A/N: It's a miracle! I've updated one of my stories! Seriously though, sorry for the wait. I've been quite busy this year. I can't tell you all how much I appreciated the reviews for my story – I probably wouldn't have gotten this out without them.
Keeping Your Character - Chapter Nineteen
Dino jumped slightly as he heard the front door bang open downstairs, followed by Tsuna yelling for Reborn to explain the crowd of men in black suits in his front yard. He usually wasn't so jumpy in the presence of his subordinates, but being in the same room as both Reborn and Lambo made him a tad tense.
"Dino," Lambo stated in a stern tone.
The Cavallone boss jolted at the extremely serious tone, surprised at the lack of playfulness or dry wit.
"Doormat-guy doesn't know my alter-ego, despite me being his bodyguard, so don't let it slip," Lambo commanded him. While her contract with Iemitsu did make an allowance for Tsuna on the restriction of hiding her alter ego (and circumstantial exceptions concerning any new Famiglia members), she didn't really care to have the wimpy boy find out. Mostly because his reactions to things wouldn't be nearly as hilarious if he was a lot more scared of her – but also because she wasn't sure at how good he was at keeping secrets yet. Besides, the fewer people who know a secret, the less chance there is of it coming to light. It was just common sense.
Dino opened his mouth, nearly protesting on reflex at the lack of trust between bodyguard and the protected. Especially since the protected in this case was someone he was going to have a close alliance with in the future – a sort of adopted 'brother', he hoped. But then he remembered exactly who he was nearly contradicting.
Still, he was a tad hesitant at keeping something so relevant from Tsuna, despite his inherent apprehension of her, and his expression showed that.
Lambo mentally rolled her eyes, but outwardly, she directed a deeply soulful look at Dino, clutching her side where she had been shot while shielding him with her body.
Dino flinched, immediately caving to the emotional manipulation where intimidation had failed. While he had built up a resistance to such tactics over the years, those barriers tended to break down quickly in the face of Reborn, because of his former status as tutor, and Lambo, because she saved his life (and was super scary).
'Too easy,' Lambo thought with a blank expression, watching in absolute ennui as Tsuna and Dino met for the first time.
Later that night, after the trouble with the water-absorbent turtle in the bathtub had been dealt with, and Dino had left for his hotel, Lambo was getting ready herself for a night of surveillance. As she sat perched in the tree in the Sawada's front yard, untangling some strings that led to her perimeter traps, Reborn hopped out of Tsuna's window to sit on the branch next to her.
Reborn eyed his student's bodyguard out of the corner of his eye. He had noticed that Lambo had been getting more and more listless as the Tsuna job went on – though she was still just as efficient as ever in detaining assassins. He couldn't really blame her of course. He himself sometimes had the urge to just go out and fulfill the 'hitman' part of his title, rather than the 'home tutor' part. And she probably had it worse, because while he had previous experience with being somewhat tied down when teaching Dino, and being contracted with the Vongola Family, Lambo had never been part of a Family (that Reborn knew of) and had never committed to a long term contract like the one she was on now. He was still half-convinced that Iemitsu had sold his soul to get her to take the job.
To make things worse, Namimori was for the most part the picture of peaceful suburbia unless Reborn was actively shaking things up. While he sensed that Lambo enjoyed some down time as much as the next non-workaholic, the complete lack of any kind of real threat must be grating on her – the small fry assassins being sent to 'test the waters' of the protections around the Vongola Decimo didn't even register.
To the Black Sheep, a bounty hunter widely known throughout the mafia for her brutal efficiency, constant movement, and back-to-back job-taking it must be like some sort of purgatory.
Oh, she didn't show it overtly. She still teased Tsuna regularly, and went through her usual actions in much the same way. But Reborn had been an acquaintance of hers for years even before they had started working so closely together – thus, he could read her fairly well, despite her not being very expressive. He could tell that Lambo viewed fights as something enjoyable, but also as a way to release the emotions she repressed most of the time. Without her usual outlet, her boredom was nearly boiling over.
Reborn frowned. That Lambo so disliked taking this kind of job was not conducive to her ever being successfully persuaded to become the Tsuna's Lightning Guardian, which was something he had wanted ever since he had taken the job to tutor the boy. She was one of the best candidates he had ever seen for such a position, something that even Iemitsu had grudgingly agreed with when they had talked on it - though the man had warned him to be extremely cautious if he ever decided to act on that notion. Not only was she extremely skillful in pure combat situations, but he was becoming increasingly aware that she had friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, in high places – or low places, rather, being in the mafia as they were.
