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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Dani the Hero - 8. Chapter 8

Daniele left for school the next day itching to see Giacomo again.

Sunday night had been his mother’s night off work, and she was already there when he got home. Eyes wide, Patrizia had asked him what on Earth he had done to his clothes. There was no way, Daniele realised, that he could tell her the whole truth; so he offered a vague excuse about mucking about with Giacomo in the dirt, which was at least partially true.

Over dinner Daniele, who was still bursting with pride and enthusiasm for his conquest of the mountain, had struggled to contain himself. Despite his best efforts, he could tell Patrizia knew something had changed: he caught her peering at him, trying to work it out.

As Daniele lay in bed that night, he had relived the best parts of the day over and over in his mind: the sense of unity against the unforgiving reality of gravity and nature; Giacomo’s total acceptance and trust of him as a climbing partner, and his enthusiastic reaction to the way Daniele had faced his fears; the warm, dry feel of the other boy’s hand in his as they lay together on the grassy ledge…

It was a while before he managed to settle down to sleep.

Despite the promise of another full week of school before he would be truly free again (and wasn’t there a birthday party coming up? Yes, there was…), Daniele practically bopped up the steps on his way into town, his school bag bouncing off one shoulder. He trotted cheerfully past the cathedral steps, and only stopped when he rounded the corner outside Salvatore’s shop on Via Roma.

Angelo was hard at work fitting a new front door. He winked when he saw Daniele.

“Ciao, Daniele,” he said, removing a couple of screws from his mouth.

“Ciao, Angelo,” Daniele piped up, leaning back against the wall on the far side of the street for a second time.

“You seem very peppy today,” Angelo remarked. “Good weekend?”

Daniele nodded fervently. “Great, thanks,” he replied. “You’re doing the repairs again?”

Angelo smiled ruefully. “I know!” he replied. “If I’m not careful, there’ll be rumours that I’ve been setting up these attacks so I can get more work.”

Daniele giggled. “That’s silly.”

Angelo shrugged. “I’m not sure it’s much stranger than what’s really been happening.”

Daniele wondered briefly what that meant. Had Toto and Salvatore started spreading the word, or was Angelo genuinely as baffled as he seemed?

“Will you and Gianni be coming to my party on Saturday?” Daniele asked.

Angelo nodded. “We’ll be there,” he replied. “So will Claudia, if we can get her back from Salerno.”

“Cool,” Daniele smiled. “Thanks, Angelo.”

“See you later, Daniele.”

Daniele continued on his journey, threading his way between the shopkeepers as they set out their outside displays in the narrow street. He hummed a tune as he passed through the tiny square outside Da Rossi, where a couple of stray cats were sunbathing on the church steps, then he sauntered along the last stretch of the street and joined the mass of kids filing in through the school gates.

Boo!” Giacomo pounced on him from around the corner, grabbing his shoulders suddenly from behind. Daniele yelped and jumped several inches into the air, drawing looks and titters from the other kids filing up the steps.

“Don’t do that to me, Giaco!” Daniele protested, pushing him away. The other boy snickered, quite undaunted.

“Nice to see you too,” Giacomo teased.

Daniele couldn’t quite suppress a smile. “Whatever.”

Talking cheerfully, they filed through the gates, ready to begin their day.

* * *

Marco wasn’t at school that morning.

Remembering how they had parted the previous afternoon, Daniele found the sight of Marco’s empty desk strangely ominous. At one point, as his gaze was drawn to the space where the smaller boy should have been for the seventh time, his eyes found Giacomo’s and they exchanged a puzzled glance.

At lunchtime, Emilia sought them out.

She approached them as they sat together in Daniele’s usual spot on the outside wall, her shoulder-length hair hanging loosely over the white t-shirt and light blue denim jacket she was wearing. She wore a worried frown, and her dark brown eyes were troubled.

“Marco didn’t come in today,” she declared.

Daniele and Giacomo exchanged another glance, and Giacomo nodded. “We noticed.”

Emilia sighed in frustration. “What’s going on? You guys have all been acting so weird lately!”

“It’s nothing,” Giacomo said evasively, but Emilia was having none of it.

“D’you think I’m stupid?” she replied crossly, crossing her arms. “Suddenly you and Daniele are best friends, after you’ve ignored him for years, and we’re nobody to you? There’s something going on between you two.”

Daniele nudged the other boy with his elbow. “See?” he said quietly. “We have to tell her, Giaco.”

“Tell me what?” Emilia demanded, turning her brown eyes on Daniele. He looked back up at her, really trying to read her for the first time, but she broke the connection quickly, seeming uncomfortable with his scrutiny. She turned her expectant gaze back on Giacomo, who seemed to be wrestling with a decision.

“All right,” he muttered at length, “we’ll talk. But not here. Meet us in the square after school.”

Emilia seemed cautiously satisfied with this offer.

“All right,” she said, “but you’d better both be there.”

She turned and stalked off, leaving them the two boys alone once more.

