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Beta'd by the beloved Insane Scriptist.

So... it's been a hell of a month. RL issues hitting me sideways followed by (eventual) miraculous resolutions, but still leaving me with bureaucracy to wrestle with and the Pit of Despair (TM) to claw my way out of. But there's some story! Yay!

Updates daily for the next four days, specifically.

Pick up the pieces (and rebuild)

"He said what?!"

Xanxus tossed the folder at Mammon's face; he wasn't going to repeat himself, not after the morning he'd had. The Varia's treasurer caught the file, opened it and swiftly skimmed the orders contained within as Xanxus dug into the meal Tyrant had considerately brought along to the meeting; it was three o'clock and he'd not eaten since breakfast, which had been at seven so he could arrive at the Iron Fort for a quarter to eight this morning. Far too long ago for him not to feel half-starved, for all he'd just been sitting and explaining every little detail thrice over to Chew Toy; he'd not exercised anything except his patience but his metabolism and appetite hadn't got the memo.

It was possible to feel the miser's opinion of the old fart's latest orders; the entire building seemed to flex and quiver around them as the former Mist Arcobaleno's fury eroded their control of the Territory the Varia was contained within. Mammon then breathed out and visibly compartmentalised the worst of the anger away, but the raw emotion could still be felt in the air all around them and would have already seeped into every nook and cranny of the castle; this would be obvious to even the most oblivious of Latents.

"That manipulative, self-righteous, judgemental, lazy-minded scum," the apparent six-year-old hissed, glowing faintly indigo around the edges as the file in their hands started smoking slightly. "Of all the financially irresponsible, professionally inadvisable, overly-moralistic and utterly insulting–" the file was thrown down on the table as the Mist's coherence dissolved into vehement polyglot swearing. Complete with emphatic gestures and picking up their cup of tea, flash-boiling the liquid in seconds and tossing the fragile porcelain across the room to shatter against the wall between Luss and the shark.

The swearing continued as the cup reformed in midair, only to succumb to gravity and shatter again as it hit the marble floor; and people wondered how he and Mammon had enough spiritual compatibility to form a proper Guardian bond. Xanxus knew he and Squalo moved in lockstep in how they thought and reasoned, but under all the masks, emotional scars and behaviour required by their respective positions, he and Mammon shared extremely similar personalities. A thing which was most evident on those rare occasions when Mammon lost control of their temper.

Bel reached over and pulled the scattered pages towards him, Maínomai and Sumu leaning in behind him to read as well. Their shifts in facial expression and Flames as they took the various points on board made their respective opinions explicit.

"But, but that's garbage!" The Mist Officer complained a little plaintively. "That's not how offering a service works, we're not selling limited-edition collector's items we can jack up the price of because we made a smaller number than usual, we're selling a service so we're only being contracted based on need and all those customers are constrained by their own financial circumstances and are operating their own cost-benefit analyses which determine whether they consider our service to be worth the expense. We don't operate in a vacuum; not accepting contracts doesn't mean fewer people die, it means those prospective clients go elsewhere and hire somebody else. A sloppier somebody else, resulting in more collateral damage and maybe even more deaths, in turn leading to more unrest and making the Underworld unsettled and generally more unsafe. It's not even taking the Vongola back to its roots to do less murder; Primo was a vigilante! He did a ton of murder enforcing the peace he wanted! If anything we're the Vongola House most in line with his original directives!"

"Don Vongola doesn't care about any of that," Bel said evenly, passing the file on to Lethe and Lussuria. "He only cares about punishing Boss for undermining him and reducing the power and influence of the Varia within the Alliance. Our lives and livelihoods mean little to him and he cares even less for those who will be most affected by this policy; they are not his people and mean nothing."

"He clearly doesn't realise that the only reason the Vongola receives so much leeway on the international stage is due to the Varia," Sumu muttered distastefully. "We are why he has such power and influence abroad; without us the Vongola is just one more Italian Mafia Family. One with more Flame-Actives than most perhaps, but also more focused on the research, manufacturing and trading side of things; we do not train everybody with Flame potential to the highest possible standard, because our Latents are not constantly at risk of abduction or assassination for their bloodline potential, so they are free to pursue other careers. Strangle the Varia and our families become targets." The world had changed drastically since the Varia had come into being and there was no going back to how things had been before, no matter what the old fart thought he wanted; that rose-tinted vision had never existed in the first pace and was completely out of reach besides. High-speed travel and global communication were here to stay, with all their associated complications.

"Our families but not his family," shark said quietly, accepting the file from Luss and holding it flat so Tyrant could read the contents as well without looming behind him. "Vongola Personnel has not offered universal training to Actives since the war; central instruction is only available for Vongola Guardian candidates. Everybody else is dependent on their respective families having the appropriate connections and the right resources to hand. Other than the Varia, which has the highest concentration of Actives of any Underworld organisation anywhere on the planet, trains everybody who signs the contracts and allows those who join to leave at any time they wish, regardless of their rank or time in service."

Xanxus finished his lamb and spoke. "Technically my orders, not yours."

"Considering retirement, Boss?" Lethe asked mildly.

"Voi, if you go we're joining you," shark said flatly; "you're our Sky; we're not letting you run off and get into shit without us."

"The Prince is not in the habit of allowing peasants to speak for him but will let it slide on this occasion," Bel said quietly, smile nowhere in evidence. "However the Prince assumes Boss has a plan in mind?"

"Half a plan," Xanxus admitted; it would take quite a bit of work and talking to a number of non-Varia individuals to turn his vague idea into an actual plan. He'd need to determine its feasibility and that took time and effort to investigate and trial.

"Let's have it then Boss," shark demanded.

"Mammon, how would the Varia be affected by following these orders for a full year?" Xanxus asked first.

"Where do I begin?" The miser muttered bitterly. "Cash-flow would be seriously affected for starters, which means we would be less able to make short-notice purchases and have to delay acquiring or replacing equipment as we needed it, as well as limiting use of high-maintenance assets like the plane, or else cut into capital and lose investment income on top of that. Everybody's personal income would be reduced as well, so fewer holidays and more care when budgeting and an increase in underlying stress because with fewer missions available and longer associated travel times, Squads will compete for the higher-paying opportunities rather than settle for allowing GMs and Officers to assign them according to best fit, reducing cohesiveness and encouraging in-fighting, leading to a higher likelihood of injury and death in-house. More downtime between missions along with more time needed to travel to and from missions means more bored Varia and lowered morale, again leading to more in-house disciplinary difficulties, and a smaller float of funds also means a reduction in philanthropic missions, which would also be bad for morale. Twice over, because a good number of Varia would also feel like they are betraying their personal values by no longer taking those missions on, despite knowing they cannot personally afford to do so due to reduced income generally.

"We would have to cut other costs, like letting some of the garage and garden staff go and having regular Varia with the appropriate qualifications fill in for a part-time fee, which would lead to increased expenses down the line from lack of maintenance, time delays and so on, and might even need to instate more stringent tests for Apprentices and let some of them go since they are an ongoing investment with limited payoffs in the short term. It would also be necessary to rearrange other long-term investments and liquidate a range of shorter-term investments ahead of time, leading to more losses in order to have the funds and resources available to continue functioning smoothly." Mammon growled in their throat. "And that is without going into the effect this will have on customer behaviour and our image, both of which will lead to appreciable losses in both the short and long term."

About what Xanxus had expected then, but explained in greater and more depressing detail; morale taken out the back and shot, more infighting over fewer missions, subsequent disciplinary issues causing deaths and increased medical costs, having to let non-critical people go and the repercussions of that costing them more money down the line as well. "Six months?"

"Less severe," the Varia Treasurer said promptly, eyeing him curiously from under their hood. "September is a madhouse so a slight reduction in mission load would actually be healthy in the short term and could be made up for by carrying out the missions not taken up then in the months following, offering a slight discount to customers to account for the delay or simply claim that time constraints did not allow for their request to be carried out sooner. Have to cook the books slightly there, but it would be easily concealed by using the summer slow period as a buffer. He wanted a quarterly reduction, so we can easily achieve that by fiddling the length of the Quarter and when it is measured from; having the last week of September in the next Quarter, for instance, or backdating certain missions. Still have to move investments around a bit, but could leave the longer-term ones as they are and create a few short-term slush funds to boost us through the tight spot."

Xanxus nodded; better than he'd thought then, but the Varia was stupidly profitable so long as they were allowed to get on with doing their jobs. They had a private plane for fuck's sake, which said it all in terms of how well murder paid. "Mammon, you have my permission to acquire whatever funds you consider necessary through any means you deem appropriate to ensure my subordinates do not experience a reduction in income or quality of life during the next six months," he said calmly. "Setting up a separate book system is also authorised, for non-Vongola funds and investments."

Mammon caught the subtext; all the subtext. "Mu, it would be my pleasure; I will begin immediately." They vanished, although the seething hum in the air remained. Mammon was still pissed as all hell –which could be felt– but now the fury was edged with glee. Anybody with sense would be looking for a deep hole to hide in and taking all their money with them.

"Siccing Mammon on Vongola Financial, Boss?" Sumu asked mildly.

"I'm sure Mammon will limit themselves to inconveniencing those personally responsible for the Varia's current situation," Xanxus said clearly, knowing the miser could still hear him.

