They Also Serve

Kyouko and Haru deal with Family (and family) politics. This fic was originally written for the first round of khr_undercover and has been revised from the originally-posted version, mostly for the sake of development and expanding a few things. Post-TYL arc, assuming a divergent future; safe for general audiences.

The first day of her official duty as Sawada Kyouko’s personal bodyguard was nothing like I-Pin had imagined it would be.

There was a lot more crying than she’d expected, for one.

The house majordomo, Sergio, had provided her with a copy of Kyouko-san’s daily schedule, looking all the while like he wasn’t convinced that such secrets should be entrusted to a seventeen-year-old girl. I-Pin had memorized it, even though she’d already known most of the particulars, and presented herself promptly, just as Sawada-san was kissing Kyouko-san goodbye after their breakfast. He smiled at her and thanked her, again, for being willing to serve in this fashion, and then headed in the direction of his study, where Gokudera-san would be waiting to start the day’s business.

Kyouko-san went in the opposite direction, to the private morning room that looked out over the east gardens where she and Haru-san normally had a cup of morning tea together and—I-Pin wasn’t entirely sure what Kyouko-san and Haru-san could spend morning after morning talking about, but she supposed she would find out. I-Pin followed after her, trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach at the thought that this was it—she had really, truly been given charge of the safety of the Vongola Tenth’s wife.

“It’s so good to have you here, I-Pin,” Kyouko-san murmured, when they’d come to the little sun-soaked room, and pressed I-Pin’s hand between her own. “You don’t know what it means to me.”

“It’s my honor, Sawada-san,” I-Pin said, embarrassed by how damp her palms were and the way Kyouko-san took no notice of it.

“None of that, now.” Kyouko-san released her hand. “I remember when you used to call me ‘nee-chan’. Don’t be formal with me now. It’ll make me feel old.”

“But—I—” I-Pin stopped when Kyouko-san laughed. “Perhaps in private?” she ventured, for the sake of compromise.

“I suppose that’s only proper.” Kyouko-san turned and gestured at the little tea table and its array of teacups and pastries, already waiting for Kyouko-san and Haru-san. “Will you join me while we wait for Haru?”

“I don’t think that would be proper,” I-Pin said, after a moment’s hesitation.

Kyouko-san’s smile was rueful. “If you insist.” She sat, and poured a cup of tea for herself. “I hope you don’t mind this duty,” she said, as she added a bit of sugar to the cup and stirred it. “It won’t be nearly as exciting as the things the boys get up to, or what Bianchi-san does. The Vongola’s wife tends not to get out very much.”

“Of course I don’t mind!” I-Pin bit her lip, and then rushed on, before her sense of propriety could get the better of her. “I’m so young, and this is my first assignment for the Vongola… It’s such an honor to be given such an important task. I don’t think I—I don’t think I really deserve it.”

“Of course you do,” Kyouko-san told her, brisk. “I wouldn’t have requested you, otherwise, and Gokudera wouldn’t have agreed if he hadn’t thought the same.”

It wasn’t elegant, or professional, to gape. I-Pin gaped at her, nonetheless. “You requested me?”

Kyouko-san smiled at her. “I did. Sometimes it seems like Haru and I are drowning in a sea of testosterone.”

Haru-san let herself in just in time to hear that. “What’s this about testosterone?” she asked, taking the second seat at the table.

Kyouko-san poured a second cup of tea. “I was just explaining why we’re so glad to have I-Pin back.”

“It’s because boys are stupid,” Haru-san said.

Kyouko-san paused in the act of handing her the teacup, and I-Pin stared. “Haru? Is everything—”

“I’m fine,” Haru-san said, but I-Pin thought that she certainly didn’t look fine. Her lips were pinched, and as I-Pin watched, she helped herself to one of the delicate pastries that were heaped on a plate, only to begin tearing it to pieces.

Kyouko-san put the teacup down. “What happened?”

Haru-san shook her head. “It’s nothing. He just proposed again.”

“…ah.” The syllable was full of understanding. “You fought?”

Haru-san drew a breath. “For a while. Like usual.”

Kyouko-san seemed to be studying her. “Normally, you like fighting with him.”

That seemed to be enough to tip the balance of Haru-san’s composure. “Normally he doesn’t all but call me a whore to my face!” she exploded, and then burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, between gasping sobs. “I don’t know why that bothers me—we always say such awful things to each other—we never mean them, except last night it seemed like he did, and—”

“Shh,” Kyouko-san murmured, as she moved her chair around the table and put her arms around Haru-san, while I-Pin watched, mute with astonishment. She’d heard the rumors that Gokudera-san and Haru-san had a stormy sort of relationship, but Lambo-kun had been irritatingly vague on the particulars, and certainly hadn’t said anything that would have made her expect this.

Haru-san leaned against Kyouko-san; after a few more gulping sobs, I-Pin could see her taking hold of herself again. “I’m so sorry,” she said, as Kyouko-san produced a handkerchief. Haru-san accepted it to wipe her eyes, and then stared at the smudges of makeup on the pale cloth. “Damn it.”

“It’s only a handkerchief,” Kyouko-san said. “Don’t—”

Haru-san shook her head. “I’m being a terrible bother.” She straightened her shoulders. “Especially over such a silly fight.”

Kyouko-san, I-Pin noticed, simply pressed her lips together tightly, and said nothing.

Haru shook herself. “Give me just a moment,” she said. “I’ll wash my face, and we can get down to business.”

“Take your time.” Kyouko-san watched her leave the room, drumming her fingers against her knee, as if considering something. Then she rose and went to the side table, and dialed something on the house telephone. When she spoke, it was in a tone that I-Pin was sure she’d never heard Kyouko-san use before. “Tsuna? Yes, I’m sorry for interrupting you, but it’s important. Is Gokudera still with you?” She paused for the answer, and her mouth firmed. “Good. When you’re finished with him, send him to me. I need to speak to him.” She listened. “Thank you.”

She returned the receiver to its cradle, and restored her chair to its proper place. When she’d done that, she favored I-Pin with a wan smile. “I’m so glad you’re here. It would be… difficult to handle this in front of one of the boys.”

“I’m not sure I understand what’s happening,” I-Pin admitted.

“It’s a very long story. Listen for a bit and see whether it comes clear.” Kyouko-san busied herself with filling a plate with a selection of the tea dainties. “If not, then we’ll find a way to muddle through an explanation.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask what was so wrong between Haru-san and Gokudera-san that a proposal would cause them to fight, but the sad, set look in Kyouko-san’s eyes made her bite her tongue.

When Haru-san returned, her eyes were puffy, but her expression was composed. “Are those the ones I like?” she asked, when Kyouko-san gave her the little plate.

“I asked for them, just for you.” Kyouko-san’s expression had gone back to the sweet, gentle smile I-Pin was used to seeing.

“You’re wonderful.” Haru-san fell upon the little cakes. “Never let Lucia-san go. The woman’s a saint and a marvel.”

“Isn’t she? Rosetti-san is never going to forgive me for hiring her away from them.” Kyouko-san sipped her tea, with a complacent smile. “How was your shopping yesterday? Find out anything?”

Haru-san looked at I-Pin and then Kyouko-san, and only answered when Kyouko-san tipped her chin in a brief nod. “It was sparse.”

“Tell me anyway,” Kyouko-san said, over the rim of her cup.

“I still haven’t found anyone willing to talk to me. The Modigliani are terribly closemouthed.” Haru-san frowned. “The one man who was willing to give me the time of day wanted to hear about the Vongola’s business.”

Kyouko-san looked troubled. “Mm. I don’t like that.”

“How do you think I feel? Men are supposed to be putty in my hands, not concrete.” Haru-san nibbled on one of the pastries. “Maybe I just need to give it more time. Flirt harder or something, or get closer to someone who’s not a foot soldier.”

Kyouko-san looked even more troubled at that. “Be careful, Haru. If anyone realizes—”

“I’m always careful.” Haru-san tossed her head. “No one’s going to realize anything I don’t want them to.” She punctuated that with one of her chirpy giggles and a smile that I-Pin would have supposed was genuine, if it hadn’t been for the lingering redness of her eyes and the very serious look on Kyouko-san’s face. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine, and I still bet you that I’m going to be able to get to the bottom of this before—well, before anyone else does.”

“Mm,” Kyouko-san said, and looked up. Her expression changed, and she laughed. “Why so confused, I-Pin?”

I-Pin felt her cheeks turn hot, and she tried to school her expression. “I’m sorry, Kyouko-san. I was—um. It’s nothing.”

Haru-san’s mouth kicked up at the corners. “You’re wondering what on earth we’re talking about, that’s all.”

I-Pin ducked her head, acknowledging the point.

“It’s as I told you,” Kyouko-san said, after a moment. “The Vongola’s wife isn’t free to move around. There’s not much I can do about that, but I do have to know what’s going on. Tsuna tells me what he can, but…”

Haru-san picked up where Kyouko-san’s voice trailed off. “He has a tendency not to share some things.”

“He doesn’t want to upset me,” Kyouko-san said, tone mild.

“He just doesn’t think it’s any of your business,” Haru-san retorted. To I-Pin’s ears, the exchange sounded practiced, like they’d had it many times. “None of us can afford to be ignorant of what’s going on around us. Especially not Kyouko-chan.”

“So Haru is my eyes and ears.” Kyouko-san looked at Haru-san, expression something that I-Pin couldn’t quite decipher: it looked like affection and regret and worry, all mixed together. “She finds out the things they don’t tell me, and together we piece them into something that I can use to help the Vongola.”

“It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.” Haru-san grinned, cheerful.

“That someone doesn’t have to be you,” Kyouko-san murmured. “We could—”

Haru-san interrupted her. “We’re not having this argument again.” Her voice was almost harsh. “You need me, and no one else can do what I can do for you. No one else is going to have the position I’ve created for myself and no one else is going to have my protection, and besides, I want to do this for you.”

“But when it costs you so much…” Kyouko-san began, and stopped at the fierce look Haru-san gave her.

“Am I or am I not your right hand?” Haru-san demanded. “I knew perfectly well what I was getting into from the beginning.”

Kyouko-san’s mouth quirked. “That was more than I knew,” she said, and sighed. “You’re not just my right hand, you’re my only hand, and I do wish you would have a care for yourself.”

“Don’t worry so much about me. I can take care of myself.” Haru-san’s tone was very nearly brusque, as if she was defying either of them to mention the tears from just a few minutes ago. “Anyway, it’s not going to be just me for that much longer. We’re already off to a good start, yes?”

I-Pin found her position changed abruptly from interested observer to the focus of their scrutiny. After a moment, she understood their twin looks. “Me?” she said, alarmed. “But I—why me?”

“You can get to places that even I can’t,” Haru-san said, blunt. “I’m not a fighter, so the boys don’t take me seriously, and I can’t flirt for information inside the Vongola because Hayato would lose face if I did. You’re Kyouko-san’s bodyguard. You’re practically one of the boys yourself.”

“But—what about Bianchi-san? Or Chrome-san?” I-Pin said, a little desperate. “I mean—they’re much more important and they know their way around—”

“And Chrome belongs to Tsuna,” Kyouko-san said, gently. “And Bianchi-san…”

“Bianchi-neesan is already part of the Vongola system,” Haru-san said. “She’s already focused on her role. We want people who are willing to be more flexible.” She paused; I-Pin thought it must have been deliberate. “And whose interests will follow Kyouko-chan’s.”

