Five Things That Never Happened to Xanxus

These are things that never happened to Xanxus, but could have done, if only things had started out just a bit differently. This fic is what happens when you say to yourself, “Gosh, I’ve been writing a lot of Xanxus angst lately. I wonder if it is possible to write Xanxus in such a way that he is, well, functionally broken instead of just psychopathically insane.” And then you get tackled by a plot bunny that is the size of a goddamn linebacker. Teen and up; warnings for Xanxus doing the things that make him Xanxus.

1. First Encounters

Xanxus stared up at the old geezer—this smiling old fool was supposed to be the Vongola Ninth? please—and lifted a hand to show him the Flame when he asked for it. Surprise widened the geezer’s eyes. “Oh, I see now,” he said, voice quiet, and actually knelt right there in the street, ignoring all the garbage and crap and what it was doing to the knees of that fancy suit. He laid his hands on Xanxus’ shoulders.

Xanxus stiffened. “What the hell?” he demanded.

His mother trembled at his back. “Xanxus, don’t be rude—”

The geezer raised a hand, and Xanxus glared at him harder as he touched Xanxus’ jaw and forehead, fingertips cool against Xanxus’ skin. “I see,” he said, again, slowly.

“Wish to fuck you’d explain what the hell that means,” Xanxus told him.

“Xanxus,” Ma moaned. “Don’t—don’t—”

“It’s all right, Madam.” The geezer stood, dusting his hands. “I believe the two of you should accompany me. We have much to discuss.”

Xanxus could feel her shake again. “I knew it,” she said, in that voice she got when she was about to go off on one of her fits. “Oh, I knew this day would come.”

“Yes, I expect you did,” the geezer said, looking back down at Xanxus. “Come along, then.” He held out a hand to Xanxus.

Xanxus sneered at him; what did he look like, a kid?

The geezer huffed, and let it settle on Xanxus’ shoulder instead. Xanxus tolerated it for the time being, letting him guide them over to the cars—big black ones, gleaming against the rottenness of their neighborhood, making it even clearer how crappy the place actually was, and how much the geezer and his goons didn’t belong here.

“They’ll ride with me,” the geezer told his men. They all got constipated looks at that, which was funny to see.

They put Xanxus up front, and Ma rode with the geezer in the back. Xanxus listened in, but it wasn’t shoptalk, not yet, just the geezer asking a lot of nosy questions about how he and Ma lived. She sounded pretty much like she was back in control of herself, so Xanxus ignored her. Not like she couldn’t handle herself when it came to actually negotiating her prices. Was the one thing she actually managed to do right, most of the time.

Since he didn’t have to monitor her and the geezer—and fuck, he hoped he’d still be able to get it up at that age—Xanxus watched the city roll by, wavery behind thick glass, until it gave way to the countryside. That was weird, too empty by half, so he turned his attention to the interior of the car, which was all gleaming metal and wood and leather, one more way of demonstrating that he and Ma were either way out of their league, or moving up in the world.

“Don’t do that,” the driver said, first thing he’d said since he’d put the car in gear, when Xanxus reached out for a set of buttons.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Xanxus retorted, and kept on reaching.

“I said don’t,” the driver said, and caught Xanxus’ hand, all without looking away from the road. He twisted it tight, till Xanxus gasped at the strain. “Those go to the windows,” he added, all conversational. “We don’t lower the windows, not with the Ninth in the car. That way, no one can shoot him. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Xanxus grunted, eyes beginning to water.

“Good,” the driver said, and released him.

Xanxus rubbed his wrist and glared at him, but it rolled right off the bastard. That was new. People usually reacted more when he did that. “What do those do?” he asked, finally, pointing at another set of buttons.

“They go to the radio.” Xanxus saw him glance at the mirror, and then he reached over and pressed another button. Behind them, a screen rose, separating the front seat and the back seat. “Here, see?” he said, and demonstrated. “Find a station you like.”

Xanxus spent most of the rest of the ride scanning the stations—the car radio picked up more than Ma’s crappy old set did. A lot more clearly, too.

Even so, it wasn’t really until they rolled up to the house that Xanxus began to believe that the geezer might be for real. The house—hell, it might have even qualified as a House—looked about as big as a city block to Xanxus’ eyes. It was just like the car inside, too—big and luxurious, more money than Xanxus had ever seen in his life all in one place, and that was just in the goddamn hallways. The geezer spoke to his men, and then led them to a room that was full of sunlight and heavy old furniture, and had the same kind of wavery view as the car windows had. The geezer had them sit, but stayed on his own feet.

Xanxus was starting to hate the way the geezer kept staring at him.

Before he could say something, Ma spoke. “Why did you bring us here?” she asked, all breathy, the way she got when she was trying to charm some new man of hers.

“I couldn’t not,” the geezer said, blunt, like he hadn’t even noticed. “The Vongola can’t afford to have you fall into another Family’s hands. And it would be a shame if another Family tried to kill you, or we had to do it ourselves. You’ll live here now.”

Killing? That was interesting. Xanxus looked up, actually interested in the geezer for the first time, while Ma made a sound, like that wasn’t what she’d expect to hear at all. “But he’s your son.”

The geezer didn’t look away from Xanxus. “No, Madam, I am afraid that you are mistaken. He is not my son.”

Xanxus ignored Ma’s tiny, broken sound and looked back, straight at him. “Yeah, so what else is new?” Not like he wasn’t used to the names people called him. He wasn’t anybody’s son. He’d gotten to the point where he liked it that way.

“You have a Vongola Flame,” the geezer said, candidly. “And a certain look, around the forehead and the jaw. I expect you’re descended from one of the Second’s by-blows. They crop up with depressing regularity.” He moved, leaning against the desk, relaxed. “Sometimes my predecessors chose to simply eliminate individuals such as yourself,” he added, casual. “You can’t be allowed to inherit the position of the boss, since you’re not of a legitimate line. That hasn’t stopped certain people from trying anyway, so a sense of prudence suggests that we ought to avert those incidents by nipping them in the bud.”

Ma was crying now, soft and gulping, but she wasn’t really all that good at paying attention to what people were saying when it didn’t fit in with how she thought the world was supposed to work. Xanxus leaned forward, interested in spite of himself. “Yeah? So why aren’t you doing it that way?”

“I haven’t decided not to,” the geezer said, and actually smiled when he said it. “But I’d prefer not to kill anyone unless it becomes strictly necessary. I hate to be wasteful.”

“Makes more sense to stop trouble before it ever starts,” Xanxus retorted.

“There are more ways of doing that than just killing the source of the potential trouble,” the geezer replied. “You have a Vongola Flame. You are of the Vongola. We have a responsibility to our Family, and our Family has a responsibility to us.”

“So… what?” Xanxus replied, narrowing his eyes at the geezer. “You want me to… what? In exchange for… what?”

The geezer was still smiling, like he was in on some joke that Xanxus wasn’t getting. “We take you and your mother in. We educate you, and find a place for you, and name you one of our Family. In return, you serve us in whatever capacity best fits you.”

The hell he said. “What if I don’t want to serve?”

“Then you must not be allowed to bring harm to us,” the geezer said, voice soft. “The Family is paramount to all other considerations.”

Xanxus snorted. “I’d like to see you try,” he retorted, calling on the Flame.

The geezer just smiled at him some more. “Don’t do something you’ll regret,” he said, voice soft.

