lysapadin: pen & ink painting of bamboo against a full moon (Default)
[personal profile] lysapadin
Title: A Year in the Life: Gokudera and Bianchi
Characters: Kyouko, Tsunako, Bianchi, Yamamoto, Gokudera, Reborn
Summary: In which Tsunako gives Gokudera a Family.
Notes: Continuing the re-imagining of the Daily Life arc from Gokudera and Bianchi’s perspectives. Nasty family backstory, genderswap, and the mafia. Part of Choice: The Betrothal Arc. Series Index. General audiences. 15041 words.


A Year in the Life
Gokudera and Bianchi

Freelance hitmen did not turn down plummy job offers from the Vongola Ninth, but when Hayato had found out who else was working the job, he very nearly did as his stomach churned in automatic response to his sister's—half-sister's—name. He didn't, because he was way too young to commit suicide, career or otherwise, and told himself that he'd find a way to deal with the nausea that came of looking at the hag. When his plane touched down at Narita, Reborn was on hand to greet him and informed him that there would be a division of labor—the hag would be responsible for the evenings and weekends, while Hayato would handle the school hours. The two of them wouldn't ever have to be in direct contact. It had seemed reasonable enough at the time, and then Hayato had met Sawada-san and pledged himself to her service (and she had accepted that, which was the really amazing thing), and Hayato had decided that he could cope with the hag's presence for Sawada-san's sake.

Hunched over a wastebasket with his stomach doing its level best to turn itself inside out, Hayato realized that he should have known it wasn't going to be that easy. That wasn't the way his luck ran.

Everything around him was chaos; Sasagawa was exclaiming something and Sawada-san was answering her, sounding equally worried. Yamamoto was laughing his startled-idiot laugh and, worse, holding Hayato's hair back as he retched. And Reborn was saying, "You're back earlier than we expected," while the hag was saying, "No, I told you I'd be back at six!"

His stomach seized again despite the fact that there was nothing in it but bile and acid. Hayato dug his fingers into the side of the wastebasket and rode it out as best he could, plotting how he might feed Yamamoto a stick of dynamite in exchange for the hand that was currently rubbing circles against his back.

"Text me when it's clear," the hag said; a moment later, the door clicked shut again.

Hayato stayed hunched over the wastebasket a moment longer before saying, "She gone?" Christ, what a taste in his mouth. He focused on that instead of—anything else.

"Yes, she's gone." Reborn jumped down from the low table as Hayato knocked Yamamoto's hands away and straightened up, wiping his mouth. "I see that she wasn't exaggerating about the effect she has on you."

"Yeah." Hayato did his best not to meet anyone's eyes, not Yamamoto's confused expression or Sasagawa's thoughtful one, and especially not Sawada-san's worried one. He pushed himself to his feet and picked up the wastebasket. "'Scuse me."

The door wasn't quite shut behind him before he heard Sawada-san begin to say, "The effect she has—"

Hayato closed his eyes, grimaced, and made for the bathroom to rinse his mouth out and deal with the other aftermath, cursing all the time as he did. God only knew what Reborn was going to say in his absence. Not that it mattered, not when he'd just disgraced himself about as thoroughly as it was possible to do in front of Sawada-san and Reborn without there being bullets involved.

They were probably going to have him on the next plane back to Italy. And why not? Sawada-san deserved a bodyguard who could actually do his job rather than a guy who fell apart the first time he got a look at his fellow bodyguard's face.

Hayato glared at himself in the mirror over the sink; his reflection glared back. Not that it did him any good to stall, which was the biggest pity of all.

Sasagawa and Yamamoto had cleared out while he was in the bathroom, which was just great. The two of them were already thick as thieves; Hayato was willing to lay money that they were walking home together and talking him over. God knew they already watched him like he was better than television; this ought to last them a good long time.

Sawada-san was still in her place, though, and Reborn was, too. He glanced at Hayato once, eyes cool; Hayato wished that he could just go ahead and combust from shame at how casually Reborn evaluated and dismissed him.

Sawada-san peered at him, anxious. "Oh, are you feeling better?"

God. Hayato smiled, feeling the way it stretched his cheeks tight, and pulled himself together. No point in embarrassing himself any further than he already had. "Sure thing, Sawada-san! Sorry about that."

She didn't look convinced. "Are you sure? Do you need to sit down? Can I get you anything? Do you need a doctor?"

Oh, God. Hadn't Reborn explained anything?

No, of course he hadn't. This wasn't his responsibility.

Hayato took a breath. "No, Sawada-san, I'm fine now." He dropped his eyes away from her face and stooped over the table, gathering up his books and papers and stuffing them into his bag, hands working on autopilot. What was he supposed to do? He glanced at Reborn, who was about as informative as a statue.

"Are you sure?" Sawada-san fidgeted, twisting her hands together and chewing on her lip. "Are you going home? Will you be okay? Should we call your parents to come and pick you up?"

Hayato fumbled the pen he was picking up; it went spinning across the table as he looked at Sawada-san, who didn't seem to know—anything. "My parents?"

Sawada-san looked back, all earnestness until her expression changed, turned anxious. "Did I say something wrong?"

For a dizzy moment, he wavered between instinctive fury and the fact that it was Sawada-san, who surely didn't know any better, which left him hunched over the table and staring at her like an idiot. Then his survival instincts kicked in—Reborn was standing right there—and he heard his own voice like it was coming from someplace far away: "I live alone, Sawada-san."

"Oh… oh!" First she flushed, then her eyes went wide. "In that case, if you're sick, you shouldn't be alone. We could, um. Make up a bed for you here?"

"No!" It came out harsher than he'd intended it to, spurred by his instinctive revulsion at the thought of spending the night under the same roof as the hag. Sawada-san flinched away from him, eyes wide, and he regretted it right away. "I mean—I'm fine. It's fine, Sawada-san, I'm all better now."

She twisted her hands together. "Are you sure?" She didn't sound like she believed him at all, all soft and uncertain.

"Yeah, I'll be fine!" He dredged up all the cheer he could manage and smiled after chasing down the last stray pen and stuffing it into his bag. "Don't worry about me, Sawada-san! I'll see you in the morning!"

She still didn't look convinced, but she let him make his escape with nothing more than that, for which Hayato gave devout thanks.

Reborn didn't say anything at all when Bianchi settled herself in her usual spot, which was as eloquent in its own way as a lengthy speech. Bianchi leaned her head back against the bole and avoided the darker shape of Reborn sitting above her, preferring to look at the roofline. "I told you very distinctly that I'd be back at six."

"How careless of me to have forgotten."

Bianchi took a deep breath and counted back from ten. Let it out and did it again. When she trusted herself to speak, she did it one more time for good measure. "That was a nasty trick." On her, on Hayato—hell, on both of them.

"The two of you were going to have to encounter each other eventually. Better to do that in controlled circumstances than not." He made it sound perfectly reasonable, too, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and ignored her snarl. "Besides, I wanted to see how bad it really was."

"Congratulations, now you know." Her brother had taken one wide-eyed look at her face and turned chalky pale before he dove for the trashcan and puked his guts up, just like he had the last time she'd tried to see him, and the time before that, and… there wasn't any reason to be surprised that nothing had changed. Not really. Time didn't really heal all wounds. "How did he explain it to Tsunako?"

"He didn't." Reborn's tone was faintly disapproving. "She didn't push, either."

"Of course she didn't." Bianchi took her eyes away from the roofline and turned them on him. "She doesn't have the first idea what to make of Hayato, you know that." Didn't know what to make of him, was intimidated by him. Same difference, really. Or amounted to the same thing in the end.

Reborn's grunt was displeased. "She accepted his loyalty. She shouldn't be fighting this at all." It was a familiar refrain at this point. Bianchi could have mouthed it along with him, had either of them been in better moods.

"It takes time, Reborn." Bianchi looked away from him. "It's going to take time." Tsunako might have stopped protesting her Family's plans for her, but that didn't mean she'd accepted them.

"Has she asked about what happened?"

For someone who had all the time in the world, Reborn was remarkably impatient at times.

"No. I don't know whether she remembers the things I told her the first time we went shooting, either, to be honest." Tsunako had spent the evening quietly, focusing on the remainder of her homework and then dutifully listening to the things Bianchi had tried to explain about the bond between a boss and his—or her—Family. She listened well enough, but Bianchi was fairly certain that Tsunako had no idea what the point of what she was listening to was.

But wasn't that just the problem across the board these days?


Bianchi peered up at Reborn, made suspicious by the thoughtful edge to that sound. That was never a good sound when it came from Reborn. "What are you thinking about now?"

"Nothing, don't worry about it."

Bianchi sighed. "You will tell me before you start anything." Not a request, that, though Reborn could only be relied upon to follow orders from the Ninth. "You know I don't like surprises."

"I know." His tone was serene and not the slightest bit comforting.