Giacomo cursed quietly. “I hope we know what we’re doing, Dani,” he said.

* * *

As the school day approached its inevitable end, Daniele wondered how they would explain themselves to Emilia. Was Giacomo really prepared to tell her everything?

As the final bell rang, Daniele and Giacomo filed out of the classroom together, passing Emilia, who was still packing her things.

“We’ll see you there in a few minutes,” Giacomo told her as they passed.

Emilia didn’t protest. “Okay,” she replied, glancing up at them, perhaps realising that they wanted a few minutes to talk to each other first.

“I don’t like this, Dani,” Giacomo said as they descended the steps together. “It was better when it was just the two of us.”

Privately, Daniele had to agree. He had enjoyed having the other boy to himself. Now, he was facing the prospect of having to share his new friend with a girl who had shown no sign that she liked him in the least. But he could hardly say that.

“She was right, you have been acting weird,” he offered. “She was bound to suspect something.”

“What’s so weird about being friends with you?” Giacomo grumbled, punching Daniele gently on the arm.

Daniele smiled. “Thanks, Giaco.”

They made their way to the square, walking via the lower route, flitting through the partial shade of the tree-lined street above the ceramics workshop. The afternoon heat was oppressive, and Daniele shifted his school bag uncomfortably on his shoulder. If he had been hoping to discuss a strategy, he was disappointed: they made the journey largely in silence.

They sat down on one of the stone benches in the shade of the umbrella pines, sitting slightly apart from the guests at the bars. Daniele made sure Giacomo sat in the middle of the bench, ready for Emilia to sit down on his other side. She joined them a few moments later, her rucksack dangling from one hand and her brown eyes alert and curious.

“Well?” she said.

“Where do you want us to start?” Giacomo asked reluctantly.

Emilia glanced thoughtfully from one boy to the other, then her gaze fixed briefly on Daniele. “I’ll start with you, I guess,” she said, “because I’ve just got to know. What happened with Marco?”

Daniele, caught off-guard by her direct question, bit his lip uncertainly. “He caught up with me at the Villa Cimbrone,” he admitted. “I had to fight him.”

“Dani kicked his ass,” Giacomo added with a slight smile.

Emilia’s reaction was much as Giacomo’s had been. “He really fought you?” she echoed. “That’s just not like him. Why?”

Daniele flushed. “I…”

What could he tell her? How much did she know? Had she managed to read Marco’s feelings any better than they had?

But Giacomo answered for him. “He’s just jealous,” he replied.

This was close enough to the truth that Daniele didn’t want to stir things up by saying anything else, and he let it go. Emilia frowned as if she wasn’t totally satisfied by this explanation, but she moved on.

“So why are you two so tight all of a sudden?” she asked.

Giacomo sighed. “Dani rescued me,” he muttered.

Rescued you?”

“I’ve been working for some… pretty bad guys,” Giacomo explained. “You know, the protection racket everyone’s been talking about?”

Emilia drew back a fraction, looking disconcerted. “I don’t understand. Why would you do that, Giacomo?”

“We need the money,” Giacomo said. Once again, Daniele saw him look away, as if it cost him something to admit it.

Emilia looked in puzzlement from one boy to another. Daniele could sense her mind working, trying to process everything she was hearing.

“What does that have to do with Daniele?” she asked.

“Dani sussed me out!” Giacomo replied. “Then, well, one of the creeps I work with attacked me…”

Attacked you?” Emilia ran a hand through her hair, looking overwhelmed.

“Dani saw the whole thing. He put me back together and brought me home.” He paused, giving Daniele another punch on the arm. “Turns out he’s a pretty cool guy.”

Daniele smiled awkwardly, unsure who to look at.

“Okay,” Emilia nodded cautiously, but then she glanced at her hands, looking downcast. “But why’d you cut me and Marco out? Don’t you trust us?”

Giacomo looked ashamed. “I, well…” he tailed off.

“He was trying to keep you safe,” Daniele told her.

Emilia looked up at him, frowning. “What do you mean?”

“If you got too close…” Giacomo confessed, “I thought they might hurt you too.”

“But not Daniele…?” she pressed.

“I knew too much already,” Daniele replied.

Emilia was silent for a moment. Against his expectations, Daniele began to realise that he liked this girl. A lesser friend might have freaked out at the first sign of trouble, but she seemed to be taking everything Giacomo had told her in her stride.

“Are you going to tell Marco, too?” she asked.

Daniele and Giacomo exchanged a troubled glance.

“I dunno, Emilia,” Giacomo replied.

“He’s pretty much a mess at the moment,” Daniele added.

“Can you blame him?” Emilia retorted, but she didn’t press the issue.

“Are you okay with all this, Emilia?” Giacomo asked.

Emilia scowled. “My best friend has been beaten up by the criminals he’s working with!” she hissed. “How am I supposed to be okay with that?”

Giacomo gaped. “Jesus, Emilia,” he said. “Could you make it sound any worse?”

Emilia folded her arms. “I’m just telling it how it is,” she replied.

