War of Aggression

Squalo meets Xanxus and Xanxus meets the Varia, and everything follows from that. Beginning overlaps the end of “Blood Will Tell“. Drama, I-4, Squalo->Xanxus UST

The sword was everything to Squalo—the purity of a single goal and the cleanness of perfection. In a world that hid so much, despite the stark edges of every word and action, the sword was one thing that made perfect sense. It made him a little crazy that no one else seemed to understand that.

Really crazy.

He’d started his training journey hoping to find other people who understood, looking for them eagerly around every new corner, and a few even seemed to. But only a few, the ones it took a few days to defeat.

He had started out killing only when the fight went that way, when the swords called for it: the man in northern China, with the hawk that watched them fight and flew when he fell, the old man in France who’d torn a line through Squalo’s ribs and smiled with his last breath, blood trickling past his bared teeth. After a while, though, Squalo started asking the swords for it, asking to obliterate disappointment after disappointment. It was only a small ease, but it was something.

Even that wore thin after a while, and he killed indifferently. Perfection was the only thing left to chase; someone else to understand it was obviously too much to ask the world for.

When he returned, Tyr shook his head and told him he’d live happier if he served the Vongola instead of the sword. Squalo wanted to scream his denial of that, but he didn’t use his voice to do it; it was better to let his sword answer, scream after scream of steel on steel through the hours, through the slant and set of sunlight, as his breath came light and burning in his lungs. He didn’t bother telling Tyr’s body that he would serve the sword; Tyr’s body already knew.

Walking among the Vongola was like walking among any other people—like walking through paper dolls, clumsy and thin, only a few of them with any fire in them and that infuriatingly hidden. He went where he was asked, showed around to the few who knew what he would be, and it meant nothing.

Until him.

Squalo didn’t even know who he was, at first, only that in a garden full of thin, airy people, he was dark and dense and hot, hot enough to melt even sword steel. When Squalo asked his name, burning eyes slid through him and he barely heard the answer.

"Xanxus."

Squalo had never known a human could be a sword, be that single of mind, that perfectly focused—that crazy. It only took a few days to realize the last part, but by then he didn’t care.

Before

"The Varia." Xanxus frowned a little. "Who are they?"

Squalo cocked his head; did the Boss hold that back even from his sons? Well, he hadn’t been told not to tell the heirs, so it didn’t matter really. "We’re the Vongola’s assassins. We’re the best."

The fire at the back of Xanxus’ eyes flared for a moment. "The best, huh?" His thin mouth curled. "That’s a start." He focused on Squalo and Squalo almost swayed back with the weight of it. "Show me."

"Our headquarters are in a different house."

Xanxus shrugged. "So?"

After a moment, Squalo laughed. Of course it wouldn’t make any difference; nothing would make any difference to this man or mark the purity of his purpose. He swept out his right hand and bowed with a flourish, half mocking and dead serious. "Right this way."

They walked past the mansion’s guards without a word, and Squalo saw the way Xanxus’ eyes marked where each one stood, aware of every target around him. They took the best car from the garages; Xanxus pulled the keys out of the cabinet and tossed them at Squalo, who shrugged. It was appropriate, wasn’t it?

He did want to see, some time, how Xanxus would drive, whether he’d do it as fast and hard as he walked and spoke and looked, but that could wait.

They were waved through into the sprawling old building the Varia kept, as soon as the guards there recognized Squalo, and no one commented about the man he was showing around the white plastered training rooms. People did gather, though.

"Weak," Xanxus muttered, eyes passing over the lower ranks working out, adding cuts and craters to the walls, to be patched over like all the others. Squalo snorted and nodded toward the far corner where Viper was playing mind games with one of the stronger of the new recruits. Xanxus watched, not blinking as walls appeared and vanished, as Levi punched through them trying to reach his opponent. "Hmph." Finally he pushed away from the wall. "All right, then. I’ll take the Varia."

A startled sound ran through the watchers and one of the squad leaders shouldered forward. "Only the Varia decide who we’ll recruit and accept. Who says you’re good enough for us?"

"I say he is." Squalo’s flat voice cut through the mutter of agreement and stilled it.

