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A Year in the Life

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It had been just about a month since Sakura and Yuuko had transferred schools and Tsunako-chan had taken up with Yamamoto-kun and Gokudera-kun, and Kyouko had to say that she really did approve of the changes that had come over Tsunako-chan in that period. She'd always been self-effacing and quiet (in the not-good way) before, but now she seemed to be doing a lot more talking. Well, something like talking, anyway. One sometimes did have to speak up a bit in order to be heard over Gokudera-kun.

The one problem, if it was a problem, was that Tsunako-chan went around so much with Yamamoto-kun and Gokudera-kun these days that it was next to impossible to get a word with her privately, which was something Kyouko dearly wanted to do. The boys clung to Tsunako-chan's side like glue. (It was a good thing that Sakura and Yuuko had transferred, otherwise there would have been no way of stemming their malice short of outright war, which was something Kyouko preferred to avoid.) After the first couple attempts to get Tsunako-chan alone for an afternoon of cake and girl-talk ended with the boys tagging along willy-nilly to eat truly astonishing amounts of cake and then lounge around grinning (Yamamoto-kun) or picking one-sided arguments (Gokudera-kun), Kyouko realized that sterner efforts were going to be in order.

She brought the matter up at lunch, since she'd taken to eating with Tsunako-chan more days than not. (She looked so baffled by the boys sometimes that Kyouko couldn't help wanting to relieve her, just a bit, and it was really fairly entertaining to watch the way Yamamoto-kun had of deliberately winding Gokudera-kun up.) "So," she said, using her brightest tones, "about going out for cake tomorrow afternoon."

Tsunako-chan's expressions gave away an awful lot of what she was thinking. This time she looked wary, like she was already bracing herself for disappointment. That was one of the things Kyouko really wanted to talk with her about, because she gave things away too easily to anyone who had the sense to be paying attention. "What about it?"

"Well, I want to go back to Greatest Cake, but." Kyouko stopped and gave the boys a severe look, one of the ones she'd learned from Kaasan and that even managed to make her brother shut up (sometimes). It worked fairly well: Yamamoto-kun straightened up and gave her a sweetly innocent smile, like he hadn't just been trying to steal Gokudera-kun's anpan, and Gokudera-kun stopped growling quite so loudly. "I don't want to get thrown out." She smiled at the boys as pointedly as she could. "You two can find something else to entertain yourselves with tomorrow afternoon, can't you? So we can have an afternoon of girl talk without worrying about making Fujiwara-san angry enough to tell us not to come back?"

A point-blank request like that one ought to have worked perfectly; she rarely ever had to use them and so people tended to be obliging enough about giving in out of surprise. Kyouko really hadn't expected Gokudera-kun to begin shaking his head right away. "We can't. We go where Sawada-san goes."

Sawada-san was one of the things Kyouko particularly wanted to unravel. "Are you sure?" Kyouko smiled at Gokudera-kun, coaxing. "Just one little afternoon to ourselves?"

He turned red, which was the appropriate response, and shook his head, which was not. "We have to stick close to Sawada-san. It's our job." Though his mouth twisted on our and he gave Yamamoto-kun a glare. When Kyouko checked on Tsunako-chan to see what her reaction to this was, she seemed mostly resigned to that declaration, though perhaps just a bit wistful for an afternoon free of the boys (not that Kyouko could blame her for that at all).

"Not even one teeny-tiny afternoon?" she wheedled, fully aware that Yamamoto-kun was laughing at her behind his bento—well, let him laugh. This was a challenge now. "Just so Tsunako-chan and I can have a proper chance to catch up?" She gave Gokudera-kun her sweetest smile, the one that was earnestly vapid and which never failed her.

He went red to the roots of his hair. Kyouko suspected him of wavering and shifted her posture to give him a chance to be good and distracted by what that did to the hemline of her skirt.

And then Yamamoto-kun, drat the boy, said, tone mild, "Do bodyguards ever get the day off in this game? I was wondering about that, actually."

Oh, it sounded like he was chipping in on her side, but Kyouko knew better than that, because it reminded Gokudera-kun of what she was proposing. He rounded on Yamamoto-kun, yelling about how it wasn't a game at all and insulting Yamamoto-kun's lack of intelligence, which said a lot right there about how unobservant Gokudera-kun really was. Kyouko frowned at Yamamoto-kun, who just laughed at them both.

Also, bodyguards?

Tsunako-chan leaned over to speak to her under the hubbub of the boys' wrangling. "I'm sorry. They're probably not going to let themselves be distracted, though. They're both pretty determined."

Which, yes, Kyouko had noticed and wanted to know more about. "They can't go everywhere with you," she protested. "That's too much."

Tsunako-chan probably didn't know how weary she looked when she shrugged like that. "Can't be helped." She capped it off with a little sigh.

"Don't be so stupid."

Kyouko blinked, surprised, when a tiny person dropped out of the sky—no, down from the fence above them—to stand in the middle of their little cluster. It—he—was wearing a black suit and a frown, which he aimed at Tsunako-chan. "Are they your bodyguards or not?"

"Reborn." Kyouko couldn't tell whether Tsunako-chan was saying it like a name or a curse. "You said that I couldn't go anywhere without a bodyguard."

He rolled his eyes, clearly unimpressed, and Kyouko watched this byplay, fascinated by this tiny person (whom the other three all seemed to take in stride). "So use your brain. Are these idiots the only bodyguards you have?"

Tsunako-chan made an uncertain sound. "Can I—can I do that?"

"Try it and find out." Reborn turned then and gave Kyouko a slow once-over. His mouth pursed. "I want the Poison Scorpion to get a measure of that one, anyway."

Gokudera-kun made a gagging sound and turned green, looking like he was about to vomit. Reborn disappeared in the fuss over that; by the time they'd established that Gokudera-kun absolutely refused to go to the infirmary, Reborn was long gone, lunch was nearly over, and Kyouko hadn't gotten the chance to ask what any of that had meant.

Nor did she get a chance again that day or all during the next. By time time the school-day had ended and Yamamoto-kun was escorting her and Tsunako-chan to the school's gate, Kyouko was burning with curiosity. There was a woman waiting there; Tsunako-chan smiled to see her, bright like the sun. "Bianchi-san!" She said it like she hadn't quite expected to see her.

"Hey, kiddo." The woman smiled, flicking her long hair back with a practiced gesture, and glanced past Yamamoto-kun and Kyouko like she was expecting to see someone else. (Gokudera-kun, maybe? But he hadn't joined the exodus for the school gates, for some reason.) "Ready to go?"

"I think so… oh!" Tsunako-chan looked back and forth between them, nibbling her lip. "Bianchi-san, this is Sasagawa Kyouko. Kyouko-chan, this is Bianchi-san."

Interesting that Tsunako-chan was so anxious about the two of them meeting, and interesting that Yamamoto-kun either didn't rate an introduction or was already acquainted with Bianchi-san. Kyouko filed that away for consideration and gave Bianchi-san a polite bow as she assessed the woman's practical clothes and sturdy boots and the way her eyes kept moving all the time, the same way Gokudera-kun's did. "I'm pleased to meet you!"

Bianchi-san smiled at her, friendly without promising anything. "Likewise. I've heard a lot about you."

That was also interesting, because she hadn't heard anything about Bianchi-san at all. Tsunako-chan flushed, but before she could do much more than that, Yamamoto-kun grinned. "Well, guess that means I'm off-duty. Make sure you eat some cake for me, huh?" He gave them all another of his impartially amiable smiles and sauntered off, leaving the three of them alone.

Bianchi-san waited until Yamamoto-kun was out of earshot before smiling at them both and saying, "Tell me more about this matter of cake."

Tsunako-chan fidgeted with the folds of her skirt and peered at Bianchi-san. "It's nothing fancy, just a place nearby that sells cake—you don't mind, do you?"

"Who could mind cake?" Bianchi-san reached over and ruffled Tsunako-chan's hair, her smile fond. "Don't be ridiculous, I've been looking forward to this all day."

This was getting more and more interesting by the minute, Kyouko decided, watching the way Tsunako-chan smiled at Bianchi-san, shy and pleased. "I think that if we hurry, we might be able to beat the rush," she said, which served well enough to get them all moving. Bianchi-san took a position at Tsunako-chan's shoulder, just like Yamamoto-kun and Gokudera-kun had taken to doing. Hm. Perhaps it was time to begin. "So, you must also be one of Tsunako-chan's bodyguards."

Tsunako-chan squeaked quietly, but Bianchi-san simply raised her eyebrows as she glanced Kyouko's way. "Among other things, yes."

"I thought so," Kyouko said, satisfied on that point, though it raised so many other questions that she scarcely knew which to tackle first. Well. Kaasan always said that politeness was more reliable than anything else. "Have you been in Namimori for very long?"

"A few weeks, that's all." Bianchi-san smiled like she was amused, though she was keeping a sharp eye on their surroundings as they walked. She eyed the traffic in the street and the people they passed, and Kyouko would have been willing to bet that she didn't miss any of the small details, either.

A few weeks was about the same amount of time since Tsunako-chan's behavior had begun to change. Kyouko made note of that and forged on. "Oh! Then you probably won't have had time to get to know Greatest Cake yet. You're in for a treat."

