"You wanted to see me, Father?" Mari closed the door of the study behind her, noted her father’s expression, both affectionate and harried, and looked around for a baby in a suit. Sure enough, Reborn was in one of the armchairs with a tiny cup of coffee. "Reborn, welcome back."
"Mari, you’re twenty-six already. It’s about time you were officially confirmed as the Vongola heir," he answered with typical briskness. "It’s time you started choosing your Guardians."
Mari put her hands on her hips, brows raised. "What do you mean, started?"
Her father chuckled. "I thought you might have a few ideas already."
"You can’t choose your brothers for all of them," Reborn cautioned.
"Of course not. Haruka and Shin both have the Sky attribute, same as me. No, we’ve already discussed this. Well, mostly." She hurried along. "Daisuke and Kazuya, and Rei, from the family."
Father tipped his head to the side and asked, softly, "Not Mamoru?"
Mari nibbled her lip. "Well. That’s the mostly part."
"Finish that, then," Reborn told her. "And we can talk about the rest."
"I already know the rest," Mari muttered. "Mostly." Before they could ask about that part, too, though, she slipped out and took a good breath and headed for her brother’s room.
"Mamoru?" Mari stood in the doorway, looking more hesitant than his big sister usually did, and Mamoru waved her in.
"What’s up, Mari?"
"Well. It’s, um. See, Reborn just got back and he and Father think it’s time to make things official, and they want me to name my Guardians, and…"
Mamoru smiled and held up a hand, cutting off the single-breath explanation.
"Don’t tell me, let me guess. You want to choose Mario instead of me."
"Mm." Mari nibbled on her lip and he got up to go and hug her.
"Nee-san, stop being silly," he said into her hair. "Mario will be a good Lightning Guardian for you, and it’s not like it makes me any less your brother, does it?"
"Of course not! I just…"
"You just want to make everyone happy. Kind of like Father."
She looked up with a smile, if still a small one. "I am his heir, after all."
"I will be happy supporting you the same way Haruka and Shin do," he said, firmly.
"I know you will," she admitted. "I just don’t want you to be hurt by what other people say about this. I mean, with Daisuke as my Sun Guardian and Kazuya as my Mist. Haruka and Shin, well, people will understand that. But here you are, the odd man out."
Mamoru shrugged. "So maybe that will be useful some time." He grinned. "I bet Kazuya can tell us if it is."
She finally laughed. "I wonder sometimes if it was really a good idea, making Uncle Mukuro his godfather."
"At least he’s as well trained as it’s possible to be," Mamoru said, practically. He tucked a strand of his sister’s bright hair back. "Now stop worrying. Mario couldn’t be more loyal to you, and you and I know I’m always here when you need me. That’s all we need."
"My extra good sense, yes." She hugged him. "Thanks, Mamoru."
"Not as though you don’t have plenty of family among your Guardians, what with two brothers and a cousin." And they’d all known, since the day Rei had coolly broken the arm of one of Mari’s suitors who got a little too pressing, who Mari’s Rain Guardian would be. The incident itself hadn’t ruffled Rei in the least, but the weeks of Uncle Ryouhei’s loud pride in his daughter had almost embarrassed her to death before Mari had spoken to Aunt Hana, who made him stop. The girls had made a mutual protection pact in the best mafia tradition.
"I don’t need one of the Vongola rings to take care of my sister," Mamoru finished, firmly.
Mari hugged him again, squeezing him nearly breathless this time, and grinned up at him. "Thanks, little brother."
He laughed at the family joke; he’d grown taller than her four years ago. "Go on, then. Ask Mario. Oh, wait! Let me get my camera first."
When Mari knocked on Mario’s door, she was hoping to get her friend in person, but luck didn’t seem to be with her that much today. It was his father who answered, and she’d always had the feeling that Fedele was conflicted over both her and her father. And that was before Uncle Gokudera had told her enough Vongola history for her to figure out why, before she’d known there had ever been a different heir to become the Vongola Tenth or that he’d been killed while the man who would have been his right hand had lived. The man whose son she had come to call on to serve a new heir.
Well, no one had ever said her job would be easy.
"Fedele," she said, courteous and firm. "I’d like to speak with Mario."
His eyes flicked between her and Mamoru and his mouth tightened for a moment. "Come in."
