Mari shifted her bag of pastries to her other hand and rapped on the door. When Fedele opened it she stomped inside, declaring, "Men!"
"I noticed," he said dryly.
"It’s like they think you can have brains or breasts, but not both." Mari made for the kitchen and and rummaged for coffee cups with unnecessary force.
"They’re already out."
"Oh." She took a deep breath and let it out. "Right."
Fedele shook his head, looking a little amused, and pulled out a chair for her. "Sit down and I’ll get things."
Mari sat and glowered broodingly at her coffee while he laid the pastries out and brought them to the table.
"I can’t imagine your own people are being that foolish, so I take it one of the other Families has annoyed you?" he asked, sitting down.
"Not just one! All of them!"
"Even the Cavallone? And the Giglio Nero?" Fedele raised his brows over his cup.
"All right, not Uni, but Uncle Dino is in on it too, this time," Mari growled. "They all want me to get married. Uncle Dino actually told me I should think about it!" Which had felt all the more like a betrayal because Uncle Dino was the one boss who hadn’t been throwing his sons at her head all her life. She’d thought he had better sense. If Stefano hasn’t distracted his father from the discussion, Mari might have done something drastic.
"Can you really blame them? The Tenth has made no secret that he wants to retire soon, and there’s no one to come after you."
"Daisuke has a kid already, and Shin probably will too, any day now." Mari bit into a cookie as though she could bite off all the arguments the same way. "There’s plenty of Vongola blood to go around."
"And you know as well as I do that the Vongola prefer to keep the Boss’ descent direct, to preserve the strongest Flame if nothing else." Fedele set his cup down and looked at her steadily. "What’s the real problem, Mari?"
Mari leaned her chin in her hand and smiled at him wryly. "It’s too bad you aren’t about thirty years younger, you know." She grinned at the expression on his face and took a more delicate bite of cookie. "I don’t suppose I really have any objection to marrying. Mother and Father certainly make it look nice. The problem is that all my prospects are from other mafia Families, and I swear every one of them has been raised to believe that he can take over the Vongola by marrying me."
"Ah." Fedele poured a little more coffee for both of them. "And the allied Families? There are no possibilities among them?"
Mari traced a finger over the smooth wood of the table. "This is probably going to sound petulant." She smiled wryly and his elaborately unsurprised expression. "I’ve dated most of them at one time or another, except the ones who were too busy acting like extra brothers and trying to sneak frogs into my sock drawer, and none of them feel… right. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to hold out for romance, but…"
"But it’s what you grew up with," he finished for her, gently. "The Tenth was very fortunate in love. I imagine few bosses can really say that."
"What a tactful way to tell me to give it up," she murmured, and waved a hand at his sterner look. "I know my duty, Fedele. And I’ll do it. But it is what I grew up with. Even Uncle Gokudera and Aunt Haru. Even Uncle Yamamoto and Uncle Hibari, for God’s sake!"
"Well, if you look at it that way, I suppose you could expand your search, if the young men are insufficient," he mused. "Children would be a bit more difficult, but still…"
Mari nearly spit a mouthful of coffee across the room and barely managed to choke it down so she could laugh herself breathless. "Oh, imagine people’s faces!" She wiped her eyes and sat back. "Ah, I needed that."
"You looked like it," he agreed, smiling faintly. "Try not to worry too much about it. Sooner or later it will solve itself."
"Or some new problem will come along to distract me at least." Mari chose another pastry, chuckling.
"Mari, can I have a moment?"
Mari looked up from handing her coat to the housekeeper, surprised to see the sturdy, serious man waiting in the entry hall. "Irie-san! Of course." She waved Mamoru to follow and nodded to Rei. "Tell Father I’ll be in in just a moment to report about the Catania holdings."
Rei brushed her jacket smooth over her shoulder holster and nodded soberly. "Yes, Mari."
