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This story is eight chapters long and will be uploaded every day (bar Sunday) until it is completed. Enjoy!

Pick up the pieces (and take stock)

Squalo was getting his heart transplant today.

Xanxus slumped back in his chair, boots on his desk and swirling the half-empty glass of whiskey in his hand as he stared at the ceiling above him. Six weeks since the shitty effing disaster of the Arcobaleno Mess and only now had Luss finally managed to set things up in Medical and get his hands on a compatible heart. Apparently it wasn't just a matter of compatible blood-type but of proteins matching too, with the more matches the lower the likelihood of tissue rejection.

Squalo would be taking immunosuppressants for the rest of his life and had a great long list of countries he wasn't allowed to visit anymore and foods he couldn't eat, because they could kill him. Which happened to include most of the fish dishes the shark liked best.

All because Xanxus had let himself be goaded into fighting the Vindice. He had scars right around his right arm from having it ripped off then reattached and that was his own damn fault; he'd had it coming for being so Stupid. The wounds on his legs from the 'fight' were no joke either.

He'd almost lost the shark because he'd reacted like a fucking child.

He couldn't let that happen again.

Xanxus had never liked self-help books because they were just telling you to do things without explaining why. He'd had enough of people thinking they were experts screwing up his life for him, so he skipped investigating anger management techniques entirely and went straight for the psychology texts and journals. Being able to control and regulate his anger was all very well, but that wouldn't make the problem go away; he needed to dig into why he was angry and confront the issue at its root, so he could be less angry and more in control.

It was going to be a chore, he knew that going in. But he'd never let that stop him before and not doing something just because it was hard was pathetic and lazy and not remotely Quality.

It was also private, so there was no way he was going to involve any of his Officers or other subordinates in it; it wasn't their business. This was personal, not professional, and as their Boss he couldn't talk to them about it without blurring the lines.

With that in mind, Xanxus decided he was going to do his preliminary reading somewhere outside Varia Headquarters, so Mammon couldn't eavesdrop on him as easily.

By the time he'd read halfway through the material he'd taken with him Xanxus had run at least ten kilometres up and down across the hillside to work off his rage, thrown the books and journals at rocks and trees over a dozen times and was really, seriously angry about the whole thing. Not that he was going to stop; the list of things he identified with was however miserably long and he wanted to kill quite a lot of people over it.

He'd started with the commentary on why people needed anger management, which had offered him the options of alcoholism –he didn't drink that much, no matter what it looked like– mental illness and PTSD, with the caveat that prolonged anger could cause migraines, digestive issues, anxiety and depression. Which he vaguely knew already but seeing it in black and while was another matter altogether. Then the article had gone into the psycho-social causes of anger issues, citing stress, abuse, poor social or familial situations –hello shitty upbringing inflicted on him by the old fart– and a history of trauma, with a specific citing of sexual trauma.

Xanxus didn't think he'd ever experienced what this article was defining as 'sexual trauma', but he was uncomfortably aware that repression was something the brain did when it couldn't cope and while he'd activated his Flames aged five, it wasn't impossible that something bad had happened to him before then. His mother hadn't exactly been in any fit state to protect him, what with her own issues.

So after he'd worn down his anger running a few kilometres he'd gone looking for psychological trauma in the textbook and upset himself some more ticking off viable option after viable option. Psychological trauma involving physical trauma that threatens one's survival and sense of security, check –that fucking ice– harassment –his entire upbringing in the Iron Fort probably qualified– abandonment –hi Ma– rejection –Ma and the old fart, go figure– employment discrimination –nobody liked assassins– paternalism –hello again old fart– indoctrination –Vongola upbringing– threat of or witnessing violence especially in childhood –Ma's clients' contributions to his train-wreck of a childhood– long-term exposure to extreme poverty –hello growing up in a slum– and verbal abuse, which his time at the Iron Fort had been full of.

Then there was the bit about childhood trauma increasing the risk of other mental disorders, which had made him throw the book, kick several trees then go for another run before he could continue reading.

It was just more self-inflicted pain from there on in, but by this point Xanxus was committed. 'Violent and victimised attachment figures impact the representations of infants and young children' –hi again Ma– and the detail that childhood abuse –however they were defining that here– had the most complications and serious long-term effects due to occurring in the critical stages of psychological development. Which could, surprise surprise, lead to violent behaviour; they even cited serial murder as a potential extreme, as a reaction to the inability to cope with the stress of certain events or stimuli. Seeing as he didn't seem to have aged while on ice, biologically speaking he was probably still a teenager and therefore likely to be slap-bang in the middle of one of those 'critical stages' mentioned.


The symptom list was nothing he didn't know already from dealing with variously messed-up Varia but hammered home that yes, he was seriously fucking traumatised and that it was the most likely the root of his anger issues; it even explicitly said that intense anger was a frequent reaction, even in inappropriate or unexpected situations, and that a person could not even realise what their triggers were. Then it went into talking about morphological changes –trauma actually physically affecting the brain– which could be heritable. Not that he was ever planning on having kids, but his Ma's situation was unlikely to have been sunshine and roses even before he was born –he knew jack shit about her background and upbringing but her having been a slum whore wasn't exactly promising– so there was that to look into as well.

Repressed memories also meant that a person could emotionally re-experience the trauma without understanding what was going on, resulting in an alternating pattern of hyper-vigilance and exhaustion, leading to mental health disorders like acute stress, borderline personality disorder, brief psychotic disorder–that last one when he looked it up sounded far too much like what he'd gone through after getting defrosted than he was really comfortable with– all of which could result in emotional exhaustion, detachment, disassociation, depression and more damaging morphological changes.

It was too much to take in all at once, so he'd run it off or tried to. Specific bits kept resurfacing, like the references to complex post-traumatic stress disorder, the mention of betrayal trauma –he fucking hated the old fart for all the shit he'd pulled– and the throwaway mention of transgenerational trauma, as distinct from the heritable morphological effects of trauma.

Right now Xanxus wished he hadn't even started reading into all this shit; the consensus seemed to be that yes, he was fucking broken and that the road to fixing himself would be long, painful and utterly humiliating.

He was Quality. He could do this. He would do this.

Xanxus was walking up the hill towards Varia HQ, books shoved in a backpack so he could pretend they weren't there, when he heard something. Looking around, he located the source of the noise: one of the abandoned farmsteads bordering Varia land was not currently abandoned. Wandering a little closer, he identified the inhabitant as definitely foreign and probably not a squatter; teenage girls were very unlikely squatters this far from civilisation.

At least, she looked like a teenage girl; realistically speaking she was probably a bit older than that, despite the somewhat haphazard dress-sense. She was sitting on the ground with her back to the wall of the house, throwing rocks across the yard at a post. Her face was shadowed by the floppy floral sun hat on her head, but her hands were clearly visible and far too pale to belong to anybody native to anywhere southwest of Denmark without being a shut-in for years.

"Hey," he said when she looked up properly and noticed him; sunglasses as well as the hat, not even halfway through June? Definitely from somewhere much less sunny than here.

"Hi," she said back, her Italian surprisingly good for a foreigner but her accent making it clear that wherever she'd learnt it, it hadn't been anywhere remotely local.

"Thought this place was abandoned," Xanxus said, actually wanting to get an answer for that. There'd been some old guy living here before he went on ice, but it had been empty and a bit derelict-looking after he got out so this girl –woman? – being here was both surprising and a bit suspicious.

