This story is written on Fanfiction dot net and published there and on Ao3 only. Anybody reading this story on other websites is reading unauthorised copies. Please read this story on Fanfiction dot net or on Ao3 where I can see reviews and hit-counts, which tell me how much people are enjoying my work so I can be encouraged to go on writing.

Beta'd and contributed to by the inspiring Insane Scriptist.

So.. here we are again! This story has turned into a trilogy, so there's going to be a third section just as soon as I can write it. Which will take time, because I'm going on holiday in the middle of next week. However I'm still going to update every day (bar Sunday) until this story is complete, although there might be a few delays here and there.

Also, I'm not going back to Black Sky just yet. My grandpa died at the beginning of July and I can't face going back to my happy story, which may also be why the plot for this got so complicated all of a sudden. Still, I hope everybody enjoys what I've written.


Pick up the pieces (and move on)

"Hi Xanxus!"

"Hey," Xanxus replied hoarsely, awkwardly conscious that he was curled up with his stuffed tiger on the bathroom floor of a hotel room in Canberra at eight o'clock in the evening, after a few snatches of conversation overheard in the street had sent him spiralling down into a flashback and he'd had to abandon the prospective stakeout in favour of locking himself in here and reminding himself how to breathe. "Talk, please?"

His wonderful Cloud instantly obliged him. "I've been visiting around campus looking at accommodation and deciding where I'm going to live; there's not much of a choice and it's all really small, but I can't face staying at home. Not after a year of having my own space; going back to sharing a bedroom with my sister is just too much, you know? And she's sixteen now, she needs her space and after having a whole year without me she wants that space too. I mean yes, I could commute, but it's over an hour door-to-door and not even having my own bedroom? No. So I'm checking out the halls and trying to find somewhere there's still a space open this late in the game. I might even end up with a shared bathroom rather than an en-suite and there's nowhere in budget that offers a kitchen that's shared between less than seven people, but self-catered is still way better than just eating cafeteria food all year round and I'm used to cooking for myself now, you know? I'm just hoping I end up with decent hall-mates or else I'm really going to struggle. I'm not too bothered about the actual classes –it's all fun and new and the textbooks I've looked at so far are moderately interesting once you get past the terrible technical language– but I need my down-time and it's looking like I'm only going to be able to get that in my room, or failing that sitting out on campus somewhere with headphones on."

Xanxus let the words wash over him, his pulse settling and his mind steadying at the sound of his friend's voice.

"It's making me think carefully about whether I actually do want to move out, really; I'm also looking into possibly renting a small on-campus flat rather than staying in halls, but those all seem to have been snapped up already so I'm checking back in case of cancellations. I've submitted a few requests for additional information so I can compare things, but I'm probably going to end up in halls. I'm prepared to push my budget a bit if it means getting a decent-sized room with my own en-suite, even though I'm a still bit iffy about shared laundry and kitchen facilities."

"More about who than what there," he managed, settling back against the wall and feeling his shoulders finally unknot.

"I know, that's why I'm willing to give it a shot," Florrie said with determined cheer. "It might well turn out fine, so there's no point borrowing trouble." She paused. "My friend's wedding went well; it wasn't sunny but it wasn't raining or horrendously humid either, the ceremony was short and there was lots of very nice cake at the reception; quite a lot of alcohol too, but I avoided that and then had to make an effort to avoid the people who hadn't, which was less fun. My friend was happy though and not being maid of honour meant I didn't have to give a speech, which was all for the best really."

"Not a public speaker?"

"Not particularly, no; I mean, I'm not phobic or anything but it's still not my favourite thing as while I can say the words well enough, I'm never sure where I'm supposed to be looking or if it's okay to make eye-contact and if so, with whom. Talking to individuals is challenging enough really." She took a breath. "It's not even been a month yet and I miss you something dreadful. My sister's already teasing me about pining and asking if I'm sure you're not my boyfriend."

"Want to visit in August," Xanxus admitted; "things are quiet work-wise and it gets far too hot, so a few days in England would be nice."

"I would love to see you," his Cloud agreed, "but at the same time I can't really host you at home; we don't have the space."

"Wasn't expecting you to," he replied instantly; "planning on booking into a hotel a town or so away from where you live, so we could go out and do whatever. Or not; whatever you're comfortable with." He was well aware she probably wouldn't be comfortable introducing him to her family, considering the kinds of private things they'd talked about and him being in organised crime on top of that. Never mind that he didn't look anything like the kind of person a regular middle-class couple would be happy to have hanging around their daughter.

"I do want to introduce you to my parents, if only so they don't feel like I'm hiding you from them," Florrie admitted a little ruefully, "because that would make them worry more. I'm pretty sure that after seeing me interact with you my dad will stop being so concerned and let us get on with things, so better to make sure they don't think we're hiding things."

"Even though we are." She certainly hadn't breathed a word of anything Guardian-related to them, seeing as it was all tangled up in the 'organised crime' thing.

"Even though we are," she agreed. "But we're not hiding the nature of our relationship or doing any of the normal kinds of things that parents worry about their grown-up kids getting up to, so that should offset the issue slightly. I'm an adult now; I'm allowed my own life and secrets."

Xanxus wasn't technically an adult yet despite having been legally such for some time now; not much longer to wait though. "Will book a hotel then."

"I'm looking forward to seeing you; I'm sure my siblings will be horrendously nosy so we'll have to arrange to be elsewhere for most of the time," Florrie mused. "We could take the train to see some museums in nearby towns or just pick somewhere nice for a walk and sit in a few tea shops."

"Like to see your university." So he'd know where she was and have a head-start on hunting her down on later visits.

"I'm sure that can be arranged." His Cloud paused. "Feeling better now?"

"Yeah. Love you." Listening to her really had helped keep him in the here-and-now and despite his aches he felt better than he generally did after this kind of thing. "Can I call again?"

"Try to avoid calling between eleven pm and seven am British-time if you can, but if it's an emergency don't hesitate. What I would call an emergency, Xanxus, not your skewed standards."

He chuckled; Florrie was a great friend. "I'll keep that in mind."

"I love you too; take care."

"Promise. Bye."

"Bye!"

Xanxus hung up, slipped his phone into his jacket and rubbed his face with both hands, then got up to stretch. He should probably scrub down with a flannel before heading out again, so he didn't stink of sour sweat and could feel like he'd freshened up a bit. Then call Luss, because the Squad he was with had probably called the Sun Officer when he abruptly bailed on them –they were supposed to notify Medical when somebody had a health-related problem in the field so it was Dumb to resent them for it– and saying what had happened now would mean less fussing once he got back. Luss would have had time to get it out of his system already and would be feeling reassured that Xanxus wasn't ignoring his own health.

He was tired and sore and not really in the mood for any more human interaction, but two minutes talking to Luss would mean he could then text the Squad, see how things were going and decide whether or not he wanted to get involved in the mission again. He was getting better all the time, so not letting this setback ruin things for him was key to the recovery process.

Although if in an hour he just wanted to lie down and sleep, he'd do that instead. No sense in overdoing it.


Dino waved a smiling goodbye to Tsuna and his friends, got into the back of the car with Romario and promptly lost the smile as the driver –Luca– set off towards the house he was now renting more-or-less permanently on the outskirts of Namimori.

Spending more time with his little brother and said little brother's Guardians should have made him more confident in the younger boy's ability to lead the Vongola and be a good Ally to Dino's own Family, but instead it was doing the opposite. Yes, Tsuna was a good kid who loved his friends desperately, but he was still adamant about not wanting to lead his Family and the more he heard his kōhai's reticence, the more Dino was becoming convinced that the other boy's reasons for not wanting to be a don were not as similar to his own reasons as he'd initially thought.