Bel snickered; Xanxus agreed that the prospect of the old fart facing unexpected cash-flow problems in his personal accounts due to financial sleight-of-hand was a profoundly satisfying one.

"So why a six month deadline, Boss?" Lethe asked, clearly having divined at least part of his intentions.

"End of the financial year," Xanxus said shortly; he wasn't going to mention his barely-sketched-out retirement plans yet, not when they lacked substance and he didn't have anything in place yet. Florrie would be fine; he owned the building she lived in and he fully intended to keep hold of it even if he did retire, so she was safe. Squalo and Bel –and probably Lussuria and Mammon– on the other hand… he didn't have a clue what their post-Varia plans were, if they even had any. He'd have to find out while he was arranging contingencies.

Speaking of, he needed to talk to his aunt Annamaria as soon as possible; she'd probably be free this afternoon, so he could call the Cavallone and see if she minded him dropping by. He didn't have any other commitments until tomorrow, after all.

When Squalo had considered his own retirement plans they'd always been vague, in a 'several years down the line, I'm not even thirty yet' kind of way. Now however Boss had dropped a hard, imminent deadline on his head –screw the vague, his Sky was just playing things close to the chest until he had the details properly pinned down but the commitment had been made– and he was confronted with the need to plan his own exit from the Varia as quickly as possible.

With this in mind, he tracked down Mammon and knocked on the door of the treasury office.

"Come in, Squalo."

Squalo came in, closed the door behind him and sat on the chair in front of his fellow Guardian's desk. "Will you be retiring when Boss does?"

The Mist did not look up from their laptop. "That is entirely dependent on what his long-term plans for the Varia are," the miser said briskly, "but considering what I know of Don Vongola and what I've seen of the increasing uncertainty being faced by Vongola Financial as Nono attempts to install Chew Toy as his Heir? I may do. If I do remain I will not stop managing Boss's money for him simply because he is no longer Varia Head; he is still my Sky. However if he has a plan in mind beyond 'lie low,' something profitable that would benefit from my attention and investment… I would leave. I have already stepped down from active service, so all I would need to do would be resign as Treasurer, which as I am in Housekeeping now I could do at as little as a month's notice."

"Voi, any specific retirement plans?"

Mammon tilted their head up and their lips pursed, presumably giving Squalo a withering look from under their hood. "I never expected to retire at all; I spent thirty years stuck as a toddler with no end in sight. Then the Curse was broken and I found myself aging at double-speed; I still do not know if the aging will stop once I reach the age I was when I was Cursed, whether the aging will continue until my physical age matches my chronological age or if I will simply to continue to age this quickly until I die. It might even speed up; I have no idea."

Well that rather put a damper on things, didn't it?

"In the meantime I am happy to follow along with whatever Boss has in mind, so long as he is fiscally responsible about it," the Mist continued calmly. "His plans and overall methodology have resulted in a marked increased in assets for the Varia thus far, so I know he will not waste my efforts."

Mammon's first love was money and Boss was never going to stop needing his money managed, so the miser would continue doing so until the day they died. Fair enough.

Squalo considered his next question and the likelihood of getting an answer without shelling out hard cash, then asked in anyway; with the miser as angry as they felt right now, they might tell him for free purely so as to vent a bit.

"How did your looking into Don Vongola's dismissal of Mist-tests go?"

The miser paused, lips twisting from the habitual pout into a grimace that was almost a smirk; it was an incredibly disconcerting facial expression on a six-year-old. "It turns out," the Mist said mildly, resuming their tapping at the laptop keyboard, "that Daniela Vongola was quite shockingly practical in the matter of siring a child; Nono's father was his mother's original Rain Guardian."

Squalo gaped. "Voooi! But, but she was married!" He couldn't recall the guy's name of the top of his head, but he'd definitely existed; some civvie forth cousin of the then-Don Tegliori with a bit of Alliata and Lanza in there too.

"But he died shortly after her son was born, did he not?" The Mist pointed out lightly, "and her Mist is still lauded as one of the best the Vongola has ever seen. Could her husband not have died even before she married him and her Guardians preserved the farce to ensure there was never any threat to her eventual leadership of the Family?"

That– that wasn't as implausible as it might have been. If Xanxus had been a woman and marriage had been the best way to 'secure' the Headship of the Family –and the Alliance's support– then Squalo would have suggested something like that. Find somebody related to several Alliance Families but out-of-the-way and fairly obscure, known of but not truly known, then kill them off and use a Mist-replacement thereafter, with Guardians in on the trick to provide verisimilitude and witnesses. Preferably someone with a strong physical resemblance to either a Guardian or Boss, so that eventual kids would appear suitably legitimate. Or pick somebody recently dead in a traffic accident or something; cloud the minds of the immediate family and the first responders so that 'dead' became 'badly injured but recovering well,' arrange a meeting with Boss and the 'falling for each-other' under some plausible and in-character premise and you even had a romantic fairytale to sell the illusion with.

Ottava hadn't really had a choice about 'killing off' her husband; while women had been allowed to inherit property back then, husbands still had full authority over their wives and only widows were allowed undisputed guardianship of their children. It wasn't like that anymore –a Donna could feasibly have a 'trophy husband' and do all the politics herself– but a certain level of misogynistic prejudice lingered. "Voi, wasn't Ottava's first Rain a full Tegliori?"

"The then-Don's cousin, yes," Mammon agreed. "It rather shows, doesn't it?"

Yeah, Nono Vongola did have a number of very strongly Tegliori traits; his insistence on the primacy of family to the point of disregarding blood in favour of allegiance, for one, and his pig-headed refusal to accept he might be wrong for another. The Tegliori were extremely insular within the Alliance and tended to judge a person by their Family, so they weren't particularly influential or forward-thinking. Extremely loyal yes; sensible about it no. Specific individuals might buck the Family trend every so often, but the majority remained entrenched in their narrow rut with no thought to how restrictive it was.

If Don Vongola had recognised he was Tegliori as much as Vongola he might have been better able to check himself, but he clearly considered himself purely and solely Vongola and therefore 'above' the failings of the Alliance's other bloodlines. To the point of deciding that an entire branch of Mist-work was 'inherently flawed' because the result of his blood being tested didn't feature his mother's husband as his father.

Clearly he'd never bothered to ask his mother about that, or else she'd have set him straight; Daniela Vongola had been a very direct woman like that. With her son fully established as Head of the Family, she would have had no reason to keep his parentage from him if he asked.

"Boss hit a really sore point there, didn't he?" Squalo commented wryly, thinking back to that January meeting where the 'NO' mug had debuted.

"Don Vongola retains the prevalent Catholic attitude towards bastardy, despite his bringing Boss into his home," the miser said coolly. "The implication that he was born out of wedlock, and that his mother was therefore a 'loose woman'… an emotional response is not so surprising, however impolitic and Stupidly destructive of his own power base. His Guardians lack the confidence or Will to speak out against his decisions, so his overreactions go unquestioned and unchecked."

"Voooi, because of course Don Vongola must have a plan, he'd never do anything based on a spiteful impulse," Squalo muttered sarcastically. "Petty small-minded asshole."

"Go and be bitter elsewhere or I will charge you," Mammon said tartly; that was the pot calling the kettle black, but Squalo went. He had a lot to think about.

Talking to Annamaria was very informative and also very helpful; Xanxus now had a load of notes on how Mafia Land's leasing system worked and the assurance that the Cavallone had sufficiently few investments on the artificial island that they could support his currently-tentative but rather ambitious idea without either getting hit by additional sanctions or having to limit their stake. His aunt had also reminded him that he was the Cavallone Heir and the entire Family had absolute faith in his skills; if this was what he wanted, they would back him to the hilt because he had proven time and again that he knew how to play the game and come out on top.

Xanxus wasn't used to non-Varia trusting him like that; it was very odd, but not uncomfortably so. It did give him slightly more confidence in his still-nebulous plans for the upcoming months, but he would need to talk to Mammon in more detail before he committed himself entirely. This would be a major investment and somewhat risky, so he needed to have the costing as conservative as possible before making his move or he could overreach badly and have everything come crashing down.

He had the regular Quiet Week meetings with his Officers to get through first, but he should be able to fit in a tête-à-tête with the Varia Treasurer on one of the afternoons. Probably in the second half of the week; by then Mammon would have had time to move investments around, pin down more clearly the financial requirements of the upcoming half-year and begin planning appropriate mitigation strategies and sounding out alternative sources of income.

The Varia Boss had a feeling a good proportion of that income would be diverted from the old fart's private funds somehow, but honestly who cared about that. Decrepit asshole had it coming for penalising the Varia over a personal grudge.

Kalk got admitted to Varia Medical on the Wednesday of Quiet Week for a month of organ transplants and gene therapy, which went almost unremarked upon because by then every single Named assassin had heard about Don Vongola's new orders and Boss's frankly worrying reaction to them; Mammon's opinion had been felt as well and was a topic of gossip, although nobody had actually asked the Mist about that for fear of getting charged. Squalo had all his Squad Leaders in his office first thing Tuesday morning wanting to know if he was retiring early; the Rain Officer had made them a copy of Boss's orders to read –it wasn't like he'd been ordered to keep things confidential– and kicked them out, because his meeting with his Sky was due to start barely a quarter of an hour later and they could draw their own damn conclusions without his help.

