'what is, is'

"Why are you stopping? Don't tell me you're going to fight! Let's just make a run for it!"

"We'll lead them straight to the base if we do that!"

He doesn't consider the greater good, not when there's a gang of thugs carrying loaded .22 revolvers and mean, grim looks on scarred faces dogging their heels. He grabs the girl's hand and continues running back to the sanctuary of the Vongola stronghold.

"Come on, Lambo, be a man!" I-pin insists.

"I can't do this, we can't – let's just run away!" The young man is already in tears. He tugs and scratches the sleeves of her qipao and the way his voice trembles makes her knees shake out of instinct. She pushes him behind a dumpster in the alley and twines his arm around his back to cease his blabber. Only when he squeaks 'alright, I give, I'm listening' does she release him.

"Calm down," she pauses and furrows her brow to process the right words to speak, "I – I protect you," she promises, cuffing her hands around his wrists.

Lambo is thrown off guard at the mediocre Japanese – because somewhere between the blur of ages ten and fifteen, he'd stopped offering her lessons, and she'd started tutoring him about the strokes and meaning of kanji. The minor slip of tongue translates into a problem of a much grander scale – she's either too distracted to speak fluently, or she's just as terrified about their chasers as he is. They hear footsteps thunder up the street as the girl wipes the lingering tears off his face, and Lambo forgets the feeling of her fingers on his cheeks because his mind blanks out just then.

If I-pin truly is afraid, she's striving not to betray it, because the next second has her vaulting onto the top of the dumpster and slamming her foot into the face of one of their assailers. She ricochets off the first man and launches herself towards the shoulders of the second in line. Her hands twist his neck with a piercing crack as she somersaults overhead, before kicking the gun out of the last of the trio.

As the first man staggers onto his feet and lunges at her unguarded back, Lambo screams with what could be written off as narcotic gusto, jumping into the fray to pound his horns against the attacker. The electric shock that surges through the unsuspecting man makes him look like a festive Christmas light in the warm summer of Nanimori, but the Chinese girl and Thunder Guardian have no leeway to enjoy the view.

They're fleeing and crossing their fingers that the backup, if any, would have been slowed by some puddles of ramen soup and gyoza mist. Most of all, they're battling against the inane desire to smile at the feat of escaping without aid from any of the adults.

"Do you realise what kind of trouble you kids were in?" Gokudera's voice still manages to sound sharp despite its quiet volume. He does that characteristic seething of his from his desk, hands fisted over the documents and bills. They can tell that he's just barely restraining his temper, only because Tsuna's holding an important get-together in the ballroom down the hall.

"We got out safe, didn't we?" Lambo replies in a challenging tone. In contrast, I-pin is silently reflecting over her mistakes beside him, her eyes downcast and apologetic.

"It was my fault, I forgot that the Sparviero were in the area," the girl interjects before Gokudera can rage, splaying one hand over the base of her neck.

Gokudera folds his arms and scrutinizes them with the same discrepancy he uses for the occasional double-agent or intruder unlucky enough to end up with him as their caretaker (discounting Hibari, of course). Lambo is definitely frightened, but the last thing he wants to do is show any weakness to the pompous Italian.

"Yes, it was all because of I-pin!" He winces when she grinds her sole of her flats on his toecap. "So why don't you let us go, it's not like that was a big deal anyway," Lambo recovers quickly enough to continue.

"It was an easy enough task to scout the city, I didn't think even you could screw it up," Gokudera informs the young man quite pointedly. Ten years ago, he'd be lighting dynamite and throwing an explosive fit. Although Yamamoto's anger management techniques have proved useful over the years, the Italian never quite lost that habitual grumble in his words.

"I apologise," I-pin repeats while Lambo shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

"I-I guess I'm sorry too," he mumbles half-heartedly when the girl stabs him with a sidelong glare.

Gokudera regards them both for a moment longer, and Lambo notices the way his eyes soften with familiarity and kindness when he looks at I-pin's disappointed face and sagging shoulders. When the man turns to him though, the expression on his face hardens and it looks like he's weighing the incentives of murder. I-pin wraps her hands around Lambo's arm, a practiced defense mechanism the two have sorted out between themselves over six years ago.

