The wolves wouldn't touch one of their own, Colonello," replied Reborn as he took the seat that Uni had previously occupied.
Dino grimaced at the mental image. "It's not that easy. Who's to say that Estraneo won't turn on Vongola after absorbing Millefiore? It is already a risk even if Mukuro does join them and they keep their word to leave Millefiore be. Mukuro is one of the last people I would want working with my potential rivals."
"They are only interested in pharmaceuticals. If that holds true, then they should not have an invested interest in Vongola," said Tsuna as he rubbed his aching temples. "And Uni is not the type of person who would knowingly go back on her word. Moreover, the contracts that will be drawn up should make these agreements absolutely clear."
Colonello snorted in mockery. "That's if she's the only employee Estraneo has. Uni's innocence serves as a perfect cover for anything they could possibly have planned, kora."
"Contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on," drawled Reborn lazily as he slowly spun Leon around his finger and stared at the ceiling with utmost fascination. "And as Dino pointed out, you all forget who we're dealing with here. Someone as resourceful and irreverent as Mukuro to Estraneo would be like providing strangers with the power to control when the sun rises and sets."
"Then what are we supposed to do?" asked Tsuna. "We can't send Mukuro, we can't abandon Millefiore, and I sure can't leave the zaibatsu to itself."
Reborn smiled. "Don't think too hard. Sometimes you don't have to do anything at all."
"Well, that's comforting," said Tsuna with a tone that dripped in sarcasm.
"You're spending too much time with Mukuro to start sounding like him, kora." Colonello pointed out snarkily.
Tsuna shot him an annoyed look. "Is there nothing else we can do? I don't understand how someone with as much pull as Byakuran would not want to run independently. As per Gokudera-kun and Mammon's calculations, Millefiore should still be able to function without having to surrender to Estraneo or sell to Vongola."
Dino shook his head. "You're thinking like an economist, Tsuna. Think like a strategist. Even Mukuro could not find any information regarding Estraneo other than the obvious: they are an Italian-based pharmaceutical company with capital to burn and an inexplicable interest in Millefiore. Millefiore may or may not be dabbling in stem-cell research aside from their visage as a tech-based producer. As small as the danger to one's standing may be, it would be smarter to crush a potential competitor before they can grow strong enough to actually pose as a threat."
"Through any means necessary, kora." Colonello nodded with a grim expression on his face.
Reborn's smile grew into the full-out smirk. "You're learning something after all, Dino."
Dino returned the smile with a pleased, boyish grin of his own. "It's not like we haven't had to deal with similar situations in the past when I took over. If Cavallone had maintained its course during my father's time and if our relationship with Kyuudaime and Vongola wasn't as strong as it was, we would have been a prime target as well."
Tsuna shook his head and sighed. "I don't like how this is turning out at all."
"As I said, don't worry about it so much, Tsuna," said Reborn as he loaded Leon with more ammo. "For all you know, the answer to all of your questions could actually be quite simple."
Mukuro sat and stared at the monitor before him with an uncharacteristically bitter smile on his face. He was alone in the IT office, having dismissed Chrome, Ken, Chikusa, and Lancia to help deal with crowd control brought about by the excitement of that morning. He did not want any witnesses to what he was about to do.
Slowly, he turned on the monitor and entered a password with quick strokes of his fingers on the keyboard. The screen flared to life with static, but it was quickly cleared to focus on the image of another man looking back at him. In contrast to Mukuro's annoyed state, the indigo-haired man on the screen smiled gently with what looked like genuine affection. "Otouto."
"Nii-san," drawled Mukuro with a fox-like smile. "Ohisashiburi desu."
"How are my adorable little siblings doing all the way in Japan? I would have thought that Mukuro-kun and Chrome-chan would have forgotten their nii-san after these past few years. You both just left without saying goodbye."
"Kufufufu… we did not like the weather in Italy. Nii-san was the one who chose to stay behind. The fault is entirely your own."
Demon Spade's smile was uncannily like Mukuro's own. "Oh? But I heard that there was the possibility that you were moving back to Italy. Has Tsunayoshi-kun decided between you or the snow-white snake yet?"
Mukuro's eyes narrowed with a displeasure that he did not bother to hide. "And who was it, pray tell, who told you about this little turn of events? They need to stop spreading such horrendous lies if they cannot handle the consequences."
Muted laughter filled and echoed through the empty office from the monitor. "Don't play coy, otouto. Haven't you spoken to Uni-chan yet? She told me that she was heading to Japan three days ago."
"Oya oya, I had not known that Estraneo would be sending someone so young and cheerful to negotiations. I would have expected for you to come yourself, nii-san." The frown on Mukuro's face was quickly dissipated by another of his empty smiles. "Being that you are on the Board of Directors and all."