Dino hadn't wanted to be a criminal, hadn't wanted to hurt people and had wanted to be a good person. Getting tutored by Reborn and learning more about how the Cavallone worked had revealed to him that being a criminal meant very different things depending on the laws of where you lived and that criminality was not in itself an a moral failing; in some cases it was in fact moral to oppose the law, such as when the law was corrupt and unfair. From there it had been a short step to realising that he could do a tremendous amount of good with the Cavallone money and influence, improving the lives of the people in his Family's Territory, and that was where his complaints had stopped.

He didn't know what Tsuna's exact reasoning was, but that the teenager was still adamant about not wanting to lead the Vongola even after three years of tutoring wasn't very hopeful. He tried to coax a few details out of his little brother, but what he'd picked up suggested that Tsuna thought the mafia was all about shooting policemen in the street, extorting money out of already poor people and feuding with other Families over perceived slights, rooted in nothing more than greed and love of violence. Which, while there was a grain of truth in there –mafiosi had done all of those things in the past and probably would again in the future– those were all exceptional and unusual outliers that got turned into movies and daytime television because they were dramatic and visible to those outside the Underworld. Mostly the mafia was just doing the same kind of business as took place outside the Underworld, just without government oversight. There was still oversight and rules to be followed for the benefit and safety of all involved; those rules just weren't being set by civil authorities, partly because Flames could not be revealed to anybody in elected government positions of any kind so it wasn't possible for Flame-related legislation to be passed.

The Vindice also banned Flame-Actives from becoming elected to any kind of government office, which was very rigorously enforced, so mafia influence on local government was limited to Latent relatives with those kinds of aspirations and oblivious civilians open to bribery. There was no shortage of the latter, so the former were relatively few and far between.

Dino had tried to explain this, but Tsuna still didn't seem to have grasped the specifics. The teenager was stuck on the fact that the mafia did not follow the laws laid down by the government and took that to mean that they didn't follow any kind of system at all. Or that the system they did follow was inherently oppressive to everybody not a don; as though the laws set out by governments across the globe weren't designed to benefit those in power and oppress those without. That mafia might not be better, but it certainly was not any worse! Especially when someone with power was willing to use their wealth and influence for the betterment of those around them!

It didn't help that none of Tsuna's Guardians were familiar with the Underworld either. Smoking Bomb had assumed the position of Right Hand but had only been a pre-teen freelancer –oblivious to both the bigger picture and the fine details– when he was last in Sicily, Mukuro had experienced atrocities that the Underworld did not condone, but blamed the mafia regardless simply because his family had claimed they belonged to it and used the Underworld's treatment of them to justify their abhorrent actions towards their own children. The rest were either far too young to have any relevant experience –Lambo Bovino– entirely foreign, if peripherally aware of the Underworld in both concept and practice –Kyōya– or both foreign and completely civilian –the other three.

Takeshi and Chrome were both at least trying to familiarise themselves with the Underworld generally and the Vongola Alliance in particular, but they were the only ones. Smoking Bomb assumed he already knew everything he needed to about the wider Underworld and the Alliance, Kyōya was very pointedly not interested, Ryōhei couldn't see how any of it related to boxing so dismissed it as irrelevant to him, Mukuro could see the problems clearly but was gleefully looking forward to the inevitable collapse rather than wanting to mitigate the damage and Lambo was too young for it to be appropriate to burden him with the details or expect him to do anything about them.

So far as Dino could tell, all Tsuna wanted out of life was to get a low-level job of some kind where his ongoing struggle with school subjects wouldn't matter much and marry Sasagawa-chan. That Sasagawa-chan seemed utterly oblivious to his interest never got addressed; Tsuna was too shy to ever ask her outright, so never got the refusal that would enable him to move on.

That Don Vongola seemed to be ignoring his Heir's expectations and was clearly intent on ensuring Tsuna became Decimo regardless of feeble protests to the contrary boded incredibly badly. Tsuna simply was not qualified to lead a Family and worse, didn't want to become qualified. Dino's little brother refused to even think about his past interactions with mafiosi unless other people brought them up, and then he did his best to dismiss the subject as quickly as possible rather than reflect on what had happened and why.

Dino wondered how much of this Xanxus had known already when he suggested that Don Cavallone take the time to tell the prospective Vongola Decimo more about the Underworld generally and the Alliance specifically. Probably all of it; the Varia Boss hadn't got to where he was now by being oblivious or unobservant. It was galling that Xanxus had picked up on this despite the man barely interacting with Tsuna for any length of time; he'd seen it within days when Dino had been utterly oblivious despite months spent in Namimori. With intuition like that it was no surprise so many were convinced the Varia Boss was a Vongola bastard.

Xanxus had always used to be an enigma to Dino, but he was rapidly becoming less so now that Dino was older and was spending more time with the physically younger man. The unexpected revelations concerning the Varia Boss's parentage and background almost two years ago had made several different points snap into focus and their interactions since then had shed further light on the other Sky.

Xanxus's first language was Sicilian; he'd likely spoken nothing else until he entered Don Vongola's care aged six. The teenager's Italian was excellent –as were the dozens of other languages he spoke– but in casual conversation on mundane matters the Sicilian snuck back in, along with the idioms and contractions that Dino was familiar with from those of his men from the poorest areas under his protection. Even the Varia Boss's nickname for him reflected his background: Xanxus called him cavaddu, the Sicilian for 'horse.'

Dino never commented on the change; he was perfectly fluent in Sicilian as well so when Xanxus switched languages he followed suit. The Varia Boss was far more casual and friendly in his mother tongue and Dino appreciated the lack of deference; he didn't have many friends. Or any friends, really; not many people were willing to banter with him as equals without trying to use the familiarity as leverage in business matters later on down the line. Xanxus never bothered with that; oh he was excellent at politics, but he always made the meeting specifically about politics if that was what he wanted to talk about and generally stuck to Italian for it. When they were just talking the closest the Varia Boss had ever come to currying favour had been to ask if his sweetheart could ride the horses at one of Dino's private stables for her birthday.

If Xanxus could find a pretty girl willing to have a relationship with him for most of a year then Dino certainly had a chance to find love; yes, Xanxus's sweetheart had been civilian so it had never been going to last, but the Varia Boss had been barely seventeen when he met her and it had probably been the first time he'd ever fallen in love, so it was understandable that it hadn't gone anywhere in the end. He'd still tried though and that more than anything else had helped Dino look past the façade and see the person behind the Varia Boss. Xanxus was a person who loved the Vongola, loved his subordinates as fiercely as they loved him and cared deeply about the Alliance, as well as having a soft spot for gentle and openly affectionate women.

If Dino could see the problems inherent to putting Tsuna in charge of the Vongola and the Alliance, Xanxus could see them too. That the Varia Boss had all but ensured Dino would put himself in a position to see those same problems firsthand was proof enough. He'd have to set up a meeting to make sure they were both on the same page.


Squalo hummed along with the radio as he showered, enjoying the cold water despite the way it made his scars ache. They ached far less now than they ever had before; Boss had somehow come up with a scar mitigation technique that Luss had approved for wider use, so at the tail end of Quiet Week Squalo had a session in Medical with Boss using Sky Flames on him that had reduced the surgical scars on and inside his chest –as well as on his back– to fine, barely-visible lines and massively reduced the keloid tissues around his stump as well. There'd been a corresponding improvement in mobility and a reduction in weather-related soreness and Squalo could not be happier about it; first the gene-therapy to make his new heart entirely his own and now even the scars were barely worth noticing? This was the best year he'd had in a long time –possibly ever– and it was barely halfway over.