Xanxus paused in his step forward to turn and glare at him. "And who are you?"

"The leader of the Varia." Squalo lifted his chin, matching Xanxus’ hot stare. A corner of Xanxus mouth curled up, neither a smile nor a snarl.

"Not any more."

"Not any more," Squalo agreed, voice a little husky despite himself, because standing under Xanxus’ eyes was like standing in a fire.

"Fucking right, not any more, if you give it up that easy," Fazio called, moving up to stand across from them. His squad second, the one who’d protested the most when Squalo, instead of Fazio, took over after Tyr, stood at his shoulder and suddenly there was a block coming together. Squalo curled his lip and reached for his sword; his new left hand wasn’t ready yet, but he could take these right handed and end this now.

Light flickered at the corner of his eye and he glanced over, breath catching as what had to be the Vongola Flame gathered in Xanxus’ bare hand. Squalo looked up at him, at his suddenly fixed smile and the rage in his eyes, and bent his head, stepping back.

He watched, leaning against the uneven wall, while Xanxus’ fists pounded the third squad leader until he couldn’t have three unbroken bones left, while Xanxus shot Fazio’s second five times and barely looked at him, while Xanxus closed his burning hand on Fazio’s face and blasted his head off. In the silence afterwards, broken only by Xanxus’ hard breaths hissing past his teeth, Squalo looked around and nodded.

"Looks like that’s that, then." He waited until Xanxus looked at him and a little of the killing glaze left his eyes, and added, "Boss."

Xanxus flexed his hand, breath steadying, shoulders relaxing a little. "Damn right."


Xanxus took over rooms on the west side with a balcony hidden behind trees; Squalo was glad, because Xanxus wanted to see him at odd times and he didn’t much care for the insipid atmosphere of the main headquarters.

"So what is it you want, anyway?" he asked one afternoon, leaning against the balcony’s rough stone rail, watching Xanxus slouch in one of the two chairs. He asked half just to see the fire in Xanxus’ eyes flare, but half because he was really starting to wonder.

"The Vongola," Xanxus growled.

"So you’re passing the time here until the Ninth kicks off?" Squalo’s mouth twisted, but he couldn’t manage too much bitterness. The time he had to be near this fire was more than he might have expected to get from one of the heirs.

"I’m not going to wait for that."

Squalo started upright, wavering on the rail before he caught himself, eyes wide as he stared at the thin, crooked smile Xanxus was wearing. "You… what?"

Xanxus looked up and Squalo got lost again in the raw ferocity of his gaze. "They won’t let me inherit."

"I thought you were favored for it, now that Federico is dead," Squalo said slowly. He swore he’d heard at least half the under-bosses of the Family talking about how they’d want Xanxus to be the Tenth.

"Not by the old bastard. Not by any of the old men." Xanxus didn’t move from his slouch in the dappled shade, but violence in waiting sang from the line of his shoulders, the tension of his hands. It made Squalo a little breathless.

"So you’re going to take it anyway?" he asked, low, eyes fixed on Xanxus. "Take it now?"

Xanxus smiled up at him, teeth bared, and the weight of his intent nearly buckled Squalo’s knees. "Yeah."

Squalo’s brain finally kicked into gear. "That’s why you want us?"

"Mm." Xanxus’ intensity banked again and he picked up his glass and drained it. "Some of you anyway."

Xanxus’ particular attention to a few dozen of the Varia snapped into a pattern and Squalo laughed. This was a goal that matched that burning focus. "If that’s what you want. Boss." They both heard the difference in the way he said it, this time, and a moment of satisfaction hooded Xanxus’ eyes.

Only the strongest should lead, that was an article of faith among the Varia. As far as Squalo was concerned, Xanxus was the Tenth.


"It’s the best moment for us to go. Reborn is assigned out to the Cavallone and the outside advisor is back in Japan. The Storm will still be around, but the Cloud is out putting the fear of her into the Valetti, we can deal with her later. The Thunder is up in Venezia this month, too."

"That means we still have four of them to hit." Otello frowned, flipping a knife absently. "Will they be on the Ninth or the entrances?"