"So Tsunako-chan has been telling me." Bianchi-san glanced at her charge, who was watching them both like she didn't quite understand what was going on. No, that couldn't quite be the case; Kyouko suspected that Tsunako-chan was perfectly aware of the social games people played around her, even if she didn't quite trust herself enough to participate in them. A shame, that, when the first rule of the game was never to permit the other players to suspect one's uncertainty. "I hear they serve coffee. Is it any good?"

If Kyouko wasn't mistaken, that was real longing in Bianchi-san's voice. "They do!" She smiled, showing her ruefulness. "I don't know how good it is. I don't have a taste for it—I'm partial to tea."

"You and everyone else in this country," Bianchi-san grumbled.

Kyouko didn't think that was an accidental slip. "Where did you live before you came to Namimori?" Live, yes. That was a better choice than work, which assumed too much.

"Italy," Bianchi said as they came to the crosswalk and waited for the light to change.

That diverted Kyouko from her quest for more information. "Oh, Italy!" she said, delighted. "Really? I've always wanted to go there—is it really as beautiful as the pictures make it look?"

"Even more beautiful," Bianchi-san assured her as the light changed and they crossed the street. The shopping district opened up ahead of them, the sidewalks already beginning to fill up with the after-school crowd of teenagers, mostly female, who liked to haunt the little boutiques and arcades and cafés that lined the streets. "The pictures don't do it justice."

"I hope you'll tell me all about it," Kyouko told her. "Maybe once we get settled?" The striped awning of Greatest Cake shadowed the sidewalk just ahead of them. It looked like they were just in time to get in ahead of the worst of the afternoon crowds, which was gratifying—Kyouko supposed that being this close to the shopping district hadn't been the main reason she'd decided on Namimori Chuu, but it certainly hadn't hurt, either.

Bianchi-san's smile had something like real warmth behind it. "I thought you and Tsunako wanted to have a little girl time to yourselves. I thought I'd let you get on with that and stay out of your way."

An interesting parry, that. So was the way Tsunako-chan looked like she didn't know whether to be pleased or not. "Don't be silly," Kyouko said, revising her strategies to work around that. "You won't be in the way at all—will she, Tsunako-chan?"

She looked surprised to be consulted, which was one of the other things Kyouko was going to have to talk with her about—it was fine to let people think they could decide everything for you, but another thing entirely to actually let them get away with doing it. "I—no, of course not, you should sit with us, Bianchi-san."

Yes, that was good—Tsunako-chan was smiling and Bianchi-san was looking thoughtful. Kyouko smiled too as they turned in at the bakery, willing enough to surrender the chance to get Tsunako-chan alone for the sake of pumping Bianchi-san for more information.

Greatest Cake had one long case filled with dainty pastries carefully arranged on lacy paper doilies; half the joy of visiting the place was in perusing the rows of cakes and tarts and tortes and cupcakes and dithering over which one to selected. At least, that was Kyouko's opinion. Bianchi-san took a look at the espresso machine that sat behind the counter and made a tiny, hopeful sound, and then another, more worshipful, one as she watched one of the people waiting on customers work it to produce a cappuccino.

That was a side-effect to their visit that she hadn't expected, and a good one, too. Kyouko beamed at the rows of sweets and picked a slice of the strawberry-lemon cake for herself. Tsunako-chan chose a cupcake, and Bianchi-san took a careless glance at the case and picked out one of the narrow slices of dark chocolate torte—and a double shot of espresso. Not that a person could learn everything there was to know about someone by their choice of dessert, of course, but as Tousan sometimes observed, it was the details that counted.

Bianchi-san also steered them to one of the indoor tables, in the corner away from the door, when Kyouko would have headed outdoors for one of the tables shaded by striped umbrellas. Bianchi-san claimed the seat in the corner and made Tsunako-chan sit next to her, which left Kyouko with the choice of taking the seat with its back to the room or the seat on Bianchi-san's free side. Kyouko pondered that piece of maneuvering, watching Bianchi-san observing her, and selected the seat on Bianchi-san's left hand. "So, Italy!" She smiled across the table at Tsunako-chan. "Didn't you come to Namimori from Italy, too?"

Tsunako-chan stopped in the act of unwrapping the paper from her cupcake, her eyes wide. "I—yes—how did you—?"

"I thought I remembered you saying something like that when the teacher had you introduce yourself." Kyouko smiled at them both and took a bite of her cake, and hummed around the creamy lemon flavor of the icing and the sweetness of the cake. "Oh, this is really good." So, Italy, where Bianchi-san had worked and maybe was from, given her name, and where Tsunako-chan was from, and also Gokudera-kun, come to think of it. That was far too many coincidences for such a small cluster of peculiar people. "How's your coffee, Bianchi-san?"

"Like a little cup of heaven," she sighed, mouth curved over the rim of the demitasse like a woman in rapture—unless a person happened to catch a glance of her eyes, which were perfectly alert.

Tsunako-chan, meanwhile, was still staring across the table at Kyouko. "You—but—that was years ago!"

Kyouko blinked at her. "It was interesting, and a little strange. I guess it stuck with me." Or rather, she'd filed it away like she did most things, because people were interesting and one never knew what might be worth knowing someday. "What kind of cupcake did you get this time?"

"Nothing fancy." Tsunako-chan went back to unwrapping it, though she still looked a bit dazed, like she hadn't thought anyone could pay that much attention to her. "Vanilla with fudge frosting."

"Mm, trade you a bite of mine for a bite of yours," Kyouko offered, glancing at Bianchi-san to show that she was included in that.

The exchange of plates and bites of cake and compliments over one another's choices eased Tsunako-chan's flusterment and changed the topic fairly gracefully, which was fine. These things had a certain rhythm to them, and Kyouko was content to chatter about some of the other bakeries in the area and then to listen to Bianchi-san's story about the time she'd spent a few months living above a patisserie in Florence, and how glad she'd been to move away from all those distracting smells. Kyouko filed that away, too, because it sounded like Bianchi-san moved around a lot—for work, maybe? And now she was here, calling herself a bodyguard-among-other-things for Tsunako-chan.

Kyouko didn't have any experience with bodyguards as such, but Bianchi-san kept a close eye on the comings and goings of the other customers as they talked and ate, and Kyouko was fairly sure that she only looked relaxed. It lent a certain credence to the bodyguard claim.

She put all that together and waited for a lull in the conversation, which finally came as they finished the last bites of their desserts. Kyouko waited a moment as they pushed their plates back and sighed before she dabbed her lips with her napkin and smiled across the table at Tsunako-chan. "So! I've been wondering. Why do you need a bodyguard, Tsunako-chan?"

Tsunako-chan squeaked and stared at her with such a look of dismay that Kyouko couldn't find it in herself to be amused by it. "I—but—what?"

"I've been wondering since yesterday." Kyouko folded her napkin and laid it next to her plate. "There just didn't seem to be a good time to ask until just now."

Tsunako-chan continued to stare at her like she was at a complete loss, but Bianchi-san snorted softly, her mouth crooked like she was amused. She set the demitasse down, the click of porcelain against porcelain soft, and gave Kyouko a very direct sort of look. "Do you understand that if we answer that question, you won't be able to go back to how things were before?"

Ah, so what Tsunako-chan had gotten involved in was something big and complicated and probably dangerous (a given, that, since there were bodyguards). Kyouko weighed those risks against her curiosity and the fact that she genuinely did like Tsunako-chan, especially the Tsunako-chan who forgot to be shy and uncertain of herself and showed the things that lay behind her diffidence.

It was hardly a choice at all.

Kyouko smiled at Bianchi-san and made sure to include Tsunako-chan in it. "I assume it has something to do with Italy somehow, since that seems to be the common thread… unless perhaps you're a part of Tsunako-chan's family?"

That startled Bianchi-san somehow; Kyouko saw it in the way her eyes widened. Then she laughed, rich and warm, and said, "I suppose you could say I'm here on business for her Family, yes."

"Bianchi-san." Tsunako-chan's voice was very soft; she'd stopped sputtering and she looked as serious as Kyouko had ever seen her. Kyouko sat up straighter and gave Tsunako-chan her undivided attention, since whatever was going on was serious enough to get Tsunako-chan to show some of those hidden depths of hers. Bianchi-san went quiet, too, though that wasn't something she had time to analyze just then, because Tsunako-chan's hands were on the table in front of her, curling and uncurling. She looked across the table, meeting Kyouko's eyes. "I know you heard Yamamoto call it a game yesterday, but it's not, it's really, really not, so you… it would be better if you didn't have to be involved."

Kyouko absorbed that, trying to untangle all the things Tsunako-chan was—and was not—saying. Better for whom, precisely? She leaned back in her chair as Tsunako-chan continued to fidget. Bianchi-san was watching them both, her expression wiped clean and neutral—so there were no hints to be found there.

It was too bad she hadn't ordered a drink to go with her cake. It would have been good to have something to do with her hands just now, some careless gesture that would buy her a little time to think while undercutting the deadlock of the moment. That had been a careless oversight on her part; she'd have to be sure not to forget that again.

In lieu of that, she leaned forward again, rested her elbows on the table, and folded her hands under her chin. Maybe it was best to be direct, since Tsunako-chan wasn't very practiced with people and had been spending a lot of time with the boys lately. (They were both lovely people, but were very rough around the edges.) "Do you not want to be friends?" Tsunako-chan's eyes went wide and her jaw dropped, which was good—now she knew she had Tsunako-chan's undivided attention. "We are at the place where we should make that decision, I suppose. Neither of us is so invested that we can't recover from it if we decide not to, so maybe it's best that we go ahead and figure this out now."

