Beta'd by the descriptive Insane Scriptist.

Last update of this set, see you all next time!

Of outings and conversation

Pantera liked his new discreet Flame-armour very much indeed, and was prepared to make the necessary wardrobe adjustments to accommodate the corsetry when it came with immunity from bladed weapons, projectiles and Flames, with invisible but only slightly less effective projections that covered his hands, head and groin beyond the edges of the garment itself. Of course it was having an effect on his posture -turned out they made slouching all but impossible, alas- but that was a small price to pay, all things considered. Especially when out of the house.

His lovely Immacolata was also discreetly, rigorously and flexibly armoured, and wearing the -vastly more adjustable- corsetry she had been fitted with at all times, because it turned out it was also very comfortably supportive while seven months pregnant, alleviating her back pain, and who was Pantera to deny his beloved wife such a thing? No wonder the Lady Potter was so staunchly in favour of body armour for all occasions.

Equipped with supportive underclothing, his marvellous wife had been overtaken with fresh energy and the desire to socialise, so Pantera had accompanied her down to the San Nicola Fair and then assured her he was fine being abandoned in one of the food tents. Yes, it would be loud, but it would also be warm and there'd be plenty of gossip to listen in on. And the gossip right now was particularly juicy: Timoteo Vongola's increasing senility was not public yet -the upper echelons were keeping it dead quiet to smooth over the transition- but there was nonetheless plenty of gossip about his partiality to the External Advisor and his extremely dubious decision-making regarding the Ring Battles.

Both of which, conversely, were now public. To the tune of 'oh, so Sawada was trying to get his son into the Vongola succession before Nono came to his senses,' and 'is anyone surprised that the Head of the Varia won? Thought not.'

Given the unfortunate apprentice to the External Advisor was still quarantined and likely to remain so for another entire year as he pieced himself back together with the assistance of the lovely Damigella, Pantera was delighted to help along the rumours painting Sawada's recent behaviour as the latest step of his own coup attempt. Pushing forwards his barely-teenage civilian son as Decimo, and then assaulting the Iron Fort during the Ring Battles when he finally realised his candidate was likely to lose? Well, that did rather speak for itself, didn't it? That it had been Iemitsu handing out the rings, not Tsunayoshi, was a charmingly damning detail to add to the pot there.

And still Nono's favourite even after all that, just look at the slap on the wrist he got for it. More casualties than the Cradle Affair! Terrible business.

Pantera had just realigned yet another conversation and slid out of range as those left behind took the lead he'd given them and ran eagerly with it, speculating scurrilously and entirely outraged, when he glimpsed swinging feathers and a familiar leaf-and-berry hair decoration peeking out between a black furry hat and matching coat collar. Could it be?

Casually zigzagging his way across the crowded tent revealed that yes, it was: Dorea's old-fashioned silhouette was incredibly distinctive, even when draped in a pine green cloak with black fur trim. Did she ever not wear petticoats? Having picked her out of the crowd, Pantera was then able to identify her escort as Knight -in a slightly brighter forest green coat- and another man in a black coat with medium brown hair and a green and silver-grey scarf looped around his neck. Might that be the ever-elusive Poet, at long last? Pantera was tempted to doubt it; Poet supposedly did like to hover, but not so noticeably. If Poet were here he'd be more likely to fade into the background, even while in close proximity to his Sky.

"Dear Lady, how good to see you again," he said warmly upon reaching their table, noting that Dorea had her baby daughter tucked inside the front of her voluminous cloak, "and with my delightful goddaughter! Might I join you?"

"Of course, Kitty-cat," Dorea said, loosening her cape to remove Daniela and thereby revealing a green and blue-black brooch pinned to the lapel of her pale grey woollen jacket that matched the comb in her hair; blueberries, also called bilberries and symbolising treachery and treason.