I-Pin froze. “I—but—” she said, with the sense memory of kneeling before Sawada-san and the solid metal of his ring beneath her lips flashing through her mind. “I’ve already promised to serve the Tenth. I kissed his ring.”

Haru-san’s smile was tiny. “So did I. And Kyouko-chan, she wears his ring. We both still serve the Vongola. It’s just… in our own way.”

“If you say yes,” Kyouko-san murmured, “and you don’t have to, if you prefer not to—but if you say yes, the things I will ask you to do will be for the sake of helping me help Tsuna. Do you see?”

I-Pin bit her lip till it stung. “I—may I think about it?”

“Of course.” Kyouko-san’s smile was gentle. “Speak to Tsuna, too, if that would help set your mind at ease.”

There was really only one proper response to that; I-Pin bowed. “Thank you, Kyouko-san.”

“Think nothing of it.” Kyouko-san refreshed her tea, and turned back to Haru-san. “So you’re having as much trouble with the Modigliani as everyone else is.”

“A little less, I think.” Haru-san’s smile was sharp. “I was the one who noticed there was something wrong there in the first place.”

“True. Again, Tsuna thanks you for that.” Kyouko-san sipped her tea. “What of the other Families? Anything interesting I should know?”

Haru-san lifted a shoulder, shrugging. “Not really. The Barassi are starting to think about marrying off their younger daughter. It looks like the Orsini and the Leone are both going to try for her hand.” She thought for a moment. “Feretti-san’s mistress may be pregnant, so things are upset there.”

“I imagine so. Poor Maria.” Kyouko-san sipped her tea. “He’s not still threatening to put her aside for the mistress, is he?”

“Why do you think they’re so upset?” Haru-san asked, tone dry.

“Perhaps I’ll have her to tea,” Kyouko-san said. “It’s not much, I suppose, but I do like Maria. She’s so sensible.”

“And goodness knows we could use as much of that as we can find,” Haru-san said, and then snapped her fingers. “Oh yes. Vieri-san is expecting again.”

Again?” Kyouko-san looked astonished. “She already has five!”

“Well, in another few months, she’ll have six.” Haru-san drained her teacup, and shook her head at Kyouko-san’s abortive move towards the teapot. “Better her than me, that’s all I can say.”

“Maybe this time she’ll have that girl she’s been wanting,” Kyouko-san murmured. She glanced at her watch and started. “My goodness, is that the time already?”

“It is,” Haru-san said, looking at her own watch. “That’s about all the gossip I have for you at the moment, anyway. I’m going into town later to see what my girls have to say. Hopefully, we can get to the bottom of this Modigliani business soon.”

“That would be nice. Tsuna’s worrying over it too much.” Kyouko-san looked up at Haru-san as she stood. “Haru. Do be careful.”

Haru-san’s smile was quick. “I’m always careful, remember?” She smoothed her skirt, laughing at the sound Kyouko-san made, and let herself out.

I-Pin waited for a sign from Kyouko-san; the itinerary she’d memorized suggested that the next thing Kyouko-san would do would be a trip downstairs to speak to Sergio and make sure that the household’s affairs were running smoothly.

Kyouko-san stayed seated instead, and finished her cup of tea, quietly—waiting for Gokudera-san, I-Pin supposed. Presently, she set the teacup down and took up the handkerchief she’d lent to Haru-san, and spread it across her knee. The smudges of Haru-san’s mascara were very dark against the fabric. “It would be a good idea if you could make yourself as inconspicuous as you can,” she said, studying the handkerchief.

“Of course, Kyouko-san.” I-Pin dipped her head and then retreated to the corner, where she could watch the room, and stilled herself.

Not long after that, someone knocked on the door, and Kyouko-san called for them to come in. It was Gokudera-san; he left the door open behind him, until Kyouko-san said, voice very clear and calm, “Close the door, Gokudera.”

I-Pin had a good vantage point for watching his face; Kyouko-san’s tone turned his expression wary. “Is that appropriate, Kyouko-san?”

“Close the door,” Kyouko-san said, again, voice so calm that it sent chills running down I-Pin’s spine. “I’m sure I-Pin will be able to guard our reputations for us.”

Gokudera-san glanced at I-Pin, but shut the door. “You wanted to speak to me?”

“Yes,” Kyouko-san said. “I have some things to say to you.” When Gokudera-san nodded to show that he was listening, she went on. “This is about Haru.”

Gokudera-san’s mouth went flat. “Kyouko-san, with all due respect, I have a lot of things I have to get done today. I don’t think now’s the time to be talking about my personal life.”

“And I disagree with you,” Kyouko-san said, and that was when I-Pin finally placed her tone: it was the same one that rang in Sawada-san’s voice when he was in the grip of his Will. “Has it honestly never occurred to you that perhaps Haru has more to do with her life and for the Vongola than to sit around at home and make your babies?”

“No,” Gokudera-san said, mouth still flat, lines etched at the corners of it. “But maybe it would have if she did more with her time than spending it shopping and gossiping and flirting with other men, since those are services that I didn’t think the Vongola really needed.”

Kyouko-san’s voice didn’t get any louder, but it turned sharper. “Do you think the only way to serve the Vongola is to carry a gun or a box weapon? Or the only life a person can give is the one that the body holds? Does service only matter when it comes to the forms you approve of?”

“Of course not, but I’ll be damned if I can see how frittering your life away does anyone any good at all,” Gokudera-san snapped.

“Is that what you think we’ve been doing?” Kyouko-san asked, and I-Pin had to suppress a shiver at the still expression in her eyes.

She’d always thought Gokudera-san was a smart man; certainly he was smart enough now to say, “Not you, Kyouko-san. You’re the Tenth’s wife. You couldn’t fritter away your life if you wanted to.”

“And yet all I do is spend my time giving parties and standing by Tsuna’s side with a pretty smile,” Kyouko-san said. “How very useless of me.”

Gokudera-san backtracked faster. “You’re the last person I would call useless,” he said, gesturing. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen you jigger a negotiation in our favor just by saying the right thing and smiling. You’re one of the most respected women in the mafia world.”

“Then tell me this,” Kyouko-san said, slow and deadly calm, “how do you suppose I know what exactly the right thing to say is?”

Gokudera-san blinked. “I assumed the Tenth must tell you things.” He smiled. “And maybe women’s intuition?”

“Then you’re ten kinds of fool, Gokudera Hayato.” Kyouko-san’s voice cut like the fine edge of a knife. “The kinds of things I need to know aren’t found in how many men the Barassi can muster or what kinds of box weapons are in production now. I need to know who’s allied with whom and what they get out it, who’s feuding this week and where their weak spots are, and who holds the balance of power and who doesn’t. I have to know where the right word would help and what the right word is. I have to pay attention to which Families have sons at loose ends, and whose mistress is pregnant this week, and who has a daughter they’ll trade to another Family for trade concessions, and who was insulted at last week’s garden party and won’t speak to the Leone for love or money. There’s no intuition to it. It’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of sifting through hints and rumors and speaking to the right people and cultivating the right contacts. And I ask you, Gokudera, is that the kind of information that you think Tsuna can give me?”

Gokudera-san opened his mouth, and then seemed to think better of it. “…some of it,” he said, finally. “And I know he receives reports about some of the other things.”

“And where do you think those reports come from?”

“I…” Gokudera-san stopped, and stared at her. “Surely not.”

“From me,” Kyouko-san said. “And my information comes from Haru and the network of contacts she’s built up, piece by piece and person by person, for years now. She goes where I can’t and sees the things that I won’t ever see and listens for the things that will never reach my ears.” She stopped, and drew a breath, and said, with slow, careful emphasis, “Tsuna is not the only member of this Family who has a right hand, and without Haru, I couldn’t do the many things I do for Tsuna and the Vongola.”

“Your…” Gokudera-san began, and stopped, like he couldn’t quite bring himself to say it.

“My right hand,” Kyouko-san said. “The one who does the things I’m not able to do. The one who puts herself into danger every day when she speaks to the men of other Families and cultivates them for whatever tidbits of knowledge she can coax out of them.” She stopped, perhaps to let that sink in, and then picked up the stained handkerchief that had been sitting, forgotten, on her knee.

The motion caught Gokudera-san’s eyes, and he stared at it. The moment comprehension flickered over his poleaxed expression, Kyouko-san spoke again. “A married woman isn’t free to act, you know. It wouldn’t be honorable. But a woman who isn’t so firmly bound… she can, perhaps, flirt with whomever she likes. If it’s known that she has a man—a protective man, a dangerous man, a man whom very few people would care to cross—perhaps she can even do this with impunity. And if her man is an important person to her Family, then perhaps people might be freer with their attentions than they might otherwise be, because they hope she may be indiscreet in her turn. But she’s never indiscreet, because her loyalty is to her Family and to the man she loves.” Kyouko-san stopped, and drew a breath. “And she’s proud of her service, and how vital it is, even if no one else knows what it is she does, but at the same time, she’s painfully aware of the things that she can’t do because of that service.”

Gokudera-san listened to that, nearly impassive, except for the muscle that flickered at the corner of his jaw. When she had stopped, he stood silently for nearly a minute before asking, voice taut, “And no one thought that this was something that I ought to know?”

“We decided that the fewer people who knew the truth, the easier it would be for Haru to keep people from suspecting what it is she’s doing,” Kyouko-san said.

“Including her own boyfriend.”

I-Pin bit her lip at the heavy bitterness in his voice.

“To protect her, yes.” Kyouko-san lifted her chin, by a fraction. “It was my decision, in the end.”

“To protect her. Of course.” Gokudera-san’s voice was still taut with—bitterness and anger and outrage, I-Pin decided. “And I suppose the only reason you changed your mind was because her cover story is in danger now.”

“Excuse me?”

Gokudera-san gestured, hand cutting through the air, sharp. “Because I told her to stop fooling around on me, or it was over.”

The quick intake of Kyouko-san’s breath was loud. “She didn’t even mention that. Only that you’d proposed again.”

“Yes, again, like an idiot. If I’d just realized that it was my protection she’d wanted, I wouldn’t have bothered.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I suppose that wouldn’t have been as plausible, though, would it?”

Kyouko-san pressed her lips together, firmly, before she finally replied to that. “I know you’re angry, but did you not hear me when I said that she loves you?”

“I heard,” he said, grim. “I also heard how convenient it was for her boyfriend to be me. I assume she chose me because of my position in the Family, and because Hibari wasn’t available.”

“She chose you because she loves you,” Kyouko-san said, and I-Pin wondered how angry she actually was, for it to be seeping into her voice like this. “This wasn’t something we planned, Gokudera. It grew out of our circumstances. And this is why I was reluctant to tell you, because I knew you’d be an insecure ass about it!”

I-Pin flinched, and Gokudera-san went white and clenched his hands at his sides. “We both know I was her second choice,” he said, from behind teeth that were clearly gritted together. “Can you really blame me?”

Kyouko-san curled her fingers together around the handkerchief. “Now you really are being an idiot,” she said, voice soft. “You know better than that. You know that Haru is better than that.”

“I know you only think the best of people,” Gokudera-san retorted. “But if you want to pretend that she didn’t spend all that time mooning after the Tenth, then I don’t think I’m the idiot here.”

I-Pin held her own breath as Kyouko-san took a breath and let it out, and then another, before she finally said, “That was a very long time ago, Gokudera, and we were still children. People do change, you know.”

“And yet you’re married to the Boss, like we all knew you would be. They don’t change that much.”

Kyouko-san closed her eyes. “You’ve obviously made up your mind to think the worst. Is it even worth it to argue with you?”

Gokudera-san’s voice was very even. “What would you have me do, Kyouko-san?”

