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Love, Duty, and Other Difficult Things

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Bianchi had rented apartments that were smaller than the bed Dino Cavallone slept in.

It was an incongruous thought to have upon waking up, but Bianchi clung to it in the early-morning daze that came before coffee. His bed was huge, large enough to host at least a modest orgy, with a deep comfortable mattress and approximately a million pillows and sheets that Bianchi suspected of being either silk or some improbably high thread count. They could have both stretched out as far as their arms and legs could go without touching each other's fingertips.

Despite that, Dino was curled up against her, a cheek resting against her shoulder and an arm wrapped around her waist.

At least he wasn't drooling, Bianchi thought, and tried to make some kind of sense of how she'd come to be tangled up with him. There had been Tsuna's confirmation as the Tenth, with the reception after, and—

"Oh, fuck," Bianchi moaned, flailing a hand free of the duvet and covering her eyes. There had been champagne and all the Families worth the name in attendance, and there had been her father and Jesus Christ, she was never drinking again.

Dino stirred against her. "That's not a very encouraging sign." His breath was warm against her shoulder.

"Oh, don't flatter yourself." Bianchi rubbed her forehead and ignored him, because in the grand scheme of things, finally tumbling into bed with Dino Cavallone after several years of mutual flirtation hardly mattered at all. "Oh my fucking God, I didn't really tell my father exactly what I think of him, did I?" Perhaps it was all a very bad dream.

Dino cleared his throat. "I guess that depends. Do you really think he's a two-timing old goat?"

So—not a bad dream. "Oh, fuck me," Bianchi groaned.

"If you really think it would help, okay." Dino slid his palm up her ribs and curved it around one of her breasts, stroking it.

"That was rhetorical, you idiot." Bianchi smacked his hand away, trying not to remember all the things she'd had to say to her father, the old goat, when he'd had the balls to approach her, all conciliatory and paternal. They didn't want to be forgotten, which was a real pity.

Dino laughed and left off feeling her up. "You can't blame me for trying."

"Wanna bet?" Bianchi shrugged the lazy weight of him off her and fought her way free of the tangle of bedding. "Oh, Christ, I am never going to drink again." The sheets slid to her waist as she sat up and pressed her fingers against her temples, where the last legacy of the previous night's champagne was aching dully.

"Hey." Dino touched her back, spreading one of his big hands against the small of it and running it up her spine. "It's gonna be okay."

"Did you hear the things I called him?" Bianchi grimaced. "He could have me killed for that." She'd thought about her own mortality before, but only in terms of battles against overwhelming odds and the course of business. She'd never thought that she might die because she'd run afoul of the wrong person—everyone knew that a hitman's position was just business.

Dino pushed himself up and reached for her. She resisted his arms at first, before her common sense kicked in and reminded her that he was a friend and it was okay. Then she let herself lean against his shoulder. "He's not going to have you killed. You're his daughter."

That made her laugh, though probably not for the reasons he thought. "You think that really matters?" This was her father, who never had been the warm and fuzzy sort.

"Well, actually, yeah." Dino stroked her hair, careful of the tangles. "Your brother is never going to take over the Falco now, so you're the only other child he has. He needs you, either to be his heir or to marry someone who will."

That just reminded her of the anger that had driven her to speak so intemperately last night. "You think he wants me to be his heir? You don't know him very well, do you?" Rage curled inside her chest, its ragged claws raking at her rib cage. "And what the hell would I want to be a boss for?"

Dino elected not to answer the first point, much like he hadn't said anything the night before when he'd guided her away from the crowd to let her rant and then cry in private. Instead, he said, "Being a boss isn't that bad. I should know."

"Oh, please." Bianchi lifted her head from his shoulder and made a face at him. "He wouldn't let me be his heir. He just wants to marry me off to some poor schmuck who can do it instead."

Dino looked back, grave despite the bird's nest mess of his hair, and said, "So what's your point?"

It took her a moment to catch his meaning. When she did, she blinked. "You must be joking."

Dino shrugged. "Not really. Remember, he needs you more than you need him."

Bianchi contemplated that for a moment and then shook her head briskly to dispel the idea. "Cute, but it'll never work." And she didn't want it to work, but he wasn't likely to understand that. He'd never stood outside the Families.

Dino looked like he wanted to argue, but some instinct in the back of Bianchi's head suggested that it would be a bad idea to let him. The morning light that streamed in from the windows lit him up in pale ivory and gold and suggested a distraction. "I changed my mind," Bianchi said. She leaned forward and kissed him. "I want you to fuck me."

Dino's eyes crinkled up at the corners as he smiled; they said that he saw what she was trying to do. But he didn't argue. "All right." He leaned back and drew her down with him, one hand curving around her jaw as he kissed her and the other smoothing down her back.

Bianchi let herself melt against his chest, opening her mouth to his and embracing the distraction in all its lazy glory. Even so, what he'd suggested didn't quite leave her. It dwelt in the back of her mind like a specter, even after she'd come apart under the expert touch of his mouth and hands.

It would never work, she told herself. Dino was smart enough in most things, but this was one thing that he'd clearly got all wrong.

It was clearly too much to hope for that the rest of the world would overlook her display of temper, but even Bianchi hadn't quite expected Hayato to approach her about it. It was very nearly a violation of their tacit argument to never speak about their family ever.

"Hey." He didn't exactly look at her full in the face, but that wasn't anything new. At least she didn't need to cover her face just to have a conversation with him anymore. "You okay?" He was gruff about it, but he darted a quick look at her, clearly checking her over.

Bianchi was touched. "Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?"

He glanced at her again and looked away. "You talked to—him. The other night."

"If you want to call it talking." She wasn't surprised that Hayato had heard; half the mafia had been witnesses and would have rushed to inform the other half. She was just surprised that he was bringing it up to her face.

Hayato snorted. "Fine. Screamed at him, then." He looked away from her, fidgeting with the cuffs of his shirt. He still looked ill at ease in his suits—not because they were unfamiliar to him, like they were to Tsuna, but because they were familiar. "Thought maybe I should ask."

"I'm fine. It was nothing."

He snorted. "That's not the way I hear it."

"No?" Bianchi said, as casually as she could manage when she was holding her breath and wondering what he'd heard, what measures she'd need to take to do damage control.

Hayato gave up fiddling with his cuffs and reached for his cigarettes, shaking one out of the pack and lighting up. As he fussed with that, eyes fixed on the cigarette and his lighter, he said, "I heard you tore him a new one. For, um. You know."

The perverse imp in Bianchi's soul suggested that she ought to say that she didn't know. She crushed it. "I suppose I did. I was angry."

Hayato took a drag off his cigarette and then exhaled the smoke in a long plume. He watched it as it rose, curling towards the ceiling and dissipating. "Guess I can't blame you for that."

"Thanks, I guess."

"Yeah, well. He was shitty to both of us, wasn't he?" Hayato grinned at the ceiling, though it was a death's head baring of the teeth, mirthless. "Wish I'd been there to see it. Maybe I could have helped."

"It's probably better that you weren't." She had to say it around a strange tightness in her throat. "You're Tsuna's right hand now. You have appearances to keep."

"Yeah, I guess so." Hayato shifted his gaze away form the ceiling and tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette into a potted plant. He looked like he was uncomfortable with the whole topic, so Bianchi wasn't at all surprised when he changed it. "Heard you went home with Cavallone, too."

This was easier territory for both of them, actually. "So what if I did?"

Hayato glanced at her again. "He's a boss."

"Yeah, so?" Bianchi raised her eyebrows, though she knew very well what his point was.

She could see the retort rising in his throat and the moment when he seized his temper and restrained it, and marveled at the sight. "So you should be careful," he said, only a little aggravated.

"I'm always careful." That was an exaggeration and they both knew it, so she relented after a moment and added, "It's not serious. It's just a thing. Friendly. You know how it is."

Hayato sucked in another lungful of smoke and peered at her, green eyes narrow under the fringe of his hair. She wondered whether he did know, actually, considering how many issues he was still lugging around with him. Then he shrugged and looked away. "If you say so." He took another drag off his cigarette and added, "If he hurts you, I'll stuff a grenade up his ass and pull the pin."

Bianchi blinked and then broke into helpless laughter. "I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

Hayato just looked uncomfortable, mouth squinched up and embarrassed. "It's a thing," he said, stiffly. "Something brothers have to say." He finished his cigarette and crushed it out in the potted plant's soil.

His color was running high for someone who was only speaking out of fraternal obligation. Bianchi reached over to him and ruffled his hair. "Yeah, I know. Thanks."

He swiped at her hand, protesting the gesture. "Hey!" He stepped out of her reach and smoothed it back down, fussing with it till it had settled back into its usual fall before glancing at her again. "Anyway. That's all I wanted to say."

That had been plenty, but Bianchi didn't tell him so. She inclined her head. "Thanks."

They stood there, awkward, before she said to hell with it and stooped on him, hugging him quickly and then releasing him again before her proximity could make him vomit. "Gotta go," she lied. "Got an appointment to get to. Later, Hayato."

She swept out before he could do more than gurgle at her, smiling, because her little brother was finally growing up.

