Kyoko is 10 when her brother pushes a classmate out of the way of a coming car.
They take him to the hospital bleeding and unconscious, and for a week, they pray, they hope, they wait - but he doesn't wake up. And then he slides away and the wait, the hope is over. Her brother has gone somewhere very far away and he can't come back. This will be the first (maybe only) time she sees her father cry, with great, shaking sobs, while tears run silent down her mother's face.
Where did he go? Why isn't he coming back?
This is how Kyoko understands death.
The world fades to shades of black and white and grey. Did it rain at the funeral? Well, it should have because Kyoko can't remember seeing the sun.
When the wake is over, and the guests are gone, she sits in her brother's room, in all her mourning clothes, with all his things.
The bright orange hoodie he got for Christmas, the mismatched socks he was always losing, the stack of CDs he listened to when he wrestled with homework, the paper crane mobile she made him the first time he landed himself in hospital, after the fight with those bullies. She wraps herself in his blanket and it still smells like him, and she bursts into tears again, until her mother comes in and says, "Oh, Kyoko," and wraps her arms around her.
That's when she finds the boxing gloves, tucked by her brother's pillow, still new enough to be not-quite broken in. Her hands slide into them too easily, and she remembers how happy they made him. How he'd promised to become strong enough to protect her and not get hurt again. But he's not here, and his gloves are too big, and she doesn't know what to do.
So she takes his gloves and tucks them by her own pillow, and makes a promise to his photograph by her bed.
She'll become strong too, so he won't have to worry about her, wherever he is.
Kyoko joins the Namimori Middle School formerly all-boys boxing club by turning up at their first meeting, saying please and then simply refusing to leave.
She knows that they have no reason to let her in, and she's not sure she really wants to fight anyone, and this is horribly rude of her, but she has a pair of gloves and a promise to keep and as she discovers, she's more stubborn than anyone ever gave her credit for. Even herself.
Somewhere along the way, Hana overcomes her horror enough to start reading the club rulebook and point out that the club doesn't say girls aren't allowed, the junior boxing league doesn't say girls can't compete and that since she's not outright banned from being there, this must mean Kyoko is allowed to join, right? Right?! And then she throws the book at the club president's head when he tries to argue with her.
But it's not as hard as it looks, really. The club isn't that popular, the teacher is indifferent and the boys are confused but not all that inclined to say no to the addition of a cute new girl. So she becomes the first (but not, surprisingly, last) girl to join the club and everyone looks at her a bit funny at first, but then they get used to it. She's just one of the cuter girls in school, and she just happens to be in the boxing club.
No one really expects her to be that good at it anyway.
Her brother's gloves are too big for her, so Kyoko has to buy her own. Somehow she ends up with an improbably patterned pink and purple pair without even trying (they were the smallest gloves the sports shop had in stock).
They are a warm weight in her hands, and when she raises her fists, she thinks - they're too heavy, she'll never be able to keep them up.
She settles into stance and the world on the other side of her new gloves looks exactly the same but feels different. It's like she's raised a wall around herself, Kyoko on one side, and the world on the other. She's not sure she likes the feeling, and her hands fall to her sides.
What did her brother see, when he raised his fists like this? she wondered. An enemy? A obstacle? She thinks of the way he laughed when he punched the air, showing her his new moves. That wasn't how he saw the world.
She looks at her hands and wonders.
The problem with Kyoko, the coach tells her, is that she's afraid of hurting people. She works hard and her technique isn't too shabby, and she does fine when she's just working with a punching bag because, well, the bag could probably hurt her more than she could hurt it. But put her against a living, breathing opponent, and she falters.
It's not just because she's afraid of them (though she always is, just a little). But her movements slow, her footwork becomes hesitant, and even when she tries to land a hit, it's only half the force she uses against the bag.
You have to want to win, the coach tells her. You can't let anyone stand in your way, not even yourself!
But Kyoko doesn't want to hurt someone just to win a competition - she wants to be stronger, but not like that. Not for that.
Mochida-sempai is the first person she really hits because she means it.
She was already mad to begin with - she wasn't going out with him! How could he tell everyone they were going to fight over her without even asking what she thought?! And he's a senior in the kendo club, and he's challenging a junior everyone knows isn't even good at sports! That's not a fair fight at all.
"Kyoko! What are you doing? Don't--"
Hana grabs her at the last moment before she can jump between them to protest, and she hesitates - and then it's too late and Tsuna has already charged into battle with a fearlessness that's almost familiar.
And he wins.
Mochida-sempai slumps to the ground groaning in defeat, and Tsuna blinks - his own face as stunned as the gaping crowd around him. The school takes a long moment to pick their collective jaw up from the ground, then surges to surround him.
"That was amazing!" "That was the coolest thing ever, man!" "Wow, and here I thought you were just a loser--"
Kyoko is almost swept away by the crowd, which is how she comes to be standing in the right place at the right time to see Mochida stagger to his feet and then throw himself with a last, furious roar at Tsuna - at Tsuna's back.
She has time to think exactly one word: No, and then she's moving, faster than she's ever moved in the ring, and her raised fist meets Mochida-sempai's nose with a loud, painful crack. He crashes to the floor, howling, and Kyoko draws a shaky breath.
"I never said I was going out with you!" she says, furious. "And don't you ever dare to do that again, you coward!"
Her hand hurts, and she's dimly aware that the school has shifted its attention from their new hero to, well, her. She blinks, and stares down at Mochida-sempai's suddenly-terrified face, and feels a little sorry she hit him - but not very much.
"Woah, didn't know you had it in you!" Hana observes behind her. "He deserved it, though."
Kyoko gives her a sheepish grin. "Ahaha, I guess I got pretty mad! It's not like I was his girlfriend or something... and it was really unfair that he challenged Tsuna when he didn't even know kendo..."