“But… I mean… are we okay?” Giacomo pressed.

“I guess so,” Emilia conceded reluctantly. “But you should have told me sooner.”

“So…” Giacomo asked falteringly, glancing to Daniele for support. “Do you want to hang out with us, some time?”

Emilia’s brown eyes fell on Daniele again; he shifted uncomfortably on the bench under the force of her penetrating stare.

“Well,” she said at length, “if you helped Giacomo after he got hurt, then I guess you must be okay.”

To Daniele, it seemed as if there was an almost audible ‘click’ as things fell into place: he was accepted, once again, and the world seemed to brighten at once. He offered Emilia a tentative smile, hoping to get one in return, but instead she looked hurriedly away.

“Yes,” she said, avoiding Daniele’s eyes, “I’ll hang out with you both.”

Daniele just had time to feel a little disappointed by her lukewarm response, but then Giacomo smiled with such genuine relief and gladness that he found himself quite distracted.

“That’s really cool,” Giacomo said. “Let’s all meet up again after school tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Emilia replied, finally smiling slightly herself.

Giacomo rose to his feet. “Sorry, guys,” he said, “I’ve got to go – homework to do. See you tomorrow.”

Disappointed, Daniele nodded. “Okay,” he replied. “Ciao, Giaco.”

“Ciao, Giacomo,” Emilia echoed.

They both watched as the dark-eyed boy retreated across the square. As Giacomo disappeared up the avenue of oleanders, Daniele suddenly realised that he had been left alone with Emilia, and they would be forced to talk to each other. As he turned towards her, their eyes met, and he realised she must have been thinking exactly the same thing. The mood between them was awkward at once.

“Oh, I…” she began, but then she froze, with one finger held anxiously across her mouth.

Her face was a picture, and Daniele could feel a fit of inappropriate giggles bubbling up within him, threatening to burst forth at any moment. He averted his eyes, trying to suppress a smile for fear of hurting her feelings.

Emilia had gone slightly pink. “I… I’ll see you tomorrow, Daniele,” she said, getting quickly to her feet. “Ciao.”

Daniele nodded. “Ciao, Emilia,” he replied, and he watched as she hurried from the square, brushing her shoulder-length hair back over her ears as she went.

* * *

Marco was back at school the next day. He assumed his usual seat at the front of the classroom with Giacomo and Emilia, but barely spoke to either of them. At lunchtime, Daniele ended up sitting with Giacomo and Emilia at their usual picnic table; this time it was Marco who sat alone on the outer wall. Daniele glanced awkwardly at him from time to time, uncomfortably aware that he had somehow managed to usurp the smaller boy’s position within the group, but unsure what he could do about it.

It was difficult, however, to feel down for long now that he had two friends to chat to. Emilia lent him her collection of Pokémon cards and he spent most of the time trying to learn the rules and tactics, lost in a sea of confusing colours and terminology.

As they talked, Daniele learned more about Emilia’s home life. She lived comfortably in San Martino with her mother, who was a travel writer with dreams of being a novelist, and her father, a professional accountant. From her rambling explanation, Daniele gleaned that her father had a long-standing relationship with many of the local businesses and was quite disgusted by the recent string of attacks.

The origin of Giacomo and Emilia’s friendship with Marco had been lost in the mists of time, but his family’s lack of money had long been a sore subject, and Giacomo and Emilia had rarely visited his home. In Emilia’s view, Marco was ashamed to let them see how he lived, although she didn’t feel he needed to be. The knowledge of all this only served to make Daniele feel more guilty; although his own parents worked long hours to support the family, their home life had never been less than comfortable.

As the lunch break drew to a close, Giacomo and Emilia invited Daniele to join them for an after-school activity that the old trio had, apparently, done many times before: pitching stones in the valley just below town. Daniele, who was eager to cement his latest friendship, agreed at once.

Not for the first time, he felt he probably would have agreed to almost anything.

* * *

“Come on, Dani,” Giacomo urged, gesturing for Daniele to follow him off the path.

The three friends had left school together. From Via Roma they had plunged straight down a zig-zagging flight of steps leading into the Valle del Dragone; skipping through the dappled shadows of olive trees amid the scraping of the cicadas, they had made their way down into an area of scrub above the valley road, nestled around the foot of the cliff on which the centre of Ravello stood. As the main concrete path had converged with the road, Giacomo had hopped up onto an informal trail heading up through the trees.

“Are you sure this is allowed?” Daniele asked.

Giacomo grinned. “Has that ever stopped us before? Nobody cares what goes on down here.”

Daniele supposed he had a point. With a smile, he followed the other boy up the path. Emilia brought up the rear.

“Did you guys come here a lot?” Daniele asked her.

Emilia nodded. “All the time. It was kind of… our place.”

“And now it’s yours, too, Dani,” Giacomo chipped in.

