Katekyou Hitman Reborn: All In One

Welcome to my Katekyou Hitman Reborn fic. There are a bunch of different pairings in here, some rather unusual—in fact, even the usual ones are often done unconventionally. There’s also a good deal of filling-in-background and their-future stories.

I Will be the One

Post Future arc. Seven snapshots as Tsuna’s Family swear their loyalty to him. Drama, I-3


They were halfway to school when Gokudera noticed it.

"Hm? You’re going to keep wearing the ring, then?"

Tsuna looked down at the ring on his hand without a great deal of enthusiasm. "For now. I… I think I’d better."

"Huh." There was kind of a funny smile on Gokudera’s face when Tsuna looked up. "Seems about right to me, then. Hang on for a minute." He set his bag against a handy wall and took Tsuna’s shoulder, turning to face him.

Tsuna made a choked noise as Gokudera knelt down in front of him, right there in the street. His frantic look up and down, hoping no one was watching, was interrupted, though, by the intensity of Gokudera’s voice.

"Tenth." Gokudera took Tsuna’s hand, bowed his head over it and kissed the Sky ring. "I’m your man. Always."

Tsuna bit his lip; he never quite knew what to do when Gokudera sounded like this.

And then Gokudera looked up with a crooked smile and winked. "What? I’m your first follower, right? Just making it official."

Tsuna relaxed and managed to smile back. "Okay."

Gokudera swaggered all the rest of the way to school.


"So, did you understand number seven?"

"Not really." Yamamoto rubbed the back of his head, brows quirked. "I think the third example in the book is kind of the same, though."

They were digging through the math text when Reborn jumped down from his hammock onto the table and Tsuna nearly jumped out of his skin. He wished Reborn would make noise when he woke up, like a normal person.

"Yamamoto, good, you’re here. You need to kiss Tsuna’s ring."

"What?!" Tsuna scrambled back from the table a bit. He also wished Reborn would stop saying weird things out of the blue; some lead-up would at least give him more time to duck.

Yamamoto just blinked. "Um. Why?"

"It’s a sign of loyalty among us."

Yamamoto smiled tolerantly. "Ah, your game again."

Tsuna was really starting to wonder whether Yamamoto meant the same thing everyone else did when he used the word game.

"Well, okay then." Yamamoto reached over and caught one of the hands Tsuna was waving.

"Um, but, you don’t—"

"Hey, it’s okay Tsuna," Yamamoto laughed. He leaned down and brushed his lips over the ring and Tsuna stilled. For one moment, with his head bent and eyes focused on Tsuna’s hand, Yamamoto looked completely serious.

And then he was smiling his wry smile, the one that was amused by the whole world, and Tsuna breathed again.

"Also, you got number four completely wrong," Reborn added.

Tsuna groaned.


Tsuna looked up, startled, at the soft scratch at his door. No one he knew announced themselves that quietly.

No one except, maybe, the person standing in the door, who he had just never, ever expected to see in his room.

"Boss." Chrome stood in the doorway, clasping her staff close to her chest. "Mukuro-sama said it would be all right," she murmured.

Tsuna opened and closed his mouth a few times before he managed. "What would?"

She came in with swift, silent steps and sank down to the floor beside him, laying her staff down carefully. And then she picked up his ring hand in both her own.

"If you want me to," she said softly, eyes lowered or maybe just fixed on the Sky ring.

Tsuna had to work on getting his voice going again. "But… I mean, are you sure?" He couldn’t make out anything of her expression. "Is this what you want, Chrome-san?"

She nodded silently.

"Then… well, yes. I mean, if you’re sure." Tsuna felt a little helpless in face of her quiet.

She lifted his hand and kissed the ring, light as a moth’s wing brushing his hand. "I will always be your Mist Guardian."

"I… thank you." Tsuna groped for something to say, something right. "I’ll be glad to… welcome you to… to the Family," he finally got out. And he still wasn’t sure about the whole concept, but nothing else seemed like it would match what she was doing.

Chrome looked up with a small smile. "Thank you. Boss."

She picked up her staff and left as silently as she’d come.


Ryouhei just laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Of course! I already said I was the Sun Guardian, didn’t I?"

Gokudera grumbled a bit about lousy lawn-heads with no respect, but Reborn just nodded.

Tsuna was grateful for the reprieve and tried not to think too hard about the weight and meaning of Ryouhei’s bare word.


Bianchi stalked back down the hall and the seventeen year old Lambo crawled out from under Tsuna’s bed and collapsed on the floor. "Saved. Thanks, young Vongola." And then he lifted his head again for another look at Tsuna, flopped over beside him. "Ah. You’ve started wearing the Sky ring all the time."

Tsuna winced. "Um. Yeah."

The smile Lambo gave him was sympathetic. "You’ve been through a lot with and for that ring."

Tsuna stared down at it. "Yeah," he said softly, and closed his hand into a fist.

It was his fist that Lambo closed a long-fingered hand around and lifted, so that he could kiss the ring. His eyes were serious when he looked up. "Welcome to the Families, Vongola."

And then seven year old Lambo reappeared with a poff, hands holding Tsuna’s fist, and squealed. "Are we gonna play fighting?"

Fending him off took until dinner and it was some time before Tsuna remembered the older Lambo’s words.

He thought about them the first time he looked at a neat, black suit hanging in his closet, though.


For a while, Tsuna had consoled himself with the thought that Hibari would never give a moment’s thought to any Family ritual, especially not this one. And then he forgot about it in the rush of other events. When they needed Hibari he seemed to show up and that was plenty enough for Tsuna.

It was a little more than enough when Hibari started showing up to spar with him, but Reborn insisted, and it did make a distressing kind of sense, so Tsuna did his best and laid in a lot of ice packs.

So he really wasn’t expecting it, the day he succeeded in blasting Hibari into the practice room floor, and Hibari didn’t get up at once. Instead he held up a hand and flicked his fingers, beckoning to Tsuna.

A little warily, because Hibari was still smiling, Tsuna approached. "Um. Yes?"

Hibari caught his wrist and pulled Tsuna down beside him. "For the Family." He lifted Tsuna’s ring hand and kissed the Sky ring.

Tsuna squeaked a little in shock.

"You still act far too much like an herbivore," Hibari observed, "but as long as you show me your fangs properly."

And he rolled fluidly to his feet and punched Tsuna across the room.

Tsuna staggered upright and threw himself back at Hibari. If this was for the Family, their family, if Hibari agreed to guard them… then Tsuna had to do what he could, too.

Hibari’s smile widened a bit as they met again.


A/N: Inspired by the scene between Iemitsu and the !Ninth.

Rain on the Mountain

TYL Hibari and Yamamoto in a tranquil moment. Kind-of Romance, I-3

Feet move softly over the mats of his private rooms, and he listens to them come, leaning in the open screens and looking out onto his small, private garden. Moonlight filters down through illusion and glimmers on leaves. The chill of the evening curls around the warmth of the sake cup in his fingers, a pleasing contrast.

Long hands slide over his shoulders and down his arms, and the heat of another body settles against his back. Lips brush his throat, just above the collar of his kimono where a drop of water from his wet hair is making its way down his neck, and a husky voice murmurs, "That was a good fight."

He smiles out into the stark lines of the night and leans back against Yamamoto, relaxed in the aftermath of shared intensity. "It was." It probably wasn’t entirely suitable to interrupt kata, but he hadn’t been able to resist and Yamamoto didn’t seem to mind.

He lets Yamamoto’s arms rest around his waist, the same intimacy as a razor edge screaming against his steel, both pure and clean. It’s only Yamamoto whose ferocity is this clean, and he savors it the way he does the sake.

Perhaps, he thinks as Yamamoto kisses his throat again, coaxing and inviting, perhaps tonight he will see if that ferocity tastes as good elsewhere as it does when they fight.


Nine Years, Eleven Months, Twenty-seven Days

On the anniversary of something that doesn’t happen, Tsuna’s Guardians gather around him. Fluffy Drama, I-3

Yamamoto was the first one who came, tapping brisk but quiet on the door and slipping inside, shadows falling across his face. He said nothing, only came to Tsuna and wrapped around him, a shield of muscle and bone and breath. Tsuna rested his forehead against Yamamoto’s chest with a low sigh. He didn’t know whether he wanted them here or not, but he knew he couldn’t send them away. Not tonight.

Gokudera came next, head lowered, every movement pulled tight. He didn’t look at either of them, only sank down to sit at Tsuna’s feet, one arm locked around a raised knee. A slender, red stick turned unceasingly through his fingers.

Hibari ignored them when he stalked through the door and came to stand beside the window, eyes gleaming and sharp on the night beyond.

The city lights gleamed on Lambo’s horns as he settled on the balcony outside.

Ryouhei planted himself at the door, arms crossed, with a fierce expression but sad eyes. He nodded to Chrome as she entered and stood silently in the corner across from Hibari, staff upright between her hands.

They waited and watched.

Pre-dawn was drowning the streetlights when Tsuna stirred. "It’s all right, now," he told them softly.

There was a husky sound from Gokudera and Yamamoto’s arms tightened for one quick moment.

They left as quietly as they’d come, and Tsuna only hoped they’d sleep now. One by one, with a nod or a swift touch, they unwound themselves from around him until only Hibari was left still watching as Tsuna finally made his way to bed. The line of his back, poised and uncompromising, followed Tsuna down into dreams.


Seven Pleats

Hibari likes watching Yamamoto. Yamamoto rather likes to be watched. Atmospheric Porn, I-4

Kyouya sat, composed, at the side of a large, airy room, tea cradled between his hands, and watched the Rain.

Yamamoto’s forms shifted one into the next, beautiful and inevitable as flowing water. Afternoon light slid down his sword edge, soft and bright. The still focus in his eyes rested on perfect nothingness as he stepped, turned, cut. Kyouya’s gaze followed every move and line of him, drinking in the pureness of it along with the bitterness of the tea.

Finally, Yamamoto finished and collected himself in the center of the room, breath deep and slow.

And then he crossed the room in four strides and knelt swiftly over Kyouya, knees spread to either side of his thighs, hands closing around his face. Kyouya laughed low in his throat, balancing his tea deftly as their mouths met in a hard, hot kiss.

"It’s very hard to concentrate when you watch me like that," Yamamoto murmured.

"Perhaps I should join you, next time, instead."

Yamamoto laughed out loud. "Now that would really distract me." He stroked his thumbs over Kyouya’s cheekbones.

Kyouya set his tea precisely aside and slid his fingers into Yamamoto’s hair, pulling him back down to another kiss, deep and intent; he’d been patient for long enough. He nipped sharply at Yamamoto’s lower lip and his eyes narrowed with satisfaction at the way Yamamoto’s breath caught.

He slid his hands down to pull Yamamoto’s top open and off his shoulders, purring into Yamamoto’s mouth; the lean, balanced hardness of Yamamoto’s body was always a pleasure to taste.

"Kyouya…" Yamamoto’s hands spread against his back, pressing him closer, and Kyouya ground his hips up against Yamamoto’s. A slow, sharp smile curled his lips; Yamamoto was hard against him. Yamamoto growled softly, and long, strong hands curved around Kyouya’s ass, kneading hard.

He liked it that Takeshi wasn’t any more patient than he was.

He twisted to push Yamamoto down against the tatami and snorted at the bright laugh that answered. Sometimes he thought Yamamoto saw the whole world as a joke. He pulled free the ties of Takeshi’s hakama, unraveling the folds and pushing the loose cloth down long legs.

Takeshi reached for his belt, smiling, eyes hot and sharp as Kyouya’s kimono fell open around him. "I hope you came prepared," he murmured.

Kyouya sniffed. "Since when am I not?" He fished a small foil tube out of his kimono sleeve.

Yamamoto’s smile brightened. "That’s my Kyouya."

Kyouya arched a brow. "Indeed?" He leaned over Takeshi and closed firm teeth on his throat, pressing slick fingers into him.

"Ah!" Takeshi arched under him, hands closing hard on Kyouya’s hips, pulling him in tight. Kyouya savored the sounds he made, breath coming faster as Takeshi rocked against him, moving with the thrust of his fingers, head tossed back.

"Kyouya, now." The husky growl was back in Takeshi’s voice, and Kyouya mouth quirked as he settled between Takeshi’s legs and pushed into him, and yes, this was what he wanted—Takeshi’s fierce response, open and true, the heat in his eyes, the hard strength of his hands on Kyouya’s hips, demanding he move and thrust.

They moved against each other, sharp and swift, low moans twining around each other like heat around pleasure. The sensation of driving into Takeshi’s body coiled up Kyouya’s spine, exquisite as the thrill of fighting, perfect as the beauty of Takeshi’s sword. They fucked each other hard and intent, hands stroking and gripping.

When Takeshi moaned, a shudder raking through him, Kyouya couldn’t take his eyes away; the taut line of Takeshi’s body drew him down and down into heat until he fell after, muffling a groan against Takeshi’s throat.

They lay tangled together, panting, and Kyouya slowly noticed Takeshi’s fingers stroking through his hair and snorted. Takeshi’s chest shook with laughter, under him.

"One of these days I’ll convince you to take it slow."

"Not when I’ve been watching your sword," Kyouya pointed out.

"Well, no, probably not."

He could feel Takeshi’s lips quirked where they pressed against his temple and smiled faintly against Takeshi’s shoulder. He doubted he’d be willing to give up Takeshi’s pure ferocity any time soon.

He doubted Takeshi would, either.


The Beauty of Obligation

Filling in missing scenes of Hibari’s training with Dino, and how it might have convinced him to Tsuna’s side. Drama, I-3

Kyouya turned over in bed with a huff and yanked the covers up. He was annoyed.

A good fight, one he could sink his teeth into properly, was always enjoyable, but he saw no call to interrupt it with chatter.

And just who did Cavallone think he was, to judge Kyouya’s skill? He wouldn’t even fight properly, all avoidance and evasion.

Still. The fact that he could evade and avoid spoke its own language, and a far more convincing one than the flowery nonsense about frogs and wells. As long as Cavallone showed up, Kyouya would fight him.

Now if he could just make the man fight seriously.

The ring made a useful lever, which was good; Kyouya couldn’t imagine any other reason for keeping it.

"All right, then, how about a trade?" Cavallone showed his teeth. "If I beat you in a serious fight, then you have to be part of Tsuna’s Family."

Kyouya had to snort a bit over Cavallone’s foolishness. He wasn’t one of the idiots from the sports clubs, who made bets and dares out of their wins and losses—cutting one’s hair or slave for a week or whatever. A win or a loss was what it was; that was all. And as for joining anything, least of all Sawada’s little herd, that was laughable.

The thought did tug at him, though. Family. That was something the baby had mentioned.

Well, that would save for later.

Right now there was only the sudden sharpening of Cavallone’s eyes, the speed and sureness of his feet against the roof, the singing of the whip cutting the air. Things that made the world bright and sharp and satisfying.

Losing was not satisfying at all, however.

"So, it’s a deal, right?" Cavallone prompted, shaking back sweat-soaked hair.

Kyouya spat blood on the man’s foot.

He didn’t know why that made Cavallone smile, and didn’t waste time trying to figure it out. The man couldn’t shut up to save his life and would undoubtedly tell him sooner or later.

"It’s not just a decoration, you know." Cavallone opened the range again. "That ring."

Kyouya stalked forward, tracking the motion of the whip. "If it’s a herd badge, I don’t need it."

Cavallone groaned. "You are the most perfect Cloud in the history of the world, I swear."

The whip hooked one tonfa and Cavallone slid back from the other and Kyouya stepped in, turning to strike again. "Cloud?" That was the symbol on the ring, if he recalled.

"The Cloud watches from above." Cavallone snaked the whip through the spin of one tonfa, tangling it, and jerked Kyouya to the side. "The Cloud follows its own way and can’t be bound." Kyouya spun on his center, found his stance again, struck for Cavallone’s stomach with the shaft. "You’re a natural."

A loop of the whip tightened on Kyouya’s neck as Cavallone sprang back, and he barely got a tonfa up in time to keep it from closing completely. Cavallone smiled and twitched it loose, releasing him, and Kyouya’s lip curled in a snarl. He hated it when Cavallone did that. "What’s your point?" he asked, shaking his tonfa free sharply.

Cavallone tipped his head to the side. "The ring. Doesn’t it match what you are?"

Kyouya considered for a moment. "Well enough."

Cavallone smiled. "That’s my point."

Kyouya eyed him narrowly. That seemed far too simple for someone who fought in such an indirect style.

"So, you really like this school, don’t you? You always choose here, to fight, without even thinking about it."

Kyouya raised his brows. "It’s mine." The rest was not some outsider’s to ask about.

Cavallone’s mouth quirked. "It fits you well. But don’t you think some variety would build your skills faster?"

Kyouya stood still for a moment, torn between insistence that Cavallone was not his personal trainer or any such nonsense and the knowledge that he was sharpening against Cavallone’s skill.

"It would be more interesting for you, too, wouldn’t it?" Cavallone added, easily.

Finally Kyouya shrugged. "If you like. It doesn’t matter to me where I bite you."

Cavallone’s hair fell over his eyes as he rocked forward, laughing. "I’ve noticed. Well, come on, then." His smile was bright. "Let’s try something interesting."

Kyouya looked over at Kusakabe, standing next to Cavallone’s man. "Keep things as they should be," he ordered.

The forest gave him an advantage. The shore was difficult for both of them, with its shifting footing. The edge of his inside strike was exactly here. If he set the ball of his foot at just this angle it increased his power. When Cavallone gave back to rob a blow of its strength, he couldn’t draw his whip back in for one and a half seconds. Kyouya stored away all these observations, evaluations, the things he usually didn’t bother with because no one could match him.

Cavallone could, though.

It seemed wrong. He’d seen the man trip over his own feet when that assistant of his wasn’t around; he was the epitome of a herd-beast. How he could be herd and carnivore as well, Kyouya didn’t understand. It seemed disingenuous, and not proper at all.

Of course, very few people understood true propriety, which was why he had to bite them.

It made him wonder, though, how many other carnivores might be found among the herd.

Every now and then, as they fought, he considered what these environments would do to Mukuro’s staff, and then he pushed Cavallone harder.

"The thing is," Cavallone panted, hands braced on his knees, "there are people coming after it."

Kyouya blinked sweat out of his eyes. "What?"

"The ring. I told you it wasn’t just decoration, didn’t I?" Cavallone’s smile was wry. "It’s a weapon. And some of the most deadly people in the mafia want them."

Kyouya considered this. He didn’t care particularly about the ring itself, but if it would bring a real fight to him… He smiled slowly.

Cavallone burst out laughing until he had to sit down. "God, Kyouya. What are we going to do with you?"

Kyouya worked tingling fingers around the handles of his tonfa and looked coolly down at his opponent. "You could fight me for real."

Cavallone leaned back on his hands, one corner of his mouth quirking as he looked up at Kyouya. "Maybe I am."

"Not yet," Kyouya shot back. Last week he wouldn’t have been sure of that, but now he could tell. It annoyed him; the only proper fight was a real one.

Cavallone had an odd look on his face, smiling still but his eyes had turned dark. "Maybe." And then it was gone. "In any case, it would be a good idea for you to see some of the other Guardians’ fights, to get an idea of the other side’s strength, so we should probably head back."

Kyouya cocked his head. So there were other people who had these rings too. More importantly, though… back? "They’re in Namimori?"

Suddenly Cavallone looked just a bit shifty. "Ah. Well, yes, about that. See…" he stood up and brushed himself off, "it seems the matches are actually taking place at the school."

Kyouya just looked at Cavallone for a long moment.

And then he turned away and strode for the treeline and the road beyond it.

"Kyouya, hang on! Wait, you don’t… are you going to walk back?! Kyouya…!"

Kyouya lay on the roof, glowering at the sky. Those masked things were breaking his school. He would have to do something about that.

It was hard to concentrate, even on such an outrage against propriety, though. He kept remembering the flash of steel and water, and the sharpness of eyes he could have sworn belonged to an herbivore.

"So, are you going to try to take my head off right this instant?" Cavallone sounded cautious, as well he should. Kyouya narrowed his eyes, not looking back to see the man coming up the stairwell.

"Why not? You lie to me."

"I didn’t lie." Now Cavallone sounded uncomfortable. "I just didn’t say everything all at once. You know you would have—"

"Not that." Kyouya rolled up on an elbow and glared at the man. "You act like an herbivore, but you fight like you have real teeth. You pretend you’re not what you are." And apparently this was a popular thing for people who should be honest and self-respecting carnivores to do.

Cavallone was staring at him. "It’s not pretending," he said, slowly. He settled on his heels beside Kyouya with a faint frown. "You’re talking about my Family, aren’t you?"

Well, obviously. Kyouya glared some more.

"Kyouya…" Cavallone ran a hand through his hair, and now he had a tiny, helpless smile. "It’s because of my Family that I have real teeth."

Kyouya leaned back, disgusted. "Herd beasts never have teeth. It’s their nature."

"Hmm." Cavallone looked at him sidelong. "Well, herd beasts, maybe not. But packs do, don’t they?"

Kyouya paused. He supposed there was some truth in that. "They don’t congregate with herbivores, though," he pointed out. "They prey on them, as it should be. They only congregate with others of their kind."

Cavallone was smiling. "They’re social enough, though, aren’t they? With their pack. That isn’t dishonest, is it?"

Kyouya pursed his lips. "Hm."

Cavallone laughed and reached over to ruffle his hair, and that was more liberty than anyone was allowed to take, even if they had proper teeth and maybe weren’t being dishonest about it. Kyouya’s tonfa connected, if not quite as satisfyingly as he would like. Clearly he needed to keep on sharpening himself. He drove after Cavallone as the man retreated.

He was still annoyed that Yamamoto didn’t show his teeth properly, and intended to bite him to death as soon as it was convenient, so he could see them again.

Kyouya sat at the edge of the school grounds, watching the masked creatures restore his school. He intended to take every incomplete repair out of their hides. And possibly out of Sawada’s, too, since he had done nearly as much damage as that mechanical suit.

"So?" Cavallone stood behind him on the little rise. "What do you think?" There was a smile in his voice. "Will Tsuna make a good pack leader?"

Kyouya snorted. "They’re certainly licking his hands already."

Cavallone was quiet for a moment. "And you?"

Kyouya looked over his shoulder, brows raised.

"Will you guard him?"

Kyouya looked back at the school. "If he needs someone else to fight for him, he’s an herbivore." Grudgingly he added, "Which he doesn’t seem to be. As much."

"I don’t know why I even asked," Cavallone sighed. After a moment he asked, "Why do you protect the school? It’s full of herbivores, isn’t it?"

"It’s a traditional school. It’s a proper thing."

"Hm." Cavallone sat down beside him, one leg curled under him. "Could a Family be proper?" He sounded curious. "We’re about as traditional as it gets."

That was an interesting question, actually, and Kyouya decided he would consider it. But he had a more urgent question this evening. "Why are you doing this?" Cavallone was putting in a ridiculous amount of effort to persuade Kyouya into someone else’s Family. If it had been his own, Kyouya might have understood better.

Cavallone didn’t pretend he didn’t understand, which saved Kyouya having to bite him. "Because the boss is given for his Family." His eyes were distant, fixed unseeing on the school. "It’s true; Tsuna isn’t suited to be a mafia boss. But he’ll be the one Vongola needs. I can’t help Tsuna escape that." His hands tightened on each other. "I love him like a little brother, but I can’t. My Family needs him, too." Cavallone bent his head, light hair falling forward to hide his expression. "But I’ll do everything I can to protect him."

Kyouya stood and Cavallone’s head came up, eyes startled. Kyouya looked down at him. "Guilt is boring. Come fight me when you’re over it." He walked down the rise to go inspect the work on the school.

Propriety tugged at him.

He stopped, back still to Cavallone, and added, "I’ll see what this Family looks like. Whether it’s suitable as was it is." The fight between Sawada and Xanxus tomorrow should offer him an opportunity.

He heard Cavallone start laughing, free and rueful, as he walked on.

Kyouya sat silently and suffered Kusakabe to clean and tape his cuts from that pitiful "prince’s" knives and wires.

"You should really let us give you a transfusion," Cavallone complained, leaning by the open window.

Kyouya snorted. "I’m not that weak." He’d consented to come to this hospital Cavallone had apparently taken over, and that was enough for one night. Or one dawn, as it nearly was.

Cavallone sighed. "All right. Here, though." He fished a small box out of his pocket and tossed it to Kyouya.

The Cloud ring was inside it.

He had to admit, Sawada did appear to have reasonable teeth, and, if he could be induced to show them, would be quite suitable. One or two of the others had potential. And there was Mukuro.

He turned the ring in his fingers and finally looked up at Cavallone. "I’ll see if this Family is a proper thing." It would balance his obligation for the things Cavallone had shown him.

And he supposed it was distantly possible that he would decide in favor.

He sniffed a little over Cavallone’s brilliant smile and tucked the ring away.


Breaking of the Day

Tsuna gets taken off to Italy to get better acquainted with the Vongola. While he’s there, he has to come to some kind of terms with Xanxus. Kind of, sort of, mental Tsuna/Xanxus. Drama, I-4, some spoilers

"I can’t believe you told Kaa-san this was overseas study," Tsuna grumbled as he was frog-marched to his doom.

Well, all right, not really frog-marched, his dad had his hands in his pockets and Reborn wasn’t tall enough, but the effect was the same.

"It is overseas," his dad said, cheerily. "And it’s definitely higher education."

Tsuna glared at the double-doors they were approaching. He had never agreed to this. Well, not really. Not exactly.

"Cheer up," his dad advised. "It’s a job for life." While Tsuna was trying to find words for the magnitude of wrongness in that statement, his dad swept open the door with a perfectly ruthless smile and Tsuna was pinned in the doorway by the measuring stares of a lot of men in black suits.

"Tsuna." The Ninth smiled. "Welcome."

A rough snort cut through Tsuna’s fumbling thank-you, and he looked around to see Xanxus lounging in one of the chairs glaring death at him. His words ended on a strangled sound. The room was silent as the two of them stared at each other.

Finally Tsuna swallowed and took a breath. If he didn’t say something he would probably be here until he spontaneously combusted from the glare. "Xanxus-san," he managed. "It’s, um, good to see you again?"

Xanxus’ lip curled in a sneer but he finally turned the dark glower away, as if Tsuna was a bug he’d noticed only in passing, and Tsuna made it to the chair left empty without wobbling. Much.

It took him a while to register that a few of the stares around the table were now impressed, and he had to choke down hysterical laughter when he did.

What else was he supposed to say, after all? "Still going to kill everyone present to cover up murdering me, and by the way how’s the food around here?"

"So." The Ninth’s smile was a little too similar to Reborn’s for Tsuna’s comfort. "Shall we begin?"

"A war?!" Tsuna waved his arms to relieve his feelings, here in the safety of his own room. "Another? You brought me over here just in time for another?" He stopped, siezed by a horrible thought, and buried his fingers in his hair. "Or is it the same?"

"It isn’t the same," Reborn stated, far too calmly, as usual. "We’re pretty sure."

"Pretty sure?" Tsuna’s voice cracked.

Reborn shrugged. "We’re still tracing their headquarters."

"While they know exactly where we are. Great," Tsuna grumbled.

"That’s why the Varia were called here." Reborn sounded perfectly reasonable and Tsuna shuddered.

"Is he going to try to kill me again?" he asked with a certain morbid curiosity.

"Sooner or later, probably."

Tsuna threw himself onto his bed and pulled a pillow over his head. He didn’t know whether he was really glad or really regretting that he’d convinced Gokudera to stay in Japan while he spent six months "overseas study" in Italy.

Reborn hauled him out from under the pillow and dumped him on the floor. "Hurry up. You have another meeting to observe in five minutes."

The only reason Tsuna managed to keep shoot me now behind his teeth was because he knew Reborn would.

Tsuna cautiously eased out onto the terrace. Bullets had stopped zinging and the man in charge of interior security assured him the assault was over, but he’d heard a few of the stories about how many tunnels and hiding places this place had.

Besides, Xanxus was out here.

"You got them all?" he was asking Viper and Belphegor.

"All three," Viper confirmed while Belphegor cocked his head at Tsuna and smiled disturbingly. "If that really is all of their squad leaders this should put the crimp in their strategy we need…"

Tsuna stopped paying attention, because something in the trees caught his eye. It was something like a gleam, only dark instead of light, and his gaze followed it, puzzled at it, until it resolved into something that might be a very long gun.

Adrenaline kicked his heart hard and his teeth locked. He felt like he could see rings of air sliding down a long, straight path and he followed them with wide fixed eyes until they ended at…

Xanxus’ back.

No one else was looking, he could never push Xanxus hard enough to move him away, but he was already moving. He reached out but he’d seen the things Reborn could shoot, his hand wouldn’t even slow a bullet down. He needed something more. He was not going to let anyone be shot in front of him!

Need. Want. Will.


The impact drove him back against Xanxus and the next few moments were a confusion of shouting and falling and someone’s boot in his ribs and the bullet safe in his hand. When it was done, Belphegor was gone from the terrace, the noise had moved over to the tree line, and Xanxus was staring down at him.

"What kind of a goddamn moron are you?"

Tsuna straightened up, coughing a little, and opened his hand to show the bullet resting in his glove.

"I know that! I’m going to kill you and you’re trying to protect me?" Xanxus spat on the flagstones. "The old bastard is senile, trying to make some limp little shit like you a boss!"

He stalked inside and Tsuna sighed. He knew it probably was a pretty stupid thing to do, but he couldn’t just watch even someone who wanted him dead shot. He couldn’t.

"A boss risks his life to protect the Family," Reborn said, appearing in the door. He looked Tsuna up and down and smiled faintly. "Not too bad."

Tsuna smiled back, shakily.

"We’ll work on new training, so you can call the Flame faster."

Tsuna slumped back against the wall, groaning. One of these days, he was going to learn.

Tsuna squirmed in his chair. He’d never been fond of watching meetings to start with, especially when they were in a language that, despite Reborn’s Dying Will Language Lessons, he only mostly understood, and lately they’d gotten a lot worse. The Vongola leaders were tense, people were dying, and Xanxus was watching him like a hawk and sneering every time Tsuna so much as twitched. It was as much as he could do not to stammer every time someone spoke to him.

"What has he got against me?" he wailed as Reborn and his dad saw him back to his room and checked it over. "Just that I’m alive?"

Reborn paused to whack him over the head. "Quit whining. And yes."

There were times Tsuna wished Dino-san had taught him how to swear, the way he’d joked about when he learned Tsuna was visiting Italy.

"Well, and his strength is the reason he had so much support for becoming boss," his dad added, looking carefully out the curtains. "The more people see of your strength, first hand, the less support he’ll have to keep holding off from serving you."

Tsuna stopped dead in the middle of the room and stared in abject horror.

"I told you a long time ago, didn’t I?" Reborn hopped up onto a chair and pulled open his gun case. "In a challenge for leadership, our tradition is that the loser serves under the winner."

Tsuna squeaked.

His dad waved a soothing hand. "Xanxus is the leader of the Varia and they’re directly under the Ninth. As long as the Ninth is alive, no one will bring any real pressure for him to swear to you." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Of course, he does owe you for his life, now, which probably isn’t helping."

"Life… huh? But…" Tsuna laughed uneasily. "People save each other all the time in the mafia, right?" Surely they must or no one would still be alive.

"Of course." Reborn polished a very large barrel. "And by doing so they incur a debt. It’s a special relationship. Between enemies, it’s a debt of honor that must be discharged. Within the Family it’s an extra bond of loyalty."

Tsuna took one second to consider the idea of Xanxus finding himself with a "special relationship" to Tsuna and started hyperventilating.

He’d never make it home alive.

Tsuna watched the fighting flow slowly over the slopes below and listened to the babble of voices in his earpiece and waited in the Flame’s stillness to see another opening to push the intruders back.

"They’re staying together, this is our best chance…"

"…shield, though, even Xanxus’ guns can’t get all the way through it."

"We need to get rid of it, then."

Tsuna watched the wavering opacity around the invaders flowing and reforming, and felt the weight of it in his mind and senses, and nodded. In the present stillness of his mind, he knew there would only be more deaths if he held his hand now. "I can do it," he said, the first he’d spoken during this battle.

There was silence on the earpiece for a moment until the Ninth said, "Reborn?"

"He’s my student, of course he can." A double crack of gunfire rang out off to the left and through the earpiece, and another of the invaders went down. "It’s line of sight, though, and he’ll need cover to prepare it. Twenty seconds."

Babble broke out again.

"…take the whole thing out he’ll be up pretty high."

"Wide field of fire…"

"…Varia can do it?"

Unthought calculation tumbled through the back of Tsuna’s mind. The Varia probably could protect him, if they chose to really do it. If they didn’t, could he protect himself? Their "failure" would have to be subtle, before so many witnesses, so, probably, yes.

Xanxus snarled an acknowledgment over the line and Tsuna nodded to himself. "Fifteen minutes for the squad on the east to be in position," he stated, the movement he had watched coming together into prediction. "I’ll be one hundred feet up from the first terrace."

There was another hitch of quiet and then a rattle of movement orders to the eastern defenders. Tsuna made his way up the terraces and found Squalo there ahead of him, bellowing for the other Varia to hurry up or he wouldn’t leave anything for them.

Tsuna would have prefered his own Guardians around him, for this, but it had been his own choice for them to stay behind. He would just have to keep his eyes open. He nodded to the Varia.


A hundred feet up the stone wall, Tsuna had the angle he needed to strike the invaders’ shield and he was completely exposed. Knives, illusion, lighting flickered around him as he drew on the Flame and started to focus it. His eyes didn’t leave his target, and so he saw it coming for him, larger than any bullet he’d seen before and rippling the same way the shield was. It tracked him perfectly and the world slowed and sharpened as he decided it would probably follow him even if he moved; he hadn’t built enough power yet to deflect it; his senses reached out, searching for the best answer.

And then Xanxus was in front of him, firing into the oncoming danger, firing and not moving. Surprise flickered in Tsuna’s thoughts, but the calm of the Dying Will drew memory together into understanding, and Tsuna knew what Xanxus was doing.

Discharging his obligation. Declaring his enmity.

So be it. Tsuna concentrated again on raising his Flame, even as the bullet and whatever it carried struck Xanxus and he fell. As Xanxus fell, Tsuna raised his hand and released the Flame.

He breathed once, twice, watching as it struck the shield and spread, breathed deeper and focused the Flame more tightly, ignoring the rise of voices in his earpiece. He felt the break before he saw it, the sudden give under the force of his attack. The shield didn’t crack, but it gave. And then it disintegrated.

Everything paused for one moment, and then a roar swept over the field, triumph and terror mixed together.

Tsuna was more than happy to leave firing on people caught in the open with no cover to others, and instead he descended the wall to where Squalo had dragged Xanxus around a corner into a bit of shelter from stray bullets. The other Varia had already scattered, having, Tsuna knew well enough, none of his reluctance.

Xanxus bared his teeth, looking up at Tsuna from where he leaned against the wall with a certain satisfaction laid over the constant fury in his eyes. It didn’t waver as Squalo yanked bandages tight around his shoulder.

"There, damn idiot," Squalo declared and turned to bound toward the battle.

Xanxus ignored him, snarling that backhanded triumph at Tsuna, and Tsuna came closer and knelt beside him. He hadn’t seen Xanxus in a long time, and maybe Reborn was right about his intuition growing, because this time he understood something he hadn’t before. He lifted a burning hand and laid it against the center of Xanxus’ chest.

"There shouldn’t be ice here."

Now Xanxus was staring at him, blank and furious instead of pleased and furious, not even bothering to brush him away. "The hell?"

It wasn’t something seen. It wasn’t something felt. But Tsuna knew what was under his hand. "Your Will has frozen your heart." He frowned and flattened his palm. "It shouldn’t be like that."

It would be such a small thing to do, really. He reached with his own Will, and Xanxus jerked back against the wall behind him, eyes widening. "No…"

Tsuna looked up at him. "I know." He knew the first crack in that ice, and the fractured edges of it. He knew how they would cut when they came free. Love and betrayal both slid off the ice, right now, and Tsuna knew that they shouldn’t.

The fury and terror in Xanxus’ eyes only knew the agony waiting in those edges, though, and that he had been checkmated before he knew it. Tsuna’s hand had already closed around the rage the fueled his Will.

"No!" Xanxus’ voice was harsh and tight and almost inaudible, his whole body rigid under Tsuna’s hand, fingers closed helplessly hard on the chips of broken stone under them.

Tsuna listened to the sounds coming from below them, to the death following his actions, and finally sighed and reluctantly drew his hand back, releasing the unseen ice from his Will. He stood, head bowed, looking down at Xanxus staring up at him. He almost certainly was risking his life, to refrain, and he didn’t know if he was truly doing any good for Xanxus either. But Xanxus had chosen that ice and Tsuna couldn’t undo it by force.

He turned away into the building and left Xanxus staring after him, breathing hard.

Tsuna sat in his chair and tried not to fidget, because sometimes now it made someone jump when he did. He didn’t really think that was much of an improvement over the past few months, but Reborn smiled a lot.

The Ninth leaned back in his chair, smiling. "Well, that’s one conflict cleared up in Vongola favor. So let’s move on to other business. Does anyone still have any objections to my successor?"

Tsuna froze, wide-eyed, as the entire table looked at him. Murmurs and headshakes and a few smiles ran around the gathering, and Tsuna wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or even more alarmed that they were accepting him.

He hadn’t even accepted him, yet!

Well… not exactly.

And then everyone stilled, eyes turning to Xanxus, who was glaring wild and hard at Tsuna once again and hadn’t said a thing.

Tsuna bit his lip and looked back. He remembered tremors raking Xanxus’ chest under his palm. Would it help if he apologized?

And just as Tsuna was opening his mouth, hand raised toward Xanxus, groping for words, Xanxus flinched back and lowered his eyes.

The whole room breathed again.

"Good," the Ninth said quietly. "Then I think we’re done here."


Breaking of the Day – Omake

Because I really couldn’t resist. Toward the end of Tsuna’s investiture as the Tenth Boss, Xanxus puts in an appearance. Humor, I-2

Tsuna had thought he could relax, that all the Vongola leaders and allies that were coming had come, had been dealt with, that any potential embarrassment at being acclaimed The Tenth Boss was behind him for now.

And then Xanxus stalked through the door.

Gokudera and Yamamoto both tensed up, behind him, and Tsuna wasn’t entirely sure they were wrong to do so.

Xanxus stopped in the middle of the room, feet spread, and glared at him. "I hate your fucking guts," he declared.

Tsuna considered this blunt, frontal statement of the obvious for a moment and relaxed. "I know," he agreed, quietly.

"Good." Xanxus strode the rest of the way across the room, ignoring Gokudera’s chopped off shout, to seize Tsuna’s wrist. Tsuna waved frantic calming gestures, dangling half out of his seat as Xanxus pulled his arm up.

And kissed his hand.

Dead silence rippled out through the room, in which Tsuna’s small oof as Xanxus dropped him again sounded clearly.

Xanxus was still glaring down at him. "Just remember it."

"I will," Tsuna managed, catching his breath.

Xanxus snorted and spun around, stalking back out.

"Congratulations?" Yamamoto ventured, at last.

Tsuna laughed helplessly.


A Question for Dusk

Takes place just before Breaking of the Day: Omake. As Tsuna prepares to inherit the family, he comes to Xanxus with a condition. Drama, I-4

Character(s): Sawada Tsunayoshi, Xanxus

Tsuna stood in the doorway, one hand on the sill. He didn’t want to intrude.

"I need to ask you something."

The long, lean figure slouched in one of the scatter of leather chairs snorted and burning eyes flashed in the dimness as Xanxus looked up.

"Do you plan on staying with the Vongola family?"

The hot eyes narrowed on him. "The hell are you saying?"

Tsuna shrugged. "I wouldn’t be surprised if you wanted to break off and start your own or something."

Another snort and Xanxus leaned back. "You’re a fucking idiot. You have no clue how things really work."

A corner of Tsuna’s mouth twitched up, despite how tense he felt. "I know. I’m working on it. So you plan to stay?"

Xanxus ignored him with such obvious disgust that Tsuna decided it was a yes. He took a breath.

"Okay. There’s a condition for that."

He bit down a flinch as Xanxus erupted to his feet.

"The hell are you saying?!" It was a lot louder this time. Xanxus faced him, sneering, hands out from his sides in a way that made Tsuna keep half an eye on them. "You want me to grovel for you, for everyone to see?"

"No." Tsuna made himself keep his eyes on Xanxus’. "I don’t want you to grovel. You don’t even need to acknowledge me." He breathed out a tense half-laugh as Xanxus settled back onto his heels. "You don’t even need to do what I ask you to."

Thought was coming back into that burning glare, and suspicion. "Yeah? You’ll just sit there and let me tell you to fuck off, huh? Tenth." Contempt dripped from the title.

"If you want," Tsuna said quietly.

Xanxus threw back his head and laughed. "Sounds like a deal to me! So what the hell is this condition?"

Tsuna braced himself. "You don’t have to do what I tell you. But when I tell you not to do something, that’s different."

Xanxus stilled, glare slowly turning hot again. "You little shit…"

Tsuna told his knees sternly not to shake and spent a second wishing he could have done this with his Will burning. But that wouldn’t have gotten him what he needed, here. "That’s my only condition."

Xanxus looked at him for a long moment before swinging away to stare out one of the tall windows. Tsuna waited quietly, hand tense against the frame of the door as seconds ticked past and past.

"All right." Xanxus’ voice was flat and his back stiff.

Tsuna took another breath. One more step. "May I have your word?"

Xanxus half whirled, snarling over his shoulder, and Tsuna tensed another notch, poised to drive himself down into Dying Will if this was the last straw and Xanxus attacked him. But Xanxus froze as his eyes met Tsuna’s, hand opening and closing by his side as he stared at him. The hot glare wavered and finally he spun back around and punched the wall, leaving a crater of shattered plaster.

"You have my word." It was low and harsh.

Tsuna swallowed. "Thank you," he managed, a little husky himself, and stepped back from Xanxus’ door.

He didn’t turn his back until he was around the corner, though.


Sakura Growing Upside Down

Hibari seeks out a rematch with Mukuro. Mukuro has his own agenda for this. Drama, I-3

Two days after the battles for the Vongola rings were over, Kyouya cornered Sawada and asked who that Chrome girl was, and why she carried what looked remarkably like Mukuro’s staff.

And then he went hunting Dino Cavallone.

"Look, Kyouya, I couldn’t…" Cavallone ducked the swing of a tonfa quickly. "I couldn’t let you know right then! You’d have gone right after her." He jumped back from a vicious swipe. "Him. Them. Whatever. You know you would have."

Kyouya set his feet again and glared. "Of course I would have."

"Well, then you wouldn’t have had the fun of fighting with that mechanical suit, right?" Cavallone offered, a bit weakly.

Kyouya growled and spun his tonfa forward.

They were both dripping blood on the floor before Kyouya’s fury ran out. He stood and glowered at Cavallone, panting. Cavallone wiped his mouth on his cuff and sighed.

"Are you sure you’re ready for this?"

Kyouya’s lip curled.

Cavallone frowned and coiled his whip with a sharp snap of his wrist. "I’m serious. Mukuro’s illusions aren’t like that damn drug. You can’t shake it off with pure stubbornness." His eyes were hard. "Or you would have done it the first time, wouldn’t you?"

"I wasn’t prepared the first time." Kyouya didn’t like admitting that, but it must have been true for him to be fooled the way he had been.

Cavallone’s mouth tightened. "Listen to me for once," he said, quietly. "You can’t shake off an illusion just by knowing it’s illusion." He stepped closer, holding Kyouya’s eyes. "Do you know your own strength well enough, yet?"

Kyouya frowned in turn. He’d always known his own strength. He looked back, silently.

Cavallone’s shoulders slumped a bit and he ran a hand through his hair. "I know I can’t stop you," he sighed. "Just remember, all right?"

After a moment, Kyouya nodded. Cavallone had earned that much from him. "I’ll remember."

He found them easily enough, back at the Kokuyou grounds, the two lesser carnivores and the girl. He raked her over with a glance, disinterested by how frail looking she was. "I want Mukuro," he told her bluntly.

She frowned and her soft "Why?" cut through the loud one’s "What the hell?!"

Kyouya would have thought why was obvious. "I have something to return to him."

The yappy one stalked toward him. "You think you can beat Mukuro-san? Hah! He’d just break you into little pieces again!"

Hibari ignored him; the girl had closed her eyes and her lips were moving faintly.


Kyouya spun a tonfa absently, ready to smack the interruption quiet, but the girl spoke first.

"Ken." Her voice was lower, cool and amused. "I’ve been expecting him."

The loud one grumbled and snarled and sat back down in a huff, but the quiet one just nodded. "As you wish, Mukuro-sama."

Mukuro smiled at him with the girl’s mouth and turned, beckoning. "Come along, then."

Kyouya stalked through the crumbling doorway after him; more room would be welcome enough, but… "I’m not here to fight the girl."

Mukuro looked over the girl’s shoulder and gave him a slow, annoying smile. "Well, if you insist." They passed through the blurred shadow under a destroyed staircase and when they emerged into what might have been an auditorium it wasn’t the girl ahead of him. It was Mukuro.

Much better.

Kyouya lunged in close, striking for Mukuro’s ribs.

It went through them.

Kyouya spun on his toe and blocked the staff swinging down at his shoulder. Just because he’d expected that didn’t make him any happier.

Mukuro laughed and gave back, light on his feet. "You’re much more wary this time." He tilted his head, hair falling over his forehead. "So, are you really immune to these now?"

There was no gesture, no showmanship—just pale petals fluttering down past Kyouya’s shoulder. He stalked forward steadily, not bothering to dignify Mukuro’s prodding with an answer. Mukuro blocked the first strike but the second caught his shoulder and drove a gasp out of him.

"I see you have."

"Fight seriously."

Mukuro smirked. "Why?"

Kyouya stopped calculating with the front of his mind, stopped thinking at all, left observations to the back of his brain and just moved, letting rage flow through his hands, drive his feet against the rough floor. The back of his mind noticed the number four forming in Mukuro’s eye, poised him to lean into the strength of Mukuro’s guard and return, readied him for Mukuro’s speed, but his attention was on the feel of his tonfa grips in his hands, the reverberation through steel and bone that would tell him when a strike went home.

He thought the occasional softness was just Mukuro’s ability to roll with the strikes until he felt it one last time and Mukuro was abruptly no longer in front of him.

"The day you throw off illusions I’ll be in real trouble," Mukuro murmured from behind him.

Swinging around , taut and furious, Kyouya caught a flash of teeth, and then Mukuro’s weapon fell away and he collapsed to the floor. By the time Kyouya turned all the way around, it was the girl who lay there. He stood for a long moment, wrestling with the unusual urge to throw something against the wall.

The girl stirred and pushed herself up, rubbing her eyes. "Ah. Are you done?" She looked up, merely inquiring. Kyouya observed distantly that, although he was fairly sure Mukuro’s broken arm had not been one of the illusions, her arm was fine.

"For now," he ungritted his teeth enough to say.

She cocked her head at him. "I see. Well, if it’s important to Mukuro-sama…" She stood, brushing off her skirt, and picked up the staff. "I suppose we’ll see you again, then."

Kyouya watched her walk back toward the room where the other two were and breathed around the pain in his knee and side until his temper had settled, sharp instead of ragged. And then he went to go find someone to fight so he could think about what he’d found out.

"What again?" Ken looked up as Kyouya stalked through the atrium. "Don’t you ever get enough? You never win!"

"Boasting for someone else since you can’t do it for yourself?" Kyouya asked, not breaking stride.

"Fuck you! Come back here and we’ll see who’s boasting! You… Kake-pii? What are you looking like that for?"

As their voices turned fainter behind him, Kyouya heard the dark one say, "He never wins. But he never loses either, does he?"

Kyouya’s eyes narrowed and he stepped still more precisely over chunks of broken concrete. He was going to pin Mukuro down and finish this fight if it killed one of them.

Chrome looked up as he stepped through the break in the wall. "Mukuro-sama said you would be here today." She set down her can of coffee and stood, closing her eyes. Haze drew around her and, when it cleared, Mukuro was smiling at him, ineffably amused.

Kyouya knocked a few of his teeth out purely for his own satisfaction before he had to start being careful where he put his feet, lest he tread on a scorpion.

Kyouya stared at the pillars of fire separating him from Mukuro, who was leaning insolently on his staff.


Kyouya closed his eyes. It didn’t help. He could feel the heat on his face, the dryness of scorched air in his nose and lungs. Every sense told him that if he stepped forward he would be burned.

His mouth tightened and he stepped forward into one of the pillars.

It burned, his skin tightened, his lungs felt knifed through, but there was a softness to the sensation that he recognized, now, and he took another step, mind locked around that difference.

The fires vanished, leaving echoing pain and Mukuro’s laughter.

"I think you’re the best toy I’ve ever had."

Kyouya lay on the roof of the school and stared up into the blue nothing of the sky. The deep slice along his arm twinged under its bandage.

Cavallone had had quite a few words to say, this week, once he’d tracked Kyouya down, medical minion in his wake. The ones that actually stuck in Kyouya’s mind were, "You can’t just insist reality is something different. He’s better at changing reality than you are, and what kind of idiot fights on his opponent’s ground?"

Was he trying to change reality?

He didn’t like the thought. It seemed weak-willed. Reality was what it was, and a strong person didn’t try to change that; he just acted.

Of course, knowing what reality was, around Mukuro, presented its own problems. He frowned up at the blue. His body could tell the difference, but he needed more than that to actually beat Mukuro. If he had to touch to know…

Do you know your own strength well enough yet?

Cavallone’s words came back to him and he frowned more deeply. If Cavallone thought Kyouya had strengths he wasn’t using yet, what could they be? If it wasn’t what he was currently doing…

Not trying to change reality?

Kyouya’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he watched wisps of white crossing the blue.

Mukuro knelt over Kyouya, staff tight against his throat, chuckling. "Haven’t you realized yet?"

Kyouya glared, saving his breath. Mukuro looked down at him with great good humor.

"This body is an illusion, isn’t it? Every time you insist on fighting me like this, instead of in my little Chrome’s body, you hand your senses over to me before we even begin." He smiled charmingly. "Should I fight you using her next time?"

Kyouya twisted one forearm under the staff and brought a knee up into Mukuro’s spine, throwing him over Kyouya’s head. He spun up onto his feet and around to face Mukuro again.

"No." His voice was rough from where the staff had raked up his throat, but his mind was abruptly clear.


"You are here." He gestured at Mukuro’s body. "That is what’s real." The mist and flowers through which he and Mukuro had tracked each other today faded from his sight. "That’s all that matters to me."

He didn’t need to see or feel. All he needed was to know. To be and to know.

Mukuro didn’t laugh as Kyouya drove in on him, strike following strike, but his avid, smiling gaze never faltered. Even when Kyouya pinned him against the wall, breaking ribs in the process, he didn’t blink. "We’ll have to do this again," he gasped.

Kyouya struck full across Mukuro’s temple and let his unconscious body fall. It was Chrome before she hit the ground. He stood, panting, letting things settle in his mind.

"Oh." Chrome pushed herself upright, eyes wide. "You… won today?"

Kyouya looked down at her. "How do you know?"

"Mukuro-sama isn’t quite there." She stood up, dusting herself off.

"Here." Kyouya picked up his jacket and pulled the can of coffee he’d brought out of his pocket, tossing it to her. "We spilled yours, last time."

"Ah." She smiled faintly. "Thank you."

Kyouya shrugged. She was obliging him, after all.

"Will you be back again?" She took a sip, both hands wrapped around the can.

Kyouya considered. There was a certain satisfaction in the idea. It would be nice to drive his victory home a few more times. It would probably be useful, if he agreed to be involved in any more Vongola doings. "Yes."

Chrome nodded. "We’ll see you then." The Mist ring winked on her finger as she took another sip.

He gave her a parting nod in return.

Kyouya thought there was something odd about the fight today. He watched and weighed the texture of it as they moved, twisting aside from the butt of Mukuro’s staff, striking down to break Mukuro’s knee. He followed Mukuro down and brought the shaft of one tonfa hammering down toward Mukuro’s solar plexus.

Mukuro’s gaze didn’t even flicker.

Kyouya diverted into the floor, adding another small crater, eyes fixed on Mukuro. "You aren’t expecting to win," he stated.

Mukuro shrugged with one shoulder; today the other was dislocated, a match for Kyouya’s elbow. "Not really, any more." His eyes gleamed. "Not often, anyway."

"Then why are you fighting?"

Mukuro’s teeth flashed in the hall’s dim light for a moment. "Because it’s fun." His leg swept around. Kyouya rolled with it, ignoring the fiery wrench in his arm. His own teeth were bared as they closed again.

It was annoying that Mukuro didn’t stay bitten, but he supposed that the biting itself was fun, yes.

He would be back again next week.


Chrome curled up in the bed she had created, soft old couch cushions filling a window-seat, piled with linens from the box that had appeared in the atrium one morning, weeks ago. She watched the moonlight sliding over the buildings and trees, past the glass, turning them stark and new. Mukuro-sama?


You helped him figure out how to win, didn’t you?

Laughter tickled through her mind. Perhaps.

Chrome closed her eyes "looking" at the presence in the back of her head. Why?

With her eyes closed, she could see Mukuro-sama’s smile. He’s fun to play with. And this way he’ll last longer. The smile curled higher at the corners. And that will make me stronger.

Chrome nibbled on her lip. She wasn’t really aware of what happened when Mukuro-sama brought himself out through her, but she’d heard the tone of his laughter afterwards, and watched the rage of her fellow Guardian hone into something cooler and sharper than it had been.

A chuckle echoed behind her ears. Ask.

Softly, barely forming the thought into words, she said, You want him to be stronger, too.

Her mind was silent for a moment. We will see, Mukuro-sama finally answered, light and intent. We will see whether this thing Sawada Tsunayoshi is making will survive. Or whether it will be destruction after all.

Chrome remembered him telling her to fight her best as the boss’ Mist Guardian. And she remembered Chikusa and Ken discussing who they would kill first, when they destroyed the Mafia completely. It made sense enough to her that Mukuro-sama would do both things at once; he could be more than one thing at once, after all. She nodded to herself and cuddled down into her pillows.

Good night, Mukuro-sama.

Good night, my Chrome.


Where On Your Palm is My Little Line

Gokudera has a thing for Tsuna’s Dying Will Flame. Pure Smut, I-4

Watching Tsuna fight was thrilling, but it was nothing to the shiver that went down Hayato’s spine standing in the middle of Tsuna’s office on a quiet evening and watching gentle, smiling eyes turn deep and serene under the flare of the Dying Will Flame.

"Boss," he said, low and husky, "please." He could hear the open want in his own voice, and it made him flush, but it was only the truth. And he never gave less than the truth to Tsuna.

Tsuna stepped close and closed his hands around Hayato’s face, drawing him down a little to a slow kiss. "Yes," he murmured into Hayato’s mouth, and Hayato’s cock twitched.

Tsuna’s hands found his hips and urged Hayato to back up, step by step, until the backs of his thighs hit the overstuffed arm of Tsuna’s office couch. Tsuna drew back a little and smiled, soft and knowing with the concentration of his Will. His hands slid up Hayato’s arms to his shoulders and turned him around. Hayato’s breath shortened.

"Easy," Tsuna murmured in his ear, as his hands undid Hayato’s belt and pants, eased them down off his hips, flattened against his stomach and slid up under his shirt, and Hayato made an agreeing sound even as he gasped. Tsuna’s hand kneaded his stomach, gentle, easing tension away, and Hayato moaned softly.

"Please," he whispered.

Tsuna pressed a kiss to his neck. "Bend down, Hayato."

Tsuna only ever called him by his name when they were like this, and it made him even harder than he already was. He was panting as he bent down over the arm of the couch, squirming just a little against the cool leather.

"Nnn…" His spine arched taut as Tsuna’s fingers pressed between his cheeks, slick, rubbing over his entrance slow and hard. "God… Boss…"

"Shh, easy Hayato," Tsuna told him, voice low, one hand kneading his lower back, soothing. Hayato moaned as Tsuna’s fingers slid into him, sure and knowing, and again, louder, as they warmed. Knowing that he was being fucked with Tsuna’s Flame, even just this soft shadow of it, made him hungry and wanton. He loved being opened for Tsuna, and he was sprawled over the arm, legs spread wide, panting, by the time Tsuna stopped.

Hayato turned his head and watched their faint reflection in the wide window across the room, him bent over with his bare ass high in the air and Tsuna behind him, stroking gentle hands over his rear. He made a little sound of anticipation as Tsuna reached to undo his own pants, and thought Tsuna smiled down at him.

He was more than ready for the stretch of Tsuna’s cock pushing into him and groaned low in his throat with the hot slide. "Yes… oh God, yes…" He whimpered as Tsuna pushed in deep and pulled back slowly, stroking across places inside that made his hips jerk until Tsuna pressed them down firmly against the couch’s smooth leather. That made him gasp. "Boss, please!" he begged, "please, fuck me!"

Tsuna laughed a little, husky. "All right. Relax for me."

Hayato obeyed, shuddering. It was so good to surrender himself to his boss like this, and when he did…

He moaned, open and breathless, as Tsuna’s cock drove deep and hard into his ass, and then again, and again. He was saying something, how good it was, asking for more, but he wasn’t paying attention to his own words. He was paying attention to how hard and sure Tsuna fucked him, eyes fixed on their reflection, on Tsuna standing behind him and looking down at him, powerful and serene as his hips flexed, thrusting him into Hayato over and over.

When Tsuna hitched him up higher on the arm of the couch and drove in deeper, fireworks burst behind Hayato’s eyes and he made a harsh, wordless sound as he came, body wringing tight around the hardness of Tsuna’s cock inside him. He loved it that Tsuna didn’t slow down, kept fucking him, holding him over the arm, keeping him open. He loved the sound of it when Tsuna moaned, throaty, burying himself deep in Hayato with short, hard jerks.

And he loved the way Tsuna’s hands stroked over his bare skin, easy and gentle, even as Tsuna leaned against the couch and Hayato, panting.

Watching Tsuna’s focus when he fought was nice. Getting fucked with that same intensity was miles better. Feeling Tsuna’s strength with every throb of his ass and Tsuna’s tenderness with every brush of fingers was best of all.

Hayato smiled. He loved late nights at the office.


Lighter Than a Feather

This came out of me wondering how Hibari could have been convinced to identify himself with the mafia. Dino finally figures out a way to get through to him. Humor with Drama, I-2

Dino crossed his feet on his desk and stared out the window. "Hmm."

"Boss?" Romario looked in the door. "Anything you need?"

Dino waved a hand "No, no, just thinking."

Romario smiled behind his mustache. "Ah." He came in and sorted briefly through Dino’s papers, gathering the finished letters and notes to go out. "Tsuna-kun or Hibari?" he asked casually.

Dino laughed, rueful. "You know me too well."

"You don’t puzzle over our own family," Romario murmured. "You act."

Dino’s mouth quirked wryly. "Just like Hibari, hm?" He stretched, sighing. "He really would do well among us. It’s too bad he doesn’t know anything about our history, I think he’d actually approve."

Romario made sympathetic sounds.

"Of course, damned if I can get him to listen," Dino added, rather disgruntled. "Ignores me all the time in favor of his…" He stopped, eyes widening. "Books." For a moment he just sat, staring at nothing. Slowly he began to smile.



"I think I’m going to want some memoirs. And some blank books."

Kyouya looked up, with a certain jaundiced expectation, as the door of his lounge was flung cheerily open and Cavallone breezed in. No one else intruded on him here. "Back again?"

Cavallone smiled in a way that made Kyouya shift, warily; that was Cavallone’s "I have a plan" smile, and Kyouya was somewhat annoyed to realize he recognized it at once.

"Well, you know, I was cleaning out the library and found some things I thought you might like." He waved a few slim books in one hand. "Seeing how much you seem to enjoy history."

Kyouya glanced down at the book currently open in his hands. "You take the baby’s ‘home tutor’ nonsense a little too seriously."

"You’ll like this. I promise. Just take a look." Cavallone laid the books down on the couch beside him, flashed another smile, and took himself back out.

Kyouya sniffed. The least the man could have done was offer him a decent fight, while he was here.

He picked up the book on top and paged through it, brow lifting. It seemed to be a personal journal. Cavallone had brought it, it had to be about the mafia. But it was in Japanese and the sentences he scanned sounded… familiar.

He turned back to the beginning, frowning, and read more slowly. An idea here, a sentence there, slipped through his mind easy and familiar as koi in their own pool.

"…as true men always have, we must look after our own honor and never leave it to an outsider…"

"…only law is the law of blood, we will never forget…"

"…our true strength has nothing to do with the foolish softness of rules made in cities far away…"

After an hour or two, Kyouya reached for the second book.

Two days later, Kyouya flung open the door to Cavallone’s ex-hospital office without bothering to knock and strolled over to drop the books on a table. "You know, you could have just said from the start that the mafia has proper traditions."

"How was I supposed to get you to hold still long enough?" Cavallone asked, dryly.

Kyouya didn’t bother answering that. "It’s a suitable kind of thing," he pronounced.

Cavallone downright grinned and Kyouya gave him a narrow look; he didn’t see any reason for Cavallone to look so pleased.


Kyouya flicked his fingers at the covers. "I still say herding together is weak."

Cavallone’s grin quirked. "You’re the Cloud. No one will ask you to."

"All right, then." Kyouya crossed his arms. "So?"

Cavallone raised his brows. "So… what?"

"Are we going to fight or not?"

Cavallone leaned back and laughed.



Dino helps Hibari figure a few things out. It doesn’t take Hibari long at all. Porn with Characterization, I-4

Pairing(s): Dino/Hibari

"So how is Tsuna’s family doing?"

Kyouya gave him a rather flat look. "Why ask me?"

"Because you’ll know." Dino grinned. Sometimes he thought if he didn’t remind the world that Kyouya was part of that family no one would ever dare. Except perhaps Mukuro, who did it for different reasons.

"They’re well enough."

Dino’s lips twitched as he watched Kyouya, sitting composed on his couch with a book open in one hand, pointedly ignoring him. It was taking longer, these days, for Kyouya to go from "noticing" to "biting", but that didn’t mean Kyouya made it easy for visitors.

Finally Kyouya uncrossed his legs and Dino’s attention zeroed in again. Kyouya was about to either answer him or reach for his tonfa.

"Sawada’s started making overtures to Girasole."

"The Giglio Nero’s allies." Dino sat back, eyes narrowed with satisfaction. This was why he came to Kyouya; to hear the news that went deeper than Yamamoto being accepted to a Pacific League team or Gokudera’s latest argument with the Tokyo University mathematics department. "So he’s started."

Kyouya shrugged as if it were no concern of his. Dino eyed him.

"And how are your studies coming? Doing well?"

"Well enough."

Dino knew Kyouya didn’t believe in socializing, but honestly. He was going to get more than "well enough" out of Kyouya if it killed him. Which was still a possibility, if less so these days, but Dino felt he owed the risk to both his little brother and his not-exactly-student.

"Big apartment you’ve gotten yourself, here," he observed, innocently. "Planning for someone to move in with you?"

That got him a flat look. "If you want to fight…" Kyouya put the book down.

Dino held up his hands, laughing. "Oh, come on, Kyouya. Someday someone will catch your eye."

"You’re annoying," Kyouya declared, hands closing around the grips of his tonfa.

"Seriously, though," Dino said as he wrung out his washcloth into the sink, water running pink. "I know you like your space, but surely you’re at least dating people by now."

"I don’t have time for that kind of nonsense." Kyouya shrugged his shirt back on and tossed a handful of bloody gauze into the trash.

Dino gave him a pained look. "Kyouya, sometimes I wonder if you’ve even found out what kissing is for yet."

"Not particularly," Kyouya told him coolly.

Dino turned and stared. "You’re serious?" He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "You’re nineteen already, this isn’t healthy."

"You sound like my mother, Cavallone." And, while Dino was trying to process that mental image, "Why do you care?"

Dino leaned back against the counter, mouth quirked. "I could say, because you’re Tsuna’s family, and I’m a Vongola ally, and I don’t want some rival Family woman who knows what she’s doing tripping you up."

Kyouya actually paused to consider that, and Dino stifled a helpless groan. He should never underestimate Kyouya’s ability to ignore people genuinely caring about him.

"A valid point, perhaps," Kyouya said, slowly.

Fine, then. Dino would take any opening he was given, to draw Kyouya a little further out. It wasn’t as though he’d ever had luck using normal logic with Kyouya, anyway.

"So." He laid a hand along Kyouya’s cheek, waiting to see whether it would start another fight; with Kyouya, he never really knew. "Want me to show you this, too?"

Kyouya narrowed his eyes and turned his head into Dino’s hand a little. "If it will get you to stop teasing, the way you do when we fight," he said against Dino’s palm, and Dino suppressed a shiver; for someone inexperienced, Kyouya had good instincts.

"Got it." Dino grinned, wryly; Kyouya’s priorities were predictable, at least. He reached out, swift and careful and pulled Kyouya against him, hand sliding back to cradle Kyouya’s head. "No teasing," he murmured, and kissed Kyouya deep and hot, tongue sliding into his mouth, careful of Kyouya’s split lip but not slow.

Kyouya made an interested sound. Long hands slid up Dino’s arms, as if exploring, and Kyouya flicked his tongue delicately against Dino’s. Dino made an approving sound of his own.

It was easier than he’d expected to coax Kyouya along until they were leaning against the counter, twined tight around each other, and Kyouya was kissing back, hands buried in Dino’s hair. But, then, this was the other reason he came to see Kyouya, wasn’t it?

In a world where honor so often demanded Dino do things he wished he didn’t have to, Kyouya was utterly pure and uncompromising.

Dino slid his thigh between Kyouya’s legs and smiled at the way Kyouya’s breath caught. His own breath came a little shorter as Kyouya arched against him, straddling his leg, shamelessly sensual. He slid his hands down to close on the lean muscle of Kyouya’s ass and pull him closer, and Kyouya practically purred.

It was definitely time to get rid of the clothing, because Dino’s jeans were getting way too tight.

"Bedroom?" he murmured against Kyouya’s ear, and tried not to be the slightest bit smug when it took Kyouya a moment to focus again.

"Through there." Kyouya pushed back from Dino only to catch his wrist and pull him along at a very brisk pace for two men who could really do with a moment to adjust themselves. Dino smiled wryly as he followed along.

Kyouya might not always know what he wanted, but once he figured it out he was unstoppable.

He caught Kyouya’s hands, though, lightly, when he started to unbutton his shirt. "Let me?"

Kyouya raised a brow at him and Dino chuckled, shaking his head. "I’ll show you why; promise. Just let me?"

He was helplessly amused by how narrowly Kyouya watched him as he undid Kyouya’s shirt, and slacks while he was at it. The heat that slid over Kyouya’s gaze as Dino stroked the shirt off his shoulders was more gratifying.

"Hmm." Kyouya stepped closer and his hands spread against Dino’s chest for a moment before sliding down and under the hem of his shirt. They slid back up even more slowly, baring his stomach and chest, and Dino pulled in a deep breath. Kyouya definitely had good instincts. He raised his arms obligingly, if a bit slowly as his rising bruises pulled, and let Kyouya strip the shirt off him, lowering them to stroke his hands down Kyouya’s bare back and pull him closer.

They kissed slowly, tongues twining, as Dino eased Kyouya’s slacks and boxers off his hips. Kyouya made an impatient sound as he kicked them the rest of the way off, but it turned husky as Dino’s hands slid over his ass, fingers stroking the curve of it. It took a few moments for Kyouya to unwind his own fingers from Dino’s waistband and undo his pants in turn.