“Don’t think that I’m going to just knuckle over to you, old man.” Xanxus gathered himself, prepared to spring forward, and—

The geezer stood and gestured, and was holding a goddamned scepter all of a sudden. Xanxus would have cared more about that, but the geezer had a Flame of his own, and the sudden weight of it, so heavy that he had to gasp for breath, pressed Xanxus back down into his chair. “I doubted that you would do any such thing,” the geezer—except he wasn’t a geezer, was he? the whole thing had been some kind of act—the Ninth told him, voice cool and heavy with Flame. “But make no mistake. You can serve and stand with us, or you must stand against us.” He reached out and laid his hand against Xanxus’ forehead. Xanxus thought he might have made a sound against the weight of that touch, but couldn’t manage to care as the Ninth’s Flame wrapped around him and held him. Xanxus struggled against that grip, but it was stronger than he was. He’d never met anyone stronger than him before; the surprise of it made him still. “I would greatly prefer it if you were to become one of ours.”

Behind the strength of that Will there was an offer, a conditional one, and a choice, all backed by an unshakeable resolve to do what was best for the Family, regardless of the cost.

Xanxus could just about respect that. “All right,” he gasped. “All right! I’ll do it!”

The Ninth curbed his Flame and Xanxus sagged, panting, as the weight came away from him. “I am pleased to hear it.”

“Yeah, don’t get used to it.” Xanxus flexed his hands; he didn’t remember banishing his Flame, but it was gone like it’d never been there. “You might be worth it. Don’t know about anyone else.”

The Ninth inclined his head at that, still smiling faintly. “If you like,” he said. “But I’d advise you not to put your faith in men like me.”

“Whatever,” Xanxus said, eyeing him warily.

The Ninth chuckled. “Put it into the Family, which is bigger than us all.”

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Xanxus muttered.

The Ninth’s smile turned broader. “Yes,” he said, “you will.”

2. Stray

The old man had told him to stick close to the Vongola’s Rome headquarters, and Xanxus had given that about as much consideration as he’d thought it had deserved. Now, standing in the middle of a slum in Rome, surrounded by men in suits who weren’t Vongola, he was starting to think maybe the old man’d had a point after all. “The fuck do you want?” he demanded, assessing the numbers and deciding that this was going to be a cast iron bitch to get himself out of.

“You’re the Vongola’s bastard, aren’t you?” That was the biggest one of the goons, the guy who was probably in charge.

Xanxus sneered. “Who wants to know?” He called on the Flame, since this wasn’t going to end with them all holding hands and singing together, and it never hurt to look impressive.

“That’s him all right,” one of the other goons said. “Can’t mistake the Vongola Flame.”

Yeah, showed how much they knew.

The head goon tried for a smile and failed. “Why don’t you just come along with us, and we’ll talk about it?” the head goon told him.

Xanxus curled and uncurled his hands. “Why don’t you blow me?” He launched himself at the head goon and had smashed his face in before the stupid piece of shit had finished gaping at him.

It had been a while since he’d been in an all-out brawl. Xanxus bared his teeth at the rest of them for the fierce joy of it. “Come one, I’ll take you all on,” he promised them, while they stood frozen in that moment before reaction. “C’mon, you fucking trash.”

That woke them up, all right. Xanxus waded into them, lashing out with Flame and fist and laughing at the satisfaction of it. Been way too long since he’d been able to beat the shit out of someone. He’d missed it.

What he hadn’t missed was being fucking out-numbered, and out-gunned. The goons all had guns, which was really fucking inconsiderate of them, considering how all he had was his Flame.

He’d just started sorting through his options—all two of them, surrender or go down fighting—as he eyed the closing circle of guns and grinning goons when the balance of things shifted again, this time in his direction.

The first sign of it was a ripple of disturbance in the ranks at the back of the crowd, and then the sound of someone shouting a warning that got cut short by a gurgle. That was enough to distract some of them, which was all Xanxus really needed. As they turned, he lashed out with his Flame again, whipping it across faces and hands, and was viciously satisfied by the shrieks and curses of the men who clutched at their burns.

He never actually saw the man who shot him.

One minute he was laughing; the next, something had punched him, so hard that the shock registered on some gut level, and his arm was hanging at his side, useless.

Xanxus swore, good hand coming up, Flame wrapped around it as he tried to find the bastard who’d dared. Someone crashed into him before he could, knocking him sideways and flattening him against the pavement. He struggled against the weight and the hands that were holding him down, until the guy swore at him. “Just stay down, you stupid brat, and stop making yourself a target!”

He recognized that voice, and blinked up at the old man’s youngest son, confused as all fuck. “The hell are you doing here?”

Federico looked down at him, impatient for the first time that Xanxus had ever seen. “Saving your sorry ass,” he retorted, and rolled back to his feet.

Xanxus had never seen Federico so much as raise his voice at someone in the two years since the old man had dragged him and Ma out of the slums. Now the man was burning like a torch, Flame as bright as the old man’s was, as he whirled into the goons like grim death itself, sword flickering against them, fast and deadly.

Be damned. Xanxus hadn’t actually thought Federico had had it in him.

It was over fast, after that. The goons—what was left of them at that point—broke and ran for it, and a few of Federico’s men gave chase. Xanxus was pushing himself to his feet, which was surprisingly difficult to do with only one working arm, when Federico turned on him. “You,” he said, as his hand collided with the side of Xanxus’ head. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here all by yourself? Didn’t you hear Dad tell you not to go out alone?” Federico stripped the tie from around his throat as Xanxus stared, frankly astonished by the blow, and hauled Xanxus closer. “Were you trying to get yourself killed?” he demanded, wrapping the tie around Xanxus’ arm, yanking it tight.

Xanxus hissed at the rough handling. “The fuck do you care? You don’t even like me.”

“That’s true,” Federico said, turning him again and pushing him down the alley, propelling him—ah, there were cars waiting for them. “You’re a violent little psychopath, and I would have definitely preferred it if Dad had just brought home a stray puppy instead of you.” He shoved Xanxus into the car ahead of him, and had barely climbed in after Xanxus before it lurched into gear. “But you’re Family now. Fucked if I’m going to let the Pozzo Nero fuck with my Family.”

As Xanxus stared at him, blinking and stupid—it was the blood loss, had to be—Federico tore strips out of his own shirt and folded them into a pad. The stab of pain when Federico pressed it against the wound shocked him out of it again. “Oh,” he said, and then rallied himself. “I don’t like you, either.”

Federico grinned at him. “Yeah, tell me something I didn’t already know, brat,” he said, holding steady pressure on Xanxus’ arm. “Seriously. We could have just gotten a puppy. Lot less trouble, puppies, since they don’t go out and do stupid shit like getting themselves shot by disobeying direct orders.”

“Fuck you.” Xanxus glared at him.

Federico ignored it, still grinning. “That the best you can do?”

Xanxus growled at him, wordless, and looked away, staring out the window determinedly.

After a moment, Federico huffed, and added, “Good fighting, by the way. Never seen someone take out that many men with just their hands and a Flame.”

“I want a gun,” Xanxus told him, still staring out the window. “My own gun. Maybe two.”

“Mm. You’re a little young.”

“I’m twelve!”

“Like I said. A little young.”

Xanxus turned and glared at him. “How am I supposed to deal with situations like these, then?”

“By not being reckless enough to put yourself into them in the first place?” Federico suggested, mildly. “Considering who you are—”

“Fuck that. I’m not actually his bas—”

“Not actually Dad’s kid, I know,” Federico said, in that really fucking obnoxious way he had of putting everything into nice words when the actual truth was ugly as sin. “But people think you are, so they’re going to try to use that against us. Like it or not, you have to deal with that. Not going out alone when we’re at war with the Pozzo Nero would be a nice first step.”

“I don’t want a fucking bodyguard,” Xanxus said, and looked away from him. “I can handle things myself.”

“You can, sure,” Federico told him. “But you don’t have to. That’s what Family is, you stubborn brat.”

“Whatever,” Xanxus muttered. “I still don’t want a bodyguard. I’m strong enough on my own.”