They made their way up through the drying grass and broadleaved scrub studded with chestnut trees, converging on the cliff, until they reached a place where it looked like there had occasionally been landslips in the past. The ground was littered with small stones ideal for throwing. In a small clearing, a large log from a fallen tree had been carefully positioned to form a bench with just enough room for three people. In the centre of the clearing, away from the trees and scrub, was a ring of larger stones with a pile of old ashes in the middle. A row of three old glass bottles was lined up on another log on the far side.

“Did you three create all this?” Daniele asked as they sat down on the log, with Giacomo in the middle.

Giacomo nodded. “Sometimes, in the winter, we light a fire,” he said. He picked up a small pebble and tossed it at one of the bottles, missing it by inches. “Ah, crap.”

“But we haven’t all been down here together for weeks,” Emilia said. She glanced across at Daniele and Giacomo. “I guess I know why that is, now.”

She picked up a pebble and threw it at the middle bottle. It struck it a glancing blow and the bottle wobbled, but didn’t fall. “Dio!” she cursed.

Daniele realised it was his turn. He picked up a small but pleasingly round pebble, testing its weight in his hand, then lined up his shot as best he could and let it fly.

The pebble struck the middle bottle dead centre, sending it toppling over onto the earth below. Giacomo burst out laughing: a high, happy sound that Daniele found very appealing.

“Way to go, Dani!” he cried.

Emilia was staring incredulously at Daniele. He smiled in an embarrassed sort of way.

“Beginner’s luck?” he ventured.

“Okay, you’re going down,” Giacomo said. He picked up two stones and let them both fly at once. They collided in mid-air, taking out one of the remaining bottles on the rebound.

Now it was Daniele’s turn to laugh. “Total fluke,” he said.

“Played for and got,” Giacomo replied with a bold attempt at bravado.

Emilia rolled her eyes. “Watch and learn, boys,” she said. She picked up a larger pebble and, taking her time this time, lined up her shot and lobbed it hard. This time, the final bottle positively flew, landing in a clump of dry bracken behind.

“Take it easy, ‘milia,” Giacomo yelped, “those bottles aren’t that easy to find!”

“Who’s going to reset the bottles, then?” Emilia asked.

Giacomo grinned, giving Daniele a sidelong glance. “Newest member has to do it… it’s the rules.”

“You just made that up,” Daniele objected. “This is the first time there’s ever been a new member.”

Giacomo stretched his arms comfortably. “So, it’s the first time the rule’s been applied. Doesn’t make it wrong.”

Realising he was beaten for the moment, Daniele gave the other boy a meaningful sort of look and got up to reset the bottles. As he was bending over the log to retrieve them, something lightweight smacked into his backside. He glanced over his shoulder to see a pinecone rolling away down the hill.

“Hey!” he glared at Giacomo, who was giggling.

“Don’t look at me,” he protested, thumbing a gesture at Emilia.

“Oops,” she smiled mildly.

“You’re ganging up on me,” Daniele said as he returned to his seat.

“It’s only because we love you, Dani,” Giacomo replied.

Daniele flushed. Even though he knew the other boy was only joking, it still felt weird to hear him say it.

They pitched some more stones for a while, and Daniele had to get up to reset the bottles twice more before Emilia eventually conceded to do it herself.

After about half an hour, Daniele finally plucked up the courage to say something that he had been rolling back and forth in his mind for the whole evening.

“It’s my birthday dinner on Saturday,” he said. “Do you guys want to come?”

Giacomo smiled and nodded at once. “Totally,” he replied. “That’d be cool.”

Emilia seemed taken aback. “Are you sure?” she asked.

Daniele nodded. “Sure.”

Emilia smiled tentatively. “Okay then.”

“Just don’t throw any more pinecones at me, okay?”

Emilia shrugged. “No promises.”

“There won’t be any other kids there,” Daniele admitted, flushing slightly.

Giacomo waved this away. “We can totally hang out with your adult friends,” he replied.

Daniele bit his lip anxiously. “Toto’s coming,” he said.

This gave Giacomo pause for thought. “Is he?”

“But it’s okay,” Daniele added quickly. “He doesn’t blame you for what happened to his father’s shop.”

Giacomo looked relieved. “Cool,” he said. “I’ll definitely be there, Dani.”

* * *

Emilia made her excuses after another half hour or so and set off back the way they had come, heading home for San Martino. Suddenly remembering that both his parents would be home tonight, Daniele got up too.

“I’ve got to go too, Giaco,” he said. “Tuesday’s sort of our family night.”

Giacomo looked disappointed, but he rose from his seat amiably enough. “All right,” he replied.

Daniele made to follow Emilia, but Giacomo caught him by the arm.

“Not that way!” Giacomo laughed. “Come on, I’ll show you a shortcut.”

Giacomo led Daniele in the opposite direction, descending again through the bristly grass and rocks. After they had scrambled through the scrub for a few metres, they came out on an ancient, abandoned-seeming path through the woodland. They followed the path together, kicking last year’s prickly chestnut shells into the undergrowth as they went.