Boss was also in a better place than he'd ever been, which was a big part of why Squalo considered this year to be in the running for 'best year ever.' Plus Levi was no longer prancing around being a nuisance, his Sky had a proper Cloud Guardian and Boss's relationship with Luss was slowly but surely progressing in the direction of becoming a proper Guardian Bond. That was almost a full set; not even Nono had a complete set of fully bonded Guardians so Boss was really doing incredibly well there.

Squalo would be very surprised if Chew Toy had Guardian bonds with any of his so-called Guardians; he wasn't bonded with the sword-brat or Mist-girl, and while there was a profound and very strong bond with Rokudo, it wasn't quite a Guardian bond. Possibly because Rokudo didn't want it to be; he didn't seem the type to be willing to commit himself, even if not committing meant always feeling like he was missing out. Then again, the issue could equally be with Chew Toy; trash seemed the type to have self-destructive bonding conditions or to instinctively reject potential bonds because he was afraid the people trying to get close to him were going to hurt him. Iemitsu hadn't done anybody any favours neglecting his son the way he had and the less said about Chew Toy's mother the better; trash wouldn't know a healthy relationship if it went down on one knee and proposed.

Boss was not in a much better position there, in all honesty, but Boss had Florrie and was at least aware that his shitty upbringing had messed him up. Self-awareness might not make things any better but it was the first step to fixing the problem and Boss had gone considerably beyond that first step in the past year and change. Squalo was sure his Sky would only continue to improve; Boss was stubborn like that.

Squalo dressed, walked out into his office and checked the urge to demand what was going on as he noticed Boss sprawled along his couch. What had Florrie said, that Boss got defensive about being a human being and actually wanting human contact sometimes? Yeah, Squalo could see it; Nono had probably used it to manipulate Boss somehow and it wasn't like Don Vongola's actual sons had been particularly nice people either. They certainly hadn't appreciated having a supposed bastard around the place, even though Squalo wasn't entirely sold that they'd been genuinely convinced that Boss was their father's. Realistically speaking, it had been more likely that Boss had been Nono's grandson than his son; Boss had been born when Don Vongola was nearly fifty and both Enrico and Massimo had been in their twenties, with Federico just leaving his teens. With three unmarried adult sons knocking about it was vastly more likely that one of them had sired a whoops baby with a prostitute than their father, who had been married to his work even before his wife died if the stories were anything to go by.

Rather than open up such a touchy subject Squalo took note of the fact that Boss was fully dressed and his go-bag was dumped at the far end of the couch; walked right in here after getting back from the mission then. "Voi, want breakfast?" he offered.

"Coffee and fruit," Boss muttered, not opening his eyes.

Squalo grunted an acknowledgement and headed downstairs to fetch the food; breakfast was a self-service buffet and actually available all day, since all the food was cold or easily heated in a microwave or under a grill. Hot breakfasts were possible, but had to be ordered from Housekeeping at least the day before or even scheduled weeks beforehand; Kitchen could whip up all manner of specialist dishes, but only with suitable prior notice. The shared coffee machine in the breakfast hall was so heavily Warded it was impossible to move or tamper with unless you were Housekeeping –necessary when there were Varia who'd like to make off with it for their own personal use– and while the fruit bowl did occasionally get poisoned, it was generally considered poor form. Mostly because you never knew who you might end up hitting and offended veterans hunting you down and doing terrible things to you was a very real hazard. Squalo had done a spot of that himself, to keep the newbies on their toes and teach them good manners.

Boss's latest mission had been in Australia; he'd be horribly jetlagged. Squalo however didn't mind letting his Sky nap on his couch all day so long as the other man kept the sarcastic commentary to a minimum.


"Wait, she wants you to meet her parents?"

Xanxus shrugged, not turning around to look at the shark as he tried to think about the differences in packing for civvie trips. He was having to take a regular flight, which meant no obvious weapons and hiding his handguns in his hold luggage with a Ward to make them invisible to scans and metal detectors, as well as following all the annoying new rules about liquids in carry-on bags. "Says they'll worry less after meeting me."

"Voi, seriously?" Xanxus agreed with Squalo there; he'd have thought that meeting him would make Florrie's parents worry more, not less. "Well, she'd know I suppose." A pause. "Voi, I just realised you've never met my parents."

Xanxus snorted. "Met your grandpa." Delfino Superbi was who the shark would probably turn into once he was middle-aged and it would be both terrifying and hilarious; reminding Squalo how embarrassing he found his grandfather would be icing on the cake there.

"Voi! Grandpa's terrible and anyway he's not a civvie," the shark complained. "And I was trying to point out that we know jack shit about Luss's family background, Bel's parents are off being royal somewhere and Mammon's have probably been dead for years, so you've not met any of your Guardians' parents before."

Yeah, the Varia wasn't really a place where people who were on good terms with their relatives usually ended up; there were a few exceptions of course, but most of the Varia who were still on speaking terms with family members had those relatives in the Underworld. Mostly. There were a few dozen who sent part of their pay-check home through one of Mammon's shell companies, masquerading as respectable law-abiding employees, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

"Does she have other family that you're meeting? Other than parents, I mean?"

"Siblings," Xanxus said shortly, folding another shirt into his case. "Sister and a brother; both younger." He was more preoccupied with the revelation that all his Guardians had civvie parents; that was not usual. Then again, Ma had been civilian and who the fuck knew what his father had been. Part of him was tempted to say 'random civvie' and put Ma's insistence that his father was a Don down to delusions, but Skies were exceptionally rare and he was an unusually strong Sky; considering where he'd been born and probably conceived, it was actually more likely that his father had been an Active Underworld Sky belonging to the Alliance. She'd been paranoid even before his Flames came out after all, so her delusions had probably been rooted in something.

Probably actually distantly related to the old fart, in fact, since he looked so much like Secondo; just not the asshole's son.

"Huh."

Xanxus glanced at his Rain. "What?"

"Bel's a younger sibling," shark said mildly. "I'm a younger sibling –well a middle sibling– and Luss and Mammon both give me that 'only child' vibe. Even you're technically an only child despite getting shoved into the 'younger sibling' box later on. But your Cloud's an oldest sibling."

Squalo had older siblings? "Get to the point, shark."

"Voi, not really a point," the Rain said idly. "Just thought it was interesting. Chew Toy's passel of fools are all only children bar the Sun-moron, who has that creepy younger sister he lies to about everything that Chew Toy wants to fuck, and Smokescreen who's basically a younger sibling since he ran away from home long before Don Bianchi had another child."

The old fart was an only child; so were Coyote and Visconti, if Xanxus remembered correctly. Shark was right; that was interesting. More things in common that didn't really get considered, but would have an effect on how a person saw the world and therefore the subsection of the wider population that they'd feel a greater kinship for.

"Throw the idea to the Flame psychology geeks, see what they make of it," he suggested, sliding the gifts he'd brought for his Cloud on his latest mission into the end of his case. "Make a fun research project if nothing else." Summer was slow and anything to keep the Varia busy was always a good idea; the devil really did make work for idle hands, idle assassin hands in particular. A summer project to argue over would be just the thing to keep them out of the worst of the trouble they might otherwise get into.

"Will do, Boss; call me once you've met them, voi? I'm curious."

"Of course." Treating this like a political foray probably wasn't the right approach, but Xanxus wasn't sure how else to come at it; he'd never been introduced to other people's parents before. Usually people already knew who he was, complete with prejudices already fully formed. This was a new experience and a rather laughably normal one, all things considered.

It'd work out. From what Florrie had told him, her parents had grown up in rather shitty circumstances and were doing their best to become better people. He just had to be honest, making it clear that he was letting their daughter set relationship terms and that he was in it for the long haul. Those things weren't going to change, no matter what her parents thought, so they'd have to get used to him.


"Xanxus!"

He didn't even make it to knocking on the front door of the house at the address Florrie texted to him; his Cloud barrelled out of the front door as he walked in the garden gate and threw herself at him, forcing him to catch her and lift her up for a proper hug or else have her head slam into his ribcage.

