lysapadin: pen & ink painting of bamboo against a full moon (Default)
[personal profile] lysapadin
Title: A Year in the Life: Dino
Characters: Dino, Romario, Reborn, Bianchi, Yamamoto, Kyouko, Gokudera, Tsunako
Summary: In which Tsunako gives Dino some things to think about.
Notes: Continuing the re-imagining of the Daily Life arc from Dino's point of view. Genderswap, mafia and gender politics, shameless fribbling, but no bears. Part of Choice: The Betrothal Arc. Series Index. General audiences. 18,886 words.


A Year in the Life

He'd just finished the deal with the Tomasso, which would expand Cavallone holdings in the north by a full third and left him feeling rather satisfied with himself, when Reborn called. Dino stared at the name on his phone's display with a sense of deep apprehension before he could bring himself to answer, because Reborn had an unerring sense for the best ways to puncture a man's ego. "This is Cavallone."

"I certainly didn't expect it to be anyone else," came the testy reply. "How's your Japanese?"

Dino blinked and leaned back in his desk chair so he could stare up at the ceiling. It didn't provide any insight into why Reborn would care about his language skills. "Passable, I suppose."

Before he could ask why Reborn cared, Reborn said, "Good. I need you in Japan. Let me know when you'll be arriving." And then he hung up.

Dino set his phone down, still blinking in his bemusement, and thought about calling Reborn back to remind him that the Cavallone were a powerful Family and that he was a boss second only to Timoteo of the Vongola and Aria of the Giglio Nero. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose and laughed at himself, because Reborn would (maybe) listen to that, be wholly unimpressed, and would then remind him not to waste so much time talking about useless things.

"Boss?" Romario asked, breaking into his thoughts.

Dino let his fingers drop away from his face. "Reborn," he told his right hand, and saw the faintest twitch of Romario's mustache in response. "Apparently we're needed in Japan."

Romario had stood by his side through the entirety of what Dino privately thought of as the Reborn Years, so all he did was sigh faintly. "How soon?"

Dino shrugged. "He didn't say."

Another faint sigh from Romario—the only protest the man ever lodged. "I'll see to it at once."

"Yes, that would probably be best," Dino agreed, and sat back to wonder what on earth Reborn was doing in Japan.

He didn't find out until well after his jet had touched down and the people Romario had sent ahead had conducted them to the house they'd acquired to be their base of operations for—however long Reborn required their presence and business at home could spare them, Dino supposed.

Reborn was there to greet him, which had not been part of the plan, though it probably should have been. He was standing in the middle of the desk in what would serve as Dino's office and seemed utterly unimpressed with the number of guns aimed in his direction when people realized he was there. "It's about time you got here."

Dino waved a hand at his bodyguards and smiled at Reborn as they stood down. "It's good to see you too, Reborn."

He flapped a tiny hand, dismissing the courtesy. "Send them away. We need to talk."

Dino raised his eyebrows at that; what on earth was Reborn up to out here? "What would I do without you around to keep me humble?" He nodded at Giacomo and Roberto, who looked very unhappy at being dismissed—well, what bodyguard would be happy to leave his post when there was a hitman on the premises? And they didn't know Reborn; no doubt they thought they'd be able to protect him if Reborn should decide he wanted the head of the Cavallone dead.

"Don't you wish you knew?" Reborn's smirk was faintly evil, but that was normal. He watched Giacomo and Roberto slink out and waited for Dino and Romario to take seats. "I trust you're still good at chasing women?"

Whatever Dino had been expecting to hear from Reborn, that hadn't been it. "What?"

Reborn folded his arms across his chest and gave Dino a long look. "Chasing women," he repeated. "Are you still good at it?"

Dino's eyebrows went ahead and climbed his forehead without consulting him about it first. "I don't believe I've had any complaints so far," he essayed, cautiously, which was the only way a person could deal with Reborn and have a hope of coming out the other side with dignity intact. (It was a faint hope, but better than nothing.) "Why do you ask?"

"I have a new student." Reborn was so matter-of-fact about it that it almost didn't sting to hear. "She has no experience with the social games men and women play. You can help me fix that before she enters the mafia world and has to deal with it for real."

Dino blinked at Reborn, who stared back at him, absolutely calm in the face of his bafflement. But then, Reborn was always calmest when the rest of the world was falling apart in confusion and chaos. "All of those words make sense individually, but when you put them together like that, they turn into nonsense."

Reborn blinked at him, one slow flicker of his eyelids, like a lizard. "Don't be stupid. Of course it makes sense."

"You didn't drag me out to Japan just so I could teach someone how to flirt," Dino objected, except that of course Reborn had. At least, on the surface he had; one always had to look for the hidden reason, nested like matryoshka dolls. "Reborn, be serious, I have a Family to run. I don't have time for this—"

He stopped when Reborn raised his hand. "I think you'll find that your assistance will not go unrewarded."

Dino considered that and glanced at Romario, whose nod was barely perceptible. Yeah, it generally was worth it to see what Reborn was up to when he promised that it would be worthwhile, Reborn's crappy sense of humor notwithstanding. "Say more."

Reborn hopped down from his desk and made himself comfortable on the chair across from it, stretching his legs out and crossing them at the ankles. "The Cavallone have been looking at trade in the east, but the Cizeta have been blocking that."

"The Cizeta are a pain in my ass." Dino walked around the desk and tried out his chair, studying Reborn from across the uncluttered surface of the desk—well, if he were going to be here any time at all, it wouldn't stay uncluttered. "So what else is new?"

"The Cizeta are often susceptible to pressure from other Families when it is applied in the appropriate places." Reborn folded his hands across his stomach and gave Dino a moment to digest that.

Dino frowned at him, wrestling with it. "What kind of pressure are we talking about, here?" God knew the Vongola had a whole range of options, should Timoteo care to deploy them, but he'd never known the man to use Reborn as a negotiator before.

Reborn stared up at him, solemn as a little stone idol, and said, "What sort of pressure would you like?"

He wasn't Vongola to have their intuition, but he had spent years with Reborn as his tutor, which was almost as good. Dino frowned. "Does Timoteo know you're meeting with me?"

"Are you going to believe me if I say yes?" Reborn countered.

"Maybe." Dino folded his hands under his chin and leaned forward to scrutinize Reborn some more. "What if I asked you whether he'd authorized you to negotiate for the Vongola?"

Reborn didn't even blink, his stare unwavering and bland. "I think you'd find that I have a great many discretionary powers just now." He never had lost at poker, either, as far as Dino recalled.

"Be that as it may." He studied Reborn, conscious of Romario's silence. "I'd like to know why you want my help for flirting lessons. I don't work for cheap, you know."

"I hadn't expected you would," Reborn said, just as calmly. "You are, however, trained by me and are reliable. And trustworthy."

People would flatter him, Reborn had lectured once, while Dino had been splayed across the ground, trying to get his breath back. He should, Reborn had said, never trust anyone who sought to do so, because their only purpose in doing so would be to disarm him and incline him to give their requests more credence that they deserved. The lecture played out in his memory, unspooling nearly automatically, but nevertheless he felt a flush of pleasure at the compliment. He set it aside to savor later. "Reliable and trustworthy. Just who are these lessons for?"

That must have been the question Reborn had been waiting for, because he went still, all pretense of being here for an amiable discussion falling away to reveal the truth of him—the Vongola's top hitman, Timoteo's hunting dog, the one who'd never let his prey slip out of his grasp. Sweat prickled Dino's scalp and spine, chilly beneath his shirt, in spite of himself. "This is not for general consumption." Reborn pronounced each syllable precisely. "If it becomes such, the Vongola will have satisfaction. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Dino said, rather proud of how evenly it came out. "The Cavallone will respect that."

Reborn nodded, the dip of his chin clipped. "The lessons are for the Ninth's heir."

Dino sucked in a breath through his teeth, not able to stop himself. Timoteo didn't have an heir. They all knew it and had been watching him these past eight months to see what he was going to do about it, especially since no one knew where Xanxus had gone after his exile. (Dino privately suspected that "exile" was a polite euphemism for "two bullets and a shallow grave" himself and knew he was not the only one who thought so.) "That fox," he said. "That old fox."

Reborn permitted himself a tiny smirk. "Just so."

Dino drew another breath, thinking fast. The Ninth had an heir after all, a female heir, and she had no experience with the mafia, to the extent that Reborn had been given the training of her and needed someone to teach her to flirt. He exhaled and settled back in his seat, unclasping his hands and spreading them on the blotter before him. "So the Vongola would appreciate my assistance?"

"It would be helpful, yes," Reborn agreed.

"I see." Dino didn't dare glance at Romario, who no doubt saw what he saw anyway. "Perhaps Timoteo would even consider himself in our debt."

"He might."

No small thing, that. Dino resisted the urge to drum his fingers against the blotter as he considered his options and found them good. A favor from the Vongola, something to hold onto for a rainy day, plus whatever else he could turn to his advantage—he nodded. "Flirting lessons, huh? I only wish that were the strangest thing you've ever asked me to do."

Reborn lifted his shoulders and let them fall. "Life can be funny. You'll do it?"

Dino smiled at him. "I'm delighted, naturally."

Reborn gave him a look that felt like being stripped bare and inspected and found wanting. "I'm sure you are. I'll be in touch." He hopped down from the chair and strolled out.

Romario waited until later—much later, after the staff had swept the building and declared it clean, and then some—to say anything. "Boss," he said, quiet. "Do you really think—"

Dino swirled the wine in his glass, considering the color. "It's worth a try, don't you think?"

"It's Reborn," Romario pointed out, ever the voice of reason. "Have you ever gotten the best of him?"

"It has to happen sometime," Dino pointed out. When Romario pursed his lips, he added, "Nothing ventured, Romario. Nothing ventured."

"I suppose." Romario didn't seem particularly convinced, but then it was his job to be pessimistic. "It won't be easy, Boss."

"It's Reborn," Dino told him. "It never is."

And as it turned out, he was absolutely right.

Reborn was unforthcoming about the mysterious Vongola heir, unsurprisingly, and also unhurried. Dino found himself cooling his heels for a couple of days, waiting for further word, before he gave up on that. Time spent lounging around their pro tem headquarters was time wasted, Reborn or no Reborn, so when Reborn did call, Dino was in the middle of sifting through the dossiers of several yakuza groups with Romario, arguing with him over which ones might be useful to feel out. They were deep in a discussion over whether Timoteo would consider it poaching to approach one of the syndicates that had a tenuous affiliation with the Vongola when Reborn called. When Dino answered, Reborn reeled off an address without bothering with a greeting. "Hello to you too," Dino told him as he tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder and reached for his pen. "Would you care to repeat that?"

Reborn's exasperation with the foibles of lesser mortals carried through on his sigh. "You're slacking," he said as Dino flicked the cap off the pen just in time to scrawl the address down as Reborn repeated it.

"Maybe I am." Dino eyed the address, comfortable with the knowledge that slacking off by Reborn's standards was still doing better than most people dreamed. "Tell me what this is?"

Romario leaned back in his seat and mouthed Reborn? at him. When Dino nodded, he sighed and removed his glasses to polish them.

"You'll meet the Poison Scorpion there. She'll escort you to where you will meet our student." Dino felt his eyebrows lifting in response to that; Reborn was still working with her? God help him. "You may have your people escort you to that point, but she will take over then."

Dino pinched the bridge of his nose. "Reborn, let's just cut that argument short right there and assume that Romario will be joining us. You know he won't agree to anything less than that." Romario paused in the act of replacing his glasses to give Dino a sharp look. "Ideally, I'd prefer at least one additional bodyguard." Romario frowned, but Dino was good at ignoring the frowns that signaled that his right hand was merely unhappy, not outraged.

"That's what the Poison Scorpion is for." The objection was flat, uncompromising. "You won't need additional support."

"Or I could just let Romario have the phone and let the two of you argue about it," Dino suggested. "That could be fun." To watch, even if he'd probably end up paying for it later. Hell, it was Reborn—God alone knew what was in store for him. He was likely going to end up paying for it regardless.