Mari spared her cousin and Rain’s earnestness a smile as she led Mamoru and Irie to one of the hall parlors. "What’s up, Irie-san?" she asked, pulling up a chair to the room’s low table, aware of Mamoru leaning by one of the windows.
"I wanted to speak with you." Irie seated himself more deliberately, the way he did everything that wasn’t an emergency. "I’m considering retiring when Tsuna does."
Mari sat back, startled, this being the first she’d heard of any such idea. "Then CEDEF…"
"I’ll stay as long as I’m needed," Irie assured her. "I just thought… well, if you have any idea who you might want as your outside advisor after me…"
"Then I could be thinking about it." Mari smiled wryly. "I see."
"It isn’t that I’m not happy, serving the Vongola," Irie said quietly.
"But Father is special to you." Mari firmly stomped on a flicker of inadequacy; this was hardly the first time she’d had to deal with standing in the shadow of the Tenth. "No, I do understand." But who on earth could she call on to serve as the leader of CEDEF, to be her advisor?
Irie smiled a little, apparently seeing the question written in the air above her head. "There’s no urgency, if you can’t think of anyone yet."
"I can’t, offhand," Mari admitted. "Someone who’s inside and outside at the same—" She broke off, thoughts arrested. "Hm."
"A thought after all?" Irie’s brows rose.
"Hm." Mari stood and paced the room twice. Finally she turned back toward Irie, hands clasped behind her. "Irie-san, advise me," she ordered, intent. "What characteristics do you think are most needed in the outside advisor?"
Irie sat back, eyes sharp. "I would say… detachment," he said after a moment.
Mari crooked her fingers at him, beckoning. "Say more."
"The leader of CEDEF must be able to know everything that goes on in the Family, be prepared at any moment to step in if he’s called on or there’s an emergency, and yet never do so unless he is called or a true emergency exists." Irie’s mouth quirked. "It isn’t always easy."
"Detachment," Mari repeated slowly. "Yes." She smiled slowly. "Perhaps I do have a thought for this. I’ll just have to convince him it’s a good idea. That will be the hard part." She paused, considering. "One of the hard parts. The first hard part, anyway."
Irie laughed. "Somehow, I doubt that will stop you."
"Of course not." Mari smiled at him brightly. And sometimes her father’s shadow, and her mother’s too, supported instead of stifling.
Irie excused himself and Mari started back to make her delayed report, Mamoru at her shoulder.
"You’re thinking of Fedele Rizzo, aren’t you?" he asked, quietly.
"Like I said, there will be hard parts."
He snorted. "My sister, the master of understatement."
She stopped and looked up at him, serious. "It feels right, Mamoru. Right for Vongola and right for him. He advises me well already, and we owe him both respect and peace."
"This might not give him either." Mamoru’s eyes were dark. "Nor give them to you."
"Perhaps. But this is what I owe him." Her shoulders straightened with the inner certainty that was still fairly rare for her. "And this is what he owes me, as the Vongola."
One breath and Mamoru smiled. "Yes, Boss."
Mari smiled back. "Good! Let’s go report to Father, then. And after…" she narrowed her eyes at the future, "…after, I think I’ll want to talk to Kazuya about strategy."
Fedele stared at her, coffee halfway to his lips. "You can’t possibly be serious."
Mari hadn’t really needed Kazyua to tell her that this would be the first response. "I’m quite serious." She folded her hands on the table between them, gaze level. Fedele set his cup down with a clack.
"Mari, just for starters, I’m too old! You’d have to choose another advisor in the middle of your tenure, and that isn’t something you want to do."
Reluctance she understood, but this she wouldn’t put up with. "It’s my business to decide what I do and don’t want to do," she rapped out. "Your business is to advise me on the consequences, but that is all."
He sat back sharply and Mari let her tone soften. "If I have to choose someone new later on, then I will. Right now I think you are the best choice, and that’s all that matters."
"Not quite all." His voice was calmer, quieter, but still stubborn.