"Good to see you too," he told her after exchanging kisses, hugging her tightly.

"I have missed you so much it's ridiculous," she muttered in his ear, relaxing into his arms while clinging to his shoulders like a monkey. "Is this a Guardian thing? Because after the first two weeks I got horribly restless; I've been going on long walks nearly every day just to settle."

"Might be," Xanxus admitted; he didn't exactly know how Florrie defined her Territory, but Clouds who had a physical Territory generally didn't like to be away from it for very long. If becoming her Sky meant he'd become part of Florrie's Territory, well… things would certainly get rather more difficult.

"Going to introduce your boyfriend, Florrie?" asked a cheeky female voice from the house; Xanxus glanced up to see a fair-skinned face with darker freckles and spectacles surrounded by wavy reddish hair peering around the doorframe.

Florrie groaned. "He's my friend, Chickie; we're not dating."

"Yet you ran out of the house to throw yourself at him; yeah, riii-ight," the redhead said mockingly, her grin huge and gleeful.

Florrie bashed her head against Xanxus's shoulder, but interestingly did not let her younger sister provoke her into anger or violence; most of what he was reading off her was resigned annoyance and grudging fondness.

"Get inside so we can introduce ourselves!" another voice demanded from further into the house. Florrie obligingly wriggled out of Xanxus's grip, grabbed his hand and led him up the path towards the front door.

"Come on; the sooner you meet everybody the sooner we can leave."

"Aw, Florrie don't be like –good grief he's huge!" The redhead gaped up at him as he stepped over the threshold; Xanxus smirked evilly.

"Midget," he enunciated clearly, making eye-contact; she was a good eight centimetres shorter than Florrie and visibly narrower through the hips, although there didn't seem to be any significant difference in upper body shape.

The redhead sucked in a loud breath through her teeth and narrowed her eyes. "Oh it's on, asshole."

"Chickie," Florrie sighed, poking her sister –definitely her sister; there was a considerable resemblance once you looked past colouring– in the shoulder.

"Chickie?" Xanxus asked, not bothering to hide his amusement. He'd thought he misheard the first time, but clearly not.

"It's a family name," Chickie said snootily, folding her arms defensively as she slid sideways out of the doorway.

"Short for Charlotte," Florrie explained, dragging Xanxus into the house's sitting room.


The first and most hilarious revelation of meeting his Cloud's family was that she was the second-tallest person in it: the only one taller than her was her younger brother Alfie –all the diminutives were a bit weird to him but clearly they liked them– who looked maybe fifteen at the very oldest and had that stretched look that teenagers got halfway through a growth spurt. Florrie was taller than both her parents by several centimetres, and her father was in fact slightly shorter than her mother.

The second revelation was that, going by feel, his friend's mother was a rather depressed and low-powered Sun and her father had middling reserves yet was possibly the angriest Lightning the Varia Boss had ever met, which was saying something; he was also the Lightning with the best friendly façade Xanxus had ever met either.

Except it wasn't actually a façade; the man was genuinely pleased to meet him. The anger was just there, a constant background hum that everything else was overlaid on.

Did he feel like this to other people?

Suddenly Florrie's matter-of-fact fearlessness in the face of his outbursts made far more sense; she probably subconsciously filtered out a lot of angry body language as unthreatening, because her father was always pinging as slightly angry yet kept it under iron control.

"Please call me John," Florrie's father told him, shaking his hand warmly. "Florrie's told us a lot about you, Xanxus; thank you for looking out for her while she was in Italy."

"Welcome; wasn't any trouble," Xanxus managed as the man released him; she'd talked about him? To her parents? When? What had she said?

"Frances," Florrie's mother said, leaning up from the sofa to offer his her hand for a quick shake before going back to her embroidery. Xanxus took that to mean introductions were over and glanced over to catch Florrie's eye.

"Dad, Xanxus wanted me to show him the university."

"Did you charge your phone?"

"Yes Dad; I've got my travel pass and I'm taking my coat in case it rains."

"Don't forget your keys!"

"They're in my handbag, I'm not going to!"

"Bye Xanxus! See you again sometime!"

Xanxus let himself be hustled out of the front door again and out the garden gate before speaking up again. "You told them about me?"

His Cloud glanced up at him. "I was living alone in a foreign country and made a friend; why wouldn't I talk about you to my family?" She grinned. "It was mostly good, I promise."

"Only mostly?"

"You're very confusing sometimes; I had to ask my dad and brother for advice on guy things a few times to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting or missing subtext."

"Never mentioned that." Xanxus wasn't sure how he felt about it.

"Xanxus, I tried to bring my family into the conversation dozens of times over the past year but you kept deliberately changing the subject; I guessed family generally was a touchy subject and didn't want to push."

That was true, she had mentioned her family every now and then and he'd deliberately not pursued the subject every single time.

"Besides, I never once brought up anything you told me in confidence," Florrie said firmly. "Just general stuff, since they were a bit worried about the fact that the only person I was interacting with on a regular basis was a guy. I think they were worried I'd think I was in love or something and drop out of university to get married and never come home at all. Or get my heart broken and come home depressed."

"Not that you'd form a lifelong spiritual bond with a career criminal then."

His Cloud actually cackled. "Nooo," she drawled after recovering her composure; "that never came up, oddly enough."

Xanxus smirked. "I wonder why."

Florrie punched his arm lightly. "You're dreadful. Do you want to take the bus or the train?"

"Train." It would be faster and they'd spend less time in a confined space with a bunch of strangers.

"Train it is then."


After walking around the university campus for over an hour Florrie led the way back into the centre of town for lunch, then on to a small independent tea shop a few streets away situated in a tall, narrow building. They were the only people sitting on the second floor, which gave Xanxus the opportunity to set up a touch of Mist-security before settling on the sofa next to his friend and ask a few important questions. He wanted his privacy guaranteed, in case something personal came up.

"Tell me more about your family?"

Florrie eyed him while pouring herself a cup of tea, but settled back on the sofa and answered anyway. "Where d'you want me to start?"

"Siblings." He'd barely seen minutes of her interacting with her sister and brother but it had been enough to prove that her relationship with them was dramatically different to what he and his brothers had had. Not that they'd actually been his brothers at all.

"Chickie is sixteen," his friend began, "and she's very sporty; takes after Mum that way. Football, netball, hockey; if it's a team sport involving running around outside then she's all for it. Very sociable too, but terrible at maths and more technical stuff; she's awful at budgeting and an impulse buyer, especially of clothes. She's got no sense of what colours look good together and loves pink, so she generally looks cheerful but garish. She wants to be a teacher when she finishes school."

Xanxus slotted that around the brief impression he'd got of the red-haired Sun in glasses who'd teased his Cloud on the doorstep; it fitted very well.

"We've always shared a bedroom and it's been a complete nightmare at times," Florrie went on pensively, "but she mostly respects my space now and I mostly respect hers, so we get on okay. She called me a lot while I was away to complain about having to help Alfie with stuff because I wasn't there to do it and our parents making her take on more chores around the house, as well as begging me to help her with her assignments, so I'm pretty sure she missed me."

A Sun and a Cloud in a confined space together? Xanxus was amazed there hadn't been a murder committed. "And your brother?"

"Alfie's fourteen; he likes solo sports like cycling and skiing, but really hates the competitive aspect. He wants to enjoy the actual activity, not accidentally end up bitter enemies with somebody he'd thought of as a friend after outperforming them. He does karate too, but as self-defence and won't take part in contests. He's sort of between me and Chickie in social stuff; he can do it very convincingly –unlike me– but it's mostly a show, so he doesn't get much out of it. He's got a few close friends and all the many other people he knows are just friendly acquaintances. He's got a keen sense of style and dresses very classily, but he's also not good with colours. Unlike Chickie however he wants to look good, so he generally asks me to help him there; I'm the only one in the family who can tell what looks good colour-wise."