Nobody achieved Varia Quality without being able to judge the most likely consequences of a theoretical course of action; Nono's orders would have a drastic effect on the Varia bottom line and there were a limited number of ways Boss could mitigate that. Retiring would work, at least until this time next year when the new Head of the Varia would have to meet with Don Vongola, look the asshole in the eye and state that he was unaware of any specific orders the old man might have given their predecessor concerning mission load. Providing there even was a new Head by then.

Any assassin could see that if Boss left, his Guardians would follow him; maybe not immediately in Lussuria's case –as Head of Medical he had more responsibilities and would want to train up a successor– but within a year or so most certainly. That would deprive the Varia of three veteran Officers without there being anybody with the skill or ambition to succeed them and that didn't bode well for the organisation as a whole; four Divisions would be left headless.

The Lightnings had no one with the people skills for Officer, Sun Division could promote a GM if needed but Rain and Storm Division would probably have to promote somebody from their respective Division Squads and hope for the best. If Gwasgedd and Sarja hadn't retired already they'd be his first choice for Rain and Storm Officer respectively, because it wasn't the paperwork or the larger politics within the Vongola that were the problem; it was misjudging the inter-personal politics and people-wrangling within the Varia that got Officers killed and no one in either Divisions currently had the charisma and experience to manage things, although Tsue came close. Historically the leading cause of Officer-death was getting offed by disgruntled subordinates, followed by execution by Tyrant.

Squalo was also getting the impression –from the general feel of people's Flames– that every single assassin in the building was deeply offended that Don Vongola was interfering with their mandate and driving their leader out of his position. Boss was Head of the Varia on his own merits; how dare Nono undermine that?! How dare he leverage Boss's regard for his men to force him to step down?! The Varia knew Boss cared about them –it showed clearly to anybody capable of reading between the lines– and it was fiercely reciprocated, no matter how much of an asshole the Sky could be at times.

The Rain Officer wasn't entirely sure yet how this would end up going –there was as yet no indication of which way anybody would jump– but he had a feeling it could get nasty if some Dumbass decided they were offended by Nono's manipulations. He'd have to remind his men that this was first and foremost Boss's problem and they should let him have first crack at it.

It was only polite after all.

Xanxus's last meeting of Quiet Week was technically not in Quiet Week at all, but on the Sunday after. Sunday was the day of rest, so it wasn't an official meeting. Quite the opposite in fact; it took place down on the farmstead, over the kitchen table, rather than in Xanxus's office.

"So what prompted this invitation, Boss?" Tyrant asked, cup of coffee cradled in both hands.

Xanxus fiddled with his own mug of tea, then noticed what he was doing and stopped. This idea had come to him following the realisation that retired Varia were a resource he could call upon; he'd promptly done some calling around and arranged a few meetings in neutral territory –mainly bars in Palermo– and enough of his former subordinates had agreed to his idea for it to be viable.

"Due to Don Vongola's recent policy alteration, the Varia can no longer take on as many missions as was previously possible," the younger Sky began, "but I will be recommending an alternative organisation to certain Alliance and Allied clients whose grievances align with Vongola values. Said organisation is a much smaller group, backed by the Cavallone."

Tyrant hummed pensively, clearly divining the direction this conversation was headed in.

"Accidents only," Xanxus continued measuredly, "but the discretion offered in on par with our own. It being so much smaller, contracts may take a little longer to be carried out, but the desired result will be reached and I am prepared to personally vouch for their efficiency and skill. Their prices are also more modest, since being smaller means they have fewer overheads." Two retired members of Information had agreed to run his new business for him jointly with Mab, the Mist Officer who had preceded Mammon, coordinating with the miser to arrange funding. Start-up money was coming out of Xanxus's personal accounts, along with the Cavallone funds set aside for the Heir and a tithe of the revenue of certain other businesses run by retired Varia, who had been happy to assert that their loyalty was to Xanxus personally, so if he was Cavallone then that was where they would prefer to send their money.

Nevada in particular had been keen; the Mist ran a casino in Palermo and his business income was frankly obscene. Up until Thursday a significant chunk of that income had gone to the Varia and on from there to the Vongola, but Mammon was petty enough to exploit every last possible loophole to cut the old fart off from those sources of income that were not strictly related to missions, so now that money –money that was technically tithed to Xanxus personally as the Boss they followed– ran through the miser's shadow books. Xanxus's Mist Guardian was also muttering vindictively about asset stripping, which promised to be very profitable for the various individuals involved and prohibitively expensive for the Vongola.

Xanxus was rather looking forward to it.

"Why are you informing me of the existence of this new organisation?" Tyrant asked calmly.

Xanxus made eye-contact and smiled thinly. "I thought you might know a few people willing to sign on as contractors with this new venture," he said frankly. "Full refusal rights for every mission offered, all expenses paid and good social opportunities, as well as full healthcare." The Cavallone owned more large properties than just the main Family pile the Don lived in, including a good-sized mansion up by the coast on the border with Palermo. A busy, bustling port town where alliances shifted daily and nobody would notice a few more people passing through; good smuggling opportunities too, what with the property having its own little jetty.

The Head of Varia Housekeeping sipped his coffee pensively. Xanxuas drank his own tea and waited; this little scheme wasn't his main plan –honestly he'd set it up as an afterthought, to prevent the more desperate clients from slipping through the cracks and ensure the transition had minimal impact on the wider Underworld– but it would be good for the Cavallone bottom line and equally good for the local Varia retirees, who would need an alternative support network just in case the old fart got his wish. If the aging fucker got rid of the Varia for good, the retirees would lose access to the personalised healthcare they were currently entitled to and would have to turn to Vongola Medical. Which they would only be able to access after swearing service to the Alliance, which most of them hadn't done due to being loyal to the Varia specifically rather than the Vongola generally. Most of them wouldn't be willing to take those oaths either; they were 'retired' after all, so swearing service would mean leaving retirement.

"I believe," the deceptively ageless Sky said eventually, "that I might know a few individuals who could be interested."

"Mammon can put you in touch," Xanxus replied, pleased that his impromptu patch-job for those most immediately affected by the old fart's Stupid new policy had Tyrant's forbearance, if perhaps not his approval. This was after all not something Ottava would have appreciated –he was technically appropriating Vongola assets– and Ottava had been the only Vongola Tyrant had ever truly obeyed.

The old fart had always been terrified of the Sky his mother had brought home at the end of the war and Tyrant had no time for cowards.

Much as had been the case last year, it was impossible to claim Mammon's birthday entirely; despite retiring from active service the Mist still woke up early enough to catch the fiscal news on one of the international channels, go over the stock news and all the many details of the many companies that they probably shouldn't be able to access, to assess whether the stock was going to increase or crash depending on the company. Somewhere in there breakfast was eaten according to Luss's nutritional plan and the faux-six-year-old got ready for the day.

Most of the morning was spent managing invoices, speaking with Information about the price to be offered for one tricky mission or other due to increased risk, ordering parts and wholesale food deliveries for Housekeeping... lots of important busy-work. That left Mammon with their afternoons free, as they no longer had Mist Officer duties to fill up the rest of their day. So after midday Mammon usually had lunch, a nap and then spent the afternoon and evening either training or reading books. As greedy and impatient as Mammon could often be, a person could only check the bottom line and stocks so many times a day; fortunes weren't made overnight.

Which left Xanxus with just the afternoon and evening of their birthday to spend with his child-sized Officer. In July, when it got too hot to even think and you walked from patch of shade to patch of shade when out of doors because to do otherwise was courting heatstroke; it didn't give him much in the way of options.

Mammon was in some ways the easiest of his Guardians to cater to: put together a picnic of sandwiches and leftovers, find a few afternoon markets and bookstores open to haggling and the miser would be happy. Add on free ice cream and Mammon would be pleased enough to provide minor discounts for most of the following day.

In other ways Mammon was incredibly challenging to pamper, because despite –or perhaps because of– their fixation on money they scorned most physical gifts. Xanxus's most successful gift to date had been a book of coupons and money-off vouchers, which his Mist had put to use on missions. He was hoping that home-made ice cream might top that, especially if he bought fresh strawberries to make the miser's favourite flavour.

By late afternoon Mammon had acquired a range of rare books they were smugly pleased with, offered commentary on a range of items on sale in the Vintage Market in Castellammare del Golfo that Xanxus had picked to visit since it came recommended by his Superbi cousins, and was giving off a general air of comfortable relaxation. Xanxus meanwhile had bought a range of fruit and other foodstuffs that he knew worked well in ice cream –including fresh eggs to make patisserie cream– and gently steered his Mist up the hill and out of the centre of town, towards the edge of the Superbi Estate. Don Leone had made it clear he was welcome to come and go as he pleased, so the Sky intended to do just that. They could pick somewhere private and shady for their picnic, then Xanxus could hopefully amuse his child-shaped Guardian with bespoke ice cream.