Kyouko-san opened her eyes again, and looked at him. “I would ask you to bear with it a little longer, until we’ve dealt with the Modigliani. After that, you and Haru can go your separate ways, and she and I will figure out something new. Will you do that for me?”

Gokudera bent his head, but the motion looked stiff. “I live to serve the Vongola.”

“I know you do,” Kyouko-san said, slowly, almost sadly. “Even when we don’t treat you so well as you deserve.” She sighed. “Thank you for your patience, Gokudera.”

“As my lady commands,” he said, mouth twisting around the words. “Will there be anything else?”

“No,” Kyouko-san said, softly. “Not today.”

“Thank you.” He bowed, short and jerky, and spun on his heel to let himself out.

When the door shut behind him, I-Pin released a long breath.

“Damn,” Kyouko-san said, so quietly that I-Pin barely heard her. “Damn it.”

“Kyouko-san?” I-Pin ventured.

“I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake,” Kyouko-san said, smoothing and folding the crumpled handkerchief. “A rather large one. And for the life of me, I’m not sure how to fix it.” She shook her head. “What a mess.”

“He’ll change his mind, won’t he?” I-Pin asked, hesitant.

Kyouko-san smiled at her, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I hope so.” She stood. “But it’s no use worrying about it just now. There’s work to be done.”

I-Pin fell in at her side, watching and worrying all the while.

It was something of a relief to get out of the Vongola mansion and away from its stifling atmosphere, and to linger at the salon, letting Adele fuss over her hair and insist on a facial—”Haven’t you been sleeping, dear? Your eyes are all bloodshot.”—to deal with the morning’s storm of emotions. There was unfortunately limited amounts of information to be heard in the salon that afternoon, since Haru was nearly the only customer, but that was a relief, too, and Haru relaxed into the simple pleasure of being attended to.

Still, she did pick up a few interesting tidbits; Giovanni Barassi was specifically interested in allying with a Family that would help him recoup some of his losses since the Vongola had curtailed his smuggling operations, which gave the Orsini boys an edge over the Leone son. The Orsini weren’t as fond of the Vongola as they might be, to boot. It was something worth thinking about, at any rate.

Haru picked up a few more scraps of information as she made her afternoon rounds—Antonio at the dress shop mentioned that it had been an unusually long time since Caterina Modigliani had purchased a new dress, and he knew for a fact that she hadn’t been patronizing another shop. Haru believed him; Antonio prided himself on his tenacity and attention to his customers, and was fully capable of interrogating an unfaithful client until he’d discovered the cause of her infidelity. That Caterina Modigliani wasn’t purchasing new dresses seemed odd; the woman was beautiful and knew it, and had a reputation for accentuating her beauty fairly enthusiastically.

Haru tucked that bit away to discuss with Kyouko-chan.

Nothing else in her rounds was particularly fruitful, save for the coffee she stopped to enjoy, because there she met one of the boys who had a connection to the Risso arm dealers. Nino was a nice fellow, and so far one of her best leads regarding the Modigliani, since he seemed to be pretty much head over heels for her. Haru smiled at him and let him buy her another coffee, and flirted delicately with him as he hinted at the same important deal he’d mentioned before. It wasn’t anything she didn’t already know, but it confirmed that whatever it was that the Modigliani were up to, it was proceeding apace.

All told, it wasn’t a bad afternoon’s work. Haru returned to the Vongola estate in something she supposed would pass for good spirits.

“I should have known better,” she announced to the air, when she discovered the message that Kyouko-chan wanted to speak with her waiting for her.

When Haru found her, Kyouko-san was in her study, standing at the window under I-Pin’s watchful eye. “Was there something you needed to tell me?”

Kyouko-chan’s shoulders rose and fell on a sigh, and then she turned to look at Haru. Her expression was drawn. “I’m afraid so.”

Haru took her usual seat and braced herself. “How bad is it?” It couldn’t be anything that affected the Vongola as a whole; things were too peaceful for that, and Kyouko-chan merely looked strained, not terrified or angry.

“It’s—difficult.” Kyouko-chan gathered herself, hands pressing together; that was what she did when she didn’t want to fidget. “I—spoke with Gokudera this morning.”

“You… oh, god.” Haru pinched the bridge of her nose; so it was only a disaster for her personally. Wonderful. “Why?”

“Because I hoped I’d be able to help.” She paused. “Why didn’t you tell me he was talking about ending it?”

Haru sighed and looked up at her. “Because he always says that, if I don’t say it first.”

Kyouko-chan blinked a bit at that, momentarily sidetracked. “You two have a very strange relationship.”

Haru shrugged; she couldn’t deny it. But then, not everyone could be as sweet a pair of lovebirds as Kyouko-chan and Tsuna-kun managed to be. “Normally it works out all right.” That didn’t seem to soothe Kyouko-chan very much. “So… what did you tell him?”

Kyouko-chan gave into the inevitable, fingers twisting around each other, which wasn’t a good sign. “I explained why you do what you do. He… wasn’t pleased, really.” Before Haru could ask what that meant in practical, Hayato-specific terms, Kyouko-chan rushed on. “He seems to think you chose him because of… business-related reasons, and not for his own sake. And that you might still be carrying a torch for Tsuna.”

Haru could only stare at Kyouko-chan for a moment, absorbing that. “You’re not joking, are you?” Kyouko-chan shook her head. Haru pinched the bridge of her nose again, trying to press the incipient headache away. “Oh, no. He’s such an idiot.” And of course he would have taken things entirely the wrong way, because that was just how Hayato’s brain operated, the insecure idiot.

One of these days, she was going to persuade Tsuna-kun that the Vongola didn’t really need Hayato’s family, and then she was going to go out and do her very best Hibari Kyouya impression for several people the world would be better off without. Perhaps it wouldn’t fix what was past, but it would make her feel better.

“There’s… I’m afraid there’s more.” When Haru looked up, Kyouko-chan looked positively miserable. Haru braced herself again, for the worst. “I’m afraid… I didn’t know that you… threaten to end things regularly. I, um, gave him permission to end things after the Modigliani thing is taken care of.”

“You…” Haru groped for words in the face of the enormity of that, because it was one thing for the two of them to scream that this was it, it was over for good, get out when they were arguing, but for the Tenth’s wife to give Hayato permission to end things, when he was in a calmer frame of mind… “Oh my god,” she said, as the bottom dropped out of her stomach.

“I’m so sorry.” Kyouko-chan was wringing her hands so hard that they were probably in danger of being rubbed raw. “I swear I didn’t realize—if I’d only known—”

“How could you have known?” Haru asked, from around the hard lump in her throat. “We have the apartment we do because it’s so far away from the rest of the house and no one will have to hear us yelling.” That didn’t seem to reassure Kyouko-chan, so Haru dredged up a smile from her reserves. “Don’t worry. It’s going to take us forever to crack the Modigliani business open. That’ll give him plenty of time to think things over and come back around to being sensible.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Sure I do,” Haru said, with all the briskness she could muster. “He never stays angry for long.” Usually, anyway. This might be a special case. “Don’t worry. This might even be a good thing. If he knows what I’m doing now, then I can compare notes with him directly, instead of running things through you and Tsuna-kun.”

“Still, I am sorry,” Kyouko-chan said, although she looked a little bit more hopeful around the edges. “I’ll do anything to make it up to you—”

“Hush, don’t say things like that.” Haru gave her a smile. “That’s too dangerous for the Vongola’s wife to be saying.” She stood. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. Now, I have some things to put away…”

“Of course, of course.” Kyouko-chan gave her a worried smile. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Haru nodded, and saw herself out, and didn’t give vent to her emotions until she was safely behind her own door. “Fuck,” she announced, to the too-still apartment.

And then, because it was pointless to dwell, she went to unpack her packages and put them away.

“You know,” Tsuna remarked once the door was closed behind him, in tones of wonder, “this morning, one of the things I told myself was, ‘At least this is the worst Hayato’s mood can possibly get.'” He hooked his fingers in his tie and unknotted it. “I guess it’s good to know that I can still be taken by surprise.” He hung his coat over the back of a chair and sat on the edge of the bed. “What on earth did you say to him?”

Kyouko turned from watching his progress in her mirror to meet his eyes directly. “I explained what it is that Haru does for me.”

Tsuna’s eyebrows went up. “I see,” he said, pulling his tie off. “Once he’s had a chance to think it through, I suppose he’ll calm down.”

“I wonder,” Kyouko said. “He seems to think he’s been used rather badly.”

Nothing in Tsuna’s expression even hinted that he might be thinking I told you so, and she loved him for it. Instead, he sighed, and said, “I’ll speak to him—”

“Don’t.” When he looked at her, she added, “I think this is something they have to do for themselves.”

“Do you think so?” Tsuna frowned, and stretched to drape his tie over the arm of the chair. “I hate watching them argue with each other.”

“Me too.” Right now, she’d give anything for it to be an ordinary argument. “I’m afraid it’s worse than that. He’s—after the Modigliani business is dealt with, we may need to rebuild Haru’s network.”

Tsuna’s fingers stilled on the buttons of his shirt. “Ah,” he said quietly. “That would be unfortunate.” His fingers began moving again. “But I suppose that we’ll do it if we have to.” He shook his head. “Though I really would rather not have to.”

“Same here.” Kyouko watched him undress, and went to him when he held a hand out to her. “I hate to see them so upset,” she said, against his shoulder. “Especially Haru.”

“I don’t know. Right now I’d trade you Hayato for her,” he said, against her hair.

She couldn’t help laughing. “I’m not sure that would be a fair trade.”

“No? Pity.” He lifted a hand to her hair, and she sighed at the warmth of it. “They’re both intelligent adults. They’ll figure it out, surely.”

“Let’s hope so,” Kyouko agreed, as he reached for the lamp and turned it off, and let him draw her into bed. When they’d arranged themselves comfortably, she told him what news Haru had brought her. He made interested sounds at the news of the Barassi’s daughter, and vaguer noises when she mentioned poor Maria Feretti—well, it didn’t make all that much difference to the Vongola whether Paolo Feretti got his children from his wife or his mistress, but Maria was a good person and didn’t deserve the indignity of being put aside after all the years she’d endured her husband’s infidelities. “And Anna Vieri is expecting again,” she finished.

“What, again?” Tsuna asked, sleepy voice rich with amusement. “Don’t they already have enough?”

“I think she just likes children a lot,” Kyouko said, listening to the slow, steady heartbeat under her cheek. “She’s not the only one, you know.”

Tsuna’s chest rose and fell on a sigh, and his arm curled tighter around her. “Things are still unstable,” he said, quietly. “I don’t think—”

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be stable,” Kyouko told him, and then forced herself to take a deep breath. “I just—I’m afraid of waiting too long, Tsuna.”

He sighed again. “I know.”

Kyouko lifted herself up on an elbow to look at the dim outline of his face. “Think about it,” she said, softly. “Maybe, after the Modigliani—”

His fingers against her lips stopped her. “There’ll be time,” he said, softly. “I promise.”

Kyouko let him coax her back down, and sighed. “I worry,” she told him, after a moment.

“Too much, sometimes,” he replied.

But he wasn’t the one who was left at home to worry about him whenever he went to negotiate with the other Families, Kyouko thought, and didn’t say. He wasn’t the one who had to wonder whether she’d be left alone, with nothing to show for the time they’d had together, and he wasn’t the one who’d have to deal with the Family if he died without an heir. “Just think about it,” she said again, finally. “Please?”