After a while, they passed an isolated little house and then the path took on a slightly more trodden feel, still shadowing the cliff, which was now dotted with little shelters, overhangs and grottoes.

“I think Emilia likes you,” Giacomo snickered.

Daniele flushed at once. “Shut up,” he replied.

“I thought you were supposed to be good at reading people, Dani?” Giacomo replied. With that, he turned, thumbed his nose at Daniele and set off along the path at a run, laughing.

Daniele grunted in frustration and set off in hot pursuit, doing his best to keep up without twisting his ankle on the uneven dirt and rocks of the ancient footway. Losing sight of the other boy, he climbed until he suddenly came out on a path he recognised: the same path he had used many times, which descended steeply from the Villa Cimbrone to the heart of the valley, hugging the cliff and the olive groves on its way round the bottom of the crag to San Cosma. But where was Giacomo?

There was a roar as Giacomo sprang out from behind a tree, pouncing on Daniele. Both boys tumbled down onto to the earthen floor.

Dio, Giaco!” Daniele panted. “You’re going to kill me if you keep doing that.”

Giacomo was giggling again. “Sorry, Dani,” he replied. “You’re just such an easy target.”

Daniele got up and brushed himself down, straightening his school bag. “Thanks for showing me the shortcut,” he said. “Now – ciao!”

He shot off along the path towards home, laughing himself. From the sound of thundering feet behind him, the other boy wasn’t going to let him go so easily. Daniele grinned, and awaited the inevitable.

* * *

They parted at the little square at San Cosma, next to the zig-zagging road on which Daniele lived. Giacomo set off up the hill, heading back into town, while Daniele made the short walk back down the road towards his own house. As he walked, he exchanged a wave with Michele, who was just arriving home on his Vespa scooter.

From the murmur of voices coming from the kitchen diner as he let himself into the house, Daniele could tell that both his parents were already home. He put his head around the door to say hello.

“Ciao, caro,” Patrizia smiled when she saw him.

“Ciao, Mamma,” Daniele replied. “I’m just going to take a shower.”

“See you in a few minutes, champ,” Paolo said from his perch at the table, where he was drinking a glass of cool water.

Daniele retreated to his bedroom, shrugged his school bag off onto the floor next to his desk and then adjourned to his wardrobe to choose some clean clothes. He glanced happily at his reflection in the mirror. Once again, his tie-dye t-shirt, a lemon yellow one today, was streaked with dust and powdery earth, but he no longer minded: this was the dirt of friendship, and he felt he would always come back for more.

Over dinner, a tasty meal of pasta with peppers, aubergines, olives and capers, Daniele talked endlessly and excitably to his parents about the evening he had spent with his new friends.

“And Emilia threw a pinecone at me while I was bent over the log, and later Giacomo said she liked me, but I don’t know if she does really, but you know, who knows how girls think? Anyway, Giacomo went running off and I had to chase him up this old path full of holes and rocks. I was lucky I didn’t trip over. And then Giacomo disappeared, and I thought he’d left without me, but then he pounced…”

And so on.

Patrizia and Paolo listened to him with slightly bemused smiles on their faces. When Daniele finally paused for breath, Patrizia jumped in.

“It sounds like you had a lovely time once again, caro,” she said. “And I’m so glad to hear you’ve made another new friend. Emilia sounds like a nice girl.”

“I, ah…” Daniele said. “I invited them both to my birthday dinner. Is that okay?”

Paolo nodded. “We’d better book an extra table, but that should be fine. Of course your new friends should come.”

“Thanks, Papà,” Daniele replied.

“And does she?” Paolo asked. “Like you, I mean?”

Daniele shook his head. “I don’t know.” He frowned. “I mean, I don’t…”

“We understand, caro,” Patrizia broke in with a smile. “We’re just curious. We always thought you would have a few admirers soon.”

Maybe, but are they the right ones?

Daniele offered them an embarrassed shrug and turned his attention back to his pasta.

* * *

On Thursday, Daniele rode his mountain bike to school. He and Giacomo had arranged to go cycling together as soon as the school day ended.

They left quickly after the final bell rang. They paused to say goodbye to Emilia at the gates, then Giacomo set off up the steep steps beside the school to fetch his own bike from home.

Daniele had offered to meet the other boy on the main Naples road on the other side of the hill, which would allow Giacomo to take a shortcut. He rode out onto Via Roma and trundled past Da Rossi, coming out at the top of the valley road, then made his way up the tree-lined street that led to the cathedral square, bumping over the crazy paving.

He picked his way carefully through the busy space and turned through the tunnel that led out to the Naples road. He turned left, turning his back on the sea view, and set off in the direction of Sambuco, passing the pharmacy where he had taken Giacomo weeks ago.

There was traffic on the road, but not much. It intensified slightly when he passed the main road tunnel, which connected the Naples road with the valley road from the coast, but there was plenty of room in the street and he didn’t feel threatened.

