Beta'd by the indefatigable Insane Scriptist.

A lone update for Xanxus's birthday! I'm working on writing more, but it's currently slow-going given the general climate. Persistent stress does not make for a happy Muse.

Of adjustments and deliberate choices

Two weeks was not very long in the grand scheme of things, but business stopped for no man and so Xanxus was sending his men on missions again. The main reason it took so very long to get back to normal was that there had been difficulties getting organised during and after the Great Untangling of Varia Headquarters and his wife's house; missing paperwork kept getting found in odd locations, which prompted a Deep Cleaning Expedition for everybody and an early inventory for Housekeeping.

This particular mission was semi-local and would barely take a day, so he was sending Lektor plus a pair of mooks. Lektor, apparently unusually for a wizard, did actually have a driving licence, and Xanxus was assigning him the mooks because the mook pool's ongoing abject terror of the Lightning Officer was becoming actively counterproductive and Xanxus had seen enough of it over the last fortnight to know it wasn't going to fix itself. A straightforward mission where they just had to act as backup would go a way to hammering it into these two's heads that Lektor was only dangerous in specific ways and in specific situations, which would then enter the gossip pool and hopefully mean people stopped being Dumb. No person belonging to the Varia was truly safe, but being consistently Dumb in reacting to a superior's quirks was borderline Stupid.

He'd picked these two specifically –a Storm and a Cloud– because they weren't given to quaking in their boots, so he had half a hope this was all he'd need to do. Mindless terror wasn't useful; with a bit of luck the mooks would get over themselves after this and make themselves useful within the boundaries of Lektor's tolerance.

It'd looked like it was going well when they left his office, so he was going to put it out of his mind until his Lightning submitted the report on Monday. The abridged report; Xanxus had no doubt there'd be a long version, but he wasn't going to read it. He had better things to do with his time. Especially since it was a Sunday; he shouldn't be in work at all today, but things being what they were had meant Mammon had come across several stacks of stranded paperwork last night, misplaced during the Great Untangling, so Xanxus had come in for an hour after church to deal with what really could not wait. Such as that mission he'd just sent Lektor on. Why the paperwork had been sitting in the morgue's freezers was best not thought on. It was not actually the oddest location either, as current opinion held the top spot in that contest to be 'under the carpets'. Xanxus however was still getting over several files having turned up under Bel's bed.

Yesterday's date at the races had been good for his wife, but today was for relaxing and listening to the children babble happily about their trip to the zoo, and possibly sitting around while they drew animals for him to admire. He was already looking forward to it and had not the slightest intention of being late.

Sunday afternoons were perhaps not the most social of visiting times, but yesterday Pantera had had his adorable little goddaughter all to himself for most of the day while her parents went to the races and hadn't managed to have the conversation he'd wanted to with Dorea. He could have had the conversation when they came back in the middle of the afternoon, admittedly, but it wouldn't have gone down well. Seeing her in that black dress with the coral and pearls had made that much blatantly clear. It had not been the sort of day to press his luck.

However he had managed to secure the assurance that he could 'stop by on Sundays' if he wanted to, with the understanding that it would be informal and low-key, and today was a Sunday so he was taking Dorea up on it. Immacolata was coming too –Dorea had included her in that casual but oh-so-precious invitation– and even if he didn't manage to broach his desired subject of conversation, Pantera was sure he'd manage to lay groundwork for bringing it up at a later date.

He and his lovely wife were not the only guests: the large, opulently rococo sitting room contained several other couples with a marked resemblance to the Varia Boss that Pantera recognised from Xanxus's birthday party, a gaggle of British children and a scattering of familiar Guardians. Xanxus himself was on the carpet with his twins, Erica's son Amadeo and several other similarly-aged children, playing a board game which seemed to involve building a complex three-dimensional structure and a great deal of giggling; Dorea was on a low couch that Maínomai was sat leaning against, nominally reading a small book but currently talking to both the Varia Mist beside her and the blond identical twins leaning against the top of the couch above her.

