Title: Thaw
Xanxus, Timoteo
In which the Ninth thaws Xanxus out.
Part of Choice: The Betrothal Arc. General audiences. 5324 words.


The shitty old man—not his father, never his father—raised his fucking scepter. His Will flared brighter than Xanxus could bear to look at. Xanxus hurtled himself at the old man anyway, snarling his rage and his defiance, and then everything went white, searing him with cold, before it all went black.

When the cold, bone-chilling cold that reached right into the core of him and sucked away everything, Wrath and Will alike, hollowing him out, when that cold let him go, Xanxus staggered like a drunk and fell forward. The jolt when his knees hit the floor lanced through him. He barely felt it and caught himself on a hand, gasping for breath and shivering violently, feeling as though he'd been scraped raw inside and out.

When he'd gone under, the air had been thick with dust and smoke and the smell of blood, had rung with the sounds of explosions and gunfire and men screaming in the distance. Now it was cool and smelled of the damp, quiet but for the faint thrum of electronics. The surface under his hands wasn't tile, it was concrete, and Xanxus had only just begun to process that he wasn't in the south hall fighting the old man anymore when hands reached down to him, seizing him and hauling his arms behind his back. He hissed at the strain on his shoulders and looked up: it was the old man's Storm and Cloud who were binding his hands behind his back, and the metal cuffs they were locking around his wrists sang with Rain and Lightning.

"Looks a little freezer-burned if you ask me, Boss," the old man's Sun said.

Xanxus looked up and snarled as the old man stepped forward, every inch of him neatly pressed and polished, from the tips of his shoes to the top of his head—greyer, suddenly, than it had been. He looked down at Xanxus.

He'd never been good at reading the old man, so there was no telling what was going on behind those hooded eyes. Finally he said, "Bring him," and turned away.

Xanxus struggled when they hauled him to his feet, snarling curses at the rough way the old farts manhandled him. They ignored him, not that it seemed particularly difficult for them to do when all his muscles felt as limp as overdone pasta, and hauled him along after the old man. Xanxus had never seen the room they were in before; it was dim and cool and he thought that they might have even been underground. It was full of electronic equipment, computers and shit, and it made no sense that he could have been in the south hall a moment ago but here now.

The old man had done something, God only knew what, and the fact that Xanxus didn't understand what or how the old fart had done it angered him.

He clutched the feeling close—it was something against the hollow feeling in his gut where the old man's Will had punched through him—as the old man led them through a door into a smaller room, this one lit by harsh fluorescents overhead. Xanxus' eyes watered as they pushed him down into a folding chair sitting at a table; the old man circled around to take the room's only other seat across from him. The other old farts, all six of them, what the hell, ranged themselves around the room and occupied themselves with glaring at Xanxus.

Xanxus bared his teeth at them all.

The old man looked back at him, still silent, and took his own sweet time about speaking up. When he did, what he had to say was startling. Yeah, startling. "Your brothers are dead."

Xanxus stared across the table at him, trying to make some part of that make sense. He hadn't given any orders about his br—his supposed brothers, who hadn't even been in town when they'd hit the house. Well. Start there. "They're not my brothers," he said; his voice was hoarse, his throat raw.

All three of them? Dead? Really? It didn't seem possible.

"Your adopted brothers, then." The old man's voice was surprisingly calm, given the topic.

Xanxus stared at him, trying to make sense of that—someone must have gotten creative. Squalo, maybe. What the fuck. "Guess you're fucked now, aren't you?" Smiling hurt, stretched skin across his face unpleasantly, but it was worth every stinging second of it just to make the old man flinch, however infinitesimally. "All your real kids are dead and all you have left is a fake. Sucks to be you."

"Not precisely." The old man gestured; his right hand passed him a folder. The old man flipped it open and slid it across the table for Xanxus to look at. "Your mother, may she rest in peace, was married at some point. The man left, of course, but the papers are genuine." Xanxus stared down at the worn scrap of paper, shabby and faded—his ma's wedding license. Huh. Who'd have thought it?

