~.~.~

Phantom Thief Decimo

Previously: With the last of the Guardians' battles - Rain and Mist - coming to their conclusion, Tsuna advanced alone, toward the final stage...

~.~.~

From the start, Tsuna had known exactly where Xanxus would be waiting and where their battle would take place. There was only one location that was dramatic enough for the final showdown - the stage at the top of the hill.

Overlooking the entire Kokuyo Center, at the very end of the path through the park, it was the perfect place for the final challenger to wait for their opponent. Strategically, waiting there would force Tsuna to make his way through the park and the gauntlet of Varia members, potentially tiring him out enough to leave easy pickings for Xanxus.

Of course, the real reason was that Xanxus probably liked looking down at his opponent's struggles from on high.

Tsuna couldn't blame him. If he had been the one defending, he would have chosen the exact same place to make his stand. There was something to be said for having the right, dramatic setting.

And the stage that overlooked Kokuyo was the perfect setting in all ways.

It had once been used for special performances, like concerts or seasonal events. Tsuna could distantly remember going up there to see a circus act with his mom when he was around six. It could also double as a stadium for certain sports, being little more than a circle of tiered audience seats around a wide open space. It looked like a coliseum, given what was to come.

That night, the seats would be empty - physically at least. But Tsuna knew that their battle would be observed by many, many people.

So he squared his shoulders and held his head high as he walked through the dark archway of the main entrance, past the ticket counters and ramps up to the seats. Just as he stepped out of the shadows and into the open air of the main arena, the surrounding flood lights began to snap on, one after another, illuminating the entire stadium.

Tsuna squinted against the sudden glare, but after so many heists posing in police spotlights, he knew how to show as little discomfort as possible and how to look past the light.

At the opposite end of the empty field, an ornate chair like a throne had been set up. Lounging in it was his opponent - self-proclaimed candidate for Vongola Decimo, leader of the Varia... Xanxus.

~.~.~

Chapter 15: Battle, final ~ What You Can't Get Back

~.~.~

Tsuna made his way to the center of the field, surreptitiously taking in the empty stadium seats, the flood lights far above and the large screens that had been mounted between them, courtesy of the Cervello.

As Tsuna made his way forward, the screens activated sequentially.

Each one showed the aftermath of a battle - Lambo, a little beat up but otherwise fine, glaring at Levi while Reborn kept the two apart; Gokudera, cut and bloody in several place, picking halfheartedly at the rubble of the visitor center; Ryohei, swathed in bandages, watching as the Cervello tended to Lussuria; the tattered remains of Gola Mosca, Hibari long since gone; Chrome, making her way out of the lizard house; and finally Yamamoto, sitting together with Squalo, who seemed dead set on ignoring all his friendly overtures.

Seeing all of them alive and well sent a wave of relief through Tsuna. He didn't care if they had won or lost. At least they were all okay. Still… Tsuna sighed a little. This was an unfortunate reminder of his limitations. Reborn had warned him against using Kagerou, which would disrupt the Cervello's cameras. They wanted this recorded and seen by the entire mafia world, after all.

Two Cervello judges had been waiting beside Xanxus's throne. They stepped up, toward Tsuna, who had halted in the middle of the stadium.

"The current score, for the Phantom Thief's team is as thus," one of them announced, "two wins, one loss, and three inconclusive."

The matches corresponding to the announced results quickly flickered across the largest screen, behind Xanxus - and also the matching one behind Tsuna, though he could not see it. Two wins - Ryohei and Chrome - one loss - Lambo - and three inconclusive - Gokudera, who had not been able to retrieve the Storm Ring yet, the Gola Mosca's remains, clearly defeated but with the Cloud Ring unclaimed, and Yamamoto, who had earned himself a postponement.

"Now, we shall proceed to the final match - the Sky Battle," the other Cervello judge continued. "Candidates, please step forward."

Tsuna did not move any further, but with a derisive sound, Xanxus unfolded himself from his throne. Straightening from his casual slouch, he cracked his neck and looked balefully down at Tsuna. Even as far apart as they were, Tsuna had to tilt his head back a little to meet his crimson gaze.

"This match will determine possession of the Vongola Sky Ring," the first judge said, "and consequently the position of successor to Vongola IX and future leader of the Vongola Family. Are these terms acceptable to both candidates?"