"No extra men." Reborn's voice was still flat. "This is a matter of Vongola security."

"And Cavallone security, too," Dino pointed out. "When did you say Romario and I would be meeting the Poison Scorpion?" Across the desk from him, Romario's eyes brightened. Well, he always had doted on her for reasons that frankly passed Dino's understanding.

And he was definitely going to end up paying for how exasperated Reborn sounded when he bit out, "Thirty minutes," and hung up.

It was still worth it. Dino set his phone down and smiled at Romario. "Better order the car," he said. "We're going to be meeting Timoteo's heir in half an hour."

"Charming." Romario began gathering up the dossiers, sorting them back into order according to his own logic. "By way of Miss Bianchi, I assume?"

"So it seems." A body almost had to feel sorry for the Vongola girl, whoever she was, if she had to deal with both Reborn and the Poison Scorpion on top of all her other concerns. It couldn't be easy—he would know.

On the other hand, if it didn't kill her…

Romario very diplomatically did not ask why Dino was laughing when he picked up the house phone to call for a car.

"If I were working with anyone else," Bianchi had said, only halfway joking, "at least I would get to say, 'You must be joking.' But it's you and I know you're not." She'd made a face at Reborn, who had gone on cleaning his gun and paying no attention to her whatsoever. "Honestly, Reborn, Cavallone? For flirting lessons? Why not do the sensible thing and let Kyouko guide her through it once she's old enough for it to matter?"

"By that time it will be too late," Reborn said, imperturbable and final. "And there are some things the girl will not be able to explain."

He hadn't said anything else and so Bianchi stood on a street corner, her shoulders hunched against the January chill, waiting for Cavallone and his right hand to show up so she could take them to meet Tsunako and the rest. She passed the time by wondering what Reborn wanted the mafia's most eligible bachelor to teach Tsunako and horrifying herself with the various unlikely possibilities.

A long black car pulled up precisely on the hour and disgorged Romario first. Bianchi unhunched her shoulders and let her hands hang loose at her sides while his eyes moved over the street, checking the roofs and windows, before he nodded at her and opened the door for Cavallone himself.

Still blond and pretty, Bianchi noted, though a lot less sulky than he'd been the last time she'd seen him. Dressed down, too, in jeans and a beat-up coat. Interesting choice on his part. He stared at her while Romario closed the door and the car pulled away, at least until Bianchi shoved her hands into her pockets and came to meet them. Then he smiled, all smoothly polished surfaces. "Poison Scorpion. You're looking well."

"Yeah, thanks. You're looking like less of a twerp than usual, yourself." It had the virtue of being both true and of making Romario cover his mouth as Cavallone dithered over being outraged or not letting on that he minded being reminded of what a little twit he'd been just a few years ago. "Romario."

He returned her nod gravely, eyes dancing. "Miss Bianchi. It's a pleasure to see you again."

That was what she liked about Romario: his courtesy never wavered no matter what the situation. Bianchi glanced around, but if Cavallone had people on them, they weren't in evidence. "Likewise. Shall we get moving, gentleman? I'm sure you remember that Reborn doesn't like to be kept waiting."

Cavallone grimaced, actually outright made a face, which was something to tell Reborn later when he'd have time to gloat over it. "After you, Poison Scorpion."

"Sure, I'll take point," Bianchi agreed, turning away from them. Their reflections in the storefront across from her showed them glancing at each other before falling into step together, Romario between his boss and the street and his eyes constantly moving. Not that she blamed him for that. Romario never had struck her as being the careless sort.

They were talking, too, though she was far enough ahead that she only caught snatches of their conversation—something about business opportunities and setting up meetings. Reborn would like that; it'd give Cavallone's presence out here a thin veneer of plausibility. They dropped the subject when they caught up with her at the next crosswalk and Cavallone said, "So where are we going?"

"Not far." Bianchi fingered the goggles in her pocket, looking down the street at the café that Reborn had decided should be their neutral ground. The shades were drawn; all was well. The light changed and she set off briskly enough that Cavallone had to do a little skipping hop to catch up. "We're almost there."

"Lovely. I don't suppose you'd care to give me a little bit more about Reborn's student?" He smiled at her, all flashy blond charisma about it.

Bianchi rolled her eyes at him. "Be serious, Cavallone."

He just laughed. "You know I had to try."

"And you know I'm not going to say a word." Bianchi fished the goggles out of her pocket, swinging them by their strap. "Really, why bother?"

"That's how the game is played." He watched her fit the goggles into place. "Ah. I wasn't aware that we'd be needing special equipment for this meeting."

"It's a fashion statement," Bianchi said, pushing the goggles into place with her knuckle as they came to the café. She rapped on the door, right over the sign that said Closed, and let them in.

The boys were right in the middle of an animated discussion—well, Hayato was haranguing Yamamoto and Yamamoto appeared to be egging him on—and the girls had their heads together, giggling over something else altogether. All of them looked up when Bianchi strolled in, Cavallone and Romario on her heels, and several things happened at once. Hayato broke off mid-sentence and began cursing; his chair hit the floor with a crash as he put himself between Tsunako and the door. Yamamoto got his hand on his baseball bat about half a beat after Hayato started moving, while the girls went still and Tsunako's eyes got wide and uncertain.

And Cavallone said, after a single startled moment, "Reborn, I want a word with you right now."

Reborn descended from the ceiling tiles as casually as a man stepping out of his car, not that Dino had a lot of attention to spare for that. He was more concerned about the way the Smoking Bomb was glaring at him like he wanted to feed him one of those sticks of dynamite he was clutching. Well, that and the three girls—kids, all of them were kids—sitting at the table, wide-eyed. Reborn ignored all that, planting himself on one of the empty tables, and said, "Was there something?"

"Outside. Now." Dino pivoted on his heel; Romario got the door open for him just in time.

Behind him, someone asked, "Did that guy just tell Reborn what to do?"

He had, and later, when no one else was around to see, he was going to put his head between his knees and hyperventilate over that fact the way it deserved, but that was for later. Before he could do that, there were some things he needed to say.

Reborn had assumed a seat on Romario's shoulder by the time they hit the sidewalk. Dino rounded on him once the door had closed. "What the fucking fuck, Reborn?" he demanded, keeping his voice down despite how much he wanted yell. "What is wrong with you?"

Reborn picked a bit of invisible lint off his cuff. "I'm afraid I don't follow you."

"I'm sure you don't!" Dino threw his hands into the air. "There are too many things wrong with you to even list, aren't there?"

"People sometimes tell me that, though I really don't know why." Reborn inspected his nails, expression as bland as his tone. "Do you care to enlighten me?"

"Let's start with how you apparently think I'm a pedophile!" Dino flexed his hands, itching for his whip or maybe for something a bit more direct, like his hands around Reborn's throat. "Jesus fucking Christ, how old are those kids, ten?"

"Fourteen, actually." Reborn glanced at him, sidelong, and went back to inspecting his cuticles. "That's plenty old enough to be going on with, don't you think?"

"No! No, I do not think so!" Dino raked his hands through his hair, appalled. "Fourteen and you want me to teach her about flirting? My God, has she even stopped playing with dolls yet?"

"I don't believe that Tsunako ever was the type to play with dolls." Reborn tilted his head back, studying the winter sky overhead. He exhaled and the fog of his breath hung on the air. "It doesn't matter. She needs to know."

"You can find someone else to teach her, then." Reborn looked down at that, sharp, but Dino folded his arms across his chest and held firm. "I chase women, Reborn, not little girls, and if you can't tell the difference in the two, you need more help than I know how to give you."

"Don't be so melodramatic. I don't expect you to actually court her." Reborn sounded disgusted with him, in that familiar how can such an idiot figure out how to tie his own shoelaces? way. "She's already betrothed. I need you to teach her how to deal with unwanted advances." He paused and reflected on that. "Without violence, that is."

"Already betrothed?" Dino repeated, temporarily diverted. "To whom?"

Reborn's eyes glinted beneath his fedora. "Never mind that. It's none of your business."

"I'm a boss, of course it's my business. What else would it be?" Who could it be? There wasn't any shortage of Families with sons of the appropriate range of ages, but there weren't any among the Vongola's allies that he could think of who'd developed the right sort of attitude to go along with having pulled off such a coup.

"Never mind." Reborn sounded like he was going to hold firm on that. "All you need to know is that she's already spoken for. And in the meantime, you'll teach her how to deal with the rest of it."

Before Dino could insist he was going to do no such thing, Romario cleared his throat. "Would an example be sufficient?"

"The best learning comes from actually doing." Reborn held Dino's eyes for a moment before he added, grudgingly, "Though I suppose a demonstration would not be amiss."

"That's all well and good, but it still means a demonstration—" Romario's eyes creased at the corners the way they did when he was amused, and a pit opened up at the bottom of Dino's stomach. "Oh, no. Oh, no, you must be joking. You know what she did to the last guy who wouldn't leave her alone." Romeo Vieri hadn't been any great loss to the world, that was for sure, but he'd made a most instructive example on his way out of it.

"I'm sure she'd be less temperamental if she were politely asked to play along." Romario was all reasonableness and helpful smiles. "After all, it would only be a charade for young Miss Tsunako's benefit."

"My God, I am going to die," Dino said, all the times that the Poison Scorpion had glanced at him and then clearly dismissed him from her regard flashing before his mind's eye. "The Cavallone Family is doomed."

"I would have sworn I had trained you out of being such a melodramatic imbecile." Reborn sounded altogether too thoughtful. "And out of whining. Perhaps a refresher course is in order."

Dino took a prudent step back and surrendered to the inevitable. "All right, if she's willing to do it, I'll do my best, but if I end up dead from a poisoned cupcake I am going to haunt the both of you the rest of your lives."

"I'm sure we wouldn't have it any other way, Boss," Romario said. Reborn just snorted.

Dino took a deep breath, summoned up a cheerful smile, and headed back inside.

The discussion inside must have been as intense as his own, because the Smoking Bomb was red-faced and waving his fistful of dynamite in the air to underscore his point. "—can't just spring shit like this on us, it's not—"

"Gokudera," one of the girls said. Her voice was soft; her hair was honey-brown and floated around her face, and she put Dino in mind of someone he'd seen before. That and the way the Smoking Bomb immediately shut up said that this one was Reborn's student. Well, that and the way the other kids were ranged around her.

The Smoking Bomb looked Dino's way and moved, putting himself more squarely between the two of them. "And anyway, what I want to know is why is Cavallone here?"

Dino spread his hands for his sake and smiled at them all as impartially as he could. (Fourteen, all of them—and they still looked like babies, except maybe for the Smoking Bomb and his sister.) "I came to visit my old teacher and to meet his new student." Yes, she blinked and looked surprised; she had to be the one. She was a tiny little thing and didn't look like she was sturdy enough to hold up the Vongola. Poor kid. "We have so much in common, it's almost like we're siblings."

He'd heard that the Smoking Bomb had a serious streak of paranoia; it showed now in the way he glared and watched Dino. Also interesting: the other boy seemed to be willing to take his cues from that and was watching them both with a steady pair of eyes. As far as the girls went, Dino wasn't sure what they were thinking, but they were paying close attention too.

The Poison Scorpion chose that moment to step in. "Tsunako, this is Dino Cavallone, tenth boss of the Cavallone Family, and his right hand, Romario. Cavallone, this is Sawada Tsunako."

Sawada Tsunako? Dino absently kept track of the other names as they went around, pairing them up with each face, and turned that revelation over. She had to be Iemitsu's daughter, it was too unlikely a coincidence, and besides, what other Sawada had such close ties to the Vongola? He smiled at her. "Charmed to meet you—you must be Iemitsu's daughter. I don't believe I must have had a chance to meet you before he swept you and your mother out of Italy." Which had been for a reason, if only he could dredge up which piece of gossip had been attached to that. He'd been too young and disaffected at the time to care much about it. Fascinating. "And now you're Reborn's student. Small world, isn't it?"