Years of flirtation culminating in a one-night stand that had been more about comfort than sex didn't seem likely to end badly to Bianchi, not least because of the whole one-night stand factor. She reconsidered that assessment when she ran into Dino on her way out of the Vongola house and they fell into conversation with each other about the Cetrulli thing. The conversation was an absorbing one; Bianchi was sitting across from him over dinner and discussing ways of delivering a box of poisoned croissants to Bernardo Cetrulli before she realized what she was doing.

"What the holy fuck," she said.

"No, I really do think that we could suborn his chef," Dino insisted. "We just have to guarantee his security after the fact and it'll be fine. I mean, would you want to work for Bernardo?"

Bianchi let her mouth carry her forward on autopilot. "I did once. He has bad breath." And wandering hands, too, and Jesus Christ, what on earth was she doing sitting at Dino Cavallone's dinner table, looking at him through the candle light?

"See?" He waved a hand, coming dangerously close to upsetting his wine glass, but they were in the Cavallone house, at the heart of his territory, and that was enough to avert disaster. "Bad breath? Who would want to work for a boss like that?"

"He pays well." Bianchi studied him through the candle light. It had been done deftly, she had to give him that. "More to the point, he's a paranoid bastard. No one who touches his food does so without a serious vetting process. You're not going to get to him through his chef." Dino's mouth pursed, sulky. Before he could come up with another improbably wild scheme, Bianchi folded her hands under her chin and asked, "What the hell are we doing?"

Dino played with his fork, not quite managing to meet her eyes. "Having dinner?"

"I'd figured that part out myself." It wasn't the meal that was the problem, it was the fact that they were having it together and that Dino was wearing a nice shirt, one that was the color of the wine in their glasses and made his skin and hair glow.

Why on earth had God seen fit to make the man so damn attractive?

"We can't do this," Bianchi told him.

Dino did look at her then. "Why not?" He fidgeted with the stem of his wine glasses, long fingers moving over the glass, and Bianchi realized, too late, that she hadn't really prepared herself to be on guard against him.

"It's not a good idea," she said, knowing it for a weak parry even though it was the honest truth. They weren't suited at all; he was a boss and she was a hitman, and people had a way of talking about those kinds of things.

Though people always talked, a treacherous part of her brain pointed out. Bianchi squashed it.

"So?" Dino took a drink of his wine and looked at her again. "Since when has that ever stopped us?"

"...I wish that weren't as true as it is." Bianchi took a breath and looked away from him, eyes roaming over the paintings on the walls and the double French doors that opened onto the terrace that overlooked the bay. Sunset had been a while ago, but she could see lights moving across the water, night fishermen and pleasure vessels. "This can't go anywhere."

"There's nothing wrong with doing something just for the sake of doing it."

She glanced at him again; he was watching her, not really smiling, but pleasantly grave. Oh, the hell with it. What was one more bad decision, anyway? "As long as you know this can't get serious."

He smiled. "I know that." He glanced at the remains of their meal and then back up. "Would you like to go upstairs?"

Bianchi took a breath and lifted the napkin from her lap, laying it beside her plate. "Yes."

The last time they'd done this, she hadn't exactly been inclined to pay attention to minor details. There had been other matters to distract her, like her anger and then her nerves. This time Bianchi had the time to appreciate the things she hadn't before, like the unconscious confidence in the way Dino walked, no hint of the clumsiness that plagued him elsewhere while he was here in the heart of his home, surrounded by his people.

How had Reborn managed to instill that in him? Had it been the same way he'd goaded Tsuna forward, or some other way? Perhaps she'd have to ask him sometime.

This wasn't the time for it, not when Dino was ushering her into his bedroom with its stupidly large bed. The covers were already turned down for them, and there were more candles, small votive ones floating in bowls of water, to light the room.

"You planned this, didn't you," Bianchi said, not entirely surprised.

"Maybe a little?" The look Dino cast at her was a mixture of little boy pride and adult uncertainty. "Is it working?"

No one had ever tried to outright seduce her before, if she wanted to call this a seduction attempt. Bianchi couldn't quite help being a little charmed by the effort. "Why don't you try to kiss me and find out?"

He grinned. "Guess I can do that."

The thing Bianchi liked about Dino Cavallone—one of the things she liked—was that he was satisfyingly direct about some things. Having gotten the business of persuading her to go along with this silly fling out of the way and having secured permission to kiss her, he did.

If one had to have a fling, she supposed she could have done far worse than Dino. He treated each kiss like it was a new discovery; his mouth moved against hers, slow and expert, as she parted her lips for him. Bianchi liked that, and the way he rested his hands on her hips, cradling them without trying to go straight for her breasts or her ass. More men should be so gentlemanly, she thought, wry.

Dino's mouth left hers and moved along her jaw. She tipped her head to the side as he nuzzled the corner of it, something beginning to curl low in her stomach, wanting. She said his name as she slid her fingers into his hair—yes, it was just as silky as she'd remembered it being.

He murmured her name back to her, lips just brushing against her skin, and closed his mouth on her earlobe. Bianchi moaned at the rush of heat that made her stomach tighten. Dino made a pleased sound, husky against her ear, and she shivered as he exploited his discovery, sucking softly until she had to hold onto his shoulders, leaning against him as that unstrung her spine and her knees. It wasn't fair for him to have such an advantage, she decided, and planted a hand against his chest, fingers sliding under the placket of his shirt and finding the warm skin beneath.

He took that as permission and lifted a hand from her hip, running it up her side and curving it around her breast. Bianchi sighed, tipping her head back as he kissed her throat and fondled her, fingers exploring the shape of her. His breath was warm against her collarbone as he traced his lips along it, till he met the edge of her collar and said, "This would be better without clothes."

He sounded so diffident about it in spite of the fact that his thumb was rubbing back and forth over her breast and making her breath come short that Bianchi couldn't stop herself from laughing. "I think you're right." She stepped back from him and set her hands at her shirt's hem, lifting it and peeling it off. She unhooked her bra and let that fall, too, smiling at the way Dino's eyes widened a bit even though he'd seen them before. Boys, she thought fondly. "Your turn, I think."

He didn't lose any time; his fingers flew to undo the buttons of his shirt. Bianchi watched him shrug out of it, approving of the way he looked. He was a pretty, pretty man, broad at the shoulders and slim at the waist, and he looked good shirtless and his slacks sitting low on his hips, showing off the creamy gold of his skin and the first dusting of fine blond hair low on his belly. It was a pity about the way his erection was ruining the tailored lines of his slacks, except that it really wasn't a pity at all.

Bianchi took a long look to savor later and stepped against him, running her hands up over his chest and raising her mouth to his for another slow kiss. He groaned against her mouth as she leaned against him, skin to skin, and spread his hands against her back. That felt good; Bianchi wriggled against him, sighing as that made her stomach curl tighter.

"God," he said, voice low. He stroked his hands up her body, finding her breasts and cradling them in his palms. "You have the most amazing breasts—you really do. I could play with them for hours."

"Well, if you really want." Bianchi stepped back from him again, making her way backwards as he protested. When her legs hit the bed, she stopped and kicked her shoes off. "I won't stop you." She sat and leaned back on her hands, arching her back just a little, watching his face light up.

"Oh, hell yes." Dino joined her in two quick steps, nearly bowling her over in his eagerness. Bianchi laughed as he pressed her back, until his hands found her breasts again, stroking against them and making her gasp. Then he buried his face between them, tracing his mouth over the curve of one and closing his lips on it, tongue stroking against her, and she groaned as the sensation ran through her, turning her spine liquid.

He seemed to have meant it, too; he mouthed and stroked her breasts until she was panting for breath, fingers moving over his shoulders and through his hair, restless with the way his touch was building pleasure that curled and knotted itself through her without anywhere to go. "Dino," she said, finally, "please."

"Yeah," he breathed, soft against her skin, and kissed his way up her throat. She curled her fingers in his hair and kissed him as he undid her jeans, lifting her hips so he could pull them down. She kicked them off and Dino ran his hands back up her legs. The calluses on his fingertips and his palms dragged a little against the tender skin of her thighs and Bianchi gasped at the way that felt, every bit of her skin oversensitive.

She reached down to help him out of his slacks, but clutched his back instead when his fingers kept stroking up, sliding between her legs and stroking against her. "Fuck," she gasped, hips lifting up and rocking against his fingers, shuddering with the rush of sensation. Dino's fingers moved against her, slick and sure, thumb teasing up against her clit and circling it, light and slow. Bianchi moaned as pleasure unfurled through her, slow ripples of it moving through her, closer to what she wanted but still not quite enough. She drove her hips against his fingers, panting, though he didn't seem inclined to take the hint until frustration made her growl, "Come on and fuck me, Cavallone."

The sound he made was too satisfied, but she was beyond caring—not when he was finally stripping out of the rest of his clothes and finding a condom. He looked as ready as she was, flushed and hard, and settled over her quickly. "Fucking finally," she said, and wound a leg around his hips. "Come on—oh...!" She groaned as he finally pushed into her, arching into the sliding pressure of it as his cock sank into her and he gasped her name.