Reaching under his cloak, Tsuna pulled loose the chain around his neck. He held out the Sky Ring for all to see, the cameras zooming in obligingly and displaying it across the screens around the stadium. Just for show, Tsuna allowed a small Flame to flicker to life from the ring.

Then, he casually tossed it to one of the Cervello judges.

Xanxus's eyes narrowed as she caught it, fumbling momentarily in surprise, but he made no move to attack the judge. They both knew that the one to claim the ring would be the last one standing. Nothing less would do. By handing over the ring, Tsuna reaffirmed that he would not run.

"Then, the Sky Battle has now begun!" the Cervello judges announced.

They jumped away, hurriedly distancing themselves from the two challengers. However, neither made a move to attack just yet.

"Xanxus… Why do you want to become Vongola Decimo?" Tsuna spoke up, repeating the same questions he had posed at the zoo.

~.~.~

Xanxus scowled, recognizing the echo for what it was. It infuriated him that his answer had been somehow judged not good enough, having been the final push Tsuna needed to make his challenge.

"I'm the one most suited to lead Vongola! I'm the only one worthy of it!" Xanxus repeated.

His answer hadn't changed, but it felt more hollow than ever. It was clear that Xanxus was the only one to believe that - the Vongola Ring, Vongola IX, the Outside Advisor, all of them considered this thief to be worthy, or at least a better choice.

"You're just a thief! You could never become the Vongola Boss, you trash!" Xanxus raged. "I won't let you steal it away! I won't let anyone take it from me! The position of Vongola's boss, the title of Vongola Decimo, is mine!"

Tsuna's brow furrowed - something in those words felt out of place. Or rather, perhaps Xanxus was finally speaking honestly.

"If you were always like this, a person who fights only for the sake of some position," Tsuna said, "then it was never yours to start with."

That seemed to be the wrong thing to say.

Bright Flames sprang to life in Xanxus's fists - the Flames of Wrath, whose destructive power was second to none. His hand snapped out, hurling the Flames like a bomb toward Tsuna, who jumped away just in time. Erupting as they hit the field, the Flames left a wide crater where Tsuna had been standing.

Already, more were gathering in Xanxus's hands.

"What the hell do you know?!" he roared. "I've done everything! I fought and fought! I took control of the Varia, even over the one who defeated the previous leader! I led them for eight years! I proved my worth! I survived, even when-"

For the first time, he faltered. Something that might have been pain flickered across his face.

"Even when the rest of them died," he bit out. "So why? Why wouldn't that damn old man name me his successor?!"

Xanxus wasn't speaking to Tsuna anymore. Certainly, he had no answer for Xanxus. This question was one he himself had considered before.

The one to defeat the previous Varia leader, the Sword Emperor Tyr, had been Squalo. Xanxus had not simply defeated him in turn. He had made Squalo his subordinate, his loyal right hand. To be able to turn an opponent and a rival into an ally was the mark of a true boss.

Squalo had been fourteen when he defeated Tyr, and Xanxus had been only two years older, sixteen, when he took over the Varia not long after. He had held that position, Varia leader, for eight years, no small feat. In the intervening time, Nono's other three sons had been killed, one after another.

"What more did I need?!" Xanxus continued. "Power? Strength? Leadership ability? What qualifications did I lack? It should have been mine! I only asked to have what belonged to me from the start! Why did he continually dismiss me?"

Frowning, Tsuna tried to answer. 'You didn't value lives, not of your subordinates, not of bystanders,' he wanted to say. But he didn't even get a chance to speak.

Throwing his head back, Xanxus laughed without joy. "And then I found out… The reason was…" His laughter echoed across the empty stadium.

Suddenly, a snarl twisted across his face.

"Blood of Vongola," he spit out. "What the hell is that? Does having it qualify you? Make you worthy? Look at you! Even if you hold it, you're still trash!"

Tsuna's eyes widened, as he realized what Xanxus was saying. Blood of Vongola - descent from Vongola Primo, the thing that qualified Tsuna as a successor. The thing that Xanxus lacked. In other words, Xanxus… was not Nono's son by blood.