Federico sighed. “Stubborn,” he muttered, and then his voice changed, and the atmosphere inside the car turned taut. The warning came too late, and Xanxus cursed as Federico’s fingers dug into his arm and Federico’s Flame lit his eyes again. “You’re not strong enough on your own,” Federico announced, Will holding Xanxus in place, implacable as the Ninth’s. “I saved your life today. If your Family hadn’t been there, you would be dead right now, shot in the back in a stinking alley.” Xanxus jerked against Federico, pushing against Federico’s Will, but Federico held firm. His fingers tightened on Xanxus’ arm again, and his Will reached into Xanxus, implacable, forcing him to listen and to hear. “You are strong, but your Family is stronger, and will make you stronger. You are not alone any more. Understand?”

Federico’s Flame underlined the question, and so did Xanxus’ blood on the remains of Federico’s shirt and on the hands that were gripping his bicep. “Yeah,” Xanxus said, slow and grudgingly, not about to admit that Federico had won. “All right.”

Federico held him in his Will a little bit longer, and then released him, looking satisfied when he did. “Good,” he said.

Xanxus looked aside, now that he could. “You and the old man are crazy.” The hell did they think they were doing, just taking him in like that, anyway? It was like they didn’t even know how dangerous he could be.

And never mind the faint suspicion he had that he had given in this time, instead of being overwhelmed. That was just crazy.

“Hey, don’t go blaming me. I already told you that I wanted a puppy.” Federico’s voice was cheerful. “But we got you instead, so I’ll make do.”

Xanxus just growled at him, especially when Federico set a hand in his hair and ruffled it lightly. Before he could do anything about it, the car had pulled in at the Vongola house, and it fell away again in the rush for a doctor and the storm of the old man’s anger.

Xanxus didn’t think about it again until a box showed up in his room several days later, without a card or a source or anything to say where it had come from. But he didn’t need a card, not when the box had a pair of matched handguns in it—the message was loud and clear.

3. Canis lupus

“Hey there, pup.”

Federico had the most fucking irritating way of being able to find Xanxus when Xanxus least wanted to deal with any members of the Family. “Fuck off,” he growled, dodging the hand that descended to ruffle his hair. “And I’m not a damn puppy. Stop treating me like I’m your fucking lapdog.”

Federico whistled. “You are in a temper,” he observed, and settled himself on the roof next to Xanxus. The sniper whose post this was made a pained noise, probably because Federico didn’t look like he intended to go anywhere any time soon.

Xanxus growled at him again, but the effect was ruined when his voice broke halfway through. Fucking puberty. “Go away.”

“Not till I know what’s bothering you so much that you’re terrorizing poor Lucien.”

“Poor Lucien my ass,” Xanxus muttered. “He’s a fucking menace, is what he is.”

“He’s a tutor,” Federico said. Bastard wasn’t even trying to pretend he wasn’t laughing. “The most dangerous thing he knows is trigonometry.”

Xanxus begged to fucking differ. “Dancing lessons. Motherfucking dancing lessons!”

Federico hooted with laughter. “So you tried to shoot him. I see now. You know Dad’s going to have to pay him an awful lot to stay on after that little stunt, right?”

“He should save his money.” Xanxus glared out across the landscape, all Vongola land as far as he could see, since glaring at Federico did a whole lot of nothing. “The fuck do I need to know how to dance for?”

“Comes in handy at parties, or so I hear.”

“Parties.” Xanxus sneered. “Fuck. What do I look like, some kind of diplomat?”

“I sincerely doubt that any of us are going to mistake you for the Family ambassador, I promise.” Federico was still laughing, damn his eyes. “But they’ll start inviting you to parties sooner or later. You’re going to have be ready for when that happens.”

“Fuck.” Xanxus shuddered at the very idea of having to deal with more people, ones who weren’t even Family, and who would all think… “Fucking fuck.”

“…hey.” Federico’s hand landed on his nape. “What’s really bothering you, pup?”

Xanxus stared away from him. “You’re as bad the old man,” he said, finally. Language lessons and etiquette lessons, horseback riding and history and mathematics, like he was the old man’s actual bastard and not just the stray that politics had forced the old man to adopt. “Trying to make me into something else.” He tried to lean away from Federico’s fingers.

They just curled tighter and kept him in place. “How so?”

“Dance lessons.” Xanxus looked out over the orchards to the north of the House. “Etiquette lessons. Parties. Fuck. It’s like you fucking think that’s the kind of person I am. Hell, it’s like you think I really am his bastard.”

“People are going to think that no matter what,” Federico said. “You need the tools to negotiate—”

He sounded all sympathetic, and something in Xanxus snapped. “I don’t want to fucking negotiate! I want to fucking shoot people!” he shouted, twisting away from Federico’s hand on his nape, this time successfully. “I don’t want to smile and make nice with our enemies, I want to fight them! I’m not your fucking lap dog—I’m a fucking wolf, only you and that shitty old man won’t let me be!”

Federico let him get the whole damn thing out, wearing his patient I’m listening and I care deeply face the whole time. “Don’t hold back,” he said, when Xanxus had finished and was panting and feeling raw with having finally said it out loud. “Tell me how you really feel.”

“Fuck you. Fuck you a whole lot.” Xanxus turned away from him and hunched himself over his knees.

“One of these days, I’m going to have to teach you some more creative ways to swear at people.” Federico shifted, climbing to his feet, and then held a hand down to him. “C’mon.”

Xanxus glared at it, and thought about smacking it away, except that the sniper was really giving him a nasty look for all the shouting, and would probably shoot him for striking the Ninth’s precious Heir. “What?”

“We’re going to go talk to Dad.”

Xanxus glanced up at him, wary; Federico was still smiling, but there was steel in it now. “What about?”

“Finding you something that’ll be a better fit.” Federico jerked his head at the door. “C’mon, no time like the present.”

Now what the hell was that supposed to mean?

Federico sighed while Xanxus puzzled over this new turn in Federico’s mood, and leaned over to haul him to his feet. “I’d swear, sometimes it’s like you don’t understand a word I’m saying.”

“That’s because sometimes I don’t,” Xanxus muttered. “Seeing as I don’t speak Lunatic.”

“Really? And here I thought you were a native speaker.” Federico pulled him inside and dragged him back downstairs.

They really were going to go see the Ninth—Federico took him right to the old man’s study and waltzed right on in like he owned it. Xanxus guessed he did, sort of, or would eventually. Federico didn’t even seem to mind that he was interrupting the old man at work.

“Federico,” the old man said, giving his son a tolerant look and Xanxus a rather sharper glance. Yeah, he’d heard about the thing with goddamn Lucien by now, all right. “What is it?”

“It’s time we found Xanxus a place in the Family that can make use of his skills, don’t you think?” Federico said, maneuvering Xanxus to a spot in front of the desk and planting himself next to him.

“I beg your pardon?” the old man asked, those bushy eyebrows of his climbing up his forehead.

Federico set a hand on Xanxus’ shoulder. “A more suitable position, I think,” he said, casual. “Some place where he can do the things he does best. I’m thinking he might try a stint with the Varia.”

Xanxus looked up at him, sharply—the fucking Varia? That would be—

“Out of the question,” the Ninth said, flat. “Have you lost your mind? He’s still a child. The Vongola are not so desperate for soldiers that I would send a child to fight for us.”

“I’m fourteen,” Xanxus said, offended to his core, but they both ignored him.

“He may be a child, but he’s a fighter, Dad.” Federico’s own voice had gone flat. “He’s always been a fighter, and he always will be. You think that it is a kindness to shelter him from the harsher realities of our life, but it’s not. He doesn’t want the Vongola to shelter him. I say that it’s time to stop caging him and hoping that doing so will tame him, because it’s not working. Keeping him penned up is only going to make him wilder.”