Dino couldn’t help a rather relieved sound and Kyouya snorted faintly. And then he drew back and looked at Dino with a speculative gleam Dino was instantly wary of.


Dino gasped as Kyouya’s fingers closed on his cock, bold and slow, stroking thoughtfully over him. "Nothing damaged, then?" Kyouya murmured.

Dino didn’t know whether it was hotter that Kyouya was fondling him or that Kyouya was teasing him. "Not a thing," he said, husky. "Want me to show you?"

Amusement flashed in Kyouya’s eyes. "Yes."

Dino really liked how definite Kyouya was. "Come here, then." He drew Kyouya toward the bed, very carefully until Kyouya let go of him, and down onto it, stretching out beside him. He made a long arm over the side to retrieve his pants and fish his emergency stash out of the back pocket. He shrugged at Kyouya’s raised brows. "Well, you never know." He tucked the foil packets under a pillow and went back to stroking Kyouya’s body with slow, open palms until the sardonic gleam eased out of his eyes and Kyouya stretched under him, fingers starting to explore Dino’s body again. Kyouya’s touch was firm and warm, and the sounds he made when Dino kissed, open mouthed, down his neck went straight to Dino’s cock. He held out, though, wanting Kyouya to understand how good this could be, and Kyouya was taut and breathless under him before he reached for the packet of lube.

When he slid his fingers back between Kyouya’s cheeks, Kyouya gasped.

Dino rubbed his fingertips gently over Kyouya’s entrance, feeling the tension running through Kyouya’s body. Hmm. "Okay, look," he said softly against Kyouya’s ear, "for this to work you need to relax, all right?"

Kyouya looked up at him with dark eyes for a moment and made an irritable sound. He twined his fingers into Dino’s hair and pulled him down for another kiss, nipping at Dino’s lip while he was at it. Dino figured that was a hint, Kyouya-style, and chuckled as he set about distracting Kyouya with hot, hard kisses, as sensual as one rather talented tongue if he did say so himself could make them, and Kyouya slowly relaxed until Dino’s fingers slid into him easily.

The husky sound Kyouya made, low in his throat, made Dino even harder than he already was and he pressed his fingers in deeper, twisting them slowly. This time Kyouya actually moaned, hands closing tight on Dino’s shoulders.


The sound of his name in Kyouya’s mouth brushed a shiver down Dino’s spine, and the way Kyouya’s hips rocked into his slow thrusts, urging him on, turned his breath ragged.

There was a hint of growl in Kyouya’s voice when he pulled Dino down against him and said in his ear, "Show me."

"Are you sure—" Dino started, only to break off when Kyouya nipped his ear. Kyouya leaned back to look up at him, eyes dark and hot.

"Show me."

With anyone else, Dino might have insisted on going slow, but this was Kyouya. Unstoppable. So he made quick work of stroking more lube over himself, trying not to get too distracted by Kyouya’s hands wandering over his body, and nudged Kyouya’s thighs apart.

Kyouya was smiling, now, lazy and pleased, the way he looked at the end of a good fight and Dino wondered which of them was kinky, because that look heated his blood. He managed, at least, to go slowly as he pushed into Kyouya, breathless with the fierce heat that closed around him.

Kyouya made small, wordless sounds as he adjusted, arms finally settling around Dino as he slid out and back in, deeper. Dino was glad to feel Kyouya’s back relax under his hand, and he leaned in over Kyouya, thrusting harder, searching for the angle that would make it still better.

He knew he’d gotten the right spot when Kyouya’s arms and legs locked around him, pulling him tight against Kyouya’s suddenly arched body.

"Again," Kyouya gasped, and Dino laughed, husky, and lifted his student, friend, opponent’s hips and fucked him hard. Kyouya picked up the rhythm—he’d always learned fast, right enough—and pushed up into the thrusts, panting, eyes glittering up at Dino.

The sound he made when Dino closed still-slick fingers on his cock, so free and hungry, made Dino moan in turn and finally let go completely, thrusting into Kyouya hard and wild.

"Yes!" Kyouya’s voice was hoarse and insistent, and one hand fisted in his hair but Dino barely noticed because he hadn’t seen Kyouya this open in years, and then Kyouya had been trying to kill him. This was much more fun, and he groaned as Kyouya’s body abruptly wrung tight.

"God, Kyouya…" Dino buried himself in Kyouya and found his mouth again for a hard, hot kiss, and when Kyouya purred into it it was more than Dino could take. Pleasure turned him inside out, and if he could feel Kyouya laughing as he rode it out, well right now that felt really good too.

He half expected it when Kyouya barely gave him time to catch his breath before squirming and dumping Dino off him, and Dino was laughing, too, as he leaned back in for one more kiss that Kyouya returned with another nip.

"Interesting," Kyouya pronounced, as he lounged back against the futon with cat-like composure. And then he glanced at Dino sidelong, eyes glinting, and added, "And you didn’t even need your family around to get it right. I’ll remember that."

Not for the first time, Dino decided that the hedgehog really was the perfect avatar for Kyouya. He drew Kyouya against him anyway, and smiled when Kyouya let him.


Moments of Mind and Self

Yamamoto reflects on the meaning of being a born killer. Character Sketch, I-3

Character(s): Yamamoto Takeshi

Yamamoto Takeshi had never killed.

He knew people didn’t believe it, and doubly didn’t believe it after they’d seen him with a sword in his hand. It amused him, in a wry sort of way, that none of them ever seemed to stop and think that he was one of Tsuna’s Family, after all.

The only person he knew believed it without question was Squalo, and that was because Squalo threw monumental temper tantrums over it, yelled at him that Takeshi was being false to the spirit of his own goddamn sword, attacked him in the middle of the mansion gardens purely to draw him out.

It was probably very bad of Takeshi that he was always extra careful not to cut with his edge in those fights, but the way Squalo glared at him was so funny.

And he thought that, really, Squalo did understand. When the fights were over he gave his critiques in a level, precise voice, and the courtesy of being truly serious was all the accolade Takeshi could ever need from him.

He knew, he thought, what it was they all saw in him. It was the odd calm that came to him, that let him stand in the way of strange weapons and deadly intent and still think. He’d never decided for himself whether it was a narrowing or a broadening of his focus; he just knew that it felt like a current of cool water in his mind, and it let him stand and watch, in the hot boil of deadly danger, and choose his moment.

He supposed he could use that moment to kill, easily enough. He just didn’t see any reason why he should.

Sometimes, when he sat after he practiced his form, all still, the thought came to him that one day something might happen to change his mind—that he might, one day, truly feel in his heart, and in his sword, that he had reason to kill. If it did he knew he would, would strike from that cool current without hesitation. But it hadn’t happened yet. He fought to win; that was where he found his edge and sharpness.

That was the edge he liked to feel cutting into his opponents.

He hoped it wouldn’t change. If it ever did, he thought he might lose the smile Reborn had told him he should keep.

Sometimes he wondered what Reborn was steering him towards, with his comments about being a born hitman, and his directions to keep a hold on the joy the sword brought to Takeshi, his moments of openness and his faint, knowing smile. He would think about that later, though, in another deep, quiet moment. This moment was ending.

Takeshi opened his eyes and drew a slow breath and let it out and rose from the floor of the dojo. He was smiling, eyes light, as he opened the doors and stepped out into the evening.


Sex Sells

What if the box weapon maker wanted more funds? What sells better than weapons? Box sex toys! Absolute Crack with Bawdy Porn, I-4

Everyone stared into the parcel.

"You didn’t actually ask what they did?"

"Oh, come on, Koenig always names the boxes bizarre things."

"Yes, but… ‘Purple Ecstasy’?"

"Yeah, these aren’t exactly… I mean, can we return them or something?"

"To an underground arms dealer?"

"But these aren’t arms!"

"Maybe he needed more funding; I mean, if anything sells better than weapons…"

"We’ll figure something out," Tsuna said firmly. "Later."

There was a pause while everyone looked at each other. It was Ryouhei who finally said, "So. Should we see what they actually do?"

"You really shouldn’t be looking at this kind of thing," Lambo muttered, trying to unwrap the box… box thing.

"Oh, quit being so stingy." I-Pin elbowed him. "I want to see. Girls like sex too, you know."

Lambo winced. "I didn’t want to hear that!" At least not from a girl he’d grown up with, who was practically his sister.

"Never mind, and just open it!" She bounced on the bed.

Lambo wondered if he was going to wind up psychologically scarred from this, but decided that, if his life so far hadn’t done it, probably not. "All right, all right." He took a breath and called Flame to his ring and, with some trepidation, fed it to the box.

It opened in his hand, revealing… another ring?

Kind of a large ring.

I-Pin poked at it with a slender finger, frowning. "You can’t be supposed to wear that. It’s way to big, even for a thumb ring."

Lambo cleared his throat. "Well, I guess, um. It could be, um. Well."

I-Pin eyed him, and eyed the ring and obviously considered the shipment it had come in, and her eyes widened. "Really? You wear things there?" Then she tipped her head, thoughtful. "Why?"

Lambo tried frantically to think of a way not to answer without getting hit for holding out on her. "Well, um. It’s, um. You see…" And then he trailed off and frowned, too. "But why should that be a Lightning box?"

"Hmm. Yeah, that does seem… odd." I-Pin nibbled a nail. "Unless it’s…" She, too, trailed off, and started to turn pink, mouth twitching. "Um." She finally broke into helpless giggles and dove for his pillow to muffle them.

"What?" he asked, warily.

She looked up at him with dancing eyes and managed to squeak, "Lightning attribute!"

He blinked. "Hardening, what about—" His eyes widened and he nearly bit his tongue. "Oh."

As she dissolved into gales of laughter he couldn’t help wondering, ruefully, if even a box would be able to do anything against the memory of this particular moment.

Ryouhei held the unfolded directions insert in one hand and the glove that had come out of the Sun box in the other. "Hmm. Hm. Uh-huh. Place gloved hand on body part…"

He shrugged. Seemed straightforward enough, and since most box items with the Sun attribute healed, after all, he didn’t think there would be any problems. He pulled the glove on fed his Flame to it and, when nothing unusual happened, decided to go for it. Nothing ventured nothing gained!

When he closed his gloved hand between his legs, his eyes rolled back in his head from the wild rush of heat down every nerve. Only three thoughts managed to make it through the sensation.

One was that he should have remembered that the source of healing was "activation".

The second was that he really should have taken time to undo his pants, because these would need to be dry cleaned about a second and a half from now.

The third was that he was keeping this box.

Chrome poked her abruptly enlarged breasts with a cautious fingertip. "It’s very convincing, I suppose." She twisted, trying to get a good look at the outfit the illusion box had provided her with; it looked like some pervert’s idea of a maid’s uniform.

Ken seemed to be at a loss for words, for once, and was just staring. Chikusa was shaking his head, probably at Ken.

Mukuro-sama was laughing, in the back of her head, too hard to speak.

Chrome smiled, wryly. "I think it gives a whole new meaning to cosplay."

Ken made a slightly strangled sound, and she laughed softly.

Oh please. Mukuro-sama’s delight sparkled in her mind. I have to see the look on Hibari’s face.

Chrome shook her head over their leader’s penchant for teasing the Cloud Guardian. "You have bad hobbies, Mukuro-sama."

I know. He sounded downright gleeful, and she couldn’t help smiling.

"All right. But you get to wear this thing." She had no objection to showing off her legs, but she really wasn’t sure what to do with all this chest.

Of course, he purred, and a wicked smile lingered in the back of her mind.

"Seems like a lot of trouble to go to just for a jar of lube," Gokudera grumbled, pulling Yamamoto down against him.

"Well, let’s see what it does, then." Yamamoto’s smile was cheerfully interested and Gokudera rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, yeah, fine. Go ahead."

Slick fingers stroked his entrance, gentle, and for a moment it was just slippery and a bit chill, like any lube on the face of the earth.

And then it wasn’t.

Gokudera’s eyes widened as his muscles eased, relaxed, turned warm and pliant without any intention on his part. It was… kind of amazingly intimate, with Yamamoto touching him. "Oh…"

Yamamoto’s eyes were intent on him. "Hm. Tranquility, huh?" He smiled, slow and hot.

Gokudera’s arms tightened around him and pulled him closer, and he said, husky, in Yamamoto’s ear, "More."

And moaned as long fingers opened him.

"Okay," Dino murmured into the sheets, "not that this isn’t really good, but why bother with a box dildo? I mean," he gasped as Kyouya drew it back and pressed it in again, "the regular ones already move and light up and all that." And this one seemed a little on the small side, actually. Nice, but small.

"Mm. Not quite the way this one is designed to, I believe." Kyouya thrust it in slowly again, not seeming in any hurry to demonstrate.

"And how is that?" Heat walked up Dino’s spine with the easy slide.

"Are you sure you want me to show you?" Kyouya murmured, so perfectly serious Dino knew he was teasing.

"Yeah… ahh… I think I do."

"Well, if you insist." He could hear Kyouya’s tiny smile. "Consider. It’s a Cloud box. And the attribute of cloud is…?"

"Propaga… oh shit." Dino’s breath caught and then left him on a low moan as the dildo grew inside him, getting bigger and thicker, slowly but just quickly enough to make his nerves tighten and tingle. "Kyouya…!"

Kyouya drew the enlarged dildo back and pressed it in again, smooth and hard, and Dino groaned.

"God." His eyes were half lidded, and want and command twined together in his voice when he said, "Do that again."

Kyouya laughed low in his throat and fucked him harder.

Tsuna flopped down into one of the library chairs and pressed a hand over his eyes. "How," he asked, "am I supposed to get any work done around here ever again?"

"People already ordering new boxes?" Gokudera asked from his own chair, looking up from his book, glasses sliding down his nose a bit.

"Yes," Tsuna groaned. "It’s all a plot to bankrupt Vongola, is what it is."

Gokudera chuckled, which Tsuna thought was unusually heartless of him, until he said, "Don’t worry, Boss. That’s where my new box comes in."

Tsuna sat up, frowning. "Um. How?"

Gokudera smiled at him, serene, with only a tiny hint of a gleam in his eyes. "Well, the Storm attribute is degeneration, right?" The gleam got a little stronger. "What’s better suited to stop the action of the new boxes? Or at least," he added, "the action of the people using them."

Tsuna blinked. "You mean it…" He imagined a sudden, er, wilting throughout the base and his mouth twitched. "I, um, see."

Gokudera adjusted his glasses calmly and leaned back in his chair, ankles crossed. "Just say the word."

"I’ll keep it in mind," Tsuna murmured, amused by Gokudera’s ruthless cheer.

Gokudera sat up again. "Oh, hey, I forgot to ask. There was a Sky box in there, wasn’t there?" He scratched his nose. "I was actually kind of curious about that one. I mean, the Sky’s attribute is to encompass, and that doesn’t seem like it would lend itself to anything I could think of off hand."

Tsuna turned red as a beet. "Ah, well, yes but I, um, put it away. It’s not really—"


Tsuna flinched and looked around. Kyouko was standing in the door and her eyes were as chilly as her tone. "Um. Yes?" Oh, he was in so much trouble.

She held out an inflated… well, best to just call it an inflated body part, dangling it between two fingers, and raised a brow.

Tsuna held up his hands. "It wasn’t me!" Though, in retrospect, he should probably have taken the time to put the thing more away, no matter how embarrassed he’d been.

She studied him for a moment. "Hm. Well, then, I think you’d better tell me all about it." She turned and stalked toward the door again.

"Psst, Boss." Gokudera slipped another box to him. "Figured you guys might want this. It’s a Sun box, but you should be able to use it. She’ll forgive you more if you share, right?"

"I really hope so," Tsuna said, fervently, following after her.

Inside a year, all inter-Family feuds subsided for lack of people paying attention to them, all the potential evil masterminds were too exhausted to take over the world, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Very happily.


Off-label Use

Dino is reading up on Japanese history and culture, and finds just the thing to provoke Hibari with. Humor with Romance, I-2

Note: This will be funniest if you’ve read any of the Edo period reams of love-advice for samurai, though it should make sense even if you haven’t. If you haven’t I quite recommend them, they’re very entertaining.

Pairing(s): Hibari/Dino

Dino sat cross-legged on Kyouya’s couch, reading down a page in his book and ticking things off with a highlighter.

Five years whole-hearted devotion, check. Kyouya certainly didn’t leave much room for anything else, at least if a person wanted to live on with all his bones intact.

Never have two strings to your bow, check. Dino smiled wryly. Romario had been dropping hints about the daughters of other Families who were around his age but, after Kyouya, really, none of them were all that interesting.

Be assiduous in the practice of the military arts while thus engaged, check. Even if Dino hadn’t been inclined to keep himself in trim in any case, no one survived long around Hibari Kyouya without being able and willing to fight back. Unless they were a small, fluffy animal, of course.

Be willing to throw away your lives for each other, check. Well, all right, Dino was willing provided it was in the cause of their Families, and Kyouya just never seemed to think twice before throwing himself into any hard fight, but Dino was reasonably sure that fighting beside each other in life-and-death situations counted, given the tone of the rest of the book.

Right, then.

He snapped the book shut and tossed his pen onto the low table and announced. "All right, Kyouya, according to this book, having ‘prudently verified the root of my nature’, now is a good time for me to ask you to elevate our relationship."

"What are you babbling about now?" Kyouya asked from the other end of the couch, not looking up from his own book.

"A classic of Japanese philosophy, in fact."

That made Kyouya look up, brows raised, lip curled faintly. "Giving relationship advice?"

"Rather a lot of it, actually." Dino had to confess to some bemusement over that, himself. He certainly hadn’t been expecting it, though he was more than willing to take advantage of it.

Kyouya was looking at him with increasing suspicion and narrowing eyes. "’Elevate our relationship’?" he quoted.

Dino grinned. "Yep."

Kyouya set his book aside with precise motions, and plucked Dino’s out of his hands. He looked at the cover for a long moment. "The Hagakure," he finally noted, voice even. "A classic of Edo period samurai conduct and philosophy, indeed."

Dino waited. He couldn’t believe Kyouya, with his interest in such things, wouldn’t catch the implication.

Sure enough, Kyouya looked back up at him, eyes sharp. "I should verify your nature?"

"That’s what it said." Dino tried to stifle a smile. "And I’m sure I wouldn’t want to violate proper order or anything." When Kyouya didn’t move, he added, "Being as it says the younger companion will want to be careful when choosing a guardia—."

That did it.

Dino laughed as he landed flat on his back on the cushions with Kyouya over him, trailing off into a moan as Kyouya’s teeth closed firmly on his throat and Kyouya’s hands ran up under his shirt.

He loved that Kyouya only ever followed the rules he liked.


The Nature of You

As Tsuna grows into his position, his conflicts with Xanxus escalate again and finally break. Drama, I-4, some spoilers

One Hand

Tsuna sat at an oval table with the advisors and lieutenants so newly inherited and tried to feel leader-like. It still wasn’t easy.

"We should erase the members of Gesso now, before they grow too strong again," Savio argued.

Tsuna tried not to sigh as murmurs of agreement ran around the table, and tried again. "They won’t become Gesso, now."

"They’re still dangerous."

Unfortunately, Tsuna couldn’t argue with that. Gokudera eyed him for a moment and turned to the table. "Think about what we are. Most of us, and our allies, are dangerous. If we start a war on that basis, where will it end?"

That finally made everyone pause and Tsuna gave Gokudera a grateful look. It made Gokudera glow just a bit, and that made Tsuna smile, and everything looked a little better.

"Keh!" Xanxus flung himself deeper into his chair, one arm slung over the back, and glared out a window. "Bunch of bullshit. Kill them now and be sure."

The murmurs swung back toward agreement again and this time Tsuna did sigh. And tried to ignore Xanxus’ slight, vicious smile.

He’d known this wasn’t going to be easy.

Other Hand

Tsuna looked up, anxious, as Yamamoto came in. "How is De Vecchi?"

Yamamoto smiled, reassuring. "The doctors say he’ll be fine." The smile faded a little. "It will probably take a month or two, though."

The room exploded into response.

"It’s an insult!"

"…can’t believe they rejected our offer to negotiate, who do they think they are?!"

"…nearly killed our envoy!"

"We can’t let this go!"

"It won’t happen twice." That was Xanxus, and the room fell silent as he stood with a tiny smile. "The Varia will avenge our name."

"Wait." Tsuna folded his hands tightly as Xanxus swung around to glare at him.


"I said wait." Tsuna took a slow breath. "There must be a reason they reacted that way. I don’t want to turn this into some kind of war between us and the Pozzo Nero. Not without at least trying again."

Xanxus snarled. "They’ve already declared where they stand! If we back down now every other Family will think we’re weak and attack us! This has to be answered. Now!"

"No," Tsuna said quietly, and looked up to meet Xanxus’ eyes, which widened.

They held each other for two long breaths as the room stilled around them. A muscle jumped in Xanxus’ jaw.

And then he spun around, slamming his chair out of the way, and stormed out of the room.

"Why that…!" Gokudera started up from his own chair.

Tsuna laid a hand on his arm. "Don’t. It’s all right."

Gokudera frowned. "Tenth."

Tsuna smiled up at him, a little sad, and repeated, "It’s all right. He won’t go."

Gokudera’s look turned thoughtful and he nodded, slowly. "If you say so, boss." He sat down again. Tsuna gathered himself, and turned back to the frowns and sidelong looks of the rest of the Vongola, grateful for Gokudera beside him, and Yamamoto standing behind his shoulder.

"I’ll ask Hibari if he’s willing to see them." Tsuna’s mouth quirked at the suddenly lighter expressions around the room and he tried not to listen to the faint, distant crashes from Xanxus’ wing of the building.


Tsuna sat and listened to his people arguing and felt his stomach sinking.

Xanxus was being too quiet.

And it wasn’t the glowering quiet he used when he disagreed and wanted to make damn sure everyone knew he did. Today he just leaned back in his seat, watching everyone else from under half lowered lids.

Tsuna had really hoped it wouldn’t come to this.

Finally he laid his hands flat on the table and leaned forward. "We will not absorb the Scioneri by force," he stated.

"But they’re operating in our territory!" Viotti protested vigorously. "You have to do something, boss! You’ll look weak if you don’t."

"If we have to drive them out, we will," Tsuna said softly, looking down at his hands. "But I will not have anyone forced into my Family who doesn’t choose to be here, with us."

That soothed the murmurs and he could see everyone settling, a few even smiling.

Xanxus’ expression didn’t flicker, and Tsuna’s mouth tightened. He had a bad feeling that, as long as Xanxus stuck to the letter of their agreement and didn’t cross a direct order, the rest of the Vongola would be pleased enough that he’d eliminated a problem to keep Tsuna from doing anything about it. And it would just get worse from there.

He could give a direct order now, and head it off for today, but he had an equally bad feeling that doing so wouldn’t stop the fresh confrontation they were headed for. His hands tightened as he considered what a real resolution might require.

"Gokudera," he murmured as the meeting broke up, "tell everyone. There’s probably going to be a… disturbance, tonight. Don’t come. I’ll handle it myself."

Gokudera looked disapproving. "If there’s something going on, your Family should know about it." Tsuna smiled up at him.

"I know, it’s just…" He sighed. "I need to do this myself. Please."

Gokudera’s shoulders fell a little. "I hate it when you do that," he muttered. He sighed in turn and bent his head. "We won’t interfere."

The unspoken unless something goes wrong hung in the air so loudly Tsuna laughed a little, and felt better.

True to Gokudera’s word, though, there were no bodyguards and no look-outs around as Tsuna paced through the halls that night and out the South doors to wait in the darkness.

When Xanxus came through the door, Squalo and Bel and Levi already with him, Tsuna stepped forward. "Xanxus."

The smile on Xanxus’ face turned instantly to a snarl. "You!"

Holding on to a last shred of hope, Tsuna kept his hands at his sides. "I do not want the Scioneri boss killed."

Xanxus sneered. "Of course you don’t. You’re too soft to do what will keep the Vongola strong."

"The strength of our Family doesn’t come from our guns!"

Xanxus stared at him for a long moment. Finally he spat, deliberately, at Tsuna’s feet. "You’re a disgrace to the Vongola. A disgrace to manhood! Too soft to hold my word or this Family, either one of them! Get out of my way."

"No," Tsuna said, quietly.

His hands were already burning as Xanxus’ dove for his guns.

Xanxus lips were pulled back over his teeth as he fired, and the Flames that seared toward Tsuna burned with hate, ripped apart the air and reached for his blood. He didn’t want to touch them, didn’t dare risk absorbing them, so he wove through them instead, sharpening his awareness of Xanxus and giving aside from each furious blow.

He prayed Gokudera would do as he said and keep everyone away. The Varia who were present had retreated already, knowing full well the risk of being anywhere near Xanxus’ rage.

And pain.

The desperate force that drove Xanxus’ bolts of Flame through the dark made Tsuna’s chest tight. He had made a mistake, years ago, leaving Xanxus like this. Now he had to amend it as best he could. The memory of Xanxus’ expression under his hand, years ago, feral with fear, made him hang back, hesitating. The scream of Xanxus’ Flame through the air was what finally drove him forward; he didn’t want to cause pain, but still less did he want to leave someone slashed and broken and bleeding out.

And not even knowing that was what was happening.

The closer he came, the brighter fear rekindled in Xanxus’ eyes, crowding the rage. Neither could completely hide the pain that had driven Xanxus out the doors tonight, and Tsuna wished he could say something to help.

But that would only come later.

He twisted aside from the last wild shot and ran full into Xanxus, knocking him back against the outer wall, and pressed a burning hand to his chest.


The shriek twisted Tsuna’s own heart, but this time he didn’t stop. He closed his Will around Xanxus’ heart and let it burn, purify, melting free the razor edges of regret and want and despair. Xanxus screamed again, spine arched, heart hammering under Tsuna’s palm, and Tsuna clenched his teeth. Need and betrayal and wild rage spun free as he drove his Flame inward, and Xanxus’ voice stripped hoarse and wordless as Tsuna broke his Will until the last of the ice was wrung from his soul and melted into that river of pain.

Tsuna could only think it merciful for both of them when Xanxus slumped into unconsciousness, falling against him.

He knelt by the wall, breathing hard, arms around Xanxus to keep him from falling to the cold grass. He was shaking, clinging to the knowledge that this was the only way to let that pain flow away even as Xanxus’ scream echoed in his ears. Footsteps rustled behind him and he looked up to see Squalo and Gokudera both approaching, the one with teeth bared in fury and the other very pale.

"Squalo," he murmured, weary. "Take Xanxus back to his rooms. He’ll sleep for a while."

"What did you do to him?" Squalo hissed, apparently too infuriated even to shout.

"What I should have done a long time ago, if I’d had the courage to make both of us bear it." Tsuna’s voice was clipped, and he closed his eyes for a moment. "I’ll come see him soon."

Squalo growled and pulled Xanxus roughly away from him, calling for Levi to help him carry their leader back inside. Tsuna leaned against the smooth, old stone, watching them go and finally released his Will. Exhaustion hit him like a hammer. A warm hand on his shoulder made him start a little.

"Come on, boss," Gokudera said, gently. "Let’s get you inside, too."

Tsuna leaned on him gratefully.

Gokudera glared everyone out of the way as he guided Tsuna up to his own room, pausing only to exchange meaningful nods with Yamamoto who was still busy calming the bodyguards. Tsuna sighed as the door closed behind him, steadying himself on one of the armchairs.

"I didn’t want to."

Gokudera was quiet for a moment. "If you didn’t want to and you did it anyway, that means it was something that really needed to be done," he finally said.

"I know," Tsuna whispered.

It just didn’t help much.

Make a Fist

Squalo stood between Tsuna and the door, glare sharper than his sword, and his voice echoed off the high ceiling. "Like hell I’m letting you at him again! You’re the one who did this to him!"

Tsuna rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Yes, exactly."

Squalo snarled and it was Tsuna’s turn to glare. "He’s part of my Family! That was the choice he made! And if I’m not going to let him slaughter people just for breathing wrong, I’m also not going to leave him like this!"

Squalo’s eyes narrowed, suddenly thoughtful. "What do you think you can do?"

"I don’t know," Tsuna said, quietly. "But it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can."

Squalo’s gaze rested on him for a long moment before he finally stepped aside. Though not very far aside, Tsuna noted wryly. He eased past and tapped on the door.

There was no answer.

The room was dim when Tsuna opened the door, all the curtains drawn and lit from behind with morning sun, and Tsuna’s first thought was Den. The den a wounded animal crawled back to. "Xanxus?" he called, softly.

One of the chairs went over with a clatter as Xanxus surged up out of it, and Tsuna winced at the wildness of his eyes.

"Stay away!"

"I will." Tsuna stood where he was. Even from here he could see Xanxus’ hands shaking.

"What are you doing here?"

Tsuna sighed. "I’m trying to help." The harsh burst of laughter that answered that made his mouth tighten. But he couldn’t let either of them stop here. "You need to let it go," he said, low.

"Let what go?" There was an alarming lilt in Xanxus’ voice, now, and his lips pulled back off his teeth. "My life? My blood? Why not? It’s not Vongola, after all! Not like yours. Happy you’ve proved it on me?"

"That’s not what I’m talking about," Tsuna said, and couldn’t help adding, "And so what, anyway?" He composed himself again as Xanxus stared at him. "I’m talking about the pain. If you freeze it, well maybe you don’t feel it as much, but it stays with you until the end of time. You can’t keep going like this."

"If I don’t feel it, so what?" Xanxus swung around and made for a side table, and a scatter of bottles, most empty. Finding one that wasn’t, he sloshed it into a tumbler and tossed it back in three swallows.

"I said ‘as much’." Tsuna frowned at the array of bottles; he’d been afraid of something like that. "If you really didn’t feel it, you wouldn’t be looking for things to stifle it with."

"What the hell are you babbling about?" Xanxus voice wasn’t slurred at all, and Tsuna wasn’t sure whether that was good or not.

"Your position," he said, quietly. "Leader of the Family. Leader of the Varia. Did you really think enough voices calling you ‘Tenth’ would drown out the old ones calling you trash?"

He didn’t move as the tumbler shattered against the wall behind his head.

"Voices that are only afraid of you aren’t the ones you need. They’ll only make the old voices louder in the end."

"What the hell do you know about it?" Xanxus had his back to Tsuna, and his voice was ragged.

"Even with our intuition, we can’t see ourselves very well, can we?" Tsuna murmured. "We have to do that for each other."

"Get out!"

Tsuna bowed his head with a sigh and slipped out.

As he closed the door behind him a bared sword winked from where Squalo leaned against the wall. Tsuna’s lips twitched; Xanxus didn’t really have far to go to find the kind of voice he did need, if he’d only listen. "I think," he said calmly, "I’m going to need heavier guns for this. See if you can keep him from drinking quite so much while I get them." He turned away down the hall.

Yamamoto emerged from the shadow of the other wall to fall in beside him, hand sliding away from his own sword, and nodded amiably at Squalo, who growled back at him. "So? How did it go?"

"I think I need to call home."

Yamamoto smiled down at him, confident and comfortable. "Knew you’d be able to fix it."

Tsuna snorted, rueful. "Well, kind of."

Yamamoto didn’t leave his side until he’d seen Tsuna into his rooms, and then he only leaned against the wall beside the door. His Family’s support was the only reason he could deal with this job at all, Tsuna swore, dialing.

"Tsuna?" His dad yawned hugely and Tsuna held the phone away from his ear with a wry grin. "What’s up?"

"I need to speak to the Ninth." Tsuna waited out the resulting silence.

"I’m not going to let him stress himself too much," his dad finally said, quiet. "He’s getting… fragile."

"I understand."

There was some rustling and his dad’s muffled shout of, "It’s for you!"


Tsuna bit his lip at the raspiness of the Ninth’s voice. "Sir. I… I’m afraid I need to ask a favor."

A chuckle. "Well, I’m retired of course…"

Tsuna laughed a little. "It isn’t like that. It’s… Well, it’s for Xanxus."

Another long moment of silence.

"Tell me."

Open Palm

"I really hate these contraptions," the Ninth grumbled.

"Dad made me promise," Tsuna said firmly, steering the wheelchair carefully down the hall.

"Yes, yes, I’m sure he did." The Ninth was quiet for a moment and finally sighed. "You’re a wiser man than I am." He snorted softly. "And stronger, too, which probably helps."

"Not always," Tsuna murmured.

"Mm." The Ninth lifted a hand to pat Tsuna’s. "I understand."

Tsuna stopped them by Xanxus’ door and helped the Ninth to stand. Once again, his knock got no answer at all and he sighed.

The Ninth made an amused sound. "He never answers. Even when he’s in a good mood. You just have to take your chances." He stepped forward, cane thumping heavily, and pushed open the door.

"What the hell do—"

Lingering as unobtrusively as he could manage, in the doorway, Tsuna saw Xanxus freeze, eyes widening.


The room smelled strongly of alcohol and was littered with broken glass. Tsuna assumed this was the aftermath of Squalo following his advice and made a mental note to thank him. The Ninth shook his head, gaze never leaving Xanxus.

"Oh, my boy," he sighed. "You stepped right in it this time, didn’t you?"

Xanxus jerked in his chair and pulled in a breath through bared teeth, only to be cut short as the Ninth thumped his way across the room and closed an arm around Xanxus’ shoulders.

"And so what? You’re my son," he stated firmly. "Whatever mess you’ve made of your life, and you’ve made a damn great mess, doesn’t change that." Under the moustache his mouth twitched into a grin. "In fact, I think helping untangle damn great messes is one of the things fathers are for."

Tsuna saw a shudder ripple through Xanxus, and saw the Ninth’s gnarled hand tighten on his shoulder, and smiled.

He tiptoed out and closed the door very, very quietly.


What’s Love Got to Do With It

The Ninth helps Xanxus find someone he can bear to be. Drama with Angst and Fluff, I-3

It wasn’t that Tsuna didn’t trust the Ninth, because of course he did. And it wasn’t that he didn’t think the Ninth could handle Xanxus, even, or especially, now, because he did, really. It was just… well, his dad had made him solemnly swear he’d make sure the Ninth didn’t overstrain himself.

And that was really the only reason Tsuna kept just happening to pass Xanxus’ rooms or the balcony beyond them to check on them every couple days.

His excuses hadn’t even convinced himself yet, and he doubted he’d convince either of them, so he tip-toed.

"…didn’t you just tell me?" Xanxus’ voice was stifled and he was leaning, hands clenched, on the back of an armchair. "Why’d you let me keep thinking I was your kid, all that time?"

The Ninth sighed. "Because I didn’t think it would matter."

Xanxus shoulders twitched and Tsuna held his breath.

"It seemed obvious you had to have Vongola blood from somewhere, even if it wasn’t mine," the Ninth said, softly. "Your Flame was all the proof anyone needed of that. And who cared how far back it came from? Look at Tsunayoshi, after all!" He was silent for a long moment before adding, "And I wanted another son. I thought… if I raised you, if I loved you, if I was the father you knew… wasn’t that good enough?"

Xanxus didn’t answer and Tsuna had to swallow the tightness in his throat as he slipped away.

"It doesn’t make sense!"

Xanxus was pacing the balcony today, so Tsuna only eased up to the nearest open window.

"How can he be so damn soft and still do something like this to me?!"

The Ninth actually laughed. "Oh, Xanxus. It’s the gentle ones who are most dangerous of all."

Xanxus rounded on his father. "You want to explain that?"

Tsuna caught a glimpse of the Ninth’s smile. "Tsunayoshi is a gentle soul, yes. He cares very much for people. And that," he rapped his cane on the flagstones, "that is the source of his strength. When the things he cares for are threatened, there will be no end to his determination and no bottom to the well of his strength." More softly, "And that is why I chose him, be damned to his bloodline."

"Because he’s stronger," Xanxus said, after a moment.

"Because of the times and the reasons he becomes stronger," the Ninth corrected, gently.

Xanxus grunted, which might be agreement or might be confusion, Tsuna didn’t know. He did know he was blushing as he edged back down the hall.

"It’s gone."

Tsuna stopped short, hearing the granite roughness in Xanxus’ voice.

"You’re still alive and breathing, so I doubt it’s really gone," the Ninth said, voice gentle.

Tsuna slipped up to peek out onto the terrace. Xanxus was hunched over, leaning on the rail and the Ninth stood beside him, one hand on his back.

"I’ve tried," Xanxus growled, raggedly. "I’ve tried over and over and nothing happens!"

The Ninth looked at his son thoughtfully. "Xanxus. Tell me. The people you knew, as a child. How do you feel about them, now?"

Tsuna saw a little of Xanxus’ sudden snarl, even from his angle.

"Those fucking bastards. I hate them. I want to crush them all!" One hand fisted and light flashed between his fingers.

Xanxus jerked upright, and it winked out.

"What the…?"

The Ninth smiled. "I thought so. It isn’t gone, my boy."

Xanxus turned, frowning. "But every time I tried…"

The Ninth snorted into his moustache. "You didn’t try it with a target who truly deserved your anger, did you?" His voice gentled as he patted Xanxus’ shoulder. "Tsunayoshi freed your intuition and showed you the truth, didn’t he? That those people aren’t the whole world. Hard to unknow that, now; of course it affects your Flame."

"Wish he’d minded his own goddamn business," Xanxus grumbled, though it was half-hearted and distracted as he stared at his own hand.

"I don’t." The Ninth smiled up at him. "Because now I have my son back. And he can hear me when I say I love him, this time."

Xanxus looked up at that, a sudden tangle of pain and doubt and hesitant want sweeping over his face.

Tsuna tip-toed away, feeling really hopeful for the first time.

"…and I could have destroyed all of the Family’s enemies." Xanxus was pacing again, restless.

"The boss needs to be powerful, yes, and able to protect the Family." The Ninth sipped from his wineglass and set it down on the balcony’s table, eyes following his son. "But, as you were then, I’m afraid I doubted you would bother to protect instead of simply destroy."

"It’s better to be sure," Xanxus growled. "Better to obliterate your enemies than leave them alive to try again."

"And would even that have made you feel safe?" the Ninth asked, quietly.

Xanxus stopped abruptly and stood still, face turned away.

"A boss’ job is to make all his Family safe." The Ninth looked down at his hands. "In that, I failed you. I’m glad Tsunayoshi retrieved my mistake, but… I can’t blame you if you find it hard to trust."

After a long moment Xanxus said, voice low, "I never really tried it."

Tsuna’s heart cracked at the wryness of the Ninth’s smile and the shadow of hope in it, and at how young Xanxus’ eyes looked when he turned his head and stared at his father.

"What keeps you safe?" he asked, at last.

The Ninth’s smile widened, and he opened his hand, gesturing at the mansion behind them. "Having people who love you near is the safest thing I’ve ever found."

Xanxus frowned. "Huh."

Tsuna firmly stifled an urge to bang his head against the wall with frustration. They’d hear him if he did.

"…a very simple young man, really," the Ninth was saying as Tsuna sidled up to the balcony door. "He acts because he cares. Once you know that, it’s easy to predict what he’ll do."

Xanxus snorted, leaning his hips against the rail. "Except for the times he acts on idiot moral outrage, or whatever the hell that was."

"Tsunayoshi would never have set his hand on you if he didn’t believe in his heart that you’re one of his Family, and worthy of his care," the Ninth said quietly.

Tsuna expected the kind of scoffing Xanxus had always met the least such suggestion with, but Xanxus was silent.

"I don’t get how he can," he said at last, staring out over the hills. "I tried to kill him, for fuck’s sake."

The Ninth snorted into his moustache. "So did his Mist Guardian, didn’t he? And look how that’s ended up."

An unwilling grin tugged at Xanxus’ mouth.

"I’ve seen Tsunayoshi arguing with the Vendicare themselves on Rokudou Mukurou’s behalf. He’s done his best to heal the man, and to give him both freedom and a home. It seems," the Ninth glanced up at Xanxus from under bushy brows, "to be a bit of a habit with him."

Xanxus crossed arms tightened and he looked back at the Ninth, eyes dark.

The Ninth smiled. "He protects his people. Remember that, and it will all make sense."

Tsuna slipped away, biting his lip. He felt positive the Ninth was being more generous than he deserved.

"I… I didn’t… when you let me go… why… " Xanxus’ words were soft and stumbling, and Tsuna wondered for a moment if he was drunk or drugged. He’d never heard Xanxus sound like that before.

"I hoped," the Ninth said, just as soft. "It may have been foolish of me, but I hoped that, with my successor named, we could set aside all of that and try again to just be father and son." He sighed. "I suppose that was pretty insensitive of me, all things considered. I’m sorry."

"It… wasn’t your fault."

Peeking out, Tsuna saw that the Ninth had Xanxus’ hands in his and Xanxus wasn’t pulling away, though he looked at a loss over what else he should do.

"You are my son," the Ninth said, firmly. "I have always been here for you. I always will be." More softly, he added, "I couldn’t just leave you like that."

Xanxus looked up at the old man standing in front of him and, slowly, nodded. "Okay." His voice was rough and husky, and even without reaching for the Flame Tsuna could perceive the fear tightening his shoulders. But his hands wrapped around the Ninth’s in turn.

Tsuna edged quickly back down the hall, far enough to drag out his handkerchief and wipe his eyes and blow his nose and walk back toward his office grinning like an idiot.

"You sound like being the boss and being a dad are the same thing, half the time."

The Ninth chuckled. "Well, there’s a reason we call it a Family, after all."

Xanxus blinked as if that had never occurred to him, and, lurking in the hall, Tsuna did too. He certainly never felt like a father, dealing with his Family.

A babysitter, maybe.

From the sardonic twist to his mouth Xanxus might be thinking the same thing. "Might be just as well, then. Never wanted kids."

The Ninth’s eyes twinkled. "You’re sure you want to keep the Varia, then?"

Xanxus shrugged, looking a bit uncomfortable. The Ninth reached over and patted his arm. "Well, I’m sure you’ve gotten used to them by now," he said gently.

Xanxus looked at his hands, frowning, more thoughtful than angry for once. "Maybe."

After weeks of trying very hard not to intrude on Xanxus and the Ninth, or at least trying very hard not to be caught, and of sternly forbidding anyone else to eavesdrop either, Tsuna was extremely startled to find Xanxus waiting for him, in the shadows of his office.

"Xanxus," he greeted the man’s reemergence.

Xanxus watched him silently for a long moment before looking down at his own crossed arms. "Sawada."

Tsuna waited, encouraged by the lack of immediate hostility.

"You haven’t yet, but. If you did send the Varia out." Xanxus paused for a long moment, not looking up. "What kind of people would you aim us for?"

Tsuna was quiet for a long moment. "I can only imagine sending you after someone crazy. Someone I hadn’t been able to talk to. Someone who was killing our people, or-" he remembered the future that hadn’t happened, "-destroying our world. Someone I couldn’t find any other way of stopping." He spread his hands. That was the truth as clearly as he could give it, and he waited to see what Xanxus would do with it.

"Mm. Could probably do that."

Tsuna’s mouth quirked at the grudging tone and then he straightened as he recalled what the Ninth had said to Xanxus about targets that deserved his anger. Was Xanxus actually afraid he couldn’t do the job he’d chosen any longer?

"I’ve been thinking, though," he essayed, by way of testing the idea, "since the Varia are more in the open now, anyway, maybe there’s call for your abilities outside of assassinations."

Xanxus gave him a hard look and Tsuna mentally nodded to himself.

"I mean, I need to get to people before I can talk to them, don’t I?" he added, ingenuously. "And the Varia are the very best at getting to people."

Xanxus snorted. "And then I’ll be right there to kill them when you completely flop," he drawled.

"I’d rather you not, but if it really does have to be done, then yes." Tsuna returned Xanxus’ look evenly and saw a flicker of respect. "Are you staying?" he finished, softly, offering that choice again.

Xanxus stilled for a long moment.

Finally he pushed away from the wall and stood, looking down at Tsuna, eyes dark. Tsuna felt like the entire world held its breath. When Xanxus spoke, his voice was clear and even.



I Said, You Said

Xanxus finally hears what Tsuna means when he says Xanxus is one of his Family. Drama with Fluff, I-3

Tsuna cast a quick eye over the parties pulled up to either side of the low table and stifled a sigh. Two houses alike in pigheadedness was how Gokudera put it, with a wry smile, and Tsuna could only agree.

Gamma was getting alarmingly affable, as he got to the end of his speech, too.

"So I’m sure you can see why our alliance feels a need to know how you knew that Genshiki was…" he paused, eyes turning hard over his friendly smile, "not of the same mind as the rest of us."

That was a delicate way to put "going to betray us". Tsuna laced his hands together and regarded them for a moment, fishing for the right words to start with. He didn’t think "well, you see, he did it in the future we went to over a decade ago" would quite work. He also didn’t know why Uni had left it to him to explain, when she knew the full story already—one of the few people in this new past-present who did. She was either being gracious, letting him decide what to reveal, or ruthless, forcing him to decide. With Uni it was hard to tell which sometimes.

The Girasol man stirred and leaned forward, frowning. "You have to see how suspicious this looks, when Vongola haven’t been able to deal permanently with a traitor in their own ranks." His eyes flicked to Xanxus, who had disdained a seat and was leaning against the wall instead.

Tsuna was aware of Xanxus slowly straightening, face dark, but only peripherally.

Most of his attention was taken up with the rush of fierce anger through his chest, the sharpening of his awareness and the first unfolding of his Flame.

"There are no traitors among the Vongola," he said, level as the edge of a razor and very soft, and the whole room froze around him. He didn’t take his eyes off the suddenly pale Girasol. "Xanxus is one of my Family, and it would not be wise for you to give me the idea you hold my Family in any contempt. At all."

"No, I… of course I didn’t mean…" the man stammered into silence and Tsuna inhaled slowly and looked back at Gamma.

"As for the rest of it, I suggest you talk to your own boss. It’s Uni’s place to decide what her Family should know, not mine."

"Hm." Gamma’s mouth twisted a bit, sardonic amusement and perhaps respect in the line of it. "True enough. All right, then."

There were some grumbles as he chivvied his delegation out the door, but not many, which was just as well. Tsuna silenced the more audible with a cold look after them. As the door closed he leaned back and made himself relax; it took a little while.

"Girasol is not on my Christmas card list this year," he announced, finally. Yamamoto laughed. Tsuna snorted and looked over at Xanxus. "You won’t …" he swallowed the do anything to them, right?, because Xanxus was still standing by the wall where he had straightened, staring at him in absolute confusion. "Xanxus?"

"Why did you do that?"

Tsuna blinked. "…do what?" He was aware of Gokudera choking down a laugh behind him but didn’t look away from Xanxus.

"That!" Xanxus waved at the closed door. "I’m not… you… why…" He finally slashed a hand through the air and turned away. "Never mind." He strode for the opposite door, pausing only once to glance back at Tsuna, uncertainty marking his face.

Gokudera leaned an elbow on the back of Tsuna’s chair and chuckled softly. "You sure have a way with people like that, boss."

Tsuna looked up at him, still faintly puzzled by Xanxus’ reaction. "Um?"

Gokudera smiled down at him, eyes soft. "Well, think about it from that poor idiot’s point of view. He starts out in the gutter. He didn’t belong and then he did, and then he got it totally knocked out from under him which must have been twice as bad… and just when he’s absolutely positive that he’s worthless and no one will ever give a damn about him, you defend him. In fact you threaten tentative allies for him." His smile tilted. "He’s probably still wondering if this is for real. When he decides it is…" He hesitated and turned a hand palm up. "Well, then we’ll see if you have another man everybody thought no one could tame."

Tsuna colored a little, a reaction he’d never grown out of. "Oh."

Yamamoto reached over and ruffled his hair, a gesture he’d never grown out of. "Don’t worry. He’ll come around."

Tsuna nodded slowly. He’d thought it was obvious that his strength was given to protect his Family, and Xanxus was part of that, but… given it was Xanxus maybe it needed a stronger demonstration.

"I can’t wait to see how it works out for him," Gokudera murmured as they left, mouth quirked.

Tsuna hadn’t exactly expected to enjoy dealing with the Pozzo Nero in person, but this was giving him a whole new definition of "not enjoying".

"I will not permit you to move drugs through our territory, or distribute them," he finally said, flatly, after two hours worth of less direct hints had failed.

"You’re not making use of any of that market yourselves," Grigio, the Pozzo Nero boss, said in a tone of strained reasonableness.

"That’s because I won’t have it here!" Tsuna snapped.

The man across from him sighed and sat back. "I see. I suppose I was afraid that might be your answer." His sudden calm made Tsuna tense. Grigio rose. "I’m sorry we couldn’t reach an agreement."

Tsuna was half expecting it when he stepped forward, hand darting under his jacket to pull a gun, and already had a hand up, Flame surging out, at Gokudera’s warning shout.

And then everything stopped, because Xanxus’ gun was pressed straight to Grigio’s forehead. His lips were pulled back in a hungry smile and his eyes had a feral glint. Tsuna was struck by the memory of another moment when Xanxus had shielded him, and spared a brief moment to hope the reasons were different this time.

As Tsuna eyed the slowly increasing tension of Xanxus’ finger on the trigger, he wondered if it wasn’t just that Xanxus had a good target in front of him at last.

"Hey…" Yamamoto started, light and easy, but Tsuna held up a hand. He didn’t think even Yamamoto’s good nature would defuse this. He thought about the spoken and unspoken promises he and Xanxus had made and took a slow breath.

"Thank you."

Xanxus started, eyes finally sliding away from his sweating target to blink at Tsuna. Tsuna smiled at him, and held his hand out. "Thank you," he said again, gently.

Xanxus stared at him for a long, blank moment before he finally glanced aside. "Yeah, fine, whatever." He flicked the barrel away from the Pozzo Nero and, before the man could straighten, slammed the butt into the side of his head instead. Grigio collapsed and Xanxus glared at the men who’d come with him, a hint of eagerness in his snarl. They all carefully took their hands out of their jackets. Xanxus snorted with disdain and stalked back to lean against the wall, arms crossed, watching them all with hooded eyes.

"You’re free to go," Tsuna told his visitors. "Do not," he added, voice turning cool, "come back."

They hustled their dazed boss out the door as quickly as Tsuna could have wished and he sat back with a sigh. He wanted a bath after that. He turned his head to give Xanxus another smile, this one weary. "Truly. Thank you."

Xanxus shrugged a shoulder, still not looking at him. "Hell, maybe they’ll come back, so I can kill them."

Tsuna’s mouth tightened, but… he had people to protect, here. "If they try," he agreed, quietly.

Xanxus pushed away from the wall and made for the door, only to pause with it half open and look back at Tsuna. He started to say something, stopped and shook his head. Finally he nodded to Tsuna, just a little, and strode out.

"He’s a tough nut to crack," Gokudera observed with a wry smile. "I’d have thought you’d have had him in hand by now."

"Oh, he is."

Tsuna blinked, because it was Yamamoto who had spoken, and he was watching the door Xanxus had gone through with a little quirk to his mouth.

Gokudera’s brows lifted. "You sure about that?"

"Oh yeah." Yamamoto looked back at them, smile back in place but distant. "Tsuna is his reason, now."

"You wanna translate that?" Gokudera drawled, arms crossed.

Yamamoto chuckled. "Well. Being good at something is… satisfying, you know? Sometimes you do what you’re good at just because of that. That’s how Xanxus used to be." He looked down at Tsuna, eyes dark. "But if there’s a bigger reason for fighting—to protect the Family, to serve you—then there’s real motivation. And real strength."

Tsuna looked up at him, knowing it wasn’t just Xanxus Yamamoto was talking about. "Yamamoto…"

"You’re such a sap sometimes," Gokudera put in, grinning.

"Hey, at least it’s only sometimes," Yamamoto shot back, looking innocent.

"You trying to say something?"

Tsuna smiled as they bantered, and tucked away the memory of the word Xanxus’ lips had half-formed, when he had turned back.



It’s All a Metaphor

Remixed ending, a kind of AU to the rest of the arc. This is another way Tsuna and Xanxus might have come to their final understanding—a somewhat more dramatic one. Mind-Porn, I-4

Character(s): Sawada Tsunayoshi, Xanxus
Pairing(s): Tsuna/Xanxus

The door of Tsuna’s office was kicked open and Squalo stood in it, ignoring the weapons leveled at him.


Tsuna regarded the finger pointed at him rather like a sword. "Yes?"

Squalo folded his arms. "You said you had a responsibility to him, after what you did."

You could always tell Squalo was serious when he stopped shouting, Tsuna reflected, and sighed as he stood up. "Where is he?"

"In his rooms." Squalo’s mouth twisted. "Better hurry if you don’t want him to break the goddamn wall this time."

"Thank you," Tsuna murmured with a sigh and went to see about Xanxus.

Squalo had almost understated the case, Tsuna decided, looking around the wreckage of Xanxus’ outer room. The walls weren’t broken but nearly everything else was, and Xanxus stood in the middle of it, chest heaving, eyes wild.

"Xanxus?" Tsuna asked, softly.

Xanxus whirled on him. "I can’t do it!"

"Can’t do what?" Tsuna edged cautiously into the room, closing the door behind him.

"I can’t fire on this goddamn Family! At anyone I know! The Flame won’t come!"

Tsuna firmly suppressed the urge to either roll his eyes or laugh helplessly. Xanxus, he reminded himself, had never been restrained by anything. "Most people find that they can’t fire at those they care for, who care for them, even with normal weapons."

Xanxus swept a hand across as if to strike away the words. "It’s always come! It’s always been there!"

Tsuna paused and looked harder at Xanxus. "The anger," he murmured, after a moment. It wasn’t exactly the Dying Will Flame Xanxus had never been without; it was his rage. The rage had been his weapon and his satisfaction, and now it was… well, not gone, but reduced. No wonder he was off balance.

Xanxus might not be in a good frame of mind to think about those underlying truths just at the moment, though. Perhaps it would be just as well for him to focus on the surface.

"If you can’t always fuel your Flame with anger," Tsuna said, matter of fact, "then you just need to master a different use of it. A different form, to use at other times."

Xanxus’ lip started to curl and then he abruptly stopped, gaze sharpening on Tsuna. Tsuna held his ground as Xanxus stalked towards him.

"Show me."

That made Tsuna blink. "Um?"

"Your Flame is strong enough." Xanxus took Tsuna’s wrist and pulled his hand up, placing it flat against his chest. "Show me, again."

Tsuna swallowed, trying to get his voice back from wherever shock had taken it. "Xanxus. I don’t know if…"

Xanxus eyes were burning, locked with Tsuna’s, and his words vibrated through his chest under Tsuna’s palm. "Show me."

Tsuna bit his lip. Squalo had been right; Tsuna had accepted his responsibility to Xanxus when he’d chosen to reach in and free his heart. He’d just never done something like this from a cold start, before. And certainly not by request. He took a deep breath and set his other hand on Xanxus’ shoulder. "All right."

It didn’t take long to find his Dying Will, but Tsuna let it light slowly, carefully, concentrating, not on burning or purifying, but on reaching out and touching, enfolding, encompassing Xanxus’ heart. A harsh gasp heaved the chest under his hand and he looked up.

Xanxus stood with his eyes half closed, head tossed back. Slowly, his hands came up to close on Tsuna’s arms. "More," he said, husky.

Tsuna looked up at him, measuringly. "You’re sure this is what you need?"

Xanxus swallowed, the taut arch of his throat working, and nodded.

"All right." Tsuna let the need of one of his Family call him, let his Will burn brighter, closing it around Xanxus’ heart or mind or soul, whatever it was of Xanxus that was under his hand.

Xanxus’ knees buckled and he folded down to the floor. Tsuna moved with him, unsurprised, settling between Xanxus’ knees, left hand firm and reassuring on his shoulder. Xanxus’ whole body was drawn taut, now, his breathing quick and hard.

"My friends, my family, those are the most important things, to me," Tsuna murmured to the man he held. "When I need it for them, it comes. As strong as it needs to be. Feel." He reached deeper, stronger, wanting Xanxus to know this.

Xanxus gasped and arched into Tsuna’s hand, panting now, breath cut short as the heat of Tsuna’s Will sank into him deep and slow, folded around him, offered to cherish him. His hands flexed on Tsuna’s arms, pulling him closer, and it was only because they were so close that Tsuna caught the whisper on his lips.


Tsuna couldn’t help the way his Will flared in response to that, not when he’d heard that tone before in Gokudera’s voice, and Xanxus groaned as it burned through him. Tsuna made himself stop; he shouldn’t go too far with this. He slid his left arm around Xanxus, holding him, palm pressed hard to his chest as Tsuna slowly eased his Will back. This close, he could feel the small shudders that worked through Xanxus as Tsuna released him, drew back until his Will was only just touching him. "Are you all right?" he murmured in Xanxus’ ear.

Xanxus didn’t answer, but his hand came up to press Tsuna’s against his chest.

Tsuna smiled, gently. "I’m not going away," he promised.

Xanxus growled at that interpretation, but didn’t let go. Tsuna knelt with him, patient. "The price of your old power is to hate," he said, softly. "The price of this power is to care. They can both hurt. You have to decide for yourself whether you can pay the price."

Xanxus nodded, after a moment, silently. Tsuna had the impression that he’d forgotten about the point of the exercise.

At least, the point when they’d started.

He pressed his Will out just a little and felt Xanxus’ breath catch. "I care for all my Family. Always."

A breath brushed past his ear, only the suggestion of the word boss in it.

Tsuna’s arm tightened and he smiled as he confirmed it.



But For the Love of You

Tsuna accepts what Gokudera offers, so that he can give what he can. Porn with Characterization, I-4

Tsuna had thought, ever since he started to think about it at all, that the reason Gokudera seemed harsh to most people was that the brash manner he wrapped around himself clashed so with the fine elegance of his mind and presence. In the rare moments he let himself quiet, Gokudera seemed quite gentle to Tsuna, voice lowered into smoothness, the lines that usually caged his eyes tight relaxing into something like serenity.

And sometimes even a bit of mischief.

"Done for the day, boss?"

"For today I think," Tsuna agreed, a little wary but smiling.

"Ah, good." A corner of Gokudera’s mouth curled up. "So, you have some time for yourself, now?" He casually closed the door and strolled across the room.

Tsuna laughed, surrendering to the brightness in Gokudera’s eyes. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Good," Gokudera repeated, softer, and knelt between Tsuna’s feet. His hands folded around one of Tsuna’s, lifting it as he bent his head. Lips brushed Tsuna’s palm lightly, followed by the soft, wet stroke of Gokudera’s tongue, and Tsuna’s breath caught as it traced over his skin. The fineness of Gokudera’s hair fell forward and feathered over Tsuna’s wrist, and a tiny sound caught in his throat as Gokudera’s lips wrapped around his middle finger, sliding down the length of it slowly.

Gokudera glanced up at him without lifting his head. "Boss?" he murmured.

Tsuna was already thankful that his pants weren’t very tight, and the openness of Gokudera’s smile made his chest feel a little the same. "Yes," he said, husky.

Gokudera’s fingers were light, undoing Tsuna’s belt and opening his pants, eyes holding his above that smile. It made Tsuna’s face heat, and the smile crept wider. When Gokudera bent his head again, though, his lashes fell over those bright eyes and the soft, wanting sound he made as he closed his mouth over Tsuna’s cock made Tsuna’s whole body flush. Gokudera’s pleasure in this took his breath away.

A moan slipped between his parted lips as Gokudera’s mouth slid slowly down him and back up, wet and soft, tongue sliding firmly over Tsuna’s head. Gokudera’s hands stroking up Tsuna’s thighs made him spread his legs wider, even though there was no pressure in them at all. Only entreaty that he couldn’t help answering.

The way Gokudera touched him when they were alone pulled everything out of him, and Tsuna leaned his head back against the cool leather of his chair, panting as the heat of Gokudera’s mouth moved up and down. He watched Gokudera in quick glimpses, from under heavy lids, and the softness of Gokudera’s face as he closed his eyes and worked his mouth over Tsuna’s cock made another moan shiver through Tsuna’s chest, braided out of the hot pleasure coiling low in his stomach and the floating lightness under his heart. He stroked his hands over Gokudera’s shoulders, fingers lifting to slide through his hair gently, and the corners of Gokudera’s mouth turned up.


The vibration of that pleased sound, around him, made Tsuna gasp, and his hips rocked up, helplessly. A low moan answered him as his cock pushed deeper into Gokudera’s mouth and sensual relaxation swept over Gokudera’s face. Tsuna rocked up again and made a soft, satisfied sound as one of Gokudera’s hands left him to drop down between Gokudera’s own legs. Gokudera’s low breathless sounds around his cock urged Tsuna on as he thrust into Gokudera’s mouth, trying to be careful until Gokudera opened his eyes and looked up at him, hot and bright, and Tsuna fell right down into pleasure and couldn’t tell how hard his hips drove up, only that Gokudera was moaning between his legs as orgasm swept Tsuna fast and fierce.

Tsuna fell back against the chair, panting, shuddering with the soft slide of Gokudera’s mouth. When Gokudera finally drew back Tsuna managed to pry his eyes open, and promptly blushed at the way Gokudera was looking at him, all heavy satisfaction and lurking tenderness.

"Good way to end the day?" Gokudera asked, mischief sneaking back for a moment.

Tsuna smiled, soft. "Yeah." His fingers stroked through the silvery fall of Gokudera’s hair, heart turning over at the way Gokudera turned into his hand, eyes slipping closed again, peaceful and trustful. "It is."


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 –

Two Hands Make A Pair

In which the Vongola Ninth’s Mist and Rain reach an agreement, and establish a pattern that will carry them forward. This is set about ten years before “Blood Will Tell.” Timoteo has been the Ninth for a little under a decade at this point. This is a sidestory for the arc, focusing pretty much entirely on two of the original characters, and is not necessary to the main thrust of A House Divided—but it may make some character motivations make more sense later.Fraught smut

Gianni may have been the Vongola Ninth’s right hand, and his Mist Guardian besides, but he wasn’t too proud to admit it when he was tired. And tonight, he was tired.

Admitting that he was tired to himself and letting it show to anyone else were, however, two entirely separate things. There were miles yet to go this night—metaphorical ones, if not literal ones—and Gianni frankly didn’t have the time to be tired.

He kept his eyes on the wall opposite him as Timoteo stooped over his wife’s bed and murmured his goodnights. Her reply was low, reedy, barely any louder than the machines that surrounded her.

She was getting worse.

A few moments more, and the Ninth joined him in the hall, closing the door after him, gently. The minute it was shut, some of the straightness left his shoulders, and the smile faded from his mouth.

There were times when one could say something, and times when nothing at all could help. Gianni had lived long enough to be able to tell the difference, and waited now until the Ninth had cleared his throat. “Come on, then,” he said, gruff. “We have work to do.”

“Of course, Boss,” Gianni said, catching Rafaele’s eye in passing as he fell in with the Ninth. The Rain looked almost as tired as Gianni felt.

But neither of them were as tired as the Ninth, so Gianni simply shrugged at him in passing. Rafaele hung back to speak briefly with the bodyguards who’d be taking the night watch at the hospital—no doubt to instruct them to telephone the hotel the instant there seemed to be any change for the worse—and then jogged after them to catch up.

Timoteo began talking almost before they were all in the car, bringing up plans for an expansion into the Pozzo Nero’s territory. He had lots to say, and Gianni was glad not to be driving, so that he could devote his full attention to the Ninth’s ideas. They weren’t bad. They were a little sketchy, of course, but that was only to be expected when the Ninth had come up with the idea while keeping vigil at his wife’s bedside.

The Pozzo Nero weren’t going to know what had hit them. If they were at all wise, they wouldn’t try to resist too hard.

“Well, then, get that started for me,” the Ninth said, as their little convoy rolled up to the hotel and the man they had stationed out front signaled an all clear. “I want to move at the end of the week.”

Gianni blinked; the Ninth wanted to move that fast? “The end of the week?” he repeated.

Rafaele broke in. “That’s short notice, Boss.”

“There’s no sense in wasting time,” the Ninth grunted, as one of their men sprang forward to open the door for him.

“Of course not,” Gianni agreed, stepping out into the spring evening after him. “It’s going to take time to get the ball rolling, though. We’re not exactly at home.”

“I could hardly forget that,” Timoteo snapped.

“I don’t think that’s what Gianni meant,” Rafaele said, smooth and calm. He surrendered the car’s keys to another of their men and came around the car to join them. “Boss, have you really thought this through?”

He’d timed it well, asking just as they stepped through the hotel’s front doors. The Ninth couldn’t answer as they passed into the hotel’s lobby and its crowd of rich, laughing patrons, most of whom ignored the knot of black-suited men moving through their midst. By the time they’d reached the elevators, the Ninth’s temper had had the time to flash in his eyes and then subside again. “You’re right,” he said, once they were alone in a car and it had begun its slow ascent to their floor. “I wasn’t thinking.” He ran a hand over his face. “I forget that not everyone has the time to sit and think that I do, these days.”

Gianni avoided Rafaele’s eyes in the mirrored walls of the elevator’s car, and simply shrugged. “I’ll call Maria tonight and have her and Paolo begin assessing things, so that everything will be ready when we get home.”

“Not tonight,” the Ninth said; Gianni watched his shoulders slump further in their reflection. “Tomorrow will be soon enough.”

“Of course, Boss,” Gianni murmured, as the elevator chimed for their floor and opened onto the hall.

The Ninth found a smile for them, from somewhere, as they stepped out of the car. “Indeed. Take the rest of the night off, you two. It’s still young.” He flicked his hands at them, and then moved away, flanked by his bodyguards.

Rafaele stopped next to Gianni. “Take the night off, he says.” He turned a wry smile on Gianni. “I think he’s mistaking us for Michele.”

“Perhaps,” Gianni agreed, watching the retreat of the Ninth’s back, until he disappeared into his suite.

“Still, it’s not a bad idea.” Rafaele stretched and knocked his shoulder against Gianni’s. “Come with me. I have a bottle of wine. I could use your opinion on it.”

Gianni glanced at him. “Rafaele, you’ve never in your life needed an opinion on a bottle of wine.”

“I need an opinion for this one,” Rafaele told him, placidly, and gestured. “After you.”

Gianni snorted, but let himself be ushered down the hall towards Rafaele’s suite of rooms.



“Well?” Rafaele said later, when Gianni reached the bottom of his glass. “What do you think?”

“I’m not sure.” Gianni held out his glass. “I’d better have another.”

Rafaele laughed and obliged him, topping off his own glass in the process, and Gianni settled more comfortably into his chair. Hotel rooms were the same the world over, but this one wasn’t too bad. It was comfortable enough for sitting in and sharing a bottle of wine, in any case, he decided, sipping the wine and savoring it, red and round and full on his tongue. “It’s a good bottle,” he said. He leaned his head back and sighed. “You didn’t really need me to tell you that,” he added, from behind closed eyes.

“No, but you needed to stop working,” Rafaele said, dry as bone. “And I wasn’t sure that even a direct order was going to get you to do it.”

“This is hardly the time to be lazy,” Gianni said, still with his eyes closed. “Or careless. Whatever he needs—”

“We should do, yes. But that doesn’t include rushing headlong into a petty war with the Pozzo Nero just because the Boss is too distracted to think straight,” Rafaele said.

Gianni’s eyes popped open, and he sat up to argue the point. “We both know—”

“We both know I’m right. Gianni, think, will you? Be his right hand and think about what it would mean if we went haring off on this.” Rafaele was looking at him, steady and calm. “If nothing else, think of what Maria would say.”

That was… a legitimate point. Gianni leaned back and covered his eyes, imagining what their Cloud would have said if he’d called to tell her they were moving against the Pozzo Nero this week. “God.”

“I suspect even God wouldn’t be able to help you.”

“Perhaps not.” Gianni lowered his hand and reached for his wine. “Just as well that we have you to be sensible, isn’t it?”