Xanxus had learned the truth six months prior. With Nono's other sons gone and Xanxus having proven himself able to control even the notoriously wild independent assassination squad, he had been the obvious choice for successor. So why had Nono not made his position as heir official? He had begun to suspect something holding Timoteo back.

Finally, he had found his answer among Nono's private files. "She claimed the child was my son, but that was impossible, for I had never seen her before that day," Timoteo wrote.

Xanxus could never become Vongola Decimo. But that couldn't be. He refused to accept that. If Nono would never name him successor, Xanxus would seize Vongola for himself. That was when he began to plan to take the Vongola Rings for himself.

He had forced Nono's hand. Pulled out of his drifting grief, Timoteo had finally acted to secure succession. He had hired the Phantom Thief to keep the Rings from Xanxus, while Nono and the Outside Advisor sought out the only viable heir - Primo's descendant, Sawada Tsunayoshi.

The bloodline that made Tsuna suitable, the bloodline Xanxus lacked...

Slowly, Tsuna shook his head. He wondered if Nono would have still refused to make Xanxus his successor, if not for the one thing none of them could change. Would he have tried to show his son all the things Tsuna thought he lacked as a leader? Or had Xanxus only acted like this because of his own desperation? It was a bitter, tiring thought - no one wished for this situation to come about, not Nono, not Xanxus, not Tsuna himself.

If only it wasn't needed, if only Xanxus could have become the heir...

"Unfortunately, even I can't steal the blood you're born with," Tsuna said, straightening and meeting Xanxus's glare. "It's not possible to take for yourself the hand someone else is dealt. Nor is it possible to give it away."

He gritted his teeth. It's not as if he asked for this either. He had been lied to as well. He had only found out the truth when his father's enemies had tried to kill him. Deep down, Tsuna had still not forgiven Iemitsu for that.

However, this wasn't the time or the place to drag out that old anger, and taking a deep breath, Tsuna forced it away, as he done for so long.

"But even if it's regrettable, what you're doing is wrong," he told Xanxus.

"What the hell do you know, you scum?" Xanxus snarled. "I will become Vongola Decimo. It's my birthright."

Tsuna sighed. "You won't give up no matter what," he realized. "That is your resolve… Then, to make you stop, I'll have to steal away even the manifestation of your will - your Flames!"

~.~.~

After a moment of stunned silence, Xanxus burst into laughter.

"I'm serious," Tsuna insisted, a little affronted before he grew serious again. "I'll show you the power inherited from Vongola Primo!"

He raised both hands over his forehead and, taking a deep breath, slipped into the state he had trained to achieve over the last ten days. A Flame flickered to life above his head. The thick winter gloves he had worn caught fire, quickly burning away. However, Tsuna's hands were unharmed - beneath the disintegrating fabric, another set of gloves was revealed, black and metal.

His weapons, modeled on Primo's, glowed with the power of his Flames, even as Tsuna drew his hands away and faced Xanxus with the calm, burning gaze of Dying Will Mode.

A Sky Flame upon his forehead, a calm, piercing gaze, his fists full of Flame, even the dark cape fluttering majestically - Tsuna didn't realize it, but in that moment, he looked stunningly like the portraits of Primo that watched over every Vongola base and outpost.

The sight didn't cow Xanxus. If anything, it galvanized him. It was as if the representation of everything he despised and could never have was standing in front of him, mocking him.

Without conscious thought, his guns were in his hands, already glowing with charging Flames. He was quicker on the draw than Tsuna, getting off the first shots. However, his opponent dodged easily, Flames bursting out of Tsuna's hands as he took flight. The cameras and screens followed his shining trail of fire, like a comet against the dark sky.

Xanxus continued to fire, adjusting his aim, though Tsuna remained steadily ahead of his shots. Instead, it was the flood lights behind Tsuna that bore his assault, an explosion completely taking out one of the arrays. The screen next to it suffered the same fate.

His calm, focused expression unwavering, Tsuna only glanced behind him to judge the extent of the damage - the power of Xanxus's attacks. His eyes traced over the massive screens, which quickly flipped through multiple views of both combatants. Having found what he was looking for, Tsuna nodded to himself.