"So where to now, Xanxus?" Mammon asked, hand briefly reaching out to brush the Sky's wrist; his Mist would never hold his hand unless it was for a mission cover –they were far too proud– but the little touches were enough. Prodding his leg when they felt he wasn't haggling vigorously enough, leaning into him to rest their own legs for a moment, tugging on his wrist to direct him towards something that had caught their interest; Mammon was more tactile than was immediately apparent and Xanxus's comfortable acceptance of the contact made the Mist less guarded of their personal space.

"Nice cave with a view," Xanxus replied easily, "cool and shady for sitting in and enjoying our picnic." The ice cream was a surprise, or at least intended to be; Mammon certainly knew about the Ice machine –although they had very considerately not commented on it– but might not be aware that Xanxus didn't need it anymore. Equally, the miser had certainly noticed the edibles he'd bought and the cold box he was carting around, but was letting him have his secrets for now. That spoke of trust and the Sky appreciated it tremendously. Mammon knew he liked giving gifts and was deliberately averting their eyes –and Flames– from the 'surprise,' so it would remain at least a little mysterious until the time for gifting it arrived.

"How far?" it was almost a whine, but Mammon was only as tall as a six-year-old –a short six-year-old at that– and they'd been darting around the Antiques Market for hours so they probably had sore feet on top of their growing pains.

"Not that far," Xanxus promised, not letting his amusement show too much. "Could carry you."

The Mist sniffed, floating up into the air and settling themselves proprietorially on Xanxus's shoulders, resting their chin on the top of his head. "Well if you insist."

Grinning silently, Xanxus sped up to a ground-eating jog; the cave was a mile or so away and the sooner they arrived, the sooner they could eat.

A picnic and eight sampled ice cream flavours later –and he'd really scored there, Mammon had loved getting fresh ice cream completely free of charge and their satisfaction was perceptibly enhanced by Xanxus's comfortable control over the Flame Inversion technique– the conversation wandered into more serious territory.

"I am concerned as to what Miss Spook may do once her political capital begins to decline," the child-shaped Mist said quietly, leaning into Xanxus's side as they both stared out at the stunning view of the town and sea below them. "She may no longer hold the Sky Pacifier, but her having usurped the position of Sky Arcobaleno after Aria's death means she may turn to us former Arcobaleno for support."

Meaning, his Mist was concerned that the imposter Sky might apply her influence on them and on their comrades, as Miss Spook's experience of all those fake future alternates meant she could know all kinds of personal information and have all the necessary inside knowledge to carry out some really effective emotional manipulation. A valid concern; child-shaped and afflicted with growing pains or not, the former Arcobaleno were still the strongest Flame-users of their generation and quite possibly of the generations immediately before and after them as well. It was also possible that the Giglio Nero had historically been more involved in selecting Arcobaleno candidates, which would further support that hypothesis. The former Arcobaleno all had considerable influence, both individually and through their various connections; people would be more reluctant to speak out against Miss Spook if doing so might net them the attention of such high-profile and dangerous people.

Also that Mammon was fretting about the possibility of Harmony manipulation, which since Miss Spook wasn't bonded to any of the former Arcobaleno was something they'd be vulnerable to, especially if they weren't expecting it from the cute 'helpless' little girl with big doe eyes. Harmony manipulation was less blatant than Mist brainwashing but it required time and proximity, which Xanxus refused to let the interloper have.

"Well fuck her, you're mine," the Varia Boss said flatly. Like hell he was ever going to let another Sky mess around with one of his people, let alone one of his bonded Guardians. Miss Spook could go hang.

The burst of warmth and joy that flashed through his Mist's Flames in response to his statement made Xanxus want to grin, but he restrained himself; Mammon didn't like people noticing when they had Feelings.

"The side-venture has got off to a good start," Mammon stated after a comfortable pause. "Their coming 'Varia recommended' has given people confidence and there are sufficient contracts currently being vetted that news of its existence should start trickling out by mid-August."

Xanxus nodded; he hadn't really needed to siphon off those particular contracts –summer was slow– but the old fart wanted a quarterly reduction and September was technically part of the summer quarter, so cutting missions now meant they could take more later on. Most of the summer missions in Europe and North America were personal ones –it was when most people were off work and therefore when personal issues came to a head– and most of the truly sensitive personal missions were 'accidents', so handing them off to the new co-operative of retired Varia wouldn't lead to any reduction in mission quality for the customers.

While Xanxus was funding the side-venture, he wasn't running it; he'd made that explicitly clear. When he left the Vongola the old fart would go digging for what he was doing instead and him running a 'rival' assassination business would make the paranoid old fucker decide he was a threat and yes, he was a Varia Quality assassin but he wasn't infallible. The side-venture was therefore a Cavallone 'independent division' under Mab and the previous Lethe and Kimya, who were going by Morpheus and Ruhe now. Tesla had also wandered in –not that Xanxus knew the former Lighting Officer from anything other than stories, since the man had retired years before he'd taken over– as had Orso, Gereft and –more worryingly– Sabertooth. Sabertooth had been in the first generation of Marvel Squad, which implied that Deadpool was aware of matters. Not joining in just yet, thanks be to God, but aware.

Deadpool had retired long before Xanxus joined, but there were a lot of Varia Stories about Deadpool. The man was chaos incarnate and probably would show up at some point, but so far he hadn't and the Varia Boss was very grateful. The random Sunday visits to check in on 'hawk-guy' were bad enough already and this year the former Squad Leader would undoubtedly run into Fran at some point, which could only go disastrously. Xanxus knew that Fran was related to Nebbia somehow –the little pest had the same ears, build and attitude as Ottava's Mist, if brat-sized with rather different colouring– and Nebbia and Deadpool had always got along like a house on fire. An entire town on fire; a California firestorm, even.

"And the preparations for your retirement are moving forwards adequately, so everything should be in place by your birthday," the miser continued, "although I still feel you are being unnecessarily difficult about funding."

Well yes, his plan wasn't exactly straightforward, but he wanted to drive the old fart to distraction looking for an angle –hearing about how Maínomai had made Rokudo horrendously paranoid entirely by accident had been very inspiring– so his retirement scheme was deliberately set up to be as non-violent as possible. At least to begin with; the old fart wasn't going to live forever, after all. Besides, well, as his Cloud had pointed out on various occasions, resolving issues non-violently was much more challenging and often ensured they stayed solved for longer.

"Be fine," he assured his Mist. "Just has to cover materials and travel costs." He had enough money in the bank to live off his investments, so it wasn't like he needed to charge much for what he was planning on doing. Any forge work he sold would be appropriately priced, of course –materials were expensive in Flame Tech and his expertise had value– but the style of mission work he was planning on taking would be very different to the current Varia workload. Nothing directly opposing the Vongola of course, but that wasn't so great a limitation really, especially not when you phrased 'opposing the Vongola' as 'violating Vongola values.'

The Vongola had drifted considerably from Primo's values over the years, after all, and Chew Toy's claim to want to return to them was laughable when the trash didn't even understand what they were. Otherwise there'd be a whole lot more fire and mayhem as Chew Toy personally eliminated those who refused to fall in line with his ideals.

"You are underselling yourself," Mammon scolded, but there was no bite to it.

"Won't dig into capital," Xanxus countered mildly. "Got enough to live well on; don't need more."

"Well, at least you are allowing me to continue managing your investments," the miser sighed, "and you're not expecting me to undersell my services."

"Would never."

The Mist sniffed dismissively, but there was an undercurrent of pleasure there.

The silence following the exchange was comfortable, but Xanxus eventually broke it regardless.

"Want to send some details to Skull?"

"Skull is a sucker for a sob story," Mammon muttered, which was basically a 'yes please.' "Passing on the raw data to Verde for analysis will interest him more and he'll draw his own conclusions from there; I should probably warn Fēng too, or else he will cause trouble for us." They did not mention Reborn; asshole Sun was on his own there. "Lal deserves a warning too, for all that Miss Spook is likely to ignore her in favour of Colonnello, who has a more significant reputation and reach after all those years on Mafia Land."

Xanxus had suspected Mammon might know where Lal Mirch had gone, but hadn't asked and wasn't about to now; the woman had earned her peace and quiet after so many years suffering Iemitsu and Colonello.

"More ice cream?" he offered instead, gesturing lazily at the row of mostly-full and still completely cold bowls lined up against the cave wall to their left.

"Pass me the strawberry."

"No 'please'?" Xanxus teased, grabbing the bowl in question and holding it up well above his Mist's head.

"It is my birthday and my ice cream," Mammon said snootily, "which you gave me as a present. Hand it over before I Curse you."

Xanxus handed it over, then grabbed the bowl of chocolate ice cream for himself; so far his relatives had kept their distance, but he could sense a few curious bystanders lurking a little way off and was sure they'd get over themselves and come to investigate soon enough. Probably try to cadge some ice cream as well.

Squalo sprawled on his Sky's bed, watching the man rifle through his wardrobe and throw things into his suitcase. Because yes, his Sky owned a suitcase now; Xanxus had bought it specifically for visiting Florrie and taking civvie flights, which Squalo secretly found hilarious. All those years of just picking up his go-bag and calling it a day, then he suddenly started taking his Cloud on foreign holidays and he needed a proper suitcase. A big suitcase to fit everything he might decide to wear in it.