Kyouko paused then to give Tsunako-chan a chance to recover from her shock and decide how she wanted to respond. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Bianchi-san's eyebrows had lifted infinitesimally and wondered how she was doing in Bianchi-san's assessment.

Well, she might find out eventually.

"Not… not want to be friends?" Tsunako-chan sounded bewildered, and looked it, too, and a little hurt around the eyes. "Why did you—how did you get that idea?"

Oh, dear. She was going to have to be even more direct and plain-spoken than that, wasn't she? Kyouko gentled her tone as much as she could. "It's like this." She smiled at Tsunako-chan. "I like you and I think you're interesting to spend time with, and I think we could become very good friends. On the other hand, you're involved in something that you don't want to tell me about, even though it seems to be fairly big and complicated and the kind of thing that takes over a person's life." That much had already begun to happen—just look at the way Yamamoto-kun and Gokudera-kun shadowed Tsunako-chan at school, and the way she couldn't even spend an afternoon at a bakery eating cake with a friend without a bodyguard. "You don't have to tell me about whatever it is, because it's your secret, but if you don't, we're probably not going to be able to become much closer than we are now. That's not because I'm trying to manipulate you, though it probably sounds like I'm saying, 'Tell me what's going on or I'm going to stop liking you forever!' I'm not, really. It's just that if I don't know what's going on, I won't be able to understand the reasons you'll start changing, and eventually we'll stop having things in common. Ultimately, we won't know how to really talk to each other at all, and we'll drift apart."

Drat it, she really needed a drink or something to do with herself so that Tsunako-chan could have a moment to really think all that through, because she looked rather stunned by all of that. People generally did whenever Kyouko tried to explain how things worked to them, if they didn't say she was weird for analyzing how people worked the way she did. (Personally, she thought it was strange that most people didn't think about such things.)

She unfolded her hands and stretched out her shoulders and then ran her fingers through her hair while Tsunako-chan stared at her, waiting until she stopped looking astonished and had begun to look like she was thinking. Kyouko gave her another moment to do that and smiled at her again. "I'd really regret that," she said. "Like I said, I like you. You're interesting and you seem to be collecting interesting people." She didn't—quite—look at Bianchi-san, but Yamamoto-kun was one of the other most interesting people in their class, and Gokudera-kun looked to be the same way, and then there was the matter of that tiny Reborn person. The point made itself. "You're getting involved in something that requires you to have bodyguards, so whatever it is must be dangerous. I'm willing to entertain that risk, in case you're wondering about that and it's bothering you."

Tsunako-chan was back to looking stunned and was actually opening and closing her mouth soundlessly. Kyouko supposed that meant they'd hit the afternoon's threshold for conversational bombshells, so she made a show of glancing at her watch and making a dismayed sound. "Oh! I should get going, Kaasan will be expecting me home soon." She smiled at Tsunako-chan. "Why don't you think it over? If you decide you want to keep that part of your life to yourself, it's all right. We can go ahead and be friendly for as long as it lasts—it's better than nothing, right?" And would, perhaps, give her a chance to continue working on Tsunako-chan's qualms, if it seemed necessary.

She rose from her seat while Tsunako-chan was still blinking and dipped a little bow in Bianchi-san's direction. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Bianchi-san! I hope you'll join us next week. Yamamoto-kun and Gokudera-kun are nice boys, but they really don't know how to appreciate a nice piece of cake. It's all quantity over quality for boys." And might Yamamoto-kun forgive her for slandering his good name. She gave Tsunako-chan her sunniest smile. "I'll see you tomorrow, Tsunako-chan!" She waved at them both, tucking away the thoughtful way Bianchi-san was looking at her to study later, and swept out.

Well. Either that would take or it wouldn't. She'd give Tsunako-chan a few days to decide what she thought of all that, and they could move on from there.

Bianchi made herself comfortable on her branch and leaned back against the bole so she could look up at Reborn without getting a crick in her neck. "Okay, so who the hell is Sasagawa Kyouko?"

"A first-year who attends Namimori Chuu with Sawada Tsunako. Makes good but unexceptional grades. Not involved in any club activities, fairly social but seems to have very few intimates." Reborn kicked his feet in time to the facts as he listed them off. "Has one sibling, a brother a year older. Both parents are living. The father is a mid-level executive with ambitions; the mother doesn't work but supports those ambitions on the social side." He glanced down at her. "What did you think?"

What did she think? "That girl has a mind like a steel trap." Bianchi grinned, half-rueful. "And knows exactly how to hide it." Even though Reborn had told her to get the girl's measure, she'd still been a little surprised when the girl had set aside the charming airhead act to get down to business.

Though there wasn't any need to tell Reborn about that.

He made an interested sound. "Go on."

Bianchi drew a breath. "She reminds me of my mother. Sort of." Who'd been all smiling, smooth surfaces and gracefully vapid small-talk, and had been able to interrogate people so gently that they never even realized it had happened (unless they'd known to pay attention). "I was ready to swear there wasn't a single useful thought in her head till she decided it was time to ask Tsunako about the bodyguard business."

Reborn made another of his thoughtful noises. "What did Tsunako tell her?"

Because what Tsunako did with Kyouko's curiosity was perhaps as important as anything else. "It got interesting. I told her that the answers she was looking for were the kind that a person couldn't back out of, but Tsunako just told her it was better if she didn't know." Bianchi glanced down at the dark square of Tsunako's window. "And then Kyouko laid out the most cold-blooded analysis of what would happen if Tsunako cut her out of her secrets that I've ever heard a kid deliver. Hell, I've known Family heirs who couldn't do as neat a job as she did."

"In a world where Giorgio Barassi is his Family's preferred heir, that's not saying much."

Bianchi made a face at him. "You know what I mean."

"I suppose I must." Reborn fell silent, turning that over. "Tsunako?"

"Doesn't know which way to jump." It made sense. She was beginning to take this all seriously, maybe in spite of herself—the regular shooting lessons and the constant presence of bodyguards didn't really allow for anything else. Kyouko wasn't a part of that, not yet, and it made sense that Tsunako might be reluctant to let her one normal friend become part of the other part of her life.

Not that Tsunako probably recognized that that was what she was doing. Or that she wasn't going to be able to keep that part of her life from subsuming the rest of it, poor kid. Though maybe Kyouko had done some work in getting that point across.

"She would be an asset to the Family."

"No shit she would. Hell. I want that kid on our side, not anyone else's. We're lucky she wasn't born to the Cetrulli or something." Bianchi ran her fingers through her hair. "She seems willing enough, too, but left the decision in Tsunako's hands. Was really clear that it was all up to her, too."

Reborn made a discontented sound. "Pity."

Yeah, he would think so. "Grabby much?" She grinned at him. "I'm thinking it's going to be fun to watch the show, myself."

He frowned at her. "Sloppy thinking."

Bianchi laughed. "Naw. Kyouko thinks Tsunako's interesting. Kid's going to have to work pretty hard to keep that one out of it. I'd lay money on it."

Reborn didn't bother answering that, but he looked satisfied nonetheless.

Kyouko made sure to smile at Tsunako-chan and the boys the next morning, but shrugged when Tsunako-chan came by her desk at lunchtime. "No, I think I'll eat with Mochida-san today." That would give Tsunako-chan more of the time she needed to think, and Mochida was starting to complain a little that she wasn't spending enough time with him. She smiled at Tsunako-chan. "Go on ahead without me."

Lunch with the kendo club wasn't precisely a chore, but it wasn't as relaxing as lunch with Hana-chan or lunch with Tsunako-chan and the boys tended to be. When she ate with Mochida, she had to concentrate on being his girlfriend and letting the members of the kendo club see that happening. Listening attentively to Mochida and showing appreciation for his stories and finding subtle ways to flatter his ego took work in a way that sitting and laughing with Hana-chan didn't, and neither Tsunako-chan or the boys cared about having their egos stroked.

Their egos or anything else, Kyouko thought, when Mochida held her back at the end of lunch to propose catching a movie together. She blinked up at him with a practiced air of gratified surprise, though she wasn't really surprised by this latest effort to get her alone with him in something that approached privacy. She'd managed to out-maneuver him so far and had kept him from doing much more than stealing a few sloppy kisses, all without letting him suspect that was what she was doing, but that wasn't going to keep him satisfied for very much longer.

Drat it. She wished that Sakura and Yuuko would have transferred sooner so she could have selected Yamamoto-kun without upsetting the entire equilibrium of their class. Yamamoto-kun would never have made her worry about these things.

Fortunately, she'd planned ahead for this moment. "Oh, a movie!" She clapped her hands together in a show of delight. "Hana-chan and I were going to the movies this afternoon—we can all go together!"

She could just about hear the sound of his teeth grinding together, but he smiled—teeth clenched—and said, "Sure, that sounds great."

It was one more thing she was going to have to owe Hana-san, but there was no helping it.

One of these days she was going to have to permit Mochida to do at least some of the things he wanted so badly, but she wasn't in any hurry for it. She wished, not for the first time, that a boyfriend weren't so necessary.