Tsunako looked more confused by all this than anything else. "You came to meet me?"

Dino ambled over to one of the empty tables and perched on it. "Reborn said I should." Breezy, careless; might as well use that reputation for being a twit to his advantage. "You know how it is with him. He says jump and you're in the air before you think to ask how high."

She blinked again and then laughed, a little shy. "I guess." She glanced at Reborn, still on Romario's shoulder. "You really came all this way just to see me."

"Oh, there are a few business things I might do while I'm here, too, I guess. And sight-seeing! I could go sight-seeing, couldn't I? Romario, make a note of that, would you?" The Smoking Bomb hadn't softened one jot; his knuckles were white around his bombs. Not like Rome was built in a day, of course. "It's been too long since I've had a holiday."

Romario, the best of right hands, said, "All of six weeks, Boss. I'll see to it."

The girl, Kyouko, the one with the bobbed hair, raised her hand to her mouth to smother a giggle, and some of the tension in the air dissolved. The other one, Haru, she giggled too, and Tsunako smiled a beat after that, though her forehead was still wrinkled and she looked puzzled. That seemed like enough to be going on. Dino bestowed his most amiable smile on them and lounged right where he was, provisionally pleased with himself. "So!" When they looked at him, he said, "I'm not particularly familiar with your charming little town. I place myself in your hands. What shall I do first?"

From the look the Smoking Bomb gave him, he wanted to suggest a long walk off a short pier. More interestingly, the other boy, Takeshi, and Kyouko exchanged glances with each other before she turned to Tsunako, who shrugged. Permission granted, apparently. "Well," Kyouko began as Dino turned his most vacuously earnest expression on her, "I suppose there are some shrines you might visit, to start off…"

Cavallone hadn't been gone a full minute before Kyouko said, "All right, Gokudera-kun, what can you tell us about Cavallone-san?"

The words exploded out of Hayato, who'd nearly vibrated through the entirety of Cavallone's little visit. "He's the tenth boss of the Cavallone Family and he's not as stupid as he looks." He hadn't sat down even once during the meeting and immediately begun pacing, taking turns around the cafe and talking just as quickly as he'd moved. "He's the third-strongest boss in the Vongola's alliance and he's absolutely not someone to fuck around with. The Cavallone were in disgrace when he took over, and now they're one of the strongest Families in general." He stopped there and glanced Bianchi's way. "Reborn is supposed to have trained him, though no one knows much about how that went down."

"And Reborn would say that's the way it ought to be, if he were here and not walking Cavallone home." Bianchi smiled at Hayato's grimace; like hell was she going to breach confidentiality, even for him.

"Anyway, that was a few years ago. Everyone thought he was an idiot and that it was just going to be a matter of time before the Cavallone fell, but then he pulled a fast one on the Risso and the Sciotalle and all of a sudden, the Cavallone were sitting pretty again and the Risso and Sciotalle were in deep shit." He glanced her way again. "I was working for the Bolzoni at the time and never did get the straight of that."

"You hit the important points," Bianchi said. "The only thing I'd add is that the Risso and Sciotalle were the ones who'd helped put the Cavallone in the hole to begin with." Kyouko tipped her head to the side and Haru tapped her fingers against her chin, while Tsunako frowned in silence. "We don't hear much out of them these days." She checked the time. "Reborn will have them away by now. We can get going."

Kyouko and Yamamoto continued to pump Hayato for more information, at least until Hayato ran out of things to relate. Kyouko spent some time on Cavallone's reputation—"So he tends to act like that, and people still take it seriously when they should know better?"—while Yamamoto dwelled on his reputation as a fighter—"Hah, a whip, really? Like Indiana Jones?"

Tsunako didn't say anything at all, not until it was later, after dinner, and she was supposed to be doing her homework. "Why is Cavallone-san actually here?" she asked, not looking up from her notebook.

"Reborn thinks you can learn something from it." That was nicely neutral, at least, and wouldn't alarm Tsunako any more than was necessary. "Why do you ask?"

"Gokudera was really upset." Tsunako stared down at her notebook like it held some explanation for Hayato's paranoia. "More upset than he should have been if Reborn okayed this." She looked up then. "Cavallone spent a lot of time trying to look harmless, didn't he?"

"He has a habit of doing that." Bianchi left off brushing her hair since it was more interesting to watch Tsunako trying to puzzle some meaning out the afternoon's meeting.

Tsunako frowned and picked at the peeling trim of her t-shirt. "He's supposed to be an ally, though, right? Why treat him like a threat?"

"Sometimes alliances fail," Bianchi said. Tsunako looked away, so Bianchi set her brush down and added, "The Risso and Sciotalle were allies of the Cavallone once, you see. But they decided that the things Cavallone's father were trying to do were too much of a threat to their own position, and so they did what they thought was best for their Families. It got Cavallone Nono killed and nearly destroyed the Cavallone itself. The Vongola Ninth decided that it would be best for the Vongola if the Cavallone did not fall, so he sent Reborn to train Cavallone. It could have gone the other way. Cavallone knows that. I can't say how he feels about it, but he has to know it. And the thing is, you're a secret. Cavallone's an ally and he and Reborn have a bond, but it's still possible that the Cavallone could decide that selling the Vongola out would be a greater benefit to them than not. I doubt he will, mind you." Bianchi chuckled. "He'd have to face Reborn at that point, and that's before we even get into what the Vongola would do to the Cavallone."

Tsunako opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and looked aside as she fisted her hands in her lap. "I hate this," she said, after a moment.

"Yeah, I know you do, kiddo." It was all a person could say without breaking out the pretty lies. "That's just how it is."

Tsunako didn't say anything else, and after a moment she went back to her homework.

Bianchi crammed her fist against her mouth, but even so, a muffled snicker escaped her. Not that Reborn seemed to be particularly bothered by that; he carried on. "Of course, this will require us to spend some time in Dino's company in a range of social settings. The sight-seeing project ought to serve that end nicely." He stopped then as Bianchi lost her battle with hilarity; as she giggled helplessly into her hand, she felt the weight of his eyes pressing down on her. "Has something amused you?"

"Yeah," Bianchi managed, wheezing with the effort of keeping the noise down. His silence took on an expectant quality. "You—the look on his face when he saw Tsunako—!" And now Cavallone was going to be flirting with her instead? Her giggles threatened to overwhelm her again.

"I suppose he thought that an alliance to the Vongola blood would serve him." There was just enough satisfaction in the way Reborn said that to suggest he'd engineered the whole thing purely to teach Cavallone not to overreach himself.

"Probably." Bianchi passed her fingers over her eyes, wiping away the tears. "I would have come up with the same thing."

"The Ninth wouldn't have stood for it. He has his own plans." The plans of lesser Families and mortals obviously couldn't stand up to that, of course. "I'll have a word with your brother so that he doesn't interfere when Dino starts paying attention to you."

Bianchi leaned her head back, all lingering urges to laugh disappearing. "You don't honestly think he'd care, do you?"

"He recognizes the threat that Dino's presence is. He might, if he thought it would serve Tsunako."

Of course. Bianchi blew out a breath and let it go; she and Hayato had both left the kind of life where there might be other reasons for a brother to warn off one of his sister's suitors a long time ago. "This is one of the crazier things you've done, you know that, right?"

"Dino won't betray us." Reborn sounded as certain as bedrock. "Not even for this."

"I hope you're right."

Reborn huffed. "I always am."

"You'll look after the Cavallone once I'm gone, won't you?" Dino asked as the approaching figures first began to resolve into identifiable faces: the Smoking Bomb, Takeshi, the Poison Scorpion, Kyouko, and at the center of the group, Tsunako.

"You're not going to die, Boss." Romario wasn't even pretending that he wasn't smiling, the heartless bastard. "As long as you're polite to Miss Bianchi and play nicely with the other children, everything will be fine."

"You say that." Dino frowned at him, because a night's sleep to remember what had happened to Romeo Vieri wasn't a pleasant thing. "She's pretty enough, but—"

"You're all just playing pretend." Romario dusted his hands off. "More than usual, I mean."

Dino took his eyes off the approaching group. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Romario's expression was too innocent to tell him much. "Young men do tend to take a while to settle, of course. It's the natural way of things." He pushed himself straight from where he was leaning against the side of the car and twitched his suit back into order. "It will be different once you meet the one. When that happens…" He snapped his fingers. "Everything becomes serious, just like that. It's always that way for every Cavallone." His smile turned softer and his eyes went misty. "When your father met—"

Dino broke away from the car and raised a hand, waiving energetically to Tsunako and her entourage. "Hi, we're over here!" As if the group could miss them; they had this little residential side road otherwise to themselves.

Romario took the hint and left off reminiscing, though he did sigh heavily. Dino ignored that; it was what he deserved if he was going to go dredging up old history.

Dino strolled out to meet the kids and gave them a cheerful, impartial grin (despite the way the Smoking Bomb glared). "Hey! I'm glad you could join me!" He beamed at Tsunako, who was back to looking at him uncertainly, even though he'd spent a considerable portion of the previous afternoon's meeting trying to set her at ease. "I hope I'm not being inconvenient for you."

"Only for me, heh." Takeshi grinned back at him, all relaxation compared to the Smoking Bomb. "But I can do conditioning training on my own time."

That's right, he was the athlete. Dino smiled and shrugged. "I guess so? Can't say I ever played with a sports team."

"That's too bad! You missed out." Takeshi's smile didn't waver, but now that Dino was looking at him, he could see that his watchfulness hadn't really slackened either. He was a lot less relaxed than he seemed at first glance.

Dino shook that bit of disconcertion off and looked around; the Poison Scorpion was watching him, arms folded across her chest. It gave him the same feeling that he'd gotten around her the first time Reborn had shown up with a skinny, hard-eyed girl trailing after him. He didn't like being jeered at any more now than he had then, which was the devil that prompted him to bow to her and say, "And we're lucky enough to have you join us this afternoon, Miss Falco?"

Her non-expression froze for the space of a heartbeat; the Smoking Bomb grunted like he'd been hit. Then, eyes glittering in a way that promised him that he wasn't going to be eating anything with an easy conscience for a while to come, she said, "He had another engagement, so I'm here instead. But please, let's not stand on ceremony. Do call me Bianchi."

"I'd be delighted, of course." Dino turned back to Tsunako. "But aren't we missing someone? Your charming friend, Miss Miura?"

Tsunako was looking back and forth between the Poison Scorpion and her brother and frowning. It took her a moment to realize she'd been addressed; when she did, she blinked at him. "She's still at school. She won't be able to get across town in time to join us."

"Perhaps another time." Dino clapped his hands together. "I suppose we can be moving along, then. May I offer you a ride?"

Tsunako checked with the Poison Scorpion before she nodded. "That would be nice."

Dino beamed at them all and gestured at the car—roomy enough, though they'd probably be a bit crowded. The Poison Scorpion contrived to fall in next to him in the ensuing shuffle. "Pull another stunt like that and you'll only wish you'd come down with food poisoning." Her lips barely moved as she ground that out.

"My apologies." Dino smiled at her with every bit of the sincerity her own smile held. "But I believe that we are supposed to be an object lesson."

"There are all kinds of object lessons," she promised him before sliding into the car.

Dino grinned at nothing at all, feeling like he'd gotten back some of the afternoon a few years back that he'd spent puking his socks up and praying for death, and squeezed himself into the car after her.

Bianchi wanted nothing more than to stand back, fade into the background, and take a few minutes to herself under the guise of letting the kids entertain Cavallone (that bastard, that condescending son of a bitch), but that wasn't going to happen. No, having made the parameters of this object lesson quite clear, Cavallone insisted on dancing attendance on her, twisting himself in his seat to pepper her with questions since the kids were more or less preoccupied with Hayato. (At least her brother was looking less sick at this point, less caught in his own horror show and more like himself, short-tempered and irritated by Kyouko and Yamamoto's attention.) Which was just as well, though she'd still like to shove a poison cookie or three down Cavallone's stupid throat for his carelessness. Goddamn it, Reborn had trained Cavallone better than that.

