Blood Will Tell

Sometimes one small mistake can lead to an entire avalanche of nasty consequences. Some small divergences from manga canon; a veritable confluence of clusterfuck.

One of the first things Sawada Iemitsu did in his apprenticeship to the Vongola Ninth’s outside advisor was bring the Ninth news of the woman who claimed that her son belonged to Timoteo Vongola. It was an act that Iemitsu reflected on later, grimly, deciding that it was the event that colored his entire service to the Vongola.

Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if they’d simply had someone go around to have a quiet word with the woman instead of bringing it to the Ninth’s attention. Would things have gone to the hell the way they had later, or would one of Timoteo’s actual sons gone on to inherit the position of Vongola Decimo while his own son went ahead, bumbling his way through life, innocent of its darker sides?

Iemitsu couldn’t say.

Such speculations were only fit for musing on over a cup of sake, however, because the fact was, when he’d reported news of the woman who’d claimed that Timoteo Vongola had been the one to impregnate her, and that the result was a boy who could produce a Vongola Flame, the Ninth had simply said, “Hm.”

That, Iemitsu had already learned, was one of the Ninth’s thinking sounds. “If you like, I can go speak to her,” Iemitsu offered. “Explain to her why she doesn’t want to keep saying these things.”

The Ninth made another of his thoughtful noises, and left his desk. He paced the length of his office, slow, deliberate, to stand before the window with his hands clasped behind his back. “Hm,” he said again, and then, “I suppose I’ll have to see the boy.”

“You will, sir?” Iemitsu repeated, cautiously.

Timoteo turned away from the window. “Yes, I think so. Make preparations for it, please.”

Iemitsu nodded, and said, “At once, sir,” and that was that.

“I take it that you don’t approve of this,” Timoteo said, thoughtfully, as Gianni maneuvered the car through narrow, twisting streets that were growing increasingly shabby with their slow progress.

“I haven’t said a word,” Gianni said, turning down an even darker, narrower street.

“You don’t have to. I can hear you thinking it from here.”

That was as good as permission to speak freely. “I don’t think you should be dignifying this woman’s claims with your attention,” he said, with a quick glance around as he parked the car. There were faces in many of the windows, but few enough people on the street. “She’s not stable, Boss. Everyone knows it.”

“Even fools and madmen can be right occasionally.” Timoteo unbelted himself, and waited for Gianni to signal that it was safe for him to leave the car.

Gianni half-hoped that he wouldn’t be able to, that this whole fool’s errand was a trap, but his men appeared at either end of the street and gave the all-clear. He sighed and nodded to Timoteo.

They emerged from the car together, both of them stretching and exchanging grimaces. The days of comfortable car rides that didn’t leave them with stiff backs and tired joints were already well past them both, and getting older was proving to be an unpleasant business. The street—which could hardly be called that, and was more like an alley than anything else—was filled with rubbish that stirred around their feet. Gianni grimaced again as they turned to the tenement where the woman Bianca Castelli and her son were supposed to live.

One of Gianni’s men slipped up the stairs ahead of them, swift and silent. Gianni and Timoteo followed more slowly, until they came to the top floor. The air inside the building was stuffy, filled with the smell of a thousand competing meals. Even in the middle of the day, the air was full of the sounds of babies crying and radios blaring. Somewhere, perhaps a floor down, a man and a woman were arguing.

Gianni did the honors of knocking on the door of 6010, which flaked paint under the brisk rapping. Castelli herself answered the door.

She must have been pretty, once, but the fineness of her features was blurred now. Her hair was tangled, and she was wrapped in a man’s faded houserobe. Her feet were bare and dirty, and her eyes darted between them, too fast and bright. “Yes?” she said. Her knuckles were white where they clutched the door.

She showed no sign of recognizing Timoteo Vongola.

Typical, Gianni thought, disgusted in spite of his best intentions otherwise. “The Vongola Ninth is here to see you,” he said, quietly, and watched her eyes go wide, terror mixed with wild hope.

“I knew it,” she said, like a prayer, clasping her hands under her chin. “Oh, I knew this day would come.”

Castelli brought them into the apartment, hands fluttering like trapped birds, and tried to offer them hospitality in between calling for the boy. Timoteo refused her offers, kind but firm, which, given the state of the place, with not a bit of clean floor in sight and surfaces that even looked sticky, was only wise. All the while she stared at Timoteo, eyes burning with devotion, or perhaps vindication.

“No,” Timoteo said again, when she offered them wine, still gentle with her, “no wine, thank you. If I could just meet the boy…?”

“Yes,” Castelli said, “yes, of course.” She edged away from them, backwards, as if reluctant to let Timoteo out of her sight for even a moment. “Xanxus! Xanxus, you stupid brat, where are you?”

The reply that came back from what Gianni assumed was the bedroom was in a boy’s clear soprano, but it delivered a series of curses worthy of a sailor. “I was sleeping,” he growled when he finally emerged, scowling.

Gianni was close enough to Timoteo to hear the quiet sound Timoteo made, as of recognition, as Castelli reeled the boy in and began petting him, obviously against his will. “There’s Mama’s beautiful boy,” she crooned, smoothing his hair back from a distinctive forehead. “Show your—” she stopped, perhaps thinking better of it “—show the Ninth what you can do, baby.”

The woman was canny in her madness, and had clearly passed that canniness down to the boy. His eyes went sharp, fixing on Timoteo, and he held up a hand that wreathed itself in Flame.

Gianni braced himself against the pressure of it, staggered. The boy couldn’t be more than ten, but to be able to produce that much anger, so very young…

Afterwards, he could only assume that Timoteo had been thinking something similar, tender-hearted as he was. “Ah, yes,” he said, very softly, crossing the room and kneeling, putting his face at Xanxus’ level. “That is indeed a Vongola Flame.”

Castelli made a sound, releasing her son and covering her mouth as tears began to cut a clean path down her cheeks. “Yes,” she said, nearly sobbing the word, “oh, yes.”

After that it was a matter of calling for another car to come for her and the boy as she flew around the apartment, gathering up pieces of rubbish that Gianni supposed held personal meaning for her. Xanxus stood, unmoved, watching Timoteo all the while, his back already held straighter and his eyes burning just like his mother’s had.

“I want to ride with you,” he announced when they came down to the street. (All the windows had faces pressed to them now, watching the drama unfold. It gave Gianni a headache, knowing that this news was already all over the country.)

“Of course,” Timoteo told him, easy about it.

Gianni bit his lip; he would have to talk to Timoteo later.