"Everyone agrees the Mist will stay on the Ninth and the Storm will go for the front line." Squalo folded his arms, leaning a hip on the scarred wood table that filled the middle of the room. "The Rain and the Sun could do either."

"Levi for the front whenever the alarm goes up, then," Carlo murmured, and the entire room chuckled. Carlo approved of his new squad member, but Levi’s enthusiasm had given even him some headaches.

"We’ll come through here," Squalo rapped a knuckle over the main entrance. "Vinci, your squad will come in from the north. Get past as many of the small fry as you can without involving them, they don’t need to know until it’s over."

Vinci flicked a glance at Xanxus, sprawled in his chair and not looking like he was paying any attention at all. Squalo rolled his eyes.

He was treating this as just another assassination, and that meant blueprints and timing and people knowing who was going to be where. Xanxus, as far as he could tell, would prefer to ditch all that and burn through the front door and every wall in his way on a straight line between him and the Ninth. It wasn’t that Squalo actually minded that, and he’d assigned himself to go in with Xanxus so he could watch it happen. Some of the others, even after six months to get used to it, weren’t taking their new boss’ brooding as calmly.

Or maybe it was just that Vinci was the one who’d been promoted to replace Fazio.

"North side. Right." Vinci said, finally, and Squalo snorted.

"Get with it, or I’ll kill you my own damn self! There’s no room for screw ups in this one."

That lit up everyone in the room, spines straightening, eyes brightening. This would, without question, be the ultimate test of their strength. A corner of Squalo’s mouth drew up. They were going to put the best, the realest Vongola in charge. The Vongola who understood strength.

The Vongola who was purest.


Sirens were going, surprise was blown, so was some of the middle of the mansion, the air was hard to breath for the hanging gunpowder, and Squalo was laughing.

This was it, this was how it should be, the unstoppable rush along that one single line toward victory. He ran at Xanxus’ back, spinning aside to cut down the men who tried to flank them, and pure exhilaration filled him, shivering down his spine every time Xanxus fired.

They had figured they would have to go through at least one of the Guardians before they even found the Ninth and the Sun was the one they ran into. Somehow Squalo wasn’t surprised.

"Xanxus!" Rizzo shouted, and Squalo saw the distant focus in Xanxus’ gaze come closer for a moment, lips pulling up off his teeth.

"Fedele! My son, you little piece of shit!"

Xanxus actually laughed at that, and Squalo fell back out of his way.

Rizzo and Xanxus left their guns aside and met with their fists, brutal and fast in the middle of the open hall. They ignored anything happening around them and almost nothing was; Squalo cut down the three defenders who had followed him and Xanxus this far through the twisting maze of hallways. Rizzo was the only one who had come from ahead. Squalo eyed the open door beyond him and smiled, teeth bared. That was one of the entrances to the vaults.

There weren’t even words to Rizzo’s shouting anymore, just raw rage as he drove fists and feet into Xanxus. Xanxus didn’t bother to answer out loud, but the glimpses Squalo got of his snarl, of the frozen hate in his eyes, were harsher than any curses.

Finally, Xanxus kicked Rizzo back toward the open door, drew his gun, and smiled. Squalo’s breath caught at the chill calculation in that look, and he dove for the floor as Xanxus fired, Flame blooming out from the path of it, cracking the walls. The shot smashed Rizzo back through the door and down the stairs, and Squalo dove after him on Xanxus’ heels.

There were more gunmen down in the vaults.

Squalo rolled and came up behind a pillar, poised to dash in to sword range, eye mapping the field. Rizzo was down; a handful of the Varia were running in from the other side of the vaults; the Ninth was to the back; Xanxus was roaring and charging towards him; the old man’s right hand was coming to meet him. The Storm and Sun were accounted for upstairs. That left…

Squalo threw himself aside as another sword cut the stone over his head. He looked up and bared his teeth at the Rain, the one who thought he was a swordsman. "Not bad. But not good enough!" He twisted his arm to draw his sword.

"You’re quick to judge that," Martelli returned, cool, and attacked again.

