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Desert Clams

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Tsuna tugged at the waistcoat that Reborn had forced upon him while in San Francisco. During his visit, he’d felt terribly overdressed. The growing city certainly far exceeded his town's population but the staunch fashion of the east coast was out of place among miners and drunks. His 'mentor' had insisted that as the heir of his family's establishment, he should make more of an effort to 'not dress like a redneck ruffian'.

He hated travel. It was lonely and exhausting, though he was thankful for the recently opened railway that made his trip north downright luxurious. But now deposited in the middle of Los Angeles, he was baking in his high-collared east coast fashions. The long, hot and bumpy stagecoach ride it would take him to get home would not be pleasant. In front of the bustling train station, he sat down heavily on his trunk and thunked his chin down into his palms with petulant, impotent frustration.

Casting a glance around, he wondered who he’d be traveling with. A stiff-backed gentleman stood nearby, one hand on a snake-headed cane and the other held primly behind his back. On his opposite side another man hovered, shifting from one foot to the other, clearly uncomfortable. Or perhaps just cautious, Tsuna supposed, as he observed the man's fingers twitch near his holster. The gentleman was probably someone important then-- or just a man of means and paranoia, to have hired a bodyguard for the relatively short coach ride they'd be taking.

Bored, Tsuna waited until the stagecoach rolled up, horses freshly groomed and all fixtures shining in the California sun. There were five passengers total and Tsuna waited for the others to climb aboard, pausing as he met the steely eyes of what he assumed was this dandy's bodyguard. He gave a reflexive, nervous smile in spite of the hardness of the silver haired man's gaze.

A brief flash of something crossed the man's face, a tiny widening of his eyes, a thinning of his lips, but he turned away before Tsuna could process the expression.

"Everyone on!" the driver called. "We got a schedule to keep!"

Tsuna ended up shoulder to shoulder with the bodyguard, the man's charge against the other window. The other two passengers were young ladies who plucked at their gloves on the opposite bench.

A hyup from the driver and the horses whinnied and the coach lurched into a jostling roll, rattling down the cobbled city streets. Beyond the landscape of new buildings, the view gave way to rolling fields of fruit trees and finally the bleak desert.

In the silence between strangers, Tsuna couldn't help but steal glances at the handsome young man beside him. A dark blush colored his face when he was caught and hurried to look out the window.

It was a rather awkward ride. The dandy and his employee were silent and stoic and the women were talking softly between themselves. It took several hours before Tsuna took a breath and turned slightly to meet the silver haired man's eyes again nervously. "Forgive me but -- do we know each other?" he asked quietly.

The man raised a brow in a skeptical arch, but didn't immediately deny the possibility. He heaved a small sigh and and glanced at his employer as if to make sure personal conversations were allowed within his job description. The man didn't appear to communicate anything in return, but his bodyguard turned his attention to Tsuna anyway. "You're a Vongola," he answered. "I know your family."

"Oh!" Tsuna chirped, blinking. He looked into the taller man's face now, studying him with a faint frown. "You -- you went to my academy, didn't you, in grade school? In Vermont?"

The answer seemed reluctant, but nonetheless, "Yes," he confirmed. "You haven't grown much taller."

Tsuna pouted faintly, cheeks heating much to his chagrin. “Well -- I --" he stammered. "Just unlucky I guess... You though! I remember you got some of the best marks in the class. These days you're..." He gestured vaguely at the apparent work situation.

"Making use of different skills," the silver-haired man finished for him, then reached into his vest to check a well-used pocket watch. "And you. A veritable business man."

"A--hah-- something like that, I suppose!" Tsuna sort of nodded. "Just running a branch of the family business..." He cleared his throat. "Oh! I'm -- if you don't recall I mean -- Tsunayoshi Sawada." He held out a hopeful hand with a little smile.

The other man stared at the proffered hand for a moment that was just a little too long for comfort, but finally took it with a nod. "Hayato Gokudera. I've worked for your family before. Though it was probably before they made you responsible for... carrying on the family business."

"I-I see. Were you still um-- guarding bodies when you worked for us?" he asked innocent and wide-eyed.

"Something like that," the man called Gokudera answered, lips breaking into a slow spreading grin that gave Tsuna shivers.

"Well ain’t we lucky," one of the women across the way spoke up, jarring the already tense conversation. There was a rustle of skirts and the clack of metal and the male side of the car was facing down the barrels of twin shot guns. "Looks like we can take out two Vongola agents at once."

Tsuna gave a startled shriek, pressing himself flat against the back of his seat. Startling them further before Gokudera had the chance to get a word in, his employer gave a bark of laughter.