The old man carried on. "It's even possible that he was your father, though we can't be sure. Regardless." The old man leaned over, flipped the license over, and revealed another sheet of paper. "We're more concerned with your mother's ancestry. As you can see, it's somewhat obscure. However, the Second's issue never were fully documented. You may not be my issue, but you are of the Vongola." The old man settled back in his chair and gave Xanxus a long, sober look. "You wanted the Vongola so much you were willing to kill me to take it. What will you do if I hand it to you instead?"

Laughing hurt more than smiling had: it jolted every muscle in his body, aching against his ribs and tearing at his throat. Xanxus laughed until he was breathless anyway, hoarse with it, and the old man's people were glaring daggers at him. "What the fuck?" he wheezed, between gasps for breath. "What the fucking fuck, all of a sudden I'm good enough? Fuck you, you old bastard. Fuck you."

The old man gesture at his people when they started forward, waving them back into their places along the wall. "Not all of a sudden," he said. "Do you know how long you were sealed away, my boy?"

Sealed away? The fuck? "Why don't you tell me?" What the hell did he mean, how long, anyway? Xanxus eyed him, suspicious of the question—it must have been some time, he guessed, because the old man's injuries seemed to have healed up. Maybe that accounted for how his so-called brothers had gotten themselves killed.

"It's been eight years."

"Eight… years." Xanxus stared at him, flatly disbelieving him. "You're joking."

The old man was not joking. It was in the stern lines around his mouth and the white in his hair and how he stared across the table at Xanxus without wavering.

"You…" Xanxus began, but he had to stop when he couldn't think of anything nasty enough to call the old man. "You bastard." Rage surged up, filling up the cold, empty place in his gut. It didn't matter that they'd cuffed his hands behind his back, that the cuffs were laced with Rain that tried to soothe his rage away; he launched himself across the table, fury whiting out everything but his need to get at the old man and kill him, hurt him, make him pay. He was dimly aware that he was yelling, screaming out his rage and betrayal as he struggled to get across the table and hurt the old man.

He didn't get far; the old man's people caught him by the shoulders and wrestled with him. Xanxus arched and bucked in their hands, straining at the cuffs on his wrists, straining for the Wrath and the Flame through the calming influence of the Rain. "You lied to me!" he raged as they pinned him against the table. "You lied to me, you lied, I wasn't, I'm not, it's not—you stole everything and you locked me away, you bastard, do you think this can make up for that now?"

He screamed until he had no voice or breath left and had to glare at the old man from where his cheek was pressed against the cold metal of the table.

The old man waited until he had reduced himself to hoarse gasps before saying, "No. I don't expect it to make up for anything." He leaned forward. "We could have shot you. Put two bullets in your brain and ended it like that. But I didn't want that. I didn't want to leave you sealed away for so long, either, but it has been a difficult eight years for the Vongola and the time slipped away from me. For that I am sorry." He sat up again and gestured.

His people hauled Xanxus back into his seat and pinned him there, hands heavy on his shoulders.

When Xanxus was arranged to his satisfaction, the old man added, "As for the rest, it has always been my thought that you were my son in everything that mattered. I thought you knew that, though I seem to have been mistaken. For that, too, I apologize."

"Apologies are cheap," Xanxus rasped.

"True," the old man said. "Except when they are not. Perhaps you will learn that as you get older." He stopped and ran a hand over his face. When he took it away he drew a breath and straightened his shoulders. "It has been a bad eight years," he said. "The Vongola's enemies press us hard. We need your strength very badly, my boy. Whether you want it or not, you're going to be the Vongola Tenth." He smiled then, brief and humorless. "That was what you wanted, wasn't it? Now you can have it."

Could have it because they had no other choices, because they'd run out of options and choices. Xanxus bared his teeth at the old man, snarling at him. Did he really think that he could just snap his fingers and make him the Tenth like that and it would all be okay? "Just try and give me the ring and see what happens then, old man."