Bianchi grimaced at him through the darkness and resigned herself to being extra vigilant until she'd managed to suss out the shape of whatever new scheme was brewing inside that tiny skull of his.

Hayato wanted very much to forget how thoroughly he'd contrived to embarrass himself the evening before, so of course the first thing out of Yamamoto's stupid mouth the next morning was a cheerful, "Hey, looks like you're feeling better!" Asshole even tried to sling an arm over his shoulder, too, like he thought Hayato was one of his idiot baseball friends or something.

Hayato shrugged him off, irritated. "Yeah, of course I am. Obviously."

Biting contempt was wasted on Yamamoto, who didn't seem the least bit fazed by Hayato's tone and just ambled along with him, grinning amiably. "Hah, well, that's good! You looked pretty miserable last time I saw you. I hope whatever that was isn't catching."

"It's not." Now, if only Yamamoto would take a hint about when to push a subject and when to just let it drop—

"Yeah? You sure?"

Fuck. "Yeah, I'm sure." Hayato thrust his hands into his pockets, searching for his cigarettes. He caught the flicker of distaste on Yamamoto's face as he shook one out of the pack and lit up; the first inhale tasted like a victory, however petty.

Fortunately, he and Yamamoto lived in different neighborhoods, so he didn't have to put up with Yamamoto for more than a couple of minutes before they came to the Sawada house. Sawada-san was just emerging from the front door, Reborn riding on her shoulder, and she offered them her good mornings without sounding too resigned about it. It was good that she had stopped protesting the fact that they walked her to and from school. Next he'd have to talk to her about varying the route she took every day. Predictability wasn't their friend.

Not today, though. Today he wanted as little attention as possible. If everyone would just forget yesterday's episode—

"Bianchi-san wanted me to tell you that she's sorry about yesterday," Sawada-san began as he and Yamamoto arranged themselves at her shoulders and they turned towards school. Hayato couldn't help himself; he gagged a little at the mention of his sister's name. "Gokudera, are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he gritted out, willing his body back under control.

Neither she nor Yamamoto looked particularly convinced of that, but it was Reborn who said, "So even the mention of your sister's name is enough to trigger a reaction? That could be a liability."

"Half-sister," he grated out. "And it just caught me off-guard. I'm fine."

Christ, Reborn thought he was a liability. They really were going to send him away.

"Wait, it's Bianchi-san who makes you get sick like that?" Yamamoto was nearly laughing. "What, really?"

"Shut the fuck up, asshole." It was easier to control the nausea by channeling it into his rage. "You'd be in the same position too, if she'd spent a couple years using you for her guinea pig."

On the downside, letting the anger take charge meant saying shit about the part of his life he'd prefer not to think about, much less talk about. Maybe the puking was better.

"What—her guinea pig?" Sawada-san sounded as confused as she looked. "What does that mean?"

Didn't look like he had much of a choice about talking now, though. Hayato checked that he was downwind of Sawada-san, lit up another cigarette, and focused on watching their surroundings. "Means what it sounds like." He took a long drag off the cigarette, letting the nicotine rush soothe some of his nerves down and the bitter taste of the smoke wash remembered tastes out of his mouth. "When her skills were just coming in, she practiced them on me."

"Her skills…?" Sawada-san ventured, sounding uncertain.

Hayato pressed his lips together around his cigarette. Didn't she know?

Apparently not: Reborn said, "The Poison Scorpion can transmute any organic substance, and many inorganic ones, into a variety of poisons and corrosive substances. She specializes in food."

The silence that settled on them then was peculiarly heavy. Hayato smoked furiously, relying on the cigarettes to keep his hands busy and his nerves calm, and lit the next cigarette from the butt-end of the first before Yamamoto said, very carefully, "So Bianchi-san… practiced poisoning you?"

"For two years. Till I left." Two years of that, two years of not being able to trust the food in his mouth not to betray him, two years of his father's indulgent laughter—It'll make you stronger, boy—and his step-mother's thin smiles and the hag's dogged persistence. Fuck. Hayato exhaled a stream of smoke, nerves starting to jangle a bit from his breakfast of coffee and cigarettes. "Every time I saw her, she had something new to try out."

"And thus the psychosomatic reaction." Reborn nodded wisely from Sawada-san's shoulder. "You see her face and become ill. That's an awkward liability, to be sure."

Hayato opened his mouth to protest, but stopped himself at the look on Sawada-san's face, white and disbelieving, and forced himself to think. This wasn't about his pride, it was about protecting Sawada-san, which meant—fuck. Fuck.

He took one last drag on his cigarette and fixed his eyes on Namimori Chuu, looming up ahead of them. "How long will it take the Ninth to send a replacement?" Fuck, fuck, fuck, was there anything that he couldn't manage to fuck up?

"Mm. That's a good question. I'll have to look into the answer." Reborn hopped down from Sawada-san's shoulder and jumped up to the wall that circled the school. He gave Sawada-san a severe look from that vantage point. "Do better on today's English quiz, so that you don't embarrass the Vongola." With that bit of parting instruction, he strolled off.

Not that Sawada-san seemed to have heard him. "Wait, a replacement?" She looked dazed, like there were too many things going on all at once for her to process. "I don't—"

"For me." Hayato avoided looking at Yamamoto altogether, not wanting to see the look on his face at all. Fucker would probably manage to look innocent, even though he had to have realized that he'd won. Fuck. "If I can't do my job at all times, I'm a threat to your safety. They'll need to remove me." And remove was the right word; the Vongola would probably bury him in the deepest hole it could find for him now that he knew one of its major secrets. Hell, that might not have even been a metaphor. Fuck. One more thing to worry about. "So! Do you think those flashcards for English helped you study at all?"

It was a clumsy segue, but Sawada-san let it stand as they passed through the school's gates, which was really all Hayato asked.

Reborn sent word ahead like always, so Bianchi had a measure of time in which to prepare herself. If there could be any preparation. She wasn't sure there was, so she sat at the low table in Tsunako's room, methodically working her way through a pot of tea, until Tsunako herself came in. Bianchi studied her over the cup; she looked worried. And she didn't quite meet Bianchi's eyes as she said hello.

Maybe she ought to have let Tsunako bring it up herself, but Bianchi couldn't help herself. After she'd asked how Tsunako's day had gone and after how much homework Tsunako was facing, she said, "How's Hayato?"

Tsunako flinched from his name. "He's—" She stopped and gave Bianchi a pleading look. "He seemed better, but he said—Bianchi-san, you didn't really poison him, did you?"

Bianchi wrapped her fingers around the cup she held and did her best to meet Tsunako's eyes, which all but begged her to say that it wasn't true. "I did."

Tsunako sat down with a thump that Bianchi suspected that she hadn't even noticed. She looked too confused and disbelieving to be paying attention to little details like that. "You didn't—you couldn't do that, he's your brother—"

"Half-brother," Bianchi said. "I was nine and he was six when I started showing my skills. We didn't realize that was what it was at first, but Hayato is the first person I ever poisoned." And the first time had been an accident, however resentful of her brother and the attention he'd been getting at the time she'd been. It wasn't much, but at least she could say that for herself. The first time had been an accident.

Not that Tsunako seemed like she would appreciate any such fine distinction. She stared at Bianchi, eyes huge in her face. "You—really did use him as a guinea pig? When he was six?"

Bianchi bit back the Mother told me to and the Father said it was all right. "I was nine and jealous. He wasn't my real brother, even though my father made us pretend he was, and I was jealous of him. Of all the attention he got. So yes, I practiced on him. My father said that it was good, that it was making him stronger, more resistant to poison, but the truth is that I really just wanted to hurt him. And I did. And it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand what it was I had done. It was too late by then, of course. He'd already run and wouldn't have anything to do with me after that."

Tsunako stared at her, opening and closing her mouth soundlessly. "That's—that's—"

"Horrible?" Bianchi suggested. "Deeply fucked up? Barbaric?" The smile that stretched her face hurt. "I'd start with those, myself." Tsunako just looked all the more horrified. "Running away was probably the smartest thing Hayato's ever done. I know he's had a hard time getting by, but at least he got himself out of there. Did the same thing myself after my mother died." And the thing she regretted most was that it had taken her that long to realize how toxic her family really was.

Tsunako had gone white. "That's—you—" She scrambled to her feet, shaking her head, though Bianchi wasn't quite sure what she might have been denying. She stared down at Bianchi for a moment longer, then rushed out of the room.

Bianchi swore and launched herself after Tsunako, feeling ten kinds of stupid for not having realized how likely Tsunako was to retreat from such a nasty truth. She heard the front door slam, swore again, and moved faster.

Tsunako thought herself clumsy, but wasn't, not really—she got flustered easily, sure, especially when she was feeling self-conscious, and that tended to cause her to choke and fumble—but when she wasn't thinking too hard about what she was doing, she moved with as much grace as any adolescent might have. And she wasn't thinking about her clumsiness just then. Bianchi was quite sure of that, given how fast she was running. Perhaps Tsunako wasn't thinking at all, just running—not that Bianchi could quite blame her. Tsunako was one of the more sensible people she'd ever met, at least when it came to the mafia. Any sane person would run.