“At least when it comes to matters like this one,” Rafaele said, and shrugged.

There was something there that Gianni didn’t quite like the sound of. “Matters like this one?” he echoed.

Rafaele took a drink of his wine, dark eyes steady over the glass, and then set it down. “You’re not entirely rational on matters that touch the Boss directly,” he said, finally, matter-of-fact about it. “Not when it comes to doing the things that you think will make him happy. Or just ease his mind when he’s suffering.”

“That sounds suspiciously like you’re accusing me of failing him as his right hand,” Gianni said, anger rising in his chest, tight and hot.

Rafaele continued to look at him, eyes direct and clear. “I’m not. You’re a good right hand. One of the best, even. But when you look at the Boss and see Timoteo and not the Ninth, your heart gets in the way of your head.”

The knot of anger turned icy and changed into a sick twisting in his gut. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Gianni said, going cold all over.

Rafaele’s answering smile was infinitely kind, and slid between his ribs like a knife. “Gianni, I know,” he said, gently. “We all do, although I expect the twins try not to think about it too closely. It’s all right.”

The enormity of that simple statement was too much to grasp all at once; as precious seconds ticked by, Gianni knew that he ought to be denying the accusation, or pretending that he didn’t follow Rafaele’s meaning—doing something that would defuse the situation. But he couldn’t quite marshal the wits to do it with, and sat, staring like some lackwit as Rafaele watched him, patiently. “You…”

“Not everyone would be able to see it,” Rafaele continued, still with that gentle, relentless look on his face. “You hide it very well. But we’re your Family. We know you better than anyone else does. When we’re united in one purpose, you can’t exactly hide your heart from us.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” Gianni demanded, taking refuge in harshness against the probability that he was about to lose—everything.

“It’s never presented a problem till now.” Rafaele lifted a shoulder, shrugging. He reached for his wine again and drained the glass. “And I don’t think it needs to be a problem. What you need is someone to watch your back for you.”

Gianni couldn’t help sneering. “I suppose you’re offering?”

“Of course I am. I’m your friend. And your Family.” Rafaele raised an eyebrow at him. “What else would I do?”

Gianni could feel his mouth twist at all the ugly possibilities. “I can think of half a dozen things. None of them involve watching my back.”

“We’re Vongola,” Rafaele reminded him. “That’s not our way. Not with our own.” He seemed to consider it, and reached over to close his hands around Gianni’s, his grip warm and reassuring. “Gianni. I will guard you. I will help you. You have my word on this—my word and my oath.”

“Rafaele…” Gianni took a breath and steadied himself against the strength of Rafaele’s hands around his and the solemn weight in his gaze. Now was no time for pride, not when the Family itself was at stake. “Someone to… oversee me in this would… be most welcome.” He looked away. “My weaknesses must not be allowed to affect the Family.”

“Here, now.” Rafaele gave his hands a shake; when Gianni looked back, he was frowning. “None of that. Love is not a weakness. You’re not weak, either.”

“Don’t try to flatter me,” Gianni said, not quite able to stop the way his mouth twisted on the words. “We both know what this is.” It was kind of Rafaele to try to spare his pride, of course, but the man ought to have been calling for him to resign—from his position as the Ninth’s right hand, if nothing else.

“No,” Rafaele said, slowly, watching him. “No, I’m beginning to think that we don’t.” He frowned again, eyes going thoughtful. “I think you’ve been carrying this alone for too long.”

“It’s not the sort of thing you share,” Gianni told him. “Not really.”

“No?” Rafaele’s smile was quick, sudden—one of his I’ve just had an idea smiles. “I wonder about that.”

“Rafaele,” Gianni began, although trying to forestall the Rain when he’d decided to meddle was nearly always a lost cause. “It’s—”

It’s all right, he’d been meaning to say, or perhaps, It’s nothing I’m not used to. Rafaele didn’t let him do it. He let go of Gianni’s hands and came out of his chair to lean over Gianni’s. “You shouldn’t think yourself alone,” he said, quietly, and curved a hand around Gianni’s jaw.

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” Gianni asked, low and harsh.

“Kissing you,” Rafaele said, with an easy smile. “We’ll see about the rest in a bit, I think.”

Rafaele had him caged in well enough that he couldn’t really recoil when Rafaele leaned closer and pressed their mouths together, kissing him, slow and hot and competent. If he felt any qualms about kissing another man, he gave no sign of it. He kissed Gianni insistently, mouth moving against Gianni’s until Gianni answered it, grudgingly, and kissed back, feeling Rafaele’s pleased rumble more than hearing it when he did. “What are you doing?” he asked again, when Rafaele finally drew back, just a bit. “I don’t want your pity. I don’t need that.”

“It’s not pity, you stubborn bastard.” Rafaele smiled at him, wry and exasperated. He rubbed his thumb against the corner of Gianni’s jaw. “It’s friendship.”

Gianni leaned into the touch, to his own disgust. “You’re not—like I am,” he said. “Friendship doesn’t go this far.”

Rafaele’s mouth crooked. “There’s a man by the name of Kinsey who I think you ought to read up on,” he said, obliquely, and then leaned in to kiss Gianni again, slow and sure. “You let me decide just how far my friendship goes,” he added, against Gianni’s mouth. “Trust me to know what I’m doing.”

Gianni let out a breath that was shaky, and not just because of the thought of what it might mean to be able to trust Rafaele with this part of himself. “You really think you know what you’re doing here?”

“Been studying on it for a while, so I figure I do,” Rafaele said, still with that relaxed smile.

“Do you?” Gianni asked, low and harsh, resenting the easiness of the offer. “You’re ready to let me bend you over and fuck you? And to suck my cock? And to know it’s not even you I’ll be thinking about?”

Rafaele’s eyes and smile stayed steady. “Yes.” He seemed to stop, and reconsider. “But if you’re thinking about someone else the whole time, then that’s a sign I’m doing something wrong. Don’t you think?” he asked, letting his hand fall away from Gianni’s jaw. It dropped into Gianni’s lap, curving over the front of Gianni’s slacks and palming his cock through them, kneading the half-hard length of it. Softly, he added, “I don’t think your mind has even wandered all that far.”

Damn him for a smug bastard. “You should know what you’re getting into,” Gianni told him, half-gasping the words, hips lifting into the pressure of Rafaele’s palm—God, it had been too long since he’d done anything like this, and it showed all too clearly in how he was responding, especially when Rafaele smiled and pressed harder. “Rafaele—”

“Enough,” Rafaele told him. “I know what I’m doing.” He kissed Gianni again, slowly, purposefully, until Gianni arched against him and caught his hand on one of Rafaele’s solid shoulders, gripping it. “Unless you have other objections?” he murmured against Gianni’s mouth, fingers undoing his slacks and sliding inside.

There were plenty, only Gianni couldn’t quite manage to lay hands on them, not with Rafaele’s fingers wrapping around him, stroking over him, sure and unhesitating. He suspected that Rafaele knew it, from the way Rafaele smiled at the incoherent sound he made when Rafaele’s thumb dragged over his head. “Bastard,” Gianni said, low, managing that much, at least.

“Yes, when I need to be,” Rafaele agreed, and kissed him again, deep and hot, mouth moving against Gianni’s, coaxing, until Gianni surrendered to the slowness of it and to the heat twining through him, and let his hips rock into the grip of Rafaele’s fist. It took an embarrassingly short time after that for the heat to draw him out of himself, pleasure rushing down every nerve, sweeping him along with it.

When he could begin to think again, Rafaele had pressed himself close, fitting himself against Gianni as best as the chair would let him, and had an arm around him, supporting him. “Yes,” he was saying against Gianni’s ear, voice pitched low and intimate. “I have you. It’s all right, I have you.”

That sent a shudder of something down Gianni’s spine, slow and convulsive, and he rested his forehead against Rafaele’s shoulder. “Fuck,” he rasped, when he could manage to speak again.

“If you like.” Rafaele’s lips moved against the side of his through, shaping the words against his skin. “I’ve got you.”

“You’re absolutely insane,” Gianni told him, since it was the purest truth. Rafaele’s shoulder shook under his forehead—laughter, low and warm. “You are,” he insisted, and reached between them to prove it. “As much as I appreciate the—” He stopped short as his fingers encountered the unmistakable lines of Rafaele’s cock straining against the confines of his slacks.

Rafaele’s laughter husked against his ear. “Mmm,” he said, “you were saying?”

Gianni lifted his head and eyed him. Rafaele’s smile was sleek and satisfied, though his eyes were hungry. “I cannot believe you.”

Rafaele arched an eyebrow at him. “What is there to believe?”

Gianni declined to answer that; something about the way Rafaele looked at him suggested that he already knew. “We should move,” he said, instead, and watched Rafaele’s eyes go dark. “To the bed.”

“I like that idea,” Rafaele murmured, and collected another kiss from him before drawing back, straightening up and turning towards the bedroom.

Gianni followed after him, watching the easy, unselfconscious way Rafaele stripped out of his shirt and draped it over a chair, and shed his slacks with the same careless ease before finally stepping out of his underwear and then stretching out on the turned-down sheets.

It made him wonder if Rafaele actually knew how beautiful he was.

“Well, are you just going to stand there?” Rafaele asked him, after a moment, smiling like he was satisfied with the way Gianni had been staring.

“No,” Gianni said, coming away from the doorway and shedding his own clothes before joining him. “I wasn’t planning on it,” he added, leaning over Rafaele and kissing him.

Rafaele arched against him with a pleased sound, hands finding Gianni’s back and stroking down it. “Mm, glad to hear it,” he said, with a fearless smile. “What do you—”

Gianni stopped him, laying two fingers against his lips. “Enough,” he said, quietly. “Let me.”

“Of course,” Rafaele said, when Gianni took his fingers away. “Anything you like.”

The wonder of it was that he meant it, too.

“I know,” Gianni told him, and kissed him again.

Rafaele hummed against his mouth as he did, arching into Gianni’s hands as they followed the shape of him, moving over Rafaele’s solid shoulders and chest and stroking down over his stomach and thighs. He spread his legs against the sheets, willingly, and broke away from Gianni’s mouth long enough to say, “In the drawer on this side.”

Gianni couldn’t make himself be surprised when the reach over to the bedside table turned up a bottle of oil. “You’ve been planning for this,” he said, turning the discreet little bottle in his fingers.

“Of course.” Rafaele smiled at him, lazily. “It seemed like the prudent thing to do.”

“I see.” Gianni set the bottle down and shifted down the bed. Rafaele made an interrogative noise that turned into a gasp as Gianni knelt between his legs and bent his head to stroke his mouth over Rafaele’s cock.

Rafaele moaned his name, low and open, and again as Gianni ran his tongue over him, slow and deliberate, taking him in and savoring the heavy weight of him on his tongue. Gianni watched Rafaele as he moved his mouth over Rafaele’s cock, watching the pleasure chasing itself over Rafaele’s face and the way Rafaele arched and shifted under his hands, lean and unselfconscious, until he finally drew taut, shuddering apart on a low cry.

Rafaele turned against him when Gianni settled at his side, afterwards. “Mm,” he said, sounding distinctly satisfied, “I should have done that a while ago, I think.”

“I can’t believe you’ve been so desperate for a bed partner that you’ve been considering me for it,” Gianni returned, lightly.

Rafaele opened his half-closed eyes, the look in them going sharp. “Who said I was the desperate one?” He reached out and touched the place between Gianni’s eyebrows. “You’re the one who looks like ten years just came off him.”

“Was it that bad?” Gianni asked, rather than deny it.

Rafaele’s eyes softened. “Yes. Every time you look at the Ninth these days, it gets a little worse.”

Gianni rolled onto his back and covered his eyes with his arm. “I can’t do anything,” he said, admitting it out loud, finally. “This is tearing him apart, and there isn’t a fucking think I can do for him, and—”

Rafaele’s arm slid around him, and Rafaele himself was warm against his side. “I know,” he said. “Believe me, I know.”

“Not like I do,” Gianni told him. “And now I can’t even trust myself because of it—”

Rafaele’s arm tightened around him as his voice broke. “But you can trust me,” he said, low and serious. “You’re not doing this alone. You have me.”

Funny, that it should be the assurance of that offer which finally broke him, but it did. Gianni turned and pressed himself against Rafaele, tucking his face into the curve of Rafaele’s throat. “Promise me that you won’t let me fuck up because of this,” he said, hoarse.

Rafaele’s arms slid around him, securely. “I promise,” he said.

Gianni closed his eyes, accepting that. “I’m so tired,” he admitted, after a moment.

That didn’t begin to encompass it all, but Rafaele seemed to understand anyway. “I know,” he said, gently, and set a hand in Gianni’s hair, stroking it. “But you can rest with me.”

Gianni exhaled, slow and stuttering; when he finally began to relax against that promise, Rafaele took his weight without a murmur of protest. “Thank you.”

“Any time,” Rafaele told him, and held him until he fell asleep.

– end –

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

There comes a time in every young man’s life when he must seek his fortune. Sawada Iemitsu is off to seek his. Occurs not too long before “Blood Will Tell“. Teen+; some implicit, mostly-offscreen violence.

Sawada Iemitsu couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known that he was—or could have been, if he’d wanted to be—the heir to a great mafia empire. It was the family legend, the story that his mother sang him to sleep by and the reason his father made him enroll in Italian lessons after school. That Iemitsu’s great-great-grandfather had chosen to leave his Italian empire behind was their family’s great regret, and their scapegoat any time something went wrong. They held to it like a talisman, promising each other that if only the First hadn’t left Italy so long ago, none of this—a refrigerator that was elderly and had to be coaxed into working regularly, the fact that Tousan’s boss wouldn’t give him a promotion, Iemitsu’s dismissal from the basketball team—would have happened, and life would have been infinitely better.

Iemitsu’s teachers didn’t get around to logic until late in middle school, but when they finally did, he was able to put his finger on the thing that had always troubled him about their family legend. They wouldn’t have been there at all, had the First never left Italy, since they were descended from the son Giotto Vongola had fathered when he took a new wife in Japan.

Such was the power of legend that his family didn’t question such things. There was power in having a secret identity that could not be discounted. Iemitsu found it deeply comforting to know that, if he had just wanted to, he could leave all the petty bullshit of his day-to-day life behind, and never have to deal with the demands of cram school again.

And then, the year Iemitsu turned seventeen, a thought occurred to him: Why not?

He did not tell his parents what he intended, since he’d seen with an adolescent’s eyes what he hadn’t as a child. It was a family talisman to say, “If we were still Vongola, none of this would be happening,” but neither his father nor his mother really believed it.

They didn’t want to, either. It was better to daydream than to reach out for more.

Iemitsu rejected that with all the scorn a teenager could muster. He pawned some things—his bike, his watch, his stereo system—and hit up all his friends for money that he promised himself he’d repay, and started working his way towards Italy.

The only thing he took with him from home was a copy of his family register.



It took him months to actually reach Italy, and Iemitsu saw parts of the world he’d never imagined he would: ports, mostly, that were filled with shipping containers and the smell of the ocean and grease and the stink of the harbor, plus men who shouted in at least twenty different languages. He saw the sun rise over Dar es Salaam and learned to dance from a woman in Cape Town. He picked up bits of Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro and a social disease in a whorehouse in Havana. Iemitsu decided that the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen was the aurora borealis against Reykjavík’s night sky, when the sky had been filled with stars so close that he might have reached out a hand and cut himself on them.

Had he been another person, in another life, he might have kept going, because the work and the travel both suited him. The months of labor packed muscle onto his frame and coarsened his hands and his voice. He’d liked the places he’d seen and the people he’d met, mostly, and wouldn’t have minded more. But he was Sawada Iemitsu, and he had a goal, one that let him walk out of Messina’s harbor with a duffel carried over a shoulder and his head held high, thinking himself a man.



The first person Iemitsu asked about the Vongola and where to find them made a sign that Iemitsu didn’t understand before backing away hurriedly. The second person he asked, a lovely young lady who’d been very friendly right up until then, slapped him. Then she hit him with a barrage of Italian so fast that he couldn’t even follow it and left him while he was still reeling.

Iemitsu persisted, undeterred, working his way south along Sicily’s eastern coast (family tradition and a thousand gangster movies having informed him that this was the place to begin). The reactions were the same wherever he went. Either the name Vongola inspired fear in whomever he asked, or it inspired anger. Sometimes, it did both.

He was reflecting on that curious mixture as he stood in the square of a town whose name he’d neglected to learn, rubbing his cheek and wondering why it should be so, when someone asked, behind him, “And who are you to be asking after the Vongola so freely?”

The voice was light and smooth enough that Iemitsu wasn’t sure whether it was male or female. What he was much more certain of was the solid pressure against his ribs, snub-nosed and blunt. “Well, now, why don’t we talk about that?” he suggested, with all the confidence eight months of working on freighters and getting in and out of sticky situations could give him.

“You’re going to talk, yes,” the voice said, and the pressure increased against his ribs. “Walk forward, now. Back to your room. I wouldn’t advise trying to get any ideas.”

“Who, me?” Iemitsu stepped forward; the gun stayed snug against his ribs.

He seemed to have become invisible; the square was full of people, but their eyes slid past him as if he were no longer there. That was the first point at which Iemitsu began to wonder whether coming to Italy had been a good idea after all.

The voice had advised him not to try anything, but that was clearly out of the question. Iemitsu bided his time until they had climbed the rickety set of stairs up to the little room he was renting, and then whirled around.

His plan had been to disarm the voice and then compel its owner to tell him about the Vongola. It didn’t work as smoothly in execution as he’d hoped it would. Instead of letting him twist the gun away, the voice simply sighed, sounding irritated about it. The next thing Iemitsu knew, the world had spun around him, and he was getting splinters in his chin from the rough wooden floor as a knee ground against his kidney. “I told you not to get any ideas,” the voice told him, calm and cool, and twisted Iemitsu’s arm behind his back until Iemitsu grunted and his eyes watered. “Now, tell me. Who are you to be using our Family’s name so easily?”

It was amazing, how he could hear the capital letters when the voice said Family like that, Iemitsu thought, to distract himself from the thought that he was, quite possibly, in a lot of trouble. “Sawada Iemitsu.”

“And who might you be when you’re at home, Mr. Iemitsu?” the voice inquired.

“The great-great grandson of Giotto Vongola,” Iemitsu announced, as calmly as he could manage, given the circumstances.

The pressure on his arm and his kidney increased sharply, till Iemitsu cried out. “That is not a claim you want to make lightly,” the voice informed him, gone sharper. “Let’s try this again. Who are you? And what do you want with the Vongola?”

“My name is Sawada Iemitsu,” he said again, unsteadily, with the uneasy sense that perhaps he could count out his lifespan in minutes, now, rather than years. “I’m the direct descendant of Giotto Vongola. You want my whole family tree?”

The voice twisted his arm tighter still, until Iemitsu was arched taut and panting with the agony of it. “One more time,” it said. “And then I’ll have to become unpleasant. Who are you?”

“I’m not lying, damn it!” Iemitsu yelped, and took refuge in the only thing he knew. “At the end of his reign, the Vongola’s First retired and came to Japan, the home of his Rain. He started a new family there, and—”

“I did tell you,” the voice said, sounding faintly regretful about it, and broke his arm.



It was later, though the only way Iemitsu really knew it was through an application of logic. His every nerve throbbed with pain. That had to have taken time to accomplish: hence, it was later. The process had driven most of the pride out of him, till he didn’t even mind the hoarse sounds coming from his own throat, or the fact that he had curled in on himself like a child.

Somewhere outside his immediate sight, the voice was speaking to someone on the phone. The short, abrupt exchange of words, one-sided, formed so much background noise for the thrum of blood in Iemitsu’s ears. He could make no sense of it, nor did he care to. At length, the voice stopped speaking. Iemitsu got his first glimpse of its physical incarnation when a pair of gleaming leather shoes came to stand in front of his face.

“You’re lucky,” the voice told him, as its owner crouched next to him. “The Ninth wants a look at you himself.”

The words filtered through the buzzing pain, slowly, and resolved into some kind of sense. Iemitsu would have liked to have said something—what?—to them, but could only grunt as a hand wound itself in his hair, lifting his head, and let him get a look at the voice’s face.

The last thought Iemitsu had before something rapped against his temple and sent him down into darkness was disbelief that the voice belonged to a pre-pubescent kid.



There was still pain when he came swimming back to consciousness, now with the added layer of a headache that threatened to split his skull open. He was tied to a chair in a room that he didn’t recognize and whose fittings were much fancier than the one he’d been renting, and there was a man sitting across from him. He was older, perhaps Tousan’s age or a bit more, with streaks of gray running through his mustache and wild eyebrows that shadowed sharp eyes. He was watching Iemitsu. “So,” he said, as Iemitsu blinked at him, slow and stupid with the pain. “You’re Ietsuna and Yoshinobu’s boy.”

The pain had burnt out most of his pride, but not all of it; Iemitsu had enough left to be ashamed that the gratitude of finally being believed made his eyes prickle. “Yes, sir,” he rasped. “I am.”

The man—the Ninth, Iemitsu thought, a dim memory surfacing—overlooked the reaction, which was unspeakably kind of him. “What did you go and do a damn fool thing like coming to Italy for?” he asked instead, gently enough. “If you’d just stayed in Japan, we wouldn’t have had to take notice of you.”

Iemitsu wet his lips, tasting the blood on them, and didn’t bother saying why. He’d told the voice half a dozen times, anyway. “Can’t go back, can I?”

“No.” The Ninth shook his head, regret shadowing his eyes. “Too many people know of you now, thanks to your complete lack of subtlety.”

Iemitsu hung his head as humiliation superseded pain—some of it, anyway. “Dumb of me,” he said, slowly.

“Yes, rather.” The Ninth’s voice was rich with kindness, and no less implacable for it.

Iemitsu raised his head after a moment, determined to meet the Ninth’s eyes and see it through. “What happens now?” He had a dizzy, sick suspicion that he already knew.

“I already have an heir,” the Ninth told him. “I don’t need another. And he doesn’t need a war for the succession, or for any of the other Families to get their hands on you.”

“Guess that’s fair.” Iemitsu was proud of how steady he’d managed to keep his voice. “Doesn’t leave you many choices, does it?”

“No,” the Ninth agreed, calmly, watching him.

Yeah, he’d figured. Iemitsu lifted his chin a fraction higher. “May I ask a favor?”

The Ninth’s mouth quirked under his mustache. “Asking is free.”

Iemitsu sucked in a breath and grimaced as his ribs creaked in protest. “Let me—” no, not send, that presumed too much “—leave a message for my parents?” Not that he knew what he could say to them, exactly. That he was sorry, perhaps, or that he wished they’d never told him who his great-great grandfather had been.

Something that might have been respect showed in the Ninth’s eyes. “You’re taking this very calmly.”

Maybe he’d expected Iemitsu to beg for his life. “I’d like to piss myself, actually,” he confessed. “But that’s not going to do me any good.” And he had just enough pride left in him not to beg.

The Ninth laughed at that, threw his head back and roared, open and amused. “You’re a rare one,” he said, when he’d stopped again, and that was definitely respect on his face now. “Seems a waste.”

“You should see it from my seat,” Iemitsu replied.

That earned him another snort of laughter. “Definitely a waste,” the Ninth repeated, studying him. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him, because he nodded, apparently reaching some conclusion. “You have two options,” he announced. “One is for me to have you shot, because, as you are now, you are a threat to my Family’s stability and its future.”

“What’s behind door number two?” Iemitsu asked, trying not to let himself hope too very hard.

“You’ve entered our world,” the Ninth told him. There was no trace of laughter in his voice now. “You can’t leave it again, so we must find a way for you to exist within it. There is only one way for that to happen that I am willing to permit.”

“What is it?”

The Ninth raised an eyebrow. “Not going to agree immediately?”

“Doesn’t seem like a good idea.” Iemitsu would have liked to have shrugged, but suspected that the pain of doing so wouldn’t have made the gesture worth it. “There could be worse things than getting shot.”

“Mm. Shooting you would definitely be a waste.” The Ninth spread a hand; a massive ring winked at Iemitsu from his finger. “There is an organization. It is of the mafia world. It is separate from the Vongola, though it serves us. Were you to become a member, you would renounce your own right to the Vongola ring forever. You would be bound to our service all your life.” He paused, and added, “We are not kind masters. We strive to be good ones, but we are not kind. It is not an easy life, or a safe one. You will be lucky to see your fortieth birthday if you choose it.”

“I won’t see my next birthday if I don’t.” Iemitsu felt his lip split again as he offered the Ninth a grin that he didn’t quite feel. “It would be you that I’d be serving, then?” he asked, studying the man.

“Yes.” The Ninth inclined his head. “And my son after me.”

Iemitsu studied him, this man who’d wanted to speak with him and had been willing to offer a stupid boy a second chance. “That,” he said, finally, “seems like something I could live with.”

The Ninth’s smile was faint but unmistakable. “I think I should like to see that,” he said, and then called for someone to treat Iemitsu’s injuries.



Later, after giving his vows, first to the CEDEF and then to the Ninth, forswearing his claim to the position of the Vongola’s boss and promising fealty to the Vongola for the rest of his days, Iemitsu made a third vow, this one private.

The First had retired to Japan for a reason. He had sought out obscurity after his reign, and it had been foolishness of his descendants to keep the dream of lost Vongola glory alive.

If someday he himself had a family, Iemitsu decided, bending to kiss the Ninth’s ring as stiff muscles protested the action, he would not tell them of the mafia at all. The First’s Japanese legacy could die with him, as he suspected Giotto Vongola had wanted in the first place.

And surely any family he might have would be happier for it.


Blood Will Tell

Sometimes one small mistake can lead to an entire avalanche of nasty consequences. Some small divergences from manga canon; a veritable confluence of clusterfuck.

One of the first things Sawada Iemitsu did in his apprenticeship to the Vongola Ninth’s outside advisor was bring the Ninth news of the woman who claimed that her son belonged to Timoteo Vongola. It was an act that Iemitsu reflected on later, grimly, deciding that it was the event that colored his entire service to the Vongola.

Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if they’d simply had someone go around to have a quiet word with the woman instead of bringing it to the Ninth’s attention. Would things have gone to the hell the way they had later, or would one of Timoteo’s actual sons gone on to inherit the position of Vongola Decimo while his own son went ahead, bumbling his way through life, innocent of its darker sides?

Iemitsu couldn’t say.

Such speculations were only fit for musing on over a cup of sake, however, because the fact was, when he’d reported news of the woman who’d claimed that Timoteo Vongola had been the one to impregnate her, and that the result was a boy who could produce a Vongola Flame, the Ninth had simply said, “Hm.”

That, Iemitsu had already learned, was one of the Ninth’s thinking sounds. “If you like, I can go speak to her,” Iemitsu offered. “Explain to her why she doesn’t want to keep saying these things.”

The Ninth made another of his thoughtful noises, and left his desk. He paced the length of his office, slow, deliberate, to stand before the window with his hands clasped behind his back. “Hm,” he said again, and then, “I suppose I’ll have to see the boy.”

“You will, sir?” Iemitsu repeated, cautiously.

Timoteo turned away from the window. “Yes, I think so. Make preparations for it, please.”

Iemitsu nodded, and said, “At once, sir,” and that was that.

“I take it that you don’t approve of this,” Timoteo said, thoughtfully, as Gianni maneuvered the car through narrow, twisting streets that were growing increasingly shabby with their slow progress.

“I haven’t said a word,” Gianni said, turning down an even darker, narrower street.

“You don’t have to. I can hear you thinking it from here.”

That was as good as permission to speak freely. “I don’t think you should be dignifying this woman’s claims with your attention,” he said, with a quick glance around as he parked the car. There were faces in many of the windows, but few enough people on the street. “She’s not stable, Boss. Everyone knows it.”

“Even fools and madmen can be right occasionally.” Timoteo unbelted himself, and waited for Gianni to signal that it was safe for him to leave the car.

Gianni half-hoped that he wouldn’t be able to, that this whole fool’s errand was a trap, but his men appeared at either end of the street and gave the all-clear. He sighed and nodded to Timoteo.

They emerged from the car together, both of them stretching and exchanging grimaces. The days of comfortable car rides that didn’t leave them with stiff backs and tired joints were already well past them both, and getting older was proving to be an unpleasant business. The street—which could hardly be called that, and was more like an alley than anything else—was filled with rubbish that stirred around their feet. Gianni grimaced again as they turned to the tenement where the woman Bianca Castelli and her son were supposed to live.

One of Gianni’s men slipped up the stairs ahead of them, swift and silent. Gianni and Timoteo followed more slowly, until they came to the top floor. The air inside the building was stuffy, filled with the smell of a thousand competing meals. Even in the middle of the day, the air was full of the sounds of babies crying and radios blaring. Somewhere, perhaps a floor down, a man and a woman were arguing.

Gianni did the honors of knocking on the door of 6010, which flaked paint under the brisk rapping. Castelli herself answered the door.

She must have been pretty, once, but the fineness of her features was blurred now. Her hair was tangled, and she was wrapped in a man’s faded houserobe. Her feet were bare and dirty, and her eyes darted between them, too fast and bright. “Yes?” she said. Her knuckles were white where they clutched the door.

She showed no sign of recognizing Timoteo Vongola.

Typical, Gianni thought, disgusted in spite of his best intentions otherwise. “The Vongola Ninth is here to see you,” he said, quietly, and watched her eyes go wide, terror mixed with wild hope.

“I knew it,” she said, like a prayer, clasping her hands under her chin. “Oh, I knew this day would come.”

Castelli brought them into the apartment, hands fluttering like trapped birds, and tried to offer them hospitality in between calling for the boy. Timoteo refused her offers, kind but firm, which, given the state of the place, with not a bit of clean floor in sight and surfaces that even looked sticky, was only wise. All the while she stared at Timoteo, eyes burning with devotion, or perhaps vindication.

“No,” Timoteo said again, when she offered them wine, still gentle with her, “no wine, thank you. If I could just meet the boy…?”

“Yes,” Castelli said, “yes, of course.” She edged away from them, backwards, as if reluctant to let Timoteo out of her sight for even a moment. “Xanxus! Xanxus, you stupid brat, where are you?”

The reply that came back from what Gianni assumed was the bedroom was in a boy’s clear soprano, but it delivered a series of curses worthy of a sailor. “I was sleeping,” he growled when he finally emerged, scowling.

Gianni was close enough to Timoteo to hear the quiet sound Timoteo made, as of recognition, as Castelli reeled the boy in and began petting him, obviously against his will. “There’s Mama’s beautiful boy,” she crooned, smoothing his hair back from a distinctive forehead. “Show your—” she stopped, perhaps thinking better of it “—show the Ninth what you can do, baby.”

The woman was canny in her madness, and had clearly passed that canniness down to the boy. His eyes went sharp, fixing on Timoteo, and he held up a hand that wreathed itself in Flame.

Gianni braced himself against the pressure of it, staggered. The boy couldn’t be more than ten, but to be able to produce that much anger, so very young…

Afterwards, he could only assume that Timoteo had been thinking something similar, tender-hearted as he was. “Ah, yes,” he said, very softly, crossing the room and kneeling, putting his face at Xanxus’ level. “That is indeed a Vongola Flame.”

Castelli made a sound, releasing her son and covering her mouth as tears began to cut a clean path down her cheeks. “Yes,” she said, nearly sobbing the word, “oh, yes.”

After that it was a matter of calling for another car to come for her and the boy as she flew around the apartment, gathering up pieces of rubbish that Gianni supposed held personal meaning for her. Xanxus stood, unmoved, watching Timoteo all the while, his back already held straighter and his eyes burning just like his mother’s had.

“I want to ride with you,” he announced when they came down to the street. (All the windows had faces pressed to them now, watching the drama unfold. It gave Gianni a headache, knowing that this news was already all over the country.)

“Of course,” Timoteo told him, easy about it.

Gianni bit his lip; he would have to talk to Timoteo later.

Later didn’t happen until well after they’d returned home and Timoteo had personally seen Castelli and her son installed in a set of rooms in the private wing of the house, and had told them to direct the household staff to provide anything they required. Xanxus accept all this with a stony expression, as if it were only their due. Castelli herself was already calling for a drink—this early in the day!—and Gianni was hard-put to suppress his shudder.

Timoteo didn’t dismiss him, so Gianni followed him to his private study, where Timoteo sank into the chair behind his desk and sighed. After a moment, he looked up at Gianni and smiled. “Let’s have it, then.”

“Are you out of your ever-loving mind?” Gianni asked, since dire catastrophes required extreme measures. “That boy can’t possibly be your son.”

Timoteo laughed, though the sound was wry. “Of course he isn’t my son. Did I ever say he was?”

“No, you had the good sense not to do that much, thank God.” Gianni threw himself down into his customary chair, scowling. “That won’t matter one bit now that you’ve taken him in, though. You know everyone will assume that he’s your—” He stopped short, unwilling to say it.

“My bastard? Yes.” Timoteo’s expression turned distant. “Got, no doubt, during my wife’s final illness or shortly thereafter, when my manly needs overwhelmed my good sense. It’s a very tidy story, isn’t it?”

“Oh, very.” Gianni raked his hands through his hair. “Why the hell are you letting yourself play into it?”

“He’s very clearly of the Vongola line,” Timoteo said, brisk. “I suspect from one of the Second’s, actually. The boy favors him, and that one had at least half a dozen bastards that we know of, and probably a few more besides.”

That was fair enough, but— “You could have said so, and not let the world assume that he was yours.” The world would, of course, but at least it would save some of Timoteo’s face among those who knew him best.

Timoteo sighed. “Yes, of course I could have. But his Flame, Gianni… To be that young, and that angry…”

So that was how it was. Arguing with him was a lost cause when he’d made up his mind to right some wrong. “You can’t adopt every fatherless boy out there.”

Timoteo’s smile was quick. “No. But I can adopt this one.”

The crash was what seized Rafaele’s attention, but the shriek and the bellow which followed turned his steps away from the main hallway to investigate. That didn’t take long; a sobbing housemaid hurtled past him, her face white, as Xanxus emerged from his room, expression screwed up with anger. “Don’t fuck it up again, you stupid little sl—”

He stopped short when he saw Rafaele standing there.

“Now, what’s all this?” Rafaele asked, after a quick breath to calm himself.

Xanxus took a moment to answer; his struggle with the decision whether he was required to answer Rafaele was clear on his face. “My lunch was cold.”

“How unfortunate,” Rafaele said, as mildly as he could manage. “Was it worth screaming for? Or—” He craned his head; yes, it was as he’d expected. “—throwing the whole thing at the wall?”

“I was aiming at her,” Xanxus said, with the simplicity of honesty. “But she ducked.”

“You were—you do realize that you could have hurt her, don’t you?” Rafaele asked, with what he felt was really quite admirable restraint.

“It wouldn’t have,” Xanxus said, composedly. “If the soup had been hot, then I wouldn’t have had to get angry.”

Ice slid down Rafaele’s spine at the boy’s calm. “It wasn’t worth getting angry about in the first place.”

Xanxus’ eyes went flat and cold. “You’re not my father,” he said. “You can’t tell me what to do.” His hands flexed, and the air pressure changed with the first oppressive edges of his Flame dancing along his fingers.

“No,” Rafaele said, after a measured moment. “I suppose I can’t. But I can tell your father what it is you’ve done.” This time, he added silently. Xanxus really was a singularly unpleasant boy. “Perhaps you’d better come with me,” he added, turning away, careful not to let Xanxus entirely out of his sight.

“I’m not going to,” Xanxus said. “You can’t make me.” His chin lifted; what should have looked like a twelve-year-old’s petulance looked more like an adult’s contempt. “You know he won’t do anything, anyway. I deserve the best.”

Rafaele lost the struggle with himself, although, if he were honest, he wasn’t trying very hard. “The best is a privilege you need to earn,” he said.

“Bullshit.” Xanxus smirked. “Run along and tell the old man I said so, and see what he says. You’ll see.”

“Mm. I think I’ve known the Ninth a little longer than you.” Rafaele stopped himself and drew a breath. When had he sunk so low that he’d argue with a child? “You may want to clean that soup up before it stains.”

Xanxus’ lip curled, but he turned on his heel. As Rafaele started downstairs for the Ninth’s study, he heard the boy pick up the house phone and call for a servant to come clean up the mess.

He had to wait to speak with the Ninth, who was closeted with Gianni, Federico, Maria, and Fedele—discussing negotiations with the Barassi, Rafaele suspected. Given Maria’s predatory smile when the conference let out, he supposed they must have decided to get tough with the Barassi—she loved it when she got to intimidate other Families into behaving.

The other three remained, even after the Ninth called him in, and listened to the story too. Gianni stayed impassive through the whole thing, and Fedele tried to mimic his mentor’s stoic expression, but was at least two decades too young to master the effect. Federico, on the other hand, didn’t bother disguise his disdain for his adopted brother’s behavior.

The Ninth shook his head after Rafaele had finished. “That’s the third time this month. And he was so good last month.”

“For a relative value of good,” Federico said. “Dad, you’ve got to do something with him before we lose all our help.”

“Boarding school, perhaps,” Gianni suggested. “Some place that emphasizes discipline.”

“I’m not going to send Xanxus away.” The Ninth’s voice had just enough edge to it to make clear that the suggestion should not be made again. “I’ll speak to him.”

“Because that does so much good,” Federico grumbled, and then held up his hands when his father frowned. “You’re the Boss, Dad, and he’s your… project.”

“And your brother now,” the Ninth said.

Federico’s mouth quirked. “So they tell me,” he said, dry. “It’s hard enough with Enrico and Massimo. Couldn’t you have brought us a cute little sister to spoil instead of Xanxus? It’s difficult to be brotherly to a porcupine.”

Rafaele hid a smile as Federico defused his father’s irritation; he was coming along nicely, that one. It was no wonder the Ninth favored him most of his three sons. Four sons, now. “I’ll be on my way,” he said, since he’d discharged his duty to that poor girl.

“So will I,” Federico said, standing. “Keep an eye out for that little sister, Dad. Come on, Fedele.”

The Ninth’s laughter followed the three of them out.

“Boarding school,” Federico said, thoughtfully, once they were safely away. “I like that idea. Pity it won’t ever happen.”

Fedele snorted. “Hard to make up for lost time at a boarding school.”

Rafaele raised an eyebrow; Michele’s boy had sharp eyes on him.

“Pity,” Federico said again, and shook his head. “I keep thinking that one of these days the kid’s got to settle down. Then I remember that we’re about to hit the teenage years and I want to go get myself a stiff drink.”

“Don’t go borrowing too much trouble,” Rafaele said. “He’s your brother, not your son. Leave that headache to your father.”

Federico’s smile was bright. “I think I will, at that.” He clapped Fedele on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s head down to the range. I want a rematch after yesterday.”

“Ready to be embarrassed again so soon?” Fedele grinned. “You’re a glutton for punishment these days.”

“Big talk, little man,” Federico retorted, and scrubbed his hand through Fedele’s curly hair. “I have a bottle of wine that says I’ll win this match.”

“You’re on, boss,” Fedele said, and they went off, laughing.

Rafaele watched them go, smiling. Perhaps there wasn’t any helping Xanxus, but at least the Ninth’s youngest made up for him.

Iemitsu was running late and knew it, but when he fetched up against the knot of the Ninth’s sons—who were supposed to be at the same meeting he was later for—he couldn’t help stopping, with a frisson of relief. Best to be late in company, he decided, and the higher the rank of that company, the better. He slowed to a saunter, and insinuated himself at the edge of the group.

The cause of their delay came clear at once. Xanxus was glaring at his adoptive brothers, expression as mutinous as only a fifteen-year-old’s could be. “Make me,” he said, jaw jutting out.

His brothers exchanged nearly identical exasperated glances with each other. “Father said we were all supposed to attend,” Enrico pointed out, with all the authority of the eldest brother, as if that appeal to the Ninth’s desires was likely to sway Xanxus.

“Then let the old man make me,” Xanxus grunted, and tried to push his way past them.

Massimo caught his arm; of the three of them, he came closest to matching Xanxus’ budding strength. “That’s no way to talk about Father, you little punk.”

“Ask me how much I don’t care,” Xanxus retorted, twisting out of his grip, though not without some effort.

Before he could storm off, Federico gave it a shot. “Xanxus, it’s really time you started attending these meetings. You’re part of our Family. You should know how it’s run.”

Xanxus stopped, arrested, however briefly. Then he shook his head, snorting. “Fuck that,” he announced, despite his brief moment to consider the argument. “I have plans for my day. And they don’t involve listening to a pack of old men arguing with each other.”

He broke free of them, stalking off, and they let him go. After a moment, Massimo asked, wistfully, “Do you think that excuse would work for me, too?”

“Your name Xanxus?” Enrico asked. “No? Then yeah, I’m guessing not. God, he’s such a little ba—”

“You know Dad doesn’t like to hear him called that,” Federico said, mildly enough, and checked his watch. “Doesn’t like it when we’re late, either,” he said, grimacing.

“Shit,” Massimo grunted, and they moved off together, at a brisk pace. He glanced at Iemitsu as he fell in with them. “What’s your excuse?”

“Up late on the phone with Japan,” Iemitsu said, rueful.

“Where ‘Japan’ means his lovely Nana,” Enrico sing-songed, grinning, and his brothers laughed. “And how is Japan these days?”

“Lovely.” Iemitsu shrugged at them, perfectly aware that he was grinning like a fool and not caring in the slightest.

“When’s the wedding, again?” Federico smiled at him. “In the spring, right?”

“May,” Iemitsu told him, grinning harder.

“Not soon enough, eh?” Enrico asked, nudging his ribs.

They were upon the room where the Ninth held his business meetings, though. Iemitsu had no chance to do more than shrug at him before they all schooled their expressions and filed in.

“Ah,” the Ninth said, from his seat at the head of the table. “So glad to see that you could join us this morning, gentlemen.”

“Sorry, Father,” Federico said, meekly. “We were trying to persuade Xanxus to join us.”

“Emphasis on the ‘trying’,” Massimo muttered, under his breath, while Iemitsu was grateful to Federico for including him in that ‘we’. “Not so much with the succeeding.”

It was a good excuse, though; some of the iron in the Ninth’s expression unbent itself. “I see,” he said. “Sit down. We’ve delayed this meeting long enough.”

Iemitsu slid into his seat next to Guiseppe with a sigh, and tore his thoughts away from lovely Japan in order to turn them to the Vongola’s business.

Piero’d had the teaching of all the Ninth’s sons, insofar as fighting and self-defense had gone. He’d been the one who’d trained Enrico to be able to shoot without flinching and pulling the shot wide. He’d also been the one who’d seen that Massimo would only ever be a passable shot but was a demon with a set of throwing knives. He’d coaxed (and then berated) Federico into paying attention to the martial side of being a Vongola, when it had become clear who the Boss was looking at to be the Tenth.

He’d had the teaching of all the Boss’s sons, but of them, Xanxus was by far his best pupil, for all that he hadn’t come to Piero until he was ten years old. The boy, who was sullen with every other Guardian—or so Piero had heard from his brother and from the rest of them—seized upon the things Piero had to teach him, from how to disassemble and care for a gun to the places where the human body was most vulnerable to a quick, sharp blow. He was a pupil to do any teacher proud: a quick study at ten, and a competent shot by twelve. He began a growth spurt at fourteen and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Piero by sixteen, which was the first time he beat Piero in a hand-to-hand match.

When Piero had gotten his breath back, he rolled to his feet. “Not bad,” he told Xanxus, who was giving him a fiercely delighted smile, one of the ones that showed all his teeth. “When you get done growing, there isn’t going to be anyone stronger than you.”

“Of course not,” Xanxus said, as if it were only his due. “Come on, old man. Let’s go again.”

Piero was happy to oblige him. Let the others fret about the boy all they liked—what he liked was that Xanxus knew the value of strength the way his brothers never had.

By rights, the duty should have belonged to the Ninth, but he and Gianni and Maria were abroad, negotiating a trade agreement in Moscow. That left it to either him, Michele, or Rafaele to do it—and Rafaele’s dislike of Xanxus was years-established at this point. In the end, Paolo had flipped a coin with Michele and lost the toss.

That left him standing outside Xanxus’ rooms, knocking loudly and wondering where on earth the boy was. All the intelligence they had said that he was on the premises, but he hadn’t answered the repeated telephone calls—not the one at nine p.m, or the more urgent calls at midnight, then two, or the final, most urgent call, just an hour ago at four.

The door jerked open, and Xanxus glared at him, ferocious. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“We’ve been trying to reach you all night,” Paolo said, pointedly ignoring the fact that the boy—not a boy, really, he was seventeen, wasn’t he?—was naked. “May I come in? I’m afraid there’s something I need to tell you.”

“So tell me,” Xanxus growled, scratching his stomach.

“This isn’t really the kind of thing—”

“Just fucking spit it out,” Xanxus snapped. “I’m getting cold standing here.”

“Perhaps if you’d put something on, that wouldn’t be a problem,” Paolo retorted. Then he composed himself; now wasn’t the time. “Are you quite sure—”

Wrath crackled around Xanxus’ hands. “Tell me or I’ll beat it out of you,” he said, low and vicious.

For a moment, Paolo was tempted, if only because an outright attack on one of his Guardians might force Timoteo into doing something with the boy. Then he dismissed the idea. “Your mother,” he said, quietly. “She went into her final decline last night. I’m afraid she passed away about an hour ago.”

“That it?”

Paolo had prepared himself for a number of possible responses, but he hadn’t expected that tone of disinterest. “I’m very sorry.”

“You should be,” Xanxus said. “Waking a guy up at five in the morning for that. Christ.” He turned away.

“She called for you till the last,” Paolo said, harshly, wanting to punch through that chilly indifference. “She wanted to see you one last time. She died promising the doctors you’d be there any minute.”

Xanxus looked back at him, mouth turned up in a way that was hardly a smile. “Yeah? Guess that’s what happens to you when you drink too much. You got anything else, or can I get back to bed?”

“Nothing else,” Paolo said, biting the words out with more calm than he felt.

Xanxus slammed the door on him. After a moment, Paolo turned away from it to go find someone who would make the funeral arrangements.

Clearly Xanxus wasn’t going to do it himself.

It was a good day up until that point. The sun had shone through the ceremony, but the breeze had been just balmy enough to keep things comfortable, and the wedding had gone off without a single bobble. All his children had come to see their oldest brother married, and their mothers had even (mostly) agreed to suspend hostilities for the occasion.

All told, Michele couldn’t have asked to be happier, and told Fedele’s little bride Evelina as much when he claimed his dance with her. She blushed prettily and thanked him when he surrendered her back to Fedele at the close of his dance. Michele just grinned at her and elbowed his son in the ribs, and grinned harder when it didn’t even begin to budge the dazedly happy grin on Fedele’s face.

Perhaps the boy had known what he was about after all, waiting this long to get married.

Michele congratulated them again, and moved off the dance floor to find himself a bit of refreshment. His meandering path towards the bar required several stops—once to speak with the Ninth, who looked as proud of his godson’s marriage as he had over his own sons’ marriages. He had to stop again to accept congratulations from Paolo and a vigorous round of back-slappings from Piero. Then he had to dodge lovely Giulia, who didn’t seem to quite grasp the notion of “suspended hostilities” after all.

It was when he’d ducked behind the stand of potted palms to hide from her that he became aware of the altercation taking place in the little nook to his left. Michele didn’t consider himself the type to eavesdrop—was, in fact, quite bad at it, since he never had managed the trick of being still long enough to hear anything interesting. He couldn’t help overhearing the argument, though, especially when their voices rose sharply and the gist of the argument came clear in the woman’s, “No, I said no—” and the man’s impatient, “Come on.”

Michele sighed, good mood dimmed, and went to interfere. “Is everything all right over here?” he asked, pleasantly, to the back of the boor in question. The woman—well, the girl—flashed him a grateful look over her would-be suitor’s shoulder.

That earned him a growled, “Fuck off,” and Michele had to bite back a groan. He recognized that voice.

“Ah, Xanxus. Just the fellow I was looking for.” He took his life in his hands and brought a hand down on the boy’s nape, pulling him off the girl, who immediately seized her chance to escape and eeled away from Xanxus. “Come, walk with me.”

He was no mountain like Piero or Paolo, but he managed to keep his grip on Xanxus all the same, at least until he’d marched the boy outside. “Let go of me,” Xanxus snarled, and finally wrenched free of him on the terrace.

“Mm,” Michele said, looking him over. “You’re what, seventeen now?”

Xanxus just glared at him, death in his eyes. “Eighteen.”

“Right,” Michele said, blithely enough, but keeping a wary eye on him. “Now, as I remember, girls can be difficult at that age—” It was a lie, but a small one, in service to a good cause. “—But if you have to force them, you’re doing everything all wrong.”

Xanxus growled at him. “She didn’t have any business saying no to me.”

Michele forgot to smile, and just stared at him. “The hell she didn’t,” he managed, after a moment. “She has every right to say no if she likes.”

“Not to the Vongola,” Xanxus said, stubborn, and Michele felt his blood run cold at the solid conviction in his eyes.

“Yes, even to the Vongola,” he said, sharply. “Being the Vongola means that you have a responsibility to your people. You don’t rule them because you dominate them. You rule them because they trust you to. And even then, they still have their rights.”

It was hopeless, and he knew it before he’d even opened his mouth. Xanxus barely let him finish before rolling his eyes. “Whatever. Are we done here?”

Michele nodded, short and annoyed. “I suppose so. Leave the girls alone,” he added, sharp. “I’ll be watching you.”

Xanxus looked him over and sneered, and the pushed his way past Michele, heading back inside to the reception.

Michele looked up at the sky and took a long breath, making a note to himself to speak to the Ninth later. Someone had better take the boy in hand, and soon. His sense of what it meant to be one of the Vongola was completely askew.

“You have a problem,” Maria said, without any preliminaries, as she let herself into the Ninth’s office.

As usual, she had to wait for them to catch up with her. “Which of us?” the Ninth asked, while his son and Gianni blinked at her.

“You,” she said, leveling her finger at him. “But you’re going to have this problem too,” she told Federico. “Especially if that old fool you call a father doesn’t get this cleared up soon.”

“I can’t do that if you don’t tell me what it is,” the Ninth said, too cheerful by half.

He ought to have known better by this point.

“Xanxus,” Maria said, and folded her arms. The smile slid off the Ninth’s face.

“What’s he done this time?” Federico groaned.

“Nothing. Yet.” Maria held up her hand for them to wait while she finished. “I don’t know who you think you’re planning on leaving all this to when they cart you out of here in a pine box, but I can tell you that everyone sure seems to think that it’s going to be Xanxus. Especially Xanxus himself. Twenty years old and he’s the lord of creation. If you don’t want to cause yourself a headache later on, you’ll set him straight now.”

The Ninth held up a hand before either Gianni or Federico could say anything. “You’re quite sure of this?”

“Don’t be an idiot. Would I have told you otherwise?” she asked.

The Ninth glanced at his son. “You see what you might have to look forward to from the Cloud?”

“I can hardly wait,” Federico said, drily.

“This isn’t a laughing matter,” Gianni said, quietly; well, he always had been a sensible one. His shadow Fedele seemed to be listening, too. Good. “Xanxus does have his supporters. And you do seem to favor him outrageously.”

“Would you like to add ‘I told you so’ to that?” the Ninth returned.

“It hardly seems necessary,” Gianni murmured.

The Ninth sighed, fingers smoothing over the mustache that had finally finished going grey. “I’ll have to speak with him.” He looked at Federico. “You may have a fight on your hands, my boy. I doubt he’ll serve you, else.”

At least Federico had the wisdom to look sensibly nervous at the thought. “I’ll do what I have to, if it’s for the Family.”

“Of course you will,” Maria said, and directed her attention back to the Ninth. “Do it soon,” she told him. “You can’t afford to wait.”

“I,” the Ninth said, easing himself down into his seat after the Tomasso delegation had finally been placated and shown out, “am getting too damn old for this. I should retire.”

“Bite your tongue, Dad,” Federico said, with a tired grin, and hooked a finger in the knot of his tie, loosening it. “If you retire now, who’s going to deal with the Tomasso?”

“Not me,” the Ninth said, with great feeling. “That’s the whole point.” He glanced past his son to Iemitsu. “Still think it’s an honor and a privilege to be the outside advisor?”

“Of course, sir,” Iemitsu told him, keeping his face straight. Then he added, “It’s just a big damn pain in the ass, too.”

They all laughed, except for Maria, but even she smiled, just a bit. “You’re not wrong there,” the Ninth said, with a rueful smile. “The whole thing’s a pain in the ass. But once we finish getting the Tomasso put to bed, you’ll have some time to go visit that little family of yours.”

Iemitsu ducked his head, trying not to grin too hard at the thought. “Thank you, sir.”

“Perhaps I’ll go with you,” the Ninth mused, and his Guardians exchanged glances. “I understand that Japan is a fairly traditional retirement destination.”

Federico looked up, entire posture gone still in the process of shrugging off his jacket. “Dad?”

The Ninth looked back at him, mouth quirking under his mustache. “What?”

They all watched as Federico slipped out of his jacket, and hung it over the back of his chair before he spoke, carefully light. “If you’re not careful, we’re going to take you at your word there, and boot you out the door.”

“And why shouldn’t you take me seriously?” The Ninth leaned back in his chair. “You’re as old as I was when your grandmother retired. It’s time I found myself a beach somewhere and spent my dotage basking, don’t you think?”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” Michele sighed, as Federico and Fedele both goggled at the Ninth. “Can there be umbrella drinks, too? I think there needs to be umbrella drinks.” He grinned. “And pretty girls to serve them to us.”

“I don’t believe we were invited along,” Rafaele said, dry as dust, but Iemitsu thought he looked like he regretted it. Even Paolo looked thoughtful about the prospect.

“Why not?” the Ninth asked, with a grin. “Umbrella drinks for all of us, and we can let the kids get on with the business of running this place.” He glanced at his son. “If they’re ready for it.”

Federico glanced at Fedele, who shrugged. “Up to you, Boss,” he said. “You know I’ll go wherever you do.”

“Never doubted it for a moment,” Federico told him, and looked at his father. “I’m as ready as anyone can be, Father. If you’re ready to step down, then I’m ready to take your place.”

“Good, good.” Timoteo nodded. “After we finish with the Tomasso, then. We’ll start the transfer of power after all that is taken care of.” He brought his hands together. “Until then, I think a bottle of wine will have to serve us in the place of the umbrella drinks. Someone ring for that, would you?”

Fedele leaped to do as the Ninth had requested as the rest of them laughed and crowded around Federico to offer him their congratulations and advice.

Afterwards, Iemitsu always wondered that none of them, not even him, had thought to wonder how Xanxus would take the news of his adopted brother’s impending elevation to the position of the Tenth. In retrospect, it was an unforgivable oversight.

Michele, of all his Guardians, stayed closest to him during the hideous four days when no one knew where Federico, his third son, his successor-to-be, had disappeared to. When Timoteo looked at him, Michele’s tight, anxious expression, all his characteristic energy and good humor absent, felt like looking into a mirror. Federico wasn’t the only one who’d gone missing, after all. Fedele had been with him when he’d gone missing, as could only be expected of Federico’s right hand.

“I hate the waiting,” Michele said to him, on the second day, “but God knows I’m not sure I want it to end.”

Timoteo knew precisely what he meant. As the hours ticked past, with no word from Federico and no demands from the Vongola’s enemies, the ones who’d be delighted to use this lever against him, it became more and more difficult to hold on to hope, especially when the eyes of his people turned bleak, and then refused to meet his at all.

Timoteo waited, and hoped against all expectation of hope, and prayed, while Michele kept vigil with him, looking suddenly old, motionless except for the unceasing movement of the beads through his fingers and the prayers on his lips. Gianni stepped in Timoteo’s place while they waited, and young Iemitsu too, handling the Vongola’s business as well as Timoteo had ever managed to do.The rest of his Guardians worked tirelessly, searching for their lost nephews-by-proxy.

Enrico and Massimo and their families stayed where the Vongola’s footsoldiers could watch over them. Timoteo tried to look past the calculation in their faces, the way they looked each other with the weight of a shifting landscape in their eyes.

Of Xanxus he saw very little at all.

They sent Rafaele with the news.

He let himself into the south study quietly, shutting the door behind himself gently, as if too loud a noise would cause injury. Timoteo had been standing by the window, and turned at the first sound of the latch.

He could tell by the bowed line of Rafaele’s shoulders that there was news, and that it wasn’t good. “Rafaele,” he said, softly.

His Rain wouldn’t meet his eyes as he crossed the room, feet soundless on the thick pile of the carpet. He knelt, and pressed his forehead against the back of Timoteo’s hand. “Boss,” he said, very softly.

“Tell me,” Timoteo said, watching the convulsive way Michele’s hands tightened on his rosary.

“I’m so sorry, Boss,” Rafaele said, voice full of regret. “We’ll find who did this to him.”

“Fedele?” Michele said, hoarse, while Timoteo closed his eyes against the hurt of knowing for sure.

“No sign yet,” Rafaele said softly. “We haven’t stopped looking.”

“He can’t be far,” Michele said, voice gone thin and grey. “He wouldn’t have let that happen.”

No, he wouldn’t have, because Michele had named his son well. Timoteo opened his eyes. “What do you know?” he asked, when he thought he could bear it.

“Not… very much.” Rafaele hesitated, and climbed to his feet, grunting with it. He looked aside from both of them. “There’s—not very much left. Bone, mostly. It took dental records to make the identification.” He paused, swallowed. “Whoever did this… used fire to cover their tracks.”

Fire. As Michele’s head came up from his rosary, Timoteo said, “I see.”

“Fire,” Michele repeated, softly. “Flame. Boss—”

“I know.” Timoteo turned away from his two Guardians and the looks in their eyes. “I know.”

“Surely not,” Rafaele said. “His own brother—”

“Why not?” Timoteo asked, hearing the detachment in his own voice. “It’s a time-honored tradition. My own mother was quite ruthless with my uncles, remember?” And she had warned him to be careful with his own children, to boot. Why hadn’t he listened? “Oh, my boy,” he said, softly. “My boy, my boy…”

Even he wasn’t quite sure which of his sons he meant.

They found Fedele not long after they’d dispatched someone to the main house to tell the Ninth about Federico. Paolo had expected as much.

Fedele was still breathing, which he hadn’t expected at all.

No one had, actually, and it took a moment of staring at the mess of the man—bloody, unconscious, gasping for breath—for Paolo’s search party to decide what to do and how to react, when it was clear from the expressions on everyone’s faces that everyone was wondering how Fedele had managed to survive when Federico had not.

Paolo broke free of his paralysis first. “Vito, start the first aid,” he barked. “Don’t let him die on us now. He’s the only witness we’ve got.”

Vito sprang forward to do as ordered; he was field-trained and their best medic, and Paolo had selected him when hoping against sense and reason that they would find Federico alive. If anyone could keep Fedele alive just a little longer, Vito would be the one to do it.

“Someone get an ambulance and make sure the hospital is ready for us,” Paolo continued; Franco was already peeling away from them, running for the cars and civilization at a dead sprint. “Get word to the Ninth and the Sun!” Paolo called after him, and Franco raised a hand to indicate that he had heard.

“Sir.” Vito’s strained voice interrupted him before he could give any more orders. Paolo turned to see that the man was looking up from where he was kneeling over Fedele.

The bottom dropped out of Paolo’s stomach; surely the boy hadn’t lasted for four days only to die now— “What?”

“He’s trying to say something,” Vito said, slow, face gone shuttered and still. “You should hear.”

Paolo dropped to his knees next to Fedele, grunting at the ache of them, and bent close. The hiss and rattle of Fedele’s gasps for breath didn’t make sense, not at first, and Paolo frowned. “I don’t—” he began, and then stopped as the sibilants resolved into a word—a name.

“Xanxus,” Fedele said, each rasped syllable broken by a gasp for breath. “Xanxus has… the boss. Got to stop him. Got to…” He coughed, deep and wet, and the only thing Paolo could make out of the rest was Federico’s name.

“Shh,” Paolo told him. “We have Federico already.” It was the kindest thing he could think of to tell the boy.

Fedele stared up at him, eyes fever-bright and burning. “Alive…?” he rasped, flailing a hand and fisting it in Paolo’s coat.

“Shh,” Paolo hushed him again, wrapping his hands around Fedele’s and gripping it. “Save your strength. You’re going to need it.”

Federico had picked well when he’d chosen his right hand; Fedele made a sound, low and raw, and closed his eyes. “No…”

There wasn’t anything to say to that, so Paolo gripped his hand and stayed by him until the team of doctors came through the trees for him.

Gianni brought the report to the Ninth, carrying it from the hospital where Fedele was struggling with his injuries and infections and demons. “He’s awake again,” he announced, when he’d let himself into the Ninth’s study and had shut the door behind him.

The Ninth didn’t move from where he sat, hunched and exhausted, at his desk.

Gianni placed himself on the carpet before the Ninth’s desk, and drew a breath to steel himself for the report. “Fedele is willing to testify that he and Federico were lured away from the Vongola house by Xanxus, and were ambushed by him in a secluded location near where we found them. Fedele says he went down fighting Xanxus, and does not know precisely what happened to Federico, but will swear to it that Xanxus and Federico were fighting each other before he lost consciousness.” Gianni paused, and took another breath. “He insists that Xanxus shot first. Without provocation.”

The Ninth moved, slowly, passing a hand over his face; he seemed to have aged ten years in the past five days. “Yes. I had… thought that would have been the way of it.” He sounded exhausted. Resigned.

“What are your orders?” Gianni asked, when the Ninth didn’t say anything else.

The Ninth turned his chair away from him, staring out the window over the gardens. “It is traditional for a Family’s heirs to fight each other for the position,” he said, when he finally spoke. “Especially when there are multiple strong candidates.”

“Xanxus isn’t a candidate, Boss,” Gianni told him, after sucking in his breath sharply. “He’s not your son by blood. He’s not legitimate.”

“No. No, not technically. But he has the fire for it. The strength for it.” The Ninth fell silent again. “One must always think of what will be best for the Family.”

“Whatever that may be, it isn’t Xanxus,” Gianni told him, hearing the harshness in his own voice and hating the necessity of it. “Xanxus doesn’t give a damn about the Family. All he cares about is what the Family will do for him.”

“And yet that may be all that is necessary.” The Ninth’s voice was cool, remote—clinical right down to the heart of it. “He has enough of an instinct for self-preservation to remove Federico. He isn’t stupid at all. If he becomes the Tenth, he will have to hold the Family together in order to make it serve his desires. In the end, that’s all it really takes.”

“Boss…” Gianni stopped, and drew a deep breath. “Timoteo. Is that what you want the Vongola to become?”

“No, of course it isn’t.” The Ninth looked at him, eyes dark and full of pain. “But I wonder if it’s something I have a choice in, now?”

“There’s always a choice,” Gianni said, low. “You know that as well as I do. The question isn’t that. It’s whether we have the courage to make it.”

The Ninth looked away again. “No,” he said. “The time to make that choice is past. And because I chose wrongly, Federico has paid for it.”

“But Xanxus, Boss,” Gianni said, hands knotting at his sides. “You can’t leave the Vongola to him. Enrico and Massimo don’t have the fire, true, but they’re still better than Xanxus. I’m telling you this as your Mist, as your right hand, and as your friend. Don’t do this to our Family. Please.” When that didn’t seem like it was reaching the Ninth, he forced himself to add, “For the sake of your son’s memory, if for no other reason.”

Judging by the sound the Ninth made, he could have shot the man and hurt him less. Gianni held his ground, and kept his gaze steady, hating himself for it, and after a moment, the Ninth looked away. “Tell him,” the Ninth said, low and harsh. “Tell him why he won’t be the Tenth, no matter how many of his brothers he kills.”

Gianni exhaled, carefully, and bowed as low as he could manage. “Yes, Boss,” he said, quietly. “Thank you. For the sake of our Family.”

“Leave me,” the Ninth said, turning away from him.

Gianni swallowed hard, and let himself out.

“Ready?” Gianni asked, as they stood outside the door to Xanxus’ rooms.

“No,” Rafaele told him, frank about it since there was no way of being ready for this. He expected that Xanxus probably wouldn’t attack them, not here in the heart of the Vongola mansion, with most of the other Guardians present as well, but he almost welcomed him to try, just so they’d have the excuse. “Let’s get this over with.”

Gianni snorted at him, shifted the papers he carried to his off hand, and knocked.

Xanxus didn’t answer; instead, a girl came shuffling to the door, barely decent, and that only because the man’s shirt she wore came down to her thighs. She blushed to see them standing there, which was something, anyway. “Yes?” she asked, uncertainly, brushing messy hair out of her eyes.

“We’re here to see Xanxus,” Gianni said, kindly enough. “Tell him that it’s Family business.”

“Oh,” she said, sleepy eyes going wide, and held the door open for them. “I’ll just—if you’ll come in—I’ll go wake him?”

“If you would, please,” Rafaele murmured, as she ushered them into the sitting room of Xanxus’ suite.

“It’s going on eleven in the morning,” Gianni muttered to him, as they stood and waited. “Honestly.”

“It’s nothing unusual for him, I gather,” Rafaele returned, easily enough, despite his own disapproval. Perhaps it was the boy’s age, though, and because of the pretty creature who’d answered the door, and not any more sinister motive.

The girl came creeping out of the suite’s inner rooms after a few minutes, head bowed and clothes messy enough to indicate a hurried dressing, and let herself out without a word. Xanxus kept them waiting several minutes more, and when he finally appeared, he was freshly showered and wearing an impeccable suit.

Rafaele doubted that he’d taken such care with his appearance out of any respect for their business.

“Well?” Xanxus said, after he’d cast himself into the massive, ornate arm chair that dominated the room. “What do you want?” He smirked up at them, as if daring them to say anything about his attitude.

“Fedele Rizzo has been found,” Gianni said, voice chilly and professional. “He has indicated that he and Federico Vongola were attacked by you, wholly without provocation.”

Xanxus’ expression flickered, just briefly, uneasiness crossing it, before he shrugged. “So what?”

“The forensic evidence that we’ve recovered from Federico’s body indicates that the flames used to kill him were not the ordinary kind,” Gianni continued, still dry and relentless—what Rafaele privately thought of as his courtroom voice, the one Gianni adopted to execute difficult Family business. “As all three other Sky Flame users within the Vongola are accounted for, and the Sky is itself a fairly rare attribute, it seems clear from the evidence that you were the one who killed Federico Vongola.”

Xanxus had gotten a good grip on his face by this point, and the only thing that he showed now was lazy indifference. “So what?” he said, again. “He was in my way.”

“As it so happens, he was not,” Gianni said, calmly, and Rafaele held himself ready, keeping a wary eye on Xanxus as Gianni gestured with his sheaf of papers.

Uncertainty crossed Xanxus’ face again. “What the fuck does that mean?” he demanded, after a moment. “The old man was all set to retire and let him take over, wasn’t he?”

“Of course he was,” Gianni said. “Federico actually was his son, after all. You are merely his adopted son.”

Xanxus stared at them, eyes gone dark and opaque. “Bullshit.” He raised a hand, Flame and wrath wrapped around it, oppressively heavy. “He said it himself. This is a Vongola Flame.”

“While it is true that the Sky Flame is most commonly found in the Vongola Family, it is not unheard of in other Families,” Gianni carried on, each word precise in the face of Xanxus’ crackling Flame. “The Giglio Nero are known to possess it, and we have reports that the young Cavallone does as well.”

“The old man said it himself,” Xanxus insisted, fierce. “He said that this is the Vongola Flame. He said that I was his son.”

“He said no such thing,” Gianni said, contradicting him in the flattest tones possible. “I was there, if you’ll recall, and the only thing that he said was that the Flame appeared to be a Vongola Flame. You and your mother inferred the rest.”