His Sky wasn't exactly a clothes horse, but he was ridiculously picky about what clothing he wanted to wear when wandering around in public with Florrie. It was almost cute, especially since the Cloud would never even consider asking him to wear –or not wear– anything particular for the sake of her own sensibilities; all she cared about was that he was comfortable and not violating local decency laws. Yet every single time he planned a visit more than a few days long, Boss spent several hours –at least– ransacking his wardrobe and glaring at his clothing selection. Which was a hell of a lot larger these days than it had been even just twelve months previously.

It was interesting how holiday clothes differed from everyday clothes; a slightly broader range of colours for one, and looser cut everything. Softer fabrics and more knitwear too; clothing that invited physical touch rather than repelling it.

Plus, proper pyjamas. Boss never wore pyjamas in summer as a general rule, but he now owned summer pyjamas and packed them when visiting his Cloud. Because, as Squalo had seen for himself, when visiting Florrie Xanxus slept in her bed and lightweight pyjamas acknowledged a boundary that wearing underwear –or nothing– to sleep in really didn't.

"So why the French Pyrenees?" Squalo asked, purely to make conversation. He knew that was where Boss was going; it wasn't exactly a secret, and his Sky was increasingly willing to chitchat about trivial things these days.

"Won't be that hot," Boss said absently, flicking back and forth through a range of shirts, "even though it's July. Attractive architecture to look at, good views to paint, interesting food, bit off the beaten track."

Those were fairly low standards for a holiday, but knowing Florrie that was the point; low standards meant you wouldn't be disappointed even if things went a bit sideways, like if it rained every day. "Voi, flying this time?" It seemed likely, seeing as he was taking the suitcase.

"Taking the bike," Xanxus said shortly, glancing at him; "having it shipped over to Montpellier, then flying after it and renting a van so we can move everything around."

It would have been more straightforward to just rent a car upon arrival, but Squalo supposed that wasn't the point; Xanxus wanted to ride his bike while on holiday with Florrie, so he was taking his bike. "Do her parents know you're planning on riding up and down wiggly mountain roads on a motorbike with their precious daughter hanging on for dear life?" The Rain teased.

His Sky huffed. "Bike's safe; Warded it extensively." In other words, no they didn't know. And Boss was in no hurry to have them find out.

Squalo snickered loudly, so Xanxus knew he knew that no, he hadn't mentioned this bit to his Cloud's parents and that Squalo also knew that his Sky really didn't want them to learn the details. Xanxus wanted his Cloud's parents to like him, and while Florrie had her own place and was an adult, her parents worrying about her taking risks would still make things awkward for her and the Sky wanted to avoid that happening.

The glare he got in return was very satisfying.

"What about your parents, shark?"

Squalo huffed. "Voi, what about them?"

"Do they know what you get up to?"

The Rain Officer pulled a face. "Who knows; maybe? Depends whether they talk to Grandpa and what he's let slip." Deliberately let slip of course; Grandpa was far more perceptive and cunning than Squalo's father could ever hope to be. Not that his father ever bothered to get in contact more than the bare minimum; his mother did, but she made a point of avoiding talking about his current career entirely in favour of what he might be interested in doing after retiring from the Varia. Which was fair enough really, considering she was raised civvie.

His Sky closed the wardrobe, tossed a few shirts over his open suitcase and turned around to make eye contact. "Tell me about your parents, shark."

"Voi, why?" It wasn't exactly a happy subject.

Xanxus gave him a flat look. "Know all about my parents, shark; met most of my half-siblings too."

Oh, so his Sky wanted him to reciprocate. That was… fair. "Voi, my father's Delfino's eldest," Squalo grumped, shifting restlessly on the bed under his Sky's watchful gaze. "My mother's a Soave; they met when my father was on holiday in Canada after finishing his university degree. Summer fling turned love match, all that jazz. Except it didn't last because my father's a faithless shit and my mother doesn't communicate; they got a divorce while I was on my world tour and dumped my little sister on me the moment I got back. Divorce settlement meant she couldn't stay with Grandpa, so I got her a place with the Visconti; Paola Visconti shares guardianship, which keeps people from noticing how alike we look." Plus his maternal grandmother was actually a Visconti. He paused as a thought struck him; oh yes, that was relevant too: "Paola's not told her father –or anybody else– anything except that she's fostering and Delfina's using the Visconti surname at the Academy, so Nono doesn't know and the wider Family's keeping it quiet that Delfina's actually Superbi." Which since Paola's father was Don Vongola's Cloud Guardian was a very important point; there were enough Superbi-Visconti intermarriages that having a Superbi-style name within the Visconti wasn't at all suspicious.

Xanxus nodded, not commenting on any of the uncomfortable details. "Said you were a middle sibling, shark."

Yes, he had said that, hadn't he? "Had an older brother once," Squalo said shortly. "He got in the way of a hit when I was nine; hence Delfina being ten years younger than me and our parents' marriage limping along for most of a decade longer despite basically being over even then." He didn't miss Otario; the asshole had been a controlling abusive piece of shit. Which Squalo hadn't really been able to articulate at the time, but was abundantly clear now he had the benefit of hindsight.

"Not much missed?"

"He was a complete shit," Squalo grumbled darkly. "Thought he owned me; nobody owns me." Not his parents, not his grandparents, not his uncle the Don Superbi, not the manipulative cat, not his Sky and definitely not his late, unlamented brother.

Boss hummed and changed the subject. "Any retirement plans, shark?"

"Family are expecting me to settle down and marry; I'm Heir to the marine branch and all," Squalo replied more easily, relaxing at the shift to a less difficult subject matter. "Probably start pushing women at me if I don't find one by myself in the first four-five years. Think I'd like to have kids; beyond that, no clue. Don't fancy desk-work as a full-time thing, but if I asked Grandpa would slot me into the import-export business he retired from running and still owns. Rather stick with whatever you're doing; you're my Sky."

Xanxus nodded, visibly filing that away as he packed underwear and socks into his case around neatly folded pairs of trousers and shirts.

Squalo wasn't exactly pleased that his kitty-cat cousin had conned him into playing delivery boy, but he grudgingly recognised the importance of the documentation and the necessity of keeping this particular Superbi-Cavallone joint project under the radar for a bit, so as not to offend Don Vongola. Even though it was in fact a really good idea that would be very good for the Alliance in the long run; it was a plan which did not rely upon –or even require the participation of– the Vongola Family, so better to present fait accompli than to look like they were scheming behind the elderly don's back.

The documentation related to plans for a private hospital, which was probably going to end up being built either just inside or just outside Alcamo; negotiations were ongoing with Don Rocca as well. The 'official' reason was to de-centralise medical care a little and take pressure off Vongola Medical, which was currently the sole provider of Flame-related treatments in the Alliance –and based in the Iron Fort with a few clinics dotted here and there as bases for midwifes and nurses, with space to carry out basic check-ups– but Squalo suspected the real reasoning behind the hospital was to break the Vongola's monopoly on emergency care. Most of Vongola Medical's staff were Alliance rather than Vongola, so many of them would be very happy to work somewhere nearer their own homes… and in a more spacious environment away from the established Vongola-centric hierarchy.

The Rocca were the Alliance Family with the smallest Territory, so hosting a hospital would give them greater influence and importance while also increasing their dependence on their neighbours; the former would encourage them to agree to the venture while the latter would make it harder for them to stand back and refuse to take sides in future Alliance decision-making, as they'd have a major stake in keeping up good relationships.

Cat was playing the long game there; sneaky.

Seeing as the specific location in mind for the hospital was on the edge of Cavallone Territory and the Cavallone were one of the largest Mafia Families –and one with a large number of professionals in a great many fields– Pantera was negotiating with horse too, which made it more than just another Alliance venture. As the Cavallone would be joint-sponsoring the hospital, Vongola Medical couldn't just take it over once it was built; they'd have to allow the Cavallone equal say in policy, which since Xanxus was Cavallone Heir now meant that some members of Varia Medical might decide to consult part-time on the Cavallone side of things, seeing as their medical expertise was otherwise limited to the physically fit and interestingly mutilated.

That had the potential to get very interesting indeed; however first the hospital had to get built, which could take years. Even though the paperwork had gone through suspiciously quickly, which implied there'd been plans for this in the works for some time already, quietly getting looked over and approved by the appropriate officials, and his cousin was just taking advantage of recent events to push things past the planning stage with more alacrity than had originally been intended.

Arriving at the Cavallone Mansion, Squalo was swiftly directed towards one of the fancier receiving rooms; clearly he was expected. Equally clearly, his playing messenger for his cousin meant more formality than when he was coming as himself or with Xanxus.

Except possibly not: halfway down the hall he noticed the feeble, fluttering Flame signature that was Chew Toy past Bronco's bright, steady presence. Chew Toy always felt like that unless he was in Dying Will Mode and it was so, so annoying; it broadcast his lack of Will for all the world to see and made it very clear to allies and enemies alike that he could be pushed all the way into a corner before he started to push back.

Great. He'd have to make this quick, so he could leave again in short order.

Arriving at the right door, he kicked it open. "VOOOI!" He bellowed, stomping inside and ignoring the cringing Vongola Heir entirely as he made a beeline for Bronco. "Delivery from the Heir Superbi," he added, shoving the files at the blond; "my cousin conned me into bringing these over, so you'll have to arrange your own delivery back."