"It belongs to a friend of my friend's grandpa," the woman said, getting to her feet and wandering over his way. Xanxus was still leaning towards 'teenager,' but closer to she looked like she might possibly be eighteen as opposed to fifteen or sixteen. "We wanted to take a year out before university and he offered to let us stay here for free so long as we did some repair work."

"We?" Xanxus asked, well aware he was the only other person present in at least a mile radius.

The woman huffed, looking a bit resigned. "Was going to be three of us," she admitted, "but one of my friends got proposed to by her boyfriend a fortnight beforehand and the other was diagnosed with leukaemia at the last minute, and they both insisted I shouldn't let any of that stop me from taking a break. So here I am."

That… sounded both plausible and vaguely disturbing. "Do you drive?"

She smiled wryly. "No. Not got much money either, so I'm going to need to find a job since I can't live off fruit."

Yeah, this farm had a fruit trees and vines which were going wild; quite a few Varia picked it when they were passing through, so it wouldn't go to waste. Still; limited money, couldn't drive… "Didn't think this through, hm?" Xanxus mused, unable to smother a smirk.

"I only found out it was only going to be me after I was already at the airport," she told him irritably, "and I was too busy worrying about one of my best friends having leukaemia to really process what that meant for me until after I landed, got a taxi up here and unpacked."

"And now you're stuck."

"Pretty much." She seemed more resigned than panicky about that, but then again he didn't know how long she'd been dealing with this. It might have been half a day or an entire week. "What brings you up here?"

"I live up the hill," Xanxus admitted, feeling a bit better for the ongoing low-effort conversation.

She tilted her head. "Inside that great big wall at the top end of the pasture?"

He nodded. "Big cat sanctuary." Which was ironically one of the –many– cover stories the Varia used, since they did indeed have a large number of not-really-domestic felines and it was a plausible excuse for the three-metre wall. The cats could in theory jump or climb over it –and had in the past– but more recent Mist-work meant they couldn't anymore.

"Sounds exciting."

"Sometimes." Xanxus paused. "Why just sitting around though?"

The woman sighed, her shoulders sagging slightly. "I've looked over the buildings and made a list of things that need fixing, and I've got instructions on how to fix most of it," she admitted, "but my friends were the ones with the Italian driving licences and the local connections. So I called them and they're calling people to get back to me, so in the meantime I thought I'd do some reading." She jerked her head back towards where she'd been sitting; Xanxus glanced over and saw there was indeed a book there, lying open face-down in the dust.

"Not to your taste?" He guessed.

She snorted. "You ever think you've pinned down what a problem is and start working through it, then somebody comes along and mentions something else and you realise that actually you've only pinned down half the problem at best and the other half is not only so much worse than you thought it was, but is actively impeding your attempts to solve the first half?"

Xanxus was abruptly and unpleasantly reminded of his recent reading. "That's life," he offered shortly.

"It shouldn't be," she grumbled, then sighed. "Sorry, I'm Florrie."

Oh yes, introductions. "Xanxus," he told her. "A pleasure." Because saying that was polite, even if he wasn't quite sure yet how he felt about having a foreign civilian living just outside Varia land, right in the middle of Varia Territory. It was probably going to get awkward and messy.

Especially since this civilian was a Latent Cloud and strong enough to go Active if pushed. Curious assassins would push and that would be a mess.

"What kind of job were you looking for?" Xanxus asked abruptly, deciding that he might as well find out. He didn't know what skills she might have and any work experience would be minimal since she was a civilian, but at least that meant she'd have no bad habits to unlearn if she could do anything useful. Something that would preferably keep her away from curious assassins and make her seem more boring.

She shrugged. "Foreign language and maths tutoring, bookkeeping work, library-type stuff, painting, gardening, translations; anything I can find that's not too social really. I'm not good at people stuff."

Anywhere else she'd have no trouble with getting tutoring work, but right next to the Varia when half the mooks were supplementing their income with teaching languages to the local kids she wasn't going to find shit. Bookkeeping though… Mammon generally roped various mooks and assassins on punishment duty into doing the data entry part of the accounts and complained constantly about how inconsistent and terrible they were at it. Plus there was the waste of time in checking or redoing it, depending on how terrible and inconsistent it was.

The miser might still complain about handing the data over to an outsider –no way was a civilian going to be allowed into Varia HQ– and having to pay them, but in this instance said outsider being a foreign civilian was actually a good thing. Florrie –short for Florence maybe? – clearly knew nothing at all about the Vongola or organised crime generally, so she'd be less suspicious of an international business with an eclectic portfolio working out of the mountains behind Palermo. Mammon's books were entirely above-board –it was where the money came from and ended up that was crooked– so there'd be nothing in them to arouse her suspicions.

Mammon could provide her with a locked laptop and the boxes of receipts, give a quick lesson on how they wanted things done –while under an illusion of course– and then decide if the results were to their liking after the first batch of work was completed.

"I know somebody who could use an accounts assistant, maybe," he said casually. "I'll ask and see if they're interested."

Florrie beamed at him, all surprise and gratitude. "That's really kind of you, Xanxus, thank-you." She paused. "Would you like a drink? I've got juice and water from the well."

"Juice sounds good," Xanxus admitted; it was hours since he last drunk something and the sun was pretty fierce.

"Come inside then and I'll sort you something out."

Only a civilian would be this trusting; an inexperienced civilian at that, after she'd told him she was here all alone. Or maybe not; he couldn't see a mobile phone so that was probably inside –he really doubted this place had an internet connection– so going indoors might be related to that. The only reason there was a signal all the way up here at all was that the Varia had wanted one and had arranged it; otherwise she'd have been stuck with a landline, which this farm might or might not have.

Xanxus glanced at the title of the book as she picked it up on her way past; it was called 'It Runs in the Family: Healing from Transgenerational Trauma.'

That was a fucking weird coincidence, but it was kind of reassuring to know that it wasn't just him struggling with that shit. Then again, 'family problems' might explain why a barely-adult civvie woman had been willing to spend a year living on a remote farm in a foreign country with just a couple of friends in the first place…

A week later Mammon had decided that yes, they were going to outsource some of the data entry work –in part so as to discreetly keep an eye on their new neighbour– and the shark was complaining loudly about wanting to get out of bed. Which he wasn't allowed to, since Luss had broken his ribs again putting his new heart in and they needed to heal; he was stuck in that bed for the next month, minimum. It had been bad enough doing the initial reconstruction of the sternum and various ribs over and behind where the shark's heart was supposed to be and the damage to the shark's lungs, but the heart itself… the organ had been shredded. The tissues around it had been no better off, but organ sacs and bones were far less complex and actually possible to reconstruct, unlike his heart.

The summer slowdown was just starting too, what with it being late June, so there were fewer missions on offer and Quiet Week was starting next Monday. Quite a lot of Varia had booked holiday after Quiet Week, so it would be quieter despite the lack of business, but Xanxus wasn't really looking forward to it.

He hadn't really done anything about his reading yet. He'd done more reading and was feeling uncomfortable about it –the complex post-traumatic stress disorder details in particular– and was undecided about what he was supposed to do exactly. All the therapy models on offer involved talking to other people, which Xanxus really was not keen on. He didn't trust any of the Vongola's therapists, couldn't exactly discuss matters honestly with a civilian medical professional and Lussuria wasn't a therapist and was an Officer and a subordinate besides; it would be unprofessional and inappropriate to involve the okama in his unpacking of his childhood issues.