Immacolata engaged in conversation with another pregnant woman –a cousin of Dorea's apparently– Pantera meandered slowly from conversation to conversation until he could settle on the couch opposite his host's. Closer to it was possible to see Serena on the carpet next to Hector, both engrossed in a wooden train set as their respective parents discussed comparative Warding styles. The Superbi Heir wasn't sure he'd ever heard of a Sky making Wards, but on reflection there was no particular reason why not. It just wasn't something any Sky of his acquaintance –family or otherwise– had ever expressed an interest in.

Well, until now at least. It was an idea he could toss at family members later, on a future occasion when he needed something shiny to distract them with.

A combined cheer and wail briefly interrupted the conversation; somebody had just won the board game. Pantera glanced over to see the little Asian girl high-five the Varia Boss as three of the boys covered their faces with their hands and groaned. In Xanxus's lap his youngest was gnawing happily on a string of chunky beads; the other older girls –evidently neither winners nor losers– were already dismantling the chaotic structure rising from the board, presumably in anticipation of a second round.


He turned back to smile at the duo sat opposite him. "Dorea, Maínomai; it's good to see you both looking well." Well enough anyway; Dorea was wearing a tea gown in grey silk and a lilac jacket, lilac ribbons in her hair and pearl jewellery at her throat, ears and wrist. Along with the ribbons her updo was accented with an enamelled diadem of white camellia and ivy, which looked very good against the lilac. The overall colour choices were rather speaking, given the Lady Potter's distinctly old-fashioned sensibilities, and while he hadn't yet memorised the Victorian flower language book Solare had just acquired for him he intended to get it done well before Christmas. Grey and lilac were however less alarming than yesterday's black.

Mainomai on the other hand looked very comfortable in faded jeans and a knitted sweater, brightly mismatched socks on his feet with shoes nowhere to be seen.

"You too," Dorea agreed idly. "I wasn't expecting to see you again so soon."

"Well I didn't get a chance to talk to you yesterday about my possibly getting a fitting for that oh-so-interesting armour your people have made," Pantera said easily, "and given the demonstrated flexibility, I was wondering if one could be also made to suit my dear wife's changing figure." Pregnancy was a very vulnerable time and, given the guaranteed upheaval of the coming months, knowing Immacolata was armoured when out and about would do a lot for his peace of mind.

Dorea tipped her head back, twisting to look over at one of the various groups standing around chatting. "Jerry?"

One of the Things –the slightly blonder one– glanced their way, then left his conversation to lean nonchalantly on the back of Dorea's couch. "Dearest direst most devious Dorea, what can I do for you?" he asked lightly, fidgeting with the collar of his vibrantly fuchsia brocade banyan.

"When would be a good time for Pantera and Immacolata to talk armour?"

Jerry –Thing One, possibly?– hummed pensively. "Tuesday work for you both?" He asked. "Or is Wednesday better?"

"Wednesday morning?" Pantera asked hopefully. He didn't have anything booked for then and had been intending to spend the morning with his wife anyway, but the weather was promising to be terrible so he'd been casting around for some creative way to be away from home and therefore unavailable to relatives who believed their momentary inconveniences counted as emergencies.

"Wednesday morning it is! Try to be here before ten, would you? Or we won't be finished by lunchtime."

Pantera made a mental note to be out of his own front door at nine at the very latest. "Thank you, that's a weight off my mind."

The heavily-freckled Mist waved a hand, dismissing his thanks. "Dorea asked, it's no trouble," he said genially. "And the other thing?"

Pantera stilled.

The Thing grinned at him, sharp but not truly nasty; this was Thing One then. "It's never just one thing with you, Kitty-cat."

"I am entirely undone," Pantera joked, slumping sideways on the cushions. "Nothing urgent; I was going to mention it to Xanxus later."

"Something Vongola then," Dorea deduced, sighing.

"Alas," Pantera agreed ruefully, "but moderately good news for all that. They've finally got the invitations for the Solstice Ball out and Timoteo Vongola won't be present; Maria-Chiara's hosting, nominally, but practically it'll be Samu."

"Very good news then," Maínomai mused, absently steadying his daughter as she climbed into his lap, "as it gives the impression of continuity and a clear sense of imminent transition. I know the plan is to have the Inheritance Ceremony in the New Year, so this makes it look a bit less like a coup."