In a flower language over a hundred years old and not local to this part of the world at all; the Vongola had its own flower-and-field language, although that was rather fading into history now that so many people were literate and no longer needing to communicate discreetly by bouquet and sketch and wreath. It should really be properly assembled into a book, so it didn't get lost completely; Pantera made an idle mental note to mention it to some interested relative or other as he moved around the table towards the strategic empty chair on Knight's other side and accepted the proffered baby, cuddling her against his chest. Warmly clad in a burgundy wool dress and bundled up in a lavender purple shawl, Daniela's startlingly green eyes focused on his face and she squealed happily, signing 'godfather' at him.

"Yes! Hello, little one!" Pantera cooed, beaming delightedly back at her. "Yes, it's me again and it's lovely to see you, treasure." Yes, he could talk business, but why would he when he could play peek-a-boo with his goddaughter instead? A much better use of his time, honestly, and also vastly more likely to put Xanxus's charmingly perilous wife into a better mood.

Treasonous accessories? Out in public like this? A little on the nose.

Maínomai thought this might be a date. Was it a date? He'd not planned it as a date but right now it was feeling very date-like but in a good way and he was hoping Veritas would clear that up once she'd finished haggling with the delighted Superbi stallholder over the discount she wanted given she was buying five of the pretty inlay boxes that were about A4 sized and a handspan tall. Something about a useful and beautiful gift for girl-cousins; Maínomai had missed the exact wording.

Missed it because he'd abruptly realised this was very date-like and lost himself for a moment. Had Veritas meant this as a date when she'd agreed to come to the Superbi San Nicola Fair with him? He'd been telling the twins about it when he came over to visit a few days back and Veritas had shown up and joined in the asking of questions, because she had never been to any of the San Nicola fairs before, and Maínomai had decided that was terrible and invited her to come to this one with him and she'd said yes. He hadn't realised it might be a date until he'd bought them both drinks and they'd been walking and talking and laughing despite the chilly wind and it had struck him that he'd missed doing this with Erica when they were dating because he'd not met her until right before Christmas and, well.

He'd stopped dead clutching his mulled wine, which Veritas either hadn't noticed or had decided was a great opportunity to buy something from the stall he'd stopped in front of, probably the latter to be honest because Veritas noticed everything it was her thing.

"Is this a date?" he asked once she'd finished beating down the very charmed Superbi, paid her and let Maínomai carry her bag as they moved off. "Because I just realised this feels very date-like and um-"

"Maínomai," Veritas said firmly, turning to face him so he had to stop walking or run into her, pressing gloved fingers lightly to his lips, "I knew you were asking because you thought I'd enjoy it." She lowered her hand. "But, if you want it to be a date," she trailed off meaningfully, arching an auburn eyebrow at him while still steadily meeting his eyes.

If he- "You like me?!" Did he squeak? Oh no, he absolutely squeaked there didn't he how mortifying! He was a Varia assassin he shouldn't squeak! Squeaking was for teenagers!

Veritas smiled at him, silver-grey eyes creasing in the corners. "You are exceedingly likeable, Maínomai."

Maínomai felt his entire face heat; oh no he was blushing. He quickly threw up an Alteration to let him stand his drink on thin air so he could cover his face with both hands until it cooled off again.

"By which I mean," Veritas said softly, resting her hand on his shoulder and leaning in so her breath curled warmly along his throat and ear, which did not help him to blush less, "that I would very much like it to be a date, Maínomai. But only if that's what you want as well."

Maínomai wanted. He wanted very much okay?!He'd not really admitted it but he'd lingered over that painting of 'Truth emerging from her well' at Poet's birthday exhibition because he thought the subject was hot and that was absolutely part of why he'd been so discombobulated later when he actually met Veritas because it was one thing to ogle a nude painting but the lady in person was always very modestly dressed and also rather private and urk he couldn't go there! Fantasising about her like that had felt awkward especially when she was friendly and brilliant and had a fun sense of humour and he'd liked talking to her for reasons that had nothing to do with thinking she had a sexy body and then they'd become friends and he liked being her friend she was fun and they'd only known each-other a month but he wanted to be her friend forever.