There wasn't much help for it, though. One had to keep up appearances, and she was keeping a sharp eye out for ways of diverting Mochida's attention elsewhere. There were plenty of other girls at Namimori who would be delighted to take him off her hands. If she kept him at bay long enough, he'd certainly take up with one of them instead and she'd be able to coast on an ostensible broken heart for a while after that.

It would all pay off in the end. Most things did, as long as a person paid attention to what she was doing.

She texted Hana-chan under her desk while Neya-sensei droned on, letting her know about their change of plans for the afternoon, and paid just enough attention to their lessons not to attract attention while thinking about more interesting things. Tsunako-chan still looked troubled by yesterday's conversation, which was too bad when there was no need for it. But then, Tsunako-chan was the kind of person who had scruples, which was what Kyouko-san liked about her.

Inspiration struck her; perhaps it would be a good idea to remind Tsunako-chan that she'd meant it about being friendly. She had to rely on more old-fashioned forms of surreptitious communication—passing notes on the sly—and made a mental note to get Tsunako-chan's number later, assuming that she had her own phone.

Tsunako-chan looked surprised by the note and even more surprised by the invitation, but it cleared some of the trouble from her expression as she snuck a smile over her shoulder, nodding yes. Kyouko passed the lesson in English in wondering how much time Tsunako-chan had spent worrying about not getting to be friends anymore.

As if Kyouko intended to give up that easily.

Tsunako-chan looked so pleased to have been invited to the movies, and Mochida so put out by the fact that there was an entire crowd with her when they met up at the theater, that it put Kyouko into a good mood, which was lucky. She needed most of it. The movie they settled on wasn't really to her taste and Mochida claimed the seat next to hers, which was what boyfriends were supposed to do. At least the crowd meant he couldn't steer them to the back row, and the fact that Yamamoto-kun was sitting on his other side meant he couldn't try to steal kisses anyway.

It was all going to have to be a trade-off, she decided, and stared fixedly at the screen, holding herself in place as Mochida put the arm between their seats up. He wrapped his arm around her and drew her against him. No kissing in exchange for fairly blatant cuddling; that was acceptable. It would play well on the school gossip circuit, since she'd seen Ayaka-chan and Junko-chan sitting a few rows back when they'd come in. Her and Mochida's silhouettes would look fairly chaste, so no one besides Hana-chan would have to know that when he'd gotten his arm around her, it was so that he could put his hand on her breast.

Kyouko controlled her breathing carefully, leaned her head against his shoulder, and did her best not to wince whenever he squeezed too hard.

It was a very long ninety minutes, nevertheless. She was very glad to see the credits finally roll, and gladder still that Mochida lived in the wrong direction to walk her home and that she could walk with Hana-chan instead. Hana-chan walked very fast, frowning, and didn't say anything for three blocks. When she finally did, her tone was disgusted. "What I don't understand is why you picked him. We have a whole school full of perfectly nice boys, and you picked that one?"

Kyouko shrugged at her. "He suited my purposes."

Hana-chan's mouth tightened. "That's cold."

"Maybe, but he hasn't noticed yet. And he won't." He didn't think clearly enough for that, even when he wasn't preoccupied with other things.

"That wasn't what I meant."

Kyouko looked at Hana-chan, blinking a bit—oh. Of course. She hastened to reassure her. "I don't really mind, you know. It's not so bad." But Hana-chan was a romantic and didn't seem to be buying it, so it was time to change the subject. "Anyway. I was thinking—he might get on well with Chisato-senpai. What do you think?" Chisato-senpai was in Mochida's year and liked him (and most of the rest of the boys in the school, come to it) almost as much as she liked being popular.

Hana-chan frowned and said, "I guess." She looked like she still had more that she wanted to say, but she didn't, so they spent the rest of the walk home talking about Chisato-senpai and other, safer things.

Ayaka-chan and Junko-chan didn't fail her; the school's gossip circuit fairly buzzed the next day with talk about her and Mochida, just like it was supposed to. Kyouko put in plenty of practice at looking wide-eyed and blushing on cue and making it look as if she were trying very hard to change the subject. She supposed there was a certain satisfaction in seeing things working out the way she'd planned for them to, though it did mean spending her lunch with classmates clustered around her desk and letting them get on with dissecting every detail of her and Mochida's developing romance.

Tsunako-chan wasn't one of those classmates. That wasn't a surprise either; even now that Yuuko and Sakura had transferred away, she still tended to hang back from the rest of them, though Kyouko often caught her looking on and watching the way their social interchanges worked. She was watching today, too, and frowning just a bit over it like she was seeing something she didn't quite understand. Kyouko would have liked to ask her what it was, but there was no chance of doing that, not yet. Perhaps once Tsunako-chan had decided.

She estimated another day for that, two at the most, but Tsunako-chan surprised her by catching her during phys ed. She fidgeted with the hem of her shirt and bit her lip till it had gone white before saying, all in a rush, "Do you want to come over to my house after school? I wanted to, um. Talk to you. But you don't have to if you're busy—"

"I'd love to," Kyouko said over the stuttering tumble of her apologies, pleased, because talking sounded promising. That didn't make Tsunako-chan look any less nervous, which also seemed like a good sign.

The boys took it in stride when Kyouko left the school gates with them and Tsunako-chan; they spent the first part of the walk to Tsunako-chan's house talking about how much homework Neya-sensei liked to assign and the second part listening to Gokudera-kun losing his temper and treating them to an impromptu lecture on the foundational place of algebra in modern civilization (after Yamamoto-kun had wondered aloud what earthly use factoring polynomials might possibly be). Gokudera-kun punctuated his lecture with furious gestures of his cigarette and remarkably vivid curses; Kyouko enjoyed the performance probably just as much as Yamamoto-kun did, if for different reasons.

She did hope that Tsunako-chan was planning on explaining things, because she really wanted to know why someone who dressed, spoke, and acted like a delinquent was well-versed enough to also talk like he read textbooks in his spare time.

Whatever else was going on, the boys seemed to take the bodyguard thing seriously. Kyouko knew that Yamamoto-kun lived in the opposite direction from the quiet neighborhood Tsunako-chan directed them to, and goodness only knew what Gokudera-kun's living circumstances were, but they stuck to Tsunako-chan's side till they came up to the gate with the Sawada name on a plate beside it. Tsunako-chan hesitated then and glanced at them. "Um. Kyouko-chan and I are going to talk about the, um. Mafia game. Did you two want to come in, too?"

It must have been the first time she'd issued an invitation like that, because she looked and sounded uncertain about whether she ought to do such a thing. Kyouko filed that, plus the words mafia game, to the side so she could watch the boys' reactions.

Yamamoto-kun grinned. "Sure, sounds like fun."

It made Gokudera-kun look like he wanted to murder him, even as he was already shaking his head no. "I can't, I—got things. To do. Yeah. Sorry, Sawada-san."

That was interesting, because if Kyouko were any judge at all, he had really, really wanted to say yes instead. And Tsunako-chan looked, just faintly, relieved that he hadn't—well, that made sense; it was obvious that she wasn't as comfortable with Gokudera-kun, despite his apparent devotion to her. "Oh, well. I guess I'll see you tomorrow morning, then." She smiled at him and they left him on the sidewalk by himself, practically chewing on the butt of his cigarette in silent fury.

Another mystery to unravel, that, and by the sounds of it she was going to get the chance to do it. Kyouko smiled at nothing in particular as Tsunako-chan ushered them inside, calling out that she was home. They were still exchanging their shoes for slippers when a woman came to greet them. She had the same slight build and coloring as Tsunako-chan did and her smile was bright. "Oh, so you must be Tsunako's friends! Reborn had said you would be coming over."

Kyouko wanted to blink at that—he had? But she hadn't seen him since the other day at lunch, and was fairly certain Tsunako-chan hadn't seen him all afternoon. Another mystery. She gave Sawada-san her best smile. "I'm Sasagawa Kyouko. Thank you so much for letting us intrude this afternoon!" She capped it off with a bow, extra-polite, while Yamamoto-kun introduced himself as well.

Sawada-san beamed at them both. "Nonsense, it's not an intrusion at all. I'm just glad to see Tsunako finally bringing friends home. You all can go upstairs, honey. I left some snacks in your room."

Kyouko ignored the tactless finally and Tsunako-chan's tiny wince and smiled back at Sawada-san. "Oh, that sounds lovely. Thank you!"

"My room is this way." Tsunako-chan sounded like she wanted to put an end to the whole conversation, which Kyouko couldn't blame her for. She led them upstairs to a bedroom that was cluttered without being too messy. Kyouko cast a quick, surreptitious look around it but didn't see anything terribly unusual about it—the bedspread was pink; there was a shelf over the bed with a collection of battered stuffed animals, but the walls were otherwise undecorated. The desk had things stacked on it—some schoolbooks, but mostly manga and magazines. And there was a kotatsu sitting in the center of the floor, currently occupied by a tray of cookies and sodas and Bianchi-san, who was leafing through a magazine.

Kyouko smiled when she looked up. "Oh, Bianchi-san! I didn't know you were going to be here." She claimed a seat at the kotatsu next to her, smiling as she folded her legs beneath herself. "It's so nice to see you again so soon."

Bianchi-san marked the page by folding the corner down as Yamamoto-kun and Tsunako-chan got settled. "Oh, I'm always around." She glanced at the other two; her smile turned a bit crooked. "No Hayato?"

Tsunako-chan shrugged. "He said he couldn't."

Bianchi-san's mouth crooked even further. "I suppose he did."