Xanxus stared at them for a long moment, and then laughed, short and ugly. “So what?” he demanded. “You don’t have any proof that I’m not, and I have the Flame. What else matters?”

Rafaele didn’t have to be watching Gianni to know that he was raising his eyebrows in that infuriatingly superior way he had. “Proof?” Gianni repeated, tone deceptively mild, and Rafaele kept a close watch on Xanxus, who hadn’t sat in on enough of the Vongola’s business meetings to know how dangerous that tone was. “I have copies here of four paternity tests, for you and your adoptive brothers. Yours is the only one that turns up negative. You are not now, nor have you ever been, Timoteo Vongola’s son, except in the adoptive sense and in his patience with your arrogance in assuming that you were.”

“You’re lying,” Xanxus said, low and vicious, both hands wreathed in Flame and desperation. “You’ve never liked me, and now that that little shit Federico is dead, you’re coming up with lies to keep me from my rightful place.”

“Please.” Gianni drawled the word out, sounding bored. “You’re dealing with the right hand of the Vongola, boy. Give me some credit for knowing my business.” He dropped the sheaf of papers on the low table before Xanxus. “I have known the Ninth all his life. While your mother was conceiving you, he was sitting in the best hospital in Rome, holding his wife’s hand and watching her die by inches. He was not unfaithful to her then, and he hasn’t been since. But he’s a kind-hearted man, and chose to show more mercy to a madwoman and her son than either of them deserved. And you’ve repaid him by destroying his youngest son and the Vongola’s best hope for the future.”

Xanxus stared at him, something like doubt appearing in his eyes. Then he covered it with rage. “Get out,” he snarled at them. “Get the fuck out of my sight.”

“As you like,” Gianni said, and they began edging backwards, towards the door, not trusting their backs to him. “We do ask that you refrain from killing either Enrico or Massimo. The Vongola cannot spare any more of its sons.”

“Get out!” Xanxus roared, reaching for the nearest object at hand.

They ducked into the hall and shut the door just in time to dodge the thrown lamp. The crash of its shattering against the wall was shortly followed by the sound of other crashes, which were themselves accompanied by a steady stream of roared curses.

“You didn’t tell him about the family tree,” Rafaele noted, neutrally, after a moment.

“It’s in the papers,” Gianni said, straightening his tie, face still. “He’ll find it when he looks through them.”

“If he looks at them,” Rafaele said, after a moment to consider it. And even if he did, it was entirely possible that Xanxus wouldn’t find being one of the descendants of the Second good enough.

“That’s not really something that concerns me,” Gianni said, clipped.

“I suppose it’s not,” Rafaele agreed, because he couldn’t deny that there was a certain dark satisfaction in finally seeing something punch through the shell of Xanxus’ arrogance after twelve years of dealing with it. He pushed himself away from Xanxus’ door. “Come on. After that, I need a drink.”

“You need a drink?” Gianni retorted, falling in with him. “All you did was watch.”

“I watched your back,” Rafaele corrected him.

The crashes and the curses continued behind them as they bickered their way down the hall, away from Xanxus’ room.

The crowd at Federico’s funeral was notable for its absences, gaps which were conspicuous among the faces of those who were present. Most prominent was Fedele’s, though he could hardly have been expected to rise from the hospital bed where he was still fighting off the effects of exposure and infection in order to attend. (Although it hadn’t stopped him from trying, and Iemitsu was only glad that they’d been able to stop him in time.)

Xanxus was absent as well, though mafia tradition had never precluded the triumphant presence of one candidate for succession at the funeral of his opponent. That was just as well, Iemitsu decided, since good taste did forbid such a thing.

More troubling, he decided, as he circulated through the crowd, was the undercurrent of talk that connected Fedele’s absence to Xanxus’. It was a nonsensical thing to suggest, of course, but that didn’t stop more than a few people from whispering as much to each other.

Federico’s wife and daughter were present, but the remote expression on Aminta’s face spoke of the bags she had already packed, and her intention to remove herself and her daughter from the Vongola house as soon as the funeral had ended. He hadn’t been present for the conversation she’d had with her father-in-law, but they all knew by now that she’d vowed that she and her daughter would have no more to do with the Vongola.

Much good as a vow like that could do her. Still, Iemitsu wished her luck.

Enrico and Massimo were both present as well, but their minds were clearly miles away—on the line of succession, now that Xanxus had vanished to parts unknown and the named heir was dead. Neither had demonstrated the flare for command that Federico had possessed, but… running a Family didn’t demand a flare, necessarily. It just demanded competence.

They both had that.

Now they eyed each other warily, speaking to each other in commonplaces, while they calculated their chances of becoming the Tenth now that the opportunity had been so precipitously opened to them.

Damn Xanxus, anyway, for having upset the careful balance that the Ninth’s sons had worked out among themselves, because Iemitsu had a sinking feeling that the argument between Enrico and Massimo was going to be a bitter one.

Really, he was entirely grateful that his own position as the outside advisor had removed him from the line of succession altogether. That was one less headache in his life, anyway.

Maria let herself into the Ninth’s study quietly, and waited for him and Gianni to acknowledge her presence. “I’ve found Xanxus,” she said, when they looked up. “Alive, even,” she added, which was, in her opinion, an absolute pity.

It had an electrifying effect on the Ninth. He sat up straighter, and passed a hand over his face. “Oh, thank God,” he sighed. “I’d feared he’d gone and done something—rash.”

Both she and Gianni pretended not to notice the dampness in his eyes. “Don’t make stupid assumptions, you senile old man,” she retorted. “He’s taken up with the Varia.” That was rashness enough to fill a book.

Gianni made a sound, surprised, and then thoughtful. “How appropriate.”

“Gianni.” The Ninth’s voice was low, colder than Maria had ever heard him be with one of them, though the Ninth had been remarkably cool towards his right hand in the weeks since Federico’s death.

Gianni flinched, and then raised his hands. “I mean no offense,” he said, quickly. “But the Varia would suit his personality, don’t you think? Give him some direction?”

“I can’t argue with that last,” Maria observed. “He’s found plenty of direction with them. Hell, he’s taken over.”

That made the Ninth forget his anger. “He has?” he said, sharply, and then frowned. “Pity. That Squalo showed a great deal of promise, especially for someone so young.”

“Squalo stepped aside, it seems,” Maria corrected him, since the Ninth was bound and determined to leap to conclusions today.

“Wise of him,” Gianni muttered. His voice was low enough that the Ninth let it pass unremarked.

“That’s good,” the Ninth said, and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands together and tapping them against his lips. “Have you seen him, then?”

“He wasn’t receiving visitors,” Maria said, bland, which covered a multitude of the sins committed when the Varia had tried to throw her out, and the curses Xanxus had shouted after her, about the Ninth.

The Ninth was so used to taking her word as whole and complete that he didn’t ask for more. “Ah…”

“Give it time, Boss,” Gianni suggested.

The Ninth sighed again. “Time, yes. Time will do it, I hope.”

A pretty platitude, but not for Xanxus, Maria thought. Not for his rage. But perhaps the Ninth would be able to Will himself a miracle with his adopted son. She’d seen him do it before.

All the same, counting on a miracle was nothing but foolishness, she decided, catching Gianni’s eye and giving him a significant look.

He caught up with her a few minutes after she’d excused herself. “What is it?” he asked.

“The Varia,” Maria said. “I don’t like the looks of the ones Xanxus is gathering to himself. Don’t much like the look of Xanxus, either.”

“How so?” he asked.

“You ever seen a dog go rabid?” she asked him, and watched his eyebrows drift up. “They’ll turn on anyone when they do. Even their masters. Especially their masters.”

He took a breath. “The Varia?”

“I want to keep an eye on them,” she said. “And step up security.” These days, with Xanxus, surely it was better safe than sorry.

“Done,” he said, and Maria gave thanks for a man who was willing to be sensible. There were so very few of them, one had to acknowledge them. “Speak with the twins and do whatever you think is necessary. I’ll get the Ninth to agree somehow.”

“Done,” she said, and turned away. The Ninth couldn’t over-rule them when it came to his own safety, after all—that was what Guardians were for, and they were damn well not going to let Xanxus get away with any more slaughter than he already had.

The Ninth would just have to get used to it.

– end –

War of Aggression

Squalo meets Xanxus and Xanxus meets the Varia, and everything follows from that. Beginning overlaps the end of “Blood Will Tell“. Drama, I-4, Squalo->Xanxus UST

The sword was everything to Squalo—the purity of a single goal and the cleanness of perfection. In a world that hid so much, despite the stark edges of every word and action, the sword was one thing that made perfect sense. It made him a little crazy that no one else seemed to understand that.

Really crazy.

He’d started his training journey hoping to find other people who understood, looking for them eagerly around every new corner, and a few even seemed to. But only a few, the ones it took a few days to defeat.

He had started out killing only when the fight went that way, when the swords called for it: the man in northern China, with the hawk that watched them fight and flew when he fell, the old man in France who’d torn a line through Squalo’s ribs and smiled with his last breath, blood trickling past his bared teeth. After a while, though, Squalo started asking the swords for it, asking to obliterate disappointment after disappointment. It was only a small ease, but it was something.

Even that wore thin after a while, and he killed indifferently. Perfection was the only thing left to chase; someone else to understand it was obviously too much to ask the world for.

When he returned, Tyr shook his head and told him he’d live happier if he served the Vongola instead of the sword. Squalo wanted to scream his denial of that, but he didn’t use his voice to do it; it was better to let his sword answer, scream after scream of steel on steel through the hours, through the slant and set of sunlight, as his breath came light and burning in his lungs. He didn’t bother telling Tyr’s body that he would serve the sword; Tyr’s body already knew.

Walking among the Vongola was like walking among any other people—like walking through paper dolls, clumsy and thin, only a few of them with any fire in them and that infuriatingly hidden. He went where he was asked, showed around to the few who knew what he would be, and it meant nothing.

Until him.

Squalo didn’t even know who he was, at first, only that in a garden full of thin, airy people, he was dark and dense and hot, hot enough to melt even sword steel. When Squalo asked his name, burning eyes slid through him and he barely heard the answer.


Squalo had never known a human could be a sword, be that single of mind, that perfectly focused—that crazy. It only took a few days to realize the last part, but by then he didn’t care.


"The Varia." Xanxus frowned a little. "Who are they?"

Squalo cocked his head; did the Boss hold that back even from his sons? Well, he hadn’t been told not to tell the heirs, so it didn’t matter really. "We’re the Vongola’s assassins. We’re the best."

The fire at the back of Xanxus’ eyes flared for a moment. "The best, huh?" His thin mouth curled. "That’s a start." He focused on Squalo and Squalo almost swayed back with the weight of it. "Show me."

"Our headquarters are in a different house."

Xanxus shrugged. "So?"

After a moment, Squalo laughed. Of course it wouldn’t make any difference; nothing would make any difference to this man or mark the purity of his purpose. He swept out his right hand and bowed with a flourish, half mocking and dead serious. "Right this way."

They walked past the mansion’s guards without a word, and Squalo saw the way Xanxus’ eyes marked where each one stood, aware of every target around him. They took the best car from the garages; Xanxus pulled the keys out of the cabinet and tossed them at Squalo, who shrugged. It was appropriate, wasn’t it?

He did want to see, some time, how Xanxus would drive, whether he’d do it as fast and hard as he walked and spoke and looked, but that could wait.

They were waved through into the sprawling old building the Varia kept, as soon as the guards there recognized Squalo, and no one commented about the man he was showing around the white plastered training rooms. People did gather, though.

"Weak," Xanxus muttered, eyes passing over the lower ranks working out, adding cuts and craters to the walls, to be patched over like all the others. Squalo snorted and nodded toward the far corner where Viper was playing mind games with one of the stronger of the new recruits. Xanxus watched, not blinking as walls appeared and vanished, as Levi punched through them trying to reach his opponent. "Hmph." Finally he pushed away from the wall. "All right, then. I’ll take the Varia."

A startled sound ran through the watchers and one of the squad leaders shouldered forward. "Only the Varia decide who we’ll recruit and accept. Who says you’re good enough for us?"

"I say he is." Squalo’s flat voice cut through the mutter of agreement and stilled it.

Xanxus paused in his step forward to turn and glare at him. "And who are you?"

"The leader of the Varia." Squalo lifted his chin, matching Xanxus’ hot stare. A corner of Xanxus mouth curled up, neither a smile nor a snarl.

"Not any more."

"Not any more," Squalo agreed, voice a little husky despite himself, because standing under Xanxus’ eyes was like standing in a fire.

"Fucking right, not any more, if you give it up that easy," Fazio called, moving up to stand across from them. His squad second, the one who’d protested the most when Squalo, instead of Fazio, took over after Tyr, stood at his shoulder and suddenly there was a block coming together. Squalo curled his lip and reached for his sword; his new left hand wasn’t ready yet, but he could take these right handed and end this now.

Light flickered at the corner of his eye and he glanced over, breath catching as what had to be the Vongola Flame gathered in Xanxus’ bare hand. Squalo looked up at him, at his suddenly fixed smile and the rage in his eyes, and bent his head, stepping back.

He watched, leaning against the uneven wall, while Xanxus’ fists pounded the third squad leader until he couldn’t have three unbroken bones left, while Xanxus shot Fazio’s second five times and barely looked at him, while Xanxus closed his burning hand on Fazio’s face and blasted his head off. In the silence afterwards, broken only by Xanxus’ hard breaths hissing past his teeth, Squalo looked around and nodded.

"Looks like that’s that, then." He waited until Xanxus looked at him and a little of the killing glaze left his eyes, and added, "Boss."

Xanxus flexed his hand, breath steadying, shoulders relaxing a little. "Damn right."

Xanxus took over rooms on the west side with a balcony hidden behind trees; Squalo was glad, because Xanxus wanted to see him at odd times and he didn’t much care for the insipid atmosphere of the main headquarters.

"So what is it you want, anyway?" he asked one afternoon, leaning against the balcony’s rough stone rail, watching Xanxus slouch in one of the two chairs. He asked half just to see the fire in Xanxus’ eyes flare, but half because he was really starting to wonder.

"The Vongola," Xanxus growled.

"So you’re passing the time here until the Ninth kicks off?" Squalo’s mouth twisted, but he couldn’t manage too much bitterness. The time he had to be near this fire was more than he might have expected to get from one of the heirs.

"I’m not going to wait for that."

Squalo started upright, wavering on the rail before he caught himself, eyes wide as he stared at the thin, crooked smile Xanxus was wearing. "You… what?"

Xanxus looked up and Squalo got lost again in the raw ferocity of his gaze. "They won’t let me inherit."

"I thought you were favored for it, now that Federico is dead," Squalo said slowly. He swore he’d heard at least half the under-bosses of the Family talking about how they’d want Xanxus to be the Tenth.

"Not by the old bastard. Not by any of the old men." Xanxus didn’t move from his slouch in the dappled shade, but violence in waiting sang from the line of his shoulders, the tension of his hands. It made Squalo a little breathless.

"So you’re going to take it anyway?" he asked, low, eyes fixed on Xanxus. "Take it now?"

Xanxus smiled up at him, teeth bared, and the weight of his intent nearly buckled Squalo’s knees. "Yeah."

Squalo’s brain finally kicked into gear. "That’s why you want us?"

"Mm." Xanxus’ intensity banked again and he picked up his glass and drained it. "Some of you anyway."

Xanxus’ particular attention to a few dozen of the Varia snapped into a pattern and Squalo laughed. This was a goal that matched that burning focus. "If that’s what you want. Boss." They both heard the difference in the way he said it, this time, and a moment of satisfaction hooded Xanxus’ eyes.

Only the strongest should lead, that was an article of faith among the Varia. As far as Squalo was concerned, Xanxus was the Tenth.

"It’s the best moment for us to go. Reborn is assigned out to the Cavallone and the outside advisor is back in Japan. The Storm will still be around, but the Cloud is out putting the fear of her into the Valetti, we can deal with her later. The Thunder is up in Venezia this month, too."

"That means we still have four of them to hit." Otello frowned, flipping a knife absently. "Will they be on the Ninth or the entrances?"

"Everyone agrees the Mist will stay on the Ninth and the Storm will go for the front line." Squalo folded his arms, leaning a hip on the scarred wood table that filled the middle of the room. "The Rain and the Sun could do either."

"Levi for the front whenever the alarm goes up, then," Carlo murmured, and the entire room chuckled. Carlo approved of his new squad member, but Levi’s enthusiasm had given even him some headaches.

"We’ll come through here," Squalo rapped a knuckle over the main entrance. "Vinci, your squad will come in from the north. Get past as many of the small fry as you can without involving them, they don’t need to know until it’s over."

Vinci flicked a glance at Xanxus, sprawled in his chair and not looking like he was paying any attention at all. Squalo rolled his eyes.

He was treating this as just another assassination, and that meant blueprints and timing and people knowing who was going to be where. Xanxus, as far as he could tell, would prefer to ditch all that and burn through the front door and every wall in his way on a straight line between him and the Ninth. It wasn’t that Squalo actually minded that, and he’d assigned himself to go in with Xanxus so he could watch it happen. Some of the others, even after six months to get used to it, weren’t taking their new boss’ brooding as calmly.

Or maybe it was just that Vinci was the one who’d been promoted to replace Fazio.

"North side. Right." Vinci said, finally, and Squalo snorted.

"Get with it, or I’ll kill you my own damn self! There’s no room for screw ups in this one."

That lit up everyone in the room, spines straightening, eyes brightening. This would, without question, be the ultimate test of their strength. A corner of Squalo’s mouth drew up. They were going to put the best, the realest Vongola in charge. The Vongola who understood strength.

The Vongola who was purest.

Sirens were going, surprise was blown, so was some of the middle of the mansion, the air was hard to breath for the hanging gunpowder, and Squalo was laughing.

This was it, this was how it should be, the unstoppable rush along that one single line toward victory. He ran at Xanxus’ back, spinning aside to cut down the men who tried to flank them, and pure exhilaration filled him, shivering down his spine every time Xanxus fired.

They had figured they would have to go through at least one of the Guardians before they even found the Ninth and the Sun was the one they ran into. Somehow Squalo wasn’t surprised.

"Xanxus!" Rizzo shouted, and Squalo saw the distant focus in Xanxus’ gaze come closer for a moment, lips pulling up off his teeth.

"Fedele! My son, you little piece of shit!"

Xanxus actually laughed at that, and Squalo fell back out of his way.

Rizzo and Xanxus left their guns aside and met with their fists, brutal and fast in the middle of the open hall. They ignored anything happening around them and almost nothing was; Squalo cut down the three defenders who had followed him and Xanxus this far through the twisting maze of hallways. Rizzo was the only one who had come from ahead. Squalo eyed the open door beyond him and smiled, teeth bared. That was one of the entrances to the vaults.

There weren’t even words to Rizzo’s shouting anymore, just raw rage as he drove fists and feet into Xanxus. Xanxus didn’t bother to answer out loud, but the glimpses Squalo got of his snarl, of the frozen hate in his eyes, were harsher than any curses.

Finally, Xanxus kicked Rizzo back toward the open door, drew his gun, and smiled. Squalo’s breath caught at the chill calculation in that look, and he dove for the floor as Xanxus fired, Flame blooming out from the path of it, cracking the walls. The shot smashed Rizzo back through the door and down the stairs, and Squalo dove after him on Xanxus’ heels.

There were more gunmen down in the vaults.

Squalo rolled and came up behind a pillar, poised to dash in to sword range, eye mapping the field. Rizzo was down; a handful of the Varia were running in from the other side of the vaults; the Ninth was to the back; Xanxus was roaring and charging towards him; the old man’s right hand was coming to meet him. The Storm and Sun were accounted for upstairs. That left…

Squalo threw himself aside as another sword cut the stone over his head. He looked up and bared his teeth at the Rain, the one who thought he was a swordsman. "Not bad. But not good enough!" He twisted his arm to draw his sword.

"You’re quick to judge that," Martelli returned, cool, and attacked again.

He was sharp and fast, the cool part of Squalo’s mind observed, and he had some fire. But not enough of it. Squalo drove in again and again, willing to pay with blood for the openings that would lead to victory, matching his still-light frame against the age of Martelli’s joints. The gash across his shoulder matched the one in Martelli’s thigh and they both had to dive apart to avoid the slashing shards of stone where Xanxus’ blast hit one of the pillars.

Martelli’s style was evasive, his sword light; he wouldn’t meet any of Squalo’s cuts straight on enough for the moves like Attacco di Squalo to work. Squalo pressed in on him, watching the line of his sword, working to cage it. Martelli turned the moment and and bound his sword for a breath. Squalo’s grin pulled a bit wider; Martelli wasn’t a true swordsman, but he was good enough to be interesting.

"Why have the Varia betrayed the Vongola?" Martelli asked, dark eyes locked with Squalo’s, pushing at his focus.

"We’ve betrayed nothing," Squalo growled back. "You lot with your pathetic, half-hearted spirits, what do you know about what’s true? How can you see it? We serve the Vongola through him." He shifted his balance and threw Martelli back, exultation leaping higher. There was the opening he wanted, as Martelli’s heel came down short, and he lunged for it, everything focused in the moment, clean and sharp and burning.

For a moment the purity of triumph kept him from feeling the pain.

"What’s true is the Family," Martelli said quietly in his ear, words cutting through the clamor and echo of the other fighting. "And what will best serve the Family is steel that’s tempered. Ruthlessness with compassion. Mercy with determination." His lips peeled back. "If you insist that we also prove the tempered blade is the strongest… I’ll trust Timoteo to do that."

Then Martelli fell and his sword ripped back out of Squalo’s side and he couldn’t completely stifle the sound he made. The cool, fluted stone of a pillar was at his back and he slid down it, staring across the floor at Martelli. He knew the truth of those words about tempering, but Xanxus…

"The best sword needs a will to wield it," he gasped. But it was too late; Martelli had passed out. Looking beyond him Squalo saw the Ninth’s right hand down as well. So it must be the Ninth himself he heard on the other side of the pillar, fighting with Xanxus.

Flame blew another chunk out of the pillar to his left and his mouth curled in a bloody smile; maybe he’d stay where he was for now.

And then the blasts stopped.

Squalo’s vision was going a bit gray at the edges, not that it was easy to tell in the darkness of the vaults. He pressed a hand tight to his side, biting down a harsh gasp, and listened. Had Xanxus won?

But no, Xanxus and the Ninth were both talking. Yelling. Squalo stared into the dark ahead of him, eyes stretched wide as he listened, and suddenly he understood the whole thing, understood why the purity of Xanxus’ rage had that edge of smoldering desperation sometimes. The cold of the stone behind and under him seeped into his bones as he listened.

When he heard shock in Xanxus’ voice and a sound he couldn’t identity, he rolled to the left, ignoring the tearing pain in his side, and saw all the passion and perfect focus he had ever wanted to follow frozen. That was the picture that followed him down into redness and then into blackness. His last, unraveling thought was that it wasn’t right. His death for failing this mission should have come at Xanxus’ hands.


Squalo stared up at the ceiling of a hospital room, watching the movement of the dim square of light reflecting off the tile floor and wondering a bit absently whether he was going to live. Having woken up here wasn’t an actual guarantee of life; they might just be saving him as a witness. The Ninth did seem to want justifications before he shot people.

When the Ninth’s right hand arrived alone and locked the door behind him, Squalo wondered some more.

Staffieri looked down at him coldly, and Squalo stared back. Finally the man spoke. "Xanxus is exiled."

Squalo laughed, even though it still hurt like hell; he couldn’t help it. "Ah. So he’s on ice, huh?"

Staffieri’s eyes narrowed. "You were conscious, then. And you didn’t stand by him?"

Squalo bared his teeth at that; they understood nothing. "And get in his way? Fuck no. Besides, without that hell technique, whatever the fuck it was, he’d have won." He took some satisfaction in the way Staffieri’s mouth tightened. He hoped the man was remembering who’d taken him down.

"Xanxus is no longer here," Staffieri continued, shifting stiffly on his feet. "And very few people know what happened that day, certainly none of Vongola’s enemies. It is the Ninth’s wish that this continue. If you will give your oath to obey only the Ninth’s orders, you will be released to take charge of the Varia once more and set it in order."

Squalo turned his eyes up to the blank ceiling again, energy and emotion alike running out of him. "Yeah. Sure I will." What was the point of doing otherwise, with Xanxus frozen in a block of fucking ice, for God’s sake? "The Varia belong to the Vongola."

And if it wasn’t the Vongola he’d wanted, well, what the hell else was he going to do?

Staffieri nodded silently and turned on his heel.

"Hey!" Squalo called, suddenly, and the man looked back over his shoulder. "Is Xanxus still alive, in there?"

Staffieri’s mouth tightened. "Yes."

And he didn’t like it, obviously. Tough. Squalo took a breath. "Is he conscious?"

Staffieri studied him for a long moment before finally answering. "I don’t believe so, no. He is… suspended, as it were."

Squalo closed his eyes. "Okay." As the door clicked open and shut he stared at the back of his eyelids and thought about that. It was about as merciful as being frozen could be; at least Xanxus wouldn’t know he was locked away like that.

A tiny thought stirred in the back of his head, suggesting that, if Xanxus ever got out, he would pick up right where he left off. Squalo shoved the thought in a mental box. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for serving the Ninth, but he didn’t want to die, either. He’d make his oath and mean it.

For as long as the Ninth lasted.

Squalo looked down the roster of the Varia and rolled his eyes. It was time to talk to Bel again about keeping down the fatalities when he played with the supporting members. He swore the little shit did it just to annoy him, because Bel was otherwise one of the most practical of the squad leaders, right up there with Mammon and far more willing to fight. He leaned back, crossing his ankles on the immovably solid desk, and scribbled a note to himself right handed as he flipped the roster back onto the desk and reached for this month’s intelligence summary.

"Boss!" The door flung open so hard the knob scarred the wood paneling and Squalo looked up with a glare.

"I told you not to call me that."

Carlo leaned against the door frame, panting, and gave him back glare for glare. "You do the work, don’t fucking argue now, something happened!"

Squalo made another note, this one mental, to "train" with Carlo some time soon; just because he was the oldest surviving squad leader, and had been in on the Cradle five years ago, didn’t mean Squalo was going to put up with any shit about this. He wasn’t the Varia’s boss; the Varia’s boss was frozen, not dead.

"Goddamn it, Squalo, listen to me! Enrico just killed Massimo!"

Squalo grunted. "Old man’s down to one, now, is he?"

His hand, reaching for the papers, halted in midair as his own words echoed back to him. Just one son left. Just one standing between the Boss’ chair and the only candidate who was also qualified. Except that he wasn’t, of course.

Except that no one but the Ninth and his Guardians, and Squalo himself, knew that. And the Ninth was obviously soft on Xanxus, even after Xanxus tried to kill him, or else why was Xanxus still alive?

He sat back, eyes fixed on Carlo, and spread his hands on the desk. "So. I guess that means Enrico is going to be the next." The next boss, he meant, of course.

The brief curl of Carlo’s lips was fierce and pleased. "Yeah. If he’s going to make it, he’d better stop picking up the girls from other Families, though. That little piece from the Vieri he’s making time with this month would sell him out for a couple of pretty rocks." The sneer that went with the statement looked totally genuine so Squalo figured he didn’t mean the kind of rocks that came in jewelry. That would make things easier; she’d be paid and dead in one shot, if he could get something pure enough through the Bolzoni.

"Well, if she’s that easy to buy off, the Family can probably pay her to leave him alone." He shrugged carelessly. "If anyone can convince him." He leaned back again, crossing his arms behind his head, and grinned at Carlo, showing his teeth. "What do you think? Maybe Lussuria could persuade him; he’s always giving everyone else relationship advice."

Carlo rolled his eyes. "If he can’t, hell, maybe Mammon can try the practical approach."

Yes. That would work. Mammon’s illusion could cover the team and Lussuria never had problems with cleaning up targets and obstacles alike. And once the last son was out of the way…

He and Carlo both smiled, slowly, eyes meeting across the desk of the Varia’s boss.

"…never actually proven, was it?"

"Even if he did kill the favorite, it’s not like the Ninth has room to be picky any more."

Squalo paused around a corner and smiled to himself. A few words dropped here and there, some squad leaders reminiscing over drinks about what an effective leader Xanxus had been, and it was amazing how the whole Family, anxious over the lack of an heir, was talking about the same man.

"Squalo!" Ricci called to him as he walked past them. "Just the man. Listen, about Xanxus…"

"Xanxus is exiled by the Ninth’s order," Squalo said flatly. The flat tone wasn’t hard when he thought about the form of that ‘exile’.

"Yes, but if he weren’t. I mean it’s not like there’s anyone else left, is there? So tell me; would he make a good Boss?"

Squalo looked aside. "I can’t speak for that," he muttered. "He was a good leader to the Varia." He watched the two underbosses out of the corner of his eye and was careful to show no satisfaction at the thoughtful looks on their faces. A man who could lead the Varia, after all, would make easy work of the rest of the Family, wouldn’t he?

"I heard you won’t let anyone call you the Varia’s boss," Gallo put in, leaning against the wall, eyes sharp.

Squalo lifted his head; this he didn’t need to fake or be careful of. "Xanxus is exiled, not dead. He’s our boss."

Ricci and Gallo exchanged a long look and Squalo turned away down the hall again, suppressing the urge to whistle cheerfully. Just a few more like that, and they’d be getting somewhere.

Three weeks later he was called in to talk to the Ninth.

"I understand you’ve been talking to people about Xanxus," the old man said, mild as milk which didn’t fool Squalo for a second.

"People have been talking to me," Squalo corrected, folding his arms. "I’m not going to lie about him, if they ask." He let his mouth twist. "Not any more than we’re all lying already."

The Ninth sat back with a sigh and his right hand gave Squalo a glare that said he’d be happy to shoot Squalo where he stood. Squalo ignored it; it wasn’t Staffieri he had to convince.

"Well," the old man said, "be honest with me, also, then. If Xanxus is released, will he make another attempt?"

It made things easier, Squalo reflected, that the Ninth obviously wanted the answer to be no. "You defeated him," he said, a bit through his teeth but that was only to be expected. "The Varia live and die by our strength, and only the strongest have the right to lead." And this time, that strength wouldn’t be betrayed by a trick, at the end. They’d plan better.

"Mmm." The Ninth folded his hands under his chin, staring at nothing.

"Boss," Staffieri said, quiet but agitated. "You can’t really be thinking…"

"I do not agree with those who say Xanxus is the only choice," the Ninth said, to both of them Squalo thought. "But we are in need of strength to protect the Family, now." He nodded to Squalo. "Thank you. You can go."

Squalo closed the door behind him on Staffieri arguing with the Ninth in a low voice, and smiled. He thought he knew who would win, in the end.

In the end, it would be Xanxus.

When he heard the raised voice, Squalo brushed past the foot soldiers standing, or trying to, in front of the vault door and into that echoing, scarred room. The other squad leaders followed him. "Boss!"

Xanxus was shaking and pale, except for the raw-looking scars over most of his skin, but he was on his feet and had breath to shout. That was all Squalo needed.

Except that the shouting cut off sharply when Xanxus saw him, and Squalo paused, cautious of the tangled shock and rage in Xanxus’ face. "Boss," he said again, offering it like a guide-rope to draw their leader back to himself, back to them.

Back to him.

"Squalo," Xanxus said, finally, voice harsh and rasping.

Squalo didn’t step forward, didn’t support Xanxus, didn’t move as Xanxus staggered toward them. They were the Varia and he was their leader, and the Ninth’s goddamn Guardians could frown all they liked. They’d never understood.

Xanxus raked his eyes over all of them, settling at last on Squalo again, and if the fire in them was wilder than it had been, well, none of them had much vested in sanity. Finally he nodded.

"Let’s go."

Squalo smiled, tight and sharp, hearing the future in those two words. "Yes, Boss."


Give One Heart

Hibari thinks it’s about time someone told Kyouko and Haru a few things. Drama, I-3

Kyouya stood, arms folded, in the shadowed doorway of the kitchen and watched Kyouko and Haru move around each other in the bright room.

He remembered the point in his past, his old past he supposed he should say, when Kyouko had finally coaxed the truth out of her brother and Sawada; it had been the first time he’d thought the girl might have teeth after all. He remembered the impressive black eye and the hangdog expression that Sasagawa and Sawada had sported, respectively, afterwards; the bruise had faded sooner. He remembered the fierceness in Sawada’s eyes when he’d demanded Kyouya’s word that he would protect the younger Kyouko and Haru, when they came forward; only after that word was given had he, reluctantly, agreed to the whole plan.

Of course, in Kyouya’s opinion, the best way to protect someone was to sharpen their teeth.

He pushed away from the door and stepped into the kitchen.

"Hibari-san!" Haru looked up with a bright smile. "Are you coming to dinner, too, tonight?"

"No," he told her, bluntly, and cast a sharp eye on Kyouko. "You’ve seen things, here, that haven’t been explained. Sasagawa believes he does you a service by keeping you in ignorance. Sawada appears to agree. What do you think?"

Her knife paused, over the vegetables on the board in front of her, and then resumed, slower. "I already know," she said, softly.

Kyouya’s brows rose.

"Not… not everything. But that they’re doing something dangerous." Her eyes were fixed on the sliced roots as she slid them onto a plate and reached for a whole one. "They won’t tell me why, but I’ve seen how they’re training, here." Her lips tightened. "And I remember, now, what happened right after I got here." She finally put the knife down and looked up. "That man was trying to kill me. And Tsuna-kun, too. I don’t know why, but I know that much."

Haru was staring at her. "Don’t know… but… Kyouko-chan, your brother is one of Tsuna-kun’s Guardians, how can you not know?"

Kyouko smiled, a little sad. "Like I said. They haven’t told me why this is happening." And then she snorted softly. "Though it was pretty obvious from the start that it wasn’t sumo wrestling."

Kyouya was glad to know she hadn’t actually bought that particular piece of inanity. It would be a shame if the boss’ wife were an idiot. He leaned a hip against the counter, watching silently to see how much these two girls could do on their own.

Haru sat down, slowly. "Kyouko-chan…" She bit her lip and then took a deep breath. "It’s the mafia. Tsuna-kun was chosen to be the next boss of a big mafia Family. Gokudera and Yamamoto and Sasagawa-san and, um," she glanced at Kyouya, "Hibari-san too were chosen to guard him. To be his own family." She frowned darkly, then, with growing indignation. "I can’t believe they didn’t tell you!"

Kyouko shook her head. "It’s all right, Haru-chan. I…" her eyes fell and one finger traced an arc back and forth on the table, "I knew enough. And I was hoping they would tell me themselves."

"Not for another three or four years," Kyouya remarked, causing a complete halt in the conversation for several breaths.

"Four. Years." Haru’s eyes glinted and she stood up. "That does it. Where are they?"

"You might want to wait on that," Kyouya told her dryly. "Tomorrow they’re going to go out after Vongola’s enemies. Pitiful grazers that they still are, they need every edge. You might not want to distract them until later."

Kyouko was looking up at him, eyes wide and dark. "That’s why you told us?"

He looked down at her silently. "I gave Sawada my word to guard you," he said, finally. "But you should be aware to guard yourselves as well." If the schedule held, they would have to, very soon.

She was silent too for a long moment, opaque thoughts moving behind soft eyes. "All right."

Haru moved to stand behind her, one hand on Kyouko’s shoulder. "We will," she said, stoutly.

He nodded and turned away. He didn’t think for a moment that they could protect themselves if they fell into Millefiore’s hands, but at least this should keep them from rushing to place themselves there out of ignorance. He trusted Sawada would appreciate that benefit. Kyouya imagined he would. Eventually.

A sharp, tiny smile curved his lips as he paced the halls back to his own section.


Saints of Palermo

The Giglio Nero boss talks to Kyouko and Haru about the other side of the mafia. Drama, I-3

A/N: The woman in this story is Uni’s mother, and for an explanation of why I think they’re actually the same person see here.

Unità leaned back, behind her desk, and gazed out the window.

"Are you going to do it?" Gamma asked, quietly.

"I think I probably am." She crossed her arms. "He made a very good offer."

Gamma frowned. "But what assurance is there that Vongola’s Ninth will honor it? Sawada may be the heir, but he isn’t the boss yet."

Unità hummed thoughtfully. "No, but he is confirmed. At sixteen, Gamma! And if they’re telling the truth, it actually happened even earlier."

"Do you think they’re telling the truth?"

She smiled up at him. "Do you?"

He gave her a disgruntled look for turning it around that way and she laughed. He leaned back against the window sill, one hand shoved in a pocket. After a long moment he said, "Yes. I guess I do." His mouth quirked. "The boys, well they’d agree the sky was green if Sawada said so, but the girls… no. They were telling the truth."

"They were pretty transparent, weren’t they? He was smart to bring them." Her eyes narrowed. "Gamma. Did that seem… strange to you?"

"Mm." He was quiet again, which she took for agreement.

"He seems very protective of them," she murmured, tracing the line of a woodgrain on her desk as if to trace her thought with the same fingertip. "Yet he brought them here, to the heart of an un-allied Family’s territory. So does he trust us that blindly or…" her voice softened, reaching the conclusion, "is it his own power he trusts?"

"After everything they seem to have gone through, I doubt he trusts blindly," Gamma answered, just as soft.

"Hm." Unità’s lips curved. "Yes. Still a bit naive, maybe, but not blind. We’ll take it." Gamma blinked as she straightened, and she smiled at him, wry. "Think of the things behind what they said, Gamma. In another six or seven years it seems that Vongola’s Tenth will be ruthless enough to let himself be killed, gambling for the future of the world, and keep the secret from his own Guardians. I think that Sawada would still ally with us, but he might not offer us such good terms as today’s Sawada." She spread her hands over the smooth surface of her desk and added quietly. "And one thing I’m sure of is that I don’t want us to have to fight the man that’s coming."

Gamma smiled back. "You take good care of your people, boss."

"Speaking of which." Unità reached for her writing paper. "I’ll have two letters to be delivered to them."

"Two? Sawada and… who else?"

"I did mention that those girls were transparent?" She nibbled on the end of her pen. Coffee, yes, that would be… unthreatening. "If we’re to be allies, I’m not letting Vongola stand around with a weakness like that hanging out where anyone can aim at it. And those boys probably won’t even see it until far too late." Her lips crimped in amusement. "Men can be that way."

Gamma opened his mouth only to close it again, a faint flush rising in his face. "Mm."

Unità had to stifle a laugh when she saw who had escorted the girls to meet her and observed the way Gokudera’s eyes followed the dark haired one. She welcomed the girls in and shooed the men out. "This is a discussion between women."

Gamma knew well enough to do as she said, but Gokudera stood his ground. "I have a duty to make sure they’re safe."

"We’re allies now, aren’t we?" she asked.

Gokudera glowered at her, possibly because she couldn’t keep her mouth from curling at the corners.

Gamma sighed faintly and stepped forward, catching Gokudera’s eye. "They will be safe here. We will guard them as though they were our own people. You have my word."

For a long moment Gokudera held Gamma’s gaze, eyes dark with, perhaps, memory. Finally he inclined his head. "I accept your word."

Unità settled in one of the armchairs arranged around a low table as the two men left. "Well, now that the posturing is out of the way," she said, dryly, "come, have a seat."

The dark haired girl, Haru, laughed a little. Unità considered her, and the quieter one, Kyouko, for a moment and leaned back with a sigh.

"I doubt Sawada or his Family will think to tell you before it’s too late, but the two of you have a decision before you. One that needs to be made now." As their eyes widened she folded her hands and asked softly, "Will you stay with them?"

"Of course we will!" Haru answered, sounding shocked.

Unità ran a hand through her hair. She’d been right; they had no idea. "This is not a kind world that I live in, that Sawada has committed himself to. It’s a dangerous and harsh world where people die just for being related to the wrong person, if a feud gets started."

Both the girls flinched at that. They knew that much, then. They still weren’t making the logical connection, though.

"You’ve been fairly safe up until now, because before he came to Sicily few people outside the Vongola took much note of Sawada," she told them as gently as she could. "But they’re noticing now. And you’ve been seen with him. It might already be too late. If you leave now, though, and never see any of them again, you should be safe. If you don’t… you’ll be targets."

Kyouko was frowning. "Why are you saying this?"

"Because you need to choose, and I believe in giving people all the facts." And having said that, she had to add, "In all fairness, there are two sides to this. You’ll be a target because the Vongola boss is very well known in our world, and very well hated by some. But it’s his power he’s hated for, and few people will be willing to cross his protection."

Haru was biting her lip, but Kyouko only looked down at her hands. "I understand," she said, softly.

Unità’s brows rose.

"I saw, when we were in the future. I heard." Kyouko looked up with a faint smile. "Hibari-san believes in giving people all the facts, too. And even before that… I knew." She looked down again. "That isn’t what makes me hesitate. It’s just…" her voice got softer still, "is there anything I can really do for him?"

It looked like Unità had underestimated this one. Which, actually, suggested an answer to Kyouko’s question, and she smiled. "Most likely, yes." She tapped a finger against her lips and decided to start at the beginning. "Bosses’ wives do different things, you know, depending on their own tastes. Some are completely private and have nothing to do with business at all. Some do negotiations in their own right. And some," she tipped her head, "some work behind the scenes. They smile and entertain guests and do the indirect negotiations." Her mouth quirked. "Or, sometimes, just charm the other side into submission." Her voice lowered. "Is that what you want? To help him with his work?"

"I… I do." Kyouko took a quick breath. "I know I’m not like Bianchi-san, but…"

"Well, he has Bianchi to be like Bianchi," Unità murmured. "Not that it wouldn’t be wise for you to learn to shoot strait and hit something hard enough to make a difference. But Sawada seems to have plenty of people with weapons already. Perhaps he could also do with someone to listen quietly and see the less obvious threats." She thought about what Gamma was to her and added, "And someone to listen to him. Even when it’s not directly about work." She tapped a finger thoughtfully on her knee, considering the differences, too. "That someone will be in danger, danger Sawada and his family will put themselves at risk to guard against, and that someone will just have to bear it. Do you have the will to do that?"

Kyouko was quiet for a moment, but when she looked up her eyes were dark with calm, deep as the ocean. "Yes."

Unità smiled. She might pay money to be present when Sawada got to discover all this. "Good."

Haru was wearing a wry smile as she listened to them. "I think you’re stronger than I am, Kyouko-chan. I’d go crazy if I had to do that." She glanced at Unità uncertainly. "I don’t want to leave either, though."

Unità looked her up and down, consideringly, and her lips curled. "I suppose it’s a good thing Kyouko is the one with the older brother, not you, so there’s no one to come pound me when I suggest this. But maybe you would be good at the, ah, other path mafia women tend to pursue."

Haru blinked at her. "Hahi?"

Unità’s smile quirked. "Wives are expected to be above reproach. Unattached women, on the other hand, have greater opportunities and greater dangers. And guns aren’t the only weapons."

Haru’s chin tucked down and some of the wide blankness slid away from her eyes. "You mean seducing people."

"I knew you couldn’t be as silly as you were acting," Unità murmured and Haru blushed. "No, no, it’s a very good act. Keep it. It will be useful." As useful, in its own way, as Kyouko’s soft-voiced sweetness. "It’s a sad truth," she continued dryly, "but the men of my country tend to be complete idiots when a woman coos at them. There’s a great deal of information to be gathered that way."

"And Kyouko-chan can’t do it," Haru finished for her. "But I could."

"Haru-chan!" Kyouko protested, sitting up straight. "I couldn’t ask you to do that!"

Haru’s smile was distinctly tilted. "Kind of the way Ryouhei-san and Tsuna-kun couldn’t ask you to deal with their being in the mafia?"

Kyouko stopped short, mouth open for a moment before she shut it with a click. Her hands twisted together, but finally she murmured, "If… if you’re sure it’s what you want to do."

"I want to think about it. But…" the sparkle in Haru’s eyes almost hid their sharpness, "it sounds fun. And useful," she added, under her breath, expression suddenly mulish.

Unità stifled a chuckle. "You should definitely learn to shoot straight, then. Perhaps you can ask Gokudera to teach you."

Kyouko’s eyes flicked up to hers as Haru blushed and sputtered a bit, and her lips curved in a tiny smile. Yes, Unità had thought both girls had their lines of sight straight, between them. The young men were thoroughly bracketed.

"On that subject," she went on, more seriously, "Haru, you have to stop your silliness about becoming Sawada’s wife."

Haru waved a hand. "It’s only to tease him. I know there’s no chance—"

"That’s not the point." Unità leaned forward, willing her to understand. "You and Kyouko may know it’s a game. Sawada will likely realize soon himself, if he hasn’t already. But outsiders will see it as a weakness in Vongola’s unity, and you can’t ever let that happen. That’s the responsibility that goes with the ability to be useful. Your games can’t be played inside the Family."

"Oh." Haru sobered. "I… I see. Yes."

Unità nodded to herself, satisfied that this gap in her new ally’s defenses was, if not closed, at least closing. "Indeed. I think you’ll both do well."

There was a tap at the door and the housekeeper slipped in with her always-impressive sense of the appropriate moment and a tray of coffee. The tension in the room uncoiled in the delicate clatter of setting out and pouring, and Unità smiled.

"So tell me." She leaned back in her chair, cup cradled between her fingers. "What do you think of Sicily?"

Haru and Kyouko looked at each other and Kyouko nodded.

"It will make a good home," she said.


She Danced Across the Mountain

As Kyouko and Haru settle into their lives with the mafia, sometimes they need advice. Drama, I-3

"…and never, ever accept red flowers. All right, I think I got all that." Kyouko sat back, one hand rubbing her forehead.

Unità’s lips quirked in sympathy. "You’re doing very well, for someone who’s never even traveled abroad before."

Kyouko’s soft smile was more wry than usual. "And here I thought that, once I was done with the university entrance exams, I wouldn’t be studying any more."

"You’ll likely be studying this for years," Unità warned. "You have a grace and social ease that will serve you very well, but the small customs that let a woman fit in, here, take time to learn."

"I understand," Kyouko murmured, and straightened her back with a determined breath. "So. About this… this kissing thing."

Unità’s lips quirked. "Well, it depends on how well you know the other person …"

Antonio looked up with a brilliant smile as Unità led the girls into his dress shop. "Donna Unità! We haven’t seen you in too long! Are you looking for a new gown, perhaps?"

"Ah, now, you know my workday clothes can’t be that elaborate." Something Antonio was volubly disappointed over at every opportunity, but at least she had some consolation for him today. "Not for myself. I just wanted to introduce my young friends, here." She smiled. "They should know who to go to for the best."

"Indeed, indeed!" Antonio beamed upon his newest victims. Unità hoped both of them were taking notes on his tactics. "Friends of the Family?"

"Oh yes," Unità murmured, laying a hand on Kyouko’s shoulder. "The Vongola Tenth’s young woman, and her best friend." She nodded to the girls, eye crossing Haru’s briefly. "Antonio has a great many customers from our world, so you can relax here."

Haru’s eyes widened a hair, recognizing the implication, and she turned to Antonio with a sparkling smile of her own. "Oh, how wonderful! I was so hoping to find someone who would really know about fashions here!" She clasped her hands, eyes wide and entreating. "Are we dreadfully out of style? Tell me the worst! I can take it!"

Antonio enfolded her hands in his, clearly delighted at finding a kindred spirit. "No, no, you do very well!" He stood back and cast a professional eye over her outfit, and Kyouko’s. "A bit young, perhaps…"

Haru now had a definite gleam in her eye. "So, what would you recommend?"

Unità firmly suppressed her amusement. Haru was already well on her way to a contact that would give her a wide window onto the world she intended to move in.

Kyouko had caught on too, and her shoulder was tense under Unità’s hand. Unità guided her over to a chair while they waited for Antonio and Haru to finish their heart-to-heart. "Would she be any happier waiting at home beside you?" she murmured. "I can tell you already she wouldn’t actually be any safer."

Kyouko sighed silently. "I suppose not."

"She’s a natural," Unità observed, dispassionately. "Let her run and find her place."

Haru’s bright, open laugh wound through the shop like a silk scarf.

"It’s for you, boss." Gamma held out the phone. "The Vongola’s wife."

Unità stretched, behind her desk, redirecting her thoughts from negotiations with the Barassi to the reasons why her sort-of-protégée might be calling her this evening. "All right." She tucked the phone against her shoulder. "Kyouko?"

"Unità-san, what is the… the… acceptable thing to do when the boss of another Family suggests I sleep with him?"

Unità pursed her lips, wondering who had been foolish enough to try that. "What did you do?"

"I pretended I didn’t understand what he was talking about." Kyouko’s voice was tight.

"Perfect! Well, no, perfect would have been pulling out a gun and shooting him." Unità grinned a bit at Gamma’s expression. "Unfortunately we can’t always achieve perfection."

"I wanted to," Kyouko said fiercely.

Unità softened her tone. "I know. But to keep Sawada’s face for him, to keep it the mafia way, you need to let him do that when it’s in public."

Kyouko sighed. "I… don’t think that would have been a good idea either. At least not this evening."

"And that’s why acting like you didn’t understand was perfect. You left no openings at all."

After a long moment Kyouko murmured, "I was a little afraid you’d say that. That means I have to keep on doing it."

"Yes." Unità had nothing to offer that would soften that necessity. She could hear the deep breath Kyouko took, over the line.

"All right. Thank you, Unità-san."

"No problem." Unità smiled wryly as she hung up. "Oh, stop looking like that," she told Gamma. "I’m sure Kyouko wouldn’t actually shoot anyone." After a pause to let this obvious truth sink in she added, "Haru probably takes care of that."

Gamma’s snort at this reminder of the feisty girl his counterpart was so explosively courting made her laugh.

"Have a seat, Haru." Unità waved at the straight chairs in front of her desk as she signed and sealed the letter to the Girasole for Tazaru to carry. "There. Now, what did you want to see me for?"

Haru was fidgety today, as she sat, smoothing her skirt, crossing and recrossing her ankles. "Well." She nibbled her lip, which, Unità observed, she had learned to do in a downright charming way. "I wanted to ask, because I thought you’d know the real answer. If I’m somebody’s… if I’m with somebody, can I still flirt or would that be… unacceptable?"

Unità firmly stifled a chuckle; it was about time those two came to some understanding. "Flirting is still acceptable as long as you don’t mind being thought a fluffy airhead who can’t control herself. As long as you’re careful never to go beyond flirting, your overflowing feminine sex-drive will be a cause for congratulations to Gokudera."

Haru made a horrible face. "I thought so! Honestly, there are times when I just want to—" she broke off and settled back in her chair. "Well."

Unità raised a cautionary finger. "That’s among the lower ranks and at the very top, mind you. The hitmen usually have sharper eyes." They usually had to. "So if you’re working among them, be very careful."[?]

Haru nodded seriously. "I understand." A bit of her accustomed sparkle returned to her eyes. "With them I usually rely on my brain anyway, and it just seems to amuse them that they get to see what nobody else notices." Contemplatively she added, "Arrogant bastards."

Unità burst out laughing. Kyouko was more to her credit as a mentor, in many ways, but Haru was certainly finding her own feet in their world, even the rough parts.

Kyouko toed off her shoes and curled her feet up under her in the armchair. "Haru hasn’t heard anything, so I wanted to ask you. Some of the other bosses have been looking at me a little oddly, lately."

Unità took a long sip from her coffee cup. "Oddly?"

Kyouko frowned a little, fingers only toying with her own cup. "They don’t pay all that much attention to me. I’m used to that. But now… they’re not talking to me but they are looking at me. Only…" she made a frustrated sound. "Not the usual way. I’m not describing this very well, I’m sorry."

Unità thought for a moment and finally tipped her head and suggested, "Looking at your waist instead of your breasts?"

Kyouko blushed and Unità stifled a chuckle; even having been married for years, Kyouko still seemed so innocent sometimes.

"Well, I suppose that could be—" Kyouko broke off abruptly, eyes widening. She straightened in her seat and stared at Unità. "They… they’re watching for that?"

Unità shrugged. "I wouldn’t be surprised."

"But why?"

"Some of them probably want to know whether they should start grooming a son or a daughter." Unità’s mouth quirked at Kyouko’s wide eyed look. "Vongola is a very powerful Family, after all. There are plenty who would like to have blood ties to you." And more who would prefer that Kyouko never live to deliver, but she thought, by now, Kyouko might be able to reach that conclusion on her own.

"Oh." Kyouko looked down at her coffee, fidgeting with it again.

Unità’s brows rose. "You won’t have to think about marriages for your children for years, you can put the early starters off pretty easily."

"It isn’t that." Kyouko chewed her lip for a moment. "It’s… Tsuna doesn’t want to try for children, yet."

"He doesn’t think you’re too young, does he?" Unità asked, startled. She wouldn’t have thought it, but maybe in Japan…

"Oh, no, it’s not that." Kyouko managed to laugh, though it sounded stiffer than usual. "My mother was younger than I am now, when she had my brother. And Tsuna’s mother had him younger, too. No, it’s… he doesn’t…" she sighed. "He wants to wait until it’s safer."

Unità nearly choked on her coffee. "Safer?" For the wife of the tenth Vongola boss? She rubbed a hand over her forehead. "Boy has his head up his ass again, I see," she grumbled.

"He’s just worried for me," Kyouko defended her husband, instantly. "And I don’t want to push him, when he’s already concerned about the whole Family."

Something would have to be done about that, but clearly today wasn’t the day, and Kyouko wasn’t the person Sawada would have to hear from. Unità sighed. "He’s a good boss," she allowed, and smiled. "Seems to be a good husband, too."

Kyouko smiled softly. "He is." She looked up, suddenly inquiring. "Do you…"

"I don’t have a husband, no," Unità said dryly. She watched Kyouko’s sidelong glance, hesitant and curious, and added, "Nor children. There are," her mouth twisted just a bit at the double meaning of the words, "issues with that, for me."

Kyouko’s eyes were wide and stricken. "Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry."

Unità shook her head, taking herself in hand. "Don’t worry about it." She chuckled. "My people have enough of a handful just dealing with me. And I’ll leave enough to this world of ours, as it is, without adding children." She would leave a legend, in time, she suspected. Or, at least, her own personal installment of the longer legend.

Kyouko’s eyes on her were still curious, and a little thoughtful, but she let the subject lapse with the grace she’d learned so well. "How is your Family doing, lately?"

Unità leaned back and crossed her legs, smiling. Business was easier to talk about, yes. "Very well, especially since that new partnership in Monreale…"

A scuffle outside her sitting room caught Unità’s attention and she went to the door in time to hear Haru’s voice clearly.

"I can walk perfectly well, you know, there’s no need…"

"The boss concerns herself with you. That’s all the reason I need." That was Gamma, and a breath later he turned the corner and she saw them.

Haru was scooped up in Gamma’s arms, being carried and clearly fuming about it. She was also bruised, lip split, dress torn, one of her high heeled sandals missing. Unità’s lips thinned and she pulled her door all the way open. "Bring her in, and call for what we need," she ordered.

Gamma set Haru down carefully on the couch and nodded to Unità, the same grimness she felt turning his eyes hard.

"Haru." Unità crouched down in front of her and caught her hands, hoping to capture her focus, too. "What happened?"

Haru’s eyes were bright and a little glazed. "It was at the bar. At Tommaso’s. Some of the Donnola were there, making a delivery, and you know we’ve been trying to figure out why they’re suddenly so cozy with the Scoiattolo. So I chatted them up." Her mouth twisted and then she winced as it pulled the cut on her lip. "Bad timing I guess. I was just getting somewhere when some other men came in. I didn’t recognize them. They came after the Donnola men and shoved me aside…"

"More than shoved it looks like," Gamma noted, coming back in with a glass of water and another of something Unità was pretty sure was much stronger, trailed by her house doctor, Renato. He handed the smaller glass to Haru while Renato made disapproving sounds and started cleaning her cuts. "Tazaru says it was the Scarafaggio," he added.

Haru swallowed the alcohol in three gulps, gasping a little. "Thanks."

Gamma handed over the water, one corner of his mouth curling up.

"There were six of them," Haru continued. "They… they shot three of the Donnola before the rest of the bar jumped in and they ran." She was breathing deeply, tiny shudders shaking her.

This might be the first time Haru had seen death that close. Unità stroked her hair back. "All right. That’s all I need to know, Haru. Just catch your breath."

Haru nodded, jerky, hands tight around her water glass.

"Haru!" Gokudera was through the door before anyone quite realized he was there, and pushed Renato aside. He stopped short before catching Haru’s shoulders, hands hovering. Finally he settled for taking her arms, gently, where there weren’t any bruises. His voice was hoarse. "What happened?"

"She got caught in the middle of the fight with some Scarafaggio at Tommaso’s tonight," Unità supplied, briefly. "They weren’t careful."

Gokudera’s first expression was relief, but it turned colder and colder as his eyes tallied up Haru’s injuries. He stood. "Thank you for informing me."

Haru caught his hand, eyes wide. "Hayato, don’t be an idiot…!"

The intensity of his eyes didn’t change, but the ice turned hot for a breath as he knelt down in front of her again. "Haru." He leaned in and kissed the uninjured corner of her mouth, very gently. "I’ll be back soon, okay? Don’t worry."

Haru’s eyes were wide and dark, watching him stalk back out the door, and she opened her mouth again.

"Don’t." Unità took Haru’s face and turned the girl to look at her. "You have to let him do this, Haru."


"I know." Unità sat on the couch and gathered Haru close. "I know. But an injury to you is a dishonor to him. He has to avenge it."

As Haru shivered and silent tears soaked into Unità’s shoulder, she wondered if, perhaps, she had misled Kyouko. Maybe she was giving daughters to her world after all.

Unità sat in her study, watching the stars come out through the tall window. She had attended Cavallone’s wedding that day and watched the Vongola allies mingle, watched her family laugh and stand proud, watched Kyouko, with Haru shadowing her, pass through the gathering unnoticed offering a smile here, a word there, charming the argumentative and separating the drunk, leaving all Sawada’s eagle-eyed bodyguards nothing to do.

Watched Reborn watching her. Knowing.

She sighed. She’d thought to have a little longer, but it seemed not. She would just have to hope she had done all she needed to do for the next little while. She told herself that firmly and scrubbed her sleeve across her eyes.

"Boss?" Gamma tapped on her balcony door and held out two cans of beer temptingly. "Want to come take a breath of fresh air for a while?"

She took a breath and pushed herself onto her feet, stepping outside. "What is it, Gamma? I don’t really feel like playing around, tonight."


A/N: While in real life, to the best of my knowledge, a hitman generally is part of the lower ranks, in Amano’s world they appear to be a caste of their own, and a middle-high ranking one at that. I have gone with Amano’s worldbuilding in this case.

A Scratched Record

Kyouko and Haru meet Uni as she’s introduced to Tsuna, and get a shock. Drama, I-3

Kyouko pressed a hand to her lips as Tsuna stared at their visitors.

"She’s… dead?" Tsuna repeated, softly.

Gamma’s mouth tighted and he nodded silently. "I hoped it wouldn’t…" he swallowed whatever he had been going to say and drew a slow breath. "Her daughter is the boss of Giglio Nero, now." He opened his hand at the girl standing next to him, watching them all quietly.

Tsuna swallowed himself, looking a little sick. "Is that really… I mean, a child…"

Gamma straightened and repeated, flatly, "She is our boss."

The girl tipped her head, regarding Tsuna, and smiled. "Hello." She stepped forward, light and easy, drawing all eyes to herself. "I’m Uni. I’m very pleased to meet the Vongola boss."

Tsuna’s eyes were dark, but he managed to smile back at her. "Hello, Uni. I’m glad to meet you, too." He sat back and sighed. "If there’s anything we can do for you…" he trailed off, eyes going back to Gamma.

Kyouko swore the girl’s mouth quirked as she slipped to the side, letting the two men focus on each other again.

"We don’t need men, but a Vongola presence at some negotiations coming up would probably be wise," Gamma admitted, gaze checking Uni before settling on Tsuna.

Kyouko kept half an ear on their planning as she stepped forward herself, but only half. The least she could do for Unità’s daughter was offer some comfort while her Guardian was occupied with business. She held out both hands. "Hello, Uni; and welcome. I’m Kyouko. I knew your…" her voice faltered as the girl turned and she met dark, knowing eyes, deeper than any child’s should be. Eyes she recognized. "…mother…?"

Haru slipped up beside them. "Kyouko?"

Uni blinked and then smiled, a flicker of mischief showing through the darkness of her eyes. She held a finger to her lips. Stunned, Kyouko just nodded.

It wasn’t possible. Gamma himself had said Unità was dead.

Uni came and took Kyouko’s hands, looking up at her intently. "It’s all right," she said, softly.

"But how…?"

Haru was frowning now; she turned a little to place herself between their conversation and the men’s. "Kyouko? What’s wrong?" She glanced sharply between the two of them.

Uni smiled at her wryly. "I suppose it would have been smarter for me to be introduced while you weren’t here, but I don’t imagine Kyouko would have kept anything from her right hand anyway."

Haru stared. Kyouko couldn’t blame her. That was, from words to tone to the tilt of the head, what Unità might have said to them.

Abruptly Haru’s mouth snapped shut and her eyes narrowed. "Your necklace," she murmured, as if casually. "Is it your rememberance of your mother?"

The quirk to Uni’s mouth turned a bit sour. "Exactly."

Kyouko looked down at the pendant, puzzled. She’d seen it once or twice before, though Unità usually wore it under her clothes. It was an odd shape, she remembered…

And then her heart nearly stopped as she really looked at it for the first time.

"Exactly," Uni repeated, smile just a little sad, now.

Kyouko drew a slow breath. "That’s a very personal thing, of course," she murmured.

"Thank you." The rueful twist was back in Uni’s lips. "My Family sees the body, so this doesn’t usually occur to them."

Kyouko looked up at Gamma and suddenly frowned. His face was drawn tight and there were shadows under her eyes. She looked down at Uni again, disapproving.

The not-girl sighed. "I know. I do my best to show their hearts that I’m not gone." She touched the orange pacifier briefly. "But for the ones who love me like he does… I would be lost to them just as much if they knew. I believe, I hope, it’s a little simpler for them this way." Wetness gleamed in her eyes for a breath before she blinked and it was gone.

Kyouko bit her lip. She wasn’t at all sure that was really the best way, but it was Uni’s Family and Uni’s choice. She considered the slim girl with the old eyes standing in front of her, and the nearly visible cord of awareness running between Uni and Gamma, and sighed. "I’m sorry." She opened her arms, the way she did for Haru when she got back from doing something she refused to talk about.

Uni looked up, child-wide eyes suddenly unguarded. And then she stepped forward and buried herself in Kyouko’s arms. Kyouko held her tight and gave no sign that she felt the tiny tremors or the faint hitch of Uni’s breath.

Gamma and Tsuna both fell silent a moment to look over at them with open relief. Kyouko smiled back at them, serenely, stroking Uni’s straight, soft hair.

If her smile turned a little sad as the men turned back to Family business, no one was watching but Haru.


Management Techniques

Hibari makes Romario very, very nervous, for a multitude of reasons. This is a Generations sidestory, taking place between “A House Divided” and “They Also Serve.” A certain amount of silliness here, folks.

Romario was quite sure that Hibari Kyouya was a perfectly good Cloud Guardian for young master Sawada. All the same, he was starting to wish that the boy would simply drop off a cliff and disappear—not permanently, just for a few months, perhaps, or however long it would take for Romario to get his master’s attention firmly settled on some nice young mafia lady who would be happy to make lots of little Cavallones while the boss went gallivanting around with the Vongola’s Cloud Guardian.

Really, he didn’t think this was too much to ask of the universe.

“It’s unseemly, is what it is,” he told Tetsuya over a beer, as Tetsuya listened and chew on his grass stalk sympathetically. “It’s not that I don’t hold your master in the highest regard, but it’s not really proper for my boss to spend so much time with him.”

It was an outright miracle that no one back home had begun to talk yet. Well, a miracle, and the fact that Romario had an entire team of men working on damage control. With any luck, Hibari would never find out that his fights with Dino had been spun in such a way as for people back home to believe that the boss had been smitten with a delicate Japanese beauty, and that was why he was so happy to jet off to Japan on such a regular basis.

“Hmm,” Tetsuya said, which might have meant anything, had Romario not been well-versed in the language of the second.

“Another beer would help,” he agreed, and signaled for them.

Meanwhile, the boss and Hibari continued to beat each other to a pulp.



On another occasion, Romario said, broodingly, “Not to speak ill of the dead, but this is all the old boss’s fault.”

They were in the countryside this time, for more of Hibari’s training. Romario and Tetsuya were observing; Romario had packed a cooler to aid them in doing so.

Tetsuya popped the caps off another pair of bottles and passed one Romario’s way, with a raised eyebrow to go with it. Romario accepted the bottle and considered the query. “The old boss. Yes.” He lowered his voice, even though they were the only ones around. “This isn’t for common knowledge, you understand.”

Tetsuya tipped his beer back and took a drink, and then nodded; well, he was the trustworthy sort. Seconds had to be, after all.

Romario leaned back on his elbows. “The old boss couldn’t keep it in his pants,” he said, with all the satisfaction of getting to say so out loud, finally. “Chased anything in a skirt, see?” He sipped his beer, savoring the dark bitter taste of it, which was all the better for the schadenfreude that accompanied it. “Got pretty much his due for it, too.” Prophylactics really were a man’s best friend; too bad the old boss hadn’t been a fan.

“Ah,” Tetsuya said, in the tones of a man enlightened.

“Yeah,” Romario agreed, watching the boss drop out of a stand of trees, right on top of Hibari, and the ensuing tussle. “Won’t even look at girls. Treats ’em all like sisters.”

It was no wonder the boss liked fighting so much. All that pent-up sex drive had to go somewhere.

“Hmm,” Tetsuya said, watching the boss and Hibari were chasing each other through the trees and the bushes in a way that made Romario’s stomach hurt with the pastoral homoeroticism of it all.

Romario blinked, considering. “Well, no, I haven’t tried that,” he admitted. “You think I should?”

Tetsuya shrugged at him, and Romario had to admit that he was right. It couldn’t hurt to try.



“No luck,” Romario muttered, slouching over his bowl of sake as Hibari and the boss dodged each other through the moonlight. “Tried half a dozen of the female hitmen on him. Didn’t work.”

Tetsuya leaned over and poured some more sake, sympathetic. He was right, Romario thought, mournfully. It had seemed like such a good idea: if all the dewy-eyed maiden daughters of the mafia Families were failing to attract the boss’s attention, then maybe what the boss needed was a woman more like Hibari.

Romario had paraded half a dozen of them past the boss, all of them cool-eyed and lethal, with smiles that went from sweet to outright feral. There had been redheads and blondes and brunettes, with proportions from the petite to the Amazonian, women with lean frames and small perfect breasts and women who were perfect lush armfuls, and all for nothing. The boss had been perfectly cordial to all of them, and his eyes had never once betrayed a flicker of interest beyond the professional.

“I’m starting to think that he actually might be gay after all,” he said, sulky, and drained his sake again. “How do you think your boss will feel about being a mafia…” Romario searched for the appropriate word, except there was none, not for this. He settled for the closest approximation. “…consort?”

Tetsuya choked on his sake.

Romario sighed. “Yeah. I figured.” Except that was going to be what they were left with, if he didn’t find some way of corralling the boss long enough to get him settled down and producing heirs before he got himself killed.

Tetsuya cleared his throat. “…Reborn?” he suggested.

Romario blinked once, twice, and then a third time. “Reborn,” he said, low and reverent, since it was the answer to his prayers.

Tetsuya poured another round of sake, looking rather relieved as Romario plotted how best to approach the boss’s old tutor for help. Romario couldn’t blame him, since he was right—the mere thought of Hibari’s reaction to the words “mafia consort” was enough to make a strong man tremble.