They waited in the sitting room, Mari in one of the armchairs and Mamoru standing at her shoulder. Her mouth quirked at his silent insistence that she was the Eleventh and would be respected as such. Mario saw it, too, when he came clattering down the stairs, but, being Mario, misread it a bit.
"Mari, hey, what’s…" he trailed off, "up?" His eyes were shadowed for just a moment, resting on Mamoru, but he pulled himself together and straightened. "Was there something you needed to tell me?"
Mari shook her head at him. "Of course there is, you idiot, but not that." She couldn’t help smiling a little at the confusion that relaxed his spine. "You always jump to conclusions. So?" She stood and held out a hand, grinning. "You with me or what?"
The caution in his face thawed into the Mario she knew, and he grinned back at her, brilliant, catching her hand. "About damn time!"
They both jumped at the click and flash of Mamoru’s camera, and Mario growled at him. Mamoru just laughed. "Oh, come on. That was adorable."
"I am not adorable," Mario declared, firmly. "I’m way too old to be adorable."
Mari elbowed Mamoru before he could tease Mario any more, and Mario drew himself up, reminded that this was, theoretically, a formal occasion. "I will be honored to serve the Eleventh."
Mari squeezed his hand, sealing the deal. "I’ll be pleased to have you as my Lightning Guardian."
Mamoru, tucking the camera away, clapped a hand on Mario’s shoulder. "Take good care of my sister."
"Well, hey." Mario ran a self-conscious hand through his hair. "That’ll take both of us, won’t it?"
"Probably," Mamoru agreed, trenchantly, and caught a slightly more serious elbow for that one.
They might have stood there grinning at each other like idiots for a lot longer if Fedele hadn’t spoken from the stairs where he’d been watching. "The confirmation is coming up, then?"
Mari turned to him. She always gave Fedele her full attention, feeling like she was waiting for something—for some kind of sign from him. "Father and Reborn both feel that would be wise."
He looked at his son for a long moment, eyes dark. "Don’t fail her," he finally said, quietly, and turned to go back up the stairs. The stifled pain in every line of his body pulled Mari forward a step; screw waiting, she couldn’t just leave it at that.
"Fedele!" When he paused at the sharpness of her voice, Mari crossed the room to him and looked up into his eyes. Fierce and soft she told him, "It wasn’t your fault."
"It was my responsibility." His usually stern expression was even remoter than usual.
"I don’t deny that," Mari said quietly, and his eyes flickered, maybe startled. "But it wasn’t your fault. You were overwhelmed. You weren’t strong enough to protect him all by yourself. None of us can do that! That’s why we have each other." Her hand cut across at her brother, at her new Guardian, Fedele’s son. She looked around at the dim room, the small room, of a small house, far from the Vongola mansion and knowledge came together in her heart. "And I don’t care what other people might have said. I know you didn’t betray your boss." When he started to look away, face twisting, she stepped closer, not letting him. "You did not betray him. I know." Softly she added, "And he knew, too."
He blinked at her, shadows broken by startlement, and finally smiled just a little. "Blood of Vongola." He took a breath and let it out. "The Vongola will pass into good hands."
She supposed that was a start and when he turned away again she didn’t try to call him back. Though she did make a definite mental note to speak to Father about this, because they couldn’t just leave one of their people in such a state.
Mario was staring, when she turned around. "Mari."
She blushed just a little. "Um. Yeah?"
He crossed the room and knelt down for a breath, pressing his forehead to the back of her hand. When he looked up, he was smiling. "He’s right."
She tugged him up, blushing. "Well. Glad you think so, considering."
Rei was a lot easier.
Mari strolled with her young cousin to the other end of the terrace where their mothers were having tea. "Have you heard?" she asked.
"That you’re choosing?" Rei glanced at Mari under her lashes. "Yes."
Mari smiled. "Will you be my Rain Guardian?"
Receiving all of Rei’s focused attention was a little like being hit by a bus and Mari was glad she’d had years to get used to it. "Of course I will, Mari-san."
Mari touched Rei’s hand. "Thank you." She didn’t even think of chuckling at the faint color that crossed Rei’s cheeks.
She started to ask the rest of it and paused. Of all her Guardians-to-be, Rei—dedicated, serious, responsible Rei—would surely be the best suited to be her right hand, when she took the Family. But something held her back; it just didn’t feel quite right.