"Ladies, a moment," he finally spoke up with a chuckle and a smirk. "What an interesting moment of fortune we've come across here. Byron! Stop the coach!"

There was a chorus of startled whinnies from ahead of them and the stagecoach screeched to a rattling, shaking stop.

In less than a moment, Gokudera had his own pistol in hand, pointed at the woman who'd spoken. "What is this?" he growled, eyes darting between the two strangers and his smirking employer. "You know them?" He cocked his head toward the armed woman.

"Hardly, boy," the man scoffed. And in an entirely unexpected move, the dandy's snake-headed cane lashed out and snapped the pistol from Gokudera's hand, leaving smart bruises on his knuckles. The gun skittered across the floor of the carriage and a heeled shoe stamped down on it.

The door of the coach snapped open and another gun was shoved in their faces. "What the fuck's goin on back here, boss?!" the stagecoach driver shouted.

"Let's all be calm," the dandy said, spreading his hands open to the women who had gone from soft and pretty to threatening and hard edged. "I think we can come to a pleasing arrangement. "Although I should ask just which of our two young gentlemen here did you intend to kill?"

The women exchanged glances as though to decide whether to be truthful with this man. "No secret," the one holding the gun answered after a moment. "Got a contract here for the young Vongola master there." She nodded toward Tsuna. "Got no qualms about shooting any other gentleman might get in our way," she added, punctuated by a pointed glance for the dandy.

"ME?!" Tsuna shrieked, as though it was the first time something like this had happened. He was positively cowering in the corner of the bench.

"Well how perfectly convenient," the dandy drawled calmly. "Perhaps you'll trade my silence and confidence to keep the bigger one to myself. He has some information I'd like to... extract."

"I hate this job," Gokudera sneered, hands up, and tugged a rolled cigarette and a silver-plated lighter free from a vest pocket, moving slowly and pointedly to demonstrate that he wasn't reaching for a hidden gun. "This guy paid me like shit anyway," he confided in Tsuna, lighting the cigarette behind one cupped hand.

He took a deep drag and then with a loud POW Gokudera dropped his cigarette and the carriage erupted with a shockwave of black smoke. The closed door was blasted off, the young Vongola tossed out with the explosion and skidding across the dirt. So much for his fancy east coast fashions.

Gokudera wasn’t far behind, just as soot smeared as the rest of the company, jumping from the coach with lit dynamite in hand.

“Deal’s off!” one of the women shouted, leaping after him with rifle aimed. “The big boy’s too dangerous.”

BLAM!

“NO!” the dandy shouted, stumbling out of the coach and choking on smoke.

The explosions that followed were far louder than the rifle blast, Gokudera’s chucked dynamite hitting the twin shotgun shells in balls of angry fire. He grinned when the smoke cleared, squaring with his two lovely opponents and already reaching for the next round of explosives.

But then there was an ominous click beside his ear and the point of a pistol pressed into the side of Gokudera’s head. The second coach driver. Shit.

“Now how bout you just calm the fuck down, pretty boy, and maybe I won’t water that there cactus over there with your brains.”

Before any snapped retort or tossed dynamite could continue the conversation, two high pitched shots broke the scene.

POW POW

PING

BANG!

The shot half deafened Gokudera but the pistol somehow shot high and away. The second shot hit the driver’s trigger finger with a sickening crack and he howled in pain, falling back with blood dripping from his other clutching hand.

When all those assembled looked to the source of the shots, it was as though the slight young boy tossed aside, dirty with sand and soot, had transformed into an entirely different man. He wielded a pair of gold derringers, his gaze focused, intense and frowning.

The women burst into laughter. “Look at this runt! Hey boy, don’t you know those guns are for prostitutes to tuck in their garters?” They laughed harder but one lifted her rifle and aimed at him, grinning wildly. “Say so long little boss.”

The shotgun was cocked and fired at the same time that Tsuna’s delicate guns lifted and fired again, much to the surprise of the rest of the crew. Automatic derringers? There wasn’t time to wonder at them when the two small pellets were sure and precise, racing down the twin barrels of the shot gun to meet the shells in mid-fire. The rifle exploded into shrapnel and the laughter turned to horrified screams.

Tsuna raced forward, grabbing Gokudera by the sleeve. “Can you ride a horse?” he demanded.

Gokudera blinked back, incredulous. “Of course I can.”

“Then let’s go!” Tsuna yelped and dragged him for the front of the coach, narrowly missing another pistol shot.

