All characters © Amano Akira

Summary: He had stopped for eight years, but the world had continued on without him.

Behind on the Times

"You," Xanxus declared, buttoning up his white blouse, "are buying me tequila. Blue Agave. Now."

"It's not going to make you any better," Squalo snorted, as Xanxus succumbed to another round of barking coughs that sounded more appropriate to an enthusiastic seal than to a human being. "And you've already had three today. Which I've had to pay for, mind you," he added.

Xanxus grimaced at the taste of phlegm in his mouth and the sticky feel of perspiration gathering at the nape of his neck. Damn summer cold. "I'm legal. I can have as many as I want," he snapped. "I should get at least one for every test those shitwipe pieces of trash run on me."

"Fine," Squalo acquiesced, giving his wallet an encouraging squeeze to make sure that it was still full. "Since when did you become so talkative, Boss?" he asked, although it was a half-hearted inquiry. Believe it or not, he had missed the bastard. His hair would have begged to differ, foreseeing the end of its tequila-free days, but then again, his hair was hardly a sentient being.

"Hn. Since when did you become so stingy?"

Squalo merely growled and motioned for Xanxus to get into the limo. On any just occasion, Squalo wouldn't even consider talking in such a disrespectful manner to his boss. However, Squalo dutifully reminded himself, his boss had the current mentality of a teenager. Squalo was physically two years his boss's junior, but now he was in fact older. And thus temporarily in charge.

"So? Did the medics have anything new to report?" Squalo asked, his eyes on the road as they sped down the interstate. He felt Xanxus shrug behind him.

"Ask them yourselves. I don't feel like talking about it," Xanxus replied, and sneezed.

"Vooiiii! Now you don't want to talk. At least have them give you some meds next time."

"Don't need them."

"Trust me, Boss, you don't want Swine Flu."


Squalo sighed and rubbed his temples. "Never mind." There was far too much explaining to do, and naturally, that task had been given to the Varia member with the highest blood pressure. Lucky him.

"I'm bored," Xanxus declared flatly, cupping his chin in his hand and rubbing some scar tissue. "Turn on the radio, trash." Squalo wordlessly complied, thankful for something mechanical to fill the uncomfortable silence. The voice of an American singer suddenly imbued the car with its upbeat tempo, and Squalo's discomfort increased when he recognized the artist as Lady Gaga. He'd forgotten just how much music had changed in the past eight years.

Xanxus crinkled his nose. "What the fuck is this shit?" he asked, taking his hand away from his chin. "Sounds like Lussuria trying to sing in the shower."

Squalo did his best not to sound awkward. "It's Lady Gaga." Xanxus was silent, and Squalo plundered on: "Apparently she's a big hit in America."

"Tch." Xanxus sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. "World's going to the dogs. Motherfucking Mozart's better than this."

Squalo almost grinned at the thought of his boss listening to Mozart's 40th after a job (and also at his boss's referral to Mozart as "motherfucking"). It didn't quite go with the image of tequila and Dying Will guns. Wine and Briscola, perhaps, but not blood and hellfire. Reaching over, Squalo changed the station and stopped when Michael Jackson's Thriller filled the car's interior.

"Suitable," Xanxus nodded, eyes closed.

"Did you hear he died in 2009?"

Xanxus's eyes flew open. "What?"

"Cardiac arrest," Squalo replied, as Xanxus sneezed again and snorted back something unpleasant. "Could have been drugs."


The grin threatened to make an appearance again. It was just small talk, really; minutiae, but Squalo couldn't even remember the last time he'd had a civil conversation with his boss. Then again, it had been eight years. But even back then, Squalo recalled, the majority of it had been laconic jibber-jabber consisting mostly of "damn it's," "fuck-you's," and "trash." Xanxus hadn't been one for much conversation other than to give orders or curse people out, and, although Squalo held the utmost respect for the guy, their relationship was based on power and testosterone rather than words. Loquacity did not an assassin make.

Xanxus had started to make wet sniffling sounds, so Squalo pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it into the back seat. The medics had told him that he would probably catch colds a lot easier, since his immune system was not yet accustomed to being around other people. One of the many repercussions of being cryogenically frozen for the better part of a decade.

Squalo's phone began to ring, so he steered with his prosthetic left hand and used the right to pick up what Xanxus now knew to be an iPhone. It looked only slightly less confusing than that other thing Xanxus had seen earlier. That ipad or isuck or whatever the fuck it was called. Apparently, you could navigate it just by touching it. No buttons, nada.

"What," Squalo barked, narrowly avoiding a minivan in the next lane. It was almost a question, and the only statement of remote calmness before whatever said on the other line proceeded to piss him off. "Ah? Lussu! Vooiiii, listen to me! I only told you to buy three! Three! What the fuck are we going to do with..."

Xanxus stared out the window as Squalo lapsed into heated conversation. He was tired. And sore. Those damn labcoats had made a hobby out of poking and prodding him with their gadgets, wanting to see how it was that he had aged in the ice, how much he remembered, how well his motor functions were working. After this was all over, Xanxus vowed, he would show them that his motor functions were working just fine.