"If you truly do not wish to serve the Vongola this way, then say so and I won’t speak of it again. But," Mari leveled a finger at him, "you had better have more of a reason that ‘it will cause talk’."
"It will cause talk," he muttered, but he hadn’t refused yet and that was progress. Mari gathered her cards and laid them out.
"You are older, and that means you have perspective that my Family so far doesn’t. You’ve seen how the Family operates both as a foot soldier and as the right hand of the heir. And," she finished quietly, "none of the other positions your loyalty and service should have earned you will make you happy."
"My service failed," he said harshly, eyes shadowed in the low afternoon light through the kitchen windows.
"It did not," Mari told him flatly. "You were defeated. Your boss was killed. But your service did not fail. Not then and not since." The way he flinched from her words didn’t make her any happier, but she refused to leave them unsaid. "You have not left us. In face of all the idiot tongues wagging about how you must have been in conspiracy with Xanxus to live through the attack, you stayed. You kept faith with us. You served. Tell me who better I could possibly name as my outside advisor?" She reached across the table and touched his arm. "Who else has better earned the right to both guide and stand free of the Vongola?"
He ran a hand over his face, eyes squeezed shut. "God you sound like Federico, when he got into one of his Vongola moods."
"Blood tells, I suppose," she murmured, mouth quirked.
He looked up at her, and she was satisfied to see the tight lines around his eyes easing just a little. "I won’t say anything else idiotic, then, like ‘are you really sure’."
Mari laughed. "Good. Much more of that and I’d have had to get a little annoyed."
He looked down at his hands and fetched in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It’s a hell of a job, sometimes. But I’ll do it for you."
Mari took a nice deep breath of her own. "Thank you."
Catching her father alone took a lot more ingenuity. In the end, she and Mamoru picked the least contentious meeting that month and hoped to cage some time at the end of it.
That meant, of course, sitting through the meeting instead of walking out the instant one of the Colli under-bosses smiled fatuously at her and called her "our young Eleventh" with his hand on the Colli son’s shoulder. Mari had never gone out with Pino herself but Fiorela had, and her report had not inclined Mari to him. Even if he hadn’t been making the most ridiculous cow’s eyes at her.
"You’re not actually considering him, are you?" Uncle Gokudera asked, after the Colli left, looking dubious.
"God no!" Mari shuddered. "At this rate, I may never marry at all. I’ll go into a convent as soon as Daisuke’s boy is old enough."
"I take it you had another reason for being so forbearing, then?" her father murmured. Mari ignored the twitching at the corners of his mouth and leaned back, folding her hands on her knee.
"I do." Mamoru drifted over to stand at her shoulder, making his support evident. "Irie-san has said he would like to retire when you do, so I’ve been thinking who I might want as my own outside advisor."
"Ah." Father straightened. "Have you found someone?"
Father and Uncle Gokudera both blinked at her for a moment. "He’s older than we are," Uncle Gokudera pointed out.
"All the more experience in my service, then." Mari felt a little the way she did facing Uncle Hibari on the practice floor, poised and waiting, taut with not knowing what would come but knowing she could respond to whatever it was. That, more than anything, told her she was choosing rightly in this.
"Mari," Father said quietly, "are you sure you aren’t letting sympathy color a business judgment?"
"Yes, I am." She lifted her chin. "I wouldn’t call it sympathy, though. Call it compassion."
Father’s mouth quirked. "And I an hardly object to that, hm?"
"Of course you can object." She shrugged. "But why would you?"
"Because you will already be facing tensions enough as a woman in charge of the Vongola Family, and taking someone there are still rumors about as your outside advisor will only add to that."
Mari looked at her father for a long moment and finally recognized what was lurking under the sharpness of his eyes: worry. "Are you sure you aren’t letting your concern for me color a business judgment?" she asked softly.
Father opened his mouth and closed it again with a sigh. "Perhaps," he allowed. And then he tilted his head and looked at her curiously. "Have you actually spoken to Fedele about this?"