“I shouldn’t,” Romario said, when Tetsuya fetched up with two flutes of champagne. “Duty, you know.”

Tetsuya pressed the flute of champagne on him anyway, and Romario shrugged. He had a point—this was a celebration, after all.

He watched the boss guide his new bride across the floor—Sofia, of the Leone Family, an altogether satisfactory choice on all fronts, from the powerful alliance that she brought with her to the fact that the boss had liked her quite a bit, once he’d gotten his head down out of the clouds. They made a lovely couple, and all the watchful eyes of the other Families seemed to approve.

Tetsuya made a satisfied sound and leaned against the wall next to Romario, sipping his champagne.

“Can’t blame you,” Romario agreed. Life was a lot easier without having to hare off after the boss and Hibari all the time. Although… “Your boss?” he asked.

Tetsuya just rolled his eyes and directed them across the room, to where Hibari was pointedly ignoring Yamamoto Takeshi, who persisted in talking to him anyway.

“No kidding,” Romario said, after a moment to marvel over the thought. He buried his smile in his champagne flute at Tetsuya’s long-suffering sigh. “Well. Might improve his temper.”

Tetsuya just snorted.

He was probably right, Romario decided—there wasn’t a force under heaven that could do that. Still. “To our bosses and their happiness,” he proposed, and they clinked their glasses together to celebrate a job well done.

– end –

May Flowers

Tsuna gives his people whatever they need, and Yamamoto is no exception. Porn with Characterization, I-4

Tsuna pressed Takeshi back against the bed, settling over him, and nodded to himself at Takeshi’s low sigh.

It was easier, he thought, to give Gokudera what he needed. Gokudera was far more straightforward. When Yamamoto came to him Tsuna had to look harder and make guesses.

Sometimes Yamamoto just sat quietly at his feet for an evening. Sometimes he wanted to hold Tsuna, to shelter and shield him, and Tsuna rested against his chest until his arms relaxed and loosened. Sometimes he wanted to touch, slow and gentle, and kissed Tsuna’s fingers softly until Tsuna said yes.

And sometimes he needed to not be the protector, for a while.

Tsuna kissed Takeshi’s palms, one after the other and pressed his hands down gently, firmly against the bed, watching Takeshi’s eyes fall half closed, his lips part on a quick breath.

"It’s all right," Tsuna told him, softly.

Takeshi smiled up at him, sweet and rueful, relaxing under his hands. "Yeah."

Tsuna stroked down Takeshi’s arms, over his bare chest, kneading the hard muscle there, pleased as Takeshi sighed more deeply and let his hands lie against the sheets, fingers uncurling loosely. It was a warm feeling, that Takeshi could relax under his hands. Tsuna dipped his fingers in the jar on his bedside table, slicking them, and reached down to press between Takeshi’s cheeks and rub over and over his entrance in slow, hard circles.

Takeshi moaned at that, letting his legs fall open.

"There," Tsuna murmured as taut muscle unwound under his touch. "It’s all right, Takeshi. Just feel." He could feel the soft shudder that ran through Takeshi’s body as his fingers pressed in deep.

"Oh… yes." Takeshi’s voice was husky now, eyes dark as he looked up at Tsuna under lowered lids. "Boss…"

Tsuna’s mouth quirked and he leaned down to take Takeshi’s mouth and kiss him slow and thorough. "Yes."

It always meant something particular when Takeshi called him that. Tonight, at least, it was easy to figure out what.

He reached for more lube to stroke over his cock, catching a breath at the coolness of it; at least he didn’t blush over it any more. Not when he was concentrating on someone else. He slid his palms down Takeshi’s thighs, easy but not lightly, pressing them wider. Takeshi’s breath was coming fast now, as Tsuna spread him out against the sheets.

"Boss… please."

"Shh." Tsuna leaned in to kiss him again and Takeshi shivered under his hands. "It’s okay. I’ve got you," Tsuna murmured.

Takeshi laughed, low and breathless. "Yeah." And then he moaned, head dropping back to bare the arch of his throat, as Tsuna pushed into him.

Tsuna’s own breath came in short bursts as he slid into the tight heat of Takeshi’s body and pleasure curled through him. He rode the edge of it and watched Takeshi carefully, hips flexing slowly. The husky sounds Takeshi made guided him, drew him on until he was fucking Takeshi hard and steady, heat curling up his spine at the way Takeshi moaned. He leaned in for a sharper angle and when Takeshi shuddered and gasped, he smiled, drew back, thrust harder.


Takeshi’s hands were clenched again and Tsuna reached up to grip his wrists, holding him down firmly. "Let go," he ordered, low and even and sure. "I have you."

That was the last thing it took and Takeshi cried out, wordless, hips jerking up as Tsuna drove into him hard and fast. His body tightened fiercely and Tsuna hissed through his teeth, hanging on until Takeshi was still, under him, and he could let himself go, let heat rush through him like a flood and leave him draped over Takeshi, panting.

Takeshi was lax under his hands, eyes dark and calm.

Tsuna smiled.

"Stay there," he murmured, pressing a kiss to Takeshi’s forehead, and slipped out of bed to fetch a washcloth.

Takeshi was pliant as Tsuna cleaned them up, but his hands were always stroking lightly over any part of Tsuna he could reach; Tsuna settled back down with him as soon as he’d tossed the cloth in the hamper and pressed close. "It’s all right," he repeated, gently.

"I know." Takeshi lifted Tsuna’s hand and kissed his fingers. "Boss."

"Yes," Tsuna promised. "I’m here." He hesitated for a breath and added, "And you’re mine."

The last tension unwound from Takeshi’s body and he smiled.

Tsuna stroked Takeshi’s hair as they lay together. He still wondered, sometimes, if it had been right to entangle people like Yamamoto, like Ryouhei, in the world of the mafia. But he had to admit, that world neatly enfolded Yamamoto’s mix of gentleness and violence.

Most of the time.

If it was his reassurance that his people needed, for those moments when it didn’t, Tsuna would certainly give it.

Takeshi’s breathing evened into sleep and Tsuna held him closer, satisfied.


They Also Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I-Pin ducked her head, acknowledging the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including her own boyfriend.”

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kyouko-san?” I-Pin ventured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you really think so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed again. “I know.”

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

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

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

“Too much, sometimes,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haru stifled her sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right, Boss,” Hayato said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If this is a bad time, Sawada-san—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Hayato said, after a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayato snorted. “Elegance is overrated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the end

Gray Willow Catkins

Yamamoto decides Gokudera is broken and needs to be fixed. It takes a while to find the right opening. Drama with Romance, I-3

Takeshi lay on his bed, arms folded behind his head, and stared up at his ceiling, thinking.

Gokudera had argued with him earlier, and Takeshi had teased him a little by smiling agreeably the whole time. Finally Gokudera had run his hands through his hair, looking like he was two breaths away from trying to pull it out, and yelled "Don’t you ever get mad, you idiot?!" before stomping off.

And now, for the first time in years, Takeshi was thinking about the things he’d said to Gokudera in the middle of their fight with Gamma years ago… or yet, depending on how you looked at it.

Gokudera’s constant growling had always kind of amused him, and he admitted that every now and then he sort of poked Gokudera just to get him going. Like playing with a cat; a few scratches were fair trade for getting to watch it flail at you. Actually, Gokudera reminded him a lot of a cat, sometimes, a feral cat that would only let one person pet him without biting, and that person was Tsuna. Even when they’d just met it had made Takeshi wonder a little how often Gokudera must have gotten kicked, to be that way, and now he was wondering more seriously.

Often enough that Gokudera didn’t understand not getting mad all the time?

Takeshi frowned at his ceiling. He didn’t like that idea.

…often enough that Tsuna doing something, unthinkingly, to help Gokudera had knocked down every wall he had and set him following Tsuna with his heart in his hand?

Takeshi really didn’t like that idea. It just wasn’t right for anyone to have something like that done to them.

Well, if that was the case, then something would just have to be done to fix it. After all, Takeshi liked and respected Gokudera, trusted him with Tsuna’s welfare and Takeshi’s own back. It shouldn’t be too hard to show him that. Takeshi nodded firmly at his ceiling, satisfied with this conclusion, and reached for his homework.

"You want to what?"

"Practice." Takeshi smiled at Gokudera and, when this only got him a dubious stare, amended. "Train. Together. For next time. You know there’s going to be a next time, and it might need two of us at once."

Gokudera couldn’t deny that, though he looked like he wanted to. "And who do you think we can train against?" he asked, arms crossed.

"I bet Reborn can find people."

Gokudera opened his mouth and closed it again. "Hm." He glowered down at his folded arms for a while before muttering. "Probably a good idea. I guess."

Takeshi didn’t press for anything more enthusiastic. That kind of was enthusiastic, coming from Gokudera. And now he would have more opportunities to show Gokudera that Takeshi wouldn’t kick him, and he really didn’t have to bite preemptively. It was a great idea if he did say so himself.

Of course, Reborn wanted to test them himself, first.

"Hopeless," he pronounced, landing with a light tap of shoes beside them while Gokudera swore—at least Takeshi assumed he was swearing from the tone, he’d reverted to Italian—and Takeshi tried to figure out how to untangle them without slicing anything off. "You’d better start with targets instead of opponents. Leon."

Takeshi couldn’t help laughing at the beady look Leon gave them before he transformed into a projector and a vaguely person-shaped red light flickered against the trees.

"Shut up, you idiot," Gokudera snarled, finally hauling himself out from under Takeshi. His eyes narrowed on their target and more explosives appeared between his fingers. "And this time just go and let me take care of not hitting you."

Takeshi grinned at that and agreed easily. "Sure thing ." He’d been right; practice would make good opportunities to prove his trust in Gokudera.

Gokudera paused and gave him a longer look. "Yeah, whatever," he muttered finally, and lit his bombs.

It took weeks before Reborn declared them ready for a live opponent.

"Fuck," Gokudera muttered, eyes just a little wide.

"I guess Reborn wanted us to practice for so long first so we didn’t get killed," Takeshi speculated.

Hibari pushed away from his lounge against a tree and looked them up and down. "Hm." The corner of his mouth curled.

"Okay, look," Gokudera muttered, low, "either one, he goes after you for a good fight or two, he goes after me to get me out of the way. My weapons are mid-range, and in close I’m no match for him. So if one, can you hold him while I get a target and if two, can you distract him so I can open the range again?"

Yamamoto considered. "I can’t hold him for long, but yeah. And I’m pretty sure I can be distracting."

Gokudera snorted. "Don’t know why I bothered asking." He sighed and flicked out a handful of explosives as Hibari started tapping his foot with impatience. "Kind of hope it’s two."

Takeshi looked at him, startled. "You do?" He had never thought of Gokudera as one of the ones who liked this kind of fight for its own sake.

Gokudera gave him a dour look. "If he’s looking at you for a good fight, he’ll pound me into fucking paste for interrupting. Crazy bastards, all of you," he added under his breath.

Takeshi considered Gokudera for a long moment. "You know, you’re really good at this."

"Notice that afterwards!" Gokudera snapped as Hibari stopped waiting for them and they dodged back and apart.

Takeshi laughed. "Okay!" He would, too. And bit by bit he’d get through.

A month later he was starting to have some doubts about that.

Oh, they were getting to work pretty smoothly as a team, at least when there was an opponent in front of them. They were having some really fun matches on the way, too, though Gokudera gave him dark looks whenever he said anything about that. The problem was that, the more time he spent with Gokudera, and the better able to work together they got, the clearer it became that Gokudera was still holding himself apart. He might not be the best fighter among them, but when it came to his heart, he left absolutely no openings, sliding by every overture Takeshi made, slick as ice. It was starting to get frustrating.

Takeshi probably shouldn’t have taken that out on Shamal, but when he emerged from Gokudera’s smoke screen right behind the man and heard him muttering about his precious girls choking and whippersnappers too smart for their own good, it annoyed him.

"All clear," he called, as Shamal went down in a heap, clouted smartly with Takeshi’s hilt. "Don’t suppose you can get rid of the smoke?"

"What do you want me to do, blow it away?" Gokudera grumbled.

Takeshi shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

There was a moment of silence. "Why not? Why not throw a bomb in there when I can’t actually see where you are? Gee, I can’t imagine." Sarcasm dripped off Gokudera’s voice.

Takeshi’s mouth quirked. "I trust you."

The smoke was thinning enough on its own for him to see Gokudera, standing a dozen paces away, staring at him with a now-familiar expression of wary puzzlement. Takeshi sighed to himself and waited for the usual sort of comment about baseball-addled brains.

Instead Gokudera shook his head and asked, "Why?"

The question, the moment he’d been waiting so long for, sang down Takeshi’s nerves and made the world sharp, and now Gokudera was looking at him even more warily. He took a breath for control. The words were sure as a sword stroke in his mind, though.

"Because you see the big issues and you think about them for all of us. Because you’ll shoot without a second thought, if it’s to protect us. I’ve watched you give everything you are to Tsuna, and you never hold back. You snarl all the time, but you can’t pass by a stray or a kid. You act like a thug, but you read physics for fun. You have a temper hotter than those bombs, but you’d die for any of us; you’ve proved that."

Gokudera actually backed up a step, eyes wide with shock. Takeshi spread his hands.

"I trust you because you’re you."

He could see Gokudera swallow before he managed to speak. "Yamamoto…"

Shamal groaned, between them, and rolled over, squinting up. "Remind me not to underestimate you brats any more," he husked and put an arm over his eyes.

When Takeshi looked up, Gokudera was collected again, face closed, and he sighed. It had been a step, at least, he was pretty sure, and he didn’t want to mess that up by pushing Gokudera too far.

At their next practice, though, he decided he should have pushed, because Gokudera was completely distracted.

And Colonello was not someone even both of them together could be distracted, against.


Gokudera hauled himself out of the splinters of a tree, wincing. "I’m fine."

"You’re not fine, you have a piece of tree in your arm," Takeshi pointed out, just a bit exasperated. Then he had to bite down a yelp as Gokudera reached around and yanked it out.

"Enough for today," Colonello told them, shaking his head. "Get that fixed." He frowned at both of them, though it didn’t have quite the usual coach-scowl impact, on a baby’s face. "And get your minds on your training, kora!"

"I’m not going near Romario," Gokudera muttered, as Colonello’s eagle flapped off with him.

Actually, Takeshi couldn’t blame him for that. "Do you have an emergency kit at home?"

Which was how they came to be in Gokudera’s tiny apartment kitchen, Gokudera seated on his table, swinging a foot and watching with rather alarming disinterest as Takeshi cleaned and wrapped the gouge in his arm.

"There." Takeshi tied the bandage off.

Gokudera slid to his feet and flexed his arm a lot more freely than Takeshi would have thought wise when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. "Yeah, that’ll do." He looked aside. "Thanks."

Takeshi sighed softly. He knew it was possible to get through to Gokudera; Tsuna had done it more or less by accident.

So maybe the question was, what did Tsuna do that he wasn’t? He thought about that as he put the emergency kit back in order. Tsuna was diffident, unthreatening. Except when he was in the grip of his Will, and then he got less diffident and more threatening than any two of his Guardians put together, and Takeshi had seen Gokudera watching when Tsuna was like that. If anything, Gokudera’s focus on Tsuna got even tighter, then. Tsuna was accepting, but Gokudera wasn’t responding to simple acceptance from Takeshi. Of course Tsuna was so completely transparent about it…

Takeshi paused in the act of stowing the kit back in Gokudera’s rather bare cupboard. "Gokudera." He turned to look at him, wondering if he’d gotten it at last. "Do you think I’m lying?"

Gokudera blinked at him. "Huh?"

"When I say I trust you. Do you think I’m lying?"

Gokudera’s shoulders jerked and pulled tight. "I’m sure your word is good," he said flatly, staring out the kitchen window.

Takeshi had a feeling he’d just stepped in another mafia custom of some kind, but he’d figure that out later. The important thing was that, obviously, his word alone really wasn’t enough. He chewed on his lip for a moment, thinking. He didn’t think he could be as clear as Tsuna was, but maybe… maybe Gokudera would accept a different kind of evidence. Something that wasn’t just words.

And he could think of one thing that Gokudera couldn’t possibly misunderstand, no matter how determined he was.

Gokudera looked around again as Takeshi came closer, frowning a little. "What?"

Takeshi smiled, just a little wry. "You can hit me for this, if I’m really wrong." He lifted Gokudera’s chin and bent his head to kiss him gently.

Gokudera froze, staring at him. But not slugging him, which Takeshi took as a good sign. He slid an arm around Gokudera and drew him closer, slow and careful.

"What…?" Gokudera was stiff as a board, eyes wide and a little wild.

"I thought you might believe body language more than words," Takeshi explained, one hand rubbing Gokudera’s back.

"You can’t… It’s not…" Gokudera shook his head violently, though he wasn’t pulling away, which made something in the back of Takeshi’s head sit up and take notice. "You can’t."

"Can’t what?" Takeshi asked, quietly.

"I’m not… You don’t…" Gokudera’s jaw tightened. "You can’t think I’m worth anything."

Takeshi considered that for a moment, head cocked. "Why not?"

Gokudera opened his mouth and closed it again, looking rather lost. Finally he glanced aside and mumbled, "No one does?"

Takeshi took a slow breath, fitting pieces together in his head. Gokudera might think that was true but he had to be desperate for it not to be, or else Takeshi would have eaten dynamite the second he touched him. "Tsuna does," he pointed out, hoping to springboard from this inarguable fact. Before he could, though, Gokudera spoke again.

"No one else." He wasn’t stiff any more, but he was still, completely still, eyes dark and cold as he gazed blankly over Takeshi’s shoulder. Takeshi almost shivered at that cold, except that a spark of genuine anger was starting to warm him up.

No one should have something like this done to them.

"Someone," he corrected, firmly, turning Gokudera’s head back toward him and gathering him closer.

Gokudera started, jarred out of that frozen stillness, and and still not socking Takeshi one for doing this. Takeshi nodded.

"Someone," he repeated, softer, and kissed Gokudera again, deliberate this time, coaxing, because he’d be damned if he let Gokudera go on thinking like that. This time he was rewarded with a quick, uneven breath and Gokudera’s fingers tightening in his shirt for a moment.


Takeshi wound his arms snugly around Gokudera. "Hmm?" He could feel tiny shivers running through Gokudera and lifted a hand to knead the nape of Gokudera’s neck, slow and firm.

"You really…? I mean…" Gokudera looked up at him, conflicting expressions tangling in his eyes—tense fear and disbelief and a tiny glow of wonder.

"I really mean it," Takeshi told him gently. "We’re all in this together. I’m glad we are." He smiled, brushing back Gokudera’s hair. "You’re amazing, you know."

A faint pink crept across Gokudera’s cheekbones and he glanced aside again. Takeshi resolved to tell him that was adorable, some time when it wouldn’t undo months on end of work.

"Okay," Gokudera said softly. "I… I believe you."

Takeshi smiled. It was a good start.



Dino is only trying to help. Really. An omake to “They Also Serve“. Silliness, general audiences

Kyouko was bent over a letter to her mother when Tsuna knocked on the doorframe on the way into her study. “Kyouko,” he said, slowly, taking the seat next to her desk, “do you have a moment?”

“Mm, just a moment,” she said, and finished the sentence she was writing. She put the pen down and looked up, and blinked at the expression on his face, which was suffused with embarrassment and exasperation both. “What’s wrong?”

He set a bottle on the desk; it was dark brown glass and unlabeled. “This,” he said, slowly, “is a tonic. Dino-san sent it to me.”

Kyouko picked the bottle up and uncapped it, and wrinkled her nose at its pungent aroma. “What kind of tonic?” she asked, capping it again.

“According to the letter? The kind that a man takes to improve his, ah, vigor.”

To improve his… vigor? Kyouko looked at the bottle again, and then at Tsuna, but it wasn’t until I-Pin squeaked that she understood the implication. “His vigor,” she repeated, face burning.

“Yes.” Tsuna passed a hand over his face. “If you don’t mind, could you kindly let Caterina Modigliani know that my vigor is not in need of improving?”

“Right away,” Kyouko said, hastily, putting the letter to her mother aside.

“Thank you,” Tsuna said, and stood. “Every time I think that I’ve heard it all…” he said, and shook his head. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to give Dino-san a call.”

“Of course,” Kyouko murmured.

She waited till he was decently out of the room before looking at I-Pin; when their eyes met, they burst into helpless laughter.

“Poor Tsuna,” Kyouko said, when she’d caught her breath again. “Oh, poor Tsuna.” She wiped her eyes and reached for a fresh sheet of stationery, and tried to figure out a graceful way of telling Caterina that really, things were fine, and there was no reason for anyone to be concerned about Tsuna’s, ah, vigor.

– end –

Body Language

Gokudera’s trust issues are Yamamoto’s new hobby; he has his work cut out for him. Drama with Romance, I-3

"Delivery!" Takeshi called, cheerfully, banging on Gokudera’s door. It took a few minutes for Gokudera to answer the door, and another for him to finish staring in disbelief.

"What are you doing?"

"Bringing you dinner." Takeshi dangled the bag of carryout from raised fingers.

"Why?" Gokudera asked, after another long pause.

"Because you skipped lunch today." Takeshi smiled with sunny obliviousness, hiding his amusement as Gokudera scrubbed a hand over his face.

"Fine, whatever, get off my stairs before the neighbors try to kill you for making such a racket." Gokudera took the bag ungraciously, muttering under his breath as Takeshi came in, toeing off his shoes and closing the door. Gokudera turned his back pointedly, taking a step toward the kitchen.

It was too perfect an opportunity to resist, and Takeshi was making a policy of taking all the opportunities he could, these days. If he didn’t, Gokudera slid right back into hissing and bristling.

He wound an arm around Gokudera, drawing him back against his chest, and dropped a light kiss on the curve of his neck. He was elbowed in the stomach for his trouble. All right, so there was still some hissing and bristling in any case.

"Oof," he said, ruefully, and smiled as he watched Gokudera stalk across the room, back straight.

"Why do you keep doing that?" Gokudera muttered, smacking containers down on his tiny span of counter.

Hissing or not, Gokudera gave him a lot of opportunities, and this was one Takeshi had kind of been waiting for. "Because you’re cute."

Gokudera stopped and turned to stare at him. "I am not cute!"

"Adorable?" Takeshi offered, grinning.

Gokudera sputtered at him, glaring and Takeshi laughed, reaching out again to gather him in.

"Gorgeous?" he murmured, settling the lean, elegant line of Gokudera’s body against his.

Gokudera’s cheekbones turned pink, which absolutely was adorable. "You say the most idiotic things," he said, looking aside.

"True things."

Gokudera humphed, but it slid into a softer sound as Takeshi turned his head back and kissed him, fingers sliding into his hair, cradling his head. A shiver rippled through Gokudera, but he also relaxed. Touch was the language Gokudera really believed; Takeshi just had to speak it clearly enough. When Takeshi drew back Gokudera’s eyes were dark and thoughtful.

"True things," Takeshi told him again, gently, thumb stroking the nape of his neck.

Gokudera shrugged a shoulder and looked down, but didn’t deny it. Takeshi chalked up another scrap of progress on his mental scoreboard.

This was not Takeshi’s favorite way to spend the term break.

Gokudera was wound up tighter than usual, and it was making Takeshi nervous. Theoretically the lawn of the Vongola headquarters contained only Vongola allies, here for another meet-the-Tenth gathering, but if Gokudera had seen something to alarm him Takeshi wasn’t going to second guess him. Gokudera was the one who knew this world.

It took him a while to work his way casually over, but finally he was close enough to murmur, "Anything wrong?"

Gokudera started and looked around at him, eyes abruptly sharpening. "What?"

Takeshi relaxed. If Gokudera had seen something, he’d already have been sharp and focused, as, indeed he was now. "Just wondered. You seem kind of tense."

Gokudera’s gaze turned distant and dark again, and he shrugged a shoulder, sharp and jerky. Takeshi frowned. Something personal, then? "What is it?" he asked, softer.

Gokudera looked at him for a long moment, mouth tight. Just as he was taking a breath, though, and Takeshi was calculating the odds whether it would be to spill or to tell Takeshi it was none of his business, another of the gathering stopped beside them.

"Gokudera Hayato, isn’t it?" The man was older, hair just starting to gray, and neither his tone nor his expression was what Takeshi would call friendly. A moment fishing through his memory tossed up the name Spigola, though he was pretty sure this wasn’t the boss.

Gokudera’s shoulders were stiff again. "Yeah?"

The man looked him up and down. "I hear you plan to be the Vongola Tenth’s right hand."

Gokudera’s chin lifted a hair. "That’s for the Tenth to say." His voice was hard and level.

The man’s mouth twisted. "I hope he has better sense than to take a punk like you’ve always been. The Vongola are better than that."

Takeshi frowned after the man, as he stalked past, and edged closer to lay a hand on Gokudera’s back.

Gokudera flinched.

Takeshi was starting to think he’d been right the first time, about Gokudera having spotted trouble. It just wasn’t the kind he’d expected.

"You asked what was wrong?" Gokudera said quietly, through his teeth, not looking at Takeshi. "There are too many people here that know me, is what’s wrong."

Takeshi’s frown deepened. How was he supposed to make any progress when jerks like that came along and set Hayato back? "With that kind of attitude, he can’t know you very well."

Gokudera made a harsh sound, shoulders shaking. It took Takeshi a long moment to realize it was a laugh.

Gokudera would probably kill him if Takeshi kissed him right here, which wouldn’t do at all. Instead Takeshi rubbed his back slowly, turning to stand between Gokudera and the rest of the gathering. "What does it matter, what they think?" he asked. "Tsuna is the only one who has any say in it, isn’t he?"

"It wouldn’t be entirely wise of him to ignore the opinion of his allies," Gokudera said in a stifled tone.

Takeshi thought about that. "He did, though. You are. I mean you were. Will be. Kind of." Okay, he probably deserved the look Gokudera was giving him. "In the future. Remember?"

Gokudera blinked. "Oh," he said at last.

Takeshi smiled. "Yeah, oh." He slid his hand up under Gokudera’s hair to knead his neck. "He wants you. We want you. And we’re the ones who know you."

Gokudera looked uncertain, now, but that was better than the harsh expression he’d had. He leaned just a little into Takeshi’s hand. "Mm."

"If we weren’t in public, I’d show you," Takeshi murmured, coaxing.

Gokudera flushed. "Don’t even think it," he hissed, glaring.

Takeshi grinned. That was much better. "Sure." He let go with a last brush of his fingers and wandered off, casually.

But not very far off.

He stayed close enough to slide into the path of the next person to head toward Gokudera and look at the man the way he looked at his targets for cutting practice. When the man flinched and veered off, Takeshi nodded and let the still poise run out of him again and looked around for a drink tray. He figured he’d be here a while.

From the corner of his eye he watched Gokudera’s shoulders relaxing from their over-straight line and smiled.

It was all about body language.

Takeshi perched in the window across from the school’s music room and listened to the music winding down the empty hall.

He had been there for almost an hour, he thought. He wasn’t sure; he hadn’t looked at his watch for a long time.

When the music ended, this time in a definite scraping of furniture and shuffling of paper, he sighed. Well, hopefully he’d get to hear more some time. And when Gokudera emerged from the music room and stopped short, staring at him, it was worth it. Takeshi grinned and hopped down.

"That was great."

Gokudera waved a hand, looking uncomfortable. "I’m not professional grade or anything. It’s just a hobby, really."

Takeshi cocked his head. "You don’t have to be professional to be good."

Gokudera snorted. "Says the man who insists on playing a ball game professionally?"

Takeshi allowed the point and tried another tack. "That first one you played was… well it was something else." He frowned for a moment, fishing for the right words. "It kept my attention. It… didn’t let go."

"Chopin’s Fantaisie?" Gokudera smiled. "Not surprised. A lot of his pieces are that way, but the Fantaisie especially. You’re never sure what’s coming next."

"What was the second thing you played?" Takeshi asked, wanting to keep Gokudera going. It fascinated him when Gokudera forgot himself and showed this side.

"The Nocturne in C Minor." Gokudera’s eyes brightened. "I like that one. It’s the last of his Nocturnes. There’s some speculation, lately, that it was based on an Italian opera."

"It reminded me of you."

Gokudera blinked and Takeshi shrugged. He was just about positive he wouldn’t find the words to explain this, but it was true. "The way it moved. It just… felt like you." His mouth quirked. "The last one reminded me of you, too."

Gokudera’s brows rose. "The Waltz in A Minor?"

"Not exactly the same way," Takeshi allowed, and chuckled as Gokudera frowned. "It made me think of you in other moods." He reached out and stroked the backs of his fingers down Gokudera’s cheek.

Gokudera’s breath hitched. He always seemed so startled by this, and Takeshi was starting to think very dark thoughts about the people Gokudera seemed to have encountered before coming to Japan. He reached out and drew Gokudera close.

"We want you," he murmured. "I want you. The elegance and the explosions and the growling and all of it."

"Yamamoto…" Gokudera’s eyes were wide and unguarded, and it drove Takeshi a little wild to think that something so simple was such a revelation to him. He caught Gokudera tight against him and kissed him, deep and intent and hungry, parting Hayato’s lips and twining their tongues together, more demanding than he’d dared be before, trying to show what words apparently weren’t quite getting through. Again.

And maybe his instincts were right again because Gokudera answered the kiss, finally, hesitant but wanting, fingers winding tight in Takeshi’s shirt. He kissed Gokudera until they were both breathless, hands kneading slowly up and down his back. He kissed his way down Gokudera’s neck and made a pleased sound at the way Gokudera relaxed against him, head tipped back with a faint, startled sound. This was what he wanted, yes.

"I’ll show you some more, if you want," he said against the curve of Gokudera’s neck.

"Maybe not right here in the school hallway." Gokudera’s voice was dry, for all the husky edge to it. "Hibari would probably kill us."

Takeshi laughed. "Good point." He lifted his head to smile down at Gokudera. "You mind if I come visit this evening, then?"

Gokudera stared at him for a moment before he glanced aside and swallowed. "I wouldn’t mind." His voice was huskier than it had been while they were kissing.

"I’m glad," Takeshi said softly.

Gokudera reached for his bag to sling over his shoulder and glanced up at Takeshi with a tiny smile. "Come on, then."

Takeshi smiled in complete contentment and tucked his hands in his pockets and followed along.

He didn’t think for one moment that he was done, but this time he was sure that Gokudera had heard what he was saying.


Comfort Food

Gokudera is sick and being stubborn, and Yamamoto decides to step in. Unmitigated Fluff, I-2

Warning: May cause tooth decay. To prevent cavities, brush thoroughly after every reading.


Tsuna almost flinched at the violence of Gokudera’s sneeze. "Are you sure you’re all right? I mean, shouldn’t you be staying home?"

"’mb fide," Gokudera muttered around his wad of handkerchief. It hadn’t moved far all day, but when it had his nose had looked absolutely raw. "Not goig to slack off by job ’cause of a code."

Takeshi sighed and made a note to himself that Gokudera got more stubborn and foul-tempered when he was sick. He wouldn’t have thought it was possible if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.

"Don’t worry," he told Tsuna. "Gokudera is going home now."

Tsuna blinked. "He, um, is?"

Takeshi tucked his hands in his pockets and smiled, serene and immoveable, ignoring the evil glare Gokudera was giving him. "Yes. He is."

"Fuck you." It would have been more impressive if Gokudera hadn’t had to blow his nose so hard before he could manage to enunciate it. Takeshi decided it was time to bring out the heavy weaponry.

"When you’re better, if you like," he said, agreeably.

Tsuna and Gokudera both turned red.

"In the meantime, though, you should be resting, right? Tsuna is home and safe, you’ve done your job, time for dinner." Takeshi took ruthless advantage of Gokudera’s flusterment to steer him on down the street, waving goodbye to Tsuna over his shoulder. Tsuna stood at his gate, watching them and shaking his head, but Takeshi thought he was smiling.

Gokudera called him names most of the way to his apartment. Takeshi smiled and agreed with every one, even the ones in Italian he still didn’t understand. Though, after this long, there weren’t many of those. Gokudera’s energetic stomping lasted all the way up his stairs. Takeshi took over, though, when Gokudera fumbled with the buttons of his coat.

"You’re taking a long, hot bath," he said firmly, unwinding Gokudera’s scarf. "And then you’re going to eat something. And then you’re sleeping however long you need to. Got it?"

Gokudera snarled at him. Takeshi ignored it. "Bath," he repeated, turning away to rummage in Gokudera’s cupboards for anything resembling food. "You can’t guard Tsuna if you’re this sick." He tracked Gokudera’s steps across the apartment by the shuffling and banging into the few furnishings, and breathed a sigh of relief when the water went on. He hadn’t been positive even the ultimate appeal to the Tenth would work this time.

Eventually he assembled rice that didn’t seem to have dried out yet, some eggs, not too old greens, and rather a lot of pickles. Tamagoyaki and onigiri it was. He kept half an ear out while he cooked, listening to the water eventually turn off and the silence the followed. When it had gone on for a while he left off pressing the rice and tip-toed across to sneak a look in on Gokudera, long enough to see that his head was still above the edge of the tub, at least. He was cleaning up when Gokudera finally emerged, flushed and damp and breathing easier if the lack of handkerchief was any indication. Takeshi smiled and set Gokudera’s plate out for him before turning back to the sink.

He listened to Gokudera’s grumbling and stifled a chuckle when it turned muffled, as around a mouthful of food.

Eventually Gokudera brought his empty plate to the sink and elbowed Takeshi for room to wash it. Takeshi stood firm. "I’ll do that. You go to bed before you lose all that heat from the bath."

Gokudera scowled at him, but didn’t fight this time, dropping his plate in the water with what was probably a deliberate splash and trudging toward the bedroom.

Takeshi finished up quickly and brewed some tea and slipped into Gokudera’s room with a cup, quietly in case he was already asleep.

He made a grumpy sound, so probably not.

Takeshi set the cup down beside the bed and eyed the thin blanket with disapproval. Gokudera was shivering, curled up with his back to the door. He’d gathered by this time that Gokudera would just get more stubborn if he pointed it out, though, so he went rummaging again, this time for covers. Hauling his finds back he silently spread out two more blankets and a very large towel.

And then he eased down onto the bed behind Gokudera and curled up around him, carefully bracing an arm over him so its weight wouldn’t come down too heavily.

Slowly the shivers stopped.

Gokudera finally stirred. "You’ll get sick, too," he husked.

"If I do then you can have your revenge, and make me take care of myself," Takeshi said lightly.

Gokudera snorted silently, just a huff of breath under his arm. "’Kay."

Takeshi lay quietly, and listened to Gokudera’s breath finally evening out into sleep, and smiled, and didn’t move.


Some Sweet Day

After a hard workout, some privacy finally leads Gokudera and Yamamoto to a significant intimacy. Takes place some time between Comfort Food and Going Back Someday. Drama with Romance, I-3

Takeshi thought he and Gokudera were making good progress. When Reborn stopped by their practices to work with them, these days, they actually made him move pretty briskly.

Of course, he made them flat, exhausted, dripping with sweat and repeatedly, if virtually, dead. But it was progress.

"Hey," he said, rolling over, halfway between panting and laughing as he watched Gokudera eye a handful of muddy, paint-dyed hair glumly. "Come back with me today. Tou-san will feed us and the bath is bigger than the one at your place."

Gokudera only hesitated a moment. "Okay." Takeshi smiled.

It was definitely progress.

Gokudera hissed when he tried to reach his back with the sponge and Takeshi looked up from rinsing his hair and shook his head at the black and blue starting across Gokudera’s ribs and shoulders. "You’re going to have a lot of bruises."

"Yeah, I got that part," Gokudera grumbled, twisting gingerly on the bath stool.

Takeshi shook his head with a wry grin and came to take the sponge away. "Here."

Gokudera twitched. "You don’t have to," he muttered.

"Why shouldn’t I want to?" Takeshi asked, reasonably.

Gokudera didn’t answer, sitting stiff and hesitant as Takeshi ran the sponge over his back, and Takeshi sighed to himself. Every new touch needed new reassurance. He could do that just fine; he just wished Gokudera didn’t need it. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to Gokudera’s neck, where wet hair parted over his nape. "I do want to."

Gokudera shivered. "Yamamoto…"

"Let me?" Takeshi asked, softly, hands sliding down Gokudera’s arms, one still full of the sponge.

After a moment Gokudera nodded. He didn’t make a sound as Takeshi gently washed his back, though he settled back slowly when Takeshi pressed against him, reaching around to soap his chest. He was a little flushed, but almost anything could still cause that.

And Takeshi still thought it was adorable.

The flush turned deeper when Takeshi scooted around to run the sponge down his legs and Takeshi was careful not to tickle. He didn’t want Hayato tense. Gokudera kept his head down and didn’t look at Takeshi as he set down the sponge and reached for the water.

"Here. Hold still." Takeshi washed the suds away, fingers stroking over the fine, lean lines of Gokudera’s body. It felt good to be able to do this for Gokudera, something simple and caring.

The one thing he didn’t like was how flustered this made Hayato, how unfamiliar it seemed to him. He was definitely going to have to think about hunting a few people up—or down—the next time they were in Italy. Carefully smoothing away the hard line from his mouth he turned off the water and regarded Gokudera.

He knew touch would reassure if he was clear enough. But maybe it was time for something else, too.

Gokudera still wasn’t looking up. Takeshi took a slow breath and set his fingers under Hayato’s chin, lifting his head. His eyes were dark and hesitant.

"Hayato," Takeshi said.

Gokudera’s breath drew in and his eyes widened. After one shocked, still moment, he reached out a hand and Takeshi promptly gathered him up, holding him close, hands sliding over damp skin. "Hayato," he murmured again.

Hayato pressed against him, almost huddled into him, and Takeshi’s arms tightened. "You didn’t think I would?" he asked, softly. Hayato made a noncommittal sound, and he had to smile; Hayato went to such trouble to seem casual, even when he was pressed tight against Takeshi and breathing quick and unsteady. "Shh," he soothed, one hand spreading warm against Hayato’s back, over his heart.

It took a while for the tightness of want and fear to ease out of Hayato’s muscles, and Takeshi’s knees were complaining a bit about the hardness of the tile, but he ignored them. This was more important. Feeling the clutch of Hayato’s hands loosen and his breath slow as Takeshi held him was much more important.

Finally Hayato stirred and Takeshi felt the slow intake of breath against his shoulder. Quietly, a little shyly, Hayato murmured, "Takeshi."

Takeshi couldn’t stop the smile that pulled at his lips. "Yeah."

Hayato was quiet in his arms for another breath before he lifted his head and pushed a little against Takeshi’s chest. "I want some hot water before all these bruises stiffen up," he said softly, still not quite looking at Takeshi.

"Good idea." Takeshi eased back onto his heels, a bit slowly. He had to laugh at the way they both creaked, getting to their feet. "Here," he held out a hand to Hayato. "So neither of us falls getting in."

Hayato looked at his hand for a long moment before taking it, face flushed again thought a tiny smile tugged at his lips. "Yeah. Okay."

Takeshi smiled back, satisfied.

Definitely progress.


Going Back Someday

Yamamoto comes to visit Gokudera and they navigate around their trust and need for each other—indirectly as always. Drama with Romantic Porn, I-4

A knock at the door pulled Hayato out of the depths of differential equations and he glared at the blank wood for a moment before getting up, grumbling under his breath the whole way, to see who it was.

"Takeshi?" He blinked, hands full of his front door and his math textbook, neither free to adjust his reading glasses the way he felt a momentary need to.

"Hey." Takeshi leaned in the doorway, grinning. "Thought it was about time I stopped in for a visit."

After over a month away. Hayato sniffed, but stood aside for him. "I suppose you might as well come in, yes."

Takeshi sprawled out on Hayato’s couch. "So? How’s the university thing going?"

Hayato gave him a resigned look and set aside his book. "Pretty well. You’ve checked in with the Tenth?"

Takeshi chuckled. "I think maybe he’s not having as much fun as you are." He stretched out long legs, crossing his ankles. "He was looking kind of frazzled over the, um," Takeshi frowned, faintly puzzled, "the macro?"

"Macroeconomics," Hayato translated.

"Ah." Takeshi looked dubious. "Okay."

"Look it up yourself."

Takeshi laughed. "Caught me. Okay, I will."

Hayato shook his head. He was never sure whether Takeshi was genuinely lazy about these things or just doing it to tease him. "So?" he sighed. "How’s the idiot ball game going?"

Takeshi’s smile quirked. "It’s going well. We might actually make it to the Nihon Series this year."

"Good luck." Hayato stood up and went to fetch tea.


"The Tenth approves," Hayato said, quietly. "That’s all that matters. It’s true, we aren’t under as much threat as long as we stay in Japan for now." He poured and handed Takeshi his cup before going to the picture window that was the one extravagance in his latest apartment. The city lights were starting to come on, as the sun set.

There was a sigh behind him. "I live close enough to come quickly when he needs us. And you can’t think I would let a game stop me, if he did."

Hayato’s mouth tightened and he lowered his head. "No, I don’t think that," he said to his cup.

After a moment Takeshi said, "You know, I’ve never heard you complain about Ryouhei-san’s career."

"Yeah, well, that’s him," Hayato muttered and took a sip of tea to loosen the slightly trapped feeling in his chest.

There was a click of porcelain on wood and then Takeshi’s arms were sliding around him, easing him back into the lean solidity of Takeshi’s body. "So what’s the difference between him and me?" he murmured.

"You’re the other person the Tenth really depends on." Hayato looked straight ahead, over the city.

Takeshi’s arms tightened. "Yeah?"

Hayato was silent. Takeshi waited, just holding him, and finally he sighed and growled, "You’re other the person I depend on, too."

"I’ll be here when you need me," Takeshi murmured against his hair. "Promise."

Hayato rested his head back on Takeshi’s shoulder. "I’ve got to be a complete idiot to believe that," he complained to his ceiling, because of course he did. Takeshi had the temerity to chuckle and Hayato elbowed him.

"Careful." He could tell Takeshi was smiling. "You’ll spill the tea."

He let Takeshi take the cup and set it on the shelves by the window and a low sound caught in his throat as Takeshi folded him more firmly into his arms.

"Do you need me to come back now?" Takeshi asked, softly.

Hayato wrestled with temptation for a moment and finally sighed. "Not really. I just…" he bit his lip.

Takeshi pressed a kiss to his neck. "I’ll stay for a while."

Hayato closed his eyes and breathed out. "Yeah." Takeshi always knew.

"Besides," Takeshi’s voice lowered, and one hand drifted up to start unbuttoning Hayato’s shirt, "I’ve missed you."

The breath was a laugh this time. "Takeshi…"

"What? I did." Takeshi’s lips curved against his neck. "And I missed this, too." His hand spread open against Hayato’s stomach and slid up over his chest, warm and slow.

Hayato made a husky sound, unwinding into the stroke of Takeshi’s hands, sighing as they slid over his ribs, down to his hips, strong and gentle. The steadiness of Takeshi’s touch untangled his thoughts, smoothed them into calm, and he had to admit he’d missed this too. His breath caught on a small shudder of heat as long fingers undid his slacks and slid inside to wrap around his cock, familiar and knowing.

"Easy," Takeshi breathed against his ear, and Hayato made a breathless, amused sound.

"When you’re doing this?" But it was true.

"Mm. Especially while I’m doing this." Takeshi’s fingers worked over him slowly and he drew Hayato more snugly back against him.

Having made his token protest, Hayato let himself settle into Takeshi’s arms and rested his head back. "Okay." Takeshi just about purred as he let himself be supported, and Hayato’s mouth quirked even as his hips rocked up into Takeshi’s hand. Sometimes he wondered if Takeshi made it so clear he liked it when Hayato relaxed so that Hayato could feel a little less needy for wanting it so much himself. It would be like him.

Right now, though, pleasure was unraveling his mind, so he let the thought go and just sighed as Takeshi’s hand stroked his cock slow and firm, building heat in him.

"Mmm, there." Takeshi’s mouth moved down his throat, open and wet, and he caught Hayato closer when he shuddered, arching, tipping his head further back. It felt so good to be held, tight and sure, and know Takeshi had him. It felt even better when Takeshi’s thumb rubbed slowly over his head.

He opened heavy eyes and saw their reflection in the window, the white of his shirt hanging off his shoulders; the darkness of Takeshi behind him, head bent; the movement of the strong hand between his legs, and heat spiked through him. He moaned as Takeshi’s hand tightened, pushing wantonly into that grip as pleasure rose and rose and spilled over, pulling him taut against Takeshi’s body, gasping for breath as heat wrung his nerves again and again.

Takeshi made a satisfied noise as Hayato slumped back against him, and cradled him close.

When Hayato had caught his breath he asked, "How long do you think you’ll stay?"

Takeshi was quiet for a moment before he said, "As long as I’m needed."

Hayato turned in Takeshi’s arms, leaning his head against Takeshi’s shoulder, and sighed. "Idiot. You’re always needed."

"Really?" He could hear the smile in Takeshi’s voice and a warm hand slid up to curve around the nape of his neck.

"The Tenth relies on you." And if Hayato’s voice was huskier than that statement called for, well.

"All right." Hayato made a startled sound as Takeshi lifted his chin and kissed him softly, breath catching into quiet when he saw how dark and serious Takeshi’s eyes had turned. "When you and Tsuna graduate from here. I’ll come back for good."

A shudder ran through Hayato as one thread of tension, years long, finally unwound. He buried his head against Takeshi’s shoulder and when he spoke it was muffled. "About time. Fucking baseball idiots, you just can’t do anything with them."

He wouldn’t be alone, at Tsuna’s side.

A chuckle ran through Takeshi’s chest. "So, I guess I’ll just have to see about the World Series before then. Since I’ll have other things to concentrate on after."

Hayato looked up with a wry smile, and this time he meant it when he said, "Good luck."

Takeshi kissed him again, lightly, and tugged up Hayato’s pants, refastening them. "So what do you have around here for dinner?"

"Probably nothing you’ll approve of." Hayato pushed back and buttoned his shirt himself, face hot.

"Probably not. Grocery shopping tomorrow," Takeshi declared, strolling toward the kitchen while Hayato reflected on the unexpected pitfalls of hanging around the son of a sushi chef. He smiled, though, and followed along to perch on the table and watch Takeshi rummage through his shelves. He had more reading to do, but the books would keep for later.

Later would be all right.


Working Till the Sun Don’t Shine

Gokudera has a stressful day and wants Yamamoto to help him unwind, which Yamamoto is perfectly happy to do. Pure Porn, I-4

Hayato closed the door to his office carefully, breathing deep and slow.

"That didn’t go very well," Takeshi observed from where he stood looking out the window.

"No. It didn’t," Hayato said, with what he thought was a commendable lack of screaming rage, under the circumstances. He hung his jacket on a chair and undid his tie with short, precise movements, eyes narrowed at empty air.

"Think we’re actually going to wind up in a war with the Barassi?"

"At the moment, I would welcome it," Hayato said through his teeth. "But right now I really don’t want to talk about those motherless bastards."

Takeshi looked over his shoulder, brows lifted inquiringly.

"What I want right now," Hayato said evenly, unbuttoning his shirt and stripping it off, "is for you to fuck me."

Takeshi’s eyes darkened with heat, and what Hayato suspected was his own reaction to the afternoon’s disastrous negotiations coming to the fore. He reached up to pull his own tie loose, voice turning husky. "Sure thing."

Their clothes went all over the room, and Takeshi chuckled as Hayato ripped open a packet of lube and turned up Takeshi’s hand to pour it pointedly into his palm. Hayato growled and pressed against him, pulling him down to a kiss. The fierceness of it, the strength of Takeshi’s arm tightening around him, soothed him a little, enough to relax and sigh as long, slick fingers stroked him. The sigh turned into a moan as Takeshi rubbed slow, hard circles over his entrance, working the muscles until he could press his fingers in.

"Yes," Hayato said, husky, pressing his forehead against Takeshi’s shoulder as those fingers worked in and out of his ass. "Yes, that."

"Mm, thought so." Takeshi twisted his fingers slowly, deep inside Hayato, and caught him closer as he shuddered. Another few strokes and he murmured, "Turn around. Against the wall."

Hayato turned and leaned against the wall, panting, taut with lingering tension and rising anticipation. Takeshi’s hands closing on his hips made him shiver and the slide of Takeshi’s cock between his cheeks made him moan. "Takeshi…"

"Shh." Takeshi pressed up against his back and dropped a kiss on his shoulder. "I’ve got it."

Hayato spread his legs wider and moaned as Takeshi’s cock pushed into him, opened him up, sliding hard and big inside him, perfectly distracting. "God, yes…"

Takeshi growled soft agreement as he pulled Hayato tight against him and drove into him deep and hard, again and again. Hayato gasped with each thrust, heat coiling tighter and tighter in his stomach and spine. "Yes, harder…"

"Yeah." Takeshi gathered him close and fucked him hard and fast, each stroke rocking Hayato up against the wall, against the surety of Takeshi’s arms around him. His ass felt hot and stretched with how hard Takeshi’s cock was pounding in, and pleasure tingled down his nerves. It was exactly the release, the intensity, the shelter, he needed, and he wished it could last forever; the sound he made when Takeshi’s hand, still slick, closed between his legs was half hungry and half disappointed. And then it was nothing but raw want as Takeshi’s fist closed around his cock and stroked him hard.

Sensation burst through him, hot and wild, and he cried out. Takeshi caught him tighter still, groaning against his shoulder as his hips jerked short and hard against Hayato.

Hayato leaned against the wall, panting, eyes closed. He made a soft sound as Takeshi’s weight settled against his back and Takeshi’s hands, gentle again, slid up his chest.

"Better?" Takeshi murmured against his ear, husky.

"Mm. Yeah." Hayato sighed, finally able to think without a red haze around everything. "I guess the Tenth wouldn’t really like it if I just shot them."

Takeshi chuckled, nuzzling his neck. "Probably not. Though, give it another few days like this and you never know."

"I’d really rather not," Hayato said, dryly.

"Me either. Guess we’ll have to figure out something else."

Hayato snorted a little, relaxing into the support of Takeshi’s unshakeable optimism. "Guess we will."

"Okay, then." He could feel Takeshi’s lips curve against his skin. "First, though, we probably need pants."

Hayato laughed.


It’s the Motion

Gokudera thinks it’s unfair how good Yamamoto looks on a motorcycle; Yamamoto thinks it’s the perfect opportunity. Written for DW’s inaugural comment porn meme with the prompt: Yamamoto/Gokudera, motorcycles as aphrodisiacs. Porn without Plot, I-4

It was easier, Hayato decided, when Yamamoto was actually driving the motorcycle. And it was easier because Yamamoto was an idiot, and liked to do silly, flashy moves, and it was easy to roll his eyes at someone popping a wheelie and laughing like a kid.

The hard part was when Yamamoto was holding still on the damn thing. And the hardest part was keeping his eyes away from long, long legs spread casually over a sleek machine and not, not, looking at the way worn denim pulled taut over Yamamoto’s thighs.

When he couldn’t keep from doing that was when his mouth went dry and his pulse sped up and, if he was unlucky enough to not look away in time, Yamamoto’s eyes turned dark and considering.

Of course trying not to look also had its drawbacks, like not seeing the arm snaking out to pull him in close.

“What are you doing?” It came out a lot huskier than he’d meant for it to, but hell, he was pulled up tight against Yamamoto, who was still straddling the damn motorcycle and grinning, only not in his usual idiotic way. No, this time there was something hot around the edges of it.

“Testing a theory?” Yamamoto offered. His arm tightened, pulling Hayato closer, and Hayato took in a quick breath as he found one of those long legs between his. “Mm, yeah, looks like it was right.”

“Idiot,” Hayato managed, hands closing on Yamamoto’s shoulders. And it was ridiculous that it should make any difference, but the sleekness and speed promised by the motorcycle’s lines made a person pay attention to the lines of Yamamoto’s body, the sleekness and power they promised. Those lines drew him in, made him forget why he’d ever tried not to look.

At least they were alone in here, today.

He leaned down to kiss Yamamoto, which at least covered the damn grin, and let himself rock against Yamamoto’s thigh. A shudder of heat ran right up his spine.

“Mmm.” He could still hear the grin as Yamamoto’s other hand worked open their pants. “Here.”

Gokudera flushed as Yamamoto pulled him onto the bike too, settling back in behind him, and it only deepened when Yamamoto murmured in his ear, “It’s a good ride, you know?”


The idiot only laughed, and Gokudera’s breath hitched as Yamamoto tugged his pants down and Yamamoto’s cock rubbed against his bare ass. The brush of Yamamoto’s fingers made him look back and he blinked at the slick glisten on them and on Yamamoto’s cock and the foil packet being tucked back into Yamamoto’s jeans. The grin turned just a bit insufferable. “I noticed you watching.”

“Complete and total idiot,” Gokudera grumbled, still rather red, and broke off with a gasp as slick fingers reached around to fondle him too.

“Whatever you say,” Yamamoto murmured.

Gokudera stopped trying to string words together and leaned over the motorcycle, panting, as Yamamoto took his hips and pressed into him, slowly, slowly, stretching him open fierce and hard. When Yamamoto drew back and pushed in again, he moaned out loud. They were supposed to be training, he thought distractedly, but here he was instead, spread out over a fast, powerful machine, getting fucked slow and hard, and God it was hot. He could feel Yamamoto’s jeans rubbing against his ass with every thrust, feel the hardness of Yamamoto’s thighs against the back of his as they tensed, feel the tight slide as Yamamoto’s cock worked in and out of him, and it all set him panting, gasping with the heat, moaning with the surge of pleasure as Yamamoto lifted his hips and drove in deeper.

By the time he finally came undone he’d forgotten the very possibility of other people being around and his voice rang off the walls.

The motorcycle did, he decided distantly, make a nice support. He didn’t have to try to move at all as Yamamoto gasped and his thrusts turned short and hard.

They were quiet for a moment and then Yamamoto murmured against his shoulder. “So? Was it a good ride?”

Gokudera swatted at him, growling when he laughed.

Okay, maybe he did like it better when Yamamoto and his motorcycle were holding still.



Hibari looks at the world differently than most people. Written for the drabble exchange prompt: Hibari, Possessive. Drama with Characterization, I-3

“You know,” Dino picked his way through what he could only think of as the litter of fallen bodies surrounding Kyouya, “you probably didn’t need to be quite so, ah, thorough.”

“They insulted the Vongola,” Kyouya pointed out. He still had his tonfa in his hands, steel held straight and poised, and Dino was careful to keep one eye on them. Kyouya wasn’t picky about his opponents when his blood was up.

“I have to say, you’re not the one I’d expected to be the most protective of the Vongola’s reputation.” Dino folded his arms and leaned against the wall, one foot braced, and considered. “Actually, I guess you and Gokudera are probably tied. But I didn’t expect that, either.” He kept coming back because Kyouya kept surprising him.

Kyouya sniffed. “Gokudera acts like a herd animal. Or a pet.”

Dino’s mouth twitched. “So what do you call how you act?”

Kyouya raised a brow at him, finally putting away his weapons. “What do you mean?”

“Well just look at what you did to the poor idiots, just for insulting Tsuna.” Dino waved at the fallen. “And you supposed to be the Cloud, the one who doesn’t belong to anyone.”

“I don’t belong to anyone.”

Dino was starting to have that feeling. The one he often had, talking to Kyouya. The one that suggested maybe Kyouya lived in a different world than the rest of them. “So what do you call your reason for this, then?”

Kyouya looked straight at him, eyes sharp and bright, and smiled like a crazy thing. “I don’t belong to Sawada. He belongs to me.”

Dino eyed Kyouya’s smile, and the scatter of bodies only now starting to groan, and laughed helplessly.

And wondered, in the back of his head, whether Kyouya thought the same thing about him.



Mukuro likes strong things, and pawns who are loyal to him. Alternate canon history; dark, violent, and twisty.

Character(s): Rokudou Mukuro, Xanxus

He leaves a message behind for whatever Estraneo survivors there might be. It’s written in smoke and blood, and it says, quite simply, Don’t do this again.

The two children who had survived the labs trail after him. Their eyes are wide and dark, and they look at him like he is a hero. He does not disabuse them of the notion.

But they are children, for all that they are strong—he saw the dark one make two kills, and the light one rip the throat out of a scientist with nothing but his teeth—and for now they are a burden to him.

He toys with the idea of killing them; the fewer people who know of him, the better. It would be simple enough to do. Given the way they look at him, they might even bare their throats for him.

Instead he renames them. The names come from an early life, perhaps his first, and though they no longer have faces attached to them, he recalls the sense of camaraderie that goes with them. “You will be Joushima Ken,” he tells the light one, and to the dark one, he says, “And you will be Kakimoto Chikusa.” They accept that, solemnly, and then he finds them a home.

The Rossi are a small Family, and, in the way of small, weak factions, have made up for it by building one of the finest information networks in Italy. Their boss is a sentimental fool, and adopts the two orphans without a single thought in his head but charity.

Before he leaves Ken and Chikusa to the Rossi’s mercies, he gives them instructions. “Grow up,” he tells them. “Become stronger. Listen. Learn. Be ready for me when I come for you.” There are other things, ones he leaves unsaid—their minds are open to him now, ready for him to stroll through any time he chooses.

They accept that, too, and then Ken—already the brash one—asks, humbly, “What should we call you?”

“You shouldn’t,” he says, and they flinch. But it’s true enough that he needs a name, and the one the Estraneo gave him won’t do at all. “Mukuro,” he says, finally, picking the name that goes with theirs. “You may call me Mukuro-sama.”

The linguistic niceties are lost on them, to be sure, but they nod. When Mukuro leaves them, they are forming the syllables for themselves, eyes wide and shining.



He drifts through Italy on his own, possessing people and discarding them after he’s learned the things they won’t tell someone wearing a child’s body, and what he learns is that he wouldn’t give two figs for any of the Families or their so-called values. The Estraneo had been rotten at the core, and so are the rest of them. The more they bleat on about their honor and their codes, the more it disgusts him. They have no honor that they will not sell. They have no codes that they will not break.

The Mafia—humans—are revolting. There’s nothing they won’t sacrifice if it means gain, not even their own children.

The whole thing should be destroyed.

And then Mukuro thinks, Why not?



He drifts northward, towards the Rossi, with the vague intention of letting himself be adopted along with Chikusa and Ken. The Rossi are as good a place as any to stay while he plans his destruction of the Mafia.

That changes when he hears the rumors coming out of the Vongola—that the Vongola Ninth is getting old, and will select his heir soon. The favorite is Xanxus, his natural son. All the Barassi peon Mukuro is possessing knows of this Xanxus is that he’s strong—incredibly strong.

Mukuro absorbs this, and smiles.

He likes strong things.



He goes strolling that evening, walking through his own world until he comes across Chikusa. The boy looks startled to see him, but takes his hand without hesitation. “Mukuro-sama,” he murmurs.

“I have need of you,” Mukuro tells him, and pushes Chikusa’s consciousness aside.

The Rossi are careless among their own people. Mukuro strolls Chikusa’s body through the Rossi base unchallenged, conducting his interrogations here and there, gleaning what they know of the Vongola, of this Xanxus. He pays no mind to the bodies he leaves behind him, and is pleased to note that Chikusa doesn’t either.

It is terribly useful to have loyal pawns.

What the Rossi know of Xanxus dwells on the fact that he is rumored to be the Vongola Ninth’s bastard son, and that he wields the Vongola Flame. He is said to be arrogant and short-tempered, and widely-expected to be named the Tenth any day now. In the meantime, he has taken control of the Varia.

Mukuro thinks that he will do nicely.



Xanxus is even better than he’d hoped.

It takes a while for Mukuro to weed through the man’s underlings—killing the weak ones, disabling and marking the stronger ones for later use, if necessary—and reach him where he’s brooding in his lair. When Mukuro walks in, carrying his trident and flicking the blood off his fingers, Xanxus is slouched in a chair. Mukuro doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that the casual posture means that Xanxus is unwary; the man’s eyes are burning.

Xanxus does him the courtesy of not assuming that the child’s body Mukuro is wearing means that Mukuro is harmless. “Who the fuck are you?”

He smiles. “You may call me Mukuro,” he says, and rolls out of the way of the gunfire—the gun had appeared in Xanxus’ hand almost before he could see it. Delightful. “Oh, you are going to be fun to play with.”

Xanxus snarls something wordless at him; his Flame sears through the air and Mukuro barely escapes being burnt. He laughs again and vaults out of the way, pivots on his staff and launches himself at Xanxus.

He’d dipped into the minds of the higher-ranking Varia, to see what their experience of Xanxus was. The uniform impression that he’d received was that the only thing Xanxus respected was strength. In that sense, he’s a man after Mukuro’s own heart. So Mukuro dances with him, trading blows and dodging bullets until the room is in ruins. He lands a hit early, a glancing blow as Xanxus turns his trident aside, but it lays the back of Xanxus’ hand open. That’s all the opportunity he needs.

He pays just enough attention to what’s going on around him to keep Xanxus from injuring him, and goes for a stroll through Xanxus’ memories. He’s looking for confirmation that Xanxus really is going to be the Tenth. What he finds is something else entirely.

“And to think all of Italy believes you really are his son,” Mukuro says, beyond entertained by it. The rot goes all the way to the heart of the Vongola, who pride themselves on the purity of their Family traditions. It’s too delicious for words. “To think he even let you believe it—!”

Xanxus howls and lunges for him, but it’s too late now. Mukuro has seen to the heart of the man, seen all his doubts and insecurities and the intangible things Xanxus hungers for and knows that he won’t ever have. Mukuro steps out of his way and reaches out his own Will to seize control of Xanxus.

The man goes down like a rock, but his spirit struggles against Mukuro’s, fighting against the grip Mukuro has on him. “You are strong,” he says, going to Xanxus and standing over him.

The man glares at him, eyes fierce.

Mukuro considers him, and crouches. “Very strong,” he says, softly. “And yet they don’t want you. They fear you and what you can do to them.” The spirit of Xanxus flinches in his grip. “You will never belong to them, and they know it.” Xanxus flinches again, but Mukuro’s hold on him is too strong now, and Mukuro refuses to let him look away. “But they don’t mind using you, do they? They don’t mind lying to you, and letting you destroy their other enemies. You make a very pretty little pawn, don’t you?”

He tips his head to the side, studying Xanxus. “I wonder how long it will be until their fear of you outweighs their need for you, and they decide to kill you? It can’t be long… I see you’re already planning to take what should be yours. They won’t let you, you know. The old man who calls himself your father will see you dead by his own hand before he lets that happen.” He smiles as Xanxus’ spirit goes still against his. “Remember, it’s always the Family first with them. And you? You’re not even family, let alone Family.”

That has him; Xanxus’ will flinches against his one more time, and then goes limp, bleak with despair.

Mukuro starts to shoulder him aside, and reconsiders it. “I wonder what you even want with that,” he says. “Whited sepulchers, all of them. Corrupt to the very core of them. Weak little men who can’t even do their own killing, and rely on monsters to do it for them. Liars and cheats, all of them.” He lays his hand against Xanxus’ cheek, lightly, and can feel Xanxus listening to him, intent as a flame. “You are much finer than that, aren’t you? You’re stronger than they are. Purer than they are, for all their fine bloodlines.”

Xanxus’ spirit flexes against his; Mukuro relaxes his hold just a bit, enough to give him a voice. “What do you want from me?” he rasps.

Mukuro smiles at him. “I want you to help me burn it all down,” he says. “Right down to the ground. All of it—the whole rotten, stinking thing.”

Xanxus’ eyes change, go bright and fierce. “Yes,” he whispers.

Mukuro can see the future burning in his eyes. It’s a beautiful sight.

– end –

But One Thought Between Them

Companion story for Lys ap Adin’s "Firebrand". Xanxus fights Mukuro’s possession, but not for quite the reason one might assume. Mind-Porn with Creepiness, D/s, I-4

Character(s): Rokudou Mukuro, Xanxus
Pairing(s): Mukuro/Xanxus

Xanxus wanted what Mukuro wanted. He gloried in the destruction. But he still fought possession every time, spirit clawing viciously against being pushed aside.

Eventually Mukuro asked why.

What, do I look like your fucking lapdog? Xanxus snarled back.

Mukuro laughed. Since that’s what you are, I suppose you do. The jerk of Xanxus’ spirit against his amused him. Well? You do my bidding every day. Aren’t you?

It isn’t for you!

Of course not. It’s because you enjoy this. The tremble that passed through Xanxus’ spirit, at that, caught his attention. He smiled slowly. You enjoy every moment of it, don’t you? he purred, provokingly.

Another jerk, as Xanxus tried to lash out at him and back away from him at the same time. Mukuro turned inward and caught him again, holding him fast in a hard mental grip. Xanxus’ spirit shuddered against his.

You do it because you enjoy it and because I’m stronger than you, Mukuro whispered to him. Because you enjoy that I’m stronger than you. He tightened his hold.

Xanxus’ resistance subsided, though his submission was still tinged with fury, much to Mukuro’s entertainment. He pulled Xanxus closer, close enough to feel his body again, and stroked Xanxus’ hand down his own chest to cup between his legs. He kneaded slowly, savoring Xanxus’ shock. Xanxus strained against his mind’s grip again and arousal shuddered through his spirit, echoed through his body, when Mukuro pinned his spirit where it was, close enough for sensation but not for control. Mukuro laughed, delighted.

He spread the legs of Xanxus’ body and undid his pants, sliding Xanxus’ hand inside. Xanxus’ spirit shivered under his hold and Mukuro murmured, You like the feeling when I make you submit, hm? That’s why you always fight me, isn’t it?

Xanxus spirit jerked under his grip, but if Xanxus had had a voice at the moment he would have moaned out the denial. Mukuro moved Xanxus’ hand on himself, stroking him slow and firm and relentless, and Xanxus’ spirit turned pliant against his, yearning towards the pleasure both physical and non-physical. Mukuro smiled and moved Xanxus’ hand on him faster, harder, until Xanxus’ body arched taut as he came.

Mukuro pushed Xanxus’ spirit back again, holding him down in his own mind, and Xanxus trembled, quiet.

You’ll get what you want, with me, Mukuro purred, mind brushing over Xanxus light and easy. Everything you want.


Any Tool, When Held Correctly, Is a Weapon

Sometimes Mukuro finds it necessary to tend to Xanxus. Written for Porn Battle VIII, to the prompt “overwhelmed.” Smut with reasonably creepy D/s overtones

Character(s): Rokudou Mukuro, Xanxus
Pairing(s): Mukuro/Xanxus

After the last of the Arcobaleno fell, things began falling into place rapidly. Or began falling to pieces, to be more precise, which was much more to Mukuro’s taste. Many of the smaller Families were nothing but smoking ruins, and even the fact that the larger Families were reaching past ancient vendettas to ally against them couldn’t shake his good humor.

It was all only a matter of time, now.

Regrets? he purred to Xanxus, when Xanxus had dismissed his lieutenant and retired to his private rooms to rinse the blood from his hands.

Xanxus bared his teeth at the mirror; he seemed to like having another face to address, even though Mukuro had told him it wasn’t necessary. “Fuck, no. I always hated that fucking midget.”

Hate wasn’t precisely the right word for it, of course—Mukuro had tasted Xanxus’ longing for Reborn’s attention, and his resentment when Reborn had overlooked him. But Xanxus found it easier to couch such sentiments in hate. Mm, I suppose, he said, lightly enough, and stretched himself out, reaching for control of Xanxus, wanting a deeper taste.

Xanxus snarled and fought back against his grip, resisting the pressure of Mukuro’s will, the way he did every time. Mukuro laughed and closed his grip more tightly, and tasted the relief and desire as he overcame Xanxus’ resistance. Such a complicated spirit Xanxus had, with as many layers and contradictions as a fine wine. Held, now, Xanxus shuddered beneath his will. Such fineness in you, Mukuro murmured to him, tasting him, and pulled him closer.

