In the end it all came down to Xanxus, Rafaele decided later. He didn’t normally pay much attention to the mafia children until they were old enough to seek a real position. As both Gianni and Maria were wont to say, each in his or her own way, they had their fellow Guardians to satisfy any such urges. But having Xanxus running around the main house like a kid-shaped bomb, ready to go off at any second, would make anyone a little more alert. So when Tyr mentioned, after the sparring session when they were both wrapping their various cuts and bruises, that there was a promising new swordsman coming along among the children, Rafaele listened.
“Ten years old?” He paused with a palm full of salve and looked over at Tyr. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but how can you judge his promise so young? Or, perhaps I should say, his endurance?”
Tyr ran a cleaning rag down his sword in steady, even strokes. “You can tell with this one.”
Tyr never used two words when one would do, or would do for the sufficiently alert mind willing to puzzle at it. You can tell, he’d said.
Which was how Rafaele came to be walking across the lawn of one of the mafia-run schools, tracking down a boy called Superbi Squalo. The teachers had known who he wanted as soon as he said the word “sword”, and he thought that should probably tell him something. When he stepped through the last grove of bay laurel and out onto a grassy ring to see a thin boy lunging ferociously against practice dummies, he had the first inkling what that something was.
The boy spun toward him, sword in a low guard that looked so perfectly natural and unthinking in a ten year old’s hand it send a faint shiver down Rafaele’s spine.
“Who are you?” The question was a little wary and a little predatory, too.
Well, fair enough, he was a stranger and this was a school full of mafia children. “Rafaele Martelli of the Vongola.”
The wariness relaxed a bit, edging toward the kind of dismissiveness Rafaele more expected from a kid. “Something you wanted?”
“I heard you were good with a sword,” Rafaele answered easily. “I came to see.”
Squalo frowned, easing back on his heels. “You’re not with the Varia. I know Tyr already. Who are you?”
Rafaele silently aimed a mild curse or two at Tyr for not mentioning the part about already having scouted the kid for his own division of the Family, and then wondered why he hadn’t. “I’m the Ninth’s Rain Guardian,” he supplied, wondering how that would be taken.
Squalo’s eyes lit and gleamed. “The one who’s supposed to be a swordsman.” He was forward on his toes again. “Show me.”
Rafaele blinked. “That’s a bit presumptuous of you, don’t you think?” he murmured.
“I don’t care.” Squalo’s stare was fit to burn a hole through him and focused like… focused like the edge of a sword, Rafaele finished the thought slowly.
“Well, perhaps we can show each other, then,” he allowed, and considered how those words echoed in his own mind as he shrugged out of his jacket and chose a practice blade from the rack.
Squalo’s style was far more aggressive than his own, but it wasn’t thoughtless. In fact, Rafaele could see the boy learning–sharpening, he couldn’t help but think–as they fought. And when he eventually brought Squalo to a halt with the blunted point at his throat, Squalo’s eyes were steady on him, unflinching. Rafaele drew back slowly, almost ready for Squalo to drive in on him again, not acknowledging his defeat.
Maybe he’d lived with Xanxus for too long already.
Instead, Squalo straightened up and nodded sharply. “I’ll get better than that.”
Rafaele gave him a thoughtful frown. “Why?” he finally asked. Tyr was right; Squalo’s dedication was unmistakable and he had some notion of progress and pace already. But what was driving him?
Squalo was looking at him like he’d suddenly started speaking Russian instead of Italian. “To get better.”
Rafaele’s mouth quirked. “I gathered that, yes. But what do you want to get better for? What’s the ultimate purpose of your swordwork?”
Squalo was still giving him the strange-foreign-language look, and Rafaele was getting a bad feeling about this. Perhaps he just wasn’t using the right words, though; Squalo was from an established mafia family after all. He thought for a second and finally tried it the way he thought Gianni might phrase it.
“What does your sword serve?”
Ah, that seemed to click. Squalo settled and nodded a little and looked up at Rafaele more calmly. “Perfection,” he answered.
Rafaele took a slow breath. This. This was what he had felt, hovering in the back of his head ever since he first saw the boy. This was why Tyr had wanted him to come. “Perfection itself must serve some larger end, or it’s sterile,” he said quietly. And Tyr believed that, but he was a little too given to the love of perfection, himself, to make someone like Squalo believe it. It was on Rafaele to make sure their new young sword didn’t set himself up to snap.