So Bianchi let her, falling into stride a few paces behind Tsunako and sticking close enough to step in if Tsunako needed her, and let her get it out of her system.

It took a long time for Tsunako to stumble to a walk, steps uneven and a hand pressed against her side. Bianchi slowed too, keeping one eye on Tsunako and the other on the streets around them. Namimori was a quiet little city, thanks to a lot of factors, but even it had its less savory side, which was where they were now. It would have been nice, she reflected, if Tsunako would have been a little more self-aware of where she was going, but—that was something they could talk about later.

Tsunako walked another half block, came to a corner bus stop with a shabby bench, and dropped herself into it, leaning over her knees and covering her face with her hands.

Bianchi glared at the punks hanging out on the sidewalk across the street until they decided that maybe they didn't want to bother Tsunako after all, and took up a position two long strides away from Tsunako's seat to wait her out.

It was a while before she lifted her face out of her hands, which was something else they were going to have to talk about, later. But for now Bianchi was more worried by the way Tsunako looked at her, like she was the last person she wanted to see, ever. "What are you doing here?"

It wasn't worth wincing at the sullen tone. "Doing my job." Bianchi lifted a shoulder, shrugging away Tsunako's glare. "I'm one of your bodyguards." Among other things, but keeping Tsunako safe was definitely her first job.

Tsunako's mouth twisted. "Did they make you my bodyguard because you're so good with poison?"

"Yeah, actually." Bianchi let her gaze wander across the storefronts, the punks lounging on the sidewalk and watching them, and the traffic passing by. "There aren't many who are better." She checked on Tsunako, who looked like she didn't know how seriously to take that. "It's one of the reasons they call me the Poison Scorpion." There were others, too, but she didn't want to go into those unless she had to. "Your father told the Ninth he wanted the best that he could get for this job." Hence Reborn. "And hell. I survived growing up with my family. I guess they figured I could teach you how to do the same with your Family."

Tsunako's face twisted, full of anger and hurt feelings and betrayal. "What, are you going to teach me how to poison people? Little kids, maybe?"

A direct hit, that. Maybe Tsunako knew more than she let on about how to hit someone where it would hurt. Bianchi breathed through her first reaction. "Not exactly."

"Good. I don't want to know how to do that." Tsunako turned away from her, wrapping her arms around herself and hunching over. "I don't want to know about anything else, either. Not the mafia or guns or hitmen or anything."

"Don't think it works that way, kiddo." Or it was way too late for that. Same difference, really. "You need to—"

"I don't care!" Tsunako practically yelled it. "I don't care what I need to know and I don't care what you're supposed to be teaching me, because I'm not going to do it! I'm not!"

So they'd finally come to it, four months in. Bianchi had been wondering how long it would take. She came closer and took a seat on the bench next to Tsunako, leaning back against it with a sigh. "Wish I could make that happen for you, kiddo. I really do."

Tsunako didn't answer her, just hunched her shoulders further and scooted to the end of the bench. Bianchi watched her do it and wondered what she ought to say next.

Well, Tsunako never had answered her question. "How is Hayato doing, anyway?"

No reply.

It wasn't like she needed Tsunako to actually like her in order to bodyguard for her, Bianchi reminded herself. Still. Couldn't deny that it hurt a little to be rejected like that. Though it wasn't like she could help what had already been done, or change the mafia to be something that it wasn't.

Maybe she needed to make that part clear.

"Let me tell you a story." No reaction to that, but then, she hadn't expected one. "It's not a nice story and almost no one comes out of it looking very good, but it's a true story. That counts for something, right?"

Tsunako didn't reply, but she hadn't stuck her fingers in her ears either, so Bianchi took a breath and began. "So, once upon a time, there was a little princess who lived with her father and mother in a lovely palace that was surrounded by gardens. Her father was a powerful man who led other powerful men to do what he wanted, and her mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. The princess was very happy with her parents, but her father wasn't happy or content with what he had. That's the way it goes with powerful men. They're never really happy, no matter what they have. So even though his wife was the most beautiful woman in the world and his daughter adored him and he was powerful, he was unhappy.

"The princess' mother wasn't happy, either, because even though she was the most beautiful woman in the world, she knew that her husband didn't love her any more, if he ever had, and that made her very unhappy. She tried and tried to give her husband the one thing he wanted most in the world, convinced that it would make him love her again, but no matter what she tried, she couldn't give him a son."

Bianchi rubbed her palms over her knees, scrubbing them dry, and saw that Tsunako had lowered her shoulders a bit. So she was listening, good.

"Part of the problem was that it takes two to make a baby, and her husband didn't want to go to her bed anymore. He'd fallen in love with someone else, or thought he'd fallen in love. The new woman he'd found was almost as beautiful as his wife, and he made up his mind that he was going to have her. I don't know too much about her—you'll understand why in a little bit—but this woman, who was a musician, went along with it. Maybe she didn't know he had a wife, maybe she was in love herself and just didn't care—maybe he just had something that she thought she wanted. I don't know. But he loved her and she loved him and together they had a son. And that was when things began to turn complicated." Began, Christ. As if it had ever been simple.

Tsunako was listening, though. She'd lifted herself out of her huddle and was frowning at the street. So at least Bianchi wasn't dredging all this history up for no reason.

So she continued on. "So the man decided he wanted to put his wife aside and marry the musician, because he was so in love that he'd forgotten all the promises he'd made when he'd married his wife. But he couldn't do it. For one thing, the musician wouldn't have him. For another, his wife had been a princess in her own right before she'd married him, which made her a part of what made him so powerful. If he put her and his daughter aside, it would have made his in-laws angry. But he still loved his musician and his little son, so he came up with a plan."

Some plan.

"I don't know what the hell he was thinking, to be honest, or why he thought that it was a good idea. He was a powerful man, and arrogant because of that. Maybe that's why he thought it would work. He went to his wife and told her that since she couldn't give him a son herself, she would have to claim the musician's son for her own instead. And he took the boy from the musician and brought him home and declared that he was the son of his wife and made the boy his heir."

Tsunako stirred on the bench next to her. "That doesn't even make sense. No one would believe a story like that."

"No one had to." Bianchi knew her smile was crooked. "All they had to do was act like they did. And he was pretty powerful." She fell back into the sing-song rhythm, spinning out her family's fucked-up history like a warped fairy tale. "The people around him were willing to pretend that it was all true. His wife was very unhappy, but did what he told her to and said that the boy was hers. And the princess was too young to know any better and supposed this was how everyone got younger brothers. And the musician… well. One of the wife's conditions for agreeing to adopt the boy was that her husband had to break things off with the musician. I don't know how she managed to get them to agree to it, but they did, and so the musician drove out to the palace twice a year to see the boy who was secretly her son. Only she stopped coming after a few years, because something went wrong with her car and she drove off the road and died on her way to visit."

Tsunako sucked in a breath, the sound sharp. Bianchi waited, but she didn't say anything, so after a moment she picked up and kept on.

"Now, the princess didn't know most of this at the time. She was too young for it. All she really knew was that she loved her father and mother and that things had changed when they brought her brother home. Her father didn't pay as much attention to her as he'd used to, because he was much more interested in his son, the prince. And her mother, who had used to be the most beautiful woman in the world, changed, too, and became sad and angry all the time. The princess saw more of her mother than her father, so she followed her mother's attitudes about a lot of things. And her mother blamed the prince, and perhaps the musician, for everything that had gone wrong. It wasn't fair—the prince was just a little boy who hadn't been any part of what his parents had decided to do—but then, people aren't very fair. And the princess, who was young and spoiled and resentful of the way her family had changed, was very jealous of all the attention the prince received."

"How old were you?"

Bianchi looked at Tsunako, who'd put on a neutral expression sometime over the course of the story. "Three when they brought him home. Six when his mother died." She looked away. "I remember that Mother was particularly satisfied when we got the news, and that Father turned even more distant after that. I think he must have been genuinely fond of his mistress. I like to think that, anyway. It makes things easier if I believe that." Sort of easier, anyway. Some things didn't get any easier, no matter how she twisted and turned them inside her head.

"So your mother resented him and you copied her." Tsunako's tone was even, not quite judgmental. Yet.