“No,” the Ninth said, eyes gone steely. “No, I will not countenance it. When he’s older, when he knows what it is that he’s deciding—”

“Xanxus,” Federico said, face and voice going still, like he was on the edge of calling his Flame. Xanxus found himself responding to that tone without quite meaning to, spine snapping straight as Federico addressed him. “How old were you when you killed your first man?”

“Dunno,” Xanxus said, which was the honest truth. “Eight, maybe? Something like that. He was hassling Ma, I think. Wanted more of her take than they’d agreed to—no, wait, that was someone else. I think.” He shrugged. “Never kept track. Sorry.”

The old man was starting to look pained. Federico just squeezed Xanxus’ shoulder. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t think the details are really that important.”

“If you’re sure,” Xanxus said, watching the old man’s mouth go tighter.


“No, Dad.” Federico’s voice was quiet, and the first echoes of his Will were stirring below its surface. “He’s not an innocent to be protected, and he hasn’t been for a long damn time. It would be nice if we could make up for that now, but we can’t. What we can do is respect what Xanxus is by letting him serve the way he’s fitted himself to serve us. The way he wants to serve us.”

Xanxus held his breath through the whole of Federico’s speech, shocked by the clarity with which Federico saw him, and the stubbornness in his voice and his Will, all set against the Ninth for his sake. Who would ever have thought that Federico would do such a thing for him?

The old man seemed just as surprised about Federico taking Xanxus’ part as Xanxus himself was. “This is what you’d set yourself against me for?”

“I would set myself against the world for any of my people,” Federico said, perfectly serene, and that casual claim drew Xanxus taut. Federico squeezed his shoulder again. “Ask him. Let him tell you what he wants for himself.”

The Ninth’s eyes flicked to Xanxus’ face. “Well, boy?” he asked, slow and reluctant.

“Could I join the Varia?” Xanxus asked, and fuck if he cared how eager that made him sound. “They get the really interesting missions, right?”

“They slaughter the Vongola’s enemies.” The Ninth’s voice was harsh. “They are assassins and remorseless, ruthless killers.”

Xanxus matched him, stare for stare. “Like I said. Interesting.”

“You see, Dad?” Federico’s voice was soft. “Just be grateful that he’s ours. Forget the rest. It’s not going to happen.”

“It seems not.” The Ninth looked away from them booth. “I’ll speak to Tyr.”

“Thank you, Father,” Federico said, and bowed, old-fashioned and formal. He pulled Xanxus down with him. “My apologies for interrupting you.” He clapped Xanxus on the shoulder when they’d straightened up again. “C’mon, you.”

Xanxus was pleased enough with matters—the motherfucking Varia, hot damn!—that he let Federico shuffle them out of the old man’s study without protest. Federico stopped them in the hallway. “All right,” he said, looking down at Xanxus, still in serious business mode. “You owe me, and I’m going to tell you how I plan on collecting.”

“How?” Xanxus asked, wary, since it always paid to be careful of Federico in this mood.

“You’re going to be one of the Vongola’s best fighters,” Federico said. “Possibly even one of the fighters who’ll live on in our legends after you manage to get yourself killed, depending. But I’m going to ask you to do something harder than spilling blood for us.”

“Like what?” Xanxus said, pretending that he wasn’t pleased by the praise.

“Learn the social rules. And the dancing. You don’t have to like them, but you have to learn them,” Federico said, and he sounded absolutely implacable about it. “I will not have you disgrace me, and I will not have you be vulnerable to our enemies by not knowing how to handle them when shooting them isn’t an option. Do you understand?”

Xanxus scowled at him. “Can’t I just—”

“No. You can’t,” Federico told him, flat. “You have to do this. This is not negotiable.” Then his mouth quirked. “Think of it as a method of fighting, just in a different medium. If it helps.”

Xanxus huffed at him. “It doesn’t.” He looked away. The Varia. And Federico had faced down the old man to do it. Goddamnit, he did owe him, didn’t he? “Fine.”

“Thank you,” Federico said, and ruffled his hair. “It won’t be so bad,” he promised. “Not if you’re going to be Varia. People will be too terrified to talk to you.”

“Hmph.” But the idea had a certain appeal to it.

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that, cub.” Federico ruffled his hair again and turned away.

“Cub?” Xanxus echoed, raking his hands through his hair and reordering it. “The hell?”

Federico grinned over his shoulder. “You’re not a wolf yet,” he said. “Yet. But you’re getting there.”

And he laughed as he strolled away, as Xanxus stared after him, too surprised to say anything to that at all.

4. Dies Irae

Tyr listened, impassive as a stone god, as the Ninth explained the mission he’d like the Varia to take, and when the old man had finished, simply said, “No.”

Xanxus felt his commander’s refusal like a blow, but the old man—and damn it, he really did look like an old man now, and moved and spoke like one, showing every last year of his age now—the old man just sighed. “Less than a ninety percent chance of completing the mission successfully, then?”

“The Cetrulli are an old and powerful Family,” Tyr said. “Their strength is comparable to our own, and they did manage to breach our own security to kill Federico.” The old man flinched at the name of his son, but it just made Xanxus’ rage sharper to hear it spoken so casually. Tyr took no notice of either of them, and carried on with his analysis. “We cannot move against them in a covert fashion, retaliate as you have asked us to do, and remain undetected.”

“And that would mean open warfare, which is outside the Varia’s purview,” the old man said, and rubbed his forehead. “All right, thank you. We’ll find some other way.”

That was the absolute limit. “Fuck that,” Xanxus ground out, even though it wasn’t his place to speak up in this council, or do anything more than observe. “Fuck keeping it a secret. Kill ’em all and let the whole world know what you get for fucking with our Family.”

“It’s not that easy,” the old man said, weary. “I’d like nothing more than that, but—”

“But nothing! They killed Federico!” Had punched right through Federico’s security while he’d been on holiday with his family and had killed them all—and just the thought of it made Xanxus curl his hands into fists, both the Vongola Flame and the other one, the one he hadn’t used in years, rousing in response.

But I am not willing to declare open war on the Cetrulli,” the Ninth said, flat, while his advisors stirred and muttered, and Tyr hissed, “Control yourself!”

Xanxus flexed his hands, Wrath and Will burning hotter. “Fuck the politics,” he gritted out. “You know I’m right.”

“And I know that I have no right to tell the commander of the Varia which missions he will accept!” the Ninth retorted. “Your commander has said no, and will not take part in an open war against the Cetrulli. The Vongola will find another way.”

“Is that how it is?” Xanxus breathed, possibility crystallizing itself for him, clear and perfect as ice.

“That’s how it is.”

Xanxus furled his Flames away, against the moment when he would need them. “Fine.”

The old man nodded, because he’d never understood Xanxus half as well as Federico had, and had never seen far enough. “Moving on, then.”

Tyr stayed to listen to the old man and his advisors argue over alternative schemes, and to give his advice. Xanxus waited them out, darkly amused by the fact that the old man and his men couldn’t come to any satisfactory conclusions, and by the covert frustration that showed every time they looked at Tyr, until the old man called an end to things for the morning.

Tyr ignored all of them and swept out of the meeting with his usual magisterial calm. Xanxus followed after him like a good little squad leader.

His commander was no fool. Tyr went straight to the Varia’s practice yard, and only spoke to Xanxus once they were there. “You spoke very much out of turn this morning,” he noted, as he faced Xanxus and loosened his sword in its sheath.

“But I’m right, damn it,” Xanxus said, and let his Flames unwind themselves again as he faced the man down. “You know I am.”

“I know that you think that you are right.” Tyr was as dispassionate here as he was in everything, and that made Xanxus want to grind his teeth. “I know that you do not have to concern yourself with the same things I do, and that you have the luxury of being able to allow yourself to be angry.”

“It’s not a fucking luxury.” Xanxus flexed his hands, opening and closing them, watching him. Fucking luxuries weren’t supposed to hurt so damn much. “What are the chances of doing the mission successfully, open warfare aside?”