Temporarily distracted from his purpose, Daniele coasted to a halt as he passed the Palmeri garage. Toto was there, apparently refuelling his Vespa scooter: he must have finished his school day on a free period, to make it back this early. He seemed to be deep in conversation with Enzo, which was such an unexpected sight that Daniele was taken quite aback.

“Trust me, Toto,” Enzo was growling, “they’re no friends of mine. Not any more.”

Toto nodded. “That’s what I thought, but I’m glad to hear you say it.”

Enzo shoved his fists into his pockets. “I told Toni there’d be trouble if he ever showed his face in this town again. I guess he has a short memory.”

“So, you’re in?”

Enzo nodded. “If it comes to a confrontation, I’ll back you up.”

“Cool.”

They shook hands. As they did so, Enzo caught sight of Daniele watching from the street. “What do you want, kid?” he said. “Move on.”

Hurriedly, Daniele pedalled away, aware of both their eyes boring into his back as he went. He wondered what Toto was planning; it wasn’t like the older boy to seek a fight.

A short while later, Daniele reached the agreed meeting point, where a narrow stone-paved ramp descended from among the houses on the hill. He didn’t have to wait long before Giacomo appeared, freewheeling down the hill, unencumbered by his school bag. Daniele, who was still wearing his, watched enviously.

“Ciao, Dani!” he called. “Ready to ride?”

Daniele nodded as the other boy swept out across the road, coming to a halt just in front of him. He was back in his stripy t-shirt, having shed his jacket at home.

“Let’s go,” Daniele replied.

They set off up the gentle incline, heading up into the Sambuco valley. Before long they were passing the cemetery at San Martino and then they left the town behind them, passing the Sambuco turning and climbing up past the rugged rocks and scrub that backed the main road. Below them, the tree-lined valley fell deeply away, backed by layers of rocky peaks. Daniele powered along, enjoying the challenge of keeping up with the other boy as they made the climb. The afternoon sun was somewhere above the peak of Monte Brusara, and now and then the cliffs and scrub cast welcome patches of shade onto the hot tarmac.

“Almost the holidays now, Dani,” Giacomo called after a while. “Freedom!”

“I know,” Daniele called back. “I can’t wait!”

“What do you want to do once school is out?”

“Anything,” Daniele replied. “As long as it’s with you!”

Giacomo laughed. “Don’t be so easy! Come on, there must be something?”

Daniele hesitated. “I haven’t been to the beach for a while,” he suggested, wondering whether he could really cope with such a thing.

“That’s a cool idea. Maybe we could get a little group together, although…” he snickered, “I’m not sure Emilia could handle it.”

That makes two of us…

“What about you?” Daniele called.

Giacomo shot him a grin over his shoulder.

“I can easily find some more ways to get you into trouble.”

The gentle climb continued. Well within his limits, Daniele enjoyed himself, looking forward to freewheeling back later on. He was also fascinated to watch his friend as he worked rhythmically at the pedals, scarcely breaking a sweat.

They carried on up the hill until they reached a viewpoint at the head of the valley, where they finally coasted to a halt and allowed themselves a rest. They leant their bikes against the crash barrier. Giacomo rooted in his pannier bag and produced two cool bottles of mineral water, which he must have picked up at home. He handed one to Daniele.

“Thanks,” Daniele said, surprised.

“No problem,” Giacomo replied. He flicked the bottle open and sprinkled a few drops over his hair and his forehead before taking a deep draught of the water. Daniele watched, knowing he should be admiring the view, but unable to tear his eyes away.

“It’s pretty cool up here, eh?” Giacomo said, and Daniele forced himself to look elsewhere. From where they were standing, they could see all the way down the Sambuco valley to the sea. The village clung to the steep valley sides, surrounded by wild woodland and terraced plantations. Somewhere down there, Daniele supposed, he could see Ettore’s house, but the reality of Giacomo’s predicament seemed far away for the moment.

“Yeah, it’s pretty epic,” Daniele replied.

“I’m glad I met you, Dani,” Giacomo said. “You’re cool, and you’ve really helped me to see things more clearly.”

“Thanks, Giaco,” Daniele said. “You’re… really cool, too.”

Giacomo climbed up onto the crash barrier and balanced there, slightly precariously. Daniele watched warily, painfully aware of the steep drop-off beyond.

Is that what I’ve been doing?

“I wish we could fly now,” Giacomo grinned, “like your friends used to say. We could glide down this valley, straight to the beach.”

Daniele reached for the other boy’s hand, hoping to pull him back down, but Giacomo tugged it away, gesturing instead for Daniele to join him.

“Come on up,” he said.

Daniele found he couldn’t say no. He hopped up onto the crash barrier next to Giacomo, and then the other boy did take his hand. They stood there, helping each other to balance, then exchanged a glance. Daniele laughed uneasily.

“This is mad,” he said.

As he said this, a van swept down the far lane of the road, honking its horn at them in an angry sort of way. Caught by surprise, they wobbled for a moment.

“Woah,” Giacomo laughed. “Okay, maybe that’s enough.”