He was sharp and fast, the cool part of Squalo’s mind observed, and he had some fire. But not enough of it. Squalo drove in again and again, willing to pay with blood for the openings that would lead to victory, matching his still-light frame against the age of Martelli’s joints. The gash across his shoulder matched the one in Martelli’s thigh and they both had to dive apart to avoid the slashing shards of stone where Xanxus’ blast hit one of the pillars.

Martelli’s style was evasive, his sword light; he wouldn’t meet any of Squalo’s cuts straight on enough for the moves like Attacco di Squalo to work. Squalo pressed in on him, watching the line of his sword, working to cage it. Martelli turned the moment and and bound his sword for a breath. Squalo’s grin pulled a bit wider; Martelli wasn’t a true swordsman, but he was good enough to be interesting.

"Why have the Varia betrayed the Vongola?" Martelli asked, dark eyes locked with Squalo’s, pushing at his focus.

"We’ve betrayed nothing," Squalo growled back. "You lot with your pathetic, half-hearted spirits, what do you know about what’s true? How can you see it? We serve the Vongola through him." He shifted his balance and threw Martelli back, exultation leaping higher. There was the opening he wanted, as Martelli’s heel came down short, and he lunged for it, everything focused in the moment, clean and sharp and burning.

For a moment the purity of triumph kept him from feeling the pain.

"What’s true is the Family," Martelli said quietly in his ear, words cutting through the clamor and echo of the other fighting. "And what will best serve the Family is steel that’s tempered. Ruthlessness with compassion. Mercy with determination." His lips peeled back. "If you insist that we also prove the tempered blade is the strongest… I’ll trust Timoteo to do that."

Then Martelli fell and his sword ripped back out of Squalo’s side and he couldn’t completely stifle the sound he made. The cool, fluted stone of a pillar was at his back and he slid down it, staring across the floor at Martelli. He knew the truth of those words about tempering, but Xanxus…

"The best sword needs a will to wield it," he gasped. But it was too late; Martelli had passed out. Looking beyond him Squalo saw the Ninth’s right hand down as well. So it must be the Ninth himself he heard on the other side of the pillar, fighting with Xanxus.

Flame blew another chunk out of the pillar to his left and his mouth curled in a bloody smile; maybe he’d stay where he was for now.

And then the blasts stopped.

Squalo’s vision was going a bit gray at the edges, not that it was easy to tell in the darkness of the vaults. He pressed a hand tight to his side, biting down a harsh gasp, and listened. Had Xanxus won?

But no, Xanxus and the Ninth were both talking. Yelling. Squalo stared into the dark ahead of him, eyes stretched wide as he listened, and suddenly he understood the whole thing, understood why the purity of Xanxus’ rage had that edge of smoldering desperation sometimes. The cold of the stone behind and under him seeped into his bones as he listened.

When he heard shock in Xanxus’ voice and a sound he couldn’t identity, he rolled to the left, ignoring the tearing pain in his side, and saw all the passion and perfect focus he had ever wanted to follow frozen. That was the picture that followed him down into redness and then into blackness. His last, unraveling thought was that it wasn’t right. His death for failing this mission should have come at Xanxus’ hands.

After

Squalo stared up at the ceiling of a hospital room, watching the movement of the dim square of light reflecting off the tile floor and wondering a bit absently whether he was going to live. Having woken up here wasn’t an actual guarantee of life; they might just be saving him as a witness. The Ninth did seem to want justifications before he shot people.

When the Ninth’s right hand arrived alone and locked the door behind him, Squalo wondered some more.

Staffieri looked down at him coldly, and Squalo stared back. Finally the man spoke. "Xanxus is exiled."

Squalo laughed, even though it still hurt like hell; he couldn’t help it. "Ah. So he’s on ice, huh?"

Staffieri’s eyes narrowed. "You were conscious, then. And you didn’t stand by him?"

Squalo bared his teeth at that; they understood nothing. "And get in his way? Fuck no. Besides, without that hell technique, whatever the fuck it was, he’d have won." He took some satisfaction in the way Staffieri’s mouth tightened. He hoped the man was remembering who’d taken him down.

