The boy watches as the man presses a wad of bills into the woman's trembling hands.
"Thank you for bringing him," he says gently, carefully. The woman wipes a hand across her face.
"I knew you'd acknowledge him," she says and give him a watery smile. "You'll take good care of him, and he'll become a powerful man, like you, and..."
He smiles back, and the boy is too young to read the sadness in his eyes.
"I will try my best," he says, and for a moment, takes her hands into his own. Flames, so pale as to be invisible in the winter sun, flare around their hands and the woman's fingers lose their frostbitten tinge, grow still in his grasp. "Take care of yourself," he says and releases her.
She looks at the boy then, kneels and presses a warm hand to his cheek. "Be a good boy and listen to your father," she says, her eyes fevered and too bright.
Fire flickers around the boy's fingers for a moment, but he does not reach to touch her. His fire will burn her, he knows, unlike the man's.
She does not wait for his answer, but turns, walks away. He watches her until even her back disappears around the next corner. She does not look back.
Mother, he doesn't say.
"Xanxus," the man says to him.
The man's hands reach for his own with no fear. Fire unfurls between them and he gives the boy a wondering smile.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I don't know what your mother told you, but I'm not your true father. But I will raise you as if you were my own. Will you come with me?"
The year Xanxus turns eleven, the Ninth brings him to Japan.
It's not a business trip, so it's probably the closest thing the Ninth has had to a vacation in years.
"There's someone I'll like you to meet," he says to Xanxus on the plane.
At first, the boy thinks it must be the Outside Adviser. He's seen him often enough, the fair-haired man who stands amongst the Vongola's black-suited flocks of underlings and yet belongs to none of them, passes through the edges of their alliances and meetings, a glimpse caught out of the corner of a watching boy's eye, never grasped.
The man who picks them up at the airport, laughing and slapping the Ninth on the back like an old friend, is nothing like what he expects.
The clothes (the loose shirt, the cargo pants, the mud splattered boots) throw him off. The house the Outside Adviser brings them to is small and ordinary, in a city filled with neat, quiet houses exactly like it. The perfect safe house, Xanxus thinks, but then a smiling woman opens the door and throws her arms around Iemitsu, and his assumptions have to scramble to reconfigure themselves again. He has been in Japan for barely 2 hours and already he resents the place. He misses Italy with a sullen, unfamiliar hunger.
But that's not the worst of it.
"Mama?" a child's voice calls and a boy wanders into the hall. He is brown-haired and bleary-eyed and small, and as they watch, stumbles over his own feet and falls on his face. "Mamaaaa!" he wails.
"Oh, Tsuna, don't cry," the woman soothes, and picks him up and rocks him until his sobs turn into hiccups.
The Outside Adviser chuckles and gives the boy a look of sheepish fondness. "Looks like the kid got ahead of me. I thought he'd still be sleeping, and you could meet him after dinner. C'mere, Nana."
He takes the boy into his arms and Xanxus looks up into wide, wondering eyes. He scowls in reply and the blue eyes well up with tears again.
"Oh hey, c'mon, don't let big brother scare you, you're a big boy too--"
The Ninth is laughing, he realises, startled, a hearty, open sound that - he knows he's heard the Ninth laugh before, but never like this. The boy is important, he realises, but cannot imagine why, until the Ninth places his hand on his shoulder, warm and steady.
"His name is Sawada Tsunayoshi," he says, and the name means nothing but the Ninth's words - everything.
Him? he thinks.
Xanxus is sixteen and the youngest leader the Varia has ever known.
His enemies - or least the enemies brave and stupid enough to voice their dissent - murmur to themselves. He is not ready, too arrogant, too ambitious; he will be dead within a year. How can a boy, however blessed, hope to hold the Varia's monsters in check? Too much promise, too little restraint.
Most of them will not live long enough to see Xanxus fail.
His supporters, or at least that's what they call themselves to his face, are more effusive. They expected no less of the Ninth's son (never mind that they are nothing alike). He will be the greatest leader the Varia has ever known (unless he falls, until another takes his place). Who else could possibly succeed the Ninth, step into his place? (The Ninth has held their thirst for blood in check long enough, but in his own hunger, they see release.)