She turns to Tsuna next. "I'm really sorry for getting scared and running away yesterday," she says, and touches the back of her neck in embarrassment. "I got a shock, and everyone always says I don't know when to laugh."
Tsuna flushes red. "Ah..."
"But you're really incredible! Beating Mochida-sempai like that... That was really cool, no one else could've done it!"
"Oh, b-but you're the one that knocked him out! T-that punch was r-really awesome, you must be great in the boxing club..."
"Hee, you think so? But I'm not that good, Coach is always telling me I have to try harder..."
The coach is so proud of her when the rest of the club tells him what happened, you'd think he was encouraging Kyoko to pick fights with the upperclassmen.
"That's the spirit!" he tells her. ""Now do you see? That's what you have to bring with you into the ring!"
But things don't really change that much. Maybe Kyoko gets a little better, a little surer, but what she's fighting for can't be found in the boxing ring, in the simple sparring matches and school competitions, even if she doesn't realise it yet.
So she goes to school, keeps practicing, laughs with her friends and doesn't really think about it, or notice that maybe life is getting a little stranger, a little more interesting, around a very ordinary boy - and that slowly, she's becoming part of it too.
If there's one good thing about being in the boxing club, it's the cake, Kyoko tells herself. After all, she trains so much, one or two slices can't possibly hurt! And she has to keep her weight and strength up to make sure she qualifies for the lightweight division, at least - so the cake must help, right?
"I never thought of that!" Haru says, stars in her eyes. "Maybe I should join a sports club too, then I can eat all the cake I want!" And they laugh together.
But things never stay that simple, after all.
Kyoko is running faster than she's ever run in her life.
Her chest hurts, her breath comes in short, painful pants, and there's a stitch in her side but she can't stop, can't slow down, because she has to be faster, she has to get there in time before it's too late.
The familiar streets pass her in a blur and she sprints across a crossing, hears a car screech to miss her, dodges around a grandmother pushing a baby in a pram, and turns down the last road to Tsuna's house.
She almost trips over with relief when she sees the familiar figure standing at the gate, grocery bags in hand - "Mrs Sawa-" but the name dies on her lips when she sees the man beind her.
"Mrs Sawada!" she shrieks in a panic, and flies down the last block because she can't fail now, not when Tsuna needs her.
The man in the dull green uniform turns at the sound of her voice and everything is wrong about him - his white mask face, his stitched-shut mouth, his nails sharpened like claws, his broken, twisted-marionette dance.
Kyoko's blood turns to ice in her veins. What is she doing here? This isn't some sparring match during practice! How can she win? But she's running too fast to stop, too fast to think, and forward momentum carries her straight at the man (the killer, Dr Shamal had said, when he'd told her what was happening). She couldn't help when everyone at Namimori got attacked, and she can't help Tsuna, wherever he is, fight the attackers. But she can do this much. She can try.
The attacker hurls a green glass bottle at her and Kyoko ducks. Liquid splashes on her arm and skirt and she yelps as acid eats through fabric and scalds skin. The man lashes out even before she can recover, and she barely manages to leap out of range. She scrambles back (footwork), raises her fists (defense), and tries to find an opening (offense, always her weakest point). The man makes a gurgling, desperate noise and launches into the attack, arms swinging wildly, unpredictably, while she weaves around it.
"Kyoko!" Mrs Sawada is calling, but her voice is distant, a whisper. Kyoko's world has narrowed to one person, one purpose - she has to stop him before he hurts Mrs Sawada, before he hurts anyone.
Her first punch only grazes his left arm, and he sweeps it up in response, backhanding her across the face. But she grabs his wrist and closes in, determined and reckless, and her second hit catches him under the chin, throwing his head back with an audible crack.
He staggers, and she has a moment of triumph - she hurt him, she stopped him! But not yet.
A bird cries out, high in the sky above, and abruptly, he wheels around, produces a knife from somewhere under his jacket. Kyoko is a distraction, but not his real target, and he throws himself at Mrs Sawada. How can something that moves like that be so fast?
If Kyoko was a hero, she'd have a war cry, something cool to shout. Instead, her scream is equal parts anger and terror as she slams into him and they crash to the ground together. Rough asphalt scrapes her palms as she shoves herself back to her feet and spins around, kicking the knife out of his reach, and this time her punch hits him right on the nose with a hard, sure crack.
A thin, strangled moan forces itself out between his colourless lips and slowly, he crumples to the ground in a boneless heap.
Kyoko draws a shaky breath and stumbles back, one step, two, and then her legs give out and she sinks to the pavement and skins her knees.
Someone - Mrs Sawada - takes her hands, and far away, she hears her asking if she's alright. The world seems to spin a little for a moment and she wonders if she's going to be ill--
"Kyoko!" The world swims slowly back into focus: Hana's voice, footsteps pounding on pavement, "Ma'am, I'm a doctor," and Dr Shamal kneels beside her.
"Well, this wasn't what I expected," he says with a wry expression. "I thought I was going to be the hero today."
Kyoko giggles weakly. "Sorry..." she says, even though she's not really. She can still feel the blood pounding in her head, and she feels a little giddy, a little ill.
His smile would be a leer if it wasn't too lazy to make the effort, but luckily, Kyoko's dense about things like that. "Don't worry, I don't get mad at cute girls. Come on, you'll need to get that seen to."
"Is she ok? Did she really beat that freak up?" Hana demands as she stands over them. "Kyoko, what the hell were you thinking?! That was the craziest thing you've ever done! This is way worse than Mochida-sempai! Did he hurt you?!"
Kyoko looks at the prone form of the man she just defeated.
"Ah, I wasn't really thinking," she says. "I'm sorry I worried you! I'm fine."