Throwing one arm out, he braked in midair and spun quickly to face Xanxus's next shots. With his other hand, he generated a defensive wall of Flame just in time to take the full force of the following blasts. Each one hammered at his Flames with enough force to drive Tsuna back a little. Fortunately, even Xanxus had to reload at some point.

Despite using two guns, Xanxus did so with speed and skill that spoke of countless repetitions. However, even that small pause was enough for Tsuna to begin the next stage of his plan.

He didn't move, either to attack or continue to flee, instead hovering where he had stopped. Pushing himself up with one final boost, Tsuna clasped his hands together as if in prayer. No - the shape his hands formed was different, like a triangle.

The Flames on his forehead and in his palms flickered, irregular and almost tentative. They burst outward with every beat, enough to hold his position in the air steady.

"Is that…?" Xanxus's eyes narrowed, and he scowled furiously. He had seen a pulsing Flame like that only once before, when he glimpsed the Ninth's private training. He had been told it was a secret technique, developed by Primo himself.

He remembered asking naively, if his father would teach him that secret skill. Smiling strangely, Timoteo had gently refused. 'It's something I pray you will not need,' he had said.

It had bothered Xanxus for a long time, and he had searched through the records for any mention of that unsteady Flame. Finally, he had found the smallest mention - an anti-Flame technique, made specifically to seal away an enemy's power.

Bitterly, Xanxus mused that even back then, Nono had been afraid of him turning against the rest of the Family. After all, what other enemies would have Flames powerful enough to warrant such a technique?

And now, it had been taught to this whelp, to use against him.

"As if I'll let you!" Xanxus roared, pointing his guns at Tsuna again. He fired and did not stop, the barrage he unleashed seeming to fuse into a single powerful blast.

The air shimmered with the heat of his shots, together with the bright glow making it hard for Xanxus to tell the result. His eyes narrowed, then widened in shock.

It must have been a mirage - the fact that every shot seemed to pass by Tsuna's floating figure. His black cloak fluttered wildly around him, disturbed by the passing Flames, but it did not appear to be even singed despite the proximity.

'Did he dodge somehow?' Xanxus wondered.

He knew that some skilled fighters could make movements so subtle that they appeared to standing still even as they avoided every attack aimed at them. However, given Tsuna's unwavering pose and the way his Flames continued to flicker, it seemed impossible to imagine that he might manage that kind of motion.

'No,' Xanxus decided, his eyes narrowing again, 'he must have used his Flames to deflect the path of my shots, so they would pass him by.'

He was half right. Tsuna had indeed used the flickering release of Flames to buffer the closest of Xanxus's attacks away from himself. However, deflecting a direct hit would have been impossible even for him - thus why he had been forced to weather the full force Xanxus's earlier attacks.

That's where the other half of Tsuna's defense came in - a tightly held use of Kagerou, to throw off Xanxus's aim. Despite heeding Reborn's warning, Tsuna had judged that the Cervello cameras were far enough that he would be able to keep them from being affected.

Of course, there was another reason Tsuna had initially allowed himself to be almost hit - at the same time as using his Flames to shield from and counter Xanxus's attack, he had also judged the intensity and wavelength of Xanxus's Flames.

That "sense" for his opponent was necessary to prepare Primo's secret technique. And now, he was almost ready.

Tsuna's figure continued to blur and waver in front of Xanxus's eyes, making it almost impossible to get a bead on him. With a snarl, Xanxus abandoned long range combat. Tsuna wasn't the only one who could fly, and throwing his arms behind him, Xanxus used twin blasts from his guns to propel himself into the air.

Unfortunately, it was too late.

Tsuna knew the instance he found the perfect reverse of Xanxus's Flames, something just slipping perfectly into place. Kagerou, which he had still been controlling, suddenly inversed as well, the air around them turning frigid. Xanxus had only a moment to realize that something was wrong - the sudden clarity of his vision, his breath misting again, where the air had long since become too hot for that, his own intuition screaming in alarm.

The barrel of one gun snapped up to point at Tsuna, almost at point-blank range, but the metal felt bitingly cold in Xanxus's hand. One of Tsuna's hands shot out, grasping the weapon, while the other reached toward Xanxus.

"Zero Point Breakthrough," Tsuna announced, his quiet voice cutting through the frozen air.