"Of course I have. He agrees."
Father and Uncle Gokudera looked at each other, brows raised. "Well," Father said at last. "If you’ve convinced the sun to rise in the west already, I don’t see where it’s my business to stop you now."
"Which just leaves the rest of the Family," Uncle Gokudera murmured.
"I’ll deal with it," Mari said firmly. "My Family and I."
"Hm." Father gazed out the window for a long moment and finally nodded. "All right. I approve this. But only," he held up a finger, "if you can bring enough of the Vongola to agree to be sure it doesn’t cause waves that will weaken us."
Mari stood, shoulders straight. "Of course."
She had considered doing it her mother’s way, by smiling and chatting lightly to people who knew the people whose minds she wanted to change.
Then she had considered doing it her father’s way, by speaking directly, quietly, earnestly to the underbosses, the hitmen, the allied bosses.
In the end, though, she decided to do it her way.
She did wait for the next garden party, at least, instead of doing it in the next alliance meeting. And perhaps she did take a small hand with the invitation list, and make sure that the Grecav, the Iveco, Carlo Stanguellini, and Bruno Ansaldo were all there. And may be she did ask Fiorela to leak just the tiniest rumor, beforehand, that she was considering Fedele for her advisor. There was no sense in not using all the tools available to her.
The hardest part, actually, was making sure Uncle Xanxus would be there. Fortunately, he approved of her in somewhat the same way Uncle Hibari did, and was stalking the edges of the gathering in his shirtsleeves with a glass of something a lot stronger than the punch in hand. Mari kept half an eye on him as she listened to the Iveco boss hold forth on the need for absolutely trustworthy advisors, especially for young women, and kept a white-knuckled grip on her temper while she waited for Stanguellini to join them. Ansaldo was already shadowing Xanxus with a faint, stubborn frown on his face, and the Grecav were just one terrace down, close enough to hear everything.
"…and we must all be able to have absolute confidence in someone with the power of the Vongola’s outside advisor," Iveco lectured, and Mari womanfully refrained from baring her teeth at him. Ah, here was Stanguellini at last.
"I’m sure the Eleventh will make the best possible choice," he said to Iveco firmly, coming up beside her, and she’d have appreciated the support more if he hadn’t turned that earnest and respectful face to her and added, "We know that you’ll take the feelings of the Family into account, ma’am."
Mari’s tactical sense, trained year after year by Hibari and Lal and Xanxus, by living with one eye always on the shadows for the glint of a weapon, tingled in her fingertips; this was it. She frowned thoughtfully. "I hear what you’re saying," she said, rather more carryingly than she normally would. "So you’re still concerned by the possibility that Fedele Rizzo colluded with Xanxus in Federico’s death?" Those nearest quieted for a moment and glanced over at their little group.
"Well, there were never any witnesses, ma’am," Stanguellini murmured. "And he did survive…"
Mari tapped her lips with a finger. "Well, you know, that’s not exactly true. That there weren’t any witnesses, I mean." While the two men blinked at her she turned and leaned over the stone rail, waving a hand. "Uncle Xanxus!"
He looked up at her from across most of the gathering, mouth in a sardonic twist. "Yeah?"
"Were you and Fedele working together, when you killed Federico?"
Dead silence fell over the party and everyone turned to stare. Mari continued to look brightly inquiring, though she could see her father, from the corner of his eye, putting a hand over his face.
Xanxus snorted explosively. "Fuck no. What kind of idiot thinks I need help killing anyone I damn well go after?" He glared at Iveco and Stanguellini, who turned a little pale.
Mari waved a casual hand. "No, no, I think people just wondered because Fedele lived."
A corner of Xanxus mouth curled up in a sneer. "What, I should have taken time to finish off the small fry when he was down? He wasn’t my target." A stir rippled through the gathering, remembering that Xanxus led the Varia, their pride and their long record of perfect success.
