The Family You Choose

It is time for Timoteo to choose his Guardians, and he’s determined to do things his way. This project owes its inspiration to jetsam/thephoenixboy, who correctly guessed which fic was mine in the first round of khr_undercover, and requested a fic featuring Timoteo and his Guardians as her reward. I don’t believe she quite expected her request to spawn an entire humongous arc, but what can I say? It was a provocative prompt! *grin* General audiences

For a character guide, see the appendix (warning: spoilers for the arc!)

“You wanted to see me, Mother?” Timoteo asked, as he let himself into her study after lunch. Her right hand, Taddeo, and her outside advisor, Cesare, were both with her, and Timoteo raised his eyebrows a bit, wondering what they had in store for him this time.

The Vongola Eighth didn’t look up from the papers she was studying. Timoteo waited and wondered, and kept his expression carefully neutral until she had finished what she was doing and looked up at him. “Now that the fuss of the wedding is past us, it’s time we confirmed you as the heir,” she said, brisk, the way she did everything—part of how she dealt with being the female head of a Family like the Vongola, or so she’d explained to him, once. “Who have you been thinking of for your Guardians?”

“Is it already time to be thinking of that?” Timoteo asked, to make time for his mind to race ahead and turn over the possibilities. “You’re still very young, Mother.”

“How kind of you to say,” she said, eyes glinting, not without humor. “I said that we were ready to confirm you as my heir, not that I was ready to step down. Don’t get too far above yourself.”

Timoteo grinned at her and settled in his usual chair. “Good, because I’m not ready to have your job yet.”

“No, you’re not,” she said, crisp. “Nevertheless, I want a clear succession set up. God forbid that you should be faced with the mess I was, but it’s better safe than sorry.”

Timoteo let the smile slide off his face and nodded. God forbid, indeed: all of the Vongola knew how his mother had needed to fight for her position. “Of course.”

“Well?” Cesare shifted away from his spot at the window. “Who are you thinking of for your Guardians?”

Timoteo was careful not to take a breath or to fidget—those were the tells that all three of them would see, and he needed every bit of advantage possible for this. “Paolo Gemello,” he said, leaning back in his chair, hooking an arm over the back of it, casual and relaxed. “For my Lightning.”

A careful first choice, that—Paolo was the one he expected the least trouble over. Who could object to Paolo, when Paolo was as steady as they came, serious and thoughtful and deadly with a pair of knives in his hands?

Mother and Cesare exchanged glances, and then nods; Timoteo stifled his sigh. No trouble there, definitely, though he hadn’t really expected any. “Good,” his mother said. “Who else?”

“Paolo comes as a set, you know.” Timoteo smiled. “Piero, for Storm.”

“Piero?” Taddeo echoed, frowning just a bit. “He’s… hardly as steady as his brother.”

“But he’s still steady enough on his own,” Timoteo said, keeping his voice even and relaxed. “If you know how to handle him. Paolo and I do.” It helped that Piero recognized his own limitations, and trusted himself to be guided by cooler heads when it became necessary.

And no one could deny that Piero was competent as a fighter—even when he hadn’t lost all control of his temper.

“Your Guardians must represent you,” Cesare pointed out, kindly enough. “The twins know that. I doubt Piero will feel slighted if you overlook him in favor of his brother.”

Timoteo frowned back at him. “It’s not about slighting him. Piero is my Storm. He’ll let himself be guided by my hand, even in his rages.”

“You’re sure of that?” his mother asked, not as Mother but as the Eighth. “Would you stake your life on it?”

“I would stake my honor on it,” Timoteo replied.

This time the look that she and Cesare exchanged was longer, more meaningful, full of barely-perceptible cues like the lift of his eyebrow, the flicker of her eyes—until, finally, Cesare nodded and asked, “Who else?”

Timoteo considered how they’d taken his choice of Storm, and made a rapid decision to bump the two most difficult candidates up the list. If he could get them to swallow the Cloud and the Rain, then they’d be able to take the Mist and the Sun as palate cleansers. “Maria Purezza. For the Cloud, of course.”

Cesare stared, and Taddeo covered his eyes, but his mother—Mother threw her head back and laughed, freely, right from the gut. “Oh, yes,” she gasped, when her peals of laughter had calmed somewhat. “Oh, yes, was there ever anyone more suited to be the Cloud than Maria?”