"I will make sure that doesn't happen again," she tells Gokudera with that serious tone of hers.

The man narrows his eyes before clicking his tongue and walking over to his desk to light himself a cigarette. "This is the last time I'll overlook it," he warns them.

Lambo and I-pin share a victorious sigh of relief.

She serves him the usual bowl, complete with the additional fishcakes that have been sneaked into the broth under the chef's notice. He thanks her as he slides onto the seat in the quaint little restaurant.

"Don't you think we make them worry too much sometimes?" she asks, twirling one braid round the area of her wrist.

"Nah, Tsuna's always been that way!" Lambo reassures her as he splits his wooden chopsticks. He'd visited the past recently, just the week before. The jittery young boy he'd conversed with definitely shared many similarities with their current boss.

"I don't know," I-pin exhales, leaning against the counter, "sometimes I feel like we're getting in the way, like we're still just children." The uncertainty tosses and turns in her mind, and she's always felt too young around her friends, too immature and too weak to be of proper help to the Vongola. Lambo balances her caution with his impulsion, with his inflated ego and almost-always-calm composure.

"Don't you remember who Fuuta said was the third Most Promising Young Assasin?" Lambo reminds her, swinging a noodle in her general direction. I-pin grins at this, feeling just a tad bit better about giving him the fishcakes.

"And also, who'll be the greatest person in the mafia, ever," he adds on, smirking as he jerks a thumb at himself.

"Lambo, I'm pretty sure you just made that up."

They're sitting in her bedroom after school one day, attempting to finish their homework. I-pin is making commendable progress, her spectacles perched on her face and a pen tapping her chin. Lambo sort of gave up the moment his body hit the comfy lotus-patterned bed sheets four hours ago.

Instead he's busying himself by braiding the length of her dark hair, a trick he'd picked up watching the dolled-up girls during their grooming and gossiping rituals in class. He likes playing with her hair and doesn't mind the fact that she uses ordinary, non-scented shampoo or that she's got a few split ends here and there because she doesn't have the time for conditioner.

And I-pin knows him well enough to tell when she can persuade him to do his work, and when the only choice of action left is to leave him to his aimless daydreams (lest a grenade blows up the west wing of the base). She will tutor him later until he's on the verge on tears, because that's how their system works.

When they go downstairs for dinner prepared by Haru and Kyoko, the two women comment on how adorable I-pin's hair looks. The girl beams, like it's the most flattering compliment ever, bowing bashfully while Lambo starts hording the grilled ribs before Gokudera can arrive to rain on his famished parade.

The next time Lambo braids her hair is for a party to commemorate the alliance between Vongola and an Italian mafia with connections and blackmail that spans from Lombardy to Mezzogiorno. They are invited more for the sake of security than to bask in socialite activities. Lambo can feel the weight of two switchblades and pistols in his blazer. I-pin is decked out in an emerald cheongsam with a fierce dragon coiling through the entire landscape of the cloth. The silt of the dress begins dangerously high from her thighs, and where she's concealed her own assigned firearms and short knives will remain a mystery to him.

They waltz with the guests on the floor, unbeknownst to ninety-eight percent that they are moving in a calculated trajectory around Tsuna and Kyoko, in perfect sync with Haru and Yamamoto who are dancing on the other side of the room. If anything goes wrong, I-pin and Yamamoto are tasked to reach Kyoko's side within the limit of two seconds.

In the end, everything proceeds as planned without any hitches. Lambo finds satisfaction in that, if only because he could spend the whole night holding her hand and chatting in teenage lingo when Gokudera wasn't observing them with the intensity of a hawk and its prey.

He thinks, maybe, he's starting to understand what Tsuna means when he wants to protect the Family (better, at least). Perhaps it's because he's starting to realise that there is someone he'd like to say that he wants to protect too.

It's during the late afternoon and three roads down Takesushi that they come across the Sparviero again. I-pin is surprised (in a horrible sense of the word) when Lambo doesn't run for the hills in memoriam of their last run-in with the opposing mafia group. She stops to listen in on the conversation the group is so engaged in, and she can't help but cringe when she hears the contents of their meeting.