“I’ll think about it,” he said, and Kyouko could tell he was smiling. His lips brushed against her temple. “Go to sleep, love.”

Even if he was humoring her, it was a start. Kyouko sighed again, and nestled against him, and tried to let go of her worries, at least for a little while.

Hayato didn’t show up at dinnertime, and didn’t call to say where he was or whether to keep his meal warm for him or not. Haru found herself waiting for him much longer than was sensible before she finally sat down to her own portion. She covered his serving and put it in the refrigerator when she’d finished, and tried to read for a while, but couldn’t keep track of the words on the page. In the end, she gave that up, disgusted at herself and annoyed at Hayato for being—himself, mostly—and retreated to the bathroom for a long, hot bath.

Soaking in the tub did little to slow her thoughts down, between the issue of the Modigliani—there was something there, something important that she was missing, if only she could put her finger on it—and what to do about Hayato, and what she was going to do if the stubborn, proud fool really had meant it this time when he’d said it was over—

But there was no use fretting over it. If Hayato couldn’t trust her to know the difference between work and her personal life, then this was bound to have happened sooner or later.

A glass of wine did what the bath couldn’t, and slowed her thoughts down enough to be manageable by the time she gave up waiting for Hayato to come in and went to bed.

She’d half-expected to toss and turn all night, but the previous night had been restless enough that she fell asleep almost immediately, and slept soundly until the alarm went off.

Hayato had come in during the night, and was asleep in the living room, scrunched up on the couch with his head at an angle that Haru knew was going to mean a painful crick in the neck. He was scowling even in his sleep, and promised to be an utter monster whenever he woke up.

After a moment of looking at him, Haru went and armed herself with a pot of coffee and a bottle of aspirin. She left them within his reach on her way into the bathroom. It wasn’t much, as far as peace offerings went, but it wasn’t as though she’d managed to slip back into an entirely charitable mood just yet.

When she emerged from the bathroom, refreshed and almost ready for her morning workout, the coffee had done its work. Hayato was hunched over it, glaring at the coffee table as if it had offered him some insult. He didn’t look up when Haru stepped into the living room.

So it was up to her to start things moving? At least that wasn’t anything she wasn’t already used to. “If I’d realized you were planning on sleeping out here, I would have chosen one of those couches that folds out to be a bed.”

“I wish you would have,” Hayato grunted, still not looking up.

“I’ll keep it in mind, next time we redecorate,” Haru told him, as lightly as she dared, and waited to see how that would be taken. Perhaps a night’s sleep would have—

“You can do whatever you like, once I’ve moved out.”

Or perhaps not. “I wish you wouldn’t,” Haru said, once she’d caught her breath from that. “I’ve gotten used to you, you know.”

“I’m sure you have.” Hayato’s mouth was twisted into one of his self-mocking grimaces. “You’re good at that. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding someone—”

“If you finish that sentence,” Haru said, as calmly as she could manage, given the circumstances and the early hour, “I will slap you.”

He looked up, as if to gauge whether she meant it. “We both know it’s true,” he said. There was fresh anger there, layered over something else—an aching sort of thing, she thought, in the part of her that wasn’t taken up with her own outrage.

“I know no such thing,” she snapped. “I’m married to you in everything but name, you idiot, if you’d just get your head out of your ass long enough to notice it.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I swear I don’t know what it is about letting a man into your life that makes him think that he has a right to the whole thing, but—wait.”

“Isn’t that what—” Hayato began,indignant.

Haru held up a hand to silence him. “Hush. Argue later. Thinking now.” She pressed her folded hands to her lips, thinking furiously. “The problem is, we’ve been thinking of the Modigliani as always having been loyal to us, and we’ve been wondering why on earth that should have changed.” Standing was no good; she launched herself into motion, pacing the length of the living room and back, working through her thoughts out loud as she maneuvered around Hayato’s easy chair and the basket of her magazines and books. “But the Modigliani aren’t what they’ve always been, are they? The current boss, Vincentio. He married into the Family and took the Modigliani name, and his Family—they merged with the Modigliani.”

Hayato seemed willing to suspend the argument for the moment. “Mm. He was one of the Bolzoni,” he said. “The Bolzoni had money, and the Modigliani didn’t, but they had a much older name, and a spare daughter—”

“Caterina, yes. Who isn’t buying dresses any more,” Haru said, reaching the end of the room again and turning; she ignored the confused expression on Hayato’s face. “So Vincentio married into the Modigliani and took their name, and then… then Massimo got himself killed, conveniently enough, which means Vincentio is suddenly the heir by way of his new wife… and then old Enrico Modigliani dies, and Vincentio takes over, and now, a few years later, the Modigliani are no longer quite loyal to the Vongola. How convenient.”

“I suppose it is, but Enrico died of a heart attack, and Massimo’s death was an accident,” Hayato pointed out.

“And if you ask Bianchi-neesan, she can tell you half a dozen ways to cause a heart attack that looks perfectly natural,” Haru said, waving that aside as she stepped around the basket again. “What do we really know about Massimo Modigliani’s death? Anything?”

“I did just say that it was an accident,” Hayato pointed out, but he was beginning to look thoughtful, perhaps in spite of himself. “He drowned while he was sailing. It was sad, but—” He stopped, and went silent while Haru made a few more circuits of the room. “It was peculiar,” he said, presently. “He was supposed to have been an excellent sailor. The Modigliani investigated, of course, but they found that it was an accident.”

“Were they Modigliani investigators, or were they Bolzoni?” Haru asked him.

Hayato frowned, looking past her, into space. “Hm.”

When he didn’t say anything else, Haru murmured, “I think it bears looking into.”

That brought his focus back down to her. “Even if it wasn’t an accident, what do you propose to do about it?” he protested.

“The Modigliani were poor, but tightly-knit. They still are.” Haru stopped. “If we can just find the right fulcrum, we might… might be able to move Caterina Modigliani into action.”

“You do realize that you’re suggesting that we start an internal war in another Family, don’t you?”

Haru looked at him, but his expression was as neutral as his tone. “Only if Caterina-san isn’t as smart as she’s supposed to be,” she said, finally. “If the Vongola could give her proof that the Bolzoni removed her father and her brother, it seems to me that she would be well within her rights to take the control of her Family back from the interloper. And if the Vongola were to help her…” She shrugged and spread her hands. “Our alliance is renewed and solidified. Or maybe the Modigliani get thrown into chaos, the Modigliani and Bolzoni factions spend their resources on each other, and the Vongola can sleep easier at night. Either way, we win.”

If what you’re insinuating about Vincentio Bolzoni is correct, which is going to be difficult to prove.” Hayato took a drink of his coffee, the gesture an absent one and his eyes gone unfocused again. “It’s worth looking into, as long as we’re discreet about it.”

Haru smiled, pleased. “Good, good. You have resources that I don’t, so you’ll—what?” she asked, because he was looking at her again, pulled back from his contemplation of the Modigliani’s internal politics.

“I hadn’t realized you spent so much time thinking about Family politics,” he said, slowly.

“It’s more interesting that shopping.” Haru straightened her shoulders. “And a girl has to have something to pass the time.”

Hayato’s smile was ironic. “I suppose she does.”

“Yes, well.” Haru shook herself. “See me standing here, wasting time.” She turned away. “If you find out anything about the Modigliani or the Bolzoni… maybe you can tell me about it at dinner,” she said, as casually as she could manage.

“That’s expecting a lot of me, don’t you think?”

Haru paused, hand resting on the door jamb. “You never know. The Vongola does have one of the best intelligence networks that I know of.”

His sigh sounded frustrated. “I’ll let you know if I learn anything.”

Not at dinner, she noted. But it was, perhaps, a start. “All right. Bathroom’s all yours.”


She didn’t see him again before she left to go work out, and passed the time she spent running by consoling herself that at least she’d managed to avert the argument they’d started to have, and that speaking to each other civilly was something that almost resembled progress.

The good thing about Haru’s new theory was that it had distracted her, at least somewhat, from her problems with Gokudera.

The bad thing was that it presented Kyouko with an entire host of new problems.

“You realize that if you’re right, I’m going to have to find a graceful, subtle way of saying, ‘Excuse me, Caterina-san, but I believe your husband killed your father and your brother,’ don’t you?” she asked, once the implications of Haru’s theory had truly sunk in.

Haru’s answering shrug was breezy and unconcerned. “That’s why you’re the Boss’s wife, not me.” Her smile turned wicked. “And don’t forget, you have to find a way to say, ‘Oh, hey, do you want the Vongola to help you bump your husband off?’ too.”

I-Pin, standing guard in the corner, made a sound that sounded suspiciously like a muffled giggle.

Kyouko sighed. “None of my etiquette lessons ever covered this,” she noted. Not even the ones she’d learned from Unità-san, which had seemed impossibly and improbably extensive at the time.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Haru’s smile was warm and reassuring. “You always do.” Then she shrugged again. “And I could be wrong, of course. Don’t forget that.”

“Mm.” Kyouko rather doubted that; it made the Modigliani’s sudden swerve into sedition much more plausible than it had been before. “We’ll see, I suppose.”

Haru smiled. “Of course we will.” She set her teacup down. “That’s all I have for you this morning. Unless there’s anything else, I have plenty of work to do, whether I’m right or I’m wrong.”

“I won’t keep you from it,” Kyouko said. “Just… one question before you go.” She folded her hands together, hesitating. “How are things with Gokudera?”

Haru looked away. “Up in the air,” she said, briefly. The line of her jaw was set and said more than her words did.

“Ah,” Kyouko said, heart sinking at that news. “Let me know if there’s anything—”

Haru looked back at her; her smile was only a bit strained at the corners. “You know I will.” She stood. “Until later.”

“Until then,” Kyouko told her, and sighed as she went.

“What’s bothering you?” Kyouko asked, when even turning out the lights and pressing close to Tsuna had failed to relax him.

Tsuna’s chest rose and fell under her cheek. “Hayato spoke to me today.”

Sometimes it worked to tease Tsuna, gently, about how seriously he and the boys took their roles. This… this was not one of those times. “What did he say?”

“He wanted to know whether he ought to resign as my right hand.”

Half a dozen reactions flashed through Kyouko’s mind at that, from disbelief to amusement at Gokudera’s tendency towards extreme reactions; they were tempered by the soft, even tone Tsuna had taken. It was, despite their being curled up in bed together, his business voice. Kyouko took a breath. “Why did he ask you a thing like that?” she asked, already suspecting what the response was going to be.

She wasn’t far off. “A boss should have complete faith in his right hand,” Tsuna said, slow and even. “He felt that since there were things I couldn’t tell him, I should find a right hand who would be more reliable.”

Kyouko closed her eyes and forced herself to take a breath, and then another, before she responded to that. “I told him that it was my decision,” she said, finally, when she’d mastered herself again.

“He’s aware of that,” Tsuna said, and although his voice was all business, his hand on her shoulder was gentle. “He suggested that I seek a replacement who you would approve of, too.”

“Oh, hell,” Kyouko said, because that was the only thing to say to that.

Actually, that wasn’t true. “Tsuna, I’m sorry.” Hadn’t that been one of the very first things the Giglio Nero’s Unità had taught her—that one didn’t, couldn’t play games inside one’s Family? “I shouldn’t have insisted on keeping Haru’s business a secret.”

“No,” he agreed, and that was the thing that had taken her the longest to accept—that he could be as ruthless with himself and her as he was with his enemies. “You shouldn’t have. And I shouldn’t have agreed.”

Kyouko let out a breath. “Tell me that you talked him out of it, at least.”