Their new young sword, who was just about scoffing at him; well, if he’d wanted an easy life he shouldn’t have said yes when Timoteo came asking for Guardians. “Perfection is weakened by thinking like that,” Squalo declared. “You can’t look away from it at other things.”
“And yet I won today,” Rafaele pointed out. “And my sword serves the Vongola Family, not itself.”
Squalo glowered at him and muttered. “Just ’cause you’re older.”
Rafaele smiled wryly. “That is an advantage. But having something to serve gives you strength that you’ll never find in the sword alone.”
Squalo crossed his arms and eyed Rafaele skeptically for a long moment. “Prove it.”
Rafaele thought about that for a moment. “All right, then.” He held out a hand. “Come with me. We’ll visit some other people who serve the same thing I do and perhaps you’ll see.”
If they hurried, he could probably catch Maria’s afternoon training session.
They were in good time to find Maria grinding her training partner into the mats with her customary efficiency. Even Squalo looked a little impressed by the sound Alberto made landing. Maria shook her hand out briskly and looked over at Rafaele with a raised brow.
“I was hoping I could catch you for a bout today.”
She smiled at that, slowly. Alberto managed about half a laugh as he levered himself to his feet. “Sounds like that’s my cue.” He waved at them as he staggered out.
“For a little more than just practice today, I think,” Rafaele added.
Maria’s brows went up at that and she glanced at Squalo as Rafaele directed him over by the wall. “Who’s this?”
“Superbi Squalo. We’re having a philosophical debate.” Rafaele smiled a bit at the exasperated look Maria gave him, just about a match for Squalo’s.
“Fine, whatever.” She smiled again when Rafaele chose an unblunted blade and beckoned him onto the floor.
Fighting with a sword against bare hands required a different technique than against another sword, and fighting against Maria required total concentration. Rafaele couldn’t spare anything to watch Squalo watching them as they pressed each other harder and harder, only hope that he would see everything. Rafaele held out as long as he could, drove himself the way he would for a fight the Family required and pulled Maria along with him, hoping it would be enough for Squalo to see.
Eventually even his speed and footwork wasn’t enough, and Maria twisted past his blade and slammed him into the mats, one arm against his throat, teeth bared in a grin. Rafaele let his breath out and nodded.
And then he just lay there, panting for breath as Maria hauled herself upright. Finally he turned his head to look over at Squalo who did, indeed, look impressed. “Maria,” Rafaele told him, a bit hoarsely, “is one of the Vongola’s strongest fighters.” He looked up at her and asked, levelly, “Maria, what does your strength serve?”
She snorted and toed him in the ribs, probably for making her into a teaching demonstration. “Stupid question. The Vongola, of course.”
He gave her a wry shrug, asking silently who else he should have used. She glared, but held down a hand to help him up, tacitly forgiving him. “One person alone, even the strongest, will fail in the end,” Rafaele said to Squalo, pressing a hand against his ribs. “The Vongola have always known this. If we fight as part of the Family, though, for the Family, there is always both need and strength beyond just ourselves.”
Squalo was frowning again. “But all that will distract you from being the best fighter you can be,” he protested.
Maria’s snort was more emphatic this time. “Do I look distracted to you, kid?”
Squalo hesitated. “Well. No, I guess not.”
“Rafaele reads too much.” She waved at him dismissively. “He makes it more complicated than it has to be. If you don’t fight for something, if it’s just for the sake of fighting, you’re nothing but a mad dog.”
Squalo opened his mouth, eyes hot, and then closed it again slowly, frowning at Maria, and then at Rafaele. “Tyr… is better than you are,” he finally said to Rafaele.
Rafaele suppressed a smile at the edge of uncertainty in Squalo’s voice. “He is. And, yes, part of it is probably because he cares so much for the sword itself.” He came to crouch in front of Squalo and laid a hand on his shoulder. “But once you have that sword, what are you going to do with it? Just keep looking for people to fight and kill?” Because then, he was starting to fear, you became Xanxus and he really didn’t think they needed any more like that. He felt Squalo’s shoulder settle under his hand, and those sharp eyes were focused again when Squalo looked up.
“No. Not like that.”
This time Rafaele let the smile show. “Good. I’ll be glad to fight beside you, then.”
Maria put a knee in his shoulder and shoved him over. “Yes, yes, good fellowship toward all men, and the rest of that. You’re in front of the medicine cabinet, move.”