Gokudera jumped onto the back of one of the coach steeds and Tsuna clambered up after him with some help. A knife from Gokudera’s boot sliced through the reigns to the coach and he heeled the horse into movement. With a shriek, Tsuna wrapped his arms around the assassin’s waist, gripping tight against his back.

But holding on as they sped away from the scene, he turned to fire off another set of shots, one handed. Two precisely hit the other horse’s reigns, slicing them apart while a third gave a PING as it ricocheted on a metal piece of the horse’s tack. It whinnied in terror and bolted wildly from the coach in the opposite direction.

The sound of fired shots whistled through the air after them, but none found their mark and quickly, they were too far away to reach. Gokudera was focused, quiet, a deep frown etched into his face as he rode them away from the scene, not bothering to spare the horse until they could spot buildings in the distance, their forms wavering a little in the desert heat. Only then did Gokudera slow their pace to a trot, only then did he turn in the saddle to catch a glimpse of the wide-eyed man still clinging to his back.

“Who ARE you?” he managed, finding his voice, not bothering to mask the awe he felt.

"Oh -- um --" Tsuna stammered, apparently back to his nervous self. "I suppose I'm the uh.... Tenth Vongola? Heir to the family? In training of course." He gripped fearfully at Gokudera's belt, clearly not at home on horseback.

Almost immediately, Gokudera stilled their mount, dislodged himself from Tsuna's grip, and slipped from the saddle onto the ground, where he took off his hat and held it against his chest. He ducked his head respectfully as Tsuna struggled to stay upright on the horse. "Forgive me, Sir. And please forgive my behavior earlier. Your skill in a standoff is significant, and I owe my life to your shooting. I realize now it was my mistake to overlook your greatness. I worked for your family in the past-- I would be honored to do so again."

"WHAT?!" Tsuna yelped, very nearly falling from the horse but Gokudera caught him, hat fluttering to the ground. Tsuna found himself suddenly uncomfortably close to the silver haired man's face, his own flushed bright red. "I mean -- I'm not anything special and I definitely don't have greatness!" He scrambled and Gokudera helped to right him. "We-- we're not hiring in Wavewood right now!" His voice cracked, face still ablaze. "I could -- uh-- I could send a message to the office in San Francisco to see if there's jobs somewhere though!"

"Let me see you safely home," Gokudera insisted, as though he hadn't heard a word of Tsuna's protests. He picked up his hat and gathered the reins of the horse and began to walk, leading the beast toward town.

"You don't have to--" Tsuna protested. He squeaked as the horse began to move again and latched awkwardly to the saddle horn. "I mean -- you obviously should come into town but --" He squeaked again, starting to slip backward and cried out, "Just come up here with me!"

Gokudera looked immensely torn for a moment, but it hadn't escaped his notice that the smaller man could hardly sit a horse on his own. "Very well," he hemmed. "But sit forward. I can better make sure you stay sitted when I'm in the back."

"O-oh... Okay..." Tsuna's face remained hot as Gokudera slid into the saddle behind him. He wasn't sure if it was more embarrassing that he couldn't ride a horse or if it was the way his slight frame fit nicely against Gokudera's body.

The pace Gokudera set the horse to was slower than the race of their escape, letting the animal catch its breath. Tsuna's silence was anxious and awkward.

"Those-- explosives," he spoke up meekly. "That was impressive. Where'd you learn that?"

"A shitty army surgeon taught me," Gokudera answered, voice rumbling against Tsuna's spine. "Where'd you learn to shoot?" he asked, voice rising noticeably in pitch. "It was aMAZing!"

"N-no..." Tsuna protested again weakly. "I trained with Mr. Reborn, one of the family's top agents... He doesn't leave much room for failure."

"Mr. Reborn?" Gokudera hummed thoughtfully. "I've heard of him-- only by reputation, of course. But it's very impressive." He leaned to the side to try and catch Tsuna's eye. "He's known for his ability to bring out the innate talent in his students. Seems that he succeeded with you."

Tsuna ducked his head quickly, trying to hide his embarrassingly flaming cheeks. “Th-thank you…” he mumbled. “He’s a very… effective tutor, if not the warmest.” He squeaked when his avoidance squirming made him start to slip in the saddle.

Gokudera's arm come up instantly, circling Tsuna's waist while still holding the reins in his free hand. He held the smaller man firm, but not smothering, and Tsuna could feel his warm breath tickle the hair at the top of his head.

The young Vongola breathed a sigh of relief but he mumbled, "Sorry. This is so embarrassing. Thankfully I don't often have to ride."