“I did, eventually.” Some of the strain went out of his voice. “It took some doing.”

Knowing Gokudera? Yes, it probably had. “I’m sorry,” she said again, softly. “I’ll speak to him. I owe him an apology, if he’ll have it.”

“He will,” Tsuna said, voice thawing the rest of the way, now that they understood each other. “He’s not unreasonable.”

Kyouko wasn’t quite able to keep herself from snorting at that. “Generally, no.”

Tsuna’s breath huffed against her cheek. “I suppose he does have his moments.”

“From time to time.” Kyouko raised her head to look at him. “Is he going to be okay?”

“…I think so,” he said, mouth set in thoughtful lines, just barely visible in the dimness. “He’s so proud, you know.”

“Yes,” Kyouko said, and rested her cheek against his shoulder again. “I know.”

She would have to do her best not to forget that again.

Even when she’d been memorizing Kyouko-san’s daily routine, I-Pin hadn’t fully grasped how much of Kyouko-san’s time was spent waiting: waiting for Sawada-san to join her for a meal or a conversation, waiting for Haru-san to bring her information, waiting for the replies to letters and invitations and phonecalls, waiting for something—anything—to happen.

The bulk of Kyouko-san’s itinerary was taken up with activities that filled all that waiting space.

“I told you this would be a boring duty,” Kyouko-san said, at the end of I-Pin’s first week, late in the afternoon, as Maria Feretti and her bodyguard strolled out of the garden to the car that was waiting for them.

“Bodyguards like boring,” I-Pin murmured, which made Kyouko-san laugh. “I don’t mind, Kyouko-san.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Kyouko-san murmured, watching Feretti-san—thin, worn Feretti-san, who had cried on Kyouko-san’s shoulder for a good long while—climb into her car. “I think all these things I spend my time doing must seem terribly frivolous, or so I imagine.”

“How so?” I-Pin asked, after a moment’s hesitation.

Kyouko-san looked away from the long, dark car. “Oh,” she said, with a faint smile. “It’s because I’m not doing my real duty as Tsuna’s wife.” When I-Pin stared at her, confused, she added, “Well, I’m only doing half of my job.”

“Half?” I-Pin echoed, ransacking her brain for the things that Kyouko-san ought to be doing that she wasn’t already, when the week had been full of a hundred little duties attended to by Kyouko-san’s personal attention.

Kyouko-san moved along the path, and stooped to examine a rose bush. “Mm. There aren’t any little Vongola heirs running around yet, are there?”

I-Pin’s cheek went warm. “Oh. I suppose there aren’t.”

“No,” Kyouko-san said, fingertips brushing over the plush petals of a full-blown rose. Her smile was rueful. “It makes Tsuna’s advisors rather nervous, or so I hear.”

I-Pin nibbled on her lip. It seemed forward to ask, but Kyouko-san had been the one to open up the topic… “Are there—do you have plans?”

“Not yet. He wants to wait till things are… safer, I suppose.” Kyouko-san shook her head, straightening up. “I’ve told him that ‘safer’ probably means ‘never’, for us, but he doesn’t seem to want to listen to me.” She looked away from I-Pin, surveying the garden. “I think it will have to be soon, though.”

“I—” I-Pin hesitated, searching for something she might say to that. “You were very good to me and to Lambo-kun,” she said, finally. “I think you’ll be a very good mother.”

Kyouko-san’s answering smile was bright, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Thank you, I-Pin.” She shook herself, and glanced at her watch. “Ah, it’s getting late. We need to get inside—Gokudera has a meeting with me in a few minutes.”

Ever since the trip to the-future-that-wasn’t, Kyouko had thought that Gokudera’s box weapon was perfectly suited to him. She was reminded of his similarity to Uri again when Gokudera came slinking into her sitting room, eyes wary and fingers flicking a lighter through them nervously. “You wanted to see me, Kyouko-san?”

“I did.” Kyouko gestured at the pair of chairs pulled up to the fireplace. “Will you sit?”

“I’d rather stand,” he said, perfectly polite—yes, she’d rather expected him to be angry with her still. “If it’s all the same to you.”

“Whichever you prefer,” she said, and watched him arrange himself like a soldier going to parade rest, lighter secreted away somewhere. “I owe you an apology,” she began. “I shouldn’t have kept Haru’s duties a secret from you. You should have known about them from the start, and for that I am sorry.”

“That’s not what you said the other day,” he said, after several beats of silence, his expression gone still and unreadable.

“The other day I was angry,” Kyouko said, as frankly as she could manage. “My best friend was hurting, and I was angry on her behalf.” Belatedly, she realized that her fingers were working against each other, nervously, and forced them to be still. “I should not have let myself lose my temper like that.”

“Mm.” Gokudera’s expression remained shuttered. “Did the Boss ask you to do this?”

Kyouko felt her spine drawing straighter of its own volition, pride offended at the very suggestion. “No,” she said. “He told me what the two of you discussed yesterday, but he didn’t ask me to do anything. I’m apologizing because what I did was a mistake and was wrong, and you deserve better.”

If anything, his expression went even more frozen at that; when he finally spoke again, Kyouko recognized it for what it was: frozen anger. “Yes,” he said, each syllable clipped short, the control of this anger a marked and dangerous contrast to his ordinary explosions, “I really think I do.”

I-Pin moved in her corner, restless. Kyouko gestured at her to be still, with a calm she didn’t feel—she always managed to forget how terrifying Gokudera was when he was truly angry. It happened so rarely, and was normally directed outside the Family. It was unnerving to be the focus of it now, when the last time she’d seen him like this, he’d left the Magri Family in smoking ruins for their attempt on Tsuna’s life. “You do,” she agreed. “I made a mistake, Gokudera, and I don’t have any defense except that I was very young then, and inexperienced, and it didn’t occur to me what things would look like from your perspective. I’m sorry.”

“How could you not realize what—” Gokudera stopped himself as his voice began to rise. “How could you not realize what kind of effect it would have?” he repeated. The lighter reappeared, and he flicked it open and closed, fingers restless. “He has to be able to tell me everything. If he doesn’t—”

“I know that now,” Kyouko said, watching him narrowly, but some of the coldness was dissolving into a hotter, simpler anger, something that was less about pride than exasperation. “I was young and stupid, Gokudera. I didn’t understand, then.”

“Why did you even do it in the first place?” he demanded, temper cracking the rest of the way open.

Kyouko suppressed her relief at that; Gokudera in a cold fury was a terrifying, implacable thing. By comparison, his normal temper burned out as fast as a match. “Because you were young, too,” she said, slowly, and watched his eyes flare. “And we—Haru and I—worried that you wouldn’t understand that it was something that she needed to do, for her own self-respect, and that you would ask her to choose.”

She paused, giving him a chance to absorb that, and then continued when he narrowed his eyes, clearly considering it. “And because, back then, there were many people who looked right through me, as if I didn’t matter at all to the Vongola. Having something that no one else knew—let me deal with that graciously. It’s a very hard thing, to feel like the only thing people see when they look at you—if they even look at you—is a useless, silly girl.” There was something else that might be useful here, as embarrassing as it was to bring up. She spread her hands. “Do you know how long it would have been before Tsuna and Niisan told me about all this, if the other Hibari-san hadn’t done it for him?” He shook his head. “Three or four years.”

His eyes widened just a bit. “That seems a bit… excessive.”

“I thought so, too. All the same…” Kyouko shook her head. “I shouldn’t have done something at your expense, just to soothe my own ego.”

“Not my expense. The Vongola’s,” he said, but his eyes had started to go more thoughtful than angry.

“Your expense and the Vongola’s,” she said, determined to firm about that, at least. His mouth quirked a bit at the correction. “I am sorry, Gokudera. It was never that I didn’t trust you.” She glanced away from him, and was careful to keep her voice steady. “There’s no one I would rather trust him with than you. Please believe me when I say that, at least.” She steeled herself and met his eyes again. “And I promise that I will never ask him to keep another secret from you. Ever.”

She hardly dared to breathe as he held her gaze, until he finally dipped his head into a nod. “I would appreciate that,” he murmured, hands stilling on his lighter again. “Was there anything else you wanted to discuss, Kyouko-san?”

Kyouko searched his expression, fingers twisting together. Was there anything else she could say to him? Perhaps something about Haru? In the end, she decided not. “No,” she said. “I won’t keep you from your duties any longer.”

He nodded, the motion brief, and turned away. “Thank you, Kyouko-san,” he said, at the door, and then went out.

What for? she wondered, and sighed. In a situation like this, who could know? “I just hope that did some good,” she said, out loud, and then shook herself. Either it would or it wouldn’t. “I don’t know about you, I-Pin, but I could really use a cup of tea.”

“That does sound good,” I-Pin murmured, and gestured. “I could call for them to send some up…?”

Kyouko sank into one of the seats. “Do, please,” she murmured. “And tell them to send two cups.”

I-Pin looked uncertain, but she didn’t argue, and Kyouko smiled. That, at least, could be counted among the day’s victories.

Haru carried no weapons: not a gun or a knife, nor a ring or box, but all the same, she was armed and dangerous—or so she’d overheard, once, from one of the Cavallone foot-soldiers, who was warning another when he’d thought she couldn’t hear him. At the time, it’d given her a warm, satisfied feeling to hear, and even now, with all her other difficulties weighing on her mind, it was comforting to know that even when the men of other Families knew she was dangerous, most of them never remembered to be wary of her. It was amazing what a man would tell a girl after a glimpse of leg or a bit of décolletage, especially when they were accompanied by a giggle and a credulous look.

What was even better still was having a better angle to attack the Modigliani with; a little detective work and a little more leg work allowed her to sweep into Kyouko-chan’s morning room and announce, “I’ve been going about this all wrong. I’m so stupid, I can’t even believe myself.”

Kyouko-chan, who was, after all, the very soul of courtesy, merely lifted her eyebrows and held out a cup. “Tea?”

“Thank you.” Haru sat, knowing that she was beaming—well, she’d earned it. “I’m so good at this that I make myself sick.” She reached for one of the tea cakes, and then stopped, looking at the array of place settings, the number of them finally registering. “Are we expecting guests?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Kyouko-chan looked at her, clearly uncertain of how she was going to take whatever it is she was about to say. That, Haru thought, was a pretty good sign of what was to come. “Tsuna and Gokudera will be joining us shortly.”

That pretty much figured. “Oh, god,” Haru said, and left the tea cake alone. “Do we have to—”

“I’m afraid so,” Kyouko-chan murmured. “Tsuna says they have news.” Her hands folded around each other. “Are you and Gokudera—”

“He’s still sleeping on the couch,” Haru told her, blunt, because that was the easiest way to get through it. “I barely ever see him, and he’s not talking much.” She held up a finger before Kyouko-chan could open her mouth. “Don’t apologize. Not again. It is what it is, at this point.” She hadn’t managed to resign herself to that, yet, but that wasn’t the point. Calming Kyouko-chan down was.

“Still…” Kyouko-chan began, and then drew herself up at the tap on the door. “That must be them. Come in!”

It was the first chance Haru had really had to get a good look at Hayato since the morning of her epiphany; as she’d rather expected, it looked like he wasn’t taking care of himself. His cheeks were thinner than they ought to have been, and there were dark circles under his eyes—well, it wasn’t a very comfortable couch for sleeping on.

It would have been nice for him to have noticed her looking, but he was carefully avoiding her gaze. Haru frowned, annoyed, but then she realized that Tsuna-kun had taken the chair on Kyouko-chan’s other hand, which left the only empty seat next to her, and Hayato’s grimace became clear.