"Actually, that was what I had planned on doing." The old man rested his hands on the table in front of him; the Vongola ring winked at Xanxus from its position on his knuckle. "I thought that it would be a good idea to see what you and it made of each other."

Xanxus stared down at the ring and then looked up at him. Maybe the old man had gone senile in the eight years, on top of everything else. "It's a ring."

"It's the Vongola ring." The old man slid it off his finger and held it up between them; the light glinted off it. "Men have fought and died for this ring for generations. Women, too. But it will not let itself be possessed by someone without the right to it or the Will to do what it takes to hold this Family. You have the blood right, my boy. You've claimed the will, too. Do you still have that?"

Senile, definitely. "Why don't you give it to me and find out?" Then they could just see what kind of will he had and what he was going to do with this Family once he got his hands on it.

The old man looked at him. "Are you sure you want to try this now?"

Xanxus snorted at him. "Like I really have a choice?"

"There's always a choice, my boy." The old man studied him, grave. "I fear you've developed a habit of making bad ones, but you still have your choices."

"Whatever." If the old man wanted to moralize, Xanxus was going to ignore him altogether. Not that that'd be anything new.

The old man sighed and gestured; Xanxus tensed, ready to take advantage of being released from the restraints, and stilled when cool metal pressed against his temple. "Make one move for the Ninth," his Cloud said, her voice perfectly even, "and it will be the last thing you ever do."

"I thought I was your last chance," Xanxus said, holding himself still.

"Did I say that?" The old man fucking smiled at him. "You're mistaken. We are not out of options just yet. But I choose you nevertheless."

"So you did go senile," Xanxus concluded.

"Not yet." The old man nodded and his Rain released the cuffs around Xanxus' wrist. He brought them around, rubbing them, careful of the places that felt raw—looked raw, burned, when he glanced down at them. Fuck, what had the old man's Will—that ice—done to him? "Do you want this?"

Xanxus looked at the ring the Ninth held and smirked. "Let's find out." Once he had the ring—they were old, all of them, he could deal with them no matter how raw his skin felt. And then, nothing else was going to stop him.

The old man sighed and slid the ring across the table. "Put it on and channel your Will into it," he said. "And—good luck, my boy."

Luck. Right. Xanxus took up the Vongola ring and studied the heavy engravings, the Vongola crest, before he slid it onto his finger. It went easily and winked up at him.

"Now, your Will," the old man reminded him as Xanxus looked down at it, remembering how many times he'd burned to wear it.

"Shut up," Xanxus told him. "Don't tell me what to do." He reached for his Will anyway, acutely conscious of the gun at his temple and how that was going to have to be the first thing he dealt with.

The ring gleamed on his finger, flaring bright, and then the world went away.

The first thing Xanxus heard as his vision went black was a scream, shrill, the sound of a human voice pushed too far, so far that he wasn't sure whether it was a man or a woman it belonged to. Then another voice, a man begging for his life, joined it, and another begging for mercy, and after that a whole babble of voices, a chorus of them pleading for leniency or more time or mercy or just for death—screams and moans and shouts, little bubbling gasps, and the rattle of breath in the throat that came with the approach of death. Xanxus listened, puzzled, to the cacophony, and then the images started. Blood figured in most of them, blood and bullets and the edges of blades, fire and Flame, and sometimes just fists and boots and cudgels, all the things that could be done to a human body given enough cruelty or dispassion. Xanxus watched the display, more puzzled by it than anything else. What the hell was all this and why was he watching it?

He tried to turn his attention away and found he could not, that whatever this was had him firmly in its grip. He strained against it, annoyed, which was when the whispers started. Blood of the Vongola, they whispered, rustling like dead leaves in an alley. Pride of the Vongola. Sin of the Vongola.

Xanxus listened to them warily, pushing against the grip of whatever the fuck this was, this weird no-place with its montage of death and suffering. "What the hell is this?" he tried, not really expecting an answer.

The voices carried on with how heeding him, which was about what he'd expected them to do. Extortion, they murmured. Lies. Betrayal. Murder. Legacy of the Vongola.