Timoteo permitted himself a smile, keeping an eye on Cesare and Taddeo all the while. “I doubt it.” Fierce, hawkish Maria, whose tongue was sharper than her knives and who’d broken the leg and the dignity of the last man who’d dared approach her with the thought that such a pretty face ought to belong to a sweet temper—yes, she’d been born to be the Cloud.

Cesare looked as though he had bitten into a lemon. “Yes, but…”

“But what?” Timoteo asked, smiling at him. “Doesn’t she have the ideal temperament for the Cloud?”

“Yes, but…” Cesare frowned. “Certainly she’s a splendid girl, but don’t you think that this job mightn’t be… beyond her capabilities?”

“I don’t think that they are, but perhaps you’d like to go a few rounds with her in the training rooms to reassure yourself?” Timoteo suggested.

Cesare blanched; Timoteo was careful not to grin at him. “I’m—sure that won’t be necessary.”

“Then I’m not sure I see what the objection might be.”

“It’s that she’s a woman,” Taddeo said, unexpectedly. “You can’t have a woman among your Guardians, for pity’s sake. It’s going to look terrible, and it’s not at all fair to expose a young woman—even a young woman as formidable as we all know Maria to be—to the kinds of things people will say about her if she’s your Guardian.”

Ah, there it was. Timoteo settled back in his chair, casual, keeping an eye on Taddeo and Cesare, and the other on his mother, whose eyes had gone sharp, but who hadn’t bothered to speak up yet. There wasn’t going to be any help from that quarter, not yet, but there didn’t seem to be any discouragement coming, either. “Regarding your last point first—perhaps it isn’t fair, but I’ve found people so very rarely are, in our world. It is, I think, Maria’s decision whether she wants to take on the burden of hearing such things said about herself. It’s not my place to protect her from even getting to make that decision. She’s a grown woman, not a child.”

“Some would say that there is no difference,” Mother said, with a little smile that was dangerous for all its apparent innocence.

Timoteo tipped his head, with a smile. “Then that is their great mistake,” he murmured, “and it’s one we can use to our advantage. I know how it will look to others if Maria becomes my Cloud. It will look as if I have a weakness, or as if I am showing favoritism, or any number of other unpleasant things. Since none of them will be true, I will be able to use that to my own ends. It’s not a bad thing to be underestimated by the other Families—is it, Mother?”

“I’ve found it useful,” she admitted, with a faint smile. “Though they do catch on, eventually.”

“That’s a bridge that I’m willing to cross when it becomes necessary.” Timoteo looked from her to Taddeo and Cesare. “If I am to be the Ninth, I must take all the needs of my people into account. Surely this is where Maria belongs. I can’t imagine that she will ever be happy doing the things that other women do.”

“Indeed, but… she’s a woman. Women have never been Guardians,” Cesare said.

“Women have rarely been bosses in their own right,” Timoteo said, with a smile he knew was sharp. “Surely you can’t say that a lack of precedent should hold us back? If we’d let ourselves be constrained by precedent, where would the Vongola be now, I wonder?”

Mother laughed, short and harsh, and looked at her outside advisor. “Indeed. Where would it be?”

Cesare frowned at them both. “I don’t like it.”

“Can you say that she isn’t able to do the job?” Timoteo asked him, letting the pleasant façade slip away entirely. Cesare shook his head. “Can you say that there is any law of ours which forbids her being a Guardian?”

“No. No law. Merely long tradition.” Cesare looked sour to admit it. “I see what you’re driving at. And I say, you had better consider all the things that will be said.”

“Talk is cheap.” Timoteo shrugged, spreading his hands. “I doubt it will continue after Maria has broken a few skulls.” He paused. “Diplomatically, of course.”

“And may I live long enough to see it,” his mother added, her devout tone undermined by her vicious grin.

“Indeed.” Timoteo held Cesare’s gaze, until Cesare finally looked away, muttering, “On your own head be it.”

“Thank you.” Timoteo kept his smile restrained, since it was too soon to gloat. There was the Rain to get through, still.

“Storm, Lightning, and Cloud.” His mother raised an eyebrow at him, expectant. “Who else?”

Timoteo smiled at them, cheerfully, with a calm he didn’t actually feel. “The Rain. That will be Rafaele Martelli, of course.”