Tyr lifted a shoulder, his eyes never leaving Xanxus’. “If we don’t worry about remaining concealed? Nearly a hundred percent. But we can’t do the mission without revealing ourselves, and I will not let that happen.”

“Why the hell not?” Xanxus demanded, rage burning hotter, till the air shimmered around him. “It’s not like anyone doesn’t know we exist, even if they pretend not to.”

Tyr smiled, faint, just the corners of his mouth lifting. “Nevertheless. While I am the leader of the Varia, we will remain a secret. An open secret, if necessary, but a secret.”

Even while that made him growl, Xanxus had to admire how well his commander knew him, and appreciate the opening. “Maybe it’s time the Varia had a new commander.”

“Think carefully,” Tyr told him, still wearing that little smile. “Are you ready to do this? You’re nineteen—do you really think you’re ready to take over if—if—you can cut me down?”

“I guess we’ll have to find out,” Xanxus told him, and attacked.

Tyr had twenty years and some on him, and had trained with the sword his whole life. He had been one of the best training partners Xanxus had ever had, even without a Flame of his own, and Xanxus had always enjoyed their sparring matches. This was no training match, however, and Tyr hurled himself at Xanxus, grim and intent. Xanxus caught Tyr’s sword on one of his guns, and they closed with each other. Tyr’s lips peeled back from his teeth as Xanxus lashed out with his Flames. “It seems that Federico’s wolf has gone rabid,” he noted.

Xanxus just snarled at him, wordless, and they broke apart.

The battle dragged on, since neither of them would give way; Xanxus was dimly aware that the clash of it was drawing spectators to the training yard—other members of the Varia coming to linger at its edges, silent observers who didn’t move to interfere. He paid them no mind, being more concerned with Tyr’s sword and the gun that had gone spinning away, thanks to a particularly clever twist of Tyr’s blade.

They closed again, and again; he raised a line of blisters along Tyr’s cheek with the Wrath. Tyr laid his forearm open in return, on the next pass, when Xanxus wasted a precious fraction of a second reaching into his boot for his knife. They were both soaked with sweat when Tyr spoke again, against his ear, hushed. “Think, if you still can,” he said, as they wrestled with each other. “Killing them all won’t bring him back. Killing them won’t lessen the grief that you feel.”

“You’re wrong,” Xanxus retorted. “Killing them all will make me feel much better.”

Tyr’s bark of laughter was short and harsh. “God save us from reckless young fools and madmen,” he said, as they broke apart again.

“You’re a superstitious old fool,” Xanxus growled at him.

Tyr just laughed again.

The sun had sunk behind the walls of the House and cast the training ground into shadow before the balance of the fight finally shifted. Xanxus harried Tyr across the yard, maneuvering him until the man put a foot down in one of the places where Xanxus’ Flames had gouged at the earth. He wobbled for just a fraction of a section, but Xanxus had been waiting and ready for it, and lunged forward, ignoring the glancing blow of the sword against his shoulder and the way it sliced him open, and sank his boot knife into Tyr’s chest, all the way to the hilt.

Tyr breathed out, a sigh that sounded regretful, and folded in on himself.

Xanxus caught him—he owed the man that much—and let Tyr’s weight bear them to the ground. The look Tyr turned on him was resigned. “I always did wonder if it was going to be you,” he managed, with one of his teeth-baring smiles. “Tell me something.”

Xanxus raised his eyebrows. “What?”

Tyr’s breath was starting to turn short and to gurgle. “Why didn’t you just shoot me?”

Was that all? “No one would have followed me if I had.”

“Maybe you know what you’re doing after all,” Tyr gasped, and died with laughter, frothy and red, on his lips.

Xanxus regarded him silently, and then closed his eyes and eased him the rest of the way down. Then he unpinned the Varia’s crest from the dead man’s jacket and rose. The edges cut into his fingers as he faced the other members of the Varia who were watching him. Xanxus lifted his hand, showing it to them. “This is mine now. Anyone want to argue about it?”

The training yard was silent, until one of the squad leaders shrugged and called, “All yours, Boss.” He was echoed by a murmur of agreement.

“Good.” Xanxus lowered his hand and retrieved his gun and knife, and turned away from them all.

“Where are you going, Boss?” someone called.

“To see the old man,” Xanxus said, without breaking stride. “To see about our next mission.”

People scurried out of his way as he stalked back inside; one of the serving girls shrieked outright at the sight of him. Xanxus ignored them all as he made for the old man’s study and booted the door open.

The old man was clearly startled to see him. “What the—you look like a hot mess, boy.”

He was probably right, but Xanxus couldn’t find it in himself to care. He made his way to the old man’s desk and dropped the badge on it. “When do you want us to move?” he asked.

The Ninth looked down and a series of emotions chased themselves over his face as he stared at the pin. “Oh, my boy,” he said, finally, softly. “What damn fool thing have you gone and done now?”

That seemed like it should have been obvious, so Xanxus ignored the question and picked the badge up again. He weighed it in his fingers, and then pinned it to the remains his shirt, and was acutely conscious of the slight weight of it hanging there. “When do you want us to begin?”

The Ninth looked up at him, eyes grave and dark. “Get cleaned up,” he said. “Tend to those wounds. Then come back, and we’ll discuss it.”

“Yes, Boss.” Xanxus bowed, quick and sharp, and turned away from him.

The old man’s voice stopped him at the door. “You didn’t have to do this.”

Xanxus looked back at him. “No,” he said, at length. “You’re wrong. I did.”

The old man sighed, but didn’t try to argue with him. After a moment longer, Xanxus went to clean up.

The Cetrulli died as easily as any men did, though in rather more pain than most. Xanxus led the mission against them himself, repaying the fire that had killed Federico with his own Flames and tearing the very heart of the Cetrulli Family out with his own hands. When the Varia were done with them, not a one of the Cetrulli’s actual family was left breathing, nor any of its advisors or most of its commanders, and its shattered remains had scattered and were seeking shelter with any of the Cetrulli’s allies that would take them in.

And Tyr, damn him, had been right. The fighting had been satisfying, had let him freeze himself over and throw himself into the fierce pleasure of extracting vengeance from the Cetrulli, but left Xanxus at loose ends when it had ended.

Fortunately, Tyr had been right about the other thing, too—the Varia could no longer remain secret, not when half the old Families were appalled that the Vongola had moved so ruthlessly against one of their own, and the other half had applauded. They were all at open war within the year, giving Xanxus all the battles he could desire. He bent his will on those, and ignored everything else.

By the time the last of the Ninth’s sons fell, Xanxus no longer felt much about it at all, save for a certain weariness with the boredom of having to chase the last ragtag members of the Cetrulli to the ground in order to exterminate them.

5. Fire and Ice

Enrico had been dead for a year and a half, and the ceasefire between the surviving Families had held for an uneasy eight months, when the Ninth called Xanxus into his study.

Xanxus was glad of the summons. He’d been getting bored with all the peace and quiet.

“I have a question for you,” the old man said, and laid his hands flat on his desk as he looked Xanxus over. “Many people think you are going to be my heir.”

“People think a lot of things,” Xanxus retorted.

“They do.” The Ninth looked at him, head-on and serious. “I need to know. What do you think?”

“I think people are full of shit.” Xanxus shrugged. “Not actually your bastard, remember? Some other guy’s bastard. Therefore, not eligible.”

“What if I told you that we could make the argument that you were?” The Ninth watched him, eyes sharp and focused. “What would you say then?”

“I’d say you’re full of shit.” Xanxus waved a hand at the old man’s office. “You wanted me to take this, you would’ve been grooming me for it. If not when they got Massimo, then after they got Enrico. You don’t want me as your heir. You’ve got something else up your sleeve.”

“Is that so?” The Ninth leaned back in his seat. “How do you figure that?”