If he could have rolled his eyes, he would have. "No kidding. Next you'll be telling me that it's wet when it rains."

Squalo, he wondered, reminded suddenly. He had to wonder whether the shitty old man had killed Squalo or not. Could go either way; Squalo was useful and the old man was soft, but Squalo'd also been right there by his side when they'd punched through the house, intent on their coup d'état. Be a pain to deal with things himself if the old man had killed Squalo, but nothing he couldn't handle, probably.

The montage of images flickered and changed: two men, back to back, facing down a small army and grinning about it; a man standing between a clutch of scared kids, snarling and holding off some kind of thug; a group of men laughing together, toasting one of their comrades; a woman distributing money and clothes to a handful of ragged, snot-nosed brats; on and on till Xanxus just about wanted to gag with how saccharine it was. Pride of the Vongola, the voices whispered, lingering over the image of an old man standing with his hand on a younger man's shoulder. Loyalty. Honor. Legacy of the Vongola.

Xanxus snorted. "Yeah, you wish." It was all well and good to pretend that was what the Vongola was all about, but it was just a damn fake like everything else the Vongola tried to sell itself as. Give him the Varia any day: at least they knew who and what they were and didn't try to paint over it.

A sigh stirred the voices like wind blowing through a broken window. You who would be the Tenth must carry both legacies of the Vongola. The images of the past were melting away, giving way to a set of shadowy figures, nine of them. They were masked, flickering in and out like a set of ghosts, but Xanxus thought he recognized them anyway. Sort of. He'd spend a fair bit of time under their painted gazes, anyway.

"You must be joking," he said, staring hard at one of them, pretty sure it was the old man.

The boss of the Vongola must be strong enough to uphold the Family. He was pretty sure that had been the Second, though the shades of the previous bosses moved back and forth, the crowd of them ebbing and flowing like the tide.

Xanxus jeered at them. "I've got the strength to take all of you put together."

There are more kinds of strength than that. The Sixth, maybe, though it was hard to say. His heart is brittle.

Like ice, sighed another, maybe the Eighth. Frozen over like ice.

He doesn't feel, the Seventh whispered.

He doesn't protect, the Fourth said. He only takes.

Xanxus snorted at them. "Protect what? If they can't protect themselves, what good are they?"

Strength comes from one another, the Third said. We are not Family without each other.

"We're not Family anyway," Xanxus retorted. "You think anything else, you're just deluding yourselves."

He doesn't understand, the Fifth said. He doesn't understand what a Family is for.

He's not worthy, the Seventh agreed, sorrowful. He's not worthy of the name.

Xanxus bared his teeth at them all as the words rippled through them, unworthy, he's not worthy, because fucked if he cared what a pack of ghosts thought of him.

He can be made worthy, the Ninth said, shitty old man, cutting right through their whispers and standing a little apart from the crowd of them. He was addressing another, the one who was shrouded in a cape, the one who had yet to speak. He can be reached. Together we can reach him.

Xanxus snarled, though when he wanted to lunge at the old man and shake him, wrap his fingers around that old throat and show him how well he could be reached, he found his feet were rooted in place. "Fucking old man, why don't you ever give up?"

A man can only be reached if he wants to be, the First said, slow and measured, and the others were silent, watching the First and the Ninth face each other.

I believe he can, the Ninth said. No man rages without reason.

Xanxus growled in protest, but they were not listening to him. He might as well have been silent. But why shouldn't he be angry? What didn't he have to be angry about?

The First was silent a long while. The cost may be high, he said. The reward may be small.

He is my son, the Ninth said, even now, like Xanxus had never tried to kill him or raged at him, like it didn't matter that he was the son of a whore, like the shitty old man believed it. I will pay it gladly.

Be it so, then, the First said, raising his hands. Flame gathered in them, pure as the sunrise. Around the circle, light danced across hands and brows, lighting the shades until Xanxus wanted to squint against the brilliance of so many Sky Flames in one place. The old man was the last to light; when he did, it was a blaze higher and more ferocious than it had been when they'd fought each other, higher than it had been just before the ice had claimed Xanxus. The First said, Call your son back from the frozen place and let us see whether he may learn to shoulder our burden.