Kyouko selected one of the cookies as she thought about that exchange, yet another one of the strange interactions that seemed to surround Tsunako-chan these days. Such interesting people. She nibbled the edge of her cookie and smiled across the table at Tsunako-chan. "So! Tell me about the mafia game."

Tsunako-chan's expression immediately twisted like she'd just gotten a stomachache and was only partially resigned to it. "It's not really a game."

She'd already said that, but Yamamoto-kun bounced into the conversation before Kyouko could point that out. "Sawada-chan is the heir to a mafia empire, and I'm one of her bodyguards! So are Gokudera and Bianchi-san and Reborn. We all have to make sure she stays safe from her Family's enemies."

He got full marks for making that all come off like it was the best thing ever, Kyouko decided, while Tsunako-chan looked like she wanted to hide her face from his enthusiasm. Bianchi-san, sounding amused, made a correction to that. "Bodyguard and tutor. And also, not the heir. An heir."

Kyouko nibbled on her cookie, absorbing all that and watching Tsunako-chan. She let the things Yamamoto-kun said go by unchallenged, however embarrassing she found them, but lost the how is this my life? and everyone I know is crazy expressions at the first mention of the other heir. "Exactly." Her tone was flat. "There's another heir and he can get on with being the heir just fine without me."

That had all the hallmarks of being an argument she'd laid out many times. So did the way Bianchi-san countered it with, "Remember, it's not actually that easy."

Interesting. Kyouko swallowed the last of the cookie and dusted the crumbs from her fingers, perfectly aware that Yamamoto-kun was watching her and that Tsunako-chan looked like she expected her to laugh at the joke. "The mafia? I see." She smiled when they all looked at her. "I was thinking the yakuza, actually, but this makes more sense, given the Italy connection."

Yamamoto-kun's eyes were laughing, Bianchi-san looked pleased, and Tsunako-chan stared at her in clear disbelief. Kyouko shrugged at her; she'd said she wanted to go to Italy, hadn't she? Of course she was aware of some of the more interesting facets of Italian culture.

She selected another cookie. "So. Perhaps you could tell me a little more?"

They really were very good cookies. She would have to ask Sawada-san for the recipe before she went home.

Kyouko kept smiling until Tsunako-chan managed to understand that she was serious about wanting to know more. Then she listened carefully as Tsunako-chan stumbled into an account of the afternoon she'd come home from school to find her father waiting to tell her just what it was he did for a living and how she was descended from one of the oldest, most powerful Families in the mafia—how she was the only legitimate heir that Family had left—and how that had changed everything. It did explain a lot, even if there were things that Tsunako-chan wasn't saying. Kyouko let her ramble on, with occasional remarks from Yamamoto-kun and Bianchi-san to supplement the story, while her mind raced ahead to fill in some of the blanks.

Two heirs, but Tsunako-chan was the legitimate heir. The other one was male, and Tsunako-chan didn't really want to have anything to do with any of it, though most of her protests were resigned ones. Pro forma.

Put together like that, the conclusion was obvious. Kyouko leaned her chin on her hand after Tsunako-chan came to her conclusion, still eyeing Kyouko like she expected her to start laughing any second. Kyouko hummed between her teeth. "Did you at least get an omiai for the other heir, or do they expect you to marry him sight unseen?"

Yamamoto-kun looked like something had just come together for him; Bianchi-san looked delighted.

And Tsunako-chan scowled. "It doesn't matter. I'm not going to marry him." She stopped then and stared at Kyouko. "Wait—how did you—you believe all this?"

Kyouko shrugged at her. "Of course." Perhaps it would help to point out that Tousan sometimes had shady dealings? She considered it for a moment, but—no, if it were only her and Tsunako-chan, she would. "It makes a number of things make sense." She smiled at Tsunako-chan then, open and pleased. "I'm so glad you told me. We're going to be such good friends." She dusted the crumbs from her fingers again and smiled around the table. "So, since we're here, do you two want to get started on Neya-sensei's homework? I bet it'll be easier if we all work together."

Tsunako-chan looked so surprised by the change of subject—or perhaps by Kyouko's open declaration of friendship—that she blinked for several seconds before uttering a short, disbelieving laugh. "Neya-sensei's homework. Sure, why not?"

Kyouko smiled at her, pleased, because this was going to be lovely, just as soon as Tsunako-chan permitted herself to believe that it was real.

She turned out to be right, of course. The homework went much easier, and faster, with the three of them working together. By the time she glanced at the time and realized how late it was getting, they'd gotten through most of it and she'd been able to explain some of the trickier bits to Tsunako-chan. Sawada-san invited them back as they were getting their shoes back on, and Kyouko, satisfied with how things were coming together, felt that it had been a most productive afternoon.

She continued to feel that way until Yamamoto-kun followed her down the sidewalk and said, "You mind if I walk with you?"

The question only sounded casual; when Kyouko glanced up at him, she saw that he wasn't even pretending to smile. "No, of course not. We might as well, since we're heading the same way." Now what could he want?

The nice thing about Yamamoto-kun was that he didn't leave a person hanging. They walked a few paces down the sidewalk as he frowned. Then he made up his mind and said, "I know this really isn't any of my business, but I thought you should know that Mochida-senpai, um. Likes to brag."

The pit of her stomach went cold. Kyouko sucked in a breath and was very proud of how calm she managed to keep her expression. "Does he?"

Yamamoto-kun nodded. "Yeah. Um. Most of the sports teams know the two of you sat together at the movies yesterday."

What a discreet way of describing that awful ninety minutes. Kyouko gritted her teeth together until her jaw ached. "I see."

Yamamoto-kun took a breath and expelled it between his teeth, puffing out his cheeks. "Yeah. Like I said, I know it's none of my business, but I thought you would want to know."

"Thank you," Kyouko managed, because it was important to be grateful to the people who did one a service no matter how irritated one happened to be. "I do." Drat Mochida and his big, stupid mouth.

They walked in silence for half a block before Yamamoto-kun said, "You want any help?" He glanced her way, eyes sober with the offer to lend whatever assistance he could.

It was a tempting offer. "I—need to think, first." Technically, this didn't have to be a bad thing. Mochida talked about the things she permitted him to do, she let it percolate through the school, and then found a reason for him to end it all when her purposes had been served—but that left a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach and a sick, iron taste in her mouth. Letting it go could get out of hand so easily, could leave her dealing with a lot of nasty innuendo for—a long time.

Drat Mochida.

"Um." Yamamoto-kun cleared her throat; she didn't like the way that sounded, reluctant and embarrassed. "I think that, um. There might be a bet. About how long it will take to, um. You know."

Kyouko hissed between her teeth in spite of herself. "How dare he. How dare he."

Yamamoto-kun blew out another breath. "Um. Yeah, I don't know. Sorry." He glanced down at her again and reached over to give her hand a quick squeeze. "Beat him up for you, if you want."

Kyouko blinked, startled at first by the offer. Well, Yamamoto had been someone she could count on since the day she'd caught him looking a little too long at Ogihara-kun and had to take him aside to explain how she preferred looking at Chisato-senpai just to keep him from panicking. "Let me think about it." It was a possibility, but there was no sense in acting in haste. "But—maybe."

"Just say the word," he promised.

That eased some of the cold feeling, at least, so she managed to find a smile for him. "You're probably the nicest boy I know."

He grinned. "Does that mean you've decided to dump Mochida-senpai and go out with me after all?"

"Silly boy." Kyouko swatted his shoulder lightly. "You and I don't need to be dating in order to compare notes on pretty boys like Gokudera-kun." He colored up and she smiled in spite of her dark mood. Yes, she'd thought so.

Yamamoto-kun cleared his throat. "I wonder why he didn't come in with us."

She considered teasing him a bit more, but that would have been ungenerous. "I don't know. Does Bianchi-san know him?" It had seemed like she must.

"I guess." He shrugged. "They're both hitmen for the Ninth, way I understand it."

Hitmen? Tsunako-chan hadn't mentioned that part. Interesting. "Isn't he a little… young?"

"I guess. But he's pretty good with the bombs he uses." Yamamoto-kun trailed off, looking thoughtful about something, before he shook it off. "Anyway, I've never seen the two of them together."

Interesting, and something to look into. But—later. Tempting as it was to let that puzzle distract her from her own problems, she had other things to deal with first. Ignoring a problem rarely made it go away, or so Tousan always said.

She and Yamamoto-kun didn't say anything else till they came to the corner where their paths diverged. Kyouko stopped to look at Yamamoto-kun full in the face. "Thank you."

His smile was wry. "Hey, don't mention it."

Definitely the nicest boy she knew. She watched him amble on his way. It really was a pity they weren't each other's types.

Yamamoto-kun had said that nearly all the sports teams knew, so she stopped by her brother's room after dinner. He was supposed to have been working on homework; when she let herself in, he hastily stuffed the boxing magazine under his book before he realized it was her. "Niisan." She tried to make her tone disapproving, but couldn't help her smile. "If you don't keep your grades up, they'll kick you out of the boxing club. You know that, right?"

"I've been studying!" He waved a hand at the book in front of him. "I was just taking a little break."

He was all innocence, but Kyouko knew her brother better than that. "Of course. Just make sure those breaks don't last too long." She studied him for a moment, but if there was anything on his mind besides boxing and his magazine, she couldn't see it. "I wanted to ask you something." He brightened. "Have you heard anything about Mochida-senpai lately? Talked to him at all?"

