Title: Drive a Bargain
Squalo, Timoteo
In which the Ninth finds his mislaid spine and drives a bargain with Squalo.
Part of Choice: The Betrothal Arc. General audiences. 1139 words.

Drive a Bargain

Keeping a straight face through his mission debriefing was one of the more difficult things Squalo had done in his time, but he pulled it off by dint of sheer bloody-minded will and by reminding himself that it was all over now. They'd won and there was not a damn thing the old man sitting across from him could do about it now. He was out of other options and other choices and, what was more, he knew it. Squalo had been waiting for this day for seven years; now that it was here, he was planning on enjoying every last, delicious second of it.

"Thank you," the Ninth said when Squalo had finished his description of what, exactly, the Varia had done to the Cetrulli's Family in order to make a point about how bad an idea offing Massimo Vongola had been. "As always, the Varia's devotion to its work is remarkable."

Squalo merely showed the old man his teeth. The Ninth could be as sanctimonious as he liked, because all the self-righteousness in the world couldn't change the fact that the Vongola needed the Varia, and he knew it.

The Ninth gestured at his guardians then. They looked sour about it, but withdrew, leaving Squalo alone with the old man. Interesting, that. Squalo sat up a bit as the Ninth folded his hands under his chin. "Now," he said, "you and I must talk."

"What's there to talk about?" Squalo permitted himself to smile, finally; it felt sweet. "You've got your back to the wall, old man. What are you going to do about it?"

"The thing about the young is that they are regrettably quick at jumping to conclusions." The Ninth was calm—too calm, Squalo decided, made just the faintest bit uneasy by it. "As it so happens, my back is not against any wall whatsoever."

"And just how do you figure that?" Squalo folded his arms across his chest. "You got no choice now. You're going to have to unexile the boss." His mouth twisted on the words, which were still bitter even after this many years. Exile, yeah, that was one way to spin it. An exile of ice and silence, that's what the old man had condemned the boss to. Death might have been more merciful, but—then they wouldn't be where they were now, so maybe it was just as well.

"There are still choices," the Ninth said.

Squalo narrowed his eyes. "The hell you say." There were no other choices; he'd made sure of it. It was all down to the boss now.

"There are." The Ninth stared him down till Squalo halfway wanted to squirm, uneasy with the old man's confidence. "However, of them, Xanxus is the strongest. Which is what I wish to discuss with you now."

Squalo eyed him, not that it had any appreciable effect on the old fart. "What's there to talk about? You need him, so thaw him out and bring him back."

"So impatient." The Ninth shook his head. "I know you're loyal to my boy." Squalo almost missed the way the old man's eyes fell on the hair laying across his shoulder in his automatic scorn for the old fart's paternal claim—almost. He stiffened; the old man couldn't know, that had been private—! But the Ninth was going on. "He must remain where he is for a little longer. Before we can recall him, we must remind the Family of his potential as a candidate." He paused. "You, of course, would be the ideal person to manage such a campaign."

So the old man wanted him to play politics for him, eh? Squalo snorted. "You are a manipulative son of a bitch, I have to hand it to you," he said, just for the joy in seeing the old man's eyes flash with anger, quick and sharp. But if it served the boss's ends... "Sure, why not? I'll agitate for the boss's return, no problem."

"I thought you might agree to that." The Ninth's voice was drier than dust. "Now to the other little matter I wanted to discuss with you. I'm afraid that I must also ask you to stop plotting my overthrow, if you please. I'll hand the Vongola ring to Xanxus, but not before I—or he—is ready for it. If you are not willing to wait until that day, then I will have you shot."

Squalo blinked, not entirely sure he'd just heard that correctly. The Ninth regarded him, expression calm and still over his folded hands. "You're bluffing."

"I would not advise you to test me on this." The Ninth's voice was very calm, and his eyes were—yes, they were starting to burn with the light of his Will. Squalo felt sweat break out down his spine, cold and prickling, and loathed himself for it. The old man's Will wasn't a patch on the boss's, and yet—"I've made too many mistakes with Xanxus," the Ninth said, blazing in earnest now. "I've been sentimental when I should have been strict and it has cost me dearly. He will be my heir, but on my terms. If you cannot accept that, you will die. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Squalo said, glaring at him. That shitty old man, he thought, each word venomous, how could he still have that much steel in him after all this?

"Very good." The Flame faded from the old man's eyes. "Your sense of duty remains commendable."

"I hope I live long enough to piss on your grave," Squalo told him.

The Ninth surprised him by snorting and saying, "I rather hope you do as well." He gestured towards the door. "Now go on and remind our Family of its long-lost heir, if you please. The sooner you whip them into a frenzy and have them beating down my door to urge me into ending his exile, the sooner we may get on with it."

"Think I'll dance on it, too," Squalo added as he unfolded himself from his chair.

"You may do whatever you like." The Ninth's smile was thin. "Because you may be sure that I will not abandon my Family till I am certain that it has passed into safe hands." He gestured again. "Now go. We'll speak more later, I'm sure."

Squalo snorted and went. It was almost a pity that the Ninth was head of the Vongola, he reflected. He could have respected a Will like that, if only he'd encountered it at the head of some other Family, if only it hadn't been standing in the boss's way.

Well, whatever. He had a campaign to plan and a coup to postpone until they had the boss off ice. Squalo shoved his hands in his pockets and stalked off to get to work.


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