"Yes, I thought so myself." Mari nodded agreeably, and turned back to Iveco. "So there you have it, from the one person who has to know for sure, right?" She smiled at him and then down at the Grecav. "I’m sure that takes care of any doubts." She turned her smile on Stanguellini and then Ansaldo, letting it turn harder.
Stanguellini swallowed. "Yes, ma’am."
She turned back to Iveco, who still seemed to be speechless. "And I hear you’re opening up some interests in Catanzaro! Tell me, how is that going?"
"Ah. It’s… it’s going well. Yes." The man looked at her like he’d never seen her before and maybe, Mari thought as she chatted about business, maybe he hadn’t really.
It looked like that had probably changed, though.
"That wasn’t quite what I had in mind, when I said you should gain the Family’s support," her father said dryly, leaning back in an armchair.
"If you wanted to set limits on my methods, you should have said." Mari crossed her legs and took another sip of her wine. "There are no more doubts about Fedele’s loyalty running around, are there?"
"No, I think you broke the kneecaps of every last one."
Mari nodded, satisfied. "Good."
Father looked helplessly at Mother, who shrugged, smiling faintly. "Mari grew up in this world," she pointed out. "And you can’t fault the care she takes of her people."
Shin looked up from his perch in the window seat where he was reading a letter from his latest girlfriend in the last sunlight. "It’s Mari, Dad, what did you expect? She’s like that."
"Not sure that was a compliment, but thanks all the same," Mari told her brother, who grinned at her.
"Mari?" Mamoru looked in the door, and Mari was instantly suspicious of the bland look on his face. "You have a visitor."
Fedele stepped in after him and Mari brightened. "Oh, good, I wanted to tell you—"
"That you asked Xanxus to confirm my ‘innocence’, which he did in the most insulting manner possible in front of half the Vongola alliance?" Fedele crossed his arms. "Yes, I’ve heard. From nearly everyone who spoke to me in the past three days."
Mari winced. "Hell. I wanted to get to you first, before the rumors got around."
"You’d have needed a teleporter."
Mari sighed. "Yes, I suppose so." She set her wine aside and looked up at him, seriously. "It was something that should have been done decades ago, and wasn’t. I understand why you never wanted to, but it let the rumors of your complicity get entrenched, and I figured I needed the biggest hammer I could lay hands on to shift them permanently."
A corner of his mouth twitched. "That was certainly a very big hammer," he allowed.
"I am sorry I didn’t think to warn you," she said penitently. "I should have."
"What, and give me a chance to talk you out of it?" he murmured. "Perish the thought."
She smiled. "To give you time to prepare yourself. Don’t worry, you wouldn’t have talked me out of it."
A snort of laughter escaped and Fedele leaned on one of the sturdy, wing back chairs, running a hand through his hair. "You really do remind me of him."
"Will that be a problem?" she asked, quietly.
He sighed and smiled down at her wryly. "Not the way you mean it. I imagine it will be other kinds of problems, but we’ll deal with that as we have to."
She downright glowed at him until Mamoru ruffled her hair. "You deserved that," he declared.
"Which is why you brought him up here, yes, I know." She smacked his hand away. "I don’t know why I ever thought giving you more chances to say ‘I told you so’ was good idea."
"I’m very glad you’ve agreed to support Mari," Father interjected, speaking to Fedele but giving the two of them the ‘now, children’ look that never seemed to wear out even when some of them had kids of their own.
"Yes," Fedele answered quietly. "I think I am too."
"Well, at least the allied Families have stopped running on about getting me married off. That’s something." Mari nibbled a cookie and sighed.
Stefano Cavallone looked up from the corner where he’d been having a lively discussion with his sister about whether he needed to break the hands of Storero’s second son for trying to put them up Fiorela’s dress. "Shouldn’t you sound happier about that?" he asked curiously.
Mari bit down more sharply, scattering crumbs over her desk and the papers that covered it. "There’s always something," she growled.