"Oh, but Mukuro-kun, I was just following orders and regretfully had to stay here," said Demon Spade with a touch of affection. "But I will see you soon enough, won't I? After all, Chrome-chan…"
"Leave my cute Chrome out of this!" snapped Mukuro. "She is not a participant in this little game Estraneo is playing."
Demon Spade shook his head. "She is my cute imouto also, just as you are my naughty little otouto, both of who I miss very much. By the way Mukuro-kun, it is not nice to lie to Tsunayoshi-kun like that. Pretending not to know anything about Estraneo and all."
"Kufufufu… Tsunayoshi-kun does not need to be bothered by such insignificant details. His mind is already filled with thoughts and images of me."
"Such a devious little brother I have," said Demon Spade as he shrugged. "But no matter, you will find your way here sooner or later. We will prepare for your arrival nevertheless. There is a jet ready for your use at anytime."
"Oya? Would your esteemed leader be happy to know that you are wasting precious time and resources doing such unnecessary things?"
Demon Spade's expression turned calculatingly sly. "Try your best not to disappoint Tsunayoshi-kun, otouto. I'm sending you something interesting I found among Millefiore's files. Who knows, it might be of some use to you."
With a quick wave, Demon Spade's image disappeared from the screen and was replaced by a new file. "Oya? What is this?"
For the rest of the day, the employees of the zaibatsu steered clear of the IT Department. For years afterward, rumors of hauntings would circulate through the company in remembrance of the sinister laughter that echoed through the building.
Tsuna sighed as Gokudera dejectedly walked out of the office with Reborn and Colonello. The silver-haired man had entered the office and requested assistance regarding his department, but as Dino was still present, he was forced to settle for the two Arcobaleno instead of his Juudaime. Although his voice was as chipper as ever, his stance and the deep crease between his brows betrayed his true feelings of disappointment.
This left Tsuna alone with Dino in his office. "What a day… I assume that Cavallone is in no danger, Dino-san?"
"Of course not, Tsuna. If there was any danger, I sadly would not have been able to come and see you. It would have been a pity since it's always so exciting here every time I visit!" laughed Dino before his tone took on a teasing quality. "I don't know how you can deal with those six and their demands and still remain sane. It's the opposite of Cavallone's situation as they can't seem to be able to function without their boss!"
"It's not always easy," said Tsuna as he sat back and stared out of the window. "I don't have the luxury of second-guessing myself and what they expect of me anymore."
"It's the price of power and hyper-intuition after all," added Dino. "But why do you look so down? All day, it looked as if you were bothered by something other than this whole Estraneo-Milefiore business, Tsuna."
Tsuna was silent as he mentally warred with confiding with Dino or not. But he knew that the longer he thought, the longer he would be without an answer. Confiding with Reborn would only serve to confuse and belittle him further. He would not look at Dino as he spoke, lest he betray the slight reddening of his cheeks. "Despite what most people think, I'm not as oblivious that I appear."
Dino's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "… then you're aware that half of your VPs are…"
"Don't say it," said Tsuna hurriedly. "I'm not so dense that I don't know, or so blind that I wasn't able to fit the pieces myself. Hyper-intuition is rather useful, but completely unnecessary in this situation."
Dino gave a low whistle. "Who would have thought? But Tsuna, if you're aware of it, why do you seem to ignore them? Does it bother you that they are men?"
"No, it doesn't. It's not as if it's something you can help." Tsuna glared to the side, but his cheeks burned even darker with warmth. "But acknowledging it and being confronted by it are two different things. I would prefer for them to maintain their image of me as oblivious. Just imagine how much worse it would be if they knew that I was much more attuned than they thought? There would be chaos! Mukuro and Hibari-san really will kill each other."
"Oh Tsuna, it can't be that bad!" said Dino with an optimistic grin. "They're adults who can keep themselves in check by now!"
Tsuna stared at Dino with a half-incredulous, half-annoyed expression. "Dino-san, have you already forgotten that the two of them were ready to tear you limb from limb just yesterday?"
"That's how Kyoya traditionally greets everyone, Tsuna."
Tsuna made to counter the point, but he could not deny what everyone knew of his Compliance VP. "… Just before this meeting, Mukuro warned me that he would savage Hibari-san if he came near me again. He used the word 'jealousy' to illustrate his point and excuse his potential actions."
"But how did he know?"
"He said that he smelled him on me."
A bark of laughter outside the door startled both of them, but when the noise died down and was not followed by subsequent interruptions, the disturbance was disregarded as inconsequential.