There's blood on her knuckles and hands, her arm hurts, and even her face aches; her uniform is probably ruined. But she's won, and even more importantly, Mrs Sawada is safe, and she can't stop the laughter that bubbles out of her while Hana stares at her like she's gone mad.
Maybe she's even better than fine.
And then everything changes.
It is a well known fact among Sasagawa Kyoko's family and friends that she will believe almost anything you tell her.
Mrs Yamada, the Maths teacher, is really a man in disguise. Eating frog legs helps you jump further. If you turn three times clockwise and make a wish on the first evening star, it'll come true.
Sawada Tsunayoshi is a mafia boss. Or will be, one day.
It's not that she doesn't think to question it.
"E-eh, really? Tsuna?! But... he's..."
He can't be, he's nothing like that, Kyoko starts to say, and then stops. She's seen Tsuna fight, she's seen spirit and passion burn in him like a flame. She's seen him do things she didn't think were possible - crazy things, funny things, brave things. There's more to Tsuna than everyone realises, and she's believed this since that first day in the kendo dojo.
Maybe there's more to Tsuna than what she sees too.
She looks down at Reborn. Reborn's gaze doesn't waver, only meets her eyes, calm and steady.
"But..." she trails off again, and thinks of the fight in the shopping mall, of the man with silver hair, who'd moved like lightning through the air, and come so close to hurting (killing) them.
"Tsuna's in danger, isn't he?" she finally says.
"Yes," Reborn says, almost gentle. "All of us will be, if he doesn't succeed. If the wrong person takes over the Vongola, they can take over the mafia. And it will touch more than just us, it affects the world too."
Kyoko closes her eyes.
A very long time ago, Kyoko watched a group of bullies beat her brother until he bled, until he couldn't stand. A very long time ago, she'd cried and asked him to promise her to never fight, to never get hurt like that again. She thinks of the boxing club, of Mochida-sempai, of the killer who'd tried to hurt Mrs Sawada.
Funny, how things change.
But have they really? Kyoko still doesn't like fighting, not the way her brother, or Yamamoto, or the others in the boxing club do. And Mochida-sempai, Mrs Sawada - they'd happened so quickly, she'd never thought of what she was doing until afterwards.
She opens her eyes and looks down at her hands. Closes them into fists.
"Why... why does it have to be him? Couldn't they choose someone else? Can't Tsuna... leave?"
"Do you want him to run away instead?" Reborn asks.
"But why does fighting have to be the best way?" she cries out. "Tsuna... he doesn't like fighting, he doesn't want to hurt people, he... he's kind. What if he gets hurt? Why does it have to be him?"
"That's exactly why we need Tsuna. Because of who he is," Reborn tells her. "And that's why we need you too. Some enemies can't be avoided, it's not something any of us can choose. Why did you fight the hitman? Weren't you afraid?"
"Yes," she says, uncertain. "But... I couldn't let him hurt Mrs Sawada. I couldn't help Tsuna when he went to Kokuyo, it was..." It was the least she could do.
Reborn smiles at her then, and it's almost gentle.
"Kyoko, I believe that Tsuna can be what the Vongola needs. But he can't do it alone. I know you believe in him too, and you want to protect people, don't you? Isn't that why you're fighting? I'm asking you now to help me protect him. Because he needs you," Reborn says, and nudges her hands until she opens them, then drops something cool and heavy onto her palm.
And this is the last question, the real question. It doesn't matter whether she believes Reborn or not. Does she believe in Tsuna, and what he can do and become?
She thinks of the Namimori attacks, of the fear that filled the air, and how so much of the leaden weight in her heart had been for him. And she thinks about how, whatever it was Tsuna had faced in Kokuyo, he'd stopped the attacks and still come back the same ordinary boy she knew.
If there's one thing Kyoko has always been good at, it's believing. In stories. A lot of the time, even in lies. In words, in things. But more than that, in people.
She cups her hands around the ring and feels it warm to her touch. The answer isn't as hard as she thought it'd be - she thinks Reborn knew that, even before she did.
"Yes," she says, and very slowly smiles. "I accept."
Colonello prods Kyoko in the stomach and humphs.
"Hey! Is she really so weak?" he says to Reborn, unimpressed.
"That's not true! Kyoko's really strong!" Tsuna protests, then remembers that five seconds ago, he was wildly telling her to throw away the Vongola ring. "Ah! Wait! I mean - Kyoko's really strong but she still shouldn't take the ring! It's dangerous and crazy! And and--"
Reborn smacks the back of his head and he subsides into miserable silence. Kyoko blinks and thinks that she should say something, even though she knows it's true.
"Don't be so quick to judge. She might look weak, but she was able to defeat one of Bird's henchmen."
Colonello makes a contemptuous noise. "Che, they're trash anyway." But there's a glint in his eye and he hops up on a desk to look her over again. "Looks like you've found me an interesting one! If you can keep up with my training for the next ten days, I'll make you the strongest of the six. It's going to be hell though. Think you're ready?"
Kyoko blinks and wonders who the other Guardians are - Gokudera and Yamamoto? She doesn't really know if she can be as strong as them, but - but she's not going to let Tsuna down, or the others. She's not going to give up! She clenches her hands into fists and nods, determined. "If it's to protect Tsuna and everybody, I'll work hard!" she promises.
"Hey, come along then!" Colonello says, and sets off at a sprint and Kyoko didn't expect her training to start right now--
"A-ah, Sensei?! Wait for me - no, I mean, all right! I'm coming!"
Colonello's bullet hits her with all the force of a personal supernova, blinding and absolute and irresistible.
The world vanishes in fire, and so does Kyoko, and confused, she wonders if she's supposed to let go, to lose herself in the flames. But something in her won't let her, and in a flash, she remembers Tsuna's face and the way he burned, transcendent and yet true; as she reaches out to that memory, she finds herself again - in the split second before she's thrown off her feet and hurled straight into the mountainside.