"Thank you Squalo," the horse said warmly, eyes flicking over the printed sheets. "With how much policy Pantera's taken over, I'm surprised he's still signing himself as 'Heir Superbi'."

Squalo snorted. "Uncle Leone will probably be retiring within the year; he's already playing grandpa a whole lot more than Don." He side-eyed his sort-of friend. "You ever going to tie the knot, horse? Marriage and children –well, at least one child– are a condition for becoming Don Superbi; needing to understand what your family are going through and having appropriate priorities, apparently." He actually agreed with the ruling; parenting –well good parenting– changed a person for the better, moulding their priorities into something more focused on the future and on the family collective.

"First I have to find a lady both genuine enough and crazy enough for me to get her to the altar, Squalo," the Don Cavallone said mildly, rueful wistfulness underpinning the humour. Well true, finding somebody who wasn't a social climbing gold digger would require ingenuity, but it would be less challenging if Bronco wasn't so clumsy whenever his men were out of reach. It meant he never travelled without an entourage, and smart women were very sensibly put off attempting to socialise with a man with a dozen-strong following of suited minions in dark sunglasses.

"Try going clubbing incognito," he suggested. "Or hell, wander around a market without the groupies for once. You'd be amazed by the difference not surrounding yourself with suits can make."

Dino smiled a little absently, his eyes focused on the papers as he wandered over to the room's table, sat and pulled out a red pen. Oh, amendments then?

"Vooi, I've already said I'm not taking that back."

Don Cavallone paused, then turned the pages upside down and dropped the pen on top of them. "Well in that case there's no point my looking through them just yet. How's your summer going?"

Squalo shrugged. "Quiet as ever," he said dismissively, acutely aware of Chew Toy hovering in the background and fretting over something; the gnawing doubt made the feeble Sky Flames waiver and gutter sickly. "I'm thinking of going abroad next month; get away from the heat." Actually he was planning on taking his little sister to visit relatives in Canada for a fortnight, but he wasn't going to say that with a blabbermouth eavesdropper shuffling nervously behind him. "How 'bout you?"

"I've various meetings and business to hammer out before I can justify taking time for myself," Dino said, awkwardness expanding slowly beneath the amiable façade, "but I do have a vacation planned for August. Somewhere quiet; the men I'm planning on taking for security have been given early leave, so they're all off enjoying the beach already."

A smart move that; his security team would be in good spirits and well-rested, rather than resenting him for lounging about and making them work when they could be spending time with their own families.

"And what's Xanxus doing over the summer?" Horse very tellingly didn't say 'my brother;' good to know he didn't trust Chew Toy to keep his mouth shut either.

Squalo glared at the blond anyway. "Vooi, that's his business; if he hasn't told you I'm not about to."

Dino chuckled, the awkwardness seeping into his tone. "Ah, yes; well." He coughed, scratching the back of his neck sheepishly. "Speaking of Xanxus, Tsuna had a question."

Squalo made a big show of heaving a loud sigh, then turned on his heel and stared flatly at the Vongola Heir, who was biting his lower lip.

"Er, um, hi, Squalo-san?" Chew Toy began nervously. "I, erm, how are you?"

Squalo gazed levelly at the cowardly scum who was the reason he'd been impaled through the chest and whose Stupid-ass plan would have seen him dead were it not for Mammon being the most powerful Mist on the planet and genuinely caring about the effect his death would have on their Sky. Small talk? Seriously? Chew Toy was wasting his time with small talk?

Clearly divining that he wasn't going to get an answer, Chew Toy bumbled on. "I, er, I was hoping if, maybe you could tell me something? I'm kinda worried about Xanxus and, erm, I wanted to ask, how's he doing? Since, er, he was acting a bit off and I was wondering–"

"This isn't Japan, trash," Squalo said sharply. "Can the dithering; you're the Vongola Heir and I'm bound to obey you, so get to the point and stop wasting all our time. That's far politer than waffling all over Don Cavallone's office trying to screw up your courage when a simple 'I have a question, Rain Officer' would have sufficed. I'm employed by the Alliance, which means I have to obey you, even if the order's just 'let me speak.' If my contracts preclude my answering I'll tell you. If you ordered me to jump off a fucking cliff I'd have to do it, although I'd definitely demand an explanation afterwards! Vooi, whatever it is you want to know, spit it out!"

Chew Toy quailed, then stiffened his spine as a faint orange glow suffused his irises. Trash was far too dependent on the single-minded focus of his Dying Will for Squalo's tastes –it made him narrow and negligent of the details beyond his immediate goal– but at least he had a Will. "His behaviour at the latest meeting concerned me, Squalo-san," the trash Sky said more levelly, "as it was significantly out of character."

"VOOOI! Of course it was out of character!" Squalo exploded. "You let Nono con you into using your authority to gut our bottom line! Our international standing's going down the toilet, civilian Family members –like you were– are going to be targeted by our enemies and the only people benefitting from your fucking shitty orders are hitmen like your tutor, who get to pad out their wallets due to an increased demand for their services as they leave all manner of additional casualties along the way because unlike assassins, hitmen don't give a shit about collateral damage and innocents getting caught up in their kill! People are going to die because they were in the wrong damned place at the wrong damned time, taken out by hitmen who couldn't be arsed to wait to catch their target alone! Because who cares about the collateral damage, they're paid to make a splash not to be discreet! Kids are going to die! Like my older brother died, you dickhead!" Squalo cut himself off before he gave away any more personal details, drawing in a sharp breath and trying to compose himself a little.

Chew Toy had gone a lovely shade of pale, his pupils shocked pinpricks as he wrung his hands silently.

"And don't give me that garbage about 'caring' because you sure as shit do not," Squalo continued venomously, moderating his volume as he lined up what else he wanted to say; if this was his only opportunity to vent then he wanted to make the most of it. "If you cared you'd have put more thought into it beforehand, asked around more experienced people about what the likely consequences of this or that course of action would be. Not just the consequences for you, but for the entire Family, the rest of the Alliance and the Allies and wider Underworld as well. But no, you don't give a shit about anybody who's not one of your precious 'friends' and it's fucking obvious to anyone with eyes. Like how you never bothered to mention that your little plan during the Arcobaleno Battles was about buying time rather than actually defeating anybody, because if you'd actually said that then we could have bought time safely rather than getting shoved into a glorified sacrifice play, where the only people who got hospitalised were the allies who'd scared you shitless in a fight at some point!"

Chew Toy gaped in shock but Squalo wasn't anywhere near done yet.

"If Mammon had been any less audacious, determined and outrageously brilliant I'd have died, you shit," he bit out, "you all but murdered me when I'm Right Hand to the Varia Head, sworn to obey you as Vongola Heir! I led the Varia faithfully for eight years, protecting the Family and serving its interests in everything and this is the thanks I get? Thrown at the Vindice so your precious friends don't risk getting hurt, because I have to obey you and they don't? Yeah I lived –no thanks to you, trash– but that's all on Mammon and Varia Medical, which guess what? Won't be doing so many miracles anymore, because you've slashed their budget with your snivelling short-sightedness. More of our people are going to die, just so you can feel better about the people under your command doing a little less commissioned murder."

There was a miserable breathy squeak from Chew Toy, who was now looking like he wanted the floor to swallow him up.

"People who come to the Varia have already decided that the death of their target is the only solution to their problem," Squalo continued relentlessly, "so our turning them away isn't going to make them change their minds. They're just going to look for somebody else to do the job, or if they're desperate do the deed themselves. How many battered wives do you think are going to end up in the newspapers for murdering their husbands? How many kids dumped in foster care or on gold-digging or indifferent relatives? How many could-have-been assassinations are going to turn into murder-suicides, or mass poisonings because terrified amateurs don't know shit about dosage? That's all on you, trash."

Another pained squeak.

"You're not a kid anymore; you're in line to lead the Underworld's most influential Family so everything you do and say has far-reaching consequences. You may not like it but you've been placed in power by virtue of your birth so you have the fucking responsibility and duty to everybody under your authority to use that power wisely. Which means doing your research first and finding shit out before you throw your weight around, and telling people 'no' when they try to use you for their own petty agendas." Squalo took another sharp breath. "Morals are all very well but they don't mean shit if you don't recognise that a lot of people don't have them and that you've got to appeal to their baser nature to get them to do what you want. Assassination isn't the cause of the Underworld's problems; it's a symptom. If you want to put the professional killers out of work you've got to attack the problem at its root." And that was all the advice he could be bothered to give right now; God but he was tired.

"You hate me, don't you?" Chew Toy quavered plaintively.

"Obviously," Squalo drawled sarcastically. "Leaving aside the murder thing, you recently slashed my annual income by a third while reducing my job security and medical support, then did the same to all my subordinates. Who, by the way, know exactly who is to blame for their suddenly being on starvation wages, because at no point was Boss ordered to keep anything confidential and a copy of his orders ended up in the hands of my Squad Leaders. Some of whom have families they are trying to support and are now having to consider supplementary sources of income; so much for Primo's values." Boss might have a plan for this year, but next year wasn't all that far off and things would get really difficult then; Mammon hadn't been lying about how rough it could become.

Chew Toy curled in on himself, gaze blank as his Flames spiked erratically with horror, terror, hurt and confusion. Squalo rolled his eyes and turned his back; who gave a shit, seriously.