But since the kids were busy, it was up to Bianchi to answer Cavallone's questions about the shrine they were going to visit. "I don't know," she said when he asked her what sort of shrine it was, and "I don't know," when he wanted to know whether she'd been there before. "It won't be too crowded, no," when he asked whether there would be many people there with them. There wouldn't, of course; she and Reborn and then Romario had vetted the sites of these excursions carefully. No sense in exposing two Families to unnecessary risks, of course. The ordinary kind of unnecessary risk, at any rate. The Reborn kind of unnecessary risk was unavoidable.

Cavallone smiled at her then, all white teeth and tanned skin and affable charm. "Oh, doesn't that sound nice? Practically romantic, even."

Bianchi fantasized about punching his teeth down his throat and let that be the source of her smile. "Do you really think so? The thought hadn't even occurred to me."

"No?" Cavallone waited a beat before he added, "What a pity."

"I find that I have quite enough to think about without mooning over the romantic potential of the architecture," Bianchi said.

He just laughed, the bastard, looking quite honestly amused. "That is a pity. Mooning is great fun."

"I'm sure you would know best," Bianchi retorted, as lightly as she could manage and conscious that the kids had let their own conversation lapse so they could listen and watch. "Isn't that your specialty?"

"I do have a knack for it," he agreed, easily enough. "It's one of the few things I'm really good at."

He lied beautifully, really. And well. Bianchi just hoped that Kyouko was taking good notes.

Dino had to step quickly to be able to place himself so that he could hand the girls down from the SUV, since they seemed perfectly willing to follow the Poison Scorpion's lead in doing it for themselves. Romario made faces at him for it, but what was life without a little risk? Besides which, some things happened on autopilot once he was in full social butterfly mode, and being gentlemanly about getting the door for ladies was one of those things.

Tsunako blinked at him when he offered her a hand, looking more baffled than anything else. Kyouko took his hand with a calm smile, as if she had expected it all along, and Dino filed that away to talk over with Romario later. If Reborn had allowed the Vongola heir to collect these people around her, there had to be a reason for it. They'd certainly closed ranks around the Smoking Bomb quickly enough during the drive out to this shrine.

But that would be for later. For now, he looked at the wooded hills around them, all bare of leaves, and let his mouth run off for a bit about how charming it all looked while he stretched out his back and Romario and the Poison Scorpion swept the area for potential problems. When they nodded to each other, Dino beamed and looked around the little parking lot. "So where is this shrine?" he asked, even as he sidled towards the Poison Scorpion, as if he couldn't see the perfectly obvious gates or the steps rising up beyond them.

Kyouko was the one who stepped forward, social director or tour guide style, and pointed. "This way," she said. She'd been the one who had generated most of the ideas for these excursions, for that matter. It was interesting, to be sure, since Tsunako had deferred to that direction willingly enough.

"Oh, I see! Fantastic, lead on, and all that." Dino fell into step with the Poison Scorpion, which meant falling back as Romario took point for the group.

The Poison Scorpion acted as if she hadn't noticed him, though Dino didn't buy that for a second, and followed after the kids. She searched the surrounding trees with her gaze, either expecting assailants to come pouncing out of them or hoping for it. Dino couldn't tell which.

So much for her being amenable to playing along with this lesson for Tsunako's benefit. Even Romario couldn't be right all the time, Dino supposed.

He comforted himself with the thought of the Cizeta crumbling under the combined pressure of the Cavallone and the Vongola, and made shocked sounds at the prospect of the steep steps leading up to the shrine. "Good Lord, would you look at those." He eyed the narrow, steep rise of the stone staircase and offered his elbow to Bianchi. "May I? Those look a bit treacherous."

If he were any judge at all—and he thought he was—the Poison Scorpion's first impulse was to tell him exactly what he could do with that elbow, but she managed a smile, one like razors in candy floss, and said, "Oh, I think it would be better if you didn't. It would be terrible if you forgot to mind yourself while you were trying to attend to me."

Then she all but danced up the steps ahead of him to catch up with the kids while he tried to decide whether that had been only a threat or also a veiled reference to the clumsiness of his teenaged years.

The things he did for Reborn, Dino reflected, and began the climb up those steps with a sigh and the knowledge that it was going to be a long afternoon.

"You don't seem to be laughing this evening," Reborn said once they had compared notes about the afternoon's expedition, which had mostly involved a lot of Cavallone wittering on like an idiot and Bianchi deflecting his attempts to be solicitous of her person.

Bianchi shrugged, trusting that Reborn would see it, or sense it, or infer it. Whatever. "I suppose the reality of it is sinking in." That was better than any other answer she might make, given Reborn's tolerance for whining or anything like whining. His lack of tolerance, rather. "Can tell it's been a while since Cavallone's spent much time with you, though."


"He's a lot more confident these days." Bianchi leaned her head against the bole of the tree, choosing her words and tone carefully. "Very sure of his place in the world these days."

"That was the general goal," Reborn murmured, with a thoughtful edge to the words. "He's the head of a Family, after all."

"Yeah," Bianchi said. "I think he's definitely figured that out. Well done, mission accomplished, all that."

Reborn made an interested sound. "You don't sound as if you think the mission is accomplished."

"I'm biased," Bianchi said, not bothering to keep her tone from going flat. "He greeted me as 'Miss Falco' today." It still stung, even now—her former name and everything it had once meant. Everything she'd walked away from, with good reason, and everything she'd surrendered in so doing. "The point definitely went to his side. At least it gives me plenty of motivation for the role I'm playing in this lesson." Stupid, smug Cavallone and his condescending face—not if he were the last man on earth. She'd throw in with Kyouko before she'd succumb to Cavallone's blandishments.

"Hm," Reborn said, and that was all.

Bianchi didn't smile, though she was tempted to, content as she was that she had planted a seed in Reborn's mind.

The presence of the Smoking Bomb among Tsunako's entourage was easy enough to explain—like the Poison Scorpion, he had clearly been retained to guard the Ninth's heir. He did it well, too, from what Dino had observed, continuing to put himself between Tsunako and anyone from the Cavallone whenever they met. "I think it's more than just another job for him," Dino said after another day of squiring the kids around, this time to view a late Tokugawa-period castle, and flirting with the Poison Scorpion, who was even less impressed with him than a real scorpion would have been and had no end of chilly methods of repressing his attempts to make up to her.

"Mm." Romario ruminated on that and nodded. "It does seem that way."

Dino shook his head; it wasn't his Family or his problem, thank God for that, though he supposed that as long as Reborn worked for the Ninth, the Ninth could rest assured that even the messiest of problems wouldn't trouble him for long.

Takeshi made sense as well, once Giulio brought the news that CEDEF had once had an agent by the name of Yamamoto Tsuyoshi, who had retired to be with his wife and infant son. If Reborn wanted to see Takeshi started in his father's footsteps, this was a fine way of accomplishing it.

What Dino couldn't make sense of, what had stymied Romario as well, were the girls. Kyouko and Haru, both completely ordinary and yet apparently cognizant that their dear friend Tsunako was a mafia princess.

"Maybe they're there to help Tsunako make the transition?" he suggested, though with a number of doubts, because he had trouble seeing Reborn being that gentle or generous. But Tsunako was a girl. Maybe that made the difference (God in heaven knew that Reborn hadn't bothered being gentle with him).

"Maybe," Romario said, sounding especially uncertain. "But it doesn't seem at all like Reborn."

"No, it doesn't." Dino closed the folder on Tsunako's circle of friends and bodyguards, frowning back at his right hand. "I think we have to assume that there's more to it than what we can see. Keep working on them, will you?"

"Of course, Boss." Romario nodded and even pretended that he hadn't been planning to do that anyway. How old would his girls have been by this point? Fourteen—no, a little older. Seventeen, maybe even eighteen. God, the time went fast. "How are you progressing with Miss Bianchi?"

They were alone in his office, so Dino permitted himself to make the face. "Thank God this is only for Tsunako's benefit," he said while Romario chuckled. "You know, every time I open my mouth, I swear she comes up with a new way to kill me. I bet she has a list that she's keeping somewhere." Sometimes he thought of Romeo Vieri and raised a glass to the man's sheer brass.

"A list? Really, Boss." Romario gave him a look filled with disapproval. "She would never be that sloppy. Reborn trained her."

"Thank you for that vote of confidence, Romario. I appreciate it, truly I do."

Romario spread his hands and shrugged. "She's a hitman, boss. You know that as well as I do. I fully expect she has ideas about how she might kill all of us. That doesn't mean that she isn't a charming young lady in her own right."

Dino elected not to address that. Romario had always been softer on the Poison Scorpion than had made sense, but then, one had to make allowances. "I'm afraid I have to take your word for it."

Romario huffed through his mustache and favored Dino with a long, serious look. "You cannot assume that Miss Bianchi is from the same mold as the women you normally spend your time with." Such was Romario's skill that all his opinions regarding Dino's previous dalliances came through that perfectly clearly. "Nor is she truly from the same mold as the daughters of the other Families. To treat her as if she were is a mistake. You will need to remember that if you wish to get anywhere with her."

"I'll remember that if I ever lose my mind and decide to commit suicide by cyanide soufflé," Dino told him, amused. "Honestly, Romario. Have you forgotten that I'm not actually trying to entice the Poison Scorpion into bed?"

Romario sighed through his mustache. "If you're going to do something for show, you should do it well."

"And I am doing it well," Dino retorted. "Reborn wants the kids to see what men and women in the mafia do. Well?" He raised his eyebrows. "What am I doing that's out of line with that?"

Romario sighed again. "A fair point. Shall we move on, Boss?"

"We might as well," Dino agreed, since they'd exhausted that topic pretty thoroughly. "It sounds like the Momofukai might be responsive, don't you think?"

The problem, as Dino was quickly coming to see, was that Namimori was a quiet little town, and the kids were—well, they were kids. It made perfect sense that Sawada Iemitsu would have removed his family to Namimori, because it was a sheltered place, very remote from the affairs of the mafia and therefore a very safe place for the Vongola heir and next boss to grow up, which was all fine and good, but for the fact that Dino was used to a bit more excitement in his life. And as useful as it was to have this chance to size up the Vongola Tenth and to court her friendship, there were only so many temples he cared to visit and only so many landmarks he could make enthusiastic noises over before boredom got the better of him, even with the diversion of flattering the Poison Scorpion outrageously and keeping tally of the ways she had of ignoring him or outright rebuffing his advances. (The best was when he came up with something so over the top that even she had to smile a little even while she was delivering yet another rejection. Sometimes, when he considered how much fun it might have been to have her playing along, he was almost sorry that they'd gotten off to the rough start.)

He just hoped the kids were taking notes and that none of this made it back home. He had appearances to keep, after all.

The winter sun was sitting on the horizon when Tsunako called an end to another day's excursion—this time to a rather nice little museum of antiquities that had bored Takeshi, fascinated Haru and the Smoking Bomb, and diverted the rest of them to varying degrees. Romario and the Poison Scorpion had come to an accommodation: she whisked Tsunako away and they let her get the kid at least ten minutes away before trying to leave. It was a polite fiction—finding out where Sawada Nana and Tsunako lived wouldn't have been all that challenging for the Cavallone—but on such polite fictions rested the foundations of civilized society. Dino was perfectly willing to tarry a little longer in the gift shop regardless and was playing with the toy replicas, when Romario stiffened and cleared his throat.

The Smoking Bomb had come back, and his expression was grim as he threaded his way through the racks of replica swords and posters and curios to plant himself in front of Dino. "I'd like a word with you," he announced, jaw set at a pugnacious angle. "Man to man."

Dino resisted his first impulse (to point out that he was very sure that the Smoking Bomb wasn't even shaving yet) and said, "Shall we step outside?"