That really, really hurts.
After a long time, she gasps and opens her eyes. Even doing that much seems to hurt. The sky above is a hard, brilliant blue, and she's never been so happy to see it in her life. She feels a lot like she's been hit by a truck, and a little like she has a really bad sunburn and most of all like there's molten gold blazing right through her veins. She - she feels like she could be invincible! Then she blinks, surprised, and the feeling fades - but not completely.
"Still alive, hey?" Colonello calls.
Kyoko laughs a little, and then sits up. "T-that was really scary but I... think I'm ok? It gave me a really incredible... feeling." Her hands reach out unconsciously as she says the words, close into loose fists.
"An incredible feeling, huh? Hold on to it, you'll need it. Now it's your turn to shoot."
She scrambles to her feet, and takes a deep breath. Closes her eyes and opens them again. She looks at the boulder - it's still the same huge lump of rock, looming over her like the world's scariest punching bag, and a day ago, five minutes ago, Kyoko would have thought this was impossible. But now, somewhere in the pit of her stomach is a miniature sun, burning, and she's finally starting to see.
Kyoko slides into stance. Raises her fists. What does she see? An enemy? A wall? Her brother's shadow?
Here's the thing. What's behind you can be just as important as what's in front, and Kyoko knows what's behind her now. Tsuna. Hana. Haru Bianchi Yamamoto Gokudera Mrs Sawada Reborn Colonello her brother-- She knows who she's fighting for, so she knows what she sees before her now.
The boulder never stood a chance.
It's against the school rules, but Kyoko wears the Vongola ring on a thin, silver chain, long enough to hide under her shirt. The teachers at school don't notice, but then, they don't seem to notice a lot, if Kyoko stops to think about it.
The ring is a weight around her neck, warm against her skin, and she has to stop herself from fiddling with it, as if she needs to remember it's there. Remember what comes tonight.
Tsuna leaps ten feet into the air when she greets him before class.
"K-Kyoko! Good morning! Ah... you look well..." he trails off, and sounds a little surprised, a lot relieved.
"I do? That's good! Colonello-sensei made me rest a lot yesterday, and he won't let me train today either. He said I had to make sure I was in optimum condition for tonight."
"Ah... tonight..." The slump in Tsuna's shoulders is almost funny. "I-I'm really sorry, Kyoko! If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be in something so dangerous! You really don't have to fight, this is all crazy--"
Maybe it's the way the familiar line between his eyes looks even deeper now, or how his eyes look tired even when he tries to smile at her. But she reaches out and takes his hand and says, "Come on!" and before she knows it, she's skipping class for the first time in her life and dragging Tsuna along with her.
They end up on the school roof, because - well, it seems like that's where everyone goes when they cut class. Luckily, it's deserted and early enough in the morning that the sunshine is a warm invitation. A breeze lifts the hair from the back of her neck as Kyoko leans her arms on the rail and looks down at the school grounds far below.
"The school looks so quiet now. I guess we really shouldn't be here, huh?" she says, and starts to feel sheepish. "I'm sorry for making you come, if we get in trouble, it's my fault--"
"Eh?! No, it's not! I-I mean, I'm glad you asked me to come, it's really nice and peaceful up here. And haaah, I've gotten into worse trouble before anyway. It's definitely not your fault..."
"Haha... I guess you have. Life has gotten pretty interesting!"
Tsuna twitches for a moment, then heaves a huge sigh. "Yamamoto says that too," he says.
"You know, I used to be really scared of fighting. It's funny to think of it now, huh?"
"When I was little, my older brother got beaten up trying to protect me from some bullies. He even ended up in hospital... I was so scared I made him promise not to ever fight again."
"I didn't know you have a brother--"
"Oh, that's because he died 4 years ago. I guess if he was still around, he'd be in his last year now?"
Tsuna's eyes widen, and Kyoko stops and blinks at herself. She hasn't talked to anyone about her brother for years, why is she telling Tsuna now? She pulls the ring out of her shirt and cups it in her hands so it glints in the sunlight.
"I don't know why I'm suddenly saying all this. Maybe it's because I'm nervous about tonight? I joined the boxing club because he was learning to box too and - it sounds like a weird reason, doesn't it? But I'm glad I joined. Because it means I can fight with everyone this time. I think he'd do the same thing too."
"But I... I don't want anyone to fight! I don't even want the stupid rings! I wish everyone didn't have to be in danger like this, argh--"
"Don't worry," Kyoko says. "Everyone's been working really hard, and Yamomoto and Gokudera are really strong, aren't they? I know I'm not as good as them, but I'll try my best too! I... I won't lose tonight. Leave it to me."
She lets the ring fall and grabs his hand again, and his palm is rough against her own calluses. "Everything will be okay," she says and smiles like the sun, like a promise, so that for a moment even Tsuna forgets to turn red.
She doesn't know how, or why, but that doesn't matter. Because it will.
"Sumo wrestling?" Hana says, and narrows her eyes.
"Ahaha, it's just for fun! So it's really nothi--" And Kyoko might as well have not bothered because Hana folds her arms across her chest and gives her the 'if you weren't my best friend, I would throw something very hard at you right now' look.
"That is the most suspicious story I have ever heard and you are the worst liar ever," she says.
And that's how Hana finds out the truth. ... Well, most of it.
"Why did it have to be the girl?" Kyoko's opponent heaves a melodramatic sigh and - is he pouting? "Totally not my type at all! And boxing is so bo~ring."
Kyoko blinks. She probably shouldn't have expected this to be anything like the usual school tournaments, but-- "Um..."
"Aaahh, might as well get this over with, then. It's not like Boss bothered to come and watch anyway~"
He flings his black coat off with a flourish. It sweeps into the air, flutters dramatically in the glare of the spotlights, and finally sinks to the ground with a sigh of heavy silk and fur. It's pretty impressive, and Kyoko feels small and totally uncool standing here in her ordinary training clothes. But it's not like she's ever really cared about being cool.