Dino's mouth moved against her throat, kissing it in that moment when he held himself poised against her. Then he moved and Bianchi lost track of things a little as their hips rolled together and his cock slid against her in all the right ways. His hands moved over her skin, caressing her breasts and running down her back, lifting her into the strokes that sent pleasure sweeping along her nerves, washing her higher and higher. Then she couldn't even think any more, or do more than hold onto his shoulders, gasping for breath as the momentum of it gathered and built, until he hitched her hips a little higher and his cock sank into her at just the right angle. She broke apart then, plunging down into the wild rush of heat, crying out with the way it swept through her again and again, relentless.

Her throat was dry when she came back down, and Dino was sprawled over her, still shuddering. Bianchi couldn't even make herself think of moving him, not when every last centimeter of her was still tingling and boneless. "Oh my God," she managed, when she could finally dredge up her words again.

Dino groaned something that was inarticulate but sounded like agreement to her.

She mustered up the energy and the coordination to lift a hand to his hair, petting it clumsily. He made an appreciative sound and turned his head, tucking his face against her throat and nuzzling it. Bianchi realized, then, that she wasn't going to go home after this, not even if it was the smart thing to do. Dino wasn't going to ask her to leave and she was in no mood to bother with the trouble of untangling herself from him, cleaning up, and going back to the apartment she was renting and the cheap mattress that wasn't even half as good as his.

This was how smart girls got themselves into trouble, she told herself sternly.

Dino stirred then and eased himself away from her. That moment of cleaning up would have been the moment to disengage, to kiss him and thank him and let him order a car for her. Bianchi marshaled herself to do it, but he forestalled her by giving her a sweet smile, one turned his eyes soft and made him seem much younger than Bianchi knew him to be. "You're so beautiful," he said, touching her cheek with the tips of his fingers, soft as the brush of a snowflake.

Yes, Bianchi thought, some part of her already resigned while another part of her melted at the gesture. She was in trouble.

She opened her arms to him and fell asleep with him curled next to her anyway.

It was a few days later that Dino brought the matter of Bianchi's father and his Family up over breakfast. His people had seen them installed on the terrace with a table of croissants and butter and bowls of fresh fruit, and a carafe of orange juice and another of strong coffee. They'd also relieved Bianchi of her clothes, whisking them away to be laundered and leaving her to resort to Dino's robe. She was considering the merits of packing an overnight bag the next time they planned on having dinner and whether that would be giving in and admitting that this was an official kind of a thing when Dino cleared his throat. "So about the Falco..."

Oh, God. "What about them?" Bianchi poured herself a cup of coffee and eyed him warily as she inhaled the steam from it.

The wind was playing merry havoc with his hair, tossing it around and making it difficult to take him seriously. "I thought you might want to know what they're up to."

"Why would you think that?" Bianchi selected a croissant off the plate and broke it apart to spread bright strawberry preserves on it.

Dino opened his mouth and then shut it again, shaking his head. He selected an orange from the bowl and began peeling it, long fingers digging into the peel and pulling it off in long strips. "They're your Family," he said, concentrating on the work he was doing.

The hell he said. Bianchi took a bite of her croissant; it nearly melted on her tongue. "I stopped being a Falco the day I turned hitman. It's not my Family any more."

Dino's eyes were fixed on his orange and the white curls of pith he was picking off it, but he frowned a little at that. "You don't care what happens to it?"

"Not really." They had never really cared for her, the firstborn who'd failed to be a son, the daughter who'd failed at being a lady and had left them to become a hitman. "As long as the old goat manages to find me a new baby brother? I could care less."

Dino's frown deepened. "You think that's going to happen? Your mother is..."

"Isn't really healthy, actually." It was ruthless, but Bianchi hadn't gotten along without learning to be dispassionate when she had to be. "Could get sick and die of natural causes any day now."

Dino's hands paused in the act of picking pith off the orange; he looked startled. "You don't think he would...?"

"No, really, I mean it. She's never been particularly healthy." Not that there was much love lost between Luciano and Costanza Falco, of course; Bianchi wasn't entirely willing to put it past him. "Once she goes, there'll be someone who'll twist his arm hard enough that he'll remarry, preferably someone who can pop out the babies till he gets the son he needs. And there, problem solved."

He dug his thumbs into the orange, splitting it in half, and passed one of the halves over to her. "You'd be okay with that?"

"Sure, why not?" Bianchi selected one of the orange segments. It was juicy and sweet when she bit into it; she had to lick her fingers clean. "I told you. They're not my Family any more. I don't have a Family, unless you want to count the Vongola." Tsuna probably did, at any rate; she'd never seen someone so good at claiming ragtag bits of humanity and weaving them into something that was a whole. It wouldn't surprise her at all if he thought she was a part of that.

Dino looked up at her, hair flopping into his eyes, and for a moment she could see that he was looking at her as a boss had to, not as a friend or a lover. "Perhaps it will be that easy," he said. Then he tried a piece of his orange and squawked in dismay as the juice from it dribbled down his chin and stained the crispness of his white shirt. "Damn it!"

Bianchi laughed at him. "It's a good orange." She picked off another segment and bit into it, letting the juice burst against her tongue, sweet.

"And this is a new shirt," he complained, peering at it.

"It's only orange juice," she told him, entertained by his dismay. "It'll wash out." But then, perhaps he didn't have any idea what could be washed and what couldn't—well, he had people for that. She popped the rest of the segment into her mouth and licked the juice from her fingers.

The motion caught his eye and he glanced up as she sucked the last of it from her fingertips. "Nngh," he said; he was staring.

Perhaps it made her a bad person, but Bianchi rather liked the way his expression went stupid with lust. "What was that?" She picked up another segment and bit into it, and caught the juice that slid down her fingers with her tongue.

Dino's eyes nearly glazed over. "Oh," he said. "Oh, you're mean." His voice had gone husky.

"Am I?" Bianchi sucked her fingertips into her mouth in rapid succession, enjoying herself immensely as his eyes tracked the movement of her lips.

"You know I have to leave to meet the Cizeta soon." Dino's eyes followed her fingers as she picked up her croissant again and bit into it; he made another of those wordless sounds as a little of the preserves slid off the side and onto her palm.

"I don't see what that has to do with anything."

Dino leaned across the table and caught her hand as she raised it to her mouth. "No?" he asked, bending over her hand. His tongue flicked across her palm, scouring the preserves off it. Bianchi shivered at the softness of it and the tickle of his hair brushing across her wrist. "Maybe I should cancel the meeting and show you what I mean."

"Because that would go over so well with the Cizeta." Bianchi shivered as his mouth traced down her palm and his lips moved across her wrist, tracing over pattern of her veins. Of course, she never had liked the Cizeta much. "Dino..."

"What are you doing tonight?" he asked, lips brushing against the place where her pulse was beating faster. "Any plans?"

"None so far." She sounded breathless, even to herself.

Dino lifted his mouth away from her wrist and smiled at her, slow and lazy and full of all kinds of promises. "Would you spend it with me?"

Two evenings in a row wasn't a good idea. On the other hand, her skin was tingling where his lips had just touched it, and Bianchi was just a little stupid with lust herself. "That sounds like fun."

"Yeah, I hope so." Dino passed his tongue over his lips as she picked up the last orange segment and ate it in two quick bites. "Jesus Christ, I think I hate the Cizeta."

Bianchi laughed and thought about it. "How long do you have?"

He checked his watch. "Twenty minutes," he said, woeful.

Bianchi snorted; that was plenty of time. She said as much as she glanced around the terrace, but it was about as private as anyone could really hope for.

"Oh my God," Dino said when she came around the table and knelt between his knees. The flagstones under her hadn't soaked in much of the heat from the morning sun; the coolness of them was a pleasant contrast to the way it warmed her hair and her shoulders. He was hard; she could see the line of his cock pressing against his slacks. He groaned when she undid his fly and drew him out of his underwear. "Jesus, Bianchi..."

"I haven't even done anything yet," she said, amused, running her fingers up and down his cock, stroking him the rest of the way hard. He really did have a nice cock, pleasingly-sized in her hand, sleek and heavy.

"Are you kidding me? You—oh, fuck." He groaned again, hoarse, when she bent her head over him, lips smoothing over him and tongue stroking against his head. There wasn't really any time to figure out what he liked, so Bianchi moved her mouth over his cock, tongue working steadily as she curled her fingers around the length of it. That actually seemed to be plenty, judging by the sounds he made and the way his hips flexed as he gripped the arms of the chair. Her name tumbled from his mouth, mixed with incoherent curses, and she hummed around him, pleased by the effect.

He groaned a warning when he got close, which just showed that he really was a nice boy. Bianchi tightened her fingers around him and slid her tongue over his head, sucking harder, and felt the thigh under her hand go taut as he finally came, flat and salt on her tongue. Then he went lax, lolling against the chair, clearly stunned.

Bianchi availed herself of one of the napkins and then smiled at him. "There," she said, tucking him back into his slacks and doing them up again. "Now you don't have to hate the Cizeta any more." She returned to her chair, arranging his robe around her.

"They're going to destroy me in negotiations today," Dino told her. He was still looking dazed. "I think my brain just melted out my ears."

"Flatterer." Bianchi took a sip of her coffee to hide her smile.