There was a beat of silence, and then all three of them spoke at once, in a welter of protests, from his mother’s, “He’s a dear boy, but hardly Guardian material,” to Taddeo’s blunter, “You must be crazy,” and Cesare’s, “He’s not even Italian!”

Yes, he’d expected this to be the difficult one. Good to know he’d judged it correctly. Timoteo set his hands on his knees and waited for the immediate hubbub to die down. When it had, a bit, he raised his voice over it. “Is there any objection to Rafaele that you can give me that doesn’t involve where his parents came from?” he demanded.

The three of them paused, all of them frowning, and Cesare looking distinctly mutinous. “That’s not really the point,” his mother said. “No one is saying that he’s not a fine young man, and his father certainly served me with some distinction, but—”

“But they’re not from here,” Cesare broke in, harsh. “They’re from bloody Tripoli.”

“His parents are, yes,” Timoteo said, evenly. “Rafaele himself was born and bred here. He’s as Italian as I am.”

“A pretty sentiment,” Taddeo said, “but this isn’t the kind of thing you can leave to idealism, boy. He’s not one of us, and he never will be. You can’t possibly have him as a Guardian. It isn’t done.”

“No?” Timoteo looked at him, and slowly lifted an eyebrow. “Weren’t you the one who taught me our history? Who was the first Rain, if you please?”

“That was different,” Taddeo said, after an uneasy pause. “That was the First.”

“If it was good enough for the First, it’s good enough for me.” Timoteo shrugged. “At least Rafaele was born and raised here. I can’t imagine that the first Rain blended in half as well as he does, considering.”

“He doesn’t blend at all,” Mother said, slowly—regretfully, he thought. “Timoteo, you’re going to have to be reasonable.”

“I am being reasonable.” It was difficult to stare all three of them down at once. Timoteo gritted his teeth and did it anyway. “There is no one who meshes half so well with my other Guardians. He even manages to get along with Maria, for Heaven’s sake.”

“No one’s saying that he isn’t capable, but he’s not one of us,” Cesare said, still frowning. “He never will be.”

“What does it take to be one of us?” Timoteo frowned right back at him. “To be born here? To follow all our customs? To shed blood for the Vongola?” He spread his hands. “Which of these has Rafaele not done?”

They shifted, uneasily he thought, and let himself hope that meant he was gaining ground. “It’s not that we aren’t grateful,” his mother said. “Especially about the last. But think of how it will look—”

“That will be my burden to carry, won’t it?” Timoteo replied. “I tell you, I would rather have Rafaele as my Rain and deal with every other Family out there than choose a Rain Guardian who will be expedient.” He could feel his Will wanting to flare with the anger he felt, and could feel it in his voice as he spoke. He couldn’t make himself care. “Rafaele is the right choice, damn it.”

His mother looked at him, hard, eyes glittering with her own Will. “This is your Will, then?”

“It is,” Timoteo said, low.

Her mouth thinned, and she slashed a hand through the air. “Enough. We’ll come back to the matter. Tell me who you want for your Mist.”

It wasn’t an outright refusal, so Timoteo smoothed his anger and his Flame away. “Gianni Staffieri.”

“Gianni. Yes, I should have known.” She smiled again, faintly, knowing, and Timoteo shrugged at her. The choice was obvious, since he couldn’t remember a time when Gianni hadn’t been his older, wiser shadow.

“Isn’t he…” Cesare paused, coughing almost delicately, clearly searching for the right words. “There’s always been something a bit… off… about him. Hasn’t there?”

Timoteo suspected that Cesare wasn’t exactly referring to Gianni’s fey sense of humor, and shrugged. “He’s the Mist. They’re always a bit odd, aren’t they?” he said, smiling and smooth. “Their feet don’t quite touch the ground, but that’s no barrier when you’re as competent as Gianni is.”

Cesare’s brow cleared. “Ah, yes. You make a good point.”

Timoteo breathed more easily as Mother and Cesare exchanged nods over the choice; that was Gianni seen to then, with even less fuss than he’d dared to hope for, considering. “And then, for the Sun… really, who else could I choose but Michele Rizzo?” No one had ever doubted where laughing, irrepressible Michele’s affinities had lain, not when he overflowed with energy and asked only to be aimed in a direction—any direction, really.

“True enough,” Cesare said, smiling—well, Cesare had raised some hell in his own time, or so Timoteo had heard. “He’ll do well for you.”