"I was very young. And spoiled. And jealous." Bianchi watched the street. "He took after his mother, who was really good at the piano… he was good enough to give recitals, actually, even though he was barely out of the nursery. That just got him more attention, which made me more jealous, and around and around we went. The first time I ever poisoned him was before a recital, actually. I was so mad at him, and mad at Father, who wanted me to bake him some cookies for good luck…" She could still remember the texture of the dough between her palms as she'd shaped each cookie, how resentful she'd been. "No one had realized that I'd taken after my mother's family so strongly, not until Hayato fell apart halfway through his recital. I didn't even know it was something that the Miccoli could do, and it took me a stupidly long time to understand how badly I was hurting him every time I tried something new on him. My mother laughed it off, you see. Told me that he was playing it up for attention. And my father looked at it as… a kind of training. Hayato was going to be his heir, and thanks to me, he's resistant to a lot of toxins. Not immune, of course, but… resistant. Which isn't a bad thing for a future boss to be. So none of the people who should have stopped me did." She glanced at Tsunako. "It's not an excuse, mind you. I did it because I wanted him to be unhappy, because I was a vicious, spiteful brat. But I only wanted him to be unhappy. Not dead." It wasn't much better than the alternative, but that was the best she had to offer. "I guess I thought he deserved to be unhappy, because he'd made me and my mother unhappy. Pretty shitty, huh?"

If she'd been hoping that Tsunako would argue the point, she was bound for disappointment. "Kind of, yeah." Her voice was quiet. "So what happened after that?"

"Lots of things." Bianchi leaned back and laced her fingers together over her stomach. "When his mother died, it was all very mysterious. Her car ran right off the road over a cliff, but there were no tracks to show that she'd tried to hit the brakes before the car went over. And my father… well, he's the head of a mafia Family. He could have had that arranged, if he'd wanted to. Or my mother could have pressured him into it, or the pretty musician could have decided she want her son back, or started seeing someone else…"

Tsunako made a stifled, horrified sound. Bianchi grimaced. Wasn't doing a very good job of selling the wonders of being in the mafia, was she? "I don't think it was any of those things. I hope it wasn't, I hope it was just a terrible, tragic accident. But people talk, and Hayato always has known how to listen. He was about eight when he found out that my mother wasn't his mother and that just about everyone believed that our father had had his mother killed. So he left home and changed his name and turned hitman." That was just about the only good thing she could say about that pervert Shamal—at least he'd taken Hayato in and kept him alive long enough to learn how to survive.

"When he was eight?"

Fortunately the disbelieving climb of Tsunako's voice was drowned out by the creaking wheeze of the bus that pulled to a stop at the curb in front of them. No one got off and Bianchi shook her head at the driver when he peered at them. He shrugged and put the bus back into motion. By the time it had groaned away, Tsunako had gotten over the worst of her shock and Bianchi had an answer for her. "Yeah, he was eight. He had a rough time of it, too, so if he's got some weird, rough edges, well, that's a big part of the reason why." She snorted, unable to help herself, and added, "And he's also just a twerp sometimes."

The joke fell flat; Tsunako eyed her, mouth pursed. "How would you even know?"

Bianchi winced, but couldn't say that she hadn't earned that. "I kept tabs on him after I left. Tried to look him up a couple of times, but he just puked on my shoes and slammed the door in my face every time I did. So that didn't work out so well. But I knew some people who'd pass word along for me."

Tsunako didn't seem convinced. "What happened to wanting him to be unhappy because you were unhappy?"

It was probably a good thing the kid was so sharp, but it wasn't particularly comfortable. "A couple of things." Bianchi stared into the memory. "My mother got sick and didn't respond to treatment, and I met Reborn. He wasn't really very nice about pulling my head out of my ass, but…" She hadn't wanted nice, or gentle, at that point. She'd just wanted someone to treat her like she was real and counted for something instead of as a nuisance to be ignored or a chip to bargain with. And Reborn had done all that and more. "He knocked some of the stupid out of me and gave me something I could do with myself, something that actually mattered, so I followed Hayato's example after Mother died and left. Because that was better than hanging around and watching my father take up with his new wife. He started courting her before Mother passed, you know." Which Tsunako hadn't known, of course, but now she did.

Bianchi dusted her hands off. "So there you have it. That's the story of how fucked up Hayato and I really are. But then, our family really worked at it. They're not all actually that bad, I promise." And please, let the kid not ask her where the Vongola fell on the fucked-up-Family continuum.

Tsunako didn't have anything to say right away. When Bianchi checked on her, she was hunched in on herself again, looking sick as she stared at the pavement beneath her feet. Bianchi let her be; if she needed some time to process all that, who could blame her? There was plenty there to chew on.

When Tsunako finally broke her silence, her voice was quiet. "That's a really awful story, Bianchi-san." She was still studying the pavement. "Really, just—awful."

"Yeah, I know. I'm not real proud of it." Though she was rather proud of Tsunako for not automatically taking one side or the other, especially when she wasn't all that fond of Hayato. It was the kind of evenhandedness that was going to serve her well one of these days. "Dunno what changes Hayato would make to it, but I bet he'll have a few, if you ask him." If she could get him to tell her about it. Maybe she could; Reborn said Hayato was devoted to her.

"Maybe." Tsunako sounded like she had her doubts on whether she'd be able to get him to talk. "I don't know if I'll have a chance before he leaves."

Bianchi found herself sitting bolt upright before she quite knew what she was doing. "Leaves?" The fuck. "What do you mean, before he leaves?" He couldn't be leaving; Reborn would have said something.

Tsunako looked at her, confused. "He said he'd need to be replaced since he was, um. A threat to my safety. Because he wasn't able to do his job at all times." She stopped, worrying at her lower lip, and added, "Did I say something wrong?"

"They can't replace him," Bianchi said through the haze of blank shock that gripped her (Reborn would have been pissed to see her caught so flatfooted). "Did Reborn say anything about this?" Surely he hadn't, surely this was just Hayato jumping to some wacky conclusion—

"He said that he wasn't sure how long a replacement would take—eek!" Tsunako squeaked and jumped when Bianchi slammed her fist against the bench. "Bianchi-san!"

"You don't understand, if they replace him…" Bianchi slammed her fist down again, using the ache in her hand to focus her thoughts. "Tsunako, you're the single most important secret the Vongola has right now. I know you don't like it, but you are, and Hayato's not—he's a freelancer, not part of the Vongola. If he leaves Japan before the Ninth is good and ready to tell the world about you, the Vongola will have to make sure he doesn't tell anyone about you." And they would, too. The Ninth might regret it, but Tsunako was nearly his last chance of holding the Vongola together, and Hayato was only a freelancer whom barely anyone cared about. "Christ fucking Jesus, I was the one who got him this job, it'll be all my fault—"

Tsunako cut through her incipient panic attack by saying, voice small, "What do you mean, make sure he doesn't tell anyone?"

"I mean what it sounds like," Bianchi said, running a hand over her face. "They'll kill him if they think it's necessary." Which was the worst part, because it wouldn't be, because Hayato had sworn to protect Tsunako with his life and would carve his own tongue out before saying a word that could bring harm down on her—"Reborn. I need to talk to Reborn." There was a chance that Tsunako had misunderstood something, or that she could wrap her fingers around Reborn and squeeze the truth out of him, or shake him till he changed his mind—yeah, she had to talk to Reborn before things got out of hand. "Tsunako, please, can we go home? Right now? Please?"

Tsunako was staring at her, wide-eyed and shocked, but the request shook her free of that. "Yes, of course, let's go." She stood and set off at a brisk pace. Bianchi followed after her, grateful for that in the corner of her mind not currently racing to make plans and contingencies—what if she vouched for Hayato herself, would her word carry enough weight? Could she invoke the Falco, would the Ninth believe her if she said their father would be pissed? What if she—

"So you really do care about him."

That threw Bianchi out of the frenetic whirl of her thoughts. "What?" She blinked, trying to make sense of the question—oh. "Of course I do. He's my brother. He's family." Maybe Tsunako didn't understand that, despite everything she'd tried to teach the girl. "Sometimes I hated him for messing up my family, but I always knew he was my brother. Family takes care of each other, is the thing. No matter what. If someone threatens your family, you don't stop till that threat is ended, no matter how much you dislike the person who was threatened. And I don't even dislike Hayato." She was babbling, too, so she might as well make it useful. "That's why they're called Families, you see. Because a Family takes care of its own. That's why people band together and why it's so hard to be a freelancer, because if you're not part of a Family, you're—fair game. Not worth anyone's time or respect." She looked at Tsunako to see whether she was grasping this and saw that her eyes were wide. Solemn. "You're Vongola. Part of the biggest, baddest Family of all. And they would see Hayato leaving as a threat. Even if he's not, not really. Because he's not Vongola. He's not Family."

"Oh." Tsunako's voice was almost too quiet to hear. Bianchi saw her throat move as she swallowed. "Should we run, maybe?"

Bianchi exhaled. "Yeah," she said. "Let's."

There was nothing Hayato wanted less than to talk with anyone about things—the hag, his so-called family, his apparent inability to do his own job—which of course meant that Yamamoto and Sasagawa spent all day watching him like a pair of cats might watch a mouse hole. (Which, what the fuck, it wasn't like Sasagawa had even been there to hear their conversation on the walk to school. Did she have some kind of creepy radar or telepathy or something?) And Sasagawa joined them for the walk home after school, even though Sawada-san hadn't said anything at all about having them over for another homework session.