"Don't you dare talk about our boss with that high and mighty tone!"

The words just erupt from Lambo's mouth before she can stop him.

And suddenly they're running down the street, hands clutched tightly together and hoping to make their second grand escape.

"Again!" Gokudera raises his hands in disbelief.

"We can't play stakes with your ignorance," he growls. Lambo is oddly quiet, and I-pin can sense that the atmosphere in the room is turning dangerously foreboding.

"I already have Yamamoto to handle – I shouldn't need to tell you that this isn't a game," the right-hand man asserts, banging a fist again the arm of the chair Tsuna occupies.

"Gokudera…" the Vongola Decimo begins to say, voice both gentle and careful.

But Lambo is no longer listening – the boy thrusts his hands into the pockets of his pants and stalks out of the room. I-pin's reflex action is to turn and follow him, calling out his name.

"We were naïve once too, don't you recall?" Tsuna hints, lacing his fingers on his lap, the rings with the Vongola insignia dark against his pale skin. "So disorganized and tired and scared, all at once. At least, one of us was. But we found strength out of that." A smile touches his face, and he seems contented despite all the fatigue that has collected under his eyes.

Gokudera doesn't say a word, but performs a poor job of hiding a disgruntled frown. In the end, he finds himself nodding and accepting the cup of tea his boss hands to him.

"I'm out of here." Lambo tells past her as she enters his room. He sweeps the knick knacks and miscellaneous items on his desk into the open duffel bag.

"You can't go out to the streets so late – not now," I-pin bites her lip, for once sounding more fearful than reprimanding. They're got a bounty on their heads, and while only a tenth the size of Tsuna's, it's still attractive enough to warrant some degree of desperate gangsters to try hunting them down in the guise of the night.

"I'm sick and tired of being pushed around like this," he sighs and laments and crushes a tissue against his chest. "I'm not like you, I-pin. I can't just follow orders, I was made for better things – I need some time alone, away from this house of rules."

She doesn't understand because she's never entertained the feeling of being too helpless, never experienced a day where she didn't know how to break a man's bone with only three precise fingers. And she's so maddening, with all her strength and her justice and her ability to do everything right (even when they've done something wrong) and Lambo doesn't want to be around a girl he can't protect.

She looks hurt for a second, and betrayed in the next, before finally settling on a combination of fevered frustration and scrunched up sadness.

"It's not always about you, Lambo!" She punches the wall to get his attention, but he's so used to her displays of strength that he hardly flinches. Even as the plaster chips away and her knuckles leave indents in the skeleton of the wall, he zips up the bag and strolls past her trembling body.

"You've always been so selfish – you've never grown out of it, have you?" she shouts after him.

So maybe running away in the middle of the night wasn't the brightest decision of his life.

He's backed up to the end of an alley, the brick wall cold and taunting against his back. He'd abandoned the bag, along with his horns, four turns ago to try to outrun them. The night is clear, and there are no rainclouds in sight. His hands are sweating, and the ring slides off and clinks loudly against the floor.

"Don't even think about it," a man in a fedora tells him as he bends over to pick it up.

Lambo can feel the tears welling up in his eyes.

Then, someone jumps off the ledge of the building overhead, her hair bound back into two efficient buns. She lands on the group of six men and as he hears the curses fly and the Sparviero shift their attention to the martial artist, Lambo exhales and collapses on the ground. I-pin is not alone, having brought an impatient-looking Hibari and Ryohei with her, who appear at the end of the street, weapons at the ready.

They bulldoze through the lackeys, Hibari looking rather bored through it all. Lambo wipes the wetness from his eyes, clearing his vision. He's too late to notice a man raising his gun at the girl who's still clad in their school uniform, plaid skirt rippling and collar turned up.

A gunshot – and I-pin's body stiffening in midair. She's falling back as blood flicks onto the pavements. He can only watch I-pin plummeting down, down, down, landing on the ground with a vicious 'thud' instead of the usual feather light 'tap' of her feet. Lambo hears his heart pounding in his chest, the thunder of it in his ears and the sharp sensation, almost like lightning, that passes through his gut.