The old man turned to Xanxus then, approached him as Xanxus stood frozen in place, nightmare fashion. "What are you doing?" he demanded, willing his feet to move or his own Flame to rise, as the old man raised his hands. "What are you—get back, leave me alone—"

I will never do that, my boy, the Ninth said, tone gentle, at complete odds with the actinic glare of his Flame. You should know I will never give up on you.

He laid his hands on Xanxus' brow like a benediction, and nine generations of Vongola Flames came crashing down on Xanxus.

He thought he might have screamed, though he had no way of knowing, no way of keeping track of anything in the midst of the combined Wills pouring over him. They carried nine generations' experience with them, a cascade of memory and emotion and knowledge that battered him mercilessly, allowing him no place to turn that wasn't full of—of—he didn't even have the right words to process the things pouring through him. They had never been things that had anything to do with him, honor and loyalty and justice, kindness and mercy, things that had had no place in the streets he'd come from or the life he'd built after, especially when he'd known that if they'd taken him from the streets, they could always send him back.

I would never have sent you back. The old man, inside his skull. Never. I claimed you for my own, did I not?

"You lied," Xanxus gritted out as their Flames kept reaching further, pressing into him and pushing all that—all that emotion into him, like blood pushing into a limb gone numb except a thousand times worse. "You lied, it wasn't real!"

It was real, the Ninth insisted. You are the son of my heart. And he was still pushing emotion against Xanxus, something huge and encompassing and warm, the antithesis of the ice before. I saw you, a boy who'd been denied so much, and I did not want to take away the thing you clung to. I saw the man you might become and I wanted to know him. I still see that man, still want to know him. You are so much more than you believe yourself to be, my boy, and you would be even if you did not have a drop of Vongola blood in your veins.

He sounded so fucking sure of himself; Xanxus hated himself for the way a part of him wanted to turn to that, wanted to believe it even now. "You always lie," he said, loathing churning his gut. He tried to push that all-encompassing warmth away, wanted to burn the need right out of himself. "You lie like you breathe."

Not here, my boy. There can be no lies here. No lies in the Flame itself. The old man kept pushing, reaching into Xanxus to lay that Flame against the cold places that ached inside, pouring Flame into those empty places. I should have known… no one relies so much on his own pride and place when he's sure of himself. You have never been trash, my boy. You have never been worthless. Those who told you otherwise were wrong.

"Thought you said you couldn't lie," Xanxus gasped, hating the softness in his own will and the places that soaked those words in, greedy as dry soil in the rain, hating his own weakness and the old man for seeing it. "Didn't you hear them calling me unworthy?"

That does not mean worthless. It means you are not yet ready to lead the Family after us. The old man smiled then, swift and bright as a shooting star. When you are, you will be one of the greatest bosses this Family has ever seen.

And the thing was, he could tell that the old man believed it. He believed every word of it, Xanxus could feel it in the boundless confidence of the Flame wrapping around him, holding him and pouring into him, filling him up and pressing against his resistance. The old man seriously looked at him and saw—Xanxus didn't even know what the old man saw, except that it was good, not—not anything else. "I'm not—that's not me—"

It could be, the old man said. You could be, if only you would let yourself be. I will help you. Stop fighting yourself and let me show you how.

"Why are you asking?" He could feel the other eight standing behind the Ninth, could feel that the old man could do it if he wanted to, just reach in and take the rest if he decided to. "It's not like it matters what I want."

It matters more than you think, my boy. It must be your choice, or it means nothing. The Ninth looked up at him, grave. You have to choose your own destiny. Every man does.

Yeah, and some destinies were nothing more than a bullet in the head to prove that the choice had been a bad one. "Do what you want," Xanxus told him. "You always do."

Are you sure? the old man asked him.

"Just do it," Xanxus snarled, bracing himself.