None of them said anything, though, not until they'd seen Sawada-san to her front door, had watched her trudge up the walk and get safely inside. Hayato turned away as the door closed on her bowed shoulders and tried to escape.

He got three steps down the sidewalk before Sasagawa said, "Gokudera-kun, I don't suppose you have a few minutes?"

Neither of them could see his face, so Hayato permitted himself a moment to grimace before facing them. Sasagawa was smiling the way she always seemed to be doing, all sweetness and light, but Yamamoto wasn't, not really. It would have been a refreshing change on any other occasion. Hayato eyed them both and finally said, "Do I really have a choice?"

"Of course you do, but don't you think you ought to talk with us?" Which meant that he didn't, really, not when Sasagawa was looking so determined and Yamamoto was hanging back, letting her take the lead but looking like he'd back her all the way. (It was interesting, sort of, that Yamamoto was willing to play support to Sasagawa's lead, and would have been worth knowing any other time, but—did it even matter, at this point? Hayato was finding it hard to care.)

"I don't really think there's anything to talk about." He pivoted on his heel and started walking.

Not that it could ever be that easy. Three more steps and Sasagawa was walking at his elbow, matching her demure pace to his longer strides, while Yamamoto settled in at his other elbow. "Maybe not from your perspective," she said, sweetly relentless. "But think about it from our point of view. This mafia game is still all new to us. Tsunako-chan is probably asking—" an infinitesimal pause "—your sister all kinds of questions right now, but Yamamoto-kun and I are just in the dark."

"Hahah, yeah, that's right." Yamamoto's chuckle was light and obnoxious. "We don't really understand what's going on."

"I fail to see how that's anything out of the ordinary for you," Hayato told him, etching each word with as much acid as he could. "Are you sure you want to change the status quo that radically?"

"Gokudera-kun, stop picking fights with Yamamoto-kun." Sasagawa scolded as gently as a nursery-school teacher, all sweetness and steel. "It's not very productive and I don't think it's going to make you feel better."

"Shows what you know." They came to the corner where he normally turned. He hesitated a moment, decided there was no way he was going to risk the two of them following him home—he had no doubt that they'd walk right in his front door if they felt like it—and kept going.

"I don't really think you'd enjoy it as much as you normally do." Sasagawa looked thoughtful when he stole a glance at her. "Your heart's not really in it, so what's the point in screaming at him when all you're trying to do is distract us? Nobody will have any fun, and besides, it's not like we're going to let you get away with it."

Hayato nearly tripped over his own feet because he was gaping at her (and hating Yamamoto for that gurgling snicker). "Okay, seriously, one, it's fucking creepy when you say shit like that," he declared, fumbling for his cigarettes and his dignity. "And two, I don't want to fucking talk about it. Okay?"

He took a drag off his cigarette and managed a few peaceful seconds before Yamamoto said, slow and thoughtful, "So you'd really rather not talk about it, even though it's part of the mafia game and we should know about it—for Sawada-chan's sake, if nothing else?"

There was a part of Hayato that had to admire the move, even when it was making him see red, because it was just that well done. That didn't keep him from snarling, though. "Would you stop calling it a game?" he yelled, gesturing broadly enough that Yamamoto had to duck out of the way of his swinging hand. "It's not a game! Nothing about this is a game, don't you get it? This is my life we're talking about! And Sawada-san's life! This is for real, you moron, so stop treating it like it's all one big joke, because it's not."

Both of them were staring at him by the time he finished—so were all the other people walking down the street—but Hayato didn't care. Yamamoto might have won, the Vongola might be about to pull him out of Namimori to put a bullet in his head, but at least he'd managed to get that off his chest first.

"You know," Sasagawa said after a moment, "we really ought to have made sure to have gotten you to one of Namimori's baseball games before now." And what baseball had to do with anything was patently unclear. Before Hayato could point out that she'd lost her mind, she clapped her hands together. "Oh, look! A park! We can talk there."

"I don't want to talk, damn it."

Not that either of them paid one bit of attention to his protest, or that they showed the least compunction in strong-arming him across the street to install him on a kiddy-sized swing. Hayato growled at them both, his knees practically level with his chin, as Sasagawa claimed the other swing and Yamamoto leaned against the frame, looking all cooler-than-thou about it. (It wasn't fair; Yamamoto was the human equivalent of a golden retriever—a dumb golden retriever—so how could he pull shit like that off so easily?)

Hayato glared at them both and smoked in silence, because damned if he was going to make this easy for either of them. Wasn't his fault that neither of them could take a fucking hint when it was handed over on a silver platter.

Kyouko pushed herself back and forth, swinging gently, while an assortment of small children shrieked on the other side of the playground, racing around a merry-go-round. After a few minutes, she finally said, "I don't believe I have the full story yet. Would you tell me what things between you and your sister are like so I can understand?"

"She's not my sister." Hayato dropped the butt of his cigarette in the sand beneath him, grinding it out and ignoring the disapproving click of Yamamoto's tongue. "She's my half-sister." They were going to get that straight, God help him, if it was the last thing he ever did. "I wish you people would get that right."

"Your half-sister, then." Kyouko rocked back and forth, an erratic pendulum. "I know you'd rather not talk about it, but we really do need to understand. How can we do anything to help if we don't know what's going on?"

Hayato snorted in spite of himself. "Help? Christ, what do you think you can do to help? You don't—you're not—fuck it. You treat this all like it's a fucking game, for chrissakes. You're not going to be able to help."

"Definitely a baseball game, and soon," Kyouko murmured, smiling. "We'll bring Tsunako-chan along just to make sure you don't have any excuse to skip."

"Would you shut up about baseball already?" Hayato leaned his head against the chain of the swing, tired of their stupidity and their fucking clueless innocence. They wanted to know about the mafia game? Fine, he'd tell them enough to make 'em choke. "There's not going to be any fucking baseball games, not for me. I'm going to be dead just as soon as they find someone else to send out here, you idiots."

At least that shut them up. Hayato pulled out his cigarettes again, shaking one out and lighting it up, and let himself enjoy the full minute of silence that greeted that announcement. Thought about raising his eyebrows and asking them how they liked the mafia game now, but didn't bother. The sick, stunned look on their faces—both their faces, because even Sasagawa hadn't managed to find a way to smile at that—said it all. But what had they fucking expected, anyway? It was the fucking mafia, not a preschool sing-along. They hadn't sent Sawada-san bodyguards because they were just joking around or thought she needed the company.

He was most of the way through his cigarette before Yamamoto said, "You're not joking, are you?" His face had gone pale and his tan gave him a sickly sort of color. "You really think they're going to kill you."

So much for listening comprehension. Hayato exhaled a stream of smoke. "No, I don't think it. I know it." He looked from Yamamoto to Sasagawa, who was only just beginning to throw off her shock and whose eyes stood out huge and dark against how white her face was. "You two don't get it, do you? Sawada-san is just that important. The Vongola have to keep her safe, no matter what." He took the last drag off his cigarette and dropped it, stubbing it out with his toe. "They need her too much to take any risks with her safety." Which made him wonder a little about some of the things Reborn did, but—not his business, was it? Not really. Not for very much longer.

"But you're—how could you be a risk to Tsunako-chan?" Sasagawa sounded as bewildered as she looked. Hayato supposed he shouldn't have been as satisfied by that as he secretly was. "Just because you throw up sometimes—"

"Not sometimes," Hayato corrected her. "Every time I see the hag. Or someone mentions her name before I can brace myself." He considered another cigarette, but there were only a couple left in the pack—Christ, how'd that happened? "And who else is working this job? Oh yeah, the hag."

"But you've both been here together for months!" Yamamoto protested. "There haven't been any problems so far, other than last night—"

The hell with it. He'd pick up another pack once he'd ditched the two of them, or something. Hayato drew the next-to-last cigarette out of the pack and made a face at Yamamoto to cut him off. "Just how long do you think we can go without crossing paths, anyway?" The click and rasp of the lighter was soothing, and so was the first lungful of smoke. "What happens when the Cetrulli, God forbid, find out that there's a Vongola heir they haven't killed yet and send someone out here to correct that oversight? I see the hag and that's it, I'm done, I'm too busy puking my guts up to do my job, which is, oh yeah, keeping Sawada-san alive and safe." He shook his head. "I'm too much of a liability. She needs someone who can actually do his job."

"So they need to send in a substitute." Yamamoto's color was improving as he got into the argument. "Okay, fine, whatever, I guess that makes sense, but that doesn't mean that they'll kill you!"