Sighing, he glanced out of the window; it was seven o'clock in the evening but it was bright outside and would be for some hours more. He could go for a walk.

Xanxus was walking down the path towards the no-longer-vacant farmstead below the Varia when he heard crying. Not 'I am in physical pain and can't help myself' sobbing, but the desperate, shuddering wailing of emotional devastation.

He'd cried like that exactly once, the night after finding out that he wasn't really Vongola.

He really didn't want to get involved in somebody else's emotional drama.

Walking past the farmyard, Xanxus noticed that the door of the house was hanging open and that the sounds of broken-hearted despair were actually coming from the dilapidated barn.

There was nothing as achingly lonely as mourning a loss and knowing that nobody else gave a shit.

Was he any better than the old fart if he just ignored it?


Vaulting over the rickety fence, Xanxus strode across the yard and peered cautiously into the barn, then slipped inside. Over in the far corner, curled up in a tight ball in an old sheep pen and shuddering with every wracking sob, was Mammon's new data entry assistant.

Xanxus made his way over to her, lowered himself to the ground –the floor had recently been swept and mopped clean– and gingerly placed his hand between her shoulderblades. She didn't flinch or pull away, so Xanxus kept it where it was, then had a go at rubbing gently up and down a bit.

He didn't know shit about comforting crying women –or anybody really– but he'd taken a turn minding sick Varia on missions a few times –nobody could control when they got ill after all and food poisoning was always a hazard– and the universal consensus seemed to be that having someone rub your back was soothing.

Florrie shifted sideways, just enough so that he could feel her body resting against his thigh, but didn't stop crying. Xanxus went on rubbing her back, trying to ignore the nasty little voice in his head mocking him for attempting to be comforting and staring up at the holes up above that the sunlight was shining in through. She'd have to get a ladder and climb up on the roof to fix those, provided she could even get her hands on some tiles. It wasn't like Mammon was paying her all that much for her work; enough for her to buy food yes, but repair work wasn't exactly cheap even if you did it yourself. She at least had enough to keep the lights on –and thus the well working for water access– as well as to buy cleaning supplies, so she clearly had extra money or possibly a fund supplied by the owner. Which still didn't fully account for the expense of building supplies and transportation, unless her friends' contacts didn't mind ferrying her around and making deliveries.

Xanxus watched the sunbeams track across the dusty air as the woman next to him gradually subsided into incoherent mumbles and whimpering, absently running his hand up and down her spine like he was petting Bester. He only glanced down when she pulled herself up onto her knees and looked at him, her face all blotchy and red and bits of straw clinging to her hair.

"Thank you."

Xanxus grunted, not feeling that this was a situation where 'you're welcome' was an appropriate response. "Feel better?" he asked instead, rising to his feet and offering her a hand up.

She accepted it; she didn't weigh much. "Empty mostly," she admitted quietly, "and a bit resigned." She rubbed at her damp eyes with her sleeve. "I just… it would be nice if my parents had some faith in my ability to take care of myself."

Xanxus considered this, put it together with what she'd told him earlier and came to a plausible conclusion. "They wanting you to come home yesterday?"

Florrie sighed, swaying a little so that her shoulder brushed against his upper arm. "More that they assumed I'd need them to book me a flight home right away," she murmured. "I mean, yes I'm not the most organised of people but I'm not useless."

"Didn't take your intention to stay well then," Xanxus deduced.

"No." Her voice hitched halfway through the admission. "I just… I always thought I knew my parents were human, but I've never felt it before," she whispered.

Xanxus considered how painfully relatable that somewhat incoherent statement was. "My father never told me I was adopted," he admitted shortly, "and still can't see why it matters to me."

Florrie glanced up at him. "Can I hug you?"


"Because I feel like shit and a hug will make me feel better," she admitted bluntly, "and I can't think of anything else I can do about the fact we both have insensitive idiot fathers."

Xanxus snorted, amused by the offer and relieved that she didn't pity him. "Okay then."

The height difference made it a fairly awkward hug –he had over thirty centimetres on her– but it was still rather nice. She was completely non-threatening and couldn't have killed him if she'd tried, didn't know shit about Vongola stuff so wasn't trying to worm her way into his favour and was actually trying to be kind in an awkward Cloudy sort of way. The utter lack of shame over her breakdown was… it was encouraging. She really shouldn't trust him this much, but she did and he wasn't going to complain about it when it made it easier for him to keep an eye on her.

"Okay, I need a drink," Florrie decided, finally pulling away. "Want one?"

"Sure." At this rate he wasn't going to get his walk, but this was still a change from staring at paperwork.

The problem with Squalo being on bed rest in Medical was that Xanxus had to go meet with the old fart on the first day of Quiet Week. Nominally the meeting was to discuss Varia business over the past twelve months and plans for the upcoming year, but the old fart turned it into a session on things he expected Xanxus to do to support the Sky-trash in anticipation of the upcoming handover of the Family, which left the Varia Boss storming out of the room snarling under his breath before they'd got halfway through the actual agenda.

He'd come down on his motorbike so he didn't have to deal with anybody else driving him, which made getting away from the Iron Fort easy enough. He'd have to go back to finish the meeting another day –unfortunately– but right now he just wanted to get away.

After about half an hour of driving dangerously up and down winding mountain roads Xanxus felt marginally less furious, so turned the bike around and headed back west towards the Varia.

He was driving through Marineo –carefully since it was market day– when he spotted an unexpectedly familiar sun hat. Stopping on the side of the road, Xanxus tugged his helmet off and reached out to tug on one of the straps attached to the massive hiking rucksack Florrie was wearing as she walked past.

She turned and instantly smiled, which was a nice change from the usual reactions he got when he accosted people who didn't know him very well. "Hi there Xanxus!"

"What are you doing?" Yes this was the nearest town to the Varia –and subsequently her farmstead– but it was still about six kilometres up shitty dirt roads to get back; there was a reason Varia Housekeeping did most of their shopping in Belmonte or Santa Christina Gela rather than here.

"Shopping; I do need to eat you know." She slapped the rucksack. "I can fit the essentials in here, just about."

It was a proper hiking rucksack with a waist strap rather than a shitty school bag, so Xanxus could accept that she probably wasn't going to trash her spine carrying at least ten kilos of supplies up a mountainside. She was wearing supportive hiking boots too, so she wasn't likely to destroy her feet either. She still looked completely out of place, walking around town like a hippy pastel hiker when everybody else was wearing the latest Italian summer fashions and were at least three shades darker in skin tone than she was.

"When did you leave?" Xanxus asked instead.

"About seven? I wanted to get down here in time for the market."

So she'd probably got here slightly before nine; well over an hour ago. "How long's it going to take you to get back up?"

Florrie pulled a face, glancing over her shoulder up at the mountain looming behind the town. "I should be back around one? I didn't buy any fresh or frozen meat, so it'll be fine."