“Sit down, Gokudera, don’t loom at us,” Kyouko-chan said, pleasantly enough, when it seemed like he would pace rather than sit. The words were sweet enough, but her voice was firm.

Even so, it looked like he was tempted to argue, until Tsuna-kun caught his eye. “Yes, ma’am,” Hayato said, still frowning, but he took the seat.

Haru stifled her sigh.

Kyouko-chan poured the tea and passed the cups around, and then smiled, as pleasantly as she did whenever she played hostess. “Well, now. Where shall we begin?”

“Hayato,” Tsuna-kun said, his tone somewhere between invitation and command.

“Boss.” Hayato opened his portfolio and cleared his throat. “First, I would like to point out that it is extremely difficult to investigate a death that’s four years old, and even harder when that death occurred in what is currently hostile territory for the Vongola.”

“And we truly appreciate your skill and dedication,” Tsuna-kun murmured, with a faint smile.

Hayato still hadn’t managed to suppress the way a compliment from the Tenth lit him up, Haru noted, and carefully did not smile.

“As I was saying,” Hayato continued. “It was very difficult to investigate Massimo Modigliani’s death, and my expense report will reflect that fact. Nonetheless, we did find some very interesting things.” He tapped his finger against a paper in his portfolio. “The official reports of his death indicated that he drowned while sailing. The autopsy reports that he appears to have been swept overboard during the storm that he was—most unwisely, and rather uncharacteristically—sailing in, that the cause of his death was drowning, and that the contusions his body sustained were all post mortem, as a result of his body being battered by the currents and rocks.”

“Now why do I think you’re going to say that it turns out that it didn’t happen that way?” Haru couldn’t resist asking, which earned her a quick, impatient look.

“Indeed,” Hayato said, at his fussiest and most precise. “As it turns out, upon examination of the body, it seems that the original autopsy was never performed.”

“You examined the body?” Haru demanded, as Tsuna-kun said, “Wait, what do you mean, ‘upon examination of the body’?” Kyouko-chan merely looked pained.

Hayato’s shrug was eloquent. “As I said, the expense report will reflect how challenging this investigation was.” He tapped the papers in his portfolio again. “Upon forensic investigation, we discovered that there was no evidence of water in Massimo Modigliani’s lungs. We also discovered that his skull had sustained a number of fractures, any one of which would have been sufficient to kill him outright. In short, he was dead before he hit the water.” He snapped his portfolio closed.

They were silent, absorbing that, until Haru sniffed, and said, “I told you so.”

“So you did,” Tsuna-kun murmured. He shook his head. “Isn’t this just a mess?”

“What are we going to tell Caterina?” Kyouko-chan added.

“That’s up to wiser heads than mine,” Haru said. She spread her hands. “But I do have a few things that might make the job easier.” Kyouko-chan gestured at her to continue. “Yes, well, like I was telling you before the boys came in, I was going about things all wrong. The current Modigliani is a very deeply divided Family, you see. The Bolzoni never really integrated well with the Modigliani, so approaching them like they were interchangeable made them all clam up.” She smiled. “But if a person happened to be sympathetic to how awful it is to work with those damned Bolzoni, one of the Modigliani men will tell you just about anything you ever wanted to know.”

Hayato made an impatient sound. “Are you going to get to the point any time soon?”

Haru rolled her eyes at him. “No, I thought I’d take all week.” She took a sip of her tea, just to annoy him, and then continued. “The Bolzoni and the Modigliani divide goes straight to the top. It’s a purely political marriage, and it sounds like Caterina dislikes her husband a great deal. If we approach her with Hayato’s evidence and the offer of assistance, I think she would hear us out.” She paused, and added, “What’s more, she’s pregnant, and the doctors say it’s a boy. There’s some worried men among the Modigliani who don’t really trust what Vincentio Bolzoni will do if the pregnancy comes to term.”

“Well,” Tsuna-kun said, after a moment. “That does put a new light on things.”

“It does, yes.” Kyouko-san picked up a tea cake, nibbling on it absentmindedly, clearly thinking through what Haru had reported. “I don’t think we could ask for a better situation, really. Thank you both. That’s splendid work that you’ve done.”

Haru smiled, pleased, fully aware that she probably looked as self-satisfied as Hayato did whenever Tsuna-kun complimented him. Well, no matter. They’d both earned it. “What next, Kyouko-chan?”

“A party, I think. A garden party, just for some of the ladies of the most prominent Families,” Kyouko-chan said, slow and thoughtful. “Something informal and low-pressure. Caterina will need to come, if only to keep the Modigliani from looking any more suspicious than they already do.”

“A week from now,” Tsuna-kun added. “That will give us the time we need to put together a plan that we can offer her.”

“A week… mm, yes, that should work.” Kyouko-chan nodded, decisive. “But there’ll be a lot of work to do between now and then.”

“Ridiculous amounts of work,” Tsuna-kun agreed, with a small grimace. “We’d best get to it.” He gestured at Hayato, and they stood.

Haru rose along with the two of them. “I don’t have anything else,” she said, “so I’ll go see whether I can’t dig anything else up that we might find useful.”

Kyouko-chan’s expression went worried. “Be careful,” she said.

Haru huffed at her. “I’m always careful,” she said, and followed Hayato out into the hall.

Tsuna-kun was right behind her, but then he stopped. “Hayato, hold on for just a moment. I need to check something with Kyouko.”

“Right, Boss,” Hayato said.

Tsuna-kun ducked back into Kyouko-chan’s morning room, which left Haru eyeing Hayato sidelong. Tsuna-kun’s hasty departure reeked of a set-up to her, but since he’d gone to the trouble… “So, nice work with the murder investigation,” she said. “How on earth did you manage to get your hands on his body?”

Hayato had enough of an ego that he was still willing to take a compliment, even from her, because he smiled a little, self-deprecating. “Oh, it’s a long story. There were lots of bribes.”

She had no doubt of that, and smiled. “Yeah? I’d like to hear it.”

That seemed to have been a mistake, although she didn’t know why. “Don’t,” he said, abruptly, smile disappearing.

“Don’t what?” she asked, frowning at him.

He looked up and down the hall, and then said, quietly, “Don’t treat me like I’m one of your marks.”

That would have made her angry—and she was tempted to it—except for fact that there was something that hinted at pain lurking in his eyes. She put the anger aside, for the moment. “I’ve never treated you like one of my marks,” Haru said, instead. “Not once.”

“It sure looks the same from where I’m standing,” Hayato said, voice still hushed.

“Then you should look harder.” Haru drew a breath. “I’m only going to say this once, and it’s up to you whether you listen to me or not, but this is the honest truth. I’ve only ever taken one man seriously in my life, and that’s you. I may flirt with other men, which is my job and something I do well, but I don’t flirt with you. What you see is what you get, as far as I’m concerned, and every time I’ve told you that I love you, I’ve meant it right down to my toes. I would race you to the altar, if I could marry you and still be Kyouko-chan’s right hand, but the fact is that I have to at least look like I’m free to do as I will if I want to keep on doing what she needs me to do. It’s up to you whether you think can compromise with me enough to know that I’m yours in all but the name of it, but I’m willing if you are. And the last thing I’ll say is this: what would you give up, if it meant staying on as Tsuna-kun’s right hand?”

She stopped there and tried to read his expression, but he’d gone still on her, impossible to read no matter how well she knew him. “Anyway. You know where to find me,” she said, and turned away.

She tried not to read too much into the fact that he didn’t come after her, but it was difficult to do, and even more difficult to concentrate on doing her job.

In the end, Kyouko thought, it was almost ridiculously easy to separate Caterina Modigliani from her other guests. “May I have a word with you?” she murmured, as the party began to wind down. “Privately, in a bit?” She gestured discreetly at Caterina’s waist, which was just beginning to thicken visibly. “There are things I’d like to ask you.”

Caterina nodded, regal as a queen—Kyouko privately suspected there was a reason why the woman wore her masses of golden hair swept up as she did—and said that she would be happy to answer any of Kyouko’s questions. When the last of the other guests had departed, she waved a hand at her bodyguard. “Leave us be, Vittore,” she commanded. “We’re going to be discussing things that men should not hear.”

Vittore looked torn between his duty and his obvious terror of what the two of them might end up discussing. Kyouko smiled at him, and indicated I-Pin. “Don’t worry; I-Pin will still be here to look after us.”

He didn’t seem terribly reassured by I-Pin, but her presence seemed to be enough to fulfill the dictates of conscience, and he repaired to the front hall to smoke a cigarette.

“My husband’s man, Vittore,” Caterina said, with a sardonic smile. “As you can see, he’s very careful of his duty.”

“So I gathered,” Kyouko said, and steered Caterina to her private sitting room. “And how is your husband?” she asked, after the tea tray she’d requested arrived and I-Pin had made herself inconspicuous.

Caterina accepted her cup of tea, eyes unreadable over the rim of her cup. “Flourishing like a weed.”

“Mm, I see.” Kyouko studied her, trying to get the measure of her mood, which was difficult. “If you will pardon my saying so, you don’t seem all that fond of him.”

“Not all of us are as lucky in our marriages as others have been.” Caterina set her cup down. “What was it that you wanted to know, Kyouko? Surely there isn’t any biology that your own people couldn’t teach you as well as I could, even if you haven’t managed to conceive yet.” She tipped her head to the side, blue eyes going sharp. “Or does this have to do with the sudden interest the Vongola’s people have been taking in mine?”

Kyouko kept her expression neutral, despite the stab. “The latter.” She also set her tea aside, the time for polite fictions past. “Did you know that your brother was murdered?”

Caterina’s mouth tightened, and her blue eyes went hard and chilly. “I suspected he was, but I had no proof.”

“We do,” Kyouko told her. “We can’t tell you who did it, but it certainly seems like he was murdered, and that murder was covered up. Which does lead one to certain conclusions.”

“Vincentio,” Caterina said, slow and measured as a death knell. “Yes. He has always been ambitious.” She steepled her fingers. “And what interest does the Vongola have in my brother’s death?”

“The Modigliani and the Vongola used to have cordial relations.” Kyouko gestured, sketching out the decline of that relationship. “We would like to see them restored to their former state.”

Caterina’s answering smile was slow and sharp. “I knew he’d overstep himself eventually,” she said, practically crooning the words. “I was only afraid that I wouldn’t be there to see it, or to root him out.” She sat up straighter, expression as serene and distant as a marble saint’s, and just as terrible. “And is the Vongola prepared to help me do so?”

For a moment she hesitated, but it would be far better to have Caterina Modigliani as an ally than an enemy. Kyouko lifted her chin. “We are,” she said, committing the Vongola, for good or ill.

“Very good.” Caterina’s teeth gleamed, white and sharp. “Let’s talk business, then.” Her eyes sharpened. “Or will I need to speak to your husband?”

Kyouko gathered all of her dignity to her. “I speak with Tsuna’s voice in this.”

“I thought you couldn’t be as pretty and helpless as you looked,” Caterina said, with every evidence of satisfaction. “To business, then.”

“Of course.” Kyouko kept her hands pressed together; it would do the Vongola no good at all to betray her own feelings now. “We have forensic evidence regarding your brother’s death that we will gladly make available to you, as well as a select circle of allies, if you wish it.”

Caterina’s mouth pursed. “One wonders how you came about possessing it.” Kyouko began to shake her head, but Caterina held up a finger. “No, I know you won’t say. It’s no matter. Once my Family is my own, I’ll deal with the matter myself. Very well. Evidence. What else can you offer me?”