Iemitsu, the one who had somehow wheedled her into taking this job (Reborn often wondered what exactly the man could have promised her to make her agree), was head of the CEDEF. Dino, who still felt somewhat indebted to her, was the Boss of the Cavallone Famiglia. Shamal, who seemed to respect her more than other females Reborn had seen him interact with, was currently the best doctor in the mafia. Reborn had even heard that she had an 'in' with the head of the bounty industry centered in Mafia Land, and there was no telling who else she had met during her constant travels as a bounty hunter.
If you added in the fact that he himself was on friendly terms with her (meaning he at least wouldn't shoot her without a good reason) Reborn couldn't help but think that she was too good at networking for her own good. Though, he supposed she would have to be, considering she was a completely unaffiliated bounty hunter – a successful one, at that.
Such capabilities would be highly valuable in one of Tsuna's Guardians, considering most of the candidates Reborn was keeping in mind were clueless about mafia matters. (And the exception to that rule, Gokudera, was a bit too hotheaded at times to use his knowledge properly.)
"You wanted something, Reborn?" Lambo asked the tiny hitman, interrupting his thoughts as she glanced at him through her night-vision goggles. He had never before come out to talk to when it was her turn for night watch.
"You seem bored lately," Reborn stated bluntly, scrutinizing her reaction.
Lambo halted in her movements of untangling the strings. She peered over at the Arcobaleno, wondering why he would really care. Reborn wasn't exactly one to concern himself with the mental welfare of other people, and it wasn't like she was letting her disinterest affect her efficiency. If there was one thing she prided herself on, it was her professionalism, mostly because no one would ever hire out a bounty hunter that lacked it.
"Well, it hasn't exactly been exhilarating around here," she finally replied, turning her attention back to the trap strings.
Reborn hummed in agreement. "It won't affect your efficiency," he said more as a subtle order than as a question.
Lambo stiffened slightly, frowning over at the baby as she set down her work. "Please don't question my competence, Reborn. Just because I see a bit uninterested at the moment doesn't mean that I'm slacking. If I couldn't work through boredom, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Reborn smirked slightly at getting such a reaction from her – though her goggles hid most of her expression. "I know that from your reputation you've never been anything but efficient on previous jobs. But this is a bit more... lasting than your previous jobs, isn't it?"
Lambo sighed, leaning back against the trunk of the tree as she scooped up a thermos of Earl Grey to sip at. "You're not wrong about that. Maybe I need to pick up a new hobby or something."
"Or get a boyfriend," Reborn commented with a small smirk, expecting her to either stare blankly at him, or start making blunt comments about the prospective romantic partners she knew. He was surprised when Lambo's reaction to his words was to spurt tea from her nose as she snorted quietly in incredulous laughter. He had the feeling that it would be uncharacteristically loud and raucous if she wasn't conscientious of the fact that the Sawada household was currently abed.
"Reborn, that's probably the least likely, time-occupying thing for me ever," she told him, a hint of amused disbelief lingering on her face. "There are very few guys who I would want to date in the first place and I'm pretty sure that none of them would want to date me in return. I think I'll stick with a new hobby."
Reborn raised an eyebrow, intrigued by her unexpected reaction to his little comment. It almost seemed as if she had… low self-esteem. He had never even considered that she might not be as confident as she portrayed herself. After all, most people he had met in the mafia had never been all that self-conscious or even particularly layered in personality. She had never seemed much different.
The tiny hitman hopped back inside, leaving his coworker to ponder potential hobbies as his own thoughts churned within his head.
Soon after Dino's visit to the Sawada household, Christmas was upon the world.
One member of the Sawada household was particularly happy at this.
'Not only is there time off from school, but apparently Lambo's contract gives her the entire Christmas holiday off!' Tsuna thought to himself with a smile as he woke up on Christmas Eve.
He was especially happy for a reprieve from Lambo's usual antics, because lately, he had noticed that each jibe from her had steadily been losing some of her natural, lazy playfulness. Instead, it had been almost as if she were only mocking him out of habit – and the hollow ring behind each tease somehow seemed much worse than when there was genuine emotion behind it.