"That would be good, yeah." The Smoking Bomb turned and marched back out of the shop as Dino exchanged glances with Romario and followed.

Dino wondered whether he'd done something that the Smoking Bomb felt impugned Tsunako's honor as they made for a little corner of the plaza outside the museum. He couldn't think of what he might have done, but even an afternoon's observation was more than enough to show that the Smoking Bomb was devoted to Tsunako and more protective of her than Dino would have expected of a hired hitman-cum-bodyguard. What Dino hadn't yet figured out was why Tsunako had inspired such devotion.

The Smoking Bomb planted himself in that secluded nook and immediately reached for a cigarette, making Romario tense up.

Dino gestured at him to stand down, doubting that even a hotheaded hitman like the Smoking Bomb would try to kill him in so public a place. "What was it you wanted to say to me?"

The Smoking Bomb folded an arm across his chest, gripping the opposite elbow as he took a drag on his cigarette. "So do you just not know how to take a hint or what?" he demanded. His voice was hard. Angry. "Or do you just not care?"

Dino deliberately waited, counting off a solid five seconds before allowing himself to respond to that. "I'm afraid you'll have to give me a little more to work with than that. Care about what, precisely?" No sense in playing dumb and frivolous with the Smoking Bomb, who clearly didn't buy it for a second and knew better anyway. The hitmen always did.

The Smoking Bomb scowled. "My sister." He all but bit the words out. "She's not interested in you." The you asshole was implicit in the tone and twist of his mouth. "She's done everything but taken out a billboard to make that clear, but apparently you haven't noticed that, so let me help. Leave her alone. She's not interested. If you can't keep it in your pants, then find someone else to bother."

Romario's posture turned stiffer with every word the Smoking Bomb uttered, and Dino had to bite his tongue to keep the first outraged retort he wanted to make behind his teeth—how dare the Smoking Bomb imply that he'd press his attentions on someone who had made her disinterest clear? Or that he'd need to do such a thing?—and forced himself to consider the context and what he knew of Reborn. It still took a considerable effort to keep his voice even when he said, "I am quite aware of that, thank you. If you had spoken to your sister, you would know that this is nothing more than an elaborate game of charades."

The Smoking Bomb narrowed his eyes. "Explain."

He wasn't dealing with another Family's hired hitman here. He was dealing with a pissed-off brother, so Dino forced himself to make an allowance for that peremptory command. "Reborn wanted a demonstration of flirtatious behavior for the Vongola heir. The Poison Scorpion and I are obliging him."

The Smoking Bomb took a drag on his cigarette, still scowling. "He didn't say anything to us."

"Reborn doesn't generally share his plans with anyone unless he thinks it's strictly necessary," Dino retorted.

The Smoking Bomb frowned, but that seemed to resonate with him. "So this is all just a show," he said, testing the words.

"Of course it's just a show," Dino snapped, nettled by how little the Smoking Bomb seemed to think of him. "What kind of man do you think I am?"

The Smoking Bomb just gave him a look that was too old for his years. "You're not a hitman," he said. "You don't know how it can be. And it's not like she can just kill you if you won't take no for an answer." He took another drag of his cigarette, looking away from them both. HIs jaw was still tight. "And it's not like Reborn said anything to the rest of us, so all I had to go off of is what I could see." He glanced at Dino, looking him over, then shook his head. "Sorry. I misunderstood. Forget I said anything."

"It's already forgotten," Dino said, as graciously as he could manage that particular polite fiction. "I'll see you tomorrow, I assume?"

"Yeah," the Smoking Bomb said. "I guess." He dipped a clipped nod at them both and walked away.

Dino waited until he was out of sight to slam his fist against his palm and swear. "That little asshole."

Romario's response was more measured. "He's very young, in some ways."

"Young. Yeah." Dino ran a hand over his face, thinking. "And lucky I'm willing to overlook that." Even if it had been done for the sake of his sister… "Why the hell didn't he just say something to her first?"

Romario made a sound, noncommittal. "That does seem peculiar." He paused for a moment, then added, "They do seem to have a strained relationship. More so than is usual than for siblings of that age."

That was something he'd have to defer to Romario's experience on. "Yeah." Dino glanced at his watch. "Guess I'll have to mention it to her myself." Wouldn't do for an ally to have that kind of hole in her ranks, especially not with someone as volatile as the Smoking Bomb. "Let's get out of here, eh?"

"The car's already on the way, Boss," Romario said, so Dino let go of his irritation in favor of that.

Bianchi checked the time when she arrived at the rendezvous point and found only Cavallone and Romario there, but no, she was precisely on time—so where were the kids? She'd barely had time for the sharp stab of unease to lance through her when a text from Reborn appeared on her phone. Running late, it said. ETA 10 minutes.

She exhaled, relieved, and slid the phone back into her pocket. Not trouble after all, just scheduling issues. That left her alone with Cavallone, but if she could weather his smarm in company, then ten minutes of privacy wouldn't be unbearable. She didn't have to play by the rules if the kids weren't around.

Cavallone's bright, empty-headed smile vanished off his face when he saw that she was alone. "You're on your own?" He looked a lot less irritating without the stupid grin.

"The kids are running late." Bianchi took up a spot against the wall, one that would let her see both directions down the street, and nodded to Romario, who smiled back. "Should be ten minutes."

"Ah. Actually, that's good. I needed to speak with you about something." Cavallone tucked his own phone back into his pocket and straightened out of his slouch. "Were you aware that your brother doubled back to speak to me the other day?"

Hayato had doubled back…? Bianchi blinked, thinking that over—Hayato had said there was an errand he'd needed to run, had split off from their group after the museum trip. That must have been when he'd done it. "No, as a matter of fact, I didn't know." God damn it, what kind of bug had gotten into Hayato's head now?

"I thought he might not have." Cavallone looked serious for a change, like the boss he was purported to be. Compared to the gangling, clumsy idiot he'd used to be, it was a marked improvement. Reborn did good work. "Someone had better speak to him about confronting allied Families with half-baked intelligence."

Oh, fuck. "What did he do?" Bianchi did her best not to groan it, but honestly, Hayato wasn't sane when it came to protecting Tsunako, he really wasn't, and he still hadn't resigned himself to Cavallone's presence so near her. "God, I'm sorry, he's really touchy about Tsunako—"

She stopped at the flicker of Cavallone's puzzlement. "Tsunako didn't come up," he said. "It was more of a personal conversation than that. Perhaps someone should remind him to check in with his employers before making accusations. Especially if one of his employers is Reborn."

Bianchi stared at Cavallone, trying to decipher that. Of all the times for the man to demonstrate subtlety…! "What was it that he said to you?"

Cavallone frowned. "It seemed that he didn't realize what kind of lessons you and I are demonstrating for Tsunako."

The implication was plain, but Bianchi stared at Cavallone's stony expression (he was still miffed over whatever Hayato had said to him, obviously) and had trouble reconciling it with the thought of Hayato doing something like that for her. Of all people. She and Hayato could manage a civil conversation these days, but total strangers could generally manage that. "I… see," she said, carefully, since Cavallone didn't need to know how very shocking that was. It was personal, anyway, except for the intersection with Family business. "I apologize. I had been under the impression that Reborn would be briefing him on that. Apparently Reborn changed his mind."

Some of the chill went out of Cavallone's eyes, replaced by resignation, maybe, or curiosity. "Of course he did. And if we ask him for a reason for that, he'll just tell us it was a test." He shook his head. "I think he just likes playing with people's minds." Yes, that was definitely resignation.

"He would say that he's doing you a favor," Bianchi found herself saying. "He's teaching you not to let yourself be a victim of mind games."

Cavallone's laugh was short, almost like a bark. "Hah! Yes, that does sound like something he'd say." He shook his head again. "Talk to the Smoking Bomb. It seems like he might be more vulnerable to those games than the other kids."

She couldn't really disagree with that, and settled for making a neutral noise in her throat as a reply. That earned her half a smile, then Romario cleared his throat, breaking in. "Is that them?"

"Ahead of schedule," Bianchi said, drawing the goggles down from their perch on top of her head and settling them into place while Cavallone tucked away all his serious edges and turned into the blond social butterfly right before her eyes. He turned that vacuous smile on her again and offered his arm. "Shall we go meet them?"

Bianchi ignored him and stalked off to meet the kids without him. She was going to have to speak to Reborn; this game had gone on for long enough, surely.

Reborn only said, "Didn't I tell him what was going on? How careless of me, I must have forgotten."

Bianchi took that to mean that he had had his own agenda and made a face at him over it. "It's not nice to leave your partner in the dark," she reminded him, for all the good that was likely to do her.

"Don't worry, you're doing just fine," he assured her, as though her performance of her role in whatever little drama he was directing was her only concern. In fairness, she supposed it technically was.

Which provided an opening, after a fashion. "How much longer do you expect this to go on, Reborn?"

He didn't answer, not right away, and not directly once he did speak. "I think I'll have him join us this weekend. That will be useful, don't you think?"

"I think you're going to do whatever you've already made up your mind to do, whatever I have to say about it." And it sounded like they weren't done with Cavallone yet, either.

"Was there something that you wanted to say?"

"Nothing worth saying," she said after a moment to consider it. There were plenty worse duties in the world compared to this one. "Are you going to tell me what you've cooked up for the weekend?"

"And ruin the surprise?" Reborn did a good imitation of shocked; Bianchi awarded him full credit for it. "Don't be ridiculous."

Bianchi shook her head and assumed that whatever it was he had up his sleeves, it would be something elaborate and only fitting considering the fact that he had all his students in one place.

"Camping," Dino said, blankly, when he and Romario presented themselves at the appointed place and time, per Reborn's instructions. (Romario had said, "It's like they think you have nothing else to do, Boss," which was a pretty severe complaint for Romario.) "We're going camping. In this weather?" The sky overhead was grey with low, scudding clouds, a clear reminder that though January was drawing to its close, winter was not yet over.

The kids were a study: Tsunako heaved a sigh and looked resigned. Takeshi was grinning, looking like the prospect of going camping in cold weather was all good fun. The Smoking Bomb didn't have much expression at all, though he kept glaring Dino's way anytime he thought no one was watching him.

Reborn, that diabolical creature, just smiled at them all from his perch on Takeshi's shoulder. "Camping. It will be a Vongola endurance trial."

"Oh my God," Dino said, because it was never a good sign when Reborn started invoking Family names and ascribing traditions to them. He still had nightmares about the Cavallone survival contest and he was pretty sure Romario was saving the pictures of the Cavallone cooking challenge for a special occasion.

Before he could school himself—he was supposed to be full of useless, fribbling chatter and not presentiments of doom—Tsunako smiled at him, more self-assured than he'd seen her before. I know, her smile said, full of fellow-feeling. I know exactly what you mean. And we both know that resistance is futile, don't we?

And of course, trying to weasel out of it was going to be useless. Not that Dino planned on letting that stop him. "Er, Reborn," he said, recovering some of his equanimity and casting about for some way of escaping. "This is really a charming idea, but I think I may need to decline—we were expecting a rather important phone call this afternoon—"

"Which is why you have a right hand, of course," Reborn said, serene. "Romario will be staying behind."

Dino looked at Romario, who looked apologetic and shrugged—betrayal from his most trusted Family member. "Et tu, Romario?" Dino asked him, reproachful, though that did explain why Romario had taken the time to make sure he was dressed warmly before they'd set out.

"It's just one night, Boss," Romario told him.

"I hope that's what you put on my tombstone after I've been eaten by bears," Dino muttered.

"Does Japan even have bears?" the Poison Scorpion asked, sounding far too amused about the whole thing.

"I bet they do now," Tsunako said, which sounded just about right to Dino, because he frankly would not have put it past Reborn to import a few bears to make a point.

"Can't we go camping at a hotel?" he tried, even as Reborn ordered him to divest himself of his phone—there would be no calling for help or pizza, apparently. "I know a nice four-star hotel. It'll be very rustic!"