“Assistance,” Kyouko said. “Depending on how you wish to deal with Vincentio, privately or publicly, we will lend you our strength.” She took a breath. “And we offer protection, given the precarious nature of your position.”

Kyouko suspected that Caterina disliked the reminder, given the way she frowned, but she inclined her head after a moment, acknowledging the point. “Evidence, assistance, protection. Weighty things, all of those. Tell me again: what do the Vongola stand to gain from all this?”

“It’s as I said before,” Kyouko said, carefully. “The Modigliani have been the Vongola’s allies for generations. We would be very pleased to have that relationship restored. Yours is a very old and proud Family, and we prefer to call you friends.”

“Especially since we’re powerful enough now, having merged with the Bolzoni, that we could cause you real problems.” Caterina’s smile was mocking at the edges. “Though I’m sure you’re too proud to say as much.”

“Not at all,” Kyouko said. “But wars between Families are terrible things, and we would regret the losses that subduing your Family would cost us.” That was for the crack about being pretty and helpless. “It would be better for us to resolve this peacefully.”

Paradoxically enough, the insult made Caterina smile. “Just so,” she murmured. “Just so.” She leaned back in her seat, flattening a hand over her stomach. “Mine is a house divided, as you know. We’ll need to remove Vincentio discreetly. It must look like an accident, you understand. After he’s gone…” She shrugged. “I doubt they’ll let me take over as the Family’s head myself, you know, but I’ll raise my son to be a Modigliani.”

Kyouko inclined her head. “I’m sure he will be, through and through.” He could hardly be anything else, with such a fierce woman to raise him.

“Of course he will.” Caterina dusted her hands, briskly. “Now. I mustn’t stay too long, or it will look more suspicious than it already is. Send word through that friend of yours. Tell her that Nico is my most reliable man. Any message she gives him will reach me as quickly as he can manage it.” She stood, and smoothed her skirt. “It’s a dangerous game that girl plays, you know. If the men of this country weren’t so stupid, she’d have been lost a long time ago.”

“It’s a very good thing so many of them can’t see what’s in front of their noses,” Kyouko said, after a dizzying moment of fear.

Caterina’s smile was brief, but something warm glinted in her eyes. “Yes, it is, isn’t it? Now, show me out. Try not to look too embarrassed when I start giving you medical advice in Vittore’s hearing.” She paused, and eyed Kyouko. “You have seen a doctor, haven’t you? And had a doctor look him over, too?”

“I’ll be sure to do so at the first opportunity,” Kyouko said, not even trying to fight the blush. It was better to seem naive than to tell the Vongola’s business publicly.

“Do,” Catarina said, as Kyouko escorted her out. “Men can be so ridiculous about their masculinity, but it’s their fault more often than not.”

“I see,” Kyouko said faintly, which launched a long discussion of intimate medical affairs that had her altogether relieved to deliver the woman to her bodyguard and flee to the privacy of her own rooms.

If Kyouko-san had to find tasks to keep herself busy, I-Pin knew, Sawada-san was completely the opposite: he had more things to do in a day than any three men could get through.

And yet, despite her guilt at giving him one more thing to deal with, I-Pin found herself stopping by his office after her shift had ended. Sawada-san was on the telephone with someone—by the sound of it, Squalo-san, since she could hear his side of the conversation too—but he smiled and motioned at her to sit.

I-Pin did, gingerly at and at the very edge of her seat, and pretended that she couldn’t actually tell what Sawada-san and Squalo were arguing about—the Varia’s desire to go and deal with the Mondigliani once and for all, from the sounds of it.

Sawada-san finally, and firmly, said, “No, and that’s final, thank you and have a nice evening.” And then he hung up, leaned his head back and moaned, “What did I do in a past life to deserve the Varia? I ask you.”

“If this is a bad time, Sawada-san—”

He looked at her and smiled, good humor restoring itself. “It’s not. It’s just that Squalo has a way about him, that’s all.” He folded his hands under his chin and looked at her. “What can I do for you, I-Pin?”

She suppressed the urge to squirm under the full weight of his attention, and tried not to look at the heavy ring on his finger. “I… Kyouko-san said I should talk to you…”

“Ah,” he said, and nodded, “then it must be something important.”

I-Pin swallowed, and wondered about that. “I—maybe?” she said, fidgeting in spite of herself. “She asked me… to do the same kind of work that Haru-san does for her.”

“And you’re not certain whether you should,” Sawada-san guessed. She nodded, grateful that he understood without her having to fumble through an explanation. “Would you like to?”

“I—yes, I think so,” I-Pin said, hardly daring to raise her voice above a whisper. “But I’ve already—you—” She gestured, helplessly.

“Mm, I see.” Sawada-san unfolded his hands, and looked at his ring. When he looked back at her, his eyes were gentle, and infinitely kind. “Would it help if you thought of it as transferring your service to a slightly different branch? It all comes back to the same place in the end, you see.”

“You don’t mind?” I-Pin asked, careful.

He smiled. “Of course I don’t mind. I’d be glad, actually, if she had another person who she could rely on. You would be doing me a favor if you accepted her offer.”

The rush of relief was sudden enough that I-Pin sagged into the chair, sinking into the deep cushions. “Oh,” she murmured, “oh, I’m glad. I wanted to say yes, but—”

“But, like all of us, you have an overdeveloped sense of duty.” Sawada-san chuckled. “Say yes, with my blessings, I-Pin.”

She smiled back, in relief, and in the easing of that burden, she saw the answer to the question that had been puzzling her since the first day of her duty: Kyouko-san had changed to match herself to Sawada-san, or perhaps he’d become a bit like Kyouko-san, because they both held their people in the same way. “Thank you, Sawada-san.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, and paused, almost like he was hesitating to ask something. “I-Pin…”

“Yes, sir?”

“If I may… you see Kyouko… more than anyone else,” Sawada-san began. “Even me, or Haru-chan. Do you think… does she seem happy, to you?”

I-Pin froze, eyes wide at the enormity of the question. “Is she…? I—I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that.”

“I’m only asking for your opinion,” he said, swiftly, color rising in his face. “You don’t have to—in fact, let’s just pretend that I never even asked.”

I-Pin worried at her lower lip. “I think she is, mostly,” she said, very soft and very fast, before her courage could desert her, because if she was going to serve Kyouko-san, there was no better place to start than with this. “But I think there’s something that she wants very badly, even though she tries not to let on about it.” When he motioned at her to go on, she plunged ahead, determined to say it even though her face felt like it was on fire. “I think—she wants to start a family. Soon.”

It looked very much like Sawada-san was blushing as hard as she was. “I—ah. Suppose this is what I get for asking, isn’t it?” And he looked so sheepish about it that I-Pin couldn’t quite help the faint gasp of hysterical, embarrassed laughter that escaped her. “She’s mentioned—that—a few times, but—she wants it badly?”

I-Pin thought about the look in Kyouko-san’s eyes whenever Haru-san delivered an update regarding Vieri-san, and the way she and Feretti-san had leaned on each other that afternoon, and nodded. “Yes,” she said, softly. “Very badly. But she’s trying to be patient, and to wait for you to be willing, too.”

Sawada-san took a deep breath, and blew it out. “I see. I’ll—yes, I see.” He shook his head, looking like his mind was very far away, far enough away that he’d forgotten about I-Pin altogether.

“Was there anything else you wanted to know?” she asked, softly, to recall him back to the present.

The distant expression vanished from his eyes. “If there is, I’m afraid to ask,” he said, hastily.

“Then, if you’ll excuse me…” When he nodded, I-Pin stood.

She was nearly to the door when he said, “Thank you, I-Pin.”

I-Pin turned and smiled at him, a little shy still, even after that conversation. “You’re welcome, Sawada-san,” she said, and let her self out.

The day they buried Vincentio Modigliani was sunny and beautiful, and was the occasion of I-Pin’s first public foray as Kyouko-san’s personal bodyguard. As a consequence, she was so taut with nerves that the day etched itself into her memory. She carried the snatches of it that had engraved themselves into her memory to the end of her days: from the lines of long dark cars that disgorged member after member of the most prominent Families at the church to the priest’s sonorous words that extolled Vincentio Modigliani’s many virtues. The faces of the crowd were particularly interesting at that point. The Vongola were politely attentive, the Cavallone rather amused, the Barassi were clearly bored, and Caterina Modigliani simply endured it, face held stiffly correct.

It would have been farcical, had it not been so deadly earnest.

After the funeral, the other Families stood back and made way for Sawada-san and Kyouko-san, when they made their way to where Caterina-san stood to pay their respects, pale and remote as a queen. “Our sympathies for your loss,” Sawada-san said, voice pitched to carry.

Caterina-san’s voice carried just as clearly over the murmur of the other Families. “Thank you for that.”

Then it was Kyouko-san’s turn, just as she and Haru-san had discussed over their morning tea. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do for you,” she added, reaching for Caterina-san’s hand and gripping it. “You have our complete support.”

It may have pretended to be purely sympathetic, but as I-Pin watched the crowd for threats, she saw that the other Families understood quite clearly: the Vongola were placing their weight behind Caterina Modigliani, and didn’t care who knew it.

“I will be sure to do so,” Caterina-san said. “Again, I thank you for your kindness to me.”

“We’re nothing without kindness,” Sawada-san pronounced.

It should have sounded silly, against the backdrop of so many Families, most of whom were clearly already scheming ways to turn this Vongola-Modigliani alliance to their own ends. Somehow—I-Pin suspected it was because it was Sawada Tsunayoshi who had said it—it didn’t.

“Let me know if there’s anything at all I can do,” Kyouko-san said again, and kissed Caterina-san’s cheeks.

“I shall be sure to,” Caterina-san murmured.

Sawada-san and Kyouko-san withdrew, giving way to the Vieri, and were intercepted by Dino Cavallone. “Tsuna,” he said, with a smile that Sawada-san returned, and then turned to Kyouko-san. “And Kyouko-chan. You’re as radiant as ever.”

“Flatterer,” Kyouko-san murmured, with a smile and downcast eyes.

“Perish the thought.” Dino-san pressed a hand to his heart, as if wounded, and then turned more serious. “Sofia wasn’t feeling well this morning, but she said to tell you that it’s been too long, and I’m to invite you to dinner sometime soon.”

“That sounds lovely,” Kyouko-san said. “She’s right. It’s been forever.”

“Yes, and a funeral is no time for socializing,” Dino-san said, as if all the Families around them weren’t conducting business as they spoke. “It’s such a shame, what happened to Vincentio. Food allergies—who would have thought it?” He shook his head sadly, though his eyes were sharp, looking at Sawada-san. “The Modigliani have no manner of luck at all.”

“They say bad things come in threes,” Sawada-san murmured, casually.

Dino-san’s mouth ticked up at the corners. “So they do. Let’s hope that holds true, hm?” He turned a more genuine smile on Kyouko-san. “I’ll have Sofia call you. Pick out a good time for dinner, okay?”

“I’ll be waiting,” Kyouko-san promised him. He smiled and moved on, only to be replaced by Paolo and Maria Feretti, who were full of polite greetings and hushed murmurs about the deceased.

After the Feretti it was the Giglio Nero; after the Giglio Nero, it was Girasole, and the afternoon wore on like that. Sawada-san and Kyouko-san made polite small talk with everyone, reaffirming their alliances and considering the offers of new alliances, all couched in polite small talk. Elsewhere in the crowd, Haru-san did the same. It was exhausting just to watch. I-Pin was drained by the time it was finally over, and wondered how anyone could still be smiling and unruffled at the end of it. Somehow Kyouko-san and Haru-san managed it, and didn’t even sigh until they were safely ensconced in the Vongola limousine.

