Characters: Xanxus, Timoteo
Summary: It's important for a leader to know how to delegate.
Notes: Part of Choice: The Betrothal Arc. General audiences. 2468 words.
"Let him stay," the old man said when his right hand tried to draw Xanxus away to—Xanxus didn't know what, actually, except that it was to go somewhere else, away from the old man, and the thought of letting him out of sight, or maybe just the thought of going along with any of the people who weren't even bothering to hide the way they were looking at him, made him snarl. The Ninth's guardians looked unhappy about it, but the old man gave them a fierce look and they gave in.
So Xanxus stayed close while the old man's doctor looked him over and listened to his heart and looked very serious.
"You've put an enormous strain on yourself," he said when he'd finally unhooked the stethoscope from his ears and let the old man start doing up his shirt again. "I don't know what you've been doing with yourself, but you've pushed yourself too hard. It's time you took a break and rested."
The old man laughed at that, the sound rusty. "I shall be sure to do so, just as soon as you tell me how I may."
The doctor didn't laugh; neither did Staffieri, the old man's Mist and right hand. "If you do not take the time to rest, sir, you are going to hurt yourself. You must take some time to rest your heart and let it recover." He folded his arms across his chest. "I want you on bed rest for a week. Two would be better. With no work to disturb you in that time."
"Mm, that does sound lovely." The old man looked wistful. "Completely impossible, of course, but lovely—"
"Boss," Staffieri said, while the doctor merely looked exasperated. "Boss, please, be reasonable—if you abandon us now, what would the Vongola do?"
"You would contrive something," the old man said. He didn't—quite—glance in Xanxus' direction, but Xanxus hunched his shoulders anyway, discomfited by the thought that he was that something and by the fact that Staffieri looked genuinely freaked out by that thought or something similar. Or maybe just scared for his boss. The old man.
"We don't want to contrive something," he argued, clearly worried. "Boss, please—"
"I suppose I could take it easier," the old man mused.
This was getting fucking ridiculous. "Don't be so damn stupid," Xanxus said. "What are your right hand and that shitty outside advisor for, if not to handle things for you? Take the damn bed rest, you shitty old man, and let them do their jobs. Christ."
There was a brief, frozen silence. Staffieri looked like he wanted to swallow his tongue, the doctor looked shocked, and the old man—
—was smiling, faintly, like something had pleased him. "I suppose that if I had the appropriate representative, I could leave things in his hands."
Xanxus stared at him, nonplussed. Surely the old fart didn't mean—but he was smiling like he did. "You must be joking."
"It would be a bit of a trial by fire, of course," the old man conceded. "I'm sure we could contrive something else if you'd rather not. Perhaps I could work from bed instead?"
Staffieri looked like he didn't know what he wanted to do, side with the old man or against him. The doctor, meanwhile, was pinching the bridge of his nose. "No, you don't understand, bed rest does not mean working while reclining. It means resting in bed so that your heart doesn't decide to lie down and rest the hard way! Which it is going to do if you don't take a break."
"Listen to him," Xanxus said, driven to it by the lack of alternatives and because he didn't want to pick up that ring again, not yet. "You're insane, by the way. But take the damn bed rest. All two weeks of it. Or whatever the doctor says."
The old man smiled at him, practically angelic. "If you insist."
Staffieri's sigh gusted out of him, full of relief. "Boss."
"Bed rest for at least two weeks, maybe three," the doctor said, beaming at Xanxus. "It will depend on how your body recuperates. We'll conduct regular checkups, of course."
"Of course." The old man was still smiling, complacently, clearly satisfied with himself.
He had, Xanxus decided, been maneuvered by a master of manipulation. Not that that was anything new.
After the doctor left them, the old man sighed. "Strict bed rest," he said. "It's almost like a vacation."
Staffieri stirred restlessly. "Boss, what did you do? The trial—wasn't like that when the Eighth handed over the ring to you."