Dorea lifted her own son into her lap, kissing his forehead and humming interestedly as he babbled eagerly and waved a fox-headed doll under her nose. Recognising that particular conversation was over and he was unlikely to get more conversation out of Dorea today, Pantera got up and went to sprawl on the carpet by the board game, where he was instantly claimed by Cassie as a team-mate.

Was that smiling boy on her other side Fuuta de la Stella? Yes he was. How interesting

Last week Squalo had secured his daughter all to himself for this weekend, and thankfully the semi-official cover story of 'spillover from the Arcobaleno Curse' had sated both Nilla and Delfina's curiosity. In that the combination of said technically-true excuse and his own likely-visible attempt to move on from it had realigned their focus from curiosity to support. Not much was known about the Curse, so there being undocumented side-effects on non-Arcobaleno with Flame-bonds to Arcobaleno was completely plausible.

It also made it clear that there wasn't much that could be done about what he was going through beyond developing new coping strategies, as well as that attempting to enact vengeance on the parties responsible was a futile endeavour. Squalo hoped very much neither his little sister nor the Harpies were contemplating revenge regardless; he'd told them that the individual who had set things off by poking their nose into things that were not their business was dead, but that might not stop them. Admittedly locating and doing away with the 'enablers' would mean offing the entire adult contingent of the Bovino Famiglia, but as their weapons' manufacturing was now almost entirely locked to the CEDEF they'd soon be falling apart alongside the Consulenza Esterna, if they weren't already starting to. Vengeance spontaneously served, as it were.

Spending time with his little sea-star did help though. He hadn't had any significant fake memories of her, which helped confirm said fake memories were garbage, and meant spending time with her was genuinely restful in ways that chatting with his sister wasn't quite. Of course he wasn't letting that stop him from sitting with Delfina and letting her steer the conversation, but it was an effort. It'd stop being so eventually, but desensitisation was a process.

His stellina was a joy though. There being a full set of Officers meant Squalo had less paperwork right now than he ever had before, which was good when he was trying to learn more about Sabina and magic on the side, but also gave him more time for his sister and baby daughter. He should probably set about drawing himself up a slightly more regular schedule, so as to balance all his commitments appropriately.

Six months old, now. Squalo has heavily documented those six months, but he knew the next eighteen would be a high-speed developmental rollercoaster as he got to know the tiny person he and Nilla had somehow made between them.

The swordsman felt his lips twitch; there was not a single Superbi in existence who wasn't a hellion in some way, and he was very much looking forward to finding out what kind his sea-star happened to be. She was already sitting up unsupported and babbling with intent, personality starting to shine through, and he'd taken to chatting to her in a range of different languages to see which ones she took a liking to. Being polyglot was a necessity in the Alliance after all, so you could never start too early. He'd have to make sure she got exposed to more German, seeing as Nilla's abilities there were limited to inventive swearing.

Delfina sat down on the rug facing him and handed Stella a toy dinosaur, which she waved around for a few seconds then firmly shoved into her mouth.

"So it's San Nicola next weekend," his sister signed coaxingly.

"No, I'm not giving you your spending money early," Squalo replied bluntly, reaching out to neatly tap his daughter on the nose, making her squeal.

Delfina pouted. "But it's only two weeks away!"

"You get the money on the day, just like everybody else." It was a Superbi tradition, money from parents and grandparents for San Nicola and then a small mountain of gifts a week later for Santa Lucia. Christmas was much more low-key, just one token gift from each family member and more geared towards the practical than the frivolous.

Squalo hadn't had Santa Lucia presents since joining the Varia at fourteen; he didn't really miss them, as if he wanted fancy shit he bought it for himself. But since the divorce their parents had taken to dropping a lump in Squalo's account in the middle of November, for him to pick out whatever Delfina wanted this year, and since her ninth birthday he'd made a habit of giving her a portion of it for the San Nicola Fair to spend for herself. There was a definite learning curve to buying your own shit and the practice would help his sister not make stupid mistakes later.

He also gave her money from him and from Grandpa and Grandma, which was why the total sum changed every year. Grew like she did. But the exact details were a secret until next Friday when he'd meet her at Nilla's right after school and hand over a wedge of banknotes to spend or save as she pleased.