"You've got to be the only man in the world would call a four-star hotel rustic," the Poison Scorpion said, rolling her eyes and shoving a backpack at him.

"Well, it is," Dino countered, watching Romario retreat to the car and wishing he had the balls to run after him. Reborn would only chase him down if he tried it, though, and "If you compare them to the five-star hotels, the difference is clear."

"I'll take your word for it," she said, shouldering her own pack.

The teasing reply came almost automatically; since he could flirt practically in his sleep and was preoccupied with thoughts of the ordeal ahead. "Why do that? I could show you the difference."

It had been the wrong thing to say—their pretend courtship hadn't ever reached the level of a blatant proposition—and Dino saw that he'd overstepped himself when her expression froze for a split-second. Then she said, chilly as the wind coming down off the mountain, "I don't believe I heard that correctly."

Damn. Just when she'd begun to thaw out, too. "Sorry, it came out badly," he said, lightly because Tsunako was watching and the Smoking Bomb wasn't even pretending not to scowl. "I meant that we could try out a hotel instead of camping. All of us. A Cavallone luxury trial."

"That sounds better than a Vongola endurance test," Tsunako said, wistful, while the Poison Scorpion turned away from him and faced up the mountainside.

"Out of the question," Reborn said, which ended the conversation. "Let's go, we're wasting time."

Dino resigned himself to his fate and hoisted the backpack onto his shoulders and staggered—mugging for the kids, mostly. "God, what's in here, rocks?" he asked while Reborn waved a hand at Tsunako and she set off, making her way up the trail that led off into the trees.

The Poison Scorpion just rolled her eyes at him again and waved him ahead of her.

Reborn encouraged them to race each other up the side of the mountain by means of announcing that the Poison Scorpion would be doing the cooking herself unless someone managed to get to their projected camp site ahead of her (Dino pulled ahead of the Smoking Bomb at the very end of their pell-mell scramble up the trail, probably because the Smoking Bomb, well, smoked too much). Tsunako and Takeshi kept pace with them, even though they looked a little puzzled by their panic—clearly, Dino thought, bracing himself with his hands on his knees and panting for breath, clearly they had never experienced a bad bout of food poisoning.

Actually, that Takeshi had kept up wasn't surprising—athlete, it made sense—but he wouldn't have thought it of Tsunako, unassuming as she was.

Reborn bounced down from Takeshi's shoulder and came over to kick Dino's ankle. "You've gotten out of condition." He frowned up at Dino, disapproval radiating off him. "I thought I trained you better than that."

"It's been a busy quarter, Reborn, c'mon." Between the Cizeta and the Frentani, not to mention the upheaval between the Vongola and Cetrulli… who had time to stay in perfect condition?

Reborn was as impressed by that as he ever was by excuses, which was to say not at all. "You're going to give me a bad name," he sniffed. Then he clapped his hands. "All right, it's time to begin the Vongola endurance challenge."

"Begin?" Dino echoed, and oh yeah, he remembered this from the Reborn Years, how Reborn piled challenge on top of challenge, always asking for more whether a guy had anything left to give or not.

The Poison Scorpion rolled her eyes—he remembered that, too, the way she was perpetually unimpressed. "Just like old times," she said, dropping her pack and stretching her back, fists pressed to the small of it. "I thought you would have grown out of the whining stage by now, Cavallone."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said while Reborn marshaled the kids and began explaining the completely arbitrary, semi-sadistic rules of the Vongola endurance challenge. There was going to be more running, Dino could see it coming, and some more climbing, and probably fighting something, knowing Reborn (bears; Dino was betting on bears). The Poison Scorpion, he couldn't help noticing, didn't have to take part in any of this nonsense—she got to be the referee along with Reborn.

The winter air was brisk, but by the time they broke for lunch (bento from her mother, Tsunako informed him when he asked), Dino was sweaty and already grubby, thanks to a slick path and a tumble downslope.

So much for being the third most powerful boss in the mafia, anyway.

"Oh my God," Dino said, "You do realize I was joking about the bears, right?" Not that this was a bear, exactly. Wrong branch of the animal kingdom's tree for that, though he supposed a giant rampaging reptile was in keeping for Japan. He danced back out of its way, keeping himself between Tsunako and the snapping turtle (where had Reborn found a snapping turtle the size of an SUV, anyway?).

"Yeah, thanks for giving Reborn that idea," Tsunako said, sounding more resigned than anything else.

"I don't think he really needed the help," the Poison Scorpion said, hands full of poison cooking. "It's probably not Cavallone's fault."

"That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me." Dino grimaced as the giant rampaging turtle menaced the boys, who were trapped on the other side of the clearing. It was apparently more annoyed by the Smoking Bomb's explosives and Takeshi's bat-cum-katana than deterred. Reborn, not surprisingly, had found a nice tree branch from which to observe the proceedings.

"Yeah, well, don't get used to it," the Poison Scorpion said. She hissed through her teeth as the turtle lunged for her brother, who dove out of the way while the thing closed its jaw on a fallen tree instead. The log splintered dramatically. "Okay, what's the plan?"

"Not getting eaten?" Dino suggested at the same time Tsunako said, "Well, we have to stop it."

Right. Technically Tsunako was the student here, wasn't she? "Right," Dino said, deferring to that reality while the turtle crunched the log to pieces. "Any ideas on how we stop a fifteen-foot snapping turtle of doom?"

"Call out the army and let them handle it?" Tsunako said.

The turtle, having reduced the log to so much kindling, began to turn its ponderous weight in search of a new target, but by that point the boys had gotten clear of it and were circling around behind it to regroup with the rest of them.

"Think it might take the army a little while to get here," Takeshi said. "Sorry, Sawada-chan."

"That's what I was afraid of." Tsunako made a small squeaking noise as the turtle managed to turn and caught sight of them.

"I could see if I could get it to swallow a bomb," the Smoking Bomb offered. "That might slow it down."

Dino, who had been about to suggest that now would be a good time to shoot the thing, shut his mouth at the look on Tsunako's face. "Do we have to kill it?" she asked, keeping a wary eye on it. "Can't we just—immobilize it?"

Dino regretfully left his Beretta in his shoulder holster. "Maybe I can be of assistance?" he said, uncoiling his whip instead and ignoring Takeshi's little crow of laughter. ("He really does use a whip!") "I can probably do something about its jaws, at least."

Presumably Reborn would have told him if he weren't supposed to lend a hand when necessary.

Tsunako looked at him—really looked at him, giving him the most peculiar sense that he was being sized up and assessed by a middle-schooler—before she nodded. "Should we make a distraction?" she asked, even as the turtle lumbered forward, madness glittering in its eyes.

"That would be good, yeah, Dino agreed, uncoiling his whip and studying the turtle.

"Right. Gokudera." That was all she said, though it seemed to be enough. The Smoking Bomb sighed and snapped out a bracket of bombs that exploded against the thing's shell. Dino didn't think they'd done any real damage, but the thing hissed and turned in search of that irritation, extending its neck as far as it could go and snapping at the air.

"You know, I really thought these days were behind me," Dino announced, just because it was worth saying, and sighted carefully before cracking the whip. The weighted end of it whistled through the air and wrapped around the turtle's… jaw? Muzzle? Snout? What was the proper terminology for doom-turtle physiology, anyway? And really, why did his life include these kinds of questions?

The turtle didn't like having its jaws wound round with the end of his whip and reared its head back as far as it would go—not very far, but it was enough to drag Dino a step forward. He staggered against the pull and planted his feet wider, bracing them and hauling on the whip. "Okay, guys, what's the rest of the plan?"

"Flip it over?" Takeshi suggested as the turtle lumbered closer and Dino hauled up the slack in his whip. "They can't do much on their backs, right?"

"Oh, God," Tsunako said, sounding appalled and resigned all at once. "Okay, c'mon, let's get this over with."

Heh. He remembered saying that an awful lot himself in his day. And complaints notwithstanding, she moved into action readily enough—like she really had decided that if it had to be done, there was no point in delaying the inevitable. The boys went with her, circling around the side of the turtle and keeping clear of its clawed feet (flippers? No, they looked more like feet) and getting their hands under the edge of the shell.

The turtle didn't seem to notice their efforts and scrabbled forward, apparently intent on dealing with the thing restricting its jaws, until the rocking efforts the kids were making caught its attention. By then it was too late. The kids got it up off the ground, their faces red with the effort, and as the turtle flailed its feet in the air, momentum took over and did the rest.

It looked a lot less terrifying with all four feet waving madly in the air.

"Right," Tsunako said, breathing hard and staring at it. "That was something I never thought I'd have to do." She dusted her hands off. "Now what do we do?"

"Make turtle soup to feed an army?" Dino suggested, watching it thrashing around and rocking on the curve of its shell. He wasn't the only one watching that; after a moment, the Smoking Bomb stooped and picked up a rock and busied himself with wedging it under the turtle's shell.

"We can't just kill it," Tsunako protested.

Dino didn't see why not, since it had seemed pretty eager to do that to them. Before he could say so, Reborn said, "That won't be necessary. It will resume its normal size shortly."

"Another special bullet?" Tsunako groaned as Reborn descended from his perch in the tree.

"Of course." Reborn clapped his hands together. "Now for the Vongola tent-building challenge!"

At least, Dino thought, his was not the only groan to meet that announcement.

"So," Tsunako said later—much later, after they had wrestled the tents up and pooled their collective vocabularies of profanity; Dino didn't know how he felt about knowing that he'd taught the Vongola Tenth to say things like cocksucking bastard son of a ratfaced whore in three different languages, but neither Reborn nor Bianchi had tried to stop him, so it must have been sort of okay—and after they'd put together a fire and delegated all the cooking to Takeshi, such cooking as it was, with things out of packets—after that, Tsunako looked up from her packet of reconstituted noodles and said, wistful, "So tell me more about that four-star hotel, Dino-san?"

He was thinking of that hotel himself, rather sadly, because the night air was cold in spite of the fire and he was pretty sure the ground was going to be even colder. And harder. Lots harder. "Another weekend, maybe, to make up for this one. No giant snapping turtles, either."

"Someone else will handle that lesson," Reborn said. "Besides, shouldn't you be getting home soon?"

Jesus. That was harsher than he'd expected it to be. Dino cleared his throat and smiled, vague and well-meaning. "Oh, I dunno. Romario makes noises like I should, but home can soldier on without me. Not like I need to supervise every last little thing." God forbid that he should let the Cavallone get to that state again.

Reborn just snorted. "Stop being so lazy and get back to work. You've clearly been slacking too much."

Welp. So that was that. Lovely. Dino smiled across the campfire at Tsunako. "Ah, well. A raincheck, then. Or better, you can come and visit sometime, the next time you're in Italy. I'll throw a party, it'll be fantastic." At least the Smoking Bomb looked pleased at the prospect of seeing the back of him. Which reminded him. "Though I am going to miss the sight of your lovely face, Miss Bianchi."

"I find that hard to believe," she said, not looking up from where she was stirring the fire.

Dino laid his hand over his heart. "You wound me."

"I wish," she muttered. And so much for society manners, though perhaps there wasn't any need for those now that Reborn had called for an end to the lesson.

But never let it be said that a Cavallone was not gracious. Dino smiled at her, bright and sweet. "Another time for that too, maybe."

At least it made her snort.

It was late—very late, well past the time for Tsunako to have fallen asleep. Bianchi could hear at least one set of snores coming from the boys' tent, in fact. But Tsunako wasn't asleep; she shifted in her sleeping bag from time to time. Bianchi assumed that it was because of the hardness of the ground or the presences of a rock—she had a bit of knobbly root poking her own shoulder and could sympathize—but eventually Tsunako said, quiet, "Bianchi-san?"

"Yeah, kiddo?" Wasn't like she was asleep either, after all.

Tsunako's sleeping bag rustled; Bianchi's night vision was just good enough to see that Tsunako had wriggled around to look her way. "Why did Cavallone-san really come to Japan?" Her voice was quiet in the darkness.