"I guess riding a horse wasn't part of your training?" Gokudera wondered, and somehow the question didn't come across as judgmental or even teasing.

"Well... it was but I was so terrible that Reborn gave up and told me he wasn't going to waste his time on me." He cringed a little.

"Maybe I could help teach you," Gokudera suggested, cheerfully, as their horse's steps carried them over the border of town. "Where to, Tenth?"

"Oh-- um-- through the main street on the other side of town. You really don't have to call me that... Tsuna is fine..." He tried not to feel too mortified at the raised brows from his neighbors at the sight of him coming into town with a handsome man's arm around his waist. It probably would have been more humiliating to fall to the street in the middle of town though.

"That's kind of you," Gokudera hummed. "But I haven't yet earned that kind of privilege." He guided the horse down the street, headless of any looks they might be drawing, and left his arm where it was, loosely cradling Tsuna's middle, until they pulled up in front of the saloon and Tsuna waved to indicate his destination.

A white haired man was cleaning the trough outside when Gokudera led the horse to it and helped Tsuna clamber down. "HEY!!!" he roared enthusiastically, rushing forward to grab the young Vongola. "You're back! HEY SIS!!!" he shouted toward the door. "THE BOSS IS BACK!!!"

As Gokudera tied up the somewhat startled horse, their company increased and a young lady came rushing down the steps with a beaming smile. Tsuna was almost recovered from his horseback ride when she swept him up in a tight hug. "Tsuna! I'm so glad you made it home safely!"

"Oh... of course..." Tsuna's own smile lit up as he wrapped her up in an equally tight hug, laughing as she enthusiastically kissed his cheeks. "I missed you!"

"Gokudera?!"

The out of towner's attention was yanked away from this scene by the surprising shout of his own name. And when he looked up, he found his own greeting barreling down the stairs to grab /him/ up in a most unexpected hug.

"What are you doing here?!" A familiar, annoyingly tall Japanese man was grinning from ear to ear at him.

"Yamamoto?" he coughed out, voice squeezed awkwardly from him as the taller man's arms crushing his ribcage. "You work for the Vongola family?" The question was incredulous.

"I sure do!" Yamamoto confirmed, scruffing infuriatingly at Gokudera's silver hair. "It's a great gig! Wait, you know the Vongola? That's great! Are you visiting?" Suddenly the taller man's eyes lit up in a strange way, like he was a child who'd been offered a brick of rock candy.

"NO!" Tsuna suddenly interrupted, startling his lady friend and quickly apologizing. "Mister Gokudera-- he-- we were ambushed on our way here. He saved me from assassination."

Gokudera looked startled and shook his head vigorously. "No no, it's the Tenth who saved me. Did you know how skilled he is at shooting?" He met Yamamoto's eyes then with an intensity that betrayed the hero-worship he'd developed over the course of the afternoon.

"Of course!" Yamamoto said cheerfully. He left Gokudera to greet Tsuna, reeling him away from his girl to rub a set of knuckles into his scalp. "Our little boss is pretty darned amazing, isn't he?"

"S-stop," Tsuna protested against the words, but he laughed and grinned at Yamamoto's familiar affection.

Gokudera frowned a little at the familiarity, wondering just how it came to be that an old comrade of his came to be employed by a childhood acquaintance-turned-savior. A young man who seemed to also be quite familiar with the smiling pretty lady still hovering nearby.

"Everyone missed you," Yamamoto said, gathering Tsuna's hands in his.

When Tsuna flushed again it was happily, bashfully, letting Yamamoto hold his hands for a moment. "You all get on fine without me," he protested. "How has Hibari-san been? Broken anything? And Lambo?"

Yamamoto laughed. "They've both broken things!" he admitted, seemed to be pleased that Tsuna had guessed so accurately.

Meanwhile, Gokudera hovered awkwardly nearby.

"Come see everyone," Yamamoto grinned and left Tsuna to offer his arm to his lady friend. Yamamoto returned to Gokudera and tossed his arm around the assassin's shoulder. "And you? How long will you be staying?"

"There's a very nice hotel in town!" Tsuna yelped. He gave Yamamoto a look that made the tall man pout. "The Thousand Flowers."

Gokudera considered the question, not quite shrugging away from Yamamoto's attention, though largely ignoring it. The other man's handsy personality was something he'd gotten used to in the army. "I'll be staying the night while I decide on my future plans," he explained. "Is the hotel nearby?"

"Yep, just down the street!" Yamamoto confirmed cheerfully. "You can't miss it, it's just about the fanciest thing anyone's ever seen! Looks almost like a riverboat dropped in the desert, hah! Come in and meet everyone first!"