Xanxus flexed beneath him, a shudder that tasted of denial; even now, he resisted such compliments strenuously.

Look, Mukuro told him, directing Xanxus’ gaze to the mirror that hung over the basin. Look, Xanxus. See. And Xanxus saw, because Mukuro would not let him look away, not as he moved Xanxus’ fingers to unbutton his shirt and let it fall, and then to his slacks, undoing them and sliding them down, until Xanxus was bare in the reflection.

Beneath his grip, Xanxus’ will was tinged with rage and embarrassment, and Mukuro huffed, tightening his grip until Xanxus, reminded, went pliant. Look at the strength of you, he murmured, sliding Xanxus’ hands over his chest and stomach, stroking over the solid muscles there. Xanxus’ will trembled under his. See the things that drew me to you in the first place.

Xanxus flexed under him, beginning to rouse, yearning and resisting all at once. Delicious, complicated Xanxus. Mukuro purred and lifted Xanxus’ fingers to his mouth, sucking on them. Xanxus writhed under his grasp, watching his reflection, tasting the traces of blood and gunpowder still on his fingers. So strong, Mukuro told him, savoring the way Xanxus flexed under him. So beautiful. So foolish of them, not to value you. He braced Xanxus against the wall, and stroked his hand down; Xanxus strained against him when he realized how Mukuro was directing his fingers.

Mukuro tightened his grasp on Xanxus, pinning him, and slid Xanxus’ fingers into him. Xanxus’ body arched and shuddered at the stretch, and Xanxus himself would have cried out at the foreign heat of it. I see you, he told Xanxus, fucking him on his own fingers, slow and deliberate. I see all of you, Xanxus. And you are brilliance itself. And you are mine.

Xanxus would have cried out again, at that, had Mukuro permitted it. Instead he went limp against Mukuro’s grip, staring at himself as his body shuddered and pleasure clamped down on him, complicated and layered.

There, my own, Mukuro whispered to him, stroking him slowly as Xanxus panted, quiescent under his touch. You see? he asked, gathering him closer, and purred as a ripple of acquiescence ran through Xanxus.

So delightfully intricate, his Xanxus. He couldn’t have found a better tool if he’d tried.

– end –

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Nothing that the Vongola Family does is ever actually simple. Nothing. For cliche_bingo, prompt: “Pregnancy.” Fluffy schmoopy fluff with deeper Family politics underneath, general audiences

The one thing—some days, the only thing—everyone could agree to was that Shamal wasn’t the sort of person a pregnant woman should ever have to deal with. Kyouko thought that was just as well, because Hisakawa-sensei was a pleasant woman with a reassuringly competent manner and a professional history that had been vetted three times over (once by Cavallone’s people, who had been the ones to recommend and vouch for her; a second time by the Vongola’s people, who had agreed that she was legitimate; and the third and final time by Gokudera, who had finally, grudgingly, said that Hisakawa-sensei might be competent enough to be allowed to supervise the gestation and birth of the Tenth’s firstborn).

Kyouko supposed that she might have known that even the matter of having Vongola babies couldn’t be simple.

“And that’s that,” Hisakawa-sensei said, undoing the blood pressure cuff and turning away to make a notation in the charts she was keeping.

Kyouko rolled her sleeve back down. “Well?”

Hisakawa-sensei’s smile was warm, reassuring. “Thirty weeks and still a textbook case. All of my patients should give me so little trouble.”

Kyouko couldn’t help smiling back; she did like Hisakawa-sensei. “At least something in my life is allowed to be straightforward.”

“I can imagine it must be a relief,” Hisakawa-sensei agreed, and closed her chart. She stood and inclined her head. “With your permission, I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

“Until tomorrow,” Kyouko murmured, and watched her go—she’d be off to Tsuna now, to make her daily report.

Nothing was ever particularly simple for the Vongola. But then, she’d known as much for years.

Kyouko twitched at her clothes one last time, settling them into place, and smiled at I-Pin. “Well, shall we?” she asked. “Haru must be waiting.”

I-Pin could admit that it was completely necessary and appropriate that they had increased Kyouko-san’s security detail. She could name five Families who might be pleased to see the Vongola’s wife fail to carry a pregnancy to term, and that was without even trying. Of course it was necessary to increase the number of bodyguards who accompanied Kyouko-san whenever she went out. To do otherwise invited disaster.

All the same, that didn’t mean I-Pin had to like it.

Fedele was a good man, and her dislike of him was completely unworthy, she reminded herself. Still, she couldn’t help it; this was her territory that he was intruding upon, and Kyouko-san was her Boss.

“All clear,” André’s voice murmured into her earpiece, and I-Pin nodded. Fedele went ahead, leading Kyouko-san and Haru into the shop, while I-Pin brought up the rear.

At least they’d left her with nominal authority over Kyouko-san’s security. That was something to hold to.

Antonio swept forward to greet them, effusive over how Kyouko-san was glowing and practically rubbing his hands together with his glee at getting to try out his latest designs on her. Kyouko-san and Haru-san laughed with him as they drifted deeper into the shop, already falling into easy chatter with him, while I-Pin and Fedele kept watch over them.

Fedele looked exasperated, just faintly, around the eyes, like he couldn’t quite believe that a veteran Vongola foot soldier had been assigned to stand in this shop, surrounded by bolts of cloth and the frippery of women’s gossip.

I-Pin turned her eyes away from him. He might have been necessary, even vital, but he didn’t understand anything, and she wasn’t obligated to like him.

Just a few more weeks, she reminded herself. Just a few more weeks of this and things would—well, they wouldn’t go back to normal, but they would change again.

All the same, she was going to look into assembling a proper security team for Kyouko-san, one that would understand the work that the Vongola’s wife did.

Kyouko-san didn’t deserve anything less than the absolute best.

“You know, I bet we could make a killing if we put some money down on whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl,” Haru said, once they were ensconced in the car and Antonio’s discreet questions were behind them.

Kyouko-chan chuckled. “I suppose we could,” she agreed, with the secret little smile she’d taken to wearing these past few months. “But I doubt we really need the money that badly.”

“The money’s only a way to keep score.” Haru studied her. “Is it true that you really don’t know which it’s going to be?”

Kyouko-chan laid a hand over the curve of her stomach. “Yes.” The smile turned into an outright grin. “I admit, confounding all the people who ask is one of my great joys in life right now.”

“You really do have an evil sense of humor,” Haru told her. It was all the more so for coming from such an unexpected quarter.

“I know.” Kyouko-chan turned her eyes to the window. “So. Which do the odds favor?”

“A son.” Haru couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Because the Vongola are such manly men, you know.”

“Tsuna is very macho, yes,” Kyouko-chan agreed, with a straight face. “Quite vigorous, even.” That earned a squeak from I-Pin’s corner, rather like a stifled giggle.

Tsuna-kun was never going to hear the end of that one, poor guy. “Yes, well, the consensus seems to be that the Vongola’s firstborn wouldn’t dare be a girl. Long tradition and all that.”

“Tradition, yes.” Kyouko-chan’s expression went distant. “A boy would be easiest, all told. And then a second boy, and perhaps the third might be a girl…”

An heir and a spare, yes, and then a sister who might be used to cement an alliance with another Family—that was the preferred configuration for these things.

“Whatever it ends up being, it will be a Vongola,” Haru told her, quietly. “And it will be yours, and Tsuna-kun’s, and that’s what really matters. The rest of it can go to hell.”

Kyouko-chan looked away from the window, the uncertainty melting away from the line of her mouth. “Yes,” she said, after a moment, and some of her steel showed itself in a brief glint of her eyes. “You’re right. The rest of it can go to hell.”

Haru settled back in her seat, satisfied.

Privately, she was hoping for a girl. Wouldn’t that just put a spoke in the other Families’ wheels? She’d have to put some money down on it, discreetly. If it came out in her favor, it’d make a good christening gift.

Kyouko was drowsing by the time Tsuna came in, and had to rouse herself from a doze when he slid into bed next to her in order to collect her kiss. “Mm. I was starting to think that you boys were going to talk all night long.”

“Getting too old for that,” Tsuna said, settling against her back.

Kyouko laughed and leaned back against his chest, and sighed, contentedly, as his arm curved around her and held her close. “Is that the diplomatic way of saying that you ran out of wine?”

His laugh tickled her throat. “Maybe.”

“I thought it might be.” It wouldn’t have anything to do with the way Tsuna was wrapping himself around her, of course, or the way his palm had flattened itself against the rounding curve of her stomach. Well, not officially, anyway. There were appearances to keep up.

But that was okay. She was fluent in the things he left unspoken.

“Takeshi says that it’s not fair that Hayato gets first dibs on being a godfather,” Tsuna told her, after a moment.

“Does he, now?” Kyouko could imagine him saying so, half-joking, in order to get Gokudera’s temper up, and half-serious underneath the laughter. “We’ll have to have another, then, so he won’t feel left out.”

“That might set a dangerous precedent, you know.” Tsuna sounded amused. “Before you know it, they’ll all want godchildren.”

“It’s the accessory every fashionable Guardian is sporting this season,” Kyouko said, arch.

Tsuna’s body shook with laughter. “What a mental image,” he said, against her shoulder. “Can you imagine the look on Hibari’s face?”

Kyouko could, all too well, and giggled. “Oh, dear.”

“Somewhere,” he said, gravely, “Hibari has the urge to bite me to death, and he doesn’t even know why.”

Kyouko laughed until she was breathless and the baby was kicking restlessly against all the jostling. “Oh, now I really think we should.”

“I’m willing if you are,” Tsuna said, low.

Kyouko’s laughter stilled in her throat at the offer, which went against all the advice they’d been given about careful family planning and siblings who could only ever be rivals for one coveted position. “I am,” she said, softly, because if Tsuna was willing to try to change that part of mafia life, so was she. She settled her hand over his, and he snuggled her closer. Then the baby kicked again, sharply, and broke the mood. “I reserve the right to change my mind after this one is born, though.”

Even as Tsuna laughed and agreed that it was her prerogative to do so, Kyouko was fairly certain that she wouldn’t.

– end –

The Queen and All Her Men

A series of linked shorts that follows Lys ap Adin’s "What to Expect When You’re Expecting". Kyouko and Tsuna’s first child is a daughter. She’s soon followed by a lot of brothers, and the mafia world may be in for a big surprise—provided the Vongola themselves survive the experience. Drama with Humor and Domesticity, I-3

First Step

Kyouko still thought Sicilians had strange ideas about their ceremonies, but at least she could understand this part of the christening perfectly well—the part where Vongola and their allies, and a few who weren’t either, gathered to chat and politic on the lawn, all come to see her firstborn. She smoothed the white folds of her daughter’s long gown and smiled up at Haru, who had brought her a cup of tea.

"Both of you holding up?" Haru murmured, bending down to check her new goddaughter.

"As well as can be, so far," Kyouko said. "I’m thankful she’s slept through most of this."

Haru laughed. "She’s probably saving up for later."

"Oh, don’t suggest things to her," Kyouko almost moaned. Mari had only just started sleeping through most nights.

"After today’s excitement, she’ll probably sleep well, even after a nap," Caterina Modigliani said, drifting over. "It seems your difficulties are all ironed out, with this; with the bearing, at least." Her eyes ran casually over the guests. "They’re all changing their plans now, sorting through their sons in hopes one will be the true Eleventh boss of the Vongola."

"And you aren’t? Donna Caterina?" Kyouko murmured, a steel edge under the softness of her voice.

Caterina laughed. "My son already has a Family waiting for him."

True enough. "Their plans will have to fit reality." Kyouko settled Mari in her arm. "My child is a Vongola."

"Indeed," Caterina murmured, approval glinting in her eyes. "How could she be otherwise?"

Kyouko nodded and looked out over the guests herself, cradling her daughter and heir.

Sugar and Spice

"Uncle Onii-san!"

Tsuna and Ryouhei both blinked and Kyouko laughed softly. "Well, that is what both of us call him," she murmured. "Uncle Ryouhei," she pronounced for Mari, who cocked her head.

"Uncle Ryouhei," she repeated carefully and looked up at her mother’s face with a small copy of Tsuna’s thoughtful expression that made Kyouko smile and stroke back her daughter’s hair. "Okay." She wriggled to be let down and, when Kyouko set her on her feet, made her way across the room to take a hold of her godfather’s sleeve, examining him. "Uncle Gokudera?" She looked back at her mother for confirmation, and missed the helpless softening of Gokudera’s face.

"Yes, I think that’s right," Kyouko agreed with an impish smile. "That’s your Uncle Gokudera."

"She’s going to have the entire Family wrapped around her little finger, isn’t she?" Yamamoto murmured, laughter running under his voice.

Mari looked at him and declared, more confidently, "Uncle Yamamoto."

"She has a good start on it," Gokudera observed, as Yamamoto’s smile turned sweet. Kyouko was careful to keep her smugness off her own face.

The brightness of the moment was interrupted a bit when the door opened on Xanxus. "Sawada," he said, peremptorily, "I need a decision about the Leone. Now."

Tsuna sighed, pulling himself back into into his job, and was just standing when Mari walked over to Xanxus, looked up at him, and nodded firmly. "Uncle Xanxus." She smiled, pleased.

There was a breath of absolute silence while Xanxus stared down at her with the most floored expression Kyouko had ever seen on a human face.

It was broken by Yamamoto collapsing into a chair, laughing too hard to stand.

Kyouko came and picked her daughter up and smiled serenely at Xanxus. "Yes," she said, thoughtfully. "I think you’re right again, Mari. This is your Uncle Xanxus." She met his eyes, unbending, and he was the one who looked away.

Her daughter would lead the Vongola one day, with both her father’s strength and her mother’s.

"So what I don’t get," Mari crossed her arms, stubbornly, "is why it’s isn’t obvious that our way is better! I mean, didn’t Uncle Dino make his Family rich again, and the second strongest in the alliance, by taking care of the civilians in his territory? Why is this so hard to get? You and Father say we can’t change people’s minds for them, but I don’t see why not."

Uncle Gokudera gave her a long look over his glasses and sat back from the stack of books and journals of mafia history they’d been going over. "Well, what if we did? What if we went to war with the Furetto and, when we won, told them ‘you have to stop the drugs and protection schemes in your own territory’?"

Mari felt a strong urge to pout. "I guess they wouldn’t want to. But they should!"

Uncle Gokudera shrugged. "And we could probably make them do it. But only by taking over their territory ourselves." He gave her a crooked smile. "And if we come in, having killed the Family in charge, how do you think the civilians would look at us?"

"Better than the old one?" But it was a grumble, because she knew it wouldn’t work that way. She slouched down in her chair. "Why do people have to be so dumb?"

"Because they don’t know any better, yet." Uncle Gokudera got up and came around the table to kneel down by her chair and rest his hands on her shoulders. "You’re going to be the Eleventh, Mari-san. I know it’s hard, but you have to have patience. We can’t make things better by force; that isn’t the way that lasts."

She wanted the better to last. That was what she was here for. She straightened up and looked her godfather in the eye. "Show me how we do it, then."

He smiled and tapped the stack of books. "We’re getting there."

Mari sighed. Yes, she’d thought that might be the answer.

High Energy States

Yamamoto slipped in the side door and closed it quietly behind him. Ryouhei laughed to see the small form draped over Yamamoto’s shoulder.

"What did he get into this time?"

Yamamoto’s mouth quirked up. "He wanted to help cook. I’m pretty sure he was hoping for a share of the pastries, but he was a little late in the day for that so he wound up helping Ettore with dinner instead."

"Helping, huh?" Ryouhei grinned; they’d all learned, as soon as Daisuke started walking, that the boy’s helpful streak was only matched by his no-brakes enthusiasm. Ryouhei approved; it was clearly Kyouko’s side of the family coming through. "He wear himself out, then?"

Yamamoto looked a bit rueful. "Well, he wound up snitching enough of the grilled tuna and then enough of the marzipan left over from Kyouko-san’s tea that he got a little sick. So Ettore gave him a little wine to settle his stomach, and, well…" He shrugged the shoulder that didn’t have a small boy slung over it.

"Kyouko’s going to kill you, you know," Ryouhei pointed out, laughing.

Now Yamamoto chuckled. "A few times, probably. But it’s just how Daisuke is; it’s no use trying to stop him from being himself." He carried his godson off to bed and Ryouhei smiled after them. It was a good thing his nephew had Yamamoto to look out for him.

Otherwise, none of them might survive the kid growing up.

Daisuke eyed the study door. He was pretty sure this was where his sister was hiding. Haruka was better at actually picking well hidden spots, even though he was the youngest, but Nee-san usually won hide-and-seek games anyway because she picked spots no one else dared to go.

Daisuke took a deep breath and eased the door open, peeking around it. "Um."

The man inside looked up, eyes dark and kind of scary.

"Um." Daisuke edged a little further in. "We’re playing hide-and-seek."

"I noticed," the study’s owner said flatly.

She was here, then. Daisuke nodded and stepped all the way inside, and Mari stood up from behind the desk, looking indignant. "Uncle Xanxus! You gave it away!"

He just looked at her and she sighed and turned to Daisuke. "Did you find Haruka?"

"Yep!" He was pretty proud of that, too, since Haruka had hidden in the bottom of a library bookcase. He and Mari were both already too big to hide there and it was hard to remember to check the spots he couldn’t use.

Mari shrugged. "Okay, then. Next round is outside!"

She trotted out the door and, as he turned to follow, Uncle Xanxus called his name. Daisuke paused, looking back. "Yes?" They were all polite, even when Uncle Xanxus was scary, because Father said so. Though Uncle Gokudera didn’t seem to mind that very well.

Uncle Xanxus’ eyes were still dark, resting on him. "Do you ever wish you’d been born first?"

Daisuke blinked. "No." Nee-san had to study even harder than he and Haruka did, after all.

"Never wanted to be the heir?"

"Oh, that." Daisuke thought, because Uncle Xanxus really did seem curious. "I don’t think so. Father says we’ll all be doing Vongola stuff together, so no one gets left out. And Mari likes to be bossy, so she’ll probably be good at being Boss."

He wasn’t sure why that made Uncle Xanxus snort, but it made him look a little less scary. "Go on," he said, and Daisuke did.

Mari always had lots of fun ideas. He’d like helping, he thought.

Between the Lines

Haruka sat curled up in a corner chair of the study, watching his father work, watching him go through stacks of paper, watching Uncle Gokudera come in and mention other Families and talk for a while and go out again. Finally he stirred. "Father?"

His father looked up and smiled; he almost always had time for questions. "Yes?"

"I can understand why not Daisuke; he’d be really bored doing this. But why is Mari heir and not me? Other Families don’t have girl heirs."

"The Giglio Nero do," Father pointed out. "And Caterina is the head of the Modigliani."

"Even Donna Caterina has a son coming after her," Haruka objected.

"True enough." Father sat back in his chair with a sigh. "It’s been tradition, in the mafia, to choose the eldest boy to be heir, unless there aren’t any boys. But I think there are a lot of mafia traditions that should change." He smiled, only it was a very different smile this time, and Haruka didn’t think it was a happy one. "It’s also a tradition that all the possible heirs of a Family complete to see who survives. I don’t like the idea of all of you feeling like you have to fight each other. I’d like you to feel like a real family, like you can help each other, instead."

"Oh." Haruka considered this. "So Vongola is going to be different." That was satisfying.

"I hope so," his father said, quietly.

Haruka nodded. "All right. How am I supposed to help Mari and Daisuke and Mamoru, then?"

"Mari will need people she can trust, that she can talk to. People she knows will listen and tell her honestly what they think." Father’s smile was happier again. "I think you’ll be good at that."

Haruka thought so too. "And Daisuke? And Mamoru?"

Father laughed. "I think Daisuke just needs to be reminded to slow down sometimes. And Mamoru needs his big brother’s protection for now."

"I can do that." Haruka smiled back at Father.

"Yes. I think all of you will do a very fine job."

Haruka tucked those words away to hold on to the next time he had to deal with boys from other Families, and came over to the desk to see what Father was writing.

Tsuna thought that Ryouhei was more bright-eyed about visiting the Etnaland park than any of the kids. Certainly more enthused than his godson.

"That was an extreme waterslide!"

"Sure, Uncle Ryouhei."

"Let’s go see the lions!"

"Okay, Uncle Ryouhei."

"Are you hungry? I’m starving. Let’s get some food, and then the dinosaur park!"

Haruka rolled his eyes a little but trailed along willingly enough when Ryouhei slung an arm around his shoulder. "Whatever you say, Uncle Ryouhei."

Fortunately, Mari intervened before Ryouhei cajoled Haruka into a sundae. "Oh, hey, look Haruka, they have your favorite soda," she said, sounding perfectly innocent and casual as she leaned on Ryouhei’s arm. Their uncle instantly changed the order to include soda instead.

"She’s definitely her mother’s daughter," he murmured to Kyouko, who was stifling giggles, or possibly horror, in his shoulder. "Let’s sit down for a little and let everyone catch up before we go on," he added, louder.

Gokudera herded everyone over to a table and Haruka and Mari settled down to comparing the merits of the water slide versus the crocodile rapids while Ryouhei beamed over them both.

"Onii-san should have children of his own," Kyouko murmured, as they collected their own bottles of water.

"Well, I believe Hana-san thinks a little the way I used to. Perhaps I should talk to her." The approving smile Kyouko gave him still made him want to blush after all this time.

"…and maybe we’ll have time for the waterslide again!" Ryouhei was saying to the kids when Chrome and Yamamoto came into view with Mamoru and Shin. Haruka leaned his chin on his hand and grinned with a lot of wry affection, for a ten-year-old.

"Sure, Uncle Ryouhei. That’d be fun."

Tsuna thought Haruka was definitely Kyouko’s child, too. At least he couldn’t imagine where else the boy had gotten his patience from.


You might think, Haru reflected, that Daisuke would be the explorer of Kyouko’s children, but somehow it was Mamoru who managed to show up in every nook and corner of the mansion sooner or later. This morning it was her breakfast table, which had meant Hayato’s kiss goodbye had been more restrained than usual, but she supposed she couldn’t hold that against the boy. He was a very sweet kid.

"Aunt Haru? Why aren’t you and Uncle Gokudera married?"

Haru tried not to choke on her coffee. "That’s… that’s kind of a long story," she managed. Mamoru, she reminded herself, was also very good at asking the hard questions.

Mamoru just nodded and kept looking at her, waiting, clearly quite willing to listen to a long story. Haru looked back, helplessly. "I’m not sure you’re old enough to hear it."

Mamoru looked up at her, eyes wide and direct. "I bet I am. If that means it’s something we have to not talk about outside the Family, I’m good at that."

Haru had to admit that was true. And besides…

She sighed and set down her cup. "Actually, I’m hoping we can be married sometime kind of soon. We haven’t been able to because of my work," she said, carefully, "and I’m hoping I’ll be able to hand down that part of my job soon." Possibly to Mari’s friend, Fiorela, who seemed to have inherited Dino’s charm and Sofia’s grace, thank goodness.

Mamoru frowned. "That’s awful," he said, firmly. "You must have been really sad." He got up and came around the table to hug her and Haru had to blink away sudden tears. Mamoru really was a sweet kid.

"Nee-san says she won’t marry anyone just because of her job, and she gets really upset about it. Kind of the other way around, I guess. But I bet she’ll change that, too, so people don’t have to get married or not if they don’t want to. Or do." He took a moment to double check his own logic and nodded, satisfied, and smiled up at Haru. "We’ll change it."

She smiled back and ruffled his hair. "If anyone can, I’d bet on Mari and you guys."

Mamoru peeked into Uncle Hibari’s practice room and shook his head. Mari was training again.

Personally, he thought his sister was just a little crazy. Uncle Gokudera said all sisters were crazy, and when Mari was training with Uncle Hibari she looked it. She got all narrow-eyed and super determined, and when she had her Flame burning… well, he wouldn’t have wanted to take her on.

He supposed that was a good thing, overall.

"How’s she doing?" Father whispered over his shoulder.

Mamoru grinned. "Like Mari."

"So are the two of you going to join us?" Uncle Hibari called without even looking around.

"If you think we should," Father called back easily.

"Mm." Uncle Hibari sounded cool and thoughtful even when he was slamming his students into the walls. "Yes, it’s about time she had more practice facing another Sky Flame." He beckoned and Mari hauled herself up again, eyes glinting. "Your cub has teeth, Sawada. I suppose she’ll do."

Mamoru stifled a laugh at the way that made Mari light up.

Uncle Hibari strolled over to stand next to Mamoru as Mari and their father squared off. Mamoru eyed his godfather with just a shade of caution. "Did you, um, really want to work out with me?"

Uncle Hibari was silent for a while, but Mamoru was used to that; sometimes you had to wait for Uncle Hibari to decide whether he was using his words today or not.

"There is more than one kind of strength," he said at last, eyes on Mari as her longer knife met Father’s glove. "I get more entertainment from hers, but you have teeth of your own."

Something in Mamoru settled a little at that. It was good to know the strongest of Father’s Guardians thought he was strong too.

Even if he did sometimes think that Uncle Hibari was kind of strange.

Trip the Light

"Shin! Shin, you little creep, when I find you I’m going to wring your neck!"

Mari stormed on down the hall, and a door creaked slowly open. Two heads peeked out.

"Is the coast clear?" Shin whispered, looking up at his godfather.

"I think so," Uncle Lambo whispered back.

Shin leaned against the wall, wide-eyed. "Wow she’s mad!"

Uncle Lambo smiled down at him and ruffled his hair. "Girls are like that sometimes, especially about boys they’re dating."

"But she doesn’t really want him," Shin said plaintively. "I mean, she always complains about how many boys from the other Families she has to see at parties."

"Mm, well that’s kind of another girl thing. Even if she complains about them, she probably wants to decide for herself when they get to know about that."

"Oh. So I guess I shouldn’t have told him she thinks he has bad breath, huh?"

Uncle Lambo grinned. "Probably not."

"Dating seems really complicated," Shin complained. "I don’t know if I want to do it."

"You have plenty of time to make up your mind." Uncle Lambo held out a hand. "For now how about we go into town and visit the docks until Mari calms down?"

Shin perked up. "Sure!"

He liked having the youngest godfather.

Haruka was the one who saw it first, the strangers’ hands reaching for guns, and shouted. Their bodyguards turned to tackle the kids down, but Daisuke got to Mari first, pushing her back into the cafe. That was good. It meant Shin had a clear path to the men who were interrupting their family lunch.

Who were threatening his family.

In the tangled whirl of rushing toward them he could feel the air on his bared teeth. He didn’t reach for his box. The weapons he needed were in the hands of the three men facing them and he aimed for the one in front, hand striking aside the muzzle and holding, knee coming up to crack a wrist across it, foot slamming into the softness of a stomach. He turned the gun and pressed it under the man’s chin.

And then it was over.

"Shin," Uncle Yamamoto called, gently, from where he stood over the other two. "It’s okay. You can let go now, the men have them covered."

Shin’s eyes narrowed and his hands didn’t move. "He tried to shoot my sister." The man under him tried and failed to swallow against the pressure of the gun.

And then slim, strong hands settled on his shoulders. "I’m all right, Shin," Mari said, cool and sure. "And we need to know who sent them. Let the men take them."

Shin sighed, but Mari was probably already pissed off that she hadn’t gotten to fight, and she didn’t like backtalk even when she was in a good mood. "All right, then." Pinned under both their glares, the man didn’t even twitch when Shin stepped back and their bodyguards moved in. Shin didn’t look away until both the survivors had been hustled off, though.

"Hate it when people do that," he grumbled.

Mari wrapped an arm around his shoulders, hugging him for a breath. "I know you do." She smiled at him sidelong. "Don’t worry. People will always try to mess with Vongola, but they’ll always fail."

Because of us was the unspoken trailer and Shin grinned back at her and relaxed under Daisuke’s cheerful clap on his shoulder. "Yeah."

The Queen’s Bishop

"…and I hate scrambled eggs!" Mari stomped away from the table in a teary huff, followed by their mother, and all the boys stopped trying to hide in their chairs. Kazuya reminded himself to mark the calendar; forewarning next time would be good.

"Girl stuff," Daisuke declared, shaking his head.

"You know, I’ve been meaning to ask about that," Haruka put in, thoughtfully, looking over at Kazuya.

Kazuya raised both brows. "…why ask me?"

"Well, you’ve got Aunt Chrome," Mamoru pointed out. "Has she mentioned anything?"

"Once or twice." Kazuya ate another bite of toast. "She’d tell you too, if you asked."

Mamoru turned red. "Um. Well."

"Stop being annoying because you can," Haruka told Kazuya, though the corner of his mouth twitched. "Did Aunt Chrome say anything about what helps?"

"Chocolate, apparently." Kazuya nibbled his fork, thinking. "And she said it isn’t just temper. She said sometimes it hurts. It sounded kind of like having a sprain for a week, only in your stomach."

Eyes widened all around the table.

"Chocolate," Daisuke said, firmly.

"Ice pack?" Haruka hazarded.

Kazuya shook his head "Hot water bottle," he corrected. "I asked. And someone to be nice to her."

The two oldest looked at Mamoru and Shin. Mamoru sighed. "Yeah, yeah, okay."

Kazuya decided not to add that Uncle Mukuro had said it happened because the girl’s body was pissed off that it hadn’t gotten a baby that month. For one thing he was almost positive Daisuke or Shin would say just the wrong thing at the wrong time, trying to be helpful, if they heard that. For another, Uncle Mukuro had kind of flickered, right after he said it, so he thought maybe Aunt Chrome disagreed, and she was the woman after all.

Kazuya believed in paying attention to your experts.

It was a game, that’s the way Kazuya looked at it. Mari punched him in the shoulder when he said that, and insisted she wasn’t anyone’s game piece, not even his, but that wasn’t it at all. He watched for the spaces, when people moved, so that he could stand in them. That way he could get all the way across the board before anyone even realized he was moving. It was exactly the way his sister talked about her hand-to-hand training with Uncle Hibari, after all, he’d have thought she’d understand better.

His godfather understood perfectly well, but maybe that was why Uncle Mukuro seemed to make a lot of people nervous.

"Ah, and here’s the youngest, eh?" A heavy hand fell on his shoulder, as he leaned against the buffet table and he looked up to see the head of the Orsini Family giving him a rather hungry smile. "All alone? Not very nice of your family, to leave you out of things."

Kazuya wondered for a moment whether he’d actually heard correctly, but then he remembered Uncle Mukuro’s casual words about looking through another’s eyes. He supposed it might look that way from the outside.

The Orsini were not allies.

"It’s all right," he said, looking away toward where Daisuke was loading up plates for their mother and Aunt Haru. Mamoru was trying to convince him to pass one over before he dropped both. Haruka and Shin were following their sister as she followed their father through the gathering. "It’s all right," he repeated softly. "I’m interested in different things than most of them are."

It was perfectly true, and he smiled just a little as the Orsini’s eyes brightened and narrowed, hearing the lie it implied. The smile too would be mistaken.

Standing in the spaces.

It was all a game, and the thing most people didn’t understand about games was that, win or lose, they had a price. For the sake of his family, of his brothers, of his sister who would lead their Family, he would pay the price of winning this one.

Next Step

Tsuna leaned back in his lawn chair and watched the brilliant streaks of color as his children played tag over the lawn with their Dying Will Flames. Even Mari had abandoned her fresh adult dignity to shriek with laughter as she dove to evade Kazuya. Sometimes Tsuna wondered just what—or perhaps how—Mukuro had taught his youngest, because despite being only fourteen Kazuya had control as fine as Mari or Haruka.

"Looks like you did it, boss," Gokudera commented, leaning on the back of his chair.

"Did what?"

Gokudera smiled down at him. "None of those six will try to fight each other for your position."

Tsuna chuckled as Shin skidded across the grass, trying to avoid Daisuke, and splashed into the ornamental pond with a squawk. Daisuke paused to laugh and was tagged by Mamoru. "And I’m grateful for it." Quietly he added, "Especially Haruka."

"He matches her strength, yes, but he doesn’t have Mari-san’s passion, and he knows it," Gokudera answered, just as quiet. "Don’t worry, boss."

"Too late," Tsuna murmured, wry. He had to admit, Mari had inherited his own passion, the thing that could drive both of them past their limits over and over. He wasn’t sure that was anything he’d have wished on his child, but it was a fact.

"They have each other," Gokudera told him gently. "And she hasn’t even chosen her Guardians yet. At this rate, she’ll kind of have two sets."

Tsuna’s mouth twitched at that. "Mafia beware."

When the children returned to the table, out of breath, they wanted to know what was so funny.


Exigencies of Service

Takes place some time early in "The Queen and All Her Men". Tsuna has to be convinced that his children need to learn early how to fight. Fortunately, Kyouko is more pragmatic. Drama, I-3

"Stop acting like an herbivore, Sawada."

Tsuna glared at Hibari across his desk. "One of the reasons I took this job was to change enough of our world that children don’t have to fight!"

"Well you aren’t there yet," Hibari pointed out brutally, "and if you want your children to live, they need to know how to fight. Now."

Kyouko sighed to herself and crossed her ankles, waiting for them to get it out of their systems. Once they were reduced to glaring at each other silently, she rose and gently pushed Hibari back from the desk and into a chair. "That’s enough, both of you." Ignoring Hibari’s raised brows, she came around to lay her hands on Tsuna’s shoulders. "Tsuna," she said softly, "you mustn’t be selfish about this."

"Selfish?" he whispered, eyes wide.

"I know you want to protect us all. To make a place for us to live where we don’t have to worry about these things. But you can’t do that alone." She smiled sadly. "Keeping the ones you love in ignorance didn’t work very well last time, did it?"

He turned red and his eyes slid away from hers.

"I know you want that safe, wonderful place for your family to live and for yourself to come back to and rest," she whispered, and then tightened her hands and shook him once, firmly. "But you can’t make that place without us, and if we’re to help, we have to know!"

After a long, taut moment, he sighed, tension easing out of his shoulders under her hands. "Almost did it again, didn’t I?" He smiled up at her, rueful and sweet. "I’m sorry."

She bent down and kissed his forehead. "Don’t worry." Just a bit impishly she pointed out, "I’m here to remind you when you start to do something foolish. It’s my job."

Standing he gathered her close and murmured into her hair, "I don’t deserve you. Thank you." With a long breath he let her go and looked over at Hibari, who was watching them with a cool look, legs crossed, hands folded on his knee.

"If you’re quite done with inappropriate displays?" he asked, dryly. "Living in this country has corrupted you, Sawada."

Tsuna laughed. "This isn’t Namimori, and it isn’t against school rules."

Hibari sniffed, though his eyes glinted at the banter. "Well?"

"All right." Tsuna held up a hand. "They’ll be taught." His mouth quirked wryly. "The ones who don’t run screaming will even be taught by you."

"I suppose that will do." Hibari stood, straightening his cuffs fastidiously. On his way out he paused to look back at Kyouko and give her a slow nod.

Kyouko just smiled.



A person can learn all sorts of useful, interesting things by eavesdropping. Takes place early on in The Queen and All Her Men. Warnings for unabashed adorable fluff involving toddlers, and the general Hibari outlook on life.

Kyouya supposed that it was all well and good that Sawada’s cub had survived another year. Given the general atmosphere in which she’d done it, he even supposed that he could understand commemorating the accomplishment. What no one had been able to explain (to his satisfaction, at any rate) was why doing so involved filling the south garden with every squalling mafioso brat from one to ten years old, and why he was required to attend.

“Mari likes her Uncle Hibari,” Sawada Kyouko had said, firmly, and there was something in her smile that suggested teeth. “She wants you there. Don’t worry, all you actually need to do is be present. We won’t force you to have fun, I promise.”

Kyouya had found the novelty of seeing Sawada’s woman showing her fangs like that amusing. It was his duty, he felt, to reward such efforts, so he had agreed to attend, albeit grudgingly.

Her word had been good, though, and he had been allowed to retain his dignity and sit in the shade beneath the terrace in peace, save for the handful of times Mari had bustled over to him, full of a four-year-old’s newfound authority. Once had been to inquire after his comfort, and another had been to bring him a plate of cake, carried carefully in her own pudgy hands. He’d been forced to eat a bite under her command, but after that, she’d let him alone in order to terrorize the rest of her guests.

Kyouya supposed life could have been worse, and closed his eyes—not that he had any intentions of actually sleeping, since it was much too loud for that—to keep anyone else from disturbing him.

He should have known better.

“My goodness, will you look at that?”

The voice—female, older, probably one of the other Families’ matrons—sounded like it was right in his ear.

“Isn’t that just a sight to warm your heart?” asked a second voice, also older and female.

That meant they weren’t discussing him. Kyouya slitted his eyes open and tipped his head further back to look—ah, yes. They were above him, two of them leaning against the terrace railing, looking out at the garden.

“It’s a sight to warm something,” the first one agreed—she was from the Valetti, he thought.

Her companion giggled, a sound that was distinctly at odds with her stout figure and her grey hair. “Absolutely. That one is positively delicious. I could eat him up with a spoon.”

They definitely didn’t mean him, then. It seemed entirely likely that they hadn’t even noticed him. Kyouya raised an eyebrow, and wondered what the Orsini boss would say about hearing his wife saying such things.

“I certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed,” Valetti murmured, fanning herself with a bit of paper.

Kyouya opened his eyes a bit wider, to see who they might be discussing. The only one in easy sight was Yamamoto, who currently had small children dangling from every extremity, and was laughing even harder than they were.

That made sense, he supposed, and closed his eyes again, the better to listen.

“Is he attached?” Orsini asked, slow and thoughtful.

“That one is… hm, the Vongola’s Rain, so no, he’s not, as far as I know.” Valetti’s voice turned sly. “Why, were you considering him?”

“And if I was?” Orsini asked, arch. “There’s no harm in a bit of fun. And don’t you think he’d be… fun?”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” Valetti agreed, practically purring the words. “Younger lovers always are.” Then her tone turned practical. “But it’s not sensible to get mixed up in another Family’s Guardians.”

Kyouya muffled a snort.

“Pity,” Orsini said, regretfully. “Actually, I was thinking of something else. Hélène is about the right age to catch a boy’s eye, you know. If that one’s not attached yet…”

“Mmm,” Valetti said, the sound a thoughtful one. “Mmm, yes, I see what you mean. It would be a good in, no less.”

“Exactly. And he seems like a good enough man. He might even make a decent father, if his showing here is any indication. And surely he must be looking for a wife by now.”

Valetti hummed. “Mm, you would think. Well. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to look into. Makes me rather wish I had a spare niece at the moment. Pity.”

“Indeed,” Orsini said, sounding altogether too smug about it. “I think I—my goodness, what do you suppose he’s coming this way for?”

Valetti giggled. “Maybe he knows we’re talking about him?”

Kyouya snorted and opened his eyes to see Yamamoto ambling over as the women on the terrace fluttered. He tilted his head back again so that he could watch them, and waited until Yamamoto had hailed him to smile, so that when the two women finally looked down, he was showing all his teeth.

They disappeared in a flurry of red faces and squeaking, which was as satisfying as scattering herd animals ever was, and left him in peace as Yamamoto dropped himself onto the grass next to Kyouya’s chair with a gusty sigh. “You know, I’m glad we’re Tsuna’s Guardians,” he announced. “Mari’s a holy terror, and I don’t even wanna think about what she’s going to be like when she gets older.”

Kyouya just snorted at him, letting him know that he wasn’t fooling anyone.

“No, I’m serious.” Yamamoto grinned up at him. “Can you imagine how she’s going to boss her boyfriends around?”

That was a topic too close to what the idiot women had just been prattling about, so Kyouya grunted at him, noncommittal.

Yamamoto peered up at him. “What’s wrong?”

“Watch out for the Orsini,” Kyouya said, short and precise. “They have a niece they’d like to see you married to.”

“What, again?” Yamamoto groaned. “Damn it.”

Kyouya looked down at him, curiosity piqued. “Is it that regular an occurrence?”

“Yeah, sometimes.” Yamamoto’s smile was wry. “Most of ’em seem to think they’ll get closer to Tsuna that way.” His eyes went darker. “I would have thought they’d learned better by now.”

“Mm. You should pick one, then. From inside the Family.”

Yamamoto blinked up at him, slow and herbivorous. “Why would I want to do that?”

Kyouya’s chair was comfortable enough that he settled for simply kicking Yamamoto rather than interrupting Mari’s party with a fight. “To keep the other Families from siccing their daughters and nieces on you. And so you can have your own brats to play with.”

“But I don’t want that,” Yamamoto said, with a faint smile. “Would’ve done it a few years ago, if I had.”

Kyouya snorted, but he supposed that was true enough—they’d all had plenty of chances to join the headlong rush into marriage and domesticity. “You like the brats,” he pointed out.

Yamamoto’s shrug was probably grinding grass stains into the back of his shirt, but he didn’t seem to care. “The kids are fun,” he said, admitting it easily enough. “But this way I can give ’em back at the end of the day.” His eyes went darker again. “And they probably wouldn’t mind it as much if Uncle Yamamoto doesn’t make it home, one of these days. It’d be different for Yamamoto-tousan.”

“Sheep,” Kyouya told him. “Don’t be stupid.” He aimed another kick at Yamamoto’s ribs.

Yamamoto caught his foot before it could connect, hand curling around his ankle and holding it, grip solid. “Baa,” he drawled, with a grin and sharp eyes. “I’ve already got just about everything I want,” he added, looking up at Kyouya, a considering sort of look on his face. “Not everything, though.”

Then his fingers slid up the inside of Kyouya’s slacks.

Kyouya blinked as Yamamoto’s thumb stroked over the bare skin just above his sock. “You can’t be serious.”

“Can’t I?” Yamamoto asked, voice pitched low, just for him, thumb still moving slowly, dragging something hot down Kyouya’s spine to curl in the pit of his stomach.

Kyouya thought it over. “Make sure you are,” he said, and watched Yamamoto’s smile stretch wider at the note in his voice.

“Oh, I’m serious,” Yamamoto said, fingers creeping higher. “Plenty serious. I play for keeps.”

Kyouya regarded him, and then nodded, short and sharp. “All right, then,” he said, and then kicked free of Yamamoto’s hand. “Mari’s looking for you,” he announced, at the surprise in Yamamoto’s eyes. “We’ll finish this later.”

Yamamoto grinned up at him. “Sounds good to me,” he said, and rolled to his feet.

Kyouya watched him divert Mari’s determined march in their direction by swinging her up onto his shoulders as she shrieked joyfully, considering, and then nodded to himself, stretching out in his chair again and leaning back.

He caught just a glimpse of Sawada Kyouko’s satisfied smile above the terrace railing before it vanished in a swirl of bright hair.

Kyouya growled, but had to admit, on second thought, that it was better her than the Orsini harridan. Still. If Yamamoto had known she was there, Kyouya was going to do more than just kick him.

That promise made to himself, Kyouya settled back in his chair and watched the rough-and-tumble happening among the brats, contemplating the possibilities before him.

It was turning out to be a satisfactory sort of day after all, he decided, all things considered. And the evening promised to be even better.

– end –

Relative Values

Takes place somewhere towards the middle of The Queen and All Her Men. Tsuna and Kyouko have a favor to ask. Fluff, general audiences

Rokudou Mukuro came and went as freely as a Cloud—rather more freely than perhaps anyone other than Tsuna and Kyouko was really comfortable with, all things considered. The word of the Vongola was unbreakable, though, and Tsuna had given it to the Vendicare to secure Mukuro’s parole, so Mukuro came and went as he pleased, save for the occasions when Tsuna’s business required his presence.

Such as this one.

It was always interesting to watch Mukuro and Chrome when they were together in the same space, Kyouko mused. They gravitated towards each other, and shared a handful of mannerisms—the tilt of the head, a trick of posture, the way a gesture followed a thought—that gave them an uncanny resemblance to each other. One had to wonder how much of that was deliberate, and how much of it was unconscious, and who was the original and who was the copy.

After all, she’d seen too much to assume that the influence only ran in one direction, where the two of them were concerned.

“Well, what is it?” Mukuro asked, when Tsuna had joined them and Kyouko had distributed coffee to the three of them, and taken up her own cup of tea. He glanced at Kyouko before asking, as if her presence was some kind of cue, and then added, “I assume this isn’t about Spain.”

“No,” Tsuna said, with a faint smile. “Should it be about Spain?” That was where they’d called Mukuro home from, where he’d been pursuing some end of his own.

Tsuna held Mukuro’s eyes, and Mukuro was the one who shrugged. “It has nothing to do with the Vongola,” he said, and selected one of the flaky little tarts that Kyouko had noticed he liked.

“Then no, it isn’t about Spain,” Tsuna said, and took a sip of his coffee.

Despite the fact that Tsuna was as much responsible for this as she was, he had insisted that it was her news to share, so Kyouko cleared her throat. “I’m expecting,” she said, which garnered a murmured, “Congratulations,” from Chrome, and a, “What, again?” from Mukuro.

“Mukuro-sama,” Chrome said, gently reproving. “That wasn’t very polite.” She did not, Kyouko noted, make the mistake of confusing ‘polite’ with ‘nice’.

“I suppose it’s not. Congratulations to both of you,” Mukuro said, eyes dark. “And may you not live to see the whole lot of them fighting each other to be your heir.”

From Mukuro, that was practically a blessing. “Thank you,” Kyouko said, smiling. He just snorted.

Chrome was still watching them, waiting—probably with a good idea of what was to come. Mukuro surely had the same idea, but he rarely showed what he was thinking, while Chrome sometimes did.

“We’d like you to stand as godparents to the child,” Tsuna said, and that completed the circle that they’d begun with Gokudera and Mari.

The two of them had to have seen it coming; the pattern hadn’t exactly been subtle. All of Tsuna’s other Guardians had taken on this duty in addition to their other responsibilities, from Gokudera down to Lambo. Chrome reacted as Tsuna and Kyouko had agreed that she probably would, by tipping her head and murmuring, “I would be honored.”

Mukuro just looked at them both and said, flatly, “Have you lost your minds?”

“No, of course not,” Tsuna said, smiling. “Are you willing to do it?”

Kyouko raised her tea to her lips, to conceal the fact that she was holding her breath.

“Have you forgotten who I am?” Mukuro demanded, and Kyouko sighed into her cup. He wasn’t unwilling, then—just suffering an attack of his peculiar brand of scruples.

“Of course I haven’t,” Tsuna told him, still with his smile, but there was a touch of his Will in his eyes. “You’re my Mist.”

“And our Family,” Kyouko murmured, in case Mukuro had forgotten that she was party to the decision, too. “Really, I can’t think of any better way to mark the fact than to have you as a godparent.” She set her tea down, and added, “Of course, if you say no, I suppose we can ask Xanxus instead.”

Even Tsuna choked on that one.

“Use your head, Sawada,” Mukuro said, after a moment. “Think of how this will look.”

“It will look as though I am gathering one of my people to me and keeping him there,” Tsuna said, firmly. “If you do not wish to do this, then all you have to do is say so. But if your only reasons for saying no are what you fear the other Families will think, that’s not your problem. It’s mine, and I don’t care about them.” His Will echoed in his voice and his eyes, low and sure and smooth.

Mukuro was no more immune to that than any of Tsuna’s other Guardians, though Kyouko was sure that he’d be loath to admit it. He stared at Tsuna until, finally, he inclined his head, and said, sour, “It’s your neck.”

“Yes, it is,” Kyouko said, smiling. “More coffee?”

He grunted at her, but held out his cup after a moment, and that was that. Kyouko refilled it, smiling, and wondered what this new duty was likely to make of him.

– end –

The Overarching Sky

Mari chooses her Guardians, which runs into occasional trouble with both family and Family foibles. Drama, I-3

"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.

"I will."

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.

"Sawada Mari."

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.

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.


Appendix – the Vongola Eleventh Generation

This is an appendix listing things like birth order, Flame alignment and godparents. It contains spoilers for the above stories.

Character(s): Eleventh gen

Tsuna and Kyouko’s children

Mari: Born when Tsuna and Kyouko are in their mid-twenties. Godparents: Gokudera, Haru, Uni. Alignment: Sky.

Daisuke: Born about a year later. Godparents: Yamamoto, Dino, I-pin. Alignment: Sun.

Haruka: Born about two years later. Godparents: Ryouhei, Basil, Lal. Alignment: Sky.

Mamoru: Born about two years later. Godparents: Hibari, Gamma, Bianchi. Alignment: Lightning.

Shin: Born about a year later. Godparents: Lambo, Fuuta, Hana. Alignment: Sky.

Kazuya: Born about two years later. Godparents: Mukuro, Chrome, Irie. Alignment: Mist.

Author’s Note: The godparents are, in some cases, unlikely to actually be much able to function as proper Catholic godparents, but since both Tsuna and Kyouko seem likely to adopt Catholicism for purely business purposes while living in Sicily I have assumed that many of the godparents are chosen to fulfill the more secular function of an older mentor.

Mari’s Guardians

Sun: Daisuke.

Mist: Kazuya.

Lightning: Mario, son of Fedele, grandson of Michele, the Ninth’s Sun Guardian. Mario is a few years older than Mari.

Rain: Rei, daughter of Ryouhei and Hana. She’s about Kazuya’s age.

Storm: Fiorela, daughter of Dino and Sofia. She’s about the same age as Mari.

Cloud: Lucia, daughter of Chrome and Ken. She’s a few years older than Mari.

Over, Under or Around

Mari decides that something has to be done to make Fedele comfortable in the Family again. Drama, I-2

The study was quiet; Mother hadn’t come in yet and Mari had sent Mamoru out with Uncle Gokudera to talk to the Cometti. In fact, the study was a little too quiet. Mari dropped the latest report on the Leone and gave up trying to concentrate. "Father, we have to do something about Fedele."

Her father looked up from his chair across the room, smile wry and unsurprised. "For that to work, he has to be willing for something to be done." At Mari’s frown he sighed and leaned back. "Do you know how hard it was to get him to accept a place as one of your mother’s bodyguards? And nothing I said stopped him from stepping down after—" He broke off, mouth tightening. "Well, there were some… remarks made."

Mari remembered her moment of insight and crossed her arms. "Are there really people in this Family who still think he betrayed Federico?" she asked, low.

"Fedele lived when Federico didn’t."

"Because he was left for dead! I’ve read those reports!" Mari glared. "What, couldn’t the people who doubt just ask Uncle Xanxus about it directly? It’s not like he wouldn’t tell them the truth."

Father burst out laughing, and Mari waited impatiently for him to get a grip again. "Mari," he said, finally, "you have a bit of a unique relationship with Xanxus, you know."

"Yes, I’ve read those reports, too. I know he used to be kind of crazy. But you managed him just fine, and he’s not running around blowing people away at random any more, is he?"

Father sighed. "No, he isn’t. But Mari," he met her eyes, suddenly serious, "have you ever thought that might be part of the problem, for Fedele? The man who killed his boss is still a part of this Family."

Mari felt a bit like she’d run into a wall. "Oh." She bit her lip. "And he can’t challenge Xanxus, can he? Because you don’t want that happening inside the Family." All right, this was a drawback to her father’s policy she hadn’t foreseen.

"That’s why I’ve tried to let him find his own distance," he admitted.

Mari stared down at her crossed arms, thinking. Fedele was loyal to the Vongola, she had absolutely no doubt of that. But maybe, and this was the new thought, maybe he didn’t feel much like the Vongola were loyal back to him. What, short of letting him try to kill Xanxus which could only end badly, would make him feel a proper, valued part of the Family?

What did she do for anyone who was part of her Family?

Finally she looked up. "I think," she said, slowly, "that I want to try something different."

Fedele looked a bit surprised when he answered the door to find Mari standing there. "Mario left earlier; did you miss him?"

"Oh no, he’s up at the mansion now." Mari breezed in and made for the kitchen. "No, I wanted to visit you today." She’d been here often enough to know where the cups were and swiftly set out coffee and a tray for the pastries she’d brought along, fruits of a long conference with her mother’s pastry chef.

Her mother usually used tea for this purpose, but Mari had grown up with coffee and so had her target, after all.

"You’re never up at the mansion, so you miss Lucia’s baking," she informed her host and victim, light and social. "Mother’s cook Lucia, that is, my Lucia burns water. Mother’s Lucia said you might like the ones with honey." She pointed those out helpfully as she set the plate and two cups of coffee on the table and seated herself with a cheerful smile.

Fedele opened his mouth, closed it again, and gave her a long look. "I see." He pulled out the chair across from hers and sat, taking up his cup for a sip. "Sometimes a single person’s company only emphasizes solitude," he murmured.

Fedele had been chosen as a prospective boss’ right hand, after all, and had well over twice her lifetime’s experience to boot, Mari reflected ruefully. He wasn’t going to be an easy job. That was all right, though; they could start with small steps, like coffee. "The quality of the company has to be taken into account, doesn’t it?" she sallied back. Of all people, Fedele should know that the heir trailed the weight of position and Family wherever she went, alone or not.

"You won’t do yourself any favors by this, Mari," he said, almost gently. "Or me, for that matter."

"The idiots who have their heads up their asses will be suspicious of you whether I’m here or not." Mari took a bite of an almond cookie to start the eating off. "And if they prove it in my hearing it’s no trouble at all for me to yank their heads out, I assure you."

His mouth twitched at that, and Mari hid a tiny smile in her coffee. Small steps.

"Father is probably a bit hampered by feeling guilty for being the one who bound Xanxus properly into the Family," she pointed out. "But I’m not. And I inherited all of his stubbornness, just ask any of my Uncles and Aunts."

Fedele made a faintly exasperated sound. "I never really doubted that." He absently picked up a pastry.

"Good!" Mari leaned her chin in her hand and smiled brightly. "So, are Tuesdays good for you?"

He paused, perhaps becoming aware of his mouthful of pastry, and eyed her for a long moment. "I suspect," he said, swallowing, "that it won’t matter in the end whether it is or not."

"Oh, no," Mari protested. "If another day is better I’m sure I can change my schedule."

"Yes, that’s what I meant," he said dryly.

She returned his gaze, letting the brightness slip away for a moment, quiet but immovable. "It isn’t right. This is your Family. You have never failed us. If we’ve failed you, then something must be done."

He twitched back in his chair at that, rueful amusement wiped away to show the shadows plainly again. Mari didn’t look aside and at last he bent his head over his cup. "Blood of Vongola," he murmured. "I’d forgotten, a little." He took a slow breath and finally said, "Actually, Tuesdays would be fine."

"Good," Mari said softly.

Step by small step.


Five Things That Never Happened to Xanxus

These are things that never happened to Xanxus, but could have done, if only things had started out just a bit differently. This fic is what happens when you say to yourself, “Gosh, I’ve been writing a lot of Xanxus angst lately. I wonder if it is possible to write Xanxus in such a way that he is, well, functionally broken instead of just psychopathically insane.” And then you get tackled by a plot bunny that is the size of a goddamn linebacker. Teen and up; warnings for Xanxus doing the things that make him Xanxus.

1. First Encounters

Xanxus stared up at the old geezer—this smiling old fool was supposed to be the Vongola Ninth? please—and lifted a hand to show him the Flame when he asked for it. Surprise widened the geezer’s eyes. “Oh, I see now,” he said, voice quiet, and actually knelt right there in the street, ignoring all the garbage and crap and what it was doing to the knees of that fancy suit. He laid his hands on Xanxus’ shoulders.

Xanxus stiffened. “What the hell?” he demanded.

His mother trembled at his back. “Xanxus, don’t be rude—”

The geezer raised a hand, and Xanxus glared at him harder as he touched Xanxus’ jaw and forehead, fingertips cool against Xanxus’ skin. “I see,” he said, again, slowly.

“Wish to fuck you’d explain what the hell that means,” Xanxus told him.

“Xanxus,” Ma moaned. “Don’t—don’t—”

“It’s all right, Madam.” The geezer stood, dusting his hands. “I believe the two of you should accompany me. We have much to discuss.”

Xanxus could feel her shake again. “I knew it,” she said, in that voice she got when she was about to go off on one of her fits. “Oh, I knew this day would come.”

“Yes, I expect you did,” the geezer said, looking back down at Xanxus. “Come along, then.” He held out a hand to Xanxus.

Xanxus sneered at him; what did he look like, a kid?

The geezer huffed, and let it settle on Xanxus’ shoulder instead. Xanxus tolerated it for the time being, letting him guide them over to the cars—big black ones, gleaming against the rottenness of their neighborhood, making it even clearer how crappy the place actually was, and how much the geezer and his goons didn’t belong here.

“They’ll ride with me,” the geezer told his men. They all got constipated looks at that, which was funny to see.

They put Xanxus up front, and Ma rode with the geezer in the back. Xanxus listened in, but it wasn’t shoptalk, not yet, just the geezer asking a lot of nosy questions about how he and Ma lived. She sounded pretty much like she was back in control of herself, so Xanxus ignored her. Not like she couldn’t handle herself when it came to actually negotiating her prices. Was the one thing she actually managed to do right, most of the time.

Since he didn’t have to monitor her and the geezer—and fuck, he hoped he’d still be able to get it up at that age—Xanxus watched the city roll by, wavery behind thick glass, until it gave way to the countryside. That was weird, too empty by half, so he turned his attention to the interior of the car, which was all gleaming metal and wood and leather, one more way of demonstrating that he and Ma were either way out of their league, or moving up in the world.

“Don’t do that,” the driver said, first thing he’d said since he’d put the car in gear, when Xanxus reached out for a set of buttons.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Xanxus retorted, and kept on reaching.

“I said don’t,” the driver said, and caught Xanxus’ hand, all without looking away from the road. He twisted it tight, till Xanxus gasped at the strain. “Those go to the windows,” he added, all conversational. “We don’t lower the windows, not with the Ninth in the car. That way, no one can shoot him. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Xanxus grunted, eyes beginning to water.

“Good,” the driver said, and released him.

Xanxus rubbed his wrist and glared at him, but it rolled right off the bastard. That was new. People usually reacted more when he did that. “What do those do?” he asked, finally, pointing at another set of buttons.

“They go to the radio.” Xanxus saw him glance at the mirror, and then he reached over and pressed another button. Behind them, a screen rose, separating the front seat and the back seat. “Here, see?” he said, and demonstrated. “Find a station you like.”

Xanxus spent most of the rest of the ride scanning the stations—the car radio picked up more than Ma’s crappy old set did. A lot more clearly, too.

Even so, it wasn’t really until they rolled up to the house that Xanxus began to believe that the geezer might be for real. The house—hell, it might have even qualified as a House—looked about as big as a city block to Xanxus’ eyes. It was just like the car inside, too—big and luxurious, more money than Xanxus had ever seen in his life all in one place, and that was just in the goddamn hallways. The geezer spoke to his men, and then led them to a room that was full of sunlight and heavy old furniture, and had the same kind of wavery view as the car windows had. The geezer had them sit, but stayed on his own feet.

Xanxus was starting to hate the way the geezer kept staring at him.

Before he could say something, Ma spoke. “Why did you bring us here?” she asked, all breathy, the way she got when she was trying to charm some new man of hers.

“I couldn’t not,” the geezer said, blunt, like he hadn’t even noticed. “The Vongola can’t afford to have you fall into another Family’s hands. And it would be a shame if another Family tried to kill you, or we had to do it ourselves. You’ll live here now.”

Killing? That was interesting. Xanxus looked up, actually interested in the geezer for the first time, while Ma made a sound, like that wasn’t what she’d expect to hear at all. “But he’s your son.”

The geezer didn’t look away from Xanxus. “No, Madam, I am afraid that you are mistaken. He is not my son.”

Xanxus ignored Ma’s tiny, broken sound and looked back, straight at him. “Yeah, so what else is new?” Not like he wasn’t used to the names people called him. He wasn’t anybody’s son. He’d gotten to the point where he liked it that way.

“You have a Vongola Flame,” the geezer said, candidly. “And a certain look, around the forehead and the jaw. I expect you’re descended from one of the Second’s by-blows. They crop up with depressing regularity.” He moved, leaning against the desk, relaxed. “Sometimes my predecessors chose to simply eliminate individuals such as yourself,” he added, casual. “You can’t be allowed to inherit the position of the boss, since you’re not of a legitimate line. That hasn’t stopped certain people from trying anyway, so a sense of prudence suggests that we ought to avert those incidents by nipping them in the bud.”

Ma was crying now, soft and gulping, but she wasn’t really all that good at paying attention to what people were saying when it didn’t fit in with how she thought the world was supposed to work. Xanxus leaned forward, interested in spite of himself. “Yeah? So why aren’t you doing it that way?”

“I haven’t decided not to,” the geezer said, and actually smiled when he said it. “But I’d prefer not to kill anyone unless it becomes strictly necessary. I hate to be wasteful.”

“Makes more sense to stop trouble before it ever starts,” Xanxus retorted.

“There are more ways of doing that than just killing the source of the potential trouble,” the geezer replied. “You have a Vongola Flame. You are of the Vongola. We have a responsibility to our Family, and our Family has a responsibility to us.”

“So… what?” Xanxus replied, narrowing his eyes at the geezer. “You want me to… what? In exchange for… what?”

The geezer was still smiling, like he was in on some joke that Xanxus wasn’t getting. “We take you and your mother in. We educate you, and find a place for you, and name you one of our Family. In return, you serve us in whatever capacity best fits you.”

The hell he said. “What if I don’t want to serve?”

“Then you must not be allowed to bring harm to us,” the geezer said, voice soft. “The Family is paramount to all other considerations.”

Xanxus snorted. “I’d like to see you try,” he retorted, calling on the Flame.

The geezer just smiled at him some more. “Don’t do something you’ll regret,” he said, voice soft.

“Don’t think that I’m going to just knuckle over to you, old man.” Xanxus gathered himself, prepared to spring forward, and—

The geezer stood and gestured, and was holding a goddamned scepter all of a sudden. Xanxus would have cared more about that, but the geezer had a Flame of his own, and the sudden weight of it, so heavy that he had to gasp for breath, pressed Xanxus back down into his chair. “I doubted that you would do any such thing,” the geezer—except he wasn’t a geezer, was he? the whole thing had been some kind of act—the Ninth told him, voice cool and heavy with Flame. “But make no mistake. You can serve and stand with us, or you must stand against us.” He reached out and laid his hand against Xanxus’ forehead. Xanxus thought he might have made a sound against the weight of that touch, but couldn’t manage to care as the Ninth’s Flame wrapped around him and held him. Xanxus struggled against that grip, but it was stronger than he was. He’d never met anyone stronger than him before; the surprise of it made him still. “I would greatly prefer it if you were to become one of ours.”

Behind the strength of that Will there was an offer, a conditional one, and a choice, all backed by an unshakeable resolve to do what was best for the Family, regardless of the cost.

Xanxus could just about respect that. “All right,” he gasped. “All right! I’ll do it!”

The Ninth curbed his Flame and Xanxus sagged, panting, as the weight came away from him. “I am pleased to hear it.”

“Yeah, don’t get used to it.” Xanxus flexed his hands; he didn’t remember banishing his Flame, but it was gone like it’d never been there. “You might be worth it. Don’t know about anyone else.”

The Ninth inclined his head at that, still smiling faintly. “If you like,” he said. “But I’d advise you not to put your faith in men like me.”

“Whatever,” Xanxus said, eyeing him warily.

The Ninth chuckled. “Put it into the Family, which is bigger than us all.”

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Xanxus muttered.

The Ninth’s smile turned broader. “Yes,” he said, “you will.”

2. Stray

The old man had told him to stick close to the Vongola’s Rome headquarters, and Xanxus had given that about as much consideration as he’d thought it had deserved. Now, standing in the middle of a slum in Rome, surrounded by men in suits who weren’t Vongola, he was starting to think maybe the old man’d had a point after all. “The fuck do you want?” he demanded, assessing the numbers and deciding that this was going to be a cast iron bitch to get himself out of.

“You’re the Vongola’s bastard, aren’t you?” That was the biggest one of the goons, the guy who was probably in charge.

Xanxus sneered. “Who wants to know?” He called on the Flame, since this wasn’t going to end with them all holding hands and singing together, and it never hurt to look impressive.

“That’s him all right,” one of the other goons said. “Can’t mistake the Vongola Flame.”

Yeah, showed how much they knew.

The head goon tried for a smile and failed. “Why don’t you just come along with us, and we’ll talk about it?” the head goon told him.

Xanxus curled and uncurled his hands. “Why don’t you blow me?” He launched himself at the head goon and had smashed his face in before the stupid piece of shit had finished gaping at him.

It had been a while since he’d been in an all-out brawl. Xanxus bared his teeth at the rest of them for the fierce joy of it. “Come one, I’ll take you all on,” he promised them, while they stood frozen in that moment before reaction. “C’mon, you fucking trash.”

That woke them up, all right. Xanxus waded into them, lashing out with Flame and fist and laughing at the satisfaction of it. Been way too long since he’d been able to beat the shit out of someone. He’d missed it.

What he hadn’t missed was being fucking out-numbered, and out-gunned. The goons all had guns, which was really fucking inconsiderate of them, considering how all he had was his Flame.

He’d just started sorting through his options—all two of them, surrender or go down fighting—as he eyed the closing circle of guns and grinning goons when the balance of things shifted again, this time in his direction.

The first sign of it was a ripple of disturbance in the ranks at the back of the crowd, and then the sound of someone shouting a warning that got cut short by a gurgle. That was enough to distract some of them, which was all Xanxus really needed. As they turned, he lashed out with his Flame again, whipping it across faces and hands, and was viciously satisfied by the shrieks and curses of the men who clutched at their burns.

He never actually saw the man who shot him.

One minute he was laughing; the next, something had punched him, so hard that the shock registered on some gut level, and his arm was hanging at his side, useless.

Xanxus swore, good hand coming up, Flame wrapped around it as he tried to find the bastard who’d dared. Someone crashed into him before he could, knocking him sideways and flattening him against the pavement. He struggled against the weight and the hands that were holding him down, until the guy swore at him. “Just stay down, you stupid brat, and stop making yourself a target!”

He recognized that voice, and blinked up at the old man’s youngest son, confused as all fuck. “The hell are you doing here?”

Federico looked down at him, impatient for the first time that Xanxus had ever seen. “Saving your sorry ass,” he retorted, and rolled back to his feet.

Xanxus had never seen Federico so much as raise his voice at someone in the two years since the old man had dragged him and Ma out of the slums. Now the man was burning like a torch, Flame as bright as the old man’s was, as he whirled into the goons like grim death itself, sword flickering against them, fast and deadly.

Be damned. Xanxus hadn’t actually thought Federico had had it in him.

It was over fast, after that. The goons—what was left of them at that point—broke and ran for it, and a few of Federico’s men gave chase. Xanxus was pushing himself to his feet, which was surprisingly difficult to do with only one working arm, when Federico turned on him. “You,” he said, as his hand collided with the side of Xanxus’ head. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here all by yourself? Didn’t you hear Dad tell you not to go out alone?” Federico stripped the tie from around his throat as Xanxus stared, frankly astonished by the blow, and hauled Xanxus closer. “Were you trying to get yourself killed?” he demanded, wrapping the tie around Xanxus’ arm, yanking it tight.

Xanxus hissed at the rough handling. “The fuck do you care? You don’t even like me.”

“That’s true,” Federico said, turning him again and pushing him down the alley, propelling him—ah, there were cars waiting for them. “You’re a violent little psychopath, and I would have definitely preferred it if Dad had just brought home a stray puppy instead of you.” He shoved Xanxus into the car ahead of him, and had barely climbed in after Xanxus before it lurched into gear. “But you’re Family now. Fucked if I’m going to let the Pozzo Nero fuck with my Family.”