"Actually, incompetence is a perfectly good reason to shoot someone." Hayato just felt like putting that out there, especially if Yamamoto was going to call himself Sawada-san's bodyguard. It ought to put him on his game. "You should see the way the Barassi go through their people. And even so, they still can't do anything right." He took a drag off his cigarette. "But that's not why they're going to shoot me. It's because I know about Sawada-san." He'd stood on the carpet in front of the Ninth's desk, listening to the man explain that before the Vongola could tell him about the job they had for him, he had to swear on his life that he would not tell anyone what he was about to hear. He'd had a moment's misgivings, then, but had promised. And now, here they were. "It's the only way to be sure I won't let something slip to the wrong person." Which, in retrospect, he'd done pretty much on the first day, with Yamamoto. Fuck, it was amazing they'd let him live after that. Reborn must have been feeling generous.

"You wouldn't do that." Sasagawa's quiet tones were all solid conviction. "You'd die before you'd do anything that would harm Tsunako-chan."

Hayato laughed; he couldn't help himself. "Well, yeah, actually. That's my point." He smiled, perfectly aware that they wouldn't appreciate the beautiful irony of it all. "I swore myself to her, didn't I? My life for hers. And trust me on this, if the wrong person finds out about Sawada-san, it'll mean her life."

Yamamoto looked like something had just hit him. Hayato exhaled a stream of smoke at him and grinned; it was about time that idiot understood what the oaths he'd sworn so blithely actually meant.

Sasagawa took a breath. "So, you're a liability because of your reaction to your sister's face, which means you need to be replaced. And because you're going to be replaced, they will kill you to be sure that you stay silent. Do I have that right?"

Sounded about right to him; Hayato grunted as much, smoking the last of his cigarette slowly. She nodded; somewhere in there she'd stopped looking so stunned and now looked more determined than anything else. He had to wonder what she thought she was going to come up with. She'd stopped swinging herself back and forth while he'd explained what was going to happen; now she pushed herself back into motion. "If the problem is that you're a liability, then that just means we need to find a way to keep you from being a liability."

Yamamoto straightened up out of his slouch, something that looked like relief sweeping over his face. "Hey, yeah, that could work, right? If you don't puke when you see Bianchi-san, then—sorry!"

Hayato, too busy gagging to reply any other way, flipped him off.

After a moment, Yamamoto cleared his throat. "Anyway, if you could just—learn how not to do that, then there wouldn't be any reason for them to—do any of those things. Right?"

"Don't make it sound like it's that easy, asshole," Hayato gritted out. "Because it's not." As if he could just decide not to react automatically to the sight of the hag's face when that had been his only defense mechanism for so long.

"Mm, it might not be easy," Sasagawa allowed. "But surely it would be worth it—and wouldn't it be good to be able to be in the same room as your half-sister without having that reaction?"

"Why in the hell would I want to be in the same room as her?" Hayato, revolted by the thought, demanded. "I don't want to go anywhere near the hag."

He realized, much to late, that that had been the wrong way to approach it. Sasagawa's eyes went sharp. "Really," she said. "You would honestly rather let yourself be killed than face her? For pity's sake, why?"

Girls like Sasagawa always got their ways sooner or later. He'd been an idiot to have forgotten that. And what Sasagawa had wanted was to know what was at the heart of his problems with the hag. Shit. Hayato glared at her; she gave him a narrow-eyed stare back, clearly unimpressed. Well. Fuck it. Hayato scuffed his feet through the sand beneath his swing, setting himself in motion. "I don't see why I ought to give her any more free shots at poisoning me. She wants me dead, she can fucking well work for it."

Hah. He'd thought Sasagawa wouldn't like that. He smiled, well, showed his teeth, at the look on her face. She'd asked.

Yamamoto cleared his throat again. When Hayato glanced his way, he said, diffident, "Are you really sure that she actually wants to kill you now?" He raised his hands hurriedly when Hayato snarled. "I mean, it's just—yesterday, when you were being sick, she didn't look like someone who wanted you dead, is the thing."

"Because you have so much expertise in knowing what that looks like." Hayato rolled his eyes. "Use your brain, dumbass. She's a hitman. People see what she wants them to see."

"That may be," Sasagawa cut in. "Just when was the last time she tried to kill you, though?"

Hayato drew a breath, thinking back. "A couple of days before I left, I guess." He'd been trying to hide from her and the cupcake she'd been carrying, which was how he'd come to be in the linen closet when a gaggle of the staff had come by, shaking their heads and explaining things to the new girl. Yeah, that's the boss' kid… no, why should he care, the boy's his bastard, he had his mother killed, didn't you know? And his world had come apart, even as it had made sense for the first time ever.

Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention—Yamamoto mouthing an exaggerated He was eight.

Sasagawa made a quiet sound, one Hayato wasn't quite sure how to decipher. She looked—pained, perhaps. Wasn't as tough as she thought she was after all, was she? Or maybe not as okay with the mafia as she'd thought she was. Hayato smiled, knowing there wasn't much humor in it, because what had she thought—that he was joking, maybe?

Maybe smirking at her had been the wrong thing to do, thought, because she drew herself a little straighter and firmed up her mouth. "And she hasn't tried to since then?"

Oh, for—Hayato's eyes ached with how hard he had to roll them. "If the next thing out of your mouth has anything to do with how she's not that kind of person any more or how long six years is, I swear to God that you will not like what I do next." God save him from idealists and people who'd never had to deal with the real world. Sasagawa and Yamamoto were just—young. So fucking young. And that was the whole problem.

Sasagawa closed her mouth, frowning, before she shook her head. "How can you be so sure without asking her about it?"

"If it really has been six years, you could at least try, right?" Yamamoto chimed in, all helpfulness. "Wouldn't it at least be good to try? I mean… Reborn wouldn't actually let her do it, right?"

Neither of them looked like they understood why Hayato was laughing. Of course, they probably still thought Reborn was nice. Or something. Hayato shook his head, because what else could a person do in the face of that kind of naïveté? "Who do you even think taught her how to use her poison skills? Christ."

Sasagawa shook her head, too. "Never mind Reborn," she said. "Tsunako-chan wouldn't let it happen."

Hayato blinked at that. "What?"

"Hey, yeah, that's right." Yamamoto was practically sparkling. "Sawada-chan won't—she won't let her do anything, and I bet she won't let the Ninth do anything either… I mean, it's Sawada-chan, right?"

The thing about hope was that it hurt, both when it blossomed as suddenly as a cactus after a rainfall and when Hayato crushed it again. He'd sworn himself to Sawada-san and was willing to kill or die for her, but sheer pragmatism forced him to acknowledge, privately, that as much as he—respected—her, unless Reborn had just shot her with a Dying Will bullet, she wasn't very fearsome. Sawada-san was very nice and she'd probably protest—probably; she was pretty fond of the hag—but expecting her to—to—for his sake was too much.

He opened his mouth to tell them as much and stopped. They both looked dreadfully earnest, absolutely convinced that this was a solution, that Sawada-san would be able to make it all be okay. They wanted it to be okay. He didn't have to be the one to dispel that particular delusion. He could, but… what was the point? They'd figure it out soon enough. "Maybe," he said. "Maybe she will. I still don't want to deal with the hag."

Sasagawa pressed her lips together very tightly. Hayato eyed her, distrusting that expression on instinct. Finally, she said, "You're being selfish."

"The hell you say!" He glared at her, offended. "How the fuck am I being selfish?" Considering the circumstances, he thought he was being rather practical and—selfless—about the fact that he was going to end up dead over this, one way or another.

"Because you've already written yourself off and you haven't even thought about how the rest of us are going to feel about it." Sasagawa met his eyes, perfectly level, as she laid that out. "Has it occurred to you to think about how Tsunako-chan would feel knowing that the Ninth had you killed just to keep her a secret? Don't you realize how much that would hurt her? Do you think she would ever forgive herself for that? You're selfish, Gokudera Hayato. Terribly selfish."

He was gaping at her; he knew that he was gaping and couldn't help himself, because—the fuck. The fucking fuck.

"Sawada-chan isn't the only one." Yamamoto sounded more serious than Hayato would have imagined was possible. "What about us? Are we your friends or not?"

Hayato stared at him, full of disbelief. Were they—but—what, really?

Turned out he'd said the last out loud or something, or maybe they could read it off his face, who knew, because Sasagawa said, quietly, "We are your friends, you know."

"Yeah." Yamamoto shuffled his feet, rocking back on his heels. "What did you think we were?"

"Sawada-san's friends." He tried not to harbor many self-delusions, and it was pretty clear that Sawada-san liked both of them a lot more than she did him. But that was okay. He was supposed to be her bodyguard, not her buddy.

They exchanged looks with each other, the kind that made Hayato want to grind his teeth at how sympathetic they were. He didn't need to be fucking pitied, Christ.

It was Yamamoto who said, "You're our friend. And Sawada-chan's friend, too."

Which was all warm and fuzzy, but didn't mean much. Friends weren't Family, but that wasn't his job to teach them, either. So fuck it. Let them figure it out on their own.