The two young presidents remained in thoughtful silence until Dino chose to break the quiet surrounding them. "I sometimes wonder if Mukuro is part animal. Did you respond to him?"
"I didn't get the chance. As I said, the difference between acknowledgement and confrontation. It wasn't as if I was expecting it at the time," moaned Tsuna as he rested his weary head on his desk. "And now, I don't know if I should even say anything. None of them ever allow me to get a word in. They just prattle on and then run away as if toying with my patience is their idea of a good time. But…"
Tsuna lifted his head to look at Dino out of the corner of his eye. "Perhaps this is good enough for now. It's not as if I have a ready response to give any of them, after all." He made to shake his head, but a certain look in Dino's eyes confused him. Just like a man hit by a lightning bolt, Tsuna shot straight up on his seat and stared at his companion in horror. He had been pouring his heart out the entire time, but it was a possible scenario that he did not even anticipate. "Di-Dino-san?"
"Hmm?" Dino tilted his head to the side. "What is it, Tsuna?"
Tsuna gulped and gripped the wood of his desk. He was ready to push away and flee depending on the answer. "You… you aren't… also…?"
"What?" asked Dino with a confused tone before Tsuna's ashen expression told him exactly what the younger man thought. He instantly tipped over in his chair in surprise and blushed crimson to his ears and down his neck. "N-no! Tsuna, regardless of these stupid rumors and bets running rampant, I have always only thought of you platonically as my little brother! Believe me!"
Bets? Tsuna let out an intensely relieved sigh that he wasn't aware he was even holding in. He brought a hand up to scratch the back of his head nervously and laughed. "Sorry, Dino-san."
Dino soon joined in with Tsuna's laughter at their situation and they did not stop until both of them were too exhausted to do more than giggle at the memory. A soft knock on the door brought them back into a calmer state. Tsuna wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes as Dino righted himself, dusted off his clothing and headed for the door. "Sorry for taking up so much of your time, Tsuna. Being a president does have its responsibilities after all."
Tsuna gave Dino a brilliant smile. "Dino-san, thank you for listening."
"Anytime, little brother," Dino replied with a friendly wave of farewell before he opened the door and let himself out.
So this is how it feels like to have a real older brother. Tsuna smiled. However, his good mood quickly faltered when he saw a man with snow-white hair enter the room after Dino's departure. "Byakuran."
Millefiore's president smiled childishly. "Tsu-kun, let's go get some ice cream!"
The cheerful demeanor only served to worsen Tsuna's mood. "This is not the time to be playing games, Byakuran. You know as well as I do how the situation has turned."
Byakuran's icy lilac eyes opened, but the smile remained on his face. "You're no fun, Tsu-kun. So Estraneo is forcing you to decide between Mukuro-kun and myself?"
"Millefiore and Mukuro," corrected Tsuna even as he knew that the slip of his current companion's tongue was purely intentional.
"Of course, Tsu-kun," laughed Byakuran as he approached Tsuna's desk, placed both hands on the flat surface, and leaned forward almost conspiringly. "I'm well aware that there is little for Vongola to lose by choosing Mukuro-kun over Millefiore, but I also know that you are not the type of person to abandon those who are genuinely in need of assistance."
Tsuna's voice was practically a growl. "Just as genuine as the research facilities currently being constructed in Italy that you conveniently forgot to mention? Just as genuine as Estraneo's pressure on Cavallone?"
Byakuran shook his head almost condescendingly. "Tut tut, Tsunayoshi-kun. We have just begun negotiations and accusations are already flying. The threat to Cavallone is very much real. It has not yet affected them, but all Italian companies are potentially being marked as candidates to be bought out by Estraneo Company."
"What?" The growls from earlier turned into a quiet whisper as Tsuna grew tense.
"Silly Tsu-kun, how else do companies become conglomerates? How else do you have a 'zaibatsu' under you? You bought or were joined by other companies to form one main body with many parts," explained Byakuran. "It's a common practice to want to expand your reach if the possibilities are there. Whether other companies choose to join you or not is up to your influence. The only difference is if they come willingly or if they need… some convincing."
Tsuna opened his mouth to speak, but Byakuran was quicker.
"And you're about to ask me about the Millefiore stem-cell research facility being built in Italy. The establishment of the facility was of no secrecy, Tsu-kun. It was merely downplayed to keep corporations like Estraneo from descending upon us like a pack of hyenas on an easy meal. After all, what right do they have for sole monopoly over such a potentially life-saving and lucrative branch of medicine? But as you can see, their reach extends much further than anyone could have imagined."