Far away in Japan, Xanxus knows, a boy is growing up, ordinary and ignorant and weak. What would they say, if they knew? He holds too much and too little. An anger he doesn't try to name runs through his veins, burns through the marrow of his bones.
It could be so easy. But no. Xanxus has waited this long; contrary to popular belief, he acknowledges restraint when it suits him to. Not yet, he thinks, though he cannot name why.
Xanxus is sixteen, and he waits.
He meets Reborn for the first time in the wrecked remains of an empty bar.
Xanxus is only half as drunk as he looks, but not sober enough to do something about it. So when a man in a fedora steps through the half-open door, he doesn't shoot him.
He crosses the room in measured, noiseless steps to the bar, where he pours himself a whisky. He studies Xanxus with a gimlet stare that would be intimidating if Xanxus wasn't Xanxus and above petty intimidations.
"Che. So you're Reborn," he finally says.
The man smiles. "Were you expecting me?"
It's not a question of expectation - if anything, Xanxus's surprised it took the Ninth's pet assassin so long to show himself. "The old man sent you, didn't he? Took him long enough to get scared."
The smile doesn't fade, but it takes on an edge. "I don't think scared is the right word for it. He doesn't know I'm here."
Xanxus blinks - then throws his head back in a bark of genuine mirth. "That's even better! Hoping you can kill me and use it to get a better grip on the old man? I'll like to see you try, scum."
Reborn laughs and tips the whisky down his throat. "No, I don't need to," he says. "I'm just here as a matter of curiosity."
Curiosity? The corner of his mouth curls into the beginning of a snarl.
The man continues, "I've heard a lot about you, after all. It only seems fair that I judge you myself."
Does he expect Xanxus to care what he thinks? He drains the last of his vodka and flings the glass away. It shatters, too loud in the silence, and he's on his feet.
"Well, don't expect me to stay for the pleasure. Nothing you say or do to the old man will change things."
The man inclines his head. "Don't let me keep you," he agrees. "I think I've seen enough."
Xanxus flicks a flame at the door and it explodes into splinters and ash. Reborn stands unscathed, a precise seven centimetres off his earlier position.
"You can't stand in my way, trash," Xanxus spits at him.
The man only smiles and turns on his heel. He stops in the still smouldering remains of the door.
"We'll have to see about that, won't we?" he says over his shoulder. Then he walks away, out into the street already gleaming with the first, weak light of dawn.
Xanxus has considered and discarded a thousand possibilities for this moment.
He has called this man Father for almost twenty years. More than anyone else, he knows he can break him - and how. He could kill him slowly, he could make him wish (if not beg) for death. He could keep him alive and helpless as he watches Xanxus take what should be his, not by birthright but by power. He could destroy everything this man has created.
"You don't have to do this," the old man says. His eyes are tired and in this moment, at the end of all things, he looks old. Weak. But the fire in his eyes refuses to die.
He should be afraid of what Xanxus has become - what he could do to him.
But he isn't and that, more than anything, is what brings him to this moment. This choice.
"No, I don't," Xanxus agrees, teeth bared. "But I can."
And shoots him - once between the eyes, twice in the heart.
"Why?" Tsuna asks, desperate, while blood runs down his face and the battlefield burns around them. "You don't have to do this."
Xanxus' hands, cold and numb and useless, refuse to move.
"Don't use that old man's words on me!" he snarls and his rage is a broken howl tearing the night air. Something like understanding sparks in the boy's eyes, but Xanxus doesn't need his pity or damned Vongola intuition. He won't believe that this brat has unlocked the Zero Point Breakthrough, and he won't believe that he can lose this fight--
Xanxus has breathed fire for so long that he has forgotten the bitterness of frost.
Ice flowers around him and he can't move, can't blink. Distantly, he remembers: a long ago winter's day, a woman's chilly fingers wrapped around his wrist, her long, fair hair whipping in the wind.
He has not come so far to lose now - except that he already has.
And then there was only ice.