So she looks up, and squares her shoulders. "Well, I'll do my best!" she says, and clenches her fists in their clean white bandages.
"Oooh, such a serious little girl! Alright, I'll play with you for a bit. Don't worry, I'll make this fast, so it won't hurt too much." As he says this, he shifts into a strange stance Kyoko's never seen before, one foot raised, black gloved hands half-closed.
"-BEGIN THE BATTLE!"
The floodlights burst in a glare of dazzling, painful brilliance, and Kyoko flinches. She throws her right arm around her face, but even through her closed eyes, the world is a sea of bright, bloody red - she can't fight like this!
In her confusion, the first strike comes out of nowhere - a knee to the stomach, brutal and thorough. She crashes straight into the side of the ring, and the ropes - wires - flare into a crackle of electricity, burning right through her. Kyoko bites back a cry of pain, stunned by equal parts pain and fear, but she scrambles back to her feet before she can think.
Beyond the ring, she can hear everybody's voices, raised in protest and worry.
"That's totally unfair!" "What do you mean we can't give her sunglasses?! She can't fight like that!" "Kyoko! Are you ok?!"
Ah, she's making them worry.
"I'm okay!" she calls out, and lifts her chin. Her eyes are still shut and she has no idea where the Varia is, but she has to find a way.
"You know, for a girl your body's not too bad. If you were a boy, maybe you'd be my type after all," a voice says behind her, in almost a sigh. "What a waste~"
Kyoko spins and strikes before he can finish talking, and her knuckles graze skin - close, but not close enough. He's playing with her. She almost hears - feels - his next move, but she's not fast enough either and his kick catches her left wrist. She yelps in pain and throws herself back out of reach.
But before she can recover, a blow strikes her across the face and sends her flying into the side of the ring again.
She curls herself on her side and rolls at the first flicker of electricity on her skin. There's blood in her mouth, and she knows she needs to get up, get away from the wires behind her, but pain has fogged her reflexes and she doesn't know how to fight an enemy she can't see.
"Kyoko!" Somehow Tsuna's voice makes it above the chorus beyond the ropes. "Don't--"
Don't worry, she wants to say. I made a promise, right? But she needs all the breath she has to get back on her feet, touch the back of her hand to the warm, wet trickle of blood from her bruised lip.
That's when she hears Colonello-sensei's voice, clear as a bell through the noise and racket and fear thundering in her head.
"Okay then. That's enough. It's time to show 'em what you've really got."
And Kyoko smiles. "All right, Sensei!"
Kyoko thinks she remembers how large the ring should be, but it's hard to be sure of anything with her eyes shut. She has no idea if this will work, but there's only one way to find out.
So before the Varia can close the gap between them, she whirls around and slams her right fist down - into the floor of the ring itself.
The wooden planks shatter under her feet, and she had to scramble back before she falls through them. She wonders if it's against the rules to break the ring? With the breaking of the floor, she hears two of the corner posts creak ominously - and then, with a tinkle of breaking glass, they come crashing down, bring down half the wires with them.
Suddenly, the light has a different quality - it's still blinding, but with gradations. She opens her eyes a slit and the light is too bright, to her left, but to her right, she can see.
The Varia laughs.
"Looks like the little girl has some tricks after all!"
Through her slitted eyes, she can barely make out his silhouette. There! She sprints towards him, and he ducks her first punch, but her second grazes his shoulder.
"Ooh, close! Clever, but not clever enough, hm? I was hoping for something a little better than that."
Kyoko raises her defense, but for now, he doesn't attack. "Destroying half the ring is such a waste of energy. If you had finesse, you could have used the vibration from your punch to shatter the lights. Like this--" And then he does something, and the floor under her feet trembles, yet doesn't break, and the last of the floodlights behind him shatter.
Shielding herself from the rain of glass, she feels one graze her cheek. She ignores it. Now she can see - and what she sees is her opponent's dangerous smile, laughing at the gulf in skill, power, experience between them.
This time, he's going to finish things, she knows.
He slides into a new stance, shifts - and suddenly he blurs in the air, until Kyoko's startled eyes count one two three four of him, interweaving into a deadly dance closing steadily on her. Stumbling back in her surprise, glass crunches under her feet.
She glances around her at the wreckage of the ring, covered in glass and splinters, then sweeps her foot in an arc before her, kicking the debris up into the air. In the split second before her opponent reaches her, she sees the glass pass through his blurred figures, all except for--
"There!" And throwing herself to her knees, she slides under his kick, shoots back onto her feet and aims her last punch up at his chin. His eyes widen in shock, even as his head snaps back and he flies through the air to crash through the broken planking of the floor.
Somehow Kyoko stays on her feet, even as the Cervello cross the ring to examine him where he's landed. The seconds seem to tick past in an eternity of silence. Her opponent doesn't get back up, doesn't move, and the Cervello murmur to each other, then finally say:
"Vongola wins the match!"
Did the others run into the ring to get her, or did she stagger into their waiting arms herself? Kyoko doesn't remember. The last thing she does remember is smiling up at Tsuna.
"See, everything's okay," she wants to say, but somehow the words don't come out right and his worried face follows her down into the dark.
In hindsight, maybe bringing down the gym roof hadn't been such a great idea. But the Vongola has really good illusionists, and it doesn't rain before they finish fixing it, so that turned out okay at least.
(Maybe giving Lussuria the antidote wasn't such a great idea either, but that thought never really occurs to Kyoko, and that turned out okay too, didn't it?)
Here's the surprise: things don't really change after all.
(Except that they already have.)
They go back to school.