To say that Tsuna was stunned would have been a major understatement. As much as he tried to search for a discontinuity with what Byakuran just said and the information he already knew, he could not find any inconsistencies. Millefiore's capabilities were still being fully researched as negotiations were currently at a standstill. Even Tsuna knew that putting everything up front on the table with a deal that as of yet had the possibility of falling through would be a foolish move. And with the enigmatic Estraneo's bold movement, there were still many questions to be answered.
But this information was a double-edged sword. It was a relief for Tsuna's image of Byakuran's integrity, but the decision that appeared so clear-cut mere moments before was now completely clouded over with doubt. "I… apologize for my rudeness, Byakuran. It has been a trying day and I had accused you without just cause."
Byakuran's smile was one again filled with innocence, but his eyes remained open. "It happens to the best of us, Tsu-kun. But I like you, so it is easy to forgive."
Tsuna, who had slowly started to relax, instantaneously grew rigid with tension in his seat. He struggled to reply, but the ingenuous air around Byakuran prevented the actual words he wanted from forming. "Thank you."
"No, no, that's not right. You're supposed to say 'I like you too' when someone confesses to you, Tsu-kun." Byakuran leaned forward even further and locked his lilac eyes with warm amber.
The tone of Byakuran's voice was still innocently teasing, but the raw desire Tsuna recognized in the beautiful gaze was completely contrary in intention. Tsuna wanted to run and hide at the emergence of yet another snarling beast, but he managed to save his dignity and compose himself. Byakuran was a perfect man in terms of appearance, but Tsuna did not feel the same surge of unexpected warmth as he did with his Vice-Presidents. And yet, even with this realization firmly in mind, the ability to form words eluded him all the same. "I can't—"
Byakuran held up a hand to silence Tsuna from completing the sentence. "Don't worry about it, Tsu-kun. I was just teasing you! So, ice cream?"
Tsuna deflated like a balloon as he felt practically boneless with relief at Byakuran's assurance. He slowly stood up, shook his head, and headed for the door. "You really should stop eavesdropping on people's conversations, Byakuran. Especially the ones taking place inside my office."
"I'll keep that in mind if I ever have the urge to do so in the future," was Byakuran's smart reply. However, remnants of the confusing want still remained in his eyes until they closed with his usual fox-like grin.
Tsuna resisted the urge to strangle the white-haired man in his frustration and simply nodded with a bright grin. "But some black sesame ice cream does sound nice. After you pay for damages Zakuro and Bluebell inflicted on my front doors."
When Gokudera Hayato returned to his boss' office with a document for approval in his hand, a skip in his step, and his heart all aflutter, he was not expecting to see such a distasteful sight. "Juudai--!" The usual enthusiastic greeting was ready to burst from him once he saw the slim figure of his boss open the door. However, he was incensed to see Byakuran's taller frame following directly behind Tsuna's heels.
He instinctively hid himself behind a marble pillar and peeked an eye out to see what was going on. It frustrated him to feel as if he had intruded on something private between his beloved Juudaime and the bane of his existence. However, he was driven to almost animalistic fury when the white-haired bastard look in his direction, shot him an infinitely superior smirk, and draped an arm over Tsuna's shoulders as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
At that point, Gokudera was too far blinded with rage to notice Tsuna glare at Byakuran with annoyance and gently remove the arm around his shoulders. "Unforgivable…"
Later that day, no one dared to question why all of the vehicles Millefiore used to drive to Vongola were piled up in the courtyard. All they did was call the Namimori Fire Department who, familiar with other such instances in the past, waited patiently until the small hill of metal, glass and steel, exploded into a fiery inferno before proceeding to put it out.
- End Chapter Seven -
*Ohisashiburi desu – "Long time, no see" loosely.
Dammit FFN! Give me my proper section breaks back! About two and a half months since I last updated. Not too bad, I suppose. But to update Zaibatsu and Proposal in the same week? I am beside myself with how good I've been. This chapter doesn't seem to have as much humor as the last ones, but it's rather necessary to move my plot along. Yes, unlike Proposal, there is PLOT! I kinda had to guess regarding Demon Spade's personality since we don't really know too much about him. But I figured he couldn't have been too different from Mukuro.
As usual, thank you very much for your kind (and often very amusing) reviews. I particularly am amused by those who are converting into the 6927 fandom and those who are happy to read my stories after a stressful day. Though I have a feeling a few of my readers may want to kill me as I didn't really answer too much of anything in this chapter… if anything I may have raised more questions. -sadistic laughter- And as for everyone not wanting Mukuro to go to Estraneo… Kufufufu… we'll see.
And I just realized on this edit that Zaibatsu has reached 200 reviews. Thank you very much!