"Reborn invited him." That was the reward; when Tsunako asked the right questions, she got the answers to them that were true. "Why do you ask?"

"He looked funny when Reborn asked him whether he didn't have things to do at home. Italy, I mean. Like he was surprised. Or sad, or something." Tsunako didn't sound hesitant. Generally she didn't when she was unpacking some bit of intuition, though she hadn't noticed herself doing things like that yet. "But it seemed a little strange, if he's only here to meet me and have a vacation. He's not, is he?"

"No, he isn't." Bianchi waited to see whether Tsunako would keep pushing for more.

She did. "If it's not that, then what is he doing here?"

"Some business with the yakuza, but that's mostly a cover." Bianchi paused then, considering the next part carefully. "Reborn thought there might be some things you could learn from him."

"Like what? All he's really done is flirt with you." Tsunako's tone turned dubious. "I don't think I'd be any good with a whip." Bianchi stayed silent, marveling again at the Vongola intuition. Tsunako puzzled through her silence fairly quickly. "You're kidding, right? You have to be."

"Someday you'll have to deal with men flirting and flattering you because they're trying to get something," Bianchi said, as gently as she could. "Reborn felt it would be good for you to see how that works before you have to deal with it."

"Oh my god." Tsunako all but moaned it. "That's ridiculous, no one's going to—"

"Yes, they will." Best not to let her delude herself on that score. "For all kinds of reasons, probably. There are plenty of ways to handle it when the time comes, but you should know that sex is just one more weapon for some people." Kyouko already knew that, which was both disturbing and comforting; Haru had a pretty good line on behavioral patterns herself. It was just Tsunako who worried Bianchi.

"I thought… Cavallone-san liked you?" Tsunako ventured, voice small. "That wasn't… real?"

"Cavallone's not for the likes of me," Bianchi said by way of easing into it. "He's the third-ranked Family head, remember. Whenever he gets tired of living the bachelor life, he'll settle down with a respectable wife. One of the nice girls who'll bring him a useful set of political connections or something financially advantageous. Or both. He's much smarter than he looks and acts."

"But… I thought you actually did like him?" Tsunako said, still sounding small and sad.

It was just as well that it was dark; Tsunako couldn't see her grimace. Perhaps the Vongola intuition wasn't all it was cracked up to be after all. "Not the way you mean, kiddo, but I guess he's a likable enough guy. Practically the walking definition of charisma, you know?" Bianchi turned her head away from the dark huddle of Tsunako's sleeping bag, considering it a little bit more. "And he's actually a decent human being. Kept it strictly to flirting. Some guys, they like to throw their weight around, you know? He didn't, which was nice." Which probably she shouldn't have said, since that was the kind of thing that would freak Tsunako out. Oops. "But even if I did like him like that, it doesn't matter. I'm not a nice girl. As I said: he's not for the likes of me."

"Then all that was… it was a set-up? For my benefit?" Tsunako sounded appalled. "You had to do it?"

"Well, yeah?" Bianchi cast about for some way to explain. "Just another part of the job, and it wasn't like it was horrible. Cavallone's nice, like I said. And a gentleman."

Tsunako made a sound, something strangled. Horrified. "What if he hadn't been?"

"You do the job in front of you," Bianchi said. "I'm a hitman, kiddo. I would have managed."

"That's not right," Tsunako whispered. "Bianchi-san, it isn't right. You shouldn't have to do things like that." Her voice lost some of the shaking edge. "You're not going to. Not anymore."

It was touching, but not quite accurate. Bianchi sighed. "But you don't get to make that decision. I'm not your Family. I work for the Ninth. Reborn's the one who's in charge here. If he tells me to flirt with Cavallone so you can see what that looks like, then that's what I'll do."

"What do you mean, you're not my Family?" Tsunako said. "Of course you're my Family!"

Bianchi had to breathe carefully around the sudden aching twist in her chest. "No," she said, very softly. "You haven't asked me to be. We haven't promised any loyalty to each other." Not like Tsunako had done with Takeshi and Hayato, or even with Kyouko and Haru, however implicitly. "I'm a freelancer. The Ninth hired me. I don't have a Family, Tsunako. Not anymore."

"But—I thought you—I'm just a job?" Tsunako said, sounding horribly lost.

Bianchi sat up and reached across the little space between their sleeping bags, groping for Tsunako's shoulder. "Hey. You're not just a job," she said fiercely. "You're my friend and my student and I'm so very proud of you. Don't ever think otherwise. But you're also my mission. I have to keep you safe and make sure you know the things you'll need to keep yourself safe. That's what it means to be a hitman. You do your job, no matter what. If you can't do that, you have no business hiring yourself out in the first place." That was what being a hitman meant. Even if it cost your life, or broke your heart, or took everything you had. You did the job in front of you.

"But it was a job at first," Tsunako said after a moment, gone still under Bianchi's hand. "Does that really count?"

"Why shouldn't it?" The air was really too chilly to be sitting up like this without the sleeping bag to ward it off, but Bianchi didn't bother with that. Some things were just more important.

"All this only came about because of the mafia." Tsunako's voice was very quiet. "The only reason any of you are here in the first place is because of that." There was a tone in her voice that Bianchi didn't like, one that she hadn't heard in a long time. So much for assuming that the girl had put away those doubts that had plagued her.

"So what?" Bianchi prodded her shoulder. "You think that's the reason anyone stays? Haven't I taught you any better than that? Money, connections, Family names—they only get you so far. And yeah, that's a pretty big deal. But that's not everything. There are thing that go deeper than the kind of loyalty you can buy for money. Loyalty that doesn't have anything to do with money and has everything to do with who you are and what you stand for. And if that gets started in a hired job, so what? It's still real."

"Is it really?" Tsunako's voice was very small, like a child asking for reassurance that the monsters under the bed weren't there.

"Yeah, it is." Bianchi sighed and squeezed Tsunako's shoulder. "Think of it like this: if it hadn't been for the Vongola, we wouldn't have had the chance to meet you. You know? So maybe that's why we're all here, but that's not really the reason we stick around." She squeezed her shoulder again. "Besides. You think Kyouko or Yamamoto really had any idea what they were signing up for before they jumped in with both feet?"

Tsunako made a surprised sound—yeah, that's what Bianchi had thought. Satisfied, she retreated to the warmth of her sleeping bag and congratulated herself on another crisis averted.

Then Tsunako said, softly, "Bianchi-san? Do you want to be a part of my Family?"

She'd had the breath knocked out of her more times than she could remember or count, and a simple question shouldn't have felt anything like a blow to the solar plexus anyway, but this one did. Bianchi gulped for breath against how much she wanted the shelter and security of having a Family and a place again, all the things she'd surrendered without fully realizing their worth and had tried not to begrudge Hayato now that he'd found them again. "I do want that," she said, once she could manage it. "Believe me, I really do."

"But…?" Tsunako said, quiet.

"But that's secondary right now. First I have to finish this job." Which was more than simply guarding Tsunako as Hayato did. Bianchi took a deep breath. "After the Ninth gets done with me, ask me again, if you still want me. Okay? Because I'll be a free agent then. Until then, I'm not. Do you understand?"

"I don't like it," Tsunako said. "You shouldn't have to do things this way."

Bianchi sighed. "Maybe not. But this is how it works."

"It shouldn't be. There ought to be a better way."

Bianchi snorted softly. "Yeah, well. Feel free to come up with one. But until then, this is what we've got." She turned over, rearranging herself more comfortably. "Now go to sleep, yeah? You're going to have to hike back down this mountain tomorrow morning, remember?"

"Yes, Bianchi-san," Tsunako said, obediently enough.

Bianchi closed her eyes, prepared to follow her own advice, and didn't say anything at all when Tsunako's quiet, "I'll figure something out. And I will ask again when this is over," floated through the darkness. Everyone thought they could change the world when they were fourteen. All the same, she smiled.

The quiet murmur of voices from the girls' tent finally fell silent; Dino thought he heard a sigh from the other side of their tent, from the other side of the contentedly sleeping Takeshi, but he might have been mistaken. Not that he was going to check; if the Smoking Bomb had been listening in on his sister and Tsunako's conversation, that was his own business.

They said eavesdroppers never heard anything good about themselves, though that wasn't really true this time. Though perhaps he'd been damned with faint praise. Dino smiled at the canvas over his head, not without a sense of rueful amusement. So he was a nice enough guy and a gentleman just because he'd done precisely what he'd agreed to do and no more? Christ, what a way to set a high standard. It was enough to make a man wonder just who the Poison Scorpion had been working for before Timoteo had hired her. Or what the hell Romeo of the Vieri had done to deserve his fate.

Likable enough. Charismatic. A gentleman. Faint praise, really, from the likes of Bianchi Falco, who'd once moved in her father's circle and had known plenty of likable, charismatic young men. She'd sounded a lot more moved talking about her loyalty to Tsunako. Talking about loyalty itself, sounding like she really did believe in the old-fashioned way of doing things, just like Reborn did and had taught him to do as well.

Who'd have thought there were still people holding onto those ideals among the hitmen of all people? Especially when she didn't have much reason for it. Hadn't, anyway, until now.

Dino sighed. Reborn really did do the strangest things to their heads. It was a wonder how he did it, for someone who packed more cynicism into the cubic centimeter than anyone else Dino had ever met.

All the same, though: likable enough? Really? Ouch.

The problem with camping was not only that it happened out of doors, but that was, perhaps, the root of all camping's many problems. Or something like that. The sun came up awfully early, didn't it? On the other hand, Dino couldn't claim that he was really sleeping when it did—every time he'd tried to drift off, a new rock or root found another place to jab him, so he gave it up as the light of dawn began to creep along the canvas wall of the tent.

He tried not to hate the kids too much for still being sound asleep when he crept out of the tent, though it was difficult when they were both curled up in their sleeping bags and oblivious to the growing light, the chill, or the uneven surface on which they had pitched the tent itself.

He was not the only one awake. Bianchi was bending over the fire, poking among the ashes and stirring up the coals. She glanced up once and nodded, silent, as Dino staggered past, working the kinks out of his back with each lurching step towards the bushes where he might attend to certain necessities. When he returned, stepping through the early morning light quietly and keeping a bleary eye out for Reborn (not that he expected to see him, but it was worth the effort just in case), she had gotten the fire going again and was heating up—

"Is that coffee?" Dino asked, watching her scoop grounds into a pot. It was too early to be anything but honest and he was sure the longing was clear in his voice.

She looked up at him and her mouth quirked. "Of course it's coffee." Her voice was as hushed as the dawn itself; she had her goggles pushed up and resting on the top of her head, and she raised her eyebrows as he shuffled closer to the fire and sat down.

"If I ask you nicely, will you share?" Coffee would go a long, long way towards making the morning more tolerable.

Her eyebrows went even higher. "You want me to share my coffee with you. Really?"

"Yes?" he ventured, raking his fingers through his hair and trying to comb some of the knots out of it. Then he rethought it. "Are you angling for a bribe? I don't really have anything to bargain with, unless you'll take an IOU." He cast a covetous eye on the little coffee pot and the kettle of water which was just beginning to steam.

She shook her head and dropped her gaze towards the fire, stirring the coals again and poking them until the sparks flew. "Seem to recall you racing up a mountain just to be sure I wasn't going to do the cooking."

Well, yes, but—"You wouldn't poison a man's coffee, would you? Not without a good reason first, right?" Dino rubbed his chin, scratching at the stubble there. "Also, if you did that, someone would have to haul my carcass back down the mountain."

"Could just roll it down the side," Bianchi suggested, mouth curving into the faintest suggestion of a smile.

"Too much work. Better to let me get down under my own power." The little kettle was beginning to steam in earnest; he watched with jealous eyes as she took it off the fire and poured it off into the coffee pot. "Seriously, name your price."

Bianchi glanced at him, sidelong. "Name my price, huh?" She swirled the pot thoughtfully and the scent of the coffee wafted through the air after it. "Thought you were smarter than that, Cavallone."