"No, I mean it." He flailed a hand in the air. "Can't negotiate, no brain. Might as well call the whole thing off and stay in bed with you."

Bianchi rolled her eyes. "Oh, go change your shirt."

He peered at her from beneath his lashes. "You sure?"

"You can't cancel your meeting just to roll around with me." She shooed him. "And you shouldn't be late. Go on."

She must have done a good job of sounding like she meant it, because he got up, the movement lazy and satiated. When he stooped over her chair and kissed her, his mouth was sticky and still tasted of oranges. "All right," he said, when he finally drew away from her. "But don't think that I won't remember this tonight."

"Promises, promises." Bianchi swatted his ass. "You're going to be late."

"I'll send a car for you. Around six." He kissed her again, unhurried. "Okay?"

She couldn't quite help being breathless, not after a set of kisses like that. "Sure."

Dino smiled down at her. "Okay. Till tonight."

Bianchi watched his lazy saunter inside before topping off her cooling cup of coffee and leaning back in her chair. And if she was grinning at nothing in particular, so what? She had reason enough for it.

The thing with the Cetrulli was shaping up to be interesting, from a purely technical standpoint. Bianchi found herself spending a fair bit of her time at the Vongola house, talking shop with the underbosses and hitmen and discussing whether the Vongola would go to war or not. Bianchi thought not, not unless they absolutely had to, now that Tsuna was in a position where he could handle things for himself.

She didn't see her brother or Tsuna—or any of the kids—often these days, but that wasn't so surprising, given their new duties. She did run into Reborn one afternoon, or perhaps he sought her out. He appeared through a crowd of hitmen down at the firing range as they parted to let him pass and eyed him in surreptitious awe. "Bianchi," he said, when she'd taken the ear protectors off and had flicked the safety of her gun.

She returned the greeting in kind, tilting her head. "Reborn."

"Walk with me," he said.

That had an ominous ring to it, but Bianchi holstered her gun and hung up her safety glasses and ear protectors anyway. Walking with Reborn meant letting him jump into her arms and recline against her chest, making himself comfortable against her breasts, but she'd never begrudged him that.

He was silent until she'd emerged from the firing range into the afternoon sun. "You've been speaking to your father."

"If you want to call it that." Bianchi turned off the main path and strolled into the south garden with its neat beds of flowers and the drowsy hum of the bees that drifted from blossom to blossom. "I'd call it screaming, myself."

"You think that's a good idea?"

Bianchi glanced down at him, but saw only the top of his fedora. "Was that Reborn-speak for 'You're being a damn idiot'?"

"If you like." They came to a stone bench that sat among a profusion of flowers and he hopped down from her arms to stand on it. Bianchi sat next to him so she could look him in the eye. "The Falco Family is not one to trifle with."

"I'm not the one doing the trifling." Bianchi leaned back on her hands, looking up at the sky that arched over them, achingly blue. "I think I'm the one being trifled with."

"Just because you're a woman doesn't mean you're any more attractive when you're feeling sorry for yourself." Reborn punctuated that with a ruthless kick at her elbow that she barely managed to dodge. "The past is the past."

"It's still with us, though," Bianchi retorted, though if anyone had earned the right to say such things to her, it was Reborn. "Anyway, that's not what makes me angry." Reborn looked at her, unblinking, until she amended the statement. "It's not the only thing that makes me angry. I'm not his pawn. He can't just move me around wherever he wants me, because I'm not going to stand for it. I left that Family years ago and he was fine with it then. He doesn't get to change his mind about it now."

"Sometimes I forget how young you really are." Reborn was using his long-suffering tone, the one he took when a student was being unfathomably dim. "Do you really think this is all about you?"

"I know it's not about me." She looked away from Reborn and the way he stood, arms folded, lecturing her the same way he lectured Tsuna. "I think I'd mind it less if I thought I entered into it at all. But this is about what the Falco needs. Nothing more than that." She shook her head. "And I say fuck 'em. There are other Families."

"What worked for your brother may not work for you."

Bianchi looked at him. Reborn looked back, sober. "Why the hell not?"

"Whether you call yourself a Falco or not, people know who you are. And they know who your brother is and who he stands with now." Reborn said it all calmly, like he was reading a grocery list and not ticking off the points that came together to make a trap. "They also know the Falco don't have any extant branches in the family tree. You're the only legitimate child. No one is going to take you in."

Bianchi looked at him; she thought he might have been a little sympathetic, though she might have been imagining that. "Not even Tsuna?"

"Tsuna might." Reborn admitted it reluctantly. "But you're not the only person he has to concern himself with."

Which meant, essentially, that one freelance hitman couldn't outweigh the concerns of an entire Family.

Bianchi leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and cradling her forehead in her palms, and forced herself to take a breath and exhale slowly, and then repeat the process. Had she really been relying that much on the thought that Tsuna would be her salvation, the same way he'd been Hayato's? The sudden unmoored feeling suggested that yes, she had. "Fuck," she said, when she was breathing steadily again. "Fuck."

It was Reborn she was talking to, so she didn't add anything about how unfair it was. Reborn had no patience for such talk, not when he was intimately familiar with how deeply unfair their world could be.

"I thought you should know." There was a measure of sympathy in his voice at that, though it didn't do much to comfort her.

She couldn't bring herself to thank him, not for that, though politeness demanded that she acknowledge the gesture. "I... appreciate the thought."

Reborn snorted. "I'm sure you do." He hopped down from the bench and eased his way between her knees so that she had to look at him. His eyes were grave. "You can't plan based on bad data." With that, he tipped his hat to her and strolled away.

A hitman's platitude, that. She couldn't quite stomach it; had she thought it would have a chance of actually hitting him, she would have sent a batch of poison cooking after him. Bianchi gritted her teeth instead and conserved her energy, focusing on scraping her equilibrium back together. When she could think again, she did, carefully.

Reborn had a point, however little she liked it. The other Families couldn't help knowing who she was and it was true that she hadn't had much contact from would-be employers since getting back to Italy. But the Vongola had paid well and she had money put by, so she could scrape along for a while before things turned dire on that front.

On to the second point: her father didn't have any other kids to call on. Well, no. Not yet. But he wasn't dead yet, and wouldn't be for a while, given what she remembered seeing of the future that wasn't. So the Falco could take care of itself. It would take care of itself. There were plenty of fertile young women around who might be coaxed into bed with the boss of the Falco. Would be, sooner or later, she knew that much, and then nature would take its course. Whatever else she could say about her father, he wasn't entirely an idiot. Sentimentality aside, he'd give her another half-sibling and then he'd lose interest again and she'd be free to go her own way. All she had to do was wait him out, was all.

Yeah. That could work.

Bianchi nodded, decisive, and winced when she checked the time—she'd been sitting for longer than she'd thought. If she was going to change before meeting Dino, she was going to have to move quickly.

Romario showed up before she was quite ready. Bianchi made a face at him and said, "Just give me two minutes."

"Of course," he said, placid, and waited for her as she did a quick sweep of the bathroom and the bedroom to throw an overnight bag together. He stood by patiently as she locked her door and escorted her down to the car, and relieved her of her bag as he saw her settled in the back seat.

Bianchi wondered what he thought of his boss's little affair with her, whether he approved or not or just didn't care. He certainly didn't given any impression one way or another, the very soul of bland courtesy as he drove her from her apartment out to the Cavallone house and escorted her inside. He made her overnight bag disappear somehow as he did, and ushered her into the drawing room where Dino was sprawled on a couch with a glass of wine and a book. "Miss Bianchi," he said, even though Dino was already bouncing to his feet, and withdrew.

"Dino." Bianchi wrapped her arms around his shoulders, lifting her face to his for a kiss, and let the sweep of his arms closing around her draw her close. His mouth was sure against hers and she relaxed into it. However complicated the universe seemed to want her life to be, at least this moment was simple enough.

"How are you?" His mouth barely left hers to ask the question, and his hands were already sliding up her back, under her t-shirt.

"Just fine." She arched under his hands. "How'd your meeting go?"

"Mm, I have no idea." Dino's mouth slid along her jaw, lips brushing against her skin. "I thought about you all day."

Bianchi told herself that the way her breath caught was for the way his mouth slid over her throat, but that didn't have anything to do with the softness that unfurled itself in her chest. "Oh, that's practical of you."

"Oops." His lips tickled the spot under her ear and Bianchi leaned against him, the thrill of the sensation making her knees go wobbly. "Oh well."

"So what were you thinking about instead of business?" Bianchi asked as his thumb stroked against the small of her back.

His mouth brushed against her ear, soft and intimate. "Why don't I show you?"

"Think I'd like that," she said.

He kissed her again, mouth slow against hers, full of promise. Then he twined her fingers with his and drew her along with him, down the hall and around the corner to his bedroom. Bianchi laughed a little at the exuberance of his grin and the way he pulled her to him when he'd kicked the door shut after him. "You're in a mood, aren't you?"

Dino's eyes were bright. "Maybe?"

He caught her close and kissed her till she was breathless, mouth tasting of wine and enthusiasm or maybe just his pleasure that she was here with him. Bianchi let his mood infect her, drinking it in greedily and laughing into his mouth.