"The circumstances were different this time." The old man settled himself against his pillows. "The trial depends as much on the one being tested as it does on those who've gone before us."
Xanxus hunched his shoulders and stalked over to the window to peer out it; the sunlight coming through the glass felt good. Warm. "You really are crazy," he said, not looking at either of them.
The old man chuckled again, less rusty this time. "No, my boy. I don't believe I am."
"Manipulative old fart." He crossed his arms across his chest, careful of the dressings on his burns, and looked out over the lawn, which looked the same as ever. Hard to believe that it had been eight years.
"Perhaps. Gianni, would you excuse us? I'll send Xanxus along to you shortly, I promise."
He didn't have to be looking to know that Staffieri was hesitating. But he said, "Yes, Boss," after a strained moment.
Xanxus waited till he'd closed the door after himself to say anything. "This morning I was trying to kill you." And now he wasn't. Didn't want to. Was—afraid to.
He grimaced at the thought, but it persisted, however unwilling he was to entertain it.
"Things change sometimes," the old man said. "Sometimes not for the worse."
Xanxus wrapped his arms more tightly around himself. "This is crazy. It's never going to work."
"I think that it may work better than you think." The old man sighed then. "Come here. Please. Sit with me."
Xanxus turned away from the window; the old man pretty much beamed at him as he dragged a chair closer to the bed and dropped himself into it. His smile didn't waver, not even when Xanxus folded his arms across his chest and frowned at him. "I don't understand why you're so convinced that this will work."
The Ninth's smile turned crooked. "The first thing you need to know is that the boss always needs to keep an ace in reserve," he said. He held up a hand when Xanxus stiffened; it trembled slightly. "No, don't be—don't. Let me tell you where things stand. You'll need to know these things."
He couldn't quite relax, despite the reassurance. "What things?"
"We've been working on the Family itself." The old man shifted himself against his pillows. "We've brought most of them around to remembering how strong you are. Believe me, that is one of your drawing points just now. Nearly everyone assumes that you are my son by blood as well, and most have been asking me when I would be calling you home from your exile. Very few people know what happened in the Cradle, so." The old man shrugged. "The consensus is that you should probably be the one to lead the Vongola."
"I'm a bastard," Xanxus said. "Everyone knows it." Had whispered it behind his back and called him it to his face, at least until he'd proved how bad an idea that could be on Mario Pozzo Nero's jaw.
"Yes, there is that." The old man sighed, looking like there was something he regretted. Xanxus braced himself accordingly. "There's one way we can address that, of course."
Xanxus gripped his elbows. "How's that?" he asked, though he had a sneaking suspicion that he already knew.
The old man looked at him, eyes grave. "The boss needs to marry carefully anyway," he said. "But you will have to marry even more carefully than most."
"Good luck with that." Xanxus dug his fingers into his elbows till they ached. "No one is going to give up his daughter so she can marry a bastard. Not even a Vongola bastard." He remembered the last party he'd attended and how very clearly Nico Barassi had made that very point. Not that he'd really wanted to dance with Nico's sister, or any of her stupid giggling friends, but—
"As it so happens, you're mistaken on that point." The old man folded his hands together. "This is something very few people know yet, my boy. It's something the Family prefers to keep quiet. But after the First retired, he left Italy for Japan and started a new family there. Sawada Iemitsu is a direct descendant of his. And so is his daughter."
Xanxus stared at the old man, confounded. There was another Vongola line? What the fuck? And then—"You must be joking," he said. "She's just a little kid!" And Sawada never had liked him.
"She's fourteen," the old man said, which Xanxus still couldn't quite wrap his mind around. "I haven't seen her since Iemitsu moved her and Nana to Japan, but he says she's a fairly quiet girl. Soft-spoken. And she understands that she's been betrothed to you."
Xanxus waited for him to start laughing and announce that he was joking, but he stayed calm. Serious. "What the fuck," he said. "Seriously, what the fuck?"