They even keep up with their training, in between homework, school clubs, regular attacks from rival Mafia family assassins, irregular turf wars with the local Yakuza and a few unexpectedly aggressive marriage proposals (they start in high school, then abruptly change their minds when Reborn proposes to test the candidates personally). Somehow, Tsuna survives long enough to make it to university, even if Reborn's most stringent training can't get him into Todai.
But that's okay. Reborn has bigger plans than that anyway.
It's only ten in the morning but Tsuna's desk has already turned into a battlefield while Gokudera and Haru argue over the plans for the latest mission. He looks up when Kyoko slides into the room, and his welcoming smile is equal parts harried and resigned. Kyoko smiles in return, glances at the other two, then prudently sets her tray on a shelf by the door, where it won't get caught in the crossfire if it comes to that.
"I brought tea, you should drink it before it gets cold," she says to the room in general; Haru and Gokudera don't hear her, but that's hardly surprising. Tsuna looks relieved when she hands him a cup.
"What's the problem?" she asks, while in the background Gokudera waves his hands and swears in Italian, and Haru yells right back in Japanese that she can understand every filthy word he's saying, thank you.
Tsuna rubs the back of his neck and frowns. "They can't agree on who to send for the mission tonight. Gokudera thinks we shouldn't need more than two guardians, and then only as backup, but Haru thinks three would be safer, and that they should lead the attack." Looking bemused, he adds, "The only thing they agree on is that I don't need to go. I don't--"
Kyoko reaches out and tugs gently on the mission folder under Haru's elbow; the other girl releases it and then blinks. "Kyoko! Good morning! Sorry, was busy telling this idiot his plan is rubbish--"
Basically, having the exact same argument they've had (with variations) every time the Vongola Ninth sends them a mission. Kyoko laughs as she flips the folder open, then goes very still.
The first pages are a typewritten report. A child-smuggling ring, it explains with clinical detachment, operating between Europe and Asia, believed to be taking children as young as four and selling them into prostitution and child labour, as well as several highly secretive laboratories and military outfits. Children sometimes kidnapped but more often bought from parents too poor to feed them, or simply homeless orphans taken from streets where they will never be missed.
There are names, pictures of shadowy men in suits and the thugs that follow them: ringleaders, middlemen, rumoured backers and investors.
And behind those, more photographs.
Kyoko doesn't realise how long she's spent staring at the file, the photographs, until Tsuna says, quiet, "Kyoko?"
She starts and looks up to realise that the room is silent, and even Gokudera and Haru are watching her. "Ah. I'm sorry, did you say something?" she says on reflex, even though she knows they didn't. Then she closes the folder and asks, "Who are you sending?"
Gokudera looks wary, but says, "Yamamoto's already agreed. We haven't been able to get hold of Hibari but it's not like we can ever count on that bastard anyway. Chrome's out of the country and we don't know when she'll be back. Or where the fuck she is. So it's either me or Haru--"
"I'll go," Kyoko says.
Gokudera gives her a grim nod of approval. Haru says promptly, "I'll go too. It's not good to send just two close-range fighters--"
"We can't leave Tsuna with only one guardian with him," she says, and Tsuna looks unhappy. "That's what Gokudera's worrying about, isn't it?"
"There's no reason why you can't. And I don't see why I can't go myself--"
"You're still recovering from the injuries from that fight with the Prosciutto!" Haru and Gokudera snap in perfect unison, then glare at each other.
"The men should be able to cover us," Kyoko says. "Too much firepower could cause a lot of collateral damage and scare the children." She's going to have to be careful, herself, but at least now she's good enough to not bring down a roof unless she means to.
"Are you sure...?" Tsuna asks. It's not that Kyoko's never been on missions before, but it's always been as part of a larger group, always to watch Tsuna's back. This is the first time she's asked for one.
"Yes. I want to do this," she says. Reaching out, she takes Haru's hand. "Don't worry. We won't fail," she says. I won't let us, she doesn't say, but she doesn't have to. Haru's brows knit as she studies Kyoko, then she takes a deep breath and lets it out.
"Well, I'm not going to stop you then." She squeezes Kyoko's hand, hard, and something cold sparks in her eyes. "Make them pay," she adds, fierce.
Kyoko meets Tsuna's worried eyes and for a moment, it looks like he wants to argue - but can't think of how or why. Then he looks down at the report in Kyoko's hands, and his own lips press thin.
"All right. Be careful, then," he tells her.
Between Yamamoto, Kyoko and the Ninth's men, the mission goes off without a hitch. The handover is intercepted, at least two ringleaders captured, and the cargo, of almost a hundred terrified children, is safe.
With the information they wring out of the captured men, they break up a critical section of the east Asian network, trace some of the families and backers involved. It's not everyone, and sooner or later something similar will surface again, but for now, they take what they can get.
They make them pay.
Kyoko doesn't really remember the first time she kills a man.
Or maybe it'd be more accurate to say, she isn't sure. They've all seen enough fights, from middle school through high school and into college. It's one thing to pull back, to make a choice, when you're facing a single opponent in a ring. But when you're outnumbered, out-gunned, and fighting for more than just your life (fighting for everyone else's too), it's easy to forget, to lose judgement, to throw a punch that's a little too hard, on someone you know can't get up afterwards.
Outside of the ring, there are no fair fights. How do you measure the power of the rings, the Guardians, against men armed with guns and explosives and poison?
Tsuna has never asked her to kill a man in cold blood. Has he ever asked it of the others? She doesn't know either.
So Kyoko doesn't really know if she's ever killed a man. But when there's blood on the floor, gunpowder on her breath, and the echoes of dead men's screams still ringing in her ears, she knows. She might not know their names, remember their faces, but they're there.
Just another weight to carry.
Then comes war.
School is over, and the last of Kyoko's students are straggling out of the gates. She's standing by the admin office, handing over some paperwork, when she sees a plain silver sedan pull up just outside, into the space left behind by another parent's car. A tall young man emerges, looks towards the school, and leans against the side to wait.
It's an ordinary enough scene - he could be some lucky student's cool older brother or uncle - but Kyoko knows he's not here for a student. She blinks, then turns to smile her thanks at the secretary, and heads out of the office to the gates.
Yamamoto looks up as she approaches, and his grin is easy and bright. "Hey! It's been a while since I was back here," he says, nodding at Namimori Elementary School. "Doesn't look like it's changed at all."
Kyoko returns the smile. "They've upgraded some of the facilities and repainted, but that's about it. The principal would do more, but we never have the funds."
"Haha, is that so. That's too bad! The kids seem happy though, so I bet they don't really care."
A girl's voice interrupts them. "Kyoko-sensei, is that your boyfriend? See you tomorrow!"
When Kyoko looks around, surprised, Ami from class 3-C has already dashed across the (thankfully empty) street, giggling and towing her younger sister behind her. She stops at the other side, waves wildly at her teacher, and then sprints away as if she expects Kyoko to give chase.
Yamamoto throws his head back and laughs. "That's what you have to put up with every day, huh? Kids!"
Kyoko can't even bring herself to be embarrassed when she joins him in his amusement. "You haven't even seen her in class. She has all the boys terrified!"
They fall silent for a moment, and a breeze sweeps down the street, rustling the trees that shade the small road. Then Kyoko turns to look at the school, her eyes clear and steady.
Of all the guardians, Kyoko and Yamamoto have come the closest to building lives - if only partial ones - outside of the Vongola. They've all been to one or another of Yamamoto's games, watching and cheering (or grumbling, in Gokudera's case) from the stands the few times they've managed to end up in Japan at the right time. But for Kyoko--
She knows the danger she brings with her. Every day she stays here, the risks grow. The ordinary friendships she's made, the children she'd watched over - they're almost too easy to turn into hostages, weapons, casualties.
Only two guardians, apart from Tsuna and Reborn, were told the name of her school. There's only one reason for Yamamoto to break the unspoken embargo and come here himself.
That she's had this much time at all, she tells herself, is a gift.
"I'll go get my things," she says at last. "It'll take me a while, are you in a hurry?"
Yamamoto shrugs. "Nah, no rush. I just finished things on my end, and we have until tonight before we're expected at the airport. Take your time!"
The day after, the principal comes in to find a resignation letter on his desk. Sasagawa-sensei gives no reason for her abrupt departure, and her belongings have already vanished from the staff room as if they were never there at all. The only thing she has left behind on her clean, empty table is a simple notecard, printed with a border of daisies. Her message is written in neat, careful strokes.
Thank you, everyone.
Love is the only true war, Bianchi told Kyoko and Haru once, back in the long ago days when they were young enough to believe her without question, without doubt.
Does Kyoko still believe her? Love wears many faces, she knows (has always known).
It's the war she's not so sure about.
The first (the only) time Tsuna kisses her:
In the darkness before dawn, in the Vongola's mansion in Naples.
It is the night before (morning itself) of the meeting, and Kyoko has woken up too early and found herself unable to fall asleep again. She finds her way down the stairs in the dark, still unfamiliar enough with the house that she bumps into a side table and stubs her toe on a step along the way. In the end, the lights in the kitchen guide her to safety and she rounds the corner expecting to see Gokudera, their resident insomniac, at the coffee machine.
Instead, it's Tsuna, sitting at the table nursing nothing more potent than a mug of green tea. They blink at each other, surprised, Kyoko at least still befuddled by sleep. If their enemies could see them now, they'd be easy pickings.
Then Tsuna smiles and Kyoko says, "Couldn't sleep?" because she remembers Haru shoving Tsuna out of his office the night before, convinced that he needed the full eight hours to be at his best tomorrow.
"Don't tell Haru. I did, but I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. You too?"
Kyoko nods as she makes her way to the counter. The electric kettle is still warm enough when she touches it, so she doesn't have to boil more water for her own tea. She slides into the chair opposite Tsuna and cradles her mug in her hands, waiting for it to steep. The Vongola mansion is quiet around them, and Kyoko smiles to herself, drawing a measure of comfort from the rare peace, studies Tsuna's face. It looks tired, and there are faint shadows under his eyes, but exhaustion is a familiar friend to all of them now. Fleetingly, she finds herself wishing she could reach across the table and smooth away the line between his eyes.
He glances up then, catches her gaze and looks sheepish. "Sorry, was just thinking..."
Kyoko shakes her head, and takes the first sip of her tea. "No, I was staring," she says. "Thinking of the meeting?"
He looks down at his mug, as if trying to read tomorrow's outcome in his tea. "Yes... well, sort of." He heaves a sudden sigh, and his shoulders sag. "More about after the meeting, actually."
If Gokudera or Haru were here, they'd press their case again. Screw the families and their politics, he can't walk in there without at least one guardian to watch his back. But they are sleeping the sleep of the just for once, and all Kyoko can think of is a long ago morning in Namimori Middle School, when she'd smiled at Tsuna and told him everything would be alright.
It's not a promise she thinks she can make tonight.
There's a light in Tsuna's eyes these days, grim and uncertain and strange, almost as if he's watching something no one else can see. It is a well known joke that Tsuna is the worst liar the Vongola has ever seen, and even if Reborn's beaten enough composure into him that he doesn't write everything he's thinking on his face anymore, he will never make a dissembler of him. But none of the guardians can read this new look in his eyes.
Now, looking at him, Kyoko thinks: he's not lying. Not exactly.
"You know something, don't you?" she says. "About tomorrow."
Tsuna freezes, and guilt flashes across his face like a neon light for the split second before he wrestles it back into its usual lines. He exhales. "Is it so obvious?" he asks, rueful.
Kyoko almost laughs. "Maybe it was a lucky guess?"
"Maybe not so lucky." He runs a hand through his hair and stares at the tabletop. After a long pause, he says, quiet, "I'm sorry, Kyoko."
She reaches out and rests her hand over his own. "Don't be. We're here, aren't we? Even if the meeting goes badly, we'll think of something. Gokudera and Haru have backup plans, and--"
"It won't be enough," he says, and then realises what he's just said. He closes his eyes and grimaces. "Ah... dammit." Then he looks at Kyoko again, eyes set. His hand under her own flips to grip her fingers tightly, their calluses now smoother and harder than they'd been back in middle school.
"Tomorrow, after the meeting - please, whatever happens, don't give up," he tells her. "And... don't let the others give up. All of you."
He looks into her startled eyes and continues. "It might seem difficult to believe but... things will be alright. It - it's not over. Won't be over. So I need all of you to hold on, no matter what."
A hundred questions swirl through Kyoko's mind, threatening to spill over, but it's clear that Tsuna can't give them the answers any of them want, or at least, not now. In the end, she squeezes his hand.
"There's no way the others would ever give up, you should know that," she says. "And I won't either, I promise. Everything will be okay," she whispers, almost as if saying the words could make them true.
Tsuna's answering smile wavers at first, then draws strength and grows until Kyoko thinks it could illuminate the kitchen, spill into the night beyond the windows. Then he leans over the table to her and his lips, warm and gentle, brush her forehead.
"Thank you," he says.
Twenty four hours later, Sawada Tsunayoshi is dead.
The base is quiet.
There is no peace to this silence; it muffles their words, grips them by the throat, weighs the air with a tangible texture that you could reach out and hold in your hands.
In her mind, Kyoko counts the guardians. Chrome is still missing, and their messages to her have received no reply. Either she knows already and now sees no reason to return to the Vongola, or whatever has called her away has not yet released her.
Hibari vanished back into his rooms after the news, as inscrutable and unsurprised as ever. Someone less used to him might wonder if he'd expected the outcome; perhaps he had, or perhaps it simply makes no difference in his personal scheme of things. Perhaps, alone, he even grieves.
What's left of them has gathered in one of the private sitting rooms.
Yamamoto looked at the body for a long time, left the house without a word and returned half an hour later. There's a cold, clear, calm to his face as he stands by the door now, watching. Waiting.
Gokudera sits on the couch, eyes staring blankly into the distance, an unlit cigarette clenched between his fingers. In the aftermath of his first horrified outcry, his silence has a stricken, desperate quality, as if breaking it would shatter what little is left of his world. Their world.
Haru is the voice of their grief, shared and private and inexpressible. Kyoko's face is sticky and tight with dried tears but words failed her, and all she has been able to give are choking sobs. Arms wrapped tightly around the other girl, she listened as Haru wailed and now, in the silence, she holds her still because she is not ready to let go.
Kyoko counts the guardians and stops there because this is as far as her heart can reach. She has nothing left in her to wonder further, to begin to measure what this could mean for the Vongola and beyond. In this moment, they are Tsuna's guardians first and anything else, second.
But what is a guardian with nothing left to guard?
She rests her head on Haru's shoulder and feels the tears begin to come again.
It is Haru who finally says, her throat still raw, "What do we do now?"
Kyoko lifts her head and the four of them look at each other, lost. Then Gokudera draws a ragged breath, hurls his cigarette to the floor and stands. Turns away.
"What can we do? We - we failed."
None of them deny it, raise the point that no one could have protected Tsuna when he would not let them be there with him.
"It's too late for anything," Gokudera says, almost to himself.
Yamamoto shifts at that, looks at him. "The Milliefiore still need to be stopped," he says.
Gokudera's hands clench. "That won't bring him back," he mutters.
Yamamoto nods, though Gokudera does not see the movement. "I'm going to stop them anyway."
Kyoko watches them and remembers:
I'm sorry, Kyoko.
He knew, she thinks, and the thought strikes through her like one of Haru's electric bolts.
Don't give up, whatever happens, he said.
Whatever happens wasn't supposed to include dying, she wants to tell him now. That's not very fair. Was this what he'd meant? How could he? Had he somehow seen his own death? Or had he chosen it?
She opens her mouth, a million words thoughts and words fighting to burst into the air. Then she stops herself. What if her guess is wrong? Tsuna couldn't have possibly meant to die - but to ask the others to face this possibility too, in the midst of everything else....
What she does know, she realises, is that she has a promise to keep.
"We can't give up," she says into the waiting quiet.
Haru shifts and finally looks up. Yamamoto and Gokudera turn to the two girls. She meets their confused stares and continues. "Tsuna wouldn't want us to give up just because he... wasn't there. So we can't."
She tries to smile, but fails, terribly. "We have to keep fighting... and protect everyone."
Haru bites her lip. "But how? We can't go against the Milliefiore as we are now. Without Tsuna, we'll never win!"
"I don't know," Kyoko admits. "But Tsuna... he still needs us. So we'll find a way."
Put that way, it sounds flimsy at best. But Kyoko's always been good at believing. If Tsuna knew he was going to die, then he must have had his reasons for facing it. It's not over, he said.
This is her end of the bargain, she tells herself. Now, she just has to believe... that somehow, somewhere, he's keeping his.
"Everything will be okay," she whispers to herself again.
When she looks up, Hibari is standing in the door, looking straight at her. His gaze, cool and unreadable, leaves her own to flicker across the others, then settles on the room at large.
"Namimori," he says.
Gokudera frowns. "What? This isn't--"
The corner of Hibari's mouth curls, impatient. "We're going back to Namimori," he informs them. Disagreeing, his tone suggests, is not an option.
"All of us."
The third time's the charm.