Dino didn't bother with any teasing games as they undressed. His hands were quick on buttons and zippers and the clasp of her bra, seeking bare skin with the sort of persistence that suggested that he really did have a goal and plan for reaching it. Bianchi helped him where she could, whenever his mouth wasn't on hers, tongue stroking against hers and making her knees go weak with the way it flirted with hers. Dino didn't seem to mind that and just slid his hands down her body when they were both bare, settling them on her hips and pulling her close.

"This is nice," Bianchi said, running her hands up his chest.

"Glad you like it." Dino edged a thigh against hers, nudging her back. Bianchi let him and laughed when he finally sent her over backwards onto the bed. Her laugh stuttered short when he leaned over her and kissed her again, hands trailing down her body purposefully, sliding over her thighs and coaxing them wide. He smiled at her as he did. "Think I owe you one for this morning."

"Oh, God," Bianchi said as he knelt between her thighs and she felt his breath against her skin. She closed her hands on a pillow at the first slide of his tongue against her, warm and soft, moaning at the suddenness of the sensation. "Fuck, Dino...!"

The look he cast her had laughter in it; that didn't stop him from stroking his tongue against her, deliberately slow, circling it against her clit and sending pleasure twining through her, uncurling along her nerves slow and thick. Bianchi twisted her fingers in the pillows, panting at the slowness of his mouth and the way sensation built slowly, layers of it winding around her with the patient movement of his mouth and his tongue and oh fuck, his long fingers sliding into her, stroking against the right spots and twisting against them. That was when she flew apart, arching under him and groaning as orgasm rushed through her, unstoppable as a tidal wave, shaking her to pieces in the sweep of it.

Dino was lounging next to her by the time Bianchi caught her breath and opened her eyes again, her entire body feeling loose and heavy with her release. He was grinning, clearly pleased with himself.

Bianchi supposed he'd earned it. "God." She sank a lazy hand into his hair and pulled him to her to kiss him.

Dino made an agreeable sound against her mouth, and another one when she let her hand skim down his chest to curl around his cock. His hips rolled against her grip, leisurely little thrusts that belied how hard he was and the satisfied murmurs that his lips shaped against hers. That was fine; Bianchi was content to stroke him slowly, fingers tracing over the shape of him as she kissed him and his hands stroked against her back.

If Reborn was right, she wasn't going to get to do this for very much longer.

The thought struck her with a painful sort of clarity, emerging out of the satisfied haze of her thoughts like an iceberg. It wouldn't be seemly to carry on like this if her father had his way. Or even if it only looked like he was going to have his way.

Dino hummed against her mouth, lazy and interrogative, when her hand stilled against him. Bianchi made a rapid decision and pressed him onto his back. When he blinked up at her, eyebrows raised, she said, "Condoms?"

He gestured. "In the drawer."

Bianchi leaned over to investigate the bedside table and found the box. Dino stretched out where she'd left him, watching her unwrap the condom. He made a pleased sound when she slid it onto him, hips lifting into her grip. He made another when she knelt over him and ran his hands up her thighs, looking up at her with such frank appreciation in his gaze that Bianchi could almost have blushed with it. Then she did blush when he said, "God, you're beautiful."

"I bet you say that to all the girls," she muttered. She sank down on him before he could get a reply out, sighing at the fullness of his cock inside her and the way he groaned under her, eyes going half-lidded. She was still sensitive from before; the feel of him inside her and the slow friction as she rocked herself against him, grinding down on him, was enough to make her breath come short again.

Dino breathed her name, hands running over her thighs and her hips, and smiled at her. "No, you really are something else."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, Cavallone." Bianchi lifted herself up and sank down on him again, letting Dino's hands hold her hips steady. He rocked up to meet the slow flex of her body, groaning breathlessly as she rode him. He was beautiful too, Bianchi thought, though she didn't say it, lean and gold against the whiteness of the sheets, his tattoos a colorful splash up his arm and throat. It was good to have him like this, with his hands warm on her skin and the burn of her thigh muscles as she rocked herself over him, enjoying the wave of pleasure that rolled up her spine with every slide of his cock inside her, until she was hovering on the edge of being swept away again. "Dino," she said, softly.

"Yeah, I've got you." He slid a hand down her thigh and stroked his thumb against her, rubbing it against her clit. Bianchi gasped as sensation poured through her again, body seizing on his. He groaned, his hips driving up against hers, and the short little thrusts dragged the heat out and out, until he finally stilled under her.

Bianchi let herself sag against his chest as she caught her breath, draped against him and not entirely sure she wanted to move from that spot.

"It's not flattery," he said, presently, as he curled an arm around her. "You know that, right?"

"I've never been insecure about my looks." There were so many other things she could beat herself up over instead. But she wasn't going to think about those, not now. It was better to enjoy the steady rise and fall of Dino's chest beneath hers, and to trace her eyes over the bright curls of ink on his skin, wondering at the choices that had inspired them. Some of them were obvious, like the Cavallone crest and the bucking horse. Others were less so... why the barbed wire?

"It's good that you know." Dino wound a lock of her hair around his fingers, voice meditative as he played with it. "You're beautiful. And strong, too. And I like that you know what you want and go after it. Wish more people would do that."

"Makes it easier if they don't." She felt compelled to point that out, though he surely knew it already.

"Well, yes. But it's awfully boring. And you're never boring."

"Thanks. I think."

Dino's chest shook under hers as he laughed. "Guess that does sound like a weird compliment, huh?" He craned his head, looking down at her. "I mean it, though. I like being with you."

"Well, thanks." That was gratifying to hear, and put an uneasy feeling at the pit of her stomach. "I kinda like being with you, too." It was the truth, it was what one said in moments like this, and he still lit up like the sun.

Oh, Bianchi thought. Oh, she was so far in over her head.

She shuddered back from that and cast around for something else to say. "Dino."

His smile dimmed a little at the sound of his name and the grimness that even Bianchi could hear in her own voice. "What is it?"

Bianchi drew a breath. No one could make plans with bad data and he'd wanted to tell her something that morning. So. "What were you going to say about the Falco this morning?"

Dino's smile melted away. "A few things. I thought you didn't care about them?"

"I don't." Bianchi took a breath. "I talked to Reborn today." She shifted against Dino, uncomfortable with the sudden tension she could feel running through him. "He says I don't get to leave the Falco the way Hayato did. That none of the other Families will take me since I'm the only legitimate kid the old goat has." The unfairness of it still gnawed at her. "I don't agree with him. But. I figure I ought to be paying attention, though. Just in case the old goat tries something."

"...he's not quite right, anyway." Dino lifted a hand and ran it through her hair. "The Cavallone would take you."

Bianchi lifted her head and glared at him. "I don't need charity, Cavallone."

"What charity are you talking about?" He didn't flinch at either her glare or her irritation. "You're a damn good hitman. We can always use those." He kept on running his hand through her hair, slow; Bianchi resisted the way it made her want to relax against him. "Would've suggested it sooner, if I hadn't thought you'd take it the wrong way. You know, all things considered."

Bianchi eyed him, suspicious, but his gaze was perfectly candid. "You shouldn't be offering it now. No one would believe it wasn't because we're fucking."

"Yeah, I know. I was just saying, Reborn was wrong." Dino grinned, serious mood vanishing. "I think I've waited my whole life to get to say that."

"I'll just bet you have." Bianchi settled against him again, somewhat soothed. "So. The Falco. Spill it."

He let out a breath and spread one of his hands against her back, running it up and down her spine. "Right, the Falco. What I hear says the people are kind of... uncertain. Worried. Have been since Tsuna stepped up and took over and made Hayato his right hand."

"No surprises there." The people who made up a Family did tend to like having a nice, clear line of succession. Couldn't really have a Family without someone to lead it.

"Yeah. From what I hear, your father has someone from his underbosses that he favors a lot. Name's Conti, Davide Conti."

Bianchi pursed her lips. "Yeah? What about him?" Though she could hazard a guess or two...

"He's one of the Falco's best men, from what I hear." Davide rearranged his arms around Bianchi as he shifted against the pillows, settling her against him. "He's supposed to be pretty good, anyway. Very loyal to the Family, devoted to your dad. Smart. A good shot. Can't say that much more, though—I've never met him."

"Yeah, I haven't either." He could very well have been at Tsuna's reception, but she hadn't run into him before things had gotten ugly. "You know anything else?"

"No." Dino threaded his fingers through her hair, playing with it. "Should I?"

Bianchi snorted; if Dino couldn't see why she was interested, then she'd have to bite him for being oblivious. "He's the man I'm probably supposed to marry."

Dino went still under her. "This is sudden."

Bianchi poked his ribs and rode out his squirming. "Don't be ridiculous. From the sounds of it, my father's grooming Conti to take over for him. Only Conti's not his kin."

She didn't need to draw a diagram for him, since political marriages happened all the time. "My people have said that your father's been known to say that Conti's like a son to him."

Bianchi tried to be surprised that he'd known more about Conti than he'd been saying and failed. "Yeah, that's not a surprise. Poor bastard."

Dino was silent after that, but the stillness of him was thoughtful, not angry. That was a quality of his that she appreciated; well, one did tend to like the things in others that one didn't have oneself. "So you don't want to get married." He said it with a little lilt to his voice, an interrogative one.