And now she was saying that she would rather like to date him and that was bringing all those early compartmentalised thoughts -and the associated compartmentalised lust- to the surface and it wasn't just his face that was hot right now when he could feel Veritas leaning into him still, her breath teasing the edge of his jaw above his scarf as she waited patiently for him to marshal his thoughts into order and-

Wait. Wait wait wait. Veritas was precognitive. Very strongly short-term precognitive, and couldn't really turn it off any more than Maínomai could turn off his own racing thoughts and sticky fingers. Could blunt and mitigate -again like him- but not deaden entirely.

"You know," he accused, parting his fingers and pouting, acutely aware of still being hot and flushed.

Veritas met his eyes steadily. "It doesn't count unless you say it," she said firmly. "Otherwise I'm just making assumptions based on what is most likely."

She'd said that before, how she wouldn't assume a choice even though she'd assimilate information and jump the gun on conversation and take advantage of just-about everything else. Because choices could be different, and she claimed it was always more fun to see an enemy make a choice in front of you and know what the choice was even as it was made so she was ready for it when they decided to jump.

Not before, when. They got to be their own downfall; she wouldn't do it for them. Why push them off the cliff when they'd jump themselves, especially when doing it of their own volition meant they'd drag their friends over the edge as well?

He could say no. He didn't want to say no, but he could, and Veritas would let him.

He lowered his hands and leaned forwards, wrapping his left arm around her back and rescuing his hot drink with his right. "Next time you want to go on a date with me," he murmured teasingly, almost nose to nose and feeling her breath stutter against his lips -very nice when his face was still a bit on fire- "just ask, okay?"

"Next time I'll ask," Veritas agreed softly, sending a delighted thrill down Maínomai's spine. There was going to be a next time!

"May I-"

"Please," she interrupted him a little breathlessly, which was all the invitation Maínomai needed to lean in and kiss her.

Okay he hadn't expected this to be a date going in, but now it was and he had absolutely no objections to that whatsoever, because now he was paying attention he knew he really, really wanted to date Veritas. Date her and so much more.

So, so much more. But he wasn't going to rush it; he could be patient when he needed to be and knowing she knew how he felt did help. She knew and he knew but they were going to pace themselves and not trip over their own feet, because falling headlong was never a fun experience. He could do this.

He wanted to do it right.

"So, what are your ulterior motives to agreeing to help me supervise Amadeo and Serena at the Superbi Christmas Market, Lorenzo?" Erica asked mildly, glancing up at the Lightning from under her lashes. There wasn't much 'supervising' to do at all; Pýř walked off with Serena after very seriously asking the three-year-old to 'help' him with his Christmas shopping -which Serena had been delighted to do- and Amadeo, being seven, was running around free with all the Superbi his age and stuffing himself full of sweets and other hot street food.

He'd be fine, all the Superbi running the various stalls kept an eye on the kids. Any genuinely lost kids would be escorted to the marquees where the parents tended to sit around, so as to be easily found.

"Oh yes, my terrible ulterior motives," Lorenzo said dryly, patting her hand on his arm. "Wanting to spend time with someone I can actually talk to about my recent difficulties and the absolutely not remotely Underworld-approved path I chose to take to mitigate my suffering while ensuring I can, in fact, continue to do my job despite the increasingly challenging circumstances."

"So mercenary and self-serving," Erica teased him, shaking her head with a dramatic sigh.

"My choices or picking you to complain to?"

Erica chuckled, briefly rolling her weight into him. Lorenzo didn't know she was a Sky -nobody knew outside the Varia and Nazzo's little flock of Superbi, plus Pantera and likely Don Leone as well- and she was still actively cloaking it with the bracelet Maínomai gave her, so he was vanishingly unlikely to start noticing. But because she was a Sky and also increasingly well-trained in perceiving her surroundings -Pýř's contribution to her ongoing education- she could feel what he's done, just-about.