The feeling of his Flames being sealed was indescribable. This… this was truly "ice in his veins." His muscles grew rigid, no longer obeying his commands, and frost began to form in white patches across his skin. But instead of numbness, he felt the kind of sharp, tearing burn that came from below freezing cold.

Xanxus choked back a scream, making Tsuna's eyes widen, some of his cool detachment slipping away. His technique faltered, and with their Flames gone, both of them began to fall.

It took less than a moment for Tsuna to slip back into Dying Will Mode and reignite the Flames in his gloves. Taking hold of Xanxus's wrist in one hand, he slowed their descent with the other, though somewhat unsteadily under the added weight. Gently, first Xanxus, then Tsuna touched down on the grass below.

~.~.~

Xanxus dropped to his knees, his frigid body still refusing to obey his commands. Blinking sluggishly, he could only watch as his opponent's feet appeared in his line of sight, dark cloak fluttering around his ankles. He tried to lift his head, too cold to even shiver, but the figure before him was little more than a silhouette against the glaring lights.

The cold, an ominous towering figure - it was all so terribly familiar.

It was like that day, when he was first introduced to Vongola IX. That had been the beginning of Xanxus's life. The reason for which he was born. The purpose of his existence.

To become Vongola X.

"This child was born to be your successor, the tenth Vongola boss," his mother had said. "Even his name holds that numeral twice - Xan-Xus."

That was his name from that day forward, the life he accepted and fought to be worthy of. If he wasn't "Xanxus," then who was he? The meaningless, worthless trash he had been before that meeting had been thrown away and forgotten. He had no other name. He had no other purpose, except to become...

"Vongola Decimo…" Xanxus rasped. "I… will be… Vongola Decimo!"

He gritted his teeth, his stiff fingers clenching into fists. Jerking his head up, he glared up at Tsuna, whose eyes widened and lips parted in surprise. Steam rose from Xanxus's body, the frost of Tsuna's Zero Point Breakthrough evaporating away as his Flames surged. First to one knee, Xanxus forced himself to stand.

"I will become Vongola Decimo!" he roared. Flames of Wrath lit once more in his hands, his coat billowing with the energy emanating from his body.

Backing away a little, Tsuna watched his display expressionlessly. Then, he sighed.

"It's as I thought," Tsuna said, meeting Xanxus's gaze evenly. "You won't stop so easily. You won't just change your mind. This is your will and your resolve."

'It's a strong will,' he admitted to himself. 'Whatever his reasons, it's probably stronger than mine… There's no way someone this strong would just bow his head and follow me. If only I had his resolve...'

If only...

Suddenly, Tsuna smiled, sharp and clear. "I understand. Well then, I'll have to steal it from you!" he announced. It was enough to make even Xanxus pause. The Flame of Dying Will Mode flickered to life again on Tsuna's forehead. "Alright, give me everything you've got! I'll take all of it - your will, your resolve, your flames and your anger!"

"Are you mocking me?!" Xanxus demanded, hurling a sphere of Flame at his opponent, who sidestepped it nimbly. "You posing, flamboyant fool! Enough of your nonsense!"

Tsuna nodded, his elation cooling - focusing - into determination. "I suppose it can't be stolen," he said. "After all, I've already laid claim. You're part of the Vongola Family - my Family!"

Even if he didn't know them yet, he would. Even if they weren't his yet, they would be. Tsuna had already decided, he'd announced his resolve, and he would follow through - the Phantom Thief never abandoned a job halfway, no matter what.

"So attack me with everything you've got! I'll accept it all!" Tsuna ordered, spreading his arms wide.

The Sky, accepting and embracing all.

Xanxus didn't need the encouragement. He lunged for Tsuna, furious beyond words. Forgoing strategy and technique, he drove his fist into the place where Tsuna had been standing. The ground caved and exploded under the force of his Flames of Wrath, forming a deep, wide crater.

Using his own Flames, Tsuna had propelled himself out of the way. He touched the ground only briefly and continued to retreat, putting more distance between himself and Xanxus.

"Running already?" Xanxus mocked, forcing some of his rage back enough to think again. "After all those bold words? But I meant what I said - I won't be satisfied with anything except your life!"

"I'm not running," Tsuna said calmly, bringing his hands together in the familiar prayer-like shape.