Later didn’t happen until well after they’d returned home and Timoteo had personally seen Castelli and her son installed in a set of rooms in the private wing of the house, and had told them to direct the household staff to provide anything they required. Xanxus accept all this with a stony expression, as if it were only their due. Castelli herself was already calling for a drink—this early in the day!—and Gianni was hard-put to suppress his shudder.

Timoteo didn’t dismiss him, so Gianni followed him to his private study, where Timoteo sank into the chair behind his desk and sighed. After a moment, he looked up at Gianni and smiled. “Let’s have it, then.”

“Are you out of your ever-loving mind?” Gianni asked, since dire catastrophes required extreme measures. “That boy can’t possibly be your son.”

Timoteo laughed, though the sound was wry. “Of course he isn’t my son. Did I ever say he was?”

“No, you had the good sense not to do that much, thank God.” Gianni threw himself down into his customary chair, scowling. “That won’t matter one bit now that you’ve taken him in, though. You know everyone will assume that he’s your—” He stopped short, unwilling to say it.

“My bastard? Yes.” Timoteo’s expression turned distant. “Got, no doubt, during my wife’s final illness or shortly thereafter, when my manly needs overwhelmed my good sense. It’s a very tidy story, isn’t it?”

“Oh, very.” Gianni raked his hands through his hair. “Why the hell are you letting yourself play into it?”

“He’s very clearly of the Vongola line,” Timoteo said, brisk. “I suspect from one of the Second’s, actually. The boy favors him, and that one had at least half a dozen bastards that we know of, and probably a few more besides.”

That was fair enough, but— “You could have said so, and not let the world assume that he was yours.” The world would, of course, but at least it would save some of Timoteo’s face among those who knew him best.

Timoteo sighed. “Yes, of course I could have. But his Flame, Gianni… To be that young, and that angry…”

So that was how it was. Arguing with him was a lost cause when he’d made up his mind to right some wrong. “You can’t adopt every fatherless boy out there.”

Timoteo’s smile was quick. “No. But I can adopt this one.”

The crash was what seized Rafaele’s attention, but the shriek and the bellow which followed turned his steps away from the main hallway to investigate. That didn’t take long; a sobbing housemaid hurtled past him, her face white, as Xanxus emerged from his room, expression screwed up with anger. “Don’t fuck it up again, you stupid little sl—”

He stopped short when he saw Rafaele standing there.

“Now, what’s all this?” Rafaele asked, after a quick breath to calm himself.

Xanxus took a moment to answer; his struggle with the decision whether he was required to answer Rafaele was clear on his face. “My lunch was cold.”

“How unfortunate,” Rafaele said, as mildly as he could manage. “Was it worth screaming for? Or—” He craned his head; yes, it was as he’d expected. “—throwing the whole thing at the wall?”

“I was aiming at her,” Xanxus said, with the simplicity of honesty. “But she ducked.”

“You were—you do realize that you could have hurt her, don’t you?” Rafaele asked, with what he felt was really quite admirable restraint.

“It wouldn’t have,” Xanxus said, composedly. “If the soup had been hot, then I wouldn’t have had to get angry.”

Ice slid down Rafaele’s spine at the boy’s calm. “It wasn’t worth getting angry about in the first place.”

Xanxus’ eyes went flat and cold. “You’re not my father,” he said. “You can’t tell me what to do.” His hands flexed, and the air pressure changed with the first oppressive edges of his Flame dancing along his fingers.

“No,” Rafaele said, after a measured moment. “I suppose I can’t. But I can tell your father what it is you’ve done.” This time, he added silently. Xanxus really was a singularly unpleasant boy. “Perhaps you’d better come with me,” he added, turning away, careful not to let Xanxus entirely out of his sight.

“I’m not going to,” Xanxus said. “You can’t make me.” His chin lifted; what should have looked like a twelve-year-old’s petulance looked more like an adult’s contempt. “You know he won’t do anything, anyway. I deserve the best.”

Rafaele lost the struggle with himself, although, if he were honest, he wasn’t trying very hard. “The best is a privilege you need to earn,” he said.

“Bullshit.” Xanxus smirked. “Run along and tell the old man I said so, and see what he says. You’ll see.”

“Mm. I think I’ve known the Ninth a little longer than you.” Rafaele stopped himself and drew a breath. When had he sunk so low that he’d argue with a child? “You may want to clean that soup up before it stains.”

Xanxus’ lip curled, but he turned on his heel. As Rafaele started downstairs for the Ninth’s study, he heard the boy pick up the house phone and call for a servant to come clean up the mess.

He had to wait to speak with the Ninth, who was closeted with Gianni, Federico, Maria, and Fedele—discussing negotiations with the Barassi, Rafaele suspected. Given Maria’s predatory smile when the conference let out, he supposed they must have decided to get tough with the Barassi—she loved it when she got to intimidate other Families into behaving.

The other three remained, even after the Ninth called him in, and listened to the story too. Gianni stayed impassive through the whole thing, and Fedele tried to mimic his mentor’s stoic expression, but was at least two decades too young to master the effect. Federico, on the other hand, didn’t bother disguise his disdain for his adopted brother’s behavior.

The Ninth shook his head after Rafaele had finished. “That’s the third time this month. And he was so good last month.”

“For a relative value of good,” Federico said. “Dad, you’ve got to do something with him before we lose all our help.”

“Boarding school, perhaps,” Gianni suggested. “Some place that emphasizes discipline.”

“I’m not going to send Xanxus away.” The Ninth’s voice had just enough edge to it to make clear that the suggestion should not be made again. “I’ll speak to him.”

“Because that does so much good,” Federico grumbled, and then held up his hands when his father frowned. “You’re the Boss, Dad, and he’s your… project.”

“And your brother now,” the Ninth said.

Federico’s mouth quirked. “So they tell me,” he said, dry. “It’s hard enough with Enrico and Massimo. Couldn’t you have brought us a cute little sister to spoil instead of Xanxus? It’s difficult to be brotherly to a porcupine.”

Rafaele hid a smile as Federico defused his father’s irritation; he was coming along nicely, that one. It was no wonder the Ninth favored him most of his three sons. Four sons, now. “I’ll be on my way,” he said, since he’d discharged his duty to that poor girl.

“So will I,” Federico said, standing. “Keep an eye out for that little sister, Dad. Come on, Fedele.”

The Ninth’s laughter followed the three of them out.

“Boarding school,” Federico said, thoughtfully, once they were safely away. “I like that idea. Pity it won’t ever happen.”