"Xanxus is no longer here," Staffieri continued, shifting stiffly on his feet. "And very few people know what happened that day, certainly none of Vongola’s enemies. It is the Ninth’s wish that this continue. If you will give your oath to obey only the Ninth’s orders, you will be released to take charge of the Varia once more and set it in order."

Squalo turned his eyes up to the blank ceiling again, energy and emotion alike running out of him. "Yeah. Sure I will." What was the point of doing otherwise, with Xanxus frozen in a block of fucking ice, for God’s sake? "The Varia belong to the Vongola."

And if it wasn’t the Vongola he’d wanted, well, what the hell else was he going to do?

Staffieri nodded silently and turned on his heel.

"Hey!" Squalo called, suddenly, and the man looked back over his shoulder. "Is Xanxus still alive, in there?"

Staffieri’s mouth tightened. "Yes."

And he didn’t like it, obviously. Tough. Squalo took a breath. "Is he conscious?"

Staffieri studied him for a long moment before finally answering. "I don’t believe so, no. He is… suspended, as it were."

Squalo closed his eyes. "Okay." As the door clicked open and shut he stared at the back of his eyelids and thought about that. It was about as merciful as being frozen could be; at least Xanxus wouldn’t know he was locked away like that.

A tiny thought stirred in the back of his head, suggesting that, if Xanxus ever got out, he would pick up right where he left off. Squalo shoved the thought in a mental box. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for serving the Ninth, but he didn’t want to die, either. He’d make his oath and mean it.

For as long as the Ninth lasted.


Squalo looked down the roster of the Varia and rolled his eyes. It was time to talk to Bel again about keeping down the fatalities when he played with the supporting members. He swore the little shit did it just to annoy him, because Bel was otherwise one of the most practical of the squad leaders, right up there with Mammon and far more willing to fight. He leaned back, crossing his ankles on the immovably solid desk, and scribbled a note to himself right handed as he flipped the roster back onto the desk and reached for this month’s intelligence summary.

"Boss!" The door flung open so hard the knob scarred the wood paneling and Squalo looked up with a glare.

"I told you not to call me that."

Carlo leaned against the door frame, panting, and gave him back glare for glare. "You do the work, don’t fucking argue now, something happened!"

Squalo made another note, this one mental, to "train" with Carlo some time soon; just because he was the oldest surviving squad leader, and had been in on the Cradle five years ago, didn’t mean Squalo was going to put up with any shit about this. He wasn’t the Varia’s boss; the Varia’s boss was frozen, not dead.

"Goddamn it, Squalo, listen to me! Enrico just killed Massimo!"

Squalo grunted. "Old man’s down to one, now, is he?"

His hand, reaching for the papers, halted in midair as his own words echoed back to him. Just one son left. Just one standing between the Boss’ chair and the only candidate who was also qualified. Except that he wasn’t, of course.

Except that no one but the Ninth and his Guardians, and Squalo himself, knew that. And the Ninth was obviously soft on Xanxus, even after Xanxus tried to kill him, or else why was Xanxus still alive?

He sat back, eyes fixed on Carlo, and spread his hands on the desk. "So. I guess that means Enrico is going to be the next." The next boss, he meant, of course.

The brief curl of Carlo’s lips was fierce and pleased. "Yeah. If he’s going to make it, he’d better stop picking up the girls from other Families, though. That little piece from the Vieri he’s making time with this month would sell him out for a couple of pretty rocks." The sneer that went with the statement looked totally genuine so Squalo figured he didn’t mean the kind of rocks that came in jewelry. That would make things easier; she’d be paid and dead in one shot, if he could get something pure enough through the Bolzoni.

"Well, if she’s that easy to buy off, the Family can probably pay her to leave him alone." He shrugged carelessly. "If anyone can convince him." He leaned back again, crossing his arms behind his head, and grinned at Carlo, showing his teeth. "What do you think? Maybe Lussuria could persuade him; he’s always giving everyone else relationship advice."

Carlo rolled his eyes. "If he can’t, hell, maybe Mammon can try the practical approach."