Or rather, what he'd showed up at the Varia to ask Knight to do.

Nobody at the Varia thought that was anything but the sensible choice. Well, a few dry comments on how he took his time realising he deserved better, but that was all. Knight had done a very neat job: Lorenzo's Flame-bond to her grandfather was clipped now. Not torn, not bleeding, just clipped. Tidily severed, or possibly withdrawn in such a way that there was no damage at all to warn the other party it had been removed.

If anyone knew Knight could do that, his having been Talbot's Apprentice might not save him. That he might be able to do this to other Guardian bonds -maybe even without the consent of at least one party- and worse, might be able to teach it…

Guardian bonds were generally assumed to be permanent, broken only in death or near-suicidal self-harm. For that to not be the case, well. There'd be a lot of panic, and panicky mafiosi -especially when they were Active Underworld Skies- could be incredibly dangerous.

Erica wasn't worried; she knew Knight and knew he'd never do such a thing without his Lady's express permission, and Dorea would never do such a thing without consulting with Xanxus first. Pragmatically, they both had plenty of other weapons in their arsenal before resorting to this one, and likely didn't consider it a weapon at all. Medical, most likely; it was the sort of thing Luss would keep at the bottom of her bag of tricks, just in case.

The Varia had quite a few of those kinds of skills, kept and handed on but almost never used in the field, because they were more useful in other places.

"So how is he?"

Lorenzo sighed, fiddling with his scarf. He wasn't wearing any green -or black- at all today, which combined with the hat covering his usually-spiked two-tone hair made him almost completely unrecognisable as a Vongola Guardian. "Frustratingly coherent," he said shortly, "and still far too strong. Housekeeping have had to hire some Active Lightnings to take over basic domestic tasks because they're the only ones Hard-headed enough to be able to just tune him out; trying to actively resist his general aura of discontented demand just makes him shove harder."

"Surely Clouds can hold it off too?"

"Quite possibly," Lorenzo agreed dryly, "but Visconti's the only Cloud who cares enough to make the effort when avoidance is so much easier."

Ah, well. "Point." Nobody would choose to suffer an oppressive aura like that if they could avoid it, Cloud or not.

"Housekeeping are doing their best, the Mists especially," Lorenzo continued, shoulders sagging and rubbing his face, "but he is not making it easy for them. And his knowing that Xanxus replaced him with a body-double without anybody apparently noticing means he's much more untrusting of Housekeeping generally and the Mists in particular."

"He thinks they were in on it?"

"He thinks they were in on it," Lorenzo agreed with another deep sigh, "despite my repeatedly pointing out that Varia Quality is infamous and also that he can't have it both ways: either Housekeeping's Mists are fallible human beings he can ignore at will, or they are omnipotent terrors he should be placating. They can't be both simultaneously."

And yet, Erica was sure, her grandfather was nonetheless succumbing to all the Underworld's most frustrating stereotypes about Mists while also provoking and deriding them at every turn as his emotional competence deteriorated. His reasoning skills were also deteriorating, if perhaps more slowly.

"Bouche is doing his best," Lorenzo continued quietly, "but there's only so much he can do there when he isn't bonded."

Yes, Erica could see how that would be a problem. "Unfortunately all I can do is offer to buy you cannoli."

"I will absolutely take consolation cannoli," Lorenzo said, perking up slightly. "And consolation hot chocolate as well. Also something savoury and substantial in there too; they never tell you that adulthood means you can't skip your veggies anymore because you start feeling sick and grumpy a few meals later."