"You wear all kinds of unfashionable stuff," Xanxus pointed out.

"Maybe so, but the colours look good on me, don't they?" Florrie pointed out. "Fashion's just people wanting to make money; I'd rather be comfortable and look nice."

"I guess. You get on with your brother?"

"Better now than when we were younger," Florrie admitted; "it was hard being a teenager with a five-years-younger brother demanding my attention all the time, but now he's getting stuck into puberty we're more on the same page. I read to him most nights all through my last year in Sixth Form, because he was finally getting interested in books but our parents were too busy to read to him; Alfie's not a very confident reader but he does like stories. He's been borrowing more of my books while I was away though, so he's clearly getting more into it."

"How d'you know?" She'd been away, so couldn't have noticed the books vanishing from her shelves.

"He asked me which ones I thought he'd like, so I gave him a starting point and he's gone on from there."

Her brother was a Cloud like she was, if possibly a more 'normal' social-type Cloud by her description. It was a little odd that a Sun and a Lightning had managed to produce two Cloud children, but maybe there were more Clouds in the wider family? Affinities did skip a generation like that sometimes. "Old fart already had sons when he took me in," he volunteered quietly.

"How did his wife take that?" Florrie asked dryly, looking unimpressed.

"Was dead; had been for a decade," Xanxus specified; that was one thing he was grateful he hadn't had to deal with. Being a bastard had been bad enough, but nobody had been gunning for him as evidence of the old fart's 'infidelity' or blaming him for it. "My supposed brothers were all well over ten years older than me; more than twenty years older in Enrico's case." Massimo had been twenty-seven when Xanxus had been brought into the Iron Fort aged six and Federico had been twenty-four; Enrico had been thirty. None of them had been even slightly welcoming.

Florrie didn't say a word, picking up her cup and saucer, blowing on her tea and watching him with receptive eyes.

"I… I wanted them to like me." He'd been so hopeful at the prospect of actually having more family; so fucking naïve despite knowing already that nothing ever came for free. "They didn't." They'd taken advantage of his eagerness to get along and then mocked it behind his back, like being a kid meant he was stupid. "I was competition; insulting competition, because I was six and they were adults and the old fart hadn't picked any one of them to succeed him yet, but I was already more skilled with Flames than they'd been at twice my age. So I decided I'd show them I was better than they were and make sure I got picked to lead the Family."

"Hence your ambitions," his Cloud murmured, sipping her tea and then setting the cup back down on the table; still a bit too hot then.

"Yeah." He'd had it all to gain and nothing to lose and he'd proved he was better than they were; by the time he was fifteen the entire Alliance had been buzzing with how he was stronger than Massimo, more politically adept than Enrico and had better instincts than Federico, for all he still didn't have a single Guardian. "Made it too; outperformed them in every area and the Alliance wanted me to inherit. But…" He swallowed hard.

"It was all lies," Florrie offered when he couldn't shape the words.

"Yeah." Everything had been lies, his entire life was a lie and there had been nothing left. Nothing but pain and betrayal and alienation. "Then when the old fart finally let me out of the ice, they were all dead." Leaving Xanxus to compete with a pathetic civvie who wasn't even a tenth as competent as Massimo on his worst days, but was going to get the Family anyway regardless of Xanxus outperforming him in every possible area. "I –I didn't even like them most days– but–"

Florrie leaned into him, wrapping an arm around his back. "You thought of them as your family and you miss them," she murmured gently. "You're allowed to miss them; you were used to them being there."

"Yeah." Yes, that was it exactly; he'd been used to them being there, had expected them to go on being there, even after he displaced them, so he could gloat and they had to eat crow and recognise him as being better than them at everything. But they hadn't been there and weren't ever going to be there again. He'd been unfrozen to find the only people left were him and the old fart and the Vongola was going to Sawada's spawn. Not even to Sawada –which would have burned but the man was at least vaguely capable– but his pathetic, oblivious, civilian child who didn't even know what the Vongola was.

It had been like finding out he wasn't the old fart's son all over again.

He was angry! Why was he crying?!

Then again it didn't matter, not really; Florrie didn't care that he was getting tears on her shirt.


Squalo was running through sword forms in one of the larger training rooms –less scar tissue meant increased mobility and being able to practice the more acrobatic moves again– when Boss let himself in, leaning against the wall and watching. The Rain Officer ignored his Sky; it evidently wasn't urgent and he was enjoying himself. Boss didn't make any sarky comments either, so Squalo let himself sink completely into the sword forms, his focus narrowing to breath and motion and the burn of muscles that hadn't been stretched like this in far too long.

He became distantly aware along the way that Boss was very much enjoying the show –he'd have ignored that if he didn't have Florrie's voice in the back of his head reminding him that Boss thought he was hot– and had to remind himself that this was just training, warming up moves he'd not used in well over a year, and not at all the time for showing off. He did however pause for a drink, then swap out his regular sword for the urumi; it was a while since he'd picked it up and Delfina had professed an interest, so he wanted to make sure he was properly practiced with the flexible blade before getting his sister started on it.

It was another acrobatic form, made more dangerous by swinging around what was basically a sharp-edged metal whip. There were slow moves, pacing to herd your opponent one way or the other, and fast moves to strike an enemy down. The snake-quick decapitating strikes were the hard part; they took a sharp wrist movement that his prosthetic couldn't mimic, so he was stuck with just using his actual hand. Getting tangled up in his own hair was also a hazard, but Squalo hadn't done that in over seven years now and was not about to ruin his record.

The air felt different now; Boss knew Squalo had picked up on his interest and then deliberately chosen to practice a sword form that let him showcase his speed and flexibility. Squalo knew that Boss knew he'd noticed and the Rain was deliberately not stopping or putting that certain flare into his moves that made it clear he was messing around rather than completely serious about his intentions. And Squalo was serious; Boss was, well he was Boss and if his Sky wanted him that way then Squalo's only caveat was that he'd rather put off sex until after Xanxus had actually hit eighteen.

"Shark," his Sky said eventually, voice low and compelling.

"Yes Boss?" Squalo replied, finishing his form and coiling up the urumi as he flicked his hair back and tugged his shirt collar further open; it might be the middle of the night but it was still August and almost two hours of intense exercise meant he was sweating like crazy.

His Sky came right up behind him; Squalo turned, looking up to meet his eye challengingly. He knew what Boss had been doing and Boss knew what he'd been doing; all that was left was finding out what his Sky was going to do about it.

Boss's thumb wiped a droplet of sweat off Squalo's temple; the Sky then lifted his hand to his mouth to taste and Squalo did not bother to smother his body's immediate reaction.

"Taste good, shark," Boss said softly, the tone almost but not quite a taunt. Squalo tossed the urumi off to one side and took a short step closer, so close their boots were almost touching.

"Something you wanted from me, Xanxus?" He asked steadily, taking care to keep his tone mild and his posture inviting so he didn't accidentally stray into anything that could be interpreted as dismissal or mockery.

His Sky stared at him, face going unreadable and Flames stilling for a moment then blooming into something wary but hopeful. Then he turned and walked out of the training room entirely.

Squalo couldn't honestly say he was surprised; Boss probably hadn't expected him to reciprocate like that. Tugging his shirt open the rest of the way down the Rain Officer walked over to the bench where his water bottle was waiting; he drank half of what was left and tipped the rest over his head, then grabbed his swords and headed back upstairs for a shower.

He'd made his position clear; ball was in Boss's court now.