Fedele snorted. “Hard to make up for lost time at a boarding school.”

Rafaele raised an eyebrow; Michele’s boy had sharp eyes on him.

“Pity,” Federico said again, and shook his head. “I keep thinking that one of these days the kid’s got to settle down. Then I remember that we’re about to hit the teenage years and I want to go get myself a stiff drink.”

“Don’t go borrowing too much trouble,” Rafaele said. “He’s your brother, not your son. Leave that headache to your father.”

Federico’s smile was bright. “I think I will, at that.” He clapped Fedele on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s head down to the range. I want a rematch after yesterday.”

“Ready to be embarrassed again so soon?” Fedele grinned. “You’re a glutton for punishment these days.”

“Big talk, little man,” Federico retorted, and scrubbed his hand through Fedele’s curly hair. “I have a bottle of wine that says I’ll win this match.”

“You’re on, boss,” Fedele said, and they went off, laughing.

Rafaele watched them go, smiling. Perhaps there wasn’t any helping Xanxus, but at least the Ninth’s youngest made up for him.

Iemitsu was running late and knew it, but when he fetched up against the knot of the Ninth’s sons—who were supposed to be at the same meeting he was later for—he couldn’t help stopping, with a frisson of relief. Best to be late in company, he decided, and the higher the rank of that company, the better. He slowed to a saunter, and insinuated himself at the edge of the group.

The cause of their delay came clear at once. Xanxus was glaring at his adoptive brothers, expression as mutinous as only a fifteen-year-old’s could be. “Make me,” he said, jaw jutting out.

His brothers exchanged nearly identical exasperated glances with each other. “Father said we were all supposed to attend,” Enrico pointed out, with all the authority of the eldest brother, as if that appeal to the Ninth’s desires was likely to sway Xanxus.

“Then let the old man make me,” Xanxus grunted, and tried to push his way past them.

Massimo caught his arm; of the three of them, he came closest to matching Xanxus’ budding strength. “That’s no way to talk about Father, you little punk.”

“Ask me how much I don’t care,” Xanxus retorted, twisting out of his grip, though not without some effort.

Before he could storm off, Federico gave it a shot. “Xanxus, it’s really time you started attending these meetings. You’re part of our Family. You should know how it’s run.”

Xanxus stopped, arrested, however briefly. Then he shook his head, snorting. “Fuck that,” he announced, despite his brief moment to consider the argument. “I have plans for my day. And they don’t involve listening to a pack of old men arguing with each other.”

He broke free of them, stalking off, and they let him go. After a moment, Massimo asked, wistfully, “Do you think that excuse would work for me, too?”

“Your name Xanxus?” Enrico asked. “No? Then yeah, I’m guessing not. God, he’s such a little ba—”

“You know Dad doesn’t like to hear him called that,” Federico said, mildly enough, and checked his watch. “Doesn’t like it when we’re late, either,” he said, grimacing.

“Shit,” Massimo grunted, and they moved off together, at a brisk pace. He glanced at Iemitsu as he fell in with them. “What’s your excuse?”

“Up late on the phone with Japan,” Iemitsu said, rueful.

“Where ‘Japan’ means his lovely Nana,” Enrico sing-songed, grinning, and his brothers laughed. “And how is Japan these days?”

“Lovely.” Iemitsu shrugged at them, perfectly aware that he was grinning like a fool and not caring in the slightest.

“When’s the wedding, again?” Federico smiled at him. “In the spring, right?”

“May,” Iemitsu told him, grinning harder.

“Not soon enough, eh?” Enrico asked, nudging his ribs.

They were upon the room where the Ninth held his business meetings, though. Iemitsu had no chance to do more than shrug at him before they all schooled their expressions and filed in.

“Ah,” the Ninth said, from his seat at the head of the table. “So glad to see that you could join us this morning, gentlemen.”

“Sorry, Father,” Federico said, meekly. “We were trying to persuade Xanxus to join us.”

“Emphasis on the ‘trying’,” Massimo muttered, under his breath, while Iemitsu was grateful to Federico for including him in that ‘we’. “Not so much with the succeeding.”

It was a good excuse, though; some of the iron in the Ninth’s expression unbent itself. “I see,” he said. “Sit down. We’ve delayed this meeting long enough.”

Iemitsu slid into his seat next to Guiseppe with a sigh, and tore his thoughts away from lovely Japan in order to turn them to the Vongola’s business.

Piero’d had the teaching of all the Ninth’s sons, insofar as fighting and self-defense had gone. He’d been the one who’d trained Enrico to be able to shoot without flinching and pulling the shot wide. He’d also been the one who’d seen that Massimo would only ever be a passable shot but was a demon with a set of throwing knives. He’d coaxed (and then berated) Federico into paying attention to the martial side of being a Vongola, when it had become clear who the Boss was looking at to be the Tenth.

He’d had the teaching of all the Boss’s sons, but of them, Xanxus was by far his best pupil, for all that he hadn’t come to Piero until he was ten years old. The boy, who was sullen with every other Guardian—or so Piero had heard from his brother and from the rest of them—seized upon the things Piero had to teach him, from how to disassemble and care for a gun to the places where the human body was most vulnerable to a quick, sharp blow. He was a pupil to do any teacher proud: a quick study at ten, and a competent shot by twelve. He began a growth spurt at fourteen and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Piero by sixteen, which was the first time he beat Piero in a hand-to-hand match.

When Piero had gotten his breath back, he rolled to his feet. “Not bad,” he told Xanxus, who was giving him a fiercely delighted smile, one of the ones that showed all his teeth. “When you get done growing, there isn’t going to be anyone stronger than you.”

“Of course not,” Xanxus said, as if it were only his due. “Come on, old man. Let’s go again.”

Piero was happy to oblige him. Let the others fret about the boy all they liked—what he liked was that Xanxus knew the value of strength the way his brothers never had.

By rights, the duty should have belonged to the Ninth, but he and Gianni and Maria were abroad, negotiating a trade agreement in Moscow. That left it to either him, Michele, or Rafaele to do it—and Rafaele’s dislike of Xanxus was years-established at this point. In the end, Paolo had flipped a coin with Michele and lost the toss.

That left him standing outside Xanxus’ rooms, knocking loudly and wondering where on earth the boy was. All the intelligence they had said that he was on the premises, but he hadn’t answered the repeated telephone calls—not the one at nine p.m, or the more urgent calls at midnight, then two, or the final, most urgent call, just an hour ago at four.