"Wasn't that a little rude?" Dino asked mildly. Which was all but endorsing the reality check Squalo had just delivered, since he hadn't said 'wasn't that a little harsh.'

"I was honest," Squalo replied coolly, "and it would only be rude if I went into detail of all the ways he's abjectly failing. Which I'm not going to do; mauling chew toys once they've stopped squeaking lacks any kind of entertainment value." With that he turned towards the door and walked out of the room.

Boss had left for France this morning, but Springer might be around and if so, a good long spar would do the brat good. If not, the mooks could always do with a bit of terrorizing.

Xanxus had arranged for him and Florrie to spend three nights in Foix, four nights in Bagnères-de-Bigorre and another three nights in Pau. After their last night in Pau he'd drive his Cloud to the airport in Lourdes, then get picked up in the evening by the Varia plane on its way back from Greenland. Mammon had grumbled a bit about that, but the detour was practical –he'd be joined by another Squad at the airport rather than them taking the train then the ferry back to Sicily– and it meant he and his bike would both be back at the Varia for the following morning, so he could get stuck into the paperwork that would have piled up in his absence.

Not piling up all that quickly since summer was slow, but after a ten-day absence there'd be quite a bit in need of signing off.

Florrie had come up with a list of places within driving distance she fancied visiting, some of which he'd expected and others he hadn't but still looked interesting. He'd never even heard of the Caves of Gargas until she'd mentioned them, for instance, but her interest in Toulouse, Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Tarbes had been expected and there were lots of pretty views to drive or walk through, as well as a range of castles and little villages.

All in all Xanxus was sure they'd have plenty of fun together, even if it did end up raining more than half the time like it was threatening to. If the weather was really that bad then they'd walk around museums and lounge in the hotel, watching television; the whole point of the holiday was to spend time together, after all.

Xanxus was also planning on sharing his plans for his now-very-likely retirement and seeing what his friend thought, as well as seeing if she had any interesting ideas he could appropriate. Florrie came at things from a completely different angle to what he was used to, so her ideas were often interesting and creative, even when they weren't practical. Lack of practicality didn't make them useless though; he'd tweaked various things to account for her perspective since meeting her and the modifications had always made things better.

The first day in Foix Xanxus spent the morning watching his Cloud and friend in transports of delight over the cacti and succulents in the Les Épines de Lespinet, a private botanical garden recreating a semi-arid American landscape. Rather than sketch she'd pulled out the camera he'd given her for Christmas and taken dozens –possibly even hundreds– of pictures, much to their guide's bemusement. Her avid interest in the various plants and their names –which she produced a notebook to write them all down in– however won the man over and he was soon telling her everything he knew about the various specimens, both relating to the species generally and the specific history of the individual plants, as well as the people who'd been involved in creating the garden.

After lunch in a bistro they visited the castle, which in addition to being a tenth century fortification housed a museum documenting the history of the area. Being inside a stone castle was much less hot than wandering about outside, so Xanxus didn't mind at all that Florrie pulled out her sketchbook rather than sticking to using the camera; there were plenty of places to loiter and sit in the shade and his friend's engrossed pleasure in what she was doing was intensely rewarding. He'd also suspected this might happen, so had brought a book to read.

It was a ridiculous pulp novel from an Underworld publisher, with unrealistic Flame usage and inaccurate cultural representation –along with unfeasible travel times– but the characters were well-rounded and the dialogue was pretty sharp, so it was amusing fluff if nothing else. It was also part of a massive series, so there were more to be read later if he was in the mood. Annamaria had introduced him to the series and had all the books, so he could borrow them whenever.

The late afternoon passed equally pleasantly, Xanxus listening to his Cloud babble delightedly about the day's doings and chiming in now and then on history –he'd decided to pursue history for a university degree, with a particular focus on guilds, monastic orders and other closed social groups, including various historical cults– while sprawling on the bed with her in their hotel room. It was just nice, being able to cuddle and have the conversation meander all over the place without there being anything serious at stake. He'd missed this.

"Tomorrow's Sunday so most things will be closed," his friend said pensively after the conversation wandered to a halt, "so there's no point going to Gargas until Monday. Anything you'd like to do tomorrow?"

"Go for a drive?" Xanxus suggested; it wasn't like the scenery would be going anywhere and the weather was reasonably promising, so they could ride his motorbike.

"Do we eat out or take a picnic?"

"Picnic," Xanxus decided; it would mean they wouldn't have to find somewhere open out in some tiny village. "Will sort it out with the staff this evening." They hadn't had dinner yet after all, so he could ask around and sort something out. Being able to make Flame Ice at the drop of a hat meant he could turn any container into an impromptu cold box at no effort, so he wouldn't have to worry about things going off in the heat.

"Well that was easy," Florrie said lightly, sitting up and leaning over him so she could brush his hair back from his face; Xanxus turned into her hand and nibbled playfully on the heel of her palm, winning himself a fond smile.

"C'mere," he rumbled, tugging her down on top of him so he could kiss her properly. Her willingness to be casually intimate with him was something he was never going to stop being acutely, embarrassingly grateful for and he was prepared to make a fool of himself on a regular basis so long as it meant she knew how much he appreciated it.

"So how's things going, voi?"

Florrie's chuckle was clearly audible over the phone. "Really well, despite it absolutely tipping it down with rain for two days straight," she said warmly. "We went to Toulouse the first day it rained, then on the second one Xanxus made a few calls and got us a tour of the Lindt factory in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, since we couldn't just spend the day wandering around the town enjoying the architecture."

"How much chocolate did you walk away with?" Squalo asked, both impressed and mildly annoyed; he really doubted Xanxus was going to share any of that.

His fellow Guardian giggled. "Lots," she confided gleefully. "So, so many seconds."

Meaning chocolate that failed the quality standards test due to not being absolutely perfect, but tasted excellent despite not looking good enough to sell; stuff the factory would give away for free. "You lucky shits."

"Mm-hm," Florrie agreed cheerfully, absolutely shameless; he didn't have much of a chance of scoring chocolate from her either then; he didn't much care for dark chocolate but milk was nice and Lindt always tasted excellent. "What have you been doing?"

"Enjoying the quiet, mostly," Squalo drawled, resettling himself on his office couch. "Today Chew Toy's Cloud Guardian showed up with his chief minion and snatched the brat from the Iron Fort; apparently he's been skiving off school and needs to catch up on his classes." Squalo suspected it had been sword-brat ratting out his Sky to the Hibari-brat; this stunt has Springer's fingerprints all over it. Without him and Kalk assisting –and Kalk was still spending half or more of every day in Varia Medical getting her organs replaced as they couldn't all be put in at once and there were a barrage of post-surgery tests and checks to be made as well– the stroppy Cloud could never have managed an extraction this smooth in unfamiliar territory.

"That sounds like it could have been considerably more exciting than you are making it appear," his fellow Guardian coaxed.

Squalo grinned; oh yes he was underselling the event significantly. "There was a helicopter chase," he informed her smugly. "We have video." Well, Information did, leading him to suspect that Springer had bribed a few bored Varia to assist him in his scheme. Entertainment had value after all and participating in the process to make the amusement happen was its own reward, so phrase it right and Varia assistance wasn't as hard to come by as it sounded.

"You have to bring that the next time you visit!" Florrie demanded. "Xanxus, tell Squalo he has to bring the video!"

"What video?" Came over the phone, distant and half-distracted in a way that said their Sky was doing something technical. Fiddling with his motorbike maybe; the rain probably hadn't been good for it. The Varia's mechanics liked to bitch whenever somebody took one out and got caught in a downpour, but the specific details of why currently eluded him.

"The old fart's heir got dragged back to Japan by his Cloud Guardian and there was a helicopter chase," Florrie replied instantly. "I want to see the footage!"

There was a clank, some Russian swearing, several thuds and then Xanxus's voice came through the phone much louder and more clearly: "shark, bring it over now."

"I don't even know where you are," Squalo pointed out dryly, although he wasn't entirely opposed to hopping on a plane and spending some time in the Pyrenees, "and I refuse to spend a day just flying thither and yon on my own dime." If he was just expected to play courier then Xanxus was paying for it.

There was a growl, a muffled mutter and the sound of Florrie answering, her voice just slightly too low for the words to be picked out. Squalo waited patiently for the murmured negotiation to finish; this was suddenly looking promising.

"We'll be in Pau from Saturday, shark," his Sky said eventually. "Get a flight and stay over for a few days. Florrie's fine with adding you to the sleeping arrangements and the Tour's coming through on Monday; plenty to see." Meaning that the Cloud was fine sharing the bed with him as well as with Xanxus and that she didn't mind him crashing the tail-end of her holiday either.

Well, why not? He'd had a few run-ins with the Tour de France on missions before now, so getting to enjoy it properly would be a nice change from having to arrange abrupt detours and last-minute changes in plan because there were suddenly television cameras and helicopters everywhere. "I'll get a flight then," Squalo agreed. He could just take his go-bag with an additional change or two of civvie clothing since it was only for a few days; maybe buy his sister something nice while he was there.

"See you soon, shark."