Niisan's brow furrowed. "Mochida… oh, he's kendo, right? Man, I keep trying to get him to try boxing, he'd be extremely awesome at it—"

That either meant that he hadn't heard anything, or that if he had, it hadn't managed to penetrate the boxing haze. Kyouko felt a moment's wistfulness for the days when her brother had defended her from the world, but—no, she fought her own battles now, and it was better that way. "You're sure you haven't talked to him lately? Heard anything?"

"Huh? No, I don't think so—hey, did you hear that Tanaka joined the boxing club? Is that great or what?" Niisan beamed at her, all pride and enthusiasm.

Kyouko smiled at him. "That's really great, Niisan. Congratulations." She lingered for a few moments, letting him enthuse about Tanaka-senpai and the boxing club, before reminding him that he had studying to do and leaving him to it, fairly certain that he'd go right back to his magazine the moment she did.

Bianchi felt satisfied with the afternoon's work—Kyouko was going to be good for Tsunako, she could tell—right up until she said as much to Reborn, who merely grunted in reply. She squinted up at him. "That was not a happy sound, Reborn."

He grunted again. Bianchi sighed and made herself comfortable while she waited his thoughtful spell out. Presumably it had something to do with his decision to shadow Yamamoto and Kyouko home.

It was a long time before he said, "That one is young to play the games she does."

Bianchi raised her eyebrows. "She's older than some of the adults I've known in my time."

"Maybe. But she's inexperienced."

Bianchi considered the way he said that and let out a breath. "What's going on?"

He told her and she grimaced at how ugly it was. "That is young," she said, finally, because there were some things that a girl Kyouko's age shouldn't have to put up with, regardless of how well she played the social game. "We going to transfer him, too?" She considered that. "Or better, he could come down with food poisoning." The world might be better off with one less budding creep in it. Hayato would probably guess what had happened, but she doubted he'd say anything to Tsunako. He had to be plugged into the school's rumor mill by now; he'd understand.

Reborn huffed softly above her. "Tempting. Perhaps. I'd like to see what she does first. Perhaps what Tsunako does as well. Assuming she notices. Or that the girl says anything."

"She might," Bianchi said, not entirely sure which of the girls she meant. Maybe she meant both. "I'll study up on the Mochida twerp anyway, if you don't mind."

"I suppose everybody needs hobbies."

Bianchi grinned up at him and didn't need to be able to see his face to know that his smile was just as vicious as her own.

Kyouko would have liked to be surprised that there were already starting to be hints that the story Mochida had been circulating had begun to make the jump from the boys' circles to the girls'. She could see it in the quick, sidelong glances her classmates stole, the hints of speculation lurking in their eyes—subtle eddies in the currents that could signal a turn of the tide. She was going to have to do something.

She spent the morning brooding on what she could do and had not come to any real decision by lunch. Hana-chan swooped down on her before anyone else could and dragged her outside to eat and confer. "You need to know—" she began.

Kyouko shook her head. "I already know."

Some of the grim expression on Hana-chan's face eased. "Your brother?"

"No, I heard it from someone else." Though Niisan might be a plausible alibi for Yamamoto-kun. It wasn't like Niisan would mind, assuming he even noticed.

Though Hana-chan clearly wanted to know how she'd heard, if not from her brother, she immediately turned to more practical concerns. "I was sitting right next to you. You want me to say it's not true?"

Kyouko looked down at her bento, not really seeing it, and was tempted to say yes, to deny the whole thing and to break it off with Mochida in affront. "I—it would be silly to have gone to all this trouble to get a boyfriend and then abandon it now."

"I don't see why. He's a creep." Hana-chan pushed her hair back from her face, frowning. "I say dump him and hold out for someone better." She shook her head. "I don't even know why you need a boyfriend right now, since so many of them are idiots. Or creeps. Creepy idiots."

No, Hana-chan wouldn't understand. Kyouko stirred her chopsticks through the sliced vegetables, wondering whether it was something she could explain, and decided not. "It's just one of those things. Like having just the right accessory for an outfit."

Hana-chan raised her eyebrows. "Pretty expensive accessory. Are you sure—"

"It'll be fine," Kyouko said. "I can handle it."

And she would, too, just as soon as she'd figured out how.

Tsunako-chan caught up to her between sprints in phys ed, worry wrinkling her forehead. "Are you—is everything okay?"

Kyouko blinked at her, giving her the best show of surprise she could manage. It wasn't difficult; she hadn't expected Tsunako-chan to have heard anything. "Of course I am! Why do you ask?"

Tsunako-chan chewed on her lower lip. "I don't—you've looked worried today. So I wondered."

"I looked worried?" Kyouko repeated, astonished, because she'd put extra effort into making sure to look as perfectly composed as ever.

It was the wrong approach to take; Tsunako-chan winced back. "I—maybe I was wrong! It just seemed like there's been something on your mind. I guess it was a weird impression I had."

Kyouko didn't know what to make of that, but Tsunako-chan looked so concerned that she'd given offense that reassuring her was the first thing to do. "I suppose there's something I've been thinking about, but it's nothing you need to worry about. I can take care of it."

"Oh, well…" Tsunako-chan chewed on her lip some more; if that was something she made a habit of, it was a wonder her mouth wasn't in tatters. "If there's anything I can do… you'll let me know, right?" She twisted her hands together. "Since we're friends?" She lowered her eyes, coloring. "I've never really had a friend before, but… I've always thought it would be nice to have someone to do things for." She glanced up, her eyes earnest. "Even if it's just to listen."

Kyouko drew a breath, weighing that offer against the risks of showing too much. On the other hand, Tsunako-chan had shared some things with her, so there was quid pro quo to consider. She smiled at Tsunako-chan, who was starting to look very nervous. "Do you want to work on your homework together this afternoon? Just the two of us?"

Tsunako-chan blinked, as if she were surprised by this non sequitur, then smiled as she got it. "I'd love to!"

She looked far less pleased later, once they were sitting across from each other—just the two of them—and Kyouko had explained that Mochida was telling things he had no right to. In fact, she looked downright indignant. "That's not right!" Tsunako-chan's face was flushed and her hands were curled into fists in front of her. "He shouldn't—that's—how dare he? Why would he lie like that?"

Oh, dear. She hadn't quite expected that. Kyouko reached across the table and laid her hands on top of Tsunako-chan's. "He's not lying." That was part of the real problem. Even if she denied it, he'd know it had been true.

Tsunako-chan's eyes went wide and her flush went deeper, all the way down her throat. "Oh!" Then she rallied, faster than Kyouko would have thought possible. "He still shouldn't say those kinds of things about you."

Kyouko released her hands and settled herself again. "No," she agreed. "He shouldn't." She curled her hands around her glass of lemonade, running her thumb through the condensation beading on the side as her thoughts turned in the tangled circles they'd been going in since Yamamoto-kun had first brought it up. They were beginning to be so familiar that they felt almost comfortable.

"You don't really like him, do you?"

The question startled Kyouko out of her thoughts. She stared at Tsunako-chan, disconcerted, until Tsunako-chan waved her hands and began to stutter out an apology for being rude. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that, it was really rude of me—"

That was twice now that Tsunako-chan had surprised her by seeing something Kyouko had thought she'd kept concealed. She held up a hand and Tsunako-chan's apologies stumbled to a halt. "Would you mind telling me why you thought that, please?" If she were giving herself away, then she needed to know. Wounded pride could just go hang.

Tsunako-chan's fading blush returned in full force. "I don't—I don't really know. It's just—" She threw her hands into the air. "I'm sorry."

Kyouko took a breath and let her frustration out on the exhale. "It's all right. It's true enough."

"Then why do you—" Tsunako-chan stopped and clapped a hand over her mouth, looking appalled at herself.

Kyouko couldn't help laughing a little at that. "Go out with him? Because I decided it was worth it." Had thought she'd had the measure of him. Had been overly optimistic, it seemed.

Tsunako-chan's eyes went very wide. "It's not, though." Her voice was soft. "Not worth that. Is it?"

Kyouko opened her mouth to say that it was, or that it didn't matter that much, and found that she couldn't, not to that clear, certain gaze. Not when Tsunako-chan was that earnest, even after seeing firsthand how awful people could be to each other. "I don't know. Maybe not."

Tsunako-chan was the one who reached across the table then to touch Kyouko's hand. "We should stop him." Her voice was quiet and very, very sure. "If you actually liked him, it would be one thing. But you don't. So he shouldn't get to do this to you. It's not right."

It had been a long time since Kyouko had felt shaken by anything, but Tsunako-chan's eyes were practically glowing, and—she was only saying what Yamamoto-kun had implied and Hana-chan had hinted at, but it was reinforced by her own impulses, and—"There's a reason." She barely recognized her own voice, it was so strained. Tsunako-chan's eyes went a little wider. "Boys aren't—they're nice enough, but I'd mostly rather—I'd rather spend my time with girls."

It was only the second time she'd ever admitted it out loud and she didn't know what she would do if Tsunako-chan took the news badly. Kyouko barely breathed as Tsunako-chan stared at her, eyes wide, before she said, "Oh. Oh, Kyouko." She released Kyouko's hand but was scrambling around the kotatsu before Kyouko had time to do more than flinch. The arms she wrapped around Kyouko were awkward, but—"You shouldn't have to let him touch you just because of that. It's not right. You shouldn't have to do anything you don't want!"