That was ridiculous. "Leave the bag here and go buy some meat," he told her flatly. "I'll give you a lift." She couldn't live off canned fish and cured ham, not when she was doing manual labour most days. She had an overgrown garden doing its thing the last he'd seen and was gradually taming the plant life around the place, since a lot of the repairs required things like lumber for the fence and upper barn walls, tiles for roofing and borrowing tools for fixing things into place with. All that would eat quite a bit of money unless whoever's grandpa owned the place had left her funds or arranged the supplies himself.

She looked a bit alarmed by the offer. "Xanxus I don't have a helmet."

"I've got a spare." It lived in the seat compartment, in case he took a tumble and needed to change helmets.

She huffed and unclipped the waistband, swinging the bag to the pavement with an audible thump. "Fine then."

Watching her weave swiftly through the foot traffic, Xanxus took a moment to wonder what the hell had gotten into him. Why was he doing this?

Was it just because she treated him like a person, rather than like a rabid monster or a misbehaving child?

If it was just that, was it a bad thing? He was a person. One of the trauma papers had been all about how trauma warped a person's self-image, so getting a more 'normal' perspective on himself could be a good thing. Hell, being friendly with a civvie probably counted as therapy.

He'd see how it went and take things as they came. She was only here for a year anyway, so it wasn't like this was a long-term commitment; if it all went to shit he'd never see her again.

Reaching down, Xanxus weighed the rucksack experimentally; more like fifteen kilos actually. That was pretty impressive. It was probably a good idea for him to wear it rather than her, since that way the weight would be over the middle of the bike rather than hanging off the back. Climbing off the seat, he hefted the rucksack up onto it instead and started adjusting the belts and straps.

It really was a very nice bag; the kind of thing you could free-climb up or down a cliff with without worrying about the weight shifting and dislodging you. Xanxus made a mental note of the make and model printed on the fabric, slung it onto his back then opened the motorbike seat to pull out his spare helmet. Hanging it over the handlebars while he clicked the seat down again, Xanxus then set about fastening the rucksack's various belts around his torso, tugging on straps and loosening buckles to adjust the fit for maximum comfort.

It really was shockingly comfortable; way too many dangling straps for regular Varia wear, but the basic shape was excellent. Maybe Luss could come up with something along these lines as an alternative to the standard go-bag for when they had missions out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere and had to walk long-distance to find their targets.

"Are you stealing my shopping?"

Xanxus turned around to grin down at Florrie, who had a plastic bag hanging off one wrist. "Weight distribution," he told her amiably; "can't have you falling off the back due to inertia."

"Point," she conceded, "but how do I put the meat in the top when it's all the way up there?" She gestured up over his shoulder, which was indeed not at a comfortable angle for her to reach.

Xanxus obligingly crouched, smirking to himself as she blinked and walked around behind him, then unclipped the top of the bag so she could rearrange the contents to allow for her new purchases.

"There, done," she said once she'd clipped all the buckles closed again. "Now what? I should probably warn you I've never been on a motorbike before."

Xanxus got to his feet and turned to face her, picking up the helmet. "Hat off," he told her. She obliged, revealing her decently-long hair had been fastened in two braids, which tumbled down when the hat came off. She also removed her sunglasses, squinting up at him in the midday sunshine. Xanxus carefully slid the helmet over her head, twisting it a little to make sure it wasn't too loose a fit, then flicked the visor up so she could put her sunglasses back on. The visor was tinted, but if she didn't have a rigid case the best place for the glasses was on her face; they'd get misplaced and probably crushed on the way back otherwise.

Florrie pocketed her hat first, managed to get the sunglasses on then shoved her hair down the back of her lightweight coat. She was probably going to freeze on the back of the bike dressed as she was, but it wouldn't be for very long.

Xanxus paused, then decided it would be funny and took off the rucksack so he could remove his Varia jacket. "Here," he said, handing it to her; "you'll freeze otherwise." He was still wearing his gloves, which was what mattered most for steering.

"And you won't?"

Xanxus bent down and flicked the visor of her borrowed helmet. "Put on the jacket."

She did; right over the top of her other jacket, in fact, which rather highlighted how itty-bitty she was compared to him. She was drowning in the leather, the sleeves covering her hands entirely and the lower edge hanging halfway down her thighs. Xanxus smirked at the picture she made then lifted her up onto the bike –she didn't squeak or squirm at all and even lifted her legs up without him having to say something– checked her feet, strapped her bag back on properly, shoved his own helmet onto his head, climbed onto the bike himself and reached back to grab her hands.

"Hold on here," he told her, placing her hands on the rucksack's padded belt strap just above his hips and making sure she actually got her fingers all the way around it; the rucksack was like an extra person so there was no way she could get her arms around his waist. This was about as secure as they were going to get. "Good; now lean forwards." He felt her do so, her weight pressing the bag into his spine. "Stay like that; when we go around corners you lean with me, got it?"

"Lean with you around corners, hold on, stay leaning forwards," she parroted back to him.

"Good." He kicked the engine into life; this should be fun.

"You," Florrie said flatly after he skidded into the yard of the farmstead, unclipped himself from the rucksack and climbed off the bike without it, "are crazy. How can you drive like that, my God!"

Xanxus took off his helmet and smirked down at her. "Quick though, wasn't it?"

"I thought we were going to die at least four times!"

Yeah, Xanxus had noticed the way her Latent Flames had fluttered ever so slightly each time. The first time he'd been surprised, but by the third time he'd been doing it deliberately to see if he could make her shriek. Which he'd failed at, but only because Florrie was apparently the type of girl to lock up when she was scared witless rather than screaming.

"You shit, you were doing that on purpose," Florrie accused, tugging her helmet off and glaring up at him.

"Little bit," Xanxus admitted with a grin. "Got here quick though."

"Yeah and I'm trembling so badly I can't get off," she complained, holding out a hand so he could see it shaking.

Okay, so maybe he'd overdone it a bit. "Where're your keys? I'll take the bag inside," he offered.

"Pocket," she muttered, closing her eyes and sagging back as she fumbled underneath his jacket for the pockets of her own coat.

"Could carry you inside too," Xanxus pointed out lightly as she almost dropped the keys.

"Give me a moment, okay?" she asked, opening her eyes to squint at him. "I'm just… not used to that kind of excitement."

Xanxus stole the keys, hefted the bag and headed over to the front door of the farmstead; the lock wasn't anything special and he could probably have broken in without damaging it, but there was no reason to let Florrie know he could do that. He set the bag on the kitchen floor next to the fridge, then headed out into the sunshine to see if she'd recovered from the adrenaline rush yet.

She'd unzipped his jacket and lifted her feet up a bit, but it was pretty clear she was still trembling; a full-body shudder that made her breath catch and was only slightly removed from an outright panic attack. Definitely overdone it then; he took his jacket off her and put it back on again to give himself time to find something to say. It didn't really help. "Didn't mean to scare you that much," he eventually managed.

"I don't know you well enough to trust you not to kill me with your crazy driving," Florrie huffed, side-eyeing him ruefully. "I mean, clearly you've not killed yourself yet, but I don't know anything about motorbikes other than the fact that there's nothing protecting the rider from getting turned into chunky paste when things go wrong, which doesn't even have to be your fault."

That was fair. Unexpectedly fair even, especially when she knew he'd been messing with her on purpose.

"Can you get off?"

"I can try," she managed to get her leg over the seat on her second try, then slipped down to the ground and almost fell flat on her face when her legs failed to hold her up. Xanxus caught her by the arms before she collapsed into him and lifted her upright, supporting most of her weight as they both looked down at the way her knees were wobbling.