"Hm?" Xanxus didn't move; he didn't want to move. He was completely comfortable, sprawled under the shade of a tree just outside Orthez with Florrie half on top of him and the shark sat a few metres away against another tree. It was a lovely day, they'd just eaten lunch and he was feeling sleepy.

"You said Sky Flames had the property of Harmony," his Cloud continued, staring up at the leaves above them "so does that mean you can walk through walls?"

Well that was random. Xanxus shifted slightly so he could catch his friend's eye. "Elaborate?"

Florrie rolled over and propped herself up on his chest. "Well atomic physics says that most of an atom is empty space, like over ninety-nine percent empty space. Things just feel solid because the electrons are whizzing around so fast they seem to be everywhere at once, like a fan blade or a helicopter propeller. But harmony means that you could have all your electrons moving regularly and all the electrons of a wall moving regularly but in a different pattern, so you could walk through it with your electrons passing through the gaps in the wall's electrons. Like those military helicopters with intersecting blades."

That sounded theoretically possible but– wait. Wait a moment. The Flame Inversion thing Primo had invented worked on completely Stupid principles that should never have worked at all, but did because Flames were applied willpower, so Zero-Point was the epitome of 'it works because I said so.' Therefore, this idea of Florrie's should also work.

"Will try it," he promised; if it did work there were dozens of amusing applications, as well as a number of extremely interesting implications for bypassing Wards. After all, everything was made of sub-atomic particles…

"Do or do not," the shark snarked quietly from behind them, making Xanxus roll his eyes as 'there is no try' slid through his brain in Yoda's creaky voice. No, Dying Will Flames were not the Force out of the Star Wars movies, but there were some amusing similarities here and there. One of which was that confidence was key.

As Primo's ludicrous, counter-intuitive and unscientific Flame Inversion technique proved.

Xanxus had first brought up his still-tentative retirement plans in the car on the way to Toulouse on Wednesday and since then both he and Florrie had kept coming back to it.

"There's a market for everything and anything, really," his friend had said on that first day, "so really, what's more important is what you actually want to be paid for doing. What feeds your soul? What gives you that warm feeling of accomplishment and makes you want to get up in the mornings? Once you know that, it's just a matter of finding your market."

It so happened that one of the things Xanxus really enjoyed about being Varia Boss was making sure everybody hauled together and seeing his people grow in skills and confidence under his care, but when he retired that wasn't going to be possible anymore so he'd had to look for other things.

He also enjoyed making guns and Box Weapons –the latter was basically a hobby by this point, like his guns were– but that wasn't really something he was comfortable commercialising in retirement; rings maybe, but Box Weapons? No. Not guns either; all his guns were unique and he wanted them in the hands of people he trusted to look after them properly, not random customers. Even people technically qualified for gun handling sometimes did Stupid shit and he'd rather not get tangled up in that; off-record transactions for one, general idiocy in weapon maintenance and handling for another –shooting out a jam!– and things like sweeping the area with a loaded weapon and so on. The Varia he trusted, they knew how very Stupid all that kind of behaviour was and were all willing to kill co-workers Stupid enough to threaten all their lives with improper gun handling. Improper gun handling like that was listed as an instigating factor in about a third of all mook deaths.

"I like fixing other people's Stupid," he told his Cloud on Friday, while they were walking around Luchon.

"What, like negotiating?" Florrie asked, not looking up from her sketchbook.

Xanxus hadn't meant it like that, but he considered the new perspective. "Maybe," he conceded, "but more like troubleshooting."

"Literal troubleshooting?" his friend asked dryly, side-eyeing him.

"Sometimes," he conceded with a smirk, "but not necessarily. Lots of Underworld shit that could be mitigated or fixed outright by out-of-the-box thinking and an appreciation of the long-term implications over short-sighted greed." So much of what made the Underworld a shitty place was a result of stupidity and self-destructive greed; it was a lot of what was wrong with the rest of the world, too. At least in the Underworld there were some people capable of exercising long-term enlightened self-interest; the rest of the world was a hell of a lot larger though and the smart people were more widely spread.

"So marketing yourself as a freelance negotiator then? Sort of like a diplomat or lawyer, to represent people's interests, or to consult on prospective projects to give an idea of what kind of difficulties they might run into and likely costs?"

It was certainly an idea; people would hire him to begin with because he was the former Varia Boss and having him on board would discourage attacks and sabotage, but if he made a name for himself as being reliable and effective, then people would keep coming and he'd be able to make a living off it. Could even do some more humanitarian shit on the side if he felt like it; he'd vaguely wanted to do something like that to mess with the old fart, but putting words to it gave him a good feeling. He could do that; he could be good at that and being freelance meant he didn't have to toe any particular Family line or keep his mouth shut just because he was subordinate. Well, he would still be Heir Cavallone, but that just meant not taking jobs that would actively harm his Family and he didn't want to do that anyway.

"Might try hostage retrieval too," he admitted. That included things like breaking up slaving rings and thwarting sex trafficking, because people got abducted for those kinds of things as well as for ransom. Mostly civvies and Latents, to be honest, but every now and then some complete moron decided he wanted Actives working for him but couldn't be bothered to cultivate them properly beforehand. Or decided to run experiments on Latent kids to see what would happen.

"Well it's whatever you want and have the resources for, isn't it?" Florrie pointed out, which was completely true; he could branch out later and maybe pick up a few more Varia retirees along the way. There were his Guardians to consider of course –other than Florrie who had her own plans– but Bel would enjoy both the politics of negotiation and the gore of rooting out slaving gangs, the shark liked to play dumb but he was no less capable on the negotiation side of things and Luss would probably open a clinic to satisfy his nurturing side, which would be just as profitable even if he was treating the less fortunate for free. Mammon of course would be managing their finances and making sure they stayed profitable, so it could easily work out very well indeed.

By the time Squalo joined them in Pau, Xanxus's retirement plans were less 'what might happen' and solidly settled into 'this will happen' and he was comfortable enough with them to start writing lists of things to check, loopholes to close and purchases to make before he handed in his notice to the old fart. The only other Varia Head to have retired was Tyrant, but that at least meant there was a precedent he could follow; Squalo had technically retired from the position too, but that was murkier due to shark having stayed on as Rain Officer and stepped back up into the Head role while Xanxus was frozen.

He'd have to address his men before September started, to make sure they all knew what was coming, but that was a way off yet.

"Voi! Are you coming out to watch at all? What's the point of having a room with a balcony overlooking the course if you're just going to stare at the television?"

Xanxus rolled his eyes, but got to his feet and headed out to where his Rain and Cloud were leaning over the balcony of the hotel room, looking eagerly up the road towards where the cyclists would be coming along any minute now. The tenth stage of the Tour de France was actually starting in Pau this year, so the streets down below were full of people waving flags and cheering. Despite pretending to be above that kind of excessive enthusiasm, shark had packed a Sicilian flag into his go-bag and it was now hanging along the outside of the balcony railings as the swordsman told Florrie about one of the young up-and-coming cyclists in the peloton who was from Messina and, in an amusing coincidence, nicknamed 'the shark.'

The Varia Boss had known his Rain was a sword nut, but hadn't realised until now that the enthusiasm extended to other sporting disciplines as well. Not football –thankfully– but solo sports and ones with small teams like rowing, swimming and athletics. It turned out to be an enthusiasm Florrie shared, so his two Guardians were happily geeking out together and discussing the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing in between peering down the road in anticipation of the race start.

Stepping out onto the balcony, Xanxus glanced up and down the street –looking for cameras and determining the angle from the road– then threw up a quick Ward. Nothing fancy, just enough so that although everybody would be able to see them just fine, cameras would experience inexplicable lighting issues and be unable to focus on their faces. Getting identified by law enforcement due to appearing on international television would be embarrassing after all; anyone watching would recognise the shark by his hair, posture and uniform even without being able to see his face, so Xanxus was probably going to get noticed by association –his height and feathers weren't exactly subtle– but ensuring nobody could pick Florrie out of a line-up was important.

It was possible that if they did end up on camera, the old fart would have it brought to his attention, so making sure there wasn't a clear shot of his Cloud Guardian was absolutely necessary. Xanxus had already ensured Florrie's name wasn't written down in any hotel records or anywhere else that required taking names –having her traced that way would be careless– and as he wasn't flying with her, there wouldn't be any way for people to identify her even if they did know which day she'd flown out of which airport. Especially since he made a point of looking different on security cameras anyway; it was a matter of principle.

That seen to, the Sky leaned over his Cloud, enjoying how she leaned back into him without so much as hesitating, her attention focused on the shark as he listed the various Italian cyclists and which teams they belonged to. Her hand found his and squeezed gently; Xanxus squeezed back, bending down to rest his chin on her shoulder and wrap his other arm around her waist. Shark didn't care that he cuddled with Florrie and she didn't care that he was fucking Squalo; he got the best of both worlds.

Well, she didn't care so long as they didn't do it in the same room –or bed– as her, which was fair enough. The bathroom was fair game though.

The volume in the street shot up and Xanxus glanced down the road in time to see the first cyclists appearing around the end of the block. In a few minutes everything would be over and they could get on with their day, but it was actually kind of fun to be part of a big crowd all doing the same thing.

Xanxus's lips twitched into a toothy grin as Florrie cheered excitedly and the shark bellowed encouragement down at the riders zooming past. Yeah, this was fun.