Oh, my boy… The old man sighed. Remember that I am with you. I will not leave you.

His Flame, their Flames, pushed into Xanxus, sweeping away his pretenses of resistance like a dam before a flood. No, a fire sweeping through a house, burning it to the ground, burning out the old rotten places and scouring everything down to bare earth. It hurt; he screamed again against the relentless sweep of their combined Flames as it ran through him, breaking open the locked boxes of his memories and turning them out to scrutinize, forcing him to confront old shames and all his failures, the whispers that had followed the crazy whore's son till he'd learned how to shut them up (except that he'd never been able to forget them, not when they haunted all his sleepless nights), the soft emotions that had only made him more vulnerable till he'd learned how to freeze them over, the way he'd been able to channel everything into getting more, finding power, taking his rightful place as the Vongola's youngest son, and how it had all come crashing down in the end.

And the old man was right there through it, staying close as Xanxus writhed under the onslaught. I see now, he said, softly. If it wasn't real… if you couldn't have it, then you were going to destroy it. Especially me. I see now. Oh, my boy. Forgive me. I only meant to make up for those things you had been denied. I never wanted to trick you.

"Why did you do it?" Xanxus wanted to hate himself for how… how desperate the question was, how open and naked he felt before them. "Why?"

Because, the old man said, his voice soft. Because you're my son and I love you and I have only ever tried to do what was best for you. I was wrong about what that was, and for that I am sorry. I didn't understand.

Xanxus would have recoiled if only they hadn't broken him to pieces and left him wrecked and drained. "You—"

Let me show you, the old man said. That warm wave of pure emotion swept down on Xanxus again. This time he didn't have anything left in him to resist it, couldn't have mustered a defense if he had wanted to. He gasped and shook with it, not knowing how to cope with the immensity of it, the sheer impossibility of how intensely the old man still felt even after—even after—

I won't deny that it hurt, the old man said. But you are my son. Nothing you do will ever change that. He folded his arms around Xanxus, who was too stunned by the weight of those words to do anything else but let the old man embrace him.

This is my son, the Ninth said, nearly defiantly, speaking to the others. He's been wandering for a long time. He is not ready for your judgment. Will you suspend it until he is?

Held close as he was, Xanxus could feel how determined the old man was to fight any answer other than yes.

The shades of the other bosses rustled but did not speak until the First said, slow and deliberate, For a time. But the next time he takes up the ring, we will decide.

Be it so, the Ninth said.

As suddenly as that, it was over. Xanxus doubled over the table, gasping and shaking, throat raw and his face wet. There were voices babbling over his head; the clamor of them only resolved into sense slowly, but the concern and fear laced through them was easy enough to parse.

"Be easy," the old man said. "Be easy, I'm fine, just tired." When Xanxus managed to raise his eyes, he saw that the old man didn't look fine. His face was drawn and nearly grey. But he was smiling, triumph gleaming in his eyes as he looked back.

"You look like shit," Xanxus rasped. But—the cost would be high, the First had said. Fucking hell. "Someone get him to bed before he keels over. You stupid old man."

Figured that the old man just looked more triumphant at that. "I would have done twice again as much, had you needed it," he said. "You know that."

Xanxus had to lower his eyes, uncomfortable, not knowing what to do or say to that. He saw the ring still on his finger and twisted it off, sliding it across the table.

"The trial…?" the old man's right hand ventured.

"Is suspended. When we take it up again, my boy will be ready for it," the old man said. "Won't you?"

Xanxus could hear them all holding their breaths and controlled how that made him want to shiver. "Yeah, sure," he said, though he wasn't sure at all. "What the fuck are you people waiting for, get him to bed!"

"And medical attention for my son," the old man said. "I don't like how those burns look."

When Xanxus chanced a glance up, he saw that the old man was still smiling at him, even as his guardians bustled into motion around them. God only knew what the trial had done to him, because that smile settled somewhere warm inside him and stayed there, even after Xanxus had looked away again.

And it was only later that he realized that he hadn't remembered to protest the old man's claiming him as his son.


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