"This has never happened before," she said faintly, tone vaguely bemused. "I usually have to be really ill to go weak at the knees."

Now Xanxus felt like a complete asshole. She'd been nothing but kind to him and he'd terrified her because he'd been in a shit mood and thought it was funny. Shifting one arm around her back and ducking down to slip the other one under her wobbly knees, he lifted her up in a bridal carry and turned towards the house.

"If you wanted an excuse to sweep me off my feet you could have just said so," Florrie commented humorously, making him snort because actually that hadn't occurred to him.

"Let's get you inside, princess," he said dryly, secretly relieved that she didn't seem to be holding a grudge.

"Sounds great; we can eat biscuits and have a drink while my legs get their act together."

Xanxus suspected half the problem with her legs was that they were freezing cold; hiking trousers weren't exactly ideal for zipping along mountain roads at over one hundred kilometres per hour. Once you were moving fast enough how hot the air was didn't matter, it would still leech warmth from every bit of exposed flesh and even through most clothing too. The only reason he hadn't chilled through in just his shirt was that he'd been cheating with his Flames, but Florrie couldn't do that.

"Hey, put my down by my bag, would you? I don't need to be standing up to unpack."

Well the fridge was a small one. "I'll get you a blanket," Xanxus decided, easily lowering her to the floor.

"There're two on the couch," Florrie said, opening the rucksack and removing a packet of pasta and two boxes of biscuits.

Investigating the sitting room revealed the promised blankets, one woven wool and the other synthetic fleece. Xanxus grabbed the fleece one –it would be easier to wash– and took it back to the kitchen, where Florrie was loading meat into the fridge, along with a plastic bag containing fish so fresh it was still twitching.

"Thanks," she said, smiling up at him as he dropped the blanket on her legs and taking a moment to wrap it around herself like a cocoon. "Now I'm not scared witless I'm colder than I thought I was."

"Lent you my jacket for a reason," Xanxus pointed out, picking up the jar of pasta sauce and the bags of rice that she'd left on the kitchen counter and opening one of the higher cupboards to find a space for them.

"Thanks for that," she said, before looking up at him and poking his leg so he glanced down to meet her eyes. "And really Xanxus, thanks for the ride. It would have taken me hours to get home otherwise and I'd have been done for the day afterwards."

Florrie was weird. Shockingly nice, too. "Welcome," he told her bemusedly. She wasn't trying to flirt or anything, she was just that friendly. It was nothing like he was used to and all the more enjoyable for it.

"However next time you offer I'm probably going to say no."

He definitely deserved that. "Sorry," Xanxus managed, switching to English as he added a packet of dried mushrooms and a box of stock cubes to the cupboards in what looked like the right places. "Having a shit day; shouldn't have taken it out on you." Italian as a language really didn't allow for proper apologies; you could say you didn't like that the other person was upset and ask somebody to excuse you but that didn't have the same impact.

"I forgive you," Florrie said after a pause, also in English; her accent indicated that yes, he had guessed her nationality right. "Also your English is amazing and I'd never guess it wasn't your first language."

"Thanks." Most people didn't bother to complement him on his accent, taking it for granted that he'd be fluent in however-many languages since he was Varia. Or just assumed he was local, in the case of missions taken in England.

"Would talking about your shitty day help make it less shitty?" she asked, glancing up at him again as she unloaded a box of fruit from her bag. "I mean, I know I like venting."

Xanxus pondered the offer, putting away another jar and a number of juice cartons. "I work for my father," he began slowly, still in English.

"Your birth-father or the 'didn't tell you that you were adopted' father?"

"Second one." Florrie didn't comment further though, so Xanxus continued. "It's a family business; I always expected to inherit it." No need to bring his brothers into things and complicate matters. "My father never said anything to suggest I wouldn't. Then I found out I was adopted and he finally mentioned he was going to leave the business to his nephew's kid."



"What an asshole."

Hey, validation. "Kid's not even fifteen and doesn't know anything about how the company works," Xanxus went on, getting into the swing of things, "and doesn't want the business either. Said as much, several times, publically. But no, he's my father's closest blood relative so he gets the company."

"That's just so short-sighted and arrogant I can't quite believe it," Florrie mused, "except I also can, because I've met men with egos like that. You're trying to get somebody to notice that the whole business is going to go down the toilet once the kid takes over and nobody's listening, are they?"

"How can they not get it?" Xanxus demanded; this total stranger was getting it! It clearly was not just him being paranoid!

"Hey." Florrie hugged his knees, which was as high up as she could reach while sitting on the floor. "It's not your fault. You're doing everything you can; that's all you can do."


"No, seriously Xanxus; everybody gets to take responsibility for their own stupid decisions. Repeat after me: I've done what I can; it's all I can do."

"I've done what I can; it's all I can do," Xanxus repeated dryly. He hadn't really done all he could, but murdering the old fart wouldn't go down very well in the wider Family.

"So you were blowing off steam after having your very valid concerns disregarded when you ran into me?"

"Had a meeting to discuss the upcoming year, business plans and shit," Xanxus explained, "but the old fart kept bringing up shit he wants me to do to make the transition go smoothly. Because none of our business partners are exactly happy about the kid taking over, customers need reassuring and suppliers are kind of dubious too. So dealing with that is apparently my job now."

"That's garbage; it's his business, isn't it? That makes it his job. Or the kid's job, since he's taking over."

"You'd think," Xanxus grumbled, closing a cupboard with unnecessary force.

Florrie hummed. "Can you bullshit him? I mean, nod in all the right places, say meaningless things like 'that sounds very sensible' and 'somebody clearly needs to' then not actually agree to do anything? I mean, it's clearly not your job so unless he's changed your job description and is paying you for the extra work there's no reason you should do it."

That could work. He only had to get through the rest of the agenda another day this week and then he could make himself scarce and be unavailable for phone calls and messengers for the entire rest of the year, so that the old fart had to delegate elsewhere to get shit done. Asshole would complain of course, but Xanxus was Varia Boss; that shit was not his job and he could say as much.

Treat the Stupid meeting like the old fart was asking his opinion and pretend he couldn't tell the elderly scum wanted him to agree to take shit on; yeah, he could do that.

"How's the business lasted this long if he's that incompetent?"

Xanxus sniggered. "Most work's through long-standing local businesses who'd never dream of going elsewhere; connections have been there for generations, couldn't possibly snub them."

"That sounds stagnant."

"Is." Xanxus sighed. "My branch mainly does international shit; old fart has no clue what that actually involves and thinks the company'd be better off without us, even though we're the only branch bringing in new customers."

"The cat sanctuary's more of a tax thing then?"

Xanxus looked down at her; the wry look on her face indicated that Florrie knew very well what a hodgepodge mess the Italian tax system was and that tax evasion was practically a national pastime. It also suggested she suspected she was being paid under the table and didn't particularly care. Well then.

"You could say that."

Florrie nodded, closing the bag and climbing carefully to her feet; her legs held her weight this time. "Well that's the unpacking done; thanks for helping. Let's get those drinks and move somewhere more comfortable, shall we?"

Xanxus could get behind that.

Summer was hot and quiet. Xanxus found himself spending several days a week down at the farmstead with Florrie, helping her out with the heavy lifting in the early mornings or late evenings –some of the repair work needed two pairs of hands– and lying around reading or napping during the heat of the day in the relatively cool north-facing kitchen-dining room.