“You think I can’t tell when you’re testing me, old man?” Xanxus leaned back, too, and set an ankle over his knee. “You’re too calm. You want to know what I think before you go order me to do something.”

The Ninth’s eyes glinted, just faintly. “Very well.” He picked up one of the folders that was sitting at his elbow and passed it across the desk.

Xanxus flipped it open; there was a photo of a boy right on top, looking about as feckless as they came. “Who’s this?”

“Sawada Tsunayoshi.” Indeed, there was the label, on the back of the photo.

Xanxus glanced up. “Any relation to…?”

“His son, yes.” The Ninth was still watching him.

Xanxus paged through the little dossier, till he came to the piece of paper that was a family tree. “You’ve got to be fucking with me,” he said, and flipped back to the photo. No, the kid still looked like a fucking baby, and not even genetics could change that. “This is your new heir?”

“He’s still a little raw,” the Ninth said.

“A little raw? Fuck. He hasn’t even been in the oven yet.” Xanxus flipped the dossier closed. “You might as well invite all our enemies to a party and ask ’em to slit our throats.”

“Mm.” The Ninth picked up the other folder and offered it to him.

Xanxus flipped it open, expecting to find another possible heir. Instead, his own face stared up at him. “What’s this…?” he asked, paging through the dossier rapidly. The Ninth didn’t answer, didn’t say a fucking word, until Xanxus reached the piece of paper, very like Sawada’s, that traced his own family tree, right back to the Second.

He stared at it for so long that the Ninth finally cleared his throat. “The major distinction between you and Tsunayoshi,” he said, as Xanxus raised his eyes from the family tree, “is that Tsuna’s line is legitimated by the First’s remarriage, and yours is not.”

Xanxus just stared at him, silently, waiting for him to get to the point.

The Ninth gestured at the two dossiers in his hands. “Most of the Vongola favors you,” he said. “The irregularities of your family tree can be overlooked, in light of that.”

“Most,” Xanxus repeated, hearing the harsh edge in his own voice. “What does that mean?”

“It means that the boy isn’t one of us,” the Ninth said. “He hasn’t been raised in this world. Reborn has been with him since Enrico died. He says that Tsuna’s heart is… very pure. Rather like Federico’s.” He stopped, and ran a hand over his face.

“Why tell me this?” Xanxus demanded, holding up the folder that someone had compiled on him. “If you want him, then why should I even matter?”

The Ninth dropped his hand from his eyes, and looked at him, steady. “Because I am asking you which one of you I should choose to be Tenth after me,” he said, slow and even, and upset Xanxus’ entire worldview by doing so.

The Varia had swung into action without a murmur of question when Xanxus went from the Ninth’s office to their quarters, not even when Xanxus gave them some admittedly peculiar orders. They moved without question, proof that all the bastards knew what was good for them, and didn’t even bat an eye at his choices, or the announcement that they were going to Japan. It wasn’t till they were on the jet that Bel looked up from playing with his knives, grinning as sharp as they were, and asked, “What’s up, Boss? We got a mission to kill someone or what?”

It was an understandable assumption; he’d assembled the strongest squad leaders the Varia had for this. “Something like that.” Xanxus cast his eye over them, assessing them. “It’s time to figure out who’s going to be Tenth, me or Iemitsu’s brat.”

“Well, hot damn.” Bel’s grin stretched wider. “We gonna go kill him?”

“Maybe,” Xanxus allowed; it wasn’t out of the question. “We have to fight him for the rings.”

Lussuria was the one who did the math first, looking around at the other five of them and then squeaking. “All of us?” he asked, breathless, and they stilled.

“Yeah,” Xanxus told him, and watched them all grin at each other.

“We won’t let you down, Boss,” Levi vowed.

“You’d better fucking hope not,” Xanxus told them, and hauled himself up, heading to the front of the jet’s cabin, away from them and their speculations.

Squalo joined him there, all uninvited, and sat across from him. “So,” he said, after a moment. “What’s the plan?”

He should have known. “What plan?”

“Boss.” Squalo gave him a long look, and then snorted. “Please. Like you don’t always have a plan. And like you didn’t have us do some damn weird things to get ready for this. So. What gives?”

Yeah, Squalo wasn’t just his second because he was good with a sword. “Tell you later,” he said, since Squalo got loud when he was surprised, or excited, and this was going to be one hell of a surprise, all right. Squalo wasn’t going to see it coming, no matter what he’d put together in that pointy head of his.

Wasn’t anybody going to see this one coming. Xanxus settled back into his seat, and smirked at nothing at all.

Xanxus didn’t think much of Sawada Tsunayoshi the first time he met the boy. His photo in the Ninth’s dossier hadn’t encompassed the full flailing, wailing reality of the brat’s existence. “That brat isn’t fit to lick the boots of a real heir,” he told Squalo, sourly, after the Cervello had outlined the way the ring battles would happen and they had retired to their headquarters.

“You’re going to massacre him, Boss,” Levi agreed, readily, missing the point entirely. “You’re the only one fit to be the Tenth.”

Squalo aimed a kick at him. “The boss wasn’t talking to you,” he grunted, and then jerked his head at the door. “Get out, all of you. We’ve got strategy to discuss.”

They went, obediently or sullenly, each according to his kind, and Xanxus mused on the usefulness of having a second like Squalo, someone who understood Xanxus’ moods without his ever having to make them clear. Once he had booted the door shut after Lussuria’s slinking ass, Squalo underlined the point by getting Xanxus a drink, two fingers of whiskey, neat, all without a word.

“This is a fucking farce,” Xanxus told him, when the alcohol was a warm glow in his belly.

Squalo kicked a chair over and straddled it, showing his teeth. “You’re not wrong. Buncha weaklings, all of them. Beats the fuck outta me how they took Rokudou down.”

“Luck,” Xanxus grunted. “And probably Reborn.” That one couldn’t seem to help meddling.

Squalo’s teeth flashed again. “Guess we’ll see how far luck gets ’em this time.”

Xanxus grunted at him.

Squalo didn’t need more of a hint than that, and rose immediately. “Night, Boss,” he said, and went out.

Xanxus let him go, considering the nature of luck and the Vongola’s shitty run of it, these past few years, and then went to check the Gola Mosca, while he was thinking about it.

He reconsidered his stance on Sawada after the battle for the Lightning Ring. Even an observer could feel that there was power in the brat’s Flame, as long as Sawada’s people were concerned. Perhaps it hadn’t been all luck and Reborn that had contributed to Rokudou’s defeat.

But the brat was still ten years too early to be the Tenth. Too fucking naïve, too—that much was clear in the shock on Sawada’s face when the Cervello declared his half of the Sky Ring forfeit. Xanxus had to laugh at that—hadn’t the brat known what kind of sacrifices a real boss had to be prepared to make? Especially when one of his Guardians was a damn toddler?

Ten years too fucking early, definitely, Xanxus decided, while the brat’s friends consoled him for his stupid mistake. He had potential, yeah, but even the fucking Arcobaleno couldn’t turn someone that wet behind the ears into a boss overnight.

The Zero Point came as a complete fucking surprise. Xanxus hadn’t known that Will and Flame could turned in on themselves like that, going through heat to come out into cold that burned just as fiercely as the accusations that he had betrayed the Ninth. The image that Xanxus took with him as the Zero Point closed around him and dragged him down was the cool, regretful look in Sawada’s eyes, and the last thing he felt was the shock of recognition at the sight—the face was all wrong, but he’d seen that look before, in the old man’s eyes and in Federico’s eyes.

When light and heat broke through that arctic darkness and dragged him out of that frozen silence, Xanxus could barely gasp for breath, stunned by the betrayal of his Flames and the weakness that gripped him. Mammon was hovering over him, holding a double handful of Vongola Rings and wearing a shit-eating smile that said Forgive and forget, eh Boss? as Bel proclaimed Xanxus the Tenth.