While he didn't really want to feel worried about someone who had only been mean to him, he couldn't quite help it. She had been such a constant in his life ever since she had appeared – and he knew that she had saved his life many times over, though she didn't mention it much. He could only hope that the holiday spirit might put her in a better mood when she returned to 'Doormat Duty' as she called it.
Currently, he was out and about in the Namimori Shopping District, dodging the large amount of romantic couples out on holiday dates, and hoping to find a good present for his mother. He wasn't quite sure whether or not she had even noticed the odd happenings that had started occurring ever since Reborn arrived, but he wanted to give her something nice in return for not making a big fuss over it all. Best of all, he was completely alone – no baby hitmen, or chain-smoking bombers, or anyone mafia related at all was with him. It was his first peaceful moment to himself in a long time. He sat down on a public bench, just to savor it for a moment.
And of course the moment he did so, his peaceful mood was forcefully evaporated by outside influence.
A wave of shoppers parted subconsciously for a figure swathed with a very somber air, seemingly dampening their cheer just by being there. Tsuna took a few moments to recognize the person walking in his direction, with her hair hidden by a white beanie, and her face covered with an unfamiliar emotion.
He paused for a moment in absolute surprise as he watched Lambo skulk through the crowd of twittering, saccharine couples, an expression of melancholy painting her usually bored or smirking face. While he was wary at her sudden appearance, he was also curious about her unusually subdued demeanor. He dithered for a moment, his conscience warring with his inherent alarm of her. He had just decided to walk off in another direction to leave her to her own business, when he was held suddenly in place by a pair of bright green eyes. He stiffened with the instinctual fear of prey in front of a predator, wondering whether he should bolt before she pounced.
"Oh. Hey, Tsuna," Lambo said in a listless voice.
Tsuna gaped up at her from his seat, wondering at the lack of demeaning nickname for him. His jaw dropped even further as Lambo plopped down next to him, relaxing comfortably onto the bench without a hint of her usual disdain for his presence.
Lambo surveyed the crowd before them with blank eyes, trailing her gaze over happy couple after happy couple.
"Christmas is so different in Japan," she told her unwitting companion. "It's commercialized to the point that it lacks any kind of spirit behind it other than greed, and it's so geared toward couples that there's no room for time with family."
Tsuna licked suddenly dry lips as he eyed his suddenly talkative bodyguard. She had always been quite reticent about anything involving herself – even most of her opinions – for her to suddenly be spouting off her thoughts on the holiday season was extremely weird, even for him.
"Why don't you leave for the holidays then if you don't like it here? Go see your family?" Tsuna blurted unthinkingly.
A bitter smile crossed her face as her eyes cut over to look at him. "I don't have a family anymore."
Tsuna flushed with self-admonishment, looking away. 'Stupid Dame-Tsuna, you always say the wrong thing.'
There was an awkward silence, at least on Tsuna's part; Lambo seemed to be mentally far away for the moment as she absently watched the crowd milling about.
"…why are you telling me this?" Tsuna spoke up timidly.
"Hm?" Lambo turned to face him again. "Why not you? I know you, don't I?"
"Yeah, but you hate me!" he burst out, the sentiment having been building in him for quite some time.
Lambo looked at him, nonplussed, slouching slightly against the back of the bench. "What makes you think that I'm emotionally invested enough in you to hate you?" she asked, a small wrinkle between her eyebrows.
Tsuna stared at her, not sure what to feel at that.
"Look kid, don't take offense to it. There aren't many people that I feel strongly about either way." She told him honestly. "Besides, you're the person I was hired to protect, and hate isn't exactly conducive to fulfilling the job requirements."
"Well, even if you don't hate me, I'm pretty sure you don't like me," Tsuna muttered.
"Well, you're basically the reason I'm stuck here, on the most boring job I've ever had. And I can admit that I'm enough of a bitch to take out my frustration on you," Lambo said bluntly.
"Because I'm Dame-Tsuna, and therefore an easy target?" Tsuna said, bitter, but resigned to his role as a figurative and literal punching bag for the world.