The door jerked open, and Xanxus glared at him, ferocious. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“We’ve been trying to reach you all night,” Paolo said, pointedly ignoring the fact that the boy—not a boy, really, he was seventeen, wasn’t he?—was naked. “May I come in? I’m afraid there’s something I need to tell you.”

“So tell me,” Xanxus growled, scratching his stomach.

“This isn’t really the kind of thing—”

“Just fucking spit it out,” Xanxus snapped. “I’m getting cold standing here.”

“Perhaps if you’d put something on, that wouldn’t be a problem,” Paolo retorted. Then he composed himself; now wasn’t the time. “Are you quite sure—”

Wrath crackled around Xanxus’ hands. “Tell me or I’ll beat it out of you,” he said, low and vicious.

For a moment, Paolo was tempted, if only because an outright attack on one of his Guardians might force Timoteo into doing something with the boy. Then he dismissed the idea. “Your mother,” he said, quietly. “She went into her final decline last night. I’m afraid she passed away about an hour ago.”

“That it?”

Paolo had prepared himself for a number of possible responses, but he hadn’t expected that tone of disinterest. “I’m very sorry.”

“You should be,” Xanxus said. “Waking a guy up at five in the morning for that. Christ.” He turned away.

“She called for you till the last,” Paolo said, harshly, wanting to punch through that chilly indifference. “She wanted to see you one last time. She died promising the doctors you’d be there any minute.”

Xanxus looked back at him, mouth turned up in a way that was hardly a smile. “Yeah? Guess that’s what happens to you when you drink too much. You got anything else, or can I get back to bed?”

“Nothing else,” Paolo said, biting the words out with more calm than he felt.

Xanxus slammed the door on him. After a moment, Paolo turned away from it to go find someone who would make the funeral arrangements.

Clearly Xanxus wasn’t going to do it himself.

It was a good day up until that point. The sun had shone through the ceremony, but the breeze had been just balmy enough to keep things comfortable, and the wedding had gone off without a single bobble. All his children had come to see their oldest brother married, and their mothers had even (mostly) agreed to suspend hostilities for the occasion.

All told, Michele couldn’t have asked to be happier, and told Fedele’s little bride Evelina as much when he claimed his dance with her. She blushed prettily and thanked him when he surrendered her back to Fedele at the close of his dance. Michele just grinned at her and elbowed his son in the ribs, and grinned harder when it didn’t even begin to budge the dazedly happy grin on Fedele’s face.

Perhaps the boy had known what he was about after all, waiting this long to get married.

Michele congratulated them again, and moved off the dance floor to find himself a bit of refreshment. His meandering path towards the bar required several stops—once to speak with the Ninth, who looked as proud of his godson’s marriage as he had over his own sons’ marriages. He had to stop again to accept congratulations from Paolo and a vigorous round of back-slappings from Piero. Then he had to dodge lovely Giulia, who didn’t seem to quite grasp the notion of “suspended hostilities” after all.

It was when he’d ducked behind the stand of potted palms to hide from her that he became aware of the altercation taking place in the little nook to his left. Michele didn’t consider himself the type to eavesdrop—was, in fact, quite bad at it, since he never had managed the trick of being still long enough to hear anything interesting. He couldn’t help overhearing the argument, though, especially when their voices rose sharply and the gist of the argument came clear in the woman’s, “No, I said no—” and the man’s impatient, “Come on.”

Michele sighed, good mood dimmed, and went to interfere. “Is everything all right over here?” he asked, pleasantly, to the back of the boor in question. The woman—well, the girl—flashed him a grateful look over her would-be suitor’s shoulder.

That earned him a growled, “Fuck off,” and Michele had to bite back a groan. He recognized that voice.

“Ah, Xanxus. Just the fellow I was looking for.” He took his life in his hands and brought a hand down on the boy’s nape, pulling him off the girl, who immediately seized her chance to escape and eeled away from Xanxus. “Come, walk with me.”

He was no mountain like Piero or Paolo, but he managed to keep his grip on Xanxus all the same, at least until he’d marched the boy outside. “Let go of me,” Xanxus snarled, and finally wrenched free of him on the terrace.

“Mm,” Michele said, looking him over. “You’re what, seventeen now?”

Xanxus just glared at him, death in his eyes. “Eighteen.”

“Right,” Michele said, blithely enough, but keeping a wary eye on him. “Now, as I remember, girls can be difficult at that age—” It was a lie, but a small one, in service to a good cause. “—But if you have to force them, you’re doing everything all wrong.”

Xanxus growled at him. “She didn’t have any business saying no to me.”

Michele forgot to smile, and just stared at him. “The hell she didn’t,” he managed, after a moment. “She has every right to say no if she likes.”

“Not to the Vongola,” Xanxus said, stubborn, and Michele felt his blood run cold at the solid conviction in his eyes.

“Yes, even to the Vongola,” he said, sharply. “Being the Vongola means that you have a responsibility to your people. You don’t rule them because you dominate them. You rule them because they trust you to. And even then, they still have their rights.”

It was hopeless, and he knew it before he’d even opened his mouth. Xanxus barely let him finish before rolling his eyes. “Whatever. Are we done here?”

Michele nodded, short and annoyed. “I suppose so. Leave the girls alone,” he added, sharp. “I’ll be watching you.”

Xanxus looked him over and sneered, and the pushed his way past Michele, heading back inside to the reception.

Michele looked up at the sky and took a long breath, making a note to himself to speak to the Ninth later. Someone had better take the boy in hand, and soon. His sense of what it meant to be one of the Vongola was completely askew.

“You have a problem,” Maria said, without any preliminaries, as she let herself into the Ninth’s office.

As usual, she had to wait for them to catch up with her. “Which of us?” the Ninth asked, while his son and Gianni blinked at her.

“You,” she said, leveling her finger at him. “But you’re going to have this problem too,” she told Federico. “Especially if that old fool you call a father doesn’t get this cleared up soon.”

“I can’t do that if you don’t tell me what it is,” the Ninth said, too cheerful by half.

He ought to have known better by this point.

“Xanxus,” Maria said, and folded her arms. The smile slid off the Ninth’s face.

“What’s he done this time?” Federico groaned.

“Nothing. Yet.” Maria held up her hand for them to wait while she finished. “I don’t know who you think you’re planning on leaving all this to when they cart you out of here in a pine box, but I can tell you that everyone sure seems to think that it’s going to be Xanxus. Especially Xanxus himself. Twenty years old and he’s the lord of creation. If you don’t want to cause yourself a headache later on, you’ll set him straight now.”