All Xanxus could do was laugh at that, at the utter ridiculousness of it, when he couldn’t even get off the goddamn ground under his own power. Bel had to shove the damn ring on Xanxus’ finger himself while Mammon prattled on about the mystic power the rings would give the new heir. “You don’t know shit,” Xanxus rasped to them, and clenched his fist around the ring.

He’d heard of the Vongola trial, mostly in whispers and the fragments of rumors, and hadn’t given them more than cursory attention, because they’d never concern him. As the outside world fell away again, Bel’s triumph and Mammon’s smugness blending with the protests of Sawada’s people, Xanxus had just long enough to wish that he’d listened to those whispers more closely.

Then the screaming started: a whole succession of voices, agonized and terrified, pleading for mercy or more time or just plain howling in senseless pain. Images came with the screams, explosions and shattered bodies, blood running across a thousand different floors and sliding off the edges of blades, and the empty gaze in the eyes of corpses, identical in men and women and children alike.

Revenge, someone whispered.

Ambush. Another voice.

Eradication. And another.

He was suspended in some kind of space, surrounded by a throng of shadowy figures. Their voices rustled like dead leaves brushing against each other, blending and overlaying each other, nearly indistinguishable.

Our past sins. Murder, revenge, betrayal. An insatiable thirst for power.

Xanxus looked through the throng, but their faces were shadowed, and even though he had seen portraits of them all, had lived for years in the house where their faces gazed down at him on a daily basis, he could not tell one from another, nor could he keep a count on them—were there eight? Or nine?

This is the bloodstained history of our Family, they whispered to him. Xanxus only half-listened, peering at them, trying to make a count, trying to bring their faces clear. You who hold the ring of the Vongola, you who claim the Sky—do you have the resolution to inherit the weight of these sins?

That one—that one might be the old man. Xanxus strained after him, but the shadow slipped away, replaced by one that may have been the Third. Xanxus snarled his frustration, and then snarled again when that shadow whirled away, too.

Do not look away, the throng whispered. Look and see the destiny of the successor of the Vongola. This is the purpose of the life you were given.

“Of course it is!” Xanxus flared, facing them and trying glare at all of them at once. “You think I don’t know exactly what I am? You think I haven’t given the orders to kill? You think I don’t know exactly what my guns and my Flames are for?”

The throng of them circled closer, a sigh rippling through them at his answer. Will you pay the price? they asked. Will you shoulder the burden of our history and all its glory? Will you uphold the Vongola?

Xanxus snarled at them again. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” he told them, gesturing at the flood of history streaming around them. “I serve the Vongola. Doesn’t matter who gets in the way of that, I’ll cut them down.”

They sighed and swayed as one. Ah…

It was the wrong answer; Xanxus knew it before the voices and images of their history fell away, before he found himself standing before the circle of them, nine in all. Only the old man showed any regret, looking at him.

The First spoke. “No,” he said, and the weight of his voice and Will drove Xanxus to his knees. “That will not do. Your heart is frozen. You haven’t shouldered our burden, even a little bit.” He lifted his hand. “As you have rejected us, we reject you.”

“Like that’s a fucking surprise,” Xanxus managed, before nine generations’ worth of Vongola-caused suffering came crashing down on him.

When he came back to himself, he had screamed himself raw, and one of the Cervello was stooping over him to strip the Sky Ring off of his hand. “The rings have rejected Xanxus’ blood,” she announced. “The winner of the Sky Ring battle has defaulted to Sawada Tsunayoshi.”

That sparked protests all around, from Bel’s squawk to Sawada’s Sun proclaiming his confusion. “How can it reject his blood? Isn’t he the Ninth’s son?”

Laughing hurt. Xanxus did it anyway, and forced himself to his feet, because he wasn’t by damn going to do this lying on the ground like a fucking worm. “Told you all you didn’t know shit,” he wheezed, and spat the blood out of his mouth. “I’m not the old man’s son. Never have been.” He laughed again, laughed at all of their stupid, shocked faces. “And you’re surprised it rejected me?”

“No.” That was Sawada, swaying on his own feet, speaking up before anyone else could. “That’s not it at all, is it? That’s just what you want us all to think.” He took a wobbling step away from his companions, towards Xanxus. “I understand, now,” he said, eyes and voice clear. “What the Ninth showed me.”

Bel took a step, and stopped when Xanxus growled at him. “Bullshit,” he told Sawada. “What can a brat like you understand?”

“Everything,” Sawada said, confident, closing the distance between them, step by shaky step. “You didn’t betray the Ninth at all, did you? You’re not here because you wanted to be the Tenth. You’re here because he sent you here.”

Xanxus coughed and spat on the ground between them. “Not bad,” he said, and ignored the shock and disbelief from the Cervello and Varia and Sawada’s own people. “No other way to make sure a brat like you was ready to take over for him.”

Sawada came closer, till he was tilting his head back to look up at Xanxus. “No,” he agreed, still in the grip of that clear, steady calm. “I’m much stronger now, thanks to you.”

“Damn right,” Xanxus told him, with the grim satisfaction of a job well done. “Would’ve killed you myself if you hadn’t gotten stronger. Might still do it if you fuck this up.”

“I know.” That clear gaze was starting to be unnerving. “You love this Family very much.”

“The hell you say.” Xanxus rolled his eyes. “What are you, brain-damaged? I was following orders.”

“That’s what you want to think. That’s what you want to believe. But you’re wrong. I felt it.” Sawada frowned, lifting a hand. “It’s still there. It’s covered over,” he murmured, and even though he looked like he was half-dead on his feet, his Flame lit again. “It shouldn’t be,” he murmured. “You’re only hurting yourself with it.”

“Mind your own business,” Xanxus told him. “Maybe I like it better this way.”

“No,” Sawada said, very softly. “No, I see now, what else he meant.”

“Sawada,” Xanxus said, warning him, but Sawada ignored him and came forward anyway, pressing his hands against Xanxus’ chest.

“You’ve given a great deal,” he said, Will pressing against Xanxus’, the raw heat of it gentled enough that it didn’t burn. It was no less determined for that. “You are owed this.”

“Fuck off,” Xanxus grated out, resisting the pressure and warmth of Sawada’s Flame. “I don’t want this.” Not again. He wasn’t going to survive another round of this.

“You’re still lying,” Sawada told him, unshakable as a mountain, and folded his Will around Xanxus and held him.

Xanxus lost the rest of his voice on the cry that tore out of his throat as Sawada’s Will pressed against the places he’d walled off years ago, after the first of the old man’s sons had died. “These are hurting you,” Sawada said, softly, Flame burning hotter, purer. “He would not have wanted this.”

“How the fuck would you know?” Xanxus gasped, hating the parts of himself that strained towards Sawada’s Will, responding to it. “You weren’t fucking there.”

“I just know,” Sawada told him, simple as that, and brought the walls the rest of the way down.

As his knees bucked and he went down for the third time that night, overcome by the torrent of things that he’d wanted to never have to think about again, Xanxus decided that, fuck it all, this time he was going to stay down.

When he woke up, he was in a pleasant room that was filled with sunlight, and the old man was sitting beside his bed, doing paperwork.

The rush of relief—and shock at realizing he was relieved—at seeing the old man doing something so emphatically normal as his paperwork rendered Xanxus’ voice into a rasping croak. “You.”

The Ninth looked up, and even Xanxus couldn’t mistake the look that crossed the old man’s face as anything but pleasure. “You’re awake,” he said, with every evidence of delight.

“No fucking kidding.” Xanxus’ throat ached with the effort of speaking, and was barely managing a whisper. “You’re not dead.”

“Hardly.” The Ninth smiled. “I told you I’d do just fine.”