He also found himself talking quite a bit, occasionally about rather personal things. Florrie was a good listener and he got to reciprocate when she was trying to articulate shit about her own family difficulties. It was pretty damn clear she'd had a shit childhood in a way that was very different to his own, but with similarities popping up regularly here and there.

It was nice, being able to talk about things without people acting like it was all in his head. Her books were pretty interesting too; she'd said something about raiding the bookshelf before going on holiday, which implied that a lot of these had been picked by her parents as a result of their shitty childhoods. Which… did very much support the idea that transgenerational trauma and complex post-traumatic stress were things he should take seriously. It was a bit weird really, how much he had in common with Florrie in both those areas.

The time she'd started a conversation with, 'well, my Mum was pretty seriously off the wall when I was little' had been… yeah, not at all easy for him to listen to, but what had hit home was that she wasn't ashamed of any of it. It was what it was, stigmatisation was pointless and she was simply dealing with it.

Xanxus wasn't sure he'd ever be able to talk about his childhood with his mother like that. It was, it just… it hurt. That it didn't have to hurt, that he might one day be able to have it stop hurting… that was hopeful.

He'd eventually plucked up the courage to talk about his own mother a bit. Florrie had listened and pointed out a few things he hadn't really considered before. Like the fact he'd been a little kid. Would he expect a random five-year-old to be able to look after their mother? No? Then why did he expect it of himself? Parents were supposed to protect and provide for their kids; that was the whole point of parenthood. It hadn't been his responsibility. Yes, he'd taken it on anyway, but that was his mother's failing, not his.

Also that her failing him didn't mean he had to stop loving her; it just meant he had to forgive her for failing him and let it go. He'd been pretty angry with her until she managed to get that into his head, which had been embarrassing afterwards.

It helped. Xanxus knew he had a hell of a lot to work through and that it would probably get worse before it got better, but he did feel like he was making progress. He also suspected he'd somehow made a friend, which was… strange. He'd not actually had a friend before.

He was damn sure he was going to fuck it up at some point, but he could enjoy it while it lasted.

Squalo was well aware that Boss was spending a hell of a lot of time with the civilian chick doing some of Mammon's data entry; he was also well aware that her getting that job had been Boss's idea in the first place and that the Mist Officer wouldn't have agreed to it if it had been anybody else suggesting it.

The Rain Officer also knew that Lussuria was making sure everybody kept their mouths shut about Boss's current distraction, had in fact ordered everybody to avoid her unless specifically ordered otherwise by Boss and had thus far ensured that Leviathan didn't even know she existed. Because according to the Sun Officer Boss was marginally calmer these days and anybody acting to buck that trend would be in big trouble with Lussuria personally for interfering with Boss's health.

Squalo wasn't restricted to bed-rest anymore, but he wasn't cleared for missions or training yet and it irked him. However that didn't mean he was poking his nose where it didn't belong; he wasn't going to do that until he had a better idea of what was actually going on. He didn't think Boss had decided to have a fling with that woman, but whatever else was going on –some interesting reading material had been lying around in Boss's office lately– his Sky was drinking less. That had to be a good sign.

Xanxus's first mission after the long lull of summer was a complete shit-show; increased self-awareness meant he could feel various bits and pieces –who they were killing, why they were killing them– hitting his triggers and sending him into an angry downward spiral. He could compartmentalise and disassociate, but the whole point of what he was doing was to not do that, which meant riding out the mood, chopping up his feelings into bite-sized chunks, recognising them and trying to let them go. Like how the woman he just watched absent-mindedly give herself an overdose and die on a Mist-suggestion reminded him of his mother. How the reason they were killing her made him wonder if the old fart pulled something like this to get rid of his mother back then and how helpless and guilty that made him feel. The way his Zero-Point scars ached persistently, the pain in his legs and arm from his Vindice injuries spiking with every movement, just made it all worse.

So he sat in silence in the car and brooded as the Squad Leader drove them back towards the Varia, the purple-green thunderstorm swirling overhead to match his mood.

The rain started when they were about a kilometre away from HQ, pounding on the roof and roaring over the sound of the radio, and Xanxus decided abruptly that he'd had enough.

"Stop the car."

The Squad Leader did so instantly, jamming on the breaks; Xanxus got out, slammed the car door shut and walked off down the hillside in the premature gloom, heavy rain plastering his hair flat in seconds and thunder ringing deafeningly in his ears.

He wasn't really headed anywhere in particular; he just wanted to be moving. The rain rattled loudly on the leather of his uniform, the cool water trailing down his face making his scars twinge and dripping down his spine inside his jacket as well as soaking through his shirt.

Why did he even care about the Vongola? It wasn't like the Family gave a single shit about him. It never had; it was an idea, an obsession, the focus of the old fart's shitty cult that he used to keep himself in power.

He cared about the Varia because they were his people, not because of the Vongola. They were like him, outcasts and crazies and weirdoes who had hit rock bottom but were still were trying and that meant something.

The old fart had only taken him in because the man thought Xanxus would be useful. He'd never given a shit, not really.

The path he was on turned a corner and Xanxus abruptly realised that he'd walked into the yard next to Florrie's place. Because there she was, wearing a purple summer dress, feet bare, dancing in the rain.

She was completely soaked through, the cotton clinging to her skin and making it blatantly obvious she wasn't wearing a bra under it.

She turned and grinned at him, dark hair sticking to her back and mud splattered halfway up to her knees, and Xanxus wanted to fuck her. Wanted to pin her to the outside wall of the house, reduce her to a gasping, mewling mess and have her begging without it being clear whether she wanted him to finish inside her or keep going.

It only took a few strides to reach her and pick her up for a kiss; her lips were cool and tasted like rain but her tongue was hot and willing. Xanxus attacked her mouth hungrily, holding her body against his and carrying her until he found a wall to press her back into, so he could push against her groin with his straining cock in time with the blood pounding in his ears.

She was kissing him back, one hand cradling the back of his head and the other resting on his shoulder for leverage; pinning her to the wall with his hips meant he had a hand free to slide up her thigh under her skirt and pull down her underwear, but suddenly she was yanking on his hair and the hand on his shoulder had turned into a fist she was hitting him with.

"Ans, op!"

It was muffled so he pulled away from her mouth for a moment.

"Stop it! Xanxus stop!"


Oh shit.

He dropped her like she was on fire and took two quick steps backwards. The way she quickly straightened her soaked skirts and underwear without ever taking her eyes off him really, really hurt.

He deserved it. He hadn't even asked he'd just seen her messing around in the rain and tried to take and he'd fucked up everything now–

"Don't you dare run away from me Xanxus! You tell me what that was all about!"

Xanxus paused and turned around again, taking her in from across the muddy yard. The rain had stopped now and the clouds were moving on, and in the feeble sunlight Florrie looked –and felt– both completely terrified and utterly furious.

"Talk to me!"

What. What was he supposed to say?!

"Sorry?" he managed, his voice more of a croak.

"I should damn well hope so!" She took a deep, heaving breath and Xanxus refused to let his eyes drift lower than her chin. "I am going to get you a towel. Then I am going to have a shower and you had better still be here once I get out to explain to me what the hell that was!"