As Xanxus stared at him, blinking and stupid—it was the blood loss, had to be—Federico tore strips out of his own shirt and folded them into a pad. The stab of pain when Federico pressed it against the wound shocked him out of it again. “Oh,” he said, and then rallied himself. “I don’t like you, either.”

Federico grinned at him. “Yeah, tell me something I didn’t already know, brat,” he said, holding steady pressure on Xanxus’ arm. “Seriously. We could have just gotten a puppy. Lot less trouble, puppies, since they don’t go out and do stupid shit like getting themselves shot by disobeying direct orders.”

“Fuck you.” Xanxus glared at him.

Federico ignored it, still grinning. “That the best you can do?”

Xanxus growled at him, wordless, and looked away, staring out the window determinedly.

After a moment, Federico huffed, and added, “Good fighting, by the way. Never seen someone take out that many men with just their hands and a Flame.”

“I want a gun,” Xanxus told him, still staring out the window. “My own gun. Maybe two.”

“Mm. You’re a little young.”

“I’m twelve!”

“Like I said. A little young.”

Xanxus turned and glared at him. “How am I supposed to deal with situations like these, then?”

“By not being reckless enough to put yourself into them in the first place?” Federico suggested, mildly. “Considering who you are—”

“Fuck that. I’m not actually his bas—”

“Not actually Dad’s kid, I know,” Federico said, in that really fucking obnoxious way he had of putting everything into nice words when the actual truth was ugly as sin. “But people think you are, so they’re going to try to use that against us. Like it or not, you have to deal with that. Not going out alone when we’re at war with the Pozzo Nero would be a nice first step.”

“I don’t want a fucking bodyguard,” Xanxus said, and looked away from him. “I can handle things myself.”

“You can, sure,” Federico told him. “But you don’t have to. That’s what Family is, you stubborn brat.”

“Whatever,” Xanxus muttered. “I still don’t want a bodyguard. I’m strong enough on my own.”

Federico sighed. “Stubborn,” he muttered, and then his voice changed, and the atmosphere inside the car turned taut. The warning came too late, and Xanxus cursed as Federico’s fingers dug into his arm and Federico’s Flame lit his eyes again. “You’re not strong enough on your own,” Federico announced, Will holding Xanxus in place, implacable as the Ninth’s. “I saved your life today. If your Family hadn’t been there, you would be dead right now, shot in the back in a stinking alley.” Xanxus jerked against Federico, pushing against Federico’s Will, but Federico held firm. His fingers tightened on Xanxus’ arm again, and his Will reached into Xanxus, implacable, forcing him to listen and to hear. “You are strong, but your Family is stronger, and will make you stronger. You are not alone any more. Understand?”

Federico’s Flame underlined the question, and so did Xanxus’ blood on the remains of Federico’s shirt and on the hands that were gripping his bicep. “Yeah,” Xanxus said, slow and grudgingly, not about to admit that Federico had won. “All right.”

Federico held him in his Will a little bit longer, and then released him, looking satisfied when he did. “Good,” he said.

Xanxus looked aside, now that he could. “You and the old man are crazy.” The hell did they think they were doing, just taking him in like that, anyway? It was like they didn’t even know how dangerous he could be.

And never mind the faint suspicion he had that he had given in this time, instead of being overwhelmed. That was just crazy.

“Hey, don’t go blaming me. I already told you that I wanted a puppy.” Federico’s voice was cheerful. “But we got you instead, so I’ll make do.”

Xanxus just growled at him, especially when Federico set a hand in his hair and ruffled it lightly. Before he could do anything about it, the car had pulled in at the Vongola house, and it fell away again in the rush for a doctor and the storm of the old man’s anger.

Xanxus didn’t think about it again until a box showed up in his room several days later, without a card or a source or anything to say where it had come from. But he didn’t need a card, not when the box had a pair of matched handguns in it—the message was loud and clear.

3. Canis lupus

“Hey there, pup.”

Federico had the most fucking irritating way of being able to find Xanxus when Xanxus least wanted to deal with any members of the Family. “Fuck off,” he growled, dodging the hand that descended to ruffle his hair. “And I’m not a damn puppy. Stop treating me like I’m your fucking lapdog.”

Federico whistled. “You are in a temper,” he observed, and settled himself on the roof next to Xanxus. The sniper whose post this was made a pained noise, probably because Federico didn’t look like he intended to go anywhere any time soon.

Xanxus growled at him again, but the effect was ruined when his voice broke halfway through. Fucking puberty. “Go away.”

“Not till I know what’s bothering you so much that you’re terrorizing poor Lucien.”

“Poor Lucien my ass,” Xanxus muttered. “He’s a fucking menace, is what he is.”

“He’s a tutor,” Federico said. Bastard wasn’t even trying to pretend he wasn’t laughing. “The most dangerous thing he knows is trigonometry.”

Xanxus begged to fucking differ. “Dancing lessons. Motherfucking dancing lessons!”

Federico hooted with laughter. “So you tried to shoot him. I see now. You know Dad’s going to have to pay him an awful lot to stay on after that little stunt, right?”

“He should save his money.” Xanxus glared out across the landscape, all Vongola land as far as he could see, since glaring at Federico did a whole lot of nothing. “The fuck do I need to know how to dance for?”

“Comes in handy at parties, or so I hear.”

“Parties.” Xanxus sneered. “Fuck. What do I look like, some kind of diplomat?”

“I sincerely doubt that any of us are going to mistake you for the Family ambassador, I promise.” Federico was still laughing, damn his eyes. “But they’ll start inviting you to parties sooner or later. You’re going to have be ready for when that happens.”

“Fuck.” Xanxus shuddered at the very idea of having to deal with more people, ones who weren’t even Family, and who would all think… “Fucking fuck.”

“…hey.” Federico’s hand landed on his nape. “What’s really bothering you, pup?”

Xanxus stared away from him. “You’re as bad the old man,” he said, finally. Language lessons and etiquette lessons, horseback riding and history and mathematics, like he was the old man’s actual bastard and not just the stray that politics had forced the old man to adopt. “Trying to make me into something else.” He tried to lean away from Federico’s fingers.

They just curled tighter and kept him in place. “How so?”

“Dance lessons.” Xanxus looked out over the orchards to the north of the House. “Etiquette lessons. Parties. Fuck. It’s like you fucking think that’s the kind of person I am. Hell, it’s like you think I really am his bastard.”

“People are going to think that no matter what,” Federico said. “You need the tools to negotiate—”

He sounded all sympathetic, and something in Xanxus snapped. “I don’t want to fucking negotiate! I want to fucking shoot people!” he shouted, twisting away from Federico’s hand on his nape, this time successfully. “I don’t want to smile and make nice with our enemies, I want to fight them! I’m not your fucking lap dog—I’m a fucking wolf, only you and that shitty old man won’t let me be!”

Federico let him get the whole damn thing out, wearing his patient I’m listening and I care deeply face the whole time. “Don’t hold back,” he said, when Xanxus had finished and was panting and feeling raw with having finally said it out loud. “Tell me how you really feel.”

“Fuck you. Fuck you a whole lot.” Xanxus turned away from him and hunched himself over his knees.

“One of these days, I’m going to have to teach you some more creative ways to swear at people.” Federico shifted, climbing to his feet, and then held a hand down to him. “C’mon.”

Xanxus glared at it, and thought about smacking it away, except that the sniper was really giving him a nasty look for all the shouting, and would probably shoot him for striking the Ninth’s precious Heir. “What?”

“We’re going to go talk to Dad.”

Xanxus glanced up at him, wary; Federico was still smiling, but there was steel in it now. “What about?”

“Finding you something that’ll be a better fit.” Federico jerked his head at the door. “C’mon, no time like the present.”

Now what the hell was that supposed to mean?

Federico sighed while Xanxus puzzled over this new turn in Federico’s mood, and leaned over to haul him to his feet. “I’d swear, sometimes it’s like you don’t understand a word I’m saying.”

“That’s because sometimes I don’t,” Xanxus muttered. “Seeing as I don’t speak Lunatic.”

“Really? And here I thought you were a native speaker.” Federico pulled him inside and dragged him back downstairs.

They really were going to go see the Ninth—Federico took him right to the old man’s study and waltzed right on in like he owned it. Xanxus guessed he did, sort of, or would eventually. Federico didn’t even seem to mind that he was interrupting the old man at work.

“Federico,” the old man said, giving his son a tolerant look and Xanxus a rather sharper glance. Yeah, he’d heard about the thing with goddamn Lucien by now, all right. “What is it?”

“It’s time we found Xanxus a place in the Family that can make use of his skills, don’t you think?” Federico said, maneuvering Xanxus to a spot in front of the desk and planting himself next to him.

“I beg your pardon?” the old man asked, those bushy eyebrows of his climbing up his forehead.

Federico set a hand on Xanxus’ shoulder. “A more suitable position, I think,” he said, casual. “Some place where he can do the things he does best. I’m thinking he might try a stint with the Varia.”

Xanxus looked up at him, sharply—the fucking Varia? That would be—

“Out of the question,” the Ninth said, flat. “Have you lost your mind? He’s still a child. The Vongola are not so desperate for soldiers that I would send a child to fight for us.”

“I’m fourteen,” Xanxus said, offended to his core, but they both ignored him.

“He may be a child, but he’s a fighter, Dad.” Federico’s own voice had gone flat. “He’s always been a fighter, and he always will be. You think that it is a kindness to shelter him from the harsher realities of our life, but it’s not. He doesn’t want the Vongola to shelter him. I say that it’s time to stop caging him and hoping that doing so will tame him, because it’s not working. Keeping him penned up is only going to make him wilder.”

“No,” the Ninth said, eyes gone steely. “No, I will not countenance it. When he’s older, when he knows what it is that he’s deciding—”

“Xanxus,” Federico said, face and voice going still, like he was on the edge of calling his Flame. Xanxus found himself responding to that tone without quite meaning to, spine snapping straight as Federico addressed him. “How old were you when you killed your first man?”

“Dunno,” Xanxus said, which was the honest truth. “Eight, maybe? Something like that. He was hassling Ma, I think. Wanted more of her take than they’d agreed to—no, wait, that was someone else. I think.” He shrugged. “Never kept track. Sorry.”

The old man was starting to look pained. Federico just squeezed Xanxus’ shoulder. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t think the details are really that important.”

“If you’re sure,” Xanxus said, watching the old man’s mouth go tighter.


“No, Dad.” Federico’s voice was quiet, and the first echoes of his Will were stirring below its surface. “He’s not an innocent to be protected, and he hasn’t been for a long damn time. It would be nice if we could make up for that now, but we can’t. What we can do is respect what Xanxus is by letting him serve the way he’s fitted himself to serve us. The way he wants to serve us.”

Xanxus held his breath through the whole of Federico’s speech, shocked by the clarity with which Federico saw him, and the stubbornness in his voice and his Will, all set against the Ninth for his sake. Who would ever have thought that Federico would do such a thing for him?

The old man seemed just as surprised about Federico taking Xanxus’ part as Xanxus himself was. “This is what you’d set yourself against me for?”

“I would set myself against the world for any of my people,” Federico said, perfectly serene, and that casual claim drew Xanxus taut. Federico squeezed his shoulder again. “Ask him. Let him tell you what he wants for himself.”

The Ninth’s eyes flicked to Xanxus’ face. “Well, boy?” he asked, slow and reluctant.

“Could I join the Varia?” Xanxus asked, and fuck if he cared how eager that made him sound. “They get the really interesting missions, right?”

“They slaughter the Vongola’s enemies.” The Ninth’s voice was harsh. “They are assassins and remorseless, ruthless killers.”

Xanxus matched him, stare for stare. “Like I said. Interesting.”

“You see, Dad?” Federico’s voice was soft. “Just be grateful that he’s ours. Forget the rest. It’s not going to happen.”

“It seems not.” The Ninth looked away from them booth. “I’ll speak to Tyr.”

“Thank you, Father,” Federico said, and bowed, old-fashioned and formal. He pulled Xanxus down with him. “My apologies for interrupting you.” He clapped Xanxus on the shoulder when they’d straightened up again. “C’mon, you.”

Xanxus was pleased enough with matters—the motherfucking Varia, hot damn!—that he let Federico shuffle them out of the old man’s study without protest. Federico stopped them in the hallway. “All right,” he said, looking down at Xanxus, still in serious business mode. “You owe me, and I’m going to tell you how I plan on collecting.”

“How?” Xanxus asked, wary, since it always paid to be careful of Federico in this mood.

“You’re going to be one of the Vongola’s best fighters,” Federico said. “Possibly even one of the fighters who’ll live on in our legends after you manage to get yourself killed, depending. But I’m going to ask you to do something harder than spilling blood for us.”

“Like what?” Xanxus said, pretending that he wasn’t pleased by the praise.

“Learn the social rules. And the dancing. You don’t have to like them, but you have to learn them,” Federico said, and he sounded absolutely implacable about it. “I will not have you disgrace me, and I will not have you be vulnerable to our enemies by not knowing how to handle them when shooting them isn’t an option. Do you understand?”

Xanxus scowled at him. “Can’t I just—”

“No. You can’t,” Federico told him, flat. “You have to do this. This is not negotiable.” Then his mouth quirked. “Think of it as a method of fighting, just in a different medium. If it helps.”

Xanxus huffed at him. “It doesn’t.” He looked away. The Varia. And Federico had faced down the old man to do it. Goddamnit, he did owe him, didn’t he? “Fine.”

“Thank you,” Federico said, and ruffled his hair. “It won’t be so bad,” he promised. “Not if you’re going to be Varia. People will be too terrified to talk to you.”

“Hmph.” But the idea had a certain appeal to it.

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that, cub.” Federico ruffled his hair again and turned away.

“Cub?” Xanxus echoed, raking his hands through his hair and reordering it. “The hell?”

Federico grinned over his shoulder. “You’re not a wolf yet,” he said. “Yet. But you’re getting there.”

And he laughed as he strolled away, as Xanxus stared after him, too surprised to say anything to that at all.

4. Dies Irae

Tyr listened, impassive as a stone god, as the Ninth explained the mission he’d like the Varia to take, and when the old man had finished, simply said, “No.”

Xanxus felt his commander’s refusal like a blow, but the old man—and damn it, he really did look like an old man now, and moved and spoke like one, showing every last year of his age now—the old man just sighed. “Less than a ninety percent chance of completing the mission successfully, then?”

“The Cetrulli are an old and powerful Family,” Tyr said. “Their strength is comparable to our own, and they did manage to breach our own security to kill Federico.” The old man flinched at the name of his son, but it just made Xanxus’ rage sharper to hear it spoken so casually. Tyr took no notice of either of them, and carried on with his analysis. “We cannot move against them in a covert fashion, retaliate as you have asked us to do, and remain undetected.”

“And that would mean open warfare, which is outside the Varia’s purview,” the old man said, and rubbed his forehead. “All right, thank you. We’ll find some other way.”

That was the absolute limit. “Fuck that,” Xanxus ground out, even though it wasn’t his place to speak up in this council, or do anything more than observe. “Fuck keeping it a secret. Kill ’em all and let the whole world know what you get for fucking with our Family.”

“It’s not that easy,” the old man said, weary. “I’d like nothing more than that, but—”

“But nothing! They killed Federico!” Had punched right through Federico’s security while he’d been on holiday with his family and had killed them all—and just the thought of it made Xanxus curl his hands into fists, both the Vongola Flame and the other one, the one he hadn’t used in years, rousing in response.

But I am not willing to declare open war on the Cetrulli,” the Ninth said, flat, while his advisors stirred and muttered, and Tyr hissed, “Control yourself!”

Xanxus flexed his hands, Wrath and Will burning hotter. “Fuck the politics,” he gritted out. “You know I’m right.”

“And I know that I have no right to tell the commander of the Varia which missions he will accept!” the Ninth retorted. “Your commander has said no, and will not take part in an open war against the Cetrulli. The Vongola will find another way.”

“Is that how it is?” Xanxus breathed, possibility crystallizing itself for him, clear and perfect as ice.

“That’s how it is.”

Xanxus furled his Flames away, against the moment when he would need them. “Fine.”

The old man nodded, because he’d never understood Xanxus half as well as Federico had, and had never seen far enough. “Moving on, then.”

Tyr stayed to listen to the old man and his advisors argue over alternative schemes, and to give his advice. Xanxus waited them out, darkly amused by the fact that the old man and his men couldn’t come to any satisfactory conclusions, and by the covert frustration that showed every time they looked at Tyr, until the old man called an end to things for the morning.

Tyr ignored all of them and swept out of the meeting with his usual magisterial calm. Xanxus followed after him like a good little squad leader.

His commander was no fool. Tyr went straight to the Varia’s practice yard, and only spoke to Xanxus once they were there. “You spoke very much out of turn this morning,” he noted, as he faced Xanxus and loosened his sword in its sheath.

“But I’m right, damn it,” Xanxus said, and let his Flames unwind themselves again as he faced the man down. “You know I am.”

“I know that you think that you are right.” Tyr was as dispassionate here as he was in everything, and that made Xanxus want to grind his teeth. “I know that you do not have to concern yourself with the same things I do, and that you have the luxury of being able to allow yourself to be angry.”

“It’s not a fucking luxury.” Xanxus flexed his hands, opening and closing them, watching him. Fucking luxuries weren’t supposed to hurt so damn much. “What are the chances of doing the mission successfully, open warfare aside?”

Tyr lifted a shoulder, his eyes never leaving Xanxus’. “If we don’t worry about remaining concealed? Nearly a hundred percent. But we can’t do the mission without revealing ourselves, and I will not let that happen.”

“Why the hell not?” Xanxus demanded, rage burning hotter, till the air shimmered around him. “It’s not like anyone doesn’t know we exist, even if they pretend not to.”

Tyr smiled, faint, just the corners of his mouth lifting. “Nevertheless. While I am the leader of the Varia, we will remain a secret. An open secret, if necessary, but a secret.”

Even while that made him growl, Xanxus had to admire how well his commander knew him, and appreciate the opening. “Maybe it’s time the Varia had a new commander.”

“Think carefully,” Tyr told him, still wearing that little smile. “Are you ready to do this? You’re nineteen—do you really think you’re ready to take over if—if—you can cut me down?”

“I guess we’ll have to find out,” Xanxus told him, and attacked.

Tyr had twenty years and some on him, and had trained with the sword his whole life. He had been one of the best training partners Xanxus had ever had, even without a Flame of his own, and Xanxus had always enjoyed their sparring matches. This was no training match, however, and Tyr hurled himself at Xanxus, grim and intent. Xanxus caught Tyr’s sword on one of his guns, and they closed with each other. Tyr’s lips peeled back from his teeth as Xanxus lashed out with his Flames. “It seems that Federico’s wolf has gone rabid,” he noted.

Xanxus just snarled at him, wordless, and they broke apart.

The battle dragged on, since neither of them would give way; Xanxus was dimly aware that the clash of it was drawing spectators to the training yard—other members of the Varia coming to linger at its edges, silent observers who didn’t move to interfere. He paid them no mind, being more concerned with Tyr’s sword and the gun that had gone spinning away, thanks to a particularly clever twist of Tyr’s blade.

They closed again, and again; he raised a line of blisters along Tyr’s cheek with the Wrath. Tyr laid his forearm open in return, on the next pass, when Xanxus wasted a precious fraction of a second reaching into his boot for his knife. They were both soaked with sweat when Tyr spoke again, against his ear, hushed. “Think, if you still can,” he said, as they wrestled with each other. “Killing them all won’t bring him back. Killing them won’t lessen the grief that you feel.”

“You’re wrong,” Xanxus retorted. “Killing them all will make me feel much better.”

Tyr’s bark of laughter was short and harsh. “God save us from reckless young fools and madmen,” he said, as they broke apart again.

“You’re a superstitious old fool,” Xanxus growled at him.

Tyr just laughed again.

The sun had sunk behind the walls of the House and cast the training ground into shadow before the balance of the fight finally shifted. Xanxus harried Tyr across the yard, maneuvering him until the man put a foot down in one of the places where Xanxus’ Flames had gouged at the earth. He wobbled for just a fraction of a section, but Xanxus had been waiting and ready for it, and lunged forward, ignoring the glancing blow of the sword against his shoulder and the way it sliced him open, and sank his boot knife into Tyr’s chest, all the way to the hilt.

Tyr breathed out, a sigh that sounded regretful, and folded in on himself.

Xanxus caught him—he owed the man that much—and let Tyr’s weight bear them to the ground. The look Tyr turned on him was resigned. “I always did wonder if it was going to be you,” he managed, with one of his teeth-baring smiles. “Tell me something.”

Xanxus raised his eyebrows. “What?”

Tyr’s breath was starting to turn short and to gurgle. “Why didn’t you just shoot me?”

Was that all? “No one would have followed me if I had.”

“Maybe you know what you’re doing after all,” Tyr gasped, and died with laughter, frothy and red, on his lips.

Xanxus regarded him silently, and then closed his eyes and eased him the rest of the way down. Then he unpinned the Varia’s crest from the dead man’s jacket and rose. The edges cut into his fingers as he faced the other members of the Varia who were watching him. Xanxus lifted his hand, showing it to them. “This is mine now. Anyone want to argue about it?”

The training yard was silent, until one of the squad leaders shrugged and called, “All yours, Boss.” He was echoed by a murmur of agreement.

“Good.” Xanxus lowered his hand and retrieved his gun and knife, and turned away from them all.

“Where are you going, Boss?” someone called.

“To see the old man,” Xanxus said, without breaking stride. “To see about our next mission.”

People scurried out of his way as he stalked back inside; one of the serving girls shrieked outright at the sight of him. Xanxus ignored them all as he made for the old man’s study and booted the door open.

The old man was clearly startled to see him. “What the—you look like a hot mess, boy.”

He was probably right, but Xanxus couldn’t find it in himself to care. He made his way to the old man’s desk and dropped the badge on it. “When do you want us to move?” he asked.

The Ninth looked down and a series of emotions chased themselves over his face as he stared at the pin. “Oh, my boy,” he said, finally, softly. “What damn fool thing have you gone and done now?”

That seemed like it should have been obvious, so Xanxus ignored the question and picked the badge up again. He weighed it in his fingers, and then pinned it to the remains his shirt, and was acutely conscious of the slight weight of it hanging there. “When do you want us to begin?”

The Ninth looked up at him, eyes grave and dark. “Get cleaned up,” he said. “Tend to those wounds. Then come back, and we’ll discuss it.”

“Yes, Boss.” Xanxus bowed, quick and sharp, and turned away from him.

The old man’s voice stopped him at the door. “You didn’t have to do this.”

Xanxus looked back at him. “No,” he said, at length. “You’re wrong. I did.”

The old man sighed, but didn’t try to argue with him. After a moment longer, Xanxus went to clean up.

The Cetrulli died as easily as any men did, though in rather more pain than most. Xanxus led the mission against them himself, repaying the fire that had killed Federico with his own Flames and tearing the very heart of the Cetrulli Family out with his own hands. When the Varia were done with them, not a one of the Cetrulli’s actual family was left breathing, nor any of its advisors or most of its commanders, and its shattered remains had scattered and were seeking shelter with any of the Cetrulli’s allies that would take them in.

And Tyr, damn him, had been right. The fighting had been satisfying, had let him freeze himself over and throw himself into the fierce pleasure of extracting vengeance from the Cetrulli, but left Xanxus at loose ends when it had ended.

Fortunately, Tyr had been right about the other thing, too—the Varia could no longer remain secret, not when half the old Families were appalled that the Vongola had moved so ruthlessly against one of their own, and the other half had applauded. They were all at open war within the year, giving Xanxus all the battles he could desire. He bent his will on those, and ignored everything else.

By the time the last of the Ninth’s sons fell, Xanxus no longer felt much about it at all, save for a certain weariness with the boredom of having to chase the last ragtag members of the Cetrulli to the ground in order to exterminate them.

5. Fire and Ice

Enrico had been dead for a year and a half, and the ceasefire between the surviving Families had held for an uneasy eight months, when the Ninth called Xanxus into his study.

Xanxus was glad of the summons. He’d been getting bored with all the peace and quiet.

“I have a question for you,” the old man said, and laid his hands flat on his desk as he looked Xanxus over. “Many people think you are going to be my heir.”

“People think a lot of things,” Xanxus retorted.

“They do.” The Ninth looked at him, head-on and serious. “I need to know. What do you think?”

“I think people are full of shit.” Xanxus shrugged. “Not actually your bastard, remember? Some other guy’s bastard. Therefore, not eligible.”

“What if I told you that we could make the argument that you were?” The Ninth watched him, eyes sharp and focused. “What would you say then?”

“I’d say you’re full of shit.” Xanxus waved a hand at the old man’s office. “You wanted me to take this, you would’ve been grooming me for it. If not when they got Massimo, then after they got Enrico. You don’t want me as your heir. You’ve got something else up your sleeve.”

“Is that so?” The Ninth leaned back in his seat. “How do you figure that?”

“You think I can’t tell when you’re testing me, old man?” Xanxus leaned back, too, and set an ankle over his knee. “You’re too calm. You want to know what I think before you go order me to do something.”

The Ninth’s eyes glinted, just faintly. “Very well.” He picked up one of the folders that was sitting at his elbow and passed it across the desk.

Xanxus flipped it open; there was a photo of a boy right on top, looking about as feckless as they came. “Who’s this?”

“Sawada Tsunayoshi.” Indeed, there was the label, on the back of the photo.

Xanxus glanced up. “Any relation to…?”

“His son, yes.” The Ninth was still watching him.

Xanxus paged through the little dossier, till he came to the piece of paper that was a family tree. “You’ve got to be fucking with me,” he said, and flipped back to the photo. No, the kid still looked like a fucking baby, and not even genetics could change that. “This is your new heir?”

“He’s still a little raw,” the Ninth said.

“A little raw? Fuck. He hasn’t even been in the oven yet.” Xanxus flipped the dossier closed. “You might as well invite all our enemies to a party and ask ’em to slit our throats.”

“Mm.” The Ninth picked up the other folder and offered it to him.

Xanxus flipped it open, expecting to find another possible heir. Instead, his own face stared up at him. “What’s this…?” he asked, paging through the dossier rapidly. The Ninth didn’t answer, didn’t say a fucking word, until Xanxus reached the piece of paper, very like Sawada’s, that traced his own family tree, right back to the Second.

He stared at it for so long that the Ninth finally cleared his throat. “The major distinction between you and Tsunayoshi,” he said, as Xanxus raised his eyes from the family tree, “is that Tsuna’s line is legitimated by the First’s remarriage, and yours is not.”

Xanxus just stared at him, silently, waiting for him to get to the point.

The Ninth gestured at the two dossiers in his hands. “Most of the Vongola favors you,” he said. “The irregularities of your family tree can be overlooked, in light of that.”

“Most,” Xanxus repeated, hearing the harsh edge in his own voice. “What does that mean?”

“It means that the boy isn’t one of us,” the Ninth said. “He hasn’t been raised in this world. Reborn has been with him since Enrico died. He says that Tsuna’s heart is… very pure. Rather like Federico’s.” He stopped, and ran a hand over his face.

“Why tell me this?” Xanxus demanded, holding up the folder that someone had compiled on him. “If you want him, then why should I even matter?”

The Ninth dropped his hand from his eyes, and looked at him, steady. “Because I am asking you which one of you I should choose to be Tenth after me,” he said, slow and even, and upset Xanxus’ entire worldview by doing so.

The Varia had swung into action without a murmur of question when Xanxus went from the Ninth’s office to their quarters, not even when Xanxus gave them some admittedly peculiar orders. They moved without question, proof that all the bastards knew what was good for them, and didn’t even bat an eye at his choices, or the announcement that they were going to Japan. It wasn’t till they were on the jet that Bel looked up from playing with his knives, grinning as sharp as they were, and asked, “What’s up, Boss? We got a mission to kill someone or what?”

It was an understandable assumption; he’d assembled the strongest squad leaders the Varia had for this. “Something like that.” Xanxus cast his eye over them, assessing them. “It’s time to figure out who’s going to be Tenth, me or Iemitsu’s brat.”

“Well, hot damn.” Bel’s grin stretched wider. “We gonna go kill him?”

“Maybe,” Xanxus allowed; it wasn’t out of the question. “We have to fight him for the rings.”

Lussuria was the one who did the math first, looking around at the other five of them and then squeaking. “All of us?” he asked, breathless, and they stilled.

“Yeah,” Xanxus told him, and watched them all grin at each other.

“We won’t let you down, Boss,” Levi vowed.

“You’d better fucking hope not,” Xanxus told them, and hauled himself up, heading to the front of the jet’s cabin, away from them and their speculations.

Squalo joined him there, all uninvited, and sat across from him. “So,” he said, after a moment. “What’s the plan?”

He should have known. “What plan?”

“Boss.” Squalo gave him a long look, and then snorted. “Please. Like you don’t always have a plan. And like you didn’t have us do some damn weird things to get ready for this. So. What gives?”

Yeah, Squalo wasn’t just his second because he was good with a sword. “Tell you later,” he said, since Squalo got loud when he was surprised, or excited, and this was going to be one hell of a surprise, all right. Squalo wasn’t going to see it coming, no matter what he’d put together in that pointy head of his.

Wasn’t anybody going to see this one coming. Xanxus settled back into his seat, and smirked at nothing at all.

Xanxus didn’t think much of Sawada Tsunayoshi the first time he met the boy. His photo in the Ninth’s dossier hadn’t encompassed the full flailing, wailing reality of the brat’s existence. “That brat isn’t fit to lick the boots of a real heir,” he told Squalo, sourly, after the Cervello had outlined the way the ring battles would happen and they had retired to their headquarters.

“You’re going to massacre him, Boss,” Levi agreed, readily, missing the point entirely. “You’re the only one fit to be the Tenth.”

Squalo aimed a kick at him. “The boss wasn’t talking to you,” he grunted, and then jerked his head at the door. “Get out, all of you. We’ve got strategy to discuss.”

They went, obediently or sullenly, each according to his kind, and Xanxus mused on the usefulness of having a second like Squalo, someone who understood Xanxus’ moods without his ever having to make them clear. Once he had booted the door shut after Lussuria’s slinking ass, Squalo underlined the point by getting Xanxus a drink, two fingers of whiskey, neat, all without a word.

“This is a fucking farce,” Xanxus told him, when the alcohol was a warm glow in his belly.

Squalo kicked a chair over and straddled it, showing his teeth. “You’re not wrong. Buncha weaklings, all of them. Beats the fuck outta me how they took Rokudou down.”

“Luck,” Xanxus grunted. “And probably Reborn.” That one couldn’t seem to help meddling.

Squalo’s teeth flashed again. “Guess we’ll see how far luck gets ’em this time.”

Xanxus grunted at him.

Squalo didn’t need more of a hint than that, and rose immediately. “Night, Boss,” he said, and went out.

Xanxus let him go, considering the nature of luck and the Vongola’s shitty run of it, these past few years, and then went to check the Gola Mosca, while he was thinking about it.

He reconsidered his stance on Sawada after the battle for the Lightning Ring. Even an observer could feel that there was power in the brat’s Flame, as long as Sawada’s people were concerned. Perhaps it hadn’t been all luck and Reborn that had contributed to Rokudou’s defeat.

But the brat was still ten years too early to be the Tenth. Too fucking naïve, too—that much was clear in the shock on Sawada’s face when the Cervello declared his half of the Sky Ring forfeit. Xanxus had to laugh at that—hadn’t the brat known what kind of sacrifices a real boss had to be prepared to make? Especially when one of his Guardians was a damn toddler?

Ten years too fucking early, definitely, Xanxus decided, while the brat’s friends consoled him for his stupid mistake. He had potential, yeah, but even the fucking Arcobaleno couldn’t turn someone that wet behind the ears into a boss overnight.

The Zero Point came as a complete fucking surprise. Xanxus hadn’t known that Will and Flame could turned in on themselves like that, going through heat to come out into cold that burned just as fiercely as the accusations that he had betrayed the Ninth. The image that Xanxus took with him as the Zero Point closed around him and dragged him down was the cool, regretful look in Sawada’s eyes, and the last thing he felt was the shock of recognition at the sight—the face was all wrong, but he’d seen that look before, in the old man’s eyes and in Federico’s eyes.

When light and heat broke through that arctic darkness and dragged him out of that frozen silence, Xanxus could barely gasp for breath, stunned by the betrayal of his Flames and the weakness that gripped him. Mammon was hovering over him, holding a double handful of Vongola Rings and wearing a shit-eating smile that said Forgive and forget, eh Boss? as Bel proclaimed Xanxus the Tenth.

All Xanxus could do was laugh at that, at the utter ridiculousness of it, when he couldn’t even get off the goddamn ground under his own power. Bel had to shove the damn ring on Xanxus’ finger himself while Mammon prattled on about the mystic power the rings would give the new heir. “You don’t know shit,” Xanxus rasped to them, and clenched his fist around the ring.

He’d heard of the Vongola trial, mostly in whispers and the fragments of rumors, and hadn’t given them more than cursory attention, because they’d never concern him. As the outside world fell away again, Bel’s triumph and Mammon’s smugness blending with the protests of Sawada’s people, Xanxus had just long enough to wish that he’d listened to those whispers more closely.

Then the screaming started: a whole succession of voices, agonized and terrified, pleading for mercy or more time or just plain howling in senseless pain. Images came with the screams, explosions and shattered bodies, blood running across a thousand different floors and sliding off the edges of blades, and the empty gaze in the eyes of corpses, identical in men and women and children alike.

Revenge, someone whispered.

Ambush. Another voice.

Eradication. And another.

He was suspended in some kind of space, surrounded by a throng of shadowy figures. Their voices rustled like dead leaves brushing against each other, blending and overlaying each other, nearly indistinguishable.

Our past sins. Murder, revenge, betrayal. An insatiable thirst for power.

Xanxus looked through the throng, but their faces were shadowed, and even though he had seen portraits of them all, had lived for years in the house where their faces gazed down at him on a daily basis, he could not tell one from another, nor could he keep a count on them—were there eight? Or nine?

This is the bloodstained history of our Family, they whispered to him. Xanxus only half-listened, peering at them, trying to make a count, trying to bring their faces clear. You who hold the ring of the Vongola, you who claim the Sky—do you have the resolution to inherit the weight of these sins?

That one—that one might be the old man. Xanxus strained after him, but the shadow slipped away, replaced by one that may have been the Third. Xanxus snarled his frustration, and then snarled again when that shadow whirled away, too.

Do not look away, the throng whispered. Look and see the destiny of the successor of the Vongola. This is the purpose of the life you were given.

“Of course it is!” Xanxus flared, facing them and trying glare at all of them at once. “You think I don’t know exactly what I am? You think I haven’t given the orders to kill? You think I don’t know exactly what my guns and my Flames are for?”

The throng of them circled closer, a sigh rippling through them at his answer. Will you pay the price? they asked. Will you shoulder the burden of our history and all its glory? Will you uphold the Vongola?

Xanxus snarled at them again. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” he told them, gesturing at the flood of history streaming around them. “I serve the Vongola. Doesn’t matter who gets in the way of that, I’ll cut them down.”

They sighed and swayed as one. Ah…

It was the wrong answer; Xanxus knew it before the voices and images of their history fell away, before he found himself standing before the circle of them, nine in all. Only the old man showed any regret, looking at him.

The First spoke. “No,” he said, and the weight of his voice and Will drove Xanxus to his knees. “That will not do. Your heart is frozen. You haven’t shouldered our burden, even a little bit.” He lifted his hand. “As you have rejected us, we reject you.”

“Like that’s a fucking surprise,” Xanxus managed, before nine generations’ worth of Vongola-caused suffering came crashing down on him.

When he came back to himself, he had screamed himself raw, and one of the Cervello was stooping over him to strip the Sky Ring off of his hand. “The rings have rejected Xanxus’ blood,” she announced. “The winner of the Sky Ring battle has defaulted to Sawada Tsunayoshi.”

That sparked protests all around, from Bel’s squawk to Sawada’s Sun proclaiming his confusion. “How can it reject his blood? Isn’t he the Ninth’s son?”

Laughing hurt. Xanxus did it anyway, and forced himself to his feet, because he wasn’t by damn going to do this lying on the ground like a fucking worm. “Told you all you didn’t know shit,” he wheezed, and spat the blood out of his mouth. “I’m not the old man’s son. Never have been.” He laughed again, laughed at all of their stupid, shocked faces. “And you’re surprised it rejected me?”

“No.” That was Sawada, swaying on his own feet, speaking up before anyone else could. “That’s not it at all, is it? That’s just what you want us all to think.” He took a wobbling step away from his companions, towards Xanxus. “I understand, now,” he said, eyes and voice clear. “What the Ninth showed me.”

Bel took a step, and stopped when Xanxus growled at him. “Bullshit,” he told Sawada. “What can a brat like you understand?”

“Everything,” Sawada said, confident, closing the distance between them, step by shaky step. “You didn’t betray the Ninth at all, did you? You’re not here because you wanted to be the Tenth. You’re here because he sent you here.”

Xanxus coughed and spat on the ground between them. “Not bad,” he said, and ignored the shock and disbelief from the Cervello and Varia and Sawada’s own people. “No other way to make sure a brat like you was ready to take over for him.”

Sawada came closer, till he was tilting his head back to look up at Xanxus. “No,” he agreed, still in the grip of that clear, steady calm. “I’m much stronger now, thanks to you.”

“Damn right,” Xanxus told him, with the grim satisfaction of a job well done. “Would’ve killed you myself if you hadn’t gotten stronger. Might still do it if you fuck this up.”

“I know.” That clear gaze was starting to be unnerving. “You love this Family very much.”

“The hell you say.” Xanxus rolled his eyes. “What are you, brain-damaged? I was following orders.”

“That’s what you want to think. That’s what you want to believe. But you’re wrong. I felt it.” Sawada frowned, lifting a hand. “It’s still there. It’s covered over,” he murmured, and even though he looked like he was half-dead on his feet, his Flame lit again. “It shouldn’t be,” he murmured. “You’re only hurting yourself with it.”

“Mind your own business,” Xanxus told him. “Maybe I like it better this way.”

“No,” Sawada said, very softly. “No, I see now, what else he meant.”

“Sawada,” Xanxus said, warning him, but Sawada ignored him and came forward anyway, pressing his hands against Xanxus’ chest.

“You’ve given a great deal,” he said, Will pressing against Xanxus’, the raw heat of it gentled enough that it didn’t burn. It was no less determined for that. “You are owed this.”

“Fuck off,” Xanxus grated out, resisting the pressure and warmth of Sawada’s Flame. “I don’t want this.” Not again. He wasn’t going to survive another round of this.

“You’re still lying,” Sawada told him, unshakable as a mountain, and folded his Will around Xanxus and held him.

Xanxus lost the rest of his voice on the cry that tore out of his throat as Sawada’s Will pressed against the places he’d walled off years ago, after the first of the old man’s sons had died. “These are hurting you,” Sawada said, softly, Flame burning hotter, purer. “He would not have wanted this.”

“How the fuck would you know?” Xanxus gasped, hating the parts of himself that strained towards Sawada’s Will, responding to it. “You weren’t fucking there.”

“I just know,” Sawada told him, simple as that, and brought the walls the rest of the way down.

As his knees bucked and he went down for the third time that night, overcome by the torrent of things that he’d wanted to never have to think about again, Xanxus decided that, fuck it all, this time he was going to stay down.

When he woke up, he was in a pleasant room that was filled with sunlight, and the old man was sitting beside his bed, doing paperwork.

The rush of relief—and shock at realizing he was relieved—at seeing the old man doing something so emphatically normal as his paperwork rendered Xanxus’ voice into a rasping croak. “You.”

The Ninth looked up, and even Xanxus couldn’t mistake the look that crossed the old man’s face as anything but pleasure. “You’re awake,” he said, with every evidence of delight.

“No fucking kidding.” Xanxus’ throat ached with the effort of speaking, and was barely managing a whisper. “You’re not dead.”

“Hardly.” The Ninth smiled. “I told you I’d do just fine.”

Yeah, and Xanxus had seen how he’d looked when the kid had sliced the Gola Mosca open. “You were—I saw you.” It’d been clear, too, when he’d had the ring. “With the other bosses.”

The old man fucking smiled at him. “One doesn’t have to be dead to attend the trial of one’s successor, even if it often ends up that way.”

“You shitty old man.” Xanxus looked away from him, stared out the window—the sky was the deep blue of the Mediterranean; they were home. And even focusing on that fact couldn’t stop him from saying, “You scared the fuck out of me.”

He heard the sound that the old man made, surprised and wondering, and then the sound of papers being set aside. “I’m sorry,” he said, and set a hand on Xanxus’ shoulder. “I didn’t… expect it to affect you. Not like that.”

“No, you just knew it’d tear me apart from the inside out when they rejected me.” The old man had told him as much when they’d discussed what would happen if he had to take up the ring. At the time, it had seemed like an acceptable risk to take.

Now he wasn’t so sure. The thought of the trial recalled the burden that they’d placed in front of him, and that brought on a wave of nausea. Xanxus closed his eyes and fought it, and the groan that wanted to come with it, back down. “The fuck did Sawada do to me?”

“Forced you to recall yourself, I believe,” the old man said, after a moment. “And asked you to recall that you are, in fact, human.”

“I don’t think I like it,” Xanxus told him, from behind teeth that he had to clench against the nausea and sense of dizzy unbalance. Fucking hell, what was he supposed to do with all this goddamn emotional shit?

“You never have, much,” the old man agreed. His hand moved to Xanxus’ forehead and rested there, cool. “I find myself hoping that it sticks, I’m afraid. I should like very much if I could have one of my sons returned to me.”

Xanxus squeezed his eyes tighter, so he wouldn’t have to look at the man. “I’m not your son.”

“Not by blood,” the old man agreed, voice quiet. “Not by the measures of the world. But you’re the son my heart recognizes. You’re the brother Federico claimed for himself. Those are enough for me.” He sighed. “I wish they could be enough for you.”

Xanxus turned his face away at the mention of Federico and all the things that the mention of his name brought surging out of the places he’d buried them. The old man’s hand settled on his shoulder again. “Fuck,” he said, when he could breathe past the knife edges of the hurt. “Fuck. I should have been there. It should have been me.”

What the fuck had Sawada done to him, that he was saying these things out loud?

The old man’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. “No,” he said, fierce. “No. He would not have wanted that, any more than I would have.” His grip eased again. “You’ve seen the reports. The presence of one more man—even one such as yourself—would not have saved him. I would have lost both of you if you had been there.” He stopped, and then started again. “As it was, I rather thought I had.”

“You always were sentimental, old man,” Xanxus muttered after a moment.

“Perhaps,” the Ninth said, and squeezed his shoulder. “Nevertheless.”

Nevertheless, indeed. Xanxus took a breath, and another, and decided it was time for a safer subject, until he could gain some control of himself again. “Sawada has the ring now?” he asked, and opened his eyes.

“He does, and has found it in himself to face what that means.” The Ninth was looking into the distance and probably not seeing anything that was in the room. “He will do great things for our Family, I think.”

“Kick his ass for him if he doesn’t.”

The old man’s eyes returned to the present and flicked down to him, and he laughed. “Yes, I’ve not doubt that you will.”

Xanxus snorted at him. “Glad you approve of the choice.”

“I do.” The Ninth went serious on him again, looking at him with dark eyes. “I would have approved the other, too.”

The fuck? “Don’t be stupid.” Xanxus glared at him. “You saw what happened when I put the ring on.”

“Mm. I did.” The Ninth lifted a shoulder, as if it weren’t even worth mentioning. “The Ring chooses the successor the Family needs. And sometimes what the Family needs is a new direction, like what I expect Tsuna will give us, and sometimes it needs the strength that will guide it and protect it, as you would have done.” He stopped, studying Xanxus, and then continued, apparently satisfied with whatever he saw. “What was rejected was the coldness in your heart. We are a Family, my boy. The boss must care for it. Do you see?”

Xanxus listened to that—the boss had to care?—and then snorted. “Definitely made the right choice,” he muttered.

The old man’s smile was faint. “Mm. He’s done well with his people so far.”

It was impossible to mistake the old man’s intent, not when the old man was looking at him, practically mooning over him. Xanxus grunted. “Whatever. I guess he’ll do.”

“Yes,” the Ninth said, with the smile that all three of his sons had inherited, and that made Xanxus’ breath hitch to see. “I think he will.” He took his hand away from Xanxus’ shoulder and busied himself with his paperwork. “Now that you’re awake, there’s someone who’ll be wanting to see you. I’ll just send him in, shall I?”

“Whatever,” Xanxus muttered, and settled back against his pillow as the old man went out. It’d be one of the Varia, wanting to report their status—Bel, probably, wanting to talk about who was going to take Squalo’s place, since he had exactly the right kind of initiative to put himself forward in a time of chaos. Of course, he trusted Bel about as far as he could throw the little shit, but it wasn’t like he had a lot of options to work with in the other squad leaders.

Damn Squalo for getting himself killed, anyway, and that thought came with another wave of sickness—damn Sawada and his fucking Will, too, because this was already getting fucking impossible to stand.

Xanxus gritted his teeth and was trying to ride it out when a ruckus raised itself outside his door. The distraction was a welcome one, and he raised himself up on an elbow to listen to the voices as they spiraled upwards, until someone yelled, “I can fucking do it myself!” and booted open the door.

Squalo wheeled himself into the room, expression mutinously clear even through a layer of bandages, while a handful of the lowest-ranking Varia hovered behind him. “See?” he demanded of them. “Now piss off!” Xanxus stared at him, at a loss for words, as Squalo slammed the door in their faces and wheeled himself over to the bed. “Hey, Boss.”

It was as bad as waking up and finding out the old man wasn’t dead; the shock made him dizzy. “Squalo,” Xanxus said, feeling like he had a case of fucking whiplash. “The fuck. You’re not dead.”

Squalo snorted. “Fucking Cavallone fished me out before the shark finished me off. Guess he thought he’d be able to get me to spill my guts to him for doing it.”

“That little bastard,” Xanxus managed, after a moment, some of his whipsaw dizziness grounding itself in familiar anger. “He never said a word.” And it went without saying that Squalo hadn’t, either, or else he’d have known about this a lot sooner when Cavallone spilled the plan wide open.

Squalo snorted again, baring his teeth. “Yeah. You shoulda seen the look on his face when it all came out. Turned so red I thought he was going to pass out.”

“Serves him right,” Xanxus said, because it did. Goddamn Cavallone, keeping one of his people from him like that. “Bastard. I thought you were dead.” Fuck, he was going to kill Sawada for afflicting him with this case of verbal diarrhea.

Squalo’s surprise showed in his eyes, and that only briefly. “Not yet,” he said, after a breath of silence. “Which is a damn good thing, since Bel’s already started making a hash of Varia business. Gonna take forfuckingever to get it all straightened out.”

That was so close to what Xanxus had been thinking before Squalo had come in that it startled him into a laugh; once he started, he couldn’t quite stop, till Squalo peered at him, clearly anxious, and demanded to know whether he was all right. “Yeah,” Xanxus told him, when he’d managed to get a grip on himself again. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just glad you’re not dead, is all.”

Squalo blinked, clearly startled, something like pleasure flashing in his eyes. “Yeah, well, me too,” he said, and cleared his throat. “So, anyway, here’s where we’re at.”

Xanxus settled in to listen to Squalo’s report. He could just about imagine the way Federico would have smiled at that, and said, “Not bad, cub.” For once, the thought didn’t do much more than ache.

Yeah. Maybe he was going to do all right after all.

– end –

Anger Management

In which Federico teaches his brother a lesson about the importance of controlling one’s temper. For Round III of khrfest, prompt II-62. Xanxus — Anger Management; “He who angers you conquers you.”. General audiences.

Character(s): Federico Vongola, Xanxus

The heir to the Vongola would never do anything so crass as eavesdrop, not least because the Vongola had people for that. But, as Federico told himself, if he happened to be in the right place at the right time he could hardly help what he overheard, could he?

Although one did have to wonder, sometimes, whether there was any such thing as the "right time" when it came to Xanxus. Considering his adopted brother’s nature, there probably wasn’t. The way Federico looked at it, though, that was all the more reason to keep an eye on Xanxus. Especially when Xanxus was being let to roam unescorted through parties these days, and especially when not everyone in attendance happened to be particularly friendly.

Though there was "not particularly friendly" and "outright stupid," which, Federico thought, annoyed, he would have expected the Orsini to have taught their kids to distinguish. If they had, he couldn’t tell it from the way they’d managed to corner Xanxus, a half-circle of them facing him down and offering their opinions about how much he looked like the Ninth—or, rather, didn’t. It was right about the time that Taddeo Orsini said, thoughtfully, "How d’you suppose that a bit of street trash managed to fool the Vongola Ninth into mistaking her brat for his bastard?" that Xanxus lost what little control of his temper he had.

Federico stepped in as Xanxus snarled and launched himself at Taddeo—before Xanxus had lit his Flame, which was something, anyway—and gave Taddeo one of his mild, friendly looks as he held Xanxus back. "I’m sorry," he said. "I was just passing by and couldn’t help overhearing something about my family. What was it that you were saying?"

The Orsini did tend to be stupid, and petty, and small-minded, but they had all the cunning native to those who were intrinsically bullies. When confronted by someone both older and clearly stronger than they were, Taddeo and his little pack of thugs shuffled their feet and denied saying anything, while Xanxus strained against Federico’s hands and growled like a feral animal.

It was that last that made Federico angry; Xanxus had been making progress lately, and now these little bullies had sent him right back to the place he’d been when they’d first adopted him. "Are you quite sure?" he asked, letting his voice go sharper. "I could have sworn that you were saying something about my brother and our father. It sounded like it was a positively fascinating conversation."

"It was nothing," Taddeo said, sullenly. "We were just talking."

"I’m sure you were." Federico looked them over, trying for the look of cool disdain that his father managed to toss off so effortlessly. It seemed to work, judging by the way they glared at him. "It would be good to remember that loose talk often leads to trouble," he said, putting an edge on it that made a couple of them—the smarter ones, he suspected—look nervous. "But as it so happens, I was looking for my brother. I’d like to speak to him privately, if you don’t mind."

They took the hint, which was good. Xanxus didn’t seem to be in any mood to let himself be dragged away, but Taddeo and his little back were willing enough to disperse. They slunk away, shooting nasty looks at Xanxus as they went.

Xanxus didn’t relax even after they’d gone. Federico couldn’t make himself be surprised. When he loosened his grip on Xanxus’ shoulders, he left his hand on one, hoping that the human touch would ground his brother. "You’ll have to deal with them, one of these days."

Xanxus growled again; the shoulder under Federico’s palm vibrated with it. "Could have done it right now," he said, finally, and looked up at Federico, eyes dark. "If you hadn’t interfered."

"Could you have done it without killing them, though?" Federico returned.

The look Xanxus gave him then was purely puzzled. "Why would I want to do that?"

"Dad doesn’t like it when we start wars without his permission," Federico said, dry, and got a blank stare for his pains. Well, that was Xanxus, so Federico clarified it for him. "If you had killed Taddeo Orsini just now, the Orsini would have been able to declare war on us for it. Even if you’d have been doing them a favor. Get it, pup?"

Xanxus growled, though Federico wasn’t sure whether it was for the nickname or a reaction to something else. "The Vongola could destroy them."

His conviction regarding the Vongola’s strength was touching, if perhaps a touch optimistic, but that was a lesson for another day. "So?" Federico said. "We don’t want to destroy them." His conscience prodded him, and he added, "Mostly, anyway."

The joke sailed over Xanxus’ head, just one more sign that the kid really needed to lighten up, and he gave Federico another puzzled frown.

Federico sighed and came at the problem from a different angle. "Anyway, you’re going to have to get a grip on that temper of yours," he said and tried not to smile as Xanxus’ eyes began to glaze over at the familiar lecture. "It makes you vulnerable."

That was a slightly different approach than their father usually took; it caught Xanxus’ attention again, the way Federico suspected other lectures, no matter how kindly-meant, didn’t. "Explain," Xanxus demanded, frowning at him.

"What is there to explain?" Federico asked him. "As long as your temper leads you, all anyone has to do is make you good and angry, and then point you in the direction they want you to go and stand back." He rubbed his chin, thinking. "I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Orsini brats were doing, but some of the other Families probably wouldn’t mind sacrificing one of their spares just to have an excuse to declare a fully-justified war on the Vongola." It wasn’t a particularly pleasant thought, of course, but it was true enough.

Xanxus wasn’t stupid; his eyes turned sharp, and then thoughtful, as the point sank home. All he said, though, was, "Some people need killing."

Federico snorted and ruffled his hair. "Not going to disagree, pup." And he’d let the point ferment in Xanxus’ head for a while before they came back to it. As Xanxus protested and tried to escape the hair ruffling, he added, "Let’s see what kind of spread the Valetti have put out, eh? And then maybe we can borrow their back lawn and spar for a while."

The possibility of food didn’t seem to interest Xanxus much, but his eyes gleamed at the prospect of a fight. "Yeah, sure," he said. "Okay."

There was that crisis dealt with and the beginnings of a lesson administered. And, if they played their cards right, they’d leave another lesson behind them after they’d sparred. Not bad for an evening’s work, all things considered.

Just let the other Families try and tell themselves that Xanxus wasn’t a Vongola after they’d seen his Flame.

Federico kept his grin under wraps and let Xanxus lead the way towards the buffet table, pleased with a job well-done.


Three Things that Might Have Happened to Xanxus

A spin-off from Lys ap Adin’s AU "Five Things that Never Happened to Xanxus" (read that first). What if Federico had lived and Squalo’s duel with Tyr had happened on schedule? What would happen then? And how would Tsuna come into it? Drama with Occasional Romance, I-4

Many Roads

Promotion, in the Varia, happened for all kinds of reasons: when a squad leader decided it was about time, when the person wanting promotion decided it was about time, when the Boss needed another squad leader, in the field when someone had to take charge, for political or family influence though those didn’t usually survive very long. It all usually worked out, on way or another. The question of who would lead the Varia, though, wasn’t left up to anyone but the one who led already and the one who wanted to.

"Watch him," Tyr had murmured as he passed Xanxus on his way to the open, tree-fenced practice ground the Varia kept. So he was watching, standing off to the side with folded arms while his commander and some scrappy silver haired punk with a sword went at it.

He had to admit, the kid was good; he’d trained with Tyr often enough himself to know he wasn’t holding back, and it had been hours and the kid was still standing. They pressed each other back and forth and, as the hours ran on and the sunlight slanted down into dark, they did things Xanxus had never seen, moves that looked like they belonged to a wrestling match, moves made for a spear or a lead pipe, moves that he almost couldn’t follow, that took such subtle advantage of the shape of their swords there were probably books written about how and why it worked.

They didn’t stop when the sun went down.

They didn’t stop when it came up.

They stopped at midday, but only because they’d both passed out from exhaustion, and only to start again when they could stand.

They stopped when Squalo lost a hand, but only long enough for him to back off and tie the stump off with vicious force, before he charged in again.

They stopped for good when Tyr finally fell.

Xanxus ran a disgusted hand through his hair. "Fantastic," he muttered to himself. "Watch him, yeah, right. Fuck you, boss." He could feel eyes on him, feel the watchers waiting to see what the second in command would do. He pushed away from the brick wall he’d leaned against and walked forward until he faced Squalo over Tyr’s body. Silence spread out, the murmurs of the watchers dying away again. He stared at the kid and the kid stared back, eyes dark and dilated. Squalo didn’t speak, and Xanxus wondered if that was just exhaustion or there was more going on here that Tyr had wanted him to see.

"Fucked if I’m gonna be led by a brat like you," Xanxus said, finally, and another murmur swept around them.

The kid didn’t even blink. "Fight me, then."

Xanxus glanced down at Tyr and back up, eyes raking over Squalo, who was swaying on his feet, blood still dripping from the end of his arm. He snorted and turned away toward the watching crowd. "Don’t just stand there! Take him to the hospital, dump some blood back into him, and some fucking food while you’re at it. Tomorrow," he added, looking back at Squalo, who had his mouth open, glaring even as bled-out and flattened as he was.

Squalo snapped his mouth shut and grinned. "Tomorrow."

The kid left on his own feet and Xanxus glared down at Tyr’s body. "Hope you’re fucking amused," he muttered, leaning down to straighten Tyr’s limbs. The other squad leaders came forward and he flipped the commander’s badge at one of them. "Hold onto this."

He and Squalo met the next afternoon, on the same field.

Squalo focused on him the same way he’d focused on Tyr and Xanxus wondered briefly if he was like that in all his fights, and whether this actually had anything at all to do with who led the Varia. There was a way to tell, now he thought of it. He locked eyes with the kid, lifted one of his guns and fired just to the side of Squalo. A swath of trees blew away into splinters.

The kid glanced at the destruction and turned back to Xanxus, eyes hot, teeth bared. "Fight me," he said again, low and eager.

Yeah, maybe this wasn’t about who led, not for Squalo. Xanxus shrugged. "Fine." He beckoned sharply with the barrel of the gun and Squalo came in on him, poised and taut. Xanxus caught the sword on the metal of the gun and kicked out, watching as Squalo twisted aside. It took three exchanges for him to decide he’d better go all out. Even half dead from the fight with Tyr, Squalo was damn good. Besides, it would be no kind of win if the kid passed out again.

And it had been a while since he’d been able to take all the brakes off.

Squalo made a husky sound the next time they closed, and his movement turned sharper, faster, like he was reflecting Xanxus or pulled along somehow. It was weird, a distant corner of Xanxus’ mind observed; Squalo was focused on him like a fucking laser but he also seemed, as Xanxus smashed aside a thrust, almost distracted by something. And Xanxus was positive now, shooting out Squalo’s footing to stop a lunge, that he was fighting to fight, not to lead. That would, he decided as he ducked a tearing cut, make for a good Varia member. It made for a good fight, and in the end Xanxus was bleeding from a dozen slashes, limping from two of them, head ringing from one damn vicious hilt strike. But he was still the one standing and one of his guns was pressed to Squalo’s forehead. Squalo looked up at him, eyes as wide and dark as they’d been yesterday, before he closed them, waiting.

There was no fear in them, though.

Xanxus thought about that and nodded and caught Squalo a good crack across the side of the head with the butt. Squalo went down in a heap and Xanxus turned to look at the medic who’d brought Squalo from the hospital. "Take him back."

"Damn straight," the man muttered, marching onto the field to collect Squalo, mouth set in a disapproving line. Xanxus snorted, amused for a moment when he thought about how someone like Squalo probably reacted to being told to take it easy. "Well?" he added, hands on his hips, looking around at the witnesses.

The senior squad leader tossed him the commander’s badge. "We’re good."

Xanxus eyed the bit of metal with little favor. "All right. I’ll tell the Ninth, then." He limped over and grabbed a roll of gauze from the medic before he left, winding it tight around his thigh. He swore under his breath all the way to the Ninth’s office, and not because of the pain. "Watch him," he growled to himself, as he reached the door. "You could have just said ‘tame him, but don’t kill him’. You could have just said ‘ready or not, sucker’." He respected his commander… his ex-commander. But sometimes he really wondered about Tyr’s sense of humor.

The old man looked up and smiled to see him, but sighed. Xanxus ran that through his "sentimental old bastard" filter and snorted. "Kid’s still alive. I’m not going to kill a member that valuable just because he hasn’t got the sense god gave a fucking duckling."

Federico, leaning over the Ninth’s shoulder to read whatever it was they were looking at laughed. "Sounds like he’s a good match for you."

Xanxus gave him a dire look, which had no effect at all. He was used to that, but it still pissed him off.

"Tyr told me it would be you who led after him, whichever way this went," the Ninth sighed and beckoned Xanxus over. "Come. There’s a job we may need the Varia for within the next month."

The little metal badge suddenly felt like it weighed a lot more. Xanxus wondered if this was how Federico felt all the time, these days, and glanced over at him, curious. The wry smile he got made him think it probably was.

"Yes, Boss," Xanxus answered and came to stand at Federico’s shoulder.

The World on its Side

Federico liked to use one of the sitting rooms for most of his talks with Family members, but when a killing needed to be planned, he preferred his office. It reminded him to stay focused on business and not sidetrack or delay the inevitable.

"All right." Squalo pushed back his chair and stood. "I’ll get my squad ready." He waited for Xanxus’ nod before actually leaving and Federico stifled yet another chuckle. Xanxus paused in rising and eyed him.

"What? You’ve been smirking a lot lately."

"Oh, it’s just Squalo." Federico shook his head at the door.

Xanxus frowned. "I know he’s young to be a squad leader, but hell so was I…"

Federico waved a hand. "No, no. Not that. It’s just his crush on you."

Xanxus stared. "You’re shitting me," he said finally.

"Not at all." Federico cocked his head. "Xanxus. Did you really miss it?"

"He just likes people who can fight!" Xanxus protested.

"Well, yes. That was kind of my point." Xanxus bridled at the heavy patience of Federico’s tone and he laughed, pushing himself up out of his chair. "You’d think you would recognize it."

Xanxus glared death at him and Federico snorted, reaching out to close a hand around his nape. "It looks awfully familiar from here," he murmured, grip tightening as Xanxus stilled under his hand.

"Boss…" When Federico tugged, Xanxus came to him, mouth opening under Federico’s. Federico leaned back against the desk and pulled Xanxus against him so he could kiss him properly—properly being until he was breathless and flushed, hands fisted on the back of Federico’s jacket.

"You’re mine," Federico said quietly, catching Xanxus’ gasp at the words in another kiss. "You always will be. But it would be good for you to have people of your own, too."

It took Xanxus a minute to gather words, and they came out husky, but he finally managed. "Boss, are you really trying to get me to screw my second in command who’s seven goddamn years younger than me?"

"What?" Federico grinned. "Look at who I’m screwing."

Xanxus was starting to glare again so Federico pulled him back for another kiss. "Just think about it," he murmured into Xanxus’ mouth.

He got a wordless sound of agreement this time, and yes it was probably cheating but Xanxus had always required unusual measures.

Xanxus went about his duties feeling distracted for a few months.

Federico had to be seeing things. Squalo was… well, he was Squalo. He was Xanxus’ second, the one who did the personnel stuff.

"Did that look like an attack to you?!" Squalo’s voice echoed off the walls of the training hall. "What the fuck do you think you’re doing, walking in the park?!"

He bitched out subordinates and opponents at the top of his lungs, louder than a man his size should be able to; even if four years had given him height he was still pretty damn scrawny. He was more determined than any two other Varia members. He trained and fought like he didn’t care if he died. If Squalo was in love with anything it was his damn sword.

Xanxus couldn’t deny, though, that, now he was watching for it, he kept finding Squalo watching him. Across the practice grounds. Sidelong, when Xanxus couldn’t avoid the paperwork in his official office any longer. After jobs.

Okay, all the Varia watched him, then, but Squalo didn’t watch him like he was wondering whether this would be the time Xanxus forgot which ones his allies were. Squalo watched him like… like…

Federico had to be seeing things.

Squalo strode over and leaned against the wall beside him with a thump. "Swear to God, half of them don’t know which end the bullet comes out of."

Xanxus grunted. Squalo didn’t have any patience with less than perfection, or at least "really fucking good". It was one of the things Xanxus liked about him.

Not liked liked, just liked, damn it. There was no reason for him to even have had to think that. He shoved away from the wall with a growl. "Spar with me."

Squalo’s teeth showed as he grinned. "Sure thing, boss."

The other members scattered out of their way, and scattered further when Xanxus shot out one of the windows and part of the wall around it. That was fine; it would do them good to get used to keeping out of the way when one of the top members cut loose.

Squalo was laughing.

They went for over an hour and it didn’t end until Xanxus got Squalo down, kneeling on his sword arm, one gun pressed firmly under his jaw. Squalo lifted his chin, looking up at him, just waiting. Varia didn’t yield.

After a long breath Xanxus let him go and they both hauled themselves upright. "Not bad."

"You too." The quirk of Squalo’s mouth wasn’t nearly as insolent as his words, and he gave Xanxus a measuring look. "Feel better?"

Xanxus blinked at him, startled.

Squalo nodded, for no reason Xanxus could see. "Yeah, looks like it. Good." He stretched, lean and casual as an alley cat, and lifted a hand. "See you tomorrow, boss."

Maybe, it occurred to Xanxus as he watched Squalo go, Squalo had been watching him closer than he’d realized.

The Varia slid through the Scioneri perimeter like a knife, heading for the main House through the heavy dark of three in the morning. Xanxus watched ahead, poised. If they had to get loud about this job, they would, but it would serve the Varia’s reputation better if some of the foot soldiers were left around the edges.

When they reached the walls they scattered.

Squalo was watching the last of his squad go, frowning a little at the audible click of the latch as they went through one of the windows, and Xanxus stifled a snort. Some day he’d decide whether Squalo was just a perfectionist of if he really was a control freak too. He set a hand on Squalo’s shoulder to pull his attention back. They were supposed to take the door themselves.

Squalo’s head snapped around and a shiver ran through him.

Xanxus paused. Squalo’s eyes were wide and dark in the faint house lights, and Xanxus swore he recognized Squalo’s expression though he couldn’t put a word to it. That would wait, though; they had a job to do now. He jerked his head for Squalo to follow him and his second nodded silently.

The focus of the job didn’t ease until they were out and nearly back to their headquarters, and when it did he frowned, scrubbing absently at his sleeve with a scrap of towel. Good thing someone way back had decided the Varia would wear leather, or the dry cleaner’s bills would break even the Vongola bank. What had that expression been? Where did he know it from?

"…looks awfully familiar from here…"

Xanxus stared blankly out the car’s window. Federico had said that. He’d said that while he held Xanxus, the way he’d always damn well been able to.

The thought threw him completely out of the game, and he barely got through his report on the job without either hauling off and punching Federico for putting the idea in his head or turning to ask Squalo what the hell he was thinking. Once they were safely back into their own halls, Xanxus leaned against the wall and shook his head vigorously; it didn’t knock anything loose, unfortunately.


Squalo was looking at him curiously, no sign of that earlier flash of awareness or want or insanity or whatever the hell it was. Now Xanxus was wondering if he was seeing things.

Well there was one way to be damn well sure.

Xanxus reached out and curled a hand around the back of Squalo’s neck, sliding it up into the thick softness of his hair.

Squalo went very still, even his breath stopping, except for the tiny shiver Xanxus could feel under his hand. That look was back and, yeah, it was definitely want. Xanxus did recognize it, and damn Federico for being right. Because, recognizing it, he had to do something about it.

"Boss," Squalo said, low and husky.

"Come here," he said, quietly, tugging Squalo closer, feeling how readily Squalo came to him. When he caught Squalo’s mouth it opened under his and after a moment of hesitation Squalo leaned into him, kissing back just as sharp and intent as he did everything else. That made heat curl low in Xanxus’ stomach. When he finally let go they were both breathing harder, and this time he recognized the look in Squalo’s eyes right away. The first time he’d seen it was over Tyr’s body. "Do you really fall in love with your opponents?" he asked after a considering moment.

"The good ones." Squalo didn’t pretend not to know what he was talking about. "Doesn’t last very often."

"Maybe because you kill most of those."

"I couldn’t kill you, though." Squalo’s thin, hard body eased against him a little more, and he grinned. "Still couldn’t."

"And you like that," Xanxus guessed.

The heat in Squalo’s eyes was open this time. "I like the reason why."

Xanxus’ mouth quirked. He supposed he could relate to that.

He pulled Squalo tighter against him and kissed him again.


The bulletproof glass of the mansion’s windows turned the sunlight hazy and white and scattered it through the office where three men sat.

Reborn settled back in his chair and crossed his ankles on the cushion. "So. You wanted to see me?" A glance around the Tenth’s office showed that it was serious, whatever it was. Iemitsu was here, too. Was there internal trouble in the Family?