Kyouko sat, frozen by that, before she reached up to lay a hand on Tsunako-chan's shoulder. "It's okay, I—" She knew how social games worked, all their little rules and how to manipulate them to get her own ends. She knew what the costs and the trade-offs were. She'd grown up known them, and hadn't ever worried about how fair they were. Or weren't.

"It's not," Tsunako-chan said, low and fierce, and of course she was thinking of her own situation, but Kyouko couldn't blame her for that. "You shouldn't—there's no reason you should have to put up with that. There has to be a better way. You deserve that."

"You did hear me tell you that I mostly prefer girls, didn't you?" Kyouko asked, all bemused.

"Then you should wait to find someone you like!" Tsunako-chan flared. "Whichever! It doesn't matter."

Kyouko closed her hand on Tsunako-chan's shoulder without quite deciding to do it. "That's not how it works."

"We'll make it be how it works!"

It didn't make any sense to believe that, even when Tsunako-chan's voice rang with such determination, but Kyouko wanted to. Very much. "Tsunako-chan…"

Tsunako-chan released her and gave her an intent look. "At least dump him. He's a creep, he's being a creep to you, so you don't have to stay with him when everyone knows he's a creep, right?" She bit her lip. "Wouldn't that be better than—than—"

Kyouko began to shake her head, but—Tsunako-chan did have a point. The rumor mill was already turning. "I might as well." If nothing else, she wouldn't have to put up with his attempts to get closer any more. Which would be a relief, if she were completely honest with herself. So that was one advantage. There might be others.

Tsunako-chan seemed relieved; perhaps that was one of them. "Oh. Good." She ventured a tiny smile. "That will be a lot better for you, don't you think?"

Kyouko drew a breath and nodded. "Yes," she said. "I suppose it will be." And if she were going to continue being honest with herself, the relief of knowing that she was going to do something about Mochida—something definitive, before things had to go any further—already made her feel much better.

But now, perhaps it was time to turn to more comfortable topics. "Shall we work on our homework? If we get it done now, we'll have more of the weekend to ourselves."

Tsunako-chan blinked before she smiled, rueful. "I guess that would be nice."

Kyouko thought so herself, but suspected that things were not so straightforward for Tsunako-chan. "Do you already have plans for the weekend?"

"Weekends are for lessons." Tsunako-chan sounded more resigned than anything else. "From Reborn and Bianchi-san."

"Oh?" Kyouko dug into her bookbag for her books and notebooks. "What kinds of lessons?" Best not to sound too curious; it might embarrass Tsunako-chan or make her retreat into silence.

"Weird things." Tsunako-chan made a face. "Very weird things."

Kyouko studied her for a moment, wondering what things Tsunako-chan still wasn't telling her. Well. It would all come out eventually, wouldn't it? She could be patient. "Well, in that case, let's get this math homework out of the way, shall we?"

That was Friday; Kyouko had made plans for Saturday, shopping with Hana-chan, who looked relieved when Kyouko glanced across a rack of shirts and said, casual, "You can say it's a lie if you like."

Sunday was a quiet day; the kendo team had a match scheduled. Kyouko had originally planned to attend, but circumstances had changed since she'd told Mochida that she would be there. She passed the day quietly, finishing the last of her homework and laying plans for the ways Mochida might react and how best to confront him.

She half-wished he would just call her so they could have it out that way, but her phone remained silent all evening. Calling him wasn't anything she cared to do, not when she'd decided to adopt a chilly, offended front.

Monday dawned clear. She took extra care with her uniform and hair and set off for Namimori Chuu with her head held high and determination in her soul.

One way or another, things were going to change by the time the day was over.

Some of the other members of the kendo team also had girlfriends, so she didn't find it too surprising that there was a certain amount of quiet talk already buzzing around the school by the time she arrived. She pretended to be oblivious to the glance cast her way and danced out of the way Ayaka-chan wanted to draw her into a conversation about Mochida by turning it to Ayaka-chan herself. At lunch she lingered in the classroom just long enough to give Mochida a chance to approach before falling in with Tsunako-chan and the boys and heading upstairs to the roof to eat. The snub wasn't a subtle one, but then, neither was Mochida.

Yamamoto-kun got it, at any rate. He grinned at her over his bento, looking relieved, while Gokudera-kun seemed intent on deconstructing something that had happened over the weekend—some encounter with a group of thugs that the three of them had fought? Though Tsunako-chan seemed more embarrassed by the whole thing than anything else.

Kyouko made a mental note of that—there was more to this mafia game of theirs than Tsunako-chan had let on, she felt sure of it—and sailed back downstairs after lunch with the confident sense that things were falling into place.

Junko-chan wanted to talk about Mochida after lunch and was far less artful about it than Ayaka-chan had been. Instead of hinting around the subject, she asked about him outright, which Kyouko had been counting on her to do. She mustered her coldest tones and looked up at Junko-chan. "I have no interest in talking about Mochida-senpai," she said, dropping a generous helping of disdain into her tone and pitching her voice just loud enough to carry.

There was a lot of surreptitious texting going on under desks and behind books that afternoon. Kyouko pretended not to notice it at all and only glanced at her own phone from time to time. It took until fairly late in the afternoon for the news to reach Mochida, which was less efficient than it could have been, but that was fine. He figured things out before she had to change for phys ed and sent her a message demanding a meeting immediately after school. Kyouko frowned a little at his choice of location—he wanted to meet in the secluded yard behind the school for privacy, did he? That suggested a number of things, none of them entirely to her liking, but at least it was a meeting. With any luck, they could get this over with and be done with it.

She let him dangle as long as she could before sending her reply, brushed aside Hana-chan's offer to walk home together, and made her way against the tide of students streaming away from the building in order to find her way around to the back of the school, which was quiet and sheltered from easy view of the windows or the sports fields. Their teachers liked the yard behind the building for when they needed a bit of time away from student eyes, or so she'd heard, and lots of people met here to confess to each other.

There was no one in the yard but Mochida when she arrived; he was pacing the length of it, expression dark. He whirled on her when he realized that she'd arrived, scowling, and said, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Kyouko stared at him, keeping her expression calm and chilly, and counted off ten heartbeats before raising her eyebrows at him, which was one of Kaasan's techniques, and worked as well on him as it did on anyone Kaasan had cause to be displeased with. "I don't know, senpai. Why don't you tell me?"

He wasn't completely stupid (she wouldn't have put up with him at all if he were); she saw the understanding flash across his face. He knew that she was aware of the things he'd been saying about her and that she was unhappy about it. The next moment he spread his hands and gave her the smile and shrug that had made him seem fairly charming and attractive. "Aw, c'mon, you gotta help me out here. You're acting all pissed off and I haven't even done anything." His tone was wheedling—conciliating—and he'd dropped some of the open irritation.

Did he really think he was going to be able to talk his way out of this? Kyouko narrowed her eyes, studying that placating smile, and concluded that he did. More fool he. "No," she said, cold and deliberate. "You haven't. But you like to talk as if you had, don't you?"

Mochida flushed; that shot had hit home. "What are you talking about? I don't get it."

The problem was that he'd never bothered to pay attention to her capabilities at all. Kyouko gave him a long, cold look, counting off her rapid heartbeats. "I don't know which is more offensive," she said. "That you kiss and tell, that you exaggerate everything, that you have a bet with Okita-senpai that you can get me in bed by the end of the summer, or that you only think that bet is only worth five thousand yen."

He was surprised enough to blurt out, "How did you—" before he recalled himself and laughed. "Kyouko, I don't know what you're talking about."

"Stop using my given name." She bit out each word, enunciating them precisely. "You have no right to it." She waited a moment for that to sink in and continued. "As to the other, did you really think I wouldn't find out? That you could make up lies about me to entertain your friends and yourself and that I wouldn't know about it? That's pathetic. Extremely pathetic." Kyouko paused a moment to gauge the level of the flush creeping up his throat. "It amazes me that you managed to conceal how pathetic you are long enough to persuade me to date you."

Even his ears were turning red; he had forgotten that he was trying to hide how angry he was. "Persuade you?" Mochida took a step towards her, hands curling and uncurling at his side. "I didn't have to persuade you, you practically threw yourself at me."

Kyouko kept an eye on his hands and his eyes. "Is that what you've told yourself?" She laughed and watched him flinch from it. "Really? When you had to ask me four different times if I would date you? Please. You shouldn't flatter yourself so much, senpai. It makes you even less attractive."

That was the last pebble clicking into place to trigger the landslide. Mochida made an inarticulate sound of fury and came at her.

If he'd been any less angry, if she hadn't been ready and expecting it and planning for it, it never would have worked. He was larger than she was, stronger, and more trained for such things. As in everything else, though, he had underestimated her, so Kyouko was able to step aside from his rush, seize his wrist, and use his momentum to twist it behind him and bring him down, just like every aikido lesson Haruna-sensei had given her had trained her to do (because, as Kaasan said, sometimes words weren't enough to deflect an opponent's blow, and she had been determined not to let Niisan fight any more battles for her sake). She followed up her advantage, twisting his arm tight and pressing her knee against the small of his back, holding him down as he swore at her.