"Not just so my father can have an heir." She didn't even try to keep the bitterness out of her voice, not when it was burning her throat. "And not to a man I've never even met, and I don't care how devoted he is to the Family. My mother did that, and look where it go her." The laugh that bubbled out of her chest was sharp enough that she could feel it scraping her throat like ground glass. "You know, I worked damned hard to get to where I am now, and still the only thing that matters is that I'm his daughter. Fuck."

Dino stirred. "That doesn't matter to me."

"Then you're the only one."

"Hey." He curled his arms around her, drawing her closer. "That's not true."

"It sure as hell feels like it sometimes." And it felt good to lean against him, good to have at least one person who was willing to be sympathetic.

Dino opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Then he shut it again and sighed. "It'll work out," he said, finally. "You'll see."

"Damn straight it's going to work out." Bianchi shook her head. "The old goat can scheme all he wants and groom half a dozen underbosses and give me a whole selection of 'em to choose from. I'm not going to do it."

"Stubborn," he said.

"Pretty much, yeah." And this conversation was getting depressing. Bianchi pushed herself up, looking down at him and running a palm down his chest, and smiled when his breath turned faster and his eyes gleamed. "So enough of that. Let's talk about something else."

"You had something in particular in mind?" he murmured, hand slipping lower and curving around her ass.

"Surprise me," Bianchi said and lowered her mouth to his.

The Sky Flame didn't run in the Falco, so it had never been their Family's practice to have a full complement of Guardians the way the Families with the Sky often did. However, the Falco bosses did tend to keep a handful of trusted advisors who served as de facto Guardians.

One of them was standing on Bianchi's doorstep when she answered the knock. He was every bit as dapper as she remembered him being, if a bit older and greyer now. "Uncle Stefano," Bianchi said, surprised to see him. Someone—her father, or maybe his right hand—had gotten smart and realized who would make an effective messenger.

Still, she couldn't help being pleased to see him.

He seemed just as pleased. "Hey there, kiddo." Stefano embraced her, kissing her cheeks and enveloping her in the smell of his cologne and hair oil. "May I come in?"

"Of course, of course." Bianchi stood aside to let him in, using the opportunity to cast a surreptitious look after him. It seemed he was either alone or had left any escorts safely out of sight. It could have been either, knowing him. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"That would be very kind of you." He removed his hat and stood in her living room. He was probably taking it all in, from the shabbiness of the furniture to the mess Bianchi couldn't be bothered to keep up with, but he gave no sign of it, bless his polite heart.

Bianchi whisked a stack of magazines off the easy chair and kicked the laundry basket away from it, glad that the clothes in it were at least clean, if unfolded. "Here, have a seat. I'll be right back."

"Don't go to any trouble on my account."

Bianchi kept her eyeroll to herself and ducked into the kitchen nook. She was due a run to the store, but there was a box of crackers in the cupboard and some cheese left. Those went on a plate. It was still a little early in the day for it, but she broke into the beer she'd been saving since she remembered that Uncle Stefano always had been fond of a good stout.

And it was that or the last dregs of a bottle of apple juice—or water.

He was still standing when she returned to him, looking at the corkboard where she'd tacked the things she'd liked or wanted to keep. There were pictures there, a shot of Tsuna and Hayato and Yamamoto together (Tsuna flailing, Hayato on the verge of barfing, and Yamamoto laughing his fool head off at the both of them), shots of Namimori, and one of Dino and Hibari in the middle of beating the crap out of each other that she'd particularly liked. There was a shot of Reborn wearing one of the costumes he'd used to get Tsuna's attention that he'd only allowed her to keep because his face was obscured by the enormous mustache and the brim of the Stetson, and a couple of ticket stubs, a collection of postcards, and a note that Hayato had written, the first that he'd ever addressed to his neesan.

The whole display was silly; it didn't really belong on view. Bianchi cleared her throat, embarrassed, but when Stefano turned away from it, his smile was gentle and gave no sign of what he thought. "What brings you out this way?"

He accepted the glass of beer and took the seat she'd cleared for him. "Oh, it's been a while since I've seen you, kiddo."

Bianchi bent over the couch to clear a space on it, letting her hair fall forward to cover her expression. "And you were in the neighborhood and thought you'd stop by?" She wasn't going to feel guilty about how long it'd been. He wasn't really her uncle—it was just custom and history that she called him that, a distant connection on the family tree, and the fact that he'd always had time for a little girl's questions—oh, damn it.

"That was some of it, yes." Stefano smiled at her when she sat and finally looked at him again. "There's some other stuff, too, but tell me how you've been first. All the news we ever get of you is secondhand."

"That's not all my fault," Bianchi said, though not without a squirm of guilt.

"I never said it was." He shrugged. "I'd just like to fix that." He tipped his head at the wall. "So tell me about Japan. Was it nice? I've never been."

"It was... different, I guess." Strange, at first, living in a place where the language wasn't her own and the customs were all different, with so few people who were familiar around. Freeing, too, to be able to just be Bianchi there, Hayato's sister and Reborn's weird girlfriend (hah!), without the kids knowing any better—and anyone who knew differently wouldn't have said a word.

"Yeah?" Uncle Stefano smiled at her, encouraging. "So tell me about it."

So Bianchi did, slowly at first, choosing her words carefully as she described Namimori and its people. That required a description of Tsuna; she began to gather speed and enthusiasm then, summing up how Tsuna was by telling Stefano about his people, how good he was at finding them and fixing the places in them that were crushed. She segued into talking about Hayato almost without thinking about it, because no one was a better example of what Tsuna could do than her brother.

Stefano listened attentively, sipping his beer, eyes crinkled up with his smiles. There was no doubt that he would take what he gleaned from her descriptions back to her father, but Bianchi was fairly sure she wasn't giving anything about Tsuna away that they wouldn't all find out sooner or later. When Bianchi finally wound down, he nodded. "It sounds as though the Vongola will be passing into good hands." He took a final drink that drained the glass and then gave Bianchi a look that was blue and direct. "But you haven't told me how you are."

"I'm fine," Bianchi said, caught off balance. Jesus Christ, she'd forgotten how persistently sneaky Uncle Stefano was. He certainly didn't seem to buy it; he kept looking at her, waiting. "I mean, business is a little slow right now. No one wants to commit to anything before the Cetrulli thing shakes out, but you know. I get by."

"Bianchi," he said, softly, and that was all.

She looked away from him. "I don't know what you want to hear."

"I want to know how you are." He said it kindly; she could almost believe that it was the genuine truth. Maybe it was, though it wasn't likely to be the whole truth.

"I told you, I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

She heard him sigh. "Well, if that's the way you want it." He clicked his tongue, sounding sorry about it. "I need to talk to you about something, kiddo. Will you hear me out before you get angry? As a favor to me?"

Bianchi countered the question with one of her own. "Did my father send you?"

Uncle Stefano shook his head. "No. I'm here on my own." His smile was rueful. "You probably won't believe that, but I promise you, he thinks I've taken the afternoon off to pay a visit to a certain young lady friend of mine, not you."

"You're disgusting, Uncle Stefano." Bianchi couldn't help smiling anyway.

His answering grin crinkled up his eyes and showed all his teeth, including the gold one that he had a half dozen different stories to explain. "No, I'm just shameless." Then he sobered. "Will you hear me out?"

Bianchi took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah, okay. Because it's you who's asking." She owed him that much, at least, things with her father be damned.

"Okay." Stefano put his glass down and folded his hands across his stomach, all traces of laughter and sly humor set aside. "We need you to come home, kiddo. The Family needs you pretty bad right now."

"I've already heard it, Uncle Stefano." She said it as calmly as she could manage, despite the knife-stab of her disappointment.

He just looked at her, eyes sober. "But do you know why?"

"Because there's no way Hayato can do it now, and my father needs someone he can marry off to whomever he expects to follow after him." Bianchi shrugged. "And I don't care. I really don't." The Falco would take care of itself without her, just fine.

Stefano ignored the last bit of her explanation. "Kiddo, we need you pretty bad." He leaned forward, hands dangling between his knees and expression as grave as she'd ever seen it. "Your father is dying."

Bianchi began to refuse automatically, before what he'd actually said sank in. "I don't—what?" She stared at him then, blinking. "He's—he can't be. He looked fine when I saw him." This wasn't the way it was supposed to go, not at all.

"I'm afraid he is." Stefano settled back in his seat and passed a hand over his face. "It's cancer. Started in—well, it got started and then it spread, and he's stubborn about it. He's under treatment, but it's not looking good. That's what the doctors say, anyway."

Bianchi had seen him in many moods before, but she'd never seen him look like he was helpless before. All in all, she thought distantly, she could have done without the experience. "He didn't say anything."

"He's a real idiot when it comes to you kids." Uncle Stefano managed a crooked smile. "Never has quite understood what it is you two need to know."

Which was indisputably God's own truth. Jesus Christ. Bianchi drained her glass without really thinking about it, trying to fit what Stefano was telling her with what she'd thought she'd known—it wasn't supposed to happen this way, damn it all. "How long?"