"That again?" Xanxus muttered, his eyes narrowing. Nonetheless, he drew back instinctively, the memory of that biting cold under his skin, reaching deeper than even his bones, vivid in his mind.

The Flame on Tsuna's forehead began to pulse once more, like a heartbeat. An idea was slowly taking shape, an intuition that there was another way.

He didn't want to seal Xanxus's Flames, which in some way he admired and which could add so much to the Vongola Family. What Tsuna needed was not the perfect inverse to cancel out Xanxus's Flames, but a way for them to change direction. Drawing his hands in closer, Tsuna absently shifted one, the palm facing inward, the shape no longer a triangle but a square.

"I'll make you accept me too," Tsuna swore. "Because you're part of the Vongola Family!"

Again, his words seemed to unintentionally infuriate Xanxus, hitting some hidden wound that had never quite healed, and Xanxus attacked, hurling another sphere of Flame at his opponent, only for Tsuna to jump back - he wasn't ready yet. He had lost the exact point where their Flames had matched up previously, and now he needed to find the right rhythm again. But the rhythm Tsuna needed wasn't his own - it was Xanxus's.

Xanxus continued to press his advance relentlessly. The stadium trembled with the barrage of explosions he unleashed. Even as Tsuna dodged every strike, he was seemingly forced to abandon his technique - or at least the initial stance.

"Shut up!" Xanxus roared. "Vongola is mine! Vongola will be mine! I am the one who will become Vongola Decimo!" He no longer seemed even able to do anything but repeat the same desperate tenets.

Throwing caution to the winds, Xanxus simply charged. The Flames of Wrath in his hands flared wildly, each becoming akin to a raging bonfire.

When Tsuna tried to dodge Xanxus's swipe, the trail of Flame suddenly swelled, setting the ends of his cape on fire and forcing Tsuna to call up his own Flames for defense. His eyes narrowed, the Flame on his forehead flickering again.

"You don't know anything about me! You don't know anything about Vongola! You scum! You have no right to claim those things!" Xanxus shouted. His unrelenting assault continued to drive Tsuna backward, and even using his own Flames to counter, Tsuna was beginning to look worse for wear. "You don't know who I am!"

How could he, when even Xanxus wasn't sure anymore?

Baring his teeth, he drove a burning fist toward Tsuna, who had hesitated, staring at him. But this time, Tsuna didn't even try to dodge. His own hand came up, catching Xanxus's punch. Flames of Wrath engulfed both their arms, glowing almost impossibly bright.

However, Tsuna showed no sign of pain. The Flames that illuminated their faces seemed to simultaneously darken and glow brighter, the color and nature changing into something else.

"No, I can see it," Tsuna said quietly, "who you are really are. You're part of the Vongola Family! You're the Varia leader! You're the Ninth's son, Xanxus!"

The Flame on his forehead flared up, as the energy caught in their joined hands was drained away - absorbed. Tsuna's gloved hand tightened, holding Xanxus's in place.

"Just as I'm the son of the Young Lion of Vongola, Sawada Tsunayoshi!"

With a yell, he drove his fist into Xanxus's stomach.

~.~.~

Gagging, Xanxus curled in on himself. His Flames flickered out, his body no longer responding. His vision grayed as he struggled to pull air into his lungs. Drawing his fist back, Tsuna stepped away from his downed opponent and watched as Xanxus dropped to his knees.

"H-how-?" Xanxus choked out. "My Flames…"

They had disappeared, dispersing without his command, and now he couldn't seem to draw up any more. Had his opponent done something? Or was he just too worn out? Had he lost the will to fight?

"I revised Zero Point Breakthrough," Tsuna said, the last vestiges of Dying Will Mode slipping away as he looked at Xanxus with concern. He smiled, a surprisingly tentative shadow of the Phantom Thief's smirk. "I told you I would steal your Flames. Sealing you away… it would be a waste. And there's no way I could do that to a member of my Family."

"We're not…" Xanxus insisted through gritted teeth.

"We are," Tsuna cut him off. "We're part of the same Family. We were from the start. Vongola, the CEDEF, the Varia… we're all connected. Don't you think that's enough already? Having everyone turn on each other and play each other like this… I'm sick of it. Maybe you won't accept me as Decimo, and maybe I'm not worthy of that title, but at the very least, hear me out."