"Okay." That was… fair. Bizarre, but fair. Maybe by the time she'd finished showering he'd have an answer for her that didn't sound Stupid.

By the time Florrie came back, fully dressed in jeans, socks and a baggy long-sleeved shirt, Xanxus had taken off his jacket so he could hang his sodden shirt over the back of one of the kitchen chairs and dry himself off, then put the jacket back on and done it up properly rather than leaving it hanging open like usual. He'd also settled himself on the floor by the door, both wishing she had alcohol in her house and vaguely relieved she didn't. His scars still ached, but they had settled into low-level background discomfort now and he could ignore them.

She settled on the other kitchen chair and stared at him, her damp hair tied up in a loose bun with a scrunchie. "What on earth got into you that you did that?"

She sounded less accusing and more hurt and confused now; it really didn't help. Xanxus still didn't know what to say.

"I saw you and just…" he trailed off. "Sorry." He wasn't Quality, he was scum. Only scum would do this.

"You already said sorry," Florrie said flatly, then twitched, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and breathed out, deliberately relaxing. "I forgive you."

Xanxus stared. "But I nearly–"

"You stopped." She interrupted fiercely. "You stopped and don't you dare take that away from me!"

Yes. He had stopped. But he shouldn't have been doing it in the first place and now Florrie was personally aware that he was capable of really hurting her any time he wanted to. If he didn't stop. "I shouldn't have started," he muttered bitterly.

"What happened, Xanxus?" she asked quietly. "What happened before you got here that once you did everything went to shit like this?"

Yeah. He owed her that much.

"Work started up again," he began carefully, groping for the right words that would let him be honest without going into too much detail, "and we had a commission. One of the people involved, she reminded me of my mother. Our client wanted to discredit her" –by killing her with a drug overdose– "so she could get swept under the carpet. Like the old fart did to my mother. And I could see her and see him and see myself." See myself as him. "It was shitty." Understatement. "But we did it." And I was sore all over, which reminded me of the Stupid decisions which got me those scars and made the whole thing worse.

"So you took a walk in the rain," Florrie said after a decently long silence.

"So I took a walk in the rain," Xanxus agreed tiredly. "Not heading anywhere in particular. Just... out. Away. And my feet brought me here. And there you were. And I just…" He groped for words. "I wanted to feel." Feel better. Feel like he'd achieved something worthwhile. Feel connected.

He stared down at his hands gripping his jacket sleeves in his lap. He was so selfish.

Florrie got out of her chair and padded over to him, dropping to a crouch next to his knees. "Xanxus?"

He let his eyes flick up to meet hers.

"Can I hug you?"

What even.

"You want to?"

"From the sound of it you've had several really awful days, culminating in you making a really stupid decision which you are now beating yourself up over despite managing to come to your senses before doing anything irrevocable," she said very carefully, her tone soft. "I want to hug you. Can I?"

"Sure." Not 'you sound like you need a hug' but 'I want to hug you.' That was… different.

She sidled up until she had her back to the wall next to him, then leaned over and wrapped an arm around his chest, her other hand sliding across his lower back until she'd managed to join her fingers together, leaning her forehead into his shoulder.

"And just so you know, the kissing was very nice indeed," she added under her breath.

Xanxus snorted. "Still should have asked," he pointed out dryly.

She squeezed his ribs. "Yes you should. That way I could have said yes, lots of kisses please, and we could have had fun rather than traumatising each-other."

Xanxus barked out a laugh, leaning his head back against the wall as hysteria bubbled up inside his chest, making him shake as he chuckled helplessly. Then the laughter turned to tears, but Florrie just held onto him more tightly and let him sob into her shoulder, one hand curling up behind his head and stroking his hair.

He felt tired and empty afterwards, but in a good way. Like he'd finally managed to clear some of the mess tangled up inside him.

"You good to go home?" She asked after they'd sat there in silence for a long while.

"Yeah," Xanxus decided.

"Want a drink first?"

"Sure." He could wash his face in the sink too, to make it less obvious he'd had a meltdown. That was his business, not theirs.

"Want dinner too? I need to cook something."

"Don't put yourself out."

"It's literally just ravioli, Xanxus," she said, sitting back on her heels and smiling at him, the mild exasperation in her tone so warm and familiar he almost wanted to start crying again.

"Well in that case, feed me," he managed, warmth blooming in his chest when she rolled her eyes and hit his shoulder like today's mess hadn't happened at all.

She was an amazing friend and he didn't deserve her.

Xanxus took considerably more care picking which missions he joined in with after the almost-disaster and put some effort into diverting himself if he could feel things starting to go wrong rather than trying to tough it out. Better to go for a walk on the far side of town and leave the mission to his perfectly capable subordinates than to spiral down into a mental hole for no good reason. That wouldn't help anybody.

He was getting into the habit of finding an empty rooftop or quiet back alley and letting Bester out, then fussing over the liger and enjoying the deep, resonant rumble in the big cat's chest that wasn't quite a purr but still indicated contentment. It was pleasantly distracting and got him through the rough patches.

It was most of a fortnight before he next visited Florrie, and when he did what he found wasn't quite what he'd been expecting.


Florrie glared at him from where she was perched halfway up a ladder, a large wicker basket slung over one shoulder and several wooden crates full of peaches stacked at the base of a nearby tree. There were also two trays of apricots, four baskets of figs and another stack of crates off to the other side, all full of apples. As well as an untidy pile of empty crates next to the bottom of the ladder. If he hadn't seen the teetering piles of crates stacked up in the barn back in the summer he'd be wondering where they'd all come from.

"What am I supposed to do with all this?" She demanded, waving her free hand to encompass the tree she was halfway up, the laden plum trees and the various citrus trees, all of which were covered in fruit at least halfway to being ripe.

"Sell it?"

"Who to? It's all ripe now and while the figs will keep and so will the apples, everything else needs eating or cooking in the next day or so! I don't have jars or sugar for jam –or even a jam kettle– and I don't have the space to dry any more of it!"

Xanxus eyed the crates; he suspected that if he took the peaches and apricots back to the Varia they'd all be gone in hours. Someone would have to come down with a van though; there was too much to carry without Mist-trickery. "Is this everything?"

"No. I have another ten crates of apples in the barn, several boxes of raspberries in the fridge, six rows of grape vines that are inexplicably fruitful despite their age, three persimmon trees just starting to ripen and a grove of olives I have no idea what to do with." She climbed down the ladder, carefully emptying her basket into another crate. "Not to mention the almond and pistachio trees. I didn't even realise there were pistachio trees!"

That was. A lot. Of fruit. Had the Varia passing by over the years done something to the trees to keep them healthy and fruiting despite the previous lack of care? Florrie had been babying the trees throughout the summer, keeping them watered and occasionally feeding them, so they'd clearly gone mad with the attention.

He had no idea how much a crate of fruit would cost at the market, but if he got someone from Housekeeping down here they'd know and would probably be willing to pay just as much for fruit straight off the tree, even if some of it was a bit marked.

"Let me make a few calls?"

"If you can find somebody willing to take this lot today then they can have it all for five euros a crate, so long as I get the crates back, and anybody willing to pick the olives can have them all for free whenever they're ripe."

That was definitely a bargain. Xanxus got his phone out; the Kitchen staff would jump at the opportunity for cheap fruit and free olives.