“Indeed.” Mother nodded at Cesare’s words, and that was done.

Five, then, and the question of Rafaele still up in the air. Timoteo held his silence as Mother rose from her chair and moved to the sideboard, pouring drinks—four of them, scotch gold in the cut-glass decanter as she poured and handed the glasses around to them. Were they to consider the business closed for the time being?

Timoteo turned the glass in his hands, watching her narrowly as she resumed her seat and lifted her own glass. “A toast,” she said. “To the future of the Vongola.”

Taddeo and Cesare murmured agreement for the sentiment, and drank with her.

Timoteo stayed still.

“Will you not drink?” Mother asked him.

“Not until I know what will become of my people,” Timoteo said, steadily despite the queasiness in his gut. “I don’t know yet what the future of the Vongola will look like. But I know what I am willing to fight for.”

Mother’s eyes went dark. “Think carefully,” she said, softly. “This is a small thing. Are you sure that you’re willing to declare war for it? I’ve told you how bitter the battles I’ve fought were. Is this really worth it, when you don’t even know that you will win?”

“I don’t see why I won’t,” Timoteo replied, quietly. “I know who I will have on my side.” He drew a breath. “And I can’t think of anything which would be a better reason to fight for. He’s one of my people. I will not betray him by saying that he isn’t.”

His mother held his eyes for a moment, and then another, and then her mouth ticked up at the corner. “Indeed.” There was something hovering in her expression—it was something that was normally only there when she was surveying the Vongola’s holdings. Timoteo blinked as he identified it as pride. “A worthy answer, Cesare, don’t you think?”

“I can’t dispute it,” he said, low and unhappy. “I’ve worked all my life to put the Vongola back in order. I won’t let it fall back into chaos now.”

Timoteo bowed his head, acknowledging the point. “Neither will I,” he promised.

“Oh, very well,” Cesare muttered. “Have him if you must.”

“Thank you.” Timoteo kept his smile restrained, because Mother had always insisted that graciousness in victory was necessary. “To the future of the Vongola, then.”

And this time they all drank.

The task of actually asking his six candidates to serve was left to Timoteo, as was only proper. He decided to begin with Maria.

It wasn’t that he didn’t think she’d say yes, but she did have a rather formidable nature. It would be all too easy to delay asking her till he couldn’t put it off any longer, and that would only offend her.

He found her—where else?—in one of the training rooms, and stood inside the door to watch her pummel Vittore, who was half again her size, into the mat with deadly efficiency. Watching her, Timoteo could only be grateful that her loyalty was to the Vongola—and that she’d disdained to use her own good looks as the weapon they could have been. If she’d played up the heart-shaped face and the curves of her figure, she’d have been unstoppable.

Maria only deigned to notice Timoteo when Vittore was a groaning mess on the mat. “Here to fight?” she asked, raking sweaty tendrils of hair back from her face.

“Yes,” Timoteo said, after a moment’s consideration, since a fight nearly always put her in a receptive mood.

“Well, hurry up, then,” she said, snapping her fingers at him as she turned back to Vittore, urging him off the mat with her foot. Timoteo stripped out of his jacket and tie as she did, and stepped into the ring, calling on his Will as Vittore limped away.

Maria’s eyes lit with an unholy sort of joy as they circled each other, until she lashed out with a fist and the sparring match could begin properly.

They traded blows for several minutes, fighting each other to a standstill, and only stopped when they were both winded and bruised. “All right,” she said, after they’d begun to catch their breath, bracing her hands on her hips and studying him. “What do you want?”

“How do you know I want something?” Timoteo replied, amused.

“It’s all over your face. What is it?” she demanded, impatient as ever.

Timoteo felt his mouth crook; she was a Cloud, through and through. “They’re going to confirm me as the Ninth,” he said. “Will you be my Cloud?”

He rarely had the luxury of being able to surprise Maria, but this time he seemed to have done it. She stopped short and stared at him, eyes rounded just a bit. “Say what?”

“Will you be my Cloud Guardian?” he repeated, patiently.

Maria stared at him, and then snorted. “How the hell do you figure they’re going to let that happen?” she asked, voice gruff, the way it went when she had to hide some emotion. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got the wrong set of dangly bits for the job.”