The Ninth held up a hand before either Gianni or Federico could say anything. “You’re quite sure of this?”

“Don’t be an idiot. Would I have told you otherwise?” she asked.

The Ninth glanced at his son. “You see what you might have to look forward to from the Cloud?”

“I can hardly wait,” Federico said, drily.

“This isn’t a laughing matter,” Gianni said, quietly; well, he always had been a sensible one. His shadow Fedele seemed to be listening, too. Good. “Xanxus does have his supporters. And you do seem to favor him outrageously.”

“Would you like to add ‘I told you so’ to that?” the Ninth returned.

“It hardly seems necessary,” Gianni murmured.

The Ninth sighed, fingers smoothing over the mustache that had finally finished going grey. “I’ll have to speak with him.” He looked at Federico. “You may have a fight on your hands, my boy. I doubt he’ll serve you, else.”

At least Federico had the wisdom to look sensibly nervous at the thought. “I’ll do what I have to, if it’s for the Family.”

“Of course you will,” Maria said, and directed her attention back to the Ninth. “Do it soon,” she told him. “You can’t afford to wait.”

“I,” the Ninth said, easing himself down into his seat after the Tomasso delegation had finally been placated and shown out, “am getting too damn old for this. I should retire.”

“Bite your tongue, Dad,” Federico said, with a tired grin, and hooked a finger in the knot of his tie, loosening it. “If you retire now, who’s going to deal with the Tomasso?”

“Not me,” the Ninth said, with great feeling. “That’s the whole point.” He glanced past his son to Iemitsu. “Still think it’s an honor and a privilege to be the outside advisor?”

“Of course, sir,” Iemitsu told him, keeping his face straight. Then he added, “It’s just a big damn pain in the ass, too.”

They all laughed, except for Maria, but even she smiled, just a bit. “You’re not wrong there,” the Ninth said, with a rueful smile. “The whole thing’s a pain in the ass. But once we finish getting the Tomasso put to bed, you’ll have some time to go visit that little family of yours.”

Iemitsu ducked his head, trying not to grin too hard at the thought. “Thank you, sir.”

“Perhaps I’ll go with you,” the Ninth mused, and his Guardians exchanged glances. “I understand that Japan is a fairly traditional retirement destination.”

Federico looked up, entire posture gone still in the process of shrugging off his jacket. “Dad?”

The Ninth looked back at him, mouth quirking under his mustache. “What?”

They all watched as Federico slipped out of his jacket, and hung it over the back of his chair before he spoke, carefully light. “If you’re not careful, we’re going to take you at your word there, and boot you out the door.”

“And why shouldn’t you take me seriously?” The Ninth leaned back in his chair. “You’re as old as I was when your grandmother retired. It’s time I found myself a beach somewhere and spent my dotage basking, don’t you think?”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” Michele sighed, as Federico and Fedele both goggled at the Ninth. “Can there be umbrella drinks, too? I think there needs to be umbrella drinks.” He grinned. “And pretty girls to serve them to us.”

“I don’t believe we were invited along,” Rafaele said, dry as dust, but Iemitsu thought he looked like he regretted it. Even Paolo looked thoughtful about the prospect.

“Why not?” the Ninth asked, with a grin. “Umbrella drinks for all of us, and we can let the kids get on with the business of running this place.” He glanced at his son. “If they’re ready for it.”

Federico glanced at Fedele, who shrugged. “Up to you, Boss,” he said. “You know I’ll go wherever you do.”

“Never doubted it for a moment,” Federico told him, and looked at his father. “I’m as ready as anyone can be, Father. If you’re ready to step down, then I’m ready to take your place.”

“Good, good.” Timoteo nodded. “After we finish with the Tomasso, then. We’ll start the transfer of power after all that is taken care of.” He brought his hands together. “Until then, I think a bottle of wine will have to serve us in the place of the umbrella drinks. Someone ring for that, would you?”

Fedele leaped to do as the Ninth had requested as the rest of them laughed and crowded around Federico to offer him their congratulations and advice.

Afterwards, Iemitsu always wondered that none of them, not even him, had thought to wonder how Xanxus would take the news of his adopted brother’s impending elevation to the position of the Tenth. In retrospect, it was an unforgivable oversight.

Michele, of all his Guardians, stayed closest to him during the hideous four days when no one knew where Federico, his third son, his successor-to-be, had disappeared to. When Timoteo looked at him, Michele’s tight, anxious expression, all his characteristic energy and good humor absent, felt like looking into a mirror. Federico wasn’t the only one who’d gone missing, after all. Fedele had been with him when he’d gone missing, as could only be expected of Federico’s right hand.

“I hate the waiting,” Michele said to him, on the second day, “but God knows I’m not sure I want it to end.”

Timoteo knew precisely what he meant. As the hours ticked past, with no word from Federico and no demands from the Vongola’s enemies, the ones who’d be delighted to use this lever against him, it became more and more difficult to hold on to hope, especially when the eyes of his people turned bleak, and then refused to meet his at all.

Timoteo waited, and hoped against all expectation of hope, and prayed, while Michele kept vigil with him, looking suddenly old, motionless except for the unceasing movement of the beads through his fingers and the prayers on his lips. Gianni stepped in Timoteo’s place while they waited, and young Iemitsu too, handling the Vongola’s business as well as Timoteo had ever managed to do.The rest of his Guardians worked tirelessly, searching for their lost nephews-by-proxy.

Enrico and Massimo and their families stayed where the Vongola’s footsoldiers could watch over them. Timoteo tried to look past the calculation in their faces, the way they looked each other with the weight of a shifting landscape in their eyes.

Of Xanxus he saw very little at all.

They sent Rafaele with the news.

He let himself into the south study quietly, shutting the door behind himself gently, as if too loud a noise would cause injury. Timoteo had been standing by the window, and turned at the first sound of the latch.

He could tell by the bowed line of Rafaele’s shoulders that there was news, and that it wasn’t good. “Rafaele,” he said, softly.

His Rain wouldn’t meet his eyes as he crossed the room, feet soundless on the thick pile of the carpet. He knelt, and pressed his forehead against the back of Timoteo’s hand. “Boss,” he said, very softly.

“Tell me,” Timoteo said, watching the convulsive way Michele’s hands tightened on his rosary.

“I’m so sorry, Boss,” Rafaele said, voice full of regret. “We’ll find who did this to him.”

“Fedele?” Michele said, hoarse, while Timoteo closed his eyes against the hurt of knowing for sure.