"That's why," Lambo said, suddenly much more animated than he had ever seen her. "You're completely useless at pretty much everything, but that's not why I don't like you. I don't like you because you've decided that you're never going to amount to anything more, so you don't even bother trying anymore – even when an opportunity for self-betterment presents itself to you on a silver platter! You run away from any problems, take the easy way out of any conflict, and you accept the fact that people see you as useless, because you see yourself the same way."
She leaned in close to his face, an intense expression on her face. "And it galls me, because you have so much potential that you're just throwing away," she whispered severely.
Tsuna stared at her, eyes wider than they had ever been. He had never expected something like that from his disinterested, even sociopathic bodyguard. It was almost she was saying she… thought he could do better.
As suddenly as the surge of emotion had come, it was gone, and she was once against the indifferent, laconic young woman he was acquainted with.
"But hey, whatever, it's your decision if you want to screw yourself over," she murmured carelessly as she stood from the bench. "I'm gonna head home and enjoy my solitude as a Christmas Cake."
Tsuna stared at her, thinking on her words as she walked away. Then her parting words registered.
"…Isn't a Christmas Cake a single woman over twenty-five?" he asked himself. Then he recalled the times he had seen Lambo turn into a much younger form than her usual fifteen-year-old appearance. 'Just how old is she actually?!' he thought incredulously, thoughts of hidden potential swept away for the moment.
Lambo, meanwhile, had done exactly what she had told Tsuna she would. The same thing she had done every Christmas since her 'rebirth' into the world of KHR.
Gone home to spend time thinking on things she didn't usually allow herself to. Things like the family that she missed dearly, or what her afterlife might be like when she died for a second time (she wasn't arrogant enough to believe she could escape death forever). It might have seemed like an odd way to spend her favorite holiday, but she had always considered Christmas a time for family and reflection.
And with no family to spend time with, she was left with only self-reflection, and therefore spent her time mulling over the thoughts that she kept at bay for the rest of the year, rather than let them depress her.
So she gathered up some homemade eggnog and stroopwafel (made exactly the same way her Dutch grandmother had used to during the Christmas season), put on her favorite fuzzy sweater (she had bought it because it reminded her of a nearly identical one her mother had hand-knit in her past life), and retreated to her small office, which had a fireplace. She stoked the fire to a medium blaze, curled up with her snacks on a nest of cushions, and smiled a bit when Yuurei the cat decided that he would intrude on her customary holiday solitude in order to snuggle with her.
This year, after her usual reminiscences about her lost family, she thought about her more recent troubles, the ones Reborn had brought to the forefront of her mind with his little talk a week or two ago - boredom and loneliness.
She was honest enough with herself to realize that part of the problem was probably the fact that she was nearly incapable of forming lasting, deep relationships with people anymore. Being a different age from her exterior had formed a barrier between her and most other people – and the fact that she had been born into such a dysfunctional family had not helped. The years spent under the scalpel of insane, amoral mafia scientists had only increased her sense disconnection from other people, and as a bounty hunter, she had constantly been moving from place to place on her jobs, never really allowing herself to form roots anywhere.
It probably said something about her that perhaps the deepest relationship she had had in the past decade had been with the insane, mass-murdering, anarchistic experiment known as Mukuro. Or, she amended mentally, as tiny claws pricked at her arm, her pet cat, Yuurei.
If she admitted it to herself, part of her incapability to connect was because even though she had mostly gotten over it, part of her brain still said that everyone around her was a superficial, two-dimensional character from a comic book. Most of the people she had met over the years had not even been characters mentioned in the KHR manga, and she could almost sense a sort of 'flatness' about them. It could have been because they weren't important enough for the 'author' to have fleshed out their personalities – or it could have simply been because she didn't care enough to reach out and make friends, and she thus regarded most people as part of the 'faceless masses' that she really had nothing to do with, rather than actual people with actual feelings and lives.
On the other hand, with the people that she did know from the manga, who had been named and expounded on even a little, there was also a barrier. This time, rather than because they were no deeper than a cardboard cutout, it was because she knew too much about their actual feelings and lives.
Sometimes she missed her old world, because while she hadn't exactly been a social butterfly with a bevy of friends, she had had a loving family. A family that cared for her in the way only family could, and who she had known through earned familiarity, rather than peeking through a window into their lives as a form of entertainment.
And while she had never had a boyfriend, even in her previous life as a normal teenaged girl where things were much less complicated, she knew enough to realize that any kind of romantic relationship that she would want would have to be based on mutual trust and affection.