Yeah, and Xanxus had seen how he’d looked when the kid had sliced the Gola Mosca open. “You were—I saw you.” It’d been clear, too, when he’d had the ring. “With the other bosses.”

The old man fucking smiled at him. “One doesn’t have to be dead to attend the trial of one’s successor, even if it often ends up that way.”

“You shitty old man.” Xanxus looked away from him, stared out the window—the sky was the deep blue of the Mediterranean; they were home. And even focusing on that fact couldn’t stop him from saying, “You scared the fuck out of me.”

He heard the sound that the old man made, surprised and wondering, and then the sound of papers being set aside. “I’m sorry,” he said, and set a hand on Xanxus’ shoulder. “I didn’t… expect it to affect you. Not like that.”

“No, you just knew it’d tear me apart from the inside out when they rejected me.” The old man had told him as much when they’d discussed what would happen if he had to take up the ring. At the time, it had seemed like an acceptable risk to take.

Now he wasn’t so sure. The thought of the trial recalled the burden that they’d placed in front of him, and that brought on a wave of nausea. Xanxus closed his eyes and fought it, and the groan that wanted to come with it, back down. “The fuck did Sawada do to me?”

“Forced you to recall yourself, I believe,” the old man said, after a moment. “And asked you to recall that you are, in fact, human.”

“I don’t think I like it,” Xanxus told him, from behind teeth that he had to clench against the nausea and sense of dizzy unbalance. Fucking hell, what was he supposed to do with all this goddamn emotional shit?

“You never have, much,” the old man agreed. His hand moved to Xanxus’ forehead and rested there, cool. “I find myself hoping that it sticks, I’m afraid. I should like very much if I could have one of my sons returned to me.”

Xanxus squeezed his eyes tighter, so he wouldn’t have to look at the man. “I’m not your son.”

“Not by blood,” the old man agreed, voice quiet. “Not by the measures of the world. But you’re the son my heart recognizes. You’re the brother Federico claimed for himself. Those are enough for me.” He sighed. “I wish they could be enough for you.”

Xanxus turned his face away at the mention of Federico and all the things that the mention of his name brought surging out of the places he’d buried them. The old man’s hand settled on his shoulder again. “Fuck,” he said, when he could breathe past the knife edges of the hurt. “Fuck. I should have been there. It should have been me.”

What the fuck had Sawada done to him, that he was saying these things out loud?

The old man’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. “No,” he said, fierce. “No. He would not have wanted that, any more than I would have.” His grip eased again. “You’ve seen the reports. The presence of one more man—even one such as yourself—would not have saved him. I would have lost both of you if you had been there.” He stopped, and then started again. “As it was, I rather thought I had.”

“You always were sentimental, old man,” Xanxus muttered after a moment.

“Perhaps,” the Ninth said, and squeezed his shoulder. “Nevertheless.”

Nevertheless, indeed. Xanxus took a breath, and another, and decided it was time for a safer subject, until he could gain some control of himself again. “Sawada has the ring now?” he asked, and opened his eyes.

“He does, and has found it in himself to face what that means.” The Ninth was looking into the distance and probably not seeing anything that was in the room. “He will do great things for our Family, I think.”

“Kick his ass for him if he doesn’t.”

The old man’s eyes returned to the present and flicked down to him, and he laughed. “Yes, I’ve not doubt that you will.”

Xanxus snorted at him. “Glad you approve of the choice.”

“I do.” The Ninth went serious on him again, looking at him with dark eyes. “I would have approved the other, too.”

The fuck? “Don’t be stupid.” Xanxus glared at him. “You saw what happened when I put the ring on.”

“Mm. I did.” The Ninth lifted a shoulder, as if it weren’t even worth mentioning. “The Ring chooses the successor the Family needs. And sometimes what the Family needs is a new direction, like what I expect Tsuna will give us, and sometimes it needs the strength that will guide it and protect it, as you would have done.” He stopped, studying Xanxus, and then continued, apparently satisfied with whatever he saw. “What was rejected was the coldness in your heart. We are a Family, my boy. The boss must care for it. Do you see?”

Xanxus listened to that—the boss had to care?—and then snorted. “Definitely made the right choice,” he muttered.

The old man’s smile was faint. “Mm. He’s done well with his people so far.”

It was impossible to mistake the old man’s intent, not when the old man was looking at him, practically mooning over him. Xanxus grunted. “Whatever. I guess he’ll do.”

“Yes,” the Ninth said, with the smile that all three of his sons had inherited, and that made Xanxus’ breath hitch to see. “I think he will.” He took his hand away from Xanxus’ shoulder and busied himself with his paperwork. “Now that you’re awake, there’s someone who’ll be wanting to see you. I’ll just send him in, shall I?”

“Whatever,” Xanxus muttered, and settled back against his pillow as the old man went out. It’d be one of the Varia, wanting to report their status—Bel, probably, wanting to talk about who was going to take Squalo’s place, since he had exactly the right kind of initiative to put himself forward in a time of chaos. Of course, he trusted Bel about as far as he could throw the little shit, but it wasn’t like he had a lot of options to work with in the other squad leaders.

Damn Squalo for getting himself killed, anyway, and that thought came with another wave of sickness—damn Sawada and his fucking Will, too, because this was already getting fucking impossible to stand.

Xanxus gritted his teeth and was trying to ride it out when a ruckus raised itself outside his door. The distraction was a welcome one, and he raised himself up on an elbow to listen to the voices as they spiraled upwards, until someone yelled, “I can fucking do it myself!” and booted open the door.

Squalo wheeled himself into the room, expression mutinously clear even through a layer of bandages, while a handful of the lowest-ranking Varia hovered behind him. “See?” he demanded of them. “Now piss off!” Xanxus stared at him, at a loss for words, as Squalo slammed the door in their faces and wheeled himself over to the bed. “Hey, Boss.”

It was as bad as waking up and finding out the old man wasn’t dead; the shock made him dizzy. “Squalo,” Xanxus said, feeling like he had a case of fucking whiplash. “The fuck. You’re not dead.”

Squalo snorted. “Fucking Cavallone fished me out before the shark finished me off. Guess he thought he’d be able to get me to spill my guts to him for doing it.”

“That little bastard,” Xanxus managed, after a moment, some of his whipsaw dizziness grounding itself in familiar anger. “He never said a word.” And it went without saying that Squalo hadn’t, either, or else he’d have known about this a lot sooner when Cavallone spilled the plan wide open.

Squalo snorted again, baring his teeth. “Yeah. You shoulda seen the look on his face when it all came out. Turned so red I thought he was going to pass out.”

“Serves him right,” Xanxus said, because it did. Goddamn Cavallone, keeping one of his people from him like that. “Bastard. I thought you were dead.” Fuck, he was going to kill Sawada for afflicting him with this case of verbal diarrhea.

Squalo’s surprise showed in his eyes, and that only briefly. “Not yet,” he said, after a breath of silence. “Which is a damn good thing, since Bel’s already started making a hash of Varia business. Gonna take forfuckingever to get it all straightened out.”

That was so close to what Xanxus had been thinking before Squalo had come in that it startled him into a laugh; once he started, he couldn’t quite stop, till Squalo peered at him, clearly anxious, and demanded to know whether he was all right. “Yeah,” Xanxus told him, when he’d managed to get a grip on himself again. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just glad you’re not dead, is all.”

Squalo blinked, clearly startled, something like pleasure flashing in his eyes. “Yeah, well, me too,” he said, and cleared his throat. “So, anyway, here’s where we’re at.”

Xanxus settled in to listen to Squalo’s report. He could just about imagine the way Federico would have smiled at that, and said, “Not bad, cub.” For once, the thought didn’t do much more than ache.

Yeah. Maybe he was going to do all right after all.

– end –

Last Modified: May 15, 12
Posted: Aug 03, 09
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