Well, it wasn’t like she didn’t have plenty of time to work out that choice. She’d mentioned it in passing to Reborn and gotten an inscrutable baby-smirk in answer that made her roll her eyes. At least he wasn’t pressing her to choose right away, though.
"So, how’s Uncle Ryouhei doing?" she asked instead. "He’s been away for months."
"Loudly," Rei said dourly. "Like he’s always doing. He called Mother last night and I could hear him in the next room."
This time, Mari laughed.
"Mari, Kazuya! To what do we owe the pleasure?" Uncle Dino paused on his way through the halls to ruffle her hair and smile at Kazuya.
"Hey, Uncle Dino. I just stopped by to talk to Fiorela."
His eyes sharpened and moved from her to Kazuya. "I see. I wondered if that would be coming soon. Well, Fiorela is up in her room. I’m sure she’ll be pleased to see you."
"We’ve only been friends since we were three years old, I should hope so!" Mari laughed, wondering whether all the parents had Guardian Radar this week.
"Well, why else would I be with you, to visit her?" Kazuya murmured as they continued up the stairs. "Uncle Dino hasn’t been the Cavallone boss this long without learning politics."
"I suppose it would be unreasonable if I said I don’t want my friends to be politics," Mari sighed.
"Not unreasonable." Kazuya bumped her shoulder sympathetically. "Just not very likely."
Mari snorted a little. "Yeah, that. Hey, Fiorela!" she added, throwing open her friend’s door.
"Mari, perfect timing! Which of these looks more demure?" Fiorela spun around, holding two dresses up. Mari eyed the hem of one and neckline of the other.
"Neither, really." She leaned a hip on the dresser. "Who are you after?"
Fiorela’s eyes gleamed. "The Rosetti. Geno, the second son."
Mari grinned. It was always nice to see someone enjoying her work. "Getting the inside scoop before negotiations next week, huh? Hmmmm." She examined the dresses again. "You’re right, you probably need a bigger hammer to get through to him. Maybe the green? The frilly sleeves should look all girlish."
"I think you’re right." Fiorela shrugged off her dressing gown and started wriggling into the clinging, green dress. "So, you here for business? Or is Kazuya just your bodyguard of the day?"
Kazuya, who was looking out the window, mouth quirked as he ignored Fiorela’s half-naked squirming, said, "A little of both."
Mari spared a moment to be thankful they both found needling each other amusing. Having her Storm and her Mist constantly fighting for real wouldn’t have been fun.
Though she’d heard some stories about Uncle Gokudera and Uncle Yamamoto, from the early days.
"They want to confirm me as the Eleventh," she told Fiorela, quietly.
Her friend paused in the middle of running fingers through the dark, curly hair she’d gotten from her mother, and met Mari’s eyes in the mirror. "So it’s time to make it official, hm?" She turned to face Mari, straight and proud, games set aside.
"Will you be the next Vongola Storm Guardian?" Mari asked, simply.
Their eyes held for a moment and Mari found the absolute dedication in Fiorela’s comforting. "Thank you," she said, softly.
And then the moment was past and she grinned and waved at Kazuya. "In that case, meet your new consultant."
Fiorela curled her lip. "Oh, please."
"You need to work with someone who spends more time considering things," Kazuya said firmly. "You’re very good, but sometimes you get carried away."
"I’m supposed to!" Fiorela protested.
"The Storm is supposed to be your strength, not your excuse," Kazuya told her dryly.
Fiorela glared at him for a breath before looking at Mari. "Are you sure he’s really only eighteen and didn’t get switched out for a forty year old at birth?"
"Afraid so." Mari grinned, wryly.
Fiorela heaved a sigh. "Okay, fine. So what does my consultant have to say about Geno?"
"That he won’t believe in the possibility of an alliance marriage, not with you. String him along with the suggestion that you have your brother’s ear, instead, and use the flirting as a simple distraction."
Mari sat back and watched them plotting, and wondered if all her Guardians would be like this, if the fit and connections between them would all snap into place so firmly. It was almost enough to make her believe in the mysticism surrounding the Rings.
"So it’s the Cloud she’s unsure of?" Reborn asked, ankles crossed on the chair seat in front of him.