'As of right now, such a thing would be impossible,' Lambo thought somberly, sipping at her eggnog as she stared at the dancing flames. 'Not only do I live within the social sphere of the mafia, where untrustworthy people abound, but I myself am hiding things, and am paranoid about said things being exploited if anyone else ever knew. Neither I, nor any partner of mine would be likely to be completely honest.'
And aside from the trust and honesty thing, there were also the multiple barriers consisting of her inconsistent interior to exterior age, her somewhat unstable mentality (she had no illusions about exactly how cracked her sanity was), the lack of any males who were even interested in romance, her relative inability to openly express any emotions that might start any kind of romance, and last but not least, there was her infertility to consider.
She had been completely honest with Reborn. There was basically no chance of her ever having a satisfying romantic relationship with anyone. While she could fantasize with the best (or worst) of the fangirls, she could differentiate fantasies from reality – and while her reality was now an anime show, it certainly wasn't a fantasy.
To sum it all up, she was quite certain that none of the people she knew in the 'manga' would ever want to date a mistrustful, reserved, infertile nutcase who could quite frankly be a bit of a bitch when she was cranky.
"You know Yuurei, I think that was a little too depressing even for my annual self-reflection," Lambo said. She sat up and stretched over to the bottom drawer of her office desk and pulled out a small bottle of alcohol, pouring a generous amount into her eggnog.
"Cheers," she told the grumpy grey cat, and dumped the entire glass down her throat, determined to get so sloshed that her hangover would be bad enough distract her from the fact that she had no family to wake up to on Christmas morning.
Tsuna cringed slightly behind his expensive, antique, Italian oak desk as the wall beside the doorway to his office abruptly exploded.
"Here's my report," Lambo said nonchalantly, indifferent to the destruction she had just wreaked.
"Can't you just come through the door? At least in my office? Reborn will kill me if I have to get another desk replaced!" Tsuna pleaded, his eyes teary as he realized she would never do it.
"Sure," Lambo stated, much to her boss's disbelief, "I'll do that when you ban mistletoe from the mansion," she continued, pointing a finger to the innocent-looking bundle of leaves hanging above the doorway.
Tsuna planted his head roughly on the desk. "You know I can't do that!" he moaned miserably. "Reborn would kill me because it's against some obscure Vongola tradition – but really because he finds dysfunctional situations amusing. Mukuro would kill me because he's the one who puts most of it up in an attempt to get the most awkward pairs possible caught underneath. Hell, Bianchi has a fifty-fifty chance of killing me, because if she gets Reborn it'll be a dream come true, but if Reborn gets you she'll kill everyone…" after that, he would have descended into incoherent rambling had Lambo not cut him off.
"Hey, it's your decision to decide however you want to screw yourself over."
Tsuna paused, the crude phrasing of his Guardian bringing back memories – especially around Christmas time.
"You've got that really dumb 'nostalgia zone' look on your face," Lambo said bluntly.
"Ehehe," Tsuna laughed sheepishly. "I was just remembering that talk we had on the first Christmas Eve after we had met," his expression softened slightly, "I think that was the first time I ever realized that you were a human being with actual feelings beneath your uncaring exterior – and also the first time I realized that someone thought I could be more than just Dame-Tsuna."
Lambo stared blankly at him for a moment.
"I wouldn't know," she said bluntly, "I spent most of that day completely buzzed."
Tsuna turned to stone in his chair.
"Kufufu, whatever did you do to Vongola, Lambo. He looks like he's just seen the Six Realms of Hell," a smooth voice came from the other side of the hole.
Lambo looked at the top of the hole as soon as she heard Mukuro, and caught sight of yet another bunch of mistletoe appearing in a plume of indigo mist. She blasted yet another hole in the wall to avoid it, answering as she did.
"I think I accidentally gave him a life-changing, inspirational speech years ago while I was drunk, and he's only finding out about it now."
Tsuna's head thunked down to his desk again as raucous laughter – coming from more people than just Mukuro - emanated from the hallway, transmitting clearly through the multiple gaps that had been forcefully created in the walls by the disgruntled Lightning Guardian.
'Why me?' he thought pitifully, knowing that everyone would soon have yet another embarrassing story to hang over his head forever.