He expected she'd mostly spend them; this was the only time of year she got significant cash in hand and she wasn't old enough yet for much restraint. She'd spend most of the money on sweets and carnival games and trinkets, both for herself and as presents for her friends, and there'd be maybe one or two items that would hold her interest for longer than half a year. A hat maybe, or a cushion or something. Last year she'd bought some cute felt Christmas decorations that were currently hanging from Nilla's chandelier, which were probably going to continue getting used for several decades providing they were suitably protected from moths in between times.


"You know I'm not going to change my mind, why are you still asking?"

Delfina huffed as Stella banged the plastic stegosaurus on the floor a few times, then shoved a different part of it into her mouth and gummed down.

"There's something I want to get in the sales," she signed eventually, "but they finish at the end of the month."

Squalo knew that; Grandma had talked his ear off about all the things Delfina was currently interested in when he phoned her mid-week to find out what he should be getting his baby sister for Santa Lucia. Delfina amusingly didn't seem to have realised yet that it was Squalo buying her all that, which was fair when other kids got those gifts from parents and grandparents. And yes, Grandma did add a few things, but mostly it was Squalo doing the actual buying.

Oh well, she'd realise eventually.

"You know the rules about buying fancy things in the run-up to Christmas," he reminded her.

"You said that last year and I still didn't get the gel pen set I wanted!" Delfina then folded her arms and sulked.

Squalo did not say that she hadn't got the pen set because that company had been really toeing the line on the toxicity levels of their inks and had done some mass recalls a few months before abruptly folding; yes, he'd possibly sped that along by complaining loudly where certain relatives involved in quality assurance standards could hear him about the results of the quick test Information had thrown together when he'd mentioned that something felt off about the pens he'd bought, but that was hardly his fault. Testing for toxins with Flames was practically reflexive for him by this point. If they'd been keeping to the rules the company would have been fine.

Considering the entire line had been marketed to kids, he wasn't remotely surprised his relatives had ensured that whoever had been behind that bit of corner-cutting had the book thrown at them. They might even had suffered an accident, but if so the Varia hadn't done it.

On the rug, Stella dropped the dinosaur and started to whine, her face going pink. Squalo hastily picked her up and rocked her against his chest.

"Voi, if you're going to sulk do it in your room," he signed shortly; babies were very sensitive to people's moods and his sister making his daughter cry over a gift she'd felt entitled to was not acceptable behaviour.

Delfina silently rose to her feet and marched out of the room, closing the door firmly behind her. Squalo rolled his eyes briefly at the drama –and she wasn't even a teenager yet, it figured– then turned all his attention to cheering up his little sea-star.

"So, how was your date?"

Daphne glanced over her tea cup at Tracy, then let her eyes drop back to her drink. She still wasn't entirely sure herself how it had gone, but Spiderman had seemed… pleased. Nervous, but happy.

"We went for a walk then had hot chocolate together," she replied calmly.

"Not what I asked, Deedee."

Daphne thought about it. "It… was pleasant. Spiderman is very sweet. And very thoughtful." They were also still getting used to the Mist adjustment Maínomai had made to give them a bust and completely do away with all the coarser facial hair below their eyebrows. Conversation had therefore lingered for quite some time on corsetry, bras and other comfortable means of chest support.

She sipped her tea; not quite cooled. "I am going on another date in the coming week."

Tracy smiled, warm and delighted. "I'm really happy for you, Dee."

"Do you have your eye on anybody, Trey?" Daphne asked in return. Her best friend hummed thoughtfully, picking out a biscuit.

"Not currently; a good number of Xanxus's Varia are nice to look at, but I'm not really feeling inclined to do more than admire the view. Many of the personalities are sadly terrible."

Daphne smiled. "I can't argue that." Spiderman was very much the exception, not the rule. "Any other interesting Saturday goings-on that I missed?"

Tracy's eyes crinkled in amusement. "Marius and Cassie enlisted Theo's help in buying presents for Hector while they were at the zoo, leading to some very amusing sleight of hand and extremely transparent distractions to both get him to say what he liked then ensure he didn't make a fuss about not having it bought for him immediately. Fuuta assisted, which was reportedly… somewhat messy."