"Now let me tell you how this is going to go," she said, making her tones sweet and cheerful. "Whenever anyone asks you why you and I are no longer dating, you'll tell them it's because I found out you were spreading those nasty lies about me. You'll make it very clear that they were lies. And if you should happen to convince someone else to date you, you will keep your mouth shut about anything you and she happen to do in private. Do you understand me so far?"

"What happens if I don't, you crazy bitch?" He sounded positively furious, though that changed to a grunt of discomfort as she twisted his arm tighter.

"Then I'll have a splendid time making sure the entire school knows how a tiny first-year girl dislocated the kendo team captain's shoulder," Kyouko told him, applying a bit more pressure to his arm.

He yelped; the sound was gratifying. "No one would ever believe you!"

Before Kyouko could answer, someone else said, "Oh, I don't know. I think they would." When she looked up, surprised, she saw that Yamamoto-kun was grinning hard and that Gokudera-kun was right beside him, holding up his phone and recording the whole thing. "She's got witnesses, you know." Tsunako-chan was hanging back, standing behind the boys. Her face was a little pale, but no less determined for it.

Kyouko felt the shudder run through Mochida then. "You bitch."

Kyouko set aside the unexpected presence of allies and twisted his arm more tightly. "What was that, senpai? I didn't quite understand it."

He yelped as she bore down on his shoulder. "All right! I'll do it, okay?"

"What is it that you'll be doing?" Kyouko asked him.

"Saying we broke up because I was spreading lies." His voice was taut and angry.

"And?" she prompted him.

"Keeping my mouth shut in the future."

"Good," she said. "Your word on it, if you please."

She thought that he was going to protest and twisted his arm a little further. He grunted. "I promise."

"Thank you." Kyouko leaned down and said, quietly, "If you break it, I'll know. Remember that. And I won't forgive you for it." She gave him a moment to absorb that before rising and letting go of him. "I never want to speak to you again," she said as he scrambled to his feet. "Get out of my sight."

Mochida gave her one last resentful look and went.

Kyouko watched him go, taking deep breaths and finally registering the adrenaline coursing through her, making her hands want to shake. Then she turned to the boys and to Tsunako-chan. "My goodness," she said, as cheerfully as she could, while Gokudera-kun fiddled with his phone. "What are the three of you doing here?"

She'd thought that Yamamoto-kun would be the one to answer, but Tsunako-chan did. "Reborn said you and Mochida-senpai would be meeting here. I thought that maybe we should come along too, just in case."

Kyouko blinked, considering that. "I had it under control. You didn't need to do that."

Tsunako-chan shrugged at her, helpless. "Maybe? But you don't have to, right? Since we're friends?"

Kyouko drew a breath, surprised, watching Yamamoto-kun grin and Gokudera-kun give her a stealthy, half-respectful glance. "Oh," she said. "I—suppose you're right. Thank you."

Tsunako-chan's smile was shy. "You're welcome." She laughed then, rueful. "Though I guess you didn't need that much help after all."

Kyouko dusted her hands off, refusing to let them shake. "The witnesses help, though. And the video." Her word against Mochida's probably would have gone her way, but—this was better. "Thank you."

"It was Gokudera's idea." Yamamoto-kun grinned and elbowed him.

Kyouko waited until Gokudera-kun had finished snarling at him to smile. "Thank you, Gokudera-kun."

He flushed and muttered something indistinct that might have been an acknowledgment.

Yamamoto-kun laughed and checked the time. "I have to get to practice," he announced. "Guess I'll see all of you in the morning." He loped off, still grinning, leaving the three of them.

Tsunako-chan nibbled her lip, glancing at them. "Um… do the two of you want to come over and work on homework?" she offered. "It's just going to be me this afternoon, since Kaasan and Bianchi-san are running errands together."

Gokudera-kun's face went faintly green, but he nodded enthusiastically. "Of course, Sawada-san! That sounds great!"

Kyouko smiled at them. "Yes," she said, meaning it from the bottom of her heart. "It does."

Kyouko found that she wasn't very surprised when Bianchi-san fell into step with her on the walk home. "Bianchi-san." She smiled up at her, bright and pleased. "How did your errands go?"

Bianchi-san shrugged. "Well enough. I was wondering. How would you have settled Mochida if the other three hadn't shown up?"

"Mm." Kyouko walked a few steps in silence, studying Bianchi-san through a sidelong glance. Her expression of polite curiosity didn't provide much to work with beyond the question itself. This was, perhaps, some kind of test. Or Bianchi-san wanted to learn something about her. Well, so be it. Kyouko smiled, a touch rueful, and said, "I suppose I would have needed to dislocate his shoulder."

"Do you think that would have been sufficient?"

It had all the hallmarks of being an academic inquiry, like Neya-sensei demanding the proof to an equation, so Kyouko straightened her shoulders. "It would have gotten his attention, plus showed him that he's not as good as he thinks he is. I have enough social capital that I could have ridden out the aftermath." Between Hana-chan and Yamamoto-kun, and to a lesser extent Gokudera-kun and Tsunako-chan, she'd have weathered it, at any rate, though it would have taken a long time to rebuild her place in Namimori's social sphere.

If she wanted to. That was a peculiar thought to have, one worth taking a longer look at, but Bianchi-san was already talking. "That's a sloppy plan. It depends on too many outside variables. What would you have done if it hadn't worked? Or if he'd overwhelmed you?"

"I would have dealt with it." Terse, perhaps, but the truth. Kyouko glanced at Bianchi-san, who looked back with her eyebrows lifted, and repeated herself. "I would have dealt with it." She'd thought it through ahead of time and decided that she could have lived with the worst. They came to a crosswalk and Kyouko looked up at the light, waiting for it to change, thinking about what the worst could have been. "Though I'm glad that I didn't have to."

"You're used to dealing with things on your own." It wasn't quite a question, nor entirely an observation. Bianchi-san's expression remained neutral.

"Yes." Surely it was obvious that she was.

"And yet you accepted help when it was offered." The light changed and they stepped out into the crosswalk. Bianchi-san's tone was thoughtful as she continued. "You decided to make overtures of friendship to Tsunako. Why?"

She'd wondered when someone was going to get around to asking about that. Kyouko glanced Bianchi-san's way, considering and discarding half a dozen of her prepared answers. "She's different," she said at last, when she'd settled on the simplest response, which had the added virtue of being the truth. "She looks at things differently than most people do. I like that. And she seems to be collecting people who are also interesting. I like that, too."

They came to her corner; Bianchi-san made the turn without pause, and that wasn't surprising either. She gave Kyouko another of those long, thoughtful looks. "You took the news of the mafia very calmly."

Another not-quite-a-question. Kyouko paused on the sidewalk and waited for Bianchi-san to stop as well. She looked politely curious, no more, though it was surely a façade. Well, no matter. "As I said, I'd guessed yakuza to begin with. It was an oversight when I already knew that three of you had connections to Italy."

Bianchi-san's eyebrows drifted up; Kyouko was fairly sure it was a genuine reaction. "Are you really as cold-blooded as that makes you sound?"

Kyouko thought about it. "I don't think so," she decided. "But I've always known that there were fewer ways for me to get what I want from life, since I'm a girl, so I would have to be very clear in my own mind about what I was doing and why." She considered that; it still sounded cold-blooded. "This is what I'm good at, I suppose. People. Social things. So it's what I use. If I were smarter, I would use that. Or if I were really athletic, or more than just pretty in an average sort of way. But I'm not, so this is what I do instead. I'm rather good at it, don't you think?"

"Dangerously so. You're going to be terrifying in a few more years." Bianchi-san's mouth quirked, and Kyouko inclined her head, acknowledging the compliment. "What is it that you want?"

Kyouko looked up, tracing her eyes over the deepening color of the sky. "I'd assumed that I would probably go into politics someday, once I found the right husband to stand behind." She looked down and saw that Bianchi-san looked disapproving. "You think I should do it for myself, don't you? So does Hana-chan. She and I argue over it a lot." She shrugged. "But I prefer to stand back a bit and work, rather than be right in the middle of things. I could do it, I just don't care to."

Bianchi-san's smile was crooked. "If you aren't a Mist, I'll eat my own cooking."

A Mist? Interesting. Kyouko added that to the list of things she was going to have to find out more about and smiled at Bianchi-san. "Yes, well. That's what I had thought of doing." She shrugged. "But Tsunako-chan. She's not as good at people, is she? Though perhaps she's going to have to be, where she's going. So she'll need me. Or someone like me."

Bianchi-san gave her another long, measuring look. "Do you know what it is that you're talking about doing?"

Kyouko paused, considering it. "Of course not. I barely know anything about what Tsunako-chan will do as the wife of the Vongola Tenth—that's what his title will be? I thought so—or much about how the mafia works. I have an enormous amount of catching up to do." She waited a moment and added, "If you mean, do I know that I'm discussing a lifelong commitment to the criminal underworld, which suggests that my life expectancy will be a lot shorter than otherwise, then yes. I'm aware of that."

Bianchi-san's mouth curved, slowly. "I see. How silly of me for asking."

Kyouko gestured, brushing it aside. "This will be better than politics," she said. "Tsunako-chan is far more sensible than most boys I've ever met. If I tell her something is important, I'll be able to do it without having to coddle her ego."

Bianchi-san laughed then, bright and amused. "You know, I think it's a good thing you're going to be on our side."

Kyouko smiled, keeping it properly demure. "Well of course, Bianchi-san. That goes without saying."