Rafaele righted himself with a low laugh as Maria pulled out the antiseptic and started spraying it over her cuts from their fight. “Maria is our Cloud Guardian,” he told Squalo, by way of explanation. He watched it sink in, that the Cloud thought fighting for the Family was the right thing, and nodded to himself, pleased.
“Come and meet some of the others,” Rafaele offered. “It’s good to learn to fight against many kinds of opponents.”
“Okay.” This time Squalo didn’t bristle at the hand Rafaele rested on his shoulder to guide him through the halls.
It didn’t take long for everyone to get used to Squalo popping in and out of the main house, usually in search of Rafaele but he’d take anyone he could pin down for a training session. That included Piero, and Rafaele supposed he should have known that meant Squalo and Xanxus would meet sooner rather than later. He still had a moment of unease the day he emerged onto the outdoor shooting range and found Squalo quietly watching Xanxus shoot.
Squalo was never quiet without a good reason.
Xanxus, on the other hand, was always quiet when he was shooting, and the way he looked at the targets never failed to put a chill in Rafaele’s veins. Piero praised Xanxus’ focus and dedication, but to Rafaele the boy looked more than a little crazy like this–like he had someone particular in mind to aim at and was enjoying it a lot.
And Squalo was leaning against the rail of the gallery, eyes fixed on Xanxus.
When Xanxus emptied his clip and stepped back and saw them, his face shuttered instantly, eyes flicking between Rafaele and Squalo a few times before settling on the other boy. “What are you staring at?” he demanded.
The rudeness rolled right off Squalo, who was downright grinning. “You. That. That was cool. Hey, do you fight close-range, too?”
Xanxus snorted, hands moving over the gun, reloading without looking. “Of course.”
Rafaele raised a brow at Piero, who shrugged and mouthed, “Street fighting.” Rafaele remembered where they had found the boy and sighed. Squalo was far more enthused.
“Great!” He practically bounced down the steps and held out a hand to Xanxus. “Fight with me!”
Not for the first time, Rafaele reflected that mafia children grew up in a very different world than other children. Piero was nodding approval, though. “Yeah, you two should be decently matched, and you should get more practice against edged weapons. Go ahead.”
Xanxus grunted and jerked his head at Squalo.
Rafaele trailed the three of them inside, hoping that his bad feeling about this was an overreaction.
Xanxus fought without any kind of restraint that Rafaele could see, but that didn’t seem to faze Squalo. Of course, in justice, Rafaele had to admit, neither did getting hammered through the mat by Maria, who didn’t believe in mercy to her training partners no matter how young. Squalo met Xanxus’ vicious blows and kicks with fluid twists that were starting to be his personal style, and matched Xanxus’ bared teeth with a grin of his own. When he landed on the mat for the last time, arm twisted hard behind him, he actually laughed breathlessly as he tapped out.
“That was great,” he declared, working his shoulder a little as Xanxus let him up. He stuck out his other hand, shaking fine hair back from his face, and grinned up at Xanxus. “I’m Squalo. Good to meet you.”
Xanxus nodded a little, looking satisfied at having won, though he ignored the extended hand loftily. “Yeah.”
Squalo’ eyes were just about glowing. “So. You want to train some more some time?”
Xanxus gave him a proud look, the kind that always made Rafaele feel a headache coming on. “Think you’re good enough to train with the Ninth’s son?”
Squalo tipped his head to the side. “Oh, you’re his fourth son? I thought you were older.” He shrugged it off. “Well, whatever.”
Xanxus turned very still, staring at him. “You… didn’t know who I was?”
“Sure I did.” Squalo grinned as he stood. “You’re good, that’s what.”
Rafaele could think of reasons, though none he liked, why that would make Xanxus look annoyed, but none why it would make him look, just for a moment, lost. He frowned and tucked the moment away to think about later.
“So, what about it?” Squalo prodded.
“I… sure, I guess so,” Xanxus muttered.
Squalo was pleased and Piero looked approving, so Rafaele resigned himself. Hell, maybe having someone close to his own age would help civilize Xanxus a little, he thought, wistfully. “Come on then,” he told his protege. “You can have another round with Xanxus later. Tyr wanted to see you today.”
As he shepherded Squalo out, he glanced back to see Xanxus watching them leave with a tiny frown of what looked like genuine puzzlement.