"I'm sure there's something suitably savoury and semi-healthy yet freshly fried we can buy," Erica said comfortably, looking around at the stalls in their immediate vicinity. Honey and beeswax candles, handmade paper, refurbished rattan furniture-

"Erica are those Varia?" Lorenzo asked her quietly, tilting his head; Erica glanced across the road and recognised Magharibi instantly and Turk a few moments later. From behind and wearing a duster coat, Turk really could be anyone; Erica mostly recognised him by the excited toddler in the red coat and hat that the retired assassin had put in a little harness that he was firmly gripping the straps of, so her uncle's very energetic three-year-old son couldn't run off. There was also Sumu, trailing after them at a distance in civvies; she winked at Erica and turned to study the wares two stalls over. There had been a few other Varia she'd spotted wandering around in civvies -and a few in uniform, even- that she'd ignored beyond parrying the usual quick Flame-probes that counted as an I-see-you, so nobody felt ignored or overlooked. Ignored assassins did things so you stopped ignoring them.

"Former; they're Housekeeping," she replied, keeping her voice light.

"Is that your little cousin with them?" Lorenzo asked, mouth barely moving, but before Erica could answer Hector turned their way and his face lit up with delighted recognition:


Turk and Magaribi also turned at that, but Erica was already moving closer so that Hector didn't do anything untoward to escape the harness he was wearing. With how close the toddler's Flames swum to the surface most days, it wouldn't take much to tip him over the Activation threshold and that was something best avoided until he was older and his brain more developed. A Flame-Active toddler having a tantrum inevitably meant many more things on fire than should be, and that was something she wanted to spare everyone from.

"Hello Hector!" Erica said with a warm smile, waving at the toddler who beamed wider and waved back.

"Hello! We're buying pesents!" He raised his mitten to his mouth. "Shh! Secwet!"

"I won't say a word," Erica promised warmly.

"I saw and heard nothing," Lorenzo agreed, turning his eyes to the overcast sky. "I can't even remember why we stopped."

Hector giggled gleefully, bouncing in place, then dashed back to cling to Turk's leg. "Want to buy a pesent for Papà!"

"Oh?" Turk hefted the toddler up into his arms, balancing him on one hip and turning towards the stall they're standing at. "What did you want to get?"


"Having fun at the fair?" Magharibi asked, glancing archly at Lorenzo. Erica flicked fingers at the senior Sun; not like that. Well, not yet anyway; it might never be like that. Lorenzo was in a rough spot right now and Erica was somebody he could talk to. She knew what it was like to be stuck covering for an incompetent and toxic boss and she would have welcomed more support when that was happening to her. Yes, Maínomai and Pýř had been there and so had Squalo, but looking back she really could have used more than that. They'd helped her survive, but it would have been nice to have more coherent support. Not a lover, but friends who were local and therefore generally available, which the Varia couldn't be.

Lorenzo was a good man, a kind man, and he was also the inside line to her grandfather, so she was hardly going to run him off.

"Not sure about fun; not really had a chance to make it up to Erica for venting about recent workplace struggles," Lorenzo said lightly, clearly aware of the nuances sliding past under his nose. "Oh yes, and she promised me cannoli for my suffering."

Erica patted his shoulder. "Cannoli and something savoury; you can carry my shopping bags." Even with the broken arm he'd manage that just fine.

Lorenzo pulled a dramatically shocked face, clutching at his chest. "Betrayal! Nobody said there'd be shopping!"

Erica laughed and so did Magharibi. "No-one to buy Christmas presents for?" the retired Sun teased the Lightning Guardian.

"I will have you know," Lorenzo said snootily, "that some people get their Christmas shopping done well before the festive season."

Erica nudged him playfully. "So organised!"

"The word you're looking for, darling, is bored," Lorenzo said dramatically, rolling his eyes skyward. "Until very recently I was mostly being paid to show up and look professional."

"So does this mean you have gifts for everyone of your acquaintance?" Magharibi inquired archly.

"Family, work colleagues, friends and the children thereof," Lorenzo rattled off with a sharp grin; "I try to be organised; Christmas is pretty busy, workwise."