"Her position will legitimate yours," the old man said. "Inside the Family and outside of it. I would prefer to let you find and choose your own wife in the fullness of time, but I'm afraid that it's not really a possibility for us. I'm sorry about that. I wish it could be otherwise."
"Fuck," Xanxus said, unable to think of anything else to say. Or maybe he could. "She's legitimate then, is that what you're saying?" That got him a nod. "Then what the fuck, why not give the Family to her?"
"That would mean giving the Family to those who are not Vongola whenever she marries." The old man's jaw tightened. "I will not see that happen. Not while I still breathe. That is the last possible hope, the worst possible choice, and I will not take it. I refuse."
"So instead you're giving the Family to me." Xanxus passed a hand over his face. "You must be desperate."
"Not so desperate as you think." The old man went quiet. "I have always believed that, if you could be brought to care for the Family, you would be its fiercest protector." His smile was faint and said. "When that seemed unlikely, I hoped that an enlightened self-interest would serve the same ends." He sighed again. "I was mistaken, of course. And yet, here we are."
"Half the Family never even thought I should be here." Xanxus surprised himself by saying that. The old man looked surprised and Xanxus plunged on, willy-nilly. "They thought I didn't belong and they were right, I didn't, it wasn't real, it was all a lie. And your guardians knew all along, and they don't want me to be the Tenth, they never wanted that, and now you tell me I should protect these people? Why the fuck should I? None of them care about me."
"Those are fair points." The old man let out a breath. "The Family will follow you as long as you can show that you have its interests at heart. Eight years is a long time. They'll give you a chance to prove yourself. My guardians…" He stopped and looked away. "They will never forget, my boy. I doubt that they will forgive. But they will serve the Family. Can you accept that much?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"Of course, it's not true that none of the Family cares about you. Or that none of them are loyal to you." The old man waited till Xanxus grunted at him to go on. "The Varia are still yours, my boy. Squalo has worked ceaselessly on your behalf for years now. It's thanks to him that the Family remembers your name and strength."
Squalo. Xanxus didn't know what to make of the way relief stabbed through him. "He's not—you didn't shoot him?"
"No." The old man paused. "Though I have considered it a few times. I trust that your return will be enough to restrain his efforts to construct a coup on your behalf."
The old man seemed to be in dead earnest, too. "The fuck," Xanxus said.
"He's loyal to you," the old man said. "You and no one else. He will be the start of your Family. The rest will follow."
He sounded so sure of it, too, though Xanxus hardly saw how it could be so. "Where is he? I want to see him."
"On a mission." The old man shrugged. "It seemed… prudent, that I should speak with you before he did."
"Manipulative old fart," Xanxus told him, though, in justice, the old man was probably well within reason on that point.
He smiled like he knew it, too. "You'll see him when he comes to report, I'm sure. It's a pity I won't be there to see his face." He chuckled softly, then sobered. "You have one other member of your Family, my boy. Don't forget that you have me. For as long as I breathe, you have me. I promise you that."
It caught him like a punch driving into his gut, reminding him of those endless moments in the other place of the trial and the old man's Will holding him, absolutely sure. "You…" he said.
The old man who thought of himself as his father smiled. "Me," he said. "For as long as I have breath. And beyond, I suppose, given the nature of our Family's Flame."
Xanxus didn't know whether he wanted the clarification of what that meant. The old man just smiled at him gently, and after a moment, said, "Let me tell you about the things you have missed."
"You're supposed to be resting," Xanxus said, diving into the refuge of the doctor's orders.
"Talking is like resting," the old man argued.
"Bullshit." Xanxus levered himself out of the chair, ready to walk out and do—something. Yeah. He stopped when the old man said his name. "What?"
"You'll come back tomorrow and tell me how you're getting on, won't you?" The old man gave him an earnest look. "Please?"
"…yeah. I will."
Funny how that was all it took to get the old man to smile. "I'll look forward to it."
Xanxus nodded, quick and curt, and made his escape while he still could.
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