"Now Mari." Fedele crossed an ankle over his knee looking ridiculously at ease. "You knew you’d have to give up my kitchen when you convinced me to serve as your advisor."
Mari made a grumpy sound into her coffee cup. Mario had avoided today’s meeting too, the rat; she supposed it did take some practice to get used to having business meetings with your dad but if she could do it surely he could.
"At least your mother’s Lucia still made pastries for us," Fedele pointed out, so blandly Mari knew she was being teased.
"Wait, so, Mari’s upset that you’re not having this meeting in the Rizzo kitchen?" Stefano asked his sister.
"It’s just nice to get away from the House now and then," Mari answered for herself, and Fiorela smiled wryly.
"Come on, Stef, you’ve seen Dad sneaking out of our place to go spar with Hibari. I figure it’s pretty much the same thing."
Stefano cocked his head at Mari. "What’s keeping you from it, then?"
Mari took another sip and sighed. "It wouldn’t be good if rumor got around that the Eleventh relies too much on the opinion of her outside advisor. I’ve just been to a good deal of trouble to squash one set of rumors, I’d prefer if we could avoid another right away."
Stefano leaned his elbow on the back of his sister’s chair and smiled at her gently. "Okay. But is there any reason you can’t visit a friend more often than that?"
Mari opened her mouth and closed it again. "…oh."
Fiorela gave her brother an approving look. "You’re not as dumb as you look, you know."
"Runs in the Family," he said innocently and dodged her (mostly) play-punch, laughing.
"Deliver your message and get out of here," Fiorela told him, settling back in her chair with a sisterly glower.
Still grinning, Stefano turned to Mari. "Dad says to tell the Vongola Tenth that the Cizeta are giving the Valetti the cold shoulder lately, and he thinks it means the Valetti interests on the west coast are failing."
Mari nodded briskly, drawn back to business. "I’ll tell him. That matches with some moves the Orsini have been making lately."
Stefano nodded in turn. "I’ll tell him."
Mari leaned back in her chair as Fiorela saw, or chased, her brother out, nibbling thoughtfully on a pastry. "I’m kind of surprised the Orsini aren’t cutting their alliance with the Valetti, though," she mused. "They’re such rampant opportunists. I wonder if the Valetti are letting the west coast interests go entirely. Fedele, have you heard any thing about this?"
"Hm." Fedele turned back from watching Stefano go. "Nothing yet. If they are, they’re keeping it quiet."
"As they would. Fiorela." Mari leaned her elbows on her desk, ignoring the crumbs still scattered over it. "I want you to look into this."
Business swept them along and Mari forgot to ask what Fedele had found so interesting about Stefano’s departure.
Fedele detached himself from Irie’s side and drifted across the room to fetch up discreetly by Mari. She had to admire how smilingly unobtrusive he managed to be. Federico had chosen well, and she thought she had too. The Family was definitely coming around to her way of thinking, as they watched him, and the other Families… well, if any of them harbored doubts or plots she was sure Kazuya could entertain himself with them.
"You’ve spent a lot of time talking to Stefano Cavallone this evening," Fedele murmured, and then she had to be annoyed at how apparently oblivious even the best advisor could be. Men!
She was going to have that made up into a flashcard she could just carry around with her.
"He’s the only one here it’s safe to talk to." She hid her snarl behind her wineglass. "Our allies might have backed off a little, but everyone else is still aiming their sons at me like the latest in guided missiles. Thank God Uncle Dino always had more sense than that."
"Hm." He looked at her sidelong and then out over the room where the careful steps of mafia manners were being danced. "You don’t think your attention might be mistaken for something else?"
"Not by now." Relaxing a little in the safety of that assurance, Mari smiled over at the table where Stefano was talking with Lanz Furetto, nodding and smiling just as though he’d never called Lanz crawling vermin in his life. "Stefano’s practically been family since we were little, and the other Families know Vongola and Cavallone have recent blood ties. He’s one of the only men of our world I’ve managed to actually be friends with." When she turned back Fedele was looking at her oddly and she asked, "What?"