“So does my mother, technically,” Timoteo said. “She and Cesare agreed to it. Will you?”

She folded her arms, regarding him silently. “You’re serious, then.”

“Of course I am.” Timoteo grinned at her. “Who else can I trust to give me the whole, unvarnished truth?”

“Mm.” Maria continued to study him until, finally, she was satisfied, and nodded. “Yes,” she said, and then did something he wouldn’t have expected—she bent over his hand and kissed it. “I will be your Cloud,” she promised, and then straightened up again. “Besides. I want to see what kind of Ninth you’re going to make, anyway.”

“A good one, I should hope,” he said, elated by the acceptance.

Maria’s answering smile was faint and fierce. “We shall see what we can make of you.” She dusted her hands off. “Now. Who else have you spoken to?”

“You were the first.”

She didn’t quite manage to hide the pleased look in her eyes. “Idiot. You should have gone to one of the boys first.” She sniffed. “There’s propriety to consider. Or so I’ve been told.”

“People are going to talk no matter what,” Timoteo said, firmly. “So fuck ’em.”

This time her smile was broader. “I suppose I can go along with that.”

The twins shared a set of rooms in the wing given over to such things, living among the rest of the Vongola’s foot soldiers like they had their whole lives. That would probably need to change, Timoteo thought, knocking at their door. But perhaps their new status would encourage them to make the shift without protesting. Besides, Paolo had been paying court to a pretty girl in town, last he’d heard. This would probably decide her, one way or another.

Piero was the one to get the door, and grinned when he saw that it was Timoteo. “You’re just about in time for supper,” he said, waving him and Maria in.

“I wasn’t aware that either of you could cook,” Timoteo said, dry.

“Oh, we can’t.” Piero waved an airy hand, and lowered his voice. “But Paolo’s woman can.”

“Ah, I see.” And indeed, now that they were inside the apartment, he could hear laughter from the kitchen—a woman’s, clear and bright, with Paolo’s lower tones beneath.

“Yeah.” Piero turned and yelled, “Paolo, hey! Company!”

Company manners never had made much of an impression on Piero.

Timoteo was conscious of the way Maria had positioned herself at his shoulder, silently, as Paolo appeared from the kitchen, looking relaxed. “Timoteo, Maria. This is a surprise. Are you joining us for supper?”

For a moment, Timoteo hesitated to interrupt the domesticity of the evening with business, especially as Paolo smiled and curled an arm around her. Paolo’s woman appeared behind his shoulder—she was pretty, round and soft, with melting eyes. Just now she looked worried and uncertain—perhaps because she hadn’t been expecting guests, though Timoteo suspected it was more than that. “No,” he said, and hid his smile at the flicker of relief in her eyes. “We’re just stopping by for a moment. Business.”

The smile slid off Paolo’s face. “Ah. I see.” He looked rueful. “You have terrible timing, I hope you know.”

But Piero’s eyes turned bright, avid. “Yeah?” he said, eager. “What’s up?”

“I’m to be confirmed as the Ninth,” Timoteo told them, and watched their expressions change again: Paolo went even more serious, and some of the brightness in Piero’s eyes was replaced with—wistfulness, regret, possibly resignation. The woman’s mouth turned tighter. No doubt she was wondering whether she wanted to hear what was to come.

“Congratulations,” Paolo said, after a moment. “Boss.”

“Thank you.” Timoteo stood straighter. “Will you serve me as my Lightning, Paolo?”

“Yes, of course.” Paolo moved away from his woman and crossed the room to bend over Timoteo’s hand, pressing his forehead to the back of it. “I’d be honored.”

“Hah, I told you so!” Piero grinned, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I told you that he’d pick you, you great ninny.”

“It’s not my place to presume what the boss’s plans are,” Paolo said, primly enough, though he was fighting down a grin. “Honestly, Piero…” He turned to his woman, who was standing still and white-knuckled in the kitchen door. “Well, Anna? How about it now?”

“Will I have to share you with your job now, too?” she asked, low and strained.

“Don’t be stupid,” Maria said, dry as dust. “You would have had to share him with his job even if he weren’t going to be the Lightning. Use your head, woman. He’s Vongola.”

The woman—Anna, Timoteo supposed—flinched. “I have to think about this,” she said, and whirled around, disappearing into the kitchen.

Paolo’s mouth flattened as he looked after her, and tightened even further as things began to clatter in the kitchen. “Women,” he said, shaking his head.

“My apologies,” Timoteo said. “I didn’t mean to ruin your evening.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Boss,” Paolo said, and shrugged. “You haven’t ruined anything. She’ll come around.”

Piero grinned and slapped him on the back. “Congratulations,” he said, dispelling the brief moment of grimness. “Don’t forget us little people when you go off to be the big bad Guardian, huh?”

Yes, he’d thought that Piero had been brooding on being left behind. “Piero,” Timoteo said, before Paolo could make a reply to that. “Will you be my Storm?”

He rather wished he’d had a camera, just so he could preserve the goggle-eyed look of surprise that Piero turned on him. “Me?” he said, pointing at his own chest. “Really?”

“I can’t think of who I would rather have,” Timoteo told him, as an identical smile bloomed on both their faces.

Piero bounded over to him and seized his hand, kissing it. “Yes! Hell, yes, even! I’ll be the best damn Storm the Vongola ever had.”

Timoteo grinned. “I know you will be,” he said, pleased with the sense that his people were already beginning to fall into place around him.

Family etiquette called for him to take at least one of his new Guardians with him as he made his rounds, but Timoteo stopped by Gianni’s quarters by himself, late in the evening—the last thing he would do before making his way home.

Gianni didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see him, and had, judging by the decanter of wine and the glasses already set out, been expecting him. “I hear that congratulations are in order,” he said, with a small smile, after he’d seen Timoteo installed in the apartment’s most comfortable chair and had poured him a glass of the wine.

“How do you hear these things so quickly?” Timoteo asked him.

Gianni shrugged, smiling behind his glass. “I have my ways.”

“I’m sure you do,” Timoteo snorted. He swirled the wine his glass, slowly, watching the motion of it. “Tell me—does the Devil offer good terms?”

Gianni smiled. “Reasonable enough, I’m sure.” He tipped his head, watching Timoteo, inscrutable. “Are you ready?”

“For a job like this one?” Timoteo huffed softly. “Can you ever be ready for a job like this one?”

“A good point,” Gianni conceded, and they lapsed into silence over their wine.

“I suppose I’m as ready to get started as I can be,” Timoteo said, presently. “But all the same, I’m not ashamed to say that I’m glad Mother has no immediate plans to retire, God willing.”

“God willing,” Gianni echoed, with a nod.

Timoteo took another drink of his wine, and looked at his friend. “So,” he said. “Will you stand at my side?”

“I’ve always stood at your side,” Gianni said, low and intent. “God willing, I always will.”

“Thank you,” Timoteo murmured to him. “I’m glad that I have you to depend on.”

“Always,” Gianni promised him.

Timoteo smiled at him; after a moment, Gianni settled back in his seat, and inquired after who Timoteo was calling to be his other Guardians. They passed the next half hour discussing Timoteo’s plans for the future and the Vongola pleasantly enough, until Timoteo set his empty glass down and eyed the time. “I should get home,” he said. “Gabriella will be wondering where I am.”

“Of course,” Gianni said, easy, and rose to see him to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Until then,” Timoteo said, and let himself out.

He spent the walk back to his and Gabriella’s rooms considering the sacrifices that friendship felt called to make.

Timoteo found Michele in the morning, coming in, before he’d even meant to go find him. By the appearance of him—scruffy around the chin, blond curls a mess—Michele had been out all night. He greeted Timoteo with a grin and bright eyes regardless. “Timoteo! Just the man I wanted to see!”

“Am I?” Timoteo couldn’t help but wonder if Michele had already heard, but Michele’s merry grin didn’t seem smug in any way. “What on earth for?”

“I’m going to be married.” Michele announced it with a flourish of his arms and little jig. “She said yes!”

“They always say yes to you,” Timoteo said, entertained, and not honestly sure which “she” Michele meant this time. “They never seem to mean it for very long.” The swathe Michele had managed to cut through the local female population was amazing. A person would think that they’d have learned by now, but apparently not.

“This time is different!” Michele glanced around, and drew a little closer. “There’s going to be a baby,” he confided.

“Ah,” Timoteo said, because now it was coming clear. “My congratulations.”

“Thank you.” Michele grinned at him. “So, what do you say? Will you be my best man?”

“If business allows, yes, of course.” Timoteo smiled as Michele whooped and did another dance, and waited for him to calm down. “I have a question for you as well.”

Michele spread his arms wide. “Anything you like,” he proclaimed. “Anything at all!”

Timoteo glanced around, but for the moment, the front hall was empty, except for them. “They’re going to confirm me as the Ninth.” Michele’s eyes went wide; before he could exclaim his congratulations, Timoteo hurried to add, “Will you be my Sun?”

That stunned some of the open glee off Michele’s face, and his expression turned serious. “I’d be honored,” he said, dropping to a knee and taking Timoteo’s hands between his. “My life for yours, Boss.” Then his expression changed back to a grin as he bounced to his feet. “Though you’ll forgive me if I hope that such a thing doesn’t become necessary. I’m going to be a family man, you know.”

“So I’d heard,” Timoteo said, dry, but Michele didn’t hear him, already off on another tangent.

“Perhaps it’ll be a boy,” he said, eyes gleaming with the light of his new scheme. “We can raise him with yours—Gabriella’s got to get pregnant soon, right?—and he can grow up to be your son’s Guardian, too. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?”

“I can’t imagine anything finer,” Timoteo told him, gravely, and let Michele draw him off to spin more castles in the air. He didn’t have the heart to ask Michele what he’d do if it were a girl.

Given Michele’s enthusiasm, probably concoct schemes that would have her married off to Timoteo’s first son, he decided, with a grin.

Rafaele had elected to stay on at his mother’s even after he’d come of age, because (as he’d quite sensibly pointed out) she’d had no one else to look after her. The quest to find him, therefore, took Timoteo and Gianni from the main house down to the little cottage that she kept and Rafaele looked after.

They were probably going to have to change that somehow, Timoteo thought, surveying it and its neat little garden. He couldn’t imagine that she would be willing to move from the place that had been her home for decades. They’d have to find someone to keep house for her, he decided, and made a note to speak to Gianni about it later.

Rafaele himself came around the side of the house, interrupting Timoteo’s thoughts, and greeted them both, cheerfully. “I’ll be with you in just a bit,” he said. “I have to finish watering Mother’s flowers for her.” He gestured with the brimming buckets he carried, as if to underline the point.

“No rush,” Timoteo told him, amused.

He and Gianni watched as Rafaele puttered through the garden, until Gianni leaned over and asked, in an undertone, “Does he ever give you the sense that you’re an absolutely horrible son?”

“Occasionally,” Timoteo said, wry. “You get used to it.”

Rafaele was as quick as he’d promised to be, though, and invited them inside for cool drinks as soon as he’d finished with the garden, along with a tray of bread and fruit. “It’s not much,” he apologized. “Market day, you know.”

That must have been where his mother was. “It’s plenty,” Timoteo assured him.

“Mm.” Rafaele’s eyes moved back and forth between the two of them, quick and assessing. “I’ll hazard a guess and say that this isn’t a social visit, is it?”

“Not entirely,” Timoteo said, and set his lemonade down.

Rafaele’s smile was wry. “How ever did I guess?” he asked, and clasped his hands on his knee. “What would the Vongola like from me today?”

“Something a bit more complicated than helping me steal peaches from Signor Ferla’s orchard, I’m afraid,” Timoteo told him, and heard Gianni’s muffled snort of laughter. “They’re confirming me as Mother’s heir. Will you serve as my Rain?”

Rafaele went still and surprised. “Timoteo…” he said, slowly. “It’s an honor, really, but… have you thought this through?”

“From every angle,” Timoteo, watching the hesitation moving across Rafaele’s face. “You’re the man I want.”

“What we want and what is practical are very different things,” Rafaele persisted, hesitation beginning to settle into stubbornness. “I’m not sure that this is practical. At all.”

“I am more than willing to deal with impracticalities,” Timoteo assured him, a bit dismayed by Rafaele’s resistance, which he hadn’t really expected to be more than token. “That’s the whole of the job, when you think about it. So. Will you do it?”

“I’m not really Vongola,” Rafaele said, quietly. “You know that. I’m happy to serve your Family, but I’m not a part of it and I’m never going to be.”

“Don’t be such a jackass,” Gianni said, before Timoteo could react to that. “You’re not the one who gets to decide who’s Family and who’s not. The boss is the one who does that.”

Rafaele stared at him, clearly startled by the blunt language.

Timoteo forced himself not to smile; it was always entertaining to watch Gianni catch someone off-guard for the first time. “Just as Gianni says,” he murmured. “It’s my decision who belongs in my Family, and I say you do. You’ve already fought for me and bled for me. You’ve laughed with me, and you danced at my wedding. What more is there to Family than that?”

Rafaele looked at him, the seconds ticking past, and then smiled, faintly rueful. “A few things, perhaps.” He stopped, looking away from them both. “Are you sure that this is the decision you want to make?”

“Very sure,” Timoteo told him.

Rafaele looked back, and then nodded, slow and measured. “Then, yes.” He stood and moved, kneeling for Timoteo. “I will serve.”

“Thank you,” Timoteo murmured, relief running through him. He drew Rafaele up. “Anyone who says you’re not Vongola will answer to me,” he promised.

Rafaele’s smile in response to that was bright, and even a little wondering. “If you say so, Boss.”

There were some sour faces among the highest-ranking members of his mother’s advisors and the other men who helped her run the Vongola. Timoteo scanned them, noting who looked most irritated and committing their names to memory. He’d have to be their Boss one of these days—pray God one of these days a good way hence—and it wouldn’t pay to burn too many bridges with this, if he could help it.

But for now, there wasn’t much that he could do, so he ignored them for the time being, along with the faint susurrus of talk about his Rain and his Cloud. It quieted when his mother accepted the two boxes from Cesare and turned to the room at large. “These are the Vongola rings,” she said, firm and clear, and opened the boxes to display the halves of the rings to the crowd. “They are our greatest treasures, and today we bring them forth to mark the way for those who will come after us.” She drew the first pair of ring halves from their places and fit them together. “Maria Purezza, come forward and take the Cloud ring.”

Maria stepped forward, head held high, and accepted the ring. The room held its breath as she slid it onto her finger, but nothing happened.

As Maria stepped to the side, Mother drew out the next pair of halves. “Paolo Gemello,” she called, “Come forward and take the Lightning ring.”

Timoteo glanced through the faces in the crowd as he did, and found Paolo’s Anna there. Her expression was still a bit strained, but she found a smile as Paolo took his ring and his place. They must have reached some accommodation after all.

“Piero Gemello, come forward and take the Storm ring.”

Piero very nearly swaggered forward, every line of him set with pride and eagerness. He fell in at his brother’s side with a blinding grin; Timoteo noted that some of the observers couldn’t seem to help grinning themselves, watching him.

“Rafaele Martelli,” his mother said, and every face went still and watchful. “Come forward and take the Rain ring.”

Rafaele moved forward to accept the ring from her hand, steady and careful, and gravely slid it onto his finger. Nothing happened, and the crowd muttered and shifted as he took his place with the rest of Timoteo’s Guardians.

“Michele Rizzo, come forward and take the Sun ring,” his mother called, her voice cutting across the rustling and muttering.

A good next choice: Michele’s step practically bounced, and he won more than a few smiles after accepting the ring and turning to blow a kiss into the crowd. Timoteo just hoped it was aimed at his fiancée and not someone else.

“Gianni Staffieri, come forward and take the Mist ring,” Mother called.

Timoteo swallowed butterflies down as Gianni moved forward and accepted his ring, solemn as a judge, and moved to stand with the circle of Guardians who were waiting. That was six, then.

Mother fit the last set of halves together, forming the Sky ring, and looked to him. “Timoteo Vongola,” she said, slow and serious, “come forward and take the Sky ring, and let the people see how you will lead them with the Guardians you have chosen.”

Timoteo drew a breath and stepped forward, taking the ring from his mother’s hand. It lay cool and heavy in his palm until he slid it on; then it fit on his finger comfortably, and nothing terrible happened to prove that he was unworthy of its weight.

He rather thought that his was not the only stifled sigh of relief.

Timoteo squared his shoulders and turned to his Guardians, who came to him with hands outstretched and faces that reflected his own joy and pride and solemnity back to him. The rings burst into Flame and light as they did, making their collective Wills manifest and burning the last traces of doubt from Rafaele and Maria’s eyes.

Timoteo finally let himself smile at this, the first proper beginnings of his Family, and joined his hands with theirs. Let the outsiders doubt his choices if they liked. With a Family like his, a man could do anything at all.

– end –