Daphne sniggered behind her teacup. Oh yes, young Fuuta's unfortunate wandless magic trick, which probably wasn't as necessary to his unusual bloodline talent as he thought it was. He'd doubtless grow out of it in time, but until then there promised to be all manner of gravity-defying incidents. The boy was a breath of fresh air, a reminder of her own childhood spent gleefully coaxing the cut flowers in vases around the family home into almost-life and giggling when they bit party guests who got too close.

Dorea's twins were much more narrowly focused in their magical manifestations than the average British magical child, all their effort and interest concentrated on the Fire that was their paternal heritage. It would be good for them to see that there was more to magic than fire; perhaps they would broaden their horizons a little and branch out into other things.

"Oh my," she said, sipping her tea which was now the perfect drinking temperature.

"Indeed," Tracy agreed, eyes dancing. "Very fortunate for all involved that the salespeople were already on high alert from having three pint-size royals plus entourage in their gift shop, so nothing breakable actually hit the floor. A good number of soft toys and an apparently distressing number of bouncy balls, yes, but nothing else."

Daphne swallowed her tea hastily before the laughter in her gut could bubble up out of her mouth; the image of Marius, Cassie and accomplices standing in a shop, surrounded by ballistic bouncy balls and utterly failing to look anything but apologetically guilty–

After the horrors of two weeks ago and the challenges of the aftermath, hearing about the innocent mishaps of Dorea's children and their friends was a joy.

Monday mornings were something all working people had to suffer through, so Xanxus generally did his best not to think about them in the abstract and instead get actual work done. There was less than the usual Monday mornings due to his having come in briefly on Sunday, but still plenty to be getting on with. When ten o'clock came around the Varia Boss firmly set the assassination-related paperwork aside and switched to the stack of political bullshit; now the Iron Fort had bitten the bullet and sent out invitations for the Solstice Ball he was going to have to make a bunch of tough decisions at rather short notice.

And that was on top of all the other ongoing bullshit relating to Samu's upcoming ascension. At least his broken shin meant the old fart was very likely to lose his mobility for good, seeing as this came hard on the heels of all his time comatose during the fake Ring Battles. Being wheelchair-bound would keep him nicely confined to the Iron Fort.

He was drafting a letter to Don Diadone –who was clearly a little rattled by his abrupt ascent to power and influence on the back of Samu's nomination to Decimo– when Lektor let himself into the office, mooks at his heels.

"My report" –the half-centimetre-thick bound document landed with a fairly solid thunk– "and the summary." The summary was a far more manageable-looking half-dozen pages. Xanxus nodded.

"Any complications?"

"None," Lector said placidly. Xanxus mistrusted that serenity on principle; his Lightning Officer had been faintly irritated upon leaving yesterday and generally speaking it took a while for him to wind down from a mood. Research to indulge in sped the process along, but Lektor had been in the field for the past twenty-four hours.

However, 'none' had also been the truth; Lektor didn't lie. So whatever had happened, it wasn't a complication.

"Dismissed," the Varia Boss drawled; he could pursue the matter later.

Lektor left; the mooks lingered.

Xanxus raised an eyebrow at them.

The Storm scratched his wrist nervously. "He ran somebody over on the way back, Boss."

Xanxus considered that. "They dead?"

"Very," the Cloud agreed mildly. "Was a Cervello, Boss; he brought the body back."

Well somebody was diligently keeping up with their reading at least; the Cervello group's profile hadn't been in the Archive for very long at all yet. The details of their being homunculi weren't in the mook-level dossiers, but the Cervello's general incompetence and lack of imagination had certainly hit the Varia's gossip circuit, even though Xanxus didn't get the impression there'd been a movie night featuring the faux Ring Battles yet.

Lektor had assured him there had been no complications; the hit-and-run of the pink-haired homunculus on the way back to Headquarters had therefore gone unwitnessed and the body would vanish shortly.

"Good work," he told them; they'd evidently performed well for Lektor to have not actively complained about them and letting him know what his least sane Officer had got up to off the record was useful, if not something he was going to do anything about. Currently. Lektor was not the only Officer to make homicide a hobby in his off-time, but if he was bringing the bodies home then he was already being less messy about it than Bel.

"Boss!" They left.

Xanxus considered his half-drafted letter, then picked up Lektor's report summary. There would no doubt be no mention of the Cervello in it –that had been after the mission, after all– but he may as well get it over with so it could join the rest in the Archive.