They hopped back down together; Daniele was relieved to have his feet back on solid ground.

“Ready to go?” Daniele asked.

Giacomo nodded. “Let’s roll.”

They turned the bicycles around and began to freewheel back down the road, leaning into the endless meandering bends. Daniele closed his eyes for a second, feeling the patches of light and shade on his eyelids, enjoying the breeze they were creating as they rode. The blue sea flicked in and out of view as they rounded trees and rocky outcrops, drawing slightly nearer all the time. For a moment, Daniele remembered his old life in the noisy and polluted city of Milan; and he felt profoundly grateful to be out among the mountains, trees, and open air, riding with a friend who, he was now sure, would stand by him just as much as he would in return.

Giacomo applied his brakes as they approached the town, and Daniele followed suit, looking at the other boy curiously.

“I… ah… need to check in with Ettore,” Giacomo said awkwardly. “Do you mind?”

Daniele’s heart sank a little. “No, it’s okay. I’ll come with you.”

Giacomo glanced at him dubiously. “All right, but you stay up on the road.”

Daniele nodded. “Sure.”

They took the Sambuco turning together, doubling back into the valley and cruising down the gentle hill. It took much less time by bike than it had done on foot, and soon they were passing the layby that overlooked the plantations leading down to Ettore’s home.

As they glanced over the crash barrier, they both caught sight of a figure climbing the steps below.

“It’s Filippo,” Giacomo hissed. “He can’t know you’re involved. Quick, hide!”

Daniele nodded and hurried back to the layby, concealing his bike and himself behind the log pile and peeping over the edge.

Giacomo waited in the street. It looked like he had placed himself carefully to make sure Daniele could see and hear everything that went on.

Before long, Filippo had crested the staircase and was walking up the road. He was wearing his smart business suit again, but he had pulled his tie down low, and the top button of his shirt was undone against the heat. He slouched along nonchalantly with his hands in his pockets.

“Ciao, Filippo,” Giacomo said as the young man approached him.

“Little Giacomo,” Filippo smirked. “It’s all right, zio Ettore doesn’t need to see you today.”

“What?” Giacomo replied, frowning. “I don’t understand. I have to report in.”

Filippo waved this away. “We have someone else doing that job now.”

“But…” Giacomo said anxiously, “I thought we had a deal.”

Filippo chuckled. “Oh, we do,” he said. “Congratulations, little Giacomo, you’ve just been promoted.”

“Promoted…?” Giacomo replied uncertainly.

“The boys are doing another job tomorrow night,” Filippo said, “but it’s a bit high profile. You’re going to go along and cause a little diversion.” He dropped his voice to give the other boy the details, and Daniele could no longer hear what he was saying.

“All clear?” Filippo asked when he had finished.

Reluctantly, Giacomo nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good boy,” Filippo replied, ruffling Giacomo’s dark hair. As the young man walked away, Giacomo straightened it out again, looking miserable.

When Filippo was safely out of sight, Daniele got to his feet and hurried out to join his friend.

“You can’t do this, Giaco,” he said anxiously. “It’s too dangerous.”

Giacomo shook his head unhappily. “Don’t worry, Dani,” he sighed, “I just need to go and cause some noise. I’ll be careful.”

His own inhibitions temporarily forgotten, Daniele leaped forward and pulled the other boy into a hug. Giacomo seemed surprised at first, but then hugged him back gratefully.

Whatever Toto and the others were planning, Daniele thought, he hoped they would put it into action soon.

Copyright © 2021 James Carnarvon; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Chapter Comments

Can't disagree with any of the comments above! 

Here in the great state of Massachusetts we've been subject to some new and interesting weather terminology. There are times when 2 to 3 different weather systems will combine, think of the movie The Perfect Storm. 

Where I am going with this...not less than two weeks ago we had a similar type weather event and the meteorologists called it a Bomb Cyclone.

Why do I get the feeling Dani's birthday party may be a version of a bomb cyclone???

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1 hour ago, drsawzall said:

Why do I get the feeling Dani's birthday party may be a version of a bomb cyclone???

A bold prediction and not without good reason. I hope you're not too disappointed by what actually happens!

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What I do not understand is how easily Giacomo and Emilia are dumping Marco. At lunch time he is sitting within eye sight, obviously not feeling well and they just don't seem to care. No invitation to come over, not even a few words are exchanged. And then for their little trip nobody thinks about inviting him along?

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I can feel Dani's joy from a mile away. Speaking as someone who spent some formative years as a social outcast, it's a hugely validating experience to be accepted into a peer group for the first time. Especially so at Dani's age. Having older friends like Toto can't substitute for that experience.

As much as I love the vicarious travel, as @Lorenzo46said, the dark side is watching Dani and Giacomo do crazy things in precarious places. When they hopped up on that crash barrier, I was like, "NO NO, get back down!" That is a hard pass for me. But I do admire the fearless attitude.