Yes. That would work. Mammon’s illusion could cover the team and Lussuria never had problems with cleaning up targets and obstacles alike. And once the last son was out of the way…

He and Carlo both smiled, slowly, eyes meeting across the desk of the Varia’s boss.


"…never actually proven, was it?"

"Even if he did kill the favorite, it’s not like the Ninth has room to be picky any more."

Squalo paused around a corner and smiled to himself. A few words dropped here and there, some squad leaders reminiscing over drinks about what an effective leader Xanxus had been, and it was amazing how the whole Family, anxious over the lack of an heir, was talking about the same man.

"Squalo!" Ricci called to him as he walked past them. "Just the man. Listen, about Xanxus…"

"Xanxus is exiled by the Ninth’s order," Squalo said flatly. The flat tone wasn’t hard when he thought about the form of that ‘exile’.

"Yes, but if he weren’t. I mean it’s not like there’s anyone else left, is there? So tell me; would he make a good Boss?"

Squalo looked aside. "I can’t speak for that," he muttered. "He was a good leader to the Varia." He watched the two underbosses out of the corner of his eye and was careful to show no satisfaction at the thoughtful looks on their faces. A man who could lead the Varia, after all, would make easy work of the rest of the Family, wouldn’t he?

"I heard you won’t let anyone call you the Varia’s boss," Gallo put in, leaning against the wall, eyes sharp.

Squalo lifted his head; this he didn’t need to fake or be careful of. "Xanxus is exiled, not dead. He’s our boss."

Ricci and Gallo exchanged a long look and Squalo turned away down the hall again, suppressing the urge to whistle cheerfully. Just a few more like that, and they’d be getting somewhere.

Three weeks later he was called in to talk to the Ninth.

"I understand you’ve been talking to people about Xanxus," the old man said, mild as milk which didn’t fool Squalo for a second.

"People have been talking to me," Squalo corrected, folding his arms. "I’m not going to lie about him, if they ask." He let his mouth twist. "Not any more than we’re all lying already."

The Ninth sat back with a sigh and his right hand gave Squalo a glare that said he’d be happy to shoot Squalo where he stood. Squalo ignored it; it wasn’t Staffieri he had to convince.

"Well," the old man said, "be honest with me, also, then. If Xanxus is released, will he make another attempt?"

It made things easier, Squalo reflected, that the Ninth obviously wanted the answer to be no. "You defeated him," he said, a bit through his teeth but that was only to be expected. "The Varia live and die by our strength, and only the strongest have the right to lead." And this time, that strength wouldn’t be betrayed by a trick, at the end. They’d plan better.

"Mmm." The Ninth folded his hands under his chin, staring at nothing.

"Boss," Staffieri said, quiet but agitated. "You can’t really be thinking…"

"I do not agree with those who say Xanxus is the only choice," the Ninth said, to both of them Squalo thought. "But we are in need of strength to protect the Family, now." He nodded to Squalo. "Thank you. You can go."

Squalo closed the door behind him on Staffieri arguing with the Ninth in a low voice, and smiled. He thought he knew who would win, in the end.

In the end, it would be Xanxus.


When he heard the raised voice, Squalo brushed past the foot soldiers standing, or trying to, in front of the vault door and into that echoing, scarred room. The other squad leaders followed him. "Boss!"

Xanxus was shaking and pale, except for the raw-looking scars over most of his skin, but he was on his feet and had breath to shout. That was all Squalo needed.

Except that the shouting cut off sharply when Xanxus saw him, and Squalo paused, cautious of the tangled shock and rage in Xanxus’ face. "Boss," he said again, offering it like a guide-rope to draw their leader back to himself, back to them.

Back to him.

"Squalo," Xanxus said, finally, voice harsh and rasping.

Squalo didn’t step forward, didn’t support Xanxus, didn’t move as Xanxus staggered toward them. They were the Varia and he was their leader, and the Ninth’s goddamn Guardians could frown all they liked. They’d never understood.

Xanxus raked his eyes over all of them, settling at last on Squalo again, and if the fire in them was wilder than it had been, well, none of them had much vested in sanity. Finally he nodded.

"Let’s go."

Squalo smiled, tight and sharp, hearing the future in those two words. "Yes, Boss."

End