He opened his mouth and closed it again. At last he said in the mild tone of voice that meant he thought she was missing something obvious, "A friendship seems like a better basis for a marriage than missiles, don’t you think?"
It took every year of experience and every bit of her mother’s teaching Mari had ever had to keep from choking on her mouthful of wine. She stared at the far wall and breathed carefully until she could manage to swallow. Then she looked at Fedele and hissed, "Stefano?!"
Fedele took a measured sip. "Unless I’m very mistaken," he said softly, "Stefano Cavallone likes you very much and has for some time. You can ask Mamoru if you think I’m imagining it," he added, as Mari just stared at him. "I would bet he’s seen it too."
Mari stared for another moment, trying to fit her friend Stefano into the mental space of "suitor" and completely failing.
"You seem to like him too," her clearly insane advisor murmured.
"I like him fine, but that’s… that’s…" Mari didn’t feel she had quite the right words for how that was different from everything that courting seemed to involve. Fedele just lifted his brows and flicked his eyes in Stefano’s direction.
Stefano had shaken off Lanz and was strolling back towards them. "Holding up all right?" he asked under his breath, setting one of the two plates in his hands down beside her. It held, she noticed, mostacciolli cookies, her favorite out of those set out tonight.
"Yes," she murmured, distracted. "I’m fine."
He tipped his head at the angle that meant "Are you sure?" and when had she learned that? Years ago. She gave him back the tiny, provisional, "Yes, for now" nod and he settled himself firmly at her elbow, nudging the cookies closer.
She was positive Fedele was trying not to laugh.
Stefano was one of her oldest friends.
Stefano had played with her when she was little.
Stefano had been her escort to her second public event, after the absolute disaster of the first one, and had helped her sneak extra sweets.
Stefano had listened to her complaining about the boys from other Families, and sympathized, and never once suggested a date or a kiss or any such thing.
"Mari?" Haruka tapped on her forehead. "Knock, knock; anyone home?"
Mari started and looked around the room at her family. "Huh? What is it?"
"That was kind of our question," Haruka observed wryly. "What are you thinking about so hard?"
Mari hesitated for a long moment and finally sighed. Her brothers were going to find out sooner or later anyway, and thank goodness none of them were teenagers any more was all she could say. She looked over at Mamoru, sprawled on a couch with a book and asked, "Okay. Do you really think Stefano likes me?"
Mamoru propped himself up on an elbow, brightening. "Hey, you noticed!"
Mari gave him a long look. "I guess that’s a yes." She ran a distracted hand over her hair, tugging strands loose from her clip. "Fedele mentioned it."
"Sounds like you really did choose a good advisor," Haruka murmured, leaning against the wall beside her window seat.
"But he’s never said anything about it!" Mari protested.
Later she would remember the thoughtful look Kazuya gave her and the quiet way he slipped out of the room.
"Well, yeah, he’s not stupid," Shin put in. "He’s seen what you do with the guys who do mention it." He mimed dropping an object from a height and made crashing sounds.
"Very eloquent," Haruka said, chuckling. "Also accurate."
"Well they’re all such a pain in the ass about it," Mari muttered. Haruka held up his hands.
"No arguments from us Nee-san. Just, you have to figure, Stefano noticed how much you don’t like dealing with that, and respected your wishes."
"I guess so," Mari said quietly, winding her arms around her knees.
Her brothers looked at each other. "So how are the holdings in Napoli doing?" Haruka asked Mamoru. "You just visited, right?"
Mari smiled a little as they turned the conversation to other things, business and teasing Shin about his latest girlfriend and whether they should get a puppy for Daisuke’s son’s birthday. Her brothers could be as annoying as any siblings, but they were always there for her.
She had cause to remember that thought two hours later, after their parents had joined them, when Stefano appeared in the doorway, out of breath.