"Hard to say. It goes away and then it comes back, and then the doctors try something new. Could be a few months. Could be a few years." He managed to sound dispassionate about it, and Bianchi wondered how much it was costing him. "This is why we need you, kiddo. You're still a Falco, even if your father handled things like an idiot. Your Family needs you right now." He sighed. "Not least because the Macrini are sniffing around like they know we're in trouble. Fucking Macrini."

"Fucking Macrini," Bianchi echoed. It had the weight of ritual and long habit behind it. The fucking Macrini would, like the jackals they were. "Fuck."

"I can't force you to come home," Uncle Stefano said. "There are things we could try, maybe, but if there's one thing I know about you, it's that you won't do anything unless you've decided to do it yourself. We could drag you home, I guess, but we wouldn't be able to keep you. So I'm asking you instead. Please, baby girl. We need you."

"Jesus, Uncle Stefano. You don't play fair." The fucking Macrini; she'd been nearly ten before she'd realized that their name wasn't Fuckinmacrini. The feud between the Falco and the fucking Macrini was so old that no one entirely understood where it had come from anymore, not that anyone really cared. And she knew what a good boss and a good Family ought to be, and the Macrini didn't have either.

Bianchi leaned forward, burying her face in her palms and trying to think. Her father was sick—dying—and the Falco needed her, and the fucking Macrini were at the door. And that was bad, that was a catastrophe when any potential half-siblings weren't even on the horizon and no one else would know enough to look for them.

Funny. She'd thought she'd burned all the loyalty to the Falco out of her. Who would have thought that the fucking Macrini would be what it would take to prove that she hadn't? Christ. "I need a couple days," she said. "I've got—things. Business to wrap up." A thought occurred to her then. "Does Hayato know?"

"No." The relief was so thick in Stefano's voice that Bianchi could have touched it with her bare hands. "No one knows, other than me and Giancarlo and the doctors. And now you."

Bianchi raised her head. "Not even Davide Conti?"

Stefano's expression was bland as porridge. "Why should he know?"

"Everyone I've talked to says my father treats him like a son." Although, come to think of it, if that were so, it meant the old goat deliberately kept crucial information from the poor bastard—Jesus Christ. "The general consensus is that he'll be the next Falco boss."

Stefano lifted a shoulder. "People say a lot of things. Doesn't make 'em right."

Great. There was probably someone else in line instead. Bianchi shook her head to clear it; she'd worry about that later. "Someone should tell Hayato." The delicate quality of Uncle Stefano's answering silence made her grimace. "Okay, I'll tell him."

"You're probably the closest one of any of us, " he murmured. Well, she couldn't dispute that. "How long would you like?"

Bianchi thought about it. "Give me a week." A week would let her pack up what she needed and close out her accounts and untangle herself from Dino—oh, Jesus. Dino.

Uncle Stefano nodded, apparently oblivious to the sudden pit in Bianchi's stomach. "A week." He reached into a pocket and produced a card. "Give me a call when you're ready and we'll come for you."

Bianchi rose when he did and took the card automatically. "Sure," she said, and then found herself being folded into his wiry arms. "Uncle Stefano—"

"Shh," he said. "Permit an old man to be sentimental."

Bianchi wasn't sure that was all there was to it, but it wasn't worth resisting. After a moment, she put her arms around him to return the hug. "I'll call," she said when he finally released her.

"Do that," he said, and let her see him out.

Hayato took the news in stony silence, his cigarette burning down between his fingers, until he moved and the ash fell away from it. "Should've realized something was up," he said when he finally spoke.

"That's kind of what I thought myself." Bianchi took a drink of her beer and glanced sideways at him, but she couldn't read anything off his face. He'd gotten better at keeping his reactions to himself. Not surprising, considering.

"Well, shit." He tapped the ash off his cigarette and took a drag, looking off into space at something only he could see. "Now what are we supposed to do?" It didn't seem like the kind of question that needed a response, so Bianchi didn't say anything. Hayato took it as one anyway, because he lowered his gaze and looked at her. "You've decided, huh?"

"Yeah." Bianchi took another drink of her beer. "If it weren't for the fucking Macrini, I'd say fuck it." Probably. Fuck. So many plans and assumptions fallen to pieces now. So much for those, when someone was going to have to hold the fucking Macrini off.

Hayato gave a look she couldn't quite read. "Are you really okay with that?"

"I don't really have a choice, do I? I'm gonna go, and it'll be... well, I'll manage. Somehow." Just going didn't mean she'd agreed to do anything other than be a visible presence. And it wouldn't have to be for very long, she thought. Just a few months till the pressure eased off her.

"Mm." Hayato looked away from her again, giving her no sign of what that pregnant little syllable might mean. "You don't have to do this."

"I think I kind of do." Bianchi leaned back, sprawling against the squashy embrace of her couch and draining her beer. "It's not like I have a lot of choice."

"Maybe." Hayato stubbed out his cigarette and didn't look at her. When he spoke again, his tone was measured out and careful. "I know some people. I could get you papers. The good kind."

"Shit, Hayato. I know those people too." He flinched and Bianchi gentled her tone. "That's no kind of life. Believe me, I thought about it already." Had thought about it, and hadn't been able to stomach the thought of walking away from all the things in her life that she did like.

He focused on his hands, playing with his pack of cigarettes and watching it revolve in his fingers. "Let me know if you change your mind."

It was kindly meant, so Bianchi sighed. "Yeah. I will." Then she forced her tones into lighter registers. "Anyway, probably won't be too bad, you know? I mean, God knows this isn't the first time something like this has happened. Won't be the last, either."

"It might be." Hayato did look up then; his eyes were dark and hard. "I'll talk to the Tenth. He won't stand for it."

And no, Tsuna probably wouldn't, at that, because he was dedicated to chasing what was right and fair and ignoring all the costs. Bianchi considered the idea for a moment and then shook her head. "He's got enough windmills to tilt at. He's gotta leave something for the next generation, you know."

Hayato studied her; his shoulders dropped. "You really have made up your mind."

"Yeah. It's got to be done."

"Mm." Hayato drew a cigarette out of the package and lit up, drawing in a lungful of smoke and exhaling it in a stream. "Well. Guess if Conti turns out to be a bastard, he could come down with food poisoning."

"That's not funny," Bianchi snapped.

Hayato's smile was tilted and a little fey. "Who said I was joking?" He tipped his head at her. "Wouldn't be the first time something like that'd happened, either."

"I'll take that under advisement," Bianchi said, after a moment, because it had been kindly meant, too. Food poisoning, God. As if she could get away with that when she'd used it once before. It wouldn't be subtle enough.

There was a lot she could do with food allergies, though. It was worth thinking about—never mind.

"Yeah, do that." Hayato's smile was still fey. "It's good to have a backup plan."

And Bianchi couldn't really argue with that.

"You're quiet tonight."

Dino said it mildly, without censure and with only the faintest curiosity edging it. Bianchi felt herself wince anyway. But it was a good opening. "Yeah." She sighed and shifted against him, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "I need to tell you something, but you need to be just Dino and not the head of the Cavallone for it."

His chest rose and fell under hers and his breath stirred her hair. "As long as you're not plotting our secret downfall or anything."

Bianchi snorted at him. "No. But it's not public knowledge."

"Now you've got me curious. Okay. I'll keep it to myself." His voice turned gently teasing. "Now what is it?"

"My father is dying." She said it as matter-of-factly as she could manage.

Dino sucked in a breath; the sound of it was sharp between his teeth. "Oh," he said. And then, in quite a different tone, he said, "Oh." Bianchi gathered herself for his questions, but he only curled his arms around her more securely. "Are you okay?"

He asked it gently and held her carefully, like she was going to fall to pieces against him. The novelty of it was disconcerting. "I'm—" Bianchi stopped herself and thought about it more carefully. "I'm a little fucked up about it, actually."

Dino carded his fingers through her hair. The gesture felt nice. Comforting. "Yeah?"

"I'm upset that I'm not upset, really. I should be feeling something, right?" Something besides irritation. Something besides the fact that she'd had plans and this had disrupted them completely.

"Hm." Dino sighed. "Maybe? I was mostly just relieved when my father finally got it over and done with, so I'm not the best person to ask."

There was that, she supposed. Casimiro Cavallone hadn't exactly been a model of paternal or even boss-like behavior. And he'd certainly left his son a mess to clean up. "At least we're a matched set."

"We could split therapy sessions." Dino snorted at himself. "Or just let Reborn kick our asses and tell us to get over it."

"That's more likely, yeah." Bianchi sighed. Now for the really hard part. "I talked to Uncle Stefano. He was the one who told me."

"Uncle... Stefano...?" Dino echoed, sounding puzzled. "You don't mean Stefano Lupicini, do you?" His tone had turned faintly shocked. "The Saint?"

"Mm, he was always just Uncle Stefano to me." His other duties for her father had never really intruded on the way he'd been willing to play with her, except for maybe how he'd taught her to shoot straight.

"Jesus Christ. You're absolutely terrifying, you know that?" It could have been an insult, but Dino sounded too genuinely awed for her to take it that way.

"Hitmen are people, too," Bianchi reminded him. "Even the really good ones."

"I guess so." Dino still sounded impressed. "So, um. What did the Saint have to say?"