"You're our friend and we're not going to let you just—give up." Sasagawa drew herself up on her swing, and Hayato was reminded that she was the kind of girl who always got her way. God help him. "There has to be a way you and your sister—"


"—You and your half-sister can work together, since you've already managed it for this long. And there has to be some way you can get over your reaction. Yamamoto-kun said it was a psychosomatic reaction? You don't react when we call her your sister—just when we say her name." Sasagawa nodded, like she was pleased with that. "I expect that means you could learn not to be nauseated by seeing her."

"And maybe pigs will learn to fly," Hayato retorted.

Not that Sasagawa seemed to be put off by his resistance. "And if you can get past that, then you'll be able to be even more effective as Tsunako-chan's bodyguard, and no one will have to be killed, and Tsunako-chan won't have to be upset." She nodded and propelled herself to her feet. "I think we had better go see Tsunako-chan right now, before we waste any more time."

"I think you're right," Yamamoto agreed, over Hayato's, "Wait, I didn't agree to this!" He glared at them both, much good that it did him. They both seemed to have made up their minds and seemed to have decided that he would go along with that. Yamamoto looked down at him expectantly.

Hayato considered winding his hands around the chains supporting his kiddy swing up and defying them to move him from his chosen ground, took the measure of how set Yamamoto's jaw was, and decided that there were better battles to fight.

"I hate you both," he said, hauling himself to his feet. "Just so you know."

"At least you're alive to hate us," Sasagawa said, tart as lemon. "Come on."

They'd done their best to instill manners in him when he was little, things like how to treat girls and shit, but Hayato felt that it was entirely worth ignoring all that training to flip her off, too. One was polite to nice girls; Sasagawa Kyouko was many things, but he was pretty sure that nice wasn't one of them.

She just rolled her eyes at him. "Come on," she said again.

The walk back to Sawada-san's house was as good a reason as any to smoke his last cigarette. Hayato smoked it in silence, in no mood to talk to either of them, and let them exchange trivialities across him.

Sawada Nana seemed surprised when they turned up on her doorstep. "Oh, are you here for Tsunako?" she fluttered. "I'm afraid she's gone out—"

"They can wait for her to come back." That was Reborn, proving once again that he was simply the best by appearing out of thin air (more or less). "There are things they need to discuss with Tsunako."

"Oh!" Sawada-san's mother fluttered a bit more and stood back, out of their way. "Come in, then, and why don't you all go on up to here room? I'll give her a call and tell her to come home right away, and fix you all a tray—"

Hayato tuned her nattering out as he slipped his shoes off and exchanged them for house slippers instead. Sasagawa was giving Reborn a considering look, but he walked away before she could make up her mind to do whatever it is she was thinking about doing.

"Where did he come from?" she asked, voice pitched low, as they walked upstairs to Sawada-san's room.

"It's Reborn." Hayato shrugged at her. "Maybe he was shadowing us." Had sounded that way, anyway.

She looked disturbed by that; well, if she honestly meant it when she insisted she was going to be part of this, then she needed to get used to such things.

Hayato dismissed that, settled himself at the low table at the center of Sawada-san's bedroom, made sure the wastebasket was in easy lunging distance in case the hag decided to put in an appearance, and composed himself to wait.

"Oh, Tsunako!" Nana called when they came in, Tsunako all out of breath, "good, I was just about to call you—your friends are upstairs."

That was strange, but there were some extra pairs of shoes sitting in the entryway, sure enough. Maybe Reborn had rounded Kyouko and Yamamoto up, which was unexpected—but wait, there were three pairs of shoes, which mean, fuck, Hayato was up there. Fuck, what was Reborn up to now? She looked up from them to where Nana had come to greet them. "Is Reborn here?"

"He was." Nana spread her hands. "I don't know whether he's still here." Her tone was resigned, since life with Reborn was filled with such uncertainties. Normally it wasn't a problem, but—

Bianchi dug into her pocket for her phone and texted him a terse we need to talk right fucking now before nodding to the stairs. "Go on up and see what's going on. I'll stay in the hall." At least until she got ahold of Reborn and could shake him.

Tsunako nodded and dashed up the stairs. Bianchi followed at a more sedate pace and was careful not to step in front of the open doorway.

A welter of voices rose up as Tsunako went in—Kyouko and Yamamoto, both of them talking at the same time. Bianchi listened closely, picking out the fragments of what they were—ah. They were all worried about the same thing. Interesting. She had to wonder how the two of them had gotten that much information out of Hayato, when he tended to be pretty close-mouthed. Tsunako was talking just as fast as they were, trying to get the straight of the story, but the one voice she didn't hear was Hayato's.

"You should go in." Reborn, from down around her knees. When she looked, he had a faint smile on his face. "This is going to be an interesting conversation."

"Oh, there's going to be an interesting conversation, all right," Bianchi muttered to him. "What the fuck, Reborn? What the fucking fuck is wrong with you? If you think for one second that I am going to stand by and let you write my little brother off, you little bastard, I swear to God that I will end you, Arcobaleno or not!" Well, it had started off as a mutter. By the time she got to the end of it, she was shouting, enraged as much by the placid expression on his face as the threat to her brother. "I mean that, Reborn. You harm one hair on Hayato's head and I will fucking destroy you, you got that?"

"So I was thinking that perhaps you could try a mask," Reborn said, as if she hadn't said a word. He produced Leon, who helpfully transformed into a green half-mask, and brandished the results at her. "Here, try this."

"You are the most hateful creature in existence," Bianchi told him. "I hope you know that."

He continued to hold Leon out to her, implacable and smiling just a bit, clearly more amused that anything else.

"This is not over yet," she promised him, taking Leon and fitting him over her face. As he shaped himself to fit her features, molding himself over her forehead and cheekbones, she realized that the kids had gone silent.

That didn't sound promising.

Bianchi gave Reborn one last glare and stepped into the room to see what the kids were going to have to say for themselves. Tsunako was staring, her eyes wide and surprised. Kyouko looked very thoughtful; Yamamoto was grinning. And Hayato was—gripping a wastebasket, holding it close by, but he wasn't puking or more than a little bit green, which gave her the first chance to get a good look at him without the aid of a set of binoculars that she'd had in years. He was too thin, all the angles of his face cut too fine, so that his eyes stood out too large in his face. He looked a lot like his mother, actually—straighter hair than she'd had, and no trace of the softness Bianchi recalled in her, but maybe part of that was how suspiciously he was glaring at her. Not that she could even pretend to be surprised by that.

Bianchi inclined her head to him. "Hello, Hayato." She moved a step closer to the table. He tensed and she stopped in her tracks, being sure to hold her hands at her sides, open and palms out. "Tsunako, do you mind if I sit on your bed?" she asked, not taking her eyes off her brother.

"Um… no, go ahead." Tsunako gestured to it as she joined the other three sitting at the table.

"Thanks." Bianchi sidled over and took a seat on the edge, careful to keep her movements slow and deliberate, watching Hayato all the while.

Reborn strolled in and looked them over. "So the mask works," he noted. "That's interesting."

"It helps." Hayato's voice was taut and he was sweating; perhaps some of that tension came of fighting down nausea. "Some."

"Ah." Reborn pursed his lips. "Pity."

It must have been the tone of dismissal that prompted the explosion that followed, Tsunako and Kyouko both speaking up at once, pretty much on the same theme. Tsunako said, "Reborn, is it true that they'll kill Gokudera if he leaves?" while Kyouko said, calm and distinct, "Killing Gokudera-kun without even trying to find an alternative is appallingly wasteful. What are you people thinking?"

"The safety of the Ninth's heir takes precedence over the life of a freelance bodyguard," Reborn said, lifting his shoulders in a shrug. "Both the Poison Scorpion and the Smoking Bomb knew that when they took this job. Expecting anything else is foolishness."

"But this is a stupid reason for anyone to die!" Kyouko protested, while Tsunako went white at the confirmation. "It's not—he does his job all the rest of the time, it's not—"

"The Vongola must take care of itself first and foremost," Reborn said, implacable about it. Bianchi knew that, she understood that, and still she couldn't stop herself from growling at the implications anyway. Even if the Vongola did need to be sure that is people were safe, this was her brother…! "The lives of freelance hitmen come after that." Reborn reflected on that for a moment. "Usually much after that, of course."

"But—" Kyouko began.

Before she could finish that, Yamamoto said, quietly, "But he swore himself to Sawada-chan's service, didn't he?"

Everyone turned to look at him, even Hayato, who forgot to glare about it, too. Yamamoto looked back, not quite managing to look as guileless as he probably thought he did. "Doesn't that make him part of the Vongola?"

And Tsunako, bless her heart, had been listening all those evenings that Bianchi-san had spent spinning out stories to explain mafia lore to her, because her spine straightened then, just a bit. "He did."