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6 hours ago, Freerider said:

What I do not understand is how easily Giacomo and Emilia are dumping Marco. At lunch time he is sitting within eye sight, obviously not feeling well and they just don't seem to care. No invitation to come over, not even a few words are exchanged. And then for their little trip nobody thinks about inviting him along?

I suppose kids of that age are not always able to deal with this sort of thing in the best way. Thanks to his own insecurities, Marco has managed to isolate himself. Dani himself is uncomfortable with what has happened but doesn’t know exactly what to do about it.

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3 hours ago, redwood said:

As much as I love the vicarious travel, as @Lorenzo46said, the dark side is watching Dani and Giacomo do crazy things in precarious places. When they hopped up on that crash barrier, I was like, "NO NO, get back down!" That is a hard pass for me. But I do admire the fearless attitude.

Yes, they are taking risks together. There’s a lack of a moderating influence. How far will they go?

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I’m sorry to hear you lost your comment @Summerabbacat. But thank you!

There have been some very insightful comments. Comments that reflect and speculate on characters are some of the most satisfying to receive, and I’m very grateful for them. As you say, it shows that the story has made an impact and people are thinking about it.

Yes, the ads do cause problems. On my phone they frequently obscure vital links and buttons.

Edited by James Carnarvon
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47 minutes ago, James Carnarvon said:

I’m sorry to hear you lost your comment @Summerabbacat. But thank you!

There have been some very insightful comments. Comments that reflect and speculate on characters are some of the most satisfying to receive, and I’m very grateful for them. As you say, it shows that the story has made an impact and people are thinking about it.

Yes, the ads do cause problems. On my phone they frequently obscure vital links and buttons.

That is one of many reasons I only use my mobile phone (which I only got so I could work from home due to the "virus") to make calls, send the occasional text and take photos of my beloved felines. My heckles are immediately raised when someone cheerfully (and condescendingly) tells me "you can do that on our app". This is when those curse words which have been referred to in previous chapter comments make their appearance felt immediately, frequently and with great passion. I am quite capable of internet banking and many other things of that nature on my laptop, but insist I do it on my phone and you lose my business (or incur my wrath). I have had one of these experiences this evening, so being fresh in my mind I am venting. I will concentrate and think of Daniele's lovely tie dye T-shirts and restore calm.

On another note, can someone please attempt to improve the lives of the stray cats referenced in several of the chapters of this tale. I belong to a rescue group, which is why I still have 4 cats after having lost my 2 eldest in the last few months to kidney disease. The emotions are still raw, but reading tales as delightful as this offer some comfort.

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@Summerabbacat to quote Emilia, “I’m just telling it how it is”. Throughout my trips to Italy, stray cats have been a constant feature. They live a fairly feral existence and, as far as I can tell, nobody takes responsibility for them. A programme of neutering would go a long way to addressing the problem.

They seem less territorial than domestic pets. Of necessity, perhaps, they hang around in family or social groups and position themselves around people where they may get scraps or be able to predate on other scavengers.

Gianni and Angelo’s plump, sleek pet Ennio is definitely in the minority in this regard.

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Like other commenters, I a very worried for Marco and suspect that he is Giaco's replacement.  He's got the skills and the need.  What I don't understand is how the other three treat him.  I don't excuse Dani, Emilia or Giaco for their actions.  Marco was not included, but Emilia was included.  They all know Marco's feelings and lack of resources.  Giaco and Emilia have been friends for years.  To me this is just cruel on their part.  

Dani and Giaco are getting in even deeper with this new "promotion" .  I too think it may be a set up, but even if it isn't it still puts Giaco in the position of actively participating in a crime.  It would ruin his life and probably destroy his mother.  Toto and Michele may have a plan, but I hope it includes some of the older friends and family.  These kids are too young to mess with the Neri family.

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travlbug

Posted (edited)

After the fight between Dani and Marco, Dani asks for Marco's friendship. Sadly, Marco spurns his offer and runs away. At lunch, Marco self isolates:  With Dani present, he chooses to sit apart from his friends (he's never asked to do so).  While I'm disappointed that the friends don't directly invite him to join them (or offer to meet him later [for a more detailed explanation of Giaco's recent distancing]), I honestly think that Marco isn't ready to hear what any of them has to say.  (Sigh.)

I love that Dani has gained an additional friend in Emilia, and the scenes where the friends continue to bond (with or without Emilia) are idyllic and bring me back to my boyhood!

"So, you’re in?" Enzo nodded. "If it comes to a confrontation, I’ll back you up." Clearly, Toto et al are planning to take action against the protection racketeers. I'm fearful that such a confrontation will turn violent, but Enzo is a great choice to have on the villagers' side.

A "promotion?" What I actually hear Fillipo saying is "more danger." Ettore wants to drag Giaco deeper into the gang's workings, and Giaco's best response would be to leave it while he still can (if he can. We still don't know the whole story behind how he started working for the gang in the first place). With Toto and the other villagers ready to make their move, the degree of danger that Giaco faces is heightened even further. :unsure:

Edited by travlbug
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