“No sign yet,” Rafaele said softly. “We haven’t stopped looking.”

“He can’t be far,” Michele said, voice gone thin and grey. “He wouldn’t have let that happen.”

No, he wouldn’t have, because Michele had named his son well. Timoteo opened his eyes. “What do you know?” he asked, when he thought he could bear it.

“Not… very much.” Rafaele hesitated, and climbed to his feet, grunting with it. He looked aside from both of them. “There’s—not very much left. Bone, mostly. It took dental records to make the identification.” He paused, swallowed. “Whoever did this… used fire to cover their tracks.”

Fire. As Michele’s head came up from his rosary, Timoteo said, “I see.”

“Fire,” Michele repeated, softly. “Flame. Boss—”

“I know.” Timoteo turned away from his two Guardians and the looks in their eyes. “I know.”

“Surely not,” Rafaele said. “His own brother—”

“Why not?” Timoteo asked, hearing the detachment in his own voice. “It’s a time-honored tradition. My own mother was quite ruthless with my uncles, remember?” And she had warned him to be careful with his own children, to boot. Why hadn’t he listened? “Oh, my boy,” he said, softly. “My boy, my boy…”

Even he wasn’t quite sure which of his sons he meant.

They found Fedele not long after they’d dispatched someone to the main house to tell the Ninth about Federico. Paolo had expected as much.

Fedele was still breathing, which he hadn’t expected at all.

No one had, actually, and it took a moment of staring at the mess of the man—bloody, unconscious, gasping for breath—for Paolo’s search party to decide what to do and how to react, when it was clear from the expressions on everyone’s faces that everyone was wondering how Fedele had managed to survive when Federico had not.

Paolo broke free of his paralysis first. “Vito, start the first aid,” he barked. “Don’t let him die on us now. He’s the only witness we’ve got.”

Vito sprang forward to do as ordered; he was field-trained and their best medic, and Paolo had selected him when hoping against sense and reason that they would find Federico alive. If anyone could keep Fedele alive just a little longer, Vito would be the one to do it.

“Someone get an ambulance and make sure the hospital is ready for us,” Paolo continued; Franco was already peeling away from them, running for the cars and civilization at a dead sprint. “Get word to the Ninth and the Sun!” Paolo called after him, and Franco raised a hand to indicate that he had heard.

“Sir.” Vito’s strained voice interrupted him before he could give any more orders. Paolo turned to see that the man was looking up from where he was kneeling over Fedele.

The bottom dropped out of Paolo’s stomach; surely the boy hadn’t lasted for four days only to die now— “What?”

“He’s trying to say something,” Vito said, slow, face gone shuttered and still. “You should hear.”

Paolo dropped to his knees next to Fedele, grunting at the ache of them, and bent close. The hiss and rattle of Fedele’s gasps for breath didn’t make sense, not at first, and Paolo frowned. “I don’t—” he began, and then stopped as the sibilants resolved into a word—a name.

“Xanxus,” Fedele said, each rasped syllable broken by a gasp for breath. “Xanxus has… the boss. Got to stop him. Got to…” He coughed, deep and wet, and the only thing Paolo could make out of the rest was Federico’s name.

“Shh,” Paolo told him. “We have Federico already.” It was the kindest thing he could think of to tell the boy.

Fedele stared up at him, eyes fever-bright and burning. “Alive…?” he rasped, flailing a hand and fisting it in Paolo’s coat.

“Shh,” Paolo hushed him again, wrapping his hands around Fedele’s and gripping it. “Save your strength. You’re going to need it.”

Federico had picked well when he’d chosen his right hand; Fedele made a sound, low and raw, and closed his eyes. “No…”

There wasn’t anything to say to that, so Paolo gripped his hand and stayed by him until the team of doctors came through the trees for him.

Gianni brought the report to the Ninth, carrying it from the hospital where Fedele was struggling with his injuries and infections and demons. “He’s awake again,” he announced, when he’d let himself into the Ninth’s study and had shut the door behind him.

The Ninth didn’t move from where he sat, hunched and exhausted, at his desk.

Gianni placed himself on the carpet before the Ninth’s desk, and drew a breath to steel himself for the report. “Fedele is willing to testify that he and Federico were lured away from the Vongola house by Xanxus, and were ambushed by him in a secluded location near where we found them. Fedele says he went down fighting Xanxus, and does not know precisely what happened to Federico, but will swear to it that Xanxus and Federico were fighting each other before he lost consciousness.” Gianni paused, and took another breath. “He insists that Xanxus shot first. Without provocation.”

The Ninth moved, slowly, passing a hand over his face; he seemed to have aged ten years in the past five days. “Yes. I had… thought that would have been the way of it.” He sounded exhausted. Resigned.

“What are your orders?” Gianni asked, when the Ninth didn’t say anything else.

The Ninth turned his chair away from him, staring out the window over the gardens. “It is traditional for a Family’s heirs to fight each other for the position,” he said, when he finally spoke. “Especially when there are multiple strong candidates.”

“Xanxus isn’t a candidate, Boss,” Gianni told him, after sucking in his breath sharply. “He’s not your son by blood. He’s not legitimate.”

“No. No, not technically. But he has the fire for it. The strength for it.” The Ninth fell silent again. “One must always think of what will be best for the Family.”

“Whatever that may be, it isn’t Xanxus,” Gianni told him, hearing the harshness in his own voice and hating the necessity of it. “Xanxus doesn’t give a damn about the Family. All he cares about is what the Family will do for him.”

“And yet that may be all that is necessary.” The Ninth’s voice was cool, remote—clinical right down to the heart of it. “He has enough of an instinct for self-preservation to remove Federico. He isn’t stupid at all. If he becomes the Tenth, he will have to hold the Family together in order to make it serve his desires. In the end, that’s all it really takes.”

“Boss…” Gianni stopped, and drew a deep breath. “Timoteo. Is that what you want the Vongola to become?”

“No, of course it isn’t.” The Ninth looked at him, eyes dark and full of pain. “But I wonder if it’s something I have a choice in, now?”

“There’s always a choice,” Gianni said, low. “You know that as well as I do. The question isn’t that. It’s whether we have the courage to make it.”

The Ninth looked away again. “No,” he said. “The time to make that choice is past. And because I chose wrongly, Federico has paid for it.”