"Stef." Talking about someone could not actually summon them up, therefore… "Is Fiorela all right?"
"Huh? Yes, of course she is." He took a hesitant step in. "I… I came to see you."
"You…" Mari caught Mamoru giving Kazuya a thumbs up and glared at her brothers. "You," she said in a very different tone.
"It was just a matter of the right timing, Nee-san," Kazyua told her calmly. "Now is the right time."
Mari firmly ignored Shin’s mutter of about time and give Stefano a helpless shrug. What could you do about siblings, killing them all being out of the question? Stefano grinned.
"Well. I think we already got pretty far, all these years, without making it official. I guess we should do this properly, now." He glanced at her father.
"Oh no," Mari groaned, instantly besieged by memories of idiots who tried to court her parents instead of her, "no, we shouldn’t."
"I don’t think we’re thinking of the same properly." Stefano pulled his shoulders back and took a deep breath. "Let’s try this." He came to her and she stared, eyes widening, as he knelt down at her feet and took her hand. "Sawada Mari, I love you," he said, soberly, looking up at her. "And it would be my honor to support the eleventh Boss of the Vongola. Will you marry me? Or at least," he added, a little less certainly, when she kept staring at him, "think about it?"
Mari laughed, breathless, and closed her fingers on his. "Yeah. Yeah, I’ll think about it." From the way he relaxed, she figured he’d probably heard what she really meant. Stefano usually did.
He looked back over at her parents, a little wary again. "You, ah, do approve, right?"
Mari’s parents broke out laughing, which Mari felt rather detracted from the mood of the moment. "Yes, we do," her mother told them, finally. "As long as you make her happy," her father added.
"I’ll do my very best, sir," Stefano said, very serious, and Mari rolled her eyes and pulled him up to actually sit beside her.
"He already makes me happy," she told her family sternly, "or I wouldn’t have said yes." Stefano had pretty much always made her happier when he was around.
Maybe her advisor wasn’t completely crazy after all.
Uncle Dino was looking so smug Mari was starting to seriously consider asking Uncle Hibari to visit, just to wipe that expression off him. Fortunately for her soon-to-be father-in-law, Uncle Hibari’s people didn’t know where he was this month.
"I hope your next advice to me is less earth-shaking," she murmured to Fedele, watching the allies and associates milling around, some still looking shocked, many having progressed to indignant, and none of them looking especially congratulatory.
"When I’m working for you? I don’t see how it could be."
"I would have said optimist."
Mari grinned, eyes still on the guests.
"You two deserve each other," Mamoru told them, shaking his head. "Ah. Here’s your real escort." He stepped back to let Stefano take the place at Mari’s side. Fedele nodded to Stefano and stepped back as well.
"I don’t think I’ve ever been congratulated so sourly," Stefano informed her under his breath, eyes laughing.
"Yes, well, they all think you got the big prize." Mari cast a dry look over the crowd.
"Which of course I did." Stefano lifted her hand and kissed it. "Just not the way they’re thinking."
"I am too old to be blushing," she muttered, blushing anyway.
"So is it true, what Mamoru said, that Fedele Rizzo was the one who started you thinking of me?"
Mari smiled ruefully. "I chose him for his wisdom and experience. I got that all right."
"I’ll have to remember to do something very nice for him, then," Stefano murmured.
Mari looked back at her advisor, at the straightness of his shoulders as he moved through the crowd, remembering the withdrawn man she’d first set out to drag back into life and honor. "I hope we have already."
Stefano smiled at her, pleased and proud. "You’ll be the best Boss."
Mari lifted her chin as she looked out over the gathering, hand closing tight around his. "Damn right." She would be, because she had her Family behind her, and her friend beside her, and a man of such loyalty that even despair couldn’t shake it watching over them. Throughout the room, disgruntled expressions melted to blankness under the weight of her eyes. "We’re the Vongola.
"This is our world."