After Housekeeping had come and gone, having received permission to come and pick the grapes, plums and persimmons for themselves for five euros a crate –still definitely a bargain– Florrie collapsed into a kitchen chair with her forehead on the table. Xanxus poured them both drinks –he was getting the impression his friend hadn't drunk enough today– and settled next to her.

"Better?" He asked.

"Yes. Thank you. My head is killing me though."

"Drink something."

She levered herself up off the table with an elbow and sipped the water, eyes firmly closed. "I think it's stress as much as dehydration."

"Dealt with the fruit now though," Xanxus pointed out.

"Yes. But me stressing over the fruit was more of a symptom than the cause."

Xanxus made an inquiring noise in his throat; this sounded like something that him listening to could help her work through.

Florrie sighed. "I just… it's September. And for the first time in as long as I can remember I'm not going to school. So everything's weird. Up until now it all felt like summer holidays and a summer job but now it's autumn and I'm wondering what to do with myself for the rest of the year and panicking a bit."

Xanxus had no idea what that felt like because he'd been home-schooled, so didn't really have anything helpful to offer.

"The farm's going to be pretty much over by the end of next month," Florrie went on, "other than the citruses of course, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do with myself. Probably find a new hobby to fill the time in between the data entry work, I suppose." She sighed. "Could get my art supplies out again? It's not too hot to hold a brush anymore and there are some nice views up here." She reached up with her free hand and absently squeezed the back of her neck. "Painting doesn't exactly pay for itself though." She lowered her head to the tabletop again.

Xanxus reached over and gently prodded her neck; the tendons were hard enough that she probably had a thumping headache, which explained why she was keeping her eyes closed. "Painkillers?" He suggested.

"Take an hour or more to kick in and don't do much for the stiffness," she complained.

The other thing Xanxus could think of was not something he'd ever have suggested to any of his co-workers, but then again Florrie wasn't a co-worker. "Neck massage?"

She pushed her empty glass away then reached up to cradle her neck with both hands, rubbing the tendons. "Ow. Does help a bit though."

It wasn't just her neck; Xanxus could see the muscles across her shoulders standing out under her skin and suspected her upper back was just as bad, especially since she'd been carrying that awkward basket up and down the ladder in the orchard for most of the day and apparently all of yesterday as well. "Let me?"

Florrie turned her head, eyelids cracking open to give him a level look. "Just a neck massage?"

He deserved that. "Neck, shoulders, upper back," he corrected cautiously. "All connected." If she didn't want him touching her he'd understand completely; today she had been as friendly as ever but there was a hint of reserve and caution now that there hadn't been two weeks ago.

She closed her eyes again and sighed. "I don't know what my problem is," she muttered; "you've seen me in a bikini before now."

Yes, but she'd felt safe then and didn't anymore. Xanxus did not say as much though; she wasn't really talking to him.

"I'll change into something that leaves more of my upper back visible," she decided, getting to her feet with her eyes still closed, "and retie my hair. I don't want to still feel this terrible tomorrow and if I don't do something then I'm going to wake up with a migraine."

She wandered out of the kitchen, one hand skimming the tabletop and the other outstretched to catch herself before she ran into the wall. Xanxus watched her leave, wondering if refusing to be afraid of things that really could kill you was a Cloud-trait. Pig-headed stubbornness in the face of certain death was; after getting rid of Ottabio he'd ended up killing a bunch of other veteran Clouds who'd refused to either accept his authority or retire.

She came back minutes later in a spaghetti-strap top and her hair fastened up in a bun high on the back of her head, having also taken off her walking boots and put on a pair of flats. "Now what?"

"Sit down," Xanxus said, getting to his feet, "and tell me if you want me to stop." Because things were definitely still shaky between them and he refused to make that worse if he could possibly help it.

"Kay." Florrie dropped into the chair he'd just got out of and Xanxus ran his fingers firmly along her trapezius muscles, down her neck and across the top of her shoulders. "Ow."

That sounded like a comment rather than a complaint, so Xanxus ignored it. She couldn't see what he was doing, so he could cheat with Flames a bit if he wanted to and this was something that Harmony could theoretically be applied to.

He should work up to that though, to make it seem less out of place. Xanxus started with leaning into a pressure point in her spine, and when Florrie gasped and the muscles under his hands softened slightly, moved into pressing at them in earnest.

He used just the tiniest trace of Flames, urging them into the deeper muscles to speed up the process of breaking down the lactic acid and to counter all the tension he could feel under his hands.

Florrie was slumped in his grip now, shoulders lax as Xanxus pressed his fingertips into the knots in her upper back and used his extensive anatomy knowledge for something other than inflicting injury. She really was small, he mused idly as he ran fingers up her neck to press behind her ears. Not small-small –she was probably about average height really– but compared to him she was positively dainty. And fragile; no combat training at all, for all that she was strong enough to do regular manual labour. He could wrap one hand most of the way around her neck if he wanted to and break her spine with one sharp twist.

He wasn't going to, but he was capable of it. And even if Florrie didn't know he was an assassin, she was very well aware now that he was more than strong enough to hurt her; kill her even. And she was still letting him close and trusting him not to.

The only other person who trusted him this much was the shark, and even that was iffy because Xanxus knew Squalo was no less dangerous than he was and could dish right back when he lashed out. Florrie on the other hand couldn't take it, so was far more vulnerable.

When had he last touched somebody vulnerable like this that wasn't an assassination target?

Xanxus palmed Florrie's forehead, holding her upright, then pressed on her neck with his other hand; this way he was supporting the weight of her head so her muscles could relax without her having to lie down first.

"Feels really nice," she mumbled, the first sound she'd made beyond the occasional quiet gasp and hitch in her breath.

"Any pain left?" He asked quietly.

"Crown of my head, under my hair."

Xanxus undid her hair, tugging out the tie and digging his fingers into her scalp. The noise Florrie made was almost a whimper as he pressed into the little knot of muscle he'd found hidden up there.

He'd used the least Flames he could, but he could still feel them humming faintly under her skin; he'd never tried to use them quite this way before, which was probably a factor, but he also wasn't used to using his Flames non-lethally on Latents. When dealing with Actives you had to overcome the innate resistance of the other person's Flames to work on their body and Florrie, being Latent, didn't have that.

She was probably going to be weak as a noodle for the rest of the evening, since Harmony spread and would be countering all tension everywhere, including the tension required for keeping the body upright and mobile.

Sure enough, she slowly slumped forwards onto the table when he stopped holder her up. "I feel so much better," she yawned, "but also really tired."

Xanxus poured another glass of water out of the jug on the worktop. "Drink some more," he urged firmly. She did so, if a little sloppily.

"Why'm I so tired?"

"You're properly relaxed now; did you sleep well last night?" Xanxus wasn't going to admit it was partly his fault, not when he couldn't explain Flames.

"Not really."

"There you go then."

"Should probably nap on the couch then," she decided with another yawn, finishing the water. "Don' wanna move though." She let her head droop to the tabletop, her hair flopping forwards and sliding messily around her shoulders.

Part of Xanxus very much wanted to laugh; he'd not known Sky Flames could do this and it was hilarious. The rest of him didn't want all his hard work loosening her neck muscles ruined because she couldn't be arsed to lie down properly. "You'll knot up again like that."

She tilted her head to peek at him through her hair and pouted. "Carry me?"

Yeah, he could do that. Since she'd asked.