“But Xanxus, Boss,” Gianni said, hands knotting at his sides. “You can’t leave the Vongola to him. Enrico and Massimo don’t have the fire, true, but they’re still better than Xanxus. I’m telling you this as your Mist, as your right hand, and as your friend. Don’t do this to our Family. Please.” When that didn’t seem like it was reaching the Ninth, he forced himself to add, “For the sake of your son’s memory, if for no other reason.”

Judging by the sound the Ninth made, he could have shot the man and hurt him less. Gianni held his ground, and kept his gaze steady, hating himself for it, and after a moment, the Ninth looked away. “Tell him,” the Ninth said, low and harsh. “Tell him why he won’t be the Tenth, no matter how many of his brothers he kills.”

Gianni exhaled, carefully, and bowed as low as he could manage. “Yes, Boss,” he said, quietly. “Thank you. For the sake of our Family.”

“Leave me,” the Ninth said, turning away from him.

Gianni swallowed hard, and let himself out.

“Ready?” Gianni asked, as they stood outside the door to Xanxus’ rooms.

“No,” Rafaele told him, frank about it since there was no way of being ready for this. He expected that Xanxus probably wouldn’t attack them, not here in the heart of the Vongola mansion, with most of the other Guardians present as well, but he almost welcomed him to try, just so they’d have the excuse. “Let’s get this over with.”

Gianni snorted at him, shifted the papers he carried to his off hand, and knocked.

Xanxus didn’t answer; instead, a girl came shuffling to the door, barely decent, and that only because the man’s shirt she wore came down to her thighs. She blushed to see them standing there, which was something, anyway. “Yes?” she asked, uncertainly, brushing messy hair out of her eyes.

“We’re here to see Xanxus,” Gianni said, kindly enough. “Tell him that it’s Family business.”

“Oh,” she said, sleepy eyes going wide, and held the door open for them. “I’ll just—if you’ll come in—I’ll go wake him?”

“If you would, please,” Rafaele murmured, as she ushered them into the sitting room of Xanxus’ suite.

“It’s going on eleven in the morning,” Gianni muttered to him, as they stood and waited. “Honestly.”

“It’s nothing unusual for him, I gather,” Rafaele returned, easily enough, despite his own disapproval. Perhaps it was the boy’s age, though, and because of the pretty creature who’d answered the door, and not any more sinister motive.

The girl came creeping out of the suite’s inner rooms after a few minutes, head bowed and clothes messy enough to indicate a hurried dressing, and let herself out without a word. Xanxus kept them waiting several minutes more, and when he finally appeared, he was freshly showered and wearing an impeccable suit.

Rafaele doubted that he’d taken such care with his appearance out of any respect for their business.

“Well?” Xanxus said, after he’d cast himself into the massive, ornate arm chair that dominated the room. “What do you want?” He smirked up at them, as if daring them to say anything about his attitude.

“Fedele Rizzo has been found,” Gianni said, voice chilly and professional. “He has indicated that he and Federico Vongola were attacked by you, wholly without provocation.”

Xanxus’ expression flickered, just briefly, uneasiness crossing it, before he shrugged. “So what?”

“The forensic evidence that we’ve recovered from Federico’s body indicates that the flames used to kill him were not the ordinary kind,” Gianni continued, still dry and relentless—what Rafaele privately thought of as his courtroom voice, the one Gianni adopted to execute difficult Family business. “As all three other Sky Flame users within the Vongola are accounted for, and the Sky is itself a fairly rare attribute, it seems clear from the evidence that you were the one who killed Federico Vongola.”

Xanxus had gotten a good grip on his face by this point, and the only thing that he showed now was lazy indifference. “So what?” he said, again. “He was in my way.”

“As it so happens, he was not,” Gianni said, calmly, and Rafaele held himself ready, keeping a wary eye on Xanxus as Gianni gestured with his sheaf of papers.

Uncertainty crossed Xanxus’ face again. “What the fuck does that mean?” he demanded, after a moment. “The old man was all set to retire and let him take over, wasn’t he?”

“Of course he was,” Gianni said. “Federico actually was his son, after all. You are merely his adopted son.”

Xanxus stared at them, eyes gone dark and opaque. “Bullshit.” He raised a hand, Flame and wrath wrapped around it, oppressively heavy. “He said it himself. This is a Vongola Flame.”

“While it is true that the Sky Flame is most commonly found in the Vongola Family, it is not unheard of in other Families,” Gianni carried on, each word precise in the face of Xanxus’ crackling Flame. “The Giglio Nero are known to possess it, and we have reports that the young Cavallone does as well.”

“The old man said it himself,” Xanxus insisted, fierce. “He said that this is the Vongola Flame. He said that I was his son.”

“He said no such thing,” Gianni said, contradicting him in the flattest tones possible. “I was there, if you’ll recall, and the only thing that he said was that the Flame appeared to be a Vongola Flame. You and your mother inferred the rest.”

Xanxus stared at them for a long moment, and then laughed, short and ugly. “So what?” he demanded. “You don’t have any proof that I’m not, and I have the Flame. What else matters?”

Rafaele didn’t have to be watching Gianni to know that he was raising his eyebrows in that infuriatingly superior way he had. “Proof?” Gianni repeated, tone deceptively mild, and Rafaele kept a close watch on Xanxus, who hadn’t sat in on enough of the Vongola’s business meetings to know how dangerous that tone was. “I have copies here of four paternity tests, for you and your adoptive brothers. Yours is the only one that turns up negative. You are not now, nor have you ever been, Timoteo Vongola’s son, except in the adoptive sense and in his patience with your arrogance in assuming that you were.”

“You’re lying,” Xanxus said, low and vicious, both hands wreathed in Flame and desperation. “You’ve never liked me, and now that that little shit Federico is dead, you’re coming up with lies to keep me from my rightful place.”

“Please.” Gianni drawled the word out, sounding bored. “You’re dealing with the right hand of the Vongola, boy. Give me some credit for knowing my business.” He dropped the sheaf of papers on the low table before Xanxus. “I have known the Ninth all his life. While your mother was conceiving you, he was sitting in the best hospital in Rome, holding his wife’s hand and watching her die by inches. He was not unfaithful to her then, and he hasn’t been since. But he’s a kind-hearted man, and chose to show more mercy to a madwoman and her son than either of them deserved. And you’ve repaid him by destroying his youngest son and the Vongola’s best hope for the future.”

Xanxus stared at him, something like doubt appearing in his eyes. Then he covered it with rage. “Get out,” he snarled at them. “Get the fuck out of my sight.”

“As you like,” Gianni said, and they began edging backwards, towards the door, not trusting their backs to him. “We do ask that you refrain from killing either Enrico or Massimo. The Vongola cannot spare any more of its sons.”