Yes, given the Solstice Ball and Ganauche III being officially responsible for much of the security there as Lightning Guardian, it would be busy. He was likely still involved this year, even though Erica's mother would be hosting as senior Vongola. Officially hosting, that was. "How's that going?"

"Charmingly smoothly; I have assistants this year." One or more of Samu's Guardians was stepping up and learning from Ganauche's expertise then, good.

"Good help is hard to find," Erica agreed as the stallholder let Hector do a squish test of the cushions he was trying to decide between. She suspected Turk would end up buying both; that was just how it was when there was an adorable toddler tugging on your heartstrings as they tried to follow the arbitrary rule you had set but clearly couldn't decide which of the two things they liked best.

Or else clearly wanted one for themselves, as well as to give as a present.

"Dis one! It's happier!" Hector decided, clutching the tapestry cushion decorated with a round boat manned by… people with dark green hair and light blue skin? Wait that wasn't not a proper boat, it was a sieve. Oh that was ridiculous; Xanxus would love it.

"Not this one?" Turk checked, holding up the cushion with the stag and doe surrounded by a flowery meadow.

"Is vewy pitty," Hector said solemnly, "but is sad. Can't give Papà a sad pwesent."

Turk nodded, setting the deer cushion down. "Quite right; the sailing cushion it is, then."

"Dey're Jumblies! Dey go to sea in a sieve!" Hector looked around the stall, leaning forwards dangerously in Turk's arms. "Is dere a cushion wiv duck an' kangaroo?"

"I can't see one, Hector," Magharibi said, turning around to also survey the embroidered goods on display. "Maybe there'll be one next year?"

Hector turned to her and nodded, face set in a delightfully firm pout that reminded Erica very strongly of Xanxus despite the very different facial features. "We come back next year to see!"

"Of course we will, kingcup." Magharibi leaned in to kiss him on the nose, making the toddler squeal and giggle as Turk handed over the cash and the stallholder gave him his purchase in a bag. "Now, where to next?"

Hector twisted and pointed off, seemingly at random. "Dere!"

"There it is then," Turk agreed, setting the toddler down and gripping the reins of the harness as Hector tried to rocket off, walking swiftly across the street between other fair goers in the wake of his godson, who was clearly doing his best to bodily drag the ex-assassin towards his chosen destination. Erica quickly scanned for Sumu, finding her along the street in the direction Hector was currently dragging Turk.

"See you both later," Erica said quickly as Magharibi turned to make her own purchases now Hector's attention has been diverted elsewhere. "Let's find those cannoli, shall we?"

"Excellent plan," Lorenzo agreed.

"How are you finding the fair, dear lady?"

Dorea glanced up and smiled at Delfino. "Well, I've only done a few small circuits, as it's rather windy and I didn't want Daniela to get too cold," she admitted, "but what I have seen and eaten has all been very enjoyable."

"Good to hear! And don't worry, you have continued in the grand tradition of new mothers in picking one of the larger pavilions to huddle in, for the sake of your small child," Delfino assured her with a wink and a smile. To Dorea's left Theo huffed quietly; yes, the noise levels in the pavilion were rather high due to there being at least two dozen or so mothers will small children enjoying the warmth and shelter -currently, as there had been turnover so more than that overall- but she didn't mind it so much. Magic let her mute it a little for Daniela, who was currently conked out on Rence's shoulder, fast asleep.

Pantera had stayed with them for an entire hour, but that had been in the morning and he'd moved on when they left for a walk between the stalls on the way to another pavilion; this was their third such stop, Xanxus having brought the twins over to eat lunch with them at the second one before leaving again. Cassie and Marius were both in fine form, full of eager energy, but Dorea was sure that soon enough Turk and Magharibi would be carrying a sleeping Hector back in, the toddler having exhausted himself running around all over the place.

She hadn't realised they were dating, which had left Sumu to trail after them in the hope of spending a little time with her godson. She might only get some proper time with him after he woke up from his nap. Or else tomorrow; Dorea made a mental note to specifically entrust Hector to Sumu tomorrow.