Approaching Xanxus again, still just a little cautious, Tsuna knelt in front of him.

"At least give me a chance to prove myself," Tsuna asked him quietly, meeting Xanxus's cold, pained gaze.

He scowled, but he looked more tired than anything. "The ring accepted you, even back then," Xanxus said bitterly. "You're the successor. You don't need anything else."

Tsuna shook his head. "I want your support," he said. "The support of every member of the Vongola Family."

Xanxus snorted. "Even one that wants to get rid of you?"

"Especially that one," Tsuna said firmly. Under his patient, steady gaze, Xanxus said nothing further, and Tsuna stood slowly, his own exhaustion beginning to make itself known.

He knew better than to do something as presumptuous as holding out his hand. Xanxus hadn't accepted him, but at least it seemed he was willing to listen, or maybe just stop fighting for a little while.

Cautiously, the Cervello judges made their way closer, one of them still clutching the Sky Ring. They exchanged a look and a nod. Only one of the challengers was still standing, after all, the one whom the ring had already accepted. Still skirting around Xanxus's exhausted form, they approached Tsuna and bowed deeply.

"Then, the Sky Battle is concluded," one of the judges said, straightening.

"The winner - Sawada Tsunayoshi," the other acknowledged, and held out the object at the center of the entire conflict.

Tsuna waited a heartbeat and then another, his gaze on the judges but his attention on Xanxus. However aside from a quiet sound that was neither agreement nor protest, the Varia leader made no move to interfere. Slowly, Tsuna reached out, curling his fingers around the ring in the Cervello judge's palm.

As always, it was warm, and it flared with an orange light as his hand closed around it.

"Congratulations, and thank you for participation," the Cervello agents intoned.

The remaining floodlights and screens around the stage flickered and went dark. Their little show had come to an end.

~.~.~

As soon as the cameras shut down, Tsuna let out a deep sigh of relief. Suddenly, all his joints seemed to turn to jelly, and he stumbled over unsteadily to drop down on the grass beside Xanxus. He received a dark look, but Xanxus didn't try to strangle him or even shove him away, which he counted as a minor victory. Though to be honest, Tsuna was a little beyond caring at that point.

"Now I have to walk all the way back down and to Namimori," he realized, groaning.

"We will provide transportation," one of the Cervello judges informed him, the other already speaking rapidly into her comm. "We ask for your patience while we coordinate the retrieval."

Tsuna nodded, sighing a little. He shivered - now that the heat of battle was dying down, the night air was cold again. Without the lights, he could see the stars clearly, far above. He felt unbelievably tired, but also relieved, even if he knew the hard part was still ahead.

'I just agreed - volunteered! - to run a mafia group,' Tsuna thought, numbly. 'What was I thinking? ...I wonder what it's like, the Family my father was always running around with.'

"Are you really the Outside Advisor's son?" Xanxus asked gruffly, pointedly refusing to even look at Tsuna.

"It was an unwelcome revelation," Tsuna replied, rather flatly.

Thinking back on his own meetings with Iemitsu, Xanxus had to concede the point. They exchanged a look, a certain understanding passing between them.

"Oh," Tsuna remembered suddenly, reaching into his jacket, "here." He held out one of Xanxus's guns, trying not to look guilty or embarrassed. He really hadn't meant to take it - it just sort of happened somewhere in the middle there.

Xanxus twitched a little, but accepted it wordlessly. The second gun made him growl under his breath. Upon accepting his wallet, Xanxus couldn't even work up any surprise. Handing him back his chain and cuff-links was just taking it too far, however.

"Hiiieeeee!" Tsuna shrieked as his former opponent, potential future ally lunged for him with murder in his eyes. Finding himself quickly pinned and in an armlock, Tsuna tried to beg for mercy, to no avail. There was no help coming, either.

A few feet away, the Cervello were having a very quiet but very intense discussion, and Tsuna wondered if it had anything to do with the amazing number of "inconclusive" battles that had been announced. He wasn't sure he even wanted to know what his friends had done.

In fact, Cervello agents were encountering some difficulties in retrieving all the participants.