He must have been tired indeed, because he could no longer seem to understand Squalo's conversation. Squalo, being from the north, had a curious Friulan accent to his Italian, whereas most of the Varia either spoke in a Neapolitan or Venetian dialect. It often made him the butt of many impersonating jokes around headquarters. But now it was more than that. Xanxus realized after a minute that he couldn't understand a single word of what his subordinate was saying.

What the...

Squalo wasn't even speaking Italian.

"Oi, trash," Xanxus poked the back of the driver's headrest once Squalo had angrily thrown his phone onto the passenger's seat, "what the hell was that? Chinese?"

Squalo could feel the first makings of an incipient headache, the kind that threatened to worm itself into the soft tissue of his brain mercilessly at the thought of explaining everything. He didn't even know where to begin.

"I'll explain it all at dinner, but we've had to do a lot of dealings with Japan," he replied. "Most of the Vongola has had to learn Japanese."

Xanxus glowered. "Is it hard?"

Squalo gave a shrug. "Writing the kanji is, but thankfully we don't have to do much of that. We just need to know enough to conduct business. It's okay, but the honorifics are a bitch. All of these sans and chans and shit. Shouldn't be too hard for you to pick up, Boss."

"It better not be," Xanxus added. The limo pulled up to the bar, and the muddled blend of music and voices could be heard faintly from outside.

"Are you sure you want this?" Squalo asked as he pulled the keys out of the ignition and jabbed a thumb toward the entrance. He glanced over at Xanxus, who looked worse for the wear. "We could always go to the liquor store and take it home."

"Do what you want."

"Vooiii, we're already here," Squalo sighed, getting out and slamming the door. "Besides, you should be watching the news whenever you can, Boss."

"Hn." Xanxus's mood was only lightened by the prospect of some strong tequila. Sure, he could watch the news. They would talk about natural disasters and the new president, hybrid cars, who was screwing who and this thing called "you tube." After that, he would proceed to read up on what the fuck these interactive devices called facebook, twitter, and wifi were. Xanxus heard there was even an invention for those too lazy to read actual books called a kindle.

And when he got home he would be reminded again of how his team had changed, and how he'd not at all.

Seeing Squalo's hair down to his buttocks, so different from the close-cropped spikes had sent Xanxus reeling at first. It had grown nicely, he admitted. Men shouldn't even be allowed to have hair that damn nice, let alone grow it out to their waists. It pissed Xanxus off, since it reminded him of something he had to do soon, something that he hadn't had the chance to do for eight years. It made him want to chuck a steak at that hair, for lack of a less vulgar phrasing.

Xanxus would come home again to see how many additional facial piercings Levi had donned, and how Bel had become twisted in so many different ways. He would slowly (and in some cases unfortunately) find out all about Lussuria's new dinner dishes, Mammon's secret stash of Krugerrands, and how Bel had developed asthma sometime in the last five years.

He would also be reminded of his duty, the one that he had started and had never gotten the chance to finish. Squalo's silver sheen of hair sashaying mockingly in front of him was a painful reminder of that.

Xanxus was a boy in a manskin, harboring a quiet rage that had been accrued for eight years in an icy timebox. They would all pay, those Vongola trash. But for right now, he would spend his time learning Japanese, how to drive, and blowing his nose. He had stopped for eight years, but the world had continued on without him. And although he had always been sheltered, Xanxus found not knowing what a 3D camera was indescribably infuriating. He would have to catch up with the world, which had mercilessly left him behind in a cloud of memorial dust and vestiges of lost dreams.

While Xanxus coughed and brooded in his thoughts, Squalo pocketed his keys and walked toward the bar, wondering if he should tell Xanxus that he knew everything. About the Ninth, about him, about why the Cradle Affair really happened.

He looked up at the sky, where pepper-gray thunderclouds formed and rumbled quietly in the distance. Squalo decided to wait. The time would come to tell his boss soon enough. The present issue was their unfinished business, and what to do about the new Vongola Decimo in Japan. He knew that Xanxus would feel the repercussions of missing half his adolescence for the rest of his life, but Xanxus would always be Xanxus. That was what Squalo had always admired about him.

Squalo was the only one who knew the truth. He had not told the others. When they had procured enough Dying Will flames to melt the Ninth's ice, Squalo and the medics had been present; no one else. Xanxus had been only semi-conscious at the time, so Squalo doubted he'd heard the first words spoken to him in years. The medics had waved away the smoke created by the dry ice, rushing in with blankets and a gurney. Squalo had turned to Xanxus, before they swarmed in, and had quietly said—

"Hurry up, trash."

As Xanxus hawked and spit out the last of his phlegm, Squalo waved a hand that he was coming. He looked toward the dank, smoky bar ahead, then spared one last glance skyward as a light breeze skewed his bangs. The burbles of thunder were so far away that they sounded merely like a faint, stifled burps.

"I understand."

They needn't worry about getting back too soon. The rain would come later.