Tsuna's staff greeted them happily, if some were a bit odd. It was the Tenth boss who was the most odd though, jumpy and cutting off his friend's sentences frequently.

But where previously, Gokudera might have judged him for it, now, post-live saving incident, Gokudera found him charming, his awkwardness endearing.

Gokudera lingered a little longer, enough time for a drink, a bit of catching up with Yamamoto and brief, somewhat awkward introductions to some of the other members of the House. Reluctantly, he tore himself away, reminding himself that the young Vongola was safe now, home and in the company of a number of people who he either knew or suspected were trained fighters, capable of keeping Tsuna from harm.

He checked into the too-expensive hotel and slept soundly, waking the next morning with a deep certainty. It was only just after dawn that he showed up at the Vongola Rose, freshly bathed, though in the same clothes he'd worn the day before-- the only clothes he owned now that his bag had been lost in the scuffle of yesterday.

When he swung the saloon doors open, the house foyer was much quieter than the night before. He was greeted only by his old army companion who was polishing the establishment's brass fixtures. "Hey Gokudera! Wow, you're up real early huh? How was the hotel? Fancy inside as it is out?"

"Overtly so," Gokudera agreed, striding forward with purpose, pausing in the center of the room and looking about him as though he was expecting something momentous to occur. "Is the Tenth awake?"

"Who, Tsuna?" Yamamoto mused. "Might be. I'm making coffee soon if ya wanna wait for him!"

Gokudera nodded and took a seat at the bar, pulling a small explosive from his vest and fiddling with it nervously. He'd never been particularly good at waiting, but he was willing to do it today.

Yamamoto made a huge nuisance of himself in the meantime, barraging Gokudera with questions about his life since the army as he went about his morning chores. Putting on a kettle of coffee, he seemed entirely unphased by Gokudera's monosyllabic responses and gruff nature.

It may have been the smell of coffee, a cup freshly poured for Gokudera that tempted Tsuna down the stairs. He was still sleep muzzy, hair in disarray as he came down but he stopped halfway, startled by the sight of a customer in the saloon at such an ungodly hour. "Mister Gokudera! What-- it's--" He tried to school himself, flustered. "What can we do for you? Are you well?" He tried to smooth his hair but it was a lost cause as usual.

Gokudera was on his feet in an instant, bowing at the waist and holding his hat to his chest respectfully. "Tenth-- Sir. Thank you, I'm well. I've come to offer you my services." He straightened then, fixed Tsuna with a firm stare. "I want a job. I intend to stay here indefinitely."

"What?!" Tsuna yelped in his usual fashion, very nearly falling down the last of the stairs.

Meanwhile, Yamamoto's face lit up like Christmas and he contributed, "Really!?"

"Mister Gokudera -- I -- appreciate your um -- enthusiasm and your talents," Tsuna began, stumbling to join them at the bar. "But the situation here -- at the Rose -- it's... complicated."

"I have many skills," Gokudera continued, unconcerned. "It wouldn't be the first time I've sold my body--" He smirked. "For protection OR for pleasure."

With his coffee halfway to his mouth, Tsuna froze like a startled rabbit, eyes wide.

"Goodness," Yamamoto clucked, impressed.

"You-- you figured it out," Tsuna said, mortified.

"Has anyone ever told you that you're very charming when you're embarrassed?" Gokudera wondered, smiling a little as he reached for his own coffee cup and took a nonchalant sip. "A saloon like this would hardly stay in business if all it sold was liquor," he pointed out as Tsuna sputtered. "Also, this guy's body language is..." Gokudera coughed, just a little pink-faced as he gestured toward Yamamoto, "...just a little friendlier than I remember him being in the army."

"Not /that/ much friendlier," Yamamoto protested with humor, leaning on the bar with a grin.

"You know..." Tsuna processed, staring into his coffee. "And you.." He steeled himself, closed his eyes briefly. "If... if you really want to consider employment here... we can discuss terms."

Yamamoto gave a sudden whoop that sloshed coffee out of Tsuna's mug. The long-limbed prostitute bounded for the stairs, taking them two at a time, "Hey Hibari!" he shouted down the hall. "We got a new family member!"

Gokudera chuckled faintly, shaking his head with a roll of his eyes. "Something tells me that idiot is strangely popular here."

From upstairs, there was a great clatter, a startled shout from Yamamoto and a slam of a door. And then he stumbled back down the hall, nursing a smartly bruised cheek and explained with chagrin, “He was still asleep.”