September at the Varia always passed like a fever-dream, stretching impossibly long and full of surreal happenings that would get seriously questioned at any other time of year but weren't even worth mentioning because it was September. September was just Like That.

The reason September was Like That was that missions started pouring in during the last week of August, so that by September first Information were already pulling shifts and sleeping in blanket nests on the floor of their operation room so as to get the load checked and passed on to Boss and the Officers as quickly as possible for distribution. There were also always too many missions for Squads to just pick the ones that matched their specialities; instead missions had to be sorted geographically so that a Squad or three could between them cover a dozen missions all in the same area over the course of a week or a fortnight, switching Squad members around between them according to the requirements of specific contracts. Of course missions out in more isolated locations got assigned to people not dragged into the campaigns, which meant mixing and matching Squad members for the right balance since the ideal Squad would of course be busy elsewhere.

The veterans called September 'social month,' because you had to laugh about it or else you had a complete meltdown from sheer stress. Mooks called it 'hell' as more mooks died in September than at any other time of year, barely half of them in the field. Nobody ever knew what was going on in September, not even the Officers; you didn't know even half of what had happened in September until mid-October, by which point the dust had settled, everybody was finally catching up on sleep and Boss was making inroads on the mission reports and occasionally summoning people to his office to explain what the hell this squiggle meant and to untangle strings of typos. Typos that were sometimes a person's Name, thus dooming the new Varia member to a nonsensical appellation once September was done.

September was a trial by fire for the new General Managers and a test of patience for their more experienced colleagues; as the people responsible for the interpersonal side of their Divisions' smooth running, GMs were heavily involved in making sure that missions were assigned appropriately, that a Squad heading out had appropriately-skilled people for the mission assigned to them and that all those people were in good shape. September being what it was, this meant being in charge of last-minute substitutions, ensuring inter-personal friction within Squads was kept at a minimum and placating Medical when they were frothing at the mouth over how many sleep-deprived assassins were walking into doorframes and curling up on the carpets in public areas, snoring. While also taking the occasional mission of their own, being generally sleep-deprived and dealing with other pissy sleep-deprived assassins.

Squalo was spending half his time buried in the mission-sorting process alongside Boss, the other half chasing down equipment people hadn't given back and getting them to fess up to losing it or breaking it or what-have-you and all the time he didn't technically have but still needed to spend carrying out missions, because sometimes people paid extra to have the Second Sword Emperor off someone and other times a group of Squads in the field needed an Officer to run herd on them for a few days as they juggled a massive mission load across six different countries, to make sure they got everything done without anything getting dropped.

Then in more of his nonexistent extra time he got dragged into resolving issues that those assassins involved weren't letting his new GM solve for them, which generally meant Squalo making sure all those present really regretted not letting Joia solve their problems for them. He'd not got called on to fix things for Glace in nearly six years and everybody had clearly forgotten why they'd all been perfectly happy to go along with what the current Rain Squad Leader had decided for them. Of course part of that was that Glace was more overtly terrifying than Joia, who being a sweetheart possessing the rare gift of actual common sense looked much easier to steamroll.

People forgot that Joia had been recruited by Kuchisake and was still one of her favourite people. They then tended to get reminded of this very pertinent fact far too late to carry out an effective escape and were left too shaken to warn anybody else. Yes, Joia was nice, but he'd also been recruited out of the food service industry and had a very low tolerance for people who managed to press his 'self-righteous customer' buttons without actually having the protection of being a customer. And the pleasure of setting 'the manager' on somebody and watching with a blissful smile as the fool who'd crossed him was ruthlessly demolished was something Joia still made a point of savouring, swooping in afterwards to crush whatever remained under his heel and toss it out of his office door.

By the time Squalo actually had the space to enjoy three entire sleep-cycles in a row without being woken up partway through any of them for whatever, it was October eighth and the blur of September was slowly starting to unravel, dropping facts and notable happenings into his brain at random moments. Not all of the memories made sense; had Maínomai really turned Lima into a giant caterpillar for two hours? How on earth had the recently-Named Mahi managed to end up Squad Leader when the Squad he'd been attached to in July was made up entirely of assassins with five or more years' experience? Yes, Köder's unfortunate run-in with that rabid bull had meant the Squad had to pick a new Leader and regroup quickly but why on earth had his sixteen-year-old cousin ended up in charge when the other three were all in their twenties?!

A mystery for another day, clearly; Köder would be in Medical until his bones were all mended and Luss was positive he wasn't about to succumb to rabies himself, so until then Mahi was in charge of Bait Squad. Who had decided they wanted to be Fish Squad now they had a different Squad Leader; Squalo was ignoring that though and Mahi being a Rain meant he could get away with it, since the Squad was now under his authority. Once Köder was released from Luss's clutches Mahi would need his own Squad, so the Rain Officer would have to make good use of the time to think about good combinations and who his oversized cousin worked well with. As well as push the teen through some more sword drills; he seemed to be having yet another growth spurt and would need the discipline.

Oh, and where had the kid following Lessi around come from? He didn't look any older than ten, so shouldn't he be in school?


Xanxus spent the ninth of October much as he had the previous week: engrossed in trying to make sense of September, as there had been too much happening in-house and abroad to take in the hows and whys of the various major events at the time, so he had to try and piece it together in the aftermath. Which meant reading reports, seeing who had done what and how, how people were adjusting to promotions and why they were having trouble if they were struggling. He knew that the shark's cousin had done a good enough imitation of the shark to get the veterans with him focused in the right direction, that the new Mist Officer clearly had a fondness for 'Alice in Wonderland' based on the blue caterpillar –from what he'd heard of that incident at least– and Alizeti's flamingo could in fact break ribs with a kick. But had Joia really used his penguin Box Weapon –named 'Happy' from what he could recall– as a paperwork delivery penguin? Memory said that it was in fact something that had happened, not just a dream.

There was also looking over expense reports from mission expenditures and what had been damaged, fixed, used or trashed when it came to Equipment, which meant Xanxus found the report of how Kuchisake's massive Mist moths had eaten some fool's uniform trousers and boots, which should have gone to the shark or Luss, since Luss was in charge of Uniform and the shark of Equipment, so was placed into a different pile to send over later.

Some hours after not even bothering to be snippy enough to send his lunch back to the kitchen when it wasn't exactly as he'd wanted it, Xanxus realized it was close to five in the afternoon and that he didn't want to be in-house for whatever nonsense Nono might possibly cook up for his birthday tomorrow; previous birthdays in the Iron Fort when he was younger and right before the Ring Battles after he was defrosted meant he wanted no part in whatever celebrations might happen with or without prior notification. Surprise parties were not a thing he'd ever like, especially not when they were one of the old fart's surprises. The fucker wasn't exactly a fan of bothering with little things like consent or advanced notice unless it was a business matter, and 'family birthdays' weren't business. Xanxus had no reason to believe Nono would do anything –he hadn't last year, for all the Varia Boss had avoided being at the Varia for most of the day regardless– but his instincts were all in favour of being out of reach for the next few days, even if there was still quite a bit of work to catch up on.

Eighteenth birthdays were significant milestones after all.

He didn't want to spend his birthday alone, but Florrie was away at university and he'd planned to talk to her tomorrow afternoon. Leaving Squalo here to field whatever messenger might stop by would be rude though –he'd done that enough already– so he could take the shark along.

It was easy enough to pull the shark out of his office and head down to the farmstead; the shark was understandably confused about why they were there when Florrie wasn't.

"Voi, who's living here now?" He asked, eyes tracking a wandering chicken and flicking over the other signs of habitation like tire tracks and fresh repairs.

"Me. Old man died. Bought the place, notified Housekeeping to help maintain it." It hadn't been that expensive either; cheap really, considering what Xanxus would have been willing to pay to own the place where he'd made so many happy memories with his Cloud Guardian.