"It is always reassuring to know I am participating in the traditional manner," she replied lightly. "Do join us for a little while."

Delfino promptly settled himself, pleased to be invited and clearly angling to use the granted inch to take another mile. "Ah," he said, eyes sharpening as the sound-deadening ward around the table enveloped him, "oh, that's very clever. Very useful for helping your little girl stay asleep as well, no doubt."

"It's selectively bi-directional," Rence said lightly, supporting Daniela with one hand and sliding his empty glass towards Theo with the other, who took the offered cue and collected all the empty cups and plates together, heading across the tent to get them more drinks.

Well, one of him left; another stayed in his seat.

"Very useful indeed," Delfino mused, smiling over his own mulled wine. "Might I invite you and your husband to dinner on the thirteenth, Dorea? We usually have a family meal on Santa Lucia, so Squalo and Delfina will be attending. The wider family all comes over for lunch, but it's a more private affair in the evening."

"And we count as family?"

Delfino folded his fingers on the table. "Dear lady, Xanxus is our Squalo's bonded, he is family," he said very seriously. "Unfortunately however we did not find out that very pertinent fact until it was too late and he was imprisoned beyond our reach, so we are rather having to play catch-up there, along with everyone else."

"If you intend to invite him, why are you asking me?" Dorea asked, instead of chasing the details of how that had happened. The Superbi were a large family who all thought of each-other as family regardless of actual degree of connection, but Squalo wasn't actually particularly close to any of them other than his little sister.

Delfino arched an eyebrow at her. "Because I have been asking Squalo to invite his Sky over for weeks to no effect, and if I ask you, I know you will at least tell him." He paused. "And yes, I could ask Xanxus personally, but then he would ask you regardless and I am aware of your feelings regarding matters even very peripherally Vongola."

In other words, Delfino had wanted to make sure that any annoyance over this would be aimed squarely at him, not displaced onto her husband. It was so terribly annoying to be seen, sometimes; Dorea however was very used to being outmanoeuvred by well-meaning senior relatives who could read her like a book, so she didn't bother to take offense.

"Would this be a full family event, or just for the older members? Sicilian dinnertime is rather late and my children have set bedtimes."

"As many or as few as you choose to bring along," Delfino conceded easily; so this was more about herself and Xanxus, then. "And Sekhem, if he's in the country still; he is family as well."

More distantly family, but Dorea had a feeling Sekhem preferred Delfino and Anna's company to that of his closer relatives; the stakes were lower and so were the chances of disappointment. They were also fewer in number, and therefore less overwhelming. "I will let them both know and take matters from there."

Delfino beamed widely. "Wonderful. Am I right in guessing you might both be attending the Solstice Ball?"

"We plan to do so, yes." It was hardly a secret; her husband had replied already, indicating his intent to attend given the guarantee of his former captor's absence.

"Then if we cannot see you on the thirteenth, we will see you on the twenty-first," Delfino said with warm finality. "I'm sure it will be a very eventful evening."

Dorea hummed agreement as Theo returned, accepting the mulled wine and slice of buccellato with a smile and a murmur of thanks. "Such events inevitably are," she agreed noncommittally.

Delfino met her eyes with a mischievously knowing smile, not pointing out that it was the combination of it being Samu's debut and Xanxus's first official Alliance event since Pantera's now-infamous wedding that would make it eventful, rather than the annual Vongola midwinter ball being inherently a hotbed of gossip and scandal. He knew she knew that, and he was desperately looking forward to getting to be on the front lines again. Delfino enjoyed the chaos too much to not look forward to getting to watch it unfold.

He really did remind her of Great-Aunt Cassie, so very much. It was the same veiled glee at getting to wreak utter havoc with other people's small-minded assumptions and leave chaos in his wake that those same other people would have to clean up after. It made her like him despite herself.