Levi and Lambo - or rather, Reborn with Lambo under his arm - had started to come along peacefully, but hearing the news of his boss's loss drove Levi into a state of shock, followed by a frothing rage. The agents were still struggling to calm him down or restrain him.

Gokudera had been unwilling to let Cervello excavate his prize, which might put his victory into questions, only for Belphegor to finally claw his way out of the rubble. Of course, with the match and the entire gauntlet declared over, Gokudera hadn't been allowed to finish off his opponent. The question of who would keep the ring had yet to be resolved.

Ryohei, who knew the least of what was going on, had refused to go anywhere without an explanation, and had then naturally completely misunderstood everything the Cervello had tried to tell him. They were still trying to persuade him that they were not the clone army of a mad scientist who had tried to take all the Namimori Animal Park animals for his twisted experiments. At least Lussuria was blissfully unconscious.

Hibari had disappeared, leaving the entire Cervello contingent jumping at shadows in dread of his reappearance. The gutted remains of the Gola Mosca, still with the Cloud Ring inside, had sparked an entirely new debate, regarding whether a robot could even be a contestant.

No footage of the Mist Battle could be retrieved past a certain point, and the two agents assigned to it had nothing but blank memory to show for it. Mammon was mysteriously missing. Chrome refused to comment.

Squalo had begun swearing up a storm, once he heard of the Sky Battle's outcome, while Yamamoto just laughed. However, both of them still insisted on the necessity of a rematch, or rather a continuation of their battle. They had also apparently exchange contact information somewhere in the middle of all that, as well as an invitation to sushi at Yamamoto's place.

Though they staunchly maintained their professionalism, deep inside the Cervello were vividly cursing Vongola and all those associated with it. Nothing ever went smoothly with that Family.

However, some would say that was part of the Vongola charm.

The sky was beginning to grow light in east by the time everyone who could be found had been rounded up and the large troop transport helicopter descended onto the burned, cratered field. Twelve exhausted, exasperated people piled inside, too weary to do more than verbally swipe at each other without much heat.

Despite being enemies only hours before, several drifted off to sleep as soon as they collapsed inside the helicopter. Watching them, Reborn snorted and shook his head. So this was the next generation of Vongola. They were a lot like the last generation, to be honest.

He wondered if Timoteo still remembered those days, when Brow Nie, Nono's new Sun Guardian, kept trying to push Iemitsu down the stairs or out a window and Ganauche, the young Lightning Guardian, constantly threatened to shoot them both. And now the three of them were drinking buddies and practically blood brothers. Not to mention the sort of trainwreck disasters Iemitsu and Enrico had gotten up to.

Maybe one day Xanxus and Tsuna could become like that as well.

Well, it was too early to even start hoping for that.

Of course, that didn't stop Reborn from maneuvering things so that Tsuna and Xanxus ended up next to each other again. Despite the progressively more vicious wrestling holds he had been put through, Tsuna easily settled beside Xanxus with a weary sign.

Xanxus shot him a steely look and made sure to keep a careful eye on all his possessions, but before long, he turned back to glaring out the window as if the panorama of Kokuyo and Namimori in the distance had personally offended him.

With a small smile, Tsuna followed his gaze, eastward, and together they silently watched the rising sun.

It was the beginning of a new day, a new year and a new age.

~.~.~

Notes

Q: What's up with Xanxus?
A: Who knows. He's weird.

Q: No, seriously, what's up with Xanxus?
A: There was no Cradle Affair. Xanxus spent eight years leading the Varia (being originally only two years older than Squalo). In the meantime, Nono's other sons were killed. Not being officially made successor pissed Xanxus off, and he ended up finding out about being adopted six months before the start of the story. He would have gone on to attack the CEDEF and try to take the rings by force (revised Cradle Affair), but Nono conveniently redirected that by hiring Tsuna to interfere.

In other words, Xanxus had not experienced Zero Point Breakthrough before.

Also, I can't believe Xanxus necessitated two different exposition dumbs with reminiscing in a single chapter. Drama queen.

Q: That's it?
A: Yes. It's over. I tried writing more, but it just didn't work out. I made some pretty big miscalculations in the long-term planning of this story... So there's just the weak epilogue to wrap things up!

Thank you for reading! I'm glad that you made it all the way to the final chapter! (All… three of you. I love you guys.)

~.~.~