Reborn glanced her way, wearing one of his most inscrutable expressions, the kind he adopted when he was evaluating some new wrinkle in a mission in order to decide whether it was a threat. "Does that mean you're going to claim him as Family?"

The question hung in the air for a moment; Hayato seemed to be frozen in place, his eyes huge in his face. Tsunako was still, too, like she didn't know how to answer that question. Maybe she was thinking of the things Bianchi had just told her about Family and what it meant. Then her mouth firmed and her chin came up. "Yes, I am. So I don't want to hear anything more about sending him away or—or—I don't want to hear it. If the mask helps, other things will, too."

She said it without hesitation, as firmly as any boss' heir who'd grown up in the heart of his—or her—Family, and Bianchi drew a breath, the sharpness of it cutting her throat. Hayato's eyes were wide, full of disbelief and wonder—why shouldn't they be? Bianchi knew perfectly well the kinds of things he'd been told by every other Family he'd tried to join. They'd had not-dissimilar things to say to her, on the rare occasions she'd considered it herself.

Reborn looked Tsunako up and down, weighing her. "Are you sure?"

Tsunako didn't even blink. "Yes. No one is going to die to keep me safe. I don't want that."

Reborn pursed his lips; Hayato was scarcely breathing. Then Reborn said, "If that's your Will, I suppose it can't be helped." He turned that tiny implacable expression on Hayato. "In that case, you will need to find some way of handling your reactions to your sister."

Hayato opened his mouth, something going to war with the wonder on his face, chilling it. "I…" He swallowed, throat bobbing. "But…" He glanced at her, his eyes flickering over her face and then sliding away.

"You can find a way." Tsunako's voice practically throbbed with sincerity. If Bianchi hadn't known better, she'd have sworn the kid was on the verge of calling her Flame. "Can't you?"

Hayato opened his mouth, staring at Tsunako with something like veneration on his face. It set a tiny alarm off in the back of Bianchi's head to see him looking at Tsunako like that as he struggled with himself. After a moment, Tsunako or whatever it was she represented to him won out, because he bent his head and said, quietly, "If that's what you want, Sawada-san."

They all seemed to exhale at once, except Reborn, who merely looked satisfied.

Sasagawa and Yamamoto were going to be fucking unbearable. Hayato could already see that looming up ahead of him and wasn't much looking forward to it. He tried not to think about that too closely: that kept his stomach from clenching up over the thought. (At least he could say this much, though: Sawada-san hadn't claimed the baseball idiot as Family—she'd claimed him first. Him.)

And he was trying hard not to think about this, either: the hag, sitting down across from him, only a table's width away from him. She had a coffee; Hayato hadn't dared to purchase anything to eat or drink himself. (The Poison Scorpion, they said, could transmute food to poison from a hundred meters, if she felt like it.) Her face was made strange by the goggles she wore, which was earning her some funny looks from the other patrons of this little cake shop. It was enough, though—it reduced his nausea to mostly bearable levels, as long as he concentrated.

The hag curled her fingers around the cup in front of her and said, "I'm sorry, Hayato. I didn't realize what I was doing was awful until after you left, which was—stupid of me. Selfish. Cruel. You don't have to forgive me, but I did want you to know that I'm sorry for what I did. You didn't deserve that."

Hayato stared at her, not quite sure he believed what he was hearing. "Seriously?"

Bianchi raised a shoulder and dropped it. "Yeah, seriously. You're probably the only member of that family that shouldn't have been poisoned, come right down to it."

Hayato eyed her, wondering whether this was some kind of joke, but behind the lenses of her goggles, the hag's eyes were sober and serious. Huh. That was… something. He guessed. He looked away. "Whatever."

"I just thought you should know that, anyway." When he glanced back at her, she was looking down and studying her coffee. "Been wanting to tell you that for a long time." She lifted the cup and took a drink, and settled back in her seat. "So how are you doing?"

Hayato kind of thought that question was the kind that had layers to it, more than he entirely knew what to do with. So he shrugged at her. "Getting by, I guess." Better than getting by, maybe. He had a Vongola job, maybe even a Family, and a steady income and a roof over his head. And a boss who was… a boss who was amazing. "Can't complain too much."

"That's good," she said, her voice soft. "Very good. I'm glad."

The thing was, Hayato kind of thought she maybe meant that. He stared at her, trying to figure out what he thought about that. Finally, he said, "Did you mean it?" It came out abrupt, harsh, but he couldn't help it. "When you were screaming at Reborn the other day, I mean." Which, Christ, talk about something that took balls. Threatening to kill the Vongola's best hitman was—no one did that. At least, no one did that for him.

Even with the goggles, he could see that the question surprised her. "Of course I did. You're my brother." She paused. "And it was my idea to recommend you for this job. I wasn't—we're bodyguards, fine, freelancers, fine, but that doesn't mean we should let them just throw our lives away."

"Huh," Hayato said, because that wasn't—the composed way she said that didn't exactly match the way she'd been screaming at Reborn. But… maybe that didn't matter so much. He still remembered what she'd said and how she'd said it the first time round.

That was a strange, discomfiting thought. He didn't know what to do with it.

She shrugged again and took a sip of coffee. "So, anyway. Guess all's well that ends well."

Hayato gave her a long look, feeling the uneasiness of his stomach. "It's ended?"

She huffed. "One thing, maybe. And now something new is starting."

"Never figured you for an optimist," he said.

"Better that than the alternative." She glanced away from him, tapping a nail against the side of her cup. "Don't suppose you want to have anything while we talk?"

Hayato sucked in a breath. "—No," he said. "No, I can't."

She nodded, not quite looking at him. "Can't blame you, I guess. Maybe some other time."

"Maybe," he agreed, relieved that she wasn't going to try to push it.

They fell silent for a moment, mutually uncertain, before she said, "So tell me what you've been up to, kiddo. It's been hard keeping track of you."

The immediate, sarcastic response rose to Hayato's lips, but he choked it back down again. "Where should I begin?"

Her smile was small, but maybe genuine. "Wherever you want," Bianchi said. "Wherever you want."

Bianchi didn't say anything at all to Reborn, even after she'd taken her usual seat and settled herself comfortably. He didn't either, for several minutes, until he gave a tiny snort. "Punishing me with the silent treatment?"

"No, I just have so many things to say to you that I don't know where to begin."

"Of course." He sounded more amused than anything else, which set her teeth on edge.

"I suppose you think this is all very funny." She glared up at the place she knew him to be sitting.

"From the right perspective, everything is funny."

"Fuck you, Reborn. Seriously, fuck you." Perhaps it wasn't the most politic thing a girl could tell the world's greatest hitman, but Bianchi was having trouble caring about that when the little bastard was laughing at her and all the trouble he'd caused. "I hate you."

"It worked." Reborn presented that as if it were incontrovertible proof of something—his own exculpation, perhaps. "It worked."

Bianchi closed here eyes and said, carefully, "I suppose this was the only way you could see to explain how the Family works to Tsunako, then?"

"Of course not, but why waste all that effort on one lesson?" Reborn still sounded amused. "This way the Smoking Bomb learns a few things, and so does the Poison Scorpion—not to mention the boy and the girl. I begin to believe that there might be the possibility of a Family here."

Bianchi found herself rocking back against the bole of the tree, surprised, because—he sounded serious this time, like he really was thinking in terms of—that. "Fuck, Reborn."

"I do hate to see a waste of potential," he mused. "Your brother might actually turn out to be worth something once we finish knocking the self-pity out of him. I hope it doesn't take as long with him as it did with you."

Bianchi shut her mouth on the first half-dozen things she wanted to say to him, more to keep herself from giving him the satisfaction than anything else. In the end she settled on a grudging, "I still hate you."

"Of course you do," he said, perfectly composed.

"I mean that."

"I don't doubt it for a second."

Bianchi scrunched herself down against the trunk, annoyed. "Stop laughing at me."

"Would I laugh at you?"

"Shit, Reborn, I know you, remember? You never stop laughing."

He just snorted again, soft. "If you say so."

Bianchi rearranged herself against the bole and changed the subject. "The Ninth going to go along with this Family thing?"

"Mm." He sounded thoughtful. "He said I might do as I like."

Bianchi found that she couldn't help herself. "Did he add, 'Because I know you're going to do it anyway' to that?"

"That part was understood." She heard the soft rustle of his shifting over her. "I think he'll approve. We want her to be strong, and it will help her if she has people to depend on."

Bianchi absorbed that. "Reborn, why does everyone worry about how strong she needs to be? How bad is it, really?"

He was silent for a long time before he said, "Bad. It's bad. I can't tell you the extent of it, but the Ninth is well within his rights to want an alternative."

Bianchi ran a hand through her hair, considering that. "What did he do?"

"I can't say."

Can't, she noted, not won't, and Reborn was always precise with his language. So there was no hope of finding out from him. "Is this going to work?"

He went silent again. "I think so," he said, finally. "I think so."

And she had to be content with that.


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