He rushes over to her and lifts her into his arms, the hand that touches her shoulder is immediately dyed in red. And he's shaking and shaking, and I-pin looks so unsure and so lost for once, her hands shivering as she reaches up to cup his face.

"See?" Her lips quirk with an ironic smile. "I said… I protect you."

Lambo starts bawling just then, he feels the tears rush down his face and land on her clothes and her skin.

"Gotta stay calm, Lambo," she whispers, her eyes weaving in and out of focus.

But he can't.

"That wasn't a smart thing to do, Lambo," Ryohei tells him, one hand resting on his shoulder. He uses the other to press a flaming trowel against the bullet wound drilled into a fifteen-year old girl's shoulder.

The next thing he knows, he's cupping his hands together until his nails make crescents on his skin. And he's praying for something to his way, just for once.

When I-pin wakes up, the first things she sees are her favourite chrysanthemum flowers vased in an expensive-looking glass container on her bedside. Then Lambo's relieved smile is in her face, blocking the sunlight shining in through the window, and she thinks she sound be angry at him now. The difficult thing is that she can't find the determination to be mad at the anxious-looking boy, no matter how hard she searches her heart.

"Sorry," he mumbles as he retreats back to his seat next to the bed, keeping his gaze low so that he can't see her face. "I won't do that again, promise. I'll try to do my work more often and I'll lend you my stuff if you ever need. I'll try to listen to you, and I'll accept the fact that you're maybe-stronger than me. And I'll stop flirting with girls I don't like, and start paying more attention to the one I do." He watches her hands, beautiful with all the blemishes from soup burns and fist fights, tighten on the sheets of the bed. Then, an amused snort escapes her, and she's covering her mouth with a palm.

"Sometimes I don't know why I'm friends with you," she laughs.

Lambo lets the jubilation wash over him and a thankful smile spread across his face. He inches closer to rest his head on her shoulder. He pecks a small kiss on the bandages.

"But I know exactly why I'm friends with you."

He says the words with conviction, with a sort of plainness that makes her touch and prod at the black pins holding her hair buns intact.

The meeting is undeniably boring, and the clock is ticking away but it feels like an interminable wait for the discussion to be adjourned. I-pin is diligent as always, nodding her head and jotting notes (in Chinese characters) onto important-looking documents. Tsuna conducts the meeting at the head of the wide oak table, with all the immediate Vongola gathered together – Hibari tolerates the situation from an armchair pushed right up against the far corner of the room.

Suddenly, a sound explodes next to his ears, and the armrests fall away, and so does the cushion he's been sitting on, and a customary ache spreads itself strategically through his body – and the next moment, he's sitting on a ten-year old river bank with I-pin curled up next to him on the plushy grass.

Lambo looks up from the bazooka propped against his feet to see a fifteen-year old Tsuna gazing down at them from the sidewalk. Gokudera and Yamamoto are flanking him, just like they would be ten years in the future.

He grabs her hand and hoists her onto her feet.

"Where are we going?" I-pin asks, waving goodbye to the young boss as they run alongside the river's edge.

"Dunno." Lambo shrugs his shoulders.

"We only have five minutes before we're back at the meeting," the girl reminds him with a knowing smile, "you can't escape it for long."

"All the more reason we have to get going," Lambo reasons, rolling his eyes at her. The boy is already out of breath, but his feet don't stop, so I-pin slows down her pace to accommodate him. They enjoy the moment of the setting sun with the wind in their hair, no stealthy syndicate responsibilities under their sleeves or price tags anchored on their heads. She takes in the town and squints her eyes and wonders if maybe, the town looks beautiful because Lambo's beside her, framing the entire scene.

"Anywhere is fine as long as I'm with you."

"You know, you've got to stop stealing my lines."

I-pin just chuckles. When she squeezes his hand, his fingers curl around hers, and suddenly they're just crazy teenagers with eyes wide open and ridiculously big smiles hurting their cheeks and everything feels alright.


notes - Askani is a fictional religion and race from the Marvel universe, their belief is that 'what is, is'. Accept the situation so that you can move on/do something about it. Additionally, they have their own form of martial art and time-travel is part of their culture as well. While I'm not a Marvel fan, I thought that this fit Lambo, I-pin and the fic quite well (: