"Do you know what it's like when, you're scared to see yourself;

Do you know what it's like when, you wish you were someone else,

who didn't need your help to get by;

Do you know what it's like...to wanna surrender?"

The Winds of Change: There is a cold wind that flies only during moments of greatness, blowing away the humid feeling of stagnation and lies, rendering the world in its' true and clear form, ushering the end of the old with the whisper of change...

Gokudera, Yamamoto, and Reborn walked down the school hallways. Less then ten minutes ago, those same corridors and bends had been packed full of students first trying to leave because of the fire alarm, then later trying to see what the commotion was. With a few words to one of the faculty members, Reborn had ordered all the students back to their classrooms and placed the school under lockdown until further notice. Once that had been completed, Reborn took the two young guardians and began making his way towards the classrooms of their friends.

They walked in dead silence.

Gokudera was keeping his breathing even; his pace at the same rate as Reborn's; his eyes straight ahead; and his thoughts centered around what he needed to do next. There were so many unanswered questions floating around, but if Reborn had been dispatched, then The Ninth was definitely upset with someone. It didn't take a genius to figure out who those 'someones' were.

It would be easier to prepare if Gokudera knew what the Ninth wanted to talk about, since Aezawa's beating had happened after Reborn had been dispatched. The hitman was skilled, but the Ninth's base of operations was in the business district, which would take at least an hour to get to the school from by car. Gokudera knew the trip would take Reborn about fifteen minutes, depending on the urgency. Since the sharpshooter decided to come in person rather then sending a man in and setting up a sniper post on a nearby rooftop, the urgency couldn't be so great.

Unless, of course, the Tenth contacted the Ninth, at which point Gokudera's entire theory was blown to deep hell, because then the Ninth would have known about Gokudera and Yamamoto 'assaulting' Aezawa.

The half-italian turned his thoughts away from that tangle of emotions. He would sort out his feelings on the Tenth later; right now he needed a story to present when he was questioned.

Reborn turned at the end of the hallway, walked up to a classroom door, and knocked twice. The teacher carefully cracked the door open, gasping when she saw Reborn.

"I'm here for Sasagawa." The baby said. Nodding, the teacher gave a quick bow before scurrying out of sight, returning moments later with a grumpy and confused Sasagawa Ryohei.

Grassy-head took one look at Gokudera and Yamamoto and hissed out "What did you do?"

Tugging on his pant leg, Reborn pulled him out of his classroom, and ordered "Follow me."

Grassy-head shot the other two confused looks, but they just shook their head. Yamamoto followed right behind Reborn, eyes downcast and feet shuffling, looking near dead. Gokudera followed a few steps behind, Grassy-head staying in step with him. "What the hell's going on?" he demanded.

"Yamamoto and I have been framed for attacking our teacher." Gokudera whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

Grassy-head looked like he wanted to say something about that, but settled for "And what does that have to do with me?"

Gokudera shrugged. From the front of the line, Reborn answered "It's because the Ninth wants to see all of you at once. You've been too organized in your rebellion, and he knows you're all working together."

"Rebellion?" Grassy-head spluttered. "What rebellion?"

"Don't lie." Reborn said. "Do you think anyone is going to believe some third party is behind what's gone on the last week? Especially when you look at what's happened - it all fits your motives quite nicely."

Grassy-head growled, marching up till he was right next to Reborn. "But we didn't do-"

Reborn shot him a glare out of the corner of his eye, silencing him instantly. Gulping, Grassy-head took a step back. Leading the group down a stairwell, Reborn began his lecture. "I don't know what's gotten into all of your heads lately..." Reborn paused. "Actually, I have a hunch, but you've all been too out of control. I've done everything I can to keep you guys from getting into trouble - I've even gone so far as to put my neck on the line with all of yours - but now you've gone too far. I can't keep you safe anymore. If the Ninth feels fit to punish you, it will be like nothing any of you have experienced. You think your lives suck now?" Reborn shook his head. "Think again."

As they reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs and turned to go down the second, Grassy-head looked to the side. "Great way to make us become the guardians the Vongola needs - fuckin' beat us near death. Oh yeah, amazing job."

"You think this is bad?" Reborn snapped. "Do you think the other generations had it this easy? Did you believe that it was all happy sunshine friendship, like when the First created the organization? Did any of you pay attention when I was telling you about the militaristic changes the Second made? Or the extremes at which the Eighth took those same changes? The Ninth didn't get to pick his guardians from his schoolboy friends you know; it was trial by combat for the six of them, and they were the strongest that came out of it."

Grassy-head huffed, looking away.

"Hey." Reborn said. When Grassy-head still ignored him, Reborn turned on his heel and did a flying kick right into his diaphragm. Grassy-head tumbled over in pain, sliding on the stairwell floor and nearly cracking his head against the sharp stone of the next set of steps, groaning as he tried to breathe. Reborn just stood on his abdomen, glaring down at the winded fighter.

"You all are the tenth generation guardians of the Vongola mafia." Reborn stressed. "These positions of yours are not elected seats; they are not birthrights; and they are not exclusive to you. Your authority comes from the power everyone else thinks you have, and your intimidation. If for a moment anyone thinks they can usurp you, they will try, just like Xanxus tried during the Cradle incident and the ring scramble, and just like the Eighth did to the Seventh." The baby's eyes narrowed. "And that didn't end too well for either gunslinger, believe me."

"It's not like you don't have enemies in the Vongola." Reborn continued. "There are plenty of people who are questioning how legitimate your succession is, especially with you boss MIA. The only reason no one has been trying to snipe your heads off is because the Ninth, Iemitsu and I are doing everything we can to keep complaints against you all to just that: complaints." Looking up as though he had suddenly remembered something important, Reborn added "Although I suppose we should be thanking Tsuna for running off with the Sky Ring - we can't determine any more legitimate candidates without it."

Jumping down, Reborn finished with "Always remember this: You work for the Vongola, not the other way around. And you can choose to either uphold that organization and be the warrior it needs you to be, or you can be sacrificial pigs used to train those who are stronger then you. What you become all depends on your actions today."

Continuing to the ground floor, Reborn left Gokudera and Yamamoto to help Grassy-head up, who shook them off as soon as he had his breath back. The three students followed the hitman in silence, the implications of what he'd said finally sinking in.

They'd kept their heads down for years. They knew best what would happen if they tried to fight back. And yet here they were, once again at the precipice between punishment and absolution. They all needed to be very careful with their actions at the coming meeting.

Which was precisely why Gokudera was so fed up with himself. He had to make a choice: Either try and lie his way through the meeting and hope luck smiles upon him, or tell the truth about what happened. And while he would normally dive headfirst into giving the best story to keep himself out of trouble...I would have to sell out the Tenth.

By all rights, his friend deserved it. But still there was that small, hard pit at the bottom of his heart that was shaking against the chains he'd bound it in, that kernel of diamond inside his otherwise worthless being that he could only describe as loyalty, telling him to do everything he could to keep the Tenth out of the line of fire.

Gokudera was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and if he didn't move, he would be crushed between them.

Reborn led them out of the stairwell, looking immediately to his right and calling out "Hibari!"

The disciplinarian looked up when his name was called, showing no signs of shock when he saw Reborn. No face muscle moved as the others came out of the stairwell, and not a flinch occurred when the entire group stopped in front of him.

Gokudera envied his control.

"What are you doing here?" Reborn questioned. "All available members of the disciplinary committee should be gathered in the reception room, awaiting inspection."

"Line 8 of the lockdown policy states that all disciplinarians are to sweep the zone attached to their person of any loitering students before heading to the reception room." Hibari recited effortlessly. "I am currently in pursuit of two such students."

"Let me guess; Mukuro and Chrome?" Reborn asked resignedly. Hibari nodded.

"Well let's go pick them up." Reborn said, sighing. "The Ninth wants to see them too. And yes, you're coming with us Hibari, so don't go too far ahead."

Nodding again, Hibari led them at a brisk pace, first turning down the hallway that lead towards the locker rooms, then making a sudden left and nearly ripping open the door for the nearby girls bathroom.

Right inside the doorway, Chrome leaned against the wall, looking up at Mukuro, who was staring at her intensely, face the color of granite. Chrome looked both frightened of and worried for the man standing across from her. Gokudera had a few guesses as to what she told him, and he was sure all of them would piss the former illusion master off to no end.

But with almost a snap of his fingers, Mukuro was looking at them all, his twisted smile spreading across his face. "Why hello arcobaleno." he began conversationally. "Can't you see you're interrupting a private moment between sweet little Chrome and I?"

"All the more reason to drag your asses out of there." Reborn fired back. "As much as I'd love to just shoot you now, the Ninth wants to meet with you first, to make sure you understand why I'm going to kill you."

A small swallow on Mukuro's part was the only sign of fear he showed - much better then Chrome, who paled considerably - before he faked a joyous laugh. "Hahahahahahaha...now Reborn, I'm quite sure our great mayor wouldn't want me to be killed. I am the future mist guardian after all, am I not?"

"Chrome's just as skilled as you are." Reborn spat. "And with everything you've done: Plotting to commit treason against the Vongola, resisting arrest, even going into hiding - I would be shocked if I didn't get to kill you."

"Now arcobaleno," Mukuro said with a mock-chastising as he slowly walked out of the bathroom, Chrome right on his heels, "I get the distinct feeling you don't like me."

In a flash, Leon was in Reborn's hand, transforming into a whip and wrapping around Mukuro's neck. With a flick of his wrist, Reborn brought him to his knees, getting face to face with the no longer smiling trickster. "No. I don't like you." he said quietly. "In fact, I'm really fighting the urge to kill you right now. You're the biggest thorn in the Ninth's side out of everyone I know. You sow discord among your own allies for the fun of it. You're even ready to betray your fellow guardians - you're nothing but a disease to the others, and just knowing you're not ash makes me worried for their safety."

"And may I ask what the problem is with weeding out those below me?" Mukuro choked out innocently.

Leon slithered off of Mukuro's neck just in time for his owner to let a punch fly right into Mukuro's nose, cleaning breaking it and toppling him over. Both animal and baby watched with disappointed eyes as Mukuro coughed for a moment, spit out a bit of blood, and then glared at them.

"I don't trust you." Reborn said. "And I never will."

Chrome kneeled down, pulling off the bow of her uniform and giving it to Mukuro to clean the blood pouring from his nose, helping him lean forward to make sure nothing drained back into his throat. Gokudera watched the whole scene with a vague sense of justice; he'd wanted to do the same thing for a while now. From Grassy-head's suddenly happy face, it seems he was thinking the same thing.

Reborn looked at the others while Chrome tended to Mukuro. "Now that we're all here, it's time to go to the primary school, to pick up Lambo."

Gokudera tensed. This was bad - as it was, Gokudera himself was a prime weakness in their group that he felt would definitely be exploited. But if Lambo got dragged in, they suddenly had a second big, bold, crying bullseye in their group. They needed something to counteract Lambo bringing them down. As Mukuro slowly stood and they all began making their way to the schools front gates, Gokudera nearly scrambled his brains trying to think of something.

Turns out he didn't have to, as the solution was quite literally right in front of him.

When they exited the buildings, the bright sun caught them all in the eyes, causing everyone to look away for a moment. When Gokudera was done squinting, he looked back up and finally saw the front gate. His eyes widened, and judging from Reborn's suddenly stiff shoulders, he wasn't the only one caught off guard.

Cautiously, Reborn led the group forward. When he was a few yards away, he called out "Nice of you to finally show your cowardly face to me, stupid pupil."

From his seat on top of the stone wall next to the gate, with Lambo resting uncomfortably in his lap, the Tenth laughed. "Nice of you to finally come out and see me, Reborn!"

"I'm guessing you have something to do with what's going on?" Reborn asked. The Tenth just shrugged.

"Do I, now? Who would've guessed." he waved the question away. "What I'm more concerned about right now is my meeting."

Reborn rose a little eyebrow. "Your what?"

"My meeting." The Tenth repeated, jumping down to the ground and approaching them, holding Lambo in his arms. "Monday I scheduled a meeting with the Ninth through Visconti that was set to be today. However, you seem to be in the process of taking up my time slot. So what am I supposed to do?"

"Come with us." Reborn answered. "It's what you want, isn't it?"

"Ah, but see, that's the problem." The Tenth shook his head. "If you want me to have my meeting at the same time as all of these other people, you need to give me some time to talk to them. Alone."

"Not happening." Reborn denied at once. "You can have your meeting with the Ninth a different day-"

"I am a busy man." The Tenth cut in. "Not to be shuffled around like a joker in a deck of cards; if the Ninth cannot keep to our prearranged meeting time, then I see no reason to meet with him at all."

Reborn stared the Tenth down. The Tenth stared right back.

"Don't push me, Tsuna." Reborn warned quietly.

Just as quietly, the Tenth answered back "All I want is a few minutes. You can go on ahead and tell your boss I'm coming too, and when we get there we can streamline the meeting process. We wrap this up in time for an early dinner in the entertainment district, everybody's in bed before the night chill sets in. That's the easy way, because I promise you Reborn, if you don't give me the time I'm looking for..."

Setting Lambo down, he slowly closed the distance, squatting down so he could be at a closer eye level with Reborn. "...I will take it."

Once again they held a staring contest. The tension was thick enough that Gokudera wondered if it would push at him if he tried to move. Finally, Reborn sighed. "Very well." he said. "You can have your time. I'll go notify the Ninth of this...new turn of events."

"Good!" The Tenth said happily, shooting up to his full height. "We'll all see you within the hour. In the meantime, get a cab or something to take you back; there's no way all your walking is good for your shoes."

"Right." Reborn said, walking past the Tenth, past Lambo, out the gate and around the corner. Everyone watched him go, but as soon as he was out of sight, all eyes turned on the Tenth. Some angry, some confused, some calculating.

Slowly, the Tenth turned back to face them all, his earlier flippant cheer gone. His shoulders sagged a bit, his frown deep. Taking a deep breath, he spoke.

"First of all, I'm sorry. I'll never be able to say it enough, but before anything else I want you all to know that if I had found a different way, I would have done it. I only did what I did because it was my only option."

Looking at his feet, he continued "I know the past week has been long, and confusing, and just a bit bitter. It's hard to imagine that last Friday, a few of us were going out for drinks, putting our heads together and strolling down memory lane. And then all this happened. The disciplinary committee utterly defeated. A chemical threat sent to the school to hide the gym being rebuilt. Bullies no older then nine or ten being assaulted among crowds of adults. And teachers being beat within an inch of their lives. All of it..." he looked back at them. "Being pinned..." he pointed. "On all of you."

"It's time I explained myself." he finished. "It's time you all learned the truth..."

One part mansion, one part government office, and three parts corporate headquarters, the building the Ninth used as his base of operations was a tower that rose above any other tower in all of Namimori. The thirty floor construct had outside walls that, when the sun hit it in the early morning and late afternoon, shined from base to peaked roof. Which wasn't to say it was expensive - Mukuro had once gotten his hands on the contracting bills for the construction of it, and it was very cost efficient. Security was state of the art, but other then that it was no different from any of the buildings around it. No city money was used to buy any luxury add-ons; in fact, there seemed to be no luxurious items in the entire estate. The walls were a sterilized white, the carpets a dull blue, and the only form of life besides the employees was a small potted plant that sat on the receptionist's desk.

"La Perla Torre...italian, of course. Cute." Tsunayoshi said dryly as they passed the entrance sign. Walking through the lobby, ignoring looks they received from the receptionists and business workers in the waiting area, Tsunayoshi lead them towards the elevators. Hitting the button to call down a box, he took a step back, almost bumping into Chrome behind him. His gaze flicked from her eyes to her feet back to the closed elevator shaft. She watched him with a cool expression.

"It's time I explained myself." he finished. "It's time you all learned the truth..."

"But first..." Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out a roll of bandages. "Chrome, would you sit down please?"

Carefully, she walked forward, sitting down and tucking her feet against her body. Tsuna lightly grabbed her ankle, tugging in askance. She complied, stretching her legs out for him. Gently, he undid the buckles on her boots and pulled them off - socks quickly following - to reveal her feet, red and swollen, blisters beginning to form on the bottoms of her toes.

"Even if they're boots, it's never wise to run in heels." Tsuna muttered as he began wrapping her feet. He didn't speak a word, just running the roll around and around her right foot with practiced hands. He was halfway done with that foot when he glanced up at all of them, their faces still accusatory and impatient, each and every one waiting for him to say something. He looked at Chrome, who held his gaze perfectly. Going back to her feet, he nearly whispered "Put the pieces together. Please."

Without so much as a nod, Chrome said "Boss has been behind everything."

"We know that now." Gokudera said. "But we need specifics-"

"You don't understand." Chrome cut him off. "Boss has been behind everything. Everything. Any little disturbance, any minor uprising has had Boss's influence alone."

With a ding, the elevator shaft opened. Tsunayoshi stood to the side, letting everyone file past him into the elevator first. Chrome and the child passed right by him, neither getting so much as a nod. As Yamamoto passed his old friend, however, Tsunayoshi looked up into his eyes. The former baseball player looked away quickly, his head hanging dejectedly.

"It's true." Tsuna said, tying off her right foot and moving to her left. Gokudera stared at him.

"Everything?" The bomber repeated. "Are you saying...what, this was some kind of plan?"

"Yes." Chrome supplied. "Yes, Boss has carefully orchestrated a series of events to get us to this point."

"How?" Yamamoto protested. "There's no way he could have known Gokudera and I would be in the right place, at the right time, to blame us for Aezawa's beating. How did he even know Aezawa was going to be there in the first place?"

This time Mukuro spoke. "Your homeroom teacher requested his office be moved to that remote third floor area because he believes that if he sits in his chair correctly, the cameras cannot catch him looking up pornography." He scoffed. "Key word being 'believes'."

"But what about us?" Yamamoto shot back.

"He used a mental cage." Chrome explained. "First, he asked the two of you to go to the teachers' lounge so you would know the right location. On the way back to your classroom, he acted especially friendly with you both to rekindle some lost feelings of closeness before disappearing from your sight, so that those feelings would be at the forefront of your mind. Then he put the three of us in a situation where we would act on our emotions: Gokudera-san's loyalty so that he would go to his least favorite teacher's haunt; your overprotectiveness of Boss so you would run into any situation he needed you to..."

Chrome's fists balled at her sides. "And my paranoia, so that by trying to stop Boss, I would bring the two of you together."

Yamamoto stared at Chrome in shock, before looking at Tsuna with undiluted hurt. Gokudera - who appeared much less shocked, holding his chin in his hand and staring off into space - took the opportunity to step into the situation and ask a question. "How could the Tenth have orchestrated all this without help?"

"He didn't." Chrome replied simply. "For most of us, he was able to get by on his own, but to say he's gone without help completely would be false. Isn't that right," her eyes shifted to the side, "Lambo?"

The silence, Mukuro supposed, could be described as deafening. No one spoke as ding after ding signaled to them that they were ascending closer and closer to the last place any of them wanted to be. If he could, the illusionist would be scanning the compartment with his paths of rebirth to try and find the aura that was pressing down on him. Most people would probably write it off as anxiety, but if Mukuro would admit that he was feeling anxious...well, to even say to himself that he feared the trial coming up would be the first steps of defeat.

Yet he found himself oddly sympathetic when the elevator began slowing down and the child whimpered.

The primary schooler hung his head. "Yes." he squeaked.

Ryohei growled. "You...you helped him? WHY?"

Lambo flinched, shaking and stuttering. "To...to pr-pr-protect Dokur-ro-chan and I-p-pin!"

All at once, words began tumbling out of Lambo's mouth. "When Tsuna and everyone visited during the parent teacher conference, I knew something bad was going to happen. Nothing good happens when weird people get together. And, and, I was right! Tsuna started kicking up a fuss, then Miura-chan started yelling and screaming, and people were getting angry, and in the middle of it Tsuna pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to help with The Plan - he said it would be easy, that if I just attacked Shuu, Dokuro-chan and I-pin would be protected..."

He trailed off, whimpering. "I didn't want to, I didn't want to..." looking at Tsuna, near tears, Lambo asked "Why is Dokuro-chan in trouble? You said you would protect her."

At the words 'in trouble', Ryohei's eyes widened in surprise.

"I will." Tsuna said, voice oddly hollow. "But I never told you that attacking that bully would protect I-pin and Chrome; all I said is that it would help them. You added the protect part on your own."

The small child stared at Tsuna, thunderstruck. His legs gave out, and he fell to his knees, mouth moving as if trying to make words, though no noise came out. The next person to speak was neither him nor Tsuna, but Ryohei.

"In trouble..." he muttered. Looking up and speaking louder, he asked. "Does that mean you were the one that put the gym back together?"

The elevator doors slid open to reveal a young woman holding a clipboard, going over some notes. On instinct she began walking forward, looking up just in time to not crash into Tsunayoshi. Startled, she gave a little yelp before really looking at who all was in the elevator already. Her face paled.

"Cars' full." Sasagawa grumbled, hitting the button to shut the doors. The woman didn't need to be told twice, backing up and letting them go on their way.

Mukuro watched Sasagawa rub his knuckles, most likely trying to force his tiny little brain to do what the rest of them were doing. Think.

Tying off the bandage on Chrome's other foot, Tsuna looked up, a small smile pulling at his lips. "This is going to sound weird, but that was actually the most fun out of all of them. Putting all of that heavy equipment back together exactly the way you would have done it, pulling political strings so that students would still come to school but make the back field out of bounds, all the while trying to fake you trying to fake Visconti...it was a challenge."

Seeing that no one was amused by what he was saying, his smile faded, and he quickly looked away, making over exaggerated motions to retrieve Chrome's boots. "But yes, I was the one that put the gym back together."

Surprisingly, Ryohei remained calm. "It must have taken all night."

"Boss left his flat the night before and never came back." Chrome said. Tsuna stiffened, but when Chrome didn't say anything else, he looked up at her, surprised. She avoided eye contact.

Ryohei nodded, whistling softly. "So you did all that?"

"And more." Mukuro reminded him.

"What else is there?" the fighter asked, suddenly impatient again.

For the first time, Hibari spoke. "The disciplinary committee."

Snap, Snap went Hibari's cuffs. He would snap them apart, readjust, then snap them together. Which was fine - Mukuro was fashion conscious to a certain extent too - but after eight times, it was too much.

With a fluid motion, Hibari hooked a finger under his collar and pulled to make sure it was sitting right, and hadn't folded underneath itself. He patted his belt, smoothed his armband...Mukuro was wondering how long it would be till he was just going to take off his pants to make sure his shirt was tucked in correctly when Sasagawa, teeth grinding, growled "Knock it off."

Hibari flinched one more time before standing stock still, back straight. Very similar to how he'd been earlier.

Tsuna nodded, helping Chrome put her boots back on. "Yup. That was me too."

"I'm kinda sick of asking this, but how?" Yamamoto asked. "Did you stealthily take them out in the night or something?"

Hibari shot that theory down. "Every disciplinarian had reported for duty Monday morning. It was during the first half of the school day that they were assaulted, knocked unconscious, and displayed down the main hallway."

Gokudera looked from Hibari, to Chrome, to Tsuna. "So how did you have the time?"

Before anyone could answer, Yamamoto gasped, grabbing Gokudera by the shoulder to get his attention. "Shamal!"

Gokudera looked at him, confused, before his eyes widened, his lips forming an O. "Shamal." he repeated, almost reverently.

Mukuro looked between the two males. "What does the school nurse have anything to do with this?"

"Early in the morning on his first day of school, the Tenth got Yamamoto mixed up in a fight with the new kid in our class." Gokudera began.

"He dragged us to Shamal's office. When we got there, Tsuna acted all happy and excited to see the man. He stayed behind after I returned to class." Yamamoto continued, smiling.

"So?" Mukuro asked.

"So he never came back to class." Yamamoto and Gokudera said at the same time.

"It took him forever to get to lunch too." Ryohei added. Everyone looked to Tsuna for confirmation. He nodded, waving his hand lazily. "While talking with Shamal was fun, I rarely saw him even before I ran off. We barely talked for half an hour - the rest of the time I used to track down patrolling disciplinarians and hide them in a closet near the main hallway. The hardest part of that little task was getting all the dead weight - it's an expression, they're all fine - from the closet to the hallway without anyone noticing."

Standing up, he added "Sorry about beating your men so badly, by the way. I'm not very good with tonfa, so I wasn't able to take them out quickly and cleanly. Lots of beating and kicks involved."

Hibari didn't answer, just stared lifelessly ahead as Tsuna helped Chrome to her feet.

They were nearing the floor they needed to reach. Mukuro's mind was buzzing with plans as he reviewed and discarded each idea that came to mind. He needed to think of something that would get him out of this. He refused to admit defeat; this was not checkmate. He could find himself a way out.


It was hard to put together a master plan though, when you knew you could be seen through so easily.

"So...is that everything?" Yamamoto asked hesitantly.

"Almost. You're four out of five." Tsuna replied.

Yamamoto, Gokudera, and Ryohei looked between each other. Gokudera shook his head. Yamamoto made a few helpless motions with his hands. Ryohei shrugged.

Making a few irritated noises under his breath, Mukuro said "My followers."

"What about them?" Ryohei asked.

"They were at Tsunayoshi's residence, you imbecile! Remember?" Mukuro snapped. "The day he made his oh so glorious return and trooped us up to his place? My followers, all of whom had detailed plans on my attempt on the Ninth's life, were tied up in his back room? The receptionist had even mentioned they'd been making loud noises earlier that day!"

"So...it was Sawada that ratted you out?" Ryohei asked.

"Yes! You finally understand!" Mukuro said, making exaggerated motions with his hands.

"I should have known it wasn't one of them that betrayed me." he began muttering. "I couldn't come up with a logical scenario; some piece was always out of line. I should have seen-"

"And yet you mistrusted your followers anyway, leading you to ruin." Tsuna interrupted. "Now Chrome's out of your use, and the others aren't half as loyal as they were before. Especially after the antics you pulled trying to break out of the hotel I gave you."

Mukuro tried to glare down Tsuna, but the shorter male was already turning away from him, observing everyone else. "Any other questions?" he asked.


Lambo shakily stood up, brushing his knees off and breathing carefully. "Why did you do all this?"

With a final ding, the elevator doors slid open at the top floor. They all shuffled out, walking like zombies down the hallway. Heads down and fists shaking, they moved slower then a crawl towards the one door on the floor. It was a simple door set halfway down the hallway, in the left wall, no nameplate or plaque set on it. Everyone already knew who occupied that space.

The child began whimpering again, but Chrome didn't do anything to comfort him. Sasagawa kept rubbing his knuckles as Hibari unzipped his jacket to readjust his tie. Gokudera was chewing on the end of his thumb, and Yamamoto was absently itching the inside of his arm.

Halfway to the door, and Tsunayoshi stopped at the front of the group. Looking at the other end of the hall, he commented "There's another stairwell."

"Another?" Mukuro asked. Tsunayoshi pointed to the one he was standing next to. Odd that Mukuro hadn't noticed that one before.

Tsunayoshi looked over his shoulder, observing them all. He sighed, muttering "Guys..."

For a long time, Tsuna held Lambo's gaze. Pain and hurt were reflected in both of them. Finally, Tsuna said "To make sure you all could make the choice."

"Choice? What choice?" Ryohei demanded, taking a step forward. Tsuna just held up his hand.

"We've used too much time already." The brunette said. "I'll explain after the meeting."

"It's time you all got a hold of yourselves."

Yamamoto reacted a moment before everyone else, but not fast enough to stop Tsunayoshi from pulling the fire alarm.

When fire alarms go off in buildings, elevators aren't allowed to be used. People have to take stairs to exit the building. And if you have to walk down eight steps, multiplied by two to go down a floor, multiplied by thirty floors...it was some big number Yamamoto didn't really want to compute in his head, but he was pretty sure it was a good motive for murder.

Tsuna's murder, to be exact. Which was looking really appealing at the moment.

They were all gathered outside La Perla Torre, mingling on the front lawn with all of the employees. Word was already beginning to spread that someone pulled the fire alarm as a prank, and that they would all be able to go back inside momentarily. Out of instinct, Yamamoto and the others stuck close to Tsuna, though where he was leading them, no one knew.

Tsuna slithered in between groups, moving in as straight a line as he could, his focus never leaving a bulge of human beings only a few meters away from them. When Yamamoto finally caught up with Tsuna and saw who was at the center of that bulge, his pulse quickened.

The first person that stood out to him was his father, standing next to Sawada Iemitsu, quietly conversing with his fellow parent. Both men had gained much gray hair over the past three and a half years; but it made the elder Sawada male look ten times as haggard when you added in the thicker stubble and wrinkled face. Next was Reborn, standing next to Iemitsu and scanning the crowd warily. A little off to the side, Sawada Nana conversed quietly with a plump women with gray curly hair. Standing near each group but not joining either conversation was a police officer that was the spitting image of Alaude - the First Cloud Guadrian - especially when the sun hit his gray hair and made it shine blonde.

And off to the side, standing surrounded by his guardians, his cane tapping the ground impatiently, The Ninth waited.

A small snicker pulled Yamamoto's horrified gaze to Tsuna, who was staring at his predecessor with smugness that made Yamamoto want to gag. With little warning, the shorter of the two high schooler yelled, in the loudest voice possible, "Hey, Grandpa!"

All talking in the area stopped at once. Each and every gaze turned to Tsuna, and Yamamoto felt all the blood pool in his feet.

The Ninth blinked in shock. When he did not immediately respond, Tsuna began walking towards him. "Hey Grandpa, how are you?"

Yamamoto looked at Tsuna, confused. Uh...what?

As he approached, the Ninth slowly smiled. His shoulders shaking, he covered his mouth, but couldn't hold it in for very long. Bursting into laughter, the Ninth quickly walked towards Tsuna, wrapping him up in a hug that the young man was only too ready to return.

Yamamoto did a double take. Behind him, the others were reacting in similar ways.

"Tsunayoshi-kun!" the old man breathed out, his laughter dying down. "You're alright! Oh, it's good to see you again." Pulling back and gripping him by the shoulders, he asked "How were your travels? Did you go anywhere exciting?"

"I went everywhere exciting, Grandpa." Tsuna said, rolling his eyes. "But I'm sure it would be better to talk about this inside, eh?"

"And we can go right back inside, once the fire marshal has given us the okay that there's no danger to us or the building." The Ninth explained. Tsuna just waved him off.

"We can all get a head start." he said. "I know for a fact that there's no fire. After all," his eyes flickered mischievously. "I'm the one that pulled the alarm."

To his credit, the Ninth's only reaction was a mischievous smile mirroring Tsuna's. "You've become a troublemaker, have you?"

"Oh," Tsuna's smile became dangerous, his volume dropping. "Of the worst kind."

Turning back to his friends, Tsuna made a slight motion with his hand indicating they should all be heading back to the building. When no one moved, he picked his pace up and whispered as he passed them all "Get moving before we lose the advantage."

Stumbling a bit, Yamamoto turned on his heel and started following Tsuna. He looked over his shoulder once to see if anyone else was following and caught sight of his dad. The elder Yamamoto was watching him with worried eyes and a clenched jaw, arms tightly folded against his body.

Yamamoto looked away quickly. The Ninth had never done this before. He had been expecting a reprisal, yes, but to bring in Dad...what was he planning?

Tsuna led them all back through the crowds, into the building, towards the stairs - no one asked why they didn't take the elevator again - and up the winding path to the top level.

For the first twenty floors, no one spoke, each lost in their own thoughts. Sasagawa-san, Hibari, Lambo, and Yamamoto were all especially reserved. The emotional shocks were causing them to move even slower then they normally would have up so many stairs.

When he got a flight ahead of everyone else, Tsuna turned around and watched everyone else keep crawling up towards him. "Is it really that shocking they would bring your families against you?" he asked. Everyone was so winded that they didn't have the energy to answer.

"I expected something like this to happen. They're trying to lock you in place." he continued. "The Ninth is trying to back you into a corner. Don't be surprised if he paints your relatives in a darker light and is overly kind to you. He wants to make you think that not only is he a good option, he's the only option."

Chrome, who was just a step ahead of Yamamoto, reached Tsuna's level. As soon as her boot touched the step, he began walking backwards up the next flight, still talking. "The important thing is that you all stay in control. Remember that right now, it's about making sure you are deciding what happens next. Don't let him take that choice away from you."

Yamamoto forced himself to speed up till he passed Chrome, nearly on the same step as Tsuna. "So...what..." he panted. "You want us...us to stand...up to him?"

"Stand up?" Tsuna asked, genuinely shocked. "I want you to do nothing of the sort!"

Yamamoto was tired of saying that 'w'-word, so instead he just shook his head in disbelief.

"It's true." Tsuna insisted. "You're all in a better position then you understand."

"Because we're weak, spineless, broken cowards?" Yamamoto huffed, leaning up against the wall to catch his breath. Coming to a stop, Tsuna shook his head again.

"No," he disagreed, watching all of them with sad eyes. "Because everyone thinks you're weak, spineless, broken cowards."

As the others began crowding around them, Tsuna continued with "They're underestimating you. They think they hold all the cards, not knowing that deep inside of you, that fire they fear still burns."

Yamamoto shook his head. "You're wrong." he spat.

"I'm not!" Tsuna surged forward, grabbing his friend by the shoulders, pleading with him. "You may not believe me, but I see it! I see your resilience, you courage, your will. I see everything-"

"Everything we were?" Yamamoto interrupted bitterly.

"Everything you'll become." Tsuna corrected. His friend just looked away.

"Have you listened to a single story we've told you?"

Tsuna scoffed. "Every word. Stories of trust. Stories of support. Stories of love and heartbreak, of resistance, of never giving up even when the consequences are horrible. It was because of those stories that I knew you hadn't broken under the Ninth."

He looked at each of them in turn. "Some of you have made mistakes. Some of you haven't held your head high the entire time I've been gone. But there's nothing wrong with that. And if you take away one thing from what I've said, then take away this: The people in that office think you're husks of what you used to be. But you are stronger then anyone thinks. Even you."

They stood there quietly for a moment. Looking, truly looking, at each other.

"This isn't something I just came up with on the way up here either." Looking at Yamamoto, he rose his eyebrows expectantly. "Remember last week, that group I told you I'd made contact with recently that I wasn't on good terms with but I thought would be able to fight the Ninth? That group that I swore up and down the other day I wasn't manipulating, but trying to help?" When he received nods, he shrugged. "Don't you see? I was talking about all of you. Whatever decision you make today, remember that you do have the power to fight the Ninth. You may not be able to crush him, and you may get hurt in the process, but you can say no. He's going to do everything he can to hide that, but what you do after today is entirely up to you, and you alone. Don't lose sight of that."

He let them all stand on that final flight of stairs for as long as they needed. "Well...shall we go?" Tsuna asked after everything he'd said finally sunk in, making his way up to the top. When he reached the door to the thirtieth floor, he looked behind him to find no one had moved from the floor below him. "Everyone?" he called.

"Hey..." Yamamoto called up to him. "Why do you have such faith in us?"

Tsuna stared. Suddenly, he burst into a quick fit of giggles. When he calmed down, he gave Yamamoto the biggest smile he could muster. "Because you're my friends."

He opened the door, holding it open for them to come through. Slowly, they made their way up, through the door, back onto the thirtieth floor.

When everyone had arrived, Tsuna slowly pushed the door shut; it closed with a metallic click. Seeing that no one was moving, the brunette once again took the lead, walking purposefully towards the Ninth's office. The others crowded around him, creating a near human wall around their enigmatic, infuriating, manipulative...friend.

Yamamoto could hear soft conversation coming from the office. The Ninth and his allies had already arrived, it seemed. With three knocks, Tsuna shut them all up. A voice called out to them from the other side.

"Come in."

With one last look at everyone, Tsuna turned the knob and opened the door. He kept his head down as he walked in, purposefully not looking at the group around the Ninth. The others followed suit, shuffling in and immediately going for the guest chairs that had been sat out for them. All but two of the seats were taken up by them; Lambo sat on Chrome's lap, and Tsuna chose to stand, leaning against her chair. Only when everyone was in position did they finally look up.

Their families had not been offered chairs, it seemed. They were all standing against the back wall, shadows pulling at the edges of their frames; with the exception of Sawada Nana, they were viewing their young relatives with confusion and a hurt anger. The Ninth's guardians stood to one side, hands clasped in front of them, obviously avoiding looking at them. The Ninth himself was seated behind a grand mahogany desk, a stack of papers pushed to one side so he could set his hands down without fear of smudging some important ink. Reborn sat on a small chair set up near one of the edges, quietly sipping at a cup of espresso.

"Hello!" The Ninth welcomed cheerily. "Would you all like something to drink? I have some juices in a fridge if you want? Or water?"

No one answered.

"How about a snack?" The Ninth asked. "I know you've all eaten, but after all the exercise you've no doubt just been put through, I'm sure you're hungry." No one even glanced at Tsuna.

And still there was silence.

Seeing he wasn't getting through, the Ninth sighed, his cheer fading. "Well then...I assume that means you all wish to start the meeting?"

He rubbed his temples, letting his age show. "Over the course of your training, I've watched you all fumble simple assignments given to you. I thought that maybe if I gave you all a certain measure of power, you would learn the responsibilities of being above others. It seems, however, I was wrong. You have purposefully spit on the amnesty I have granted all of you, abusing my trust to carry out petty grudges and acts of rabble-rousing."

Pulling out a piece of paper from the stack, the Ninth began reading off. "Hibari Kyoya: Twenty counts assault, carrying illegal weaponry. Sasagawa Ryohei: Trespassing, interfering with government owned property, falsifying information given to a government official. Bovino Lambo: underage assault. Yamamoto Takeshi and Gokudera Hayato: Assault and Battery, carrying illegal weaponry. Dokuro Chrome: Resisting arrest, public slandering of an official, illegal housing. Rokudo Mukuro: Conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to displace a government official, two counts of illegal housing, and tax evasion." Looking up, The Ninth slowly shook his head. "Though I don't know how you even pulled off that last one - none of you pay taxes."

"But that's not the point." The Ninth crumpled the paper and threw it over his shoulder, narrowly missing Sawada Iemitsu. "The point is that if it was anyone else, Lieutenant Hibari here of Namimori's finest would have thrown you in jail long ago, for much less then you all have against you. In fact, I may have already stepped in and dealt with all of you my own way. But I haven't, and do you know why?"

When still no one answered, the Ninth spread his arms wide. "It's because you're the next generation! I need you to be able to take over when I'm dead and gone. So I'm not going to have any of you 'bumped off'."

Ignoring Reborn's dark muttering, the Ninth cautioned. "But I still have to do something. You've all gone too far - as it is I've had difficulty convincing all of your parents not to severely punish you, and still they're out for blood. It's your responsibility to repent for your actions. I hope you all understand that. We're going to have to take action to stave off rioting in the streets. It's up to all of you to work with me in averting a disaster."

Yamamoto blinked in surprise. Now that Tsuna had explained what was going on to them, and he'd gotten over seeing Dad, it was so obvious what the Ninth was doing. He was shocked he'd ever fallen for something this simple...though its' simplicity made it devious.

Clearing his throat, the Ninth began shuffling around items. "Now, I have a plan set out-"

For the first time, someone else spoke. "That won't be necessary." Tsuna said, causing the Ninth to pause.

"Oh?" the old man asked. "What do you mean?"

"I mean what I say: That won't be necessary." Tsuna stood up from Chrome's chair, walking right up to the Ninth's desk and resting his hands on it. "After all, what right do you have to punish my friends when you yourself are less then honest?"

"And I repeat my question: What do you mean?" The Ninth smiled, a bemused look on his face. He threw a glance over his shoulder at Iemitsu, who smirked in response.

"I'm talking about the Fiamma Di Molti Colori project."

Yamamoto couldn't see Tsuna from the front, but he was sure there was a devilish smirk going from ear to ear. Yamamoto could feel the deep sense of satisfaction at watching the arrogant looks falling like rocks off of the previous generations faces, the way every mafia man in the room came to attention at the italian Tsuna spouted, the Ninth's suddenly straight back and cool glare replacing his jovial outlook.

Yamamoto's curiosity over...whatever that project was...was buried under the wonder of what it felt like to instigate that level of shock.

"How do you know about that?" The Ninth asked quietly.

"I know many things." Tsuna replied. "I know about what you're working on in your labs. I know what you've been pushing for around the globe. I know what you've done to the city I've grown up in."

His voice nearly a whisper, he finished "I know what you've done to the people behind me. And I know you have no place giving out punishments for the sake of publicity."

"So you are saying that you know what truly happened to incriminate your guardians?" The Ninth accused with a raised eyebrow.

Tsuna scoffed. "Don't play dumb with me. You've by now heard the testimonies of the disciplinarian's that were hospitalized; proven the footage from the security cameras around the gym was faked; and I'm sure you'll find eye witnesses who will truthfully tell you who they saw carrying the baseball bats up to the third floor of the school this afternoon. You know I, and I alone, was responsible for the 'recent rebellions'."

"Then why blame them on your friends?" The Ninth continued his interrogation, no doubt looking for the answers that everyone was interested in finding out. Yamamoto could almost feel his ears perking up.

Knowing he had the entire room's attention, Tsuna paused for a moment. "I put the blame on them because everyone else in the city blames them." He explained. "It would only take a little to turn the people against them, and I provided more then a little. Last week, you made Chrome's record go away with a wave of your hand, right? Do you think people are simply going to grin and bear you doing the same thing after everything that's happened? It would take an impressive campaign just to keep the common people from stoning your precious next generation."

The Ninth gave a low chuckle, shaking his head in disbelief. "So all the planning, all the secrecy, all the lies - all to make your fellow citizens so upset with you and your group that they want to cause you harm?"

"No." Tsuna said forcefully. " The planning, secrecy, lies was all to make sure that, even if only for a few days, your power wasn't all controlling."

The Ninth opened his mouth to continue, but Tsuna abruptly turned his back on him. His face was set, his gaze focused, and Yamamoto felt a shiver of déjá vu crawl up his spine.

"I'm done with this meeting." Tsuna bluntly stated. "The Ninth has said what he's going to say, and any more deliberation is pointless. It's time for you to make a choice."

Holding an outstretched hand to the door, he said "I believe what's going on in this city is wrong. I believe I can fix things. But I know I can't do it on my own. When I walk out that door, I'm going to begin securing my place here...and recruiting allies. I'm going to fight - and I invite all of you to come with me. To fight by my side once again."

"But maybe you don't want to fight." Hand falling to his side, Tsuna shrugged. "Maybe you want to go out and leave all this behind. The Ninth, the mafia, the power struggle, me and my new annoying personality. And that's fine. There's a staircase at the other end of the hall from the elevator that takes you right to the front door, and out to a life free of all of this. I can respect that decision - Hey, I've made that decision. Who would I be to criticize you for going down the same path?"

"Or you can stay here, and trust me...that's not a bad choice." Tsuna smirked at them. "What, were you expecting me to fire off some anti-Vongola rhetoric at you? In my heart I think the Ninth is purposefully creating a fearful and cruel environment to overcompensate for his moderate nature within the Vongola itself, and that the Vongola as a whole is about the worst evil in the world."

Waving his hand dismissively, Tsuna continued "But the truth is, the Ninth is very powerful - he can and will overcome the bad publicity of the past week. And if you train underneath him, you'll reach the peak of your strength, stamina, and intellect. Being the head of a mafia is no small perk, and the intimidation you need to keep your position is a small price to pay for all the creature comforts you'll receive in return."

"I'm not going to force you to follow me. And I'm not going to force you to stay in those chairs." Tsuna sighed. "The only thing I'm forcing you to do is make the choice, and I will never apologize for that. You've all been hanging in limbo between these three paths since I left. But you're adults, and you can't stay in one place anymore. I've seen the world. I've felt difficulty, and I've seen pure good. There's so much out there, and I weep for you knowing that you've kept your heads down and missed it. But now it's time to stop that. Now it's time to choose."

He let silence hang, as Yamamoto and the others digested everything he'd just told them. Before anyone could say a word, he began slowly moving towards the door. "You've heard what the Ninth has to say, and you've heard what I've said. That's all there is to it. Whether you follow the rules to a T, or bow to your own instincts; whether you view yourself as inadequate or view everyone else as untrustworthy; whether you can't help but see your differences or just don't care; none of that matters. This is about all of you, making the decision for yourself of where you want your life to go. And the time has come to make it."

Tsuna didn't spare them a glance as he opened the door, stopping only when the Ninth called "Tsunayoshi-kun. If you had no intention of listening to me...if you did not wish to reconcile with your father, and Reborn, and your tired mother...if you only wanted to create a spectacle for your friends...then why did you come back to Namimori in the first place? Why come here?"

Slowly, Tsuna looked back over his shoulder. "To declare war."

And with that final note, he left the office, letting the door swing behind him. It didn't have time to shut before a hand was pulling it back open.

It was simple numbers to Chrome. Boss was her meal ticket, her landlord, her de facto guardian since her split with Mukuro-sama. She wasn't so foolish as to believe that she could still live with Boss and not fight his war with him; he'd left the implication perfectly clear that standing with him was standing against the Ninth. There would be no leeching. And to stand with the Ninth was ludicrous; if there was any enemy that threatened her, it was him. Nothing that had happened since Boss came back changed her mind about that, so why should she even think of turning against Boss?

So she quietly slipped out of the office, satisfied with the small, cold hand hers was wrapped around.

Lambo didn't know anything about fighting, or what was right or wrong, or punishment. He kinda wish he did, because Tsuna looked pretty cool when he was talking, but it all still went over Lambo's head. Well, except the last part, where Tsuna said something about either staying with the Ninth or leaving or staying with him. That was clear enough. And you know, Tsuna had been doing some pretty crazy things, and Lambo still wasn't completely sure how this protected Dokuro-chan, but Lambo didn't want to stay with the Ninth. And if Dokuro-chan was leaving, then so was he.

As he stood up with Dokuro-chan to leave, he looked at Maman. Far from being angry, she smiled and winked at him, giving a quick thumbs up.

Well, that settled things. If Maman approved, then this was the path he would take.

Although it felt better being sandwiched between tall people then on his own.

Gokudera really wanted to pipe up and mention how stupid this whole thing was. They were going against the damn Vongola, the strongest mafia in history, the biggest players in the underground since...well, ever! And he was following the guy that just finished standing up to that Vongola Boss. Yeah - where was the logic in that?

But screw logic. Well, don't screw logic, but forget about it for a moment; because at some point during the Tenth's speech, Gokudera's heart began to beat strangely. It tickled the inside of his chest, made his blood pump faster, caused his breathing to escalate. When the Tenth said that the choice was up to him, that it was his life, that no matter what his friend would respect Gokudera's decision...a feeling that hadn't beat within him for a long time reappeared.


So when the Tenth left the meeting, it only took a second for Gokudera to make up his mind. He had thought for sure he would be the first up, but it seemed a few people had made their decision long before the Tenth was done talking. So the bomber found himself following Chrome and Lambo out of the office. They were barely a meter down the hall before the door clicked open again and someone came up to Gokudera's side, joining them.

Yamamoto's arm had itched on the way up here. At some point over the week, things got so shaken that his schedule had been screwed up. Things like seeing his father, Tsuna talking to him, these things kept him steady and concentrating, but all too quickly a haze shrouded his mind, dulling his senses and making his eyes hurt. He could feel a bitter apathy growing with the situation. He just stopped caring.

Tsuna cut through that haze.

He still thought the man was crazy. Going up against the Ninth was about the stupidest thing Tsuna could do. But what were friends for, eh?

So, even though he knew he would be creating some interesting situations at home, Yamamoto stood and followed Gokudera out the door.

Since Tsuna finished his speech, there had been dead silence; not a word spoken, not a sound made. Which made the quiet grumbling that everyone heard so loud the next time the door opened.

Ryohei hated Sawada. He hated that thrice-damned cocky attitude. He hated being played like a chess piece. He hated being looked down upon. He hated the way Sawada tried so foolishly to help them, just screwing everything up more. He hated the lengths the fruity bastard went to give them this chance. He hated that his aunt had gotten involved in this. He hated...hating.

And he hated the Ninth more then all of that combined. Besides, he owed Sawada a punch.

And a manly hug.

...not that he was going to just spell it out. As he stood from his chair, he looked at his aunt - the plump woman staring at him in dread - and snorted offensively. Grumbling, he opened the door, slamming it shut behind him. He enjoyed the small jump that Lambo the Annoyance gave, but kept his grumbling up anyway.

Oh, how he hated Sawada.

Sawada Tsunayoshi could say what he wanted about how horrible the three years since he'd left had been for Namimori, but Hibari was sure it wasn't all bad.

For one, it had reaffirmed his faith in order, and the law that spells that order. For another, it had given him a new appreciation in the loopholes of those laws.

Take this case for example. The mayor had acknowledged that the crime he'd been accused of had not been perpetrated by him, and the true culprit had confessed to the act. All in front of an officer of the law. And, since the mayor had not brought up any official sanctions against Hibari himself, there was no legal reason why he should have to remain in that office.

Somehow, he didn't believe that his father would agree with that line of logic. He certainly seemed disapproving of Hibari standing from his seat.

Oh well. There was work to be done. He hadn't wrapped up all the paperwork at the committee lounge.

As Hibari quietly exited the office and the door finally shut, all eyes turned to the sole remaining young adult. his form was slumped forward, long hair obscuring his face. He appeared in deep thought.

"Hey..." Reborn called. When he didn't get a response, he raised his voice. "Hey! Mukuro!"

Mukuro looked up sharply, blinking sleepily. "Wha..." he covered his mouth to hide a yawn. "What is it?"

Seeing that everyone was looking at him, he motioned to the Ninth. "Have you finished speaking already? I apologize, there are times where you get going and I just find that I have trouble staying awake."

Looking to his sides and noticing the absences, he stood. "Well, I don't quite know what's happened since I checked out, but I'm sure whatever it was couldn't have been that important, unlike my time. So, I will hopefully not be seeing any of you in the near future. Have a good day!"

And he left, pulling the door shut behind him.

So Tsunayoshi thought he could take on the Vongola. With this rag-tag group of school friends.

Ha! What a fool. Mukuro had been genuinely interested in what would cause Tsunayoshi to come up with such subterfuge; wondered what would push the normally idealistic and good boy to come up with such a many layered plot. But this was the result? To give them all some sort of symbolic choice? Mukuro was ashamed to say it, but it seemed Tsunayoshi was the true madman of the two of them.

Oh, he knew how it would play out. This moral center Tsunayoshi thought he'd created would shatter from the first blow it would receive. This was a death sentence for all of them; they would spiral out of control before smashing against the iron will of the Vongola. Not a bad way to go out, Mukuro supposed. And he could use this.

His original plan had failed because he'd attempted to be too secret. He didn't have the resources to maintain all of the camouflages that were needed to get close to the Ninth. But if he used Tsunayoshi's planned uprising to smokescreen his own efforts...well that was a different story.

Truth hidden in the lies. Lies hidden in the truth. Mukuro couldn't believe he'd forgotten such an effective strategy.

He suppressed a laugh.

And just because he was going to die didn't mean he wouldn't take the Vongola hierarchy with him. And he knew just where to start.

Fiamma Di Molti Colori...The Flame of Many Colors project, huh? Interesting...

Eight figures marched down the hallway back to the elevator. Tsuna in the middle, Chrome at his side, Lambo just a bit in front. Yamamoto at his left shoulder, Gokudera at his right. Ryohei and Hibari following behind, with Mukuro leading the rear, a coy smile on his lips. They all walked in step, eyes forward, no word passed between or gesture made to direct.

And not one person thought of fleeing.

Behind them all, the door opened and the Ninth stepped into the hallway, Reborn at his foot. "War?" he asked the silent hallway. "It's war you want? Then it's war you'll receive! I will remove you all from the Vongola's list of allies; I will take away your special privileges; I will tell the rest of the Vongola you are to be treated as normal students. I will show you what happens when you bite the hand that feeds you!"

No one reacted. Not even Lambo flinched, nor looked over their shoulder.

"This will not end well for you!" The Ninth yelled after them. "You all have suffered before - you will suffer again! And beware Tsunayoshi-kun! Today you have ripped families apart, and they will suffer for your actions long before you do! And you will not be so bold in your actions when it is you alone that have not been broken. You are surrounded by glass cannons, chipped and fractured, shine lost long ago. What will you do when they fall apart, when they fail you, when you find yourself alone in a dark world with nothing but shards around your feet?"

Chrome pressed the open doors button on the elevator shaft, and with a pleasant ding, they slid open. The guardians slowly filed in, Mukuro going for a back corner, Hibari across from him with Ryohei stuck in the middle, then Gokudera and Yamamoto, then Lambo and Chrome, Tsuna entering last.

"Go!" The Ninth finished. "Go and have your games of rebellion. I only hope you wake up and realize the truth before we have to hold a funeral."

Tsuna looked up, holding the gaze of his predecessor. With a flicker of light between his eyebrows, the Ninth's eyes flashed orange. Tsuna's own eyes narrowed in response, glaring as they began glowing orange as well.

The challenge had been sent and received. There was no going back.

The elevator doors shut.

They descended, their journey marked by the periodic dings telling them they had passed another floor. There were no flinches. No tension hung in the air. Postures were relaxed, leaning against the walls of the box and coughing at the heat created by so many people being pushed into such a small space. If it weren't for the rapid, panicked breathing, it would be the picture of serenity.

The passengers looked in between each other, wondering who was the one responsible. Only when his head hit the closed elevator doors did the same thought pass through their heads with a start.

Oh no...it's Tsuna.

"Sorry." he muttered; somehow he had noticed their trepidation. "Closed space...lots of people...makes me a bit nervous."

Chrome and Mukuro shared a look of surprise. He was claustrophobic?

With a dull thump, Tsuna placed his palm against the doors. "Thank you." he said. "I don't know what else to say but that. Thank you for your support. It's nice to know you all have my backs, even after all that's happened."

"And I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell all of you why I'd done this when we were still at school because I was afraid of influencing your decision. Even at the meeting, there were many more things I wanted to say, but I felt I'd slipped up too much. I didn't want to start swaying you. Because, as horrible as it sounds, this is what I wanted. I would have respected whatever decision you made, but knowing I was right in helping all of you out of his control...it's nice to know this whole plan didn't backfire on me."

With a small chuckle, he said "Especially since this isn't how I usually do things. But I am a firm believer in growth through fire. I knew there was more to you then everyone gave you credit for, and you proved it just now; when placed under extreme pressure, you all achieved something you thought you'd never be able to do: You stood up to the Ninth."

"But this isn't just about me, or the Ninth. It really is about all of you. And if we're going to oust the man upstairs out of power, we'll need to work together. You will all need to work together. I'm not saying you all have to be best buds again, but if we can't at least keep an eye out for each other, we will fail."

As they neared the ground floor, Tsuna's hand curled into a fist. "You may, one day soon, look back on this with regret. You may wish you had chosen something else. When you start to have those thoughts, please remember one thing. We're all here. Right now. Together, gathered, united by nothing - not even mutual respect! - but our belief that what the Ninth is doing is wrong, and we want to stop him. Take strength from this little camaraderie, because starting tomorrow I'm going to be calling up old allies and looking for support in this endeavor."

The elevator doors opened, and Tsuna looked at them all with brown eyes and a smile. "Lets show them all what it means to be united."

And as they left La Perla Torre, the guardians did exactly that. For without communication, without any signal, they all swore to keep quiet.

To not tell Tsuna that they really had no reason to believe he hadn't trapped them in another psychological cage and tricked them into standing up against the Ninth.

To not tell Tsuna that gathering different people who all wanted to bring down evil in the world was exactly what the First did, and fighting the Vongola was exactly what the Ninth had once wanted.

To not tell him that the trial by fire doctrine that he had preached had been taught to all of them by none other then Reborn.

They all decided not to tell him these things because a part of their hearts - even Mukuro's - trusted Tsuna. They all trusted him to have left the decision to them, trusted him to be different then his predecessors.

Because he was their friend.

As they left the manicured courtyard, Tsuna ran ahead of them, giving a happy shout and a little twirl. "Can you all feel it on your skin? Can you smell it in the air? Can you see it shine into your eyes and hear it sing in your ears?"

A gust of wind blew down the street, providing a chilled breeze that caused them all to snap open their eyes like they'd been shocked - and forcing Chrome to reflexively grab the end of her skirt to avoid it flipping up. It brought the smell of fresh takoyaki with it, instantly causing Yamamoto and Lambo's mouths to water. Ryohei's stomach growled as Gokudera begun humming a quiet melody. Hibari and Mukuro just watched Tsuna make a fool of himself as the afternoon rays shined from behind him, illuminating his entire figure and making his smile gleam all the brighter.

"It's change." he breathed. "And it's beautiful."

"I don't wanna feel like this tomorrow;

I don't wanna live like this today;

Make me feel better,

I wanna feel better;

Stay with me here now,

And never surrender;

Never Surrender..."

Phoenix Fire has reached it's second of three major critical points; the first being the beginning and the last being...not telling. Suffice to say this is the turning point of Part 1.

But it's far from over. If you've been following my profile, you know that there's still 15 chapters to go. Of course, I've been hit with a set of interesting challenges, so I need your help on something.

First of all, go by my profile and vote on the poll that's there. It's important to the kind of stories you want to read from me.

Second of all, I'm going to tell you right now, I don't know when I'm even going to get started on the next chapter for this, because I need to really start working on some other projects of mine. One of which is another KHR fanfic - an AU - that I'm going to try something new with: No Author Notes! I'll give it a trial run, see how it goes. Not being able to rant like this will be hard...

Anyway, this was the chapter I've been building to since, well, chapter 1. So I hope you enjoyed it, and continue to read this story now that I've FINALLY thrown in a happy moment. Until the next update, I wish you all the best of luck, thank you for reading.