“That’s that,” Haru-san said, as it purred into motion.

“And thank goodness,” Kyouko-san agreed, with a heavy sigh.

Neither of them were looking at Gokudera-san, who was looking—rather pointedly—out the window. I-Pin’s heart sank, and she hoped (against hope, she suspected), that the two of them were only referring to the funeral.

Given how quiet the rest of the ride home was, she doubted it.

“That was exhausting,” Kyouko declared, when they’d finally dismissed Gokudera and I-Pin and reached the sanctuary of their own rooms. She sat at her vanity, and took the earrings out of her ears. “Funerals are such barbaric customs.” Or perhaps the barbaric part was knowing that the crowd of mourners gathered around Vincentio Modigliani’s coffin were there mostly to make sure the man was dead, and that she had played a significant role in bringing about his demise.

“I keep thinking that one of these days, they’ll get easier, at least when they’re for an enemy,” Tsuna agreed. “But they never do.”

Kyouko began wiping away her makeup as he began to shed his clothes. “That’s a pity,” she said. Then she reconsidered it, and shook her head at herself. “Or perhaps it’s not.”

“It’s hard to decide,” he said, and came to stand behind her.

Kyouko sighed as he set his hands on her shoulders and began to knead the tension out of them. “Oh, that’s nice,” she murmured. “Don’t ever stop.”

His reflection smiled down at her. “If you like.” His thumbs circled at the base of her neck, slow and warm and strong. “You’re all knotted up.”

“Mm. Wearing my hair up does that.” Although that wasn’t all of it; part of it was the memory of Caterina Modigliani standing in her black dress at her husband’s graveside, absolutely untouched by the fuss around her.

“Does it?” He began teasing the hairpins out of her hair, letting it tumble down from its chignon. “Is that better?”

Kyouko sighed and leaned her head back, against his stomach. “Much. Thank you.” And his fingers carding through it felt even better. She made a contented sound, eyes half-shut, as she drank in the strength and the gentleness of him. Perhaps not all marriages were lucky, as Caterina had said, but hers was, and knowing as much only made her savor it more.

She felt Tsuna take a breath, like he was preparing to say something. “So,” he murmured, and she opened her eyes to look at his reflection. He looked as shy as he had the night he’d asked her to marry him. “There was something you asked me to think about, after this mess with the Modigliani ended.”

“And…?” she asked, as her pulse quickened, in spite of herself. It was foolish to get her hopes up, but…

“And yes,” he said, quietly, watching her. “You’re right. It’s only ever going to be one thing after another. I’d like it not to be, but it’s foolish to wait any longer than we already have.”

“Tsuna,” she breathed, and reached for his hand, pressing it to her cheek in lieu of the things she didn’t know how to say.

He smiled again, shy, the color running high in his cheeks. “Come to bed?” he murmured.

Kyouko smiled up at him. “Yes,” she said, softly, and rose to press herself into his arms. “Oh, yes,” she whispered, and lifted herself onto her toes to kiss him.

“Come to bed,” he said again, against her mouth, and she was only too happy to comply.

It took a long, hot bath to get the feel of the Modigliani funeral in all its odious glory off her skin, and she lingered in the bathtub until the water began to cool. When Haru finally emerged from the bathroom, wrapped up in her robe and still squeezing the water from her hair, she found Hayato sitting on the couch.

From the looks of things, he’d been there for a while; he’d undone his tie and opened his collar, and was working through a glass of wine. Haru froze and stared at him, trying to figure out what all those clues meant.

“I was starting to wonder whether you’d fallen asleep in there,” he said, after they’d stared at each other for a moment.

“That happened once,” Haru protested, and wrapped the towel around her head to keep the water from trickling down her neck.

His mouth kicked up at the corner. “Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.”

This seemed like a promising start; the wine had probably been a good idea. “That’s what you think,” she grumbled, and claimed his easy chair for her own seat. She steeled herself, and asked, “Are you here because we’ve put the Modigliani thing to bed?”

“Yes,” Hayato said, after a pause.

Haru sighed and closed her eyes. So it had come to this after all. “Can we put off fighting till tomorrow?” she said, tired. “It’s been a hell of a day, you know.”

“I know. I’m not here to fight.” When Haru looked at him, he was looking determined. “You made a big speech to me a while ago. I’ve been thinking about it. One of the things I’ve been thinking is that I deserve a chance to reply. Fair?”

Haru swallowed. “Okay, that’s fair,” she agreed. She arranged her robe and her hands, and looked at him. “I’m listening.”

“Thanks.” Hayato looked down at his laced fingers. “When we first met, you went head over heels for Tsuna. For the longest time, all you talked about was the things you were going to do when you became his wife, and how you were going to be the best mafia wife ever, and so on. And then you stopped all of a sudden, and I figured it was because you’d finally realized that as far as he was concerned, Kyouko was the only woman in the world. And I figured… that sucked for you. Sucks for anyone that happens to.”

Haru started to speak, to explain, but he shook his head. “Just let me get through this first, okay? Please?”

“Go ahead,” she said, quietly, and saved up her explanations for later.

Hayato cleared his throat. “So the way I figured it, when you and I got together… I was your second choice. And, you know, when Tsuna’s your first choice, well, being second place doesn’t actually look that bad, usually. Usually. It’s just…” He stopped, and shook his head. “You know how I get, sometimes. Paranoid about… things.”

That was, the clinical portion of Haru’s mind noted, putting it rather mildly, but she said nothing and let him continue uninterrupted. “And every time I asked you to marry me, and you said no, and I couldn’t figure out why… I just got more paranoid. Especially when it seemed like some days I couldn’t go five steps down the road without someone telling me about seeing you chatting up yet another guy.”

Biting her lip wasn’t enough; she had to say something, whether he was finished or not. “I’m sorry,” Haru said. “We should have told you.”

Hayato’s mouth twisted. “Yeah, well, I’m not going to argue, but… I don’t know. Maybe if I’d known what you were doing from the first, it would have been okay, and maybe I wouldn’t have been able to take you seriously.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. What I do know is that you’re right. You are damn good at what you do. This thing with the Modigliani… we might have eventually noticed something was up, but you got there early, and I’m betting that was a big part of what kept things from going completely pear-shaped.”

It was unexpectedly sweet to hear him say as much. Haru had to swallow hard before she could get any words out. “Thank you.”

He smiled, brief and rueful. “Yeah, well. Credit where credit is due.”

Haru glanced away, eyes traveling over the titles on his bookcase. “No, really. You’re the one with the legitimate intelligence operation. I pretty much make it up as I go along. It works, but…” She shrugged. “It’s not particularly elegant.”

Hayato snorted. “Elegance is overrated.”

“That’s what you say now,” she murmured, and looked back at him. He seemed to have finished his reply, at any rate. Haru leaned forward a bit, lacing her fingers together and looking at him, hoping he could see how serious she was. “You weren’t ever a second choice. Yes, I had a school-girl crush on Tsuna-kun, for a while, but it didn’t last much past meeting Kyouko-chan for the first time. You’d have to have been completely oblivious to miss the way they looked at each other.” She smiled, remembering. “But it was so easy to tease Tsuna that I kept on playing that game for a while, until Unità-san told us that it was time to put those silly games aside and be serious.” She laughed, softly, at the look on his face. “You didn’t know about that? Hayato, Kyouko-chan is good at what she does, but it was something she had to learn, just like Tsuna-kun had to learn to be the Tenth.”

“Oh,” Hayato said, still looking—and sounding—stunned. “Oh. I—you never said anything.”

Haru shrugged. “You never seemed all that interested in the things we girls got up to,” she told him, which was the truth and then some—and Hayato was one of the better specimens of his breed.

“Which was, clearly, a big damn mistake.” Hayato raked a hand through his hair, and sighed. “Can’t really start something like this over from scratch, can we?”

Haru couldn’t stop her heart from skipping a beat, and probably wouldn’t have tried even if it had been possible. “There’s a little too much water under the bridge,” she agreed, after a moment. He frowned, until she went on. “We might be able to work on fixing the things that are broken, though.”

Hayato let out a breath. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, we could do that.” He looked as relieved as she felt.

That was good. Haru wished she could leave it there. “And what I do as Kyouko-chan’s right hand… you can handle that?”

Hayato looked away, and was quiet. Haru let him be, waiting him out. “I think so. If… as long as you remember to come home at the end of the day.”

“Idiot,” Haru said, wry and affectionate. Honestly. She was going to have to stand by what she’d said—boys managed to be incredibly stupid sometimes. “I’ve never once forgotten who comes first.”

That got him, as she’d suspected it would; she saw him swallow, hard. “First, huh?” Hayato glanced at her, almost shyly. “Really?”

Haru sighed and went to him, and wound her arms around him. “Yes, first. Really,” she murmured, firmly.

“I guess that’s okay, then,” he said, and pulled her closer.

Haru closed her eyes at the wash of relief. “Thank goodness for that,” she said, and pressed against him. When she trusted herself to speak, she added, “I’ve missed you, you great insecure idiot.”

“Is it too late for me to change my mind?” he murmured, as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Yep. You’re stuck now,” she told him, and smiled when he laughed softly.

Yeah, maybe they were going to be okay after all.

“…and that’s all I have this morning,” Haru-san chirped, and helped herself to another teacake.

It certainly seemed like plenty to I-Pin, but both Kyouko-san and Haru-san seemed pleased with the flotsam and jetsam of gossip that had floated out of the aftermath of Vincentio Modigliani’s funeral.

Or perhaps they were just pleased about other things, and it was spilling into their work, she decided, looking at the way they were smiling—with their eyes and not just their mouths. Not that she was going to complain, if that was the case.

“Wonderful,” Kyouko-san murmured. “The work never stops, does it?”She dusted off her hands. “But if that’s all—”

This seemed to be as good a time to speak as any. “Excuse me, Kyouko-san?” I-Pin said, softly. “I have something, if you don’t mind?”

The two of them turned identical surprised smiles on her. Kyouko-san was the first to recover, of course. “By all means,” she said, gesturing at her to go ahead.

I-Pin had thought about this moment long and hard, trying to puzzle out what would be appropriate and agonizing over what she should do. Now that the moment was here, it felt only natural to go to Kyouko-san and go to one knee. As Kyouko-san’s breath caught, she took Kyouko-san’s hand between hers. “You asked me to serve you,” she said, touching her forehead to the back of it. “I would be honored, Kyouko-san.”

“Oh,” Kyouko-san said, voice quiet and full, and laid a hand on her hair. “Thank you, I-Pin. I’m very grateful.”

I-Pin looked up and smiled when Kyouko-san drew her up from her knees. “It’s my privilege,” she murmured.

Kyouko-san’s answering smile was bright. “I’m glad to hear it.” She inclined her head. “We have a lot of things to talk about.”

Haru-san poured her a cup of tea and Kyouko-san prepared a plate of dainty pastries for her as I-Pin brought a third chair to the table, and slipped into the place they had prepared for her. “Thank you,” she said, accepting the tea and the plate, and looked at Kyouko-san. “I’m ready to begin if you are.”

Kyouko-san nodded, still smiling. “Let’s,” she said, and they did.

the end

Last Modified: May 16, 12
Posted: Mar 12, 09
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  1. ellie

    Oh, this was so beautifully complex! You are such a master of the second facet of things. I’ve always loved duality in characters and you bring the multifaceted nature of the mafia out so wonderfully. Love it!