"Yes." Federico folded his hands and leaned his chin on them. "Iemitsu, tell me. Would you be willing to have your son serve the Vongola?"

"Tsuna?" Iemitsu actually blinked. "I… hadn’t thought of it yet, to be honest."

"Think of it now," Federico directed quietly. "The Cetrulli killed both Enrico and Massimo. Even I barely got out of that ambush alive. Even if I let the Varia come out of the shadows, we’re under strength now. Your son’s heritage could be a great asset during a time of need."

"It isn’t that I would object if he chose to serve or if the Family needed him." Iemitsu rubbed the back of his head looking helpless, not a usual expression for him. "It’s just… well, Nana’s letters… you see, I think he has the potential, he just hasn’t, um, expressed it yet."

In other words, Reborn translated to himself, the kid was a limp noodle. A normal kid, in fact.

"Just as well I asked Reborn to sit in, then." Federico grinned a bit and tilted his head at Reborn. "What do you think? I wanted you to evaluate the boy anyway; if he has any promise, do you think you could bring it out?"

Reborn sniffed. "I straightened out Dino, didn’t I?"

"You did that." Federico leaned back in his chair. "Iemitsu? Are you willing to have this go forward?"

Iemitsu bowed his head formally. "If the Family has need, we will answer it."

Federico was still smiling as he looked back at Reborn, but his eyes were serious. "Do it."

Federico had been waiting for the call and picked up quickly when he saw who it was. "Reborn? How is it going?"

"The boy is pathetic. Absolutely hopeless." Reborn’s voice was flat, and not just with the distance. There was no one else in the office right then so Federico let himself slump in his chair. Damn it, this had been his best hope… "So I’m going to need your permission to take some extra measures," Reborn went on and Federico nearly swore at him for that scare. It wouldn’t do any good, though, Reborn was Reborn and he did things his own way.

"Go on."

"Tsuna won’t find his strength on his own behalf." Federico swore he could hear Reborn’s tiny smile. "He reminds me a bit of the Ninth that way. So I’m going to need to recruit some more members, people who will bond with him and who he can fight for."

"A Family of his own?" Federico’s brows rose as he turned his chair to looked out the tall window.

"A starter set. There are a few possibilities I can see here, but someone from the mafia itself would be wise to add. How do you feel about Gokudera Hayato?"

"The Smoking Bomb?" Federico murmured after a moment’s thought. "I think he reminds me a bit of Xanxus as a boy, actually."

"And if he could be tamed similarly?"

"You know, Reborn," Federico drawled thoughtfully, "this is sounding less and less like you really think Tsunayoshi is pathetic."

"He is most definitely pathetic at the moment. That’s why I’m here, after all."

Federico laughed. "All right. New members that you’ve chosen can only be an asset. Go ahead."

Federico tapped his finger waiting for the call to go through. This was not good news he had today. "Reborn?" he snapped as soon as the click came at the other end. "Keep an eye out around you. Rokudou Mukuro escaped from the Vendicare and we think he’s gone to Japan."

"Hm. That could explain what’s been happening." Reborn merely sounded thoughtful but Federico’s tightening grip made the phone creak.

"What has been happening?" he asked flatly.

"A handful of the kids Tsuna’s age have been attacked. It’s gone in ascending order of strength according to Fuuta’s rankings." Reborn sniffed. "They’re probably trying to smoke out Tsuna himself, but they obviously know nothing about him."

Federico took a breath and pulled the cold of business down over his flare of worry. "Searching for him to use against Iemitsu? Or a general strike against Vongola, trying to whittle down our strength from the edges?"

"I don’t know yet. I’ll find out, though."

"All right. Keep Tsunayoshi away from them." Reborn made a slightly worrying sound and Federico frowned. "Reborn?" he asked, a bit warily.

"This could be a good opportunity," Reborn mused. "Some of those struck already have been Tsuna’s new Family. He’ll fight to protect them, and this might finally bring out his true potential."

After a long moment, Federico sighed. "You do what will serve the Family. Very well. I’ll write the order."

Which he did, at once, and sent it. All the more time to contemplate how poorly he was likely to sleep that night.

"I didn’t expect a trip back in person just to report on the Rokudou affair." Federico eyed Reborn narrowly. "So suppose you tell me what this is about."

Reborn had his hat tipped down, today, which he only did when he was troubled or angry. Not good signs. "I was right," he said quietly. "Mukuro was exactly what Tsuna needed to touch his true strength. He’s only shown the start of it, and I have to tell you: he might be dangerous."

Xanxus straightened from where he’d been leaning in the window, behind Federico’s chair. Federico kept his eyes on Reborn. "Dangerous how?"

Finally Reborn looked up, eyes deep and shuttered. "If he keeps developing he may well become stronger than you."

Federico sat back, startled. "You’re serious?" With no false modesty, he knew his fighting skills were sharp and his Flame one of the more powerful among the Vongola bosses.

"Sawada Tsunayoshi is a throwback," Reborn said flatly. "The weapon Leon produced for him was gloves. He even looks like the First. Even this young and untried, his Flame is powerful; he didn’t just defeat Mukuro, he subdued him and cleansed his aura."

"And you think he might challenge me?" Federico frowned.

Reborn’s mouth tightened and he tugged down his hat brim again. "It depends."

Federico waited.

"I said, at the start, that he reminds me of the Ninth. He’s reminding me more and more of the First, too. And, like both of them, Tsuna is an idealist. He’ll do anything to protect his people—anything at all. If he binds himself to the Vongola and ever believes that the path you choose is going to harm the Family, then yes. He will challenge you." Quietly, Reborn ended, "And if he keeps growing at this rate, he might win."

Xanxus snorted. "So that’s why you wanted me to hear this. Fine. He can’t be too hard to take care of yet."

Federico sighed, leaning his head back against his chair. "It would be the safest way, I suppose. By one calculation at least. But the Vongola need strong members; that hasn’t changed." His mouth quirked a bit, ruefully. "And I was the one who called on Tsunayoshi. I’m responsible for this."

"You’re the Tenth," Xanxus shot back, inflexible. "We can’t tolerate a threat to you."

"He isn’t a threat yet, though." He smiled up at his wolf as Xanxus growled in annoyance. "And even if he does grow stronger than me… Reborn says he will only challenge me to protect the Family. That’s not a threat. That’s a test of faith." He straightened, feeling his father’s support behind him. "I won’t turn aside from it."

Reborn was smiling.

After a long moment, glaring, Xanxus crossed his arms. "I want to see him for myself, then."

Federico cocked an eyebrow at Reborn, whose smile had gotten wider and picked up a cheery edge; yes, he’d thought so. "I suppose that could be another useful test for him, hm?" Federico observed dryly.

"It could." Reborn hopped down from his chair. "I’ll ask Iemitsu to finalize his choices of Tsuna’s Family. Be sure you bring along enough of the Varia to test them, too."

Xanxus gave him an incredulous look. "The Varia? For a pack of brats?"

"Rokudou Mukuro," Reborn reminded him, and Xanxus rolled his eyes.

"Okay, okay, fine, whatever." He slouched back in the window, looking like he was trying to think of swearwords sulfurous enough.

Federico shook his head. "You know, I think I’m glad Dad never needed to ask you to tutor me."

"It’s for his own good," Reborn said piously.

Federico snorted. "Like I said."

Reborn watched the last battle quietly, marking Tsuna’s progress. His student had done well, as was only to be expected under the circumstances. Xanxus made a very credible threat, and when he’d told Tsuna that if Tsuna didn’t prove good enough for the Vongola Xanxus would kill him and everyone near him, Tsuna had clearly believed it.

Xanxus was practically the walking embodiment of extreme prejudice, after all.

"You don’t think he’ll really kill Tsuna, will he?" Dino murmured, worried, and Reborn stifled a flash of amusement. Case in point.

"I doubt it." He’d be sure of it if Tsuna hadn’t started to intuit the First’s techniques. If Xanxus knew that Tsuna had mastered a technique made to contain another wielder of the Dying Will Flame, he might just have an "accident" and shoot Tsuna five times in the back to be sure of him. Xanxus had no tolerance for threats to Federico. Fortunately, Tsuna hadn’t fully grasped it and Reborn had kept his silence on the nature of the Zero Point. It was for Tsuna’s own good, really.

Xanxus’ rapid fire flashed and died around Tsuna, leaving him standing, if smoking.

The variation that Tsuna had found for himself, half finished as it was, had given Tsuna time to make another leap forward. All was going well, by Reborn’s lights.

Tsuna was blasted through a wall and Reborn tsked.

"Never thought you’d use the actual Cervello for this," Colonello muttered beside him, as they watched the last of Tsuna’s little Family reclaim the last puzzle seal to unlock the antidote in Chrome’s wrist band.

"The Tenth thought it would be wise to have outside arbiters. You know what Xanxus is like when he’s in the middle of a fight."

They watched Xanxus and Tsuna pile into each other, burning, Xanxus’ teeth bared as though he’d as soon bite Tsuna’s throat out.

"Yeah, but the Cervello nearly poisoned them," Colonello pointed out.

"They have a point. The Family is everything, to the Vongola. If these boys can’t come together and support each other in life and death, they aren’t worthy of the Vongola. And if they’re not, we can’t just leave them knowing so much about us."

"Reborn!" Dino sounded disapproving, but Squalo laughed until he coughed and hunched over in his wheelchair.

"It’s no wonder the boss likes you," he wheezed.

Reborn raised a brow; this was the first he’d heard of Xanxus liking him. But the battle above them fixed his attention, because Tsuna and Xanxus were both gathering their Flame, preparing what looked like one last strike against each other. He pulled his hat down to shade his eyes from the glare and waited, watching the screen, to see who was still standing after that.

In the clearing smoke and dust, they both stood, both swaying on their feet. But it was Xanxus who stumbled to his knees first.

"So. Are you satisfied now?"

Everyone started at the voice through the speakers, and the figure that stood at the edge of the crater Tsuna and Xanxus had made.

"Tenth," Reborn murmured. He had wondered whether Federico would be content with a second hand report, actually, but he hadn’t quite expected this.

"Federico-sama!" For the first time, he saw a Cervello flustered, one hand pressed to her ear as she whispered with her compatriots and finally fumbled with the deactivator on the spectator’s cage. "The Tenth has taken over the judgment of the battle," she announced unnecessarily.

"Boss?" Xanxus muttered, sounding a little dazed. Everyone piled around the buildings, Squalo snarling as he wrested his wheelchair out of Dino’s control and made for his boss, in time to see Xanxus raise his head, eyes widening. "Boss?!" He surged to his feet, staggering. "What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?"

"I came to see if you were satisfied," Federico said in a perfectly reasonable tone.

Xanxus slashed a hand down and staggered a few more steps when it overbalanced him. "Don’t give me that! You’re in fucking Japan with no fucking bodyguards for fuck’s sake!"

Federico’s mouth twitched. "You’re backsliding, there, you know. I thought I taught you to swear more creatively than that."

"Goddamn it, Boss!"

Tsuna’s group gathered together, Tsuna leaning on Gokudera and Yamamoto, and watched wide-eyed. "Um. That’s the Tenth?" Tsuna asked Reborn as he stopped beside them.


"And, um. Xanxus is… he’s…"

"He’s a bit of a mother hen about the Tenth, these days," Dino filled in easily, coming to join them with a smile. Reborn noted that he didn’t say it loud enough for Xanxus to hear and nodded, satisfied that he didn’t have any stupid students.

Tsuna’s eyes crossed a little as he contemplated Xanxus as a mother hen. Xanxus was still yelling.

"…wouldn’t let me destroy the fucking Cetrulli, so you can’t just fucking waltz around the goddamn world like you’re taking a cruise vacation, and—!"

"Xanxus." Federico met Xanxus’ furious gaze, cool and unyielding, and Xanxus bit back the rest of his outrage, mouth pressed into a tight line. "I asked you a question. Answer me."

It obviously took Xanxus a moment to remember what it had been, and when he did he snorted. "Am I satisfied?" He turned his glare on Tsuna, who met it steadily even through his increasing puzzlement. After a long moment, Xanxus muttered, "He won’t betray anything, I’ll say that."

"Then the rest is my business to look after." Federico clasped Xanxus’ shoulder and shook him gently. "Right?"

After a taut hesitation, Xanxus breathed out and bent his head. "Yes, Boss."

Federico smiled, hand tightening for a moment, before he left Xanxus to his gathered squad leaders and turned to Tsuna, walking across the gouged, uneven ground as if it were his own reception hall. Tsuna’s people straightened a little, watching him come, and Reborn nodded to himself.

"Tsunayoshi." Federico addressed them evenly, not rejecting and not welcoming. "You’ve seen some of what our world is like. It’s a harsh, dangerous place with many bad choices in it. I wouldn’t ask anyone to join us lightly, but the Family has need of you so I’ll ask you to make a choice now. Will you serve us? Lend your strength to the Vongola? Protect the Family?"

Reborn hid a moment of surprise under his hat and heard Xanxus’ growl behind him. Federico would let them go, even now?

Tsuna stepped forward, hesitantly, looking up at this man he’d never met before. "I… I don’t know," he admitted. "I don’t think I understand the Vongola, really." A faint, flashing smile tugged at his mouth. "Reborn doesn’t really explain things like that very well."

Well of course not, no explanation would bring understanding. That was what experience and God-given brains were for, provided a student could be induced to use the latter. Reborn returned Federico’s raised brow with a blank look.

"I see." Federico tipped his head, considering Tsuna and his people and the battlefield around them, and finally smiled. He gestured at the Varia, carelessly fierce and arrogant in their strength, gathered around their leader as Xanxus rested a quieting hand on Squalo’s shoulder and listened. "That is the Vongola." He waved at Dino, hovering by Tsuna’s people and giving orders into his phone in a low voice. "And that is the Vongola." He opened a hand at Tsuna’s group and finished quietly. "And this is the Vongola."

Tsuna’s eyes opened wide, and Reborn saw the change in them he’d seen a few times before, the look both distant and immediate that meant Tsuna’s intuition had perceived and understood something. "Oh." Tsuna looked around at his little Family, at Gokudera’s unstinting loyalty, at Yamamoto’s matter-of-fact support at his back, even at Hibari standing aloof to one side, and back at Federico. "Yes," he said, quietly. "I will."

"Thank you," Federico said, soft and sincere. And then he relaxed and the atmosphere of the entire field lightened. "We’ll speak more later. For now, we need to have everyone’s injuries seen to."

"We’ve got it," Dino put in, clicking shut his phone as a small horde of Cavallone descended and started gathering up the wounded.

Reborn stood back, satisfied. "So?" he murmured to Federico, as the man came up beside him.

"Keep going," the Tenth ordered. "We’ll need him." He laughed, soft and true. "Maybe I’ll even need him, myself, for all that he is. I’ll have a matched set. My wolf and my conscience."

Reborn pulled his hat down and smiled. Just because someone wasn’t officially his student didn’t mean he couldn’t see that they learned a few things.


A/N: Canon would have it that Squalo is still two years younger than Xanxus after the latter’s eight year suspended animation. This would make him fourteen when he defeats Tyr, and I’m sorry but no; I just don’t buy it. Given how massively Amano screws with her worldbuilding and timelines, usually out of pure carelessness, I’m just going to say he’s sixteen at the time.

Psychological Warfare

The Cradle Affair, this time with more Mukuro. For cliche_bingo, prompt: “Darkfic.” Part of the Firebrand ‘verse. Dark like a very dark thing.

They began with the Vongola itself, because Mukuro was well aware of the psychological asset that taking out one’s strongest opponents first could be, and because he wanted to test the mettle of his new acquisition. Xanxus agreed to the mission readily enough—had, indeed, been planning on a strike that would have installed him at the head of the Vongola when Mukuro had come in search of him. Mukuro stepped back to let Xanxus restore order among those members of the Varia who had survived Mukuro’s assault, and was satisfied with letting them get on with planning the strike.

He rather liked the pragmatic way the survivors accepted him without question when Xanxus growled, “He’s with us now,” at them. Such practical people, these Varia. It had been a good decision to seek them out. They accepted Ken and Chikusa, too, with only a minimum of muttering, especially after Mukuro had the two of them demonstrate how strong they really were by setting them against a pair of soldiers from one of the squads. After all, if there was anything the Varia did respect, it was strength, and they had a long tradition of new members making places for themselves by removing their predecessors from it by force.

And so they plotted their assault on the Vongola, with Ken and Chikusa as pint-sized mascots and Mukuro himself drifting among them, watching Xanxus’ scrappy little second conduct the planning as Xanxus himself brooded in the background, cultivating the detached, lordly pose he had created for himself.

Mukuro wondered, sometimes, whether his new tool was having second thoughts. If Xanxus was, he wasn’t showing them outwardly, or on the surface levels of his thoughts.

He didn’t let them show when they finally struck, either, as the bulk of the Varia’s forces struck at the Vongola’s army, while their most elite members punched through the defenses of the main house like a sharp knife driving through soft flesh. Xanxus and his second took the point of that force, driving through the mansion themselves and slaughtering anyone who stepped in their way. Mukuro followed after them, at a rather more leisurely pace, savoring the carnage and the running battles as he picked his way through the winding hallways. He kept a corner of his attention on watching the battle through Xanxus’ eyes, enjoying the taste of Xanxus’ unholy satisfaction at cutting down all the people he’d suspected of slighting him in the past.

It was amazing how well Xanxus could motivate himself. Mukuro hardly ever had to nudge him into the appropriate direction at all.

The Vongola were old, and canny, none of them more so than the old man who led them. Mukuro had been expecting that, even if Xanxus hadn’t, and arrived in the large vaulted room where Xanxus was facing his erstwhile foster father just in time to hear Xanxus’ furious denial of the old man’s true strength. “This is impossible!” he raged, and Mukuro could feel him straining against the Ninth’s Will, trying in vain to break the seals that the old man had placed on his Flames.

“It is,” the Ninth told him, inescapably gentle. “Xanxus, my boy, you can’t beat me. Stop this, and we can—”

That was quite enough of that, Mukuro decided, feeling the flicker, almost as of longing, in Xanxus’ will. “Perhaps he can’t beat you,” he said, stepping out from behind the pillar where he had been observing. “Fortunately, he brought me along, too.”

The old man did him the courtesy of taking him seriously despite the child’s body that he wore. “And you are?” he asked, raising his scepter.

“Oh, they call me Mukuro.” He called on his trident. “Rokudou Mukuro.”

He already knew that the old man was good from having watched him fight from behind Xanxus’ eyes. He was, however, an old man, and heartsick at his adopted son’s betrayal and tired from having battled him already. What was more, his Flame’s secret power was for use against other Flame users, which Mukuro was not. It was a lovely fight, really; Mukuro laughed when they finally closed with each other and the Ninth’s scepter bore down on him, heavy against the child’s strength of his body.

“Why are you laughing?” the old man asked him, frowning and wary. “You’re losing.”

“It’s because I know something you don’t know,” Mukuro told him, smiling, and drove Xanxus’ fist through the old man’s chest.

Really, he decided later, when Xanxus had finally stopped screaming, it was a good thing he’d come to the Varia when he had. There was no telling what kind of a hash of things Xanxus would have made of it if Mukuro hadn’t been there to nudge things along.

– end –

Surprised Into Greatness

In the universe where Federico survives, Byakuran is still a problem ten years later. This time, it’s someone else who dies to send Tsuna and Xanxus against the Millefiore. Drama with Angst, I-4

Federico sat back in his chair, eyes fixed on the harshly lined face of the man across from him. “I see why you insisted this meeting be so secret,” he finally said, mildly.

Irie’s tightly clasped hands twitched. “I know it sounds insane,” he muttered, but Federico waved that off.

“I hold fire in my hand and it doesn’t burn; we’re used enough to insane-sounding things, I think. And we’ve been watching the Millefiori for a while now. Some of my people are very suspicious of coincidence.” He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. “How sure are you that this will work?”

“I’m not sure at all,” Irie said, low and harsh. “But this is the only thing that has a chance. Sawada is the only factor that holds Byakuran back in this world, but even he can’t do it alone. It has to be both of them.”

Fedele stirred at Federico’s back, where he’d been listening in what Federico suspected was frozen horror. “Boss, Xanxus will… I mean, he’ll…”

Federico winced, thinking about it. “I know. You’re sure that bullet won’t kill me?” he asked Irie.

Irie nodded silently.

“Good.” Federico smiled with no amusement at all. “Xanxus and Tsuna deserve the chance to kill me themselves, afterward, for doing this to them.”

Sunlight fell gracefully through stained glass and into the open coffin.

Fedele had known it was going to be hard. It couldn’t be any other way when the Vongola’s Boss had been killed—not killed, the back of his mind whispered, clinging to that but he couldn’t let it show or it would all go for nothing—killed by an ambush no one had seen coming. He had forbidden anyone to tell Federico’s wife or son, saying it was for their own safety in hiding, which was true enough. But the fury and pain in the eyes of the other Guardians, the stripped, blank looks on the faces of the two kneeling by Federico’s coffin, sliced his heart like a knife.

“It was the Millefiore, wasn’t it?” Tsuna said at last, a little sense coming back into his eyes as he looked up at Fedele.

Xanxus’ head came up, too, though it wasn’t sense that was creeping into his expression.

Fedele took a breath and dropped the last pebble on the poised mountain face. “Yes.”

Tsuna nodded and he and Xanxus stood as one, and their people stepped towards them, out of the small crowd of Vongola leaders, drawn into the sudden, silent tension.

“Don’t get in my way,” Xanxus growled, shreds of brightness already crawling over his clenched hands.

“Don’t be stupid,” Tsuna cut back, cool and level with the rising of his Will. “We’ll go together. Otherwise Byakuran might get away.”

Fedele could almost hear the click as those words locked around Xanxus, and he could tell Xanxus felt it too even though he bared his teeth. “Fine. Hurry up, then.”

“Wait.” Fedele swallowed as both of them turned to stare at him; the weight of their combined focus was like running into a steel wall. “One of you has to take the Ring.”

Sandro spun around to stare at him. “Fedele, what the fuck?”

Fedele met the Lightning’s outraged look evenly. “Ricco is too young to lead, even if we all support him. Not if we’re at war. It has to be one of them. They’re the only two with the strength and the right.”

Before anyone else could start arguing Xanxus made an impatient sound through his teeth and stooped down to Federico’s body again, drawing the Sky Ring off his finger. He straightened to the sound of breath being taken in all through the church.

And threw the Ring at Tsuna.

Tsuna’s hand closed around it, though he never looked away from Xanxus. “You’re sure?” he asked, low.

“The Boss can’t lead the Varia too. We’re wasting time. Take the damn Ring and let’s go,” Xanxus bit out.

After a long, still moment, Tsuna nodded and slid the Ring onto his finger, closing it in a fist. He raised his chin and his Flame flared up in his hand, running over his glove to shape the Vongola crest. That was all Fedele had time to see before the light of Tsuna’s Flame turned brilliant, actinic white that etched people’s shadows behind them as they flung up hands and arms to shield their eyes.

When the light died and he could look back up, he found Tsuna on his knees, hands braced against the stone of the floor, breathing like he’d just run a marathon. “Anything,” Tsuna, whispered, as if he were answering someone’s question. “Anything.”

“Boss?” Gokudera asked quietly, kneeling beside Tsuna with a hand under his arm.

Tsuna looked up and smiled, wry and serene. “I’m all right.”

Fedele took a deep breath as Gokudera got the Vongola’s new Boss—sort of the back of his mind pointed out, not helpfully—standing. One more thing to do. “The Vongola Ring has accepted Sawada as the Eleventh,” he announced, completely unnecessarily but it was tradition to say it out loud, and pulled the Storm ring off his own finger, holding it out to Gokudera.

“Um. Fedele?” Giancarlo wasn’t as loud about it as Sandro, but he managed to convey what the fuck do you think you’re doing? just as well.

“The Guardians are the members of the Family closest to the Boss, most trusted to watch his back.” Fedele kept his eyes locked on Gokudera’s. “We’re the Tenth’s Guardians, not the Eleventh’s.” Gokudera’s eyes darkened and he nodded slowly and reached out to take the ring.

Giancarlo made a sound like someone had punched him in the gut and Fedele stifled a flinch at the acid rush of guilt. His fellow Guardians were going to pound the shit out of him for this, after, and he was going to deserve it. Giancarlo stepped past him, though, and held the Rain ring out, steadily enough, to Yamamoto.

“Great, fine, now can we go?” Squalo snapped, once the transfer of the Rings was complete. Fedele started to give him an evil look but noticed the way Squalo’s eyes flicked toward Xanxus, who was glaring murderously at thin air.

“Someone has to stay and guard the headquarters,” Tsuna started, and Fedele lifted his hand a little.

“We’ll do that.” Guarding the mansion, and Federico’s body, would keep his fellows from doing anything too rash, and he saw the knowledge of it in Tsuna’s eyes as he nodded.

“Very well. Let’s go, then.”

Xanxus stalked out immediately, his squad leaders swirling after him like a kite’s tail. Tsuna followed, slower, with a word to this or that underboss, a sharp beckoning gesture to Giannini, a hand on Yamamoto’s shoulder sending him after Lal Mirch as she started to slip away.

Fedele felt dizzy, head stuffed with what was true and what was apparently true and what might or might not happen. But in the midst of all that he was, at least, grateful that Tsuna seemed to be fit for the role he had to play. Whatever the truth of it wound up being.

Tsuna didn’t bother with an office, and certainly didn’t even consider taking Federico’s; if they came back from this alive he’d think about it then. Besides none of the office rooms were big enough.

Instead he took over the reception hall.

Maps and lists scattered over the tables and the parquetry floor as Gokudera pulled reports together and called in the people who kept observation on the Millefiore headquarters. Some of the reports were written in Chrome’s neat hand, and he sent Lambo to find her with a question about the underground entrances. Ryouhei and Squalo argued at the top of their lungs in one corner, pulling the blueprint of the Millefiore main building back and forth between them, stabbing at access points and each other’s chests with stiff fingers. People swirled in and out under Xanxus’ silent, brooding eye, as he leaned against the wall, and Tsuna could barely remember their names though he knew them all. The world was in freefall and the only thing holding his feet down was the promise he’d given to those who’d come before, in the no-place where they’d judged him. He would do anything it took to protect his Family and his Family’s heart.

Lal stalked in, snarling over her shoulder at Yamamoto, and Tsuna wrenched his thoughts onto yet another track. “Lal,” he cut through her protest and Yamamoto’s inexorable smile, “have any of CEDEF heard from my father yet?”

“No, nothing,” she snapped.

Tsuna breathed out, torn between cursing and giving thanks. “Then you’ll have to lead them.”

She folded her arms, giving him a stony look. “We’re not part of the Vongola.”

“This is an emergency. You are,” he rapped back.

“Besides, where else do you expect to find the one who killed Colonello?” Reborn rolled into the room with a motorized purr and Tsuna’s mouth twisted with the mix of affection and relief and pain he’d felt for most of a year.

They hadn’t been fast enough for everyone. They hadn’t been fast enough to save Verde or Skull. Or Colonello. Even the other arcobaleno didn’t know what had become of Fon, and none of them would speak of what had happened to Uni. But they had, at least, understood the non-trinisette radiation in time to save Lal and Mammon from most of it. And to save, at least, Reborn’s life.

He had insisted the protective suit be tailored into a proper, black mafia suit, and had only agreed to the wheelchair after Giannini motorized and armed it. But he was still with them, and looking up at Lal with black eyes as unreadable as ever as she whirled on him.

“Who?” she demanded, voice dark and hungry, and for one moment Xanxus glanced over at them.

Reborn shrugged. “Who knows? But we know who’s doing this, and we know where they’ll be.”

“The foot soldiers we take with us will clear the way,” Tsuna said, eyes running down yet another list as Gokudera handed it to him. “But we need CEDEF to secure our retreat. Will you do it?”

“I’m not staying in the rear,” she said flatly, arms folded.

“I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“Fine.” She turned away and stalked out, and Tsuna’s mouth quirked up for a moment at the way Yamamoto drew smoothly back out of her path and winked at him before following her. If any of them were sane by the time they left, it would be thanks to Yamamoto, he thought.

“I suppose you’re coming too?” he asked Reborn.


No other explanation was forthcoming, and Tsuna hadn’t really expected any. He just nodded and turned back to the maps and hoped that Xanxus’ version of patience would last as long as he needed it to.

Details ticked through Tsuna’s mind, past the eye of his focus, and in the back of his mind one of the voices he was currently ignoring was busy cursing Byakuran for placing his headquarters in a city. “Lal, open up a corridor to the south to get the bystanders out,” he snapped into his headset.

“Basil is taking care of it,” she snapped back. “You’re a fool. We have to have lost surprise by now.”

Tsuna’s eye measured the fire coming from the buildings that surrounded the headquarters, channeling his people toward that massive, central building. “He knew we were coming already.”

A final explosion sheared the front off one of those firing galleries and Gokudera’s voice said flatly, “We’re clear.”

“Then let’s go.”

Byakuran’s front door was locked, the entrance barred by a wall of something that probably wasn’t just steel. On the surface it looked like a good tactic, just the place to pin the attackers up against, but… “Xanxus,” Tsuna called.

A column of raging Flame licked out over his shoulder and struck the wall, flaring, eating into it, and it was only a breath before it burst.

Tsuna’s eyes narrowed, intuition ticking over. “Byakuran has something in mind,” he stated. “Keep alert.”

The strongest box and ring holders, and their support squads, fanned out to clear the building.

Ryouhei jogged at Lal’s shoulder and worried just a little. He wasn’t normally one to complain about anyone else’s single mindedness, but the darkness in Lal’s eyes made his nerves twang. He respected Lal’s professionalism, though, and when she stiffened and shouted “Down!” he dove for the floor without hesitation, along with the rest of the squad.

Lal was the only one hit.

“Lal!” He reached for his secondary box.

“Ah~h, just like that the stupid flies walk into my web,” a light voice sighed from the darkness of the ceiling. “I expected better from Lal Mirch. Colonello was thinking about you in his last moments, you know. Can’t you try to be more worthy?”

“Ginger Bread,” Lal grated, hand pressed to her shoulder.

“Quick, before you go after him,” Ryouhei muttered, eyes fixed on the floating thing in the corner that looked like a kid and talked like a devil.

Lal elbowed him back. “No. This fight is mine.”

Ryouhei had his mouth open to protest when she turned her head just a little and looked at him. Her expression made him sigh and step back. “All right. It’s yours,” he agreed, resigned; he couldn’t deny her determination or her right. He waved to their support squad, drawing them back as Lal’s rings lit with Flame, and prepared to wait.

To witness for her.

Yamamoto’s mouth quirked and he stuffed the map they’d made of the Millefiore headquarters into his pocket and called Tsuna. “The building is moving.”

“Yes.” Tsuna sounded calm, but he always sounded calm when his Will was roused. “Can you still find your way?”

“I’ll manage. I got cut off from my support squad, though, and they were pinned down by some Millefiore foot soldiers. Think anyone can get to them?”

“We’ll try.”

Yamamoto accepted that as philosophically as he could and moved on down the hall, snorting a little at the doors that opened ahead of him and closed behind. “A simple invitation would have done, you know,” he called out.

“This is an invitation.”

Yamamoto looked up and smiled, slow and hard. “Genkishi.” He lit his Ring and opened his boxes, not rushing. Genkishi might or might not be a true swordsman, but he was close enough to open a duel formally, properly. Shigure Kintoki sang in his hand, delighting in the purity of Flame the Vongola Ring provided to wrap around it. “Squalo’s still really pissed at you, you know.”

Genkishi flicked his fingers before resting his hand back on the hilts of his swords. “Superbi Squalo’s temper tantrums mean nothing to me beside my duty to carry out God’s orders.” His eyes fell on Jirou and he lifted a brow. “So it’s true. You use four blades. Perhaps there will be no need to hold back, then.”

Yamamoto set his stance and sent Kojirou winging above them with a flick of his Will. “It will,” he murmured, letting the stillness of the sword wash over him, “be my pleasure.”

Lambo was not in a good mood. First his support squad had gotten locked behind one of the sliding walls, and then he had wound up in company with Lussuria (and really, Lussuria was the kind who gave all of them a bad name), and now they were facing four piles of mobile muscles and a really disturbing woman who needed to figure out what the zipper on her top was there for.

It was not a good day.

And those muscles were really hard to do anything about.

And when Lussuria vanished into one of the piles, knee first, Lambo had had enough.

He shot the scary woman’s weapon out of her hand to give them some time and hauled out his Bazooka, groping for the trigger. Ten years from now, he was probably going to be pretty annoyed with himself, but only until he remembered how important this was.

Squalo was muttering evilly under his breath as he watched their backs and Tsuna found himself amused, inappropriate as it seemed under the circumstances.

“…fucking Yamamoto gets all the goddamn fun…”

Xanxus didn’t even seem to notice his second’s seething, and Tsuna wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, or even if he truly cared right now. No closing door or shifting wall had stopped them, and the Millefiore foot soldiers seemed to have finally drawn back from their path. Tsuna was distantly glad for that. It was Byakuran he wanted, and he would go through whatever was in the way, but the weight he could feel building up behind his floating fury would be less heavy if he didn’t have to go through stacked bodies.

There was someone ahead of them now, though. Someone leaning against the wall, tapping a crop against his leg.

“And here are the little Vongola,” the man sneered, straightening up. “Didn’t you learn from your burned fingers last time?”

“Glo Xinia,” Tsuna identified him. This one he would feel little guilt about.

“Indeed. And if I alone could kill your precious Rokudou, what makes you think any of you will survive to reach Byakuran?”

Tsuna glanced aside at Chrome, who had been following him quietly the whole way, and frowned. “Chrome?”

“We will deal with this,” she said, soft voice sweet and cold as she stepped forward and her trident flashed between her hands.

“But…” It was true, Tsuna hadn’t seen Mukuro for a little while, but that wasn’t uncommon and he hadn’t worried until now.

“Boss.” Chrome looked over her shoulder and smiled, and the smile had a dark quirk to it that was very familiar. “Go ahead. We’ll take care of it.”

Tsuna heard what she said, this time, and nodded slowly. “Very well.”

He would, after all, feel little guilt about Glo Xinia.

Gokudera swore as half the room suddenly fell away and the floor rose under him. It had been a risk to let him scout ahead, and now it looked like he’d just have to trust that nothing would stand against both Xanxus and the Eleventh until he got back to his boss.

Uri’s growl recalled him to his own risks and he slid under cover just as a small, heavy ball crunched into the wall where he’d been with a nasty, final sort of sound.

“I almost wish we didn’t have to do this,” a whimsical voice echoed through the room.

“Gamma,” Gokudera said quietly, watching the ball spark and pull itself out of the wall, soaring back over head. He flipped his jacket back from his belts. He’d read all the reports on this man, and this wasn’t going to be fun.

“Unfortunately, the princess sent me a message. Or a puzzle. Hard to tell which. Either way it was orders to go all out, I’m afraid.”

Gokudera’s hands flicked through his boxes and he sent his defenses spinning out just in time to meet the lash of lightning that hammered down in a column on all sides. “Then we’ll just have to go all out,” he said, loud enough to be heard, and rolled out from under cover, slamming home the Flame Arrow cartridge and sighting on the blocky blond man above him.

Gamma smiled wryly as he watched the shot come.

In the end, the Millefiore squads hadn’t fallen back, they had just prepared an ambush for the moment when Tsuna and Xanxus were alone, the moment when Squalo had finally been drawn off by an attacker who looked disturbingly like Belphegor and separated from them. Tsuna supposed he wasn’t surprised, but he did wish there weren’t so damn many foot soldiers hemming them in. He kicked another Millefiore away and fell back beside Xanxus. He couldn’t put this off any longer.

“Cover me,” he shouted over the snarl of Xanxus’ guns and the screams around them.

Xanxus’ lip lifted but he shot the attacking squads away from Tsuna as Tsuna closed his eyes and started to build his Flame carefully.

He’d always had to be careful; he’d broken more than one ring before he learned how to feel for the limits of the one he was using. This time the process was strange. The Vongola Sky ring didn’t seem to have any limits, no matter how he built up his power. So he let it grow and breathed through it and fought to balance the Flame reaching outward with the softer Flame that would brace him. Finally, from the heart of the conflagration he lifted his head and spoke, quiet and sure.

“Xanxus. Look out.”

He stepped past his companion and released the shot, and bodies and walls blew away from them, floor after floor and room after room.

As debris rained past them, Xanxus brushed himself off and eyed Tsuna with something besides rage in his expression for the first time in days. All he said in the end, though, was “Let’s go.”

Tsuna nodded and they climbed through what looked like some labs and maybe the communications hub unopposed.

Irie waited until the footsteps faded away to cautiously lift his head and look around his shattered control center. His mouth quirked as he looked at his smoking box weapon. He wasn’t sure any of the Vongola had realized exactly what this building was, but they’d stopped Melone’s ability to move just the same.

Now it was time for him to move.

He found his guns mostly intact in their cabinet and put a tranquilizer into each of the Cervello, just to be sure. He slipped down into the mechanics lab and dragged an unconscious Spanner under a desk where he’d hopefully have some shelter from whatever happened next. He closed the eyes of the three technicians who hadn’t lived through the demonstration of the Vongola Eleventh’s power.

And then he started stripping off his uniform.

He was down to the, in his slightly light-headed opinion, incredibly ugly boots when a voice spoke from behind him with no warning.

“Turning your coat literally and hoping to escape? How improper.”

Irie looked up, wide eyed, into the narrow, predatory gaze of the Vongola’s most dangerous and unpredictable man. “I… I can explain,” he gulped, setting his ring down and raising his hands slowly.

“Indeed?” Hibari Kyouya leaned lightly against a broken wall. “Make it fast, then. I don’t like to leave Namimori for longer than necessary.”

Once the building stopped moving, Tsuna’s people started regathering, and some of Xanxus’ with them: Gokudera scorched and limping and tight-lipped; Yamamoto in company with Squalo, laughing as he obligingly described a sword fight for Squalo’s growled critique and moving a little stiffly with a bandage across his back; Ryouhei looking battered but carrying Lal Mirch, who flatly refused to be evacuated, and guarded by Reborn and Viper despite their unremitting contemptuous jabs at each other; Belphegor waited for them, perched in a broken window, covered in blood and giggling, to say that Lussuria was busy making sure Levi survived and that Lambo was watching over them; no one knew exactly when Chrome rejoined them, but she was there, stepping silent as a shadow over the creaking floors with a soft, full smile on her lips.

They seemed to have left the Millefiore squads behind, as they gained the upper floors, and if they’d left their own support squads too, Tsuna only thought, distantly, that it was just as well. The next thing they found should be Byakuran himself.

So he was more than a little surprised when the form that stepped out of a side room and into their path was child-sized—a girl, looking weighed down by the Millefiore cloak over her shoulders.

“Sawada Tsunayoshi, Vongola Eleventh?” she asked, quietly.

His gaze caught on the ribbon around her neck and the familiar shape hanging from it. “Uni,” he murmured.

“You’ve come,” she said, with an evenness he recognized from his own voice these last few days, and that tugged at his heart but he stifled it; this was one of the two bosses of the Millefiore. She was still speaking, though, and her next words caught him entirely by surprise.

“I am the boss of the Giglio Nero, and on this day I dissolve the alliance between my Family and Gesso.” She took a step closer, level gaze turning pleading. “I am also the boss of the Arcobaleno, and as the keeper of the pacifiers I ask for the Vongola’s protection.”

“You what?” Tsuna managed after a moment, feeling like his brain was spinning.

She looked down. “Byakuran doesn’t care about my Family. It’s only my heart he wants, to control the pacifiers. I went away, inside, to protect my heart and my charge, and sacrificed my Family because of it. There was no other way. But now,” she looked up, biting her lip. “Now you’re here, and you’ve won this far, and this is the time! Please.” She lifted her hands, and he started, seeing they were full of the faint, colored glow of the lost pacifiers. “He must not have these.”

“She is correct.”

Tsuna looked around sharply to see Hibari climbing the last stairs with a rather bedraggled man Tsuna recognized after a moment as Irie Shouichi in his wake. “This,” Hibari announced coolly, “answers the questions I have had for the past five years. Byakuran must not have the pacifiers and the rings.” He beckoned peremptorily and Irie stepped forward, fidgeting.

“I have to tell you. You see, ten years ago…”

Turning the things Irie had told them over in his mind, Tsuna was unsurprised to find another of those impressive-looking and yet entirely insufficient metal walls blocking their way up to the top floor. It was the kind of mockery he was starting to recognize as Byakuran’s manner. Xanxus fired once at it without breaking stride and Tsuna gathered his Flame in his hand and punched it viciously to shatter the weakened metal, sending shards flying through the ceiling and walls above.

His anger was sizzling on the edge of his ability to control it.

He was also unsurprised to find Byakuran smiling at them, bright and cheerful in the middle of his blown-out top floor. “What a good job!” The congratulatory tone was gruesome, considering the bodies scattered behind them, and Tsuna clenched his jaw and closed a hand tight on Xanxus’ arm. They needed to know what Byakuran thought he had up his sleeve before they moved.

“What a shame you had to waste all that effort, too,” Byakuran sighed, and turned a little, crooking a finger at the one door still standing. His smile turned smug and chill as six people Tsuna had never seen or heard of filed out to stand behind him. “These are the real six Funeral Wreathes, you see.”

Gokudera made a choking sound, indignant for his opponent as much as for himself Tsuna thought. Xanxus just spat on the smoking, broken floor. “So what?” he growled.

Byakuran tapped a finger against his lips in a way that would have been playful under other circumstances, and Tsuna held back a sick shudder. “Well, I don’t want to be unfair. You’re all so tired out. So how about this! We’ll have a round of Choice.” Poison-cold eyes turned to Irie. “You’ll like that, won’t you Shou-chan?”

Irie stepped forward, faint ravaged hope showing in his eyes. “For what stakes?”

“The Trinisette, of course!” Byakuran spread his hands, the image of reasonableness. “If you win, you get all the rings and pacifiers I’ve gathered. If I win, I get all of yours.” His gaze brushed over Uni as if casually, and she shivered and moved closer to Reborn, pacifiers gathered protectively to her chest.

“Irie,” Tsuna said quietly, eyes not leaving Byakuran. “What does he mean by ‘Choice’?”

“A battle,” Irie explained, low and quick. “There are rules to it, that would limit him. It’s a game we invented years ago—”

Tsuna held up a hand to stop him. “I see.” His other hand tightened on Xanxus’ forearm and then let go. Xanxus smiled.

“You’ve mistaken us, Byakuran,” Tsuna said, lifting one hand and letting his Flame start to build. He dropped the other hand behind him and met Byakuran’s eyes, levelly.

“This isn’t a game.”

Xanxus drew and fired in one motion, and Tsuna had one moment to see rage twist Byakuran’s face before one of the six newcomers was in front of him, meeting Xanxus’ Flame.

The fury Tsuna had held back, channeled into his Will, not given in to, built and built, and now he let it go, called it up, fed it to his Flame until his burned and raged like Xanxus’. He tracked the shouts, the explosions as their people hemmed in Byakuran and his six Wreathes, and he pressed against Xanxus’ shoulder and shouted, “Together! Both of us!”

He could feel the vibration of Xanxus’ snarl, but Xanxus stopped his fire and set his feet beside Tsuna, and his Flame started to build too. “For our world,” Tsuna murmured. “For our Family.” He heard Reborn calling for everyone to get back, and whispered, “For Federico.”

Xanxus screamed as he fired, raw and agonized, and Tsuna stretched out his hand and drove his own heart and Flame out, after the thing that had twisted their world and their lives, the living person he could not allow to continue living. He met Byakuran’s eyes one last time before they disappeared in the wild fusion of Flames, blank and somehow surprised.

And then they really were in freefall and Tsuna barely had the strength left to keep himself on top of the rubble instead of underneath it. The jagged ruin still stole the world away when he landed.

Tsuna woke up with Reborn’s shoe in his ribs, which was comforting. Hazily, he decided that said something about his life. “Gokudera,” he rasped, and coughed. Dust hung thick in the air.

His right hand appeared in his field of vision, leaning over him. “Here, Boss. We’re all accounted for. Ryouhei has broken bones and Chrome is still unconscious. Mammon’s protective suit tore and he’s been evacuated back to headquarters. Squalo has a concussion and Irie has internal bleeding; we’re waiting on immobilizers to move him. Everything else is minor.”

Tsuna sagged back against the rock with a sigh of relief. “Thank you.” After this long, Gokudera knew what was most important to him. He looked at Reborn. “Uni?”

“I’m fine,” Uni answered herself, coming to kneel beside him. “Thank you for doing this.”

“You’re welcome, though we didn’t have much choice.” Tsuna waved a hand and Yamamoto stepped in to helped him up. Once he was standing, Xanxus left off growling at his people and stalked over, attitude only slightly impaired by an exhausted stagger every now and then. Tsuna couldn’t help a tiny smile.

“Is he dead?” Xanxus demanded, hard eyes tracking over each of them. A ragged edge of tension still ran through him.

“Not like you left any bodies to check,” Gokudera pointed out dryly, but Uni shook her head.

“He’s gone,” she said with certainty.

“Gone.” Xanxus looked at them, and then around at the rubble that was all that remained of the Millefiore. The tension in him wavered uncertainly.

Tsuna took a long, slow breath. “All right. It’s over, then.” He let the breath out. “So it’s time to go home.”

A murmur of relief ran through his people until a raw crack of laughter broke it. “Home?” Xanxus swayed on his feet. “What for?”

Tsuna flinched. “Xanxus…”

“Um?” Irie edged cautiously closer. “He… he isn’t dead. Federico.”

Tsuna just looked at him, completely unable to make sense of the words. “What?”

“The bullet he was shot with. It was one of the special bullets. It didn’t kill him; he’s only suspended.” Irie’s words came faster in face of their stares. “It was the plan he agreed to, for the sake of defeating Byakuran. He’s still alive.”

Tsuna’s stunned thoughts worked through that slowly. A plan. For defeating Byakuran. That required Federico be dead. Only not. He looked around at the flattened ruin he and Xanxus had made of the building and thought about the constant pain at the back of the past few days. Finally he bowed his head. “It worked,” he whispered, which was all the forgiveness and blame he could possibly afford his boss.

His head snapped up again at the sound Xanxus made. Xanxus was staring around too, eyes wild and wounded. “Boss…” he whispered, harsh, and sank to his knees like the strings holding him up had been cut.

Maybe they had.

“Xanxus!” Tsuna slid to his own knees in front of Xanxus, grabbing his shoulders. Xanxus wrenched away from him in wordless denial, but Tsuna didn’t give way

Xanxus was one of his Family.

He reached down into himself even though his Will and spirit felt scraped raw and pulled up strength out of the oath he’d given.


He leaned his forehead against Xanxus’, and wrapped his Flame around memories of Federico, and and pressed them against the void of Xanxus’ pain. He held Xanxus’ Flame in his, held on to the knowledge, the memory, that Federico loved them. “He wouldn’t have done it for anything less than our world, for anything less than the life of our whole Family. You know that!” And he knew it, because he’d given the same promise himself.


Eventually Xanxus sagged in his grip, whole body shaking. Tsuna sighed softly and leaned against him. “I know,” he whispered. “I know.” Slowly he levered himself to his feet again. “Come on. We need to get home.” He looked over at Uni and Irie. “You too.”

He was careful to put Irie in a different car than Xanxus, though.

Federico had believed Irie when he said this was the only way, that Federico himself had to be out of the picture so that the Sky ring could go to Tsuna, that only rage at his death would drive Tsuna and Xanxus to do what had to be done and see it through to the bare, blasted end. He would never have agreed if he hadn’t believed it.

When he saw Tsuna shepherding Xanxus toward the mansion, though, and saw the broken slump of Xanxus’ shoulders, that didn’t really help.

Chaos surrounded them as the wounded were unloaded and the dazed looking prisoners-turned-allies of the erstwhile Black Spell were led off to one of the emptier wings, and all of it required his attention, his direction, the reassurance that he lived. But the idea of betraying the pain and need in Xanxus’ shuttered eyes, again, made him sick. Xanxus hesitated as he came to them, turning his head away, and Federico bit the inside of his lip hard.

Tsuna made an exasperated sound and gave Federico a stern look. “Until tomorrow morning,” he said, and held up his ring hand. “Until then. Just go.” He pushed Xanxus firmly toward Federico and turned to march off toward the knot of Vongola underbosses gathering around the young Giglio Nero boss and her second, Gamma.

Federico blinked and his mouth quirked. “Well. I suppose we’d better do as he says, then.” Xanxus didn’t answer, and Federico’s heart twisted again. “Come here,” he said, softer, and closed an arm around Xanxus’ shoulders, leading him into the House. He could feel the tremors running through Xanxus and cursed himself and fate and Byakuran impartially.

He only waited until a few doors were closed behind them to pull Xanxus against him and hold him tight.

A shudder ran through Xanxus and he clutched Federico’s shoulders. “Boss…” he said, low and hoarse.

“Only to save our Family,” Federico whispered to him, one hand coming up to cradle the back of his head. “Not for anything less than that, I swear it. I’m sorry.”

Someone like Xanxus didn’t cry easily, and the harsh, stifled sobs that wrenched out against his shoulder set Federico to damning Byakuran and his ancestors for ten generations, and himself for doing such a thing to the one most loyal to him, no matter the reason. He held Xanxus to him tightly, and drew in a deep breath. “Never again,” he said, closing his eyes at what he was promising. “Never again, for any reason; you have my word.”

Slowly, Xanxus quieted, though he still didn’t look up. “Your word?” he asked, finally, voice choked and rough.

“My word,” Federico swore, wrung out by the pain he’d caused. Maybe what he promised now would lead him to a betrayal of his greater Family, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t think of doing something like this to Xanxus again.

Xanxus nodded just a little against his shoulder. “Okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Federico murmured again, at a loss because the words weren’t nearly enough but he couldn’t think of anything that would be.

Xanxus shook his head. “Just… let me stay?”

Federico caught him closer, fiercely. “Yes.”

Eventually he pulled Xanxus into the bedroom and down onto the bed, and worked off his shoes and jacket, careful to never let him go entirely. Xanxus watched him quietly, with bruised eyes, and pressed close when Federico settled beside him. It was an hour, maybe two, before the tightness of his arms around Federico finally relaxed a little, and his breath started to come deeper. Federico stayed awake, holding him close, fingers running slowly through his hair, watching over him as the sky lightened.

Never again, he promised in his heart. Whatever it took, never again.

And as Tsuna leaned wearily over a table, drinking the coffee Gokudera brought him as he spoke to Uni about the anti-Trinisette generator, the Sky ring gleamed for a moment on his finger.

Federico called in all the Family’s leaders the next afternoon, and sighed at the way they shifted and murmured among themselves. “All right, everyone shut up and listen.” He laid it all out as clearly as he could, the danger Byakuran had posed, the evidence across time that said Tsuna and Xanxus had to be the ones to bring him down, the stakes that they had gambled against, the Trinisette itself. He watched his people’s eyes move over Reborn, in his wheelchair, and over Uni, with the gently glowing box set between her hands on the table, and over Tsuna and the six who stood behind him.

“We won that gamble,” he told them, putting as much assurance in his voice as years of experience let him, “and the Family is safe.”

“And you’re alive,” Tsuna added, with just an edge of dryness. Federico was sure he’d hear more of it in private. “So there’s something left to do.”

Another stir ran through the room as Tsuna rose. He met Federico’s eyes, mouth twitching just a bit at the corner, and pulled the Sky ring from his finger. “This is yours.” He offered it on his open palm. “Boss.”

Federico took the Ring back, smiling wryly up at Tsuna. “I know you never wanted it,” he murmured, just between the two of them, and then raised his voice for the rest. “You’ve done everything I asked of you and more. Thank you.”

Tsuna snorted softly, covered by the generally relieved rustle in the room as he took his seat again. Behind him, the rustle continued as Tsuna’s Guardians passed their Rings back to Federico’s. Not the way things usually happened, but Federico took a certain comfort in the relief on a few of their faces. At least he could relieve these few from the burden of the last few days.

“Now,” he gathered his people’s eyes back to himself. “We have two last things to deal with. One is our new alliance with the Giglio Nero.” He nodded to Uni, who nodded serenely back. “We will be working together to recover the Mare rings from the Millefiore headquarters and restore that balance.”

A generally approving murmur went around. From Fedele’s quick report, it seemed that some of Uni’s people had impressed the Vongola, who appreciated honorable opponents.

“The second thing is a new member of our Family.” Federico opened his hand at Irie, sitting quietly off to the side. “Irie risked more than his life to bring us news of Byakuran and a plan to defeat him. I have taken him and a few of his own people who survived into the Vongola.”

The murmur was more dubious this time, and cut across by the harsh sound Xanxus made as he pushed half out of his chair, glaring at Irie. Federico had expected that, all things considered, and started to reach out to him, but someone else beat him to it.

“Xanxus.” Tsuna laid a firm hand on Xanxus’ shoulder, and there was compassion but no shred of compromise in his voice. Federico’s brows went up. Apparently this experience was going to have some lasting effects; he’d never heard Tsuna speak like that except in the deepest grip of his Will and in the middle of a fight.

Xanxus glowered at Tsuna, but subsided under his hand.

Another murmur went around the room, this one with a thoughtful undertone, and any protests over Irie were lost in the sudden sidelong looks at Tsuna.

Federico resisted the urge to rub his forehead and curse. Damn, damn, damn it all anyway.

He’d hoped to avoid this.

“So Cienna and Ricco are coming back to the main house soon?” Tsuna leaned back in his hair with a sigh. “Good. That will be the last thing we need to get things back to normal.”


Tsuna cocked his head at Fedele. “What? Is Cienna still upset with Federico?” Not that he could blame her in the least.

Fedele ran a hand through his hair, not meeting Tsuna’s eyes. “It… might not be the best moment for Ricco, especially, to come back.”

Tsuna frowned. “Is he that upset with his father?” He could understand being a little shocked over the whole temporarily-dead thing, but Ricco had always struck him as quite resilient.

For some reason, Fedele was giving him an exasperated look. “No, it’s this thing with you.”

Tsuna blinked, at a loss. “With… me?” Surely no one else had heard him tearing strips off his Boss for this whole affair? And even if they had, who would have told Ricco about it?

Now Fedele was staring. “Tsuna. Are you telling me you really don’t know?”

“Know what?” Tsuna was starting to get irritated with all this obscurity.

Fedele sat back, frowning at him. “That a good two thirds of the Family is saying that you should be the Eleventh, after Federico. That you already are, in fact.”

For a long moment, the words didn’t even make sense. When they did, Tsuna’s chair went over with a clatter.

They’re what?!

Federico was trying to find just the right ending to his exquisitely polite letter to the Vendicare, telling them that it wasn’t his problem if they couldn’t keep track of their prisoners and no they could not search his headquarters for Rokudou Mukuro, when his office door flung open with a crash. He had his gun halfway out before he realized that it was Tsuna.

Tsuna, panting and rather wild eyed.

“Have you heard about this?!” Tsuna demanded, before Federico would ask what the hell was wrong.

“About what?” he asked, holstering the gun and sitting back down.

“Everyone thinking I’m supposed to be the Eleventh!”

Ah. Now it made sense. Federico sighed and gave Fedele, just now coming up behind Tsuna, a wry smile. “I’ve heard it mentioned in passing, yes.” No one was quite saying it to his face, yet, any more than they’d mentioned it to Tsuna himself, which just went to show that the Vongola didn’t have any stupid underbosses.

“Sorry, Boss,” Fedele murmured, closing the doors after them. “I didn’t realize…”

Federico waved it off and pointed to a chair. “Sit.”

Tsuna sat, looking thoroughly unnerved. “I mean, when we were at war, yes, I suppose it made some sense. When it was the only way. But I’m not in the line of real descent! I would never take that away from Ricco!”

“I know you wouldn’t,” Federico said, quietly. “But, Tsuna, the fact is you are in a legitimate line. And the whole Family has just watched you prove your strength.” And his leadership, more to the point.

Tsuna downright glared at him, rather the way he often did at Reborn. “Stop helping! You can’t possibly want to see that happen.”

Federico sighed. “No, I don’t. But I have to deal with the facts as they are, and this idea has gained a great deal of momentum. I have to consider the good of our whole Family; an internal fight will serve no one.”

Tsuna’s mouth tightened and he lowered his head. “If it is your judgment that taking the Ring after you is the best service I can give to the Vongola, I will, of course, do as you wish,” he said, low.

Federico winced. The conscience of the Vongola had a way with pointed words. “I’m trying to calm things down. Just give it a little time.”

“I’ll try.” Tsuna sounded dubious, and Federico couldn’t really blame him.

Tsuna did his best to give things time for a month. And then another. He did his best not to fry the liver of any Family member who mentioned the possibility of being the Eleventh to him, and stopped being able to complain about it, either, because Gokudera looked like he secretly agreed with them even while he was sympathizing and Yamamoto laughed and Hibari asked what was stopping him. He held onto his patience with both hands, and his teeth on bad days, and tried not to give Federico too many reproachful looks.

The part that really got to him, though, was the way Ricco had started looking at him.

“He has to know I wouldn’t!” he insisted to Federico, almost pleading. “He knows that, doesn’t he?”

“I’m sure he does, Tsuna, he’s known you for years.” That would have been more soothing if Federico hadn’t had a little frown line between his brows. “I think it’s just that he keeps hearing the edges of conversations about this.”

Tsuna slumped back in his chair a little, contemplating fried livers again. “Boss,” he said quietly, “I don’t think this is going to go away.”

“Not easily, no,” Federico agreed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Not unless we make something of it. I’d hoped to avoid that.”

“I’ll be happy to make something of it,” Tsuna growled, and Federico’s mouth tilted.

“I know it’s an insult to your loyalty,” he said softly. “I’m sorry to have asked you to stand and swallow such a thing. I hope you know that I have no doubts of you at all.”

Tsuna’s temper ebbed away on that assurance, and he ducked his head. “I know.”

The moment of ease was broken by a quick rap on the door. “Dad? Are you… oh.” Ricco hesitated, and Tsuna’s heart twinged. “Well… actually, maybe it’s good if I can talk to both of you?”

“Come in, son.” Federico smiled and held out a hand. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well…” Ricco perched on one of the chairs, shifting nervously. “It’s about this thing I keep hearing, about, um, Tsuna being the Eleventh instead of me.”

Tsuna took a breath and braced himself. “Ricco,” he said as calmly as he could, “please believe me, I have no intention of doing any such thing.”

“Well, about that.” Ricco shifted again. “Um. I think it might work out?”

Tsuna stared at him, caught completely by surprise, distantly aware that Federico was staring too.

“Ricco,” Federico managed, finally, “why would you say that?”

“Well, Dad,” Ricco huffed a little, “if I’m the next Boss then I have to get married, right? And have heirs too, right?” His face wrinkled up like he’d smelled something bad. “And that means going to bed with a girl. And the… the squishy bits.” He didn’t add yuck! but he might as well have.

Tsuna opened his mouth and closed it again, exchanging completely bemused looks.

“I think you might feel differently when you’re older,” Federico started, and for a moment that made sense to Tsuna, but… thinking back he was very sure he’d grown out of the girls-are-icky stage much younger than Ricco’s current sixteen, and so had everyone he’d known.

Ricco had stopped fidgeting and was giving Federico a look of complete exasperation. “Dad. I don’t mean it like that at all.”

As Federico blinked, Tsuna ran Ricco’s phrasing past his mental ear again and started to have a glimmer of suspicion. “Ricco?” he asked, and when Ricco turned that grownups-are-idiots expression on him, murmured, “Am I right in thinking it’s the having sex with girls that’s the problem, and not having sex with girls?”

Ricco brightened up. “Yeah!” And then he glanced at his father and started fidgeting again.

Federico made a couple of tries before he settled on, “I’m sure there are ways to deal with that…”

Ricco crossed his arms and looked mulish. “I haven’t heard of any way to have a kid with another guy, have you? And I don’t have any cousins last I looked. Except Tsuna.” He hunched down a little more and added, “And have you heard what they want me to do?! They want me to marry Mari!”

Tsuna sat bolt upright. “Exactly who has suggested marrying off my daughter?” he asked, very evenly. His two-year-old daughter!

Ricco blinked and edged back in his chair. “That was, um, Filippo Diatto.”

“I see.”

Federico looked like he was getting a headache. “Tsuna, please don’t kill anyone without letting me know first,” he murmured, and sat back, running a hand through his hair. “Ricco. I suppose I can understand why you might be hesitant. But giving this up… do you really understand what this means?”

Ricco looked up at him, serious. “It means that Tsuna will be Boss after you, and take care of the Family. It means I’ll be an underboss, I guess.”

“And under Tsuna’s orders,” Federico added, gently. “Even if you disagree with him. Can you give him your whole loyalty that way?”

Ricco looked over at Tsuna and said, directly to him, “Yes.” He broke into a sudden smile, the same one that melted resistance when Federico showed it. “I trust you. You’ll take good care of everyone.”

“Ricco,” Tsuna said, softly. He reached out and laid a hand on Ricco’s shoulder. “I’m honored by your trust.”

Ricco blushed and ducked his head. When he looked up at his father again, his eyes were wide and entreating. “Dad. Please. I think this would be best for everyone. I mean… if I’d had a sister you wouldn’t have forced her to marry someone she didn’t like, would you?”

Federico shook his head, looking stunned. “No. No, of course not.” He pushed away from his desk and held out his arms. “Ricco, come here.”

Tsuna smiled softly and looked away, giving Ricco’s teenage dignity a little privacy as the two of them hugged each other tight.

“I never intended to do any such thing,” Federico said, a little husky, and Ricco nodded vigorously against his shoulder. He took a deep breath and looked across at Tsuna. “So. Considering this… are you willing to take the Family after me, Tsuna?”

Tsuna took a moment to reorder the thoughts that Ricco had turned upside down and settled his shoulders, meeting Federico’s eyes. “I am.”

Federico smiled that sweet, bright smile for him. “I have no doubts of you,” he said, quietly.

Tsuna bowed his head, giving again, silently, the promise he’d given once before. Anything for his Family.

Ricco straightened up and scrubbed a hand, as if casually, over his eyes. “Okay! I can tell Lambo it’s all okay, then!”

After a moment of silence, it was Tsuna who said, “Lambo?”

Ricco froze. “Oh. Um.”

“Lambo?” Federico echoed.

“Um. Yeah.” Ricco smiled at them both hopefully, edging backward toward the door all the time. “So, that’s all cleared up, right? Great!” He was out the door before either Tsuna or Federico could frame the question hovering over both their heads.

“On the bright side,” Tsuna finally said, a little weakly, “after this, managing the Family should be simple.”


Gokudera leaned back in his chair and gave Tsuna a wry smile across the desk. “Well, at least this time we have a little more notice to prepare.”

“I’m not sure that’s actually an advantage,” Tsuna told him. Staring down the gauntlet of inheritance without a mafia war to distract him was doing bad things to his nerves.

“Well I appreciate it,” Gokudera said dryly, and Tsuna shook himself and smiled at his right hand.

“I know. Most of the re-organization is falling on you. I’m sorry I can’t—”

Gokudera waved a hand to cut him off with a small smile. “Boss. It’s my job, and it’s one I’m glad to do for you. You take care of boss-stuff and leave the rest to me.”

Tsuna reflected, once again, that he didn’t know what he’d done to deserve the friends, and soon the Guardians, fate had given him, but it must have been something pretty stupendous.

“Speaking of which,” Gokudera added, “have you found anyone who might take over—”

A tap at the door interrupted them, and Ricco stuck his head inside. “Tsuna, do you have a moment?”

“We were just,” Tsuna started, but Gokudera shook his head, suddenly smiling cheerfully.

“No, it’s nothing that can’t wait. Go ahead.” He stood and gathered his paperwork and was out the door before Tsuna could do more than blink.

“Well, I guess I have a moment.” He waved Ricco to a seat. “Something on your mind?”

“Only the same thing that’s on the mind of absolutely everyone in the entire Family,” Ricco snorted, and Tsuna had to stifle a laugh.

“So what about your dad’s retirement?” he asked, obligingly.

“Well.” Ricco ran a hand through his hair and took a breath. “I was thinking that I should take the Varia.”

There were still times, even after all these years, when the mafia world shocked Tsuna, and this was one of them. “Why?” he finally managed to ask.

Ricco just looked back at him, eyes dark and serious. “We both know Xanxus is going with Dad, when he retires. There’s no way it could be different. And the knowledge that the leader of the Varia wields the Sky Flame has been one of our hole cards for a long time, hasn’t it? There’s only one person with the Sky who can take the Varia now.” His mouth quirked. “Mari is way too young.”

Tsuna, who had had his mouth open to mention how young Ricco still was, closed it. He was starting to have a suspicion of why Gokudera had left so fast; Ricco had a solid grasp on strategy, at least, if he’d spoken to Tsuna’s right hand ahead of time.

“Tsuna.” Ricco leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I know you don’t like assassination or most of the rest of the Varia’s business. But there will still be times we need it. And when those times come, the Varia had better still be the best. I can do that for the Family.” Softly he added, “And for you.”

Tsuna spread his hands flat against the desk, examining them, looking at the wink of the ring he was using now and remembering the oath he’d given to win the approval of the Vongola Ring. “I know,” he finally said, quietly. “I know you’re right. And I know you can.” He looked up with a wry smile. “I should have done what I was thinking about and asked you to take CEDEF, a few years ago, when my father retired.”

Ricco grinned at him. “I’d still have suggested this instead. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”

“You’re your father’s son,” Tsuna murmured, and smiled a little at Ricco’s faint blush. “All right. I want to discuss this with a few other people, but… If you’re willing, I’ll be glad to have you.”

Ricco nodded solemnly. “Thank you.” The grin flashed again and he added, as he rose, “Boss.”

Tsuna watched him leave and thought about the future fast approaching. It wasn’t one he’d expected, when Reborn showed up on his doorstep or when he’d agreed to follow Federico. He’d never wanted to be the Vongola Eleventh. But this was the future, and the Family, that had come to him, and he’d found that he loved that Family too much to refuse.

“Anything,” he murmured again to the waiting shades of those who’d gone before.

They followed along at his shoulder as he went to find Gokudera.


Happily Ever After

Companion to Lys ap Adin’s "Bloodsport"; a series of linked shorts that follows Gokudera, Yamamoto and Tsuna after the end. Lots of fang-sex, a bit of humor, and a smidge of crack thrown in at the end. Romance and Fang-porn, I-4

Positive Reinforcement

When Hayato had agreed to become part of Tsuna’s clan, he hadn’t expected to be spending much time in Tsuna’s own company. The clan lord would obviously, he’d thought, have better things to do than meet in person with a scruffy little dhampir. It appeared, though, that Tsuna liked his news first hand, and so it was that Hayato found himself sitting in that arm chair across from his new lord at least once a week.

And Tsuna’s rooms might be nice and warm, but it still gave Hayato the shivers.

“So, both Belphegor and Rasiel were out that night, hm?” Tsuna paced slowly beside his chair, eyes distant. “I think perhaps Xanxus isn’t as much under Byakuran’s control as he would prefer.” Tsuna focused on Hayato again and smiled. “I’m impressed you spotted them.”

Hayato stomped hard on a blush. He was not one of Shamal’s fluttery girlfriends and he did not blush for pity’s sake. “They were concentrating on fighting each other; they didn’t take much care to conceal themselves.”

“Nevertheless.” Tsuna rested his fingers on Hayato’s shoulder. “Few would look beyond their own hunger, when feeding, to notice who they were.”

Hayato swallowed. The mention of feeding made him remember the way his… his… his d