"You can name whatever price you want. I don't have to agree to it," he pointed out.

"I guess not." She considered that and finally shrugged, depressing the plunger and pouring out the results. She handed the cup across. "Here."

Dino wrapped his fingers around the cup, hot enough to nearly burn them, and watched her pour herself the second cup. He could say a lot of things here, he thought, cradling the precious cup under his chin and inhaling the steam, but he settled on the easiest. "Thanks."

She just raised her own cup in a toast and took a drink; when he followed suit, he sighed in relief. He didn't suppose it was the best coffee he'd ever had, but it was still pretty damn good in comparison to the alternative.

"The boys still asleep?" she asked presently.

"Completely sacked out." He couldn't keep the resentment out of his voice and she grinned. "Where's Reborn?"

She tipped her head toward the other tent. "Catching a nap."

That stood to reason, he supposed. Even the best hitman in the world probably wanted a little shut-eye after spending all night awake. "He have plans for today?"

Bianchi shrugged. "Probably not. They have homework and school tomorrow."

Ah, yes. School. Though that was probably a more normal experience for Tsunako than it might otherwise be. Dino sipped his coffee, thinking about that and how unlike most of the mafia's children she was. Probably by design, that, both Reborn and Timoteo's design. Not a bad thing, either. "It'll be interesting, working with her when she's Tenth." And not in a bad way, either, from the sounds of it, as long as she held onto that idealistic streak he'd overheard. Dino drained his cup of coffee and only then saw the look on Bianchi's face. She didn't seem to know what to say. "What?"

"When Tsunako is Tenth," she repeated, tone as odd as her expression, at least until she bent over the coffee pot and busied herself with brewing another pot. "Of course."

"Well, yeah." Wasn't like it hadn't been done before, he thought, before his sluggish brain kicked in enough to remind him that he was looking at Luciano Falco's oldest child, the daughter of the Family. Huh. Awkward.

She didn't say anything, just went ahead with fixing the coffee, shaking out the grounds from the first pot and measuring out a fresh batch, adding the hot water and swirling the press around. When she lifted her head again, she'd schooled her expression once more. "Another cup?"

"Please," he said, for lack of anything better to say, and for lack of being able to tell whether he'd offended her or dredged up things she didn't care to remember or what. Perhaps that was what she'd meant, telling Tsunako about doing the job in front of her. He passed the cup over to her and watched the steam curl up from the coffee as she poured it.

She looked at him when she passed it back, really looked at him, and for once she didn't seem to be sizing him up for a batch of poison cooking or deciding that he was irrelevant. She was even almost smiling, crooked and wry.

Oh. Oh. That was what Romario had meant, Dino thought, accepting his coffee from her and not quite sure what to do with himself or with it.

Bianchi tilted her head. "What?"

Tsunako saved him from having to answer that by coming wandering out of her tent, tousled and yawning. Bianchi's attention immediately swerved to her. "Hey, kiddo," she said, openly fond, as Tsunako stared blearily around herself, the process of her waking up nearly visible as she looked around, taking in the fire and the tents and slotting them into where they belonged in her short-term memory. "…Reborn, right," she sighed, and came closer to the fire, easing herself down.

"Sleep all right?" Bianchi asked her, smiling still as she watched her charge.

"Yeah," Tsunako said vaguely, scrubbing a hand through the short mess of her hair.

Bianchi lifted the kettle off the fire, swished it, and said, "Mm, I need some more water before I can offer you any coffee."

Tsunako just wrinkled her nose. "No, thanks. Don't know how you can stand that stuff."

"It's an acquired taste," Dino said, contriving to make sure that it came out sounding like normal, or very close to normal. He even managed to smile. "Or maybe we've just learned to make a virtue out of necessity."

Tsunako blinked at him, trying to puzzle through that as Bianchi snorted into her own coffee cup and provided the translation. "We need the coffee to function like actual human beings, so we act like it's a good thing."

"Oh. Right." Tsunako rubbed her eyes and yawned. "I guess that makes sense."

"As much sense as anything in this world does," Dino agreed. He smiled at her. "Though maybe you'll want to wait to start drinking coffee for a while longer. It'll stunt your growth. 'S what my father used to say." And Romario not even here to witness him repeating it. Shame.

Tsunako giggled, like he'd meant her too, and Bianchi smiled at him, and oh boy, he was so, so fucked.

"I see that you survived the bears," Romario said after Dino had dropped himself into the car and they were pulling away from the kids and their tutors. "Congratulations."

"There weren't any bears," Dino told him, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "But there was a giant snapping turtle the size of a small car. Just for the record."

Romario had been with him long enough that Dino mostly forgave him for the muffled snicker. "I see. I'm sure that was invigorating."

"It was something."

For a moment, there was no other sound but the murmur of the engine and the hum of the tires against pavement. Then Romario asked, all the laughter gone from his voice, "Was there anything else?"

Dino opened his eyes and stared at the roof of the car. "Nothing worth mentioning, really. Oh, but Reborn seems to be done with us for the time being."

"Ah. Shall I begin preparations for the trip home?" Romario sounded serene enough about it.

"Might as well," Dino told him, then thought better of it. "Let's keep the house here, though. In case Reborn changes his mind and so we can keep a line open on our yakuza friends."

"I was just going to suggest that myself." Romario drove in silence for a little while after that. "Was there anything else, Boss?"

"Not that I can think of right now," Dino said. "Except a shower and a nap, maybe."

If Romario could tell he was lying, he didn't say anything about it.

"I think that was productive, don't you?" Reborn said after they'd seen the last of Cavallone for the time being.

Bianchi pursed her lips, considering that. "Productive for Tsunako, or for Cavallone?"

"Yes," Reborn said, since he didn't play fair. He smiled, particularly complacent. "What do you think?"

"I guess you made both of them think," Bianchi allowed, since Cavallone had gone away looking unusually pensive. "He thinks she's going to be Tenth, you know." Had assumed it so easily that it was almost shocking. Go figure. But then, Reborn had a way of opening up the mind to strange possibilities.

He made a contented sound. "I know."

Bianchi huffed at him. "Hope someone takes a picture of his face when he finds out."

"You would." Reborn adjusted the angle of his hat. "You did well with Tsunako's offer."

Of course he'd been listening. Bianchi reminded herself that she really should have expected as much. "Yeah, well. You do what you gotta do."

"Ideally, yes." Reborn adjusted his hat again, glancing at her from beneath the brim. "Ideally, one is rewarded for doing so as well."

"Ideally," Bianchi said, more amused than anything else. "Gonna find a bonus on my next paycheck?"

"Who can say what the future holds?" He shrugged. "But perhaps someday you'll be glad that you kept your options open."

"Right," Bianchi said, rolling her eyes at him. "I'll keep that in mind."

"I know you will," he said serenely. "You always were the most diligent of my students." With that he hopped down from the table and strolled out, leaving Bianchi to wonder just what about Cavallone's mission was supposed to have been productive for her.

It had to have been the conversation with Tsunako, she decided, like a practicum of the hitman's creed, else Reborn would not have congratulated her. She nodded, satisfied, checked the time, and went to go meet Hayato for their coffee date.


I finished drafting this section last June, according to my notes; it took me until now to decide that no, really, it's worth posting. *rueful* Sometimes writing is a very strange hobby.

Date: 17 March 2013 15:14 (UTC)
askerian: Serious Karkat in a red long-sleeved shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] askerian

"The lessons are for the Ninth's heir." o_o wait i thought she was supposed to be the heir's wife only? Is Reborn fudging or are they going to try to make it so? Like, coleadering maybe? wow would the "negotiating" period with Xanxus be epic. >___>

Ahh, Dino arguing with Reborn and being firm and politely assertive. Yess.

And Cavallone said, after a single startled moment, "Reborn, I want a word with you right now."
... UNF. *__*

"Oh, no. Oh, no, you must be joking. You know what she did to the last guy who wouldn't leave her alone." Romeo Vieri hadn't been any great loss to the world, that was for sure, but he'd made a most instructive example on his way out of it.
... bianchiiii ♥

Cavallone hadn't been gone a full minute before Kyouko said, "All right, Gokudera-kun, what can you tell us about Cavallone-san?"
Mistress of Intelligence. Yess.

"I'll have a word with your brother so that he doesn't interfere when Dino starts paying attention to you."
Bianchi leaned her head back, all lingering urges to laugh disappearing. "You don't honestly think he'd care, do you?"
"He recognizes the threat that Dino's presence is. He might, if he thought it would serve Tsunako."

awww not true ;_____;

He lied beautifully, really. And well. Bianchi just hoped that Kyouko was taking good notes.
*_* Ahhh characterization, ahh neat sharp little sentences. !!!! HAYATO DOES CARE AWWWWWWW. ♥ *bweeee*

"Does Japan even have bears?" the Poison Scorpion asked, sounding far too amused about the whole thing.
"I bet they do now," Tsunako said, which sounded just about right to Dino

XDDD they really should have a long discussion at some point. Totally siblings, for srs. XD

"When Tsunako is Tenth," she repeated, tone as odd as her expression, at least until she bent over the coffee pot and busied herself with brewing another pot. "Of course."
Okay, yeah, so even if Reborn is starting to set her up for co-leadering he hasn't seen fit to tell Bianchi. :/ Probably he's not. Bluh.

Date: 17 March 2013 19:13 (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
I really never get tired of watching Bianchi and Dino dance around each other. They're really kind of adorable about it.

What was the proper terminology for doom-turtle physiology, anyway? And really, why did his life include these kinds of questions?

And Dino's perspective on Reborn lessons really does put it all in perspective. *snickering*

Date: 18 March 2013 01:44 (UTC)
sheeps: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sheeps
hrkhrkhrk Hohohhohohohoho YES today is a good day!!!! HUFFS AND PUFFS

Date: 18 March 2013 04:26 (UTC)
mignonne422: (KHR: Lussuria: FABULOUS!)
From: [personal profile] mignonne422
Eeee!!! My day was made today when I saw you'd updated one of your KHR fics! And then on top of that it was Dino!

I love the way you write Dino so much. Just, everything about this entry was brilliant. I kept laughing as I was reading through, thinking 'poor Dino' as he mentally tortured himself with the various ways Bianchi might kill him. He's just so damn endearing.

And I adored the setup for BianchixDino, their bickering, and his sudden, disconcerting (to him, at least) revelation. I love Reborn's potential involvement in it too, and how he's playing the very, very long game with them both and they're so clueless to it, really. This arc

I just wanted to say I'm really glad you're still writing KHR. It will always be my true love fandom and all your various fics have always been among the brightest highlights of it for me. So excited to hopefully see more of this arc/series and other KHR in the future.

(If I sound loopy, I apologize! Lets just blame it on this killer sinus headache and the meds I've been taking all day)

Date: 26 March 2013 09:06 (UTC)
athenazandrite: (Default)
From: [personal profile] athenazandrite
Oh I'm so pleased to see this is still going. I miss seeing all your KHR fics :) Some great mental notes from Dino in this one. And I love that Romario obviously has intentions of his own. Everyone's always plotting. LOL

Date: 26 March 2013 18:36 (UTC)
athenazandrite: (magick chicks)
From: [personal profile] athenazandrite
To be honest, I was pretty disenchanted for the entire last arc myself. Fortunately there were some good fic and some fun rping out there to make it better. (And really, rping female characters was what made me stick around for the manga anyway since I wasn't ever head over heels for the source material, have to make sure I get the characterization right!)

I can't wait to see the results of the plotting!! Keep it up!

Date: 27 March 2013 16:30 (UTC)
athenazandrite: (Athena -ChocoKiss art and icon by Hinoai)
From: [personal profile] athenazandrite
LMFAO yeah the complete and utter lack of character development over the course of the entire manga sort of gave me rage. I am zen about it now. But there was rage.


lysapadin: pen & ink painting of bamboo against a full moon (Default)
Lys ap Adin


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