"It isn’t too surprising, is it?" Tsuna smiled. "I think the relationship between a boss and the Cloud Guardian is probably the hardest to even describe. At least she’s recognized who she wants."
"So? Is Lucia willing or not?"
Tsuna leaned back, looking out the window thoughtfully. "I think she is. I even think she’ll be a very good Cloud. But exactly because of that, her loyalty to Mari won’t be quite like what Mari sees from the others. I think she’s having a hard time recognizing it."
Reborn sniffed. "Her intuition should tell her, by now."
"Hm." Tsuna knew his daughter hadn’t exactly had an easy childhood, but she also hadn’t been forced to grow with quite such drastic speed as he had. Her gifts weren’t always consistent yet. "Maybe I’ll write Chrome and invite her to bring Lucia to visit," he murmured. "By now both of the girls are probably thinking about this. Maybe Mari’s intuition just needs an opportunity."
The corners of Reborn’s mouth curled up. "Maybe I’ll stay and see, then."
Kazuya looked up from his quiet conversation with Aunt Chrome as Mari and Lucia swept into the room, both shower-damp and stumbling a little but looking extremely pleased with themselves.
"That was fun," Mari declared, easing down into a chair.
"Not bad at all," Lucia agreed, showing her teeth as she folded up cross-legged by the low table. She stretched her arms over her head, eyes glinting.
Lucia was the only person besides Mari herself and Uncle Yamamoto who actually enjoyed training with Uncle Hibari. Kazuya figured she must have gotten the taste for fighting from her father, since Aunt Chrome seemed like a regular, sensible person that way. Fortunately, Lucia didn’t have her father’s loud brashness, even once she relaxed enough around someone to drop the most reserved of her manners.
Or maybe that should be ‘unfortunately’ since then, at least, Mari would have been sure of Lucia by now.
Mari glanced around. "Is Father still busy with the Pozzo Nero thing?"
"Mm," Haruka agreed, looking up from his book. "I’m afraid so. You’d think they’d just give up already, but no. It’s the Orsini they’re trying to ally with this time."
"You should take care of them for good," Lucia stated. Not really an unexpected sentiment, given her family, Kazuya reflected; Uncle Mukuro could be extremely direct, in some ways, and all his people picked it up.
Mari shook her head. "That would only set the other Families off worse, given they haven’t attacked us directly."
"They have attacked directly, just not with guns." Lucia gave Mari a challenging look that Mari returned with a cheerful smile.
"A good point, I suppose." Kazuya watched Mari veer off from the argument and sighed. Sometimes he really thought what these two needed was to have a good fight.
Sure enough, Lucia stiffened just a little. "You know I hate it when you do that," she muttered.
Kazuya was just getting ready to say something, to distract them, when Mari paused and looked at Lucia, eyes suddenly direct and piercing. "It doesn’t mean that I don’t trust you," she said, abruptly.
Lucia lifted her head and stared at Mari.
"That’s what you thought, isn’t it?" Mari asked, softly. "Because you’re only really polite with people until you trust them."
"Well, that’s the way you smile at people you’re fooling, isn’t it?" Lucia asked, a little harsh. "You think I don’t recognize it?"
"I…" Mari hesitated. "I didn’t want to fight with you."
Lucia stared at her blankly. "Why not?"
Mari’s mouth twitched at that, and she finally broke down laughing. "I’m sorry," she managed, waving a hand. "You’re right."
Lucia looked satisfied for a moment and then frowned and poked Mari with her toe. "Why didn’t you want to fight?"
Mari took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. "Ah. Well." She looked down at her hands, clasping them tightly for a moment, and finally said, low, "Because I’m hoping you’ll agree to be my Cloud Guardian."
Lucia was silent for a moment. Finally she snorted. "And you thought not fighting with me was the way to get me to say yes?"
"All right, I admit it, I wasn’t thinking!"
"You know," Haruka drawled, "I’m glad it’s you who has to deal with this, Mari. I don’t think I’d like having to juggle all the Guardians and their," he paused as Lucia caught his eye, brows raised, and finished, "quirks."
Lucia snorted softly. "Well." She eyed Mari. "You could certainly use someone to keep you from getting too fluffy."
"Fluffy?" Mari asked, eyes glinting.
"Soft, even," Lucia added, with a provoking smile.
"There is nothing soft about taking the time to do things right, to make changes that will stick instead of just flailing around with brute force." Mari’s voice was intense.
"There’s no point in being afraid to use the force you have," Lucia shot back. "Especially if it’s the right tool for the job."
Mari leaned forward. "Some jobs. Not all. We have to judge when it’s really the best option and not just the easiest."
Lucia matched her stare for stare. "But if it is the best option, then we have to use it."
They held each other’s eyes locked for another long moment and finally Lucia leaned back and gave Mari a judicious look. "All right. That was more like it." Her sharp grin flashed. "I’ll do it."
Mari lit up and Kazuya couldn’t help a laugh. He’d been right; they just needed a good fight. Considering Uncle Hibari, he couldn’t be surprised.
There wasn’t any particular ceremony, and Mari was grateful for that. She was nervous enough already, just knowing that all of the top members of the Family were here as witnesses. If all went well, she would be presented again to their allies, but by then she’d at least know for sure that everything was all right.
She could feel Uncle Xanxus’ eyes on her back.
"In years past, these rings were kept hidden most of the time," her father said, laying his hands on the two boxes on the table in front of him. "Now they are the first and final defense of our Family. The seven of you will not hold them constantly until I retire. But today your right to them will be confirmed."
Mari appreciated his trust in them, in her, but she knew that this could also be the day her right to the Sky Ring was proven false.
Father opened the boxes and drew out two ring-halves, fitting them together. Mari’s nerves fought with her sense of the absurd, that the rings had been broken apart this morning, only to be fitted together again as a gesture.
Well, not exactly a gesture, she had to admit, eyes flicking to Irie. It was also proof that both the Boss and the outside advisor agreed where to bestow them.
"Sasagawa Rei," he said quietly, and held out the Rain ring. Rei stepped forward to take it and only the Guardians, old generation and new, were close enough to see her fingers shaking just a little. Uncle Ryouhei shifted on his feet and Uncle Yamamoto elbowed him and winked at Rei. Her back straightened, eyes narrowing with disapproval of the byplay on a solemn occasion and she slid the ring onto her finger with steady hands.
"Fiorela Cavallone," Father called next, face straight but eyes twinkling.
Mari held on to that, reminding herself to breathe nice and slow, as the Guardians she had chosen, who had chosen her, came one after another to take the rings.
She took one last breath and walked forward to take the ring from her father’s hand. Their eyes met and he nodded just a little, confident and encouraging. She nodded back and slid the ring onto her hand.
Heavenly lighting failed to instantly strike her, which seemed like a good sign.
She turned to her Guardians and held out her hand. They closed around her, reaching out, and her eyes widened as the rings lit with a rainbow of Flame. She hadn’t channeled her Will into her own and, from the startled eyes looking back at her, she didn’t think anyone else had, either. But the rings burned on their hands, bright and wild.
"The Vongola Rings accept Sawada Mari as the eleventh boss of Vongola," her father declared behind her, and a murmur of approval ran through the room. She barely noticed it, though, as she looked at the faces around her, their unwavering focus on her, and felt understanding singing through her. This, right now, these people were her Family. She would fight to protect them with everything in her and they would always be beside her.
It really was almost a flash of light, the sudden rightness of the thought that came to her. She turned to look at her three brothers, standing to the side with Mother. Haruka looked satisfied and Shin was nearly laughing. Mamoru just watched her, eyes steady.
"Mamoru." She held out her hand to him. "Stand beside me."
He met her gaze and stepped away from the others, coming slowly to her side. He looked around at her Guardians, head cocked. Mario looked enlightened and Fiorela was grinning. Daisuke nodded, pleased, and Kazuya followed after a considering moment. Rei looked back and forth between Mari and Mamoru a few times and added her own firm nod, and Lucia’s mouth was curled in a sardonic smile. Mamoru took a slow breath and nodded back to them and slid down to one knee before Mari. His lips touched her ring and he smiled up at her. "Always, boss."
Mari almost shivered, feeling the last thing she’d been missing click into place as her right hand rose to stand at her shoulder. She lifted her head and looked at her father, finally calm and sure in the certainty that this was right.
His gaze was steady. "The rings choose well for the Vongola."
Mari and her people turned together to face the rest of the Family, and Reborn, perched in a windowsill at the back of the room, met her eyes and smiled.