"And having the chickens here is Housekeeping's doing; makes sense," the shark added, nodding. The lack of poisonous plants and absence of large felines that would think poultry was snack sized meant the chickens would survive longer than a week and probably lay well too.

"They've got plans for livestock too," Xanxus mentioned: "goats and probably something else. Nothing definite yet; real worth of the place is in the trees." He suspected Housekeeping was planning on expanding the orchard a little, as there had been saplings growing around and about from windfalls and Florrie had left the larger ones alone, simply clearing the smaller ones. Moving the bigger saplings out a bit would give them space to really thrive and more than double the size of the various crops once they were properly mature. Eighteen months down the line probably, rather than five years to a decade; Sun Flames could speed up plant growth so long as there were enough nutrients.

Squalo only nodded at that and followed him into the little farmhouse; all the living space was on the ground floor and the kitchen took up a third of it, leaving the other two-thirds divided between the sitting room, bedroom and bathroom.

Shark wandered into the sitting room, looking at where a few pieces of furniture had been but were now just empty space and shadows on the walls. The room did look a bit bare; Xanxus hadn't got around to having Housekeeping replace any of it yet, what with it having been September.

"Old man's son had his relatives come over and see if they wanted anything after signing. Didn't take much out of anywhere but the sitting room," the Varia Boss added. There was pretty much just the sofa left in the sitting room but the bedroom still had the bed and wardrobe and while the kitchen fittings were very dated, they were functional and had been left in situ because they were so dated. "Food and drinks in the fridge; Housekeeping was told to stock it after September." Xanxus hadn't checked yet, but there should be something.

"So why are we here?"

Xanxus shrugged, feeling awkward. "Don't want to be at work for my birthday; have a feeling the old fart's going to try and spring something on me." He also wanted to do something about Squalo's oblique indication of interest, but wasn't sure how to bring it up.

"Eighteen," the shark mused; "he pulled shit on your sixteenth."

"Yeah." Xanxus did not actually remember much of that particular party; mostly he remembered seething on the plane to Japan afterwards, drinking whiskey like water and his Guardians pretending to sleep because that was all the privacy they could give him when they were trapped in the cabin with him. "Thought you'd rather avoid dealing with that."

The shark grinned. "Oh definitely; Luss can do it."

Lussuria was yet to wind down from the relentless insanity of September, so the old fart pulling this kind of shit would seriously push the Sun's buttons at a point when the other Officer was disinclined to be nice; brutality would be just as effective and far less effort.

Xanxus was almost sad he'd be missing it.

"So, drinks?" Squalo asked, heading past Xanxus back into the kitchen and opening the fridge. "No alcohol?" He added, turning back to where Xanxus was now paused in the doorway and raising an eyebrow.

"Might be wine in the pantry," Xanxus admitted; it didn't really feel right bringing alcohol here, not when he'd gone an entire year not drinking more than the odd glass of wine with Florrie. He'd only done that much because sometimes she bought wine to cook with and generally went with somebody's local recommendation, meaning the wine was in fact far too good to just waste on cooking.

"Good steaks though," the shark went on, crouching, "and a tiramisu –with a post-it saying happy birthday– along with quite a lot of ricotta." A tiramisu? That was nice of them; those were a lot of work.

"Fruit and vegetables are probably in the pantry, along with fresh milk." It was October, so they'd keep just as well there as in the fridge and wouldn't get damp. There might be fresh pasta too; Housekeeping had caught on that he liked stuffed pasta as something to cook for himself, so now he had a hot plate and a pan in his office and written requests to the kitchens led to discreet deliveries of freshly-made ravioli for him to eat whenever he wanted.

Squalo straightened and crossed the kitchen to pull open the door of the pantry. "More than that, voi," he commented, glancing back over his shoulder at Xanxus. Walking closer, Xanxus could see what he meant: tins, bottled fruit and vegetables, salami and even a cured ham hanging from the ceiling, along with a wide range of different fruit and vegetables covering the upper shelves and a sealed plastic box containing several bags of flour. It seemed Housekeeping had seen fit to fill it up as it had been when Florrie was actually here.

Well, he'd actually done a bit of baking with Florrie and it wasn't like making bread was hard; kneading was even therapeutic. That was how she'd got him to have a go in the first place.

There was fresh pasta as well though, so he'd start there. Steak could wait until tomorrow.


Squalo watched, vaguely bemused, as Boss wandered around the kitchen pulling out pans and crockery, laying the table and setting salted water to boil for the ravioli. It was shockingly domestic, all the more so for Florrie not being here to act as a buffer. Then again, Boss had never really had 'domestic' growing up, had he? He'd got from dirt-poor to the Iron Fort, where he wouldn't have been allowed to hang about in the kitchens and probably hadn't wanted to anyway. But Florrie had introduced their Sky to the simple pleasures of food preparation and the sense of accomplishment that came from producing a meal and he'd clearly taken it on board.

Also, Boss was cooking for him as well as for himself. Squalo would be lying if he didn't admit to being both bemused and rather flattered.

He had a good idea of what his Sky's ulterior motives were for dragging him down here, but he wasn't going to assume anything; if Boss wanted something, he'd have to ask outright.

Waiting for Boss to articulate his intentions past teenage confusion and embarrassment would hopefully delay matters until tomorrow morning, when the Sky would be eighteen and things would be less complicated due to involving two consenting adults. Yes, there were barely six hours until Boss was technically eighteen and it didn't really matter at this late point, but it was the principle of the thing!

Well, it was mostly the principle of the thing; there was also watching his Sky squirm. Which was a new and extremely enjoyable experience, Squalo felt, especially when accompanied by good food. Fresh ravioli barely took seconds to cook so he then had the pleasure of sitting at the kitchen table opposite Boss, eating excellent food and pretending not to notice his Sky wrestling with his feelings.

Boss was bad at asking for things. A year back Squalo might have let Boss get away with not asking, but after sixteen months of watching his Sky slowly and doggedly improving his own mental health the Rain Officer could see that being made to articulate things was really helping Boss get to grips with himself. Squalo could also see that Florrie had gone to considerable effort to encourage their Sky to ask for things –partly for her own benefit, since she couldn't just intuit based on Flames– and it wouldn't be considerate to ruin her efforts.

Squalo had every intention of saying 'yes' to everything bar sex –and saying yes to sex very enthusiastically just as soon as tomorrow rolled around– so it wasn't like Boss was risking anything by verbalising. Hell, Boss could probably feel that he was entirely amenable to everything, but that just made asking more important; if you couldn't ask for the things you were almost certain you would get, how would you ever ask for the things that were less likely? And if you never asked, how would you ever get anything? Most people were crap at reading Flames, so wouldn't even know you wanted something, and half of them would be fine giving you whatever-it-was if you actually spoke up anyway.

"When did you buy the place?" Squalo asked, because he was curious and because he'd finished eating.

"End of August," Boss said after swallowing. "Only been down once since; gave Housekeeping a list of what I wanted them to not touch and they arranged everything else."

"So the house and the trees got left alone," Squalo deduced.

"And the garden, bar the necessary weeding and harvesting," Boss corrected him, finishing his own pasta and getting up to put his bowl in the sink. Squalo went and did likewise, then paused as the afternoon light revealed something odd.

"Something on your face, Boss." It looked like a smear of food just below his lower lip. Except that when the Sky reached up to rub his finger over it, it stayed where it was. Frowning, Squalo looked closer and suddenly realised what he was seeing.

"Voi, you're all over freckles! When did that happen?"

Boss huffed. "Scar mitigation causes freckling, shark; Luss can't work out why."

Now he was actually looking Squalo could see that yes, without the habitual Mist-trick Boss had faint freckles all over his face and neck, scattered liberally everywhere the frostbite scars had been. "That didn't happen to me when you fixed my scars," the Rain pointed out gleefully.