"My father's dying and the fucking Macrini smell the blood in the water." Bianchi kept her voice steady, trying to turn it into a simple report and nothing more. "I really do have to go home." If the Falco's people were already nervous, the Macrini would just make it worse.

Dino sucked in a quick breath, but didn't do more than that, not immediately. Bianchi almost wished she could see his face and could try to figure out what he was thinking, but maybe it was better not to see it coming. Who could say?

Then his fingers curled around the point of her shoulder. "When are you going?" His voice was quiet, very nearly calm, but that was nothing more than a veneer over something rougher.

"I have a week." More time than she really needed, but not really enough when weighed against the balance of other things.

"A week." Dino's chest rose and fell under hers once again as he sighed. "That's... not much."

"No. No, it's really not."

Dino was silent for several heartbeats. Then he said, "We'll have to make it count, then."

Bianchi had to close her eyes and steady herself before she could say, "Yeah, I guess we will." It was only a fling, anyway, right? It would have come to an end eventually. This was just sooner rather than later.

And perhaps, if things went well... perhaps they could pick up where they'd left off, once she'd gotten things with the Falco settled down.

Bianchi propped herself up on her elbow to look at Dino. "You don't have much to say tonight."

He had to drag his thoughts back from wherever they'd gone; she watched him blink and turn his eyes to her with a wry smile. "Sorry. Just thinking."

"If you can manage that, I did something wrong." Bianchi injected as much innuendo into that as she could manage.

Dino didn't take the bait. "No," he said, raising a hand to her face and rubbing his thumb along her cheek. "No, it's business things."

"The Cizeta?" Bianchi guessed, since he'd had to meet with them again, if she was remembering his schedule properly.

"No, they're fine." Dino made a face and turned his eyes back to the ceiling. "I think we've got all that business sorted out now. They're taking the east, I'm taking the west. All it really needs is someone to manage the market there. Should even out in a year or so."

And if he said that, it surely would. He had a real knack for predicting the ebb and flow of market forces. That offhand comment probably meant that Dino's share of the market would even out in a year, be working at a profit in two, and be raking in money in three.

And it still didn't explain the wrinkle between Dino's eyebrows. Bianchi laid a fingertip against it, smoothing it out and smiling when he crossed his eyes, trying to see what she was doing. "So tell me about what's worrying you." That was only fair, considering how he'd listened to her woes.

Dino smiled at her, apologetic. "It's nothing interesting. There's just something going on with some of my people. Some kind of feud over who actually owns the land that two different families have been farming. I'm trying to figure out how to settle it with the fewest ruffled feathers possible."

"I never realized being a boss was so glamorous."

"It's not all fast cars and loose women," Dino said, grave, though his eyes were laughing just a bit. "Any boss who forgets that won't stay a boss for very long."

"I suppose," Bianchi murmured, though she wondered about that, really. There were plenty of bosses who didn't seem to give much of a damn where their power came from.

"No, really." Dino looked serious. "If you don't take care of your Family, there's no point in what you do. Your Family is the most important thing of all."

He looked so earnest about it that Bianchi smiled in spite of herself. "Reborn's students are such idealists." She slid her fingers into his hair. "I wonder how he manages that."

"Reborn is an idealist, too." Dino chuckled. "Very deep down. Where he doesn't let anyone else see it."

"That must be it. I always wondered."

"He has a reputation, you know," Dino intoned, and then ruined the effect by snickering. "He's got the urge to shoot me right now, and he doesn't even know why."

Bianchi laughed too, and let Dino draw her back down to him. "I think Reborn has the urge to shoot most people, just on general principles."

Dino stroked his hand down her back, fingers tracing over each bump of her spine. "Probably, yes. He doesn't suffer stupidity gladly. And his bar for what constitutes stupidity is, uh. Really low." He sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Why did we decide he was a good choice for training people?"

"Mm," Bianchi said, distracted by the way his hand was curving around her ass, kneading it thoughtfully. "He gets results. Just look at you." She'd been just old enough to grasp what it had meant when her father had shaken his head over the hopelessness of the Cavallone boy, and some of the transformation itself. And no one could say that Dino wasn't still improving, though maybe not as rapidly as he once had.

He looked startled at the compliment, nonetheless. "Thank you." He smiled at her, almost shyly.

"Credit where credit is due." Bianchi leaned over and kissed the uncertain corners of his mouth, slowly, until the line of it had relaxed and his lips opened to hers. She draped herself against him, savoring the feel of his hands running through her hair and down her body. He was slower to rouse this time; they both were, so Bianchi relaxed into the languor of it: the taste of Dino's skin, salt and musk and the last traces of his aftershave and cologne; the texture of his palms as they moved over her body, finding the places where he knew she liked to be touched, until Bianchi arched and sighed over him, feeling like she was going to melt into him. Then she did, when he finally pressed her to him, spreading her thighs across his and rolling up into her. Bianchi tasted the sounds he made as they moved against each other, letting the momentum of it build slowly until they were both gasping and trembling with it. She broke first, swept under at last by the shape of her name on his lips and the slow grind of his hips against hers, moaning with the way the waves of it ran through her, endlessly slow.

Dino said her name again after, when they'd settled against each other in the drowsy aftermath, and spread his fingertips against her jaw. His voice was soft. "Bianchi, I—"

"Don't." Bianchi set her fingers against his lips. "Don't say that."

He didn't ask why not; he knew as well as she did that it wasn't a good idea. Instead he sighed softly and kissed her fingertips. "If you'd rather I didn't."

"It's already hard enough." Bianchi looked away from the directness of his gaze and settled against his shoulder. "I knew this was a terrible idea from the start."

"It hasn't been all bad, has it?" His fingers settled in her hair, not playing with it for once, just a warm and reassuring weight.

"It hasn't been bad at all." Bianchi hated herself a little for the unsteadiness in her voice. "That's the worst part. Can we not talk about this?"

"Yeah," Dino said. "We can do that."

Bianchi closed her eyes and pressed her face against his throat, and did her best to avoid thinking about tomorrow.

Dino lasted halfway through his first cup of coffee before saying anything. "Damn it," he said, right in the middle of Bianchi's description of how she would deal with the Cetrulli if left to her own devices. Bianchi stopped talking, rather relieved that she didn't have to pretend that things were normal any more. Dino put his coffee down and dug his fingers into his hair, completely disordering it. "This is stupid," he said, despairing. "You should marry me. Would you marry me? We can elope. Monaco is nice this time of year."

"I can't marry you," Bianchi said after squashing the first desperate impulse to say yes. "You know I can't. Or you can't marry me. Either way, it won't work."

"What God hath put together?" Dino said it mournfully, though he was giving her a hopeful look.

"A war between the Cavallone and the Falco wouldn't be good, either for the Cavallone or the Falco." Bianchi looked away from him, down at the croissant she was tearing to pieces. "We can't be that selfish."

"I want to be. Just this once, I want to be." His voice was savage. "What good is being the boss if you can't be selfish once in a while?"

"Being a boss means serving your Family, not the other way around." Bianchi swept the remains of her croissant into a sad little pile. "I wasn't even boss material, but I learned that much."

"You could be the boss. You have the right. More right than Conti does."

"The Falco would never accept me." Bianchi destroyed the pile of crumbs and then swept it back together again. "They know I left the Family. They know I don't want to come back."

"They know it was because of your father." When she looked up, Dino's mouth was set. "They know you left for a reason. If you came back, determined to set things right—"

"I would still have to deal with my father's men and my father himself." Bianchi drew a breath and shook her head at Dino. "It won't work." Even if she was right and she'd be able to avoid getting trapped into a marriage she didn't want during the process of keeping the Falco together and getting her father to do his damn duty, it wouldn't be the same again after. Fuck.

He slumped in his seat. "I hate this."

"I do, too." Bianchi forced herself to stop playing with the crumbs and looked away from him, out across the bay and the sunlight on the water, and the white sails on the boats. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I really wish I'd never met you."

"Yeah." Dino cleared his throat. "Yeah, the feeling is mutual."

Bianchi drew a breath, and then another, and then took a long drink of hot coffee, swallowing the bitterness down. "Well," she said, finally letting herself look at Dino again, who was still slumped in his chair, miserable. "I should get going."

"Yeah." Dino's voice was hollow. Neither of them moved, until Bianchi rose from her seat. He rose too and caught her hand. "If you need anything, tell me. Anything at all."

"I will," Bianchi promised, knowing that he would recognize the lie for what it was. She gripped his fingers. "Maybe you should go to Monaco," she told him. "Take a vacation. Get your mind off things."

"I'll think about it." It was every bit as much of a lie as her promise had been.

"Do that." Bianchi looked at him. "Well. I guess this is goodbye."

"Yeah," Dino said, looking at her.

She went to him when he pulled her close and opened her mouth to his, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and holding him tightly as his mouth shaped words against hers, syllables she forbade herself to recognize and knew anyway, recognizing them in her bones.

Bianchi forced herself to be the one who pulled away first. "Take care of yourself, Dino," she said when she did.

"You too," Dino said, hoarse.

Bianchi permitted herself one final look at him before steeling herself and walking away.

She did not let herself look back.