“Get out!” Xanxus roared, reaching for the nearest object at hand.

They ducked into the hall and shut the door just in time to dodge the thrown lamp. The crash of its shattering against the wall was shortly followed by the sound of other crashes, which were themselves accompanied by a steady stream of roared curses.

“You didn’t tell him about the family tree,” Rafaele noted, neutrally, after a moment.

“It’s in the papers,” Gianni said, straightening his tie, face still. “He’ll find it when he looks through them.”

“If he looks at them,” Rafaele said, after a moment to consider it. And even if he did, it was entirely possible that Xanxus wouldn’t find being one of the descendants of the Second good enough.

“That’s not really something that concerns me,” Gianni said, clipped.

“I suppose it’s not,” Rafaele agreed, because he couldn’t deny that there was a certain dark satisfaction in finally seeing something punch through the shell of Xanxus’ arrogance after twelve years of dealing with it. He pushed himself away from Xanxus’ door. “Come on. After that, I need a drink.”

“You need a drink?” Gianni retorted, falling in with him. “All you did was watch.”

“I watched your back,” Rafaele corrected him.

The crashes and the curses continued behind them as they bickered their way down the hall, away from Xanxus’ room.

The crowd at Federico’s funeral was notable for its absences, gaps which were conspicuous among the faces of those who were present. Most prominent was Fedele’s, though he could hardly have been expected to rise from the hospital bed where he was still fighting off the effects of exposure and infection in order to attend. (Although it hadn’t stopped him from trying, and Iemitsu was only glad that they’d been able to stop him in time.)

Xanxus was absent as well, though mafia tradition had never precluded the triumphant presence of one candidate for succession at the funeral of his opponent. That was just as well, Iemitsu decided, since good taste did forbid such a thing.

More troubling, he decided, as he circulated through the crowd, was the undercurrent of talk that connected Fedele’s absence to Xanxus’. It was a nonsensical thing to suggest, of course, but that didn’t stop more than a few people from whispering as much to each other.

Federico’s wife and daughter were present, but the remote expression on Aminta’s face spoke of the bags she had already packed, and her intention to remove herself and her daughter from the Vongola house as soon as the funeral had ended. He hadn’t been present for the conversation she’d had with her father-in-law, but they all knew by now that she’d vowed that she and her daughter would have no more to do with the Vongola.

Much good as a vow like that could do her. Still, Iemitsu wished her luck.

Enrico and Massimo were both present as well, but their minds were clearly miles away—on the line of succession, now that Xanxus had vanished to parts unknown and the named heir was dead. Neither had demonstrated the flare for command that Federico had possessed, but… running a Family didn’t demand a flare, necessarily. It just demanded competence.

They both had that.

Now they eyed each other warily, speaking to each other in commonplaces, while they calculated their chances of becoming the Tenth now that the opportunity had been so precipitously opened to them.

Damn Xanxus, anyway, for having upset the careful balance that the Ninth’s sons had worked out among themselves, because Iemitsu had a sinking feeling that the argument between Enrico and Massimo was going to be a bitter one.

Really, he was entirely grateful that his own position as the outside advisor had removed him from the line of succession altogether. That was one less headache in his life, anyway.

Maria let herself into the Ninth’s study quietly, and waited for him and Gianni to acknowledge her presence. “I’ve found Xanxus,” she said, when they looked up. “Alive, even,” she added, which was, in her opinion, an absolute pity.

It had an electrifying effect on the Ninth. He sat up straighter, and passed a hand over his face. “Oh, thank God,” he sighed. “I’d feared he’d gone and done something—rash.”

Both she and Gianni pretended not to notice the dampness in his eyes. “Don’t make stupid assumptions, you senile old man,” she retorted. “He’s taken up with the Varia.” That was rashness enough to fill a book.

Gianni made a sound, surprised, and then thoughtful. “How appropriate.”

“Gianni.” The Ninth’s voice was low, colder than Maria had ever heard him be with one of them, though the Ninth had been remarkably cool towards his right hand in the weeks since Federico’s death.

Gianni flinched, and then raised his hands. “I mean no offense,” he said, quickly. “But the Varia would suit his personality, don’t you think? Give him some direction?”

“I can’t argue with that last,” Maria observed. “He’s found plenty of direction with them. Hell, he’s taken over.”

That made the Ninth forget his anger. “He has?” he said, sharply, and then frowned. “Pity. That Squalo showed a great deal of promise, especially for someone so young.”

“Squalo stepped aside, it seems,” Maria corrected him, since the Ninth was bound and determined to leap to conclusions today.

“Wise of him,” Gianni muttered. His voice was low enough that the Ninth let it pass unremarked.

“That’s good,” the Ninth said, and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands together and tapping them against his lips. “Have you seen him, then?”

“He wasn’t receiving visitors,” Maria said, bland, which covered a multitude of the sins committed when the Varia had tried to throw her out, and the curses Xanxus had shouted after her, about the Ninth.

The Ninth was so used to taking her word as whole and complete that he didn’t ask for more. “Ah…”

“Give it time, Boss,” Gianni suggested.

The Ninth sighed again. “Time, yes. Time will do it, I hope.”

A pretty platitude, but not for Xanxus, Maria thought. Not for his rage. But perhaps the Ninth would be able to Will himself a miracle with his adopted son. She’d seen him do it before.

All the same, counting on a miracle was nothing but foolishness, she decided, catching Gianni’s eye and giving him a significant look.

He caught up with her a few minutes after she’d excused herself. “What is it?” he asked.

“The Varia,” Maria said. “I don’t like the looks of the ones Xanxus is gathering to himself. Don’t much like the look of Xanxus, either.”

“How so?” he asked.

“You ever seen a dog go rabid?” she asked him, and watched his eyebrows drift up. “They’ll turn on anyone when they do. Even their masters. Especially their masters.”

He took a breath. “The Varia?”

“I want to keep an eye on them,” she said. “And step up security.” These days, with Xanxus, surely it was better safe than sorry.

“Done,” he said, and Maria gave thanks for a man who was willing to be sensible. There were so very few of them, one had to acknowledge them. “Speak with the twins and do whatever you think is necessary. I’ll get the Ninth to agree somehow.”

“Done,” she said, and turned away. The Ninth couldn’t over-rule them when it came to his own safety, after all—that was what Guardians were for, and they were damn well not going to let Xanxus get away with any more slaughter than he already had.

The Ninth would just have to get used to it.

– end –