Boss's eyes narrowed and he shoved Squalo up against the wall, yanking his jacket and shirt up. "Voi, stop that!" Squalo protested sharply, shoving at the much larger man.

His Sky glared at him but did let go and step back.

"Voooi! Want me to get naked you ask first," Squalo said vehemently, poking Boss in the chest for emphasis. The not-quite-eighteen-year-old rolled his eyes, but his Flames twinged with awkward embarrassment.

"Want to see your scars, shark."

"Since you asked, fine." The Rain Officer unzipped his jacket and tugged it so it dropped off his shoulders to the floor, then unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged gracefully, letting the material slide down his back and arms to bunch around his elbows; feeling Boss react to the strip tease was a lot of fun. "Enjoy."

His Sky huffed softly, leaning down in a half-crouch to peer at the now very fine, faded marks decorating Squalo's chest; the central line down his sternum where Luss had cut him open to put his new heart in, the messy curve just to the left which had a matching mark on his back where the Vindice had impaled him, the shorter, jagged scars on his neck and shoulders from the aftermath of the Rain Battle and various older and differently-sized marks all over his torso and arms from a range of other fights, some spars, some not.

They were all thread-thin and nearly invisible now and none of them caught anymore. It was very nice to ache less whenever a thunderstorm blew in.

"How on…" Boss tilted his head to glare at him. "What the hell? Luss spent weeks trying to figure out why I kept freckling and couldn't pin it down, yet when we do the exact same process on you nothing happens?!"

Squalo smirked. "Flames, maybe?" he offered carelessly. "I'm a Rain and you're a Sky." He paused. "Unless it's because of you constantly using Denial over your scars and that's interfering."

Boss stiffened like he'd been poked with a pin, eyes going distant for a moment before he straightened up and irritably smoothed his hair out of his face with both hands. "Of-fucking-course; Flames take time to dissipate and Sky Flames slow the process. Shit."

"You'll have to walk around with the freckles showing for a few months to get them to go away," Squalo deduced, letting his amusement linger in his voice. Somebody would definitely take photographs and he wanted copies.

Boss glared at him. "Not that funny, shark."

"Kuchisake's going to coo over you; they're adorable voi." They really were; they softened Boss's face considerably, blurring the intimidating symmetry of his features and distracting from the bloody scarlet of his irises. The overall result could even be called cute.

His Sky took a menacing step forwards, leaning down until he was almost nose to nose with Squalo. Squalo tilted his head up, keeping his smirk firmly in place; if he leaned forwards just a little he could kiss Boss square on the lips.

"You want to say that again?" the Sky demanded softly.

Squalo let himself really react to the fact that somebody he was sexually attracted to was crowding him against a wall, enticing possibilities flashing through his mind as Boss noticed him reacting and swiftly shifted gears from annoyance into physical want. "Good look on you, Boss," the Rain murmured, his voice dropping a little. "Or can I use your name here?"

Boss shivered. "You can use my name, shark," he agreed quietly.

"Xanxus." Squalo lingered over the name, watching his Sky's pupils expand lustfully. "You've always been incredibly hot, but the freckles soften it a bit. Make you look more attainable."

"Want to have me, shark?"

Squalo let his eyes wander slowly down his Sky's body then back up again to meet those glorious sanguine eyes. "When you're eighteen, maybe," he drawled, enjoying the irritated tic in the larger man's eyebrows.

"It's my birthday tomorrow, shark," Xanxus pointed out long-sufferingly.

"I'm twenty-four and you're not a legal adult yet; I feel skeevy seducing a minor," Squalo admitted breezily, thoroughly enjoying his Sky's mounting sexual frustration.

"How about me seducing you, shark?" Xanxus demanded, pressing in closer to growl right into the Rain's ear.

"Go ahead," Squalo invited in a taunting undertone, letting his lips brush his Sky's neck just below his ear, "but I'm not touching your dick until tomorrow and you don't get to touch mine either."

Xanxus pulled back for a moment's eye contact, then buried both hands into Squalo's hair and leaned in for a greedy open-mouthed kiss. The Rain reciprocated fiercely, wrapping his left arm around his Sky's neck and splaying his right hand over the larger man's chest, finding Xanxus's nipple and teasing it through the shirt.

His Sky untangled a hand from his hair to slide down his spine to his ass, tugging off the shirt on the way down and closing fingers around his thigh, lifting him up just enough to slide a thigh between his legs and then pinning Squalo to the wall. "Can work with that," Xanxus agreed, voice so low it sent shivers up Squalo's spine, "unwrap you properly tomorrow."

Squalo shifted his weight for leverage, leaning on the arm around his Sky's shoulders to pull himself up and away from the cock pressing against his through two layers of leather. "Not getting you off until tomorrow, Xanxus," he specified, leaning in to nip warningly on his Sky's ear.

"Tease," Xanxus accused, but the hungry roar of his Flames under his skin did subside sulkily as the grip on Squalo's thigh loosened and the Sky turned around to lean back against the wall, giving the Rain more space to work with.

"I'll make it up to you in the morning," Squalo promised, dragging his teeth slowly down the side of Xanxus's throat and relishing every twitch and shiver. "D'you have freckles on your cock?"

"Yes," the Sky admitted cautiously.

"Good. I want to lick them; all of them." He wanted to see his Sky splayed out naked on a bed and watch the man's muscles ripple as Squalo ran his mouth and tongue over all those faded scars.

His Sky twitched under him. "Want to fuck you, shark," Xanxus admitted hoarsely.

Squalo shuddered at the idea of being pinned under his Sky with the other man's cock filling him up. Or riding his hips. "No lube, no condoms, not happening," he managed; he had absolutely zero objections to getting fucked but he wanted to enjoy it and not wake up half-crippled for three days afterwards. STDs were also no fun and to be avoided; safe habits and all.

"Another time then," Xanxus agreed huskily, tugging lightly on Squalo's hair so he tilted his chin up and leaning in for another messy kiss.

Oh yes. There would be plenty of other times if Squalo had any say in the matter; he wanted to fuck Xanxus too. And introduce his Sky to the brain-melting intensity of delayed orgasms. And a lot of other fun bedroom activities, provided Xanxus was up for them. Having a secure place away from the rest of the Varia to have sex in would make it much more likely that his Sky would be willing to try new things.

And honestly, penetration wasn't the be all, end all of sex; pleasure was the goal. He should probably take the lead, since he doubted Xanxus had planned to go this far so fast. His Sky didn't even have condoms and those were stocked in even the Varia's smallest first aid kits, same with pads, salt tablets, supplies for stitching wounds, a small range of general antidotes and a miniature epi-pen, in addition to everything else that was standard to most other first aid kits.

"Any objections if I want to pin your hands above your head and count all your freckles with my tongue in the morning, voi?"

Xanxus shuddered in response, eyes fluttering closed. "No. Go ahead," his Sky breathed out and Squalo felt the 'I trust you' right under it.

Which was why Squalo was not going to violate said trust by going against his previously stated word. "I'm going to take the couch, you take the bed." Less chance of wandering hands deciding to leap at the chance the second it was past midnight.

"Don't trust me shark?" Xanxus mock-sulked, Flames wavering between wanting to press further, glee and insecurity.

"Not that, voi," Squalo replied, not sure how to explain that he didn't quite trust himself to hold to his principles till tomorrow if his cock got free by his own doing or Xanxus's. Tomorrow really could not arrive fast enough. "Get some rest," he added, softening the words because they both knew what September was like and were still recovering from it. Controlling a quick kiss –deep enough to make the other want more and not long enough to satisfy any of that longing– he set his feet back on the floor and teased his Sky with, "you'll need the energy."